Chapter 9

Team Seven had just returned from a rather uneventful C-rank mission patrolling the borders between the Land of Fire and the Land of Wind, when Naruto froze in the middle of the street. Hinata and Kiba had to sidestep so suddenly they nearly fell over to avoid running into him. When they came around to look at their blond friend, they found his jaw was hanging open and his eyes betrayed total shock. They turned and followed his gaze, but neither of them understood what had him so surprised. Then Kakashi came up beside them and followed their gaze.

"Ahem, Naruto," Kakashi said. "It's impolite to stare, you know, even if what you're seeing is something the village hasn't seen in over a decade."

Standing in front of Team Seven was Ebisu. The young teacher's customary sunglasses were missing, and his eyes were full of tears. The man looked like he was in a deep state of shock. Naruto slowly managed to reel his jaw back into its customary position on the bottom of his head and approached the man. "Ebisu-sensei?" he said hesitantly. "What happened?"

"My team...my team is dead," the man said back, his voice distant, hollow. Then, seemingly unaware of the four ninja in front of him, Ebisu simply walked away, his still moist eyes showing no emotion whatsoever.

"We need to go talk to the Hokage," Naruto said. "I need to find out what the hell happened."

"We needed to go talk to him anyway," Kakashi responded as the team returned to walking toward the Tower. "We had to report in from our mission, after all."

"Oh, yeah," Naruto said, smiling sheepishly, "I forgot."

xxxxxx

"...and then we returned to the village," Kakashi finished his report to the Hokage.

"Well done," Hiruzen said with a small smile. When none of the four ninja before him showed any signs of leaving, he asked, "Was there something else?"

"Actually, Lord Hokage, there was one other thing," Kakashi said. Naruto nodded but let Kakashi take point in this discussion. The Hokage took note of this and filed it away to question Kakashi about privately at some point. "We saw Ebisu on our way here."

Hiruzen sighed. "So you heard about his team, I take it?" he said, mostly rhetorically. Team Seven nodded. "I sent Ebisu and his team on a C-rank mission to the Land of Waves. They were to protect a master bridge-builder named Tazuna on his return trip there and guard him while he finished building a bridge that would connect his country to ours. This was a crucial step for his country as a tyrant named Gato had taken over the small island nation's shipping industry, and thereby was controlling the entire economy of the place. Unbeknownst to us, Gato had a certain rogue ninja in his employ. It's unclear whether or not Tazuna knew this, but we have reason to believe he did. The rogue in question was Zabuza Momochi." At this name, Kakashi and Naruto gasped, and Kiba and Hinata just shivered. They all knew that name. "Ebisu's team encountered Zabuza and a young kekkei genkai wielder shortly before arriving in the Land of Waves. The results were...predictable...and brutal. Ebisu barely survived. After spending a week recovering from the battle, Ebisu tracked down Gato and his men and went on a bit of a rampage. The tyrant and his mercenaries were dispatched with little ceremony, from what I gather. Then Ebisu returned here, bringing Tazuna with him, and, since notifying his Genin's families, has been wandering around the village looking lost. I'm really not sure what to do for him. I worry that his Will of Fire is in danger of being extinguished by this loss."

Naruto took a deep breath, then said, "With your permission, Lord Hokage, I will go and speak to Ebisu. But I won't do so alone." Turning around, he said, "Honorable Grandson, if you would please." Then he simply turned and walked out the door, leaving Kakashi, Hinata, and Kiba wondering why their teammate was talking to the empty air of the Hokage's office.

xxxxxx

Upon arriving outside, Team Seven found a small boy standing just outside the entrance to the Hokage Tower. Hinata recognized him as the one Naruto had spoken to once before, Konohamaru. Kiba and Kakashi, however, had never seen the boy before. "Who's the runt?" Kiba asked in his usual tactless manner.

Konohamaru snarled at this. "I'm not a runt. I'll have you know the Third Hokage is my grandfather! My name is Konohamaru!" he said, annoyed.

"Sorry, Konohamaru," Naruto said back, his voice telling the boy this was no time for such shenanigans. The young boy turned his attention to Naruto. "I'm sure you heard about Ebisu's team by now. You and I both learned from him at one time...and now I need your help to get him out of this funk he's in."

Konohamaru nodded seriously. "I'm really worried about Ebisu-sensei, Naruto," he said. "I've never seen him like this, not even when Anko dumped him." Kakashi filed that away, promising himself to question Naruto about it later. The very thought of Ebisu and Anko dating was...too ridiculous not to question.

Naruto sighed. "I know, I saw him. Come on, let's go find him." Then he turned to his team and added, "I'd appreciate it if you guys would come with us, but you don't have to if you have something else to be doing."

Team Seven stepped forward as one and joined the blond. "We're not going anywhere, Naruto. Deal with it," Hinata said quietly. Kiba and Kakashi just nodded to affirm they were there with him as well. With that, the group of now five headed off to find their wayward comrade.

xxxxxx

Team Seven eventually cornered Ebisu in one of the outlying training fields that were spread around the village. He was standing there, staring at the training posts in the middle of the field, a blank look on his face and a glaze over his eyes. "Ebisu-sensei!" Naruto called when he came into sight of the depressed man.

Ebisu slowly turned and saw the five people who were there behind him. "Oh, it's you guys..." he said, not sure what to say to any of them. Then he just turned back to the post he had been staring through before his comrades arrived.

Naruto moved around in front of Ebisu and looked at him. After a moment, he turned to Kakashi and said, nervousness clouding his eyes and voice, "Um, Kakashi-sensei, I don't know what to do about this."

Kakashi came around and looked into Ebisu's eyes. He gasped. He had seen that empty look before...it was like looking into a mirror! Seeing it in his normally happy-go-lucky comrade's eyes felt...wrong. Fortunately, however, he also knew what to do about it...sort of, at least. Reaching up, Kakashi casually smacked Ebisu on the back of the head, knocking him face-first into the post in front of him.

Recovering from the one-two blow, Ebisu stood up and whirled on Kakashi. "What's the big idea, Kakashi?!" he yelled out.

"It got you to stop staring at that post like that, didn't it?" Kakashi answered blithely, giving Ebisu an eye-smile.

Ebisu's anger faded almost as quickly as everything else he had felt lately other than depression. "I suppose that's true. It doesn't really help me feel any better, though," he said after a moment.

It was then that Konohamaru stepped up. Getting directly in front of Ebisu, he said, "Ebisu-sensei, you've got to get over this. I need you to be my sensei once I graduate from the Academy, and I'm sure there's still more Naruto needs to learn from you, too. Now come on, get out of this blue funk you're in and be the sensei we need you to be!" His eyes were glistening with unshed tears as he looked at the man.

Ebisu slowly smiled and reached out with one hand, which he eventually rested on Konohamaru's head. He mussed the small boy's hair, then slowly reached into his pocket and pulled out his sunglasses. Putting them on, he said, in a rough approximation of his old self, "Of course, Honorable Grandson, I will teach you both. It is only natural that two future Hokages should be taught by such an elite trainer as myself!"

Naruto could tell Ebisu wasn't quite himself, but hearing him say that gave the young blond hope that his trainer would eventually be his old self again. Turning to his team, Naruto said quietly, "Come on, I think these two need some time to themselves. Thanks, by the way, Kakashi-sensei."

xxxxxx

As Team Seven was walking through the village, Naruto was a little bit ahead of them, walking backward as he talked with his team. He was telling them the story about when he first met Ebisu. "And yeah, that's when I accidentally invented the Sexy Jutsu," Naruto said. "I just wanted to get away from him, and I figured that would work...and it did."

As he was saying this, the ground under his feet suddenly changed from the normal stone roads of the village to shifting moving sand. Turning, Naruto tried to keep his balance, but failed. Falling forward, putting his arms forward to catch himself, he ended up slamming head-first into someone. Pulling back in surprise, both Naruto and the as-yet-unknown person with whom he collided rubbed their foreheads.

Once the pain in his head faded a bit, Naruto turned and looked to see just who exactly he had hit. He saw a somewhat short boy with spiky red hair, pale skin, pale eyes that were an odd mix of blue and green, black rings around said eyes, and something on his forehead. After looking for a moment, Naruto realized it was a scar that formed the kanji for "love". The red hair was parted in such a way that anyone seeing the boy would be hard pressed to miss the kanji on his forehead.

"W-W-W-Who are y-you?" Naruto asked.

"My name...is Gaara," the boy responded. Turning to the boy who had slammed into him, Gaara gave Naruto a glare. "And you have caused me pain. Now mother will taste your blood!" As he said this, the sand that had been on the ground began to form into huge hands and come at Naruto menacingly.

Just before the hands could touch Naruto, Kakashi stepped forward and dispelled them. His whole body seemed to crackle as he stood there, glaring at the small boy with his visible eye. "You won't lay a hand on my student!" he said angrily. Calming down and eye-smiling, he added, "Besides, you wouldn't want to start an international incident over this, now, would you?"

Gaara reluctantly backed off, his sand going back into the gourd on his back. As it retreated, Naruto noticed his gourd and also noticed the two people who were with him. One of them had make-up on his face, was wearing some kind of weird cat-hood thing, and had some kind of mummified package on his back. The other, the only girl of the group, had four ponytails on the back of her head and was carrying what looked like a giant fan folded on her back.

Naruto leaned in and whispered to Hinata, "Hey, look, they're all carrying stuff on their back. Makes them all seem like some kind of pack animal, doesn't it? We should call their team the Beasts of Burden."

Hinata looked at Naruto for a moment, saw that his eyes were sparkling with mirth, and then the two both burst into giggles. Kiba, with his acute hearing, had also heard Naruto, and he gave a brief chuckle as well. The laugh was exactly what the team had needed to dispel some of the tension brought on by the redheaded boy's threat.

The boy in the cat hood glared at the laughing team. "How dare you laugh at us?!" he roared. "Any one of us could take all three of you out without breaking a sweat!"

Kiba's attention was immediately focused on the one who had spoken. "Is that a fact?!" he yelled out. "In that case, I guess we'll just have to put that to the test in the Chunin exams, won't we? We'll kick all three of your asses up and down the village, and we'll see who's laughing then!"

The girl gave a small smile to the boy who had dared to yell at her brother. "I like you, kid," she said. "What's your name?"

"I'm Kiba Inuzuka," Kiba replied. "And who are you all, so I can know your names when I grind you into the dust?"

It was the girl who answered, a small smile on her face. "I'm Temari, and these two are my brothers, Gaara and Kankuro," she said, indicating each of them in turn. "I hope we get a chance to see what you three are made of." With that, she turned and walked away, followed after a moment by her brothers.

After they were gone, Naruto, Hinata, and Kakashi turned to Kiba. Kakashi had a curious look on his face, Hinata looked worried, and Naruto was flat-out glaring at him. Laughing nervously, Kiba said, "What's wrong, guys?"

"Why would you say that about the Chunin Exams, Kiba?!" Naruto asked. "I didn't think we were even going to enter them this year!"

"Oh, come on, you guys, we're ready for them. I know we're just rookies, but there have been rookies in the exams before. I know you two are shy and aren't super confident in your skills, but that's why I think we need to take them. It'll give you two a much-needed boost to your confidence," Kiba said.

Sighing, Hinata said, "Well, since you went out of your way to challenge a trio of foreign ninja to fight during them, I don't think we have much of a choice. If you're sure about this, I'm behind you. You are, too, right, Naruto?"

Naruto sighed and thought for a moment. Turning to Kiba, he asked, "Are you sure about this, Kiba?"

Kiba nodded. "After what I've seen from this team, especially you, Naruto, I'm sure we're ready for the exams."

Naruto turned to Kakashi. "Kakashi-sensei, what do you think?"

Kakashi eye-smiled at his team. "If you three decide to apply for the exams, I will put your names forward when I'm asked. I think you're ready, but it's really up to you three."

Naruto slowly smiled. "Yeah, you're right. We've got this. Come on, you guys, we've got a lot of training to do if we're going to show everyone what awesome shinobi we are at the exams!" he said.

With that, the die was cast. Team Seven would be in the Chunin Exams. None of them knew what it would cost them...or what they would gain from the exams.