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AN: I am sorry this took so long. Life, and frankly trying to figure out if I was taking certain choices in this story or not was hard. There were good and bad but I finally decided this was how it was going to go. I present to you, The Chunin Exams Part 1 and the promise no other stories will be updated until we complete the exam arc which is looking like it will be fairly long. So I do still want to address the humorous interview episode. Do you have any questions for this Team 7? Any of them are applicable, or the other teams too. If you've wanted to ask about any variety of my Carapace Universes genin now is the time. I'll be wording it as Konohamaru and friends still but have fun. If there's any that don't fit in with the story and they don't give away too much I'll answer them in another way.

()()()()()()()()()()()()

The success of their mission buoyed the spirits of the group and so Team Seven made incredible time as they ran back to Konoha. They did stop and camp and spar at times, but for the most part, they let Kakashi set a grueling pace that punished them and left the three trembling from exertion every night. It was good training, as their sensei had pointed out. Many times in their future they would likely need to rely on speed and ceaseless traveling to accomplish a task so the sooner they could handle it the better.

The better their odds of survival as well, as Kakashi calmly told them. Though he gave them a number of nights free of being on watch so the three could collapse together in their tent, somehow ending up intertwined like puppies when he'd check on them. At one point during the night, Kucho would be half smothered between the sprawled and yet clingy forms of the two boys, snoring happily to herself in the process. Though every so often one of her larger insects would come out and the sensation of it crawling over skin would make someone awaken with a scream. It had become normal enough that not even the dogs Kakashi called out every evening would stir.

"Kucho! Make your crawlies stop waking me up!" Naruto would whine pathetically before flopping back into his bedding, only to hear a snort of amusement, followed by a wary rustling on Sasuke's side as he checked for any unexpected intruders. Even Kakashi had come face to face with more than a few of the stranger insects he was fairly certain could not be normal. It was just a hazard of having an Aburame Queen around apparently. Most the time he and Sasuke would drop them back on Kucho, or move them aside, gently though. If Kucho was there and it was just a kikaichu sometimes it would almost look to melt into her skin, was truly quite the sight to witness. There would be an amused twitch to her lips, there and gone swiftly, but each of the boys on the team realized she was trusting them to see an aspect of Aburame society and abilities that maybe was usually hidden by the baggy layers, instead of having her forearms exposed as she would help prepare camp or tend to her own injuries.

"Stop yelling Naruto..." Kucho mumbled before tucking her face back into the crook of her arm before it draped over his side in a comforting gesture. "'sides it just wanted to eat the bug that was on you."

And that was the other strange thing. For someone so fond of insects Kucho had no issues if the insects ate each other. Apparently, hers knew better but unattached ones were fair game. When they tried to explain to her she shouldn't be okay with that Kucho would just give them a look as though they were speaking nonsense and at this stage, even Naruto was giving up on trying to explain normal people logic. Worse, her own was starting to infect them and once or twice Naruto had even been correctly identifying parts of an insect when asking about something. Pinchers, feelers, antenna, spinneret..these were all becoming part of Naruto's common vernacular and the look on Sasuke's face at times would make Kakashi fight laughter. Indeed, they'd come a long way.

Of course, then one night came a bloodcurdling shriek and Kakashi and the ninken keeping him company were treated to the sight of Sasuke rushing out of the tent screaming and tripping over his own feet, just to scurry backward on the ground with less grace than a toddler. While Kakashi wanted to laugh, confused as he was, he was silenced seeing two red eyes this time instead of just one. That was new.

"Again, Kucho-chan?" Their sensei asked instead and the sleepy looking girl came out, hair in every direction possible with a tiny grin on her face. The flap of the tent revealing Naruto curled up in the far corner of the tent as pale as curdled milk in fear.

"Ah what do you mean, again, sensei?" She asked entirely innocently and Kakashi just bit his cheek. She was becoming quite the little troll..he was a horrid influence wasn't he? Okay, maybe he was a teeny bit proud. Now if Naruto could just work on that skill some more instead of just pranking he had a few people he'd love to set the orange-loving -if not currently wearing- blonde on.

"Last time Sasuke woke up one of his eyes to the Sharingan thanks to a spider. We are nowhere near those spiders." There was a blink of mismatched eyes and a faint smile in response to his statement. Kakashi felt his stomach roil and a chill crept down his spine. Please tell him she didn't. Of course, she would. Aburame. Blast it.

"Oh, some of them came with me. I had to let them out for a little bit you know. Cold as it is tonight." Kucho nodded. "They're very sweet if you keep them warm."

"The man killing exceptionally venomous spiders we saw on the way to Wave? The ones who wrapped up several bandits for us so they could feast on them?" Kakashi rubbed at his temple because how was it an insect-loving girl had called something that ate bugs as 'sweet' anyways?

"With the pretty green stripes and eyes? Yes." Of course, only the girl on his team would care to look at a spider's eyes much less notice if they were an unusual color. Kucho nodded before she held out her hand, gently swaying it side to side. Kakashi's enhanced vision narrowed in on something hovering below her splayed fingers even as he heard Sasuke whimper.

A large very long legged black spider with vibrant emerald markings down its abdomen and legs twirled there in a fashion Kucho would no doubt dub 'happily' as it worked on sending out more thread. Legs twitching and shifting as it seemed to fiddle with how long it wanted to dangle. A strangled sound came from Kakashi. No wonder Sasuke had scrambled out and Naruto seemed terrified. He tried to find a way to reason with the girl who was far too fond of things she should be nowhere near and hopefully get the newest danger away from them in the reasoning process. "Kucho-chan..will it not ah..eat..your..kikaichu?"

"It would." She agreed without looking away from the spider who then shifted to climb up the thread, not even seeming to mind as it started to crawl on her hand! She even gave a tiny sigh that could only be called content. "That is why they are all staying inside."

"Shouldn't you mayhaps, not like it since it eats bugs?" Pakkun asked from where he was lounging, though admittedly the nice sane boys in the camp were all of a mind that the little girl was freaking terrifying and it was only worse because she was currently not scared of the eight-legged menace that could kill her.

"Hmmm?" Kucho looked up, turning her hand back and forth as the creature scampered along her skin, as utterly unphased as most girls would be if twirling their hair. Not a tiny murdering spider.

"Ohhh...no. Silly. Why?" And here Kucho lifted her other hand, finger up. "We Aburame have a slight connection to the arthropod genus as a whole. Why hate insects that eat other insects when we mammals eat other mammals after all? It is illogical. However, I do not have the ability to properly bond with and mutate the spiders. Perhaps another does but it is not myself; that does not mean I cannot appreciate the masterful hunters and wish to emulate them after a fashion. I can still communicate to a degree with them, it is just very garbled and a bit off. Several of these beautiful legged ones agreed to return with me so I can give them a nice home and work on their venom for my future endeavors."

Kakashi felt a little sick then. Why did they never look into the Aburame more? "You mean this is, normal?"

His response was a look that summed up deadpan in one glance. She clearly had practiced it, because that had Gumoko all over it. "Bringing back lethal insects to create a symbiotic relationship with is rather a hallmark of my clan, Kakashi-sensei."

"Can we break camp early, Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto whimpered repeatedly scratching at his skin as if feeling something crawling there. "I'm so not gonna sleep now."

Though Kucho really didn't understand it, she did tuck the spider back into the container no one had been aware was in her pack and they resumed running. There may even have been a touch more effort on the boys part since they were suddenly aware they'd been sleeping in the same vicinity as a few containers that held lethal spiders and of course, Kucho left the lid off so as not to harm them.

Unsurprisingly not a soul remarked about Kucho being 'uncute' the entire way back.

()()()()()()()()()

It was a very tired Team seven that finally more stumbled and crawled than walked through the gates. Considering his team had just pushed through the last leg of a non-stop twenty-four hour trek (even if most of it had to be walking towards the end, they did not have much stamina yet after all. A few breaks had been permitted but not sleep) to give them a taste for it, Kakashi generously let them all go home and said they would debrief tomorrow so not to give any details though it was not entirely meant at Kucho, Naruto was well known for blabbing everything to Iruka and anyone within hearing range of the Ichiraku ramen stand. At that point, it wouldn't be fair to omit Sasuke so Kakashi kept it as a blanket finger wag.

Kakashi himself would go and speak with the Hokage about the mission right away so they wouldn't be in trouble for going temporarily MIA. That was a problem Kakashi had drilled into them in regards to the protocol on the way back, repeatedly. That one did not just take off on their own, show up and be lazy about giving information. Though Kakashi acknowledged that thankfully they were in peace times "You never know if that little bit of intel you thought was nothing could have prevented a disaster while you had a drink, picked up a new book, or stopped to check on a friend." The three had wisely kept their mouths shut.

Once his weary little ducklings saluted and chorused their acknowledgment of his orders "Hai, Kakashi-sensei!" was actually a pleasant retort for him these days, Kakashi grinned seeing them exchange smiles and promises to meet up before they went to the tower in the morning and parting. If he was slouching less because of the warmth in his chest when each of his troublemakers also waved and wished him in chorus a "good afternoon and evening, see you tomorrow Kakashi-sensei, thank you for everything." Well that they'd had it become a rote parting enforced by their little scary girl teammate who insisted on acknowledging hierarchy wasn't a bad thing in the least.

With both of the boys nodding along before adding further much to Kucho's amusement.

"Even the really hard stuff." Came Naruto's declaration, eyes utterly hidden as he let out a massive yawn that scrunched up his face like an infant and scratched at his side. They were technically dismissed at the moment, and the change in Naruto's body language was immediate. Kucho and Sasuke would take longer to shake off their 'professional personas' but considering their different circumstances it was hardly surprising.

"Especially the really hard stuff, we'll need that experience better to have it now." Sasuke pointed out, too tired to care about how he usually wasn't verbose even if it was with sarcasm. It seemed around his team that habit had been mellowed out. Oh, he could still speak in grunts, and they would understand him but in that same fashion, he was willing to speak up and out around them. There was even a half-hearted smile.

"Yeah. So yanno, thanks for helping us stay not-dead and not-explodey, Kakashi-sensei." Naruto agreed.

Well...Kakashi thought as he vanished after wishing them a good evening as well, it was nice to be appreciated.

()()()()()()()

Kakashi honestly wasn't paying attention as the others recommended their teams publicly. He'd done so already privately to the Hokage when giving his report, ahead of time and every so often it was good to remind people of whom he had been before the accident. After all, if you were always tardy it became predictable and no longer perturbed people. Where was the fun in that? He had met with his team that morning to hand over their slips and waited as he showed them how to fill the proper participation forms out. Mostly it was the same sort that if they made it to the second stage they would be repeating, but Kakashi would rather they knew how to fill out these properly instead of just guessing. Asking whom to inform in case of a problem, medical care decisions, treatments they may object to, chakra and blood type, known allergies. Especially any histories of worrisome trauma in their past or reactions to stimulus. These were things that if something went wrong was best to have on file. He was honestly not surprised to see Iruka listed for Naruto, or that all three put Kucho's mother as they did spend a bit of time over there being fed. Seeing himself listed on the applications though was an unexpectedly touching moment that he carefully did not react to.

Basic questions on what they could expect to be tested on he could answer trolling with a simple one-word response of "everything". Yet, even more, fun was informing them, entirely by accident; of course, he was distracted by the chapter in his book, -really- that records of prior exams held in Konoha would be in the hall of ...hm..imagine that..records. Right by the library and all. None of the details of course, but injuries, numbers, attendees in contestants if not names certainly an accounting of how many represented each village. Enough that a smart well adapted and creative team could make a lot of use of it.

For just a moment after his announcement the peculiar stillness to the three had made Kakashi wonder if that had been a poor choice. Informing a mostly recovering revenge obsessed avenger PTSD suffering child, one who wanted attention and it didn't matter if it came in good or bad recognition from those around him thus spurring on to pranks that half the time even ANBU couldn't seem to catch him for, and a slightly less than understandably minded Aburame Queen who may not have the stalwart loyalty and morals that everyone who wasn't infested with insects in their very chakra coils adapted to if not socio or psychopaths to some degree...

Eh. Konoha had survived worse; like the Kyuubi.

Kyuubi currently in said blonde menace's stomach seal but that was a headache for someone else to handle. So yes, Kakashi was honestly looking forward to what they came up with because the level of preparation his team had done already with their attacks and hard work was more than many who had failed the Chunnin exams a good number of times. Now? With a goal dangling in their face and the assurance from their Jounin sensei that he felt them capable of giving this a good run if not winning?

Kakashi's giggling was actually this time, not from his book.

Because he remembered the looks when he said they could try out for the exam.

It was actually fairly impressive, being on the receiving end of three glares with a good amount of Killing Intent wafting off the trio. Kakashi made a mental note to teach them how to do so with better efficiency, right now anyone could pick up on it or be susceptible if they were in range. The high-level shinobi learned to focus that intent on one person or a few at a time and thus magnify it. Though he was understandably a touch wary of teaching it to Naruto considering the vast reserves he held as both Uzumaki and holder of the nine tailed fox.

"Hn." Sasuke started with his predictable grunt before smirking, though the nudge with his shoulder to nearby Naruto who then nudged Kucho flanking the other side of the blonde helped keep the image from being too arrogant. Barely. "We won't just compete."

A giant fox grin but with open eyes, always far more intimidating on the blonde stretched over as he crossed his arms. "Yeah. We'll win, Kakashi-sensei."

Kucho clearly agreed with her teammate's and nodded, adjusting her glasses with a tiny smile.

"Maa, maa, you act like I am not fully aware you will not hold back. In fact, my cute little students..I'm counting on it." Kakashi had genuinely smiled then, his eye closing in a sign of his trust and felt the intent trickle away. When he opened his eye again it was to seeing Naruto nudge the other two, a common sight as he dealt with the antisocial and introverted members respectively on a regular basis.

"No." Sasuke protested but in the face of the grinning mischief creature incarnate, yielded with a heavy sigh. At that sound Kucho laughed and nodded, leaving their bemused sensei to watch as more shoulder bumping occurred before the three raised their fists towards Kakashi.

"Oh?"

"C'mon sensei," Naruto explained, and the smiles the brunettes were fighting betrayed they were actually amused at this but pretending otherwise for their egos. Kakashi had experience there, with the embarrassing friends and everything. Not that it meant he felt an ounce of pity for them. Not at all.

"And what, Naruto, am I to do?" He asked instead raising the visible eyebrow as high as he could. Oh, he knew, but where would the fun be if he didn't drag this out?

"Raise your fist. Come on, you gotta know fist bumps. You aren't THAT old no matter what your hair says!" Naruto snickered.

Kakashi stifled a chuckle of his own and tapped his fist against his group of students outstretched ones before promptly dragging Naruto into a head lock to grind his knuckles playfully into the blonde locks. "Old am I?"

The laughter of the brunettes filling the air before they playfully started trying to rescue Naruto who was crying out pitifully through his laughter and swipes at Kakashi only making Kakashi play along more. "Team Seven, Help! Help! The old man has me!"

"Don't worry fair prince we'll rescue you!" Kucho snickered as she flung shuriken towards Kakashi's hands to try and make his grip loosen.

"Not a princess?" Sasuke bantered. "He seems a helpless one right now."

"And whom, Sasuke, says girls are helpless?" Kakashi couldn't help but egg them on. If they were willing to play dirty fighting to try and help, he would call it training and make this into an impromptu hostage rescue exercise.

"Princesses are helpless. Queen's are terrifying." Sasuke scowled over at Kucho who just grinned, appeased.

"Less dramatics, more saving the handsome prince here!" Naruto bellowed, his hands kept apart so he couldn't form hand seals, Kakashi did know plenty about restraining troublesome hostages who couldn't just be knocked unconscious after all.

"Tornado?" Sasuke asked casually but with a very eager gleam to his eyes and Kakashi was curious what attack that meant in their codes because Naruto went still with dread and Kucho utterly leered.

"Tornado."

A wailing from Naruto was the response."NooooooooooOOooooo"

A few moments later Kakashi understood why. Tornado was, unsurprisingly, misleading. Tornado instead should have been named exploding fireballs. It involved a misleading rock jutsu both of the brunettes made that seemed to send several dozen small pebbles to fist-sized rocks at their opponent at high speeds, the first going off just after the second whom would have their hand motions blocked by the flurry of activity already happening. At some point, the second attacker counting on the visual misdirection of dodging the first volley and still in the process of doing so would expect the second was the same. However, those rocks contained a number of exploding tags. Hence, fireballs. Rapid substitution jutsu use with some of the other larger rocks in the group as they kept this up for the second time and Kakashi had to applaud their creativity.

As usual he downplayed his skills -something he had told his team he would do when training and slowly increase it as he felt they were up to the challenge and thankfully Kucho's pheromones ensured there were no outbursts but thinking logically about why that would be a helpful thing- and permitted the slight slackening of muscles and distraction that someone a little above them, chunin to high chunin rank, would likely have to occur. The moment he did Naruto was free and spammed shadow clones. As had become the new tradition when analyzing the battles with Zabuza however, now when Naruto spammed those clones he did so making henged ones to mimic his teammate's as well.

Kakashi could sense with his years of training, that all three then substituted themselves to nearby trees and scattered. Still in visual range but not striking, leaving the clones. If he actually had been chunin level they would have reset the advantage and no doubt send lethal attacks before fleeing with their rescued charge.

It made him very proud and he lifted a hand with two fingers up in a peace sign of approval. "Well done. I concede you rescued your pretty little helpless prince. Objective satisfied." Only once he'd said that did the clones vanish and his teammate's return, more relaxed and content with the short fight. They had learned -painfully- to never let their guard down unless Kakashi said a lesson was over.

"Now then, go study and then take the afternoon off. You three must be rested before the tests. By that I mean you need a few days to fully recuperate. Light training only. Understand?" Kakashi wagged his finger at them, something they had learned was only half to look humorous and a half was him giving a direct order without making it clearly so to observation.

"Hai, Sensei!"

Kakashi giggled again, making all but Gai step to the side. Not surprising at all that the 'Green Beast' was the only fellow shinobi to this point to realize how often Kakashi's eye was not focused on the words held up to him, but instead working out something in his thoughts. If playing along at competitions every so often kept him from telling, well, it did give Kakashi something to do.

"Kakashi? Do you have something to say?" One of his fellows asked. A quick glance up at the front and a minuscule dip of their Hokage's head let him know they had all recommended their teams. Hm. Well, why not mess with them? After all as far as anyone in this room knew he had the least likely functional group with the Dead Last and two 'loner' types. Besides, he knew the Hokage was still annoyed at all those who had a hand in Naruto falling behind all these years and probably wanted to discreetly show them a rude gesture. In lieu of that, having Kakashi put up a front of unwilling instructor trying to kill off the team he'd been stuck with would apparently satisfy the old dictator. Well, who was he to ignore a subtle order?

Shifting slightly he held up his hand in a gesture to report truthfully. Pageantry to play at Konoha being a democracy to it's less in the know soldiers and the contentedly oblivious. He hated pointless posturing and ritual when the forms were already signed and turned in, stamped as admitted under the Hokage's seal and filed away with the proctors shortly after he'd met with his team. "Hai, Hokage-sama. The three comprising Team Seven under direction from Hatake Kakashi consisting of Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruo, and Aburame Kucho. I nominate all three for the chunin exams."

The outbursts were highly satisfying. Well, until Iruka overstepped his boundaries and dared to question if Kakashi thought it was a good idea. For some reason, that comment of 'They are my students' hit him the wrong way.

"They are not your students," Kakashi said calmly, too calmly. He sensed warning spikes in ki from a few of his ANBU former comrades hidden in the room as they passed it through their ANBU tattoos to his own. Something they all still did for each other. Too often it was almost impossible to resume a more 'civilian' ninja life. To go back to when you dared to question orders, to back talk a superior. Blending things lesser soldiers did without thought. Not a one of the ANBU thought of their beloved Hokage as anything more than their dictator. He commanded, they obeyed. Orders were only ever questioned if it seemed detrimental to Konoha as a whole. That side of Kakashi had never truly faded, not with his father's suicide, not with Obito and Rin's passing. It was too much a part of whom he innately was. Calm anger was far more lethal if you were ANBU. Calm anger meant logic, thinking, planning.

Hence the rapid flares of Ki on a level that none would sense without that tattoo laced in special chakra reactive ink that could conduct as a seal all its own such warnings. A pity that didn't work for varying the pulses, it would just sort of itch to a burn but could not be used for codes. They'd tried. The secret of how to make the ink had gone mysteriously missing at nearly the same time Root had been exposed to have some rather devious attempts to kill the Hokage in a coup, just a few years after he'd found 'Tenzo'; and none of the younger ANBU members had the reactive tattoos just the regular ones.

Looking back on it he rather suspected perhaps one of their MIA members had been worried about things getting into Danzou's hands and destroyed all records of it, it was too much of a coincidence. But the itching sensation on his arm now informed him he was stepping too far. It was enough to remind him to keep hands far from his weapons, killing intent locked up tight. Instead, he exaggerated his lazy slouch and slowed his speech, to mask the cruel edge his words would otherwise take on. It wasn't Iruka's fault he didn't know. Didn't understand just how deeply insulting he had just been.

"They are my subordinates."

It was cruel, perhaps even maliciously petty of him to be pleased when the Hokage, the seemingly flippant offer for Iruka to test his team. Though he did suggest Iruka test all of the suggested ones. He wouldn't have his singled out just because of Iruka's attachment to Naruto. That could be dangerous. While Kakashi knew the Hokage wanted Naruto to have someone to run to -it should have been Kakashi, he should have been there for him even if it hurt but he hadn't, had kept on the missions and running more and more until he nearly broke but it kept Naruto safe and safe was what mattered more than loved and dead. So when Kakashi knew the next time would kill him because he had nothing left to give, burned out and too close to that abyssal edge ANBU could walk and go KIA on, he'd given back the mask. He stepped back and by then Naruto was already almost to graduate and Iruka was there- he also did not want Iruka to accidentally cripple his teammate's capabilities by feeling he was always second-guessed and watched. There was enough of that to deal with whenever the nature of the beast in his belly came out to the rest of Team seven. By at least planting the idea for Iruka to test all of the rookie nine and the few apprenticed and other students who would participate, Naruto wouldn't think it was because of his not being trusted.

It was a good thing then, that his lower face mask hid his grin because Kakashi knew it was not a nice smile.

()()()()()()()()()()()()

The hall of records was a massive dump of information. Most of it was carefully censored but out there for the constant approved tallies of coming and going with existing laws and rules on imports, exports, banned items and the like. This meant it was quite well organized in the massive shelves. Free of dust and well lit with many long narrow tables for people to spread out what they were working on it still had lots of privacy between the many rows. Quiet for all the bustle, no citizen was ever denied access. It never occurred to anyone to ask how they could tell if you were a citizen or not though.

Naruto's shadow clones were priceless for drudgery work. Seeking out records was just one more, and the fact to avoid attention he would spam them behind shelves and make them henge into various boring people easily overlooked only helped matters. No one realized in the quietly busy hall of records that so many of the thirty or so mix of ninja and civilians looking up various records- quite common for the rules on pricing and taxes that would apply to the foreigners trickling in and whether or not they had to bar certain exports- were clones. Instead at different tables would be a mix of clones seeking key words. They would make piles of the documents containing them, and one of the other clones who were always Aburame looking; Kucho's Nee-chan's did not often make normal facial expressions and did have darker skin to reflect their natural carapace's she hadn't mastered the insect clones yet to that degree but they could henge to have bulkier gear hiding all but a small swath around their glasses and thus be ignored by people anyways, would take those piles to a group of students who looked to be doing their civilian homework.

Completely average kids with dull colored attire, brown hair with different textures but similar shades, brown eyes, and the same light tan skin. It was their favorite 'ignore me' henge. By looking just similar enough thanks to coloring and minor changes to apparent bone structure and attire they resembled cousins. Their darker skin compared to many of the pale Konoha natives was still fair, but as if they spent most their time out in the sun. Likely working-class children who helped at stalls or in a family garden. The brown was an easy blend of their three colors so if the henge started to slip it was less noticeable, and the texture changes again was a blend of the three. They stood out just enough to be forgettable, and Sasuke clearly enjoyed not being harassed. For Naruto, he enjoyed the ruse of 'family' and Kucho?

Kucho didn't think anything of it. It was just a body after all.

"This may be useful." Sasuke slid over a paper he'd written numbers on with small annotations, and at the bemused brown gaze from the usually blue-eyed boy he sighed. "The average number of applicants per village each year that apply..and pass."

"But, it's got like fifty people total and only four or five..per exam!" Naruto frowned, brows scrunched together thinking hard. Patient, and encouraging Naruto to think more often, both of his teammate's waited to see what conclusions if any he would come to. Since Kucho had been working with Sasuke on helping Naruto feel comfortable with making suggestions the Uchiha had launched himself into starting to help Naruto draw out his opinions. Sometimes he had brilliant flashes of insight that broadsided them, and sometimes he came up blank. Despite a fond "Orange menace." though Sasuke never ridiculed him. It had made Naruto a lot more comfortable trying to come to ideas on his own instead of just throwing out stupid ideas or pretending he knew what was going on just so he didn't feel inferior to Sasuke.

"That doesn't make sense." Naruto finally said.

"Why?" Kucho asked and every set of lips twitched at the table. They knew she wouldn't finish her statement though, not pretending as she was.

"Cuz, yanno then each village would only get maybe what, two to twenty ninja every ten years a Chunin? And Jounin has to be harder. So it doesn't work. What do they do, all sneaky promote people then?" A scratch at his ear and a scowl as Naruto thought over what he just said. "Probably do. Or field promotions like Ka..er, like we heard." The slip was swiftly caught and so neither of the others called him on it. Mentioning kids their age and younger was allowed, it was expected they may mingle.

"Most likely." Kucho hummed. "So that means either these are not so much for promotion as to show those who survive it what they need to work on, or it's a farce of sorts. Or both."

"Survive it?!" Neither of the normally brunette children reacted at the outburst save for both giving him a nod.

A moment's pause before Naruto groaned and slumped over the table. "Okay. I get it. So packin like we are goin right back to the 'bridge' eh?"

"A good plan." Sasuke agreed thoughtful. "My...relatives..likely left some gear we may be able to salvage. It was properly stored and while dusty, would be worth examining. It would help if you both spent the night so we could use this time more efficiently. We can purchase anything we are lacking the next few days before the exams begin."

Kucho pulled out another sheet of paper and began making a list of supplies. "Does it mention how long the exams go for? On average. Clearly, it is not just a quick day-long event or else we would not have so many shop keepers and those running the inns and restaurants in and out of here all day."

"Uh wait, I had that one Queenie." One of Naruto's clone's piped up. Much to Naruto's bafflement and Sasuke's amusement the clones all referred to Kucho with that title. The faint humming Kucho made each time in pleasure probably only was reinforcing it. She did like having her ranking acknowledged. "Here ya go! Hey, Boss? Just so ya know there's a box painted like a rock circling around outside and every so often it asks where 'big brother boss' is."

"Eh?" Naruto blinked. "Oh. Well, I'll have to go out and pretend to be surprised then." He grinned over at the quietly waiting duo. "Konohamaru, he doesn't get enough attention and likes to 'play' ninja." That Naruto had not had anyone play with him was implied through his tone. The usually blue-eyed blonde watched as his henged teammate's exchanged one of those 'quiet people' looks that seemed to work as well as talking. A few shifts of muscles and then they went back to writing.

"What has he learned so far?" Kucho asked, and that alone had Naruto beaming.

"I taught him my sexy jutsu."

Sasuke's head hit the table with a groan. "Dobe..."

On the contrary, Kucho giggled. "Did he get it?"

"Yep! And his caretaker was the first victim to my improved Harem Jutsu!" Naruto grinned. "Actually remind me to teach you two, it works fantastically to startle and stun people and I get away a lot easier when they're flustered."

"I am not pretending to be a naked woman," Sasuke grumbled. After the heavy pause, he glared up from his arms snarling at both of the amused nin. "Or a naked man."

Kucho hummed teasingly. "You could henge to be an old one, and naked. That would make most people look away."

The boys and shadow clones all shuddered. "Way uncute Kucho-chan." "Hn"

"If it's effective it is not to be mocked." Kucho huffed, and one of Naruto's clones patted her on the tell tale puppy tail hair style she used even when henged.

"You tell em Queenie." At Naruto's gasp and look of betrayal, the henged clone stuck it's tongue out at it's maker.

"Besides, I am certain my mother would give me tips on how to adjust my own appearance with said jutsu." Kucho tapped at her cheek before nodding "Do walk me through it later, Naruto-kun?"

Unsure of what else to do Naruto just nodded. "Kay."

Sasuke let his head meet the table again.

()()()()()()()()()()()()

Half an hour later the three had slipped out amongst the crowd of clones which would poof away in various alleys and back rooms to be forgotten, Kucho's Nee-chan's already back in her chakra coils. Sasuke slipped away with them as he would run back while still under henge to check on the said supplies and then return so they could buy anything they may need in the morning before heading to train in preparation of the exam taking place a few days. Lightly train, per their sensei's orders. Essentially just keeping limber. It was also no longer an uncommon sight to see Kucho and Naruto walking beside each other, even if it tended to look more like the hyper active blonde was dragging his unwilling teammate around instead of her just basking in his company while she stayed silent if she was in 'recharging from people' mode.

After all, Naruto knew that tiny buzzing sound meant she was happy and that she frequently had tiny touches as they would walk, the now familiar minuscule pin prick of soft chakra each time a fond reassurance of her company. He did not have fine enough control to return the favor, and he knew her kikaichu still didn't like his chakra but no longer took it personally. Heck, she had bugs that could form clones and talk to him, therefore, they were allowed their own opinions as far as Naruto was concerned. When it had come down to the wire they had been there for him so obviously, they didn't mind him just his chakra.

Well, his teammate's didn't understand his love of ramen so that's how Naruto chose to view it.

"There's no way a rock would be perfectly square!" Naruto bellowed dramatically, acting up, but since he had informed Kucho he would be playing with Konohamaru she did little more than giggle at his actions. Not berate him, and the joyful sound, reminding him of back in the academy when his antics could have her react even then only made his urge to be even more ridiculous increase.

So when Konohamaru and his friends popped out he was clapping. "Nicely done! Less smoke though. Hmmm..and I think you need to work on your intros a little more."

"Yeah? Like what boss?" Eager eyes grinning up at him made Naruto's brain falter. For just a moment his heart was in his throat and then there was a soft brush of chakra as Kucho silently stepped beside him. Not talking, just there to support him.

"Welll...okay. Don't give obvious things about you. Make them wonder. Or use a catch phrase, dattebayo. Wait. Not that one!" Naruto scrubbed at his hair trying to figure out what he should suggest before it came to him and he grinned. "What is it Iruka complains about the three of you the most?"

After the gasps and the sudden huddling of the trio, he heard Kucho murmuring softly. "That was brilliant, Naruto-kun."

"Thanks, Kucho-chan!" He beamed over at her, knowing despite the glasses that her eyes would be half closed as she was smiling at him. Of course, it would be misinterpreted by the tiny ninbabys.

"Hey, hey Boss! Is she...like..." And Konohamaru just had to hold out his pinky.

"No!" Naruto paled then because insulting Kucho's girly ways outside of the now fond uncute was a potential landmine if Ino, Sakura, and the other girls he knew were any warning. "That is..I mean.."

"Hello. I am Aburame Kucho. It is a pleasure to meet the one Naruto-kun spoke so highly of learning his own unique jutsu in so short a time." Kucho bowed slightly in greeting, the younger children returning it with their own introductions out of habit. "However, I must correct you on your assumption. Naruto-kun is my precious teammate. Being an Aburame, however, I do not yet have any interest in either gender or potential mates. Why?" Naruto's snort almost derailed her but the baffled expressions on the kid's faces were making her continue, apparently Kakashi-sensei was a bit of a poor influence. She would have to check in with her mother about it. "Because my physical form is not yet capable of bearing life thus any such attachment towards that is pointless. Also, not being yet at my own pinnacle I cannot surmise a suitable mates capabilities to produce optimal offspring as I do not yet know where I will be found lacking."

"Uh..."

"Kucho-chan I think you broke my friend." Naruto chided her while trying not to laugh. He paused then. "Hey, you mean all that?"

"Affirmative."

"Sooo..you I dunno, never had a crush on anyone?" He again blinked at her, thinking of his own crush on Sakura. "I mean you kinda brought it up on that one D-Rank..."

"Crushes are a mix of chemical reactions to recognition of talents and skills one may appreciate in potential mates." Kucho nodded. "However, my Queen's suppress most of such imbalances to help keep me as an optimal host for them while my coils continue to expand as I age."

"Shino?" Naruto was half ignoring the kids who just looked completely confused, but there was a sharp considering gaze to the little kunoichi who had called herself 'sexy' that had Naruto going with Kucho's randomness. Maybe he could avoid another fangirl situation where they didn't focus hard enough on their career. Not all of them were naturally brilliant like Sakura.

"Likewise. Though as a born Soldier for all he has Queen's and is heir his initial hives are reduced compared to my having numerous Queens and thus he may have more..imbalances..until that is corrected or he is already of age to find a compatible partner." Kucho smiled at him, not revealing that often if one could not be found they would only procreate for improving their own genetic stock, as she herself was proof of, or if they needed to provide an heir as Shino would. Otherwise, it was completely normal for most of the Aburame to shun such unions altogether and only increased the reasons they were so protective of their teammate's as their own 'hives' in a sort of substitution. That was why in many generations the Aburame needed to rely on adoption to swell the clan instead of having children of their own. It was a favored koan of the Aburame to teach their children. 'Do we exist as a clan, or as the vessels of our kikaichu's hives?' Or better translated, exactly which of the symbiotic relationship was being cultivated?

"Well if you aren't his girl friend..you are his friend, right?" Konohamaru asked with a frown. Kucho simply nodded which made that expression vanish. It seemed the protective nature went both ways. "Wanna play ninja with us?"

Kucho clearly felt she had spoken enough to strangers, children though they may be and gestured to Naruto, one that he was familiar at this point to interpret as 'I'll follow your lead'.

"Sounds good to us Konohamaru. What do you want to practice? Maybe go see who can hit more targets or...?" Naruto smirked here, knowing what would tire the kids out fastest without breaking Kakashi's take it easy rule. "A race maybe?"

"Ha! Eat my dirt Boss!" And without deciding where they were going or saying start, he ran off. Companions laughing as they ran behind.

"Whoa. They're..uh...slow?" Naruto drew his brows together and glanced over at the quietly laughing and buzzing Kucho. "We're just used to our trolling tardy sensei aren't we?" Kucho nodded, still laughing but bumped his shoulder with her own. "Yeah, yeah, I know. So, up for a race? Just a slow one, I want them to almost win."

Kucho raised a brow, a tiny smirk on her face.

"Of course I learned from Kakashi-sensei! He's crazy but he's brilliant and effective, ya know that!" Naruto laughed before winking. "C'mon, let's catch some kids!"

Roaring with laughter as he ran ahead Naruto whooped and a fantastic game of catch was started. They wound through various streets, though carefully slow to always let the three younger ones stay ahead. It was as Naruto rounded one corner though that he noticed the taunts from Konohmaru had ceased and instead some stranger had his friend held aloft by his shirt.

"Hey!" Naruto snarled as hot fury swept his veins. There was a roaring sound pressing from the inside of his eardrums. Memories of being the bullied one picked on, abused, even if he now knew the reason was the freeloader in his gut were no less upsetting. He would not let Konohamaru deal with that same issue! "Put him down!"

"And what are you gonna do about it, pipsqueaks?" The cat-eared stranger sneered one eye slowly opening.

Just under hearing if not for his known enhanced skills, ones Kucho took advantage of, she whispered "exam." Naruto shifted his hand back towards his weapon pouch but flicked a thumbs up to her to show he heard. Downplay. They were probably here for the exams which meant likely opponents. Just like Kakashi did with them this morning, pretend he wasn't as capable as he was. Well. That wasn't hard. Yelling out a nonsense cry Naruto rushed forward, purposefully slower and clumsier footed. Still, he didn't expect to be tripped by what he could not even see!

Landing hard, reminding not to twist and spring off his wrists as he'd learned but just to flop down Naruto pretended shock. Chakra threads, Kakashi had called them. Back when instructing Sasuke on something more effective than the wire he used if worried they could be used against his person. Naruto had zero skill with them but they'd found his brute chakra application could almost burn through them when Kucho and Sasuke had worked with him on it. Didn't mean it didn't itch like a bad rash though if he used it.

Kucho finally stepped forward and Naruto was curious. Would she attack? Pretend to fail? Or resort to the Aburame stereotype and use it to be utterly dismissed?

"You are here for the chunin exams. Why? You have foreign headbands and are here at the time for it. However, there is a section in the agreement of all villages hosting the exams and that for those coming to visit that states 'any hostile action upon the person of the Hokage or their immediate family shall be considered an act of war and either the village belonging to said party must withdraw or the team they are attached to automatically fail.' With that in mind, I feel obligated to inform you that currently, you are hoisting up the Hokage's grandson." Ever so slightly Kucho adjusted her glasses as she finished speaking, always with a casual flat tone. For some reason, the way she spoke seemed to unnerve the visitors before she even finished what she was saying. Slowly, very carefully, the bully holding Konohamaru set him down.

Sticking out his tongue Konohamaru ran behind Kucho with a wail "You aren't cool boss! Loosing to a guy like that!"

Kucho saw the hurt that occurred on Naruto's face before he hid it, knowing that he was torn between success and not wanting to let his friend down.

"I was faking it! Really Konohamaru!" Naruto exclaimed as he stood up. Kucho had to keep from smiling sadly, all it did was make it seem even more pathetic. She'd help him explain to the kid later if he really wanted.

"Pfft. Konoha's genin are really weak." One of the intruders muttered and then the same bully smirked. "By any chance, are you two related to the old man?"

Kucho shook her head, guessing where this was going even as Naruto mouthed off. "Hey! Only I'm allowed to call Jiji that sorta thing! But..no, he's not related to me."

"Good. Looks like I get a warm up, Temari."

"You're going to use crow? Really, Kankuro?" The girl asked with a glare before she rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Keep me out of it."

"Uh.." Naruto started before he looked over at Kucho. Of course, she was just watching him, half keeping an eye on the others. When she noticed he was trying to make eye contact she directed him at what had her attention. Ever so slightly, only because he was used to looking through her glasses, Naruto saw her flicker her eyes to one tree, blinking slowly, and then narrow her gaze slightly offset.

Ally. Enemy.

Dang. He really was speaking 'quiet person' too well these days! Hurray for Kakashi-sensei and his weird training! Still. Ally...that had to be either Sasuke or Kakashi, or Iruka. Heck, even Anko. Any of those choices..or even if it was just another of their year-mates was a good thing. The enemy wasn't a massive threat, was it? A swift look over Kucho's body language told him otherwise. Okay. Really stupidly dangerous enemy. Naruto flashed her a grimace more than a grin. Fortunately, she caught on that he meant Zabuza with his weird teeth.

A subtle nod. Okay. The Super dangerous enemy then.

"Naw." Naruto shook his head then and crossed his arms. He'd had Kakashi drill into them as they filled out their forms what the rules were. Now that Konohamaru was safe any action on his part to join a fight would render their opponents blameless for retaliating. Even if they initiated it. There were Anbu and exam enforcers crawling unseen over Konoha right now and the only permitted aggressive actions that wouldn't have dire consequences were ones where a Konoha native initiated or escalated it or frankly if they could find a way to dispose of the evidence without being caught.

"Coward.." The bully sneered and Naruto sneered right back sticking out his tongue and pulling on his eyelid.

"Moron. At least I know the rules about fighting outside of exams. How'd you qualify anyway? Running your mouth to the point they sent you here for a bit of peace and quiet?" No one had to know that was a modification of one of Sasuke's insults to him when Naruto had tried caffeine that Sasuke and Kucho had needed to get through the twenty-four-hour trek. It had turned Naruto into a massive hyper energy ball that Kakashi finally gagged and made run that way. Though originally Sasuke had said 'How did you graduate anyway? Really? Make so many clones and then run their mouths to the point Iruka graduated you knowing otherwise he'd never get any peace and quiet in class again?'

"Why you little pathetic-" whatever else would be spewed at Naruto was silenced by a pebble hitting his hand that had begun unwrapping what was on his back. The group turned to look up at Sasuke, tossing another one up and down in clear warning. At least he didn't go emo and try to crush it as if to show he was tough. Naruto and Kucho had to fight laughter though at the obvious -to them- annoyance at anyone else insulting Naruto. That was Sasuke's role, thank you very much.

"Why can't you be cool like that boss!?" Ah, they had almost forgotten Konohamaru.

()()()()()()()()()

Sasuke was standing next to his teammate's, glaring as the ninja from sand walked away. He had not missed the overall wary silence on both Kucho and for Naruto compared to his usual mode off missions. The revelation of the red-haired shinobi who had been in touching, and thus silent killing strike range, of Sasuke, had unnerved him. Not that he let it show. It was only after Gaara and his siblings were out of sight that he turned to his teammate's.

"Kucho-chan?" He said softly and Kucho nodded.

"My Kikaichu sensed him. They loathed his chakra.." close as the three stood the two boys heard it. Blue and black eyes met and both had serious frowns on before nodding. While they wanted a good battle, they knew to be careful. They had lucked out in Wave, they had killed. They knew they were fortunate to have lived till now. And that boy would be fighting them at some point no doubt in the exams.

"Come over prepared to spend the night. I want to show you what I found. We can train in the morning." Knowing they would understand he meant in one of his families dojo's outside of spying eyes more than they could guarantee the training grounds would be, Sasuke turned, not even greeting the younger kids and Kucho waved briefly before following as her home was in the same direction for a few streets. She needed to get food enough for dinner and breakfast after all, and her own supplies. They needed to see what had to be repaired or restocked for all of them.

Naruto groaned behind him but neither brunette worried about his finding a way to extract himself after a lot of talking and then meeting up with them later.

()()()()()()()()()()()

A few days later there was a corner of one of Konoha's bars that housed a very disgruntled brunette and a few bottles of sake.

"Iruka?" Kakashi asked before sitting across from the steadily getting drunk chunin. He may have been radiating smugness but no one would call him on it being unusual. "My, my, I didn't figure you the sort to drink before exams.."

"You're an asshole," Iruka grumbled before throwing another drink back. "You know, Team Gai? Scary effective but no surprise. He's had them a year after all. They obliterated my clones. Team Kurenai? The Hyuuga heiress needs a little work because she doesn't want to strike with force but the others performed as expected and they should do fine. Aburame are usually tricky but I didn't expect Shino to be quite as ruthless as he was when he finally went on the offensive to defend Hinata. Once he realized if he had been singled out so had they. I nearly lost a bit of my chakra escaping his insects. That Inuzuka boy is prodigal with his clan's jutsu's."

"Mmhmm.." Kakashi poured himself a drink, ignoring the glare he got in return. Frankly, Iruka didn't scare him and if the man didn't think he'd be there to gloat after the little calling out earlier the other day he was a far dumber man than Kakashi had given him credit for.

Relenting in his glare Iruka continued. "Team Asuma? No surprise. Capable. Lazy as Shikamaru is he could tell it was a test right away and asked I fail him so he didn't need to get up in the morning." That admittedly got them both to chuckle before Iruka glared at him. It was actually pretty decent, even if thanks to the sake his chakra leaking killing intent was sloppy at best.

"Now, now, surely you can't be upset at my subordinates Iruka! Why, I seem to recall you demanding they weren't ready, as your students." His tattoo burned. Kakashi couldn't help it, knowing his smile was hidden for all the glee in his visible eye wasn't. Also, it may have warmed his heart to know even now probably three buildings away his former teammates were looking out for him as they kept watch over the influx of foreigners. Bless those chakra sensors, didn't need to be in the same room to poke at annoyed teammates.

"What did you do to those kids?" The hoarse sound was unexpected. Iruka scrubbed at his face. "Sasuke..okay, he's Uchiha and frankly after the massacre I know he's got problems and a little unhinged. He didn't even hesitate the moment I made a move towards a weapon I was kicked in the face, then he threw shuriken with chakra wires at me, then he followed it by a fireball.."

Kakashi paused cup held halfway to his mask. "Oh?"

"Don't even try to play dumb with me." Iruka snarled.

"Maa more I am wondering why he held back so much. He must really wish to be underestimated." Kakashi had to withhold laughter at the strangled sound Iruka made before he slammed down the empty cup. Again. While Iruka rubbed his eyes Kakashi sipped his own sake, before putting the mask back. "So, Sasuke passed."

"Clearly." Another twitch to Iruka's eyebrow. "I planned to kidnap one of the kids following Naruto around to show him danger could come to his precious ones..." At that Kakashi couldn't help but chuckle, earning himself yet another dark look from the annoyed teacher. "Yeah. I figured that out. Once I was swarmed with shadow clones, dodging chakra bombs I taught him to make! He shouldn't be able to master those yet! He didn't hesitate to strike with the intent to kill and Moegi was substituted for a shadow clone and then there were so many look-alike copies of both I couldn't find them in the chaos. Then he sent a fireball jutsu -and since when did Sasuke teach Naruto how to use that!?- and by the time I dodged they were gone!"

"Good. He learned that one well." Kakashi just nodded, rejoicing in the suffering of one who had underestimated his team. "I presume that he then found and notified one of the observing enforcers?" Kakashi just smirked at Iruka's defeated nod. Naruto had indeed acted as if there had been a hostile attacking force, rescuing one of the citizens, and then going up the chain of command and reporting it so they could investigate. Perfectly textbook and not something Iruka clearly felt should be needed to know yet.

"...You aren't going to ask?" Iruka finally mumbled.

"About my Aburame? No. You probably did something entirely foolish like used genjutsu on her." Kakashi waved his hand.

"No. I ah..since Shino broke his so swiftly I went for looking like one of her teammate's and attacking her.." Iruka blinked before wailing and clutching at his hair. "She attacked anyways! No hesitation! Just flat out had some light in my face and then was sending exploding rocks in my direction calling out Tornado for some reason..why. Kakashi why are you laughing at me now!?"

"Forgive me Iruka. Just, two things. One, Kucho-chan has thanks to her beetles a very good idea of the nature of her teammate's chakra, and she knows them well enough to communicate almost wordlessly. I doubt you could have mimicked either of them well enough." He didn't tell Iruka it was also because mission Albatross had given them a chance to really get to know each other, tells that you wouldn't know unless you had been around others with your guard down, and seeing the ways they faked things, were much harder to copy. You could mimic someone's behaviors and pass off anything odd as 'feeling off color' or not sleeping enough. But if you knew how they acted at those moments? Not so much.

"...figures. And the other?"

Kakashi was tempted to flip up his headband. Really, he was sad he hadn't earlier and just thrown his eye under a genjutsu to hide using the Sharingan to remember this later. This was better than he thought and Iruka still wouldn't have any idea until the exams just how good his team was. He'd have to revisit after that. Maybe bring a camera. Actually, he needed to get more film, everyone's reactions to his team during the exams would probably be priceless future blackmail. "They don't hold back when training with each other. Kucho-chan probably thought they were just sneaking around my nothing more than light training order and reacting appropriately." At Iruka's spluttering, Kakashi couldn't help but rub it in more. "For the record, not using genjutsu on Kucho-chan was a good idea. Hers are...alarmingly creative."

"...do I want to ask?" Iruka was looking as if he was debating another bottle of sake. To help him out Kakashi decided to clearly remind him of an event not so long ago.

"Remember when Ibiki decided to test that new hallucinogenic serum out and you were forced to volunteer?" Frankly, Ibiki had tested it on EVERYONE over genin because he claimed he needed a varied testing pool. No one was fooled, he was just crazy and reminding them of the horrors that existed out there. It had uncovered a few considering defecting though so they couldn't really fault him. Much. Well, the Yamanaka didn't appreciate the increased workload but there you have it.

"...yes?"

"Worse." Kakashi waited for the color to drain out of Iruka's face before he added. "She thinks like an insect when she makes them. Very disorienting. Tends to cause Naruto and Sasuke to lose their lunches if they've eaten."

The pitiful whimpering was balm to his soul.

()()()()()()()()()()