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It was almost laughable how easy it was to traverse the terrain when letting Sasuke lead, his eyes giving a massively unfair advantage. They had continued to move, and then upon location, work, in silence only eventually broken as they lay in wait by Naruto.


“Whoa..that's...a biiiig bug.,” Naruto whispered as they looked down from a tree. Their first set ambush was at three varying heights in the trees, ground, and middle where the branches would be easiest to rush through. It was nothing spectacular, ninja wire that was set to trigger a variety of traps and snares. There were some of Naruto's 'clone army' as the joke had come out now, all ready to spring and none of them looked like Team Seven to be on the safe side. Generic ninja, easily forgettable. No reason as Sasuke had pointed out to damage their own chances later.


“If they know it was us, and by some chance move on, they'll want revenge.” Had been his exact words. They had learned a lot from observing Kakashi. As known as he was, he still was easily ignored when spotted on the street and most the time it took a rare breed looking for him. He was so noticeable to be almost unnoticed. He was also a member of ANBU for all that he had retired, a Jounin. They as genin could not afford to come near that level of notoriety.


So that had left them nearby, planning to use long-range attacks or let the clone's deal with it, but of course, it was not a team that ran into their first trap. But a massive centipede. Shock turned to sudden panic as both the boys looked at Kucho.




Kucho blinked and then smiled. “Can I just...?”


“No, Kucho-chan. Nuh uh. Mission first, remember?” Naruto reminded her and with a sigh, their third teammate fell silent again. Fortunately, the centipede had only dislodged the log trap and Sasuke went to set it up again with the other two keeping watch.


“Can you at least admit it was pretty?” Kucho asked softly and Naruto snorted.


“Pretty creepy and big.” Naruto grinned but didn't look at her. He didn't need to, there was no doubt that elbow to his side was coming as gentle as she kept it. Sasuke had the trap set and back over soon. They had decided to wait and see if the first caught anyone before moving on, but after a while decided it wasn't worth the time they had spent.


“Maybe it will do some good while we are gone. Let's go to the next spot, would suck if we just missed one, you know?” Naruto suggested and Sasuke led on.


None of them knew that this far into the forest there was no video cameras watching. There wouldn't be again so far from the perimeter until they reached the tower that was their goal.



Kakashi had made himself scarce the moment his team went off live feed. He did intend to go and ask Gumoko about Squirmy. Surely there was something else he needed to do for it. The said fuzzy caterpillar had once more migrated to his shoulder and Kakashi minded his speed as he slowly meandered towards the Aburame compound, infamous book out and providing cover as towards his leisurely pace.


It was fantastic as he could dart his eyes around and one would simply surmise he was reading the pages within. Konoha was crawling with foreigners thanks to these exams and the part of Kakashi which had never retired was analyzing and cataloging everyone he passed that was not familiar. The ninja who had failed the first exam did not yet know that they did it to themselves, part of the reason they shuffled the group to the second portion immediately. When they did, there would be a good number of teams likely fighting amongst themselves angry at whoever had cost them their chance. This was also one of those times of year where shopkeepers dealt with increased theft and harassment, from natives as much as the visitors.


In short, there was nothing 'peaceful' about most these peacetime activities. The numerous threats of death they gave the hopefuls was part of that, trying to impress upon them the real danger. Not that they were ever quite as lax as the exams would seem. The second part was the most dangerous, but the time frame and subsequent goal would have most looking to incapacitate and steal or beat up rather than slaughter for the necessary scroll.


There was always a few casualties but just as often it was from not knowing anything about how to survive. Smoke inhalation from not knowing where you shouldn't light a fire or that certain woods and leaves were dangerous to burn, for instance. Oh, a lot of teams would return hungry and dehydrated, probably a few with various medical issues from eating or drinking something that they shouldn't have, but rarely outright murder.


Not that it was forbidden, either. Just that was rarely the first instinct of gennin looking towards chunin. They were still at the posture like peacocks and being enamored of flashy jutsu, seeking praise for everything stage of their careers. Kakashi knew many genin of this generation had not even killed yet. His own team had and he helped them move on, cope with the aftermath. The guilt, the ease that it came with when the act was finally done was sometimes the very cause of the guilt. Because it was easy to take a life. Too easy. It was building up to the action that was hard, and Kakashi had carefully coached each of them on his own through coming to terms with that.


Zabuza with his casual disregard for life had done most the rest of the work for him, and Haku. Two at the extreme end of shinobi existence that helped Kakashi's little ducklings figure out where they were now, and that it was okay to not wish to follow orders to that extent. It didn't mean they couldn't, wouldn't..but it meant they could push that off for now.


Honestly, Kakashi did not wish to see them so steeped in the darker missions of ANBU they would be at risk to losing themselves. However, they were so talented as a group that he knew he would continue training them as if that was the end goal, even if it was so that they could be granted the freedom to act without permission from the Hokage when on their own. It would take work, and Kakashi sighed.


Because first, they needed a reminder, a real one, that they were not invulnerable. They'd failed when Jiro had died on that escort mission but protecting him had not been the goal, it had been that scroll they were escorting. But those calloused murderers did exist in the exams and the second stage was where they'd be loose. Kakashi had given the only real tool he felt he could justify if brought before a court of the various kage's in that map for his team. The rest, they needed to handle on their own.


Kakashi paused and closed his eye for just a moment. Huh. He'd...not felt such concern for a comrade on a mission without him in …


A very long time.


Gumoko was waiting for him it seemed, as Kakashi entered the home he had no doubt that a number of tiny insects had relayed his coming to the mother of his uncute student. Nor did she waste words as she set tea out for them both. “You are curious about the newest caterpillar.”


Kakashi wondered what it said about him that the almost lack of small talk and tact was part of why he felt more comfortable around the Aburame woman. He didn't need to fake social skills he didn't truly have. Instead, he nodded, taking the tea as was polite though both knew he would not drink it. Neither would Gumoko. She had been quite the operative in her own days before she gave birth and chose to retire from active missions. Rather Gumoko handled much of the information, going over reports, looking for things that her unique mindset may catch that those without the benefit of their hives may not.


“Circumstances may negate the wisdom in bringing, Squirmy,” here they did both share an amused twitch to their muscles at the creative naming process of Team Seven. It was nice to know in some ways they were still children. “With me.”


“You were trusted with it.” Gumoko pointed out, fingers circling the warm teacup as neither drank. Instead, they'd enjoy the scent, the steam, the lingering warmth. Neither would drink what they did not prepare themselves or in the presence of another so lethal. In a way, it was a flattering regard of just how dangerous the other was. It was this ritual that was more comforting, better for one's ego, than if they had just sipped the blasted tea.


“With a warning.” Kakashi let his eye crease as he smiled, hearing the buzz of amusement from Gumoko. He'd known her only as 'Mei' before he later learned it was to hide the obviousness of her true name. Much as they had mask names it seemed that Aburame females would go one step further and chose additional names to differentiate those they may pretend to be. In the case of Mei, she was a woman who did not act or dress Aburame for the sake of catching her target.


It honestly was still something that bemused the copy-nin that she'd waited yet longer to ensure she was pregnant on the off chance some of the man's skills may be hereditary. Though, it did seem Kucho was bearing out that hypothesis which only made Kakashi wonder if the Kikaichu had a way of telling what was honed talent versus hereditary. He didn't dare ask.


“Of course. Kucho-chan is most respectful of her sensei.” Gumoko deflected with a tiny motion of her fingers that sent a small form whisking away. No doubt to patrol and report. “Her hive is welcome here, regarded fondly, and they speak often of the strenuous training and exercises they are put through.”


A comfortable silence fell then for he heard what she was implying. As hard as he pushed his team, often he felt it was too hard in these few months, they appreciated it. Bruises, fatigue, and all. Still, he did not wish to risk one of Kucho's special breeding hybrids and if he had to go fetch them or stand as they fought, he may just end up doing so.


“When they pass the second exam there will be battles, I would prefer not to have any distractions there, as fond as my three uncute little students are of their fuzzy friend here.I imagine it would be just that.” Kakashi drawled out.


“Uncute?” The buzzing was unmistakable. Highly entertained. “Still. I see.” And Gumoko, of course, knew that the boys called her daughter that, her daughter who ran around with hair ribbons and happy colors, tended to giggle and bubble with joy. The same daughter that danced in formal furisode's with fans and winged insects of all sorts alight around her? Oh someday, they would realize that Kucho had every bit as much of a girly demeanor about her for all she hid her flesh and enjoyed those with exoskeletons and the like.


“So, may I pass your..grand-pillar...what would Squirmy be?” Kakashi mumbled. Gumoko buzzed once more before she easily plucked the large furry orange beast from his shoulder and set it on her own, clearly not worrying over any said spines.


“He is a caterpillar, Kakashi-san. No more, no less.” She then hummed once. “I will not be having grandchildren for some years yet. Unlike many, my daughter is fully aware of the pitfalls of bearing young too early and will wait.”


“Don't remind me. I still have to give the boys the talk.”


Gumoko smirked, but did not offer. It would do the copy nin well.



“SET!” Came the bellow. Once more their unusual combination attacks were proving useful as Naruto slammed his hand down, all but throwing a clone with the action with an active 'chakra bomb' ready to go off. It just needed a trigger.


“ONE!” Sasuke roared out as a flurry of shuriken went with their wires, he didn't even wait to follow with his fireball.


“Two!” Kucho was softer but agreeing and her genjutsu took place disorienting the ninja who had tried to sneak through the last trap. It was just a single one, but they were taking no chances.


“Fire!” Naruto ended with the bomb going off, the genjutsu Kucho had laid being a large perimeter one enhanced by her nee-chan's as towards the distance capable, the hive out in a large circumference to make it possible to hide evidence of what had occurred. Not as if they needed someone to come look at what the sound was. It was kind of scary, really, Naruto mused as he walked over to the unconscious ninja who had faltered under the chakra bomb, his companions also revealed as having been in hiding but felled by Sasuke's attack. All of them worn out. But scary? It was when you realized a genjutsu could hide almost anything. With her nee-chan's as in tune with Kucho as they were, they could cover an area in a swarm and set up an actual sort of base to hold the genjutsu the Aburame girl sent out so it took a lot less chakra, and was a lot more effective.


If he had the skill he didn't doubt he could do that, but genjutsu was like trying to thread a needle behind his back in the dark in the rain. Just, not happening.


“Does he have a scroll?” Sasuke asked as he rolled up the wire. They were all a little tired, it was their fourth ambush site and a few other teams had found them though as they had been Konoha they had left them alone before being noticed. This one though had badges from another village, Stone it looked like or was that the signal for ..oh Naruto just wasn't as good at recognizing such things as he knew he needed to be.


“Yeaaaah. Not what we need.” He huffed but pocketed it anyways. It was one less team to deal with and one more shot for them. “Let's move on, shall we?”

The other two nodded and they vanished, once again pulling their chakra in tight as had become a habit thanks to that long ago mission Albatross. The benefit of that harsh mission was swiftly becoming obvious the longer they were in the forest and being bypassed by other groups. It was like they were invisible.


“They learn it later on I think, maybe when we hit chunin or jounin,” Sasuke had mumbled. No one knew but that was as good a guess as any.


“Hey, I was wondering-” Naruto started but then they dove for cover as a massive blast of chakra wind slammed into them.


“What..” Sasuke started before there was an eerie echoing laugh all around them.


“Such...sneaky...prey,” The laughter began to taunt them in an almost singing lyrical fashion. It made the hair on their necks stand up and swiftly the three clustered together, backs together and hands already drawing weapons.


“Oh, now that won't do, no, no...” It was on the final no that a figure stepped into view, smiling just a little too wide under their large straw hat, the three set of eyes watching noticed how little the grass below the stranger was disturbed. Kakashi had told them it was a way to see how much practice a ninja had, what they did with their feet.



This was not good.