A hand landed on each of Kakashi's shoulders as he left the Hokage's meeting chamber and steered him down a side hall away from the main crowd of leaving jounin. Gai was to his left, and Iruka was to his right. Gai's expression was thunderous. Iruka was wearing his 'this time everyone dies' smile. Kakashi was definitely about to get yelled at.

When they reached a room that was empty of people but half full of filing cabinets, Iruka shoved Kakashi in and shut the door behind them.

"Right. Now that it's just the three of us – WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING, KAKASHI?!"

"Indeed, my rival, I waited a full year to nominate my team for the exams for a reason."

Kakashi held up his hands defensively.

"I was thinking that, while they might not be able to pass the exams, yet, they're far enough along that this will be a good opportunity for them to get a feel for the format of the exams. They're legally adults, and I want to at least give them the choice of whether they participate or not. I can't give them the choice without nominating them. If the exams were being held anywhere other than Konoha, I wouldn't even be considering it." He sighed. "I have no idea what Asuma and Kurenai were thinking, though."

"If it turns out to be anything along the lines of 'I will not be out done by Kakashi Hatake,' they're in for the pranking of their life," Iruka muttered, crossing his arms with a fierce scowl.

"Thanks for not yelling at me in front of the Hokage. That would have been awkward."

"You generally have a good reason for doing things," Iruka sighed, unfolding his arms. "Even if I couldn't think of a single one at the time."


Kakashi slid into the booth where his students were already eating.

"So I-" He paused. "Why are you eating with weapons instead of chopsticks?"

"It's a contest," Naruto told him cheerfully as he stabbed a piece of bok choy with his kunai. "First one who gives in and uses actual chopsticks has to pay the bill."

Sakura was holding a pair of senbon in one hand like silver chopsticks. She delicately picked up a strip of chicken.

"Doing all right there, Sasuke-kun?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

Sasuke was very carefully spearing a piece of beef on one point of a shuuriken.

"I'm fine."

"Is your rice undercooked?" Sakura widened her eyes innocently. "It doesn't look like you've eaten any!"

"Hn." Sasuke glared at his shuuriken as if trying to will it to have fewer sharp edges.

It was hard to remember sometimes that just a few months ago Sakura never would have dreamed of teasing Sasuke like this, and Sasuke would never have lowered himself to participate in such a ridiculous contest – or even to go out to lunch with his teammates.

"Part of the rules is that you're not allowed to pick up your plate," Naruto told Kakashi in a conspiratorial stage whisper. He gathered some rice between two kunai, leaned his head back, and dropped the rice into his mouth.

"Right." Kakashi picked up his chopsticks.

"Does this mean that he's paying for lunch?" asked Sasuke.

"Not a chance," Kakashi informed him. "I already put out the training field you set on fire – I'm not paying for your food, too."

"That wasn't what Jiji called the meeting about, was it?" asked Naruto.

"No. The summer round of the chuunin exams are going to be starting in a week." His team put down their weapons and turned their full attention on him, interest clearly peaked. "Under any other circumstances, I wouldn't be considering letting you participate in the exams so soon, but they're being held in Konoha this summer. The exams are very dangerous – even when they're being held here – but this is an ideal opportunity if you want a chance to get a feel for how the exams work."

"Like a reconnaissance mission?" asked Sakura.

Kakashi nodded.

"The choice is entirely up to the three of you."

Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura all exchanged thoughtful glances.

Naruto stuck out his hand palm down over the table.

"Scope out the competition now, and then kick all their asses in the winter exams?" he suggested.

Sasuke put his hand on top of Naruto's.

"I'm game."

Sakura added her hand to the pile.

"We keep a low profile this time. This is reconnaissance – unless something goes Wave Country wrong, we save shock and awe for the next round."

Both boys nodded.

"Downplay the sharingan," Sasuke decided.

"Play up the dumb blond." Naruto grinned mischievously.

"And nobody takes a clingy fangirl seriously." Sakura paused. "Unless that will make you uncomfortable, Sasuke-kun. I could do book-smart wallflower instead."

"Hn. No, clingy fangirl would work better. Just only hang off of my arms, and be ready to roll with it when I shove you off."

Sakura nodded.

"Got it. They'll never see us coming."

All three of them grinned at each other.

"We're in, Kakashi-nii," Naruto announced. "Where do we sign up?"

Kakashi pulled the forms out of his vest.

"Fill these out and turn them in in Room 301 at the Academy one week from today. The deadline is 3pm that afternoon."

"Do you know if Gai's team is going to be taking the exams?" asked Sakura, accepting one of the forms.

"They are."

"We're going to have to ask them not to blow our cover," she muttered as she looked over the form.

"So… that means Neji's going to be in this exam." Naruto looked thoughtful for a moment and then turned to Sasuke and held out a hand. "I will buy you an entire crate of tomatoes if you manage to give Neji a black eye."

Sasuke took his hand.

"I'll buy you three bowls of ramen if you break his nose."

They shook on it solemnly.

Sakura blinked.

"Why are you two so gung-ho about beating up Neji?"

"It's his destiny, Sakura-chan."

"Nobody who thinks that the Uchiha were fated to be massacred deserves to have a straight nose."

"Ah."

Sasuke picked up his chopsticks, took a bite of rice, and then groaned as he realized what he'd just done.

"Ha! You're paying for lunch, teme!"

Kakashi just shook his head.


Iruka opened the door on the fifth knock, took in Kakashi's frantic, flour-covered appearance, and shook his head.

"They decided they wanted to take the chuunin exams, didn't they?"

"Why did I think that treating them like adults was a good idea?!" Kakashi demanded.

"How many loaves of bread are you on?"

"Ten. I ran out of flour, and the grocery store closed an hour ago. Can I have some of yours?"

"Can't you just get some from the bakery?"

"No, it screws up my budget."

"Fine."


Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura had congregated in Sasuke's apartment to continue their planning for the chuunin exams, because it was cleaner than Naruto's and didn't contain Sakura's parents, who were rather overbearing.

"So the exams are three parts. One of them is bound to be some sort of wilderness survival," Sakura frowned.

"We could bring sealed packs," Naruto suggested. "You know, like Kakashi-nii does when we're out of the village on a mission."

"Basic storage scrolls shouldn't be too expensive to buy," Sasuke nodded. "And we should definitely have a med kit with us."

Sakura and Naruto both nodded vigorously.

"Ration bars would be a good idea, too." Sakura pulled a piece of paper from her weapons pouch and started making a supply list. "I should probably get some paralytic for my senbon as well."

"Hey, teme, whatcha gonna do about your plants?" asked Naruto. "We have no idea how long any of the parts of the exams are going to be."

"I bought a watering bulb for the basil, and the window box will be fine on its own. I was thinking of asking Iruka-sensei to watch my bonsai for me." Sasuke glanced over at where his bonsai was perched on its windowsill. The bonsai hadn't lost any more leaves since he'd finally figured out a good watering schedule. It also had a sticker on its pot labeling it "Ki-san," because Sasuke had given up on trying to stop Naruto from naming all of his plants.

"Too bad you can't ask Cat-san to take it," commented Naruto.

"Who?"

"He's one of Kakashi-nii's friends from ANBU. Kakashi-nii says he's really good with plants."


Sakura stared at the target thoughtfully. Her cluster of senbon was tighter than before, but her accuracy still needed work. Ten-Ten gave her a thumbs up.

"You're improving!"

"Thanks."

"Are you planning on having your senbon with you for the exams?"

"Yeah." Sakura offered her a small smile. It had been too long since she'd had a proper friend outside of her teammates. "We're only trying to look incompetent – not actually be unprepared if something goes wrong."

Ten-Ten nodded.

"It's a good plan, though Lee will be disappointed that he won't have the chance to fight Naruto or Sasuke all out. And Neji…." Ten-Ten trailed off and frowned. "I wish he'd talk to me. He's always been a bit standoffish, but with the exams coming he's being downright abrasive. I assume that his family is putting pressure on him, but I really don't understand how clan politics work and neither does Lee." She sighed softly, turning a kunai round and round in her hand idly. "I'm worried about him."

Sakura gave her a brief, one armed hug.

"It'll be all right. You guys are a team – you'll figure it out. Sometimes Sasuke-kun can be sort of like that. Usually he just needs a bit of space to get out of his own head."

"You're probably right." Ten-Ten was quiet for a moment. "Want to give senbon a break and see who can make the most detailed pattern on the target with kunai?"

"Sure!" Sakura turned to the small backpack she used to carry excess kunai, shuuriken, and senbon as well as a few other things when she did weapons practice with Ten-Ten.

Ten-Ten peered over her shoulder.

"Oh, are you reading through the bingo book?"

Sakura bit her lip and nodded, setting the slightly dog-eared copy to one side on the grass.

"After our first out of village mission, I just… wanted to be prepared." Sakura's confidence had grown in leaps and bounds since Wave Country, but books still made her feel safe. Or, at least, as safe as it was possible for any shinobi to ever feel. She didn't want to be caught off guard like that again. It's wasn't pleasant reading – a couple of entries so far had made her feel physically sick – but it was important. Maybe it wasn't really relevant to the chuunin exams, but it didn't feel like something she should be putting off either.


It was Thursday. The chuunin exams started on Monday, and Kakashi had given his team the afternoon off to stock up on any supplies they thought they needed. Kakashi had changed into his mostly civilian clothes after they'd finished training that morning and headed straight to his bakery. He generally only wore civvies on the weekend, but these were special circumstances. His concessions to the fact that he wasn't on the reserves anymore when he wore civilian clothes were his hitai-ate tied around his neck (he wore his eyepatch so that he could enjoy having two eyebrows for a while) and his sheathed tanto hanging on a hook just inside the entrance to the kitchen.

Kakashi was sitting behind the bakery counter, staring at his book more than reading it and reminding himself that his students could handle this and that, if he made anymore bread dough at the moment, there wouldn't be enough room for all the loaves and rolls in his ovens. He wished he had more ovens. At this point he'd even be happy to do one of Gai's ridiculous challenges.

He looked up gratefully as the bell jingled and three people filed into the bakery. Suna genin from the look of them. The taller of the two boys was a puppeteer – not an ideal form of fighting in Konoha's humid climate. Unless he was using an incredibly high quality puppet, he was probably going to run into problems with stiff and seizing joints. The boy glanced briefly at Kakashi's hitai-ate and then clearly wrote him off. Arrogant.

The girl had a battle fan strapped to her back and wasn't nearly so quick to dismiss Kakashi as inconsequential. Instead, her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Kakashi wondered if she had spotted the faint burn scars on his hands that he'd acquired from years of using high level lightning jutsus.

The shorter boy's eyes were cold and hard enough that they might as well have been made of stone. There was no light in them, like he'd locked away every one of his emotions until only chilly calculation was left. He stared at Kakashi like he was sizing him up for a coffin and then he turned his attention to the display case. The boy's chakra felt massive in a way that reminded Kakashi of Naruto for some reason.

"Can I help you?" Kakashi asked.

The girl pulled out a wallet.

"Could we get a red bean paste anpan, a chestnut anpan, and… do you want a pork bun, Gaara?" The question was rather hesitant.

The shorter boy tilted his head slightly to one side as he considered the offer.

"That will suffice," he finally decided.

The girl appeared to relax minutely.

"And a pork bun."

"Are you in Konoha for the chuunin exams?" asked Kakashi casually as he gathered the assorted rolls in a paper bag.

The taller boy snorted.

"As if we'd be here for anything else."

The girl shot him a glare before offering Kakashi a restrained smile.

"Yes. We hope to do our nation proud."

She placed the correct amount of ryou on the counter, and Kakashi handed over the paper bag.

"Well, best of luck to the three of you."

The shorter boy turned to look at him again.

"Luck will not be necessary," the boy intoned flatly.

Kakashi watched silently as the trio left. He'd have to warn his students to watch out for those three – especially the shorter boy. There was something off about him.


"Kankuro, you idiot, we're supposed to be keeping a low profile – not antagonizing the entirety of Konoha," Temari snarled as soon as the bakery door closed behind them.

"Feh. If that guy isn't a career genin, I'll eat sand." Kankuro crossed his arms. "He was just a baker, Temari."

"You unobservant moron, he was a jounin."

"What?!"

Gaara ignored his siblings. He took a bite of his pork bun. It was good. He'd have to get another before Konoha was razed to the ground. Perhaps he'd go back during the evening and take the opportunity to feed Mother as well.


Kakashi did not know why his bakery had apparently become the gathering place for all the rookie team jounin sensei plus Gai, but he did not approve. They were all in his kitchen – not even out front in the shop. He was being invaded.

Couldn't they leave a man to stress bake in peace?

"I don't see what you're so worried about," Asuma commented. "Today's just the written exam. The Forest of Death isn't until tomorrow."

Kakashi didn't throw the ball of dough he was kneading at Asuma's face, because that would be a waste of dough. He wouldn't be nearly as stressed if these three would just leave him alone.

"Do you know who's proctoring the first exam?" asked Kurenai.

"Ibiki, the head of T&I." Asuma reached for his packet of cigarettes. "So it's definitely going to be a psychological pressure cooker this year."

"Light a cigarette in my bakery, and I will put a kunai through your hand," Kakashi informed Asuma with an eye-smile. Asuma hurriedly put the pack away again. "And I'm not worried – I know my team will be fine – I'm working."

Gai patted his back consolingly, clearly not believing him.

"Of course, my Rival."

"This bread doesn't make itself, you know."

Kurenai raised an eyebrow,

"You use shadow clones, so it sort of does."

Kakashi glowered at her, and she just shrugged.

"It's true," Asuma agreed. "Anyway, if you didn't think your team could handle the exams, why did you nominate them?"

"It's not their skills I'm worried about – it's their ability to find trouble."


An hour later his fellow jounin had finally left Kakashi alone, and Kakashi was feeling calmer without an invading force in his kitchen. His kids were allowed in the back of the bakery, and Iruka was allowed in the back of the bakery – that was it.

"Nii-san!" Kakashi was just pulling another batch of loaves out of the oven when he heard Naruto's shout. He left a shadow clone to finish things and headed out front. "We passed the first exam!"

"And Naruto gave another motivational speech," Sasuke added, "so more teams passed than the proctors were expecting."

"His campaign for hokage is off to a good start," Sakura agreed.

Naruto rubbed the back of his head sheepishly.

"I got a little carried away."

"It's all right," Sakura assured him. "I think we sold the 'Team Incompetent' thing pretty well."

"Congratulations." Kakashi smiled. "What did you think of the first exam?"

"Straightforward enough once we realized that the whole point was to cheat without getting caught," Sasuke shrugged.

"Says you," grumbled Naruto. "None of my jutsus are good for that sort of information gathering. There was no way to make a shadow clone proctor to get the answers for me without getting caught. I was banking on Sakura's big brain getting us through, because I remembered just enough of that stuff not to get a zero."

"Now you know what you need to work on for next time, dobe. Don't worry about it."

"So where's tomorrow's exam?" asked Sakura. "Anko-san said that we had to ask you for the location."

"Training Field 44."

"Isn't that the one Cat-san goes to when he wants to 'commune with nature?'" asked Naruto.

"Cat-san is an odd, odd man," Kakashi nodded. Tenzou liked the sheer size of the trees in the Forest of Death. He'd use moukuton to sink into one of the massive trunks and nap on his days off. As far as strange ANBU habits went, it was a fairly tame one.

"So that's probably the wilderness survival test that we were anticipating," decided Sakura. "Can you give us any hints, sensei?"

"Of course not," Kakashi told them cheerfully. "And I definitely wouldn't recommend to pack the way you would have if you'd known about Zabuza and Haku in advance."

"We definitely need to add more antibiotic cream to the med kit," Sasuke muttered.


The smoke detector in Kakashi's kitchen shrieked as he yanked his window open. He pulled his pictures off the windowsill.

"Soyokaze no jutsu." Smoke funneled out the open window. "Now shut up," he told the smoke detector. It screeched a few more times and then stopped.

There was a knock on his door and then a rattle as Iruka let himself in with Kakashi's spare key.

"What have you set on fire now?" he called by way of greeting.

"Nothing. All of the butter came out of my croissants, and now it's in the bottom of my oven."

Iruka wandered into the kitchen and inspected the very dry croissants. He tapped one with a fingernail. It made a thunking noise.

"I think you could probably weaponized these."

"Yup." Kakashi smiled down at the ruined croissants. They were dry little bricks, and it was okay.

Iruka just shook his head at him.

"So, have you requested to be the one to greet your team when they reach the Tower, yet?"

Kakashi blinked.

"I can do that?"

Iruka pulled a scroll out of his pocket and handed it to Kakashi.

"I had a feeling you were going to say that, so I grabbed a copy of the request form for you."

"Thanks." Kakashi accepted the scroll gratefully and started searching for something to write with.

"Are you going to survive the next five days? They're only an hour into the second exam."

"An hour and sixteen minutes," Kakashi corrected. "And I made sure to stock up on flour, yeast, and butter."

"Well, I'm in the Mission Room the next few days if you need anything. Academy classes are on hold with so many foreign shinobi in the village."

Kakashi nodded and then made a triumphant noise as he finally located a pen. He started filling out the form, reminding himself to breathe. Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura were smart and well prepared. They'd be fine. They were treating this as a reconnaissance mission, and he'd warned them to avoid the Suna genin. They wouldn't do anything reckless.

…maybe Kakashi should just sleep at the bakery until his students got back.