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Sabaku no Gaara was beginning to question existence. That strange woman had defeated him with a casual ease that even now, weeks later, made his blood run cold and his gut clench as he thought of her, and ever since then his world seemed strange and foreign. He sometimes wondered if he was still dreaming; after all, this level of clarity and ease of thought could only happen in a dream, right? His father and Baki had spent much time trying to convince him that he was truly awake, but he wasn't sure of their logic.

"Hey, um, Gaara. I got the tickets." Temari stated from a safe distance. Even still, she flinched as he turned towards her, a display of weakness that often angered him. The irritation making him want to have her die, suffocating on his sand before feeding her blood to Mother.

But the best the action could get from him now was an eye roll. It was the same for many other things. People would do the same annoying, useless, and pathetic things, but he found his irritation to them tempered. Another mark towards this all being a dream of some sort

His current location also led credence to his dream theory. The location had bright garish colors everywhere where music unlike any he'd ever heard before played in the background; or maybe he had heard it before and his sleeping mind just decided it hadn't heard it before? That might be a point towards this not being a dream, though the sweet puffy pink candy he ate gave a further marker to this being a dream. Such a thing didn't seem likely in reality.

"Do you see anything you want to do?" Temari asked tentatively.

Gaara looked at her again and she kept her flinch in check with visible effort. She was terrified of him, rightfully. So it didn't make sense.

"Why have you taken me here?" Gaara asked.

"I- I thought that you might...enjoy it?" Temari stated timidly.

"You thought I would enjoy being surrounded by people and loud noise?" Gaara asked.

"Well, maybe, now that you can sleep?"

Gaara blinked at her. Such an assertion should make him want to grind her into a fine paste for his mother and yet he remains calm. The statement didn't irritate him in the slightest and as he looked around he felt a mild curiosity at what the strange place might have in store. How curious.

"Gaara?" Temari asked.

"Very well. Then bring me some of that oddly shaped confection." Gaara stated as he noticed a very large man deep-frying some sort of batter and topping it with a vibrant red jelly of some kind. Blood perhaps? Mother would like that.

Though he didn't hear her anymore. The constant whispers all through the day had stopped. She didn't speak anymore and at first that had made him claw at his seal and try to remove that accursed woman's seal. His one companion. His one friend. His mother. The voice was gone and it had left him alone. However, he has come to...appreciate some of the silence. He would bring her voice back, eventually, but for now some alone time is...restful.

"Sure. I'll go get some for you." Temari said before walking towards the man handing out the food. In the meantime, Gaara's gaze turned towards the various stalls around him. Not all were selling food. Others seemed to have some kind of challenge set forth to people. In moments he realized the challenges came with a bounty on victory. Some handing out various stuffed animals, wooden kunai, and other such trinkets and toys.

One task seemed to be about getting small rings to land on glass bottles placed around the stall, with the occasional obstacle in the way. Another involved trying to scoop a goldfish of a small pool with only a thimble sized paper paddle to do so. All tasks that would be difficult for a young ninja, especially if not allowed to use obvious ninjutsu to cheat. This was, clearly, meant to be some sort of training exercise. There was even a stall over-

Oh.

A stall that had a game to bounce a ball through some hoops. The challenge was set up for two to be able to take on the task at once. There were five rings set up and the task appeared to be to get a single ball through all five hoops with a single throw by bouncing it off the various surfaces set up for the task. A simple concept though something caught his attention; the ball in question brought back memories. It looked just like the ones that the kids on his street used to play with. An odd feeling of sadness and wanting washed over him and he- he wanted one. The prize at the stall was even one of the balls! Gaara was powerful. He'd been turning jounin into food for Mother since he was six. This game should be nothing.

"Augh! Go through the stupid hoops damnit!" An obnoxious voice yelled from one of the current challengers to the game. Some blond child in orange that looked to be tearing at his hair. "One more go!" He said as he slapped money on the counter.

The loud blond had three people with him. A pink-haired girl and a dark-haired boy. The boy had one of the balls under his arm. The last was a willowy man with a slouch and some book out. The book's cover having some warning about being forbidden. A ninja walking in public displaying forbidden knowledge? The man was either foolish or powerful. Possibly both.

"Come on. We're going to the next stall." The dark-haired one sated.

"No way! I'm going to get this." The blond said.

"That's what you said last time."

"No, this time for real!"

"Leave him be. We'll just move on without him and he'll catch up when he wins or runs out of money." The jounin of the group stated.

Gaara approached the stand as they walked off.

"Welcome! Care to try your skill? A hundred ryo get's you three shot attempts! Get all three shots and you'll even win a special prize!" The man behind the counter stated.

A hundred ryo? That was quite cheap. This should prove easy.

"Here." Gaara stated as he threw a few coins onto the stand. In moments the man had handed him the balls and stepped back with one last statement.

"There you go! And no jutsu allowed to assist. If you use one you can't win a prize."

No jutsu? That meant no sand and...

Gaara paused. Had he ever actually thrown anything in his life? He could only recall using his sand. Still, it couldn't be that hard.

He threw his first ball and it went through the first hoop, bounced off the wall he wanted it to, but did so in the completely opposite direction from what he wanted. Gaara frowned and threw again. This one hit the first hoop and bounced away. The challenge appeared to be harder than he thought it would be. Still, he had more money he could use. So he threw again. Similar results to the first one.

Vexing.

He put more money on the counter.

"Hey Gaara, I got you the-"

"Silence." Gaara ordered, cutting his sister off. He had to concentrate.

He threw the ball again and...success! It went through two hoops this time. Progress was made.

"You have to watch the spin you put on it. It's going to be what helps you through the last few hoops." Temari commented as she looked at challenge.

She spoke despite him telling her to silence herself? That should anger him. Though the advice was helpful. After a moment, Gaara decides to not threaten her life for her misconduct. This time.

"It helps if you really yell when you throw it." The blond next to him said before winding back his arm and arching his back to put his whole body into the throw. "Like this. Hwah!"

The ball shot out from the boy's hands with great force and power. The ball also hit the counter directly in front of them and bounced back to smash into the blond's face with a loud crack.

Gaara blinked and felt an odd sensation. He felt a rush of warmth in his chest and his diaphragm gave a brief spasm, letting a sound escape his lips. What was that? Did he just-

"Gaara. Did you just...laugh?" Temari asked in shock.

Did he? Was that what that felt like?

"Hey! Don't laugh at me! I'll get this before you do!" The blond shouted and pointed an accusing finger.

This idiot? Get it before him?

"Doubtful." Gaara said as he turned back to his challenge. It shouldn't take that much longer.

xxxxxxx

"Listen. Guys. You've done it enough. I can just give you one if you want it that bad." The foolish stall worker said.

"No! I'm going to get this!" Naruto shouted before throwing more money on the counter. Meanwhile, Gaara ignored the man's false sympathies and focused. He had gotten the ball through all five hoops once, but the stall worker somehow managed to figure out he did so through manipulating the ball with some sand he put on it. The man was clearly a ninja of some ability.

He focused, took a breath, lined up his shot, and threw again. The ball bounced through one hoop, clipped the corner of a barrier and soared through the second hoop. Ricoceted off the tent pole. Clipped the corner of the third hoop and bounced it towards the fourth where it lost it's momentum just after going through and hitting the ground.

"Whoa!" The blond yelled before hopping up and down. "How did you do that one?! That was so close!"

He ignored the distraction.

"Again." Gaara said holding out a hand towards his sister for money.

"I can't. That's it. We're out." Gaara frowned.

"Why did we run out?" He demanded.

"You just spent ten-thousand ryo on this game Gaara! I didn't know we needed more money than that!" His sister responded.

Ten-thousand? Was that a lot of money for things like this? How much did a regular ball cost anyways?

"I'm about out of money too." The Konoha ninja he'd been competing said forlornly, looking into a frog-shaped wallet. Before reaching in, plucking out a handful of coins and then slamming them on the counter...in front of Gaara. "One last game! Whoever gets the most hoops will be the winner this time!"

Gaara's head snapped to the blond boy.

He was paying for him to try again? And game? This wasn't a challenge for ninja? This was some sort of game? He had been...playing with someone?

The clerk took the money and placed three balls again on the counter. Gaara raised a hand to pick one up and hesitated.

"Come on! We'll throw at the same time!" The boy said, grinning widely at him.

"Who are you?" Gaara asked suddenly.

The Konoha ninja seemed shocked for a moment, as if being asked to introduce himself was a foreign concept to him before answering. "Oh! I'm Uzumaki Naruto! Remember it because I'm going to be Hokage!"

Was he? He couldn't imagine the loud and fairly stupid boy he'd been interacting with being in charge of another person, let alone a whole village. Still, he felt he should respond.

"Gaara." He stated back.

"Cool! So come on! On the count of three we'll throw!" The blond, Naruto, stated as he excitedly picked up one of his balls. "One. Two. Three!"

And then they both threw the ball. They...played together.

He had always wondered what that would be like.

"Hey, are you going to the show after this? They're supposed to show Episode Five tonight!"

"Yeah. We have tickets. My name is Temari by the way. Thanks for asking." His sister groused.

"Oh. I'm sorry, I totally forgot you where there." Naruto said sheepishly, but brightened up. "Why don't you guys sit next to us for the show? Kakashi-sensei always picks great spots to sit."

"I don't know if that's-" Temari started.

"We accept." Gaara interrupted as he picked up one of the other balls. And gave an expecting look at Naruto. The boy gave a whiskered smile back. Then they played together. It was an odd feeling. When he was younger he built the idea up in his head quite a bit, but somehow he managed to do it without even noticing.

Peculiar.

It wasn't all that he thought it would be, though it was still... nice. He would continue it a bit longer. If he got bored later, he could always feed the blond to Mother. In the meantime he would give this a try.

xxxxxx

Shimura Danzo spent a lot of time waiting, however most ninja did waiting wrong. They treated it as a passive activity, when it was, in fact, an active one. You did not spend your time waiting doing nothing. You maneuvered yourself to an advantageous position. You prepared contingences. You remained unnoticed. That is the proper way for a ninja to wait, and Danzo was one of the best at waiting on the continent.

Thus, Danzo found himself once again waiting, his presence invisible from all but the most talented individuals and sat in the shadows waiting for the right time to reveal himself. Asset 2617, current alias Yakushi Kabuto, stood at the meeting point awaiting Danzo to appear to him. The meeting should have begun twenty minutes ago, but Danzo waited. A ninja's reaction to having to wait for an appointment told much about a person's character and current state of mind. Do they check for exits? Are they nervous? Does their breathing pick up when it sounds like someone else approaches? All these could be signs for betrayal or lying, and all you had to do was show up first and watch them for a while.

It was a helpful measure for gauging someone, but few ever practiced it anymore. He had thought that Hatake might be doing that with his frequent tardiness, but no, the Copy Ninja was just being petulant.

Kabuto had been trained too well though. He sat in the quiet garden and appeared for all the world like he was just there to enjoy the sunshine and smell the flowers and showed no sign that he was waiting for anyone at all. Exactly as he'd been trained to.

"Yakushi." Danzo stated as he stepped out, revealing himself. He had his Root secure the area in a moment's notice. They could speak somewhat freely here. When you had a Yamanaka and a Hyuuga in your service, it was rather difficult for anyone to sneak up on you. Danzo leisurely walked over to the bench Kabuto sat on and sat next to him. Close enough that the other ninja could feel his body heat. A power play to remind the spy of his place. "You have explaining to do."

"Oh? How so, Danzo-sama?" Kabuto asked, skipping any formality of greeting. Good.

"You had neglected to mention the changes in Orochimaru."

"But I did. I'm quite certain that I detailed out the turn into long term planning and a sudden increase on the value of human assets." Kabuto stated firmly.

"Not that. The complete change of gender and the use of seduction tactics." Danzo growled.

"I was at a crucial juncture for growing trust with Orochimaru. If I put that in a report I judged that you would believe I had gone crazy and recall me. I did not think it was such an important change that it needed to be immediately reported." Kabuto stated confidently.

The statement had merit. It seemed very reasonable, however Kabuto was trained to cover lies with reasonable statements. The only reason there was suspicion was the information received that Orochimaru had to resign his summoning contract. As it stood, he had no real way to know for certain why it was done; not without taking him in and searching his mind, which would take days to do well. Days that he wasn't sure he could afford to have Asset 2617 disappear for.

"What is Orochimaru's plan? What is the reason for the nonsense happening just outside our walls?" Danzo demanded.

"I'm not certain, but she told me to give a message to you." Kabuto answer again, keeping that same innocent look on his face.

She? Was that relevant? By all accounts, the current form did appear quite feminine. A change of pronouns based on the appearance was reasonable, though might be a hint of something deeper.

Orochimaru had a message for him? It should be expected though. The snake clearly had a plan and he so very much liked bragging about his plans.

"Speak."

Kabuto gave a slight bow of acknowledgment. "She told me to tell you that she plans to attack Konoha during the third stage of the Chunnin Exams in a coordinated attack with Hidden Sand in order to kill the Third Hokage." Kabuto stated calmly before seeming to ponder for a moment. An act for certain. "She also said I shouldn't try very hard to convince you that it's true."

Danzo's hand gripped his cane tighter. Orochimaru continued to be an intensely irritating person. The plan even seemed in line with everything he knew about Orochimaru; he had father issues with Sarutobi, who seemed incapable of not giving said issues to every child he had a hand in raising. The information even lined up well the reports he got this morning about Suna moving many troops and weapons but no destination being apparent. Slipping them in with the normal traffic for the exam would be easy.

Was the stupidity taking place outside the walls just to distract as Suna prepared? It was possible. An intelligent strategy as well. The most basic trick in subterfuge in action; getting them to look at the left hand while the right was free to act. The source though? It wasn't likely to be that simple.

"Do you think he's telling the truth?" Danzo asked.

"I'm not certain. Though I do know she is preparing to do something big. There is too much moving at once for it to be anything minor." Kabuto replied.

Danzo tapped his cane on the ground in thought. There were many layers of potential deception before him. He wasn't even being subtle about it; just giving information to irritate and confuse. In such times, a ninja has to step back and look at the big picture.

Orochimaru intended to do something big. It could have nothing to do with Konoha at all. This could be some distraction to another plan. If he were to act against another village it wasn't really Danzo's problem. It might start a war, but Konoha wasn't in a bad position for one of those. He couldn't chase down every village and warn them of an attack. He would just prepare for opportunities to take advantage of the chaos.

The other option is that he did plan on attacking Konoha during the exams. Something not completely undesirable. The village had started to grow complacent. The younger generation feeling safe in it's walls. A small scale battle could do much to prepare them for the reality of war.

The pathetic skill of the average Sound ninja would also mean the village wouldn't be in real trouble. Particularly if he made sure that they kept Jiraiya in the area. The only real wild card possible was Orochimaru himself. The damage the rest of his village could cause would fall into acceptable loses.

"What further information do you have?" Danzo asked. Hopefully he could get some actually useful information from this meeting.

"I found some information in Orochimaru's quarters. I think it might have been left for me to find, but-" For the first time in the meeting, apprehension showed on Kabuto's face. "I must pass it on in a more secure way."

Oh? That was worrying. Danzo gave a nod and cast his gaze around, giving time for Kabuto to pull out a small piece of paper, wrote on it, and then pass it over to Danzo. It was written in a familiar code and it's contents was, indeed, quite valuable if it were true.

Akatsuki. Hidden leader. Hidden leader manipulated. Zetsu.

Danzo quickly burned the piece of paper.

Akatsuki had been something he had identified as a growing problem in the world, but one that was willing to work for him quietly if the price was right. He had been trying to figure out their command structure for a while, but this implied that even should he find the stated leader, he would need to find one behind him. Then, after that, the hidden leader was being manipulated by Zetsu.

If this information was true, it was valuable. Even if he didn't know all the people involved and he would have to uncover who this "Zetsu" is, but it might be a key towards bending the Akatsuki to his will. A worthwhile endeavor.

"Do you have anything else to add?" Danzo asked.

"Not that weren't in my reports, Danzo-sama." Kabuto stated.

He highly doubted that. No spy was worth their salt without keeping at least some information to themselves for a rainy day. Keeping a secret or two in your back pocket did wonders for negotiations, and Asset 2617 had gone through too many high value targets to not have picked up his fair share.

"Then go. Find out more of this plan. Ignore the Akatsuki for now."

"Yes, Danzo-sama." Kabuto said with a bow before disappearing.

Danzo stood and began a slow walk back to his office. He had to prepare. Things were in motion and the gleaming of war were on the horizon, and Danzo intended to be ready for the blade that was coming. There was uncertainty and a betrayal was imminent, but he would be prepared. He just needed to wait.

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A note from WhoaMama

That's chapter. But wait! My Patreon just passed the 120 limit this month. That means you all get TWO guaranteed chapters this month. The votes are still massively towards Orochimama, so that's what you're getting.

Also, heads, up. I've started a new story. My first original. I think it's going to become my main focus after I wrap Orochimama up. It's World's Best Supervillain. It's got promise I feel. Though only one chapter in at the moment. I'm enjoying world building for it.


About the author

WhoaMama

Bio: I'm just someone who writes and is quite surprised that people give a shit about what I write.

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