((AN: It's been a long time since I've updated here; life's gotten away from me, but I do still intend to finish this, even if it might be a drip feed for a while. Thank you readers for your feedback and comments!))
The room was warm, specifically warm. Sakura wouldn't have been surprised if the room was set to an exact temperature for some reason or another to do with biology; not that she felt like asking Orochimaru about the specifications of his various labs, but the part of her mind that was always seeking knowledge was lingering on so many questions as she stepped further in. There were machines with dozens of tubes running in and out of them, gas cylinders lined carefully along the back wall, microscopes, notebooks, what looked like freezers, and seals lining the room in such tiny, intricate formations that she had thought it patterned wallpaper until her eyes had caught a closer glimpse.
"Cell culture requires an overbearing hand." Orochimaru told her as he wheeled himself into the room behind her. "It's easy to culture life, but so very difficult to culture only one type of life. Every factor needs to be accounted for."
"So naturally you brought me in here to discuss politics?"
"No, my dearest Sakura, I brought you in here to discuss a god."
More dramatics. Sakura was getting used to Orochimaru having to set up a scene before getting to the heart of things. She was beginning to get the impression that he liked to be noticed, liked standing out.
The man seemed nonplussed by the loss of his legs, far more eager to make use of his newly restored hands. With a strange chakric technique, he would elongate his arms like winding snakes to grab whatever it was he needed without having to maneuver to the other side of the room. Still, the wheelchair occasionally bumped against the legs of tables and walls, and Sakura was torn: would it be rude to offer help? Would Orochimaru take it as her thinking him weak or incapable?
"You and I both know that Kaguya is not a god, of course." Orochimaru continued to talk, bringing Sakura away from her thoughts. "Kaguya was a woman who came into great power, and her lineage can be traced in the lines of every shinobi on the continent. Chakra is her legacy. Prior to that, humans were quite chakra deficient. There are ancient records of sages learning how to harness natural chakra, but they were oddities. So too was Kaguya as an oddity, but she was the true first to take chakra within herself and make it a part of who she was."
"The God Tree." Sakura finished for him, remembering her visions and her lectures at Takigakure. "She ate a fruit and somehow that pooled chakra within her."
"That is indeed how the legend goes. But if such a tree existed, would we not have knowledge of it still?"
"Are you saying you don't believe the legend?"
She'd seen the tree, of course, in visions that Jashin had given to her in her time at the enclave. She'd tasted the sweet flesh of the fruit as though it had been her. "I believe." Sakura answered firmly. "But I do also find it strange that there is no record of the Tree. Surely if she had gained such power, others too would have tried to."
"Unless it was hidden." Orochimaru countered with a knowing smile. "Kaguya was said to be a fearful goddess. One who turned against the world to protect her children, who then turned against her once they learned the truth. I believe fully that the Tree exists, and that unless we come to match Kaguya's power, we may never discover it. And we are none of us yet capable of such a thing."
"I have ambitions, Sakura Haruno. This should not surprise you."
Orochimaru proceeded to open a door to one of the machines, pulling out what looked like a petri dish. He swiveled about and wheeled towards a microscope, putting the plate under it before beckoning Sakura over.
"Look here, Sakura. See the fruits of my success. Cells grown from remnants of the goddess."
Sakura couldn't believe what she was hearing at first. And certainly she wasn't familiar enough with cells to determine the difference between these and a 'normal human's', but she looked into the scope nonetheless. Sure enough, there were cells. She could remember at least that much from what she had read in her youth and had been taught by the Jushisai.
"Now, watch them closely." Orochimaru spoke, so close to her head that Sakura couldn't help but shiver. She wasn't afraid, no, if Orochimaru wanted her dead it would have been attempted by now, but sometimes he was just so...creepy.
But watch she did as Orochimaru added something to the petri dish. Something red...had he just added blood to the dish?
"Blood is a potent carrier of chakra." Orochimaru began to explain. "So it will suffice for the demonstration. I had hoped, you see, to infuse Kaguya's cells within a living body and use it to strengthen one's abilities. You may have heard of similar experiments of mine commissioned by Root."
She hadn't, but Sakura didn't admit it aloud. She could ask Tsunade to investigate later. Instead she watched as the cells in the dish suddenly moved, so quickly that she could scarcely believe cells capable of such speed. The cells seemed to grow and envelop the red blood cells that had been introduced, until nothing left of the addition remained. In their place, the Kaguya cells had multiplied, covering the surface of the dish more thoroughly than before.
"You saw the unfortunate volunteer I was working on the day you arrived." Orochimaru continued. "Kaguya cells are extremely violent. When introduced to the body, they devour the native cells and attempt to replace them with copies of themselves."
"Like they were trying to become the body?" Sakura finished, still not really quite believing what she was seeing. And where had Orochimaru even gotten this cell line, anyway? Would he tell her, if she asked?
She put her hands together, summoning her chakra in order to send out a sensing pulse. Orochimaru's chakra was there, of course, overwhelming, but there were other sources too. The cells in front of her and what seemed like at least a dozen pricks echoed from the room...more cultures, no doubt. "Do it again." She told him, a theory coming to mind.
Orochimaru chuckled but obliged her, and Sakura continued to pulse as the cells once again moved to envelop the blood that was offered. The chakra within the blood (Orochimaru's chakra, she realized, he was feeding the cells with his own blood) was faint, but she could still pick it up...at least, until the Kaguya cells devoured the blood. It was rapid, but Sakura could pick up on it. It wasn't just absorbing the blood, it was altering the chakra. She had no other term for it but 'neutralization', removing the aspects that her sensing jutsu recognized as elemental affinity until only pure chakra remained, and then...well, the cells multiplied, no doubt fueled by the pure chakra. From what she knew of medical jutsu, it required a certain type of chakra, one that was unaffected by affinity, lest the recipient of the jutsu reject the chakra's work. These cells…
"They're using medical jutsu to replicate." She deduced in awe. "They're converting the chakra in the blood to something they can use to rapidly make new growth, and using the physical cell components as material. Automatic replication."
"Precisely." Orochimaru purred. "Does it not make you wonder what the full lifeform was capable of? Automatic replication means automatic healing. And if her cells could neutralize chakra…"
"She could neutralize jutsu." Sakura replied. Much like Gaara's golden sand...was the technique tied to Kaguya, somehow? Well, she supposed every technique was, in some way. "But it's possible she could neutralize it without even having to think about it."
"And that's just one thing she might have been capable of."
"But something about that doesn't make sense." Sakura noted. "Why would her cells try to overtake a host body? Is that just a side effect of their natural drive to consume foreign chakra?"
"Perhaps. But my current theory is…" Orochimaru suddenly stopped, and Sakura pulled away from the microscope to look at him. "...well, perhaps I shouldn't give it all away just yet."
"So you brought me in here to tease me."
"I brought you in here to repay you for the gift you've given me. You may call me many things, Sakura, but I am fair. You give something to me, and I shall give something in turn."
Orochimaru's arm extended, reaching towards a nearby shelf. He pulled a small, rolled up scroll from the shelf and brought it within Sakura's reach. "My gift to you." He announced. "You saved my life by healing Sasori's poison. And while I cannot travel you to repay some life debt, I can offer you a means to save your life, should the situation call for it."
Sakura wasn't quite sure what this had to do with Kaguya's cells until she opened the scroll and unsealed the contents within. It was a small capsule with a covered syringe, kept chilled by whatever seals Orochimaru had used to contain it.
"As it stands, injecting Kaguya's cells into a host will cause the cells to destroy the host's chakra. The cell growth will likely kill the host, unless they are particularly resilient, but even if the host lives they will be unable to use chakra ever again, not even with Kaguya's cells inside them. For all my desire, the host cannot command Kaguya's line."
A lethal injection, if not a straight up game changer. Even if someone was resistant to poison, otherwise immune to jutsu...they couldn't fight off the legacy of a goddess.
Sakura sealed the vial back into the scroll. "...thank you." She finally managed, clipping the scroll into her pouch alongside her others. "Though I hope I'll never have to use it."
"Of course not. Ever the pacifist. But you and I both know who hunts you. I could not defeat Itachi Uchiha, and he is not the leader of Akatsuki, the one who commands them."
Sakura got the implications. Strong enemies might require strong solutions. But, of course, Orochimaru didn't know about what Hidan had been getting up to behind the scenes…
She resisted the urge to smile to herself. That would be her little secret, for now.
"And speaking of pacifism, Orochimaru…"
"Have you decided, then, to tell me your methods of defeating the Sharingan?"
Sakura swallowed. She'd thought about it long and hard, especially now that Orochimaru had the use of his arms again. There was really only one answer. One answer that worked best for the world...and for the people she cared for.
"I cannot share those methods, Orochimaru, not even for your cooperation. If you would sign onto the treaty, you would sign on because you want to, not because of some secret I have to offer you."
She'd hoped it was a good enough diversion from the real reason she didn't want to share her techniques. And Orochimaru didn't even seem shocked; in fact, he looked as though he'd been expecting it.
"You are truly attempting the impossible, Sakura, but I cannot help but admire it. I, too, seek the impossible. Immortality. Knowledge of every jutsu. Power to surpass Kaguya. We may not be aligned, but we could be friends, you and I. You returned to me my arms, after all."
And no gift for that? Sakura wondered, but then she remembered the initial terms by which she had gotten Orochimaru to fight on her side anyway. She'd promised to tell him everything...and he had not come to make her keep good on her promise. The arms, she figured, were a better trade.
"Friends." She repeated. "But no interest in the treaty. Don't you think that conflicts, a bit?"
"I always did better running things on my own. I have no desire to have others dictate how I run my village. But that does not mean we need be hostile to each other."
It wasn't what she wanted. It wasn't Orochimaru's signature on a page. And the last thing Sakura wanted was this snake for a 'friend' but…
"You're right." She agreed. "We don't need to be hostile. And maybe in time I can convince you that an alliance won't harm your way of life."
"Perhaps in time." Orochimaru answered.
But Sakura could see in his eyes that he didn't mean it. She wasn't surprised, of course, but after everything they'd done, after all she'd said…
Who was she kidding? Sai would have flicked her right in the forehead for even entertaining the idea that Orochimaru could ever change.
But as she returned to her quarters, fingering the scroll that he'd given her, she still couldn't help but imagine a world where he could.
The night was quiet, with only the sound of an ever present wind running through the alley ways. Gaara kept his eyes to the sky, half certain that the other Akatsuki, Deidara, would return at any moment to finish what he and his partner had started.
Foolish. Shukaku insisted. He'll report to the head and they'll make a new plan of action.
But, well...Gaara had become a worrier in the past year, and taking the night shift wasn't exactly something new to him. He didn't trust Orochimaru's ilk not to try and pull something on their last night in Oto, but he did trust Sai and...well, he supposed Karin was decent enough. She reminded him of Naruto in more than just namesake: boisterous, friendly, a strange way with words that just got right to the heart of things...no, Sakura was fine, but nobody else in the village knew to look out for a rogue bomber, and so he watched the night sky for them.
Even alert as he was, he still barely caught the sound of approaching footsteps. Sasuke Uchiha had gotten good at moving silently, but Gaara was more concerned with why he'd come out onto the rooftops at all.
He didn't move as Sasuke came to a halt next to him, and said nothing as the boy sat down, gazing up at the sky as he did.
They sat in silence for a long time, to the point where even Shukaku began to throw out snide comments about 'learning the meaning of small talk'. Gaara didn't mind. He didn't like Sasuke, he wasn't sure he ever had, but at least the boy appreciated silence.
It was a shame, of course, when it finally ended.
"You were the one who told me that my eyes were filled with hate." Sasuke eventually spoke. "Just like you."
Gaara simply nodded. At the time, it was true.
"And now we're here." He finished, looking to him. Their eyes met, and Gaara saw where Sasuke was going.
That hatred...Gaara didn't see it anymore. Not in Sasuke's eyes. And not in his own, whenever he saw his reflection.
Had they grown? Had they moved past that which drove the anger in their hearts? Gaara still felt that hollow ache when he thought of Suna, when he thought of his uncle and the village's scorning glares. He was certain Sasuke still felt that pain as well, how could he not? How could one ever move past the massacre of their family, especially now that he knew it was someone within Konoha who had orchestrated it for personal and political gain?
"It was Sakura, wasn't it?" Sasuke asked. "I didn't...I never thought she could come so far. She was always-" He bit his lip, and Gaara could fill in the blanks. Weak. Useless. Incompetent. All things Sakura had believed of herself before Onoki had taken her in. And perhaps still sometimes believed.
"Just because you think you know someone doesn't mean you truly understand them."
A lesson Gaara had learned well, even just in reaching out to Shukaku. A demon, Suna had called him. His friend, he now thought with fondness.
Disgusting. Shukaku answered with a fake retch.
"You're right." Sasuke agreed. "I thought I...thought I knew Sakura. Thought I knew...Itachi."
So he's having an existential crisis.
Gaara hushed Shukaku before looking to Sasuke again. "He still committed the act. The reason matters little."
"So you would condemn him for following orders?"
It was almost baffling how easy the answer came to Gaara, but he had left his village to join Sakura. To unite the shinobi world. To bring peace. Breaking the rules was something he'd gotten accustomed to.
The answer seemed to satisfy Sasuke momentarily. He nodded, looking up towards the sky again.
"I don't know." Sasuke admitted. "I don't know what to think anymore. But I know what I have to do. I have to hear the truth from him."
Gaara nodded. It was logical, as Sai would put it. Hear the testimony of the 'accused', and decide the course of action from there.
"I've always been prepared to kill him. I still am. I'll do it, if I have to. If I should. Maybe I still want to. Maybe all that hatred hasn't really left. I thought you were stronger for it. Stronger than me. Stronger than anyone."
Had he been? Had he really been so strong, half blind with rage, barely conscious with Shukaku's power flowing haphazardly through him?
He'd been strong when he'd been protecting Sakura. Strong when he had worked in tandem with Shukaku. Strong when he was with his friends.
"Naruto should have taught you different."
Sasuke smirked, and Gaara heard a soft chuckle leave his lips. "He tried." Sasuke admitted. "But I wasn't capable of hearing it. Not in that village, in that place. Not where nobody else could understand me. But Karin-"
And then Gaara saw a faint flush, and he wasn't sure if it was the mention of Karin or that Sasuke had overshared, though he was more convinced it was the latter. Sasuke had never been particularly verbose, as far as Sakura had told him.
He got the implications, though, without Sasuke having to say a word. Karin was his Sakura. Karin had reached him where nobody else had.
"You chose not to be ruled by hatred anymore." Sasuke spoke again. "You chose to follow Sakura."
"When I first heard, I thought you were foolish. But I think I understand now."
And then Sasuke stood, shooting one last glance towards the Jinchuuriki before walking away.
"That's all." He finished as he left. "I just thought you'd like to know."
The silence and wind eventually filled the air again, but as Gaara looked up to the sky, Shukaku's voice entered his mind once more.
He's still a prick.
Gaara snorted, and in the stillness of the night, he let himself laugh for a good, long time.