When Shiori was seven years old, a year before her kekkei genkai manifested, she and her mother travelled the shinobi lands in a caravan of merchants. In one of their travels, they encountered another motley crew of performers. There were gymnasts, flame-spitters and sword-swallowers among them to name a few. The oldest in the group was a gray-haired woman whose long locks were braided and arranged into an elegant bun atop her wrinkled features. It was an eye-catcher and it was what brought Shiori to approach her. The latter took one look at the young girl looking up at her and took her hands. Her amber eyes went sharp as they studied the marks on Shiori's palms.
"You poor child," she sighed. "It is unfortunate that you will come to know such loneliness and isolation."
The girl furrowed her brows in confusion. It didn't seem possible. True, she didn't know her father and had no siblings or any playmates who were her age. But the adults whom she travelled with always made time for her. She was rarely lonely, much less isolated.
"See this jagged line?" The woman traced one of the creases crossing her left palm. "Dark times lie ahead of you. You will be in grave danger. But -" and with this her lips twitched into a half-smile, caressing a nearly invisible spot on the corner of her left palm, "- you see this? That means you have someone who will keep you safe. A guardian. A protector. A friend. It could be anyone. It's too early to tell. This person can help you pull through. Still, the universe will break you, dear child. You will travel the ends of the Earth many times before you reach the lifetime of peace that is waiting for you."
Shiori forgot about the old woman with the braids shortly after. She never crossed her mind until the day she opened her gray eyes to find Sora looking down on her.
"You should wear your hair that way. It suits you."
Sora didn't reply. Instead she sat down on the bed. She shifted the younger woman so that Shiori's head rested on her lap. She ran her hand through her dark locks.
Shiori said nothing, did nothing but stare at the sliver of sunlight on the cracks of her bedroom door. She didn't know what else to do. It had only been a few hours since she woke up from the Tsukuyomi. With it came an unmistakable sensation of loss, as if something embedded deep within her suddenly vanished. The wires which held it in place snapped and the sudden loss of inertia caused these wires to wreak havoc inside her like vicious whips. It was amazing that she was still intact, considering how ruined she felt on the inside. She didn't even have the energy left to cry.
"May I?" the question brought her out of her thoughts and she noticed Sora motioning at her belly. It registered briefly on her mind that she didn't remember telling anyone about her condition except Itachi. Nevertheless she didn't resist. A warm hand rested over the part of her body where another life was currently growing. It stayed there for a while, moving a couple of centimetres on random directions every so often.
"He is tiny but he is strong. What I wouldn't give to deliver him myself."
Shiori kept quiet. She didn't remind Sora that there was no guarantee if she would still be around tomorrow and that she highly doubted if she could stay alive long enough to carry the pregnancy to its full term.
All of a sudden, Sora pulled her by the arms and sat her up. The sudden movement made her light-headed. The old woman took her by the face and urged her to meet her piercing gaze.
"Sotome Shiori, I want you to listen very carefully. You will leave tonight. Pack lightly. An hour after dusk, pass by the apothecary. There's going to be a package sitting on the table. Inside it are vials of medicine and some money, enough to last you well after you give birth. You take it and get the hell out of here."
"And go where?" she asked. The urgency of Sora's voice got the gears of her head turning.
It was the worst advice she had ever received from the wise medic-nin. Years of travelling with the Akatsuki taught her that west of the headquarters they were currently in was the heart of Wind Country's formidable desert. They avoided that route as much as possible for it left them exposed to the elements and an array of predators. Only S-rank shinobi were allowed to travel that route alone and even then they only did so during emergencies. Shiori thought that crossing the desert at night was equivalent to commiting suicide. And Sora was asking her to do just that.
She might have said her thoughts out loud for Sora replied with her explanation.
"As far as I know, the Akatsuki shinobi nearest us is Kisame-san. He was held up by Team Hebi a few hours ago but I'm afraid he is heading back to us now...to finish off his partner's assets. He doesn't have to like it but he knows the protocol. Whoever is within the vicinity does the job. He'll be coming in from the east so you must avoid that route at all cost. Kami forbid you might bump into each other. Also, the rest of them are in the mainland, also east-ward. It's too risky."
"And heading west isn't? Sora-san, I don't mean to sound rude but this is madness!" Sora felt like she was stuck between a rock and a hard place, with the two surfaces closing in on each other to crush her.
"It's dangerous but it's doable." Sora took a piece of parchment from her pocket and handed it to her. "Find this man. He will be waiting for you in the first river delta you will stumble upon."
Shiori did not even read the name. Her mind was working overtime, computing the number of hours it will take her to reach the delta by foot. Without even taking her morning sickness into consideration, the earliest that she would be able to reach it is by midday. Her heart sank to her guts.
"There's a sandstorm coming tomorrow on midday. Sora-san, I will be walking righ into its path." The numbness she felt earlier was chipping away and in its place was the heavy feeling of anxiety.
"That sandstorm will act as your shield from the predators. All of them. Kisame-san won't be arriving until dawn. By then it will be easy for him to work out when you left and at which direction you were heading. He will come to the same conclusion that you did just now. He will think the sandstorm will most likely finish you off and he will set his sights on the other assets."
"And what if he doesn't? What if he goes after me anyway?"
Shiori could tell that Sora was getting impatient. But she couldn't help it. If she was going to walk right in to the eye of the storm then she wanted to make sure that she got all angles covered.
"All the more reason for you to run. That man and his boat is your only way out. Itachi paid him a fortune to get you out of Wind Country. Make it count."
The young woman stilled at the mention of her late koibito. The initial shock of his death had worn out and it made the pain all too real. Like a sadistic slideshow, random images of him flitted in her mind. It made her yearning for him unbearable. She closed her eyes, breathing slowly, afraid that any sudden movements might cause her to lose it.
"He always had your back. Until the very end he never once thought of abandoning you."
Then why does it feel that way?! She wanted to shout. Entangled with her grief was an anger directed at him. Her mind still couldn't reconcile the fact that his death was necessary so they could live. He was going to be a father. He was loved. So why? Nothing made sense.
"Shiori. If you can't find the strength to do it for yourself then I hope you can find it in you to do it for the baby."
Sora smiled despite her sad eyes. She can still remember the way Itachi talked about the little entity in Shiori, how ridiculous it almost looked that the cold young man had fallen head over heels for a person whom he will never meet.
"For every bind that the Akatsuki got you into, Itachi was always there to get you out. At times even vice versa. You had each other. This child only has you. So hold on for dear life...not because you want to but because he needs you to. Do you understand me, Shiori?"
The morning that she crossed the desert, two words kept repeating in her head in an endless loop.
Sora told her the chances of her having a miscarriage during the escape was high. She was too early in the pregnancy to tease death. Hearing this changed her perspective on the situation change drastically. Defying the odds were no longer for the sake of her own survival for the the child's. She made an oath to any god willing to listen that if the tiny life in her would survive the journey, then she would pour everything she could into raising that child. She was fairly certain of the goodness that she was capable of. All she needed was a chance to show it.
Shiori finished the journey by midday, just as she had predicted. She set a fixed pace for herself and did not let her nerves nor her morning sickness slow her down until her escape route was in sight. By noon time, she had just enough energy to drag herself aboard the small boat, the only vehicle in the barren waters, before collapsing on its floorboards. She ached from the crown of her head to the blisters on her toes but she had never felt such relief in her life.
"Where to?" the sailor asked, a middle-aged man with gray hair and a scratchy voice. Itachi's contact.
"Sanctuary," she whispered softly.
"There's a futon and some blanket downstairs. Help yourself."
Shiori chuckled. She could barely feel her legs. A sunburnt hand found its way on her belly.
"It's okay," she replied. "We're okay."
(Five years later)
It has never been done before. It was a breakthrough, in all sense of the word, despite the ethical considerations. His only regret was that he had no choice on who he had for a subject. He would have very much preferred one that wouldn't attempt to kill him on pure muscle memory once awakened.
Unfortunately for him, Orochimaru didn't have much of a choice. His partner in this procedure had very particular terms. And without him, the inital treatments and diagnotic tests wouldn't have been achievable.
'No matter,' he thought. For the notorious member of the Sannin, it was a compromise that he was willing to make for the sake of science.
"It's time," Orochimaru's partner said. Dark eyes glared at him. "Wake him up."
"Aye. Although you will have to forgive me for not being too willing to be the first person he sees when he wakes up."
Both men turned to look at the massive fluid-filled tank in front of them. Suspended in the green-tinged water was their subject. His hair floated around his face like a dark halo. Tiny bubbles accumulated on the long lashes resting on his cheeks. A gray mask was fitted over his nose and mouth to help him breath. From the neck down, he was completely bare.
Orochimaru looked down and pulled at the level in front of him. Almost immediately, their subject convulsed. The tank drained dry before the front glass hatched open, dropping the man inside it on the cold metal floor of their laboratory.
His partner knelt down in front of the shivering form and removed the breathing mask, allowing the subject to take gasps of air for the first time in months. A breath caught on his throat and was followed by a coughing fit. The former's hand went over his back and lit up with chakra, signalling the start of a medical ninjutsu.
"There there, Itachi-kun. Catch your breath."
Itachi, who was gasping for his life, stilled upon hearing the voice. Still shivering, he lifted his head up and came face to face with Uchiha Shisui.
I've always planned for that epilogue to wrap the story up...way before the massive writer's block struck. It didn't seem right to get rid of it. Now here's the thing: I've left this story dormant for so long that I'm not sure if anyone is still reading it by now. So now I'm asking you guys? Y'all up for a sequel. =)
If so do let me know. If you don't want to leave your message on the review section then feel free to PM me.
till next time.