Disclaimer: Characters contained within do not belong to me.
Author's Notes: Thanks so much to everyone who is reading, reviewing and hopefully enjoying this story. I always love hearing what people think, so if you have a few seconds, a review would be greatly appreciated;)
Into the Dark
by Kristen Elizabeth
We'll hold each other soon
In the blackest of rooms
Three Years Later
It was too warm to wear a cloak, much less a heavy black one, but Itachi bore the discomfort in silence as he waited under the meager shade of a tree for his partner to finish his business behind a clump of bushes. He barely even felt the trickle of sweat that worked its way down his neck only to be absorbed in the collar of his blue mesh shirt. It was a minor annoyance and he was beyond caring about trivial things.
What could really bother someone who had slaughtered their own parents, been banished from their village and joined a dangerous criminal organization?
Before he could wade any deeper into his unwanted memories, Kisame rejoined him. One of the reasons Itachi tolerated the rogue Mist swordsman was because he didn't pollute the air with any unnecessary conversation. Without a word, they continued on their way towards the tiny town that would shelter them for the night.
Those were the dangerous times, the long periods of uneventful travel when his mind had plenty of time to wander. Perhaps he would have been better off partnering with someone who did chat incessantly; there would have been fewer opportunities for thoughts of Konoha, Sasuke, and Emiko.
She always appeared to him the same way, in her pink kimono, lounging in a sun-dappled clearing in the woods. He rarely let his imagination go much further, but sometimes he didn't want to stop himself from remembering how soft her skin felt against his or the sweet flavor of her mouth. Sometimes he woke in the middle of the night aching from the memory of their stolen moments.
But the nights he dreamed about his little brother were worse. Until the day they met again, Sasuke would always be seven years old. So small, but so determined. Alone. Orphaned by Itachi's hand.
"Will you want food?" Kisame's voice snapped Itachi back to attention. Blinking, he spotted the edge of the town less than five hundred yards ahead of them. They had covered quite a bit of distance while he lingered in the past.
He wasn't the least bit hungry, but he inclined his chin. Food was just fuel for his body; he took no pleasure in it anymore. Not when he would never have onigiri prepared by his mother ever again.
The town was so small and isolated that there seemed to be no shinobi guarding it. Kisame's sword didn't go unnoticed, but they were given a wide berth from the moment they passed through the main gates.
Itachi let Kisame choose where they would eat and, true to form, he picked a sushi restaurant that was bustling with patrons. They sat at one of the few remaining tables, garnering many stares from the other diners.
Picking up the menu card, Itachi skimmed over the list of available dishes. Nothing whet his appetite, but with the pencil provided, he checked off several items. As he tried to decide if he could manage to get down everything he'd chosen, a waitress approached them with hot tea and two cups.
"Good evening," she greeted them. "Welcome to Gaiyaku Sushi. What can I get for you?"
The sound of her voice shattered him. He didn't want to look, but he wasn't sure if it was because he didn't want her to see him or if he didn't want to be wrong if it wasn't her. But how could it not be her? That musical voice had whispered to him in his dreams for three years.
Unaware of his partner's inner turmoil, Kisame handed the girl his card and requested a few changes, giving Itachi plenty of time to make up his mind. Holding his breath, he looked up at the waitress.
It was Emiko.
Her hair was longer, and mostly covered by a red kerchief, but it was tied back at the base of her neck, like she couldn't be bothered to do anything else with it. There were dark circles under her eyes that rivaled his own, and while she'd clearly aged, she seemed too thin for her more mature frame.
None of that mattered. She was alive. She had survived. And some small part of his heart that he'd thought must have died with her suddenly sprung to life.
She didn't notice him staring at her as she scribbled down Kisame's requests. In fact, even when she turned towards him, her eyes never met his. He had the strangest feeling that it had been a very long time since Emiko had looked anyone in the eye.
Lowering his chin into the high collar of his cloak, Itachi handed her his card without a word. She took it, bowed slightly, and moved off to the other, busier tables.
Kisame watched her go. "Pretty little thing. Wonder if she's on the menu, too."
Itachi could have thrown the steaming contents of the tea pot directly into his blue face. Instead, he just poured himself a cup and took a scalding sip.
"I wouldn't be greedy," Kisame continued. "You could have a turn when I was through."
Slamming down his cup, Itachi stared down his partner in a way that only he could. After a moment, Kisame smirked, all of the apology Itachi could expect.
A different waitress delivered their food as the restaurant grew even busier. Itachi ate his sushi methodically, without tasting a single bite. Ever so often he would lift up his head and seek out Emiko, but not once did she ever glance his way. He should have been relieved.
He was strangely unsettled.
As it was Kisame's turn to pay, Itachi rose from the table when he finished eating. "I'll meet you at the ryokan." Without waiting for a reply, he slipped out of the restaurant.
Out in the night air, he debated simply heading to the nearest inn in order to put as much distance between him and Emiko as possible, but his feet wouldn't head in the right direction. He found himself circling the block, heading around the back to the restaurant's kitchen.
The door to the kitchen was covered with a screen to keep insects out, but it was open, allowing noise and light to spill out into the dark alley. Itachi had no idea what he was doing there; he just wanted to see her face one more time. And although he didn't deserve any favors from the universe, he got his wish a few minutes later when Emiko appeared at the door.
She'd abandoned her kerchief and she had a furoshiki-wrapped bento in her hands, both signs that she had finished her work for the evening and was about to head home.
Itachi could feel his heart beating in his throat. Hidden in the shadows, Emiko seemed to have no idea she was being watched. He frowned. Had she forgotten who she was after so much time and so much trauma?
She passed him without a word, and although she'd spent hours surrounded by dead fish, she still managed to smell like a summer breeze. He didn't even realize she'd stopped until she addressed him.
"Whoever you are, I have no money, and if you're after something more than money, there's a brothel on the other side of town, and the girls there don't carry knives."
He hadn't so much as cracked a smile in three years, so Itachi wasn't surprised that his chuckle sounded dusty. Emiko's eyes narrowed, but when he mustered up the courage to step into the light, they flew open. Shocked, she dropped her box and stumbled backwards.
"Itachi!" Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and it was only when he recognized the terror etched across her delicate features that he realized what must be going through her mind.
She thought he had come to finish his mission.
Actions spoke louder than words. Itachi bent down and picked up her bento. He offered it to her with both hands and a bow, a submissive position that he hoped would allay her fears.
Emiko took the box like a wounded animal might approach an outstretched hand and held it against her chest like a shield. When he lifted his head, he saw tears gleaming in her eyes.
"How did you find me?"
He could only think of one answer. "Luck."
"Itachi," she repeated, softer this time. "I couldn't…let myself imagine what might have…might have happened to you. But I hoped…" She trailed off. "I wanted to see you again…even if you were here to kill me."
"I'm not," he said around the lump in his throat.
Emiko nodded tightly. "All right." After a moment's hesitation, she drew in a breath and slowly released it. "Then…will you come with me? Please?"
Itachi didn't think about what he would tell Kisame. He just nodded.
He kept to the shadows as they made their way to the residential part of the village. Emiko never glanced back, but she never moved out of his line of sight. When they reached a small house, she paused at the porch. He joined her there a second later, just before she reached out and knocked softly on the door.
An old woman answered. "Hana-san, you're late."
Itachi glanced at Emiko, but said nothing. He could hardly fault her for concealing her true identity.
"I'm sorry, Rika-san," Emiko apologized with a bow. "I brought you some dinner."
The woman took the bento with a rueful smile and gestured at Emiko to come inside. It was only then that her elderly eyes narrowed in on Itachi, practically piercing him, as if she possessed the Sharingan herself. "Who is this?" She gave Emiko no chance to answer before she asked, "Is it him?"
Emiko glanced back at Itachi. "Yes. It is."
If he'd imagined for a moment that this admission might make Rika a bit friendlier, he would have been wrong. After he stepped inside, she closed the door and folded her arms with a contemptuous sniff. "It's about time you showed up."
Clearing her throat, Emiko sidestepped the woman's comment. "Was everything all right tonight?"
"Fine, fine." Rika waved her brown-spotted hand towards the back of the house. "Nothing out of the ordinary."
"Excuse me," Emiko said, heading off in the direction the woman had gestured, leaving Itachi to fend for himself.
"So. Where have you been?" the woman demanded.
He cleared his throat. "Around."
She sniffed again. "That's exactly the sort of answer I should have expected from a man…no…a boy who would…"
"Rika-san." Emiko gently cut her off as she came back into the main room, this time carrying something in her arms. "It's not his fault."
Itachi's knees nearly gave out from underneath him. It was a very small child cuddled up against Emiko's chest.
Emiko looked straight at him as she added, "He didn't know."
For a long moment, his mouth wouldn't work. An earthquake could have split the world apart right then, but it wouldn't have been powerful enough to make him tear his eyes away from the little boy. His son.
"His name is Masahiro." Emiko walked towards him; as she moved, the child stirred slightly, turning his head just enough to give Itachi a glimpse of his face. "I'm sorry I couldn't name him after you."
Itachi shook his head, hoping it would silently convey that he was glad she hadn't burdened their son with his cursed name. Swallowing heavily, he stared at the boy.
His son's hair was darker than Emiko's, but lighter than Itachi's. Rather than lie flat, it stuck out a bit in the back in a pattern so familiar that Itachi nearly lost his endless battle with his emotions. His son bore an almost painful resemblance to Sasuke as a toddler.
Emiko pressed a kiss against Masahiro's forehead and it was enough to make the boy open his sleep-heavy eyes. He blinked a few times and whimpered, "Kaa-chaa?"
"I'm here, koibito," she murmured. "Go back to sleep." The child's long black lashes touched his chubby cheeks only seconds later. Emiko lifted her chin to look up at Itachi. "I don't need anything from you. I just wanted you to know he existed." She paused. "You deserved to know."
"E…" He stopped himself from using her real name just in time. "I'm sorry."
Rika stepped forward just then. "Make him hold the boy, Hana-san. That's the only way men learn."
Emiko's smile was forced. "We're just leaving, Rika-san. Thank you for everything. We'll see you tomorrow."
Just before she closed the door behind them, Rika sniffed again. "If you're still in town tomorrow."
Out in the cool night air, Emiko held Masahiro even tighter. "I don't know what you were apologizing for just now, but if it was for him…" She shook her head. "Don't you dare. He is the only reason I am standing here right now."
"I'm sorry you had to do all of this alone."
When she blinked, he could see tears collecting her lashes. "Why are you here, Itachi? What do you want?"
He knew his answer, but it took him a moment to form the words. "I want you."
Emiko's apartment sat over a ramen stand. As soon as they arrived, she put Masahiro in his crib and closed the bedroom door, leaving it open just enough to hear him if he cried. As soon as they were alone, there was no more hesitating. He let himself fall into her arms, not for physical release, although when it happened, it was a thousand times better than he remembered, but just for human contact, something he had denied himself for three long years.
There would be consequences for disappearing without telling his partner where he would be, but Itachi would deal with them when they came. Right then, he was skin to skin with the only woman he had ever loved…the mother of his child…and he just couldn't give a damn about the Akatsuki.
He barely talked, but Emiko filled the silence, telling him about everything that had happened to her since the night of the massacre. She spoke little of her own experiences, but she told him, in great detail, of Masahiro's birth, his first words, his first steps.
It suddenly struck Itachi that an hour earlier, he'd been nothing but a missing nin, a rogue assassin who had slaughtered his entire clan. Now, he was a lover. A father.
But as much as he wanted to wrap himself up in this new world, there was no escape from the reality of the past.
He felt the question coming before she posed it. There was a pause, a subtle shift in the mood between them. He braced himself. "Why did you do it?" Lying against his side, she quietly asked, "Why did they have to die?"
"I can't answer that," he said to the dark ceiling above them. "I made a choice and now I have to live with it." He ran his fingers through her hair. "Why don't you hate me for it?"
"I think I did…just a little. When I found out I was pregnant. But then he was born and he was so perfect…" She kissed his chest. "How could I hate you after that?"
Long minutes passed in perfect silence. Finally, Itachi said, "I can't stay. And I can't take you with me. Either of you. Especially him." He turned his head to look towards the bedroom where his son lay sleeping. "Staying away from him is the only way I can protect him."
Itachi rolled her onto her back and looked down at her. "But I promise you….I will see you both again someday."
Cupping his cheek in her hand, Emiko brushed her thumb across his lips. "We'll be waiting."
She watched him dress in the dark, but before he left, she jumped to her feet and ran to him. "Itachi!" Reaching behind her head, Emiko unclasped her silver necklace and refastened it around his neck. The silver circles felt warm against his collarbone. Warmed by her body.
"I'll never take it off."
It was a promise he intended to keep.