Umm… So I've kind of stopped reading the manga because everything's just so ridiculous. I don't think that I'll be writing much for this fandom anymore, but I don't believe in abandoning stories, so rest assured that I'll see this one through. There's still a bit left of Gentleman, so don't give up on me yet, please!
Sakura smoothed out the bodice of her deep midnight gown, watching amusedly as Karin of Hawkford bristled with impotent anger. Anyone who might have approached her would no longer dare, warned away by her black mood. Already the Duke of Sunfield had swept out with his insulted nose in the air, his daughter Hinata walking calmly behind him; and there were muttered wonderings behind feathered fans, guessing how many others would stalk out in high dudgeon before the night was out.
The shock of seeing the Marquess of Mirrorwood accompanying Lady Sakura Haruno in colours that explicitly defied the hostess's request was almost forgotten.
A thin, pink eyebrow rose slightly when Karin shot a venomous glare toward the figure in the darkest colours in the room. A faint prickle of alarm went off in Sakura's head as Karin made her way toward the crowd in her direction; she paused halfway across the room, an evil glint in her eye, and abruptly turned.
Soft gasps filled the room as Karin pulled Itachi toward her, forcing her mouth onto his and wrapping her arms around his neck. Itachi did not move, but Sakura saw the way his back heaved and knew he was merely too overwhelmed by disgust to push Karin away. She wondered if it was the worst kiss he'd ever had; his fingers flexed angrily and she thought it seemed to be.
She turned away, pressing her fingers to her lips to hide the impolite grin there. Poor Itachi; but it was so funny…
As she whirled, she saw Suigetsu of Hawkford approaching his wife with a firmly set face of resolve; then a hand snatched her arm and pulled her into the shadows.
The shadows engulfed her, and she fell.
Blurry darkness and quiet murmuring greeted her as she awoke. Cold fingers smoothed her hair, petting it absently.
"Ah; you are awake!" Kabuto of Shieldwood smiled, helping her to sit up.
She shook him off irritably, standing up from the velvet couch on her own. They seemed to be in Kabuto's home; certainly the utilitarian curtains and random medical texts that lay scattered around the room were not to Karin's tastes.
"You have a knack for stating the obvious," she observed insolently.
His lip curled in response to her cheek, but he restrained himself from reaching out to her with visible effort. "Soon I will tame your spirit, little one," he told her with a strange light in his eyes.
She recoiled, snarling. "Don't call me that. You, of all people, have no right to call me that."
"And he does?" Kabuto snapped, losing his composure, his eyes flashing at the mention of Itachi. "Well." He wiped his hands on his jacket, gripping the expensive fabric with white-knuckled hands. "If he can win you win you over with pretty words and baubles, so can I."
Sakura lifted her lip to expose her gritted teeth. "It was not presents that attracted me to him," she hissed. "I am not that petty. And it will not work for you."
Kabuto shrugged, his thin, pale fingers encircling her wrists and keeping her in front of him with surprising strength. With his free hand he pushed his spectacles further up the bridge of his nose. "He was the unobtainable, was he not? He was a man you could not have and therefore you had to have him? And I think that is why he chases after you; he wants to have the woman who refused him. You are very clever."
"Are you a doctor of minds also, then?" she retorted, flexing her arms to gauge his hold on her.
He chuckled, a low and chilling sound that crept through the stale air in the room. "I do not think your wit will help you this time, my precious little one. I will not lose control of myself out of anger, and then I will have what I want."
"What is it you want?"
His free hand returned to her hair, stroking silently. She wrinkled her nose as his fingers trailed across the soft skin of her forehead. "I will tell you, little one, because in order to play your part you must understand why I do what I do. I think you have heard the rumours about me."
Her eyes widened. "Orochimaru."
He nodded with the patronizing smugness of a person whose favourite pet has done a clever trick. "Yes, dear. He was once so great, and then he fell into the shadows."
"He has no title anymore," Sakura whispered, recalling the murmurs of the servants.
Kabuto shifted, his grip on her never relaxing. She grudgingly acknowledged his skill in keeping someone captive. "True, he has no title. That was taken away long ago. But he still commands so much power; some serve him because they have no choice. I serve him because he has given me so much."
A bolt of realization struck her. "This house…"
"Yes!" He looked vaguely surprised that she had figured it out. "The late Marquess of Shieldwood was not related to me in any way. When he… passed on, Lord Orochimaru gave me his son's title."
"You speak of murder," Sakura snapped, shaking quietly in shock.
"Yes," Kabuto admitted. "But it was so long ago, and now my master grows old. I am trying to create medicine to keep him youthful, but my mind and my wealth are spent. I need you."
"My dowry would not support you for long," she told him.
"But your inheritance, if your parents were to mysteriously… disappear—it is much larger, and it would be yours." He smiled coldly. "You are the heiress, and as your husband I would be able to command it as I wished."
She recoiled. "You bastard. Even Lady Uchiha wouldn't go so far as to involve my parents."
His smiled widened. "The Duchess is ruthless, but I think you will find that I am even more so. I will not be held back by the foolish sentiments of a chit of a girl."
Sakura didn't understand. "But why me? There are so many other girls who would be willing to wed you. Why go through all this trouble for me?"
Kabuto looked at her. "I know of your medical knowledge, little one," he told her, sounding almost kind. "With your fresh imagination, we could go so far. And I will not deny that your pretty face would give me much pleasure in breaking your spirit."
Disgust flooded her. "How do you plan to force me to wed you? I will not obey you."
He held her with one hand and rummaged around in a box on a nearby table with the other. He held up a small porcelain flask; Sakura paled as she recognized the ingredients. "No."
"Yes, little one. Your parents will not allow you to marry another man if you are with my child. I could force you, but I think that this aphrodisiac will make things easier for both of us. Your brilliant mind will understand everything as it happens to you, yes?" He laughed quietly. "This time I think your medical skills will be against you."
Without warning, Sakura twisted violently and brought her foot up to kick him in the solar plexus. He staggered back, retching, and she quickly slipped around him, dancing neatly past the shattered flask on the floor.
"My medical knowledge is enough to tell me how I can hurt you enough to get away," she spat at him, leaping away as he reached for her.
She fled through the wooden doors and found herself in a dark, lamp-lit hallway. A silver candlestick in the handles of the doors proved a handy makeshift lock, and Kabuto's roar of chagrin echoed.
The murmuring she had heard as she awakened led her down the hall to a closed door. Taking a deep breath and a chance, she burst through the door and came face to face with—
The Duke and Duchess of Sixwood, turning quickly to see who had intruded on them. Behind them stood a pale man with long black hair and slanted yellow eyes. Orochimaru.
"What is the meaning of this?" the Duke demanded, he and the Duchess taking in Sakura's mussed-up hair and frightened face. Lady Konan stepped forward, catching Sakura in her arms. Her expression was clinical and detached, but just being held by someone soothed Sakura a little.
Orochimaru's expression tightened, confirming that he had known what Kabuto was planning. "This is one of Kabuto's toys," he said tersely. "Please excuse me while I return her to him; surely he is eager to continue their… game." His hand closed around hers, but when he tugged he found that Lady Konan refused to let go.
"Kabuto's toy?" she repeated flatly. Her arms tightened around Sakura as she glanced at Lord Pein.
"Yes," Orochimaru replied impatiently. "She has not yet been trained, but I'm sure Kabuto will teach her some manners. If I may…?" He gestured toward her.
"Kabuto—" Sakura tried, but was ignored. Konan tilted her chin at her, body language commanding her to be silent.
"Kabuto is your man, is he not?" Pein asked quietly. "He is devoted to you, and in turn to us?"
Orochimaru paled somewhat visibly. "Of—of course, my lord!" he exclaimed, his voice hissing and writhing like a serpent. "Kabuto is my most loyal servant. He would never betray me."
Pein raised an eyebrow. "He serves you, then?"
Realizing his mistake, Orochimaru stammered, "And you, of course."
Konan's lip twisted elegantly. "In some things, I suspect. Perhaps not so much in others. Tell me; are you aware that there is a tacit agreement between all of our members to respect one another's claims?"
"You were there when it was settled, I seem to remember," Pein added, moving closer to Orochimaru.
"Oh, yes. I do remember that," the pale noble answered, edging slowly toward the door. "Of course I remember." His lips trembled when the Duke moved past him to stand between him and the door.
"And I am sure that you knew that this girl belongs to Itachi," Pein said softly, menacingly. The shadows danced merrily as fear flitted across Orochimaru's face. "Therefore, I must ask of you: Why did you give your lackey a woman who has been claimed by another member? Especially one who outranks both him and you. I think that Kabuto is your most loyal man, but perhaps you are not ours."
"My—my lord," Orochimaru tried, but Pein had stopped listening to him. He half-turned his head toward his wife and the girl she held.
"Konan, take Lady Sakura outside while I deal with this, please. I do not wish for her to see this, and… Itachi approaches."
Konan nodded curtly and ushered Sakura out into the hall. As Pein had said, the front door slammed open and a tall, dark figure radiating rage and hate strode inside.
"Itachi!" Sakura let out an involuntary cry, falling silent as she caught sight of his murderous expression. Konan's hand landed softly on her shoulder, bracing her as slight fear ran through her. He was still the man she loved, but… she hoped his anger would never be directed at her.
She wondered if she would be less frightened if her anger was also aroused, but shivered and decided not to find out. If both of them were that angry, there would be nothing but a smoking crater when they finished.
"Is he in there?" Itachi asked Konan, his words precise and controlled even though his shoulders shook with constrained fury. He jabbed a finger at the doors which were still held shut by a candlestick.
She nodded and drew Sakura back, standing in the shadows against the wall. Sakura wondered at his feral beauty as he removed the candlestick and kicked the doors in. Kabuto gave a short cry and then there were several soft sounds that Sakura did not attempt to identify. However, her medical imagination supplied plenty of possible happenings.
She glanced up at Lady Konan, whose face was stone-smooth and betrayed none of her thoughts. She wondered if the Duchess was used to this, standing by calmly as someone was injured, or possibly killed.
Then she realized she didn't care. The Duke and the Duchess—and Itachi—were taking care of her, and far be it from her to be ungrateful by questioning their methods. The thrill at the thought of anyone going to such lengths to protect her sent a small shiver down her spine. She had seen the darker side of Itachi, and she knew she still loved him.
I think this will last, she thought to herself. And even if it doesn't, at least life will be interesting.
Lady Konan shifted, looking down at her as if she knew what Sakura was thinking, and gave a small, cool smile of what seemed to Sakura to be agreement. Not for the first time, Sakura wondered about the story behind the Duke and Duchess of Sixwood.
However, it would take someone far braver and far more stupid to pry into their personal affairs. She held her tongue and continued to watch the darkness.
Lord Pein joined them after a while, walking with the sinuous motion of a satisfied large cat, and was followed soon after by Itachi, who dusted off his hands and pulled Sakura to him.
"Orochimaru is dealt with," Pein announced to them all. "We will need to watch him more closely now, since I have given him a reason to be bitter towards us; however, it was well worth the trouble. I have wanted to do that for a long time now."
Itachi lifted his head from where it was buried in Sakura's hair to meet Konan's eyes and nod in thanks for taking care of Sakura. Then he shifted his attention onto Pein. "Orochimaru will need to find a new servant," he said, his normally silky voice harsh. "I will take Sakura home now; my apologies for troubling you."
"It was our pleasure," Konan told him, watching them both from under half-closed eyelids. "Keep Lady Sakura with you; she is most impressive."
Itachi gave a short nod and let Sakura curtsey politely at them before gathering her into his arms and sweeping into the night with her.
"I managed to escape from Hawkford's wife when he grabbed her and she began shrieking at him; by that time, you were gone and I had no idea where you were," he muttered into her ear as he carried her (protesting not so loudly) through the streets. He ignored the beckoning streetwalkers as he continued to tell her what had happened after she had been taken. "One of my men saw him take you into his carriage, but he spent too much time trying to find me. I was worried, Sakura, because you had been gone for such a long time. I did not know what might have been done to you, especially when I learned that it had been Kabuto. I ran here, because I had no time to find the carriage."
She reached up and stroked his face gently. "But you came for me; I could not ask you for more."
He sighed, slowing his pace. "I should have realized it sooner," he murmured against her hair. "If the Duke and his Lady had not been there…"
Sakura shuddered. "We will not think of that," she said firmly. "I am safe, and you came for me. That is all. Besides, I wasn't completely helpless against Kabuto."
Itachi gave her a small, crooked smirk. "I saw the damage you had done to him. It was no less than I had expected of you."
Pride coursed through her at his words. He knew she could defend herself, at least until he arrived. He would view her as an equal, the way so many men did not see their wives. She snuggled closer to his chest.
"Take me to my house, please," she requested as her eyes fluttered shut.
"Sleep," he instructed. "I will explain as best I can to your parents."
The darkness, the smell of him, the warmth radiating from his skin, and the gentle motion of his walking pulled her gently into oblivion.
So the action is pretty much over now. This is the last chapter, but there will most definitely be an epilogue. Review with all of your remaining questions, and I'll do my best to answer them next chapter! Thank you so much for your support during this story!