Heya. It's been four years but it's finally here. This chapter is a killer and as a result will most likely have a different feel to it. This is finally done, so enjoy. ^_^

– Chapter 3 –
.:. Assentarsi .:.

...

"Happy Ending? There are no happy endings. Endings are the saddest part. So just give me a happy middle and a very happy start." – Shel Silverstein

.

"If you want to marry me for me," she said, pushing his hand away from her and taking a deep breath. "Then prove it."

.

Like it was something simple. Something everyone did every day and things were rosey, and they lived happily ever after. Like he even knew what she meant.

Prove it? Since when did uncontrollable feelings come with incredible feats of impossibilities?

Prove it. Like it was as easy as that.

How about the fact that he'd run to the ends of the earth to find her, the fact that he was here, standing next to her, talking to her and the fact that he was here alone and without a small army to drag her back into the Shinto Shrine? It was uncouth for a Lord to run after a wily woman, after all.

Gaara sighed.

Right, like that would go over well. His father would never let him hear the end of it.

It wasn't as simple as saying "I don't want your crown, only your heart". She hadn't given him the benefit of the doubt so far, so what could he possibly say now to sway her?

He didn't get it. He really didn't understand. How was he supposed to do that?

Like jumping onto the nearest roof and screaming it to the world was becoming of his status. It wasn't manly, that's for sure. And it would be so out of character. What kind of romantic notions was she expecting?

Gaara started as Sakura shifted uncomfortably. Apparently, he had taken too long to respond.

"I see," she said softly. "If you can't do this… I'm sorry."

She left. He stood in stubborn shock as the woman he'd planned so much around to marry slipped between the stable gates, pulling the hood of her cloak down to further disguise her pink hair, and disappeared around the corner – presumably into the interconnecting streets outside the palace.

'What the hell am I doing?'

Gaara shook himself, regaining his composure. There was something he could say – something he'd said to her a long time ago. It was the only thing that would show he didn't want her money or crown and fall in line with her manner.

'I'm such an idiot.'

Gaara pulled his high-collared coat tighter around his body, hoping to stave off the cold that was creeping through the stables. There was only one thing to say. But first he had to find her; he assumed she knew her way around these parts better than him. Sakura hadn't taken a horse, so the redhead followed her path, slipping through the stable gates and descending into the streets.

He looked around; this section of the city was busy, but this particular road had been cornered off because of the Royal Mews. It's path split two ways – to the upper streets and the lower. He guessed Sakura would take the lower.

Hastening his steps toward the stench of the alleyways that high windowed residents tossed their waste from, Gaara glanced around at every plausible turn off as he made his way through the series of twists and turns, choosing the less public route over the obvious, loud street ways.

'Hopefully, this pays off.'

He had not seen Sakura for years, but he knew what desperate people did to avoid attention. He'd spent his life attempting to disappear, and his childhood hiding.

"Watch out."

Gaara side-stepped a local who was laying in the middle of the street and a thought occurred to him.

He needed directions.

He stopped and towered over the boy, who looked to be about fourteen. "I'm looking for a young woman."

The street urchin gave him a once over. "This be the wrong dark alley for that kind of thing, mister."

"She might've passed through here in the last few minutes," Gaara urged, "wearing a hooded cloak. You probably thought it was a scrawny man."

"Uh-huh."

Realising why the imp of a boy was looking at him expectantly, Gaara cursed his bad luck – he had no money on him. He resisted the urge to pat himself down, or better yet; throttle the smug brat looking up at him like he was an idiot.

'Damn.'

There was nothing for it. He pulled a ring off of his right index finger and held it out to him; the boy scrambled to his feet and peered at it. Ruby encrusted, it was smaller than most gems of its type because the redhead was never one for baubles to begin with – Kankuro had talked him into wearing it just for the day. His brother had won it from an aristocrat who peddled in unwilling labour. The ring would be no loss.

"It's real," Gaara said. "Worth more than what you own combined."

The redhead held it out of arm's reach as the urchin tried to snatch it from his hands. "If you've seen who I'm looking for, and if you're not trying to swindle me. I'll find you, if you are."

The boy made an obnoxious sound at the back of his throat, but nodded in agreement to his demands. "Yeah, I know the bird you're after. Comes down here sometimes, thinks I don't see her pink hair and high shoes."

Gaara got more specific directions and tossed the ring at the boy. "Buy yourself etiquette lessons. And a bath tub," he added, wrinkling his nose.

He made his way through the maze, murmuring the directions as he went.

Sakura was all he'd thought of for so long. She didn't know his heart. She couldn't. Not yetBut she would, soon. It didn't need to be complicated and drawn out. It didn't need to torment him or humiliate him. He just wanted her. Not her kingdom. If he could just convince her of that, surely the rest would fall into place?

Gaara thought back to when they'd first met. He remembered their conversation and just how that day had changed his day forever. He heard their small, childlike voices in his head like it had happened yesterday; the answer to his problems was staring him in the face all along.

A few more minutes of navigating brought Gaara into an open area; a marketplace.

'Where is she?'

Taking point from his other venture, Gaara spoke with a few vendors, relinquishing several other knickknacks in return for information on the scrawny man who'd happened by. Feeling confident, he left the marketplace, heading north; he was getting a sinking feeling where Sakura was going. The girl knew how to move quickly through these lower areas.

It wasn't long before the personal Shinto Shrine of the royal family loomed in front of him once more. The daughter of the king had doubled back to the stables, perhaps cautiously hoping he would no longer be there so she could take the steed she'd been intending on using to escape the city. If that was indeed her plan. The guards were searching high and low for her, and a horse galloping toward the main gates would be a dead give away.

There had to be something else afoot in that brilliant mind of hers.

"Sakura!"

Gaara veered toward the stables at the sound of Naruto's voice. She wasn't getting away this time.

He broke into a run to cover the distance, terrified that he was already too late. There was no sound of hooves beating against the ground, nor the silence that would come with her choosing to escape through more nefariously stealthy means. As he entered the stables, Gaara slowed, trying to catch his breath – the blood was pounding in his ears. He'd never been more frustrated and nervous at the same time.

Two figures were huddled just inside the mews, whispering harshly at each other. Breathing a sigh of relief, the redhead marched toward them.

"Are you sure? I mean–"

"Leave us."

Both of the figures in the corner jumped at Gaara's command. They knew immediately who he was talking to.

"Wait a minute," Naruto said, stepping protectively in front of the pinkette. "You had your chance." He waggled a finger in Gaara's face. "And might I remind you of a certain promise to dig your grave for-hey!"

The blond grumbled as the redhead pushed him out of the way.

Gaara ignored the frown on Sakura's face as he reached up and tucked a lock of hair that had fallen out of her hood back into hiding. She blushed furiously at this, forgetting that Naruto was staring at them now, happily quietened down at this turn of events.

Gaara stood directly in front of her; not so far away that she could ignore the intense look on his face and not so close to make her uncomfortable with his forwardness. Four words were all he needed to show he was serious about her.

"Run away with me."

Her eyes widened at his proclamation. There was no way to prove it, but Gaara was positive that Sakura too, was remembering that day so long ago.

.

The selfish Princess. The crazy Princess. The childish Princess. That's what they called her. The only child of King Kizashi had earned her reputation for being a spoiled, vain, and demanding child. When she wasn't being intolerably too shy for her station, she was busy being a nuisance for her attendant.

She was busy hiding from her responsibilities.

The king of a foreign land had arrived to see her and she wasn't having any of that. No way she wanted to meet some old man who smelled like her grandfather.

The palace gardens were temperate; a cool breeze easily offsetting the hot season. And it was easily her favourite place when the adults were being boring. She shuffled in as quietly as her little feet would carry her, checking for the guards as well as listening to the booming voice of her attendant as the scary woman searched for her.

She ducked behind a statue next to a hedge and bushes, waiting for the imminent danger of being found to pass.

"Hello?"

Sakura turned her head around to find a little boy staring at her from within the bushes themselves. She giggled at the spiky red hair that stood out among the green of the garden shrubbery.

"What are you doing, silly?"

The boy shook his head, not responding.

"Well, it's not a very good hiding spot," she told him. "I can still see you."

"I see you too."

She smiled. "I suppose mine isn't that good either."

She knelt down, crawling into the hedges, ignoring the sharp edges of the foliage. The boy followed her with his eyes as she squeezed between the shrubbery and wall; it was cool and comforting in here. She could stay here forever.

Sakura finally looked up at the boy. He was her age she thought, which was six; maybe a year older than her. His face was no longer squished in the hedges as he followed her example, moving to the ground to better stay out of sight of the hub-bub her disappearance had caused.

They could still hear the voices calling for her and rush of feet in the distance. This hiding place was perfect.

"This is nice," she said. Sakura held out her hand. "I'm Sakura."

"I know," he said softly, then cleared his throat, taking her hand and kissing it like his tutor had taught him.

She giggled.

"I'm Gaara," he said, dropping her hand.

She looked him over. He looked like a prince. He sounded like a prince. He even wore an emblem – from what country she couldn't tell. She was falling behind in her lessons and didn't really care for all that boring talk.

But all this must mean he was with that boring king! She wondered why he was hiding out.

"My father is going to kill me," he said sadly.

"Why?"

He hesitated a moment before rambling about his life. His mother was dead, his father hated him, his siblings barely tolerated him. There was a painful sadness in his voice as he spoke and Sakura felt compelled to hug him.

He stiffened in her grip but she didn't let go.

"I'm hiding from them too," she whispered. "Your father wants to see me but I'd rather be here with you."

"You're the princess," he whispered back. "Why do you need to hide?"

"Because, silly. I don't want to be near him either."

Gaara grasped at her like a lifeline. "Then run away."

"W-what?"

He was blushing, hiding his face in the crook of her neck and trying not to fidget. "R-run away with me!"

Sakura giggled. "Okay."

"There you are!"

They both started, their hiding place found as two people hovered over them.

"Ma, I don't want to leave!" Sakura yelled as she was manhandled out from behind the hedges. Gaara was climbing out without incident, his own Retainer waiting patiently for him to do as he was told.

"My lady, that's enough! You will come back in and change, and meet with the king who has come all this way to see you." The overbearing woman glanced back at Gaara with a scathing look on her face. "And you will forget you ever met him."

Sakura pushed at her, in vain. "Don't be mean to him! He's a prince."

"No child, he isn't."

"Then why is he allowed in these walls?"

"That's not your concern princess; now come on."

"But what…"

Her attendant snatched Sakura's hand in hers. "Little princesses shouldn't ask questions."

"But…"

"Sakura!"

Sakura cringed at the tone in the older woman's voice.

She looked back at the forlorn boy. He looked like a prince. He had to be one, right?

"Gaara?" She asked, worriedly shuffling her feet toward him even as her attendant attempted to keep her from the boy. The boy that apparently the adults in the area were trying very hard to pretend wasn't there.

"I'll come back for you," he promised, and she nodded in agreement before letting herself be dragged away.

...

"Run away with me."

The intensity of his voice knocked her about and Sakura clasped at her chest, feeling her heart beat race through the thin material of her hooded coat. The little boy had made a promise to her, but she'd long since forgotten; now that memory stood out in bright colours, tormenting her with the possible future.

She could take Gaara up on his expectations and run away. She could give him that chance and hope that he had good intentions. Or she could signal to Naruto, who was looking between them curiously, to knock the redhead unconscious so she could make her escape.

'Escape to where?'

Her original plan had been to flee long enough for the invading prince to give up and go back to his country, writing her off as some spoiled princess who wasn't worth all this trouble – even if it took months. But Gaara had waited for her for years, remembering that promise made to an equally lonely and troublesome child. And if what he'd said to her earlier could be believed, he'd pulled strings to get her down the aisle; what was he giving up back home to trek all the way here? What did he expect, other than her hand, from this proposed matrimony?

"Sakura–"

"I'm thinking," she snapped.

"I'm not moving from here until you answer me."

He said it so casually, like he was asking for directions, or commenting on the weather. He might as well be mentioning how the rains had yet to come and that the unusual heat sweeping into her country from his sandy home were signs that this merger was inevitable.

If he were emotionless.

But, his voice also carried an underlying tone of finality to it. He was confident she'd say 'yes' and this wasn't a question, but he wasn't ordering her either. This was Gaara's way of proving he didn't want her for her throne. Her father would kill them both if they ran now.

Sakura wished she could say she wasn't that selfish little girl anymore. That she wouldn't run off and leave her father in a predicament with the line of succession. She had only done a runner on her wedding day as a stopgap, after all. But the whole thing tasted like a lie. She hadn't grown up. She hadn't changed. She was still that idiot child.

Sakura seriously considered just packing it in and taking off; and if she ran away with Gaara, would that make them lovers? Star crossed lovers who would be on the run from their respective countries. She would be ruining her life and dragging Gaara along for the ride. She remembered how he'd spoken about his father back when they were children – how scared he'd been of the king of the Land of Wind. Gaara was a man now, but was he braver now? Could he go behind his father's back? Would he, really? And was she so selfish as to expect him to?

Running away with her would show her that he would choose her over making a show of things for their fathers. It would mean he may never get the crown.

But it would ignite the ire of a man not above murdering his own blood.

Sakura held her hand flat against his chest, looking up at his expectant face. "No."

She watched the emotions on his face; the surprise, disappointment, and fear. Did she really affect him that heavily?

Sakura lowered her hand to take his. The confusion on his face brought a smile to hers.

"We don't need to run away."

Three feet away, Naruto grinned at his friend, realising what she meant. "I'll fetch the Shinto priest!" He hollered, excitedly.

"Wait, Naruto!"

Gaara tensed as Sakura called after the eager blond. Was she changing her mind?

"We need two witnesses," she said, and the redhead relaxed.

"No worries, Sakura-chan!"

The pinkette watched him go, feeling lighter than air; she guessed Hinata was going to be that second. She smiled at Gaara, who was clinging to her hand like his life depended on it.

She felt embarrassed all of a sudden. "Let's get married, shall we?"

"On one condition," Gaara said. She raised her eyebrows at him questioningly. He smiled, cupping her face with one hand. "No veil this time."

Sakura smiled and nodded. "Agreed."

Perhaps it was time to start a new tradition.

She decided to break one more tradition and pulled his face down to press her lips to his gently.

There was no such thing as a happy ending, but she would be damned if she ran away from this chance for a better future, again.

XXX

...

Thank-you to everyone who has and will read/review/fav this. It feels good to finally get this problematic chapter out of my head and onto this site. And the story finally finished. *blows kiss* Lotsa love. :)

R&R

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