AN: And we've finally come to the last chapter! I'm actually very excited to see this fic go, mostly because it needed an ending. I started this when I was fourteen (actually thirteen now that I've checked!) and I stopped writing for it around fifteen or sixteen. While I have a deep appreciation for this fic for being one of my first, I also sort of hate it because I really can't remember where I was going with it. That was one of the reasons why it was so hard to complete. :)
Anyway, please enjoy the final chapter, everyone!
WARNINGS: Un-betaed as of now. Will edit this later. Haha.
Approval for her request was granted a few days later, and while it should have felt like a victory, it was a hollow, shoddy one at best. But Sakura would be lying if she said she wasn't excited, as she packed what meager little she owned and ventured on her own for the first time in months. It had been a long but liberating carriage ride, the bumpy roads and cloudy weather reminding her that there was more to life than the confining walls of the castle. She'd do well to remember it when she was due to return in two weeks' time.
When she arrived, she was met by her father and brother, an excited Meilin and exceedingly large Tomoyo bringing up the rear. They hugged her so long and so hard that tears were welling up in her eyes, and she feels the entirety of her situation hit her. The homesickness had disappeared long ago, but the feeling of coming home was still strong in her chest. She hadn't known that seeing the place where she grew up would cause such a stir in her emotions.
Of course she couldn't dodge questions about the palace, how they were treating her, what she did there, if she would ever be released. She did her best to appease them with smiles and soft words, but there were no promises in them. She'd never be fool enough to give them that kind of false hope. They had experienced much by losing her; she refused to compound that grief with her own insincerity.
Her return turned into a small festival in her home, food and laughter and memories were running in large amounts. But the night was still young when she chose to retire, wanting to relax in her room and take in the silence and peace it gave her. There was strength in those walls, something that hardened her resolve to find a way to stay here and never leave again. She didn't have much time, but perhaps something would come about. Her life changed in a moment months ago, so she had faith that she could engineer another chance herself.
There was a knock on her door as she dried her hair, already dressed in her nightgown. She invited them in, as she put her towel down and over the back of the chair. She was not surprised to see her dark-haired friend there, smiling that serene look of hers that she'd maintained throughout her entire life. But there was something lurking there, darker than any other emotion than anything Sakura had seen on her before. It made her skin crawl.
"How are you doing, Sakura-chan?" she asked, taking a seat next to her friend on the bed, her stomach causing her to hunch as she did. The question was inviting enough, but it does nothing to calm the storm in her eyes.
"Fine, Tomoyo-chan. You should know that by now. Everyone's asked a million times already."
"You know that's not what I'm talking about." Her throat clenched as those omniscient eyes glared directly at her, no more room for games. She hated that she was still so transparent, her thoughts as easily seen as they had been when she left. If she had only learned to control them earlier, maybe she wouldn't be in the predicament she was in now. Sakura could deal with unrequited love if she was alone, but not when her feelings were confronted. It seemed that her friend wanted to reopen old wounds.
She didn't even try to fight it. The words spill out like a waterfall, a rush of pressure with nowhere to go but down. And Tomoyo listened to all of it, her wisdom glowing in the light of the candles and intruding moonlight. There was no judgment, but there was no sympathy either. The beautiful woman had always reserved her opinions for the end, choosing her own words simply but well. At the end of her story, it felt as if she had been laid bare, stark naked beneath her assessing eyes. Sakura decided she didn't like it one bit.
"So what do you plan to do next?" Tomoyo inquired, head tilted carefully.
"I honestly don't know. I'm just making it up as I go along." She laughed weakly, trying to ease her nervousness. She'd never planned for contingencies, never thought she'd go through something as dramatic as her current state. No one could truly predict the future.
"Would you like to know what I think?" Sakura nodded, hoping there was something the other girl could offer her. If there was a time to act, it had to be now while she wasn't under constant surveillance. The problem was that she didn't even know where to start.
"I think you should give yourself time," she said simply, the answer neutral and not helping at all in Sakura's opinion. "You've rushed through your life so quickly the last few months, Sakura-chan. And I know how hard it is for you to wait, but perhaps it's just what you need.
"Don't do anything rash now. You might just end up regretting it later."
It was lonely.
That was the only adjective that could properly describe the estate after Sakura had departed. There was less light in the well-lit rooms, less happy chatter in the kitchens whenever he passed by, less life in the garden that he adored so much. And while he would like to chalk it up to the fact that she had only been gone a few days, truthfully the excuse was a sad attempt at justifying his solitude.
But that had been what he wanted. Prince Syaoran was a proud, lone wolf who depended on no one and needed little. Whatever he required could be achieved either with a little work or suppression of whatever feelings he might have. At least, that was how he usually dealt with his problems.
However, it seemed that Sakura was a special case.
He grew antsy in his wait, knowing the deadline for her return was set in stone and truly not that far away to begin with. When he had given his permission, he'd been relieved to see her go, glad that her confusing feelings and heartfelt confession would follow along with her. But it seemed that traces of the auburn-haired girl were everywhere, invading his head and his private spaces where no one was allowed entry.
He found himself missing her even in those places, waiting for green eyes to look at him expectantly, waiting for an order she'd fulfill no matter what. Despite her words, she was an asset to him, someone who could get any job done with enough tenacity to make up for her lack of skill. And she wasn't nearly as bad as housework; she claimed for she had gained the admiration of the staff her quick learning and stubbornness to finish anything assigned to her. Some days, he expected to see her wiping down windows or cleaning the floor, ready to dirty herself if need be. She wasn't like any gentle lady he had ever known.
But what he missed most about her had been something she'd been missing long before now. The spark of life that had caught him off-guard when he met her, that fire that burned brighter than any star. He'd been looking for it for a while now. Oh, she was still as polite as ever, withholding her last visit, but there was no more pleasure to see him anymore, a blockade put on her own emotions. And Syaoran had a distinct feeling that he had been the one to cause it. He had many regrets in his life, but never one as strong as this.
The only other option than removing me is to marry a nobleman…
He clenched his fists, resisting the urge to slam one against the table. Was she mocking him? This had been a business deal, regardless if it was done long before she was even born. And that's all it should have been, a straightforward bargain, no clauses attached. But a person wasn't as clean cut as a contract, messier and infinitely more intrusive than a few conditions and fine prints.
When a knock on his door is heard, the young prince could only sigh bitterly before tell them to come in. It's the main house's head maid, a strict, plump woman who rules with an iron fist over her workers and yet had the oddest ability to appear strangely motherly at the same time. A paradox if he'd ever seen one, as she curtsied in front of him and greeted him good afternoon.
"Do you need something of me?" he asked, voice not quite keeping out the irritation from his previous thoughts. Either she didn't notice or chose not to comment because she nodded, back rail straight and proper. It brought back memories of her looking down on him as a child, as he chides himself for being reminiscent. But somehow it was nice to know that there were some things in this world that didn't change, as odd as her presence was to him.
"I was wondering if anything was the matter as of late, Your Highness." It wasn't a question. He held in a sigh, knowing he should've expected this sort of behavior from the old bat. She read him too well, saw the slight changes in his demeanor as clearly as if he'd yelled them allowed. Those dark, owl eyes perceived too much not to know he wasn't the same man he was a few months ago, maybe even a week ago. He wasn't sure himself.
"My head has been out of sorts lately but nothing you should worry about," he admitted, but the warning underlined the polite tone. When her gaze sharpened, he knew it was the wrong thing to do. Women, he'd never know how that almost sixth sense of theirs worked.
"You've been thinking of her, haven't you?" she asked, but it wasn't really one that needed an answer so he didn't offer one. Instead, he shrugged noncommittally, as if he had no idea what she was talking about. Syaoran was a terrible liar, had been even as a child, so he'd learned that saying nothing at all and looking fierce saved him more times than not. Unfortunately, the strategy would be useless on this old bat.
She moved towards the desk, taking a seat in front of him. He opened his mouth to say something, perhaps a reprimand at her impertinence or a simple inquiry as to why she was approaching him but stopped himself. In all his years, whenever he needed a confidant and had come up lacking, she was there; even now, it seemed that she would still be the one to talk some sense into him.
"If you think of her, then it means that you feel something for her, isn't that right, Your Highness?" It was a question, but it was done out of politeness more than anything else, a way to soften an otherwise rude comment to a noble. He didn't know what to say to her so he nodded instead. It was probably the first time he'd ever admitted the thought to someone else, that he felt something for the doe-eyed girl who loved too openly and easily to not be loved back. The way his heart pounded harder in his chest didn't go unnoticed.
"Then perhaps it's time you do something you've never really done before," she shrugged, intentionally vague and causing him to frown at her. It was another one of her tricks, something to make him say things he'd never admit aloud to anyone else.
"Like what? Let her go? Allow her that freedom without her family's proper retribution?" He snorted, haughty and defiant. But she wasn't fazed, as she leveled a stare that made him feel immensely small, almost like a child again. It was one of the few things he feared, even now as an adult, because it pierced right through his core, unceremoniously shedding his armor of deep sarcasm and well-built protection.
It forced him to confront himself, and Syaoran wasn't sure if he was ready to.
"You do for those that you love things you would only wish upon yourself," she replied with a sagely nod, and somehow the tiredness in her face aged her rapidly in his eyes. He'd forgotten how long he'd known her, how well she knew him, one of the few that could put into words the things he should be doing and not the things he felt he had to do. And damn her, but she was always right too.
"So, you're telling me to let her go." It wasn't a question, and it shouldn't have needed an answer but she still gave him one, just the slightest shake of her head. When she leaves the room, her last words sat heavily on his mind, as he tucked his chin into his hands and closed his eyes in thought. Somehow his resolve steeled itself in his chest, as he grabbed some parchment and a quill, those solemn words haunting him.
"My Prince, you don't let anyone go if you love them; you only let them find themselves so they may come back to you, stronger than before. And while they are gone, you may find yourself becoming someone worthy of their love in turn."
Sakura didn't have to wait long for Tomoyo's labor. After the first three days, it was a shock when her water broke at lunch, the oddest look on her friend's face as it turned from confusion to recognition and then finally to horror. It had been a mad scramble to call the midwife, alert Eriol, gather all of the necessary birthing items all while trying to calm Tomoyo's nerves.
Luckily, it had been a rather routine affair. The time was neither too long nor too short, and the actual delivery was uncomplicated through and through. By the end, the most beautiful black-haired baby girl was born, crying as she took her first breath and gaining the hearts of every person in the room. A birth was a miracle, and while Sakura had heard it often enough she hadn't understood it well until then. Now, she knew why it was a tried and true saying.
She spent the rest of the week taking care of Tomoyo and doting on her niece, completely enraptured by her. Now she had someone new to love and care for, a bundle of joy that eased any sort of reservations she had about love. Maybe one day she'd find a man who would love her and give her children of her own, but in the off chance she didn't Sakura was content to let this child be what she might never have. It was a somber thought, but one she had to consider.
The work afterwards had been a tiring affair for the new parents, who woke often to feed and change their little girl, leaving scant amounts of time for their errands and themselves. So, Sakura had taken on the home tasks, doing their grocery shopping and cleaning as necessary, directing the workers of the house with efficiency that had been ingrained in her. Touya had nearly died of a heart attack when he learned how well organized his sister was, a far cry from her usual messiness and, as he so loved to call it, 'path of destruction' she used to leave in her wake. She tried not to poison his lunch after that insensitive comment.
But, as all good things do, the second week came to an end.
"Sakura, don't leave!" Tomoyo complained, arms wrapped around her best friend and hopping up and down. She wanted to tell her it probably wasn't the most ideal thing to do just a week or so after giving birth, but the dark-haired girl never listened anyway. So she closed her arms around the other woman, feeling tears well up in her eyes. There were many things she would miss, but this friendship would be one of the most important.
"Take care, okay?" Meilin said, intercepting her when Tomoyo went to Eriol, his arm wrapping around his wife. Her brother and father were silent, the former with an air of distaste and sadness in the other's. After all, this was a situation beyond their control now, growing impossibly more difficult to untangle oneself from. To be honest, they weren't sure if Sakura was any more capable of escaping her fate now than she was before. She had changed; it was more than apparent in anyone's eyes that the woman who had come back wasn't the little girl who left.
As she climbed into the carriage, she turned back with that wide grin and waved widely, childishly unsuitable for her age and rank but it didn't feel forced. She might have been going back, but she wasn't turning around, wasn't turning back to her old, comfortable life. Instead, she could only move forward, eyes set on something in the horizon and currently beyond her reach. All she could do was wonder what it was she was searching for.
I wonder how Syao… I mean, Master is. She bit down on her lower lip, feeling any of that old warmth from her family seep out of her. She was returning with ambivalence deep inside her, sorrow mixed with anticipation. She hadn't fallen in love over night, but she definitely had fallen and she was still climbing her way out. And unfortunately she knew that one look at his face, even just a snippet of good humor in her eyes, would have her tumbling down the rabbit hole and all her progress would be gone.
Her thoughts were the only things that kept her company, as the wooden wheels moved through silt dirt and over smooth rocks, the pathway familiar as it jostled the carriage around. And at first there was no suspicion, the rickety movement almost calming. She'd traveled this road many times to many different places before it eventually broke off into other main streets, leading one down many different paths. Sakura knew exactly where they were going, every bend and curve a part of her muscle memory.
But then something started to creep into her subconscious, as she felt the driver turn onto a new path; this one was distinctly different from the normal. It pushed her from her half-asleep state, forcing her eyes open as she pulled open the curtains. She hadn't dozed long and judging by the outside scenery they weren't very far from the trail they'd just left. Sticking her head out and into the sunlight, she called out to the coachman.
"Sir, where are we going?" Sakura asked, hoping he could hear her over the thudding of the horses' hooves. Luckily it was a young man driving, one whose hearing was well intact as he looked over his shoulder to make eye contact with the young maiden. He didn't take his eyes off the road, even as he shouted his response.
"We are heading into the eastern part of the country, my lady. I have strict instructions to see you there," he replied graciously, multitasking as he led his animals down another road, this one paved with actual cement.
"But why?" She tried to disguise the hitch in her voice as mere curiosity but it was certainly more than that. Something akin to fear bubbled in her stomach, accompanied by confusion and a sense of dread. The Royal Palace was up north, closer to their allied territories. This wasn't right, not at all, as she wrung her fingers in her dress. Unfortunately, her only response was a shrug, as he went right back to his task at hand.
When she sat back down, Sakura was surprised to see a small envelope across from her, somehow escaping her notice. Its color blended in with the red velvet cushions, as she grabbed it with unsteady hands. Deep inside, she knew exactly where it had come from and as she spies the writing a feeling of dread overcame her. She read with misty eyes, her fingers to her lips as she took it all in.
He was giving her what she wanted.
Dear Sakura, it read, I am writing this in hopes that one day you'll forgive me for the things I've put you through, for the things I did and the things I hadn't the courage to do. When you told me that you wanted freedom, I forced myself to comply with your only demand of me. While I can't guarantee you such, I can offer you a taste of it. My sister who lives in the farther reaches of the kingdom is looking for a governess, someone bright and energetic to take care of her two growing children. When I read her letter, I couldn't help but think of you. I know it's underhanded of me to force this on you without prior explanation, but it was the only thing I could think of doing. If I had explained in person, I have no doubt I wouldn't have gone through with it and I couldn't take that chance.
I hope that in time you'll forgive me for this indiscretion as well. Let us meet again one day and greet each other as friends, not as the master and servant relationship that was first placed on us. And maybe by then I'll be able to put into proper words the feelings that I'm still trying to come to grips with. I can only plead that you wait patiently until then, as you have always done so when it comes to me.
With great hope and… love,
As the letter falls to her lap and her vision blurs with tears, Sakura knew that another chapter on her life was being closed and again, without her permission. She wasn't even allowed the proper closure, to say goodbye properly to those who had taken care of her, who had taught her so much. And of course she wanted one last word with Prince Syaoran, not a scrap of paper that wouldn't answer her questions or deflect her anger. It was cruel; he was cruel. That was the only thing she could think, as she curled into herself in the corner of the carriage and willed her sorrow away.
But some paths weren't truly finished crossing; one day she'd learned that they diverge again a little further down the road.
Three Years Later
He had to have loved his sisters very much because if not then he didn't know why he subjected himself to their countless balls and soirees on a monthly basis. But this was as worthy a cause as any, as Syaoran was never one to turn away at the birth of a new niece. Only a few months old and already he was hearing stories of her awesome beauty and sparkling personality. If this was what it was like now, he could only imagine what he'd hear when she became of age.
He half-hoped she'd be a bit of a hellion, just to make his sister angry.
After travelling the long, winding paths to his sister's husband's estate, he took in the shining crystal chandeliers and extended buffet table, noting that nothing was too much for this little get-together. He wanted to shake his head because what sort of infant needed the highest grade meat and couples in their finest wear to celebrate being born? But the question was moot, as he went to greet his sister and the bundle of joy in her arms.
Doing his best to ignore the excited whispers of the surrounding young women, Syaoran kissed his sister's cheek and shook his brother-in-law's hand, giving then a curt smile. And as he gazed upon the latest addition to his family, he could feel his heart pound just a little bit harder in joy. Because, even if all the praise is stretched and contorted with unwanted subtext, his niece was everything they said she'd be.
"Isn't she beautiful?" her mother doted, leaning to nuzzle the nose of the sleeping babe. He could only nod, entranced by the tiny, balled up fists and feather soft skin.
"Where are her siblings?" he couldn't help but ask, as her father comes in to take the little one and put her down for a nap. How lucky his sisters were to find husbands who loved them just as much as they loved their offspring, a rare occurrence in the upper circles that left the youngest royal sibling a little envious.
"They're with their companion, probably playing outside. You know how they are," she laughed, pointing towards the opened glass doors that led to the garden. And even though it had slipped his mind on the way here, the feeling of anticipation was playing at the bottom of his stomach as he moved towards the doors.
Something… no, someone was there, someone he had long forgotten about, pushed to the edges of his mind to make room for his duties and parliament and other things that made for helpful distractions. Because if not, then he didn't know how he'd function on a daily basis, always wondering what she was doing or if she was well. Too many half-written notes had accumulated in his waste bin over the last few years, penned with frustrated scrawl and filled with pointless topics that he had deemed safe. But they were so close now, for the first time in years; he'd be a fool to make the same mistake twice.
The laughter was loud and boisterous, as two dark-haired children, one boy and one girl, bound away from their keeper. She made an exasperated noise, but it was all for show, as she smiled that familiar grin. It made her face light up, green eyes twinkling in mirth and joy, things he hadn't realized he'd missed. The look stole air from his ribcage, as he watched them play in the cool grass beneath the lowering sun. Something flashed in his mind's eye for a moment, as the older boy's coloring went from black to chocolate brown and the girls' hazel eyes became emerald.
For a second, he couldn't help but think that's what his own children would look like.
As he stepped into the outdoor air, he intercepted his little niece and nephew, who look up at him with adoring eyes. Ruffling the boy's hair and giving the girl a kiss, he directed them to find their grandmother, saying that she had a few gifts for them. It was more than enough to have them racing inside, leaving him with an apprehensive but serene looking Sakura. And even though time has spanned between them, long and leaving neither untouched, he couldn't help but think that they've only gotten better with age.
"Sakura…" Syaoran murmured, not sure how to start. It almost made her eyes widen, hearing him sound so unsure, so unlike himself in every way. She thought she knew him, every last little detail, and yet he'd never spoken like that before, had never looked at her with a melancholy that wasn't masked by his regal overconfidence. And it made all the difference to her, as walls go down infinitely faster than they were put up, while she smiled that genuine, heartfelt beam of hers. When she extends her hand and he takes it in his own, something was telling that things would be different for them the second time around.
AN: I'm sure for some people this wasn't as satisfying as it could be, but I've come to realize that a lot of the happy endings I wanted for older fics don't really fit my frame of mind anymore. So yes, it's open-ended but I'm sure you can all come up with suitable ones in your own minds. After all, a story isn't a story without a little imagination.
Thank you all so much for reading and sticking through this with me, as difficult as I'm sure it was. There will probably be no more CCS from me, but this was good for me. I wanted so badly to finish this piece and now that it's done I feel a million times better. Please review with your last thoughts. Take care, everyone!