Merry Christmas, everyone… :)

~SectumSemprae

A WhiteWalled Christmas

-EPILOGUE: NEW YEAR'S-

-0-

The air breathed autumn. Gaara closed his eyes as the sunlight streaked gold through his red hair, making his head appear to be on fire, just like the dappled falling leaves. Gold and green and red – all the colors brought out in Konoha, and it made him feel so deliciously free… The maple sap in the trees made the breeze smell husky and rich. Before him lay the cobblestone, leading from the bottom of the stairs to…anywhere. Anywhere in this world.

Gaara stood in front of the courtroom, wind on his face, a free man. All around him, people – friends – smiled and cheered.

Two faces in particular stood out to him. To his left, a tanned face smiled down, purple paint unable to hide his brother's joy. Kankuro, a precious person who had finally found him again. To his right, a proud older sister grinned so hard that she squinted, finally reunited with her precious, long-lost brothers. Temari, the one he never knew he had missed, until now.

It was so strange to him. Here he was, his family and friends around him. The asylum personnel were there. Naruto smiled cheekily and clapped Gaara on the back. Hinata gave him a timid smile. Lee was cheering with exuberance. Other guards looked reserved but no less happy for him. He looked through all the smiling faces for the one face he wanted to see, for the one who was never far from his mind.

She was not there. He looked around hopefully for the head of pink hair, the girl of his dreams. But she was absent.

Disappointment surged through him, and for a brief dark moment, he could feel his heart shattering in his chest. She really hadn't come. But… he knew that he mustn't judge her based on that. Naruto had told him time and again that Sakura wanted to be there with him. She couldn't. She was forbidden.

He inhaled the autumn air, and in a heartbeat her image came to him. It was as he imagined it every night. Her soft pink hair shielding her face, and how he would reach up and brush it back, revealing her sun-freckled face, and he would kiss her. How would he find her again? He still wanted to see if what they had was real. He felt it was. He hoped she did as well. It had been a long nine months since they had seen each other.

He would see her again. But it didn't stop the pain of her absence now.

He looked down at his hands. No more shackles. The trial had taken a long time, but he supposed he was lucky. He had been acquitted of all charges.

He forced a smile on his face, and it quickly became genuine. Today was the first day of the rest of his life.

-0-

"Well, that concludes our session for now. See you next week, Sakura!"

"Thank you!" the pink-haired girl smiled politely, taking her time to adjust her purse on her shoulder before leaving her therapist's room. Today they had been discussing boundaries – when it was OK to say no and when it was OK to say yes. The therapist believed that Sakura had trouble with reversed boundaries: saying yes to the wrong things and vice versa. It had been a very invigorating session, and she was already looking forward to next week.

She sighed softly at the sight of the autumn leaves sprinkling down onto the sidewalk. Even though her favorite season was spring, there was something intoxicating about fall in Konoha. She hurried to the small convenience store she worked at, just a couple of blocks away from the therapy center. The hours flew by quickly, her mind occupied by her growing concept of boundaries.

4 o'clock. Her shift was over. She bought herself a newspaper and dropped the money in her coworker's hand before leaving the small store.

She walked down the street slowly, fallen leaves crackling beneath her feet. As she walked under a sweetgum tree, a shower of red leaves fell down, covering her face. She gasped. A flash in her mind of a red-haired man, with soft green eyes. She sighed. His trial should be going on right now. No matter how much she wanted to see him, she knew she had been forbidden from doing so. If she did… and here she found she could not even laugh at the irony …if she did try to go to the courtroom to see Gaara, she might be the one who would up imprisoned.

Sakura turned her face up to the sky, blinking back sadness. She would see him again. He would be free soon. He had to be. And she would wait patiently for him to come to her. A sharp pang of guilt followed the thought. She would do as Tsunade said and let Gaara make his own choice. What was that she had been learning about – boundaries, right? She could only hope he would choose to find her. Though… thanks to therapy, she felt less and less like the nurse she formerly was and more like a patient herself. An equal.

There was a park nearby, a bench she liked to sit on. The air was nice and cool. She lazily chewed a peach slice from her anmitsu snack as she opened the paper.

'UCHIHA OBITO'S ATTEMPTED ESCAPE – FOILED!' read the headlines. She narrowed her eyes. He had only been formally sentenced and transferred last week! Only a week, and he had already tried to escape! She recalled her former patient's goofy demeanor, contrasted with the scary man she had come to know those short hours last Christmas Eve. His true colors were showing now that the mask was off.

She wondered briefly what would have happened if she had still been at the asylum, if she had been part of his trial. Would her life have been more hectic than it was now? More meaningful? Somehow she felt left out sometimes; she regretted strongly that she wasn't at the asylum anymore, with…him. Red hair flashed again to mind, and she sighed deeply. She shook her head. She was doing better than she had in years. For the first time in a long time, she felt perfectly in control of her life. She felt…compassion for herself. It was a good feeling.

The paper crinkled as she flipped to the next page. Another large headline: 'EX-HOKAGE SHIMURA SET FOR FIRST TRIAL NEXT THURSDAY'. Underneath there was a picture of Shimura Danzo and a man she recognized as Tsunade's husband – Ueyama Jiraiya – face-to-face. Jiraiya had been voted in as the interim Hokage until a more formal process could take place. He had nothing but glowing praise so far. She smiled, though it fell a little as she spared a thought for her old mentor. She still felt the sting of shame at disappointing her. More work to do still. She loved her therapist. They would work through it, and she would emerge stronger.

The paper nearly fell from her hands.

A face, the face she had been imagining to its last detail, achingly familiar, stared at her from the page. Only a little thinner. Serious eyes as always. Tattooed forehead. Shaggy hair. The paper was in grayscale, or else she would have longingly run her fingers over the blood red hair it failed to capture. As it was, she smiled softly.

Gaara was free.

A tear dripped down her cheek.

-0-

"C'mon Gaara! You can't stay cooped up in here all the time!" Naruto had been arguing with Gaara for twenty minutes. "I just don't get why you can't go outside and start exploring the world! You've been cooped up inside a prison for years, and when you get out all you wanna do is stay at home?!"

"Naruto…" Usually the redhead would pinch the bridge of his nose during one of their famous arguments. Every weekend, Naruto would come over to try to lure him outside, blond hair tousling as he jumped up and down. It was such a change from the serious guard he had always known inside the prison – though he supposed it wasn't too surprising to find out Naruto had chatterbox syndrome to go with his extreme stamina. Gaara sighed. He was thankful, he really was, that Naruto had taken it upon himself to be Gaara's "first real friend, believe it!" outside the prison. But right now – and for the last month and a half – all he really wanted was solitude.

He wasn't totally isolated. He had his once-weekly outpatient therapy sessions with Dr. Ueyama. A few days a week, he helped Kankuro out, stocking shelves at an art store. Kankuro worked the cash register. It was a good way to spend the time, and he didn't have to interact with people very much. Or spend hours upon hours thinking about a specific someone… Oh wait, that's exactly what he did anyway, no matter how hard he worked to restock…

"Gaara…" Naruto immediately cottoned on when he saw the sadness in Gaara's eyes. "This isn't about Sakura, is it…" Gaara looked even more dejected, and Naruto's eyes widened. "Why don't you go and talk to her? What's eating at you so bad that you can't even face her yet?"

"I—" he sighed and ran a hand through his rust-colored hair. "How can I see Nur—Sakura again if I don't even know if I'm healthy yet?" He looked almost angry for a moment. "Inside the asylum, I was guarded. If I were to go insane, there were people around to stop me. But out here… no restraints…" He shook his head. "I could be a danger to her…without even meaning to be."

Naruto put an arm around his shoulders, making him look up. What he saw surprised him. There were tears in the blond's blue eyes.

"You know—something happened when I was younger, Gaara. I felt the same way at one point in time. I had been called monster for so long that… I was afraid to reach out to other people. What if it were true? I was always so afraid of losing control…"

"What happened?"

"Well, I met Lady Tsunade and her husband. They inspired me. They cared for me. And there was this other guy too, this teacher I had named Iruka. He believed in me when no one else did. They're the ones who helped me get over some of my biggest fears. They made sure I wasn't left alone." He shook his head, and the tears disappeared. "You shouldn't be alone, Gaara. That's what drives people crazy, when they're isolated for too long. Remember, that's how those elders got you in the first place in your home Suna."

Gaara flinched at the reminder. He knew he needed to go back there someday. But more importantly… How was he going to see Sakura again? He couldn't leave without seeing her. Feeling anguished, he buried his head in his hands.

Naruto's hand was on his shoulder once again. "I have an idea, Gaara. In three weeks I'm having a Christmas party. There's your chance. If you want me to, I'll invite Sakura, but one way or another I want you to be there."

Gaara's eyes widened. "On Christmas? But—"

"Christmas Eve," Naruto corrected. "Think of it as a celebration. A year ago we busted the great Akatsuki plot. You were there!" he laughed at Gaara's dour expression. "You know it better than me, because you were one of the key players in doing it!" His grin softened. "You know you want to see her. So be there, and I'll invite Sakura."

"You would do that," Gaara said softly, "…For me?"

"What else are friends for?"

Gaara hesitated. Naruto could sense his friend's nervousness. But slowly the redhead straightened up, and then… a timid smile came to his face.

"I'll be there."

-0-

She wandered in the December haze, witnessing as the world turned from the colors of summer dying to bleak grey. OK, so maybe it wasn't so bleak yet, but she could feel the chill as winter crept ever closer. She was wrapped, bundled up in a heavy jacket and scarf as she walked down near the stores. It was time to find gifts. She always started early.

Lights were beginning to appear in the windows of the retail stores. White lights. A white Christmas coming soon.

Why did people wear such dark colors during the holiday season? It seemed everywhere she looked were people in dark trench coats. They moved so fast! Without sound, except for the eerie swish of wind. Was she having a panic attack? No, she couldn't be… But why did it seem as if some of the other pedestrians took the familiar shapes of her patients? Why did it feels, as she waded through the crowds, that she was surrounded by ghosts of the Christmas past? Seeing their reflections in the window only enhanced it for her.

The crowds moved with their own rhythm, an awkward wordless dance of avoiding stepping on other's toes, of keeping warm. People brushed past her, and it seemed that the world moved too fast. She was stuck in her past.

A fireball of red passed through one of the reflections, moving swiftly ever on. She spun around, trying to locate the fireball. "Wait!" But it was gone. And she was almost certain that it had been in the shape of her favorite patient, once upon a time…

She got home laden with parcels. As soon as she shut the door, the peace of her and Ino's apartment seemed to press against her softly, soothing her.

It was all in the past. It had happened almost a year ago. Of course she would still have memories of that time. Especially around Christmas. She just hadn't expected them to be so powerful, flooding in like that. Definitely something she needed to bring up in therapy next week.

The red light on her answering machine was blinking. She pressed the button, and a cheerful voice filled the small apartment:

"Hi Sakura, it's Naruto! Long time no see! I was wondering if you wanna come to a party I'm having in a few weeks. It's on Christmas Eve. Let me know, call me soon. I miss you, we should hang out more often!" Click.

She stood for a moment, feeling a quiet happiness. It had been months since she had seen any of them. She had become a recluse. And yet Naruto at least hadn't forgotten about her. She needed to work harder from her end to honor their friendship. Eagerly, she picked up the phone and dialed Naruto's number, a "yes" waiting in her throat.

-0-

"Girl, hurry up!" Ino called loudly from the hallway. Her housemate and best friend was taking too long in the bathroom. You'd think she had a date or something!

Sakura rolled her eyes; it wasn't even 8 o'clock yet and Ino was already tipsy. "Enjoying that champagne already, Ino? You're supposed to wait until New Year's!"

"Oh, party pooper! I'll drink what I like when I like it!"

"Maybe that's the problem?"

"Oh shut up! I bet there will be booze at Naruto's party. You know, Choji and Shikamaru will be there…" she said for perhaps the twentieth time that evening.

"Sure, Ino," she laughed turning her attention briefly back to the mirror. Her makeup was fine, she had checked. That wasn't what had her nervous. "There's nothing to be afraid of," she whispered, staring herself in the eyes. "My friends don't hate me. There's nothing to be self-conscious for. There's nothing to be afraid of…" She exhaled slowly, then picked up her purse and left the bathroom.

She caught her friend's blonde ponytail in the hallway and gave it a gentle pull, startling the girl. "Alright, let's go!" she said firmly. Ino turned with a slight red-faced pout, and Sakura laughed. "I swear, Shikamaru and Choji, that's all you talk about…"

-0-

The noise percolated out from Naruto's small apartment. The bass was loud enough to make the handle jiggle slightly.

Ino had gone to the corner store, perhaps to buy more alcohol, though she claimed she was getting bottled water. Sakura stood alone quietly on the doorstep, willing herself to knock. With a flash, it sunk in that it was Christmas Eve. At this time last year, her horror-filled adventure had just begun. She had been locked in the asylum, locked in with her escaped patients, desperate to live. She had seen so many horrible things that night, and so many things had happened to her. But she had survived. Thanks to a certain redhead, a small group of patients, and her very own determination - she had come out alive.

She took a deep breath. Whatever was behind this door could not be scarier than was she experienced last year.

She started to knock…and the door fell open by itself. She huffed, amused. Naruto must have forgotten to close it properly after the last guests. She opened the door…

Sudden warmth. She beamed.

It was like a scene out of the past, but with so much joy in the room. There were Ten Ten, Lee, and Neji, sitting on the couch and chatting. Neji was arguing passionately with Lee about something and Ten Ten was laughing at their antics. Ten Ten caught her eye and a huge smile swept over the guard's face. Sakura smiled back.

As Ten Ten was standing up, Sakura's eyes swept the rest of the room. Naruto was whispering something in Hinata's ear, and the girl's eyes were shining, though her cheeks were as red as ever. The guards Shino and Kiba were standing over the couch, looking down at the lovebirds and trying to overhear what Naruto was saying. Their added attention probably wasn't helping Hinata's shyness.

Shikamaru and Choji were standing close to the kitchen talking about something. She could smell something delicious wafting in and she smiled. After last year's Christmas Eve feast at the asylum, how could she ever forget the Akimichi family's amazing cooking?

Ten Ten squeezed her tightly. The guard looked positively radiant. It had been a year since she had seen Ten Ten, but it felt like no time had passed at all.

"Where have you been?" Ten Ten yelled, her brown buns bobbing. "You totally ghosted on us! Before you leave this party, I'm getting your number, and then I'm never losing track of you again!"

Sakura laughed, tears coming into her eyes. How could she have forgotten her wonderful friends? "I'll give you my number right now!" she yelled back over the din of the music and chatter. "But don't worry, I'm not going anywhere right away—"

"Actually, I think there's someone here who wants to talk to you!" Ten Ten's eyes sparkled. "I'd better let you go so you can find him!"

Sakura looked at her in confusion, and then understanding dawned. Her mouth fell open. Ten Ten gave her a gentle smile, then sat back down with Neji and Lee.

She saw a tall grey-haired man she recognized as Hatake Kakashi, talking to Uchiha Itachi and another man with spiky brown hair. There were a few other people Sakura did not recognize, but that didn't matter. She wandered through Naruto's living room, before stopping with a small gasp.

In a dark corner, she could see two people sitting together, talking. She recognized the woman's voice: Temari. The blonde woman was in mid-laugh when she looked up and recognized Sakura, who was watching them silently now. She smiled and turned to say something to her companion, who immediately stood up.

Sakura couldn't see it, but even as the chatter continued, the whole room was holding their breath, waiting to see what would happen.

Pale green eyes gazed softly at the pink-haired woman before widening. Sakura took a tentative step forward, scarcely believing it. Her redheaded angel was here. Gaara was standing in front of her.

"Sakura…"

"Hello, Gaara," she whispered.

He had waited so long for this moment, and now he was speechless. Everything he wanted to say, to ask, fled his mind. A year, a full year stretched in between them. Had they changed too much now? He was scared to ask. Now, more than anything, he wanted to know… would she stay or would she run?

His fears broke when Sakura offered him a heartwarming smile. "You look wonderful!" He hadn't been expecting her to say that, and he breathed out, surprised and relieved.

"Well, you don't look so bad yourself!"

She laughed. The rest of the room audibly relaxed and the chatter resumed. She vaguely heard Ino making her grand entrance to the rest of the party, and Temari stood up to go greet the fellow blonde.

"Can you sit with me?"

"Of course!"

She flopped down next to him on the futon and leaned toward him, eyes earnest. He wanted to grab her and kiss her right here and now… but he didn't want to press his luck. He couldn't believe that she was here with him right now!

"So…" he started awkwardly. "One year…"

She nodded and then grinned hugely. "One year… We survived!"

There was something in her smile. He could see the double meaning. We survived Christmas Eve last year… And we survived a whole year apart. He nodded, and for the first time in that year, a huge feeling of relief descended in him, so deep that he felt truly peaceful. He put his arm around her on the futon and she leaned into him. One year apart…we can survive anything now.

-0-

They had talked all night. It was amazing how easily the conversation flowed in between them.

Both Sakura and Gaara realized that they had built each other up so much in their minds over that year apart, that they both needed a moment to adjust to reality. Reality was a lot simpler, and much less intimidating than fantasy. Reality was flesh and blood, stutters and nervous moments in conversation. Reality was also comfort, familiarity. They didn't need to be brilliant to impress each other. The happiness that wove itself through their conversation – that was the real purpose.

As Gaara stood to go, goaded out the door by Kankuro and Temari, he made a date with Sakura. One she excitedly agreed to – in exactly one week, on New Year's Eve. As he turned to go, she caught his hand, and his heart sped up. They hadn't kissed. They hadn't even hugged. Somehow Gaara found himself wanting to take it slow, to make sure that they built their relationship properly—

Sakura stood up and hugged him, and he melted into her embrace. He could feel her shaking slightly. He breathed even more softly, so as not to disturb the moment.

When they finally parted, she looked up shyly. "I didn't have a better Christmas gift for you."

He laughed suddenly, remembering their moment at the start of Christmas last year, when she had hugged him through the bars of his cell. "You mean you didn't have a giant life-sized teddy bear lying around?" he teased.

She too remembered their conversation from later that night, after he had rescued her from Tobi. "Well, you said you preferred a hug!"

He smiled and shook his head. "Best Christmas gift I ever received… aside from this one, I mean!"

She nodded, suddenly shy.

"Since when did you know how to flirt, little bro?" Kankuro clapped his brother good-naturedly on the back, laughing. "C'mon, let's go before you give her a coronary! You'll see her next week!"

Gaara allowed himself to be dragged from the apartment by his siblings, but not before turning back to wink at Sakura. Her expression was priceless.

-0-

New Year's Eve. She woke up feeling the same anticipation that she had on Chistmas Eve. She hadn't known then that she would see Gaara. But the anniversary of their adventure? It made the day positively charged. And now today… Their first real date.

The evening came soon enough. Sakura approached the small park where they had arranged to meet. Gaara said that he came here sometimes to sit near the water. There was a pond with ducks, a gorgeous fountain far out in the middle, a small hill overlooking a tree-lined square. People were already arriving at the square, no doubt in anticipation of the fireworks. She sat by the pond, staring into the water. The night was light, but she couldn't see the moon. A thin layer of clouds covered it. In the reflection of the water, she could see a bit of it peaking out from over the clouds. The sight of the moon in the water was eerie, reminding her of her and Gaara's talks. What was it he had called the eclipse? "The blood-splattered moon goddess".

She began to wonder how therapy had gone for him, if he was in therapy still. She wondered if Shukaku still played with his head. Was he still suffering? She frowned.

It took her a moment to realize that his face had appeared in the water behind her. She hadn't even heard him come up to her. He waited silently as she gathered herself. Obviously she had been deep in thought. When she looked up at him, he smiled gently and extended his hand, helping her up.

"Come with me," he whispered. "There is something I want to show you."

As they walked, he looked questioningly at her. He wanted to ask what was on her mind but wasn't sure how to voice it. He didn't want to pry. You've got to figure a way to ask sometime, he told himself, if you want to make it work with her.

They went up onto the small hill. No one else was around; they were alone. He had brought a blanket with him, and he spread it out at Sakura's feet before sitting down. She joined him. He took a deep breath.

"I wanted to make sure everything was good before I could see you," he admitted in his rasping voice. "I wanted so much to do what Dr. Ueyama suggested," he saw her eyes lower guiltily when he said Tsunade's name, "and be healthy first. For you and for myself. It's a work in progress." She looked up, and he met her gaze earnestly. "But I wanted you to see something." He pointed up. "Look."

They watched, enchanted, as the sky seemed to move. Sakura smiled softly. The thin clouds parted to reveal a full beautiful moon. She started to speak, then turned to him in alarm.

He was beaming at her. Smiling, with full even white teeth… And he was totally normal. No bloodlust. No craziness.

"Gaara… Does this mean-?" she ran her hands over his softly.

"He's still in here. But he's not a threat anymore. Dr. Ueyama helped me. You helped me, Sakura. I have control over my symptoms."

"Are- are you in any pain?"

"I've got some meds that are helping. It doesn't hurt right now. There are some days when the symptoms are worse than other days, but I've got some tools to handle that. I'm going to keep learning more and more tools… This is my reality. I understand if that's a lot to accept. Can you accept it?"

She opened her mouth.

"—I mean, you don't have to!" he interrupted. "I wasn't meaning you have to make a decision right now—This is coming out all wrong—"

She took his hand. "I get it." A small smile. "Gaara – why would I think anything less of you? I've always known that's your reality. It doesn't change who you are as a person, how strong you are. It doesn't stop me from loving you."

He took her hands tightly in his. "You can always walk away, I'll understand if it's too much—you love me?" His heart began to beat quickly. "You still—"

"Always," she nodded firmly.

He stood up and pulled her to his feet. His arms went around her. "It's a heavy burden. I understand if you just want to be friends…"

Her gaze was on his lips, watching as he talked. He touched her cheek. She looked up and the moon was reflected in her big green eyes.

"I know," she said. "I'm not the same person anymore. I'm stronger and smarter."

"Strong enough to leave for your own health?"

"Yes," she said. "And smart enough to know that the illness doesn't make the person. I have been overcoming my own illness, my memories and bad lessons I learned from my past. I also have a heavy burden to bear. I am relearning what is healthy in reality, what is safe. Can you accept the burden I carry as well, Gaara?"

"Of course." He held her closer, frowning at her troubled expression. He had no idea how much she had been suffering, even back then.

"But it's not solely the burden of being sick. We're also carrying so much potential in us, to be healthy, to be happy! We're carrying the potential to succeed. I know it."

He smiled at her passion. This was the Sakura he remembered. Wryly, he thought Dr. Ueyama must have given them the same speech. He was striving for the same thing: to live a healthy life, and to define himself by healthiness rather than unhealthiness.

"Our illnesses do not define us!" Sakura was saying, and his eyes softened at her passion. "And you know that too, and you work so hard to overcome it, to not let it define you. I love you, Gaara…"

The spark was lit.

Slowly, savoring the moment, Gaara lowered his head towards hers. The light of the moon was cold, and yet her skin was so warm.

He kissed her. He sucked her lips slowly to his and softly kissed her for everything. For every moment on Christmas Eve they spent saving each other. For all the moments afterward that they spent getting back to each other. For all the acceptance she had given him, and the acceptance he would be giving her.

They didn't let go. They didn't have to. As they kissed, the first fireworks began to light the sky. They chuckled into their kiss at the timing, but then the fireworks weren't telling them anything they didn't know already.

When they finally broke apart, they smiled at each other, shy, excited, and so very determined.

"Happy New Year, Sakura."

-0-

They dated into the Spring, celebrating New Year's Day and Valentine's Day together, and when the buds of the cherry blossoms were on the trees, they talked of moving in together. Shortly before Sakura's 24th birthday, they moved in together.

One month after they moved in together, Sakura came home from the convenience store to find Gaara waiting at their kitchen table, wine in hand. She hadn't drunk wine before. Her boyfriend chuckled; growing up the child of the Kazekage, he had gotten a slight taste for wines, and he was itching to brush up on his refinement before returning to Sunagakure. They toasted to a month of living together, and Sakura enjoyed the warm burn of the alcohol. She didn't drink too much; Gaara said he had another surprise for her.

After dinner, they made it into their room. It wasn't the first time Gaara had taken off her clothes; that was back in the asylum. But this was the first time since then. He took his time with her, himself still learning. It was quiet, beautiful, without fanfare – and yet it felt right.

Hours after they had finished making love, they lay tangled together, content. For the first time, Gaara truly felt free of the asylum.

A year and a Christmas Eve later and stronger, they moved to Suna. Kankuro had been summoned there months ago and was currently acting as an intermediary to bring their family home and reinstate the Kage rule. Temari had gone last month, though she was coming back again to visit her cross-country boyfriend, none other than Itachi. Itachi was still in Konoha, still working to free his little brother from the mental health system. He had kept his word. Sasuke was never left alone again.

Gaara and Sakura arrived in Suna in late March, and it was then that Gaara began his ascension to the throne.

Sakura saw him through every step of the way, and four months after their move, Gaara was sworn in to the cheering of hundreds of citizens. Sakura could not believe it – her Gaara, a prince cast out, downtrodden, and thrown into the mental health system to rot, but now redeemed, renewed. Beloved. It humbled her greatly, and that night, she showed him just how much he inspired her.

Their wedding was the following month. Sakura's wedding dress had to be made very close to the actual date. After all, Gaara wasn't the only one who had ascended lately. The night before they had left Konoha, they had made love one more time, in their empty home. And now, the fruits of that evening were ripening beautifully. Sakura walked down the isle wearing the glow only a pregnant woman wears.

Their first child was born that winter, on the coldest day Sunagakure could remember – exactly three years since the White-Walled Christmas Breakout, on Christmas Eve itself, the only day in Suna's memory that their sand was blanketed in pure white mounds of snow...

The End.

-0-

A/N: Thank you to everyone who read and supported this story! It has been a wonderful three and a half years, and I'm happy to be ending the ride on a joyous note! :D Thank you to everyone who Favorited and Followed - you inspired me to keep writing!

I just want to give a shout out to EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE, who reviewed. You spent time and consideration to give me words of support, and they meant a lot to me. Thank you…

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Thank you all so much! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! :D ~S.S.