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Season Of Change

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Sakura remembered the best parts of her life with a startlingly clarity, because most of them involved Hinata within them. It was no secret that Sakura Haruno, gifted athlete and all-round badass, loved her girlfriend—the sweet, shy Hinata Hyuuga—with a verve that was unmatched. And that was why she always endeavoured to make every instant, every second of their life spent together, something that was worth remembering.

“Come on, Hinata!” Sakura called out from the ocean’s edge. The foam-lipped water swirled around her shins; compact, wet sand wedged beneath her toes. “I dare you to come in!”

From the shore, Hinata shook her head in red-cheeked embarrassment. Unlike Sakura, who wore a cute green bikini and a sporty ponytail, Hinata was evidently less confident. She reached up to pull a straw sunhat low over her eyes, wearing a pair of shorts and a loose cotton shirt over a one-piece swimsuit. Hinata had always been modestly timid, but Sakura had taken it upon herself to be the strength and courage that would lure Hinata into bravery.

Like it had so many years ago, a sunlight-gentle warmth spread through Sakura’s chest to see Hinata dare to cast aside her fears and doubts to step into the tide. There was a certain pleasure that Sakura took in seeing Hinata become her best self—the person she loved more than anyone in the world. A joy filled her veins with energy, and soon Sakura was advancing upon Hinata to wind her arms around her waist and swing her up into the air, both of them laughing with the pure zeal of being truly, inescapably alive.

“Stop, Sakura! I don’t want to get wet!” Hinata’s protest carried no real intent. Her arms reached around Sakura’s across her stomach, holding her as Sakura hooked her chin over her shoulder.

“Come on, we can just swim out to there,” Sakura cajoled, pointing at the red buoy that bobbed a short way into the surf. “It’s not even that far.” She kissed the hair covering the pale, elegant slope of Hinata’s neck in reassurance.

“But what about your volleyball game?”

Sakura laughed in a burst of bright, carefree noise. “Naruto and Sasuke will do fine without me, although I don’t know how they’re gonna handle going up against your sister.”

Although she couldn’t see beyond the black cascade of Hinata’s loose hair, Sakura knew she was smiling when she asked, “Hanabi won’t go easy on them, will she?”

“Nope! But you should’ve played too. You and Hanabi would’ve put us all to shame.”

“Oh, no,” Hinata said in firm objection, “I couldn’t have done that in front of so many people.”

“You would’ve done brilliantly.” A deep-rooted affection for Hinata made Sakura’s tone soften, and her forthright vivacity ease into something more intimate and placating. “No one would’ve said a bad thing about you, I promise. I would’ve made sure of that.”

In lieu of answering, Hinata merely leaned into Sakura as she tightened her grip around her. They stood together there, in the warmed heat of afternoon, just to enjoy each other’s company, relaxing into the offered comfort of the embrace. It was a moment that was nearly made perfect, shared between them like a memory that would become precious.

At their backs, the noise of the beachside party dulled into a faded swell of voices and music; it was a muted celebration of their progression from sophomores into juniors. A light breeze swirled around them, carrying the scent of summer—sunscreen, ice cream, and the burned grease of barbeques. The sun shone brightly as a nervous exhilaration pulsed in the air like a tangible emotion. It was all so giddily exciting, so wonderfully happy, that Sakura couldn’t control the word of confession that rose from the tight lock of her chest, tumbling from her mouth like an errant thought:

“I’m so glad I met you, Hinata.”

It was natural, and seamless, how Hinata turned in the circle of Sakura’s arms just so their lips could brush in chaste contact. The kiss was fleeting, yet profound. It was one of the many affectionate gestures they’d grown into sharing since the start of their relationship.

Hinata was smiling softly when Sakura drew back from her. And then, as they rested their foreheads together, Hinata spoke so only Sakura could hear, admitting, “I’m so happy that all those years ago I was able to meet you, too, Sakura.”

It was enlightening, in a way, how their fates had merged together years ago in middle school. That they had been from two conflicting sides of the social spectrum—Hinata shy and academic; Sakura loud and athletic—until they’d crashed into each other, colliding. Even the juvenile cruelness of high school tormentors seemed to have their own purpose too, because when Sakura had defended Hinata from the jeers of obnoxious bullies, it had been the start of something. Something that grew from friendship into trust and affection, and then finally into love.

It was the same love that made Sakura tighten her embrace around Hinata, just for a moment, before pulling away to skip into the water, their hands interlinked. “Please, just come in for a quick swim,” Sakura coaxed softly, “just to the buoy and back.”

After a moment of deliberation, Hinata dipped her head in a cautious nod. The afternoon was too pleasant, relaxing into the gentle warmth of early summer, that Hinata could only say yes. Dropping Hinata’s hands, Sakura waded out into the ocean, motioning for Hinata to join her. She waited just to see Hinata tentatively pass the threshold into the water’s edge before racing ahead.

Unbeknownst to how infinitely precious these last few moments were, Sakura was completely, infinitely happy as she tucked her head into the triangle of her arms and dived headfirst into the surf—

And then it all went wrong.

It could’ve been an amalgamation of everything; every freak change in weather that caused the wind to alter the current and sweep Sakura further into the water, or every speck of blue that masked the sandbar beneath. But, the fact remained, that Sakura slammed her head into the stable, crushing span of the ground, and her neck bent, her spine cracking in a thunderstroke of awful, crippling sensation.

“Sakura!” Hinata called out, her voice blurred against the rush of waves.

Sakura tried to speak, but her head was swimming. Seawater rushed into her mouth as she floated like a ragdoll. Her heart was thudding in a frantic beat. There was a strange numbness lingering at the edges of her conscience. Her body wouldn’t move—her reactions were imagined perfectly in her mind, yet they ceased to follow through into action.

It was pure, shaking terror.

Then, suddenly, Sakura was being pulled over, and she gasped in a deep heave of life-saving air. Hinata was saying—maybe screaming—something but Sakura could barely understand it. She could only cough, and choke out the words that she didn’t dare acknowledge:

“I can’t move.”

Blotting out the high arc of the sun, Hinata was leaning into Sakura’s vision, darkening it as her expression was marred with a harried concern.

“I can’t move, Hinata.”

And then—images and sounds and experiences rushed in like a tide to wash Sakura away. It was chaotic as she felt people crowd around her in a hysterical clamour of voices and bodies; and terrifying as the initial blast of the ambulance siren cut through the noise. Sakura faded in and out, unable to process anything beyond how unsettling it felt to know she should feel sand and seawater against her skin but notactually feeling it.

It was wrong.

It was something that raised her voice into a panic, and her pulse into a deafening rhythm of fear, and she would’ve been lost if not for Hinata. Hinata, who remained just at the edges of Sakura’s reach, quiet and soothing. Reassuring her on the beach, and in the ambulance, and then finally as Sakura was being wheeled away from Hinata on a gurney in the hospital.

Although it was not something she remembered, Sakura was told she lost consciousness under the haze of the frightening examination of light and voices. She awoke a few hours later, sleep coated thickly along her skin, and her mouth awash with a sour taste. But, she was awake—and ready to meet whatever laid in wait for her.

Washed in the harsh, disinfected whites of a hospital, there was doctor standing at the foot of her bed. She was called Shizune, being a demure woman with a soothing composure. Blinking, Sakura’s gaze drifted sidewards, to her parents sitting at her bedside. The gravity of what had happened—and how severe it was—didn’t truly set in then until she saw them, because she was still back on that beach.

In her mind, this wasn’t real. Sakura thought she was still laughing and dancing in the summery flush of the afternoon, her arms around Hinata and her spirits raised to new, emboldened heights. Sakura should be there, she shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t have to look at the teary eyes of her parents, seeing the exhaustion having stripped them off their usual cheer, and know she was hurt beyond comprehendible repair.

“Sakura?” Her mother, Mebuki, asked cautiously. “Are you okay?”

“I’m—” Sakura stopped, swallowing. Her tongue scraped her dry lips.

“It’s okay, honey, take your time,” her dad, Kizashi, assured her.

Sakura glanced at the doctor, but she wasn’t prepared for the enormity of what it meant to ask her what was wrong, or what happened. Instead, her mind focused, sharpening on the vague awareness of a comforting presence that was absent.

“Where’s Hinata?”

“She should be here soon, I think.” Her parents shared a wary look—communicating through thought rather than speech. It infuriated Sakura to no end that she couldn’t read what they were saying, couldn’t know what was happening, but there was no avoiding it.

It hardly registered that all she could feel was the clench of her jaw, and the scratchy grain of her blurred vision, until she tried to shift her position on the bed and she—she just couldn’t move. There was meant to be feeling below her neck. There was meant to be arms and legs, but—nothing. Just a phantom sense of what had once existed and functioned as naturally as breathing.

“Miss Haruno.” It was Shizune speaking now, clearing her throat delicately.

“What’s wrong with me?” The question trembled in Sakura’s mouth.

Shizune dipped her head before looking at Sakura with a gaze that steadied the shake of her nerves and eased the fear that thrummed in her veins. “You’ve been in a very serious accident,” Shizune said.

The seriousness of the situation hadn’t settled over Sakura’s skin and bones like a heavy casing of lead until she noticed her parent’s reaction. It was a frightfully, awfully, excruciatingly sobering sight. Their expressions twisted, contorting in a pain so visceral that her fierce anger dissipated in the instant it took to feel regret. Sakura had forgotten that they were a mirror of her own emotions; linked by a bond that transcended mortal confines.

“Please,” Sakura said, softer, “tell me what’s wrong.”

Shizune inhaled in a short, bracing action, and said: “In the plainest terms, I can say that you broke your neck. You dived headfirst into a sandbar at just the wrong angle, and the force of the impact crushed your spinal cord, badly injuring it at the sight of your C4 vertebrae.”

“What… What does that mean?”

“Sakura, please,” her father was saying, his hand reaching out to touch hers—but she couldn’t feel it. Sakura could see Kizashi’s hand, could practically memorise the shape and weight and coarseness of it, but she couldn’t feelit.

“Will I be able to walk again?”

Her mother’s breath caught in a wet, horrible sound.

“Will I be able to run or play soccer? To do martial arts?” The words tumbled from Sakura’s mouth, panic clawing at her throat. The severity of her injury hadn’t sunk in yet, but it was there, resting beneath her sternum like a physical ache. It was a wound she didn’t dare look at out of fear of knowing the true extent of its damage.

“Can I ever hold my dad’s hand again?”

As Sakura’s control threatened to break, Hinata burst into the room with a frantic energy Sakura hadn’t thought her capable of. “Sakura!” Hinata had been all smooth, rounded lines and gentle tones, like a calm river that flowed over time-worn pebbles. Never had Sakura thought Hinata would be something likethis—harried, chaotic, turbulent.

Sakura opened her mouth to speak, but there was nothing to say. There were no words to describe what she felt as an overwhelm of emotion, thick and hot, rose in Sakura’s throat, wringing her tongue into silence. Maybe it was Hinata’s presence—the reassurance of it—that made Sakura’s invincible armour fracture, fissuring into a spiderwebs of weak points, and finally—finally—breaking.

“I’m sorry,” Sakura choked out, tears wet on her cheeks. She wanted to move, to shake with the sheer tragedy of what she’d endured, but she couldn’t. “I’m sorry if I scared you, Hinata.”

And if Hinata was ever confident in one simple thing, it had always been the strength of her feelings. There was no hesitation in how quickly she bridged the distance between Sakura and herself. The moment stretched, seeming insurmountably slow, swollen with the anticipation of what would happen, but then—

They were connected.

The first hesitant contact of Hinata’s touch to the places where Sakura could still feel were a blistering relief, coaxing sensation back into Sakura’s flesh, winding around her bones. Hinata cradled Sakura’s face between her hands like she was something precious, staring at her with such an earnest affection that Sakura felt her mouth form the ghost of a smile. A wealth of unsaid words and promises and confessions braced at the edges of her mouth and hands, but Hinata didn’t need to speak. It was obvious what she felt—and what she felt for Sakura.

“I missed you,” Hinata whispered, leaning down to kiss Sakura.

It was brief and altogether ordinary, but—it was still remarkable. Because Sakura was still allowed to have moments like this, sharing in time and emotions with Hinata, and feel like nothing could stop her if she knew Hinata would always be there beside her.

“Same here,” Sakura murmured, smiling.

“Ah, girls,” Kizashi interrupted, his cheerfulness weak but genuine, “as much as I love you both, don’t go trying to show up Sakura’s old man in how well he can embarrass an entire room.”

On cue, Mebuki swiped her hand across the back of her husband’s head, chastising him for making a joke in the most sensitive of predicaments, but—the action didn’t carry any real antagonism. Because this was a play to which they all knew their parts; where Sakura’s parents would good-naturedly bicker, and her and Hinata would laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. Warmly endeared with the obvious affection that underlaid the scene.

It was so familiar, so well-worn into the routine of light-hearted banter and companionship, that Sakura nearly forgot the real gravity of her circumstances. But she couldn’t be angry for that. She couldn’t blame Hinata or her family for having the power to make everything seem good, shining with it, even in the darkest of instances.

Shizune made a polite noise in the back of her throat, returning everyone’s attention back to her. “I know this may not be the best time to discuss it, so we can—”

“I’m sorry,” Sakura cut off Shizune’s suggestion, “but whatever you have to say it can said now. With Hinata here.” Although it was almost dangerously rude to interrupt, it was the truth. Hinata was as much a part of this as was Sakura and her own family.

Yet, Shizune merely smiled in response. “I understand. Well, Miss Haruno, as I’ve already informed your parents, I’m afraid to say that people who incur a C4 spinal cord injury are usually never able to feel anything below the injury site again.” Shizune paused, allowing Sakura and Hinata to process the information slowly, thoroughly. “You’ll experience paralysis of the arms, hands, torso and legs, and a very limited range of motion. Bowel and bladder control, too, is affected. However, you are very lucky not to have lost the control of your diaphragm and seem to be able to maintain oxygen levels without the use of a ventilator.”

Swallowing, Sakura nodded.

“Your daily life will be affected,” Shizune continued. “You’ll require 24-hour personal care with eating, dressing, bathing, and relevant activities. Physically and mentally, it is quite difficult to adapt to.” A calculated breath of silence, and then: “Now, unfortunately, there isn’t much we can do to improve your current health state. All we are capable of accomplishing is minimizing any further damage so we can retain or improve current function.”

“What about physical therapy?” Sakura asked, her mind already working to provide answers. To collect, quantify, and solve problems. Because there was no possible outcome where she was frozen in this state of inactivity without being able to beat it, to return stronger than before.

“I’ll refer you to one of my colleagues, Tsunade, to discuss all the facets of your rehabilitation. She seems like the right sort of person to mentor you.” Shizune was quiet for an instant, before adding, “There is no easy road to recovery, but I do truly think that there is nothing lost in adapting to whatever changes you need to make. And that you, Miss Sakura Haruno, are capable of remaining the bright, smart, independent person you were before.”

Despite however hopeful the ultimatum was, it was also sad. But there was strength in surviving pain—it revealed the true mettle of a person who persevered.

“Now, I think that’s enough forMiss Haruno to handle for one day, don’t you?” Shizune addressed Kizashi and Mebuki, although it wasn’t a suggestion for their reunion to be abruptly ended. It was merely an excuse for Hinata and Sakura to be left alone as the three adults stepped outside into the corridor to converse further.

Once the room was emptied of everyone except Sakura and the one person she had so desperately wanted to see, had ached with the possibility of it, Hinata kissed her again. It was longer this time, sweeter. Sakura wanted to reach out and scatter her own kisses across Hinata’s face, but she was content with this. She was happy, even with tears drying on her cheeks.

“How have you been?” Sakura heard herself ask lamely.

“I’m much better now,” Hinata admitted, a slight dusting of pink colouring her cheeks.

Sakura grinned to hear it.

Returning Sakura’s grin with her own shy smile, Hinata sat down, the long, thick lapels of her canvas jacket pooling around her. It was Shino’s, Sakura realised. It was with a frightening revelation then, to realise that Sakura knew that everyone else already understood what had happened to her—and that this new change would always be wedged between them. Closing her eyes momentarily, she tried not to think about the chaos which followed the moment she’d been unable to move. How scared Hinata had been, or how worried everyone was now.

Her body was an entire point of strange, numbing soreness stretched over bones and muscle, but Sakura tried to move to catch Hinata’s gaze. The futility of the action made her unspeakably frustrated for a moment, but her emotions were washing in and out with the tide—she couldn’t be angry, not when she was alive. Not when she still had Hinata.

“Are you okay?” Hinata asked.

“I don’t know,” Sakura admitted. It was the closest to the truth she could reach.

Hinata’s head dropped, her smile dimming, but it was not entirely depressing. It was merely a reality Sakura and Hinata had to learn how to cope with.

In an attempt to steer the conversation in a new direction, Sakura asked, “How is everyone else doing?”

“They’re… Worried. Naruto and Ino are the most upset about the whole thing, and I know Sasuke is too, although he doesn’t really show it too much. And everyone else is just…” Hinata pressed her lips together, unable to verbalise the awkward jumble of her thoughts and feelings. “I think they all love you, and they just don’t know what to do to help you right now.”

Sakura moved to rest her head back, but the brace around her neck was confining. There was a strand of hair tickling her nose, and a scratch beneath the collar of her hospital gown, and it was all suddenly a frustration she couldn’t properly vent. A question that she didn’t have the ability to answer. It was an equal meeting of her wanting to scream and cry as it was to remain silent and recede into herself.

It was just plain awful, Sakura surmised. Because she had been so many things—star athlete, academic, teammate, daughter, girlfriend—but now? What purpose did she have in being the poor crippled girl who’d once had a future brighter than the stars itself?

It was just fucking awful.

“Sakura?” Hinata spoke her name tentatively.

“What can I do?”

A beat of hesitancy, and then: “Pardon?”

“What can I do to get better?” Sakura asked, her gaze alight with a sudden fervency. “Is there anything I can do?”

It was not an irritational question, because Hinata was well-versed in the process of healing as it was something she’d always shared an avid interest in. And, due to the strict practicality of the Hyuuga household, she’d been encouraged in that pursuit of knowledge and study in medicine. It was one of the first things Sakura had truly loved about Hinata—how she was always willing to help people, no matter who they were.

“I don’t…” Hinata pressed her lips together in contemplation, choosing the right order to her thoughts and words before continuing. “I don’t think it’s that simple, Sakura.”

“But there’s physical therapy, isn’t there? We don’t know what I’m capable of yet.”

Hinata opened her mouth to speak, but she closed it soon after. There was nothing she could say.

“I can at least try, can’t I, Hinata?” It wasn’t a desperate question, but it was close to it.

It was a slower reaction than Sakura expected, although Hinata’s reassurance came steadily, as encouraging as she’d always been about all of Sakura’s endeavours. “Of course, you can,” Hinata said. “I know you’ll do the most you possibly can, because that’s what you always do. You do the best you’re able to. And that’s what I love about you.”

The strain of fatigue pulled at Sakura when she smiled in response, feeling her eyelids droop heavily. Her tumultuous emotions throughout the course of the day had wrung the energy from her body, leaving her exhausted. Weighted.

“Thank you,” Sakura said, near whispering, “for always believing in me.”

“I’ll never stop not believing in you.” Drifting into the comforting abyss of sleep, Sakura merely smiled at Hinata’s confession as she closed her eyes, weak to the lure of rest. “Sweet dreams, Sakura.” After a moment, Hinata stood up to lean over and kiss Sakura’s forehead, murmuring a goodbye before quietly excusing herself from the room.

After trading hugs and farewells with Sakura’s parents in the hallway of the hospital, Hinata was reserved when she called for her mother to come and pick her up. The drive to their home was uncommonly quiet, not exactly tense, but the swell of conversation that was left untouched and unsaid was obvious.

As they pulled into the garage, Hinata watched her mother flex her fingers against the steering wheel, and say, “You know that your father and I, even your sister too, are always going to be there for you, don’t you?”

“I know,” Hinata replied, casting a tired look of reassurance in her mom’s direction.

“And we all love you very much.”

Hinata smiled. “I know.” It was softer this time, more genuine.

Only when she had escaped to the security of her bedroom did Hinata begin to focus on what she’d been thinking about since seeing Sakura in the hospital. She sat down at her desk, pulling her laptop out to open an internet browser, her cursor resting over a search bar. She typed in: C4 spinal injury.

The results were broad and instantaneous—almost impossible to decipher. Hinata hesitantly sifted through the masses of information, soon finding an empty notebook to write down the main points of interest. Diagnosis, symptoms, effects, recovery. Her pulse began to thud dully in her veins, a thick lodge of emotion rising in her throat the longer she researched the true extent of the injury. Despite however motivated Sakura was to recover miraculously, the odds of her ever regaining movement below her shoulders were low, almost impossibly so.

Never again would Hinata attend a sporting match where she could watch Sakura run and fight and laugh; or to wipe the sheen of sweat off her brow with an ecstatic smile to wave to Hinata at the sidelines. She would never cheer for Sakura again. It was like a blow to the chest to realise that Sakura would lose that part of her life forever.

There was a polite knock at Hinata’s door. She called out for whoever it was to come in. Her father appeared in her doorway, his frame illuminated by the bright hallway light.

“It’s late,” he commented, crossing his arms. It was a gesture of stern disapproval—because Hinata hadn’t emerged from her room since she’d come home, not to eat dinner or to speak to her family.

“I’m sorry.” It was a measly apology.

Thankfully, Hiashi didn’t choose to criticise his daughter’s lack of eloquence. However, the line of his critical gaze drifted to the glow of her laptop screen in the dim, drawn in like a beacon. It didn’t ease the downturned set of his mouth.

“Hinata,” Hiashi started, “I don’t want you to invest all your time and energy into this if it’s going to affect you negatively.”

“But I… I don’t want her to think I love her any less because of this.”

Hiashi sighed, rubbing the deep crease of his forehead in resignation. “Okay,” he said eventually, “I concede. I can’t argue with that.” He reached to pull Hinata’s door shut, stopping to say, “And do tell Sakura that I do wish her all the best in a swift recovery.”

Once Hinata was sealed away in the peaceful solitude of her bedroom, she returned her attention to her laptop. However, after staring at the pages of information, marching across the screen in clinical lines of medical terminology, estimated recovery periods, and listed effects of serious spinal injuries, Hinata grew tired. It was too much to process all at once.

Instead, she pushed away from her desk and wondered over to her balcony. A balmy breeze greeted her to the outside, but Hinata was only focused on one thing—and that was the miniature bonsai tree resting on her outdoor table. It was a cherry blossom; a gift from Sakura on her sixteenth birthday.

Settling into a nearby chair, her chin resting on the knee pulled up beneath her, Hinata reached out to the tree. The pink petals were soft and delicate under her touch, but the trunk was sturdy, flush with a foliage of vibrant green leaves. In the same spirit of Sakura herself, the cherry blossom tree appeared fragile, but Hinata knew otherwise. It was as strong as it was beautiful, and it would not so easily bow to the struggles of life.

“Please let her be okay,” Hinata whispered to all that would answer, her words disappearing into the clear, star-studded sky.

Hopefully it did reach Sakura, because the worst had past, and this was a time for healing.

So, in the next weeks to follow, Sakura tried to remain upbeat and positive when her visiting hours opened—because nothing could threaten her independence, least of all a medical diagnosis. Naruto appeared first, with Sasuke tagging along behind him to reacquaint Sakura with the familiarity of their friendship dynamic, as comforting as it had been in all the years they’d spent growing up together. More of Sakura’s friends and classmates followed, and even her martial arts teacher Gai-sensei and his equally outgoing student Rock Lee were there to theatrically offer their undying support in her youthful recovery. However, the one constant Sakura was forever grateful for was Hinata.

Hinata, who visited her after school every day, and visited her every weekend too. In some aspect, they acted the same as they had before, talking about school and their families and their favourite TV shows. But, it was different. There was a tenderness to all of their kisses now, and the comfortable silences they shared. They had to adjust to Sakura’s dependency to complete the most menial of tasks—eating, dressing, even scratching her nose—and it was new, it was all so new, but they were working to acclimatise.

They were working to learn how their life would be together now.

And that even included the changes Sakura was struggling to accept, such as the first day she was introduced to her physical therapist, Tsunade Senjuu. She was a striking woman, but her beauty was a façade that masked a loud, brash confidence that Sakura instantly admired. Because women without reservations could change the fate of the world.

Although, despite the powerfully admirable first impression Tsunade made, the physical therapy sessions following her initial introduction didn’t inspire the same favour within Sakura. The usual daily exercises aided in ensuring her muscles didn’t atrophy, and the routines for strengthening her neck and face yielded an unchanged diagnosis—that there was no indication that Sakura could recover from being rendered quadriplegic.

“Why isn’t this working?” Sakura asked one day, after Tsunade had guided Hinata through the latest tone and muscle conditioning exercises. It had become commonplace that Hinata visited nearly as much as Sakura’s parents—and that she was just as important in supporting Sakura through the healing process.

“Because your mind is tricking you into believing you should be able to do this,” Tsunade answered calmly, settling into a chair on Sakura’s left. Hinata took Sakura’s right side, pulling her braid over her shoulder as she folded her hands in her lap. “You’re just going to continually frustrate and upset yourself if you keep on insisting that this isn’t working when it is—you just think there should be a different outcome.”

“Why is this starting to sound like a goddamn therapy session?” Sakura bit out, because they were talking about emotions and mental health. Not the rehabilitation that could return use to Sakura’s limbs and make her sharp, smart, and resourceful again.

Tsunade’s thin, blonde eyebrows raised in an unimpressed arch. “Because there are both physical and mental components involved the psychology of therapy. Right now, you’re adamant on getting the use of everything you’ve been told you won’t be able to use anymore, correct?”

Setting her jaw in a stubborn clench, Sakura huffed. “But I amgoing to get better than this.”

“Sakura,” Hinata whispered in hushed warning at her side. Sakura could see her girlfriend’s fingers grasp her limp, IV-feed wrist tighter—an unconscious action to soothe.

Tsunade’s gaze flickered between them in analytical scrutiny, but she persisted in her original, unchanged discussion. “Mentally, you’re rock-solid.” Crossing her legs smoothly, Tsunade seemed almost pleased by Sakura’s obvious fortitude. “But I don’t want you to exhaust yourself physically. It’s not healthy if there’s no equilibrium in thinking about what you shouldbe able to accomplish rather than what you canaccomplish.”

Breathing through her nose, Sakura was obstinate. “But I’ve done it before. I’ve beaten injuries that everyone said I wouldn’t overcome. A torn ligament in my knee, a hairline fracture, a dislocated shoulder—it’s all being something I could work around.” There was Sakura’s strength—her iron-will. “I even came back from a torn ASL to defend my junior championship title in the regional martial arts division.”

“But this isn’t something that can just be fixed with hard work and time. This is different from everything else, Sakura,” Tsunade replied with a strategic composure.

“It’s not different! It’s can’t be, because I’ve got to get better!” A sharp inhale. “I have to.” In Sakura’s peripheral vision, she saw Hinata rub the back of her hand across her face, using the long, silky fall of her hair to hide behind. It was a kindness that struck Sakura deep—that she would hide her own suffering as not to burden Sakura.

“It’s gonna be hard,” Tsunade said, “I know that, but we have to be realistic here.”

“But I can do it! I can do it if I try hard enough.”

“I understand that you were a capable young woman, and still very much are. However, there’s no point in just being plain stubborn.”

Like a piece of wire stretched taught, or a rope pulled tight, Sakura was ready to snap. Primed to retort with a spitfire ferocity, although she was halted in the midst of it.

Too caught up in the vortex of her own thoughts, the touch of Hinata’s fingertips to Sakura’s chin surprised her. She turned, seeing intermingled concern and pride reflected in Hinata’s eyes. Sakura had always been Hinata’s hero, but—there was something sad about it, too. Something that Sakura hated to see in Hinata’s expression and know she’d been the cause of.

“Sakura, I…” Hinata struggled to find the words. “I love how dedicated you are to succeed. It’s always been something I’ve admired about you,” she confessed, a shy blush painting her cheeks pink, “but I don’t think this is something you can just so easily beat. I just… I just want you to come out of this happy.”

“Hinata.” Sakura leaned her head into her girlfriend’s palm, feeling the gentleness of her touch. It eased her rage, although her frustration still lingered beneath the surface, like a beast ready to be provoked.

“So, I think it’d be best if we just listen to Tsunade has to say, and work everything out from there.” It was a perfectly logical suggestion, but something about the way Hinata phrased it, like she merely wanted the best possible outcome for Sakura, made her begrudgingly seen reason. It was never going to be a fight Sakura had to fight alone—not if she had Hinata.

“Okay,” Sakura said, nodding. “I can do that.”

Hinata smiled with an ecstatic joy so bright that it shone.

“Now,” Tsunade cleared her throat, tapping a pen against her thigh, “I was going to discuss your support system, too, as it’s an integral part of rehabilitation, but Shizune has assured me that you have a very stable relationship with family and friends. And”—Tsunade inclined her head towards Hinata with a fleeting smirk—“I can trust that I won’t need to worry about you how you two girls fare in this as a couple. It’s refreshing to see that kind of young love nowadays.”

At Tsunade’s observation, Hinata cupped her free hand over her mouth to stifle her breathy laughter. It was with a frightening familiarity that Sakura felt her lips arrange into a sharp grin, all teeth and confidence. Because, the fact remained that her relationship with Hinata hadn’t changed—Sakura still found it adorable that Hinata would forget her embarrassment long enough to make a public display of how obvious their feelings for each other were. It was a love that, blissfully, would never be subject to change.

Invigorated, Sakura turned to face Tsunade again. “Can we still try physical therapy?” Despite however relentless Sakura’s positivity was, it may have been a foolish hope. Yet it was still hope nonetheless.

“If you want to, we can attempt a few exercises for patients with low-cervical nerve injuries rather than high,” Tsunade offered.

“I’ll do it. I’ll give it everything I can.”

A crease appeared beneath Tsunade’s brow. “I just want to make it clear to you both that this is not an issue of finding a way to return to your life beforehand, but instead adjusting to your new life. We can try physical therapy to test the use of your limbs and motor control, but as a quadriplegic, I would rather we focus on learning the full capabilities of the functions you still retain and strengthen them.” She paused for a moment, then added, “There is still a lot of things you can accomplish, Sakura, it’s just about coping with it to the best of your ability.”

Taking a moment to close her eyes, and inhale, Sakura prepared herself for what would follow. The path to recovery seemed fraught with the fear of the unknown, but Sakura would do what she always did. She would pour her heart and mind and soul into working to be better—to be the best—and make it through this. Sakura had to get better, even if Shizune and Tsunade and everything else said she couldn’t. She just had to.

And with Hinata by her side, it all nearly seemed possible.

“So,” Sakura said, opening her bright, keen eyes, “what can I do?”

“Well, you’re going to be released to go home in a few days, so let’s start there.”

The date of Sakura’s hospital release was fast-approaching, and it was something Sakura had been looking forward to for a while now. Her life in the hospital had been restricted to the limitations of a patient and so she wanted to be herself again. Sakura wanted her own space and her own time. And, although Shizune was hesitant to allow Sakura to so quickly relocate to her home, Tsunade supported Sakura’s decision, and her parents had already made the modifications to suit a routine of 24-hour-a-day personal care for Sakura. Then, because there was nothing that risked a negative effect to Sakura’s health and recovery, Shizune agreed to it.

Maybe Sakura had expected her life to improve, to get better, but it wasn’t easy. Even on the first day of Sakura’s release, her parents surprised her with a sip-and-puff motorised wheelchair that, quite frankly, Sakura hated. It was ugly and obtrusive—so unlike Sakura’s streamline power that she very nearly refused to use it at all.

“But it’s so cool!” Kizashi protested at Sakura’s initial complaint. He gestured at the wheels wildly, saying, “And we could bedazzle these with anything want! Sparkles, flames, disco lights.”

Sakura couldn’t help it—she smiled. “Dad, come on.”

“You can at least try it, honey,” Mebuki offered.

It was a suggestion that was altogether too considerate, with everything anticipating Sakura’s next movement, her next decision. Waiting for the next words to tumble from her mouth. But, she couldn’t risk hurting them, not with Hinata’s nearby smile of encouragement, or the hopefulness kindled in her expression.

“I guess it won’t hurt to try.” Sakura knew her shoulders would’ve lifted into a shrug if she could’ve moved, yet—it didn’t. It couldn’t. It was merely a ghost of a feeling.

And it was something she had to live with now.

Something, yes, like all the discomfiting unfamiliarity that greeted Sakura’s first steps into the world beyond the sterilised colours and emotions within the hospital. Like the technology of pressure Sakura had to learn to direct her wheelchair through inhaling and exhaling into the attached straw; like the SVU Sakura’s parents had traded in for their old sedan; like the bathroom and staircase and front porch of their home that had been modified to suit someone who couldn’t walk or stand by their own volition.

It was new and—wrong.

Everything that had been easy had been made difficult; everything that was unobserved was noticed; and everything that was private was public. There was a strange, halting slowness to Sakura’s awareness as she hesitantly steered around her house once her parents had saw it fit to leave her alone, comfortably reacquainted in her own home. Her wheelchair struck the edge of a cupboard, and she cursed before redirecting.

She ignored how different it was not to feel the coldness of floorboards pressed to the soles of her feet. Or not being able to reach for an apple on the kitchen tabletop counter. Sighing, Sakura grew tired of exploring. She was exhausted with the revelations of learning she couldn’t use or handle what had once been natural to her. She navigated through the maze of doorframes and narrow hallways with a pattern of inhales and exhales to steer herself back to her bedroom.

“Hi,” Hinata said once Sakura had entered the room, already sitting neatly on the undisturbed spread of Sakura’s duvet. It hurt to see her there, appearing as nothing had changed—that Sakura’s life hadn’t been irrevocably altered.

“Hey.” It was a weak response.

“Did you see this?” Hinata asked, holding the mouth-stick Sakura’s parents had revealed to her before. Apparently, it could be used to turn pages and press buttons, but Sakura wasn’t yet willing to try it. Or fail.

“Yeah, I did.”

A silence descended them, not awkward, merely… unsure.

Persisting, Hinata questioned, “What do you think you’re going to do for the day tomorrow?” It was a safe place to start.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think I could visit you again then?”

“Do you need to ask?” Sakura’s smile surprised her in how quickly it appeared, curling wryly across her mouth. “I don’t think I’d ever say no to you coming over.”

Blushing, Hinata ducked her head. The glossy length of her hair brushed her shoulder and her fingers hid the pretty pinkness that touched her cheeks. She was beautiful.

“You’re so…” Sakura struggled to voice the words that fit into the space of this instant. What words could verbalise the depth of what she felt and make it sound as profound as the emotion swirling within her? Instead, she settled on, “Wonderful. You’re so wonderful.”

Hinata smiled, her eyes crinkling. “So are you, Sakura.”

It was too quiet, too tender, to ruin this moment. It could not be tainted by reality or the awfulness of the thoughts and feelings Sakura had harboured just before. If Hinata believed her to be special, and worth everything that she deserved, then Sakura had to believe her. She had to.

Because they could get through this.

Sakura could get through this with Hinata. Together.

In the following days, life begun to set into a newly cast mould of routine.

The first was the daily activities that Sakura’s parents had learned as a part of her personal care. Eating, dressing, bathing, the functions of her body she couldn’t regulate, and the exercises to maintain the strength and tone of muscle and tendons. It was tedious, but Mebuki and Kizashi were eager to do anything for Sakura if it ensured she was safe and happy. They spent more time together than Sakura had ever thought possible, but it was not a terrible circumstance to adapt to.

Because Kizashi was always overtly enthusiastic about anything Sakura accomplished, however boisterous and overbearing his support sometimes was. Yet, it was comforting, to know he would try anything to make Sakura smile, to cast aside all the whims of adulthood and propriety to be funny and good and nice. And Mebuki, too, was there to ease the parts where their personalities met roughly and smooth them together nicely.

More people proceeded them. There were those who knew it was wise to pretend that it was okay, that recovery was something that should be adapted to rather than pandered over. Those like Ino, who acted just as stubbornly competitive with Sakura as she had always had, convinced that nothing was different. Like Naruto, who stamped into Sakura’s home with a bundle of summer school homework and a shout for Sakura’s help in deciphering the complexity of numbers and words. And Sasuke, who was never too far behind Naruto’s step.

However, there were those who weren’t so wise. The influx of messages Sakura received online from her family, friends, teammates, classmates, and even fellow competitors were unprecedented and—irritating. There was posts and tags and emails and texts that told her to remain strong or gushed over how brave she was. There were awkward lapses in conversation and an uncertainty to bridge the subject that even closely resembled a mention of the accident.

It was infuriating.

It was humiliating.

But, there left the last factor of Sakura’s life that erased all the conflicted, awful wrongfulness of it. And it was the most important part of Sakura’s future, too.

It was Hinata.

The girl who loved to care for others; it was Hinata who never stopped caring for Sakura. She kept her company when she slowly learned how to use her mouth-stick without dropping it to turn pages and return hesitant text messages. She helped Sakura’s parents to prepare her meals sometimes, or sneakily ordered takeout, cutting the food into bite-size pieces and feeding it to Sakura. She who was always there to suggest a new cycle of physical therapy exercises or ask Sakura to join her on a walk down to the end of the street on an especially pleasant day, or generally be there with her.

It was not tedious or embarrassing with Hinata, because she loved Sakura. She loved her smile and her mind and her heart—and although her athletic career and her verve for a thriving life had faded into non-existence, Hinata loved her still. There was no limit to what she felt. There was nothing for Sakura to feel in her presence except sun-warmed affection, and positivity, and hope.

And so, Sakura had been cautious to agree to Hinata’s suggestion of a get-together, but she conceded. Because Hinata was excited to organise it, saying it would be a great chance for everything to see Sakura again. To make her happy again. And what could Sakura say to such bright-eyed passion for life, except yes?

The night of the party advanced quickly. It was an occasion Hinata worked to ensure succeeded, even when Sakura’s doubts grew and rooted into her flesh. It had been so long since she’d been included in a group of more than three people at a time. They had known the Sakura who had once dominated soccer matches and martial arts championships, always ready for a friendly match of athletic ability. They had known the Sakura who was gone, and in her place was someone who couldn’t even scratch her nose without asking for help.

However, the invitations had been sent and the date had been made. There was nothing Sakura could do but wait with Hinata a few minutes before the party started. Sakura wanted to pull at her plain shirt, tugging it up so it didn’t hang off her shoulders, or tighten the belt around a pair of too-loose jeans. She wanted to do anything—run, fiddle with something, play a game on her phone—until the doorbell rang in an upbeat, metallic tune.

Hinata rushed to greet the first attendees, and so the night began.

If only it had ended in the same breadth of good intentions Hinata held for the beginning.

Because Sakura’s tolerance for overly chirpy exclamations and forced conversation was worn thin in a few hours. Everyone was suddenly so accommodating, measuring their reactions and their stares as if not to alarm or discomfort Sakura. It was all too new, too different—and too soon for Sakura to handle it like a rational person.

“Sakura!” A loud, enthusiastic voice called out at one point—someone without reservations or care for volume regulation. Someone with a burning passion for youth. A boy who had once been Sakura’s equal in strength and ability at Gai-sensei’s local martial arts academy.

“Hi, Rock Lee.”

Clad in a green jumpsuit and a beaming smile, Rock Lee’s vigour for life was obvious. “How are you? Are you well? How are you parents and the lovely Hinata?” Rock Lee asked, placing his hands on his hips—in a pose reminiscent of his flamboyant teacher.

“I’m fine—We’re all fine.” It was a response that rolled naturally off Sakura’s tongue. She hardly had to think about what she truly felt before she had uttered the words; acting to deflect the real question.

“Oh, that’s fantastic to know! Marvellous!” Rock Lee was very nearly shouting, his zeal for living to the fullest, loudest extent an outrageous and unmatched performance. “Gai-sensei is always talking about how much he misses your magnificent aspiration for competition, and he’s made me work extra hard to make up for it.”

Nodding, Sakura tried to listen to Rock Lee, but his voice rung against her hollow ears. All the noise and excitement that pulsed around her in a swell of young, carefree celebration was wrong. It didn’t suit her surly attitude, or the way she could only return happiness with a few absent words of agreement, or a fake, vaporous attempt at good humour.

Excusing herself from the conversation, Sakura directed her wheelchair into a less crowded room, but it caught on a jacket left discarded on the floor. A few partygoers glanced at her predicament, but they were too cautious to offer their help. Not like Sakura could ask for it, anyway. Cursing under her breath, Sakura was on the edge of screaming when she heard her name amidst the boom of music and conversation.

“Hey! Hey, Sakura!” Naruto was weaving through the cluster of people, dragging Sasuke behind him. He appeared with an elastic happiness, bouncing on his feet, and a plastic cup had been stuck to his head and cat whiskers drawn along his cheeks in permanent marker. It was a sight that made Sakura suddenly, incomprehensibly furious.

“You should join our beer pong team!” Naruto suggested jovially, winding his arm around Sasuke’s neck. He was grinning as he spoke, untouched by the difficulty that Sakura had to deal with. “It’s not really beer, though, and Sasuke won’t join in, so you have to! You always managed to get us to win, because I’ve already lost like three times and—"

“Why are you even here?” Sakura bit out. The question seared her mouth.

“What?” Was Naruto’s dumbfounded reply.

“What’s the point of even coming here to study with me anyway?” She demanded. “Why do you keep insisting that I help you like nothing’s changed? Like I can still do it?”

“Because you’re so much smarter than me, Sakura,” Naruto explained, his expression twisting into a confused pout. “And you always help me with my homework,” he added quietly, as if it hurt to think Sakura would ever stop wanting to tutor him.

“But what can I do? Who knows if I’m even coming back to school! I can barely use my fucking wheelchair, let alone go back to the people who all think I’m worthless.” It was a mean, cruel remark, something cast out in the heat of an argument—because Sakura was angry. She was furious that life was streaming past her, faster and further from where she could ever reach, and she couldn’t catch up to it anymore.

“Don’t say that,” Sasuke hissed, stepping out from under Naruto’s arm. “Don’t be so selfish to ever presume what everyone else thinks about you.” It was the most he had said at once in the entirety of every afternoon he’d spent with Naruto and Sakura—and it was the most emotion he’d shown during it too.

“And what are you going to do about that, Sasuke?”

“Guys, stop!” Naruto pleaded, holding his arms out in an act to appease them.

Sasuke didn’t answer. He merely stared at Sakura with an unreadable, fiery intensity that she returned, before he turned and marched out of the room. The front door slammed shut in its doorframe as he left the house, deafening amidst the diminishing noise of the partygoers.

“Sakura—” Naruto started to say, but she stopped him.

“Get out.”

Pressing his mouth into a wobbly frown, Naruto swallowed whatever he was going to say. Biting his lip, he nodded in a constrained motion. It was so unlike his usual exuberance that Sakura had to close her eyes to watch him leave. There were whispers surrounding her, but she ignored them. She ignored how terribly good it felt to vent her pent-up emotions.

However, after the adrenaline of release had faded, Sakura was left as she always was—useless. Her motionless arms lying against the cushioned armrests of her wheelchair, there was a bitter anger caught in Sakura’s throat. She almost choked at the awful clog of it—the thick, intermingled sadness and frustration of it all. Without even a word to anyone, Sakura blew fiercely into her straw to steer her wheelchair backwards, nearly crashing into people. Drinks sloshed, conversation faded, and the heft of the wheelchair drove a path through people.

“Sakura?” Someone called out—Hinata, maybe. Or Ino.

Not like Sakura cared.

Fortunately, the sliding door to the patio was open to allow Sakura to seamlessly drive through it and outside. There was no one there to watch as Sakura reached the border of the wooden railing, heaved a great, shuddering breath, and started to cry.

The spirited enthusiasm of the party subsided when Sakura wasn’t paying attention. Maybe it was because she wasn’t paying attention. She barely even noticed the house had emptied to leave traces of youthful liveliness—wet cups and messily scattered food. The clocked chimed on the hour, yet it was merely an echo of sound. Sakura wasn’t listening to it or watching; all Sakura did wasfeel.

“Sakura?”

It was Hinata. It had to be.

“What’s wrong, Sakura?”

“I’m just—” Sakura’s voice shook.

Sakura didn’t see Hinata’s expression crease into worried concern or see her cross the space between them to kneel at Sakura’s side, but she did feel—she felt Hinata’s hand cradling the side of her face. Touch never ceased to be a comfort that Hinata would ever stop gladly giving.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—” Hiccupping, Sakura finished, “I didn’t mean to ruin the party you organised for me. I didn’t mean to waste it all.”

Tucking a strand of hair behind Sakura’s ear, Hinata was kind. She was unfazed. “It’s fine.” She was far more than Sakura deserved. “Nothing was wasted, anyway. Everyone said they were really happy to see you again.”

Sakura inhaled, exhaled.

Choosing to remain silent, Hinata continued to run her fingers through Sakura’s hair. Massaging relaxation back into her flesh, unknotting the coil of anxiety and dread that tightly wound Sakura together. It was evidence of Hinata’s care in curing all wounds and soothing all hurts, because it helped Sakura. It helped Sakura to maintain her composure and find the strength to open her eyes again.

The night sky that greeted Sakura was boundless in its resplendence.

The moment was quiet and unassuming in its intimacy. It was secure enough that Sakura didn’t tremble in the terrible, frightening wake of asking: “What’s wrong with me, Hinata?”

“Nothing, Sakura,” Hinata replied. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.” Something akin to exasperation lurked beneath her tone, but Hinata was merely adamant in the knowledge that Sakura was whole. That she was still perfect.

“Then why don’t I feel right?”

Hinata’s response was slower, measured. “I think it will take time to learn how to feel right again. But it’s something I know will happen, because it’s you, Sakura. Because I know you can do anything you put your mind to.”

It was natural, and inevitable, how Sakura turned to look at her girlfriend. It ached to feel so tender, so completely proud and grateful to have someone like her. And it was then that Sakura realised she was wrong, because the stars above were not the most beautiful thing for her to witness—Hinata was instead.

“Do you really think I can do it?” Sakura asked softly.

“Yes.” Reaching up to pressing their foreheads together, Hinata said, “Yes, I do.”

It was a mercy that gentled the complex cast of anger that encased Sakura’s heart. The hurtful poison of her residual spite had somewhat dissipated by the deepening darkness of nightfall, but it was still there, resting just beneath her sternum. It was an awful feeling—hollowing her chest entirely—but, wrongfully, it was something she could control too. It was the one thing Sakura left that she had complete power over. And she hated that it was the only moment she had truly felt normal in the weeks since the day her accident.

There was a sudden knock at Sakura’s bedroom door, jolting her from her thoughts.

“Come in,” she called out.

It was Hinata, offering an ultimatum Sakura wasn’t prepared for: “My parents said I could sleep over.”

Sakura blinked, mouth agape. “What? Really?”

“Yeah,” Hinata said, grinning.

It was strangely exciting, being allowed to do what had been barred from them before. Hinata stripped down to her panties and shirt to slide into bed beside Sakura. They both shared hushed murmurs of embarrassed greetings, unfamiliar with the sensation of sleeping entangled in each other. Their romantic endeavours had never really passed beyond kissing and cuddling, so this—this was new and exhilarating and fun.

Preoccupied with how Hinata curled up at her side, Sakura was able to forget her worries for an instant. Just long enough to be a teenager once again, talking late into the night with the person they cherished most. The world beyond the bedroom door faded; the damage wrought during the abrupt end to the party was forgotten, and Sakura could simply feel normal.

However, Sakura was not so fortunate for that blissful ignorance to last. Between activity and drowsiness, the conversation quieted. Errant thoughts pushed into Sakura’s head, demanding to be confronted, as vivid as the memory of the hurtful look of rejection twisting Naruto and Sasuke’s expression. Sakura knew she had acted stupidly, impulsively.

And she knew that she had to rectify her wrongdoings, too.

“Hinata?”

A sleepy noise of acknowledgment.

“I really hurt them, didn’t I?”

A beat of hesitancy, and then: “I think they were more worried about hurting you. Naruto especially—he just kinda takes on the feelings of everyone sometimes and he… Well, he and Sasuke were trying to help, in their own way.”

“It’s just—” Sakura inhaled shakily, blinking to fend off the hot sting of tears. “Rock Lee was telling me all about his new training regime and how he’s going for state championship, and my soccer team have already decided on who’s gonna replace me as captain and I’m… I’m just here.” Hinata propped herself on her elbow as Sakura began to cry, reaching to touch her face. To wipe away the tears. “I’m just stuck here, Hinata, with nothing to do.”

“But there’s heaps you can still do.”

“Like what?” Sakura asked. Desperately. “I can barely use a mouth-stick to read or text. I’m never gonna be able to do sports again. I don’t even know if I’m going back to school and—”

“Oh, Sakura,” Hinata whispered, leaning down to rest her head against Sakura’s. Curling their bodies together, Hinata’s arm rested over Sakura’s chest so she could stroke her cheek, fingers threaded through her hair.

“What can I do, Hinata? What is there left for me to do?”

“There’s so much,” Hinata insisted. “You can still be my girlfriend, and your parent’s daughter, and everyone’s friend. That’s never going to change.”

“But what else? What can I still…” It was pulling the pieces of her armour off, to speak these words aloud. Sakura had kept them close to her chest for a while now, hiding the wounds of her indecision and apprehension. Letting them fester. “What can I offer to the world?”

“People’s lives don’t end when they’re hurt, Sakura.”

Hinata was right, because Sakura had known so many that were hurt. Naruto, Kakashi, Sasuke. Yet, nevertheless they had managed to persist. They strived forward wearing their scars like badges of honour; like their pain was evidence of how fervently they had survived. Sakura had just always been too scared to ask how they managed to do that.

“Iruka, uh,” Hinata said, halting. As Sakura turned her chin to watch Hinata tuck the hair behind her ears in a nervous fashion, she prompted her to continue. “Iruka asked me once if you would ever like him to talk to you about stuff, so that he could help. I’m sure he’d still be willing to do that now.”

Sakura’s brow creased. “Iruka?”

Nodding, Hinata explained, “Well, he was a counsellor before he was principal and… He and Kakashi dealt with a lot. And they’re Naruto’s guardians, too. Iruka would know the best ways for you to find the help that…” Hinata’s gaze shifted, downcast. “To find the support that me or your parents can’t give you.”

“Hinata,” Sakura whispered softly. She could feel the phantom ghost of her hand reaching out to touch Hinata’s cheek, to soothe her worries away. However, instead of touch, some things still remained the same; her voice was gentle, and her heart fond.

“What?”

“I never really thanked you, for giving me everything I needed.”

Tears cascaded over Hinata’s pale skin as she smiled, leaning down to kiss Sakura. It was intimate, the meaning lingering beneath the action. It spoke of a connection that would not waver or falter. It was a love that was still fiercely, completely unbreakable.

“Okay,” Sakura said sometimes afterwards, with Hinata’s head nuzzled against hers. “Tomorrow, we can call Iruka.” At Hinata’s murmur of encouragement, and the threads of courage strengthening Sakura’s resolve, she added, “And also find a chance to talk to Naruto and Sasuke later as well.”

And, as simply and easily as Sakura predicted, Iruka agreed to meet them on the evening of the next day. Naruto and Sasuke seemed less enthusiastic than Iruka, but eventually they told Hinata they would come and visit too, and that was enough to placate Sakura. They were willing to be her friends—and maybe they had only just needed honesty from the beginning, because they were still by her side now.

Sakura was talking to Hinata—it was less of a conversation and more of a distraction—when the doorbell rang. Mebuki answered it, and Sakura heard Iruka’s calm, friendly voice filter through the air. Sharing a nervous glance with Hinata, and seeing encouragement reflected in her eyes, made Sakura able to control her anxiety. Her heartbeat slowed; her thoughts settled.

Because if Hinata was with her, then it was fine. It always would be.

Iruka appeared in the living room a few moments later. “Hello, Sakura! And hello to you too, Hinata!” It was a cheerfulness that resembled Naruto’s so much that Sakura could do naught but smile. Kindness was something their family had always shared.

“Hi, Iruka.”

It was somewhat childish to still refer to him by his first name when it was something she had learned when he had merely been Naruto’s guardian rather than her school principal. However, the familiarity of it was comforting. Even if he stood watching her with exhaustion-dark eyes and rumpled clothing, as if he’d been up all night for a reason Sakura didn’t want to contemplate. Iruka was both Naruto and Kakashi’s anchor, even in the best—and worst—of times.

After accepting Mebuki’s offer of tea, Iruka sat down on the couch. He rested a formidable-looking briefcase by his feet. “So, how have you been?”

“Fine, I think,” Sakura replied, truthful. “I’m just trying to adjust.” There was no reason in lying to a man who was able to see through the façade of those who masked their own hurt.

“That’s good. There’s merit in doing things in your own time, to your own ability.”

Iruka was like Hinata in this respect: his positivity was unwavering. There was no end to the reserve of pure-hearted feeling they both fostered inside their chests, always trusting that there was a way to remedy sadness into happiness. To love everything. To love all that they could despite the cruelty of the world that took and took and took.

It also meant that he would face Sakura’s fears head-on, despite how greatly they loomed. Despite how incomprehensible and awful they were. And Iruka—like Hinata—would find a logical response, to divert that path of pent-up emotion and grant it a healthy outlet.

So, Iruka didn’t flinch when Sakura asked, “What do I do, Iruka? What do you think I’m able to do?”

“You can do anything, Sakura. There’s a world out there for you; you’re only looking at the parts you used to know, and not what else there is to offer.”

“But how did…” Sakura struggled to phrase it, wrangling the words into the correct order. “How did Kakashi handle it? All the changes he had to adapt to?”

Iruka’s composure didn’t waver, but it softened. Made him speak quieter. “Rehabilitation is different for everyone, and Kakashi didn’t have the support you do, so it was a little difficult. But he was able to get better. Slowly. Surely”

“How?”

“There’s a lot of things you can do,” Iruka said, smiling as he reached to unlock his briefcase. He pulled out a stack of tied papers and pamphlets and newspaper clippings, spreading them across the table evenly. “There’s a lot of programs they offer for people with different circumstances. Support groups you can reach online or in-person, classes you can attend, activities you can do, or professionals that offer specific therapy or psychological aid.”

The sheer wealth of information was daunting. It hadn’t been made clear until now that Sakura had options beyond the limits of what she imagined hadn’t existed before.

“Now, you’re young, so I have a lot of faith in what you’re able to accomplish, Sakura. I’ve seen you grow and mature ever since you were little like Naruto was. I know you can find a way to be just as happy and bright as you once were.”

“You can do it, Sakura.” Hinata echoed. “I know you can.”

The sentiment rested warmly against Sakura’s sternum, but it was melancholic. Sakura had forgotten how fiercely Hinata believed in her—the old and the new her—and the hopefulness of Iruka’s counsel made her want to be just as positive. However, a pang of dread struck through her. Made her taste the bitter tang of improbability—and failure—as she wondered if this wouldn’t help her heal, forced to ask, “Iruka?”

“Yes?”

“Will I ever be able to do what I could before?”

The lines of Iruka’s expression deepened, made the light of his gaze fade. It was obvious what his answer was—how impossible it was to say that Sakura could ever be who she once was.

For an instant, Sakura hated how wildly her life had veered onto an unexpected path and was ready to tear fangs and claws in the unfairness of it all, but—a thought stopped her. Because Hinata hadn’t looked at her like she was useless or treated her any differently than before. Sakura could only adjust to her life now, because she remained the same person to Hinata, and that was a blessing she could not do the disservice of ignoring.

“Sakura?” Iruka prompted, moving to reach forward.

“It’s okay,” Sakura stopped him, mouth pressing into a wan smile. She was trying to find the words, to collect her thoughts and mould them into sensical, thoughtful sentences, but they refused to cooperate. There was a mounting swell of feeling building in Sakura’s chest, making her ready to crumble and crack, but—

“Hey, sorry I’m late!” The interruption was a welcome distraction, mainly for the reason of who caused it. Kakashi rushed into the room, raising a hand in apology at the congregation of people there to witness his arrival. Iruka was the only one who didn’t seem outwardly startled by Kakashi’s sudden, unplanned arrival.

“Kakashi,” Iruka chastised, unimpressed.

Shrugging, Kakashi said, “Sorry. I got lost on the path of life.”

Rolling his eyes, Iruka gestured to Sakura. “Why don’t you give that excuse to the person who you couldn’t even be early enough to surprise with me.” It wasn’t a reprimand—merely a well-worn interaction. Iruka and Kakashi’s relationship had always been the worst kept secret at school.

It was no shock that Kakashi was dressed in the same dishevelled, casual state as normal, contrasting Iruka’s polite, ordered neatness. And despite however Kakashi appeared scruffy and lean, he was agile. Sharp. Even with his usual black cotton eyepatch wrapped over half his face; a result of a car crash that had left him blind. One eye had been saved, and the other, unfortunately, had not.

Her emotions centred, Sakura wondered, briefly, if maybe Kakashi had felt like she had too, waking up after the accident to realise his own life was irrevocably changed. That there were some things he could never truly regain or compensate for, however—

It was the subject for another day. Not now.

Kakashi sat beside Iruka, their knees touching, before deciding to speak. “How are you doing, kiddo?” It was a bland, rudimentary question, just a mundane collection of words, but it was different. Everything had taken on different meaning now—hidden in the nuance of expression, tone, action.

“I’m doing fine.”

The moment stretched between, thin in places, but not entirely too awkward. Moreso swollen with expectancy, as if the interaction was hidden beneath a façade of polite niceties. Kakashi had always been too direct for such pleasantries like small talk.

The name slipped through Sakura’s lips, abrupt and unbidden: “Kakashi?”

He tilted his head, looking at her evenly. It was an action without pity or sadness, but with the same level composure Kakashi always had. His unchanged demeanour made Sakura brave enough to persevere forward, because this hadn’t changed. And if Kakashi was still her mentor and coach, then maybe everything else wouldn’t be subject to the same drastic readjustments, too.

There was a question laying beneath her tongue, ready to take shape and sound, but there was no one she could ask. None would could understand. No one except Kakashi, who had experienced the same incident of losing something that would impact his life, forcing him to adapt to be something considered—as much as Sakura hated to admit it—lesser.

“What is it, Sakura?” Kakashi’s voice was pitched low and soft, something Sakura had only heard him use privately around Iruka.

Courage had always been the armour Sakura had garbed herself in to face challenges. She had never shirked in the face of danger, or hardship, but now—now it was fear that made her speak with an honesty that scraped her throat raw. That made her comforted by the fact that Hinata was there at her side to make her brave enough to cast aside her doubt and apprehension to be the hero she still was to her girlfriend.

“Do you think I’m going to be alright?” Her voice didn’t tremble, and for that Sakura was glad. Hinata was suddenly closer than before, hand moving to grasp Sakura’s shoulder, but she didn’t speak. She merely offered what she could in that moment.

Iruka glanced at Kakashi, his mouth pinched tight, but Kakashi was composed in the gaping maw of such a loaded question. “You’re strong, Sakura,” he said. “To put up with boys like Naruto and Sasuke as your friends, to love Hinata as such an important part of your life, and to so completely live as fiercely and as passionately as you do, now that’s something I wouldn’t doubt. I’ve never had to worry about you, because you were always the one I could trust to do the right thing and succeed.”

If Sakura hadn’t felt like she was to the point of being wrung dry, energy sapped from her body, she probably would’ve started crying again. Maybe it was the last few weeks of tumultuous events, or the bond they shared, but Iruka seemed overwhelmed with that same earnest tenderness as he looked at Kakashi.

It was heart-warming that they could still be so profoundly connected to each other, like two halves forming a perfect whole, after a similar tragedy they had endured together. Their devotion to one another reminded Sakura of Hinata with a fierce breath of feeling, because she offered the same promises of comfort and affection, either in sickness or in health.

“And,” Kakashi murmured abruptly, his voice curling around a playful smile, “it certainly helps when you have someone there when you need them, even when you say you don’t.” Kakashi nodded towards Hinata, his eye crinkling in a good-natured tease. “So, don’t be afraid of doing what you’ve always done, Sakura, and take life by the balls for me, hey?”

As Iruka dipped his head to talk to Kakashi in low, murmuring tones, Sakura made no move to respond beyond a nod. They soon moved to leave, bidding the girls a quick farewell before tidying the mass of pamphlets and papers Iruka had placed on the table. Sakura thanked them both, knowing Kakashi heeded no answer as he disappeared with a jaunty wave, his arm hanging around Iruka’s shoulders.

Everything that needed to be said, had been. All that lurked unseen and hidden beneath the surface was made real, because maybe there was a silver lining to all this. Because Hinata had always been the brightest, best part of Sakura’s life; she was the luminous moon to Sakura’s brilliant sun. And there was nothing she could allow herself to be disheartened about, or her abilities restricted by, because she had Hinata, just like Kakashi had Iruka.

So, Sakura was allowed to hope that maybe, just maybe, her life would be as remarkable as it had been before, because—

There was a knock at the doorframe leading into the hallway, interrupting the stream of Sakura’s thoughts. Naruto and Sasuke were standing there uncertainly. Waiting. Their anger and disappointment were still fresh in Sakura’s memory, but they were here. They were trying to make things better, and repair what was broken and damaged between them.

“Hi,” Sakura said, swallowing. “Come in, guys. I want to talk to you about a few things.”

And, like that, change was no longer complex or frightening. It was different, but it was good. Progress was slow and laborious, but there were options beyond the crippling grasp of depression. There were people to support her, indefinitely.

And, also, there was suddenly an untapped wealth of options that Sakura had to choose from. First, she hesitantly entered into the world of online support groups for people with similar spinal injuries to Sakura, who—unsurprisingly—offered a different breed of encouragement and understanding Sakura hadn’t found elsewhere. Her parents and Hinata were integral to her recovery process, but this was still important. She soon discovered safe spaces where disabilities were talked about without shame or resentment, and accessibility issues she could be involved in discussions about where her opinion was valued and heard.

Hobbies, too, seemed like a promising prospect. The enticement of disabled sports clubs and teams daunted Sakura, but Hinata was there to encourage her to try something new. Athletic endeavours were something she could return to in due course. So, she settled on painting, because art had been a creative medium she’d always hoped to dabble in.

And no one was there to mock her when the day she held a paintbrush between clenched teeth and wiped a smear of colour over a blank canvas. Her first piece was experimental and amateurish, but it was the product of Sakura’s accomplishment. It was something she could create using her own mind and devices; it was the result of her own hard work and dedication that would never have existed without her.

Hinata sometimes joined Sakura’s painting sessions, followed by Ino or Naruto, or both. Ino’s motivations behind her attraction to art was because it seemed like an activity of someone sophisticated and cultured, whereas Naruto simply enjoyed spending time with his friends. And so, they painted, or talked as they painted—and learned that good company could be shared in silence, too.

It was also the place that gave voice to Naruto’s meandering, brilliant thoughts.

A paintbrush perched between his upper lip and his nose, Naruto didn’t initially appear to be a vision of genius. “Hey, Sakura, did you ever think about making a YouTube channel or something?” His suggestion, however, begged to differ. “I know Iruka is always asking about how you’re doing and he seems really proud of ya. And when Gai-sensei comes over he’s psyched to hear how good you’re doing as well. It just seems like something people would be interested in.”

Hinata—who had been serving as Naruto’s headrest as she serenely read a book—looked up at Sakura at Naruto’s proposal. Her eyes glimmered happily, like they did whenever she was excited, unable to contain her enthusiasm. She closed the paperback book between her flattened palms with a snap.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea!” Hinata exclaimed.

“Disregarding the fact it came from Naruto, I’d say the same too,” Ino echoed.

Unmoving from his position struggling to balance the paintbrush upright, Naruto called out an automatic retaliation of, “Oi!”

“Do you really think so?” The question was posed to the gallery of Sakura’s friends, because—it seemed possible. It wasn’t something Sakura never saw gaining her popularity and fame, but… It was interesting.

“Of course, we do!” Came Hinata’s spirited reply.

Sakura was quickly convinced. There was nothing to truly fear beyond the insecurities of failure, but Sakura was not so easily daunted. It was something that Hinata believed the camera-confident, fierce, brave Sakura could do—and that had always been enough.

It was not a process with fast results, however Sakura soon had an established video blog she updated once or twice a week with Ino’s assistance filming, lighting, and editing. It was casual at first, talking about a nature walk she’d travelled with Hinata with lately or showing her latest painting. And as her viewership grew, and feedback filtered in steadily, she adopted a more personal approach. Medical factors, the burden of adapting to technology and change, her fears and hopes and aspirations for her future, or her relationship with Hinata.

Although, the comments she received—that tenuous connection with others—was the main reason she continued to post videos. It was a response that encouraged her to persevere, to always find a good outcome to things—just like Hinata always supported her to do. The messages were always enlightening, or comforting, or much more than that:

You’re so brave to keep trying new things! I always wanted to try painting or drawing with my feet as I have no control of my hands, so this encouraged me to go and do it anyway. It’s been a lot of fun so far!!! I can’t wait to see what else you’ll do!

The way you talk about your girlfriend is so cute <3 <3 How did you two meet??? How long have you been together? What’s your favourite thing to do together? Can she join in on one of your vlogs one day??

And Sakura’s favourite comments were always subtle, meaningful:

Thank you so much for sharing. It means a lot to know there are other people like me who can have the strength to be happy. If you can bounce back from your accident, then so can I.

It always made the experience worthwhile, knowing someone out there felt the same way she did, and that she helped change suffering into something hopeful.

Thus, it was no shock that—slowly, painfully—Sakura came to know the parts which made her whole again. The memory of who she was would always be a painful longing she could not rid herself of, but the greatest fragments of her past were still there with her. She had her family, her friends, and Hinata. She was able to come into the new form of her identity; she was remade after the accident.

There was the interaction and support she received online that comforted her in not feeling alone or unnoticed. It was a network of similar people connecting her in a community akin to the relationships she had forged in sports, instead different. And there were no exercises or training she could work out her stress in, but art to channel her emotions into an outlet of self-expression. There were her family to bind them together in a bond of kinship, and there was also Hinata to remind her that she was forever worthy of love and romance.

Different, new, unfamiliar—but good. It was a healing experience.

It was recovery.

It made Sakura talk in rambling excitement whenever she saw Hinata, filling their interactions with a spirited verve that hadn’t existed before. There, under a leafy canopy of trees lining the sidewalk, Hinata matched Sakura’s pace and listened intently to her speak. Only after the sun had cooled against her skin, and the warm, late summer air had wrapped around them in the hazy glow of evening, did Hinata stop.

“What is it?” Sakura asked.

“This is the happiest I’ve seen you in weeks.”

Blinking, Sakura was taken back at Hinata’s confession. Because it was true, she hadn’t felt so weightlessly free of her burdens in a while. And she was even outside in the flush of the busy holidays without a care in the world, as if Sakura had finally carved a place for herself to exist within it. She hadn’t wanted to live so fiercely until now.

“Uh, I guess so,” Sakura said, her mouth curly softly. “I am happy, Hinata. I really am.”

Hinata’s smile was so bright it beamed, blocking out the sun.

Just like that, Sakura’s heart stopped. And started again.

“Well, because you feel better, I was wondering if…” Hinata trailed off, rubbing the back of her blush-red neck. So adorably shy that Sakura couldn’t help but love her innocent sweetness all that much more. “If you maybe wanted to try going on a date? To celebrate all the progress you made before school starts?”

And what could Sakura possibly say to that except—

“I’d really like that, Hinata.”

That following Friday, Ino turned up in Sakura’s room armed with makeup, a suitcase of clothes, and a will made of iron. “This is your first real date in months,” she said by way of explanation, hushing Sakura’s exasperated protests, “so it’s up to me to make it the best one Hinata could ask for. Who knows what she would think if we got your mother to do your eyeliner. Or if you chose your own outfit.”

“Hey—!”

“Quiet.” Ino waved her hand in mock-seriousness. “A master needs complete silence to focus.”

Ino chose a tasteful green dress in the same shade of Sakura’s eyes. A pale, subtle green. She even managed to adjust the bust and waistline, so it fit properly, before moving onto makeup. A dusting of cosmetics—natural but enchanting—as strappy heels followed to complete the look.

It was a transformation Sakura had never been too invested in even before, but Hinata’s reaction at seeing her for the first time made it all the worthwhile. Eyes widening, hand fluttering up to cover her mouth, Hinata gasped at seeing Sakura dressed up. Painted in pretty, bashful colours—Sakura offered a shy smile at Hinata’s obvious stunned daze.

“So, how do I shape up?” Sakura asked, half-joking.

“Absolutely incredible, darling! Like a dewy pink petal falling from the branch of an elegant cherry blossom—” Kizashi—who had let Hinata inside and promptly watched the scene unfold—was interrupted by his wife’s elbow to his stomach.

Oblivious to Sakura’s embarrassing, endearing parents, Hinata inhaled shakily. “I think,” she breathed, “you’re the prettiest girl I know.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Sakura teased, grinning with a broad exuberance, “because I’m damn sure you’re the prettiest person in this room. Or the whole world too, while we’re at it.” And she had to be right, because—Hinata was beautiful. Clad in a pale eggshell blue dress with a creamy white woollen shawl pulled over shoulders, and hair twisted into an intricate knot, Hinata was breathtaking.

“Alright, girls, please,” Kizashi begged with a dramatic flair, hand pressed over his chest. “Stop before I go into cardiac arrest.”

Sharing a bashful giggle, heat painted both Sakura and Hinata’s cheeks in vivid, blushing pink. They eventually relented in their shyly swapped compliments before Kizashi bundled them all into the SVU and asked where Hinata had made the dinner reservation. It was a classy French restaurant at the base of a high-end hotel, evidence of Hinata’s lifestyle of rich luxury. However, as the Hyuuga family were regulars there, no one raised an eyebrow when they situated Hinata and Sakura at one of the main tables in the centre of the dining room, pushing their chairs close together so Hinata could act as Sakura’s hands.

Candlelight burned dimly over soft white linen tablecloths and silver cutlery, everything placed and straightened in neat, ordered perfection. Against a backdrop of deep red on the walls, the music was just a whisper of melodic sound, and the atmosphere hummed with a quiet intimacy. It was romantic—moreso than Sakura had been prepared for.

Although, if Hinata had taken them to a greasy diner with stale burgers and watery milkshakes, Sakura still wouldn’t have cared. It would’ve had the same affect; it would’ve made Sakura’s pulse thrum in her veins and her smiles appear with a giddy happiness. Because it was a night dedicated to them as a couple. To forge new memories in the wake of old ones, and to laugh over anecdotes and pretend to sip on cherry cokes like it was expensive wine and simply betogether.

They were still teenagers in the youthful flush of a summertime romance. And it served to remind Sakura that this was a joy they could share together, basking in the hope that more wonderful nights like this would follow. Luxuriating in the tender intimacy of their actions, Sakura was, quite frankly, besotted with Hinata. Infatuated with how diamond earrings glittered against the elegant slope of her neck, or how considerate she was in bringing small bit-sized pieces of food to Sakura’s mouth or tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

It was so utterly normal, and natural, that Sakura forgot she was in wheelchair. The absence of movement and feeling didn’t press down on her like a leaden weight or render her so achingly despondent it gripped her heart in a vice-like tightness. Sakura was, simply, a teenager enjoying a date with her girlfriend.

She was a girl who was lucky enough to ask Hinata for a kiss in the radiant shroud of intimacy and receive a lingering, tender press of lips to hers.

Afterwards, Hinata coaxed Sakura into the hotel lobby and awaiting elevator, where they travelled to the roof level.

“What are we doing?” Sakura asked, watching Hinata tentatively push a heavy-looking door open on the top floor. A breath of balmy night air blew through the corridor as Hinata revealed a portal to the rooftop, standing at the threshold to the edge of the coloured-speckled world.

“Just come and see,” Hinata laughed, motioning for Sakura to join her.

A sight of a thousand glimmering lights spread across the landscape greeted Sakura as she followed Hinata outside. The wind was as gentle and soothing as a lover’s caress across their bare skin; and the world was bathed in the resplendent midnight-blue of the night sky. The town below them twinkled in spots of pink and green and yellow, like a gemstone that gleamed for them to admire.

“I got my dad to organise us being allowed up here since he knows the hotel manager,” Hinata admitted. “Because he used to take me up here when I was little and point out all the constellations he knew. It was the only way my parents could convince me to go out for dinner.” Soft laughter filtered through the warm air.

“It’s beautiful.”

Hinata turned, fingers pressed against the loose strands of her hair that had been freed by the wind’s mercy. Illuminated against the background of glittering lights, she was a vision that Sakura could not easily forget. It hurt to look at her and know that she loved Sakura so completely, so unabashedly, that she would do so much for a special few moments spent together.

“You’re beautiful,” Sakura whispered.

It was a breath of confession that touched Hinata’s cheeks and made the colour splattered there deepen and spread. She smiled, ducking her head to avoid Sakura’s straightforward gaze. “We’ve already had this conversation,” Hinata said, but there was no heat to her words. Simply a well-worn fondness.

“And I’m fine if we keep on having it until you believe it.”

Stepping closer, Hinata leaned down to kiss Sakura. Once, twice, thrice. It was a hopeless, inevitable action—something that preceded such a bare exchange of affection. Sakura could feel Hinata smiling against her lips and wondered, just for a moment, if Hinata could feel the same too.

And then she pulled away, her hand remaining on Sakura’s shoulder. They stood, together, watching the world turn and shimmer beneath them. It was a magnificence caught in the single, fleeting instant of a moment wherein Sakura felt untouchable. Where she had everything within the reach of her fingertips, because Hinata had given her a kingdom.

Because Hinata had given her something precious, to be cherished.

It was a memory that would not have come to fruition if Sakura hadn’t been in the accident. It was a fragment of time that would exist forever in Sakura’s grasp, intertwined with the feeling of Hinata’s lips to hers, and the future laid out before them.

So, Sakura wasn’t scared to meet everything that would follow. Education, career, marriage, fulfilment, happiness—it was still accessible, it was still a goal firmly within Sakura’s reach. Yet, now, she had the means to plunge into the wide maw of the unknown and chase what she wanted. She was no longer terrified of what she could or couldn’t control, not if she had Hinata there with her.

And it was that same reassurance that carried Sakura along in the dwindling days of summer before school began again. Junior year, rife with possibilities. Something like dread, or the ghostly feeling of her hands wringing together, made her anticipate the first day back at Konoha High School. Because it was the same, and Sakura wasn’t.

Yet, Sakura chose to face her new life now, no matter what it threw at her. With a helm of support at her back, of her family and friends and girlfriend, there was nothing left to do but preserve forward. To seek greatness. To pursue a future.

“You ready?” Hinata asked, sitting twisted around in the front seat beside Mebuki.

Glancing out the window at the clusters of teenagers who streamed past the car, filtering in and outside the school grounds, Sakura heartbeat pounded. It was the same place and the same people who would have greeted her if nothing changed, but everything had. She was no longer Sakura Haruno, sports star, but she wasn’t merely the poor girl in the wheelchair too.

The memories of her old life existed as a reminder of the happiness she’d once thrived in, although she was greeted to a different happiness now. Filled with a network of people she wouldn’t have met without the accident, or a range of issues or activities she wouldn’t have been involved in; never to have known the positive response of simply living and striving to find purpose as she did now. Her friends and family were the same, but Sakura was different.

Sakura was newly fashioned into someone who persevered. She was someone who was unstoppable in the face of adversity, especially with Hinata at her side. Or, maybe because Hinata was at her side—but that was a fact Sakura had long grown accustomed to. Hinata was her strength; Hinata was her reason to strive for a future that was just as exciting and bold and new as her other idea of her future had once been.

And if Sakura ever needed the courage to be brave, she would only need to look at Hinata at her side and know everything else was inconsequential. This was a single moment in her life—and so she would live it just as fully as she had before.

“Yeah,” Sakura eventually heard herself say. “I’m ready.”

Konoha High School greeted Sakura as it always had; and, as always, she was prepared to meet it head-on. Yes, there were some stares and looks that Sakura ignored, but it was a fleeting inconvenience. She had her friends there. She had classes and homework and memories. She had a new, exciting, amazing life to grow into.

And when Sakura opened a message from her old soccer team asking her to come to their first game of the opening season, Hinata turned to her and asked, “Do you want to go?”

It was instant, the time it took to decide.

“Yeah,” Sakura said, nodding. “I do.”

Wrapping her arms around Sakura and kissing her cheek, Hinata could do naught but laugh along with her. The noise was a burst of pure-hearted, sunny happiness; it was a consequence of so completely being alive in that single moment. Of embodying the true spirit of life. They kissed in celebration—and again and again.

They kissed until Sakura forgot the twinge of her fears, and instead anticipated what lay ahead of her, because she could do anything. She was unstoppable with Hinata there to walk beside her. She was unmatched in her bright, brilliant independence to seize every chance she did just as fiercely as she had before the accident.

That weightless feeling of triumph did not wane or fade as the day of the big game approached. The amassed crowd waiting at the sidelines of the soccer field welcomed her warmly, familiar with who Sakura was. It was like returning home to see their faces and know she still belonged there. What Hinata had said all those weeks ago had been right—that people’s lives didn’t end just because they were hurt. Or scared.

Because Sakura had persisted.

Because Sakura was able to attend her old team’s match and cheer for them just as fiercely as she always had. She was not on the field, nor would she ever be again, but she fought just the same. She was still the same person sitting there, wearing a team shirt emblazoned with the Konoha Ninja’s name, and Hinata’s hand resting on her own.

In a sense of nostalgia that she’d never truly escape, Sakura did miss the way things were before she dove into that wave on that fateful summer day. There were some things she would never been capable of doing; and experiences and successes and aspirations she was forever barred from knowing. However, it was not unfortunate or tragic that her life had been altered to adapt to that change.

This had never been an end to everything Sakura had once known—this was merely a new beginning. It was a life that Sakura could pursue with her same stubborn, prevailing ambition. It was a future that Hinata had made real to Sakura, through a love and support that made her strong. That fostered the flame of a hunger for learning and growing and succeedingwithin Sakura again.

So, when Hinata looked at Sakura, illuminated against the green of scuffed grass and the endless blue of the sky, she only felt pride. There was affection and admiration, yet pride reigned supreme. For Sakura was still the hero that had arrived into Hinata’s life in a burning splendour of confidence all those years ago. And she was still happy to see Sakura become the best version of herself—just as Sakura loved to see the same in Hinata, too.

Because there would always be difficulties Sakura would face in her life, especially now, although it was a challenge she was ready to accept. It was a feat she knew she was intrinsically capable of accomplishing, as Hinata had given her the courage to do so.

It was Hinata—it had always been Hinata at the centre of Sakura’s life. To ground her; to support her. To love her without reservations and without doubt, because there was nothing that transcended the bond shared between them. Their relationship existed in brilliant, profound connection of heart and mind and soul.

And, so, it wasn’t hard to admit that Hinata had always been the best part of Sakura’s life, and that certainly wasn’t going to change now.