Hatake Kakashi stifled a yawn as he sat up on his queen-sized bed. Casting a casual look around his room, he yanked the shuriken adorned comforter away from his legs. He seemed to be somewhat slow in the uptake this morning. Now, if only he could remember why he was awake so early…
He scratched his scalp sluggishly.
Oh yeah, he recalled.
A couple of brown birds perched on Kakashi's opened window frame. The chirpings conveyed a sense of tranquility and merriment to the blurry Jonin. Picking up a watering can, the rusty feathered winged fluffs (Kakashi just loved Jiraiya's description of birds) took flight when he watered Mr. Ukki, a pot plant given by Naruto years ago. He threw his gaze far into the horizon. When a fresh gust of morning breeze breached his room, Kakashi stretched out and took a deep, contented breath.
But, just before the air reached his lungs, irritation cropped up at his throat, choking him. And with every mouthful of air invading his trachea, his body shook as his upper body muscles contracted and relaxed violently to push whatever foreign particles that had intruded his respiratory system. Teary eyed, he cleared his throat and set the watering can aside. If it was at all possible, Kakashi looked even more gravely than before.
He strode over to the closet and slipped on his black singlet. Since the reliable globe of light and heat (again, Kakashi was amused by Jiraiya's alternative words for sun) was not up yet, his humble abode was still in dimness. He was about to switch on the light when what he saw rooted him to the ground.
His right hand.
It was… quivering. Instinctively, he grasped the still trembling limb with his left one.
Very much perturbed at the moment, he traipsed into the illuminated room. The wide mirror greeted his troubled self.
Time's up, Kakashi. You know it as well as I do.
The reflection seemed to be jeering at him. Kakashi turned his back to the snarling mirror, leaning vaguely against the ceramic sink. He shut his eyes, pushing the brightness away as though it was hurting them.
Time is running real fast since then, don't you think so? Now, what d'you plan to do with your remaining days, Kakashi-kun?
He clenched his right fist, not in anger, but to merely stop the pathetic shivering. He stood there, his mind completely vacant and void of his usual gushing of paperwork's drafts and combat tactics. A single thought finally nudged him to reality. Kakashi started.
What are you doing?
"Get a grip of yourself!" he muttered, furious with himself.
The next few minutes passed with Kakashi washing up; bathed and dressed in his standard Jonin uniform. Only this time, he did not dare to delay; his new spikes of fear, yes, fear, although he did not – no, would not – register it consciously, was beginning to infiltrate him. He definitely did not want to force his shaking hands (in case they recurred) rubbing soap of his body or zipping his vest.
He locked the door to his room. Subconsciously, he gathered chakra at the soles of his feet. His knees bended a fraction, ready to propel himself up but –
What the –
Kakashi groped for the door knob to break his fall and leant heavily against the wall, shifting as much weight as possible away from his legs.
Cursing inwardly, he tested them to see if they had decided to function normally.
Great, now the legs.
When they did, he walked away dolefully, engrossed in his own thoughts.
"You're pretty messed up, Kakashi."
A man in his early twenties was looking morosely at the middle aged lady who spoke to him just now. His muscled arms and handsome features showcased youth and agility. It was his thick hoary hair that betrayed his age. Kakashi sat upright on the futon. The lady who initially was busying herself at the counter came over to him with a tray full of oddly coloured liquids. She tipped water into a porcelain cup and pushed it to Kakashi. Though still thoroughly confused about the fuss and unintelligent garbles of the kindly lady, he accepted it.
"You ought to finish everything, boy. And don't even think about moving or you'll tear the wounds that are starting to close up."
There was a hint of threat in her voice that Kakashi thought it would be wise to keep mum. Instead, he scanned the room.
It felt so alien yet undoubtedly homely as well. Scrolls were scattered about him in a radius of one meter and there were cottons soaked with crimson blood piled up in a bin. A window somewhere swung open, bathing his cold body in sunlight.
"In fact, you shouldn't be sitting up, boy. And I haven't poisoned the water. Drink up!" she said more pressingly when Kakashi had not touched his medicine.
He started on the green one and frowned slightly as the burning sensation crept from his tongue down to his stomach. The lady meanwhile was still cradling scrolls and tossing used cotton pads and blood-stained sterilized cloths into the overfilled basket with astonishing accuracy. Halfway through the potions, the matron, or at least he assumed she was, settled down by him. She eyed him with mixed expressions which none could Kakashi comprehend. Was she curious? Worried? Or maybe angry?
A cloudy, grimly impression splattered on her weather-worn façade. Kakashi put his glass down on the tatami.
"Kakashi, that was really foolish of you," she whispered.
He looked away on purpose. He did not need to hear this.
"Reckless. It's so unlike you."
She was not there, he thought. She doesn't know.
"I don't know, eh, Kakashi?"
He turned to her. For a change he saw a glow of distress in her beady eyes. Kakashi swallowed the last portion of his blue potion. However, his oesophagus did not compel to allow this liquid to go through it. He gagged and froth spluttered down his front.
"Here," she handed him a napkin.
Kakashi apologized meekly as he ran the fabric across his chest clumsily.
"Now, careful –"
He gasped as he pressed unwittingly on his bandaged abdomen. The lady took the cloth and cleaned him up instead.
"Kakashi, I think even you know how serious your wound is this time."
He stared at his blanket.
"You are considered extremely lucky now that you're still breathing. But," she sighed and returned to her seat, "I cannot guarantee a life long comfort though. I give you five years. Ten at most."
Kakashi downed the remainder of his medicine. Giddiness settled; he clutched the side of his head, putting a mild pressure on his temple. He closed his eyes and allowed his body to be pushed lightly onto the futon…
Kakashi opened his eyes. The very recognisable slab of memorial stone stood before him. He felt warm. The sun hung readily as ever in the cyan cloudless sky. A couple of stray dry leaves dangled precariously at the blunt corners. He swept them down.
That happened when he was twenty or so. He was now approaching thirty. She gave him ten years at most. After all these days, he was so preoccupied with duties following the invasion of Konoha that he had never given a serious thought to his predicament. And now that it was finally catching up to him…
"Obito," he expired slowly, "what should I do?"
"Kakashi-sensei is too late now. Maybe he'd forgotten us or something. Can't we just go to Granny Tsunade's office now? What's the point in waiting anyway?"
"Stop whining, Naruto." Sakura pointed her finger knowledgably at him. "It's just a matter of courtesy to wait for the elderly."
"Ah, Sakura-chan… But it has been four hours already. And I'm…" a loud growl emanated from his tummy, "I'm hungry."
Sakura slapped her forehead. Shaking her head, she said between gritted teeth, "Shut up Naruto or I'll –"
"Yo! My bad, my bad. I accidentally stepped on bird crap and thought of it as a bad omen, so I –"
The other two shook their fists and burst out saying, "Yeah, that's right! You're lying!"
Kakashi chuckled uncertainly. Just like old time. They both had never changed at all.
Never changed… at all…
It magnified and echoed in his burdened mind.
They started walking and Kakashi tailed them leisurely. Fishing his "Come Come Paradise" from the back pouch, he was aware of several people who moved in the opposite current kept glancing at him furtively. Some even did double takes with foreheads creasing slightly. Kakashi wondered at this and scratched the exposed bit of his face.
It felt frosty. Lifeless.
A new surge of panic washed over him. He took the book out and promptly buried his nose in it. Hopefully it would do much in concealing his pallid visage. He looked fleetingly at his students from above the battered pages. Naruto was still chatting animatedly to a grouchy looking Sakura. She seemed to be flexing her fists dangerously. Kakashi sighed again.
Seriously, these two dunderheads…
"Please come in."
The door creaked open to reveal Kakashi, Sakura and Naruto by the entrance. The three of them admitted themselves into the circular office and stood in front of a sitting Tsunade behind stacks of documents. Shizune was smiling graciously as her hands sorted files from files.
"Kakashi-sempai, Naruto-kun, Sakura," greeted Shizune.
"Shishou, Shizune-nii chan!" said Sakura brightly. Tsunade too expressed a grin to acknowledge their presence and swept aside the official scrolls lying in front of her.
"Tsunade-sama, you're already lagging in paperwork. That needs to be signed –"
"Shizune, can't I have my rest for a while?" complained the Hokage.
Things would have gotten very awkward if Naruto had not started blabbering.
"Granny Tsunade, how about an S-rank mission? Come on, I've become really strong now. I can't wait to show off my new technique! And don't assign me to crappy C-rank missions. They're really of no challenge at all!"
"Naruto, when will you ever learn that even the greatest ninja starts from the bottom?"
At this, Naruto glowed with pride. "Even the greatest?" He punched elatedly in the air. "Aha, so I am the greatest ninja after all?"
Tsunade cursed herself inwardly at this. "Shut up for a minute, Naruto." She got to her feet and chucked the Konoha official stamp into its respective holder before turning her attention to the trio.
"Well, a Jonin, a Chunin and a Genin (Naruto "hmph-ed" loudly at this). I cannot assign you high ranked missions because both Naruto and Sakura haven't the adequate experience for those. So, it's a B-rank then. No, Naruto, it has been decided."
Naruto pouted and looked away grumpily. Shizune meanwhile was shuffling through papers.
"Tsunade-sama, I can't locate that mission. Are you sure you place it here?"
"Of course," the reply came indignantly.
The both of them started searching frantically for the particular document. After all, the mission promised a handsome amount of money for the village.
"Aww, where did I leave it just now? It was here seconds ago, I'm so sure of it!"
"Not this, not this either… no…"
"Granny Tsunade, hurry up," Naruto hooted desperately.
But Kakashi was the least bothered about some misplaced scrolls. The itchiness in his throat was mounting and he dreaded acting ill here. He shoved his fists into his pockets, clenching them so hard that the fingernails dug into his palms.
Go away, just go away, he found himself praying.
An uncomfortable prick shot out at his throat. Kakashi choked. The coughs would not cease and came harder after each previous one. As he brought a hand to his mask clad mouth, he suddenly felt a twinge in his sides. He could only hope that the rib cages would not crack after this maddening series of cough.
He gave a swift glance at Naruto and Sakura. Their faces were lined with obvious apprehensiveness. Naruto had even taken the liberty to slap Kakashi's back to alleviate his coughs. After a number of hitting, Kakashi quietly wished that his student would stop doing that as it pained his already aching abdomen.
"Naruto," he said softly between gasps for air, "thanks."
"Kakashi-sensei," the boy started before pausing. He could not string the proper words to put across his question. In fact, he was more worried of his teacher's sudden poor health. Sensing these in his student's eyes, Kakashi waved his hand as if to brush away all nonsensical assumptions that might have emerged in his presence.
"I'm fine. Maybe my throat didn't agree with the curry last night."
That was of course, a downright lie.
"Err, so, have you gotten the mission?" he asked in attempt to throw them off this dangerous issue. Shizune who was looking high and low for the papers was oblivious to the incident earlier. Therefore, it was only natural for her to reappear looking crestfallen saying, "It just dissolved into thin air. I don't get it!"
She approached Tsunade. "Tsunade-sama, maybe it's a good thing it go missing. Naruto is still too young and unprepared for it."
"Ei… what do you mean? I'm always prepared and I'm not that weak!" Naruto shouted in retaliation.
Tsunade hung her head. "Keep quiet, Shizune, Naruto!"
They both closed their mouths.
"Shizune, stop having kittens about the boy. He's fifteen already for heaven's sake. And you, Naruto, despite being fifteen, you're still a Genin and a Genin obeys the Hokage."
Naruto crossed his arms and turned his heels. "Fine!"
Kakashi was beginning to feel a little ill. Their squabbling rammed hard into his ears causing a vein or two in his temples to pound. Although he was used to going off food for far longer period than this (he had not taken breakfast), his stomach felt strangely empty. When his vision wavered, Kakashi shut his eyes, willing the dizziness to subside.
Naruto was looking at her. He trailed her eyes; her gaze fell onto their teacher's pale face. Naruto surveyed him intently.
He inched nearer to the Jonin when a stern voice rang throughout the space.
"All right. I'll inform all of you again when we manage to get the papers. As I think that the mission suits your team best, I'll just exempt you from other missions until you've done that task."
"Tsunade-sama!" called Shizune triumphantly. She brandished a brown envelope which was yet to be opened. "I found –" she stopped in mid-sentence when Tsunade shot her a reproachful glare.
Not now, Shizune.
She held the documents limply by her side.
"Well, that's that then. Dismiss!"
All three backed towards the door. Before Naruto could twist the knob, Tsunade spoke again. "Kakashi, stay for a while."
Naruto raised an eyebrow but did not ask further of the odd request.
The two young shinobi left the room half-heartedly and closed the door with a snap. Granted respite from his swimming sight and inflamed stomach, he moved to the middle of the office.
"Is there anything else, Hokage-sama?"
Tsunade took a couple of steps forward. And then, she disappeared.
Kakashi's eyes widened somewhat. Where had she gone to?
A flicker of something bodily solid behind him sent immediate impulse to his brain.
Get out of its way!
He would just have to dodge it. Preparing to leap upwards, he bended both knees.
Just as abrupt as Tsunade rematerializing behind his form, numbness flooded his legs. Kakashi looked forward. A fist crackling with blue energy was coming his way fast. His neuron seemed to be disconnected. His mind went blank.
Not being able to hold his weight any longer, he mustered the remnant of his strength and threw himself sideways. He tensed a little as the powerful fist whizzed past his nose. Skillfully, Kakashi somersaulted in the air using his arms to thrust his body up. He landed on the floor, crouching on his left knee. Certain death was only inches away. Had he not manage to avoid that punch, he would be smashed into pulp. But, other thoughts were bugging him. He had gathered chakra at his feet. Why would they not budge but gave way instead?
Tsunade stood at the spot where Kakashi had previously been. She was studying him from head to toe. Not wanting to chance it, he remained in that position. Somehow, he did not appreciate the fact that Tsunade was staring at him like some sort of interesting biological specimen. But once again, Kakashi was alarmed when his mind began spinning, sending the world into a revolving top. He bowed his head in hoping to shield his face from Tsunade. Bad move, he thought.
Now he felt like throwing up.
"Kakashi, what has happened to you?"
Picking himself up from the polished floor, he forced an assuring smile from behind the mask. Tsunade however was not buying it.
"You're not feeling well, are you?"
Shizune, still stunned from the Hokage's attack, gawked from her master to the Jonin.
"What? Am I missing something here? What's going on? Why is Kakashi-sempai unwell?"
Her flow of enquires went unanswered.
Tsunade was still eyeing Kakashi. Though no words were exchanged, they both knew fully well that Kakashi had his own reasons for not divulging the truth and Tsunade would respect her subordinate's actions.
"We'll return to our paperwork, Shizune." There was a tone that suggested finality. Perhaps Shizune noticed this as well since she returned to the overloaded desk without another word. Kakashi took this as a permission to leave. With the Hokage's approval, he exited and made his way back home.
The road which led to his residence was a little crowded with villagers carrying out their jobs or housewives doing their shopping. None of these mattered much to Kakashi actually. In fact, he had never allocated much interest for them. But, he ought to know better. These people led simple, secure lives barricaded by the walls of Konoha. His life was outside and not at all of comfort. Risking his neck and spilling blood at battlefields, yes, that sounded more coherent to a ninja's way of life – Kakashi's way of life. He should be thanking Lord each time he made it back to his house alive. Well, maybe not very much in one piece sometimes. But at least he had been alive. Wounded, hurt, but he would be up and about and doing a hundred push ups within days. He should spend more time enjoying nature and his surrounding. Who knows when his days would come to a period? He had seen them come and go. First, they promise to meet again in a pub and drink themselves silly. The next thing he knew, they got ambushed and slaughtered by the opposite party. But really, none of these were significant anymore. He himself would be gone and forgotten before long…
"Go, go, go! Come on, they're gaining on us!"
Rustles of footsteps speeding past the grassy meadow permeated the night. Eight figures darted ahead. Rain fell in torrent and rough wind wailed as if to mark the commencement of another bloody battle.
"Secure the scrolls. And prepare for battle. Should they corner us, we'll meet them head on!"
Three silhouettes leaped high into the frosty air. Five more follow suit.
"Damn, they just won't give up!"
A body slammed into the soft land. It rolled for a short distance before vanishing in a puff of smoke.
A log was in its place.
"Kawarimi?" a gruff voice was heard above the din caused by nature.
Kunai and shuriken were exchanged in mid-air. The three Konoha ANBU threw smoke bombs in their midst and ran for it. In the middle of the confusion, Kakashi glanced back. It looked like the plan succeeded. At least, all three of them could buy themselves some time and get out of the field.
Wait, all three?
Kakashi hunched low and clawed the soil beneath, halting abruptly a short distance from the chaotic scene. He asked the man who had landed beside him.
"Where is he? The bearer of that –"
Another piercing shriek resonated in the space.
There was a hint of an oncoming typhoon in the tensed air. The one by Kakashi's side was starting to form elaborate hand seals. Kakashi, recognizing the combo, had not even the chance to react. Great boulders the size of baby elephants were levitated and hovered menacingly.
Next moment, they were hurling at such velocity towards the assailants. When they made contact with something solid, a canon-like explosion boomed on the spot. Not waiting to see whether those offensive rocks had taken down the shinobi, they both turned to make an escape.
"One down. The mission had failed. The scroll stands no chance in that explosion."
Only that was important. They proceeded as fast as their legs could carry them. The grass was thinning and the ground became firmer. Tall, steady oaks and ash towered in front. At last, a chance to stay out from the open and hide their presence silently in the woods.
An uncanny bristle of leaves above caused the hair on the Konoha ninjas' backs to stand at ends.
"Don't fool with us!"
Kakashi looked up. There, swinging a scythe-like weapon was a female ninja whose face was concealed behind a mask. She lunged towards the silver haired one. Aiming for his throat, she positioned her anterior towards gravity.
Her scythe would not move; it was stopped from harming her opponent by a kunai. The male ninja had drawn his weapon in the nick of time. Only inches away, he saw her eyes narrowed until they reduced to slits.
"You resemble Konoha's White Fang a lot."
Kakashi pushed her away from him. They both leapt back away from each other. He readied himself for another strike. But she merely swung the chain connecting the blade to her wrist over her head.
"Sharingan Kakashi…" she said. A faint hiss of excitement lingered in the words.
Kakashi twisted his neck very quickly to check on his remaining comrade.
He was slumped on the pasture. A black outline was holding a lasso and the end of the lash snaked about his bloody ankle. The standing form jerked his arm upwards. The one on the ground screamed in agony. From the mangled look of the leg, it seemed that it was broken.
Kakashi zipped away from the female shinobi. Manipulating his agility, he reappeared behind the man with lasso and stabbed his throat. Without so much as a cry, he fell crumpled on the wet grass. Hurriedly, Kakashi severed the cord with his chakra, knowing that the weapon had been enhanced to withstand any physical damages. He took the injured man in his arms and fled.
They crossed the threshold of the dense forest. Kakashi forged on, fighting exhaustion and keeping his senses sharp for other possible counter attacks. His trembling friend was starting to gurgle. Worried sick of his ebbing life force, Kakashi focused chakra at his soles and advanced considerably faster.
"He… he… hehe…"
Astounded, Kakashi looked at his shivering companion.
His blood-coated body continued shaking but not out of the low temperature.
He was laughing. And he was no friend. He was one of the shinobi who attacked the Konoha ANBU team back there.
The sniggering ninja gathered a large amount of energy around his right fist. The electric blue light reflected in Kakashi's widened eyes.
"Goodbye, shinobi of the Leaf."
Blood spurted in all directions, tainting the tree bark around. For a split second, everything seeped away from his mind. Pain spread excruciatingly from his chest to every other part of his worn out body. He dropped to his knees.
"Were these real?"
His dilated pupils flared sparks of incredulous.
"I screwed it big time…"
His rattling breath and the drip drop of dark, scarlet substance onto the tree roots were the only audible sounds to his ears.
"I would thank this weather, really. It hid my scent very well."
Still, they did not carry any meaning to the profusely bleeding man.
He wrenched his hand from Kakashi's chest. More blood gushed out as the dying ninja fell forward in accordance to the forceful removal. With every inhale, the pain intensified sending his deadening form to shudder. He was close, too close to –
Kakashi cringed sharply; he felt as if a disembodied hand was pinching his heart. Already the vital organ's rhythm was erratic. He could not maintain consciousness anymore. Black patches swerved in and out of his focus. The realm melted and fused…
Another jolt of pain burst in his wound and then, darkness claimed him.
Kakashi threw his eyes about him. It was the familiar road packed with pedestrians and small time hawkers. He was still in his peaceful village. The short trip back home seemed to have stretched for half-an-hour; he had taken a detour and strolled around the town twice.
He wondered how long he could keep this is a secret. Already the Hokage-sama had showcased suspicion. She knew. And it was only a matter of time before Naruto and Sakura found out too. It was relieving though, that he would not be doing missions for the time being. Allow him some time for rest and recuperation…
But deep down, he doubted it.
The rather vivid image of the mother-like matron who cared greatly of him drifted in his mind.
The wound made it obvious; that person aimed for your heart. You're a blessed child to have survived that.
Yes, straight to his heart. Ten years of borrowed time. That was not so bad. He had had ten years to roam the world. Was that not enough? And after roaming for so long, he had gotten a tad tired now. A comfy, warm bed would be nice…
No, he really was tired.
Kakashi halted in his tracks. He was already panting. That was very strange.
Great, now what?
He took several deep, long breaths. But they did not seem to suffice. His lungs needed more and he could not provide it. He was running out of air.
Kakashi clutched his chest. His heart was pounding painfully, sending blood to his oxygen deprived cells. Another stabbing at his heart forced a groan out of his cracked lips. He leaned against a telephone pole, cursing the pain off. If only he could reach his home earlier…
"Kakashi-sensei!" exclaimed someone merrily from a corner. Kakashi could not discern the caller's face but he knew plainly who he was.
"Sakura-chan, sensei is here too!"
Oh no, not the both –
He felt frail and the pain was only worsening his condition. He clung tightly onto the pole. He heard their speedy paces. What excuse could he give?
It sounded ever so distant…
"Sensei! Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto sped to him and push his teacher into a half sitting position in his arms.
He immediately hauled the taller man with one motionless arm over his shoulder. But the weight was too much for the younger ninja. Sakura darted forward and swung the teacher's other arm over her shoulder.
"Hang in there! Kakashi-sensei!"
Where am I?
Kakashi woke up to a familiar place. The ceiling, that plastered ceiling… that same butter yellow curtain… and why does this mattress feels so… well acquainted?
No, hang on; the question should be, what was he doing there and how did he reach this place?
He racked his brain in search for the answers. All he remembered was a stretch of blackness and then, here he was. Kakashi brought his hand to his forehead and pushed a bristle of his silver hair away from his eye; someone had removed his forehead protector and now his fringes hung low, obscuring his view. Additionally, his right hand felt a little stiff. Looking at the back of his palm, he noticed a transparent tube protruding between his knuckles. Kakashi blinked. So, no wonder he thought he knew this place…
He was in the hospital ward.
And this ward was as good as a second home. Sometimes, during a particularly dangerous S-rank mission, he would attempt using the Mangekyo Sharingan and ended up immobilized. This was where he rested for weeks during convalescence.
Kakashi propped his pillow up and leaned against it. His forehead protector lay smartly on a stand at the foot of his bed. Just when he was about to retrieve it, the ward's door opened. The Hokage walked in, tagged closely by two ashen teenage ninjas. The moment they both saw their teacher sitting up, they rushed to his side and exploded into questions.
"Sensei, how do you feel?"
"I am –"
"Anywhere hurting? 'Cause you still look peaky."
"No, I'm –"
"We wanted to take you home but –"
"– we saw you clutching your chest so we thought –"
"– it's better for you to come here."
"But, I'm really –"
"You had us worried sick!"
Once again the door opened. A very disgruntled nurse holding Kakashi's health record walked into the now hushed room. Naruto and Sakura straightened themselves up and edged away from the bed to allow her some space. When she walked past Naruto, he thought he heard jumble of words like "harassing my patient" and "indecent behaviour". Abashed, he looked stony-faced at her who was now checking on Kakashi's pulse.
The nurse scribbled something on the paper. Then, she turned to his visitors.
"This patient really needs some rest. I suggest you come back later."
With a polite nod, she crossed over to the entrance and held the door ajar. Naruto and Sakura looked pleadingly at Tsunade.
"You heard her."
"You can come back tomorrow."
Naruto stared at his feet disappointingly. He then exited the ward with Sakura, throwing one last glance at Kakashi. The nurse shut the door behind them and progressed to the next ward.
"Why can't we see Kakashi-sensei? She can!"
"Idiot, she's the Hokage-sama."
Tsunade loomed closer at Kakashi's bed. There was a furrow on her forehead. Kakashi was still ogling his forehead protector.
"Old wound acting up?"
There was a pause. "Yes."
"When did it happen?"
"Quite sometime ago. Nine to ten years," came the respond.
Tsunade folded her arms under her bosoms. She examined her subordinate solemnly.
"You must've known," he heard her whisper.
Of course I knew.
"You know how serious it is."
"You know approximately how much time you've got."
Kakashi stare was fixed resolutely at the forehead protector. He knew it. She had detected something amiss and perhaps would have figured out his whole problem by now. It was during time like this he yearned to be at someplace far from mankind while awaiting his time. That was one of the two reasons why he did his best to masquerade the pain.
"Do you know how thick your hospital record is?"
I have a rough idea.
"Knowing what kind of person you are, it's pointless to tell you to watch out for yourself during missions. You've practically been in and out of here the whole time. Fractured bones, ruptured organs, other semi-critical and superficial wounds…" she sighed. "Those we can mend. But I'm not certain about this one, Kakashi."
For the first time, he turned his bleak eyes to her.
"Hokage-sama, I appreciate your concern. But you don't have to do anything for me."
She seemed startled. Kakashi shifted his gaze.
"I'm a dying man."
For a whole minute, no one spoke. Kakashi recognized the despair in his words. And he was greatly ashamed of it. Since young, he was never keen in showing emotions. Look at his father; he took his own life because he was so full of them. Now that he would be meeting him in the afterworld soon, he went and disgraced himself. Was that why he had hidden himself behind a mask for such long years? Was it to avoid more embarrassment and shame?
"Heh, and here I am thinking that Itachi hadn't done anything serious to your brain."
Kakashi, though shocked by the sudden statement, was still mute.
"Seems that he'd fiddled too much with it."
The silver-haired Jonin's expression remained unchanged.
"You're weak, Kakashi," Tsunade said more profoundly. "You've surrendered when there is still hope. You deny yourself a chance to be well and healthy again. You choose to stay a dying man! It isn't too late! There's still some time!"
Kakashi did not answer nor did he show any signs of hearing her yelling heatedly. He knew of the risks he was taking. And he willingly agreed to face whatever repercussions of his seemingly foolish actions. Finally, in a much calmer tone, he heard her asking, "Why won't you do the operation?"
Absent mindedly, he tightened his fist.
"I have to settle off a few matters."
Resigned, she turned her heels and walked out of the door.
"Miso ramen, ossan."
The man who was ladling soup into a couple of bowls turned around. His crowfeet became more distinguished when he put on that typical grin.
"Naruto, isn't it? Miso ramen, coming up!"
Naruto and Sakura took their seats. Both did not speak. The man frowned at this peculiar circumstance; Naruto looked downcast and not talking loudly for a change… He heaved a sigh as he arranged fish cakes and mushrooms on two separate servings.
"Not your usual self, eh?" he put the steaming bowls in front of them, "where is all your enthusiasm for my ramen?" he sounded somewhat hurt.
Naruto's meal went untouched.
"Really Naruto, what has gotten into you?" the man asked again.
The boy's grip on his trousers tightened. Not able to contain his feelings, he voiced them out, "Sensei is not feeling well."
At this, Sakura stared blankly on the immaculate counter. The two bowls of ramen left forgotten.
"Sensei?" the old man pondered at this for a while, "Hmm, by sensei do you mean Kakashi-kun?"
Naruto and Sakura watched him avidly. Looks like this old man knew a lot more of Kakashi than they did. He dropped his ladle into its respective pot and wiped his hands dry.
"Let's see. Old wound acting up, yes? Huh? What?"
The two youngsters were looking up at him in disbelief and awe.
"How d'you know? No one tells us about sensei in the hospital," said Naruto.
The old man scratched his chin. He was mildly surprised that even Kakashi's students were left in the dark. Unless… his condition was really that –
He jerked awake from his reverie. A heavy veil of anxiety hung around them; Naruto was already on his feet.
"Sorry, daydreaming," he mumbled. "All right, Ayame's friend who works as a nurse in the hospital told us when she bought ramen for lunch. Said he never flops over by the road, but he finally did. That was why she mentioned it to us."
Sakura caught something well-hidden beneath the last sentence.
"What do you mean she mention it to you because Kakashi-sensei finally flopped over by the road? Won't she be telling you if Kakashi-sensei got hurt?"
The old man gestured his hand around the humble ramen stand.
"Well, this place is as old as Kakashi-kun. I know him since he was a brat," he chuckled.
Sakura cocked a brow. The old man's weak smile faltered.
"She mentioned it because there is a rumour, just a rumour that his condition is critical. And that's saying a lot since he's been through some of the worst in combat missions."
Naruto's jaw clenched. If that was the case, he should have told them. They wanted to know. Were he and Sakura strangers to him? After all they had been through, he still prefer to keep everything to himself, bear his problems alone…
"It was a very long time ago," the old man continued. Naruto listened attentively.
"Back when he was still in ANBU actually. The mission he was on went badly. Several Iwagakure ninjas attacked them. They were outnumbered by five to three. Apparently, Kakashi-kun is the sole survivor. The other two bodies were never found."
Sakura swallowed hard. The old man did not suspect anything as he was still gazing at the ceiling, rubbing his jowl subconsciously.
"That was probably Kakashi-kun's worst mission. Some woodcutters found him bleeding and barely alive in the woods. They gave him first aid and brought him back here judging by the Konoha's ANBU tattoo on his arm. Doctors thought he would never make it. He lost a lot of blood, bless him."
He paused for a breath.
"Hah, but he got out of ANBU after recovering and becomes a Jonin as he is now. Of course, with that injury, he cannot stay in an ANBU squad after all."
Naruto asked quickly, "What injury?"
The old man rested his arm on the counter. "Kakashi-kun took a blast of chakra to his heart."
Sakura gasped in horror and clamped her hand over her gaping mouth. Being a medical ninja, she knew fully well what that blow might cause. Naruto, however, was at sea.
"What? Sakura-chan, how bad can that be?"
He knew it sounded awful but he needed some kind of confirmation. Sakura spoke in a mousy voice, "Then, he should… should have…"
"Maybe the ninja missed. Kakashi-kun wouldn't be here if the attack succeeded flawlessly."
That was the confirmation Naruto needed.
So, that was what it was all about. He had never imagined Kakashi-sensei to be in such devastating form. His teacher would always wear that signature boring look of his with that dratted "Icha Icha Paradise" up his nose, or leaping from trees to trees and frowning when Naruto messed something up. He had never pictured the silver-haired Jonin horizontal, clinging on to dear life. For some unknown reasons, he felt unnerved and insecure. He wanted to do something to help his teacher. But he knew, he was powerless against fate and…
"Naruto?" a small, feeble voice unheard to Naruto asked.
Sakura, too, seemed helpless.
It was full moon. Its gentle glow illuminated even the darkest crook of Konoha, as though promising some sort of assurance that everything would turn up okay tonight. Perhaps a sullen young ninja longed for such assurance, too. Looking outside of his window, he flung a distressed gaze towards the Hokages' face monuments; their features seemed more refined under the moon ray. Abandoning his miserable attempts to sleep, Naruto crept out of his room and made his way to the roof top. There, he perched himself at the edge of the storey adjacent to a towering water tank.
If you were here, what would you tell me to do?
Naruto actually hated it. Asking him for advice sounded so humiliating. And he would never forgive himself if his absurdity got the better of him in front of that person. But was Naruto not the one who was willing to go to extremes for his sake? Was Naruto not the one who thought of him as a friend, a brother? Certainly it was normal for him to turn to a fellow brother. Especially in times like this…
If only he was here…
"What's with the pained expression, Naruto?"
The young ninja stood up quickly. Behind him, a silhouette of someone familiar was approaching. That person had both hands in the pockets.
"Who are you?"
A figure walked out of the shades. The moon shone on his face.
Naruto made to grip the older ninja's arm. Kakashi smiled widely behind his mask and placed his hand on his student's shoulder.
"It's all right, Naruto. I can manage."
Naruto relinquished his grasp on his teacher. They both edged towards the end of the floor and stared wordlessly at the sky. Tonight was so consoling.
"Sasuke," uttered Kakashi, his eyes reflecting the many stars a-lighting the world. Naruto, having heard his teacher clearly, looked sadly at the ground.
"Sasuke," the silver-haired Jonin repeated, "You were thinking of him, weren't you?"
Naruto did not answer. But there was no need of any.
Kakashi sat gingerly on the floor. Naruto assumed a place next to his teacher. It was awkward. He did not know how to initiate a conversation. Usually, when two people sat down together, they started jabbering and talking even before their posteriors rested on the floor.
It was still awkward.
He finally gave up trying and continued to gaze the heavens. Kakashi's eyes were glazed. He appeared to have sunk into his own thoughts and dreams. Surprisingly, his next words were very much controlled.
"How long has it been? Three years?" he grimaced, "My, my, Naruto. You never know how to give up."
Naruto flared up. So now even his teacher sees him as an idiotic kid who does not possess a single shred of logic. All these years, he had been obstinate about his defected friend. When an issue cropped up regarding Sasuke, he would always stick up for him. People thought the disappointment was upsetting him, turning him senile into believing the impossible. Sasuke will never come back – he chose this path himself. It was tiring. It was hard to do this alone…
"Naruto, you're not the only one who believes in Sasuke."
Naruto gulped. "What did you say, sensei?"
Kakashi grinned again. He gave a thumb up.
"I believe in him too."
The youngster looked thoroughly taken aback by this. Lost for words, he kept quiet again.
"I'd like to see him as a Konoha shinobi again, don't you, Naruto?"
Sasuke, as a Konoha shinobi… again…
He balled up his fist. His teacher looked on with slight interest.
"Kakashi-sensei, I've made the promise of a lifetime to Sakura-chan. I told her I'd definitely bring Sasuke back, even if I have to drag his bloody body here. That's why I train so hard. I've got to be stronger than Sasuke. Then only can I bring him back."
He faced Kakashi.
"I will snatch him from Orochimaru myself!"
Kakashi smiled secretly. He actually admired his fiery spirits and wills. The kid stood steadfastly by his beliefs and would do whatever it takes to achieve them.
Naruto didn't expect this question.
"I… Because I…"
He could not say it. Or rather, he did not know how to. Kakashi chortled at the sight of Naruto struggling for the appropriate answer. The boy got slightly annoyed and looked sulkily at his teacher.
Kakashi clapped Naruto's back encouragingly. His laughter had finally stopped.
"Naruto, everything happens for a reason. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise. For you to have come so far after experiencing such adversities in your childhood… you have grown up strong."
Naruto laughed mirthlessly. "No, I'm not. If I was, I could've brought Sasuke back."
"You really think so?"
Naruto looked puzzlingly at Kakashi.
"Strength is not measured in battlefields. Most of the time, you have to be strong enough to face terrible facts and difficulties. And brave enough to stand alone."
Kakashi seemed somewhat off. Naruto was about to ask whether he felt well but the elder man resumed talking.
"You had been lonely. After years of solitude, you come to know Sasuke and Sakura. You know how important your friends are to you. That's why you want to protect them. For Sasuke's part, you are still loyal to him; despite how he hurts you… you still want him back. As a friend. You retain your decency after harsh treatments. I'm beginning to grow fond of you."
Naruto thought his teacher really was losing his grip. But he could not help blushing.
"Ah, Kakashi-sensei… You've taken the liking of spewing nonsense."
After years of interaction with his teacher, Naruto had yet to fathom his thinking. One minute he would be scolding Naruto for disturbing the course of mission and now, he was actually complimenting him.
Naruto glanced sideways at Kakashi.
Kakashi was hunching over. His face contorted excruciatingly and his breathing was no longer even. Naruto found himself frozen to the floor. What could he possibly do?
Kakashi bit his lower lip and gritted his teeth to forbid himself from making a noise. The pain was more intense than this morning's and it was getting more and more difficult to force himself quiet. Every pump of his heart sent electrifying agony over his numbing body.
Naruto held his teacher's shoulders to steady the ailing ninja; he was shaking violently and would have toppled over anytime. Kakashi's trembling hand pressed hard into his chest. It was getting worse.
Suddenly, the pain lifted. Kakashi inhaled deeply, greatly surprised by his own biological mechanism. He felt Naruto's grip on him and could almost imagine his student's facial expression right now. I'm okay now, he thought of telling Naruto that, but his severely weakened body would not allow him to talk.
Maybe he could smile a bit.
That was when he felt a part of his heart blazing with fire.
Kakashi doubled over, tightening his fist on his chest.
Kakashi moaned audibly. This suffering… He wanted it to end. He had had enough.
Naruto was shaking almost as much as his teacher. He was afraid that Kakashi would really perish if this condition prolonged.
That's it! Help! I've got to get help!
Naruto leaned his teacher against the water tank effortlessly. Although still empty in the mind, he desperately sped to a prominent building with the kanji "fire" emblazoned on the wall. The coldness which stung his form did not bother him at all. He only had his teacher in mind.
Five minutes later, three figures were seen leaping on roofs. Naruto was leading Shizune and another medic-nin to Kakashi. Once they reached the destination, their wariness increased. Something uneasy prickled the air. There was neither movement nor sound on the eerily still storey. They paced forward.
A blurry shape formed a bulgy heap on the ground.
Kakashi was lying on his side. His ruffled hair covered his ghastly white visage; his body drenched in cold sweat. Shizune placed her index and middle finger on the unmoving man's neck. She too looked uptight.
"Inconsistent pulse and breathing. Take him back."
Where am I?
The ceiling, that plastered ceiling… that same butter yellow curtain… and why does this mattress feels so…
Not here again!
He raised his right hand. A single translucent tube stuck out between his knuckles.
Like it or not, he was again admitted into the hospital. Only this time, he remembered clearly what took place before he slipped into nothingness. He strained his ears for noises. Not hearing any, he deduced that he must be alone in the ward.
But not for long.
Tsunade and Gai walked into the room. He made to sit up but a hand pushed him back firmly onto the bed. Kakashi turned his droopy eyes to the person.
"Kakashi," she acknowledged. Gai approached closer and stood moodily at the foot of the bed. From his angle of view, Kakashi could see his joyless eyes. It was very unlike him. The Maito Gai he knew would always behave flamboyantly and out of norm in his wake. But now, he looked just as dreary and dusty as the Hokage.
Tsunade placed two fingers lightly on his wrist. Kakashi thought her lips thinned; she always did that when something happened because no precaution measures were taken despite whatever warnings she had dished out. She then shoved the sheet of linen blanketing his body neatly to his knee. Deftly, her palm was laid on his chest, tapping his upper torso. Left, right, middle, middle-right – he felt her fingers scurrying across his front. Then, her right hand settled on his stomach and she pressed down gently.
There was a sharp intake of breathe; his forehead crumpled heavily.
Tsunade folded her arms. She clucked her tongue impatiently and scrawled several lines of notes on the clipboard. Once or twice she threw casual glances at Kakashi before jotting more words furiously on the paper. When she was done, she eyed the lying man and scanned him from head to toe.
"Your heart beating has become erratic more frequently. Even your lungs are not functioning very well. When your cardiac muscles lack oxygen, the cells die. That's when pain settled in. In your case, the pain doubled because of your chakra flow. Your stomach is gradually disintegrating. Soon, you won't be able to ingest food."
All these words rushed through Kakashi like water in the brook. He did not know it was happening this fast. At this rate…
Tsunade seemed to be thinking along the same line.
"Well?" Gai asked loudly. Kakashi turned jadedly to him.
"Hokage-sama, aren't you going to administer some medication of sorts?"
Tsunade ignored him.
"You take care of yourself," she said before leaving them.
The door snapped shut.
Gai lingered in the ward and drew a wooden chair beside Kakashi. Upon sitting on it, the silver-haired Jonin asked, "How many days have I been here?" he turned to face his visitor.
"Really?" Gai laughed nervously. "Nothing escape you, doesn't it? How do you know you didn't drop in here last night?"
Kakashi stirred again and looked up at the ceiling fan.
"My back is sore," he said simply.
Even in such situation… you're as meticulous as ever.
"Well, only two days."
They heard the chair scrapping the ceramic floor when Gai pulled his seat closer to the bed. Kakashi rested his left hand on his forehead. He found it beaded with sweat.
The sitting ninja studied his friend with utmost concern. Kakashi might have taken this news well but Gai for one knew he had not. The Hokage-sama could restore Lee's broken bones and injured spinal cord to initial condition. Back then, she herself stated that the odds were poor. But she pulled it off. Lee could walk and stand tall as a shinobi again. Why could she not save Kakashi? She would not have anything to lose. If Kakashi could not survive the treatment, at least he had tried… It's a lot better than lying down waiting for death. Surely she could have this figured out.
Unless… of course…
The man removed his hand from his clammy forehead and dropped it on his abdomen.
"You refuse to take treatments, don't you?"
Kakashi did not want to reply. He knew Gai long enough to foresee his reactions should he tell the truth.
The silence provided Gai the answer. He stood up, enraged.
"Kakashi! For once, quit thinking about others and look after yourself! I know all right. It's the kids, isn't it?"
No reply. Gai took that as affirmative.
"After that Uchiha kid took leave, you've become more protective over Naruto and Sakura. I know that Team 7 is your very first team as a Jonin. I know how attached you are to them."
Kakashi never wanted them to lose each other. He knew how it felt to be estranged. And he wanted them to remember him as their uninterested, perverted teacher – not a grievously ill man on his death bed.
"I've never seen you like this, Kakashi."
He caught the melancholy in those few words. Hoarsely, he said, "Thank you, Gai."
A short, sharp pain erupted. Kakashi flinched. Gai leaned forward hurriedly and studied his friend. He was wheezing. And his hands were shivering. Kakashi's senses began to fade. He thought he heard a whisper even though he was not sure. When he felt someone warming his hand, he knew he was not by himself.
Gai closed both his hands around Kakashi's left. It was icy and had yet to cease trembling.
"It's killing you."
He pulled the hem of the blanket up to Kakashi's chin.
His vision swayed. A dull thud of pain and weariness rendered him unconscious.
"Hokage-sama," spluttered Gai, surprised at the sight of her waiting outside of the ward.
"How is he?" she asked.
Gai shook his head. "He passed out again." He shuffled his feet before saying slowly as though weighing every word he uttered, "Isn't there a way?"
Tsunade started walking away. It's his life, his decisions – his choice.
After two steps, she turned and answered, "It depends on him."
A temperate dewy breeze swept on his face. He could feel it. He heard something most likely from afar; carts being pushed noisily and a very loud orchestra of crickets. With each second, these few sensations grew apparent steadily. He opened his eyes.
It was dark, too dark to see a thing. Or had he gone momentarily blind? He peered into shadows. Bit by bit, light poured into his sight.
It should be night now.
His breath felt hot on his nose, mouth and some parts of his bare cheeks.
Yes, something was there. He yanked the fogged mask down and set it by his pillow. The same goes to the tubes confining him to his bed; he tugged them out from his body, leaving them suspended in mid-air. He could breathe freely. Why would he need assistance? Eager to take a brisk walk, Kakashi swung his legs down onto the floor. He traipsed barefooted to the nearby table where a jug of water was prepared.
I know how attached you are to them.
Gai's earlier comment about the relationship he shared with his two students chimed repeatedly in his head. He did not know when he poured water into a glass. He did not know when his legs carried him to the partially opened window. All he knew was how much he wanted to make sure of Naruto and Sakura's wellbeing after he bade the world goodbye. He shall miss them.
Kakashi laughed. Who was he trying to kid? He would miss them. He could not believe that he would still cower in the face of death after almost embracing it one too many times in missions.
"Let me go!"
Kakashi emerged in front of the restrained youngster. He was holding the end of an iron thread which bound the boy to a tree trunk.
"Let me go," he hissed vehemently. Kakashi pretended not to hear that protest. Instead, he approached the boy calmly.
"I need you to listen, Sasuke. If I don't do this, would you really stay put and listen to me?"
Sasuke glowered at his teacher.
"I thought I've taught you. Chidori is never meant to be used against a comrade. I assume you're mature enough to be responsible of any attack you admonished. Turned out I was wrong."
He looked at the boy. He appeared as nonchalant as ever.
"Just what is running through your head now?"
Sighing, he continued, "I want you to forget about revenge."
As expected, Sasuke's wrath detonated. "Easy enough for you to say! You haven't got your family killed! How would you feel if I slaughter them one by one in front of your eyes?"
The silver-haired Jonin forced a very small smile. "Ah… I wouldn't know. Everyone I care for is already dead."
Sasuke was deeply shocked at hearing this. He did not know… Kakashi never told them.
"Vengeance will only cause you more bitterness and pain. Look at what we have now. At least we've made some good friends."
He released the iron string, letting the strand fall into a loose heap around Sasuke.
"Think of what I've said."
Kakashi covered his face forlornly with his hands. I've failed as a teacher. I know I shouldn't feel guilty as it's Sasuke's choice but… I'm probably responsible for this.
There were so many loose ends to be tied yet his days were already numbered. He was not blaming fate. He was just sorry that his last few breaths would be tainted with regrets. He held up his hand to tie the billowing curtains with its ribbon.
I won't die an easy death, will I, Obito?
Kakashi coughed. Itchiness scratched the lining of his larynx. He cleared his throat, swallowed hard twice but could not manage to ease the irritation. His coughing built and came harder.
Shut up or they'll hear you!
He could not.
His body buckled up. His torso was aching having choked so much within these past few days. He was beginning to doubt his will of living. Half-heartedly, he just wanted it to end.
A tinge of metallic arose in his throat. He lowered his hand which was clasped over his mouth during the fits of coughing. For a brief moment, he thought time had ceased striding.
Blood. Streaks of hot, scarlet blood dripped from his palm. Quickly, he wiped his lips with his forearm. He did not need anyone to witness it. He would just clean himself up and clamber back into bed. Then everything would be well tomorrow morning. Yes, no one needed to know.
Kakashi gripped extremely tightly on the window sill. His heart drummed unbearably against his ribs. Staggering, more blood spat out from his mouth. His fists shook so badly and a loud clank reverberated in the room; the glass of water he held since he got up shattered into a million pieces on the cold, hard floor. Pure agony, like screw driven brutally into his every muscle soared within him, burning his flesh and bones.
God, this is hell…
Kakashi groaned in pain. His limp body hit the ground as white strips flashed into his blotchy sight. His head pulsated and Kakashi found himself begging to die. Through his half-shut eyes, he could make out a couple of nurses bustling into the ward. Light permeated the ward when the door swung open. It seemed that they were as horrorstruck as he was upon discovering him on the floor, shaking near shards of broken glasses and patches of crimson blood.
"Emergency. Get a doctor now! Emergency!"
His strength was receding. Pain; that, he was still aware of, but he could no longer struggle nor twitch at the slightest prick. Chill. Heaviness. Utter darkness.
Several strong arms wrapped around his hands and hip – his weary form was lifted.
A small group of solemn looking people was seen gathering outside of the emergency chamber; the red bulb was on signifying an ongoing procedure in the theatre. Some of the waiting party was fidgeting – some looked lost and anxious. Although different body movements and facial expressions were portrayed, only one prayer clang dismally in their midst – may the one inside trudge on and on and emerge from the door with a beating heart.
Nara Shikamaru appeared at the far end of the corridor. Spotting the grief on Naruto, Sakura and the other Jonins' faces, he tailed his father, Shikaku and stood adjacent to his friends.
Should he offer words of comfort?
He contented himself by gripping Naruto's shoulder. The boy lifted his head a fraction.
Sakura looked up at him too.
"Shikamaru? What are you doing here?"
Her face was tear-streaked and red. She must have cried not so long ago.
"Your friends, son?" Shikaku smiled courteously at the two young ninjas. "Kakashi's students, I presume?"
They both nodded. The older ninja turned to the others. Timidly, he asked, "How's he holding up?"
He did not really anticipate an answer. He knew exactly how Kakashi's condition was. The question was just a cordial acknowledgement, or perhaps to break the dreadful silence. But, during this tiding, rudeness and proper behaviour were very petty matters before their eyes. Shikamaru chanced an enquiring, "Dad, what actually happened to Kakashi-sensei?"
Shikaku leaned against the wall with his hand cushioning the back of his head. "Kakashi," he explained sorrowfully, "had once been hit by chakra in the chest. It missed his heart by a few millimeters but enough to damage him extensively. The heart is the core of one's body and circulation of chakra, see. The hit didn't strike that organ…"
"He's one damn lucky guy," Shikaku added thoughtfully.
"Unfortunately, up to this day, he got tangled with many other injuries in missions. Although none were fatal, they did trigger his old wound. His chakra began acting abnormally, flowing against the normal current. What will happen when a bandwagon charge at a bullock cart at full speed?"
He grinned sympathetically. "That's what is happening to Kakashi's body. The disastrous flow of chakra affects the vital organs. From the reports I've gotten, his heart, lungs and stomach are deteriorating."
"Yes," muttered Naruto from his seat. "We've heard all of those from Granny Tsunade."
Shikaku's lips curved into an oddly grin. It was not a gesture of annoyance, but a silent understanding of Naruto's feelings for his teacher.
"Of course you did, but she's the best medic-nin in Konoha after all."
Shadows were cast into corners as candles illuminated the spacious hall. A man with unkempt gray mane was hunching low in front of a desk. His hand darted frantically across a spread out scroll. His eyes were unfocused. Sheer despair was engulfing this man.
I realize how a thousand apologies will not be able to atone for my disgusting actions. I, once a staunch shinobi of the Leaf, have failed the village I swore to serve. The oath I had taken, to abide by the rules of a ninja; I had shamelessly breach them the instant I decide to put other matters before the success of my mission. I am gravely sorry that Konoha has to deal with such difficulties because of my failure. I can no longer assist in efforts to raise this village to its summit. I deserve to be shunned away by fellow villagers. I deserve to be berated by the ranks of Konoha-nin for scarring the name of the cohort. I deserve nothing better than insults and abomination. I fail to uphold the name of my clan and the pride of my long gone ancestors.
Therefore, I, Hatake Sakumo, hereby offer my life as a repayment to my debts. The disgrace I have brought to Konoha and the house of Hatake is too great to be forgiven. I do not beg for pardon; I only wish to fulfill my duties as a proud ninja of Konohagakure.
I choose young Hatake Kakashi, my son, to bear witness of this sole solution.
I hope my death will bring comfort and douse what resentment the villagers may have towards Kakashi as a result of my shameful deed.
A katana swung ferociously in the air before impaling the distorted man. A young boy, having seen his lifeless father in a pool of blood, stood petrified, concealed in sheets of shadows.
"This is bad! His vital signs are dropping!"
"His blood pressure?"
"He's losing a lot of blood!"
"Replenish it with type O! We don't have time to look for his match! Stay vigilant, everyone! The patient is in critical stage!"
Tsunade wiped her sweat feverishly. The operation was getting riskier now that Kakashi was too weak to endure the second segment of treatment. His chest hardly rose with each struggling draw of breath. She, despite being the best in the room, still had her limitations. She was no God; she could not revive the dead. And Kakashi would be one if his current state did not pick up.
"Zero heart beat!"
"Tsunade-sama, what is your next order?"
Why aren't you fighting, Kakashi? Are you giving up?
The attendant obliged and signaled the others about the procedure. All of them nodded in sync. One medic-nin rested his left palm over the right one on Kakashi's sternum. He then pressed forcefully into his torso sending the bed and apparatus around them rattling.
"Halt! Three seconds! One, two."
He pumped repeatedly into Kakashi's chest.
Hang on… Kakashi!
"Halt! Three seconds! One! Two!"
Damn it! What are you doing there? Live!
"Hmm… I wonder what they are trying to do."
Somewhere hidden around the corner, three Genin stood "inconspicuously" with their heads tilted towards the seemingly oblivious Jonin.
"Okay, we're doing it! Kakashi-sensei's true face, we'll unravel that today," whispered one of the trio.
"Naruto, shut up! He'll listen!"
Kakashi shot a furtive look over his shoulder. He raised a grey eye brow.
"Really, those knuckleheads. They're up to something…"
"Huh? Done already?"
He waved genially at his students. "Ah, Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke." They were all splitting into very wide grins. That was weird…
"Sensei! Sensei! Eh, we're thinking of treating you to a bowl of ramen!"
Kakashi peered skeptically at all three of them. Then he asked, "Why?"
They broke into a babble of incoherent speeches.
"Ah… see… we, um… thought you're a… um, you're a…"
"Nice teacher! Yes! Right, Sasuke-kun?"
Sakura elbowed the dark haired boy while smiling with knitted brows.
"Oh," Sasuke caught her meaning, "yeah, extremely nice."
Okay, he was wrong. They were acting stupendously weird…
"Tsunade-sama! The patient is not responding to injections!"
"The patient is comatose!"
"We await your next order!"
Crap! If this continues…
"Administer chakra transfusion! Our priority is to keep that heart beat from fading!"
"I can't believe this!"
Kakashi surveyed his students. They appeared very frustrated. Of what though, he mused.
Goosebumps tickled his very skin.
"Ah, Naruto! Anything else?"
"Sensei, er… how about we treat you to a bath at the hot spring?"
"Yeah, to cool off and relax after a hard day's mission!"
Kakashi did not seem reluctant nor did he look enthusiastic; he was actually more curious of their sudden nicety.
"Oh well, I'll just play along."
At the changing room, however…
"Those kids… this must be Naruto's idea of prank. No subtleties… Isn't it too obvious that they're after my mask? First free ramen, then this…"
"Zero heart beat!"
Tsunade stared at the monitor. A straight, horizontal line met her unblinking eyes. What should she do now?
"Tsunade-sama, maybe he's –"
She rested her palms downward on the man's sternum.
Come back, Kakashi!
"Halt! Three seconds! One, two!"
Again, she conducted CPR onto the body.
"It's over, Tsunade-sama. We have to stop –"
"No! Wait for three seconds! Just three seconds…"
That was it. Just three seconds to determine it all. Just three seconds to separate him from life and death. Just three seconds before she considered pulling off the wires connected to his chest or –
A single jolt erupted from the previously static line. And another jolt, followed by another one. Kakashi's oxygen mask started fogging.
He was breathing.
There was a dull sigh of relief and thankfulness. Tsunade could not help smiling, too; she heard a cheer from the side of the bed: "Woo hoo! Kakashi-sempai, you made it!"
"Good. Proceed with previous procedure."
Five hours. For five, tortuous hours, they had been waiting faithfully outside of the emergency room. But to them, it felt a lot more than five hours. No matter how much time had passed, they could only sit there… and wait…
Fond memories of them with the Jonin inside gyrated in their minds. They remembered vividly how he always placed his comrades' lives before his… his ridiculous tardiness for their Jonin assemblies… how he used to come up with pathetic lies to cover up his unpunctual-ness… It was very surreal, to know that the likeable character in the village was hovering at the brink of the inevitable. He did not deserve this.
Kurenai and Sakura had tears brimming in their puffy eyes. They fell like pearls of a broken necklace when the red bulb went off and the door flipped open.
Tsunade walked out to meet the sickened crowd.
"Well," croaked Asuma, "how's he?"
"Granny Tsunade! Kakashi-sensei, how's he?"
The Hokage sighed heavily. She was hesitant to reply. She saw the restlessness in the boy's pale features. His eyes were on fire, demanding to know the result after five hours under scalpels and knifes. He wanted to know so badly… She did not want to ruin it for him.
Depressed, she clapped her hand on Naruto's shoulder. Then suddenly, she broke into a beam.
"Don't worry. He's in post-critical stage now. His condition is quite stable but we'll keep him under surveillance nonetheless. He's doing great anyway."
Sakura laughed, relieved and embraced a dumbstruck Naruto.
"Sensei is all right! Sensei is all right!"
Naruto, looking awkward but glad as well, patted her lightly on the head.
The door swung open again and a portable hospital bed was wheeled out. Silver hair protruded from the rails.
"Kakashi!" exclaimed a couple of voices.
The group gathered around the lying man. He seemed so serene and unperturbed, very unlike the façade he wore in usual times – dull and uninterested.
"All right, we'll have to bring him up now."
They backed off a couple of steps as the bed was pushed away.
"He's still unconscious at the moment. He might be able to wake the next day. And he's very exhausted after the operation. So I will not permit visitors for the night. You all need some rest, too, by the look of it. Go home."
"Stop pushing, idiot!"
"Ah, Sakura-chan, I just want to see if he's waken up."
"Well, he's not. Move away, Naruto!"
"Ei, sensei's not wearing his mask."
"Of course! He's got the oxygen mask on!"
"But don't you want to see –"
"Are you trying to kill him?"
Who's bickering so loudly?
"Shh, we're not supposed to make any noise!"
Hold on, I know that voice. Why am I hearing them? Shouldn't I be… sort of not alive?
"Look! He's coming around!"
Kakashi's eyes fluttered open. The first thing he saw was a blonde boy and a girl with pink hair bending low above him. Both had bags beneath their lively eyes.
"Sensei!" they called jovially.
"Hmm…" groggily, he replied. So he was very much alive then.
I'll be darned if this is the after world. Meeting Naruto and Sakura here…
He studied his students' faces more scrupulously. They must have been skiving sleep for days. It would be his fault then, to cause so much worry to them.
He made to sweep his hair from his forehead. Only then did he realize that he could not move his arms. No matter how hard he ordered them to even twitch a little, they would not obey.
What is happening to my hands? Can't… move!
It was the Hokage. She came over to his bed and bend over him like Sakura. "Your stiffness hasn't worn off. And be thankful for that since you practically just came back from death. The anesthetic is still affecting your body and plus other medications we've put you through… well, you'll stay paralyzed like this for another day I suppose. But, don't worry," she added hastily at the look of Kakashi's bulging eyes (What? Paralyzed for another day?).
"We've got the most dedicated health attendants to satisfy your needs."
Then, she straightened up and pointed her index finger to her chin, muttering, "They're not trained assistants though. But, we're having personnel shortage and there aren't any suitable replacements…"
"Kakashi-sensei, you really had us worried. You can't imagine the shock when I saw you lying on the roof top! And then Granny Tsunade," he mouthed disdainfully at the Hokage, "wouldn't allow Sakura and me to visit you at all! And when we were told that you were in the emergency room, I was seriously freaked out!"
Naruto stared pointedly at Kakashi's blanket. Painfully, he whispered, "You have a lot more to teach us about handling such situation, sensei."
The older Jonin was taken aback. He parted his parched lips slowly. Noticing her teacher's effort to talk, Sakura removed the oxygen mask with great carefulness and strained her ears for his breathing; it wasn't raspy or forced. Kakashi took a deep breath.
"Naruto," he said, "you handled it well. I… don't think there's anything left to teach you."
The boy glanced at his teacher's face. Oho, so that's how you look like!
But Kakashi looked on at him so earnestly that Naruto felt his cheeks omitting steam.
"Sensei, you really do like to spew nonsense."
Sakura chortled. Tears of sheer joy flowed freely from her emerald orbs. Realising that everyone's gaze was on her, she shook her head vigorously and dabbed frantically at her eyes. She wanted to stem the tears from falling but to no avail. "Silly me," she announced, before laughing and hiccoughing simultaneously.
"You have to calm down, Sakura," advised Tsunade. She folded her arms.
"Right. Have I told you that Naruto and Sakura are in charge of assisting your movements for a day starting from today?"
Kakashi wished he had his mask back.
Sakura's long fingers closed tightly around the bed's railing. She looked adamant in carrying out this duty perfectly. Naruto shared the same burning will.
"Sensei, you will get better soon. We're all with you, always. And for once, let me and Naruto take care of you."
His features smoothened and became less overwrought. He knew of the support he received from his fellow colleagues, all circling about him. It meant a lot to him. And there was Naruto… and Sakura, stood beaming on either side of him. He had mistaken them as the same old kids who were assigned to him three years ago. How could he not really notice their vast growth and maturity?
Yes, so much for reprimanding Iruka. You have to learn to let go. You cannot see their true potential if you're too overprotective.
Ah, seemed like he was channeling Iruka's spirit after all.
Kakashi sighed. He looked around once more at everyone in the room. Settling his gaze affectionately on his students, he gave his first genuine smile in days.