Disclaimer: Don't own Naruto; never have, never will

Author's note: this is a oneshot piece, intended to stand by itself, so nothing is ever going to come of the attack that put Kakashi in the hospital. Set roughly after Chapter 328, but before the larger group sets out to find Sasuke.

Kakashi walked silent and unseen through some of the deeper woods surrounding the Hidden Leaf Village.

"Oh grow up," Tsunade-sama had said to Choji, Shikamaru, and Ino as they headed out to confront the two Akatsuki that had killed Sarutobi Asuma. "Death comes with being a shinobi."

But, Kakashi thought, it doesn't make the grief any easier to bear. He and Asuma hadn't been particularly close, but he was still a comrade, a fellow jounin and his absence would be missed. Not only had he left behind three stricken chuunin team members, but also a wife, an unborn child, and young Konohamaru who was now truly alone in the world.

Kakashi absently wondered what would have happened if Naruto, Sakura, and Sai hadn't shown up in the nick of time when they fought the two powerful Akatsuki agents—what if Kakashi had been the one who died? Would he have been missed? Certainly his presence as a shinobi warrior, his worth as a fighter would be missed. But hadn't he just said the other day that Naruto would surpass him? He still believed it and was proud of his student, but suddenly it made him feel much older than his twenty-nine years. Naruto and Sakura no longer needed him. The thought hurt more than it should, but it was true all the same. Even Sasuke had made it abundantly plain that he no longer wanted his sensei's guidance the moment he stepped beyond the village gates.

Kakashi knew a battle was coming between Naruto and Sasuke and wondered how it would turn out. He'd given Naruto the best tools he could, and his skill was growing at a great rate—that is, if he didn't destroy his ability to manipulate chakra by using his new rasenshuriken jutsu—but Sasuke was an unknown factor. Naruto, Sakura, Sai, and Tenzou had told him of the skirmish at Orochimaru's hideout, but that had been more of a standoff than actual battle. Sasuke had always possessed more innate talent than Naruto, but Naruto's potential was enormous and his reserves of chakra vast. But would strength win out against talent and whatever forbidden techniques Sasuke now had in his arsenal?

Kakashi didn't know. He dreaded that battle, but there was no way to stop it. He couldn't do any more to prepare Naruto—the knucklehead ninja had grown up, he knew what to expect in a battle of such magnitude. It was startling to think how little influence Kakashi would have over these future events, when once the lives of him and his genin had been so closely intertwined. He'd had tea with Sakura's parents at their invitation, shown Naruto how to cook simple, yet tasty meals with vegetables even though it was doubtful he'd ever followed any of the instructions, had taught Sasuke how to use and sharpen his sharingan so that he could copy the one jutsu that only Kakashi himself had been able to master, chidori.

Minato-sensei, did you ever feel like this? Unneeded except as a tool of death… But no, Namikaze Minato had a young, beautiful wife and a devoted village looking up to him. He'd never been alone as Kakashi had, no family and few friends. Even those few beloved to him had been chipped away by the intervening years. Mother, Father, Obito, Minato-sensei, Rin...

Perhaps he should ask Tsunade-sama for some front-line action. At least there he was one more body to halt the enemy advance.… He froze, his sensitive nose catching a strange scent in the air. Whirling with a kunai appearing in his hand, he caught a glimpse of black cloak with red clouds…

Akatsuki! Was his final thought before battle came and all was lost in the rushing darkness.

"Kakashi-san, don't you dare!" shrieked a distant, female voice. Shizune-san, he identified, wondering why his arms wouldn't move. Then a lance of white-hot pain pierced his side and darkness returned.

"Kakashi-sensei, can you hear me?"

Slowly he opened his right eye to see Sakura's green eyes looking down at him, a worried expression creasing her brow. He blinked and lifted a hand that felt strangely heavy to his head, relieved to feel that it was still there. The throbbing pain made it feel as though Naruto had hit him again with his new jutsu. A new thought struck him and he touched his face—his mask was still in place.

"Here again," he sighed, recognizing the hospital ceiling. Sakura gave a relieved smile and sat down in a chair beside the bed, hands absently straightening the covers coming up to his armpits. Monitors beeped somewhere behind his head.

"How are you feeling?"

"Like I foolishly took on an unknown assailant and barely lived to tell the tale."

"That about covers it."

Kakashi remembered now with the alertness that came with wakefulness, aided by the pain leaving him on edge. He'd been walking in the forest, saw one of the Akatsuki and there had been a fierce battle. He remembered a strange jutsu, a blinding flash of light and then nothing else. He was alive, which meant the Akatsuki had wanted out of there fast. Perhaps just a reconnaissance mission with no intent to engage the enemy? Made sense. After all, they had to know that two of their members recently disappeared in the Leaf Village's territory—perhaps they were trying to discover what happened to them.

"Sakura-chan!" A whirlwind of orange burst through the door, and Kakashi sat straight up, grasping for a kunai that wasn't there, but it was only Naruto.

"Idiot!" Sakura shrieked, swinging a fist and narrowly missing Naruto who held up a basket of fruit as a shield. "Have you no respect for the sanctity of a hospital room? Kakashi-sensei needs his rest!" Her volume was rapidly exceeding Naruto's.

"Sorry!" Naruto hissed in an exaggerated whisper, watching his teammate for hints of violence. "But your note had me worried—'Kakashi-sensei's on death's doorstep, come quickly—"

"Death's doorstep?" repeated Kakashi.

"It's no reason for you to come crashing in here, waving that ridiculous thing around—where did you get it anyway?"

"Gai-sensei." Naruto placed the basket on the bed beside Kakashi. "He stopped me on my way in, said he meant to give it himself, but had to run 500 laps around the village or something like that."

"Well that was nice of him," Sakura said, softening a bit. "Would you like an orange, Kakashi-sensei?" Without waiting for an answer Sakura chose a specimen from the basket and began to peel it.

"Well, sensei, you look better than I thought you would. Sakura-chan would have me believe you bleeding to death somewhere in an operating room." Naruto grinned down at him in a relieved way.

"He nearly did," Sakura said with disapproval as she glanced back at Kakashi. "What were you thinking, wandering around like that by yourself in days like this? You might have been killed. Lay back down now, I'll raise the bed so you can see us."

Kakashi gave her what he hoped was one of his best "I'm not amused" glances as the bed whirred into place, but it seemed to have no effect. "I'm not a genin, you know."

"Yes, yes, we know, sensei, but you're not young anymore and—"

Kakashi was so stunned that he opened both eyes, but even the baleful gaze of the sharingan didn't shatter her composure. "I'm twenty-nine, I'll have you know."

"Wow, you're ancient," whistled Naruto, but he only grinned when Kakashi transferred his glare to him.

"We were worried about you, sensei. Don't you think that what happens to you affects us too?" Sakura looked up from her peeling, the orange scraps in small heap on her lap.

Kakashi didn't speak, his throat felt oddly tight, but he closed his sharingan. Sakura nodded, her smile pleased, and continued to peel. The orange was nearly done, and the citrus smell of it filled the room.

Kakashi shifted in the bed, realizing abruptly that aside from his mask and the hospital gown, he was completely naked.

"I didn't undress you," Sakura said, guessing correctly his uncomfortable glance at her. "I'm off duty today."

"Oh." That was one embarrassment he was glad to have avoided.

"Shizune-san did."


Naruto chuckled. "No wonder she looked so happy earlier."

"Eat up, sensei," Sakura said, pushing a few orange quarters into his hand. They watched expectantly, a little mischief in their eyes reminiscent of the last time they'd tried to see his whole face. Kakashi raised a finger to the edge of his mask and then paused, leaning up to see out the window.

"Say, that kid looks an awful lot like Sasuke!"

Quick as a blink, Sakura and Naruto hurtled to the window. Kakashi pulled down his mask and downed the orange quarters in three quick, juicy bites.

"Sasuke!" Naruto called, but Sakura thumped him on the head. "Ow!"

"You idiot! That's only Sai."

"Idiot? You're the one who nearly fell over the bed trying to reach the window first!"

"Are you calling me clumsy?"

"No, just delusional if you think Sasuke would show up in the middle of the village out of nowhere."

"Say that again, Naruto!"

Kakashi replaced his mask with a smile and leaned back against his pillow as the bickering continued. Perhaps he shouldn't ask Tsunade-sama for the front-lines just yet. He was needed here.