Disclaim: Kishimoto owns Naruto, not me.
Author's Note: Takes place sometime during Shippuden episode 54 or thereabouts where Naruto and Sakura first introduce Sai to Kakashi.
"We can't bring Sasuke back… not at our current level," Naruto said. Sakura saw that he was glaring at the blanket at the end of Kakashi's hospital bed, as if seeing the evidence of his failure—their failure—anew. "He's too strong."
With typical nonchalance, Kakashi looked at the pages of his Icha Icha novel. "Then you'll just have to get even stronger then, right?"
Sakura felt a brief flash of hope bloom in her chest. But then reality came crashing in as she remembered what she saw… Sasuke burst through the blocks of thick encircling wood like they weren't even there. Sakura darted a glance at Yamato and saw that he too was surprised. What kind of strength had Sasuke gained?
"From what I saw," she said in a soft voice, "he's gotten so strong, so fast… it was unbelievable." She looked back up at Kakashi who was still staring down into his book. "Tsunade-sama says he's probably been studying forbidden jutsu and considering Kabuto's talents, probably using special drugs too. Books on jutsu aren't going to help here, sensei." It pained her to say that, for she'd always relied on books to answer her questions, but it was the truth.
Kakashi turned a page in his novel. "Well, we'll just have to get stronger in an unbelievably shorter amount of time then, too."
"You think I've been lying here doing nothing? I've been chewing on this problem the whole time. And I think I have an idea."
Sakura stood up straighter. This was it: what she'd been hoping for ever since Naruto came back from training with the Toad Sage. Were the fractured bits of Team 7 finally going to train together? Sai was a far cry from Sasuke, but he was strong in his own right. Together—with Kakashi-sensei teaching, coaching, goading them on like he used to—Sakura was sure that they would become better; stronger.
"But this training is more suited for Naruto."
Kakashi's casual words felt like a kunai in her back. Or perhaps like the first time Tsunade punched her with her full strength. Naruto and Kakashi yammered on about training and new jutsu, but Sakura barely heard though the dull pounding in her ears.
Asuma-sensei and his team showed up soon after, and she was carried along on the wave of gossip and Naruto excitedly talking about his upcoming training with Shikamaru. After lunch, however, she found herself wandering back to the hospital—not even blinking an eye when she saw Asuma and Kurenai leave Kakashi's room.
She knocked on the door.
He was still looking at his book but glanced up as she walked in.
"Eh? Oh, Sakura. Why aren't you out with the rest? Did you need to check my pulse or something?"
"N-no. I just—" Sakura bit her lip and took a deep breath. "Don't—" It was harder to speak than it should be. Damn it! Where was the strength in her voice? Hadn't Tsunade's lessons penetrated yet?
"Don't leave me behind!" she blurted. "Not again. Please."
Kakashi stared at her, for once the book in his fingers falling to the bed sheets pooled around the lower half of his body.
But suddenly it wasn't so hard to speak, and like a waterfall her words poured out.
"I know that you focused on Sasuke-kun when we were kids cause he needed it the most, and he was an Uchiha, and Tsunade-sama told me about Obito—" Kakashi's eye widened. "—and I don't care that I didn't get trained. I know I was stupid back then, and I didn't deserve to have a great sensei or strong teammates. But I've worked so hard since Naruto left—I thought that once, just once, I would be your student instead of... an afterthought; a liability." Sakura clapped a hand over her mouth, surprised to feel it trembling against her lips. She was shaking—why? And what—was that a tear racing down her cheek? She scrubbed at her eyes, furious with herself.
Grow up, Tsunade's voice echoed in her mind; a familiar admonition in those early days of her apprenticeship. Hadn't it sunk in yet?
"Sakura…" Kakashi was speaking, though he was again looking down, not at the book this time, but at the bed sheets as if the words of his beloved novel were printed there to read. "The reason I offered the training to Naruto only was because I assumed that you would go back to Tsunade-sama." His eyes crinkled up at the corners in a smile. "After all, what's left that your old sensei can teach to the apprentice of the legendary healer?"
"Naruto trained with one of the Sannin," she said quietly, "and yet, he still has much to learn."
Kakashi winced, one hand running up to rub at his tousled silver hair. He turned again and smiled. "Don't say things like 'afterthought', Sakura, you know that's not true—"
"Don't lie to me!" Sakura shouted, her hands clenching into fists at her side.
The silence pounded between them and for a moment, Sakura thought she'd gone too far.
Kakashi lowered his head, looking at the bed sheet. "You're right, Sakura. You were… an afterthought."
Sakura felt her lower lip tremble. She would not cry; she would not—
"For what it's worth," he continued, rubbing the back of his neck, "I had planned from the moment I saw your skills with chakra control to start you in medicine… only…"
"Orochimaru happened," she finished in a dull voice.
Kakashi nodded. "Preparing Sasuke was my only thought. Even Naruto would have suffered from my neglect had he not accidentally run into Jiraiya-sama." Kakashi ran his thumb along the worn cover of his book. "I've not been a very good teacher, have I?"
Sakura didn't say anything.
"I abandoned Naruto long before he even knew me, and with Sasuke I simply didn't do enough. Sometimes I wonder what Sandaime-sama was thinking when he assigned me…" He let out a humorless laugh. "Perhaps now I'm making it up to Naruto… or attempting to…"
Sakura looked down at her hands, folded tightly together in front of her. Naruto and Sasuke again. Once she would have laughed at the thought of being jealous of Naruto, but it was true in some sense. He'd come so very far on the mere thought of people's belief in him. Iruka had believed in him and then so had Kakashi.
But where was Sakura? Who believed in her? Her hands began to tremble, and she felt brittle as if a casual breeze might send her tumbling through the air like the petals of the tree whose blossoms she was named after.
A strong, calloused hand came down on top of her hands and she looked up, startled. Kakashi was leaning across his bed, his one open eye drooping with… was that remorse?
"Have you forgotten already your victory over the Akatsuki when we went to rescue Gaara? I know we would not have succeeded without you." He paused. "Sakura, this training with Naruto has to take priority, but that doesn't mean you should be idle. Tsunade-sama couldn't have possibly taught you all her techniques in just two and a half years. And when we're ready to get Sasuke back, you can be sure you'll be right up there beside Naruto and I—we're a team, right?"
Sakura stepped away from the bed, letting Kakashi's hand fall from hers. "I understand, sensei." She bowed once, her hair falling over her face, and turned to leave. It would never be enough, she thought as her sandaled feet took her softly through the hospital halls. She could be as strong as or stronger than Tsunade, and she would still be the odd one out, left behind.
a/n: This story was born of the frustration I have with this very issue: Kakashi's neglect of Sakura. The sad thing is, I don't think that Kishimoto is aware of it—thus it will probably never be addressed in canon.
And, no, this is not a Kakashi/Sakura story--it's Master/Student that's it.