Kakashi paused where he was perched on the low wall bounding the hospital roof, having been about to leap for a lower level on his way across the village.
Gai beckoned, rather than chase after him, and Kakashi sighed, slipping down silently and crossing towards his friend. “Yo, Gai.” He dipped his head.
“Kakashi!” Gai slung an arm around his shoulders, squeezing hard enough to make them crumple inwards beneath the force. Kakashi bowed with it, familiar with the gesture and not particularly bothered by the pressure. “I . . . am sorry about your students.” he said more quietly.
Kakashi swallowed, wincing. “It’s. . .” he began, then trailed off, shaking his head.
“Ah, all is not lost, is it, Rival?” Gai said cheerfully, and Kakashi pulled away and looked up at him, one hand rubbing across his masked face. He hadn’t shaved since he’d left for his mission and his stubble caught at the inside of the fabric. He tugged it lightly outwards to resettle it and shook his head.
“Gai, I left for a mission I didn’t even want to take because of my duty to my students as the jounin-sensei to a three-man genin team. I returned to find I now have no students.” Kakashi ran his fingers through his hair and slumped a little lower. He knew he had not been . . . a great teacher, but he had tried, once he’d been cornered into taking them he had wanted to do right by the brats even if he wasn’t quite sure what that was, and . . . they’d been his brats. Kakashi cared about them.
“I am truly sorry about Sasuke-kun, Rival.” Gai said, in the soft tone Kakashi knew most people couldn’t imagine coming from him. “And Naruto-kun has chosen his path to follow his own rival, it seems.”
Kakashi rubbed his eye. That wasn’t making him feel much better. And much as he bitched about Gai and the Eternal Rival nonsense . . . what Naruto was chasing, no matter that his goal was to return Sasuke home, not join him, was ever so much worse and more dangerous.
“However, will you abandon Sakura-chan because her teammates have done so?” Gai said, and Kakashi twitched. “You promised to train her as much as they, and surely she only needs you even more after her teammates have left her behind.”
Kakashi turned to look at Gai. “I-” He rubbed his face again. “I’m not good at this, Gai. She. . . She would be better off being shuffled to someone else’s team.” The idea that he had so completely failed his students stung, but Kakashi wouldn’t try to keep the last of them with him to salve his own aching failure. Not when it would be to her detriment.
“You promised to train her.” Gai said firmly, his eyes hard. “You are a good ninja and a good man, Kakashi.” He paused for a moment, but continued before Kakashi could argue that point. “You know what it is like to lose all of your team. To be left behind, alone.”
Kakashi swallowed hard. He did, and Sakura had been. . .
Gai was too kind to mention Minato-sensei directly, but Kakashi’s mind flashed back to when Rin had died and he bleakly wondered what would have happened to him if he’d lost Minato then. Been pushed off. Worse than it would have been later, he supposed. It had been shattering to lose Minato as it was, although at least he had known his sensei would have stayed had he had any . . . choice.
“I’ll try.” Kakashi said, because he was terrified of what he would do, after seeing the wreck he’d made of training his genin to begin with, but that was on him, it wasn’t Sakura’s fault. And Gai was right. Kakashi had a duty to his last remaining student, and if she wanted him to teach her . . . then Kakashi would teach her. “I will ask her what she wants.” he added, shaking his head as Gai scowled. “If she truly wants another sensei, Gai, I would not blame her . . . and I’ll find her one myself. The best I can.”
He wouldn’t abandon Sakura unless she wished him to leave her to another sensei.
Kakashi couldn’t really imagine why she would want to stay with him, he thought grimly, but it would be her choice. He submitted to Gai’s effusive embrace and smiled faintly as he propped his chin on Gai’s shoulder. “Thanks, Gai.” he said softly, and Gai hummed, squeezing him a little tighter, making him huff out a breathless laugh.
Kakashi knew he needed to deal with his remaining genin quickly, but going directly to find her when he was fresh out of the hospital and just returned from an S-class was not the best idea. He had given it two days, coming back to equilibrium and quietly getting a feel for how the entire group of age-mates had been handling things since the failure to bring Sasuke back and Naruto’s departure.
Kakashi glanced across the street at the house from his place lounging behind a roof promontory. He knew precisely where Sakura lived, of course - he had made certain he knew everything he could about his genin, even if he pretended to ignorance, as soon as he had accepted them as his team. Here . . . was perhaps not the best place to speak to her, though, he thought. And not only because her very civilian parents would likely get involved. He glanced at Sakura’s window, then slipped away.
Instead Kakashi made his way to the comfortable tree near the Academy - no one would look for him there for a mission, and he wasn’t going to go and ask for one until he knew one way or another if he did in fact still have one student. He settled in with his book, though his mind was busy with other considerations as he absently turned the pages.
Later, after lunch, he headed for the area of training grounds two through eight, and cast wide a sensory net. There, the contained and efficient little flare that was Sakura - alone, her chakra roiling with emotional distress.
Kakashi took a moment to brace himself, then dropped down out of the trees and sauntered onto the field, watching Sakura lash out rhythmically at a post.
“Maa. . . Not bad, though you turn your elbow too far up on the left strike.” Kakashi commented, and Sakura whirled on him, a kunai held high in one hand. She lowered it almost immediately, flushing, and bowed.
“Kakashi-sensei!” Sakura straightened slowly, looking up at him. “What- Ano. . . What brings you . . . here?” Her bright eyes were not so bright now, and she couldn’t quite meet his gaze, her expression downcast.
Kakashi owed Gai a nice dinner. Kakashi may or may not have been the best teacher - or even very good with his genin - but Sakura clearly felt abandoned in his absence, not well rid of him. It had been cowardly of him, Kakashi could admit at least to himself, to leave her be instead of going to her, to be sure of what she wanted.
“Sakura.” Kakashi said softly, and she raised her head a little more, skinny shoulders straightening. “I am sorry I was not here.”
Sakura’s eyes widened, then grew damp as she looked away again. “Oh! I- I know you had better-”
“I was assigned a mission, and I couldn’t refuse it.” Kakashi said honestly, interrupting her. “I would have, if I could, to stay. I am very sorry I was not here for you, all of you, when I should have been. As your sensei it is unforgivable to have left you behind when you needed me.” His throat tightened on the last words.
Sakura took a quick, sharp little breath. Kakashi rested a hand on her shoulder and it shook under his touch. He squeezed gently.
“I came here to find you.” Kakashi said softly. “It is time to decide what happens with Team Seven.” He forced down the tremor in his own voice.
“. . .sensei?” Sakura said uncertainly.
“Sasuke has . . . made his choice to leave us all,” Kakashi said, slow and even, “there is little to be done about that. It seems Naruto has chosen a new sensei for himself and I hope his path does well for him.”
Sakura nodded, swallowing visibly.
“So. What would you choose?” Kakashi asked, lifting her chin with a light brush of his fingertips before dropping his hand.
“I- Kakashi-sensei?” Sakura said uncertainly, but her eyes were a little brighter.
“As your sensei it is up to me to choose what path best suits your talents,” Kakashi explained, “but I will not choose for you. As the last,” his voice hitched, “last remaining member of a three-man genin team, you would either be shuffled to a proper team under someone else’s tutelage, or kept on to be trained one-on-one by me.”
Sakura looked hopeful for a moment, then flinched. “Who- Who would you choose for me?” she asked. “I- I always wanted to study a wider range of ninjutsu, so perhaps-”
“Sakura.” Kakashi interrupted her, dropping to a crouch so she couldn’t avoid his eye so easily. “If you wish to join another team I will find you a good- a better sensei to take you on, one that can teach you all you want to learn. But I am not sending you away. If you would rather take the chance on me . . . I would be honoured to keep you as my student.”
Sakura went utterly still. “You- I can stay with you?” she asked in a tiny voice.
“Maa, you won’t find another sensei who knows more ninjutsu, anyway.” Kakashi said wryly. He hadn’t known of that particular ambition; she’d never spoken of it in his hearing.
He twitched as Sakura threw herself at him, raising his arms and catching a slender bundle of shaking tears and warm, sweaty child. “Kakashi-sensei!” Sakura clung to his shoulder and Kakashi couldn’t remember the last time someone had sounded so pleased, so innocently so, just to be near him. He patted her back comfortingly. “Thank you, Kaka-sensei.” she mumbled into the thick shoulder of his vest.
“Thank you for trusting me, Sakura-chan.” Kakashi replied softly, rubbing her thin back with one hand. She felt not unlike a half-grown, nervous puppy. With that thought he instinctively held her a little tighter and she took a deeper, shuddering breath and settled a bit. “I am sorry I did not live up to it before. I promise, for as long as I may, and as long as you wish, I will do my best for you as your sensei.”
Sakura sniffed quietly and curled her fingers into his vest, holding on tight. Kakashi rubbed her back and let her cling, balanced on the balls of his feet with her weight resting awkwardly across his chest and one knee.