oroburos69: (Corset)
[personal profile] oroburos69
Title: Gossip and Lies
Beta:[livejournal.com profile] lady_of_scarlet [livejournal.com profile] subtle_shades
Rating: T/FRT
Summary: In which Sakura figures out the value of a really good rumour, Kakashi is paranoid, and Tsunade is admirably evil.
A/N: Picks up directly after Challenged.

Previous Parts
1. Something To Look Forward To
2. Worth It
3. Bad Decisions and The People Who Make Them
4. It Seemed Funny At The Time
5. Under the Sun
6.
Challenged

"You'll be fine?" he asked, watching the waiting room rather than her.

Sakura plucked her bag from his shoulder. Kakashi flinched, like he'd forgotten he was holding it. "Would you mind?" he murmured. Hikari, the on-duty nurse, watched them with intense interest. "If I left, I mean."

Sakura pointed at the door and raised her eyebrows. There was no need for him to stay if he was going to be so twitchy.

Hikari gasped. Sakura glanced over, only to see her duck behind the counter. Sakura frowned in confusion. What the hell...?

Kakashi hesitated, an unreadable expression on his face. "You'll be okay, right?"

It was the sixth time he'd asked. Sakura rolled her eyes and gave him her very best (stolen from Tsunade) 'duh' look.

"I should really teach you sign language," he said quietly, tucking his hands into his pockets.

Right. Sign language. Sakura felt like smacking herself. Sign language would be easier, thank you for pointing that out, Kakashi.

Sakura signed go, drawing her hand to the side and bringing her fingers together. He really didn't need to stay.

"You'll find me later?" Kakashi glanced at the reception desk. Hikari ducked back down behind the counter. He leaned forward and whispered into Sakura's ear, "Do you know her?"

Yes. Sakura replied. She signed Hikari’s name with careful fingers.

"Is this normal...?"

The sound of a pen scribbling across paper came from Hikari’s hiding spot. Sakura peeked from the corner of her eye, catching a glimpse of Hikari's curly hair and a bit of her face. Yes, she signed.

Hikari was a terrible gossip and a total drama queen. This was a bit much, though.

"So I shouldn't get the interrogation squad?" Kakashi asked softly. He pulled his book from his belt pouch in a deceptively casual move, given that Sakura could see the sparkle of steel (senbon needles?) tucked into the pages.

No! Sakura signed quickly, tapping her first two fingers against her thumb. Definitely her. Not a spy!

"So you're sure you're safe?" Kakashi asked, his brow furrowed.

Okay, that was just enough already. Sakura could handle a gossipy teenager, thank you very much, Kakashi. Yes. She pointed at the door. Go.

Kakashi's eye curved happily and he slouched toward the exit, just slow enough that he wouldn’t appear to be running.

Sakura resisted the urge to laugh, certain that it would be very painful if she did, and waved goodbye.

"I'll see you later, right?" Kakashi asked, pausing at the door, more than halfway outside.

Sakura grinned. Yes, she signed.

The door closed behind him.

"Sakura! Is it true? Please tell me that it's true!"

Sakura squeaked and scrambled away from Hikari's very close and very intent face.

“It’s so romantic! I never expected it to happen to you.” Hikari gave her a critical glance, then continued, “But it’s soooooooo sweet and cute and you have to tell me all the details!”

Sakura gestured at her throat. She shifted, uncomfortable with how close Hikari was standing. There were social rules about that.

“Oh. Right.” Hikari pouted, acting like she hadn’t just taken down all of Sakura’s intake information. “I’ll go get Tsunade!” she said brightly. “And then you will tell me all the details, deal?”

Sakura nodded slowly, ignoring the stabbing pain in her throat that came from moving. It would save her the trouble of waiting for a doctor, deflect Tsunade’s ire to Hikari (if there was going to be ire—you never knew with Tsunade), and get her healed instead of drugged—it was like a win-win-win situation.

“Oh my god, I’m so excited!” Hikari squealed. “Don’t you dare move,” she added, pointing at Sakura. “Eeeeeee!” Hikari ran down through the swinging double doors, toward the heart of the hospital, limbs flailing in every direction.

Sakura really hoped she’d be able to figure out what Hikari had been referring to before she had to tell her about it. She suspected it might be the same rumour that Lee had heard, given their levels of excitement. After all, what were the chances that there would be two new rumours about her in the same day?

The rapid click-click of heels on the polished linoleum floor came racing through the same door Hikari had left by, heralding Emi’s arrival long before her presence.

“Oh My God! It’s Sakura!” Emi shrieked, picking her out of the crowd with an accuracy that suggested she’d already known Sakura was there.

Sakura waved uncertainly. People were watching.

Emi’s eyes narrowed. “You have to tell me! Is it true?”

Sakura pointed at her throat, and gave her an awkward half-smile, trying figure out what had them so excited. Hikari barely even noticed her, usually, and Emi had spoken to her, like, twice in the two years Sakura had been working at the hospital.

Whatever this rumour was, it must be good.

“What? You can’t talk?” Emi stalled, and tapped her index finger against her lower lip, pouting artfully. Her brow furrowed, but not deeply enough to mar her perfectly applied makeup.

Sakura kind of hated her.

“You could nod though, right?” Emi said suddenly, like the thought had just come to her. “I mean, it’s pretty yes or no—” she cut off her rambling and leaned closer, bringing the scent of light floral perfume with her. “Are you really engaged to Kakashi Hatake?”

One of the ninja in the ER, a few chairs down from her, leaped to his feet, the senbon he’d been chewing on clattering to the floor. Sakura twitched, checking to make sure that he wasn’t attacking, but he was leaving, running through the front doors at top speed.

Weird.

Well?” Emi demanded. “If you can’t nod, could you, like, blink twice for yes?”

Sakura was still wondering who Emi was talking to (because Kakashi wasn’t engaged to anyone. That was crazy talk) when Tsunade stormed through the blue painted doors, Hikari trailing meekly in her wake. “Sakura!”

The familiar bellow triggered an instinctive response, Sakura’s body leaping to its feet and facing Tsunade long before her brain caught up with the action.

“You don’t look like you’re dying,” Tsunade snapped, before whirling on Hikari. “You said dying! I don’t see any dying here. Do you need remedial classes, nurse?”

Sakura smirked, feeling blissfully safe from Tsunade’s wrath...

Wait.

Her? Engaged?

Sakura squeaked a really poor attempt at a question, staring at Emi with wide eyes. Her throat protested, then decided that coughing up a lung was definitely the right response.

The vicious rebuke being delivered to Hikari stopped, and Tsunade’s heels clacked irately across the gleaming floor. “What happened, and why haven’t you healed yourself?” she demanded.

It was really hard to talk when you couldn’t stop coughing, and the coughing really hurt. She could feel something (probably blood, Sakura decided) trickling down the back of her throat, too.

“No, I have a better question. Why did you let yourself get hurt?” Tsunade asked, pulling Sakura’s hands away from her throat. “Honestly, Sakura, I thought I taught you better than that—the first rule is don’t get hit!”

Tsunade’s hand glowed bright green for an instant, and then Sakura started screaming because Tsunade was making no effort to reduce the pain.

“Please stop, I feel much better!” Sakura cried out, fitting the words between bouts of agonizing pain and raspy screams, in the short intervals when Tsunade paused to prod her throat. Her ability to talk indicated improvement, but Sakura was more interested in making Tsunade stop. She could fix it later, without all the agony. Or at least not quite as much. “Really!”

“Do you want to talk like a six-pack-a-day smoker for the rest of your life?” Tsunade batted Sakura’s hands out of the way. “Because you will, if I don’t finish.”

“I could deal with it!” The last word reached a much higher pitch, and the healing stopped.

Sakura collapsed onto the uncomfortable plastic seating and opened her eyes really wide so the tears wouldn’t fall. You didn’t show Tsunade weakness lest she try and scour it out of you.

“There!” Tsunade leaned back, looking Sakura over critically. “Now tell me how my apprentice wound up in the Emergency Room with half-healed fractures to her trachea and no chakra?”

Emi and Hikari edged closer, then glared at each other. They were rivals or something, Sakura remembered, a bit too focused on how fantastic not being in pain was to really care.

“Well?”

“Lee challenged me,” Sakura said. Her throat didn’t hurt at all, beyond the little twinges of phantom pain.

“Oh. My. God!” Emi whisper-squealed, delicately covering her mouth with perfect pink nails.

“I can’t believe it!” Hikari hissed, exchanging a meaningful look with Emi before she remembered that she hated her.

Tsunade tapped her foot against the floor impatiently. “Well? Did you win?”

“No,” Sakura admitted grudgingly, sinking back in her seat. “He did. I had to surrender after Lee punched me in the throat.”

“You gave up?” Tsunade drew back, her eyes narrowed like an offended cat's. “Why didn’t you heal yourself? I’ve been training you for two years!”

“I was out of chakra!” Sakura said defensively. “I used most of it healing Kakashi, and then Lee showed up and decided he wanted to challenge me so that I’d date him—”

Offended squeals came from Emi and Hikari, reaching barely audible pitches.

Rumour planted. Sakura held back her smile, because Tsunade would not be amused. Lee may have won, but there was no way in hell she wasn’t going to take it out of his hide.

“Hmph.” Tsunade watched her, arms folded across her impressive chest, brows drawn together in irritation.

Sakura shivered, but she met Tsunade’s furious gaze and kept her chin up.

Tsunade’s nostrils flared. “I’m doubling your taijutsu training—no, tripling it!” Tsunade declared, slamming her fist into her hand decisively. “And in a month, you’ll challenge that boy and you will win, do you hear me?”

“Yes, Lady Tsunade!” Sakura rose to her feet and saluted before she could stop herself.

“No apprentice of mine will lose to some little boy,” Tsunade hissed, her fondness for Lee forgotten, so far as Sakura could tell. “I swear, Haruno, if I get Gai gloating in my office I will hunt you down and train you until you wish you’d never been born! Do you understand?” Tsunade growled.

“Yes, Lady Tsunade,” Sakura answered, managing to hold back the salute this time. She allowed for a delicate pause, then continued, “But I may have to wait to challenge him.”

“Oh?” Tsunade’s tone set off bright, flashing warning signals.

A cold sweat broke out over Sakura’s shoulders. “I broke his leg,” she said, hooking her thumbs over her belt to keep her hands from shaking. “It’ll take at least a month and a half to heal.”

The wrath cooled to satisfaction, maybe a hint of pleasure. “Excellent, Sakura. I knew I made the right decision when I made you my apprentice.”

The tension drained out of the room. “I am pleased that you think so, Lady Tsunade,” Sakura replied, dipping her head in a shallow bow, not breaking eye contact. “Though, may I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” Tsunade answered, glancing at Emi and Hikari. Her gaze flickered away, dismissing them.

Hikari slunk away first, followed by Emi. They retreated behind the receptionist’s desk, rivalry forgotten in the name of gossip.

Sakura leaned forward. Every person in the room was watching, soft-voiced whispers buzzing from the corners like angry bees. “Why did you congratulate me on my engagement?” she murmured, barely moving her lips. This close, she could smell Tsunade—sake and sharp antiseptic over blood and metal.

“Don’t you remember? You said yes.” The words were breathed, barely there at all. Tsunade smiled, her lipstick gleaming in the fluorescent lights.

Sakura inhaled sharply—Kakashi asking, his pulse twitching just under his skin like frantic bird wings, reduced to a beautiful hot mess by her hand—oh yes, she remembered. The memory was etched into her mind.

“Ah, yes. I find myself recalling...” Sakura murmured, her cheeks flushed light pink. “But why does everyone in the village seem to know?”

“Just doing my part to keep the records up to date,” Tsunade said, like she hadn’t planted the rumour for her own sick amusement.

Gods, Sakura admired her.

“It was such a romantic proposal,” Tsunade said, loud enough for the onlookers to hear, smiling benevolently.

Her words instigated a quick babble of excitement. Emi and Hikari clung to each other, all pretences of working gone.

It was a challenge. Sakura should back down, retreat, and deny the rumour. Stop it before it ever really began.

She didn’t want to back down.

“What can I say?” Sakura said, playing for the audience, her voice a tiny bit breathy. “He swept me off my feet.”

Tsunade’s eyes widened ever so slightly.

Sakura cocked an eyebrow. Her lip curled, baring her teeth. It was almost a smile.

“Again, my heartfelt congratulations. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together,” Tsunade was smooth, but not smooth enough—Sakura had rattled her.

“Thank you, Tsunade,” Sakura nearly left it at that. No names had been named, no details had been given. Future denial was still possible. Impulsiveness was a flaw of hers. “I’ll be sure to pass it on to Kakashi.”

Hikari squealed and took off running, fighting with Emi to get through the door first. The waiting patients clustered together, whispering excitedly.

Tsunade studied her, assessing, weighing, and judging, before the corner of her mouth quirked up. “I can’t believe you just did that,” she murmured. “I’m so...proud.”

The bottom of her stomach dropped to her knees, but Sakura refused to show it. Fucking with people’s heads was a time-honoured ninja tradition, and Sakura could do it too, if she wanted.

“Looks like that nurse forgot that she was on duty,” Tsunade said, nodding to the reception desk. “Why don’t you take over?”

Sakura went for one last spur-of-the-moment gambit. “I can’t. I need to go find a ring,” she said, quiet enough that only Tsunade would hear.

Tsunade laughed, deep and rich and the slightest bit malicious. “Don’t let me stop you, kid.”

Sakura retreated, head held high, back straight, and pretended she didn’t notice the stares. Her hands were shaking because she was tired, she reassured herself.

***

She had exactly one ryo in her pocket.

Sakura flipped the coin, watching it sparkle in the fading sunlight. She could get two instant ramen containers for one ryo. Or an apple.

Sakura dropped the coin into the slot and cranked the handle. Gears inside the machine groaned and a clear plastic ball fell toward the slot at the bottom.

Sakura snatched the ball before anyone on the street could see, and started walking, heading home. There was a tiny plastic bag holding her prize and an even tinier instruction manual, telling her to “put on finger” in three different languages.

The silver-coloured band sparkled, and Sakura almost considered just tucking it in her pocket. She knew it was a bad idea. She really did.

Tiny elephants circled the ring, their eyes painted in black, the brush having missed their faces entirely in several cases.

Sakura had always liked elephants.

She worried her lip, rolling the ring across her palm. It was cheap. Obviously so. Probably made from Earth Country tin to boot.

Kakashi wouldn’t have bought something so cheap. She couldn’t imagine him buying anything, but certainly not such a cheap ring. She frowned, and decided he would have stolen something expensive. The ring wouldn’t fool anyone who knew him.

Emi and Hikari would believe, though. And it wasn’t like anyone else would ask to see it.

Sakura sighed, wondering how her better judgement always got over-ruled by her pride, and slid it on.

The band fit perfectly on her ring finger. Sakura nodded to herself, and tossed the packaging into the recycling. She would keep playing the game until it crashed and burned around her. After all, why—

“Sakura,” Kakashi’s voice carried, echoing in the nearly empty street.

—not?

Dread was a strange emotion. It concealed itself in cracks, growing like hidden tree roots, and hinted there was something you had forgotten, but it never bothered to tell you what.

Sakura felt dread. “Hey!” She waved, squinting up at the rooftops to find his silhouette.

He jumped, landing beside her with only a whisper of sound and the ghost of a breeze. “You sound better,” Kakashi said, probing for more information.

“Tsunade healed me,” Sakura answered, touching her fingers to her throat. Phantom pain flickered under her skin, her body still not convinced that it had nothing to complain about.

“Oh.” Kakashi scratched the back of his head. Sakura felt his chakra thrum like the strings of a cello. It felt strong and deep, and Sakura was struck again by the difference that the pressure points had made. “Look, Sakura...”

The guy from the emergency room was watching them. “Do you know him?” Sakura asked.

“Yeah, he’s...” Kakashi trailed off, and looked at her.

Sakura broke eye contact, wondering if she’d done something wrong. They were having an awkward silence. She hated those. “Kakashi?”

“Did you hear the rumour Lee was talking about?” Kakashi asked.

Dread coalesced into fear. Sakura shoved her hand into her pocket, hiding the ring. “No,” she lied. “Why, did you?”

Kakashi paused, watching the guy across the street. “No,” he said, and relief crashed over Sakura. He didn’t know. It was cool. He wouldn’t quit being her friend if he never found out.

The ring felt heavy on her finger, and Sakura really wished that she’d bought ramen instead. “So.”

“Yep.” Kakashi hadn’t stopped watching the guy from the emergency room.

“Is he a threat?” Sakura asked.

“What? No. Just a...” Kakashi stole a glance at her from the corner of his eye. “He isn’t a threat.”

Sakura nodded, accepting that it was probably something classified. “Do you need to go? It’s getting kind of late,” she said, trying to provide him with an easy exit. Her stomach rolled, and Sakura hoped (pitifully—surely she wasn’t that desperate for a friend) that his medical leave hadn’t been revoked already.

“No. I—” Kakashi ducked his head, hitai-ate shining gold in the setting sun. “I was going to walk you home. If that’s okay. I can leave—”

“No,” Sakura said, “I don’t mind.”

“Oh. Good.” Kakashi smiled.

Sakura’s heart settled. The streetlights started flickering on, one after the other. “What did you do? When you left?” There had been a good hour of time where they’d been apart. He could have done something interesting.

“Read, mostly.” Kakashi’s voice lightened, and his back straightened, “Saw someone I know, but he had nothing important to say.”

“Oh.” Sakura wished she could tell him about the emergency room. It would have made a good story, if she hadn’t intentionally spread rumours about them. “New book?”

“Not yet,” Kakashi sighed wistfully, then changed the subject. “How was the healing?”

“Like drinking battery acid.”

“Ow,” Kakashi said sympathetically, hand drifting toward his neck, then shoved into his pocket. “You’re okay, now?”

“Never better,” Sakura said. She stopped at the entrance to her apartment complex, ignoring the peeling paint and graffiti with the ease of long practice.

The guy was still watching them.

“Are you sure you don’t have to leave?” Sakura asked.

“Not unless you want me to,” Kakashi said, sounding a tiny bit hurt.

“No!” Sakura answered. “It’s just...He keeps staring at you.” Sakura kind of wanted to storm over there and ask the guy what the hell his problem was, but the risk of it being official business stopped her. “...He’s creepy,” she muttered.

“I couldn’t agree more,” Kakashi replied. “Don’t worry about him. He’s mostly harmless.” Kakashi paused and thought about it. “Actually, if he tries to talk to you...”

Her key clicked in the lock, and Sakura held open the door for Kakashi. He was in the middle of a sentence. It would be rude to cut him off.

“He’s a bit of a pervert—actually, he’s a huge pervert,” Kakashi corrected himself, following her through the door. “So feel free to break his jaw if he tries to talk to you.”

Sakura paused mid-step. “That seems awfully extreme for ‘mostly harmless.’”

Kakashi laughed abruptly. “Well, you know. Better safe than sorry.”

“I see.” Obviously there was something Kakashi couldn’t tell her. She stepped over the suspicious stain (it had been there for three months, but grown no less suspicious), taking the good stairwell up. There was usually someone sleeping in the bad stairwell.

“Did you ever find out what was wrong with that nurse?” Kakashi asked.

“She’s just—you know,” Sakura said, shrugging uncomfortably, filling ‘you know’ with as much innuendo as she could. Hopefully Kakashi would manufacture something that made sense—

“Oh.” Kakashi sounded shocked. “Really?”

“Mmmhmm,” Sakura answered, slowing down as she approached her apartment.

“That—I didn’t know,” he said apologetically. “I wouldn’t have implied—”

“It’s okay. Just don’t, like, spread it around, okay?” Sakura said, hoping he wouldn’t, because even though she had no idea what he’d come up with, she was certain that it wasn’t true.

“I don’t spread rumours,” Kakashi said. He looked up, as if only just noticing that they were in front of her door. “Good night?”

Sakura worried the cheap ring with her thumb. Kakashi was never, ever going to find out what she had done. “Yeah. Good night,” she said ducking inside. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” Kakashi answered, arm half-raised to wave goodbye. “You’re working?”

“From six until two,” Sakura answered. “Then I have training—Tsunade wasn’t pleased that I lost. She’s tripling my taijutsu training. That will last until five—tomorrow’s my short day, or I’d be there until twelve,” Sakura said, not wanting Kakashi to think that she usually trained for only an hour a day. “But after that I’m free.”

“Would you like to meet?” he asked, staring at a cigarette burn in the carpet.

“Yes.” Sakura grinned. “Don’t suppose I could get you to spring for dinner?”

Kakashi laughed. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.

“Good night,” Sakura said, closing the door. She hesitated, then cracked it open again. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”

Sakura shut the door for the second time, and slid down it, her hand pressed over her mouth to keep from laughing.

Her door was cheap and thin, with a wide gap at the bottom. No sound proofing.

Kakashi was humming.

***

“Sooooo.”

Sakura looked up from the patient file, scribbling a note. “Yeah?” she asked, looking over the nurses who’d crowded into the office she was borrowing today. “Do you need the room?”

They tittered, like she’d said something very funny. Sakura tried a smile.

The nurses were all civilians or genin who hadn’t been suited to combat. Being twelve and apprenticed to the Tsunade had put a gap as deep the Wind Valley Gorge between her and them. Matters hadn’t exactly improved in the last two years. She didn’t even know most of their names.

“Oh come on, you can’t keep all those juicy details to yourself!” Hikari said, surging to the front. “What’s he like? How did he propose?”

Much to her horror, Sakura felt her cheeks heating up, the memory of Kakashi’s naked, unmeant proposal suddenly embarrassing. Tsunade would be so disappointed in her.

“You’re blushing!” Emi said, obviously delighted. “Come on, you have to tell us!”

Sakura closed the patient file and added it to her stack. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.” She checked the clock and added, “To lunch,” hoping the nurses would get the hint and back off. She considered denying the engagement rumour all together, but Hikari and Emi’s presence made it unlikely that they would believe her.

“With Kakashi?” a woman Sakura had never spoken to asked eagerly.

“Huh? No, the cafeteria,” Sakura said.

There was a great moment of stillness. “You eat there?” Emi asked delicately, as if she must have somehow misheard.

Sakura nodded and pushed through the packed bodies as gently as she could, ignoring their disappointed protests. “It’s free, and the fact that I can’t identify the source of most of the food actually lessens my revulsion.”

“But it’s gross,” Aimi said, distressed. “No one eats there.”

“I do,” Sakura said, opening the door. “Now, was there anything else?”

“If we buy you lunch, will you tell us the details?” Hikari asked.

Sakura paused. Fooooooooood, her bad-judgment whined, dragging her stomach and mouth along with it.

Kakashi couldn’t know about the rumour—or rather, he couldn’t know that she’d helped to spread it. It wasn’t like he wasn’t going to find out eventually, after all.

“Where, precisely, do you propose to go?” Sakura asked, justifying her decision rapidly. Kakashi would understand. He’d practically made an art form out of mooching. Of course he’d understand!

“Ah.” Hikari drew back, looking almost wary. “I don’t know, where would you like to go?”

Sakura surveyed the gathered nurses, calculating how badly they wanted the gossip. Her lips twisted into an unholy grin. “I’m feeling like sushi. From the place across the street.” She couldn’t remember its name, but the prices had stuck out in her memory.

Hikari glanced at Emi, then Aimi. “Okay, but it better be worth it.”

“Oh it is,” Sakura replied, already imagining the sweet, free food. “So worth it.”

***

“Did he get you a ring?” Emi asked, leaning forward.

Sakura hummed, selecting a piece of salmon. It was so fresh!

“Let us see!” Aimi exclaimed.

Sakura looked away from the translucent pink flesh, confused. “What?”

“The ring!” Emi said. “Did he get you one with a diamond?”

“He’s a jonin, right? He could so afford one!” Hikari interjected.

Sakura thought of the elephant ring, forgotten on her bathroom counter. “Well...” Sakura dipped the edge of the salmon into the soy sauce, admiring how the lighting made the fish seem to glow. Beautiful. “I didn’t wear the ring,” she prevaricated, biting into the tender meat.

Wide-eyed shock greeted her response. Sakura shrugged, selecting a pretty roll covered in bright red fish eggs. She didn’t know what half of the lovely little pieces of rice and fish were made of, but Sakura hadn’t yet tasted one she didn’t like.

One of the three women Sakura had never met leaned forward, clutching her tea to her chest. “Do you not want to marry him?”

“Are you being forced to marry him?” someone else asked, sounding more excited about that idea than she been about the proposal.

“Is it a secret ninja marriage ritual?” Aimi questioned. Her face glowed with vicarious excitement.

Sakura chewed slowly, uncomfortably aware of the complete and total attention she was getting. She really didn’t understand the civilian obsession with secret ninja rituals. There weren’t that many of them and most involved silly superstitions like naming your kunai so they wouldn’t get lost.

Hikari gasped, as if in realization. “Are you pregnant?” she whispered, loud enough that the people at the next table could hear.

Sakura swallowed quickly. “I’m not wearing the ring because I didn’t want to lose it, break it or get it yucky at the clinic. So far as I’m aware, there are no secret ninja marriage rituals—”

Aimi’s face fell. Sakura almost felt bad.

“And I’m not pregnant,” Sakura finished, raising her voice a tiny bit so that the eavesdropping tables around theirs could hear. Some things needed to be nipped in the bud.

“Oh.” Emi sounded incredibly disappointed, and the women circling the table mirrored her expression. “That’s too bad.”

There was a moment of silence where Sakura selected another artistically prepared piece of sushi and debated whether to tell the nurses that she had no desire to have children, much less so soon after the not-happening wedding, or if she should just let it roll.

“How did he propose?” Kiku asked, then ducked her head, her chin-length hair falling in front of her face.

Sakura popped the roll into her mouth, contemplating how to answer (not with the truth, was her initial decision). Oh—avocado! Sakura smiled blissfully, savouring the buttery vegetable.

She actually liked Kiku. Sometimes they even talked. With that in mind, Sakura answered as close to honestly as she could. “He just blurted it out in the middle of talking about something completely different. He had a ring, though.”

Sakura knew that Kakashi owned at least one ring, so it wasn’t false, just incredibly misleading.

“So cute!” Emi decided, beaming. “What did Kakashi say?”

Sakura frowned, a little peeved that Emi was using Kakashi’s first name so casually. She’d never even met him. “He said, ‘Marry me,’ What did you think he’d say?”

“Did he tell you that he loved you?”

“Did he get down on one knee?”

“Did you see his face?” Aimi asked. The other nurses went quiet. Sakura thought they might be holding their breath.

“Well, not then. Tsunade was there,” Sakura said cheerfully. It wasn’t untrue...

The customers at the other tables burst into furious conversation. Sakura resisted the urge to preen. Hell yeah she was good.

“You’ve seen his face?” One woman—old enough to be Kakashi’s mom—squealed. “What does he look like?”

Sakura snatched the last piece of sushi on her plate and stood up. “Sorry guys, my break is over,” she said. “Thanks for lunch!” Sakura bit into the roll, savouring the tempura fried shrimp in the centre, and strolled toward the door, hoping that none of them noticed how little sushi was left on their plates.

A hand on her arm stopped her before she could get out the door. Sakura stopped and smiled as innocently as she could—no, of course she didn’t have half a plate of sushi in her kunai pouch, why would you even ask? “Yes?”

“Um... I just wanted to congratulate you,” Kiku said. She blushed and looked away. “I know it must be annoying, everyone asking so many questions, but I’m sure they’re all very happy for you.”

“Aw, thanks, Kiku,” Sakura said, oddly touched. “That’s very kind of you.”

She smiled. “I’ll see you later?”

“Of course,” Sakura replied, ducking out the door and waving. “Bye!” she called, jogging across the street to the hospital.

***

“Shizune?” Sakura called, poking her head into the Medical Ninja’s Lounge. “You here? I need a second opinion—”

“You!” Shizune exclaimed, poking Sakura in the chest. “What are you thinking?” she demanded.

Sakura held the file folder in front of herself defensively. “Ah—that he has a bone splinter from breaking a rib? But the x-ray is blurry and I thought I’d double check...”

Shizune grabbed the chest x-ray and held it up to the light. “Yep, bone splinter. Good call,” she said, handing it back.

That was a relief, Sakura thought, tucking it into the folder. “Great, I’ll go—”

“You are going nowhere,” Shizune snapped, running her hands through her hair, ruining the sleek lines she favoured. “Sit down.”

Sakura sat.

It took a couple seconds for Shizune to pull herself together. “You’re engaged? To your jonin-sensei?” Shizune asked stridently, saying jonin-sensei like it meant ‘filthy pervert who fucks corpses.’ “Did he...?”

Was there an excuse for deliberately feeding rumours about yourself so you could profit off other people’s interest? Sakura was unsure. “I...ahhhh—that is...” Sakura fumbled for words. “I mean...”

“I’m going to castrate him,” Shizune said in a tone of revelation, like she’d just realized her deepest desire. “Sakura? I need you to stay here and swear that I was with you the whole time.”

A puff of smoke billowed up beside her, clearing to reveal a clone. “My shadow clone will be, so it’ll be almost like the truth, right Sakura?” she said, patting Sakura on the hand.

“It’s not what you think!” Sakura said, grabbing Shizune before she could teleport out. “Please don’t castrate Kakashi?”

“I knew it!” Shizune crowed. “Tsunade was way too blasé about it!” She dropped into the chair opposite Sakura, her face serious again. “But I hope you know that if you need a man castrated, for any reason, I am here for you.”

She hadn’t known that. Sakura smiled, touched by Shizune’s concern.

“He wouldn’t even know it was done until the agonizing pain set in,” Shizune swore, slamming her hands together. Her shadow clone burst into a cloud of smoke.

“But enough about that. Tell me what’s going on. Why are the Hyenas telling me that you’re getting married to a guy fourteen years older than you?”

Sakura looked away. “I didn’t start the rumour, okay?”

“Didn’t think you did. I am curious as to why you didn’t deny it, though.”

“They offered to buy me lunch if I told them all about it,” Sakura admitted. “So I made them take me to Ginza Kyubei.”

“You’re growing up so fast,” Shizune said, wiping away a fake tear. “Was it good?”

Sakura pulled the bag of sushi from her kunai pouch. “Wanna try?” she asked brightly. “It’s a little smushed, but I assure you, it was excellent.”

“Did you really—?”

“Steal the leftovers?” Sakura finished the sentence for her, too pleased with herself not to. “Yes, yes I did.”

“You are such a good student,” Shizune said, her face alight with pride. “Hand it over, I didn’t take a lunch break.”

Sakura gave her the bag, picking out one last piece of salmon for herself. “Like stealing candy from coma patients,” she said cheerfully, eating the still chilled fish.

“Oh this is so good,” Shizune said. “Definitely worth it.”

“Totally. Now I just have to explain to Kakashi why everyone thinks we’re getting married.” Sakura paused. “Maybe I should have saved some for him,” she said, eyeing the rapidly disappearing food.

“Oh it wouldn’t be any good, later,” Shizune said, biting a piece of fresh tuna in half. “And I appreciate it so much more than he would.”

“Sakura?” Kiku knocked on the door, not daring to enter. Medic nin were notoriously territorial over their lounge. “Your patient...?”

The folder on the lunch table glared at her accusingly. “Right! Thank you for your help, Shizune!” Sakura said, tucking the papers under her arm and heading out like she’d been intending to do so the whole time. “Couldn’t have done it without you.”

“You’re welcome, Sakura, but you owe me the rest of the story, later.”

“Tsunade tripled my training, so I’m out there until five. Feel free to drop by,” she replied cheerfully, waving as she ducked out the door.

***

The rumour must have spread. Strangers were pointing at her, whispering behind their hands.

Sakura checked to make sure she was wearing clothes, because, hey, second possible explanation for the interest. Dress, shorts, various bags, belts, everything fully buckled—check!

Must be the rumour.

"Forehead!"

Sakura hesitated, looking up at the familiar cat-call.

Ino waved at her impatiently from the door of her parent's shop. Blue plastic gloves covered her hands to the elbows. She must have been working on poisons.

"What?" Sakura called, pausing by a lamppost. It creaked alarmingly, swaying as a ninja used it as a launching pad to reach a second story roof.

"Get over here," Ino demanded impatiently, peeling off her gloves and tucking them, inside out, into her apron's side pockets.

Hope crept into Sakura's heart, rooting itself in the cracks. Ino had never really forgiven her for breaking their friendship over 'that traitorous fucker' and Sakura had never quite forgiven Ino for calling Sasuke a traitor. Mostly, they didn't talk.

Sakura checked her watch. She had fifteen minutes to get to her training grounds, and if she sprinted, she could make it in five. Casual, she reminded herself, wandering toward Ino at a pace only slightly faster than a saunter. Looking too eager would give Ino the advantage.

"What's up?" she asked, then mentally kicked herself. 'What's up' was so last year.

Ino didn't seem to notice. "You have got some pretty spectacular rumours sprouting, Forehead."

The little sparks of hope died, crushed by disappointment. Of course Ino just wanted the gossip. "Yeah?" Sakura replied, checking her watch again. She could pretend to be running late.

"Fuck yeah," Ino said, tugging on the end of her ponytail. "Did you know that people are saying you're getting married to that old guy who used to be your sensei?"

"Actually, I did," Sakura replied, barely restraining herself from snapping that Kakashi wasn't old, thank you very much. "Why do you care?"

"Why do I—" Ino looked like she'd been smacked. "You know what? Fuck you. Your dad is looking for you."

Shit. Sakura hadn't even thought of that. "Does he know?" she asked, checking the street to make sure he wasn't coming toward her. "Please tell me he doesn't know—"

"He was saying something about his ungrateful bitch of a daughter, so yeah, I think he knows. Have fun with that." Ino crossed her arms across her chest.

Sakura looked across the street, peering into the shadows of her parent's store. She didn't recognize the clerk, but that didn't mean anything. Her dad might be in the back. "Gods be damned," she muttered.

Ino sniffed, flicking her ponytail over her shoulder. "I'd say. How are you going to explain this one, huh?"

"I'm not," Sakura said. She'd successfully avoided her dad for five months and she really, really didn't want to break the record. "Look, Ino..." Sakura hesitated, but forged onward. "Thanks."

Ino grinned and for a second Sakura felt twelve again. "Anytime, Forehead."

"Whatever, Pig." Sakura flicked her fingers dismissively and ran up the side of the lamppost, taking to the rooftops.

"See ya!" Ino called from the street, mocking, but kind of something else, too.
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