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Margin of Error

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Sakura can’t stop laughing. “You said you wanted the weight of him—”

“Please don’t repeat my words,” Naruto grumbles into his coffee. He’d woken up with a thundering headache and a sudden rush of memories from the night before that left him blushing such a furious shade of red that Kakashi checked his forehead for a temperature at breakfast.

Sakura clutches at her stomach. “I’m sorry, is that your idea of dirty talk?” 

Naruto drags her away from the rest of the group gathered to watch the mock debate because her uncontrolled laughing is now drawing attention. They had hiked out a ways into the woods and arrived at a camping site with wooden benches. Kakashi is standing at a makeshift podium at the front of the group, with Shikamaru standing in for Lord Danzo for practice. “Could you stop?” 

Sakura slaps a hand over her mouth, but it does nothing to muffle the sound of her cackling. Naruto waits patiently until she catches her breath. “What do I do?” 

Sakura wipes at her eyes. “Don’t be an idiot, Naruto, just talk to him,” she advices. “Say you’re sorry, and say you’d understand if he didn’t feel comfortable being on your protective detail anymore. He’s a professional, and so are you. Just because you got drunk one night and forgot doesn’t make you a criminal. The man gets shot at for a living. I’m sure this isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to him. Lighten up.” 

Naruto takes a deep breath. When all else fails, he will always have Sakura’s steady guidance and unwavering confidence in him. “Thanks.” 

“Don’t worry about it so much,” Sakura reiterates, and stalks off towards the debate, which is now starting up. Kiba is acting as the moderator and he introduces the debate as the moderator would. He lays out the rules of the debate for Kakashi and Shikamaru, addressing Shikamaru as Lord Danzo for occasion. 

Kakashi looks amused at the role playing, but then Shikamaru gets the first question and absolutely nails it in character as Lord Danzo. Things get serious after that, with the audience members providing Kakashi feedback at the end of every single question to tighten this phrase, to pivot more effectively, to press Danzo harder on this issue or that. As the hour wears on, Naruto realizes—

Something’s off. 

Shikaku must be thinking the same thing because when Naruto glances at him, the man is frowning. Naruto weaves around his table towards Shikaku and bends at his waist to murmur in Shikaku’s ears, “He’s off his game.” 

“I noticed,” Shikaku mutters dourly. “Any solutions?” 

Naruto watches the back and forth between Shikamaru, Kakashi, and Kiba for a few more minutes. Kakashi is hitting every note and every talking point. He is disciplined, and he has done his homework, because he delivers the phrases from Naruto’s draft that Shikaku and Hiashi had signed off on. It’s not technique, because it’s perfect. Kakashi has practiced, and he has gotten better. He doesn’t go off on tangents, and he makes sure he doesn’t look too bored. He spaces his words properly, and he pauses at all the right cues. But.

Naruto had watched Kakashi in front of a diner—against the backdrop of Lord Danzo’s campaign poster—and he’d talked the crowd into supporting him. He’d gotten them on his side, not by delivering lines that have been polled and tested in focus groups to death. He’d held their gaze, and he’d just talked the way he always talks. 

Naruto bends again at his waist to whisper into Shikaku’s ear, “We should dump the script.” 

This catches Shikaku’s attention. He looks away from Kakashi and turns his gaze up towards Naruto, both eyebrows raised. “Lord Danzo is one of the most disciplined politicians in Konohagakure history, Naruto,” he points out. “We’re not going to let Kakashi walk up on stage and just wing this.

“That’s exactly what we should do,” Naruto answers. “We can’t beat Danzo on his turf. He’s a sitting Kage. Everything he says and does will automatically carry the weight of the office of the Kage. He is disciplined. Too disciplined, maybe. Our polls show that although people respect him, they don’t find him relatable. Not someone they can talk to, voice their concerns—”

“Get a beer with,” Shikaku finishes easily under his breath. “You want to make Kakashi the people’s man? He polls highest on national security and defense. People look at him and they want him to be the commander they know him to be.” 

“They want him to be a commander,” Naruto presses, sitting down next to Shikaku now so that he can make his whispered argument more comfortably. “So let him be that. Let’s not try and make him into a scripted politician. Danzo can do that. Danzo can show up to the debate and pontificate and lecture and debate all he wants. But Kakashi can just talk to them. Let him treat it like a town hall.”

 Shikaku’s gaze drifts to a spot in over Naruto’s shoulder. “Your father never did well with scripts.”

“So get rid of the damn script,” Naruto insists. 

Shikaku raises an eyebrow. “You wrote most of the script, Naruto. You sure you want to throw out all your—”

“Oi, I’m trying to debate here,” Shikamaru calls out from the front of the room. “If you have something to say, speak up, Uzumaki.” 

Shikaku clears his throat. “We’re going to try something different,” he announces. “Kakashi, we’re going to put the talking points aside for a moment. If you get a question, I want you to treat it like a town hall, but with a time limit. Don’t answer as if you’re talking to Danzo, answer as if you’re talking to a person asking you the question. A citizen, not the moderator. Not Danzo. Forget Danzo, all right? Don’t bother highlighting the contrasts between you and him. We don’t care about that anymore. Pretend Danzo isn’t even on stage.”

Kakashi raises an eyebrow. “We couldn’t have thought of this before I memorized all these?” He asks, holding up a sheaf of papers.

“It’s good practice,” Shikaku counters neatly. “Let’s start from the top.” 

The improvement is not immediate, but it becomes more and more apparent as the questions roll on. Kakashi leans against the podium, gesturing with just a single hand like he usually does when he’s talking to someone face-to-face. He tilts his head curiously while Shikamaru talks, and then returns so mildly with his counterargument that it sometimes borders on insulting. When it comes to questions on national security and war, though, Kakashi truly shines. “I have fought this war,” he says, voice like gravel. “I have seen the battlefields. I was discharged with honor, but the truth is that I disobeyed an order from my CO. The lives of my men are my responsibility, and I could not in good conscience send them to fight a war that is not worth fighting.” 

The truth is that Kakashi marched to the front lines by himself, but he ordered down all his men from following him. I cannot allow you to follow me, he’d told them, and walked, solitary, across the field. He’d been captured when he got to the other side, made prisoner of war for an excruciating six months. When he was released, he resigned as General—but the public knows the truth, which was that Danzo fired him. They are in peacetime now, but Danzo is already calling for another campaign. He has enough support in the capital that they might declare war again on the Tsuchikage. 

“I have had enough war for a lifetime,” Kakashi says, looking out into the middle distance. His shoulders are a rigid line, and there’s a sharpness to his gaze. In the slanting afternoon sun, the scar running over his eye is almost silver, like his hair. “I promise you that I will fight for this peace. It is the only battle worth fighting for.”

Kiba forgets to ask his follow-up question in the silence that follows. Shikaku clears his throat and gets to his feet. “We’ll call that a day,” he announces, turning to the staff. “Take the rest of the day off.”  

It’s barely past two in the afternoon; Naruto had been expecting that debate prep would take hours and last well into the evening. But there is no point in practicing anymore. Kakashi will be fine. 

Shikaku, Asuma, and Hiashi cluster around Kakashi, talking intently. The rest of the staff start to dissipate, blinking at the sunlight and confused as to what to do with this newfound freedom. Kiba makes plans to go for a trail run, and Shino signs on. Shikamaru and Chouji decide to go for hanging out with hot alcoholic drinks on the porch by the lake, which draws the most followers. Neji turns to Naruto with a smile, “You coming, Naruto?” 

Naruto takes a deep breath. He has a million and one things left to do. He has dragged his feet on some tasks, and they will be overdue soon if he doesn’t attend to them. He’s been staying up all hours of the night to keep abreast of his responsibilities because a campaign is never ending. But if he works through this day, he might be able to get a good night’s rest for once. He swallows on his disappointment and says, “I’m going to get some work done. I’ll meet up with you guys when I can.” 

It takes another five minutes for Naruto to extract himself from the disappointed, oh come on, Naruto, live a little, stop being such a workaholic . But then, he’s finally free to pack up his laptop and notebooks, pull his messenger bag over his shoulder and head back up the trail towards the main cabin areas. He’s so lost in thought that it takes him a moment to realize the echo to the sound of his feet. 

Sasuke is following him, diligent as ever. Naruto stops walking and Sasuke does as well, maintaining the same distance he always does. Like everyone, he’s wearing informal clothes, but for the Secret Service, this means jeans, a long-sleeved Henley, and his weapons holster in plain view. He’s wearing boots that look like he can both launch into pursuit and kick the shit out of anyone he so chooses. 

To hell with it, Naruto decides, and takes a breath. “I owe you an apology.” Sasuke keeps watching him, so Naruto soldiers on. “My behavior last night was out of line. It was inappropriate, and I completely understand if you no longer feel comfortable being on my protective duty. If you’d like, I can talk to my father. Or you can talk to him yourself. I also understand if you feel like you need to report me, or file an official complaint of any kind. Either way, I’ll respect your decision.” 

“All right,” Sasuke says. 

“All right,” Naruto echoes, and turns on his heels to keep walking. Sasuke continues to shadow him. Naruto grits his teeth and ignores Sasuke’s presence as best as he can. He hikes out beyond the cabins, curving up a hill to find a supposed picnic spot on the brochure. He finds the place easily enough, and it’s a stunning view, with a full panorama of the lake beyond. He can see his friends on the shore, a few dots lounging along the shore of the lake where someone has started a fire. There is a picnic bench overrun with fall leaves, and Naruto pushes them aside to sets up his laptop, legal pad, and cell phone again, and sits down to work.

It’s impossible. Sasuke is hovering. He does a careful loop around the area, looking so intently into the woods beyond that he pauses for a few long moments at each vantage point. He stands for a long while at one spot, and then slowly moves to the next. He does this over and over again until Naruto can’t think straight anymore.  

Naruto slams down his pen and rounds on him. “What are you doing?” 

“My job,” Sasuke enunciates carefully, as if speaking to a particularly slow child.

Naruto takes a deep breath. He should let things be, he knows, but he can’t hold his tongue if his life depended on it. “So that’s it? You just go back to doing your job, and we just pretend like it never happened?” 

Sasuke arches an eyebrow. “I’m just taking a page out of your playbook,” he counters. He pauses a beat and adds, as an aftermath, “Sir.” 

The condescension layered in that one word makes Naruto see red. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” 

Sasuke doesn’t answer, just rotates again to another spot. Naruto returns to his work. He lasts for a full three minutes before his patience wears thin again. “What did you mean by taking a page out of my playbook?” 

“It meant nothing,” Sasuke answers neatly, and keeps scanning the surroundings methodically. A few seconds at each degree of observation so he is constantly surveying the full horizon. 

“Clearly, it meant something, so—”

“Leave it, Naruto,” Sasuke interrupts tersely.

It’s the first time that he’s never said Naruto’s name aloud. He speaks directly to Naruto, and sometimes says, Sir. The first time Naruto called him Special Agent Uchiha, he’d offered easily, You can call me Sasuke, sir. And Naruto had been doing just that. He hasn’t realized how lopsided the whole arrangement had been until just now, when Sasuke bothered to use his name. 

It makes the roiling guilt and shame in his stomach even more acute. “I’m sorry,” Naruto offers, turning in his seat so that he’s looking at Sasuke directly. “I was so out of line last night. I shouldn’t have—that was so inappropriate. I can’t even begin to imagine—”

“Spare me your fucking apology,” Sasuke snarls. It’s the sudden viciousness of his anger that makes Naruto fall silent. He clenches his hands into fists and stays silent because Sasuke has every right to react with anger. Naruto hadn’t just propositioned him, he’d been crass about it. “I don’t need a goddamn sympathy fuck from you. And I certainly don’t need your fake apologies after the fact.” 

A sympathy fuck? Naruto stares at him. “I wasn’t—”

“I’ll do my job because the General asked me,” Sasuke finishes. “So yes, let’s pretend nothing happened. That seems like the best solution to this shit show.” 

He turns his gaze away from Naruto and back to the surroundings again. Naruto swallows and breathes and swallows again against the humiliation of the moment. Finally, he turns back to his work. 

The dial groups on the bottom of the screen keep rising and rising as Kakashi speaks throughout the debate. By the end of it, conservatives are leaning heavily towards Kakashi on key issues like national security and the war. He even chips into Danzo’s leverage on topics like the economy. The contrast between the two candidates is stark:

Danzo in a suit so perfectly cut that Naruto feels he could cut himself against a crisp, standing with perfect posture, and looking regal in his authority as a sitting Kage. Kakashi is handsome as ever in navy-blue suit and slate-gray tie. He leans against the podium while he listens to Danzo talk, and he maintains that slouch even as he speaks. He stands up straighter when he’s making a serious point, and he looks easily into the camera or at the audience when he answers. Danzo speaks in perfectly practiced political statements; Kakashi speaks in simpler terms, the honesty and integrity of his character underlying every statement he makes. I’m not a politician, he admits at one point, and Naruto watches with a grin as the dial groups tune up their approval of the statement in a sharp spike. 

Danzo, to his credit, does not cede ground easily. He presses Kakashi at every turn, and even in instances where Kakashi is clearly emerging as the victor, he behaves as he has won the round. In the end, they both shake hands, and the families join them on stage. Sakura gives Kakashi a lingering hug and kiss on the cheek, and Naruto leans in to do the same. He holds them both close, one arm around each, and looks down at them with mock seriousness. “How’d I do, progeny?” 

“You were perfect,” Sakura says with a smile, and Naruto can do nothing but agree with her. Kakashi holds their hands, only letting go to wave once or twice at the audience—still standing, continuing the ovation—before exiting stage left. 

Danzo runs into them backstage. He holds out a hand for Kakashi, and they shake again. “Well done, General.” 

“You too, sir,” Kakashi returns easily. He indicates Sakura and Naruto. “These are my children, Naruto and Sakura.” 

Danzo shakes each of their hands in turn, eyes crinkling with a smile. “I’ve heard great things about your children, Kakashi,” Danzo compliments. There is something stilted about him, as if he’s practiced how to act like a normal human being. “They are as beautiful and accomplished as they are reputed to be.” 

“I try my best to spoil them,” Kakashi says. 

Danzo returns the smile. “I look forward to our next debate, Kakashi,” he says. “Have a good evening, all of you.” 

“And you,” Kakashi says, and watches him walk away.

Sakura wrinkles her nose. “I don’t like him,” she mutters under her breath, and Naruto can’t help but agree.

Kakashi makes a brief speech to the staff, congratulating them all on their hard work. He tells them to go home, get some food, and some much-deserved rest. The family dinner is at a restaurant this time, a family-owned place that Sakura picks after much fretting over Yelp ratings. The four stars are well earned, and they linger over a meal, talking about everything and anything but politics. Sakura updates them both on her rotations, her attending physician, and her classmates. She even drops a hint to Kakashi about a boy named Lee. 

“Who?” Kakashi demands, becoming suddenly alert. 

“Rock Lee,” Sakura says calmly, taking another small bite of her ice-cream. “He’s a PhD student in the School of Pharmacy. I went to a grand rounds and met him—”

“What? When? How long has this been going on?” Kakashi demands, rounding on Naruto. “Did you know about this?” 

Naruto holds Kakashi’s gaze steady and lies through his teeth. “This is news to me. I have no idea what she’s talking about.” 

“Sure you don’t,” Kakashi mutters. He indicates Naruto with a desert spoon. “Anything you’d like to confess? A boy I don’t know about?”

Sakura sniggers. “Naruto’s love life is such a train wreck, Baba, you don’t even want to know the kind of dumpster fires he manages to start every time he gets two drinks in—” She ends her sentence with Ow, when Naruto kicks her under the table. He can feel Sasuke’s gaze boring holes into the back of his neck, but he keeps his gaze locked on Kakashi. 

“No boy,” he says. “Just plain old me.” 

Kakashi narrows his eyes. “I should have locked you both up in a convent,” he grouses, and returns his attention to his ice-cream, which he stabs into with great vigor. “Change the topic, please.”

Sakura arches an eyebrow at Kakashi, but faithfully obliges their father. 

Later, after the bill has been paid, and Kakashi yields to all the handshakes and congratulations from the other patrons and waiting staff about his debate performance, they pile into the car and head back to the hotel. Sakura’s flight back to the capital is early in the morning, and she spends the ride tucked up against Kakashi, gripping his hand tight. 

Kakashi recognizes her mood for what it is, and tells her in a low voice that the campaign will soon be over, and he’ll be home soon. “And when you win?” Sakura demands, lifting her head up from his shoulder. 

When, Naruto notices, not if. Sakura’s faith in Kakashi is so persistent she does not even comprehend the odds they’re fighting against. No sitting Kage has ever been voted out of office, certainly not by one of the Kage’s own Generals. 

“Nothing changes,” Kakashi promises her, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Dinner every night together, breakfasts on weekends, Thursday movie nights, and family summer vacations. All of that stays the same.” 

“You’ll be Kage,” Sakura points out.

“Exactly. Which means that if I win, I can work from home,” Kakashi points out with a chuckle, which is technically true. They’ll live in the Hokage Tower, and Kakashi will work there, too. 

When you win, not if,” Sakura mutters under her breath, and steps out of the car when Sasuke opens the door for her. They part ways at the elevators again, with Kakashi and Sakura going back to their rooms to sleep, while Naruto lingers to work downstairs. He wishes Kakashi goodnight, hugs Sakura and tells her to text him when she lands safely in Konoha, and sets off in search for the business lounge. Sasuke follows him quietly. They haven’t spoken a single word to each other since their argument, and now, Naruto is used to his stony silence.

Kakashi has booked them into a hotel using his own money, so the business lounge is an extravagant space. There is a coffee maker and snacks in one corner, along with sleek furniture and modern desk lamps. There a TV flat against the far side of the wall, and Naruto turns it onto the KNN, watching as pundits dissect and unravel Kakashi’s success. The chyron reads, Hatake Kakashi exceeds expectations at first debate showing. He listens idly to two opposing pundits from either end of the political spectrum give their opinions on specific questions and talking points while he makes himself a cup of coffee.

Naruto deposits his belongings at the table closest to the windows overlooking the city beyond. The debate was held in one of the port cities, and Naruto can see the docks from where he stands, and the blinking lights of the ships beyond. He watches the city, and he watches Sasuke’s reflection in the mirror, doing his usual survey of the room. They might never talk to each other again, Naruto thinks, and bites down on the disappointment of that. He had started to look forward to Sasuke’s odd, halting conversations. Something about the way Sasuke holds himself still when Naruto talks, like he’s actually listening—without making Naruto feel self-conscious that maybe he’s talking too much, maybe no one wants to hear what he wants to say. And something about the way Sasuke stands, the way he occupies space next to Naruto, makes Naruto feel…

Settled. Every minute of every hour and every day is a blur ever since this campaign started, but with Sasuke, Naruto notices the way time moves. Almost as if he can stand still with Sasuke, hear the seconds tick by without worrying about what comes next. He’d even tried it once in an elevator. Sasuke had been talking about how to level a horse’s hoof with a rasp (Naruto had asked after watching a rousing advertisement for a local ferrier on TV while they were in District 11, and Sasuke, apparently a farm boy extraordinaire, obliged with measured answers). Naruto listened to Sasuke talk, shifted the weight of his feet so he was lilting towards Sasuke’s body and the heat he gives off like a furnace at all times, and Sasuke interrupted himself to asked, Cold, again?

And Naruto nodded, just the once, and Sasuke had stepped just a fraction closer, turning to face Naruto more fully so that Naruto’s shoulder was just touching his chest. Naruto counted thirty-seven seconds of them standing together like that, watched the numbers on the elevator tick up: 4, 5, 6. They had to get to the 19th floor, and just then Naruto pointed out, There’s no elevator music

I like the quiet, Sasuke had answered, and Naruto felt the rumble of his answer through shoulder, down his spine. Naruto counted each floor that passed in quiet, felt weightless and settled, warm with Sasuke just there. But the elevator rumbled to a halt at 16, and just before the doors opened to let someone into that cocoon of stillness around them, Sasuke—

Stepped away.

Naruto looks over his shoulder at Sasuke, who has returned to his usual post by the door: feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped behind him, gaze on his surroundings. He has stopped sitting at tables across Naruto, which Naruto only now realizes is unusual for a secret service member to do. Karin, Jugo, and Suigetsu never sat with him at a table. None of them returned his gaze. Naruto never caught any of them watching him thoughtfully, like he was worth consideration of some kind. 

Sasuke barely looks at him now, so Naruto turns away before he can get caught looking. He drinks the coffee quietly for a few long moments before taking a deep breath and returning to the desk to get some work done. They have two campaign stump speeches to give the next day, along with a sit down with the largest newspaper for a free-ranging interview. It’s fortuitous that the scheduling coincided on the day after the debate; they can capitalize on some of the momentum during both the stump speeches and the interview itself. The trick is to keep building on the momentum, so Naruto pulls up the speeches and adds in language about the debate performance, pulling in references to Danzo’s answer that will help them make their own case.

He sends the updated draft to Hiashi with the new edits highlighted, and gets a response within a few moments saying that Naruto should further emphasize Danzo’s utter lack of solutions for the country’s dwindling resources. Make note that farmers and ranchers are suffering the drain of tax money. So Naruto spends the next thirty minutes strengthening the wording, muttering it aloud to himself over and over again until it captures Kakashi’s natural cadences and speech patterns. Kakashi speaks as if he’s on a battlefield sometimes; he rounds off eloquent one-liners that can be slogans all on their own. 

That is the exact tone Naruto wants to capture as he writes: “War is not a future for our country or a solution to the problems that ail us. Peace is the way forward. Peace for our children, and our children’s children. The battle is not on the frontlines against the Land of Earth. The battle is here, within our borders. For peace and prosperity, for life and liberty, the way our founding fathers envisioned us moving forward.”

He sits back with a sigh, says to the bright computer screen, “It’s asymmetrical.” He heaves another breath. It’s asymmetrical, sloppy. Lacking finesse, like he’d strung together trite, hackneyed sentences Kakashi has said before on the campaign without any thought to structure or forward momentum. Amateur. “God damn it.” 

His cursor blinks back at him, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. He finishes around one in the morning and emails it to senior staff for approval with a pit in his stomach that they will notice just how bad his draft is. By the time he gets back to his hotel room, the coffee starts to kick in, and he can’t envision falling asleep. So he changes into swimming suit, wraps a robe around himself, and heads to the pool—surrounded on all sides by windows overlooking the city below, heated to just the right temperature, and with vents in the cavernous ceilings so the place doesn’t smell like chlorine. 

He swam all through college and law school, but ever since the campaign started, he’s barely been able to carve out time for himself. He sets an alarm for forty minutes, and dives neatly into the pool. By the fourth lap, his mind blanks out, and by the fifth, it’s just the steady rise and fall of his hands, the rhythmic kick of his feet, and the lungful of air he gets when he turns his face out of the water. At the end of every lap, Naruto pushes off the wall and stays swimming underwater as long as he can before he re-emerges on the surface. When he hears the alarm of his clock go off, Naruto slows to a stop and braces himself against the pool, tugging off his goggles to check his phone. Hiashi has responded to the updated draft. As always, his email is succinct, Good work

“It's not good work,” Naruto says aloud to his phone screen. “It’s asymmetrical.” 

There’s only one person who can snap him out of a slump like this in his writing, so he forwards the draft to Tenten with a subject line of I am losing my mind. He’s tapping out an email one handed when the phone slips out of his grip and falls into the water. 

“Oh, god damn it,” Naruto grumbles, and dives after it, watching as it settles languidly against the floor. It must be the exhaustion, but Naruto settles, cross-legged on the floor with the phone in hand, which is still somehow functioning. He’d heard the new versions of the phones were water resistant, but here it is, proof. He turns on the camera, takes a watery selfie and sends it to Sakura, typing out, Sending you a message from underwater. There is never a metaphor that I will not beat to death. 

Then, he adds, We should buy iPhone stock. It’s still getting Wi-Fi down here.

He returns to the task of sending the email to Tenten when his lungs start to tingle and he realizes he’s still under water. It must be the exhaustion, he thinks, or maybe the instinct over all these past months to work, work, and keep working or maybe a combination of both. There is no other explanation for how he settled on the bottom of a swimming pool and gotten right back to the task at hand. 

He’s about to kick back to the surface when there’s a splash overhead and Sasuke is diving towards him, his grip on Naruto’s arm fierce as he tugs Naruto back towards the surface. They sputter to the surface at the same time. “Are you insane?” Naruto asks, because Sasuke is dripping wet, clad fully in his suit and tie still. He hadn’t even bothered to take off his weapon. 

“Are you?” Sasuke demands back just as loudly. “Do you know how long you were under there?” 

“I was sending an email!” Naruto yells back, waving his phone around in the air. 

Sasuke stares at him. “Underwater?” 

Naruto flushes. He’s insane. He’s certifiable now. “Sometimes if I don’t do tasks, I forget. So I have to do them right away.”

“Underwater,” Sasuke repeats, incredulous. 

“Wherever!” Naruto counters hotly and levers himself out of the pool, muttering under his breath about how he was on the swim team, and he held his school’s record, and he was a district champion, so he doesn’t need rescuing, thank you very much

Sasuke drips miserably onto the floor on the entire ride back up the elevator, and then leaves a trail of water around Naruto’s room while he does a sweep. He looks pathetic, with his drenched tie and squelching shoes. Naruto has no choice but to finally yield to his laughter, pressing his face into a towel to hide the sounds because Sasuke is glaring at him, damp hair sticking to his forehead. “The room is clear,” he announces. 

Naruto steps inside and holds the door open for Sasuke, who steps back outside. He’s about to leave—he doesn’t say good night anymore when he hands off his night shift to his coworkers—but Naruto halts him before he can. “Wait a minute,” he says, and moves quickly into the bathroom for a fresh towel. The Secret Service takes the rooms a floor above or below the candidate and their protectees, so Sasuke still has a miserable elevator ride and walk down a long corridor to his rooms. 

Naruto holds out the towel for Sasuke, who stares at it for a few heartbeats before finally accepting it. He lingers a moment longer, gripping the towel tight before saying, halting, “The speech sounded just fine. At least the parts you were reading aloud earlier. It was—stop being so harsh on yourself all the time.” 

Naruto twists his fingers into his own towel. “I can’t screw this up for Baba.” 

Sasuke rubs the towel over his hair, which makes his hair stick up unruly spikes. “You won’t screw it up. If anyone screws it up, it will be the voters.”

Naruto digs his fingers into the groove of the door’s lock. Rubs a finger back and forth as if he’s trying to peel the metal off the wood. It makes a harsh sound in the silence between them. “I’m my father’s senior speech writer. It’s my job to convey his message in a way that connects with voters, and at this point, I don’t even know how to string together a single symmetrical paragraph let alone—”

“Naruto,” Sasuke says, the way he always says Naruto’s name. Like a stone dropping, low and balanced. Naruto—stops. He lifts his gaze from the door lock and meets Sasuke’s gaze. For once, Sasuke looks back at him. It feels like a balm to a wound, having the weight of his gaze again. It’s almost physical, as palpable as if Sasuke had reached across and rested a hand against Naruto’s cheek. 

What’s happening, Naruto wants to ask. He doesn’t know what that feeling in his chest is. “It really sounded all right?”

Sasuke’s lips curve up, lopsided. He drapes the towel over his shoulders. “Yeah. It was fine.”

“And you’re not just saying that so I stop being so—”

“Neurotic?” Sasuke finishes neatly. His smile has become teasing, almost a smirk. 

It’s makes Naruto’s face flush the way it always does. “Stop making fun of me,” Naruto warns, but even he can hear that there is no threat behind the words. He leans against the door; he is always in need of something to lean against whenever he’s the sole focus of Sasuke’s attention and gentle teasing like this. “I know I can be a bit... much, but you don’t have to make fun of me for it.”

Sasuke shifts forward, just a fraction. His brows are furrowed, but Naruto can’t tell if it’s anger, frustration, or something else. He hasn’t been able to pin down all of Sasuke’s expressions yet. He wants to learn them, but there hasn’t been enough time. They speak, at most, a handful of minutes a few times a day. They’ve never spent enough time together, alone, for Naruto to know what the tight set of Sasuke’s shoulders mean. “I’m not making fun of you. You’re not a bit much or a bit less or anything else. You’re—”

He stops talking abruptly, gaze swiveling towards the man stalking down the hallway. Sasuke’s replacement for the next shift. The man nods once at Sasuke, and takes a spot a few feet down the hallway to give Sasuke and Naruto some privacy. 

Usually, Sasuke leaves immediately once his replacement arrives, but Naruto holds his gaze and for once, Sasuke stays rooted to the spot.  

I don’t know what you’re doing, Naruto almost says. I don’t know what I'm doing. All that comes out is, “I’m what?” Sasuke’s face is unreadable as always. Naruto moves towards him with a sigh. “Sasuke, please, just say something—”

Sasuke shifts back on one foot and says, pointedly, “Good night, sir.” 

Naruto exhales. He glances at the secret service agent a few feet away. It’s the man’s job to stand there, but Naruto resents him for it anyways. “Good night, Special Agent.”

When Naruto closes the door, Naruto can hear the other secret service agent and Sasuke talking, low-pitched voices, and a laugh. It’s not Sasuke’s laughter, though. He knows what that sounds like, and this isn’t it. 

They’re riding the high of the second debate victory when the news breaks. It’s all over the television screens. Not newsworthy or relevant, the pundits say. Danzo puts out a statement saying that whoever it is that leaked the pictures has crossed a line. The children of candidates are never fair game for smear tactics, the statement reads, but Naruto can’t analyze the semantics of Danzo’s perfectly worded statement because he’s too busy staring at the pictures, four of them:

It’s of him and Sasuke. 

Pressed up against each other outside a bank of elevators. Sasuke is clutching Naruto close, dipping his head to press their lips together in one picture. In the second picture, he’s pressing his face against Naruto’s neck, with Naruto tilting his face back with a smile. There is a third picture of Naruto pushing himself up on his toes to get closer to Sasuke, the two of them with their foreheads pressed close smiling. The fourth and final picture is the most salacious, leaving no doubt as to what followed: Sasuke lifting Naruto up a few inches off the ground with a hand around Naruto’s waist, as he’s walking them both back into the elevator, the two of them kissing still, so that Sasuke is groping for the elevator door. 

Hatake Kakashi’s son and speechwriter caught having affair with married Secret Service Agent, the ticker reads, and Naruto can do nothing but stare, sharing in the stunned silence of those around him, because he remembers it now, finally—

The weight of Sasuke’s body on top of Naruto, the rasp of his beard against Naruto’s skin, the scrape of his chest hair along Naruto’s back. He remembers Sasuke’s rough grip on his hips, urging him onto his back so that he could look at Naruto, the way he’d murmured, Beautiful, and sunk back into Naruto with a groan. He’d approached Sasuke at the bar, said something stupid (What brings you to the capital?) and then pursued Sasuke so shamelessly throughout their conversation that they had no place to go but to Sasuke’s room. Naruto remembers throwing his head back on the pillow and moaning from the aching pleasure of it, the hot, thick length of Sasuke moving inside him relentlessly. 

He’d been drunk. He woke up next to a man, hidden mostly by sheets and a pillow over his head, and he’d snuck out because he’d seen the wedding ring and thought of nothing but escape. He didn’t remember any of it.  

Clearly, Sasuke had remembered. A page out of your playbook, he’d said, because he thought that Naruto was pretending their night together did not happen. He’d look at Sasuke in the eyes and asked him, What was your name again? 

But none of that—none of that—compares to having to stand next to Kakashi while the news is broken. His eyes are narrowed, shoulders such a rigid line of anger that Tenten takes a careful step away from him. 

Somebody (Kiba, Naruto realizes) has the presence of mind to turn off the television, and finally, the footage stops playing. 

“Get me Danzo,” Kakashi snarls. “Get me Danzo on the phone, right the fuck now—”

“Kakashi, let’s step outside for a minute,” Hiashi offers, stepping in neatly. He uses his body to guide Kakashi out the door and into an adjoining room. They’re in the presidential suites of a hotel in the southwestern part of the country, for a major campaign stop in a southern steel town to give Kakashi the venue to make a policy speech on creating jobs in the era of automatization. They had been rolling out the event as a major policy speech, had been working on it for weeks now, and then this happens. Hiashi keeps cajoling Kakashi out of the room, talking quietly over Kakashi’s furious insistence that he talk to Danzo at this very moment. “Let’s take a deep breath—”

The door closes on them, and Naruto lets out a shuddering breath. A few moments later, he hears Kakashi thunder, “—my son! That is my child! Get me the son of a bitch on a fucking phone—” 

“Naruto,” Ino says, pressing close to his side. “We need to work on a statement. Now.” 

I was drunk, his wife left him, I didn’t remember. 

None of that is a statement. 

“Of course,” Naruto says, and follows Ino stiffly out of the room. She shuts the door behind them, just as Shikamaru is saying, “Get me Special Agent Uchiha Sasuke. Now.” 

Ino guides Naruto to his own bedroom at the opposite end of the expansive suites that Kakashi has commandeered for this visit. She shuts the door behind them, pushes Naruto onto his bed, and procures a glass of water which she presses into his hand. Naruto takes exactly two sips before Ino begins doing her job. “Are you still sleeping with him?” 

Naruto takes a breath. “No.” 

“How many times did you sleep with him?” 

“Once,” he answers. The rest of the words come tumbling out. “I was drunk, and I didn’t remember who it was. I didn’t realize he was married. I woke up, saw the wedding ring, didn’t see his face, and just left.” 

Ino is tapping away on her phone as he speaks. Naruto watches her and adds, “He has children, Ino. They’re old enough to watch the news. His wife left him three years ago. He never got divorced, and he wears his ring because he doesn’t know if his wife is alive, and he doesn’t want his kids to think that she’s—”

“Tenten and I will take care of it,” she interrupts neatly, and looks up from her phone. “I need to know. Are there any feelings involved in this?” 

“No,” Naruto answers. Naruto doesn’t realize it’s a lie until he’s said the word aloud. He sometimes counts the hours in a day until Sasuke will slip out of his duties for long enough to stop saying sir and say his name in the way he does. 

Ino’s eyes narrow. “Naruto.”

“No,” Naruto insists. “Please, can we just leave it at no?”

Ino tilts her head. Her long ponytail slips over her shoulder and settles again neatly. “Stay off your phone. Don’t talk to anyone. Take the day off.” 

The relief is overwhelming. She has always been such a steadfast friend, but he has never appreciated her more than now. “Thanks.” 

Ino sighs, but doesn’t say anything else. She blows out of the room a moment later.

Naruto sits in the silence that follows. His phone is buzzing constantly, but just before he turns of it off, the screen flashes. It’s Sakura’s smiling face. He slides to answer, and her face appears, looking worried. She’s at home for the day already, backlit by the familiar setting of their kitchen. It makes Naruto acutely homesick to realize he hasn’t even been home in months now. He’s been living out of a suitcase in hotels across the country, and he’d made a stupid, irreparable mistake in a fit of insanity in the lobby of one of them. Now, all of Kakashi’s hard work—all of the entire campaign’s hard works—seems ready to be derailed. 

“Oh, sweetheart,” she breathes.

Naruto lies down on the bed and holds the phone in front of him. “Baba was in the room,” he says. “He was standing right next to me when the news broke.”

“I’m on my way,” Sakura promises him, and keeps talking as she starts to pack. Eventually, she has to hang up to catch her flight. Naruto turns off his phone, takes a shower, and then crawls into bed, curling up into a small ball to contain his own spiraling thoughts. It’s hours before Kakashi finds him, and he comes bearing food. 

“I have your favorite,” he says from the doorway. “Ichiraku Ramen.” 

Naruto pushes his face into the pillows. There is only one Ichiraku Ramen and that is all the way in the capital. Which means Kakashi had it flown over here. It got here faster than Sakura did, which is the level of pampering and extravagance that Naruto is used to. But today, he turns it away because Kakashi’s gesture somehow makes everything worse. He’s trying to cheer up Naruto, when the reality is that Naruto is the one who screwed everything up by being stupid. “I’m not hungry.” 

The bed dips under Kakashi’s weight. “You’ve been losing weight since the campaign started, Naruto,” he bargains, pressing a hand against Naruto’s shoulder. “Just a bite. For me.”

For me, he says, and those words will always make Sakura and Naruto yield, no matter what the circumstances. 

Naruto emerges from the dark cocoon of his covers, and Kakashi lays out his bounty between them. Naruto gets through half his order of miso ramen before the sting in his eyes gets too great and each blink results in a fat teardrop crawling down his cheeks. 

No, he’d lied to Ino. He feels like an idiot.

Kakashi sighs and puts aside his carton of food. “Come here,” he says, and Naruto crawls across the expanse of the bed to reach him, sobbing, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I was so stupid. He can’t tell if he’s apologizing for the campaign or for something else, but at this moment, it’s just a tight feeling in his chest that is too large for him to hold.

Kakashi holds him against his chest and rocks him lightly back and forth like when he did when Naruto was just a child. Naruto would object, but it is strangely comforting. Eventually, Naruto’s heaving breaths finally settle. 

“I should resign,” Naruto offers. “I need to resign.” 

“The hell you will,” Kakashi grumbles, rubbing a hand on Naruto’s back. “If you leave, all my speeches will start to sound like doomsday proclamations again.” 

“I didn’t know he was married. I’m not the kind of person to wreck a marriage,” Naruto says. “He isn’t even married anymore. His wife left him and—”

“There are some things that I wish to never discuss with my children,” Kakashi interrupts. “Very high on that list is their dating history. I certainly don’t want to see pictures of my children engaging in…doing things.” 

Naruto lifts his face up from Kakashi’s chest, frowning. For a man who survived his own sex scandal just a few months ago, Kakashi has always been oddly uncomfortable about the topic around Naruto and Sakura. “It was four pictures of us kissing, we weren’t even—”

“I don’t want to hear it,” Kakashi interrupts hurriedly. “We’re going to pretend that I have not seen or heard anything or come to any conclusions thereafter.” 

Lord God above, Naruto realizes with dawning horror, Kakashi must still think—“I’m not a kid anymore, Baba. I’m going to be twenty-five years old in a few months.”

“I’ve had bullet wounds less painful than this moment,” Kakashi grits out. “Eat your food.” 

Naruto returns to his food, which is now lukewarm but still tasty. Around a mouthful, he asks, “What? No talk of birds and bees?” Kakashi nearly chokes on his own bite, so Naruto adds, grinning still, “Or in my case, birds and birds. Or maybe bees and bees. I never understood which gender was the birds and which was the bees. And if you think about it, the fact that the whole thing is advocating interspecies—”

“You’re grounded,” Kakashi interrupts, “until you’re thirty.” 

“Sure thing,” Naruto says easily, because Kakashi has made that exact same threat countless times before. They’ve settled in to watch black-and-white movies on the TV in Naruto’s room when Sakura finally arrives. She crawls into bed on Kakashi’s other side and settles in with a sigh. Naruto and Sakura fall asleep with their heads pillowed on Kakashi’s chest, curling into him like they did when they were children and still small enough that Kakashi could carry them both, one in each arm.

Sasuke gets fired. The Secret Service puts out a statement saying that he is under suspension until further review, but that essentially boils down to a firing. He had crossed over every single professional guidelines by sleeping with Naruto, and then failing to disclose the encounter after he was assigned the task of protecting Naruto. For a man like Sasuke, someone who takes such pride in his work—work that he was given after a recommendation from Hatake Kakashi himself—it is a mistake that boggles Naruto’s mind. 

“But why didn’t you disclose it?” Naruto demands, watching Sasuke pack his belongings. When he heard news of Sasuke’s suspension, he’d snuck down to the floor where the Secret Service agents are housed, and ignored the blistering glare that Karin threw his way in favor of tracking down Sasuke. “I was too drunk to remember, but if I had, I would have—”

“I just didn’t, alright?” Sasuke interrupts, pushing his suits into his duffel without much care for wrinkling them. He’s wearing his usual informal clothing: jeans and a Henley, this time the sleeves rolled up so Naruto can see all the tattoos on his body. He can’t believe he ever forgot Sasuke, no matter how drunk he’d been. “What’s done is done.” 

“But you must have recognized me,” Naruto insists, stepping further into the room. Secret Service agents share rooms, but Jugo had politely stepped out when Naruto showed up knocking on their door. “Why would even take me to bed if you knew that you might be asked to protect me somewhere down the line or—”

“For fuck’s sake, Naruto, would you give it a rest?” Sasuke snaps, rounding on Naruto. He’s holding a tie in his hand, crumbled up into a tight ball. “What’s done is done,” he repeats, wrangling his voice back into control. “I made a mistake. I made several. I’ll deal with the consequences.” 

The consequences are that Sasuke’s face is being splattered across the news—a picture of him when he’d enlisted in the army, and again, when he’d been drafted into the Secret Service. Every time the story airs, they start with the fact that Sasuke is married and has five children. They add as a footnote that Sasuke’s wife has left him three years ago, but leave the reason unsaid, making it seem that Sasuke is somehow to blame. 

Naruto read aloud a single statement in front of the flashing lights of the press corps, saying that he is taking a step back from the campaign for privacy, and that he would ask the press to please respect his decision. Kakashi had insisted that Naruto shouldn’t apologize, so he hadn’t. Naruto gets a week-long vacation from the campaign.

Sasuke, on the other hand, is being thrown out of a career. 

“This isn’t fair,” Naruto points out in the silence that settles. 

Sasuke zips up his duffel bag and throws it over his shoulder. “It’s what it is,” he announces. “I have a flight to catch.” 

Naruto takes a step back, moving aside so that Sasuke can push past him in the narrow entranceway to the door. Before he can leave, Naruto does what he has been wanting to do all these weeks and reaches out to Sasuke. He grips Sasuke lightly by the elbow, which is somehow enough to stop Sasuke in his tracks. “I should never have talked to you at that bar that night. I’m sorry.” 

Sasuke holds his gaze. “I’m not,” he says after a long moment. He doesn’t give Naruto enough time to respond, just opens the door and steps out with a quick, “Good luck with the campaign.” 

Naruto almost follows him out the door, but then his phone buzzes. In car waiting downstairs, Sakura tells him, which means it’s Naruto’s time now to step away from the campaign. It’s only for a week, and he’ll be working remotely on the major speeches, but he will not be seen with Kakashi for a few days. Shikaku had firmly insisted on this strategy even though Kakashi had railed and yelled himself hoarse that he will not yield to Danzo bullying his children this way. 

Still, Naruto is grateful for the chance to finally go home, if only for a week. Sakura holds his hand on the flight home, and when they finally get back to the capital, they order in greasy takeout, haul out two bottles of wine from the cellar, and set up Netflix. They binge through an entire season of Law & Order, yelling out Dun-dun every time the screen cuts to black and another location.

By the end of the night, they’re sprawled across the couches, too drunk and lazy to make it back up to their rooms, while Naruto mumbles an explanation of how he had parted ways with Sasuke. “And then he said, I’m not, and then rode off into the sunset with his broad shoulders. There wasn’t a horse or anything. Or a sunset. Just his shoulders. Which are very broad.” 

“I’m sensing a pattern,” Sakura slurs into her own pillow. “That has to do with broad shoulders.” 

Naruto hm-s under his breath. He vaguely remembers hooking a leg over said broad shoulders. “I mean, who does that? What does that even mean?”

“You should ask him,” Sakura suggests.

“I should,” Naruto agrees, and pulls out his phone to do just that. He scrolls down to Uchiha, a number he had been given in case of emergency. He taps on it and types out: 

What does that even mean

Realizing the grammatical error a moment later, he sends a second text: ?

“I asked him,” Naruto says decisively, and rolls onto his stomach. “I think we should drink more wine.” 

Sakura lifts her head. “I agree.”

Naruto pushes himself up blearily. “Let’s go find some.” 

“Let’s,” Sakura agrees, and they stumble down to the wine cellar for another bottle. 

The next morning, Naruto wakes up to four texts from Uchiha. Before he opens the texts, he changes the contact information so that it says Uchiha Sasuke in full. The first text was sent twenty minutes after Naruto’s nonsensical query. He doesn’t ask for clarification of the text, just asks, are you alright do not drive if drunk 

The next one reads: tell me where you are so I can send agents

The third is more succinct, and Naruto can almost hear Sasuke’s impatience in his mind when he reads it. It makes him smile: naruto answer me. 

The fourth and final one reads: jugo confirmed you and Sakura ok. no need to respond.

Naruto stares at the final text. No need to respond? As in, Naruto does not need to respond to his texts? “That’s stupid,” Naruto mutters, and types out: That’s stupid. 

He’s brushing his teeth and trying not to blink too much against the bright lights of the vanity in his bathroom when his phone buzzes with a text from Sasuke: what is

Naruto rolls his eyes and regrets it a moment later because it makes his hangover infinitely worse. He types out a long, detailed response about why Sasuke’s previous text was stupid— people respond to texts if they want to —and then types out another paragraph about his hangover. The sound of the texts being sent echoes in the bathroom, and Naruto sets aside his phone to go for a swim in their pool in the backyard. 

He returns from his swim to a message: respond if you want it’s fine

Grammar! Naruto thinks, and then texts it to Sasuke. Grammar! Why do people not bother with grammar on text? So Naruto tells Sasuke to clean-up his act and send full sentences, and please god, avoid hanging prepositions because this is the written word and it deserves some respect.

Sasuke responds: no 

And just like that, they start talking. His phone buzzes and vibrates throughout the day. Naruto always responds almost immediately to Sasuke because he’s compulsive and he’s used to rapid-fire responses on the campaign trail. Sasuke’s responses are always at least twenty minutes delayed, sometimes longer. He is as terse in his texts as he is in person, and at one point, comments that Naruto types very fast and a great deal. I’m a marvel of evolution, Naruto returns. My opposing thumbs have allowed me to thrive in this harsh world. It’s survival of the fittest. If I type fast enough, I will outlive the polar caps melting.

Sasuke responds ten minutes later with, haha 

Naruto stares at the text. Is he laughing? Or is it his usual sarcasm? It takes several moments for Naruto to respond, and the best he can come up with is, Wipe that smug smirk off your face, Uchiha

The response is immediate: not smirking 

The three dots linger on Naruto’s screen, and Naruto stares at it, waiting for the next line of text. But then, it disappears. 

Visual proof, Naruto types out, or I won’t believe you. 

He regrets the text a moment later, feeling his face get hot with embarrassment. He reads the text again to make sure, and realizes that yes, he had just asked Uchiha Sasuke for a selfie, like he might Sakura or one of his friends. Very, very carefully, Naruto sets down his phone and returns to the draft of the speech he’s working on. 

He manages to write out a single sentence in the twenty minutes it takes for Sasuke to respond. When his phone buzzes, Naruto grabs it in a rush and swipes open the text. It’s a selfie, but not just of Sasuke. Only half his face is visible. He’s tilted the phone at an angle to show the phalanx of children behind him, and the one strapped to his chest. 

They’re surrounded by apple trees in the background. Kakashi has climbed a ladder and is reaching for one, his two younger brothers holding the ladder steady while he does so. Mikoto is at the base of the ladder as well, looking like she’s about to climb up after Kakashi. 

Naruto feels his heart clench at the picture. Sasuke took his children apple picking. 

He zooms in carefully on all the pictures, including Yaese, even though only a portion of his face is visible. Sasuke’s eyebrow is arched in the picture, and his dark eye is staring straight at the camera. Naruto can see the hint of stubble on his jaw, but he’s barely in the picture to make out any more details. It’s his way of sharing his day with Naruto, the way he had shared pictures of his children and named them each with excruciating care. 

Looks fun, Naruto responds. I wish I was there.

He watches the three dots appear right away on screen. And then, Me too.