Kakashi is the very worst candidate in the history of politics, which means Naruto has no choice but to yield to his latent alcoholism and get hammered. The last time he had gotten this drunk, he had been in college, and after that highly entertaining episode, he had vowed never to get drunk again because so help him, he had a career to think about.
Said career is in the crapper because Hatake Kakashi, God help the man, is ten pounds of stupid in a five pound bag.
Naruto blinks awake the day after the story breaks about Kakashi’s various conquests—which is far more information than Naruto ever wanted to know about his own father—and says goodbye to politics. He was done in by a sex scandal. Hatake Kakashi’s sex scandal, which involved a series of pictures of Kakashi walking out of buildings in perfectly cut suits with a statuesque, stunning woman on his arm. Several stunning, statuesque women. They have thus far published pictures of nine of them, from the past year alone. It’s nothing salacious: not prostitutes, not foreign spies, none of that. Just Hatake Kakashi, unable to keep it in his pants. And because the general election involves voters who lean rich and conservative, the image of a sharply dressed military man with beautiful women hanging off his arms does not play well.
Which means Naruto will have to say goodbye to this campaign, goodbye to politics, and return with his tail between his legs to Jiraiya for his job back as a Junior Associate in Namikaze & Associates. He will yield to his biological father’s decree and spend the rest of his goddamn life protecting rich companies from lawsuits with liability clauses so indestructible that they now teach his litigation strategy to first year law students. It’s called the Uzumaki Clause, and Naruto rakes in a paycheck so massive for writing it out to various companies that he could retire when he hits twenty-five next year, and never want for anything.
He’d left it all behind for Hatake Kakashi because Sakura had turned off the TV in disgust after another one of Lord Shimura Danzo’s grating stump speeches and said, You know who’d make a fantastic Kage? Kakashi.
Two bottles of wine later, they had a campaign logo.
It’s the world’s smallest violin, Naruto knows, and he’s uncomfortable sharing these kinds of petty complaints with anyone but his sister or his best friend. Sakura is currently at the tail-end of an overnight shift. Hinata is wrangling Kakashi into a plane so that he may haul his sorry ass back to the capital. Since they are both unavailable, Naruto had broken all his rules and taken the opportunity to share all his woes with the colorful depths of cocktails at the hotel bar where Kakashi is due to arrive, not even caring that he might be recognized, because fuck it . A man deserves a goddamn drink sometimes. A drink with little umbrellas in it. Naruto collected an impressive amount of umbrellas last night.
So now, he wakes up, the day after Kakashi’s campaign is pronounced dead by every pundit on the news, in a strange bed in a strange hotel room next to a strange man who has far too many tattoos than Naruto has ever found appealing. All Naruto can see of this man is the left half of his back, which is impressively broad. The rest of him is hidden by sheets and the pillow over his head.
There is a knife wound, poorly healed, going down the man’s left flank, running dangerously close to his kidneys. There is the exit wound of a bullet—if Naruto were to guess, close range shot, not too high caliber—on his left shoulder. The bulging width of the man’s left arm, thrown over the pillow to keep it in place, is encircled by a burn wound. His left arm is covered with a geometric tattoo of stark lines, ending a few inches above his wrist. There is a second tattoo on his neck: three swirling dots.
He is wearing a wedding ring.
You lying, cheating, bastard, Naruto thinks viciously at the man. He carefully eases out of the bed, and winces at the ache between his legs. He doesn’t remember much of the night before, but apparently, he’d had fun. With a married man. You stupid, goddamn piece of shit, Uzumaki.
Naruto gathers his clothes as quickly as humanly possible, and slips out of the room, letting the door shut behind him on the quiet breathing of the man.
His cell phone has seventeen missed calls, and twice as many texts. He goes to the conversation with Hinata first, and feels his eyes go wide as he scrolls through her increasingly alarmed texts.
YOUR FATHER HAS GONE ROGUE, is the last text she sent him, along with a video.
“Lord God help me,” Naruto mutters, leaning back against the far wall of the elevator. It dings shut, and only then does Naruto tap the screen to open up the video, grainy footage with the Konohagare News Network logo on the bottom left. The caption reads, Hatake Kakashi opens up about breaking sex scandal.
“We can talk about how many women I took to bed last year, or the year before that. We can talk about who they are, where I met them, and what it is exactly that we did together,” Kakashi is saying to a reporter in his usual, nonchalant drawl. “But that’s beside the point.”
The reporter’s voice is tinny. “Then what is the point?”
“The point is,” Kakashi says, taking a deep breath. His voice gets quieter. “The point is I lost the love of my life when we were eighteen and fighting in the war together. Rin was…” He trails off, looking at a spot over the reporter’s shoulder so that he’s captured in profile. Naruto presses the phone close to his face, feeling his heart clench, because his father only ever looks like that when he’s alone—all sharp edges and brittle grief. “I’ve become jaded about these things,” Kakashi continues, as if talking to himself. A moment later, he blinks back to the camera.
“Were there women?” He asks the reporter. “Yes. How many? I’ve lost track. Do I remember all there names? Yes and no. Did I call any one of them back? No. Am I embarrassed or upset or angry that there are pictures?” He gives the camera rakish grin. “I couldn’t give a fuck.”
The video cuts off.
Naruto loves his father, he does, but sometimes he wants to hit the man . He decides to give a perfectly good interview full of actual, human emotion in a campaign characterized by robotic performances, and then pivots halfway through to resort to his usual, cocky self. He swore. On national television.
Naruto types back to Hinata, What.
Three dots appear a moment later. They blink on Naruto’s screen for an excruciatingly long moment. And then, Hinata’s response appears:
We’re up by eight points in the minute polls.
“Lord God,” Naruto mutters, letting his head fall back with a thunk. He blinks at the bright elevator lights overhead. “Lord God above, have mercy on me.”
The elevator dings and opens to utter chaos. Naruto takes a breath, and steps into it.
“Are you mad at me?” Kakashi asks, tipping Naruto’s chin up with a finger to peer closely at his face. “You seem mad at me, bubble toes.”
“I’m not mad at you, Kakashi,” Naruto says calmly, but he is. He is oh, so goddamn mad at Kakashi, he doesn’t even know what to say. They had secured the primary election against all odds as the underdog, and now that they’re officially the National Party’s nominee, Kakashi had decided to go completely off the goddamn rails and admit, in front of a town full of farmers, that he would be open to reconsidering subsidies on agricultural products. Naruto had nearly stroked out in the back row when Kakashi said the words aloud because a majority of the voters in the room depended on those subsidies for a living. When there was stunned silence, Kakashi explained to the audience, that the subsidies might look good on paper in the short-term, but really, they were payoffs to larger corporations that are lying in wait to take over smaller farmers. The original local farmer who had asked the question pointed out that he had children to feed.
Kakashi’s response? And what about your grandchildren?
He made good points. Naruto happens to agree with everything that Kakashi said in that room. He would, because he wrote the goddamn position paper on it for the campaign platform . But Kakashi was not supposed to say the words aloud in front of a room full of farmers. The more conservative news outlets are already skewering Kakashi for his disregard for the Land of Fire farmers, the bedrock of their nation’s wealth.
Naruto loves his father, he really does, but his anger is so acute now that he doesn’t even respond to Kakashi’s endearment for him: Bubble toes .
Kakashi arches an eyebrow. “I’m Kakashi now.”
“You’re my boss now,” Naruto snaps, pulling away from Kakashi, and still not looking up from his phone screen.
Kakashi turns his attention to Sakura. “Hey, petal, you mad at me, too?”
“Don’t talk to me,” Sakura returns easily, still staring intently at Naruto’s laptop. She’s not involved in the campaign, but they still spend all their dinners together as a family, and afterwards, she catches up on all that she has missed. Naruto still relies on Sakura as a sounding board—especially when Tenten, Neji, Hinata or Ino are unavailable as they are this evening—and right now, she’s reviewing Naruto’s draft of a speech.
Kakashi places a hand over his heart. “My children hurt me so,” he mourns, theatrical. He takes off his jacket and drapes it over the back of his chair, loosening the tie around his neck with a sigh. “Here I am, working hard all day, and my children can’t even take the time to look up from their phones—” Naruto and Sakura both look up at Kakashi at the same exact moment, gazes withering. Kakashi falters in his speech, but he recovers nicely. “We have a meeting.”
“No, we’re done for the day,” Naruto says, eyes returning to his phone. He’d blocked off the time to rework a major speech that Kakashi is slated to give to the Association of Farmers and Fisheries about protective tariffs. He’ll have to undo some of the damage Kakashi did in his town hall encounter.
Kakashi is already talking into the phone to his personal aide outside. “Send them in, thank you.” He places the phone back in his cradle considers Naruto and Sakura in their seats. “Now, I don’t want you to get upset,” he says, and that’s all the warning they get before four agents in dark suits files into the room.
They salute crisply to Kakashi, who waves it aside, nonchalant. “I’m a retired General, agents, we can dispense with the formalities.”
“Sir,” says a tall, dark-haired man in the center of the cluster, and falls into ease. The three agents flanked behind him follow suit. They are an odd group of people, mismatched in a way that does not fit with the Secret Service. One of them has silver hair, with blue-indigo eyes. Another is even taller than the dark-haired man, ginger-haired. There is a woman next to him with hair so red, it’s almost as bright as Sakura’s.
All of them are armed.
“Children,” Kakashi says, turning to Naruto and Sakura with a smile, “meet your protective detail.” He points to each one in turn: “That’s Special Agent Uchiha Sasuke, with his team, Agent Biratori Jugo, Agent Hozuki Suigetsu, and Agent Betsukai Karin. Agents, meet my children, Naruto and Sakura.”
Sakura is the first to recover from her shock. “No, Baba.” Kakashi holds up a finger, but Sakura talks right over him. “This is ridiculous. First of all, we don’t need protective detail. Second of all, I can’t have a protective detail when I’m in the hospital.”
The dark-haired man clears his throat. “Sir,” he says, and Kakashi dips his head to give him permission. Oddly, the man stares directly at Naruto when he speaks, almost entirely ignoring Sakura. “It is our job as Secret Service to accommodate to the lifestyles of our protectees. We will not intrude on your day-to-day, as per protocol.”
Naruto frowns. “Screw protocol. Bad enough that they point out the nepotism of this campaign at every chance they get, we don’t need to give them another reason to—”
“Do you really think you can talk me out of keeping you two safe,” Kakashi asks mildly.
Naruto knows a losing argument when he sees one. “But Baba—”
“You will both get a protective detail. I have hand-picked this team, which means I have asked them to take a bullet for you, and they have agreed to do so. You will give them your full cooperation, not only because this is my final decision, but because you owe it to them for making this sacrifice for you,” Kakashi announces. There is always a slight drawl to his words, as if he can’t be bothered to even participate in a conversation, but sometimes, his words get sharp, his eyes become a darker gray, and the line of his shoulders becomes stiff. When they were little, it would scare Naruto and Sakura when Kakashi would get this way; now is no different. “Am I understood?”
Sakura caves first. “Yes, Baba.”
Naruto chews on his bottom lip, swallowing on his obedience, while Kakashi stares him down. He lasts all of three seconds. “Yes, Baba.”
“Good,” Kakashi says, and in a moment, his expression relaxes into something easy and familiar again. “Get some rest, the both of you. I want to speak to these agents for a moment.”
Sakura folds Naruto’s laptop close and gets to her feet, gathering her white coat and messenger bag. She gets on her tiptoes to kiss Kakashi on the cheek, and he cups her face gently as she does, telling her, I love you too, into her hair, when she murmurs her usual good night, I love you, Baba.
Naruto gathers his things. The table is littered with his notes, his laptop, and his cellphone, alongside the leftovers from their desert—Kakashi had ordered a treat for them after dinner today, Naruto’s and Sakura’s favorites, because he insists that they’re both losing too much weight, and he can’t have that because he dotes on them both as if it’s his job.
Which, Naruto guesses, in some ways it is.
Even though he’s still annoyed at the idea that he will now have to walk around with a protective detail—they had those before when the war with the Land of Earth was at its zenith and Kakashi’s children a target for his enemies—he still tilts his face up to kiss Kakashi on the cheek. He’s still angry at his father, but once, he’d gone to bed without saying, I love you, and he’d woken up the next morning to find that Kakashi had shipped off to war. “I love you, Baba.”
Kakashi holds his face with both hands, smiling. “I love you too, sweetheart,” he murmurs, and presses a kiss to his forehead. “I don’t want the two of you staying up too late.”
Naruto remembers his anger. “I wouldn’t have to stay up late to rework this draft if you hadn’t gone off-script again. And now Sakura has to work on it too!”
“Let’s go, Naruto,” Sakura grumbles. “We’ll need coffee to get through this. I don’t even paid for this shit.”
Naruto scoffs. “I do, and it’s not anywhere near enough,” he mutters, and follows his sister towards the door, asking her, “Can you just drop an IV into my veins and pump pure caffeine directly into my bloodstream?”
“We should just snort it,” Sakura mutters darkly, and they both ignore Kakashi’s voice raised to warn them, “You’re not allowed to smoke, snort, or inject any substance of any kind. Am I clear?”
“Crystal,” Naruto mutters, walking past the agents.
The dark-haired man holds the door open for Sakura and Naruto, and Sakura steps through with a polite thank you . Naruto looks up from his consideration of an email from Ino—about staffing and presence in the more rural districts—to offer the same, “Thank you…” He blanks, which is to be expected because he’s running on very little sleep, and this campaign has aged him for more than he would ever care to admit. “Sorry, what was your name again?”
The man frowns, an expression of uncensored surprise on his face for a split second. “Special Agent Uchiha,” he offers. “Uchiha Sasuke.”
“Thank you, Special Agent Uchiha,” Naruto says, stepping out the door with a jaw-cracking yawn to catch up with Sakura. “I think I need to strengthen the language in section D,” he tells her, and they both fall into easy conversation about how, exactly, Naruto can make Kakashi say what he needs to say.
The next morning, Naruto wakes up to Agent Hozuki and Agent Biratori at his doorstep. They trail him doggedly throughout the day, and after a while, Naruto learns to completely ignore them, even though Agent Biratori looms so menacingly that it’s impossible not to notice him.
Naruto finds out early that Agent Biratori is kind, polite, and smiles easily, while Agent Hozuki is bright, as foul-mouthed as Sakura at her angriest, and with such a rollicking sense of humor that Naruto finds himself warming to them both easily. They’re now flanking the door to the conference room while Neji gestures at a map they have hung up of the country.
Kakashi is not in the room, but his campaign manager, Nara Shikaku is present, as well as his senior advisor, Hyuga Hiashi. They are Kakashi’s right- and left-hands and his best friends. Shikaku will act as his Chief of Staff if Kakashi gets elected, and Hiashi will likely continue on as Kakashi’s senior advisor. The three of them served together, and their friendship runs so deep that they can predict Kakashi’s eventual decisions and moods almost as precisely as Naruto and Sakura.
“No National Party Candidate has ever won the rural districts in the history of this country’s politics,” Neji says, countering Naruto’s argument as effectively as he ever did in law school. “We divert our focuses from the other, more urban districts—”
The door opens and Kakashi enters with Sakura at his side. They arrive with a bevy of Secret Service agents, most of them for Kakashi, but two for Sakura. The Secret Service agents spread out around the room, with Special Agent Uchiha Sasuke and Agent Betsukai Karin standing just over Sakura’s shoulder. It’s a bit overkill, in Naruto’s opinion, but the room is large and one wall is entirely made of glass. They’ve gotten enough death threats in their lifetime that Naruto grew up with a panic room; he can get used to six Secret Service agents in a single room.
For once, Sakura is not wearing scrubs, which means she must have had the day off. Or her shift ended early. Naruto can’t keep track anymore the way he used to; the campaign is in full swing now and the days run long. It’s already well past midnight, but the senior staff has lingered to discuss campaign strategy in the last stretch of the election.
Everyone gets to their feet when Kakashi enters, and Naruto follows suit. He’s used to the respect Kakashi commands wherever he goes, and he’s learned at a very young age that when he is in public, he is Hatake Kakashi’s son. That comes with certain responsibilities, like getting to his feet when Kakashi walks into a room, and staying standing until he sits down.
“As you were,” Kakashi says, and settles back into his chair to listen, Sakura at his immediate right.
Neji picks up exactly where he left off. “If we divert resources from the more urban districts, we will risk looking like we’re pivoting, or worse pandering, to a demographic that has no interest in supporting this party’s platform. We’ll risk losing support and enthusiasm from our base, and we’ll gain nothing in the rural districts.”
Hinata clears her throat lightly before speaking. “I agree with Neji,” she says, looking around the table. “We gain more by drawing out independent voters and bolstering the turnout in the urban districts than we do by rerouting resources to rural districts.”
Ino leans forward in her chair. “Right now, our presence in rural districts and the bordering areas is so paltry, it’s insulting. We either make our presence felt, or we stop pretending that we have any footing.”
The reason for this meeting is because Naruto had stayed up the last night to write out a memo for a new strategy. He’d been reworking the draft for Kakashi’s speech when inspiration struck, and at two in the morning, he had printed out reams of district polling data and done the math.
The numbers are convincing: with each passing year of Lord Danzo’s administration, there has been a chipping away at his core voters the rural areas. The districts still swing in his party’s favor, but fewer of them are showing up in the polls. The conventional wisdom seems to be that the voters are not showing up at the polls because they see no incentive to do so. Lord Danzo has won every election comfortably since he was appointed to Kage nearly five years ago. But before Danzo took command, Senju Tsunade had nearly broke even in those very districts.
There is a National Party electorate there, and although they have not showed up at the polls, Naruto intends to draw them out. Combined with the strong support from their base in the urban areas, they could finally vote Danzo out of office.
The numbers are right in front of them, but convention and tradition prevails in politics. Most of the team is convinced they should stick to the traditional playbook. The National Party is strongest in urban districts and urban areas, among younger voters. The Federalist Party is strongest in the rural districts, among older, more conservative voters. Each party tends to campaign and rouse enthusiasm in its own base; whoever draws the greatest number of votes to the ballot boxes on election day wins.
Naruto thinks it’s all a load of hogwash. Traditional only means no one has tried anything different yet. Ino and Hinata look like they’re about to dissolve into another argument over semantics, so Naruto steps in. It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and the fine details, but he’s learned that in life as in law, it’s always important to not forget the forest for the trees.
“If Kakashi gets elected he will be Kage of the Land of Rice Fields. All of it,” he points out. He holds the gaze of everyone at the table steady as he speaks, looking from one to the next to make his point, as he might in front of a jury. “He will be Kage of the urban and the rural districts. He will be Kage of young and of old, of conservatives and liberals. He will be a leader for all of these lands. That’s our campaign. We will unite this country after war, after economic devastation, after all that’s happened under Lord Danzo’s leadership, because there is no choice but to unite. Centuries of politics has divided this country so much so that the concept or civil discourse and a country putting aside differences to come together and do good has lost all value. People don’t care about campaign slogans and the politics. They care about policy. They care about things that will affect their lives, like health insurance, infrastructure, clean air and water. They care about sending their children going to good schools, of security in their homes, of church on Sunday and picnics on Saturday. The basic premise of this republic is that we leave behind something better for our children. How are we supposed to do that if we don’t talk to half the country, if we outright ignore them?”
Naruto points to the map on the wall. “The urban districts will vote for us,” he promises them. “If our base sees us opening up dialogue with those across the aisle, they won’t think we’re abandoning them to pivot to the opposing team. They’ll see us practicing what we preach about unifying this country. That will shore up more enthusiasm than any number of rallies we can hold. That will bring them to the ballot boxes. The numbers I have put together for you show that there is a sizeable base in the rural districts who have just stopped voting. It’s not because they don’t care, it’s because they feel like we don’t. So let’s show them we care. Let’s talk to them. Let’s make our case at town halls and churches and school gyms. Let’s speak to them, and let’s see where the chips fall. We owe this country that much, at least. At the very least, we’ll start a conversation, we’ll have a civil discourse that rises above clever taglines and focus group tested slogans. We’ll have a discourse that is worthy of the people of this country. ”
Naruto turns his attention to Kakashi, Shikaku, and Hiashi at the head of the table, hand clenched into a fist under the table while he waits for their decision. Hiashi heaves a breath. “You should never have sent him to law school, Kakashi.”
“He was drawing up contracts to stay out late on Fridays when he was fifteen,” Kakashi says, sounding mournful. “There was nothing I could do.”
Shikaku tilts his head towards Kakashi with a smile. “I actually happen to agree.” He taps the print out of Naruto’s memo, which he had marked up while Naruto presented it earlier in the meeting. “The numbers are convincing, Kakashi. And I don’t think Naruto’s sell is just idealistic dreaming. It might work.”
Naruto bites the inside of his cheek to stop from grinning too widely. Shikaku was on all three of Tsunade’s successful campaigns for Hokage. He defied every single convention in traditional politics that predicted that Lord Danzo would take over after Sarutobi Hiruzen’s death, and instead elected the first female Kage in the nation. He served in her administration as Senior Advisor for all nine years of her administration. Hiashi was once Mayor of Konohagakure and Tsunade’s Secretary of State. Between the two of them, they have decades of political experience. If Shikaku agrees with him, and Hiashi is leaning towards his argument, then surely, Kakashi will follow.
“We’re six points from Lord Danzo’s lead,” Asuma points out from his corner in the room. He’s not allowed to smoke anywhere near Kakashi because Kakashi is trying to quit, so he always sits by a window that has been cracked open to blow the smoke out directly. “In his previous campaigns, he tends to solidify his lead and pull ahead in the last six months of the campaign. He’ll likely do the same now. If we follow the same playbook as his opponents in the last two campaigns, we’re not going to make much headway. We need a new strategy.”
“The numbers are convincing, Naruto,” Ibiki mutters under his breath, flipping through the memo. He glances up from his document and frowns. “You did this all last night.”
“I snorted a few lines of caffeine,” Naruto deadpans. “It was such a sweet, sweet high.”
“Where did I go wrong with you,” Kakashi sighs over the laughter that follows. He sits forward in his chair and raps his knuckles on the table, calling for order again. “Let’s hear the battle plan, then.”
Ino gives Naruto a sharp grin. She’d been the first to be convinced, and she’d come prepared with a campaign strategy. She gets to her feet, somehow still sharply dressed and pristine in the middle of the night, and stands next to the map. “We start,” she announces, pointing to the northwestern most corner of the country, “with District 11.”
District 11 is the ass-end of the country without a single goddamn tower in any direction for a hundred miles because Naruto still has no signal.
“Could you please,” Sasuke grits out, “sit down?”
Naruto holds up his phone and does a full circle, spreading his feet wide so he doesn’t lose his balance as the truck rumbles on. He’s on the back of a truck, going forty-miles an hour on a completely empty road in the middle of rolling plains and farmland. It’s very unlikely he’ll fall, but that doesn’t make Sasuke’s sharp gaze on him any less intense.
The text that Naruto is trying to send to Hinata keeps showing up with a red exclamation mark. Failed to deliver his phone tells him, but that is not an option because Naruto needs to know how Kakashi’s first town hall in District 11 is going. His missed his flight out of Hyogo, where he had been taping an interview with a few news networks, because there was an overly friendly traveler at the bar where Naruto had stopped to get food just outside the terminal. Which naturally led to a truly embarrassing moment when Special Agent Uchiha Sasuke— you can call me Sasuke —slammed the man down onto the ground with a hand twisted behind his back, growling, “I said, back the fuck off .”
“It’s your fault we’re late, you know,” Naruto points out. Sasuke usually protects Sakura, but they had traded off. Now, Naruto is being trailed around wherever he goes by Sasuke’s silent glowering. Agent Bestukai Karin has been dispatched to stay with Sakura because in Kakashi’s absence, the protective detail around either Naruto or Sakura vanishes entirely. Sasuke has been tasked with getting Naruto safely to Kakashi’s side, so that he can be folded into the larger protective sphere around Kakashi for the remainder of this campaign trail. “If you hadn’t created a big scene with that man at the bar, we would have gotten here on time.”
“He was getting too close,” Sasuke says calmly. “I couldn’t rule him out as a threat.”
Naruto scoffs. He settles back onto the floor of the bed of the truck. “He was two drinks in, and he got handsy,” Naruto deadpans. “That’s not a threat. That’s my Thursday evening.”
Sasuke arches an eyebrow. “You’re used to getting drunk and handsy on Thursday evening?”
Naruto likes his protective detail. He likes Jugo because he is kind and patient, and Suigetsu because he is funny and always honest. He even likes Karin, whose every word seems to drip with sarcasm, because he likes the challenge of sparring with her. She’s whip-smart and can deliver a punchline with such deadpan seriousness that Naruto almost always laughs.
But Uchiha Sasuke has no redeeming qualities. Naruto will admit he is handsome, but that is all that Naruto will concede. He is a condescending, judgmental, smug bastard who always seems amused by Naruto. When the staff had loaded his luggage into the town car, Sasuke had taken one look at it and asked, You have everything you need, Master Naruto?
It makes Naruto want to punch him in the face. Now is no different. “No,” Naruto enunciates cleanly. “ I don’t get drunk and get handsy. Other people do. I don’t like getting drunk. People tend to make really stupid decisions when they’re drunk.”
Sasuke’s expression doesn’t shift. “Is that so.”
“Yes, it is , you smug piece of—” Naruto takes a deep breath. His father told him to offer full cooperation and respect the people tasked with taking a bullet for him. So he will. Instead, he slides open the window to the front of the pick-up. “How much longer?”
Kenshin looks over his shoulder with a rakish grin. “So eager to get rid of me?”
Naruto smiles. Kenshin is volunteer at the local campaign offices had arrived to pick them up and drive them to the town hall, and so far, he’s offered Naruto coffee, a drink, water, food, and even control over the music. He’s a sweet man, but a bit clumsy with his flirting, even if he does have striking green eyes and broad shoulders. Naruto had politely declined all of Kenshin’s attempts at flirtation, and opted to sit on the bed of the truck for the fresh air and the view. Sasuke had clambered on behind him because he is apparently that kind of paranoid.
“My father tends to worry,” Naruto says, because there is no surer way of deterring a persistent man than to remind them that Hatake Kakashi is Naruto’s father.
“Of course,” Kenshin says, expression becoming strained. “Just another hour.”
“An hour,” Naruto repeats, disbelieving. “How far is this place?”
“Fifty or so miles,” Kenshin answers easily, looking back towards the road. “Not far at all.”
Naruto leans back against the side of the truck and stares up at the blue sky overhead. He’s spent an entire lifetime in the capital, living in large estates and high-rising sky-scrapers. He’s never been in a place so desolate and isolated before.
“I need a drink.”
“I thought you said you don’t like getting drunk,” Sasuke points out neatly. He’s stretched out his feet, but he’s so tall that he has to bend his knees up to fit.
Naruto has no such height issues, so he stretches out his toes, pressing against the other side of the pick-up truck. “For you, Uchiha, I’d make an exception.”
“So I’ve gathered,” Sasuke says, sounding far angrier than he should. He’s looking away from Naruto entirely, so all that Naruto can see is the strong line of his jaw, clean shaven as always. Naruto is about to ask, What’s your problem with me anyways, because half his interactions with Sasuke end with thinly veiled insults and the other half end with stony silences.
But before he can say it, his phone buzzes. He picks it up on the second ring. “Uzumaki.”
Hinata’s voice crackles over the line. “Naruto, we have a problem.”
Naruto looks towards the sky again. There are a few, swollen clouds overhead, but the sun is still bright and the sky is still crystal blue. “Lord God,” he prays. “Sweet heaven above, have mercy on me.”
Kakashi holds out an ice-cream cone with a flourish. It’s chocolate with chocolate sprinkles. Naruto takes it with a sigh, because sometimes, Kakashi forgets that he is twenty-four and not a toddler anymore. It seems to be worsening with age; the older Naruto gets, the more adamant Kakashi becomes in his delusions that Naruto is a child. “Baba, you’re not listening to me.”
“I’m listening, bubble toes,” Kakashi promises him, and loops a hand around Naruto’s shoulder, guiding him further along the crowded street. They’re at a county fair to do an informal meet-and-greet, but Kakashi is treating this as a vacation. He talks to the locals and answers all their questions. He even gamely poses for pictures and selfies. But time and again, he returns to Naruto’s side and guides him from one kiosk to another, like he did when Naruto and Sakura were children and he took them to fairs and theme parks on the rare days that he was free.
Naruto can’t find it in himself to pester Kakashi to focus because for the first time in months , Kakashi is loose and relaxed. He’s even wearing jeans and a light sweater against the early fall chill, looking years younger now that he’s not wearing his standard suit and tie. Naruto leans into Kakashi’s side, grateful for the heat, because he’s woefully underdressed for the cold. He’d arrived wearing a loose, cashmere long-sleeves and then realized that somehow, he’s crossed into another hemisphere when he flew north. The debates are coming up, though, which means he has to grit his teeth and bear the cold so he can talk to Kakashi about the final schedule that Danzo’s campaign manager has agreed to. “Baba, listen to me—”
“Your sister would like this,” Kakashi says, and pulls away to head straight for a kiosk with water guns and a moving line of targets. He holds out his ice cream cone, and a staff member immediately steps forward to take it. Before Naruto can even protest, Kakashi is pulling out his wallet to pay the man at the kiosk. Kakashi picks up a water gun and hoists it against his shoulder expertly. “When you were little,” Kakashi announces with great flare, “you two used to think I was the coolest for being able to win these for you.”
Naruto can’t help but smile at Kakashi’s intensity. Naturally, he wins on the first try, dropping every single target as it goes by his field of vision. There’s a smattering of applause from the crowd that has gathered around them.
Kakashi grins. “My little boy will pick the prize,” he announces. There is a TV news crew pointing a camera at him, and at least a dozen phones snapping pictures. Normally, Naruto doesn’t mind Kakashi’s displays of affections, but he’s starting to dislike how so many people are now witness to it.
Naruto steps forward and considers the display. “Anything you want,” the kiosk owner says, gesturing widely with his hands.
There is a line of monstrously large plushy toys on the far right, but Naruto ignores them in favor of pointing to a demented looking hippopotamus the size of his palm. “That one.”
The kiosk owner’s bushy eyebrows wrinkle with a frown. “You sure?”
“When he was a toddler, he had hippopotamus pajamas,” Kakashi explains seriously. “Also, a hippopotamus hat.”
Naruto flushes. “ Baba .”
Kakashi, of course, ignores his embarrassment entirely, and buffs a kiss against his forehead. The kiosk owner holds out the plushy for Naruto, who takes it with a smile. “Thank you.”
“You like it?” Kakashi asks, drawing Naruto away again from the kiosk and to the next attraction.
Naruto holds the plushy close to his chest for warmth. Kakashi is smiling down at him, eyes crinkled at the corners. The debate schedule can wait. “I like it a lot.”
Kakashi’s eyes becomes fonder still. “How about I buy you some cotton candy, bubble toes?”
They spend most of the afternoon at the fair. When they finally get back in the car and head to their next event, Naruto checks his phone to find that the local news stations are already running footage of Kakashi, snapping down target after target with a water gun, and then winning his son a hippopotamus plushy. Family outing for the Hatake family , the ticker reads, and there’s a still of Kakashi with an arm around Naruto’s shoulders, smiling as he presses a kiss to Naruto’s forehead. Naruto is smiling in each and every single picture as well.
Kiba has already left him a text, Good B-roll on this trip , because he’s in charge of social media, and there is not a single photo-op that the man can’t spin into gold online.
On their long drive to the diner for their next meet-and-greet, Sakura calls them. She insists on being placed on speaker phone to complain in great, exacting detail why it’s unfair that Naruto got to spend a day with Kakashi and not her. “Sucks to suck,” Naruto says, flippant, and Sakura’s growl rumbles in the closed space of the car.
“I’ll make it up to you, sweetheart,” Kakashi promises. “How’s school?”
“Rotations are the best,” Sakura answers immediately, and then launches into a rambling explanation of her day. She’s sure now that she will pursue surgery, and Kakashi raises an eyebrow at Naruto because Sakura pivots between fields every other day now. She wants to do everything, it seems.
“You know, Sakura, you can take a year off before you submit your residency applications,” Kakashi points out.
“I don’t want to,” Sakura counters. “Hey, Naruto, what was with your text about the guy at the airport getting up in your space? Your texts were jumbled. Did Sasuke really dislocate his shoulder?”
Naruto pinches the bridge of his nose. “Sakura.”
There’s silence on the other end of the line. A moment later, Sakura mutters, “I…have to go.” She hangs up immediately, not even bothering to offer an explanation in her hurry to escape Kakashi’s mounting anger. It’s palpable in the car, and Naruto stares resolutely at the plushy on lap.
Thankfully, Sasuke speaks up from the front passenger seat. “It was handled, sir.”
“I’m sure it was,” Kakashi says icily. “I just wonder why it wasn’t included in my daily briefing of my children’s safety.”
Sasuke turns in his seat to look at Kakashi in the eyes. “Yes, sir. I didn’t think it needed to be included in the briefing. He was just being overly aggressive.”
Kakashi’s eyes narrow into near slits. To Sasuke’s credit, he holds Kakashi’s gaze steady. “You thought a man overstepping his boundaries with my son did not need to be included in the briefing?”
Sasuke’s expression doesn’t shift. “A mistake, sir. It won’t happen again.”
“Make sure it doesn’t,” Kakashi says, and finally his gaze lands on Naruto again. “What happened?”
Naruto tries for a smile, but it’s weak in the face of Kakashi’s anger. “He said he wanted to buy me a drink. I said no, and he kept asking. I was about to leave to board the plane, and he grabbed my hand, and that’s it. Baba, it wasn’t Sasuke’s decision to—”
“Naruto,” Kakashi interrupts, “I swear to God, I do not—”
He bites off the rest of his sentence, and spends the rest of the drive reading up on memos and documents. Which is how Naruto knows that he is truly angry, the kind of anger that makes him shut down and descend into long stretches of silence that make both Sakura and Naruto both fret. He texts Sakura while the car rolls along, telling her she should shut her stupid mouth next time. She texts him back with a sad emoji, and then, How bad is it?
Bad, Naruto answers, and watches Kakashi slam out of the car when it rolls to a stop in front of the diner. Sasuke, per protocol, stays in the car with Naruto.
Naruto takes a breath. He’d tried telling Kakashi the truth of the matter, which was that Naruto had brow-beaten Sasuke into withholding the event from Kakashi’s briefing. He didn’t want to distract Kakashi with a minor incident such as that, but Sasuke had sat there and taken the full blame for it. “Thanks for taking the hit on that.”
“It was my call,” Sasuke answers.
“I asked you to—”
“It was my call,” Sasuke interrupts again, and steps out of the car. He opens the door for Naruto a moment later, eyes scanning the crowds. He does the same check every single time he opens a car door for Naruto: over Naruto’s shoulder, to his left, to his right, a scan of the taller buildings around them, and then, as he’s falling into step beside Naruto, over his own shoulder. It’s a full check, all angles of attack accounted for. When he’s done, he will always step two feet behind Naruto, just over his left shoulder. When someone moves too close to Naruto, his fingers twitch. Once, he’d seen Sasuke’s hand push back his suit to rest on his holstered gun, a fluid motion that Sasuke didn’t seem to be aware of while he stared down the overly enthusiastic supporter nearly jump the barriers to get to Kakashi for an autograph.
Inside the diner, Kakashi is already at the front of a large crowd, falling into a stump speech. Naruto frowns when he realizes that immediately behind Kakashi is a campaign poster for Lord Danzo, but it’s too late now to take it down for the cameras. He’ll have to talk to the aide who set this up; it’s a sloppy mistake.
Kakashi doesn’t seem to notice or care as he keeps talking. He’s getting better with each passing month, but there is still a raw, unpolished quality about the way he talks, the easy banter, as if he’s having a conversation with someone individually rather than speaking to a large crowd. He is not a politician. He never wanted to be a politician. But Sakura and Naruto had convinced Nara Shikaku, and Shikaku had convinced Kakashi. For your country , he’d said, because the country was reeling still from a war, and Danzo was gearing up for another senseless campaign against the Land of Earth. Kakashi had retired as a general because he’d refused to follow Danzo’s orders to march on a largely civilian sector, and Shikaku convinced him to step out of his retirement to serve again. Serve again for your country , Shikaku told Kakashi, and Kakashi had done just that, stepping far past his comfort zone and meeting strangers, going from town hall to town hall to make the case for a peaceful future.
He answers every single question posed to him by the crowd, and by the end, people are nodding along with each of his answers, and clapping when he says something particularly heartfelt. He gets a standing ovation when he wraps up, and the owner of the diner shakes his hand firmly, saying loud enough for the cameras to pick up, “You’ve got my vote, General.”
It’s too early to get any numbers to confirm that Naruto’s new campaign strategy is working, but Naruto can feel it in the air. When he looks over at Ino and Tenten, they’re both grinning. Hinata jostles him lightly in the elbow and mutters, “We’re doing good, Naruto.”
“Don’t jinx us,” Kiba mutters while he tweets and posts pictures of the event on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Shikamaru mutters under his breath while he reads his phone. The junior staff travels with Kakashi while on the road. Sometimes Hiashi or Shikaku will join Kakashi, but their main task has been to cajole Senior Council members into casting their vote for Kakashi. It’s not enough to win the popular vote; Kakashi also has to get the backing of Senior Council. Danzo has an iron grip on the Senior Council, but both Shikaku and Hiashi belong to two of the most respected families in the country. If anyone can convince Senior Council members to swing their vote in favor of Kakashi—despite years of precedence that dictates that a twice-elected Kage is almost sure to be elected for a third, fourth, and fifth time, every term for three years, until they resign from office. “Make sure he eats the local foods, Naruto. There’s two local news reporters here.”
“He shouldn’t be eating so much fried food,” Naruto mutters under his breath. “It’s bad for his cholesterol.”
Asuma chuckles, reaching up to press a hand on Naruto’s head. He’s watched Naruto grow up from training diapers and graduate law school, so Naruto tolerates the gesture. “Your father still has the same training schedule as when he was in the army, Naruto. And he’s young. Stop worrying.”
“I’m not worried,” Naruto counters hotly, and moves through the crowd to get to Kakashi, Sasuke trailing him as always. When he reaches Kakashi, it’s to find that he’s talking intently to a woman about a disease that’s decimating their herds.
“We don’t know what to do,” she’s saying. “Our district Governor says he’s trying his best, but all the taxes we pay seem to be going to the war. At this rate, we won’t have enough foal for the next season to put food on the table. And my two boys died already on the front lines, so I don’t have anyone to help me.”
Kakashi grew up dirt poor and enlisted in the army for the free meal. He met Naruto’s biological father, who took Kakashi under his wing, and slowly but steadily, Kakashi climbed the ranks until he was General. When Naruto’s parents died in the war—a bomb under their car, a political assassination that shattered the windows of Naruto’s nursery inward and left Naruto with thin, triplicate scars on his face where the glass had cut into him—Kakashi adopted Naruto. He raised Naruto and Sakura in opulence and luxury, doting on them with such care that Naruto cannot remember ever wanting anything. He already had it all. So while Naruto feels his heart ache for the woman’s plight, the low, rough grief in Kakashi’s voice is genuine.
He covers the woman’s hand with his own and asks her, “What were their names, ma’am?”
The woman’s eyes become bright with tears. “Tayuya’s was my eldest,” she says with a thick voice. “Fuuma was the younger one.”
Kakashi cradles the woman’s hand in his own and looks her in the eyes. “Tell me about them.”
Naruto had come here to remind Kakashi to make sure to order the local foods for the photo op, but he thinks that’s a silly, inconsequential thing, not when Kakashi is listening so intently to the woman describe her sons the only way a parent can. Kakashi listens to her entire story, and when she’s done, he promises her that he will bring peace, that her taxes will go to saving what’s left of her herd and not to a fight that is not worth fighting anymore. She wipes at her face, nods, and grips Kakashi’s hands back fiercely. “Make sure you do, General,” she says. “We’re all counting on you now.”
On the way back from the diner, Kakashi is quiet. He watches the scenery pass by through the window, even though it’s so dark outside that there’s nothing but shadows. Naruto’s phone buzzes with a text from Kiba, glowing bright on his screen.
Should I hold off on the clip of the woman talking to the General?
Naruto glances at Kakashi. He’ll be forty-five next week, and already, he’s spent most of his life on the frontlines. He looks far more tired than man his age should. Naruto’s phone buzzes again, the two minute reminder that a text has arrived. He clicks off the screen, and unbuckles his seatbelt. Immediately, a signal goes off from the front of the car, a steady, low-pitched beeping that someone is not buckled in. Naruto ignores it in favor of sliding across the seat to lean into Kakashi.
Kakashi immediately holds out a hand so that Naruto can tuck his head under his chin. He presses a kiss to Naruto’s head, lingering. “Everything’s all right.”
“I know,” Naruto says, and turns his face into Kakashi’s chest. If Kakashi becomes Kage, he will have to shoulder the full burden of the country on his shoulders. It is a lifetime appointment usually, even though there is an election every three years. He will get more and more tired as the years go on.
Naruto hadn’t considered that when he and Sakura came up with this insane plan to elect him.
The beeping continues for the rest of the drive back to the hotel, but Naruto dozes off against Kakashi and doesn’t wake up until Kakashi gently shakes him awake. “Let’s go, bubble toes.”
Naruto blinks awake groggily. Out of habit, he turns to his phone first and realizes that in the twenty minutes that he fell asleep, three different issues have sprung up that need to be addressed. There’s an email from Shikaku that will need immediate attention. “I hate campaigning,” Naruto grumbles, and slides out of the car.
Kakashi follows closely behind. “If I remember correctly, this was all your idea.”
“Sakura’s,” Naruto corrects. “She thought of it first. I just came up with the plan and executed it.”
“I can’t leave the two of you alone for ten minutes,” Kakashi mutters under his breath, checking his own phone as they walk into the hotel. Naruto bids Kakashi goodnight at the stairwell, telling him, I love you, Baba , and promising that he won’t stay up too late. He heads to the business lounge across the lobby and settles at a wide, empty desk. The windows of the room are dark plates; he can barely make out the lake just beyond.
“I would prefer if you didn’t sit so close to the windows,” Sasuke says after he walks around the room thoughtfully. He considers the drapes, but no matter how much he tugs at them, they will not close.
“They’re decorative,” Naruto tells him as he pulls out his laptop from his messenger bag. He sets down a fresh legal pad next to it, along with two pens. The debates are only three weeks away, which means Naruto has to construct standard answers for the topics that he knows will come up. He also has to come up with counter arguments to Danzo’s answers. He’s been reading and rereading Danzo’s transcripts, getting familiar with his style of speaking and arguing. But now is the type to put pen to paper and come up with sound language that will both get the point across in two minutes or less, and will play good on TV. “They put them up for show, but they’re not full panels of cloth.”
“They’re useless,” Sasuke mutters darkly, and stays standing at the windows, looking out into the darkness. It’s not even eleven, but there’s not a single light visible. The isolation of this place boggles Naruto’s mind.
“You have night vision, there, Uchiha?” Naruto asks, glancing up from work. “Or do you just like striking that pose?”
Sasuke looks over his shoulder with a frown. “What pose?”
“The dark and brooding pose,” Naruto points out, waking his laptop from its sleep. At least, there is decent Wi-Fi.
“I don’t brood,” Sasuke counters, but pivots suddenly to do another round of the room. He circles like a hawk sometimes.
Eventually, though, the circling stops. As the clock ticks to midnight, Sasuke settles at the table across from Naruto, gaze still wandering from exit to exit to exit, window to window. Naruto slips off his shoes, folds a leg underneath him, and bends his head over the legal pad to write out his thoughts. He dedicates a page for each major issue—infrastructure spending, education, health care, and others—but two for the war itself, and two more pages for national security. Every now and then, his phone will buzz and he will respond to a text from Ino, Neji, Tenten, Hinata, Kiba, or Shikamaru. They also have a group text, a sounding board for questions they want everyone to consider—even Shino and Chouji, who are stationed in the capital with Hiashi and Shikaku to deal with Senior Council. At one point, Sakura calls in to FaceTime, and he pauses long enough to answer all her questions about Kakashi: if he’s eating, if he’s sleeping, if he’s getting time to work out in the mornings because he gets cranky otherwise. Naruto answers affirmative on all of the questions, and Sakura launches into questions about his own health: are you eating, are you sleeping, are you taking breaks?
“You’re losing weight still, Naruto,” Sakura points out with a frown.
“No rest for the wicked,” Naruto answers with a smile, and Sakura rolls her eyes at him. She has propped up her phone in the bathroom to talk while she brushes her teeth, flosses, and washes her face in preparation for bed. She picks up the phone again, and while the image cuts in and out, Naruto warns her, “If you pee while you’re on the phone, I’m hanging up.”
“Settle down you prude,” Sakura grumbles, and rearranges the covers of her sheets. “I hate when Baba travels. The place feels too big.”
“It is too big,” Naruto points out. Sakura and Naruto spent far too much of their childhood in the cavernous spaces of their homes while Kakashi was away on a battlefield somewhere getting shot at. “Get some rest. Love you, stupid face.”
“Love you, too, idiot. Give Baba a kiss for me,” Sakura mutters, and cuts off the call.
Naruto stares at his laptop for a moment before calling her back on FaceTime. She picks up with a scowl. Her hair is sticking up in all angles even though she has just settled into bed. “What?”
“Do you think,” Naruto asks, and then stops talking. He doesn’t know how to voice the question aloud.
“Spit it out, or I’ll fly over there and beat it out of you,” Sakura deadpans.
Naruto takes a breath. He’s never been in the habit of hoarding his words, especially with Sakura. “Do you think we did the right thing convincing Baba to run?”
“Of course,” Sakura answers easily. “He’s the only one who can turn this shit-show around. The war is endless, Naruto. We need peace. Kakashi is the only one with the authority to bring peace. He’s General Hatake Kakashi. Who else, but—”
“I know it was the right thing for the country,” Naruto interrupts. “I meant, did we do the right thing for Baba?”
Sakura pushes herself up in bed. “What’s wrong?”
Naruto fidgets with the pen in his hand. “He’s getting tired, Sakura. He just retired a few years ago, and now, he’s—”
“Oh, shut up,” Sakura interrupts. “Baba is fine . Stop fretting over him. Is he tired? Of course he is. But he’s got bullet shrapnel in his shoulder still, and the man still does pull-ups every morning because he’s that kind of deranged. Stop insulting him by thinking that he can’t handle this, Naruto. He’s the only one who can.”
Naruto takes a deep breath. “All right.”
“Is that it?” Sakura asks, settling into bed again. She holds the phone aloft so that it feels like Naruto is looking down at her from above. “Have you assuaged your neuroses for the day?”
Naruto ignores the comment. So he has a few obsessive compulsive ticks. Doesn’t everyone? “Have the staff send me two of my jackets. It’s cold here. I want them right away. And shoes. There’s a lot of mud.”
“I told you not to pack cashmere,” Sakura grumbles, and cuts off the call.
Naruto looks down at his shirt. It’s soft, but it’s useless against the chill that settles in this valley. And for some reason, everyone insists on turning on air conditioning indoors so that Naruto has been cold since the moment he has stepped foot into this district. He pulls the shirt snug against his torso and goes back to work. It’s nearly one by the time he’s accomplished all that he wants, and by the time he makes it back to his hotel room, he’s exhausted.
He waits patiently outside while Sasuke does a sweep of the room. When he’s cleared the space, Naruto steps inside with a sigh. He holds the door open for Sasuke, but Sasuke lingers just outside. Normally, he wishes Naruto good night , and leaves, but tonight, he pauses at the entrance.
“I served under the General during his last campaign,” he says suddenly, holding Naruto’s gaze steady. It’s an odd detail to mention, and that too, without any context. So Naruto keeps his peace. Sasuke clears his throat. “I actually enlisted because of him.”
Naruto frowns. “He recruited you?”
“I saw an interview he gave once. He talked about the honor in serving the country,” Sasuke answers stiffly. “I enlisted when I got out of high school.” He pauses a beat, and adds, “I got placed directly in the brigade he commanded in the Battle of Kyoto Valley. I carried out his orders that day for my platoon.”
The Battle of Kyoto Valley was a victory for Konohagakure, but Naruto also knows that the troops sustained some of the heaviest artillery bombing during that one push on the frontlines in the entire war. The battle dragged over a full week. The pictures that came back from the frontlines were muddy and gruesome.
Naruto can’t say any of that, so he settles for the most innocuous thing he can say. “I didn’t know you two knew each other personally.”
Sasuke shrugs. Normally, he is secure in his thinly-veiled taunting of Naruto, but now, he looks awkward in his own skin. “The General got me a job in the Secret Service. I couldn’t find a job after the war because the economy was shit, so…” He clears his throat again. “I never went back to college after I came home.”
There’s a slight pink hue to his cheeks, hidden by the shadow of his stubble. He starts every day clean-shaven, but some days, when their schedule is demanding, he doesn’t have time to shave. Apparently, the man can grow a beard just while standing around; Naruto tried once when he was a teenager, and gave up soon thereafter. He’s still staring awkwardly at Naruto, so Naruto tries to ease the conversation. “Do you…like the job?”
It’s the most asinine question he can ask someone in a situation like this, but he’s not sure what else to do. Sasuke ignores the question entirely. “I’d ride into hell if the General asked me to,” he says. “I’m glad you convinced him out of retirement. A lot of us who served with him are.”
Naruto has always known on an intellectual level that the men that Kakashi leads are faithful and loyal to him. He commands their respect. What Naruto did not know was that he also commanded their love. There is an affection in Sasuke’s voice when he named Kakashi, the General .
This is why , Naruto realizes. This is why Kakashi must win . A man who has spent as many years on the battlefield as Kakashi is the only one who can truly understand the need for peace. This is Sasuke’s way of assuring Naruto, the same way Sakura had. He usually doesn’t comment on anything Naruto says or does, even though he is always a few feet away to overhear and observe.
This is the first time he’s crossed that professional boundary, and Naruto is grateful for it. “Thank you.”
Sasuke nods once, stiffly. “Good night,” he says, crisp.
“Good night,” Naruto returns, and closes the door on Sasuke. He watches the shadow of Sasuke’s feet under the door for a few long moments. Finally, though, Sasuke leaves.
Debate prep is a special kind of hell, but it’s worse than usual because Kakashi decides to hold it in the wilderness. He orders the campaign to arrive at a lodge by a sprawling lake for the weekend so they can conduct business away from the prying eyes of the press and public.
Naruto tries and fails to point out that they could have avoided the press at their ranch, which is tucked in the southeast, far from prying eyes. They sometimes spend their summers there as a family, but it largely functions as a way to supplement their sprawling family income. Kakashi ignores him because he has decided he likes the isolation of District 11, and that he’d like to extend his stay here while he can. So they drive and drive and drive even further north and west in District 11 until the road narrows from two lanes into a single pat, and the trees thicken around them.
There is no signal, no matter how much Naruto waves around his phone. “Whose stupid idea was this anyways?”
“Sasuke’s,” Kakashi answers pleasantly, not looking up from the write-up of the debate topics that Naruto had created. “He used to spend summers in these woods with his brother and uncles when he was young. I’ve always wanted to see the place for myself.”
Sasuke stays silent in the front of the car, even though Naruto is glaring daggers into his head. Things have thawed between them since the night Sasuke stood in his doorway and awkwardly confessed his faith in Kakashi. They talk more now, snippets of conversation in the quiet moments while Naruto is in an elevator or being ferried from place to another. Naruto finds out several things about Sasuke during this time:
First, Sasuke is from District 11. His family died when he was young, and he was raised by Jugo’s family on a sprawling ranch. He spent most of his waking hours hauling bales of hay and herding cow. He enlisted in the army when he saw Kakashi on TV, and since Jugo was his best friend, he enlisted right alongside Sasuke. They met Suigetsu in basic training, and Karin was assigned to their platoon as medic. The four of them have been inseparable since.
Second, Sasuke wears a wedding ring but he is long separated. Naruto had put his foot in his mouth when he’d indicated the wedding ring and asked, What’s your wife’s name? When Sasuke didn’t answer, he pressed, Separated? Divorced?
“She left me,” Sasuke finally admitted quietly. She had left without a single word, not even a goodbye, after giving birth to their fifth and youngest child. Clinical depression, Sasuke says. Bipolar disorder, a personality disorder, the diagnoses never made much sense. She just left. The truth settles so heavily between them that Naruto reaches for the one topic that he knows will cheer up Sasuke. You have pictures of your kids? Sasuke pulls out his phone immediately, and shares pictures of all five of his children: four boys, and a girl. The eldest boy is eight, followed closely by a younger brother of six. There are twins, four years old, a girl and a boy. The youngest is a son, just three. They have all inherited Sasuke’s dark hair and dark eyes. In the pictures that Sasuke shows him, they are always smiling, always in the middle of play. There is one picture of them sprawled out in a pile of leaves that Sasuke had apparently just finished raking. He lingers over the picture and points to them, from youngest to oldest, and names them each, smiling a small, private smile: “The youngest is Yaese. That’s my little girl, Mikoto, and her twin brother, Shisui. That’s Itachi, and the eldest is Kakashi.”
Naruto had glanced up at the last name. “You named your firstborn son after my father?”
Sasuke pocketed his phone quickly, flushing. “I asked him for permission before I did, so—”
“I’m sure he’s honored,” Naruto interrupted, stilling Sasuke with a hand on his elbow. “He should meet your son one day.”
“When this campaign is over, maybe,” Sasuke agreed, and stepped away to put that distance between them again. He does this a lot, Naruto has noticed. He maintains a distance between them, but sometimes he’ll drift close when they talk, step into the space next to Naruto and listen intently to what Naruto has to say. He always catches himself, and when he does, he withdraws immediately.
Their relationship has thawed enough that once, Naruto was able to pester Sasuke to drink a cup of coffee in front of him. He’d never seen the man eat or drink or even use the bathroom, so he wasn’t sure Sasuke would take the offered cup of coffee. But then he did.
Naruto regrets buying the bastard coffee now; apparently, their entire campaign staff had to be rerouted to the very corner of the country as a result of one of Sasuke’s ideas. A corner of the country where, apparently, people don’t use cell phones. Naruto stews in his annoyance for the entire drive, but the moment the door to the car opens, his anger vanishes immediately because Sakura is waiting for them.
Even Kakashi seems surprised, but the surprise turns quickly into joy when Sakura launches herself into his arms, laughing. Kakashi holds her close. “Hey, baby girl, when’d you get here?”
Sakura beams up at Kakashi. “Uncle Asuma said I could come join you,” she says. “I took the weekend off.”
Kakashi presses a kiss to her forehead. “I’m glad you did,” he says, and tucks her against his side. He holds out his free hand, and Naruto steps easily into the space, so that he’s flanking Kakashi at his right, and Sakura at his left. He holds them both close as they walk up the path to the cabins ahead, “How about we have a barbecue tonight?”
Sakura answers yes, that would be fun, they could invite the whole campaign staff for a break, but Naruto hears none of it. He’s too busy focusing on a minor detail that is looming ahead.
“Is that a log cabin ?” Naruto demands, pointing at the monstrosity in front of them.
“It’s actually kind of nice inside,” Sakura says. “You might like it here, Naruto. We can wear flannel and go on a hike in boots.”
“The hell I will,” Naruto growls. “There’s no signal here.”
Sakura pulls out a walkie talkie from the pocket of her jacket. She’s grinning from ear-to-ear. “It’s so much fun. Everyone gets one here.”
Naruto looks over his shoulder to glare at Sasuke. “This was your idea?”
Sasuke only smirks at him.
The barbecue is a much needed break. Naruto finally has a chance to spend time again with Shino and Chouji, who have both flown in from the capital. Most of the campaign staff are either his friends from college, his friends from law school, or family friends. There is a level of comradery amongst them that makes it easy to patch over differences and work together. The entire staff has arrived, including Hiashi and Shikaku, and before long, the night dissolves into a loud, raucous gathering.
Naruto drinks far more than is good for him, so by the time he stumbles to his own cabin, his feet are unsteady. Sasuke steps forward to grip his elbow steadily and guide him inside. When Naruto sits onto the bed, the room spins. “I think I drank way too much,” he breathes.
Sasuke watches Naruto fumble ineffectively with his shoes before muttering a curse and sinking to his knees. He takes off Naruto’s shoes with the same concentration that he does everything else, and Naruto watches the top of his head earnestly. When Sasuke tugs a shoe off his foot, Naruto braces a hand against Sasuke’s shoulder for support because even that light pull seems like it will destabilize Naruto.
When Naruto is stone-cold sober, he runs his mouth. When he’s drunk, there’s absolutely nothing that can make him hold his silence. “You have really nice shoulders.” Sasuke glances up sharply at him. “Broad,” Naruto continues. “Very broad shoulders.”
“You’re drunk,” Sasuke says very, very carefully.
“You are also,” Naruto continues, dragging up his hand from Sasuke’s shoulder to his hair, and then to his jaw. His stubble is rough against Naruto’s palm. Very handsome . “You should stay the night.” The suggestion becomes real in Naruto’s mind, and suddenly, he’s aching for it. He wants to know what Sasuke feels like, and a moment later, he’s voicing those thoughts aloud. “—the weight of you on top of me, inside me,” Naruto hears himself saying, and as he says the words, he reaches for Sasuke with a sigh. “You should stay so we can do that.”
Sasuke goes utterly still for long enough that Naruto thinks it’s a yes , and leans in. But then Sasuke pulls away. “No,” he says, getting to his feet. “I don’t think I should. Good night.”
A moment later, Naruto is alone. He blinks at the sudden absence of the man, but the effort is too great to stay sitting upright, so lies down on the bed. He falls asleep immediately.
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—
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—
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.
Sakura notices because of course Sakura notices. “You’re more obsessed with that phone than usual,” she says over dinner.
Naruto has set it face-down on the table, as is their tradition when they sit down for a meal. But his eyes keep drifting to the phone because it had buzzed halfway through the appetizer and Naruto hasn’t had a chance to check it yet. It’s been two days of texting with Sasuke, and so far, there is no end in sight to their conversation. If one of them forgets to respond, the other will send out a single question mark or a stray text or start a new conversation entirely. Sasuke still texts in single sentences, but Naruto has allowed himself the freedom to respond to him without any editing or second guessing. “I miss being on the campaign trail,” he lies.
“Sure, you do,” Sakura says around a mouthful of food. “When are you going to tell me what’s really going on?”
“When I feel like it,” Naruto snaps, and returns to his salad. Thankfully, Sakura drops the topic. It feels like an eternity before Naruto has the privacy again to check his messages. He sees that it’s a screenshot of Sasuke’s run, tracked by a running app that he’s using. Why are you running so late?
Sasuke’s response is almost immediate. couldn’t sit still kids with Jugo’s mother. got bored.
In the two days since Naruto has started to text Sasuke, he has learned that Sasuke shares one very important characteristic with Kakashi: he dotes on his children. He is almost constantly playing with them. If he’s not taking them on hikes, he’s acting out elaborate plotlines with his sons about bandits and samurai. Then, he’s jumping into a lake with them and teaching his youngest how to swim. Later, it’s a cookout in their backyard, with an accompanying picture of five sets of little hands held out towards the fire, each one holding a stick with a marshmallow on it.
Are you alone? Naruto lets his head drop to the table with a groan. Two days of texting, and he’s already sounding like he’s asking for a booty call.
But then, Sasuke responds, yes.
Naruto launches himself across his bed to shut the door to his room. Sakura is at the other end of the corridor, but he doesn’t want to take chances. And then, he waits. Ten minutes pass, and then twenty. It’s only then that Naruto realizes that the idiot might not understand what you alone might imply, so he grits his teeth and hits, the video logo. The high-pitched trill of the FaceTime call is unbearably loud. Sasuke picks up on the third ring, frowning. “What’s wrong?”
Naruto opens his mouth to yell at him that he shouldn’t keep people waiting, but then he realizes that Sasuke’s hair is wet and his shoulders are bare in the shot. “Did you just step out of the shower?”
“I told you, I went for a run,” Sasuke answers. “What’s wrong?”
Naruto rolls his eyes heavenward. “Nothing’s wrong , you stupid bastard, I just—” Just what? Naruto thinks. What exactly was he hoping to achieve with a phone call? “Nothing, I just—it’s nothing. You should sleep.”
Sasuke tilts his head at an angle. The camera moves with him as he walks. “You writing a speech?”
Naruto stares at his laptop. He’s been stuck on the same paragraph for the past six hours now. “Trying to,” he mutters. “It’s not going anywhere.”
Sasuke finally sets down the camera, tilted up at an angle so that Naruto can see the full breadth of his chest now, the hair on his chest, the small scar running down his left collarbone. His skin lights up from a laptop screen. “You should say the words aloud. That seems to help you.”
“That’s because I’m crazy and the voices in my head like company,” Naruto counters. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for a job,” Sasuke answers neatly, which explains the glow of the laptop screen on his skin. “I’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed,” he mutters to himself, distracted by the task at him. A moment later, he adds, even quieter and more private, “And not a lot of skills to offer, turns out.”
Naruto clenches his hands into a fist. He’d ruined his man’s career. “Did you talk to my father about—”
“Don’t,” Sasuke interrupts softly. “It’s bad enough that I—Don’t you have a speech to write?”
“I do,” Naruto admits, and goes back to his speech. Sasuke goes back to his job hunt, and when Naruto looks up again from his task, it’s to find that a few hours have passed, and Sasuke has moved locations. He’s leaning back in bed now, still frowning at a screen. Still shirtless. Naruto can see the cut of the muscles in his stomach as he lounges back. The line of hair becomes darker as it disappears under the waist of his worn-looking sweats. “You should sleep,” Naruto manages to say.
Sasuke scrubs a hand over his face. The rasp of his beard against his skin makes Naruto’s toes curl. “Might as well,” he agrees, and shuts his laptop with a soft click. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Naruto returns, and the call ends. The timer on the screen tells him that the call had lasted two hours, fourteen minutes, and twenty-two seconds.
The next day, the texting starts again, but come evening, they’re both on FaceTime, working at opposite ends of the country, only talking every now. On the third night, their FaceTime call gets interrupted by Itachi, who pads over to Sasuke, half-asleep, and says, “Dad, I’m hungry.”
“Me too,” Sasuke agrees, and Naruto watches on screen as he leads Itachi to a cramped, lived-in kitchen and lifts him onto the counter. “Talk to Naruto,” He orders Itachi, and Itachi turns the phone towards him. His face is puffy with sleep.
Naruto smiles. It’s his first time meeting any of Sasuke’s children. “Hi, Itachi.”
“You know my name?”
“I do,” Naruto says. “I’ve heard so much about you from your father.”
Itachi’s gaze drifts to Sasuke. “He’s making us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He cuts off the crust for me, but my big brother Kakashi likes the crust.”
“Squares or rectangles?” Naruto asks, and Itachi launches into a rambling talk about how he prefers rectangles, but Kakashi likes squares, and Shisui doesn’t like it cut at all , which is weird. Shisui is weird sometimes.
“We’re all weird, though. We’re Uchiha,” Itachi concedes, and Sasuke appears in view. He takes the phone from Itachi’s hands and balances it against the counter so that they are both visible. Then, he holds out a small square of sandwich for Itachi; he’s holding a piece in his own hands.
They tap their squares together in a form of a toast. Sasuke says around a mouthful, “What’s the verdict? Five stars?”
“It’s good,” Itachi concedes, and stuffs his face with three more pieces of the sandwich. Naruto watches him eat, unable to look away from his small hands, the fierce look of concentration on his face while chews, the wild spiking mess of his hair, and his pudgy cheeks. He’s only five years old, a baby still. When he’s finished eating, he wipes at his mouth and declares, “I’m full.”
“Good, because you ate all the food we had left, kid,” Sasuke deadpans. “We’re going hungry for the rest of the month.”
Itachi’s laugh ends with a snort. He scrambles off the counter with Sasuke’s help and says, “Good night, Naruto. Night, Dad.”
Naruto waits for Itachi to turn and look at the camera again. “Good night, sweetheart.”
“You wake me up before seven in the morning, I’m leaving you out in the woods to be raised by wolves,” Sasuke warns. Itachi only mutters, Good night, Dad , and vanishes down the corridor.
Naruto waits until Sasuke retreats to the living room again. “He’s a baby,” Naruto mutters for lack of anything better to say.
“He’s five,” Sasuke corrects, returning to his screen. “He’s not a baby.”
“He still has baby cheeks and baby hands,” Naruto points out. “He probably smells like a baby, too.”
Sasuke arches an eyebrow at him. “Go to sleep, Naruto. You sound deranged.”
Which Naruto has to admit is true. This whole situation is deranged. Each of their FaceTime calls lasts for hours, and they exchange only a few words at a time. They only call each other for the quiet company. Naruto doesn’t even know what to make of any of it.
The question is out of his mouth before he can rethink it. “Will you call me tomorrow?”
Sasuke’s amusement vanishes in increments until his expression is that serious blank slate again. “Do you want me to?”
Naruto wants , and he can’t even comprehend the depth of it. He’s always been the one to call Sasuke, but he wants Sasuke to return the favor for once. He wants to know if Sasuke wants to. He takes a breath and admits, “I want you to want to.”
Sasuke is still for so long that Naruto thinks he might say, No or Don’t call me again . Instead, he asks, “When should I call you?”
Naruto feels like a teenager. He can’t stop himself from smiling. “Whenever. Maybe with the kids?”
Sasuke’s lips curl into a lopsided smile. A dimple appears on his cheek, and the detail catches all of Naruto’s attention. “You want to talk to the kids?”
“I like them better than you,” Naruto counters neatly. He pauses a beat and asks again, “You’ll call?”
“I’ll call,” Sasuke promises, and ends the call after wishing Naruto his usual, Good night . Naruto barely gets any sleep that night, and spends the next day anxious for nightfall. By the time Sasuke calls, he has changed his shirt twice. There’s something about first impressions, and he wants to make a good one with Sasuke’s children.
Yaese’s face is so close to the lens that all Naruto can see is his cheek. Kakashi calls out, “Yaese, stop being weird!” A moment later, Naruto sees Kakashi lifting Yaese bodily to drag him back a few steps. He puts Yaese on the floor, and settles down next to him, squinting at the screen. “Hello. My name is Uchiha Kakashi.”
Kakashi. Naruto smiles. “My name is Uzumaki Naruto. Nice to meet you, Kakashi.”
Itachi says, “Hi, Naruto!”
Naruto feels his heart clench because apparently, asleep or awake, Itachi has the same puffy cheeks and wild hair. “Hi, sweetheart.”
Mikoto gasps and skips over to the camera to stare at Naruto intently, blocking the view of her brothers behind her. “How come you’re so pretty? Are you on TV?”
“That’s FaceTime, Micky, not TV,” Kakashi points out, and takes it upon himself to hoist her up around the waist and pull her away from the camera. He sits her down next to Yaese, and then takes a seat himself on the floor. “Dad told us we had to introduce ourselves and behave because everyone says we were raised by wolves.”
“We don’t have wolves. It’s just Dad,” Mikoto adds helpfully. She points to Shisui, sitting quietly on the couch. “He’s my twin. Shisui. We’re fraternal twins.” She says the word with great gusto; clearly, it is the biggest word in her lexicon.
“Hello,” Shisui says, and watches the camera with big, soulful eyes. They are spitting images of their father, down to the stubborn set of their chins. The have the same dark eyes, and the same intense stare. But all of them—including Kakashi, at eight years old—have their baby cheeks and baby faces still. They have small hands and small feet, and small torsos. They fit easily on the screen, all five of them.
Naruto doesn’t bother holding back his smile. “What did you guys do today?”
They all open their mouths and speak at once.
The next day, Naruto goes shopping. He visits toy stores, bakeries, and then spends a full hour in a boutique that sells children’s clothes. He ends the morning at a bookstore, browsing the children’s section until he finds what he’s looking for. When he gets home, he spends the afternoon arranging it all into five separate care packages, including one for Yaese. He spent two hours talking to the children last night, and he cannot remember—no matter how hard he tries—two hours that he has enjoyed more in the past year. He likes the children, all of them, and he’d woken up the next morning eager to buy them things, to pamper them, to do something for them.
Kakashi is serious like his father and takes the job of being big brother very seriously. He has heard so many stories about Naruto’s father that he seems to think that Hatake Kakashi isn’t even real, just a figment of everyone’s imaginations. When I grow big , he’d said, earnest the way Sasuke is earnest, I want to be just like Hatake Kakashi . Itachi is curious and open and light-hearted. When he laughs, he sometimes ends up snorting, which makes him laugh even more. Mikoto is wide-eyed wonder, and every now and then will interrupt herself with an excited, Oh! Oh! This usually happens when she remembers something else unrelated, which then leads her on a tangent. Like her brothers, she has short hair, but she wears a clip to keep the bangs out of her face. At one point, she tried to touch the screen to feel the texture of Naruto’s hair, which made the call end. Shisui called him back, frowning at the screen. At first, he spoke very little, but by the end of two hours, he was telling Naruto about how he liked puzzles and how he finished the children’s crossword playbook all by himself. All by himself, Kakashi agrees. He’s really good at chess, too . Yaese is a baby still. He still has the waddle of a three-year old, but he’s potty trained, and he’s very excited about this.
Naruto makes cards for them all on construction paper. He uses a liberal amount of colors and glitter and all manners of stickers, making sure to personalize each care package for each of the children. A Rubik’s cube for Shisui, a firetruck and a play police badge for Itachi, a soccer ball for Kakashi, and a child’s stethoscope for Mikoto, because she wants to be the best doctor in the whole wide world when she grows up. For Yaese, Naruto goes a bit overboard in the boutique and purchases a full outfit: little shoes, little socks, a tiny shirt, and small cargo pants. It’s a very handsome outfit. He blows off an entire day’s worth of work on this project, and ships it overnight.
I’m sending the babies a surprise , Naruto texts Sasuke.
Sasuke’s first response is, not babies. His second response is: don’t .
Naruto sends a picture of the receipt from the shipping center with the tracking number. Too late! Check your mail tomorrow. I want them to open it over breakfast. As an afterthought, he adds, And they are babies. I have seen them. Baby faces. Baby hands. Baby cheeks. Ergo: babies!
Sasuke calls back. When Naruto picks up, Sasuke says, “Deranged. You sound unhinged.”
This is how all their conversations have been. They start conversations at one place, end at another, and then pick it up again two days later in the middle of a thought. It is so very easy to talk to Sasuke, who never judges Naruto for his neuroses or treats him any different for being Hatake Kakashi’s son. He only stares at Naruto with that dark gaze of his, and says whatever it is on his mind in that deadpan, succinct way of his. Naruto cradles the phone against his shoulder and keeps typing out an email explaining to Tenten that he will need two more hours on the prepared remarks he was supposed to send her way earlier in the day. “Can I talk to them before they go to bed tonight?” Naruto asks.
“You talked to them for two hours yesterday. You played Snakes and Ladders with them on FaceTime,” Sasuke points out. “You want to talk to them again?”
Naruto stops typing. He stares at the shipping center receipt. Idiot, Uzumaki , he thinks. It’s one thing to talk to a man. It’s another to assume he’s allowed access to his children. “Do you not want—if that’s okay. I don’t want to overstep or—”
“Naruto,” Sasuke interrupts in a low voice. “It’s fine. You can talk to them if you want. They like you.”
“I don’t want to overstep,” Naruto repeats, feeling stupid now. He’s dated a few men in college, but the relationships never lasted long. They were usually with fellow professionals—lawyers, doctors, PhDs and political consultants and lobbyists. None of them had children, and they were all from the city. They all ended amicably, but he’s never been understood why he’s never sustained a relationship longer than six months. He’s never cared to wonder, because it was always easy for him to walk into a bar or a coffee shop or a party and take a man to bed for the night. His last boyfriend had been an architect that he met at an event that Kakashi had been invited to; they had parted ways after three months, and the break-up hadn’t even fazed Naruto. It had started, and it had ended.
Now, he’s talking to a man somewhere in the rural landscapes of District 11, a man with five children , a man whose wife left him three years ago but who still wears his wedding ring diligently. He just sent care packages to the man’s children the day after he met them.
It’s beyond presumptuous. It’s downright rude. It’s deranged . Naruto clears his throat. “Now that I think about it, I probably have to work tonight, so—”
“Naruto,” Sasuke interrupts again. His sigh crackles in Naruto’s ear. “I didn’t mean anything by it. You can talk to them. I just know they can be a handful, so I try to limit how much exposure people get.”
“You don’t have to limit my exposure to them,” Naruto says, words rushed in his hurry to assuage Sasuke’s worry. “And they’re not a handful. They’re lovely.”
“I guess they’re alright,” Sasuke says, nonchalant. He sounds like he’s chewing on something. “I tried leaving them in the woods once—”
“You did not!” Mikoto yells from somewhere in the background.
“I most certainly did,” Sasuke deadpans.
Itachi’s voice is very near to the receiver when he yells, “Is that Naruto? Hi Naruto! We played Snakes and Ladders again today! I practiced rolling the dice so I can beat you!”
Naruto’s cheeks hurt from smiling so broadly. “I bought a book to read to them.”
Sasuke is silent for a moment. “You bought a book to read to them,” he repeats carefully.
Naruto stares at the copy of The Lion , The Witch, and the Wardrobe on his bed. Kakashi had read the series to Sakura and Naruto when they were children. It is his favorite to this day, and he’d purchased one for Sasuke’s children with bright illustrations. “Or I could just ship it. Actually, it’s not even—”
“For fuck’s sake, Naruto,” Sasuke interrupts with another explosive sigh. “Stop being so goddamn polite about this. I don’t mind.”
“You said the G word and the F word!” Shisui says. “Pay up!”
“Demon spawn,” Sasuke grumbles, and after a round of negotiations with his children about how much he needs to deposit in the Swear Jar, he returns to the conversation with Naruto. “I’ll call when it’s close to their bed time. You can read it to them.”
Naruto grips the book lightly. “You sure?”
Sasuke doesn’t hesitate. “I want you to.”
Naruto takes a deep breath. That’s the thing about Sasuke. He talks to Naruto, and sometimes, it makes Naruto’s skin jittery and his stomach twist with anticipation. It’s the low timber of his voice, the intensity of his words, the slight northern drawl to his vowels. “I’ll talk to you in a few hours, then.”
“You will,” Sasuke promises, and hangs up the call.
The third debate is on domestic policy, and since Naruto practically wrote the campaign’s platform for domestic policy, his days go from lazy and relaxed in the capital to an eighteen-hour grind the minute he returns from his break after the photos leaked. And of course, there is the matter of the lingering controversy.
The conservative news outlets revisit the issue on a daily basis, bolstering an argument that links Naruto’s indiscretions to Kakashi’s character. Added to Kakashi’s own sex scandal earlier in the primaries, the picture they paint is one that will no doubt turn off conservative voters in the rural districts: a city man who plays fast and loose with morals, a man who raised a son with the same decrepitude of character. A drunken encounter with a married man is hardly news, the conservative pundits will say, but continue to talk about it as if it is news. But they will furrow their eyebrows, leaving most of their judgement unsaid. Never mind that Sasuke’s wife left him.
Somehow, Danzo almost always seems to pick a reporter who asks him questions about Kakashi’s character. They are thinly veiled references to the two sex scandals now plaguing Kakashi. Despite Ino’s best efforts as a spokeswoman, she is unable to shut down the controversy. Which is how Naruto finds himself calling Sasuke one afternoon in a bathroom, sick to his goddamn stomach about the news he is about to break.
Sasuke has found a job on a ranch foreman. His days are now marked by long hours in the hot sun and demanding tasks that sometimes has his muscles aching. His day begins well before sunrise, long before the children wake up, and ends long after sundown. He does not have the time to eat a single meal with the children, let alone play with them like he used to. Jugo’s mother drops off the children at school or daycare, and picks them up again. Once, Sasuke didn’t see his children or talk to them for a full week. Naruto still calls the children every night and reads to them or plays with them, so he has spent more time with the children since Sasuke started his new job than Sasuke does himself. The man only gets a single half day off.
Sasuke is not the kind of man to complain, so he doesn’t. He just does the job. He texts Naruto when he can, and sometimes, when the sun is setting and Sasuke is overseeing the herd getting led back in from the grazing fields, he’ll call Naruto and they’ll talk. He does this while on horseback. Naruto had asked for a picture once, just to make sense of Sasuke’s new daily routine. Sasuke had one of his ranch hands take the picture, and the image has stuck with him: Sasuke with muddied shoes, worn jeans, a T-shirt layered with button-up plaid shirt that he rolled up to his sleeves. He was resting easily on the saddle, looking annoyed at having been asked for the picture in the first place and scowling at the camera to let Naruto know just how idiotic he found the request. But still, Naruto saved the picture for himself.
He imagines Sasuke in that picture now, at the end of a long day, watching his ranch hands herd the cows back in. Sasuke picks up, and he’s panting. “What is it?”
Naruto tracks the writing on the wall next to him. It’s a restroom in a high school, so the doors to each of the stalls have been marked up with messages and taunts. He can still hear the distant sound of cheers and Kakashi, speaking on a microphone. This is the only place in the entire building with some semblance of privacy. “What are you doing?”
“Setting up new fencing for the herd,” Sasuke answers between hard breaths. “You?”
Sitting in a high school bathroom, Naruto doesn’t say. “Kakashi’s at a town hall event at a local high school gym,” he explains.
Sasuke pulls away from the phone to issue orders, Yeah, all the way down. We’ll set up the stakes when it’s deep enough . A moment later, he’s back on the phone. “What’s wrong?”
Naruto tilts his head against the door. “I miss you.”
It’s not the first time he’s said the words. He’s said it twice before already, the first time right after Sasuke started his new job and their conversations dwindled to one or two texts and day and barely any calls or FaceTime. The words had come stuttering out when Sasuke finally did call, blundering through his version of an apology for not being more available. It’s this job, he’d said. I’m new, so I have to do good work to convince the boss that —and Naruto had interrupted him with a shaky sigh, I miss you . Sasuke had gone completely silent when Naruto first said it. He’d been silent for so long that Naruto thought, This is it, Uzumaki, you’ve done it now . But then, he’d murmured into the phone, Yeah , and just like that, they were fine again. Naruto didn’t doubt himself when he said the words a second time.
Now, Sasuke doesn’t hesitate when Naruto says the words. “Yeah,” he agrees, which is the most he will ever say, but it’s the quiet pitch of his voice, the heaviness in the way he says it that convinces Naruto that Sasuke means to say, I miss you, too . “What’s wrong?”
“There’s more pictures of us,” Naruto explains. “We got a heads-up from a tabloid asking for comment.”
Sasuke is silent for a heartbeat. “What kind of pictures?”
Naruto flushes. They haven’t talked about this, at least not openly. “It’s more explicit,” he says. “There will be some tabloid photographers showing up in your town. Or you might get calls—”
“Can we talk about this tonight?” Sasuke interrupts. “I have to get back to work.”
Naruto traces a message in sharpie that reads, ANYONE ACTUALLY READ THIS SHIT? Underneath, a few other students had written out responses. “You’ll call?”
“Do you want me to?”
Naruto smiles. This is another thing that Sasuke does that makes him feel too light to keep his feet planted on the ground. He asks for permission. “I want you to want to.”
Sasuke huffs a quiet laugh into the phone. It’s a soft sound, barely audible, but Naruto presses the phone close to his ear to hear it better. “You say that like I’ll ever stop wanting to,” he mutters.
There are a million and one clever lines that Naruto could deploy to break this moment. He doesn’t want to, though, so he just says for a second time, “I miss you.”
This time, Sasuke surprises him. “Me too.”
He hangs up before Naruto even registers the words. He spends a few more moments in the bathroom, splashing water on his face and trying to calm down the skittering beat of his heart. By the time he steps out, Suigetsu looks thoroughly bored.
They’re walking back towards the gymnasium when Suigetsu asks, mild, “How’s the boyfriend?”
Naruto feels his neck get hot. He knows that Sasuke still keeps in touch with Suigetsu, Jugo, and Karin, but he hadn’t realized he’d told them about their conversations. He stares down Suigetsu. “Ask him yourself.”
“Oh I did,” Suigetsu says mildly, hooking his hands into his pockets as he walks. “But I got sick and tired of his pining.”
Naruto slows down his pace and gives Suigetsu a sidelong glance. “Did he say anything? About me?”
“Fuck’s sake,” Suigetsu grumbles. “What are we? In elementary school? You want me to pass along a note? Do you like me, check yes or no.”
“You’re not always as funny as you think you are,” Naruto points out, feeling petty but not caring. He’s taken over Naruto’s protection since Sasuke got fired, and over the weeks, Naruto has gotten to know that Suigetsu just does not give a shit. He says what’s on his mind—and what’s on his mind is often crass and vulgar—and does what he thinks is right. Nothing else bothers him, including Naruto’s anger or annoyance at his routinely infuriating comments.
“Yeah, and your ass isn’t as perky as Sasuke thinks it is,” Suigetsu counters. Naruto opens his mouth to point out that it is beyond inappropriate to comment on his ass, but then Suigetsu doubles down with a smirk. “Not saying it isn’t perky, mind you. I just don’t think I could bounce a coin off it like Sasuke says. The physics of curvatures being what they are.”
He pushes open the double doors to the gym with a flourish, and Naruto steps into the space at the exact moment that the crowd breaks out into a thunderous applause, drowning out entirely Naruto’s extended tribute to just how much an piece of shit Suigetsu is. The man only smiles at him.
Naruto’s annoyance at Suigetsu’s comment follows him throughout the day, so when Suigetsu does a sweep of his hotel room and bids him goodnight at the entrance, Naruto returns it with a middle finger and a syrupy sweet, Good night, Agent Dipshit . Suigetsu smirks. “A mouthy one, aren’t you?” he says, and saunters off to relieve Naruto’s protection to another agent.
Naruto furiously works on talking points for the third debate until it’s time to call the children. He talks to them for an hour, listening to them ramble about their days, what they did and where they went, asking them what they learned in school, and checking in with Jugo’s mother—a Mrs. Biratori who calls Naruto sweetheart and tells him he needs to eat more at every conversation—if the children need anything. He sends them care packages almost every other day now. Itachi likes to keep track of where Naruto is traveling so Naruto sends him postcard from a gift shop at every town he goes to. Shisui likes puzzles, so Naruto collects those as well. Mikoto gets toys and hair clips, and Kakashi gets books on national parks in the country because he’s getting really involved in a school project. Yaese gets colorful clothes and toys and anything else that Naruto spots and wants to send. He’s set up a recurring shipment of groceries to be delivered to Sasuke’s house because she needs all the help she can get taking care of five children. The groceries includes things that the children like (all organic; he’s read literature , goddamnit, and he can’t stand the thought of the children eating anything out of wrapped packaging now).
Mrs. Biratori eventually understood that Naruto was remotely trying to micromanage the children’s meal plans, so now she updates Naruto on what the children have eaten, and whether they liked it. As always, once Naruto is finished reading to the children and they sleepily crawl into bed, Mrs. Biratori takes the phone. Naruto always asks the same question. “Do they need anything?”
“No, no,” Mrs. Biratori assures him. “They’re just fine, sweetheart. Stop your worrying.”
“Shisui said his throat hurt,” Naruto insists. “I can send a doctor to do a house call or—”
Mrs. Biratoris laugh cuts him off. “My god, Naruto, stop worrying so much. Children are resilient.”
Naruto takes a deep breath. “Thank you.”
“No, thank you, child,” Mrs. Biratori counters. “I really do like the flowers you send me every day.”
“I’ll keep sending them, then,” Naruto promises her with a smile, and they hang up the phone.
Sasuke doesn’t call until several hours later. His hair is wet and his chest bare. Naruto can’t stop looking at the solid line of his collarbone. It’s distracting him to no end. “What are these pictures of?” Sasuke asks by way of hello.
Naruto forwards the email on his laptop. “Just sent them.”
Sasuke drapes himself across the bed to reach for his laptop, and for a while, there’s only movement on screen. The glow of the computer screen is bright when he flips it open. A moment later, his expression goes still.
The pictures are of them in bed, a shot taken from an angle so that they are visible through the wide-open balcony door of Sasuke’s room. Naruto is naked, although this fact is mostly covered by Sasuke, who thankfully, has sheets covering the lower half of his body. All that is visible is the broad expanse of Sasuke’s bare back, a shock of black hair as he presses his face into Naruto’s neck, with one hand braced against the headboard, trapping Naruto’s hand into place. There is relatively little skin on display, but there is no mistaking what is happening in the picture because Naruto has a leg folded up to his chest, and another around Sasuke’s back. In the picture, Naruto has his head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open in quiet pleasure. The picture was taken in the dead of the night, but the lights are on in the hotel room, so the precise color of the headboard, the white of the sheets, and the blurry, bright green display of the clock on the nightstand are all apparent.
There are two more pictures of them like this. In one, Sasuke has lifted his face from Naruto’s neck and has pushed himself up just enough to look down at Naruto. In another, they are kissing, Sasuke with a hand in Naruto’s hair, tilting his face back so that he can slot their lips together.
Naruto takes a breath to start the conversation about what this means for Sasuke and his privacy, the statement that he will need to put out, the campaign staff that will be in touch with him to handle the fallout. But Sasuke beats him to it with a quiet question. “What do they get out of publishing these?”
“Sales,” Naruto says. “It distracts from the issues, and it humiliates my father.”
Sasuke rubs at his face. He is tired most days, but today, he looks worse for wear. “Can’t you convince them to hold off or give them something if they don’t publish it?”
“No, it’s more beneficial to them financially if they publish,” Naruto offers. “Listen, Sasuke, I need to talk to you about a few things. About what this means for you and the kids.”
“It means I might lose my goddamn job again,” Sasuke says with a sigh. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “God damn it. God fucking damn it .”
“Sasuke, listen, this will come out tomorrow, which means you need to have a statement ready—”
“I don’t have a college degree, Naruto,” Sasuke snaps. “I’ve only ever done one thing, and that was to be a soldier. I don’t know how to do anything else. I have five kids, who I just moved out of the city to avoid the goddamn tabloid photographers and paparazzi. I have a goddamn mortgage, and I just got this fucking job which was a goddamn miracle in this economy. Now, I have to explain this picture to my kids. Aside talking to a five year old about sex, I will have to convince my children that their mother isn’t dead in a ditch somewhere, overdosed on god knows what, because if they see me with someone else, their first question will be, Is mom not coming back? Can you fit all of that into your fucking statement?”
Naruto spreads his fingers wide carefully onto the bed sheet next to him, trying to ground himself. He’d been working in bed when Sasuke called, and now, he’s glad for the support of the headboard as he presses back into it. Sasuke has the right to be angry, Naruto knows, but it still stings to be on the receiving end of it.
Even though, technically, this is all Naruto’s fault. There is no one to blame but Naruto.
The silence stretches for far too long, so Naruto fixes at a spot on the bed by where his feet are stretched out and says, “The statement is just to ask for privacy for your family. Ino will take care of most of the other logistics. If there are photographers, they can’t come onto private property, but you should close all the blinds and not answer any questions,” Naruto drags his gaze away from his toes and looks at Sasuke on the screen of his laptop. “I’m sorry about all of this. It’s my fault.”
Sasuke nods once, stiff. “Ino will put out the statement?”
“She’ll email you everything so you can review it,” Naruto answers. “She will be the point person on this.”
“That’s fine,” Sasuke says. He presses his lips into a thin line and watches Naruto with his dark gaze, face still lit up from the glow of his computer. The phone has been propped up against something at a distance from him, so Naruto can see that his hands are clenched into fists in his lap. The muscle in his forearm is taut tension.
“I’ll let you sleep,” Naruto offers. “Good night.”
Sasuke’s responding Good night is immediate, and then he’s leaning forward to end the call. The screen goes blank. Their FaceTime calls usually last an hour, but this one had lasted less than ten minutes.
Naruto closes the screen of his laptop, piles all his notes haphazardly, and sets them all on the ground next to his bed. He doesn’t even bother brushing his teeth, just settles under the covers and closes his eyes to sleep. Tomorrow will be worse. There is no point in staying up when he will have to face the glare of cameras tomorrow and read his own statement aloud at a podium, in front of an entire nation. I regret my actions , he will say, I will ask you again for privacy as I take a leave of absence from the campaign. This time, despite Kakashi’s thundering anger at Danzo for stooping so low, Shikaku had decreed that Naruto take an indefinite leave of absence. He will still be called on to work on speeches and prepared remarks, but he will dissociate entirely from the day-to-day of the campaign. He will not attend staff meetings, have input on major decisions, or be caught on film, camera, or tape saying anything or doing anything. When— if —this blows over, he may rejoin the campaign. What is left unsaid that even if Kakashi wins, there is no space for Naruto on the transition team. He might be rehired down the line once the administration gets established, but for now, Naruto needs to disappear. He's already packed. Sakura is expecting him back in the capital the next day, immediately after Naruto finishes reading his statement.
Eventually, Naruto falls into a fitful sleep. He wakes up feeling tired and groggy, but puts himself together with copious amounts of coffee, and walks up to the podium alone because Hiashi and Shikaku convinced Kakashi— Naruto had convinced Kakashi—that he shouldn’t be seen on stage with Naruto. No one from the campaign should be seen on stage with Naruto. That is a visual that they cannot afford. The snap of cameras is so loud it’s one low din, and Naruto looks directly into the bright lights as he reads the statement carefully as he’d practiced it the day before. “Before I take your questions,” he begins, “I would like to read a short statement.”
He says sorry to the campaign staff, to the candidate, Hatake Kakashi, to all the supporters who placed faith in him to behave as is befitting his position. He tells them that he regrets his actions, and that he did not intend to cause harm to anyone. “Especially,” Naruto says, and stares at the words on his piece of paper, feeling his throat close on the words.
The children might be watching this.
He takes a breath, and soldiers on, “Especially Uchiha Sasuke and his family. They deserve.” He takes another breath, and finishes the sentence. “Better. You all do.”
He asks them for privacy while he takes a leave of absence from the campaign. And then, he presses a hand flat against the podium, steadies himself, and says, “I’ll take your questions now.”