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Margin of Error

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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.”