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The shrieking ring of the alarm clock was useless, for Naruto hadn’t slept at all.

He turned it off with a light punch but didn’t otherwise move. He kept staring, unblinking and motionless, at the ceiling above his head, as he had done all night, while the sun set, slept, and rose again. As he had done so many times before, since he had lived in that small apartment for as long as he could remember.

He could have moved out after becoming a jounin, when he had finally started to make a decent amount of money, but he had never felt the need. He was even reluctant now to let go of the place that had been his home, in the material sense if not the spiritual one. A place to return, a safe haven in an otherwise hostile village.

It also helped that slowly, the other ninjas of his generation had all but invested the building, settling in the other floors, renting flat after flat until almost all his neighbors were dear, trusted friends. To think once upon a time, people were reluctant to move in here, to live so close to him.

The lingering bitterness he still tasted when he thought about those times would never fade completely, but he had made his peace with it. And today, he was moving forward, definitely closing that chapter of his life.

He still didn’t want to move out, but he had been told it would be expected of his rank village to live in more… dignified accommodation. He believed he could put it off, for now, make a show of settling in the Hokage Tower while holding on to his own place. There would be enough to worry about in the upcoming months, even if the transition had been in motion for some times, with him shadowing Kakashi more and more. For once the handover wasn’t a rushed affair, born out of tragic death and desperation. Maybe that’s why the village was going so overboard with it. Sakura pretended it was just because it was him, because they were all terribly fond of him, but Sakura didn’t know what she was talking about – not that he would say that to her face.

Speaking of Sakura, there was a loud pounding at his front door, and he could recognize her just by the strength of it. He dragged himself out of bed, hoping she wouldn’t notice how tired he was, and went to open to her.

"I wanted to make sure you wouldn't oversleep," she said with a smile by way of greetings. He couldn’t quite manage to smile back – nerves were catching up on him, fast.

“As if I could,” he said, and he didn’t like how honest he sounded, how vulnerable. She caught on immediately – he could no longer hide anything from her.

“Nervous, huh?” she teased, although she said it gently, without any malice. He looked away, embarrassed.

“You have no idea.”

She rested a hand on his shoulder, catching him off guard. He was taller than her, but not by much, and he always felt small when she looked at him like this, with such fondness and affection. It was in the good sense too – he felt small enough to hide in her embrace, to be protected by the wild reach of her love. He hunched over, just a little, to get closer.

“It’s today, Naruto,” she said calmly, with such simple determination that she could have said anything, he would have believed her. “It’s happening. It’s real.”

She knew him too well.

“Come on, go get dressed and I’ll make some breakfast, if I can find anything of substance around here.”

“You say that, but I’ve seen your fridge, Sakura. Are you sure you’re not here just because I do, indeed, have food in here?”

She stuck her tongue at him before going to the kitchen. She knew her way around, having crashed here a lot in the past few years. She lived with Ino two floors below, and Naruto was her go-to friend when she needed to vent about her insufferable girlfriend. They fought a lot, although it had gotten better recently, and usually needed to sleep on it away from each other. The funny thing was, Ino slept at Shikamaru’s on those nights, or Choji’s, when their lazy friend was gone to Suna, so the girls’ flat remained empty. It was also about finding comfort near a friend though, so Naruto had never suggested she slept alone in her bed when Ino was gone. In fact, when the blonde girl was away on missions, Sakura crashed on her friends' couch a lot more. She had drunkenly confessed to him once that she hated their bedroom when the other girl wasn’t there.

Naruto could kind of understand the sentiment, except he really didn't, since he seldom shared his bed, ever. 

Sasuke was gone a lot these days.

It didn’t bother him as much as Ino and Sakura and all their friends seemed to think it should have. They had admitted though, after a while, that they simply didn’t get their relationship, but that it seemed to work in a weird way, and left the issue alone, for the most part.

He wasn’t even sure Sasuke would show up today. He hadn’t dared ask, the last time they had seen each other, although the date was already set then. They were still working on many knots and bumps in their relationship and he never knew what topic was safe to discuss, although it often appeared that he had worried for nothing. It was just so surprising to see Sasuke being so peaceful now, so steady and collected. Not in the holier-than-thou, arrogant way he had been as a teenager, but as someone sure of his worth, of his path, of his place in the world.

A place that somehow included being by Naruto’s side, if only in thoughts. Wild.

“Naruto! I don’t hear you getting ready! Are you lost thinking about your boy again?”

He chuckled to himself. She didn’t know how right she was, but then again, it was always a safe bet with him. Sasuke was always on his mind.

Even today, when he had so much to think about.

He got dressed quickly. He had never quite get rid of the orange, it was his signature color at this point, but he had more black and dark grey in his everyday clothes now. The Hokage robe was to be delivered at the Administration Center, he would pass it over his clothes when he got there.

Kakashi would put the hat on his head himself.

He washed his face, tried in vain to tame his hair a bit. He secured his hitai-ate around his forehead and looked at his reflection. He wore his hair on the short side since an unfortunate incident with a campfire had forced him to cut them. Sakura said it made him look older, more mature, and he was ready to do anything, including that, if that meant he would be taken slightly more seriously by others. Anything except totally signing off the orange, that was, to the girl’s great dismay. She had stopped trying to convince him to drop it. She had given up on many fights over the years, for the better. She said it was living with Ino that had taught her that, because she didn’t want her life to be a constant fight.

He thought that the true reason was they had done enough fighting to last them a lifetime.

It was a common feeling among their friends. They tended to be very laidback, not to worry too much and not to work themselves up over things that were out of their control or of little importance. After fighting for their life, for their country, for the entire world repeatedly in their youth, it was hard to get worried at more trivial matters. And everything seemed trivial compared to global extinction.

He hurried off to the kitchen, not trusting Sakura not to burn it down – she was debatably even worse than him at the stove. At home she wasn’t allowed to cook without Ino to watch her. Ino called her a failed housewife to spite her, but it was obvious they both saw that as a compliment.

“Don’t worry, despite what my other half says, I can fry some rice and vegetables without adult’s supervision,” Sakura huffed when she saw him rushing into the kitchen. He didn’t comment, even though he had at least one occurrence in mind that could refute that allegation, and boiled some water for the tea. Breakfast was edible if a bit soggy. Too heavy on the salt as always. He didn’t even notice anymore, and he was particularly distracted that morning.

“The ceremony will begin after lunch, at two, but you’re expected there this morning. Last minute paperwork, and then you’ll eat with Kakashi in the office, it’s a bit of a tradition.”

“Probably to sanctify the first of many meals taken in that damn chair…” Naruto said around a mouthful of rice, still not over his disappointment when he had discovered how uncomfortable the Hokage chair was. He was going to have it changed in no time.

“Better get used to it,” she answered with a smile.

There was a time she would have disapproved of such comments. When it had started to become more and more of a reality that Naruto was indeed going to take over Kakashi as head of the village, everyone had had to adjust to the idea that the resident idiot would soon have a lot of crucial paperwork and official business to tend to. He didn’t blame them, because it was a bit his own fault. For all he had always claimed he wanted to be Hokage to earn the recognition of the village, he had never let it shown that he actually knew what the hat entailed, what it truly meant, to be Hokage. As a child, he truly hadn’t known. When the idea had first formed in his mind, he only knew that everyone had to respect the Hokage, and that he wanted that too.

But he had grown up, and he had given it a lot of thought. He had observed the Sandaime, Tsunade, Kakashi, and even the other Kage, Gaara especially. He knew, had known for years, that being a Kage meant working long, arduous hours, doing unpleasant things he didn’t want to do, giving his time to people he didn’t like and not being able to spare some to the ones he did. It meant bearing the responsibilities of the entire village and the safety of its inhabitants, the weight of secrets and heavy, hard decisions.

He knew Sakura had been convinced for a really long time that he didn't truly take the measure of that daunting task. He had doubted himself too. Had lost sleep over it, wondering if he was truly up for the challenge, if he wasn’t fantasizing something far from the reality of it. Shadowing Kakashi had eased those fears a bit, as well as Sakura’s and all the others, but they were still very much present.

He was terrified of failing like he had never been before.

He felt as helpless and frustrated as when he had taken the Genin exam, all three times. That terrible sensation that no matter how hard he worked and how hard he wanted it, he simply couldn’t succeed, and that everybody was well aware of it. He still expected the village to call it all off, to wake up and realize that it was crazy, to put him, Uzumaki Naruto, in such a position. He still couldn’t believe it, and chances were he wouldn’t for a while, even with the weight of the hat on his head.

He had trouble getting the food through the knot in his throat and stomach.

“You’re coming with me?” he asked with a small voice after pushing his plate away, giving up on eating. She didn’t comment – a testament to how aware she was of his torments, for she usually forced him to eat, complaining that as a boy living on his own he probably only ate stale crackers and instant noodle (which wasn’t completely wrong).

“Of course. Though I won’t be able to stay.”

He nodded in understanding. Sakura didn’t go on missions anymore, and still she was the busiest of them all, because she was gearing up to succeed to Tsunade as head of the Konoha Hospital and Chief Instructor of the medic-nin. Both women had fought hard so that more of them would be formed and to systemize their presence on high-risk missions. Naruto knew Sakura counted on him to enforce it once he was in office, something he would gladly do.

She didn’t know what day-offs were and she had long since installed a cot in her office at the hospital. It sometimes caused tensions between her and Ino, but none of them would ever suggest the other ease up on the work. It was their entire life, the hospital for Sakura, the Intelligence Division for Ino. They worked so well also because they acknowledged that need in each other, to give their best, to be useful. They could go back to each other’s arms at the end of the day, and it had to be enough.

"Don't worry though, you won't be alone," she added with a wink. She had probably robbed one of their friends into keeping him company until the H hour.

They brushed their teeth – Naruto kept a supply of fresh ones in his bathroom, seeing how much traffic it received, and before long they were both set to leave and face the day.

“Ready?” she asked, hand on the doorknob. She waited patiently while he checked his clothes, breathed deeply and straightened his back.

“Yeah.”

.

It was still early, a fact he was deeply grateful for. He wasn’t sure he would have been able to handle the eyes of the villagers on him, the smiles and the congratulations, the cheers. The few people they crossed path with were too much already. He was embarrassed and nervous as hell, and their praises only added to his discomfort. He longed to be in the safety of the Administrative Center – the staff was used to him already. For them he was already the Hokage in all but the forms.

They took the long way to pass the hospital. Naruto assumed his friend wanted to check something there first, but she proved him wrong when she started making her goodbyes.

“You said you’d come with me!” he whined. Not his proudest moment, but he dreaded facing the streets all by himself, deserted as they were. He was going to liquefy from nerves and Konoha would have to find itself another Nanadaime.

“Don’t worry, you big baby! I told you I had someone to take care of you,” she said with a smirk. “Ah! Here he comes.”

He was going to murder her, and then they would definitely have to search for another Hokage. Because Sasuke was back, and she hadn’t told him.

“I’ll leave you boys to it. Naruto,” she said, bringing him back to reality just enough time to hug him warmly. “See you on the other side, fucker.”

That sobered him up a little. She punched him lightly on the shoulder, nodded at Sasuke, and disappeared into the hospital. It was all the more surprising that Sasuke and Sakura’s relationship was rather… tense, still. Nothing like the stilted, resentful awkwardness that had lingered between them for months after Sasuke’s return to the village, but they still weren’t on the best of terms. Sakura resented him for being gone so often, never truly believing that he would come back. She just missed him, Naruto knew, but she didn’t know how to tell him, and Sasuke felt guilty enough regarding their past that he didn’t dare to push for anything, including a simple but heartfelt conversation.

Well, they would get there, eventually. He hoped.

“Hey.”

“Yo. When… When did you arrive?”

“Just a few hours ago. I wanted to be here yesterday but I got delayed on the way.”

“You… Is there a reason? I mean…”

Sasuke rolled his eyes in a way Naruto knew spoke of fondness, even if he looked annoyed.

“I heard someone what becoming Nanadaime today. Don't you think I would want to see that?"

Naruto opened his mouth but didn’t make a sound, which was answer enough. Sasuke grew more serious, and more irritated.

“Did you seriously thought I would miss your appointment?”

Naruto thought it wiser not to answer. Sasuke knew anyway.

“Idiot.”

“Hey! Well, enjoy this while you can, soon I’ll be your superior and you’ll be contractually obliged to pay me some respects.”

"Does that mean I'll have to obey you every order too?"

That bastard could say blatant innuendos with the straightest face, and Naruto, despite being a grown ass man with plenty of life experience, couldn't help but blush like an idiot every time. Sasuke took pity on him.

“Come on then, superior. Let’s get going.”

They took the way to the Administration Center, falling into steps together. They always naturally walked so that their missing arm brushed together at every step. It was an odd thing to share for sure, but most things were odd about their relationship.

“How was your journey then?” Naruto asked after a while, unable to keep silent. Sasuke grimaced.

"Too good. I made a lot of contacts. I'll have to take it to Ino.”

As a wandering spy for the village, he had to have a close professional relationship with Ino, probably the only member of the Intelligence who was comfortable dealing with him. More than that, she had no patience for any of his bullshit – her words – and managed to keep his sulking and brooding down to a minimum. They had formed a begrudging friendship after she had roasted him from everything he had put Sakura through. He always acted like she annoyed him, but they were pretty close now.

“Does that mean you… ha, how long will you stay then?”

“I heard there was a week of festivity planned. I hope Ino won’t come close to any kind of work in the meantime,” Sasuke said casually, but Naruto was fluent in his language by now.

He was pleased. Just like Naruto was.

“Cool.”

None of them was any smooth though.

“Seriously, it’s all the girls’ fault. And Kakashi. And everyone. A week, really? Granted, the summer festival would happen anyway, but still… Why does it have to be such a big deal? We didn't make such a fuss for the others."

“I guess you’re special then.”

What could have been mistaken as sarcasm was actually painful honesty, and sometimes Naruto almost regretted the time when he could get offended by anything Sasuke said. He wondered now how much of it was real barbs and how much was poorly worded attempts at actual connection. Well, Naruto couldn’t be blamed for Sasuke’s abysmal social skills.

They entered the Administration Center that was busing with activity, a stark contrast to the still dormant streets. Everyone was in an uproar so that things would be ready for the ceremony and subsequent celebrations. They all paused to greet him though, even if Sasuke’s presence still retained some of its deterrent quality. It was gradually fading away but for once, Naruto was thankful it wasn’t completely gone yet.

They went up to the Hokage office which doors were wide open, people coming and going. Naruto only focused on one though.

“Hello, Naruto.”

“Gaara!”

The elders sitting in a corner of the room clicked their tongue as such familiarity. Naruto couldn’t care less, as he wrapped a tight hug around his friend. They both lead too busy lives to see each other more than a handful of times a year, and never for long. It was customary for the other Kage to make the trip when a new one was appointed, if they were at peace and not kept away by urgent matters, but Naruto was still elated by Gaara’s presence.

The hug lingered – Gaara had gotten a little more used to physical contacts over the years, even if he still accepted it from only a limited selection of people. Namely, his siblings and Naruto.

Sasuke shifted in his back and Naruto hid a smug smile in Gaara’s shoulder. The two boy had a weird relationship. Gaara was among those few who had issues with Sasuke, not over his crimes and misgivings, but for how he had treated Naruto in their youth. It was weird, because that had always been the least of Naruto’s concern, but it was true that, thinking about it, Naruto was actually one of his prime victims. Gaara was protective of the people he cared about, and not scared the slightest by the Uchiwa, so their relationship had been tensed at first. They had eventually bonded over their shared taste for sitting in silence and staring off into space without moving or uttering a word.

But Sasuke, even though he clearly had nothing to blame on Gaara, still got broody around the other man, exclusively when Naruto was there too.

Because he was jealous.

Naruto hadn’t come to this conclusion himself, of course. Sakura had been the one to spell it out to him, and Naruto, true to himself, had simply asked Sasuke point blank, because it just seemed too crazy to be true.

He could still picture in his mind the other boy’s spluttering denial and the very faint but unmistakable pink coloring his cheek. Naruto and Gaara were very close, both physically and in spirit, and Uchiwa Sasuke was freaking jealous.

So maybe Naruto played it a little. No one could blame him. A flustered Sasuke was the best thing ever.

He greeted Kankuro and Temari next. The other ninjas they had brought with them weren’t there, probably already dispatched around the village to stand guard.

“My gift to you,” Gaara had written in his last letter. The ninjas of Suna would take over the protection of the village so that almost all from Konoha would be relieved from duty to attend the ceremony. It was more thoughtful and meaningful than any material gift his friend could have got for him, even if Naruto was quite fond of the little sand sculptures Gaara made in his spare time.

“Sorry Naruto, Gaara was adamant to greet you, but now I have to steal those away for the boring diplomatic side of things,” Shikamaru interrupted after a moment, pointing at the three ninjas from Suna. Foreign liaison wasn’t his specialty, but he had probably requested the assignment to spend some time with Temari. They were in discussion to make her the official ambassador of Suna in Konoha, but it the meantime they didn’t see each other much. Shikamaru was one of the closest advisors to the Hokage, and would become the closest once with Naruto in office, he wouldn’t be the one to move.

He shuffled the other ninjas out of the room under the unimpressed look of Gaara who didn’t look eager to move but relented eventually. Another odd, silence-based friendship – Naruto knew for a fact that Shikamaru and Gaara had a habit of getting lost in shogi games that lasted for hours, where they barely exchanged a word and needed ten minutes to make a move. Temari mocked them at length but it was obvious she was glad her brother and her husband got along.

“Maybe now I can get some of your attention Naruto?” Kakashi scolded without any heat. Naruto scratched the back of his hair with a sheepish smile.

“Sorry, Kakashi-sensei.”

“Hello, Sasuke.”

“Sensei.”

“Can Sasuke stay?”

Kakashi nodded. Ninjas kept bringing papers and coming for signatures, one more person wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Naruto sat at the end of the Hokage desk, as he had done for several months now. Kakashi had been dumping an increasingly large amount of paperwork in his corner, and Naruto suspected it was as much to prepare him as it was to get rid of work for himself. His mentor had devoted himself to his Hokage function, but it didn’t change the fact that it wasn’t what he truly wanted to do. Like Tsunade before him, he had stepped in with a sense of duty, for the need of his village.

But the war was long over and they were slowly learning to live for themselves again, as much as ninjas could. And Kakashi deserved his peace too.

They actually worked for a little bit, even Sasuke, who was one of those efficient people who wrote their mission reports as soon as they were back, even before that. Naruto’s reports always took weeks to complete and had to be physically wrestled out of him, so he was a little mystified.

His stomach didn’t forget to interrupt them for lunch, reminding him he hadn’t banked on breakfast as much as he usually did. Kakashi chuckled and threw his pen on the desk before sending someone for food as Sasuke got up from the couch.

“I’ll grab lunch with Ino. I’ll… see you later, Naruto.”

They looked at each other. Later, next time they would come face to face, Naruto would be the new Hokage of Konoha.

Shit, he wasn’t going to survive this day.

A few minutes later, the office’s doors were closed, and Kakashi and Naruto were sitting on the couch, a huge box of sushi on their laps.

“Those traditions didn’t really get to be observed in a long time,” Kakashi observed lightly. “In fact, statistically, handover went without more often than not.”

“Guess there’s no rush now…” Naruto answered absentmindedly. He was hungry, but he found it hard to bring food to his mouth. His stomach was in knots again.

“Naruto. Is everything alright?”

Sighing dramatically, Naruto put the food down and sat back in the couch. He started fiddling with his fingers and his sudden resemblance with Hinata made him smile a little, even if it didn’t last.

“Sensei… why is it me, that is taking over your seat today?”

The question was rather abrupt and Kakashi made a surprised noise, caught off guard. Naruto was staring at his hands, unwilling to meet his mentor's gaze.

“I mean… I know I’ve always wanted it and always… asked, for it, I guess, but… that doesn’t mean I’m… that doesn’t mean it should go to me. Doesn’t mean I’m actually… any worthy. Of it.”

“Where is this coming from, Naruto?”

“It’s… it’s nothing new. But since it’s happening now, I mean, really happening…”

He trailed off. Even that, he actually had trouble believing. Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe this was all just an elaborate prank.

Maybe it was genjustu. An illusion, a fantasy. A very nice one but a fantasy nonetheless.

Because how could it be? How could it be that he would actually be handed the thing he had chased after since he was a kid? Did life work like that? No, no, it didn’t, and especially not his. But here he was now, surrounded by friends, at peace, about to be nominated the chief of his whole village, its best ninja and protector, and he didn’t know why it was happening. It didn’t make sense.

“That’s not true.”

A look at the Rokudaime confirmed that he had just said all that out loud. Huh.

“Naruto, please listen to me very carefully.”

The boy nodded.

“You are the jinchuuriki of this village, and you became so at great cost. It’s a sacrifice you made and that shaped your entire life, that saved that village. You grew up scorned and alone and still remained adamant to protect it at all cost. You showed complete loyalty to Konoha without it ever translating into blind, mindless devotion. You trained tirelessly to surpass yourself until you became one of the most powerful ninjas of this village, and probably of the whole ninja world."

Naruto opened his mouth to protest, but Kakashi stopped him with a raised hand, not done yet with his speech.

“You fought and put yourself in danger to protect Konoha, and others too. Some of those threats, no one could have prevented them but you. Without you, the village wouldn’t stand as strong as it does now. You know what that makes you? A hero.”

Naruto ducked his head. He almost wanted to plug his ears, unable to bear Kakashi’s praise, but he knew the older man wouldn’t let him.

“You are a brave, kind and selfless man. You genuinely care about everybody you encounter and are always willing to help them, no matter how undeserving they are. You know how to work with a team and how to take matters into your own hands. You know how to listen and question, argue and agree. You’re strong, but you never abused of it and I know you never will. The vast majority of this village adores you.”

“Please, stop,” Naruto said weakly, face flaming.

“No. I can’t, because I need you to understand that, Naruto. There is no place here for favoritism, for ceding to a whim of yours, for leading you on, or any of the things that managed to get stuck in that thick head of yours. You are taking the place of the Hokage because you’re the most worthy of it. More than any other ninja here. More than me.”

“Sensei!”

“And I couldn’t be more proud that you made it here, Naruto. You, indeed, proved the whole world that you deserved this title. It’s yours, Naruto. It wasn’t promised to you from the start, it doesn’t have anything to do with fate, with fulfilling childish wishes. It’s yours because it can be anyone else’s, because you rose to the top, just like you promised you would. You did it. You did it, Naruto.”

Naruto had a feeling he would need some time for it to sink in.

“Thank you, sensei,” he breathed out before digging into his food in an effort to put an end to that unsettling moment.

They drifted to less personal topics. Time passed quickly as they perused over official matters that would soon be his to handle. Despite tutoring him for months, Kakashi wasn’t going to just hop off into the sun once the hat was no longer on his head. He had assured Naruto he would always be available for him if he had questions or needed advice, but after the conversation they just had it was more likely that Kakashi would be needed essentially to reassure him that he wasn’t screwing up everything completely.

Naruto felt at ease, locked up in the office with his old mentor, but of course, it couldn't last. It was Shikamaru who came to fetch them – dragging the Hokage to his various duties (or dragging said duties to him) seemed to be the gist of his job description. For someone as lazy as he was, he had no qualm making others work.

“It’s time, Hokage-sama, Naruto.”

At least Naruto was confident that Shikamaru would never call him Hokage-sama. Few had been the people to call Kakashi by his name and fewer even the Sandaime. It spoke of the loss of the entire cluster of their equals, of their friends and teammates, that would have retained that familiarity even after their rise to the Hokage position, and Naruto hoped he would never find himself surrounded by people who wouldn’t call him by his name.

They went up to the roof. The platform itself hosted the ninjas and representatives of the other village. The rest of the spectators were gathered a little further on the Archives’ roof directly leaning against the cliff of the Hokage Rock, their white tunic blinding in the summer sun. Naruto avoided looking at it, avoided thinking about his own face soon to be carved up there with his predecessors’.

It was just too much to wrap his head around.

The crowd cheered when they were spotted. They both waved before turning on their heels. They had to walk through the gathered ninjas side by side, to the other side of the roof where the elders and the other Kage were waiting. Konohamaru had whispered to him that it looked a bit like walking down the aisle at a wedding during the mock off ceremony, prompting a fit of uncontrollable laughter they had needed forever to break out off. Kakashi had been the one to snap them out of it when he had stated that he was more or less giving off Naruto's hand in marriage to the entire village.

That was a sobering vision.

And so they walked. Naruto knew almost every faces around, at least from sight. Instructors from the academy, archivists, weapon makers and keepers from the armory, genin, chunin, jounin…

Iruka smiled at him brightly, eyes shining, and Naruto had to avert his eyes if he wanted to keep it together a bit longer. Next to him, Kurenai and Gai raised him big thumbs up. Kurenai’s son, perched on her shoulder, waved at him wildly.

There were his friends' parents, the various clans, and their head. He was still intimated by most of them, even if he had been interacting more and more with them in Kakashi’s place. He knew what they looked like when upset or displeased at least, and he could see none of it now.

Konohamaru smiled at him brightly, his team by his sides, every bit the strong ninjas the village could be proud of. Naruto looked at the others of their age, how awed they looked, blindsided and impressed, by what they were witnessing. By Naruto.

On the front rows where the ninjas of his generations.

Hinata with red cheeks and a gentle smile, Kiba with a cheeky grin, Shino with his usual stoic features but his body relaxed, at ease, just like Sai, whose lack of a smile was a good sign, a proof he wasn't faking anything. Tenten, fresh back from a trip to Kiri where she had been studying weapon making, Lee and a smile that had to hurt his face. Choji, looking strangely solemn, Ino with a too fond expression, holding Sakura’s hand.

Sakura, who looked so happy, so proud, like she too was seeing some long-awaited wish come true. Her smile was restrained, terribly soft. She nodded at him as if to tell him that is was okay, that everything would be fine.

Next to her, just a little bit apart from the group, stood Sasuke. The white looked odd on him, more than on the others. He usually wore black. It suited him though.

Their gaze caught and held, for a brief moment that seemed to stretch into infinity. He looked more at peace than Naruto ever remembered seeing him. Like there was no place in the world he would have rather been, nothing he would have rather been doing.

Naruto had a hard time tearing his eyes away.

Shikamaru stopped in front of the crowd as Kakashi and Naruto greeted with a nod their fellow Kage. Gaara smiled, small but clearly visible. Naruto couldn’t help but think back on their first encounter, their first fight.

It was crazy how far they had come, those two jinchuuriki despised by their village. In the end, they were so very alike, and things could have gone so much worse, for both of them.

And yet.

Kakashi faced the gathered crowd, Naruto a few steps behind.

“Good afternoon everyone. I am the Rokudaime of Konoha, Hatake Kakashi. Thank you all for coming today to celebrate the appointment of my successor. You all know him, and what he did for this village, and the world. He’s a hero in all sense of the term, dedicated to this village, its peace and its prosperity. It is an honor for me to pass on my title to him, I present to you the Nanadaime Hokage of Konoha, Uzumaki Naruto.”

Naruto took a shaky step forward. Kakashi clasped his forearm firmly, patted him on the shoulders, before gesturing for him to take the floor.

He didn’t know where to look. He didn’t want to meet anyone’s gaze, and if he looked in an empty spot in the crowd, it only reminded him of those who should have been there but weren't. A hole of Neji’s shape and form next to Hinata, the tall silhouette of Azuma absent by his wife and son’s side. Jiraiya, who should have shadowed Tsunade. His parents.

So instead, he lifted his gazes to the six faces carved into the cliff above them.

“I am Uzumaki Naruto," he said, as per tradition, even if it was as silly as Kakashi stating his own name like everyone didn’t know them already. “I am… immensely grateful, humbled and elated to be standing in front of you today, for the trust I was given to protect, lead, and represent Konoha. I will always strive to do right by that trust, and I hope we’ll all work together to give our village and our children the brightest future.”

Naruto had worked not thinking about having children into an art form but some of his friends were getting there already. He was pretty sure Shikamaru had been insisting more and more on Temari’s nomination because she was pregnant. Choji’s wife, a civilian, was holding a beautiful girl in her arms. It was the future he was looking at. Children they would watch and help grow, and that he would do his damn hardest to ensure would never have a childhood like his own.

He turned back to Kakashi and bowed. Naruto was wearing the Hokage robe already, custom made to his body and preferences, but his head was bare still. Kakashi lifted the hat off his own head, turned it gracefully, and slowly, slowly, lowered it on Naruto’s blonde hair. He had tied his hitai-ate around his neck to make room for it. He didn’t have to wear both of course, but he couldn’t conceive letting it go.

For the first time, Naruto felt the weight of the Hokage hat on his head and shoulders, on his heart and mind. He straightened up, briefly locking gaze with Kakashi, now bareheaded, looking beyond satisfied and proud.

Naruto turned back to the crowd. He opened his mouth but, seized up by emotions, had to cough a few times as discreetly as he could. He had one last thing to say. It couldn’t be that hard.

“I am… I am Uzumaki Naruto, the… The Nanadaime Hokage of Konoha.”

The crowd literally exploded.

They clapped and cheered, and that was it, he was crying. There was no avoiding it really, not when every single person he cared about was here busy being happy for him. He got more hugs and shook more hands than ever before in his life. He clung for an embarrassing amount of time to Iruka’s shoulders, who was saying awful things like “I always knew you’d make it eventually”, and thought he would truly lose it when even Tsunade wrapped him up in her strong embrace and whispered words of congratulations and pride in his ear. At least he wasn’t the only one who got a bit teary-eyed. The clan heads shook his hand and clasped his shoulders respectfully before their offspring dogpiled him with bright laughs and cheery congratulations. Lee was crying his eyes out, Sakura was sniffling too. At some point Sasuke slipped his hand into his and, hidden in the creases of his Hokage coat – his freaking Hokage coat – he held on and didn’t let go. Sasuke had also secure hold on the hat that had been knocked off on the first hug. Naruto would find himself burdened with it again soon enough. In the meantime, he trusted Sasuke with it.

He shook hands with the other Kage, lingering far longer on Gaara’s grasp. His face barely showed more than usual but Naruto was fluent in his tells, could see the turmoil of emotions in his eyes and he wondered if he too had trouble believing how things had turned out sometimes, if he thought about the child he once was and wished to tell that scared, empty boy that things would turn out alright, that it would get better.

Would they have believed it though, back then?

Gaara’s “congratulations, Naruto” didn’t mean the same as all the others.

The day was a bit of a blur after that. They had decided to hold the ceremony as the opening event of the summer festival so that the most popular celebration of the year would double as celebrating Naruto’s appointment. The streets were filled with temporary shops selling foods, trinkets, and games, busy with civilians and ninjas alike enjoying the festivities, and every single one of them wanted to see the new Hokage and give him their regards. Naruto’s face hurt from smiling but he couldn’t bring it down even if he wanted to. He was so happy he felt like he could burst anytime or combust spontaneously. He also ate more than any human should have been able to eat in such a short time, and by the time he was back on the roof with a small group of his closest friend to watch the fireworks, he was dead on his feet and slightly nauseous.

He was leaning heavily on Sasuke as lights and colors exploded in the sky. The air was still warm, the village still abuzz with activity. The show was beautiful. Around him, his friends cheered and awed, talked animatedly or watched in silence, all close by, all within reach.

Naruto kind of wanted to live in this moment forever.

He couldn’t though, because he was very close to falling asleep. The fireworks ended in a last spectacular cluster of bright sparkles and loud noises, soon replaced by the cheers and applause of the spectators.

“Well,” he started, intending to take his leave, hopefully with Sasuke in tow. “I guess it’s time to…”

“PARTY!” Ino shouted loudly. She was met with a chorus of approval and promptly decided they should all head to her apartment. Naruto cast a forlorn look at Sakura who was rolling her eyes but shrugged as if to say “what can you do?”.

Sakura and Ino’s place was one of the largest of their various accommodations and strategically placed to content both those who lived in the building and those who would have to make the trek to their own corner of the village later. It was terribly cluttered, none of them particularly keen on tidying up since they weren’t home much anyway.

They quickly got their hands on Sakura’s copious amount of alcohol, and the ones living nearby went to raid their own shelves too, but Naruto wasn’t in the party mood suddenly. He felt overwhelmed, unhinged. His entire world had tilted off its axis, was looking to settle into a different orbit, and he felt the sudden urge to be alone for a moment. He slipped away quietly to go hide in the guest bedroom.

The flat was big for two, with a guest room in addition to the small spare room they used as an office and library, overflowing with medical treaties and mission reports. Naruto looked around him. He had always felt like that second bedroom was to serve another purpose that housing foreign nins when the official ins were crowded. Sakura spent a lot of time working at the Konoha orphanage, having specialized in treating children over time and always needed there with how crowded the place was (another thing he was looking forward to fixing). They never broached the subject – he had no idea to what extent Sakura and Ino had talked about it together. Children were always a sensitive topic for ninjas, who led chaotic, dangerous lives.

Naruto had an unfathomable love for children and knew that was something he wanted out of life. It wasn’t that simple though. Few things were.

Sitting alone in the dark in a guest room that he knew held the hope of extending a family, but remained, for now, bared of any lasting presence, Naruto felt crushed by the weight of the future staring at him.

He was now the Kage of his village. All its inhabitants were now his responsibility. He had to provide for them, to ensure their safety, to protect them. He had to work with the other village, with the rest of the world, so that the interest of his people would prevail. All of this was on him now.

There had to be a mistake somewhere.

He was just… he was just Naruto. He had been told often enough that he was stupid, too impulsive, not careful enough. That he lacked subtlety and finesse. That he was immature. Granted it hadn’t come up that much in a long time, but it remained how people viewed him, right?

How he viewed himself.

Oh, great. Here came the panic.

He was too busy trying to manually stop the flood pouring out of his eyes that he didn’t hear steps approaching in the corridors and jumped when the door opened on Ino and Hinata.

“…I should have something that fit your… Oh, Naruto, you’re… What?”

The shock lasted about a second before she caught on what was going on, even if Naruto attempted weakly to cover his face and his weaknesses.

“Oh dear. Hinata, fetch Sakura and Sasuke, will you? Hurry please.”

The other girl nodded gravely and ran toward the living room before Naruto could protest.

“It’s okay, I’m okay,” he said weakly.

It sounded feeble and unconvincing even to his own ears. Ino rolled her eyes and took a few steps in to rest a hand on his shoulder, but she didn’t get any closer.

It was only seconds later that his teammate came rushing in.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Ino said, immediately exiting the room, not before exchanging a long, meaningful look with her girlfriend. Sakura and Sasuke sat down on the bed on each of his sides. Sakura draped an arm around his shoulders – Sasuke took a hold of his hands.

They didn’t say a thing, for a while. They let him get his harsh breathing under control and for his tears to run down to a trickle.

“What is it, Naruto?” Sakura questioned gently, once he no longer looked completely freaked out, although he felt only marginally better. He didn’t answer on the spot. He didn’t know what he wanted to say, what he wanted them to know. He didn’t really know what was happening to him either. For after a moment, as he gathered his thoughts and his courage, the answer came easily enough.

“I’m scared.”

He could almost feel them exchange looks above his hand. Sakura started rubbing his back.

“Of what?”

“Everything,” he let out with a wet, strangled laugh. “I’m scared of screwing it up. I’m scared I’m not cut out for this, that it will blow up to my face, that I’ll make a mistake that will endanger us all. I’m scared I’ll make a fool of myself, scared the rug will be pulled from under my feet in a matter of weeks. I’m… I’m scared this will be taken from me.”

He took a deep breath that did nothing to steady him.

“I’m scared this isn’t real,” he finally whispered. The confession left him exhausted and raw, vulnerable to his friends’ eyes and scrutiny.

“I’m scared I’m not strong enough. I mean, look at me…” he said, aiming for a joke and missing by about ten thousand miles.

“Having doubts doesn’t mean not being strong,” Sasuke said matter-of-factly. He sounded pissed. Maybe he was – self-depreciation wasn’t something he had any indulgence for.

“I’m sorry,” Naruto said automatically. Oh damn, the tears were back. “I’m sorry, I… Sorry.”

He didn’t even know what he was sorry for. For breaking down like this? For doubting, when he shouldn’t have? For his weaknesses? For submitting them to this? He didn’t know, but he kept saying it anyway.

Sakura's hand moved to his hair. He leaned into it, into her, until he was resting against her sides, half buried in her embrace.

“It’s fine, Naruto. Everything is fine. Let it go. We’re here. It’s fine.”

It really wasn’t, but Sakura’s words were law, and just obeyed. He managed to calm down a bit somehow. Sasuke shifted and Naruto thought he was going to leave, had to fight against tightening his grip on his hands so that he would stay, but he just slid to the floor and kneeled in front of him. Naruto stared as Sasuke rested his forehead on their joined hands. He was never big on words but since Naruto usually used way too many of them, he liked that side of him. Gestures that could convey comfort, intimacy.

Love.

“We’ll talk about it at length, Naruto,” Sakura whispered in his hair, “but for now, just remember that you are not alone. No matter what happens, no matter the mistakes, the doubts, no matter how many time you stumble and fall along the way, you will never, ever be alone. We’ll always be right by your side to catch you. You don’t have to do this on your own. No one expects you to.”

He squeezed Sasuke’s hands harder and buried deeper into Sakura’s neck.

“And you don’t have to pretend you’re okay if you’re not. Not in front of us, okay? You don’t have to feel ashamed, to fear judgment. If you have to carry the whole village, we'll just be here to carry you."

He could picture her glaring at Sasuke, daring him to contradict her, but he didn’t pay her any mind. Instead, he focused on taking Naruto's shoes off before standing up. He pushed on Naruto's shoulders firmly, until the other boy got the idea and fall back on the bed, taking Sakura with him. Sasuke didn’t say a word when he curled at Naruto’s side, and Sakura sighed exasperatedly but did the same, toeing off her own shoes before getting more comfortable on the large bed.

The noises coming from the living room were dying down, their friends probably shuffled out by Ino now that she knew the guest of honor was out of commission for the night. They didn’t move, didn’t make a sound, and he didn’t know what to do, what to think. They didn’t seem intent on letting him go.

“Naruto. Stop thinking,” Sasuke scolded, tightening the arm he had thrown across his chest to keep him from squirming.

Naruto obeyed and was rewarded with two contended sighs. Neither of his friends got enough sleep for his tastes, and he couldn’t say a thing only because he was the same, or worse. So he didn’t want to disturb them, for once that they were actually willing to sleep without a fuss.

He moved just enough to get comfortable, to uncoil himself, letting go of the tension straining his whole body. He was surrounded by warmth and comfort, and felt like absolutely nothing bad could happen to him, there, in this room, with those two.

Maybe there were right. Maybe things would be fine. He didn’t always trust himself, but he trusted them, and they would be there.

Appeased, at least a little, he drifted off to sleep.