Title:Living In Denial

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or its characters, nor do I make any profit from this fanfic.

Warnings: Contains yaoi, spoilers, possibly some violence, and some foul language. If you cannot handle that, then do not read. Un-beta'd.

Rated: M

Pairing: SasuNaru/NaruSasu

Summary:With 2 1/2 yrs and the defeat of Madara behind them, Naruto and Sasuke have been through much. But when Naruto is talked into dating Hinata, both he and Sasuke are forced to face an inner struggle they've avoided for years. Canonverse, SasuNaru, minor NaruHina

Author's Note: I've been reading SasuNaru fics for years before only now being able to pluck up the courage to write one of my own. The story line takes place over two years after the Shinobi World War and will be an in-depth look at Naruto and Sasuke's psychological character development, focusing on their thoughts and relationship more than anything else. The characters will stay as "in-character" to the originals in the manga as the story allows. With that said, please enjoy.



Chapter 1



Naruto wiped a bead of sweat from the side of his face.

Letting out a quiet sigh, he could see the gates to Konoha just in the distance as he trudged along towards it. It was an ideal day. The sky was as blue as ever, the birds were chirping, and the sun was beaming down.

A perfect day for a swim, Naruto thought to himself as he uncomfortably felt a trickle of sweat run down his back beneath his shirt.

Unfortunately, there was no time for such activities at the moment. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Sakura walking silently next to him as they approached home. They had just completed a special weeklong mission, and while their accommodations had been decent, everyone was eager to get home.

Yes... everyone, Naruto mused, sensing the other presence just behind him.

Sasuke. The mere name brought up a whole wealth of emotions that he'd never quite learned to suppress. Naruto ignored the urge he had to take a glance back at his dark-haired friend. Two years after the near end of the world, the enigmatic Uchiha was an active shinobi of Konoha again. It had taken a lot of pleading, understanding, and time—along with a heavy implementation of penalties and conditions—to get to their present state of being. However, in the end, Naruto was able to fulfill his promise to Sakura and Sasuke was able to have a semblance of a normal life.

Not that everything is exactly like before, Naruto thought. That was to be expected, really, even if the childlike, naïve part of himself had hoped for the opposite.

Sasuke had been through more pain and upheaval than the average person, and while they had both managed to come to an understanding and mend the pieces of their overwrought lives, there was always an underlying tension there between him and the Uchiha. While it seemed the dark-haired nin was able to carry on his prior detached friendship with Sakura and Kakashi-sensei—after a period of self-imposed solitude—the friendship Sasuke had with him, in turn, was a little harder to define. It was a fragile thing. And while Naruto was always able to laugh it off and breeze through daily interactions, the awkwardness that occasionally settled in didn't go completely unnoticed by him. So many things had been said between them... and yet there was still much left to be said, apparently. Although what those things were, he was not sure.

Naruto sighed again. He worried about the bastard more than he should, he knew.

Ever since he'd taken on the task of bringing him back, Naruto had always felt a sense of responsibility where Sasuke was concerned. It was something the Uchiha would no doubt scoff at. He'd made sure Sasuke was accepted again by the other members of the Konoha 11, even though some had been reluctant. He'd checked on Sasuke all throughout his assessment, probation, and reinstating periods and he'd been there to survey his training the first few times he'd been allowed to train. All throughout, while Sasuke had rolled his eyes or managed to look indifferent, he'd never told Naruto to stay away.

Naruto supposed that was his friend's way of telling him that his presence wasn't unwanted. He was one of the few people Sasuke bothered to socialize with these days, which said a lot. Sasuke, after all, was not the type to "hang out" with anyone for the sake of hanging out. When Sasuke wasn't on duty, he usually spent his time training, gardening, or engaging in other activities that involved being solitary. Of course, Sasuke was only able to do those things when Naruto wasn't dragging him around somewhere, which he felt was for the other's own good.

Yeah, occasional awkwardness aside, Naruto supposed things could be much worse. After a lifetime's worth of stress and strife, he had everything he wanted now—the acknowledgment of his comrades and village, his dream of being hokage on its way to being fulfilled, and his wayward best friend. Definitely, he knew firsthand that life could be much worse.

"Hey, Naruto. Are you ok?"

Naruto startled slightly before looking Sakura's way. The pink-haired kunoichi was looking at him quizzically, apparently having been trying to get his attention. She had matured beautifully; her hair still kept short beneath her hitai-ate and wearing her signature red top, black boots, shorts, and elbow protectors. She had also grown stronger over the last few years. Naruto knew all too well, having been an occasional victim to her frightening strength. However, as tough as she was in strength, she was also loyal as a friend, remaining a staunch supporter of his. He had long since stopped seriously pursuing her romantically, but that didn't stop him from flirting or making the occasional wisecrack towards her, even if it did sometimes end with physically painful consequences where his head was concerned. He had a feeling though that at times the kunoichi liked the attention, not that he'd ever tell her so.

Naruto smiled at her. "Yeah, sorry Sakura-chan. Just thinking about some things."

"Probably thinking about ramen already, huh?" she said with a smile, shaking her head.

"You know it!" he replied brightly, flashing her his megawatt smile.

Walking on through the gates, he waved at Izumo and Kotetsu. Naruto smiled in amusement as the first chūnin waved back at them, and the latter appeared to be dozing off at their post. Some things never change, he thought with a soft snort.

Inhaling the fresh afternoon air, he smiled as he observed the busy streets and colorful buildings that made up his beloved village. People milled around shopping and running errands, while shop owners went about their daily duties. The sounds of playing and laughter could be heard by the little children that ran around the streets with their companions.

Naruto felt his chest fill up with warmth. He'd fought for this village, time and time again, and even when it was brought to its knees by the likes of Orochimaru and Pein, the citizens of Konohagakure had never lost their spirit. Whether they were ninja or regular civilians, those were the type of people they were, and Naruto was proud to come from such stock.

Rousing from his thoughts, he suddenly stopped and turned towards his teammates. "You guys go on home. I'll head over to Tsunade-baa-chan and give her the mission report," he said, his eyes skimming over Sakura, and then finally settling on the other silent male.

Naruto remained unmoved as those obsidian eyes observed him quietly. Lesser men would squirm, he knew. There were many in the village that could barely bring themselves to hold eye contact with Sasuke, and not simply because of the fear of his Sharingan, but rather because of the intensity those sharp eyes emitted. They complimented the almost impenetrable aura the lone Uchiha emitted.

His friend's shiny bluish-black hair remained on the long side, with his trademark bangs hanging over the sides of his forehead and framing the sides of his angular face. His skin maintained the luminescent shade of pale it had always had, just as his almost aristocratic features remained as refined and mysterious as ever. Both he and Sasuke now stood at a solid 5'8 at nineteen years old, but while he had a bit more muscle packed on him, Sasuke in turn was leaner. After his return to the village, the former missing-nin had finally ditched his prior apparel for standard issue jōnin attire, favoring black pants and shirts instead of blue, topped off by his chūnin vest and a re-issued hitai-ate.

It had taken a lot for Sasuke to earn the latter two items, Naruto thought wistfully.

"Are you sure?" the dark-haired shinobi asked, arms automatically crossing over his broad chest.

Naruto nodded, adjusting his backpack. "Yeah. I need to talk to her anyway. It's no biggie."

"Well, as long as it's not going to be an issue then. Meet you at Ichiraku's later?" Sakura asked, green eyes smiling at him.

"Sure! I'll see ya then," he assured enthusiastically. He watched briefly as she waved at him and Sasuke and walked off in the direction towards her house.

A few moments later, Sasuke, whose eyes had never moved from his, nodded at him before promptly poofing away.

Naruto sighed contently, smiling to himself. Time to visit the old hag.

"So that's how it went, hmm?" Tsunade commented from her position behind her desk. Her chin was in her hands, and golden eyes were keenly observing the young man before her.

Naruto smiled, nodding. "Yeap. Without a hitch. Although I think we both know the mission probably could've been accomplished by two jōnin, baa-chan," he remarked, looking slightly annoyed.

Tsunade smiled. The boy had grown so much. He'd been nothing but a little runt, all bark and very little bite when she'd met him. Now he was the savior of not only the village, but the whole ninja world. Even though she'd always favored the kid, she could've never imagined he'd rise to such heights by his current age, and what had never failed to impress her was that he'd won the admiration of his comrades, elders, and the world over with not only his skill and determination, but his spirit. One could strip the boy of his power, but in the end, he'd always have that radiant heart that not a single other soul she knew could outshine.

That brash kid now stood before her, a handsome young man. His wild, bright blond hair had grown longer, some of the tendrils towards the back of his head covering the nape of his neck. His face, devoid of most of its baby fat, was now more defined, and according to Shizune's gossip, very appealing to some of the young ladies of the village. The once high-pitched, ear-splitting, raspy tone of his voice had fully mellowed to a baritone husk as well, concluding with a now strapping form that was outlined beneath his jōnin attire. There was even a slight poise in his stance and gait now. It was eerie just how much he was the very spitting image of his father.

Tsunade's smile grew slightly bigger as she remembered with fondness when he'd been promoted to jōnin after the war. It had been upon her insistence that it happen. Being long overdue, it would have been ridiculous for the boy to go through a chūnin exam with his advanced abilities. Furthermore, she'd decided that it simply would not do for a genin-ranked shinobi to begin a possible Hokage apprenticeship. Therefore, they'd nipped it in the bud, and the boy had never been happier, nearly breaking her back with the hug he'd given her before going off to celebrate with his friends immediately afterwards. Yes, he was no longer the scrawny pint-sized genin he'd been when she'd met him. If only the Fourth could see him now, she thought proudly.

Clearing her throat, she emerged from her thoughts, commenting idly, "So you noticed."

"Of course I did!" Naruto remarked indignantly, crossing his arms. "You could've sent me on the mission alone and I would've been fine, you know," he grumbled, displaying his signature pout.

He may have grown up, but some things would never change, Tsunade thought with amusement. She smirked. "Of course I know that. I was simply aiding you in your team dynamics, you brat."

Surprised, Naruto looked at her quizzically before adopting a knowing expression and uncrossing his arms. "I figured," he said ruefully, his opalescent blue eyes softening.

"I assumed you could use some company this time around. The three of you don't get to go on missions together as often these days now that you're all jōnin and in demand," she said, studying him.

Naruto gave a wistful smile. "Yeah. Sakura's usually busy with her medical work, and Sasuke's a machine with those missions. We do manage to hang out together when we're off duty though, baa-chan, when we can anyway. It was nice though, just like old times. The only things missing were Kakashi-sensei and Sai," he admitted.

She hummed. "They should be coming back soon from their assigned mission."

"Well, I'll be waiting for them. Especially Kakashi-sensei. The old man owes me a dinner," he said with a chuckle.

Tsunade smirked and crossed her arms. "How is it going with you and Uchiha?" Her tone becoming more serious.

Naruto scratched his cheek, considering the question before answering. "Things are good, baa-chan. I mean, with everything that's happened and all. He still keeps mostly to himself and sometimes it's hard trying to figure out what's in that head of his because he's always good at closing himself off. You know the bastard never talks much anyway, but he always speaks to me when he does. And he's good with Sakura and the rest of the team," he said earnestly.

Tsunade studied him, inwardly sighing. That damned Uchiha. He'd been a pain in her backside for such a longtime that when she'd seen how near-dead Naruto had been after the culmination of their battle amidst the chaos of the war, she could've killed him herself. Oh, how she'd wanted to. It would've happened, if not by her, then by someone else had it not been for Naruto. Considering how many were after the surviving Uchiha's head, it was a miracle he was alive at all. Yet, somehow the brat had gotten through to the possessed ninja in the end and Naruto, along with Sasuke's aid, had defeated the man who'd once called himself Madara. It was because of that and further, damned near masterful, contention from Naruto that the nations agreed to give the wanted nin clemency along with several stipulations.

In the end, Uchiha had served his confinement quietly, and followed every requirement without complaint. At the same time, he was given a formal apology for the assassination of the Uchiha clan, something that had taken a lot of debating and persuading to occur, and Naruto had somehow made it happen. The boy had begged for everyone to yield and embrace an era for total understanding and forgiveness. It had been a hard and uncertain period. Nevertheless, little by little, things had panned out in a way that everyone was able to accede and move on, and Naruto was able to ensure the well-being of the village and keep his best friend. With time, Sasuke, just as Naruto assured would happen, had proven his worth and she and the newly restructured council were able to deem Sasuke trustworthy, clearing his name and officially reinstating him within the Konoha ninja ranks where he'd put his extraordinary skills to use.

Tch. She still didn't like the Uchiha brat, however.

He was cocky and irritatingly composed. He was also socially detached and was hardly what one could consider "friendly". However, she knew she didn't have to like him as a person. What counted was that as a ninja, he was damned good at what he did and fulfilled orders like a pro, being one of the best ninja in the country and all the nations. It was because of his performance and the fact that his presence within the village ensured Naruto's happiness that she was able to shove aside her personal reservations about the surviving Uchiha and utilize his services.

She leaned forward and folded her hands. "I see. Well, being as you are here, I thought you'd like to know that I will be recruiting Sasuke into the ANBU."

Naruto's eyes widened. "Really?" he gasped. At her nod, he finally grinned. It was a warm, pleased smile that said all there was to know about his feelings towards his friend. "Wow, baa-chan! Sasuke's going to be excited! Well... er... as excited as an Uchiha can get anyway. But trust me, he will be!" he babbled breathlessly, arms flailing.

Tsunade smiled slightly. "So I'm assuming you think this is a good move?"

Naruto paused, catching himself. He brought his arms to his side, nodding. "Yes. I can't think of anyone more right for that position. Sasuke's an advanced ninja and sometimes he gets restless. ANBU missions would really get his blood pumping and he'd perform excellently," he asserted sagely, demonstrating his maturity.

She nodded, pleased, as she tapped a manicured finger against the desk. "Good. Uchiha has expressed an interest in it for sometime now. After much discussion, the council and I have agreed that it is permissible."

"Great, baa-chan!" Naruto affirmed. His excited expression, however, was then suddenly scrunching up with the furrowing of his brow. "But, wait. Why are you telling me this first?" he asked curiously.

"Because you'll need to get used to it," she said, rising from her seat. Her two loose blonde pigtails and signature robe flowed behind her as she walked around the desk. She then stopped in front of it, arms crossed, and with a determined look on her face.

The other eyed her warily.

She held his gaze firmly. "Uzumaki Naruto, I feel that enough time has passed for me to be able to tell you that your apprenticeship for the position of Hokage under my guidance will commence as soon as you are able to accept it, if being Hokage is still your dream that is."

Tsunade observed with veiled delight as Naruto's look of surprise slowly turned into one of elation, his ever-expressive eyes brimming with emotion. "What? Really!" he exclaimed.

"Yes, really," she assured, a smile forming on her face now.

He let out an excited huff of laughter. Then he pointed a finger at her. "You're not joking, right, baa-chan?" he asked quickly.

She chuckled at his handsome face, which was practically glowing with almost childlike joy—his smile so wide it caused his eyes to squint in that trademark Uzumaki grin. "No, Naruto. I am not. You are nineteen years old and I'm... getting on in years," she admitted grudgingly. "I would like to retire in the next five years and while normally a retiring Hokage does not help the new Hokage settle in until after they've been officially appointed, I'm not going to take any chances. I want to help you out for as long as I can and give you a good head start."

Tsunade then watched as Naruto's close-eyed smile then suddenly softened. He seemed to take a deep breath before rubbing the back of his neck with one hand in another age-old habit he'd never broken. Crystal blue eyes then slowly began to water and the smiling mouth and steady shoulders gradually began to tremble. She could feel her heart squeeze tightly in her chest as the blue eyes squinted again, but this time from the onslaught of tears.

"Gaki…" she murmured warmly. She walked forward as the boy—no, young man, she corrected—feebly wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

Without any hesitation, she wrapped the young man she cherished like a little brother in her strong arms. Gentle fingers ran through soft blond hair soothingly while he cried unabashed tears of joy into her shoulder."Th-thank you... baa-chan," came the husky, shaky reply.

She smiled to herself.

You are well on your way, Naruto.

Outside the Hokage's office, Sakura Haruno listened, ear pressed against the door and carefully masking her chakra. After arriving home, she'd realized that she'd forgotten that she'd wanted to speak to Tsunade-shishou about a small issue at the hospital.

Carefully wiping away the tears forming in her eyes, she smiled. Her teammate, the once idiot blond was finally taking the next steps towards becoming the village's Hokage. Through so much adversity and pain, somehow, Naruto had pushed on through it in his own way, without sacrificing his beliefs and principles. No one deserves it more than you, Naruto,she thought affectionately, the image of her lively teammate with his bright smile vivid in her mind's eye.

Tucking a few stray strands of hair behind her ear, she righted herself and silently made her way back down the corridor, smiling all the way.

She had a gathering to plan.



To be continued…