In all 18 years of Naruto Uzumaki's formidable life as a citizen, and later a shinobi of Konoha, she couldn't fathom ever being this surprised. She was the jinchuriki of the village, a woman whose strength rivaled none. Nothing in the world could surprise her anymore, she had seen too much. Yet this, this she did not see. Her jaw unhinged, her eyebrows rose, her eyes widened in dramatic disbelief over the sight that lay before her.
Shikamaru took a deep breathe, "So… What do you say?"
Naruto dry swallowed, her throat suddenly parched, "Please tell me that we've stumbled into some alternate universe where you prank me."
The lazy jonin rolled his eyes, "Don't be ridiculous Naruto, this is serious."
"That's the only explanation I could find for your ridiculous request," She admitted, shuffling in place nervously, "There's really no other explanation."
The Nara grimaced, a hand absentmindedly reaching for one of his comforting cigarettes, "Yes, there is an explanation. You're in trouble, and you need all the help you can get. This was my only solution."
"Why me? I only helped bodyguard the man one time, and now he's convinced of his eternal love for me! We can't do this Shikamaru! We may be friends, but we've never been that close; especially not close enough for what you're suggesting. Plus, you have Temari. Remember her?" Naruto ranted, her eyes scanning the smoke-loving strategists face for a sign that he was just kidding.
Shikamaru grimaced at the reminder of his long-time lover, "Look, I know what I'm asking you for is a little unorthodox."
"Try insane," She interrupted.
"However, this was the only solution we could come up with. Do you think I want to do this? To betray Temari like this? It's all too troublesome. You know it's true. I wouldn't be asking this of you if I had any other choice," He spoke calmly, resigned to his fate.
"There has to be another way," She pleaded, her large blue eyes shining with unshed tears, "I can't… I can't ask this of you. You'll be sacrificing so much… just to help me."
"There isn't," Shikamaru spoke softly, "I've thought of everything. The council isn't about to let this go, no matter how much we strong arm them; they have a lot to gain from the deal going through. You know a lot better than most just how manipulative they can be. If they get their way… if the deal goes through… who knows what repercussions it would have on our village."
"Isn't there anybody else?"
"None of the other guys would make sense; Neji is a branch member, Kiba is not heir, Sasuke has no clan, Choji and Shino have yet to take their mantle… There's only me."
"But you have Temari," Naruto stammered.
"But I have Temari," Shikamaru sighed, bringing a cigarette up to his puckered lips and lighting it with a single snap of his fingers, "She is going to be heartbroken."
Naruto frowned, "You shouldn't have to do this. Not for me at least."
"Naruto, you're my friend. You're my comrade. And someday, you may even be my Hokage. You're the only one I could do this for." Shikamaru admitted, his piercing eyes gazing into hers.
"What will you do about her?"
"The only thing I can. I have to tell her it's over between us. For good."
Naruto groaned as she leaned back into her couch. With a bitter laugh, she said, "We're fucked, aren't we?"
Shikamaru chuckled wryly as he copied her actions, "Utterly."
Several Days Earlier
Naruto laughed jovially as she skipped towards the Hokage building where her team awaited. She had been having a good day; Old man Ichiraku gave her a free bowl of ramen, her elderly neighbor that enjoys scowling at her finally moved, and the heating in her apartment was finally fixed. Yes, Naruto knew it was going to be a great day.
Kicking the door open with her usual enthusiasm, she cried out, "Hey Baa-Chan!"
With a grace only a shinobi could claim to have, she narrowly missed being hit with an empty bottle of Sake. "You're late, brat," Tsunade scowled as she gestured for the girl to have a seat.
Naruto blinked in surprise, "Where's my team? I thought you said I was going on a mission?"
"I lied," Tsunade said, "I just needed you come here in a hurry."
Naruto scowled as she crossed her arms in indignation, "Well that's just mean. I wanted a juicy mission."
"We don't always get what we want brat, deal with it," Tsunade spoke, before handing the younger blond a stack of letters, "Here."
Naruto grimaced as she peered at the contents, "You brought me all the way here to show me more marriage proposals? I already told you that I have no interest in responding, so you might as well just burn them all and save yourself the trouble of having me come all the way down here."
Tsunade resisted the urge to throttle her subordinate, "You don't get it."
"What's there to get?" Naruto asked nonchalantly.
"The council," Tsunade began, "Has took notice of the sheer amount of marriage proposals that come through for you."
"So? What's it to them?"
"They were ignoring it, biding their time until you realize how helpful you could be to us by finally accepting one of the many proposals. Until this specific one caught their interest," Tsunade explained as she pointed to the top letter in the stack, "That is a marriage proposal from the Fire Daimyo's son. I believe you served as a body guard for him a few months back."
Naruto thought back to the small, weak young man she protected during a trip to River Country, "Oh yeah, that guy. Hiro, was it? I spent a total of a week in this guys company, why does he want to marry me?"
"I suppose you caught his interest," Tsunade shrugged, "Regardless Naruto, the council has decided that you should perform your duty as a loyal servant to Konoha, and accept the proposal."
"…WHAT?!" Naruto shrieked.
Tsunade grimaced, "After the war, we are in a poor financial state. World peace results in a lack of missions, which results in a lack of income. By marrying into the Fire Daimyo's family, the village would be given a large dowry since you are essentially a ward of the state."
"The council," Naruto spoke quietly, incredulously, "Wants to marry me off like cattle… for money?"
Tsunade frowned, taking a large swig of her sake, "Essentially? Yes. They do."
"And if I don't accept?"
"Then you will never be elected as Hokage."
The utterly heartbroken look that spread across Naruto's face was enough to cause Tsunade's resolve to waiver. With a sigh, the Godaime spoke, "Don't worry Naruto. We'll find a way out of this. I promise."
Shikamaru cursed as he perused through the files, passing them onto his father before leveling a stare at the Hokage, "You have got to be kidding me."
Tsunade shook her head, a frown marring her youthful features, "The council is adamant. They are determined to use Naruto as a way to increase our own income. I've been outvoted."
"It's true," Shikaku spoke, "While the shinobi clan heads all voted against such a thing, we were outvoted by the civilians and Hokage advisors. They see Naruto as a convenient scape goat."
Shikamaru bit back yet another curse. The one council meeting he misses, and this is what happens, "And if she refuses?"
"Then they will never allow her to be elected as Hokage."
The younger Nara ran a hand across his face in agitation, "But that makes no sense. Either way she'll never be Hokage, if she marries the man she'll be forced to move and resign from the shinobi force regardless."
"They never wanted her as Hokage," Shikaku spoke, "They are using the hat as revenge. They are hoping that she'll stick true to her character and do what's best for the village."
"Are the idiotic?" Shikamaru deadpanned, "Naruto may be self-sacrificing, but this is a bit much even for her. They don't seriously think she'll agree to these terms?"
Tsunade shrugged, "Regardless, they'll get what they want. They would just prefer her to accept the proposal, that way they at least get money out of her."
"Naruto is better off just declining the proposal," Shikaku spoke as he handed his son back the papers, "We can always overturn their vote in the future, working hard to get her elected as Hokage."
"No, she's not," Shikamaru suddenly spoke, his voice solemn as he came to a realization, "If she refuses the Fire Daimyo's son, there would be multiple repercussions. It'll be seen as an offense to the leader of the country himself. He would seek revenge against Konoha for this blatant refusal, perhaps even closing down trade routes in revenge."
Shikaku's eyes widened as he caught on to his sons thought process, "If he does that, then the common merchants and civilians of Konoha would suffer. Our country will produce even less income then before, consequently causing the people to blame Naruto for their strife."
"And she'll never be Hokage," Shikamaru finished.
"I know we don't want to think about it, but what if we marry Naruto to this Hiro guy?" Shikaku proposed with a look of contempt.
Shikamaru immediately shook his head, "No, we couldn't do that. Not only is it morally questionable, but we would never survive the political backlash. Naruto is our hero, the worlds hero. Most of our alliances are only possible because of Naruto's direct intervention. How would our allies, the Kazekage specifically, react when they find out that we sold Naruto like livestock?"
Shikaku stroked his jaw, "They would withdraw their alliance. We may even have another war on our hands."
Tsunade leaned back in her seat, "You see why I called you now? The two of you are the best tacticians in Konoha, we need to find a way to get Naruto out of this. Without insulting anyone in the process. I have been stalling for weeks, both the council and the Daimyo's court are getting impatient. They need an answer: soon."
The Nara men shared a glance as they realized how dire their situation was. One misstep, and Konoha was done for.
Shikamaru leaned back onto his forearms to watch the clouds, a cigarette loosely hanging from his lips, as he contemplated this impossible situation which lay before him. He remembered when days were less troublesome, where all his worries amounted to avoiding Ino's shrieking and Asuma's training sessions. In the days before his sensei's death, in the days before he became a cold blooded tactician, in the days before the war. He missed those days.
In his mind a metaphorical shogi board was set up, his brain connecting each and every possibility and outcome. He needed to find a way to both keep Naruto in the village as a shinobi, while avoiding insulting any other parties. Scenario after scenario played in his head, all picked apart and analyzed with startling intellect.
Blowing a ring of smoke, he wondered how Temari was doing. They had been dating for over three years now, although not continuously. They have broken up and gotten back together more times than he could count. Sometimes the distance would prove to be too much of a strain on their relationship, sometimes it would be Shikamaru's own lazy and flippant attitude. But at the end of the day, they always came back to each other. They were in love, after all.
Their latest breakup had now lasted over three months. Temari had ended it, claiming that Shikamaru didn't put enough of an effort into their relationship. It was bullshit, they both knew, but Temari was angry during a particularly heated argument, and didn't feel like dealing with the aftermath. Not that either minded that much, it was only a matter of time before the two got back together.
Shikamaru wondered why he loved the troublesome woman so much. She was several years older than him, had the tendency to nag him like his mother, but he was always quick to apologize to the woman. Their relationship was a well-known story spread through Konoha, bored civilians always kept track of each break up and consequential make up. Shikamaru supposed he should go to Suna soon to apologize for his part in the break up. He was going to go; until Tsunade issued this newest problem.
Now the young Nara had never been particularly close to Naruto. They were sort of friends in the academy, often times skipping class together with Choji and Kiba. While they were genin and chunin, they went on several missions together, facing many dangerous foes and life threatening situations. During the war, they spent even more time together, Shikamaru planning the impossible missions that Naruto would then execute. They were comrades, certainly. Friends, perhaps. But they couldn't claim to be close.
In fact, now that he thought of it, he knew pathetically little about the blond Jinchuriki. She was loud, friendly, and boisterous. She was always ready for a good spar, usually against the recently reinstated Sasuke. He knew as much about her as everyone else in the Konoha shinobi force did, but he couldn't claim to know anything more. Troublesome.
What he did know, however, was that she was a great person and even better ninja. She was the Hokage that Konoha deserved. She didn't deserve to be placed in such an awful position. She especially didn't deserve being sold off to the Daimyo's son, a man who claimed to love her, like cattle, consequently forced to quit the shinobi force, abandoning both her friends and her dreams. He needed a way to get her out of this.
Slowly, the more he thought of it, a plan started to form in his head. A plan that was looking more and more possible by the second. A plan that made Shikamaru contemplate launching himself off a cliff. Yet with each variable that he tried to counteract, this plan only grew more and more possible.
Soon enough, Shikamaru had gone through several cigarettes, the tips all thrown haphazardly around him.
"You have a plan, don't you?" His father surmised, taking a seat in the grass besides his son.
Shikamaru sighed as his eyes never left the clouds, "Unfortunately."
"Naruto is the hero of Konoha. She belongs here," Shikaku spoke softly, his gaze pitying.
"I know," Shikamaru grimaced, "The plan I have… It's risky. A lot of people will get hurt. A lot of people will be shocked. A lot could go wrong."
"It may be our only choice."
"It is our only choice."
"You're the Clan Head now," Shikaku reminded him, "It's ultimately your call."
"You're still the Head Strategist," Shikamaru pointed out, "You could always veto my idea."
"I'm only the Head Strategist until you decide you're ready for the additional responsibility. I'd like to remind you that I would prefer being fully retired by now. I'll support your plan, whatever it is."
"Temari is going to get hurt," Shikamaru admitted.
"You mean you'll be hurt," Shikaku said, sending a knowing look towards his son.
"I love her," Shikamaru replied, "But my village comes first. I'll follow through with my plan, for Naruto and Konoha's sake. Hopefully, once this is all said and done, Temari will find it in her heart to forgive me."
Sasuke cracked his knuckles as he faced off against his favorite opponent. Off to the side, Sakura, Sai and Kakashi stood watching what was sure to be a destructive spar. Naruto stood in front of him, her long blond hair tied in a high ponytail, her baggy jumpsuit hiding the plethora of weapons that were surely hidden beneath.
"Ready Dobe?" He sarcastically drawled, enjoying the flush of red that crawled up Naruto's face as she grew angrier.
"I'm always ready to kick your ass, Teme," Naruto snarled, getting into her favorite starting position.
"Do they have to fight again?" Sakura asked with a sigh. She loved her team, truly, but she was sick of watching Naruto and Sasuke fight it out. Her lingering feelings for Sasuke not withstanding, she wished they did more team activities other than standing around watching the two powerhouses of Team Kakashi duke it out.
"Jealous Ugly?" Sai taunted with his usual fake smile. Sakura withheld the urge to knock the boy out, instead opting for snarling at him threateningly, which only made him laugh.
She hated how she still loved the Uchiha. While she no longer fangirled, thankfully, and kept a pure friendly relationship with the man, she still held on to her feelings. Sometimes she would even try to flirt with her teammate, which Sasuke ignored with undistinguishable grace. In fact, he ignored Sakura quite often. He ignored everyone. Everyone except for Naruto.
No, the blond container was the only person that could ignite emotion in the previously expressionless Uchiha. When Naruto was around, a small smile would grace his features as they spat out insults back and forth. He acknowledged Naruto as his equal, as his best friend. Something he would never do with Sakura.
She clenched her fist in sorrow as she realized that in Sasuke's eyes, she would never amount to Naruto.
Shikamaru braced himself as he knocked on the front door. He had never been to Naruto's apartment before, there was never any need. She lived in a worn down building alarmingly close to the red light district, far from any of their mutual friends.
Naruto threw open the door in annoyance, "For the thousandth time you old hag, I'm not making any noise-" Her insult died on her lips as she gazed into the amused eyes of Shikamaru, "Oh, Shikamaru. Heh, sorry about that, I thought you were the old hag who lives below me."
Shikamaru smirked in amusement, "Hmm, do we look that similar?"
Naruto blushed at his teasing, shuffling awkwardly in the doorway, "Oh shut up. What brings you here Shikamaru?"
The smile fell off his face as he gazed into the blonds eyes. She looked tired, he noticed. She was probably worrying herself sick, the situation causing her untold amounts of grief. It wasn't fair to her, he knew, being placed in such an awful position. But this was how the world worked, "Do you mind if I come in? What I have to say is pretty sensitive."
Naruto's eyes widened, "Of course! Forgive my manners, I swear I'm usually not this rude."
"Don't worry about it," Shikamaru waved her away as he entered, "We're all allowed an off day."
Her apartment was surprisingly clean, he noticed. Although it should have been expected considering that she's been living alone since the age of six. It was small, with minimal, yet cozy furniture. It was obvious from the plants that littered the windowsill that Naruto tried her best to make a comfortable home to live in. The woman in question directed him to sit on the couch, before taking a seat beside him.
"So… What are you here about?"
Shikamaru took in a deep breath, bracing himself, "It's about your proposal. I have a plan."
Naruto's jaw unhinged in shock, "You can get me out of this marriage?"
"You were considering going through with it?" Shikamaru asked incredulously. He knew that Naruto was a self-sacrificing idiot, ready to do anything for her village. But this was a bit much.
Naruto shrugged ruefully, "It's not like I have much of a choice. I'm not a complete idiot you know. I know how bad it would be if I just rejected Hiro. He's the Daimyo's son. The rejection would be seen as a blatant insult. I can't risk the future of Konoha just because I don't want to be married."
Shikamaru stared at the woman before him. Naruto was always surprising him, at every turn. Just when he thinks he has her figured out, she does something to completely change the way he thinks. Here she was, an 18 year old girl on the cusp of finally reaching her dreams, ready to sacrifice her own happiness for the wellbeing of Konoha. She was amazing.
"Hopefully it won't come to that," He sighed, "My plan is risky. A lot of people will be hurt by it. We have to be ready to deal with the consequences."
"We?" She questioned, her head tilting to the side. Her large blue eyes peered up at him in hope, her eyelashes fluttering.
"We," He nodded, "We are in this together Naruto."
"The Daimyo," He explained, "Is a proud man. He only wants the best for his son, which was why he wanted you. But it is that same pride that won't let him take another man's woman. Especially not the girlfriend to a current Clan Head."
"Shikamaru, what are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about us pretending to be in a relationship."
Naruto gaped, "Wha- Ho- How would that even work?"
Shikamaru ran a hand down his face, "We would need to pretend to be a couple. As far as the entirety of Konoha needs to be concerned, we hooked up three months ago after my latest breakup with Temari, and we've been together since. We're madly in love, but decided to keep our relationship low key as to not let rumors spread, and risk Temari finding out and getting her feelings hurt. In fact, we kept it a secret because we wanted to explore our relationship without any outside influences."
"And you're okay with this? Pretending to be in love with me when you really love Temari?" Naruto asked incredulously.
"I have to be," He responded candidly, "It's our only choice."
"No one will believe us," Naruto stammered, "Anybody who knows us will know that we're lying."
Shikamaru took a look at Naruto. She sat cross legged on the couch, her usual god-awful orange jumpsuit traded for simple pajama bottoms and a tank top. Holy hell, Shikamaru thought as his gaze lingered, Naruto's hot.
With a gulp, he spoke, "That's why we can't just announce that we're dating. We have to be caught in a precarious position, and then 'forced' to spill our 'secret'. With us as a couple, Hiro will be forced to retract his proposal, lest he risk angering one of Konoha's main clans. The rest of the marriage proposals you've been getting should stop as well, at least they will once word of our relationship gets out. This way, no one gets insulted, and you're not forced to marry someone you don't know. It's a win win."
"This is crazy," She gasped out.
Shikamaru took a deep breathe, "So… What do you say?"