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Tampering with Time

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            "It's now or never." Tobirama's fingers blazed through a series of rapid-fire seals like the fate of the world depended on his speed. Ironically, it just might.

            The sky looked almost infected by the far-reaching darkness staining the sky. Strands of grey and ominous crimson stretched in their direction from the battlefield. Madara's jutsu was nearing completion.

            We're running out of time.

            "Is this truly our best option?" He spoke the words quietly and without any real conviction. Minato Namikaze, Konoha's Yellow Flash was just as resigned—no, committed to this task as the rest of them. But the cost of such a venture was going to haunt him for the rest of his existence.

            Tobirama shot him a withering look that would have sent a weaker man crashing to his knees. The Yondaime simply returned the derision in those scarlet eyes and gave a pointed look to Kakashi's maskless face. At one time, seeing his student without the covering would have been a blessing, but now he only felt defeated by the sight.

            "Sensei, this is our last chance to change everything." Kakashi's reply tumbled Minato's argument like a house of cards. His old student looked utterly worn out and Minato itched to do something to comfort the exhausted man. Obito’s presence had dealt more than just a physical blow to Kakashi, the emotional toll was plain to see from the dry tear tracks and the cracked tone of voice. "If Tobirama-sama is successful, you'll be able to change things, Sensei. You can save all of us. You can save Naruto. You can stop Madara and…."

            You can do what I could not.

            Kakashi did not have to say the words: Minato heard them all the same.

            Minato was aware that his protests were feeble at best and unworthy of a Kage. With the end of the world inevitable, if there was even a slim chance of changing things, there was really nothing left to lose. After all, his son had already paid the ultimate price and their hopes died with him. There had been no time to grieve, not with the Nidaime's abrupt appearance whisking himself and Kakashi far and away from the battlefield. Far and away from Naruto's last stand.

            Minato felt his son's vibrant presence falter and Kurama murmur a denial—the Yang portion of the bijuu’s chakra all but screaming in the back of Minato’s mind. Through that connection, the former Hokage felt a keen sense of disbelief as he experienced his son's final, agonizing moments in slow motion. A fiery determination that was a painful reminder of just how much like Kushina their son was; Naruto was fighting the extraction process like someone possessed. Even when Minato sensed the Yang Chakra being ripped out of his son, he could still sense Naruto struggling desperately—never surrendering even as the connection between them was extinguished.

            Naruto had died just like his namesake: refusing to give up.

            “I wish you could go, Kakashi,” he murmured futilely. Physical pain was meaningless in a reanimated body, but the emotional turmoil made his tongue move sluggishly with emotion.  “You deserved so much more out of life than what you had.”

            “I'm glad it's you, Sensei.” Kakashi's tone was committed and relentless—a Hatake to the end. Wherever he was, Minato was sure that Sakumo must be proud of what an incredible man his son had become. "When you were around, I believed the impossible might have a place in reality and not just genjutsu. When I watched Naruto grow, I saw that same power. I believe that if anyone can save this twisted reality, it's the person I believed in most of all.”

            "Kakashi—" Minato's throat tightened with unfulfilled emotion as his student shattered the last of his reservations. Salty wetness stung his face and he almost laughed in spite of himself. Who knew a dead man could still cry?

            "Don't cry, Sensei. My suffering will be over in a moment and then... I'll see you soon enough. Even if you'll be wearing a new face, you won't stop being the man I looked up to."

            The Hatake brat is right.

            The distinctive whisper of Kurama's input was flawlessly logical and would certainly have shocked the sandals off of the shinobi that classified bijuus as mindless rage monsters.

            Minato, if this works, we'll be able to put an end to Madara's madness once and for all. If that’s enough motivation for me, it’s more than you could ask for.

            When did you become so wise, Kurama?

            Heh.

            "We're nearly out of time. Yondaime, is the Kyuubi prepared?"

            Tell that insolent Senju that I am prepared to power his jutsu. Kurama hissed, malice aimed mercifully at Tobirama rather than himself as the hulking shadow stepped closer until the monstrous fox was directly behind him. 'I can't believe I'm helping the brother of that Shodai scum.'  

            'Thank you, Kurama.' None of this would have been possible without the fox's help and chakra and he owed his irritable companion for this. Minato reached out and placed a thankful hand on one of the bijuu's oversized paws in their shared mindscape 'Without you, saving the world wouldn't be possible. Saving Naruto wouldn't be possible. You put up an incredible mask, but I know you're doing this for me and not because of Madara. Thank you, my friend.'

            Slit pupils stared him down wordlessly for a moment before the massive bijuu huffed in a characteristically dismissive manner before gathering enough chakra that made a bijuu-dama look like a flimsy e-ranked Academy jutsu.  Awed by his partner's incredible display of power, Minato grinned foxily and was pleased when Kurama returned it with a toothy grin of his own.

            "He's ready." Minato acknowledged, disconnecting from the mindscape and blinking at the grim-faces of his predecessor and student.

            "Sensei, take this." A pouch was abruptly shoved into his arms and it clinked in his hands as the contents rattled against each other. "A few kunai and tags, but it also has all the money I had with me and a few other things." Ah, sentimental keepsakes that Kakashi kept with him. Minato is unable to fully conceal his smile when a certain rectangular shaped object is felt in the pouch. Jiraiya-sensei, so fortunate that Kushina never discovered that you corrupted her Kashi-kun. "It isn't much, but if Nidaime-sama is correct, you'll need every last ryo."

            "Thank you, Kakashi." Impulsively, he reached out and wrapped his old apprentice in a one-armed embrace. It took a moment, but his old student's arms were around him squeezing him in what would have been a painful hold if sensation was not dulled in a reanimation. "No matter what has happened, I have always been and will always be proud of you. You've never been a disappointment."

            With his heightened senses, he could sense his old student swallow once before shuddering in his arms. There was no time left for sentiment, not with time running out. But when Kakashi pulled back, Minato detected the faintest trace of salt in the air.

            "We have a minute, perhaps less." As if shattering a genjutsu, the two jerked to attention with Tobirama motioning to the ground and Kakashi dropping down in front of him. Already, the Nidaime stood weaving a complex series signs and the ground around Minato began glowing.

            "I'm ready." For Minato, it had hit home that this was their chance to tell fate to shove it and make a better future. He couldn't save Kushina, but a better world for their son...that he could do.

            Tobirama's dead eyes stared unblinking at him as he continued weaving signs and began speaking even as the ground shook beneath them.

            "I mentioned to you earlier that this is a reincarnation jutsu accompanied by a time-travel component that your bijuu will control," Tobirama explained even as the world lit up with a roar of white energy. "Remember Yondaime, you will never be Namikaze Minato again, though you may retain your memories as such. Your body will that of both Senju and Hatake bloodline and even your chakra will be different. Anything more will be for you alone to discover. Ready?"

            "I am." Minato looked at the haggard face of his pupil for one last time and sighed once when the copy-nin eye-smiled for the last time. "I suppose this is goodbye."

            "Go sensei. If anyone can save the world, it's you." There is peace and trust in his student's eyes and Minato managed a nod for the sake of his doomed student.

                "Go Yondaime. Defend the future of the next generation."

            There was a cacophony of sound and a spinning torrent of red and white chakra exploded. Tobirama placed one chilly finger to his brow and lifted a kunai to Kakashi's chin.

            Feeling a scream build in his throat, Minato was tugged into his mindspace and wrapped in a cocoon of red tails that blocked his vision; though unable to see, he heard the squelching choke of running blood and inhaled the tang of copper and salt.

            You don't want to remember him that way. The fox's voice sounded grainy, almost tender. Either way, Minato has never been more thankful in his life for being spared from witnessing a death. Hold your breath and pray, kid.

                There was a string of words and a light that surged outward bright enough to blind. Sensation returned with an accompanying pain that travelled along his body. From his toes to the top of his head, it felt like he was being scalded by fire.

                The world was on fire and he could not even move a muscle. And then everything faded to black.

                                                ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

                They did it. He was here.

                A waifish figure was coated from head to toe in ash and grime wearing a long shirt that fell to the child's knees like a dress. Bare feet were covered in a light layer of dust, while a pair of adult sized shinobi sandals had been carelessly discarded in the trash bin half a step away. Exhausted eyes drank in the lively silhouettes of happy residents of Konoha from his niche in the alley. Civilians bartering between stalls, carefree children running, and the occasional hitai-ate amongst the throng. Perhaps the most obvious sign of success the was prominent Uchiha Crest on the backs of two retreating dark haired individuals.

            Figures those bastards would be the first thing we see considering they just destroyed the world.

                Hearing Kurama's voice was a relief.  Never in his wildest dreams did Minato imagine befriending the ill-tempered bijuu after sealing it within the Death God's belly. But loneliness was a fickle creature and the two had rather quickly formed an uneasy alliance. A few years into their eternal sentence, Minato had worn the Kyuubi down until the time came that they fought, bonded, and finally became friends—even if Kurama refuted such close association. Still, Minato knew Kurama's rendition of tough love would be necessary if he was going to survive this new life.

            Not this world, Kurama. Not if we have anything to say about it.

            Well said. You're a bit of a mess at the moment though. We'll need to do something about that.

            Careful Kurama, you sound as if you're going soft.

            Tch. It's hardly my fault your new appearance makes you look pathetic.

            Is it really that bad?

            Not that there was much he could do about it.

            It'll take some getting used to. The Nidaime has quite the sense of humor.

            Geez. Not foreboding at all...

            Naruto died. Obito had been nothing more than a pawn. Madara became the Juubi Jinchuriki. The Allied Shinobi Forces failed. All that had been left was for Madara to mercifully tuck them away like children to bed and let his eternal genjutsu come to pass.

            That world had ended, but Minato could do something. He could still do something.

            Quit thinking so hard, brat. Go find something to wear. That Kakashi gave you his weapon pouch and the pitiful amount of ryo he had with him. So, go get some clothes before you freeze to death.

            Kurama laid his head down and curled up into a gigantic ball in Minato's mindscape and it occurred to the once-kage that his long-time companion was well and truly spent and his chakra was limited.

                Reaching out, he ran a soothing hand over the fox’s fur and gently scratched at an ear with unfamiliar pale hands that were distressingly tiny.

            Are you going to be alright?

            Tch, hating you was so much simpler. Kurama mumbled, but there was no bite in his voice. Even a lingering fondness echoed in the ancient bijuu as he cracked a single red eye in his direction. You should know by now that my chakra recovers quickly compared with a human. So, quit worrying and go get some clothing and save enough for at least one meal. We're going to need it in that scrawny body that fool made us.

            I wonder what it means when you're the more rational of the two of us. Minato mused.

            Thankfully the general layout of Konoha remained basically the same despite the Kyuubi attack years ago. Minato was able to navigate the streets without attracting more than an occasion glance and frown as people noted a small child's lack of shoes and decent clothing. Still, a civilian's notice was far better than attracting attention from the Uchiha Police Force or Anbu. Eventually they were going to notice his presence—it was rather inevitable—but Minato wanted to delay meeting with the Sandaime for as long as possible.

            Finally, he slipped into a quaint little shinobi apparel store that Kushina had favored. With a little bit of stealth and a lot of luck, Minato avoided immediate notice and grabbed a few basics from the children's area including a pair of sandals that he desperately hoped would fit and charged into one of the changing stalls.

            The convenient mirror was rather startling and Minato dropped the handful of clothing in shock. Tobirama had warned him that it might be a shock, but being told is not quite the same at seeing. Namikaze Minato was...not him. Not anymore.

            Instead of golden blond spikes, his hair was long and smooth with thin, wavy bangs like the Shodai's but with Tobirama's distinctive silver coloring. Aside from the style of his hair, Minato felt like he was staring at a portrait of the Nidaime Hokage. Identical scarlet markings on each cheekbone and his chin, excessively pale skin, scarlet eyes. Fragile and tiny looking.

            A small child.

            "Hiruzen is going to take one look at me and he will hardly need the blood test," Minato muttered at the foreign face in the mirror. "But this is really going to take some getting used to."

            Quit complaining. You're a Senju by blood now even if the circumstances are absurd. Now shut up and quit bothering me.

            Edging away from his furry comrade, Minato hastily shucked the oversized shirt and slipped into a pair of plain black pants that were a little loose, but comfortable enough. The haori he grabbed was a dark navy. ‘Boring!’ Kushina would have teased, but he would have just called them practical.

            The blue sandals fit well enough even if they were a little loose and had a bit of extra space for his toes to grow into. Until he eventually settled things with Hiruzen, he may be skimping on money for a while anyway.

            On the way out, he snagged a white coat that looked a lot like the one he used to wear to the Academy and quickly approached the register. The boy there was young and looked rather perplexed that such a young child was by himself and paying for his own clothing. But the clerk accepted the bulk of Kakashi's ryo all the same and Minato fled before the kid could ask questions.

            With appropriate clothing, he drew far less attention which was a blessing. And now, Minato just had to find Naruto.

            "Where are you?" he whispered thoughtfully, blissfully unaware of the funny looks shot his way as he walked by.

            You're both about five years old probably. Kurama snorted. Where do you think he is? Where do most unruly humans go when they're small and unpleasant?

            Next time you tell me not to bother you, remember this moment. Minato advised the half-awake demon who simply muttered a curse and fell silent.

            Time out would have been the simple answer, but Minato was no fool even if he was inept with non-shinobi children. Most children would be running around playing, but Naruto probably never had friends at this point based on the limited information they were able to glean from the memory transfer.

            It was not going to be that way this time around. Definitely not.

            "Okay, so the park."

            But which park? There were three different recreational playgrounds—at least there had been prior to his death.  Hazarding a guess based on where he approximated Naruto's apartment to be and known ANBU patrol routes, Minato dashed through the streets toward the second largest park and hoped for the best.

            The sun was a smothered presence hidden behind the clouds; with only a light breeze, it was an ideal day for children to be outdoors playing.

            And suddenly the silver haired boy's breath caught: there he was. When Senju Tobirama had appeared at his side whispering about a way to fix things, Minato was not sure he had believed, but Naruto was here.

            A few rambunctious youngsters played under the watchful eyes of their parents. All except a familiar blonde skulking around the periphery of the play area near the tree-line.

            Naruto!

            The shock of blond spikes was striking against a backdrop of green leaves. As Minato approached, his mouth morphed into a frown when he observed Naruto gaze longingly at the other children chasing each other with squeals of excitement. That loneliness twisted something inside like a kunai.

            Oh Naruto... I am so sorry. I know that someday your Kurama will be your greatest comrade, but your mother was right. I can only hope to make it up to you now. Even though I will never be your father, I won't let you grow up alone this time. I promise, Naruto.  

            Approaching with renewed determination, Minato intentionally crunched a few leaves to prevent startling the blond. Worked like a charm. Naruto spun, froze, and suddenly sat upright looking so painfully hopeful that caused Minato to want to charge into his former office and scream and rant until he was blue in the face. It would do little good, but surely it would make him feel better. A little. 

            Instead Minato channeled his inner distress into action, stuck out his hand, and smiled crookedly.

            "Hi, I'm Minato."

             He almost cringed at the higher pitch of his voice, but managed a sort-of smile. It was almost as bad as Inoichi before a stint in T&I had reshaped the Yamanaka into a world-class interrogator. Oh well, he swallowed his pride. Going from twenty-five, to dead, and back to four was certainly outside the spectrum of normal.

            "Would you like to play with me?"

            When Naruto stared, looking utterly baffled, Minato almost panicked—maybe he did for a moment. The certainty that Naruto is going to say no. To reject him, spit in his face, and run or—

            "You bet dattebayo!" A tanned, suspiciously gritty hand snagged his wrist and practically dragged him toward the group. "You want to play ninja! I'm Naruto by the way! Uzumaki Naruto! Let's go, Minato!"

            "Hurry up, dattebane!"

            Kushina...

            That gaki is going to be more trouble than Kushina. The fox groused muzzily, obviously fighting sleep. You're going to have your hands full with that kid, Yondaime. Don't expect me to bail you out.

            Get some rest, my friend. You've more than earned it and I think you can trust me not to get us killed for one night.

            That remains to be seen. But I suppose there is not much choice. It will be a while before my chakra recovers. Don't be an idiot.

            A wellspring of fondness filled the silver haired boy as the duo raced toward the central play structure. Yet the parents stirred instantly like a bunch of angered wasps; children were called off with dismayed cries and dirty looks were tossed in their direction to mark him as the culprit in ruining their fun.

            Naruto's grip on his arm slackened and the eyes were shining a bit too brightly as he stumbled to a halt as the playground emptied. It was too much for Minato when the blond shot him a clearly expectant, resigned look.

            Carefully walking toward the structure a few paces, stopped, mustered his enthusiasm and called out to Naruto.

            "I've never played ninja before, Naruto-kun. Please teach me how, okay?"

            "You got it Minato-chan!" Naruto burst past him with speed that put the shunshin to shame and burst into bubbly, hyperactive laughter. "I've never played before, but I've watched a lot! C'mon! Err...and say, Minato. Are you a girl?"

            Kyuubi's mocking laughter did little to abate his expression that truly must resemble that look of horror when he had witnessed young Gai's unbreakable sunset jutsu. Naruto, totally unaware of his social blunder, just continued to rattle off an explanation accompanied by exuberant hand motions that were so Uzumaki in nature that it would have been painful had he not been so gobsmacked.

            "I don't care if you're a boy or girl. It's just, you have really long hair like some of the girls around the village." If Naruto had stopped there, Minato felt certain he could have retained his dignity. So much for that. "But your face is all pretty and cute too." Just...kill him now. Tobirama, why? "Although the markings on your face are kinda cool too. They aren't paint, are they?"

            "I'm a boy!" he sputtered, tugging on his hair and wondering if he really looked that feminine. Kushina had called him girly and unreliable in his previous life, surely, he would grow into these new looks? Thank Kami that Kurama had truly fallen asleep or he would truly never have heard the end of this. "And the markings? As far as I know they're just part of me. Nothing special."

            Unless you count being reincarnated into a new body after time-travel and a willing blood sacrifice. But he really, really did not want to bring up the fine print in this little equation.

            "Cool! I was born with these and I think it just makes me look even more awesome!" Naruto crowed cheerily and gestured to the whisker markings on his cheeks before the blue eyes brighten comically with a glint of mischief. "Now, last one up is cold ramen!"

            While he may no longer be the yellow flash, Tobirama Senju was no slouch when it came to dexterity: Minato Senju was just going to have to be faster than both. Pumping his legs hard, Minato rapidly caught up with Naruto and smirked cheerily as he passed the sputtering blond and launched himself up the side of the structure.

            Naruto claimed he cheated, to which Minato replied that there is no fair play as a ninja but since he wasn't using chakra yet it was a moot point. Afterward, the blond spitfire chased him up the climbing ropes, across the monkey bars, and finally a truce was declared on the teeter totter much to their shared delight. Their "mission" took a series of crazy turns as Naruto proclaimed himself the team captain and Minato willingly submitted to his orders. Their team had to take over a dozen head first plunges down the slide to escape their enemies. They were forced to hide beneath a pile of leaves to ambush potential enemies and use sticks to replicate tossing kunai. Finally, the giggling pair ended up at the swing set where Naruto demonstrated incredible reflexes, for a child just a few months shy of five, by launching himself backward into the swing with a cheery whoop.

            "This is so much fun!" Naruto hollered loud enough to wake the dead. Minato could care less if his eardrums suffered a bit of abuse. If someone deserved happiness, it was Uzumaki Naruto.

            Not thinking twice, he ran up behind the giddy blonde and gave him a push. While it was difficult because his arms were stick-thin, the peals of laughter coming from Naruto made the effort well worth it. He sincerely doubted anyone had ever done something so simple for Naruto.

            "Look how high I am, Minato!" the blond crowed victoriously as he pumped his legs hard into the air. "Yatta!"

            "I see!" He called, slightly winded as he gave the other boy another hard push.

            "Here I come!"

            Before he could issue a protest, Uzumaki Naruto let go of the swing mid-air and tumbled gracelessly to the ground. Unable to do more than stare in horror, the blond miraculously diverted his head-first descent at the last possible second and landed on his bottom with a ridiculously triumphant expression.

            That boy is going to be the death of me. Either he has an insane amount of luck or he's naturally talented. Who am I kidding, it has to be both.

            "Now get on! I can push you now!" Naruto was already racing his direction, oblivious as a stump to the parental nightmare he had unwittingly inflicted on Minato. "Ready?"

            "Thanks, Naruto-kun." Minato clambered onto the swing, approving of how solicitous the other boy was considering how stunted his social interaction must be. Instead of vigorously pushing, the Naruto’s hands were astonishingly cautious and gentle.  Of course, Minato thought bitterly. He's never played with anyone and he is afraid of hurting me by accident. And despite all this, friendly and considerate.

            No doubt about it, Naruto was special in a way that was rarer than once in a lifetime.

            "Why don't you tell me about yourself, Naruto?"

            There was that perceivable tension in the air, before Naruto started rambling away like a dam had broken. Naruto pushed him, Minato listened and occasionally squeezed in questions or comments. In the space of a few minutes, the blond had told him all about how he had his own 'super-cool' apartment and did not have to live in the awful orphanage anymore. Naruto liked the color orange and idolized the Yondaime—irony not lost on Minato who appreciated the sentiment even if the 'real' Minato Namikaze was trapped in the stomach of the Shinigami. The boy liked 'the old man' and the ramen vendors who were, according to Naruto, awesome and cooked 'the yummiest food in Konoha'.

            In return, Minato shared some details with Naruto. He favored the color blue, but liked red too after seeing it on a very special girl; apparently his son could relate to that since he had seen a particularly special girl with cotton candy pink hair running around before. And yes, he had tried ramen but it had been a long time since he had it to which Naruto had been particularly horrified and vowed they would fix that.

            They had both agreed that the ninja academy was their shared dream even if that still was quite a way to go before they started. Minato had quipped that it was a good thing they had practiced so hard today for school, to which Naruto had enthusiastically agreed.

            "I'm going to be Hokage someday and then everyone will have to acknowledge me." Naruto voice was fueled by determination as he stretched a finger toward the faces of the Kage looming over the mountainside. "Jiji had better watch out because that hat is as good as mine!"

            "Hokage huh?" The former Fire Shadow ruminated with amusement as he dropped off the swing and moved to fall onto the grass with a murmur of pleasure. Gosh, that felt good. Perhaps the Nara laziness was explainable. "Is that the only reason?"

            "Err, whaddaya mean?" The blonde looked adorably confused as he plopped down on the grass next to him and twiddled with a blade of grass. 

            "If I wanted to become the Hokage," he explained indulgently while stretching his body languidly like a cat. "I would have to be the strongest ninja in the village so that I can protect Konoha and all of the people inside it. Especially the ones who are important to me."

            "Protect everyone?" Naruto seemed to mull over the words as if tasting them before turning to look at him funny. "Like friends?"

            "Like friends." He nodded solemnly, eyes blinking as his body became heavy with a weariness of youth and afternoon play.

            "Then I'm going to be the strongest Hokage ever, Minato-chan!" He pretended not to hear the tacked-on suffix, but found himself smiling in spite of himself. "I'm going to protect everyone! Hokage-jiji, Teuchi and Ayami, and you too! Just you watch me!"

            The future seemed unnaturally bright in that moment.

            "I guess I'll have to work hard then so I can be an elite jounin and work for you," he teased and waggled his fingers in his friend's direction.

            "Alright!" Naruto cheered and the grass whispered and crinkled as the blonde's sandal foot crushed it. "Konoha better watch out because we are gonna take it by storm!"

            A moment later, Naruto's stomach growled and Minato snorted and reluctantly abandoned his cozy spot in the grass and dragged himself to his feet.

            "I think the future Hokage better get himself something to eat." Minato said.

            "Err, yeah." The blonde rubbed the back of his neck and grinned broadly but there was an obvious reluctance that Minato had difficulty pinpointing the reasoning behind.

            "Do you want to eat?" He attempted gently.

            "We could play more?" There is a note of desperation that seems so out of place in contrast to how the last pair of hours had gone.

            Oh. Of course. Naruto must expect someone to whisk Minato off and never see him again.

            "I'm pretty hungry too," Minato admits fairly easy because it was true. "Can I go with you to that ramen place you mentioned before? I don't have a lot of money, but I should have enough for dinner."

            Naruto's enthusiasm returned full force and before he can muster a defense, his hand had been seized by the other boy and they are rocketing away from the playground at breakneck speeds. Even if they are both of a similar, unimpressive stature, Naruto has no trouble dragging him along as if he is nothing but a ragdoll. Barely keeping his feet, he desperately fought to keep the insane pace as Naruto nearly bulldozed a few snarling civilians. It's a serious blow to his pride since his former reputation carried the title of 'fastest man in the world' and now it was a struggle to keep up with Naruto.

            Minato is ever grateful when a familiar stand popped into view and he is abruptly dragged inside. Pointedly taking a stool, Minato perched upright as the blonde sat on his stool on his knees, deposited his elbows on the counter, and bellowed happily.

            "Old man! I'm starving! You got any pork ramen for me?!"

            The ramen vendor shook his head with a fond smile that was obviously used to the blonde's antics and waved a ladle in greeting.

            "Good to see you, Naruto!" The booming voice cried before the man's attention shifted from Naruto to the Uchiha pale boy perched next to his number one customer.  Teuchi has aged remarkably well and his ever-present smile is enough to thaw the ice around his heart that had come from Naruto's poor treatment. The ramen vendor had always been respectful and kind even before the Yondaime was emptying his wallet for Kushina's excessive cravings. It was nice to see some things never really changed. "And who is this with you tonight, kid?"

                "Oi, this is my new, best friend Minato-chan!" The blonde boy gestured to Minato who smiled awkwardly at the introduction and waved slightly from his seat. "We played ninja today at the park and he told me that he had not had ramen in like...forever! So I brought him here to show him how awesome ramen is!"

            "Good evening." He bowed lightly and swiping silvery bangs out of his eyes and simply taking Naruto's exuberance in stride. From a parental standpoint—even if he technically no longer qualified—the blond's behavior was enduring and incredibly sweet. "Naruto told me that you have the best ramen in Konoha."

            "Our number one customer would be right too!" The old man reached out and ruffled Naruto's spiky locks fondly, to which the boy responded with a bashful grin. "Since it's your first time bringing a friend here, Naruto, your meals are on the house tonight!"

            Brightening at the thought of saving his meager stash of ryo, Minato bowed again to the kindly ramen vendor. "Thank you so much. I really don't know what to say, but thank you."

            "My pleasure," the ramen vendor called as he retreated to a bubbling pot. "I'm just pleased to see Naruto bringing company tonight. I hope we'll see you two again. So, what'll it be, Minato-kun?"

            "A pork ramen, please. And I'll definitely be back with Naruto if he doesn't mind the company."

            "As if!" Naruto snapped a pair of chopsticks and literally vibrated in excitement. "We should come again tomorrow!"

            "Alright boys, settling down and give me two minutes for those pork ramen, boys!" Teuchi called out over the clang and rattle of pans.

            "He seems really nice," Minato confessed, leaning on his elbow on the counter and fighting a sudden bout of exhaustion.

            "Teuchi and Ayame-chan are awesome! And once you taste this ramen you'll never eat anything else!"

            "I don't know, Naruto-kun." Even tired, he is unable to resist poking the other boy. "Onigiri and dango are pretty nice too."

            "No way are they better than ramen, dattebayo!" Minato chuckled softly as Naruto puffed up like an offended Bunta.

            "I'm sure you're right," Minato expressed indulgently. After this, Minato will need to make plans with Naruto for tomorrow and find somewhere to crash for the night. Kurama is truly asleep and he can feel his own body calling for rest too. "I need to find somewhere to sleep tonight."

            "What do you mean?" There is a note of maturity and suspicion lacing Naruto's voice and the former kage hardly fails to see the other boy studying him a bit too intently.

            "I didn't mean to say that aloud." Scratching the back of his neck nervously, Minato pretended not to notice Teuchi eyeing him with concern from behind the counter. What is the matter with him? Well...the future had ended in disaster after all just a few hours before, perhaps he ought to give himself some slack. "Don't worry about me, Naruto. I'll be just fine. I'm not too bad at looking after myself."

            "Are you like me?" For someone with little social interaction, Naruto could cut to the heart of the matter with relative ease.

            "Well, I don't have parents anymore if that's what you mean," he replied uneasily, staring at the floor.

            "But you just said you needed to find somewhere to sleep." Naruto persisted intensely, his readied chopsticks dropping to the counter forgotten.

                "I—I can manage."  What was he supposed to do in this situation? Rubbing his eyes blearily, he cursed his exhaustion and the young age of this new body. Kurama had nothing to spare leaving him on his own.

                "Come with me!" The reply was so earnest that it broke Minato's heart.

                "Naruto, I don't want to be a burden and I—"

                "You wouldn't be!" The other boy smashed his argument to pieces before he could even finish his protest. "It'll be great! Come on, Minato-chan. I promise I'll be quiet and won't bug you and I—"

                It figured. Here he was supposed to be taking care of Naruto and already this boy was trying to save him. Jiraiya-sensei, this boy really is going to change the world.

                Heck with it. He threw his arms around Naruto's neck and hugged him firmly. Naruto was almost too shocked to respond, but managed to return the embrace awkwardly before tightening almost frantically.

                "Thank you, Naruto. " He whispered softly, feeling the clumsy embrace tighten slightly. "You're going to be an amazing Hokage someday. You're already saving people."

                "Your welcome, Minato-chan." There was a clear tremor in Naruto's reply but Minato pulled back and deliberately avoided noticing when the other boy hastily wiped his eyes with his sleeve.

                "Here you are boys!" Teuchi reappeared like a magician and deposited the steaming bowls with a flourish.

                "Amazing!" Both stomachs growled in twin approval and all three of them laughed heartily.

                "Itidakimasu!" They chorused together!