A/N: It's the one-year anniversary of Escape Artist today. I can't express how sorry I am for the 7-month delay. It was never my intention to neglect this story for so long. Thank you so much for all your encouragement. Maybe I'm cramming too much into each chapter – I'll try to shorten them moving forward.

I would like to shout out a big thank you to Clams-and-Rainbows for her beautiful fanart! I can't get over how pretty Naruto's eyes are. Please check it out on DeviantArt:

www {dot} mangafeelovesmangas {dot} deviantart {dot} com/art/Fanart-for-Escape-Artist-338404189

Summary: Seal master Uzumaki Naruto finally perfected a battle-use seal to rewind time for short moments. What the idiot forgot was that he tended to overdo things when in a pinch. MinaNaru, shounen-ai, timetravel, angst.

Warning: Minor adult themes.

Chapter 18: Mental

"Hmph! They just don't understand the honor of having me – the great, sexy, virile connoisseur of women – bestow my attention upon them." Jiraiya harrumphed indignantly as he stomped down an empty street.

"Granted, my sexiness is lacking its full power without my glorious hair." He gingerly felt the short spikes on his head which had refused to grow even with his hair jutsu. "It's all that snot-nosed punk's fault. I haven't had hair this short since I was born!" He kicked an empty can with a huff.

It clanked down the street to stop behind a familiar figure kneeling limply on the ground.

"Hey, kid! I have a bone to pick with you."

The figure remained stock still.

Jiraiya peered around curiously at the blonde's face. He quirked an eyebrow.

"Anyone home?"

No response.

"Brat, your cheeks are redder than a tomato."

A twitch.

"And close that pretty little mouth of yours."

Naruto's teeth snapped together and his flush deepened. His eyes flicked up at Jiraiya.

"Ohhh, look at the magnificent blush. Did something happen? Something good?" The perverted shinobi's grin turned into a triumphant smirk when Naruto's eyes darted to the ground.

"N-no," the blonde denied shakily.

"So you're kneeling on the ground like a star-struck girl with weak knees and rosy cheeks for no reason at all?"

Naruto wet his lips nervously, then jerked his tongue back in the instant he remembered what had touched them last. "Um, well…"

"Spit it out – there's no need to be shy."

Naruto shot Jiraiya a glare.

"Does–," the blonde took a deep breath, "does Minato have…homosexual tendencies?"

The smirk returned. "O-hohoho, so my frigid student did do something!"

"Just answer the question," Naruto snapped.

Unperturbed by the sharp demand, Jiraiya leaned back to take a good look at the dazed blonde in front of him. "To my disappointment, Minato was too fixated on training to have any sexual tendencies," he shook his head with an exaggerated sigh.

"But recently," Jiraiya let out a perverted giggle, "he seems to have developed some very potent ones."

Listening with reluctant but rapt attention, Naruto's fading blush returned full-force at the suggestive emphasis on 'potent'. "O-oh, I see…"

"And towards one specific person."

'Mom,' murmured the corner of his mind in denial, while the opposite corner hissed jealously.

"Kid, you know exactly what I mean. Don't faint on me now." Ufu! This was going to be grand!

Naruto's jaw worked up and down. Jiraiya watched gleefully as comprehension dunked him in a cold splash.


"That's right, keep going."

"OH." Naruto's brain short-circuited.

"Well done. Now be a good man and chase after the unlucky idiot who fell for a bigger idiot."

Silence fell between them in the deserted street.

"B-b-but what about mom?" Slight hysteria colored the blonde's high-pitched voice. "And I told you, he's my father!"

"So?" Jiraiya said bluntly. "You don't treat him as your father. The fact that you haven't run halfway to Suna by now means your subconscious isn't averse to it."

"How would you know anything about my subconscious? I'm sure it's a passing thing. And he'll get over it and marry mom and have me and become the ultimate role model for Konoha." Naruto's subconscious hissed once more before Naruto buried it under layers of mental steel.

Jiraiya guffawed. "A passing thing? Nitwit, Minato's been after you for months."

The large man eyed the time traveler with a smirk. "Let me take a guess. That Uzumaki wildcat is your mother." Jiraiya snorted when Naruto nodded absently. "I don't know how Your parents got together. Minato always said her rowdiness scared him."

"But everyone told me they were the perfect couple."

Jiraiya gave Naruto a skeptical look. "Perfect couple? Hah! They're close friends, but Minato's instinctive reaction is to hide." He paused thoughtfully. "Hmm, but it's gotten better in the last year or two since she started to calm down. But still, I can't see them together unless she bullies him into it."

'Kit, snap out of it and silence him. The frog's monologue is disturbing my peace.' Kyuubi's sneer slipped through the mental fog.

Naruto chuckled weakly. This was too much for him to absorb. Minato liked him?

Naruto blushed.

"Ufufufu, perfect research material," the leering author muttered to himself. "Yes, quite a lot of potential."

The blonde furrowed his brow in confusion. "Wha? 'Research material?'"

Jiraiya smirked.

"I uncovered a new juicy genre. (Drumrolllll) Homosexual romance!" He announced proudly, leaping into a ridiculous pose. "Sales have been low since people are only just warming up to the idea, but I'm sure it'll be a huge hit once they realize how delicious it can be."

"Hohoho~ I even started my own publishing company since no one would accept my submissions, those short-sighted bigots. Icha Icha is on hiatus so I can focus on my new series: Iro Iro Paradise!" The toad sage whipped out two books. The light blue book had two hand-drawn men shyly holding hands and the yellow book had a man stroking his companion's cheek.

"What? You don't know the significance of the title? How bland a life you lead, but that's expected of an ignorant kid like you. 'Iro' refers to (sexual) pleasure. Unfortunately, between two men, you have to start out subtle," he explained with a disturbing pout, paying little attention to the blonde who was slowly sinking into himself. "Oh, the potential, especially if I add in a third wheel."

Naruto stared at his future teacher dazedly as dark as chaotic clouds tossed within his mind, more turbulent than it had been in months.

Jiraiya writing gay literature? Jiraiya starting a company? Jiraiya putting Icha Icha on hold? What the hell had he done to the past?

He swallowed the insane giggle at the back of his throat. Oh god, I'm losing it. Again.

He tried to dig up Akashiori's unflappable pragmatism. However, the Hunter-nin persona merely shook him off, warning Naruto to quit bothering him. Naruto then turned to the Haikage persona who raised an indifferent eyebrow.

'We have no desire to tangle ourselves in your nonsensical predicaments. Leave our traits alone. While you are busy flirting with Namikaze, we are in the midst of crafting a strategy to deal with Amegakure.'

'What do you mean by flirting? You're both parts of me. I can use our personality traits anytime I want.'

'Many of our traits are not inherent in 'Uzumaki Naruto'. You and Kyuubi molded Akashiori's traits to preserve your sanity, and you formed mine to deal with this war. If you wish not to deal with Namikaze, put together another persona that would be happy to.'

'I know that! Oh kami, I'm going to have a mental breakdown.'

Haikage's lips thinned in irritation. 'This is nothing compared to previous disturbances to our sanity. Uzumaki, just accept his advances so you can return to your work. We have deadlines to meet,' the leader commanded as he faded to a buzz in the back of Naruto's mind.

Naruto gaped at his personas' easy acceptance of Minato's affections. 'Kyuu, my mind must be broken…' the time traveler lamented. 'Should I check to see if my mindscape cracked again?'

Only marginally better composed, he tried to hone in on the more outrageous aspects of the mind-boggling conversation with the toad sage.

"Gay porn is what you wasted your time on in Kusa?"

"Philistine!" Jiraiya reared back, hugging his books protectively. "This gem isn't a waste of time. Male bathhouses are a treasure trove of information, especially when men gloat about their accomplishments like it's a penis size competition (which, I'll have you know, I always win hands down). I gathered more intel with one-third of an Iro Iro than a whole Icha Icha."

Even more delirious than before, blonde latched onto a single thought for distraction.

"Ero-sennin. Are you a closet gay?"

The world froze. Jiraiya's jaw dropped and eyes bulged like gulf balls.

"What?" The furious skirt-chaser thundered. "A closet gay? You traveled with me for three years, and you accuse me of being a closet gay?"

Naruto bit the inside of his cheek to stifle a weak snicker, which was a nice change from insane giggles.

"I have never been accused of something so absurd in my life. That's like saying that frosty little Hatake shrimp is the greatest supporter of Icha Icha. Impossible! Just because I'm having trouble picking up women because of this hair doesn't mean I'll ever turn to men. I crave large globes of supple flesh, curvaceous hips, and the lovely feminine scent of the sacred flower begging to be taken."

Naruto's face dropped between his knees, and he laughed until tears ran down his cheeks, barely able to breathe, almost hyperventilating.

"Ha ha, haha ha–" he choked on a hiccup, "you have no idea…ha…" Midnight blue eyes flashed red for a split second as he mumbled hysterically. "Ero-sensei is a closet gay… What am I doing? Everything is screwed up. Minato doesn't like mom. Instead, he likes…um. You're spying on men. The Uchiha invited me for tea. The grocery store owner gave me a discount on fresh milk…"

Fresh tears trickled down his scarred cheeks. "But even after all that, the war is still going to happen, and people are still going to die. I don't know what's going on. I can't keep track of all the changes anymore. Things are changing too quickly. Everything is so different." Maybe I should go back and do it over again.

Jiraiya gazed down at the broken time traveler with pity.

"Naruto, that's right," Jiraiya said sharply. "No one will ever be the same, and life will never become as you knew it – all because of you."

He grimaced guiltily when the trembling shoulders flinched. Nonetheless, the young man needed to understand.

"But isn't that your goal? Aren't you working and training night and day so that things will change?"

The splotchy face looked up.

"You told me you want to save Konoha from the pain of war and loss. You said your past is worse than I could imagine. Isn't that right?"

Naruto bared his teeth in almost animalistic hostility as he recalled the brutality and death.

"Then wake up, boy!" The toad sage snapped harshly. "Prancing around the five countries, making friends with everyone you meet – you're a thousand times dumber than I thought if you expected nothing but the bad to change."

The blonde whimpered at the reprimand, too startled to form a retort.

Kyuubi rumbled comfortingly. 'He is correct, child. You shoulder a heavy responsibility. In turn, you must shoulder the heavy consequences – the gains, the losses, and the unforeseen.'

Naruto slumped mid-sniffle.

'Changes in Namikaze and frog have shaken you, as they were not by your initiation. As your influence spreads, waves of change will touch the world unpredictably. Take this incident as a lesson in awareness and humility. It is impossible to hold the world on a tight leash.'

Naruto closed his eyes bitterly. "You're right. You're always right," he muttered, uncertain as to whom he was speaking. "Having both hindsight and foresight is a serious mind fuck."

"Your Past isn't our future anymore, kid."

'We have a vague outline of history based on your life, but our purpose is to deviate from that course.'

"Nothing is set in stone."

'We must move forward with a definitive objective and tolerance for flexibility.'

"That's what you get for fiddling with time."

'The frog is correct. Time is never something to be trifled with. It has always been the foulest tool of evil in our greatest enemies.'

"I doubt anyone else is as brainless but intelligent enough to actually travel back in time."

'I would be proud if not for the foolishness of it all.'

"Stop blubbering. Get over yourself and–"

"Aaarg! I get it, I get it," he scrubbed away the last of his tears. "Both of you just shut up!"



Naruto looked innocently at his future godfather, who leaned in with squinted eyes.

"Naruto… Is there something else you're hiding from me?"

"Erm- nope, nothing at all." The blonde scrambled to his feet and shuffled backwards, waving his hands in front of him.

"Naruto…" Jiraiya's voice dropped ominously.

"Ero-sennin. Why are you getting all parent-y all of a sudden?" Naruto whined evasively.

'Fool,' Kyuubi covered his eyes with a tail, sighing at his bumbling jinchuuriki. 'This must be why the monkey gave permission specifically for the frog. He predicted your loose mouth and his student's acute observation – Just tell him. His persistence will outlast any attempt at evasion.'

"Come on, kid. Sharing is caring. I told you inside information about my new series." Before Naruto could argue, the toad sage continued, "If you don't tell me, I'll drag you to next month's Super-Perverts Unite Book Club as the main attraction, ufufufu."

"You wouldn't!"

"You know I would."

'Tell him, kit,' Kyuubi urged. 'He will be a useful ally. If he is the same frog we knew, he will accept and protect you. Otherwise, we can kill him.'

"I'm sure they'll appreciate the view, especially the Naruko form."

Surrendering under the threat, Naruto divulged the secret of his bijuu to only the second person in this time. It was a relief to confide someone who knew his origins, like a small weight had fallen off his shoulders. He felt a little less alone in this foreign world.

After a long contemplative silence, Jiraiya settled a large hand on the blonde's head. "See? That wasn't so hard." His eyes raked over the six scars marking him as the Kyuubi's jinchuuriki.

"Makes me want to grind Minato to dust."

Jiraiya laughed at Naruto's protests and the faint blush that resurfaced.

"I know, he's not the same Minato, blah blah blah." He bopped Naruto's head with his fist. "You're too forgiving for your own good." He sighed. "Sorry I wasn't there for you the first time around. I'm ashamed of myself, but this me is different."

Naruto's breath hitched.

"I'm honored to be your godfather, Naruto. No promises about my parenting skills, though. I'll do my best, but it's strange that you're only what, ten, fifteen years younger than me."

"As your godfather, it's my duty to be involved in your life, to guide you along your growth. To do that, you'll need to open up to me," he said in all seriousness. "Tell me in greatest detail. what did Minato do to you?" Jiraiya's face morphed into a lewd grin as a notepad materialized in his hand. "Don't leave anything out."

Naruto sputtered.

'Idiot. He certainly knows how to kill the mood,' Kyuubi commented dryly.

"Pervert, he's my father!"

Jiraiya picked his ear lazily. "What's the big deal? You're gay, he's gay, why not go all the way? That little detail just makes the debauchery so much better." He wiggled his eyebrows. "Come on."

"I'm not gay," Naruto growled.

"Hmm, yes yes," the toad summoner scribbled across the paper, "gay and in denial…good basis for a complex drama. This will be a masterpiece."


"Ooo, and what a voice. Perfect for screaming in steamy throes of ecstasy. But that'll have to come later. First, one needs to make a move. Did Minato feel you up? Propose sharing a bed? Confess a role play fantasy? Well?"

"Ew no, he only kissed me!"

Naruto clapped a hand over his blabbing mouth as the toad sage nodded enthusiastically. "Ahh yes, courage is the driving force of budding love! Nice start, my apprentice. A little tame, but still a nice start. Minato puts all his heart in everything he does; you need to reciprocate with just as much conviction. I suggest you take him skinny dipping. Perfectly innocent."

Even as the blonde palmed his bright red face, he silently thanked Jiraiya for attempting to ease the issue.

"He's not your father, so just enjoy the ride. Ufufufu, he's my apprentice; I'm sure he'll be an excellent ride. What does your tenant say about this? Did he suggest anything? I'm sure centuries of experience should give him some very creative ideas."

"Kyuubi…" Naruto groaned, "says that you're a depraved good-for-nothing who needs to stop corrupting me with inane rubbish."

Jiraiya arched a white eyebrow. "Protective little bugger, isn't he?"

"And I will scatter your entrails across this pitiful village if you utter that nonsense again, frog," the demon fox snarled through Naruto's mouth.

From his mindscape, Naruto watched, fascinated, as his own body backed the toad sage into a wall with a clawed hand aimed at his wide chest.

"I guess that's my cue to leave. Lots of women to savor and sake to ravish…or the other way around," he smiled nervously. "Be sure to keep me updated on the progress between you two lovebirds!" Jiraiya ducked under razor-sharp nails swiping at him and puffed away.

"Tch, that thing would have been rancid frog meat anyway," Kyuubi grumbled, ignoring his host's mental eye roll.

A circle of men watched as the figure in black stalked into the room, like a general with the formidable gait of a predator. He commanded respect from the powerful shinobi who had solemnly gathered this windy night.

"Now that we are all present, let us begin. Jiraiya, report," Haikage said in a soft but deadly voice that made them all straighten in their seats. No matter how many times they began the Kage Kaigi's this way, the voice of their mysterious leader never failed to put them on their toes. His confidence inspired an unwavering belief that they could succeed.

Jiraiya stood and bowed to the black mask before clearing his throat.

"During the last four months in Kusa, I operated in both plain sight and underground. As I was researching for the Iro Iro…," Perverted glints entered three pairs of eyes, "I heard scattered whispers of fraudulent activity."

"Throughout the civilian population and government officers, there has been evidence of inconsistencies in political and economic developments over the last two years. Some of the mandates by the council are undoubtedly beneficial, but the chain effects of those actions are weakening defenses and shifting power to less savory groups."

"That is not all," Jiraiya continued. "As I was researching for the Iro Iro…" Again, perverted glints reappeared in three pairs of eyes until Haikage's killing intent snapped them out of their fantasies. Minato and Naruto sighed at the men's antics. Perverts through and through.

Jiraiya coughed. "There is gossip among government officials that several members have changed recently."

Akashiori leaned forward with interest. "Changed…as in changes to behavior?"

"Concerns from peers about personality changes. My research showed changes in habits, opinions, political agenda, etcetera. All very small and subtle – everything in this business is subtle – but this gives me reason to believe we have imposters and bribed officials mixed in the system."

"Hn, amateurs," Akashiori and Aka said simultaneously.

Sakumo snorted. "Easy for you to say, oh great Masters of Deception." It was unreal how none of Akashiori's active undercover Kage Bunshin in Iwa had been discovered yet. And Aka had just flushed out another Iwa spy among the merchants. "You can't compare your infiltration expertise to that of normal people."

"And yet, our little Naruto struggles to conceal a single emotion," Akashiori pointed out dryly.

Naruto shot him a withering glare and opened his mouth to protest–


Everyone froze when Haikage's firm voice cut through the room.

"Ehehe… To sum it up, there are signatures being forged and dirty money exchanging hands. You can find the full report coded in my two Iro Iro books."

"Jiraiya-san," Haikage's voice from behind the black mask lacked all humor, "please submit a proper report within two days. That should give you enough time to explain the Sawada policy without Sagawa-kun masturbating on a vibrator."

Blood dribbled out of Sarutobi's nose.

Two hours later, the Kage Kaigi came to a close.

"There is still much to do," Haikage told them as he stood. "Hatake-san, continue monitoring Sasori of Suna. He has not shown aggressive tendencies, most likely because Chiyo's light punishment has kept him loyal to the Kazekage, but his skill in offensive puppeteering remains a potential threat and advantage."

Haikage continued around the table.

"Yamanaka-san, per your report on Danzou's profile, I need you and Nara-san to map out his next moves. He has been rather smug since the Councilman overlooking border control died in an accident. We were barely able to turn down his generous offer to take over the duties. Danzou will not forfeit easily."

"Aka, you know what to do with the new Iwa spy in the medical research department."

The red-masked Hunter-nin sneered.

"Namikaze-san and Uzuhara-san, complete the advanced barrier and restriction seals; there are still many more on the list. There will also be several scouting and infiltration missions."

"Jiraiya-san, pinpoint the impostors in Kusa. Akashiori will replace several with clones."

"Finally, Hokage-sama, Akashiori, and I are still deliberating on how to handle Amegakure and the hostile sectors of River Country. The tentative plan is for Akashiori to assassinate an officer in Midori-Kawa town's council. The man has been dealing with a minor Ame gang for extra coins in his pocket. This is an opportunity to turn a critical location against Ame."

"We have an estimated one and a half years until the war commences. Our operations must be conducted subtly. We cannot give Iwa fuel to attack early. They know we have begun to move our pieces, but they are currently occupied with the civil war. If Konoha is too forceful in our actions, the Tsuchikage will utilize the threat of a mutual enemy to unite the village and launch an attack."

Haikage assessed his most trusted men.

"Kaigi adjourned."

Sarutobi, Naruto, and his three personas remained in their seats as the room cleared.

Aka shook his head tiredly. "Iwa spies are everywhere. Kumo, too. Many have been in deep cover as sleeper agents for years. No wonder Konoha suffered so much damage in the Third War."

"This time, we will minimize all attack on the village," Haikage said firmly. "Preparations are progressing on schedule."

"Progressing on schedule?" Akashiori interrupted. "We focus all our time on defense and preventative measures, but what about the offensive? We have barely touched that."

"The safety of the village is a priority. There is little chance of the enemy reaching Konoha if our border defense is solid and the enemy is incapacitated."

"To defeat the enemy means taking the offensive," Akashiori argued.

"The opportunity to defeat the enemy is provided by the enemy himself," Haikage countered. "We must induce the enemy into acting first. Haste will be their downfall, but it will be ours if we are overly aggressive."

"Staying on the defense will drag out the war." The spiral mask seemed to churn as Akashiori leaned forward insistently. "We are trying to minimize casualties. Shortening its duration is the only way to accomplish that."

"Are you saying we should thrust our soldiers into unfamiliar territory?" Haikage's voice rose in volume. "Rock Country terrain is covered in isolated grounds. We cannot storm Iwa without dividing and endangering our forces."

"Then develop long range attacks! We have boosted our shinobi's skills, but what else can we teach them? Attack from afar. That is just as effective, if not more."

"And leave massive casualties on the Iwa side?" Haikage said in a deadly growl. "To shatter and destroy the enemy should be our last course of action."

"That was effective in the Past. With the Hiraishin, Minato was able to decimate the Iwa army and force them to surrender."

"So you wish to place that heavy burden on him once more? How selfish," Haikage said scathingly. "The guilt of slaughtering hundreds is not something any man, however great, should have to carry."

Akashiori stood abruptly, his chair scraping loudly across the floor. "Then we–"

"Calm yourselves!" The Sandaime Hokage barked.

Sarutobi watched as the two men's postures instantly fell under tight control.

It was fascinating how Naruto could have such contrasting views by having different intrinsic characteristics and holding different positions of power. They were truly separate people within one mind.

Haikage saw the world as a general, directing from afar and responsible for all lives; he studied the big picture on the metaphorical chess board. Although his outward appearance was any shinobi's worst nightmare, he led with benevolent intentions and cared for each and every one of Konoha's citizens. Naruto's kindness and love.

Akashiori saw the world from a singular agent's view. His extensive on-field experience made him an exceptional shinobi, albeit cold and unsociable. He fought aggressively in the front lines like a merciless tornado, taking no prisoners and finishing the job in the quickest way possible. Naruto's wildness and impatience.

Uzumaki Naruto was…he was the human, innocent of heart and honest in nature, innovative and lively but, at the same time, foolhardy and jaded. His flaws only added to his unique charm.

And Aka was the mix of Akashiori and Naruto, a sly version born specifically for the task of ferreting out spies and running a clandestine surveillance operation on all Konoha personnel for treasonous activity. His personality fell somewhere in between the two. Playful at times but ruthless on the job.

While separate, the personas held independent thoughts as all shadow clones did. Naruto's careful assignment, or perhaps it could be called programming, of each persona only made the effect more pronounced. All four were brilliant in their individual roles. Once dispelled, their knowledge merged and was analyzed as one in Naruto's mind. Although it was an effective tactic, only someone with a specialized mind could handle such chaos. (Sarutobi didn't want to think about why Naruto's mind broke in the first place.) A clash between such powerful characters could be explosive.

Like the time Akashiori's furious fist splintered the table.

"Akashiori," Konoha's leader said sternly, "if you feel the need for offensive techniques, develop and present them at a future Kaigi. Arguing over this will not get us anywhere."

"Haikage-sama," Sarutobi addressed his fellow Kage just as seriously, "it will be advantageous to teach our shinobi advanced techniques which no other country has seen before. Surprise can evoke just as many mistakes from our enemies."

Sarutobi suppressed a smile when Akashiori crossed his arms and Haikage's shoulders stiffened. Despite their competence and maturity, these personas were still nineteen-year-old Narutos underneath.

"Now for Amegakure…" Four flares of killing intent filled the room as soon as Sarutobi uttered the name.

"Hanzou," Akashiori growled.

"He isn't the focus of this discussion," Naruto cut him off. "The names Yahiko, Konan, and Nagato are popping up. They haven't started Akatsuki yet, but rumors of them lending a helping hand to anyone in need are spreading. After the war begins, they'll gather followers for their peace campaign, which was what led Hanzou and Danzou to kill Yahiko. We have to protect him. No matter what. It's his death that caused Nagato to terrorize our world with his retarded version of peace."

The other three masked Narutos nodded their agreement.

Sarutobi smiled. The four Naruto personas held varying levels of ranking in the shinobi system, but they were always equals amongst themselves.

"Jijii, are you listening? I'm saying this out loud for your benefit."

"Ahh, of course I am. Perhaps if we hand Danzou a copy of Iro Iro, he will have more appreciation of attractive young men…"

Killing intent hit Sarutobi square in the face.

"B-boys, it was a joke," the closet pervert said hastily. "Danzou is meticulous; he rarely makes mistakes. We must allow him to put his plan in motion before throwing him a curveball. If caught, he will use his forked tongue to push the blame elsewhere, and if appropriate he will use force. He may have been my teammate, but I am prepared to fight him if he is a catalyst for the Fourth World War."

"There's also Tobi…" Naruto paused when a feral roar sounded in his mindscape. "Kyuubi wants a piece of him but the problem is, we can't find him. We made rounds through the Uchiha compound and the countries, but nothing. Kyuu knows his evil stink so we should have been able to identify him right away."

"Damn it! We should have knocked off his mask before pulverizing him," Akashiori cursed their folly. "We know nothing except his hair color, build, and voice."

"This is over twenty years in the past. Who knows what he looks like now," Aka pointed out. "He was able to hide his identity until the end. Even Sasuke never found out."

"Uchiha Madara is the only hint we have. They must have been in contact since Tobi used his fighting style. Madara was alive during the Third War to convince Yahiko to start Akatsuki, so is he somewhere training Tobi now?" Naruto rubbed his face with his hands. "Shit, we don't know where Tobi is from or his age."

Haikage looked at Sarutobi. "Our knowledge of the past is limited. Hokage-sama, I believe you met Madara. Do you know anything that could assist us in locating him?"

"I was a mere child back then. He had a liking for caves, but I know nothing specific. And Kyuubi?"

"He knows less since he was sealed into Uzumaki Mito immediately after being summoned to fight the Shodaime."

Naruto dropped his head on the table with a thunk. "So we only know that Madara is a psycho geezer with a grudge against Konoha and Tobi is his psycho apprentice with a grudge against the world. Fuck."

When Naruto exited into the hall, he immediately sensed Minato's gentle chakra signature leaning against the wall. How could anyone's chakra be so comforting?

"Hey." Minato caught his hand in a warm grasp.

"Um, hi," Naruto replied awkwardly.

"I didn't get to see you last night," the taller blonde said softly, rubbing circles on the back of Naruto's hand.

Naruto blushed in remembrance of the night before.

Badly hidden behind a half-open door, Jiraiya shot Naruto an exaggerated wink and thumbs up.

"Let's go somewhere else." Naruto pulled Minato by their connected hands into the next room. He looked around the dim space. A library. Moonlight shining through the window illuminated the sides of their faces.

"Naruto, are you angry with me?"

The silence was thick. Minato gingerly placed his free hand on Naruto's upper arm, but his stomach tightened uncomfortably when the smaller blonde tensed. Naruto hadn't been this edgy around him in over half a year as he had slowly come to trust his touch completely. The possibility that the trust might have been broken by his impulsive kiss chilled him to the bone.

"Do you know? I recently realized that Kushina loves me."

Naruto jerked. The Hunter-nin felt his heart race as his mind ran in circles around one thought. He was going to lose Minato. It was too soon! However selfish it was, he wanted more time together.

"But only because I've started to act like her," Minato confessed. "My eyes are drawn to you. I try to spend every free moment with you. I train harder to impress you. And even though you're one of the most powerful shinobi I know, I want to protect you." Minato layered a thin coat of chakra between his hand and Naruto's arm so perhaps he could transmit even a fraction his love. "I feel like I could take on the world if you're by my side."

When muscles underneath his hand relaxed, Minato took a step forward.

"The kiss might seem sudden, but I've wanted it for a while. I want you all to myself. I'm generally not a jealous person, but I have to control my anger whenever that kunoichi from Team 11 bats her eyelashes at you." Minato slid his hand up to cup Naruto's jaw. "Can you give us a chance?"

The time traveler stared into the earnest blue eyes so similar to his own. This was his father, declaring romantic love for his future son. It was ridiculous. It was nonsense. It was disgusting. It had to be a joke. But happiness burst throughout Naruto's body as he hung onto every word.

"I-I…" Naruto cleared his throat and tried again, "Minato, you're my f–" His mind raced as he fought with himself. The dilemma he had been struggling with jabbed painfully at his heart; telling would surely drive Minato away.

I should tell him. It's the right thing to do.

But Naruto couldn't form the words. The ANBU Captain meant too much, and darkness would consume him again if Minato left.

"Minato, you're my…friend. Maybe you're confusing that with something more."

"I'm not. It's real." The larger blonde stroked the other blonde's cheek with each short sentence. "You had me captivated from the moment I first sensed your chakra."

Naruto couldn't think of a reply. The calloused hand on his cheek was a distraction, as well as the heat from the body leaning in. Ero-sennin was right. Minato put all his heart into this confession, evident in the shaky but heartfelt chakra brushing his scars with care.

"You're getting this all wrong. You need someone whole and clean. Kushina-san loves you, and you'll love her," Naruto said with difficulty.

"As sappy as it sounds, you're perfect in my eyes," the older blonde said as he rippled his chakra.

Naruto let out an involuntary sigh. His resistance was failing, chipped away little by little to the last line of mental guards.

The night before, he had sealed Minato out of his room and spent sleepless hours thinking, conducting a major self-exploration, about his feelings and the revelation Jiraiya had tactlessly dumped on him. Moreover, it was with a smug snort that the demon fox finally explained the mindscape lilacs which had been growing wildly since he returned from captivity in Ame.

'Kit, your ignorance appalls me,' Kyuubi had growled with an irritated swish of crimson tails. 'Your cluelessness is possibly the worst in all history, just as terrible as your multiple personality insanity.'


According to his mind, he was falling in love with Minato.

It was absurd. Loving Minato was easy, but romantically? That was as ridiculous as Jiraiya being gay.

"You should take some time to clear your head," he said in a whisper which echoed within the library. "Go on an extended mission. A lot of red-yellow mission scrolls have come in recently. Or take a genin team. Prepare the next generation for the war." He saw the corners of Minato's lips turn down into a frown.

"Is my love for you so hard to accept?" Minato asked. "You know that I don't love lightly."

"We aren't supposed to love like this."

"You haven't rejected me. Tell me honestly that you feel nothing and I'll back off. But please don't lie to me, Naru-chan."

For an instant, Naruto cursed his weakness to the nickname, especially when it was uttered so tenderly. "Our relationship can't be anything more than friendship. Think about your reputation and future. Nothing good can come out of loving me."

"'Shouldn't' and 'can't' aren't words of rejection."

"Don't do this, Minato." Naruto shut his eyes, unable to separate his hope for Minato's affections and hope for the other blonde to forget his feelings. He had always been greedy for love, wanting and wishing for what he had been deprived of in childhood, doing all he could to earn acceptance and protecting what he was granted. It was a miracle that his precious, precious Minato was offering unconditional love without care for his revolting mental scabs.

"I'm not giving up." Minato leaned in to bump noses, urging the Hunter-nin to look at him. "You mean too much to me. I'd be lost without you," he said, unknowingly voicing Naruto's own thoughts. "I promise to make you happy."

Before Naruto could pull away, Minato brushed his lips against Naruto's, eliciting a small gasp of surprise. The kiss lasted only a second, but the sweet tingle lingering on his lips made him duck his head to hide the heat spreading across his cheeks.

Gathering as much conviction as he could dredge up in his flustered state, Naruto looked back up. "We need to stay professional. I'll take a few missions out of the village. We can't afford distractions with the war right around the corner."

"No, I'm not letting you run away. Give me a chance to prove my feelings, Naru-chan."

Minato tipped Naruto's face up and drilled crystal-clear eyes into the smaller blonde's troubled blue. He leaned in slowly to give a chaste kiss. Naruto took a shuddering breath, caught off guard by its innocence.

"Won't you give me a chance?"

Naruto trembled, his knees embarrassingly weak from Minato's soft tenor.

'I'm a twisted bastard for even considering this,' he thought, grimacing inwardly at his indecisiveness. He was silent for a long time. Chuckling humorlessly to himself when he finally reached a decision of indecision, Naruto reached out to finger a blond ear tail which reflected silver under the moonlight.

"Minato, I'm not ready to make this leap." An enormous leap onto a sinful, convoluted road.

"Can I take that as a subtle confession that you like me back?" Minato asked.

"Maybe. You don't need to know that." Naruto regretfully let Minato's hair slip from his fingers and stepped back while rapidly gathering his and Kyuubi's massive chakra. "Sorry, Minato. I know it's unfair, but I'll see you in a bit." He suddenly condensed a calculated portion of the chakra and thrust it into the small seal at his hip.

Jikan Makikaeshi no Jutsu

In one blink, he was standing in the Kage Kaigi meeting room, 20 feet away from the door to the hall.

Before the time traveler could reorient, foreign memories trickled into his brain. Trees, the ocean, and an unfamiliar street – he knew right away what had happened. Three new clones that his Kage Bunshin created during the last 10 minutes he spent with Minato had dispelled because their existence had been erased when he rewound time. Memories of all dispelled clones had to return to their master, even through time.


An angry growl from behind interrupted his analysis, "Naruto, what did you do now?"

The time traveler spun around to see a different set of three Kage Bunshin with varying degrees of irritation on their exposed faces. Naruto grinned guiltily and rubbed the back of his head as he fought the urge to shunshin away, especially from Akashiori.

"Uh, nothing to get angry about. Just some damage control."

"Must have been some major damage if you had to erase it. Spill," Aka said with a raised eyebrow.

"It wasn't me," Naruto protested. "Minato…" He blushed.

Haikage snorted dismissively and turned back to the map on the table. However, Akashiori wasn't as relenting and sent a poisonous glare at the fidgeting blonde.

Nervously, Naruto summed up the exchange. After a heavy pause, Akashiori leaned his hip against the round table and chuckled mockingly. When the unsympathetic Hunter-nin persona cut off his laugh with a dismissive snort identical to Haikage's, Naruto knew he had dodged a harsh scolding.

"A surprisingly smart move," Akashiori said, assessing Naruto with a thoughtful tilt of his head. "I hope this unusual show of intelligence extends farther than that miniscule moment. Minato is still standing vigilant outside the door with the same speech."

Naruto rolled his eyes at the insulting compliment. Aka winked at him before joining Haikage, pushing Akashiori back into his seat.

As he left the room for the second time, his keen ears heard Akashiori quietly reprimanding the Hokage. "…is not a laughing matter, Hokage-sama. Blood relations aside, this is wartime…"

Once the door shut behind him, Naruto was hit with déjà vu as Minato's gentle chakra entered his senses. He allowed his wrist to be caught again, but this time, he discreetly extended a chakra string to close the door on Jiraiya's face.


"Hi," Naruto replied.

"I didn't get to see you last night," the taller blonde said softly, rubbing circles on the back of Naruto's hand.

The shorter man blushed despite himself.

"Naruto, are you angry with me?"

Naruto sighed. "No."

After a few moments, Minato smiled. "Do you know? I recently realized that Kushina loves me."

The man confessed his love as he did last time and slid his hand up to cup Naruto's jaw. "Can you give us a chance?"

"Maybe you're confusing friendship with something more," Naruto repeated.

"I'm not. It's real. You had me from the moment I first sensed your chakra. I was captivated."

Resolutely, Naruto stared into earnest blue eyes; this was where events would diverge. "Minato, I can't answer you because of so many underlying issues," he held up his hand to stop the ANBU Captain from speaking, "but I know there's little chance of you giving up." Unless I break your heart cruelly, and that's something I could never bring myself to do. "So all you have to do is convince me."

Minato tilted his head, pleasantly surprised by the unexpected turn of events. The conversation was going better than he had hoped.

"But it can't get in the way of war preparations or training. If I ever feel that you're putting personal desires before Konoha's well-being, I'll sever all contact aside from Kage Kaigi, and you'll never hear from Uzuhara Naruto again," Naruto cautioned. It meant that although they would continue to meet, all casual contact would disappear.

"I accept."

Naruto searched the taller blonde's face for sincerity and relaxed when he found it in abundance. "Fantastic," he said and took a step back to reclaim his personal space. "Then I'll be going. See you bright and early for training." Naruto escaped the hall in an expert shunshin.

Minato grinned.

"Well, well, well. Congrats, brat. At least it wasn't a rejection." Jiraiya stepped into the hall. "How many times did you practice that speech?"

The young apprentice cringed. "You watched the entire thing."

"Of course, how could I miss my student's first confession?" The toad sage slung an arm around Minato's shoulders, trapping him, and bent over conspiratorially. "I'll help you form a strategy. With the Great Jiraiya-sensei's guidance, he'll be yours in no time."

Minato groaned.

"Patience. Let's save the groaning and moaning for your cutie."

Two blonde men, one dressed in a standard jounin uniform and the other in ANBU gear, walked towards Ichiraku Ramen, deep in conversation. The shorter of the two made animated gestures with his hands as if to emphasize his point. The other man ruffled his friend's blond hair, hopping out of the way when a fist shot at his side.

"The match goes to me," Naruto insisted as he made a futile attempt to straighten his disheveled hair. "My critical hit was half a second faster. Your spine would have been shattered if it was a real fight."

Minato smiled fondly at his companion who glared in return.

Naruto's attitude had barely changed after their late-night confession several weeks before. The ANBU Captain couldn't be more thankful that their relationship hadn't deteriorated. The only difference was Minato's increased affections, but things didn't always go smoothly as planned.

Once, Minato had shown up at Naruto's door with stunning flowers from the Yamanaka shop. Naruto had taken one look at the deadly shinobi holding a bundle of pink, yellow, and purple blossoms and howled in unadulterated laughter. Meanwhile Minato was bright red from embarrassment, still standing in the hall and hoping that none of their ANBU colleagues walked in on the scene.

Needless to say, he never brought flowers again. Food and training invitations were much more effective anyway.

"Naruto, you wouldn't have been able to block the next attack at your heart before I died."

"Still, you died first."

"And I would have taken you down with me. That's not a win."

Naruto pouted. Minato's eye twitched.

Minato sighed in resignation. "Fine, I'll treat this time," he grumbled half-heartedly. It wasn't as if he was truly upset about paying; Naruto's appetite barely dented his ANBU salary. He just loved the bantering.

"What are your thoughts about taking a genin team?" Naruto suddenly asked after a particularly loud slurp.

Without hesitation, Minato shook his head beside his friend. "Training, our work, missions. I don't have time to raise kids."

Naruto frowned inwardly as he set his bowl back on the counter. Had Minato been reluctant to take a team in the Past? "You could be part-time ANBU, and we could work while the kids chase the cat," he suggested.

"What about you?" Minato returned.

"Can you imagine how the kids will turn out with me as their teacher?"

Minato blanched at the idea of three additional pranksters wreaking havoc on the village.

Naruto spent the remainder of lunch arguing his case: there are plenty of excellent ANBU-nin to carry out customary A- to S-rank missions; you could still take ANBU missions but pick ones that need your expertise; Tiger is thinking of retiring from ANBU anyway (Naruto, how did you know that?); I pinky promise to help you train them.

"Why are you so set on me taking a genin team?" Minato asked as he set his chopsticks down.

Naruto fell quiet. Why indeed, if not for the sake of following the original timeline?

"Because you need to gain the trust of Konoha ninja if you're going to lead them to war. That won't happen while working in ANBU shadows. Haikage-sama and Akashiori can't lead the general populace, and the Hokage is only a single person. People already respect your name and accomplishments. Now you need their love and undying loyalty to hold them together."

"Why can't I be a Tokubetsu Jounin like you?"

"Devotion to the next generation of Konoha's protectors shows your devotion to Konoha. People need to see just as much compassion as strength. That's the Will of Fire."

Minato reached out to gently press on Naruto's Hunter-nin tattoo hidden under the jounin uniform. "Naruto, you are the epitome of the Will of Fire. Konoha would follow you to the ends of the universe."

The time traveler shook his head. "I don't have the right to claim this village as my own–"

"Whether you do or don't is for Konoha to decide," Minato murmured.

"–This village needs you," Naruto continued as if he hadn't been interrupted.

Minato was silent for several minutes, rolling the words "genin team" and "sensei" around in his head. The job was possibly more daunting than long-term S-rank infiltration missions.

"It takes more than excellence in the shinobi arts to teach children," he said as he absently molded five dots of compressed chakra on each fingertip. He rolled the dimly glowing chakra beads down to his palm, whirled them around on the calloused surface, and spiraled them back up his fingers.

"You'll do well, no matter what the circumstance," Naruto reassured quietly, eyes glued to the display of expert chakra control.

Minato looked quizzically at his friend as he contemplated the enigmatic blonde's tone. Naruto's words always seemed to hint a depth to them that he couldn't grasp. He sighed. "Loosen up, Naru-chan. It's a life-changing decision, but I get what you're saying." He extinguished the swirling chakra with decisive abruptness. "I'll follow you to the ends of the universe and Konoha can follow me. I know you won't lead us wrong." His hid a smile when Naruto turned pink. "Let's speak with Hokage-sama to work out the kinks."

The astonished expression and huge grin that split Naruto's face warmed Minato's heart.

Several days later, they were back at the ramen stand.

"Well, it worked out pretty well. Right in time for the new batch of Academy graduates," Minato mumbled. "I can't believe I'm going to be a teacher – and Kakashi's, no less."

The Hokage had agreed whole-heartedly with the idea, echoing Naruto's rationale. They had hashed out a plan, hitting only one little road bump in the process that resulted in a shouting match between the Hunter-nin and leader (which escalated when Naruto insulted the Hokage's intelligence). Finally, they sealed his impending future when he penned his chakra signatures on the part-time employment contracts.

It was due to the aforementioned road bump that Naruto was currently emitting dark chakra vibes.

"Are you still sulking because of Hokage-sama's suggestion? That was two days ago."

"It's a huge deal! I can't believe Jijii even considered putting Kakashi, Gai, and Ibiki on a team. Why doesn't anyone else see what a disaster that would be?"" Naruto exclaimed in horror. "It's like mixing ramen, curry, and tomato sauce in a blender for brunch."

Minato quirked an eyebrow at the comparison. "I think they would make a well-rounded team. Maito Gai was top of his class and has great potential for taijutsu and weapons mastery. Morino Ibiki shows interest in medical ninjutsu and genjutsu, but his below-average grades were from lack of participation. Kakashi specializes in ninjutsu and is recognized for strategic prowess."

"It doesn't matter. Gai is mental, he'll turn Kakashi mental, and Ibiki will find the mental-ness educational," Naruto flailed his hands dramatically. He swore the senile Hokage was trying to turn everyone in the village crazy.

"At least you convinced him to replace Gai with Uchiha Obito. He also has taijutsu and weaponry potential," Minato said as he patted Naruto on the shoulder, fingers lingering too long on the Hiraishin seal on Naruto's neck. He smirked at the suspicious look directed his way.

Naruto sighed dejectedly. "But I couldn't bring together the original members," he whispered. Rin.

Sarutobi had been adamant about having Ibiki act as mediator between Obito the prankster and Kakashi the mischievous little devil. When Naruto had suggested Nohara Rin, he had vetoed the idea, stating that she lacked the temperament to handle both rascals.

"Don't forget your promise to help."

"Tch. I know, I know," Naruto grumbled. "I don't go back on my promises."

Minato moved his mouth next to Naruto's ear. "Good, that will give me more chances to steal kisses from you."

He laughed and ordered another bowl for his frozen blonde.

A/N: This turned out more like a filler chapter. I'm really sorry I couldn't fit Kakashi-kun in. He'll be in the next, along with more exciting events.

By the way, for those of you that are concerned, this will be Naruto's last breakdown for a while :)

In the middle of writing this chapter, I discovered Tobi's real identity from Naruto wikia. There's no need to edit any previous chapters, but Naruto's Past will deviate even more from canon.

Next chapter: genin team; birthdays; enter Hyuuga.

May 12, 2013 – Happy One-Year Anniversary!