Time Flows Like Ink

Summary: After a fuinjutsu experiment gone wrong, Minato is yanked into a future where his family is dead, his team fell apart and the Uchiha were slaughtered. With the defective seal burning in his palm, Minato struggles to stay afloat in a Konoha that isn't his.

Chapter 22

By the time Minato had beaten the creature that had abducted Obito, Madara was dead. He'd posed no threat, weakened as he'd been – had the creature not kept getting in the way, Minato would have killed him long ago – and yet Minato felt a spark of pride for his student.

It flickered out of existence as soon as he spotted Obito's motionless body lying at Madara's feet.

All air left Minato's lungs. He swallowed down his dread and shoved it deep, deep down, somewhere it couldn't reach the seal imprinted onto his palm. It felt so much more sensitive than it used to. Like even a mild spark of emotion was enough to topple him over the edge.

What Minato needed was numbness. He imagined an icy, ink-black ocean flooding his chest and flushing away any traces of fear, of anger, of helplessness. He embraced the sensation of cold until it was so strong that it covered up everything else.

Minato unsealed medical supplies, shook Obito's shoulder to check whether he could be woken and mechanically treated his student's wounds when he made no sound of acknowledgement. Minato stopped the bleeding. He bandaged Obito's throat and hand.

An emotion tried raising its head above the waves of numbness, but Minato dragged it down before it could do any damage.

Minato had scattered kunai in strategic places all over the continent, but they weren't enough to make the journey through teleportation alone. They were a long way from Konoha.

For lack of other options Minato carried Obito on his back and made his way home on foot. He took shortcuts whenever a marker of his came within range and kept travelling in between.

Minato lulled Obito back to sleep with a genjutsu whenever he stirred. It was easier that way. It would be best for him to wake up in Konoha.

(It would be better if the first person he saw waking up was anyone other than Minato.)

He lost time. The ocean in his chest sent icy waves crashing against his rib cage. More than once it threatened to make him lose his balance and topple over.

The landscape changed. Minato's body tired. He let Obito's weight on his back ground him and carried on even after his steps started to feel like he was wading through glue.

Voices called out to him. One or two sounded like they were calling his name. Most of them spoke over each other in a jumble of words that failed to register as anything Minato might have been able to answer.

His student's name shook him awake in a way that his own didn't manage.

"Is that Obito?"


"You found him?"

Someone pulled Obito off of his back. Minato was too tired to protest. Now that his arms were free, he raised one of his hands to touch the blood on his cheek. It had dried into a disgusting, itchy crust.

"Minato." That was Kushina. She put a hand on Minato's shoulder.

A bird soared above the rooftops and made Minato flinch.

He'd done it. He'd brought Obito back.

Why was he shaking?

"Minato," Kushina whispered.

The ocean inside of him raged. Waves crashed against his ribs and threatened to break through. Icy water clogged up his throat and filled his insides, making him shiver. Minato couldn't stop shaking.

He recognized one of the people who'd come with Kushina as Rin. His students had gone through so much. He couldn't– Minato couldn't lose it in front of them. He couldn't–

Kushina put pressure on Minato's back. He closed his eyes and followed her lead. He allowed her to tug him along and thought of nothing.

When he opened his eyes, Kushina and he were alone. His students were nowhere in sight. "Where–"

"They're fine. Don't worry."

Minato fell silent. He must have lost track of time again, because he blinked and Kushina held a washcloth she hadn't had before. He shied away before it could make contact with his face.

"I need to get this off of you," Kushina told him.

Minato traced the blood splattered onto his cheek. Now that he'd changed the past once again, there'd be nothing left of the adult Obito he'd met in the future. He'd be erased. Once these last traces of him were gone, it would be like he'd never existed.

Minato gave in to the shaking. When Kushina tried again to bring the washcloth to his face, Minato let her.

Somewhere in between Kushina cleaning the blood from his hands and coercing him into changing into fresh clothes, the shaking in his limbs subsided. The ocean in his chest calmed.

"Come on," Kushina murmured as though she'd been waiting for it. She led him to the hospital where Kakashi and Rin had set up camp around Obito's hospital bed.

All of his students were there. They were safe. Not fine, not well, but safe.

They'd be fine. They all would be.

(Maybe Minato would be, too.)

Minato told only Kushina what happened and trusted her to fill in everybody who needed to know. It was difficult to talk about even with her. Minato couldn't– He needed a break. The last reality, then both fights against Obito... he couldn't talk it through another time. Once had been enough.

"Do you think everything will be fixed now?" Kushina asked him during one of the quiet evenings they spent at home.

Minato wished he had an answer he could be certain of. "I hope so."

He spent most of his time at home. He could hardly bear to look at Obito. He knew it was a problem – he was cementing the idea that Obito had come back differently. That he'd come back wrong.

But that wasn't the case. Minato didn't care whether Obito had changed. It didn't matter how much time he would need to recover.

He couldn't look at Obito's bandages without remembering what it had felt like to wield the kunai that had come so close to ending his student's life.

"You need to talk to him."

Minato avoided Kushina's gaze. "I know."

"He doesn't blame you."

"I know."

That was part of the problem.

Obito was discharged from the hospital and decided to pay Minato a visit before anything else.

"I can't imagine what that was like."

Minato's pen hovering above his sealing paper. Drops of ink fell from its tip and left ugly blodges. "How are you?"

"Fine." Obito dropped down on the opposite side of his desk and glared at him until Minato caved. He set his pen onto the paper and gave his student his full attention. "I can't imagine what that was like," Obito repeated. His eyebrows drew a stubborn, determined line.

Minato stacked his sealing paper into a neat pile like it was the most important thing to do at that moment. "I could say the same about you."

Obito waved him off with an impatient hand gesture. Bandages poked out from underneath his sleeve.

"I meant doing all those jumps. Seeing all those realities." Obito swallowed. "I don't think I could have decided what should change and what should stay the same."

Of course that's what this was about. Obito – this Obito, at this age – was not gifted with subtlety.

"In the future, I..." Obito steeled himself and pushed on. "I was bad. Wasn't I?"

"You were traumatized," Minato corrected quietly. "Manipulated."

"By Madara."

Minato looked down at his hands. "Yes."

Obito's throat wobbled. The silence seemed to bother him. Minato ought to be making more of an effort to fill it. Why was it so hard? When had it ever been difficult to hold a conversation with the chattiest of his students?

"I think," Obito said, "if I'd been the one to jump back, and I'd seen that I was a threat–"

Minato interrupted him before he could complete his sentence. If this was his student trying to tell him he ought to have killed him... "You asked me to."

Obito opened and closed his mouth, thrown off the rails. "What?"

"In that last future." Minato considered his words, trying to find some that wouldn't support what Minato had led Obito into believing. Kushina had been right. He ought to have had this conversation sooner. "You asked me to kill you. Once I jumped back. You – the older you – he didn't want me to risk it."


Tense silence settled between them. Once again, Minato felt like he ought to do something about it. His head was filled with cotton.

Some days he felt like the ocean in his chest had never left. He'd meant for it to numb his emotions, so that's what it did. Talking to his family felt like wading through an icy mass of sea foam.

"You didn't," Obito said without meeting his gaze. "Why not?"

"Why not?" Minato let out a shaky laugh. "I couldn't. Obito, you... you're family. You're like a son to me."

Somehow, the admission seemed to take Obito aback. Minato couldn't tell whether the idea was too unbelievable in general or whether Obito's experience of almost dying at Minato's hand played a role in tainting Obito's expectations.

"I am?"

"What a way to show it, huh?" Minato tried to laugh, but it came out sounding brittle. "Look, Obito. I... I'm so..."

"Why haven't you been visiting?"


"Everybody else was there," Obito said, still avoiding his gaze. "Rin and Kakashi. Kushina-san came. Aunt Mikoto. Everyone. Why not you?"

"I'm the reason you were in the hospital in the first place," Minato said slowly. "If it weren't for me–"

"Are you serious?" Obito snorted a humorless laugh. "Kushina-san is right. Sometimes you really are stupid."

For a brief moment, the indignation was stronger than anything else. It quickly sank and drowned in a sea of guilt. "You didn't see yourself back there." Minato closed his eyes. "The way you looked at me... Rightfully so. I almost... You don't understand how close I was."

Obito twitched his shoulder. It was sweet of him, trying to go for nonchalance. But it couldn't erase his expression of terror that was imprinted in Minato's mind.

"You can be pretty scary." He said it like it was a joke.

Minato found nothing funny about it.

"Sorry," Obito muttered. "I'm bad at this."

"... So am I." Minato wished he could do just a single more do-over. Knowing what he did now, he would have acted much differently upon arriving in Madara's cave.

He instantly felt guilty. He'd learned his lesson. Changing even a tiny detail could damage the timeline irreparably.


Minato looked up. Obito gave him a wide, carefree grin.

"I forgive you."

Minato hadn't realized the weight pressing down on his chest until it dropped away in one shaky, wonderful exhale.

Rin caved and confessed that Obito might never regain his fine-motor skills in his hand fully.

Minato wished Obito didn't assure him at every turn that it wasn't Minato to blame.

Minato began feeling more like a person and less like a failure as a teacher. He managed to join some of his team's training sessions and kept the apathy largely at bay.

He looked forward to seeing Naruto during his next jump.

By the time the seal activated, Minato no longer dreaded stepping foot into the future.

"Let me guess." Rin stepped up next to him and glanced at the playground that had captured his attention. "This wasn't here the last time around?"

Minato tore his eyes away. He'd been getting better at stopping himself from drifting off, but it still happened occasionally. "Do you remember?"

"Not really." Rin passed her grocery bags to her other arm. "Sometimes I'll walk through the village and the most ordinary things make me pause. I can never quite put my finger on what's wrong with the picture."

With the number of alternate timelines he'd created, Minato suspected that most of Konoha was experiencing similar aftereffects. If only muddled memories were the only consequences of Minato's involuntary adventure.

"Where's Obito?"

"At Mikoto's," Rin said. "Probably complaining about Kakashi bailing on babysitting duty for a week."

Minato fought not to let the relief overwhelm him. "Babysitting?"

Rin's lip twitched. "It's what we call Team 7's training. They hate it."

Minato huffed out a breath of air. "You're not all three in charge of them, are you?"

Rin snorted. "No. Jiraiya-san asked Kakashi to join him on a trip to Ame. Obito agreed to lend a hand while he's gone."

Jiraiya. Though it meant that another person was safe and accounted for, Minato was hesitant to ask for details. He could never shake the feeling that the other shoe had yet to drop.

"Things are pretty good right now," Rin said as though she'd read his mind. She glanced at him from the side. "Maybe it's time you put the chessboard aside."

"You were right," Minato told her. Rin was more blunt than her younger self, but she didn't mean to be cruel. "The last time I saw you. You told me not to take the risk, and when I did..." It had landed him in the worst of the futures yet.

Minato didn't know how much – if any of it – Rin remembered, but she winced. "You fixed it."

Minato tried to find any lingering resentment in his student but found none. "Yeah. I fixed it."

"Are you planning on changing anything else?"

He wasn't planning on it intentionally, but... "You know I can't control it." Minato grimaced. "Who knows how many more trips I'm going to make?"

Rin hummed. "You should talk to Kushina-san."

"I need to see Obito, first."

Rin tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and made no move to head to the Uchiha district. "I told you where he is."

"You're not coming?"

"Soon." Whenever Rin smiled, it looked like her lips needed a moment to remember how to complete the motion. That much hadn't changed since the first time Minato had met her in the future. "I'll give you some time."

Obito lay on his back on Mikoto's front porch, a cat curled up on his stomach and his face more relaxed than Minato had ever seen it. Minato paused, watching the scene for perhaps longer than was polite.

The last time Minato had seen him – the last time he'd seen Obito's older, grown-up version – it had been to watch him commit suicide. An adult Obito who lived in Konoha, who was at peace (who was happy) was not something Minato'd had the privilege of knowing.

He hesitated for too long. Obito looked up lazily, spotted Minato standing a few feet away and startled, sending the cat running with a soundless jolt of surprise.

"Wait, Airi!" Obito's crestfallen expression suggested something of great tragedy had just transpired. He pouted and sent Minato a half-hearted glare. "I hope you know that you've just ruined two years worth of coercion and bribery."

Minato couldn't help it. He laughed, a short, startled sound that rippled through his throat and made his chest tingle. "Sorry. I'm, uh. Sure she'll be back?"

"You've clearly never met this cat," Obito grumbled. He straightened up, and some of his carelessness slipped from his shoulders. He carded one hand through his hair and glanced at Minato. "So. You're back."

"... It's been a while," Minato said carefully.

"You mean for me." Obito gave him a lopsided smile. "How long has it been since you got me out?"

Minato wished he could answer. Keeping track of time had begun feeling like catching smoke with his hands. He nodded towards Obito's arm and ignored his question. "How's your hand?"

Obito hesitated, which was an answer on its own.

Minato closed his eyes and sighed. This was ridiculous. They'd already had this conversation back in the past. Obito was now older than him – there was no reason for the both of them to act as though they'd never had an adult conversation before.

"I wish all this could have gone differently," Minato said softly.

Obito shrugged. "You did the best you could." He hesitated, then added, "For what it's worth, I'm glad it was you."

Minato wished he could say the same. He sometimes wondered what would have happened, had he never created the seal. Would that very first timeline he'd visited taken place? The one where Kushina had died and Naruto had been left to grow up on his own? Or would something else have happened to disrupt it, something that would have let Minato make a difference even without knowledge of the future?

Possibly not. Most likely Kushina would have died, and Rin, and Mikoto. Obito would have been taken. Kakashi would have lost himself in his grief. Konoha would have come out of it in one piece – but for how long? What would Madara have made Obito do? How much worse would the timeline have gotten?

"Have you been to Kushina-san's yet?" Obito asked, unceremoniously laying the matter to rest.

Minato accepted the change of topic gladly. "I wanted to see you, first."

"And you're willing to make her wait for that?" Obito whistled through his teeth. "You're a brave man."

"Though maybe not a particularly smart one."

Minato turned towards Mikoto's voice, lips twitching into a smile. Meeting her in the future would never get old. "Is that a way to greet an old friend?"

"Take it or leave it. It's all you're gonna get." Mikoto lost the fight against the smile sneaking onto her face. It bloomed on her lips, slow but beautiful. "You did good."

The words took a weight off Minato's shoulders. Not all of it, or even most, but enough that drawing in his next breath felt less like a struggle against the rising tide.

"Your sons?" he asked, curious instead of wary in the face of Mikoto's apparent happiness.

"Brothers." Mikoto gave a wry smile as though that word alone was supposed to tell him everything.

Minato was an only child. He only had the one son. He supposed that whatever she meant, Mikoto's cheerfully exasperated tone suggested that it was a vast improvement over the splintered relationship he'd seen in other timelines.

"Sasuke's still in a team with Naruto and Sakura," Mikoto went on. "Itachi teaches at the Academy."

"Oh?" That one was new. "Teaching, huh?"

"He's specialized in healing chakra." Mikoto's voice brimmed with pride. "He's no Tsunade, but he's a good instructor. He's popular with the kids."

In Minato's time, the only healing taught at the Academy had been crash courses in first aid and field medicine. Whoever had made the decision to change the curriculum, Minato approved.

"It suits him," Minato said. It was a far better fit than ANBU or the police force would have been.

"Sasuke is taking after him. After both of them, Itachi and Rin." Mikoto sat down next to him, shoulders barely brushing. "Fugaku has all but accepted that neither of them is going to follow his footsteps and join the police force."

"Not like he's struggling to find new people," Obito grumbled. "Should have started recruiting non-Uchiha ages ago."

Minato and Mikoto compared notes between this future and the ones Minato had visited before. Some things hadn't changed. Sasuke honed his Sharingan with his family and his healing abilities with Rin. Sakura had taken a liking to lightning techniques under Kakashi's tutelage.

Naruto – naturally – learned sealing from his mother.

"You should go see them," Mikoto said even though there must have been much more she could have told him. "Kushina has something to show you."

Minato was immediately suspicious. Did he love his wife more than anything? Absolutely. Did he trust her not to turn their very first meeting in over ten years (from her perspective) into a prank? Absolutely not.

He was about to tell Mikoto as such, when he spotted the strain in her smile. "What is it?"

Mikoto's eyes twitched away. "Talk to her." She avoided his gaze. "She'll explain."

"It's nothing bad," Obito assured him when Mikoto wouldn't. "Just... You'll see."

For lack of anything else to do, Minato did as he was told. He tried not to let Mikoto's words worry him, but he couldn't help it.

Just as Naruto and Kushina's house came within sight, an explosion rocked the walls, popped one of the windows and made the villagers on the streets give the house a wide berth. Minato flinched. Nobody else so much as batted an eyelash.

The front door swung open and revealed a soot-covered Naruto and an unkempt – but significantly less grimy – Kushina.

"And what did we learn?" she said once she'd pulled the door shut behind a coughing Naruto.

"Show it to you first, activate it afterwards," Naruto grumbled.

Kushina crossed her arms in front of her chest and raised an eyebrow. "And you didn't do that, why, exactly?"

"'Cause I figured out the right sequence this time!"

Kushina's eyebrow climbed. Behind her, several bored looking chūnin had begun using air techniques to clear out the smoke from their house.

"... Maybe I need to have another go at it."


Minato decided that this was the perfect opportunity to join them. He didn't bother hiding his beaming smile as he walked up to them, and he caught Naruto once his son spotted him and threw himself forward with a giddy "Dad!"

"Look what the cat dragged in." Kushina's beam belied the dryness in her tone.

Minato ducked around Naruto and gave her a quick, one-armed hug – as much as he could manage with his son wrapped around him like an octopus.

"Did you come from Mikoto's?" Kushina asked.

Minato's expression softened. "I talked to Obito."

Kushina's expression faltered. She didn't seem to know what to say. What could she say in response to the reminder that Minato had seen his formerly brainwashed student alive and well only weeks after watching another version of him take his own life?

One of the chūnin who'd taken care of Naruto's fuinjutsu accident saved her from having to come up with an answer. He stood at a distance with his arms crossed, glaring at Kushina in a manner very much unlike a subordinate addressing his Hokage.

Kushina caught his gaze and cringed. "You go inside. I'll take that lecture that should be aimed at our son."

Naruto gave her a sunny smile. "Love you, Mom."

"Tell me again when you're not trying to weasel your way out of being grounded."

Naruto's smile morphed into a pout as soon as Kushina's back was turned.

"She doesn't get grounded when she blows something up," he muttered.

"Well," Minato stalled, trying to figure out what a good parent would say in this situation. "Your Mom's the Hokage, and... um..."

Naruto perked up. "So if I become Hokage after her, I get to blow up whatever I want?

"That's– That's not..." Minato cringed.

Talking to Naruto was simultaneously the hardest and easiest thing to do in the world. Sometimes Minato felt like he'd known Naruto all his life, and other times he thought that he could never learn enough about his son.

"Please forget I said anything," he said, stepping into their living room after Naruto. "What was the seal supposed to do?"

Naruto beamed and fetched a notepad filled with messy scribbles and half-finished sealwork.

In stark contrast to the time Minato had first tried to introduce Naruto to fuinjutsu, Naruto could hardly contain his excitement about showing off his work. His seals were unpolished but creative – maybe it was the proud father in Minato, but he doubted anyone even twice Naruto's age would be able to come up with similar ideas.

(It occurred to him that he was barely twice Naruto's age. He desperately tried not to plunge headfirst into an existential crisis.)

At some point during their conversation, something shifted inside of Minato. He listened to Naruto, feeling proud and immeasurably lucky to be able to call himself his father. As though a flip had been switched the pride turned into longing and the warmth in his chest morphed into a bittersweet feeling of loss.

Minato couldn't explain for the life of him why he would be feeling either of those things.

"Dad?" Naruto asked. "Did you listen?"

Why would he be longing for something that was right here? Why would he feel sad when everything he'd ever wanted was right in front of him?"


"I love you." Minato couldn't remember if he'd ever said those words to his son. "You know that, right?"

Naruto rolled his eyes, but he couldn't hide the twitch of his lips. "Duh. Mom tells me daily."

Good. Naruto deserved to be told that he was loved every day of his life.

Kushina came back wearing a pout that would have better suited their twelve-year-old. It slipped from her face as soon as she laid eyes on Minato. "Didn't you promise Sakura you'd help her pack?" she asked, raising an eyebrow at Naruto.

"But that was before Dad arrived," Naruto protested.

Kushina crossed her arms and gave him a deeply unimpressed look.

Naruto groaned. "Fine." He rushed to the door and shouted, "I'll make a ton of shadow clones and we'll be done in no time!"

"Sakura and her parents are moving," Kushina explained, dropping down beside Minato. "She's ecstatic. She and Ino are gonna be practically neighbors."

Minato nodded despite not knowing who Ino was.

"So," Kushina said, never one for beating around the bush. She wouldn't have distracted Naruto into leaving without a reason. "What's wrong?"

Minato grimaced. "I don't know."

"You look like somebody kicked your puppy."

"We were just talking." Minato tucked his arms against his abdomen. The feeling hadn't subsided – that odd, bittersweet feeling of both affection and loss.

"Was it something Naruto said?"

"I don't think so." Other than that brief moment of shock when he'd learned that Naruto was alive, Minato had never felt anything remotely negative in his interactions with his son. Getting to know him was one of the parts of the future Minato was the most grateful for. There was nobody in the future he was looking forward to seeing quite as much as Naruto.

It hit him then. "I'm not going to see him again."

Kushina frowned. "Come again?"

Minato blinked rapidly, trying to fit the thought into his mind. It was unwieldy and jagged, with edges sharp enough to cut. "Once I go back for good," he said, slowly, "I won't be seeing Naruto again."

This future was wonderful. His son was even more so. But it wasn't Minato's place. It wasn't his time. Once he went back for good, his mere presence would change the future yet again. He'd get to watch Naruto grow up – he'd raise him – but this version of him would cease to exist.

"It's stupid," Minato muttered. Something behind his eyes prickled. "This isn't anything new. I just hadn't thought... It just hit me."

Kushina chewed on her lip, all her prior energy gone. Kushina, too, would be different. But twelve years lost in adulthood meant nothing compared to the first twelve years of Naruto's life. His childhood would shape him. Minato and Kushina would raise a different son than Kushina had done on her own.

"I thought so too," she admitted, kneading her hands in her lap. "After he was born, I… There was this moment when I held him in my arms, and I just started bawling my eyes out. I thought... I felt like this child in my arms was a completely different one."

She paused like she expected Minato to laugh. He didn't.

"I felt weird calling him Naruto at first, because... because Naruto was a twelve-year-old kid who called me crazy and gave amazing hugs and likes to prank people. Not this wrinkly raisin with ridiculously strong lungs."

Minato gave a startled laugh.

Kushina's lips twitched. She took his hand and squeezed – a gentle, warm pressure that made Minato want to sweep her into a hug and never let go.

"Turns out we were both being dumb." Kushina flashed him a grin. "Sure, he grew up with a mom and an aunt and three older siblings, and he pranks for fun instead of for the attention. But he's still Naruto."

If Minato thought about it, every Naruto he'd met had been slightly different from the one he'd met at the beginning. One had lived isolated with no support system to speak of. Another had been looked after by Minato's old team. Another had grown up with Mikoto as his primary caretaker.

None of them had grown up with Minato.

"I feel like I'm abandoning him," Minato admitted, blinking away treacherous tears. He couldn't have it both ways. Either he went back and resigned himself to waiting twelve years to see the son he'd gotten to know, or...

Or what? He would stay in the future for good? Skip the build-up and live in this wonderful version of his home he'd built up painstakingly, jump after jump?

Kushina's expression softened. She pulled him in for a hug and nestled her face into his shoulder. "You're not abandoning anyone," she murmured, rubbing his back in slow, soothing circles. "You're just going the long way around."

"Seems like an awfully long way," Minato muttered.

Kushina snorted. "You say it like you'll be spending it twiddling your thumbs." She pushed him at arms-length so she could meet his eyes. "You'll be making sure Naruto grows up with a dad, dummy."

The thought sent fluttery wings of anxiety through his chest. Being a father to a breakable infant felt far more potentially disastrous than being a father to a twelve-year-old who'd at one point practically raised himself.

Then again, being a father was something Minato had dreamed off. Catching a glimpse in Naruto's later life didn't change that. If anything, it cemented Minato's wish.

"I guess taking the long way around doesn't sound so bad." Other than Naruto, Minato would be able to watch his team grow into the adults he'd already met. Nobody would have to feel left behind. Nobody would have to feel abandoned.

Minato's smile faltered. "If I ever even get to take the long way." Jumping to the future had never been voluntary. It had always been the seal – such a small mistake that had drawn waves in all of their lives.

Kushina jerked away from him. "Obito didn't tell you?"

She leapt up and disappeared into one of the other rooms. Minato heard rummaging noises, the slam of a drawer and several objects hitting the floor with a dull bang. She barged back into the living room, clutching a piece of paper in her hand.

Kushina presented it to him, grinning wordlessly.

Minato didn't bother giving it more than a cursory glance. He matched Kushina's grin with a beam. "You did it?"

"I've had plenty of time," she said, giving him a proud smile.

Minato pulled her back in, the hug less gentle than the last – firm and prompted from the relief of knowing that his efforts wouldn't have been for nothing. He wouldn't be flung back and forth any longer. One last trip, and it'd be over. He'd have done it.

Kushina pulled away. "If I were you, I'd sleep for a week as soon as I got back."

Knowing the seal wouldn't be waiting to drag him back, he just might.

Minato's expression dimmed, realizing that Kushina's smile looked shaky. Once he went back, Kushina would have no memories of ever having had this conversation.

"Come on," Kushina said, interrupting before Minato's thoughts could carry him somewhere darker. "No time to waste. You gotta try Teuchi's new recipe while you still can – you won't get the chance again until like eight years from when you get back."

Minato allowed her to drag him along, a soft smile tugging at his lips.

Minato used every second of his time in the future to take it all in.

Twelve years had passed for Kushina since he'd last seen her, but she was still unmistakably the woman he loved. She never mentioned the years she'd spent running a village as a single-parent.

Half a dozen people had helped raise Naruto, and his son was still the same person he'd been when he'd grown up on his own – the same kid, but happy and cared for.

His team was there – scarred in ways Minato would always regret, but alive. Mikoto had gotten to raise her sons and repair relations with her clan.

Madara was gone. He'd get no second chance to steal a member of Minato's family away and scar them beyond recognition. Danzō was but a footnote in Konoha's long history. Minato was told that Sarutobi had never quite recovered from the death of his closest friend.

Things weren't perfect, but they likely wouldn't ever be. The lesson that had taken too long to sink in and even longer to accept.

Things would change once Minato jumped back – there was no avoiding it. Maybe the uncertainty wasn't so bad. Minato couldn't keep living his life trying to micromanage every aspect of the future to achieve perfection.

What he had right now was good. It was more than good – it was flawed, and imperfect, and precious.

And if the future wasn't complete quite yet, Minato would make sure that it would be. This – going the long way – would be his happy ending.

"Go on then," Kushina murmured, pulling herself out of their last, lingering hug. She squeezed his hand, as reluctant to break the moment as Minato was. She gave him a light shove as though she hadn't been procrastinating as much as he had. "Do well."

Minato flashed her a smile. He clutched Kushina's seal tight and gave in to the tugging in his palm for the very last time.

A/N: All done! I hope you enjoyed the ending! :)

My betas are To Mockingbird, Igornerdand PyrothTenka! Go check them out, they're all wonderful writers!

Please let me know what you think!