Review answers:

TigrezzTail - Considering Karin didn't know what was calling her, it's fair that he didn't know what to expect (and it's well documented that Uzushio has a seal barrier keeping the village safe and no one has managed to get through in the years since Uzushio's fall). He definitely didn't expect anything he was faced with, but he still did considerably well despite that. Which should probably be expected, considering he is a sannin.

LadyMidnightBat - Ahaha, that's fair! Orochimaru is a Character, though an interesting one to read/write about when done right. Canon Orochimaru, though, is rather awful and I definitely do not condone most of his actions. As to the pack and everything? Well... Sometimes things come unexpectedly into a plot that's already created, the dogs were one of those. And Toru definitely knew how to avoid being tracked. Hopefully this chapter meets your expectations! I'm very excited to finally share it with everyone. BECAUSE GUESS WHO'S BACK!

Dragons and Dragons - Fuu is cool, I agree! And Toru's relationships with (sur)names is tricky because he doesn't quite know what to claim as his last name (he is Toru, it is the one constant throughout his multiple lives). And well, I'll let you see how Toru reacts.

Day 30

Souma considers the idea sooner than he'd ever admit to. It'd only been a week before he was ready to try and follow Toru. Still, he'd stuck around for longer; tried to be patient; tried to wait. Even before Toru had left, Souma had known how important the younger shinobi was to him, knew how strong their friendship was.

It's not easy to keep going without Toru. Their team's now down to Sora and him, and they've been given mobile positions—moving around either as a pair or by themselves to fill out a position briefly in a team. More often than not, though, they go out together and complete missions together.

By now, it's been a month and Toru isn't back yet. Hasn't even sent them a message—and that hurts more than anything else. At the same time, he knows Toru thinks far too little of himself to realise that he's still wanted. It's slightly funny, in a painful ironic way, that all of their team has—at some point—struggled with their own self-worth. Both Sora and him had been taught to see themselves as a tool, someone with no autonomy. They had been taught that they weren't people, (just bodies, just weapons, just a faceless army).

Nevertheless, they had learnt otherwise. Knew they were people. It's easier, now, to remember when their home contains various knickknacks and they eat food they like because they like it rather than so they have the correct nutrients. They do what they want, have downtime, and train because they want to and enjoy doing so.

(It's something that their ANBU team, members past and present, has taught them, indirectly and directly. It's something that they'll always be thankful for.)

And perhaps it's because they're not used to other people that they didn't initially pick up on the strange issues Toru had, simply adjusting to them. And maybe that's why they never really addressed it—and Souma finds himself regretting that now. Because maybe if they'd talked with Toru, told him that they wanted him around because they enjoyed his company. Souma knows he can't change the past, but that doesn't mean he can't talk with Toru. Not now, but when they find him.

He's not loyal to Konoha. Not really. Not since he was out of ROOT and realising things for himself. He's loyal to Toru first and foremost.

(People like to think ANBU have the most loyalty out of all the ninja corps, and maybe they do. But they also have the least to lose, because you can't keep people close when there are secrets and there's classified information and you can't have people asking questions. It means you aren't often tied down by anyone outside of ANBU. For Souma, and for Sora too, Toru had been an attachment that went beyond ANBU. It had been the only one apart from each other.)

Souma's a few rooftops away from the Hokage building when Sora joins him. They'd planned for this. Spoken about it at length multiple times. The paperwork was complete and handed in; the only things left were the formalities. They won't be denied this, but that knowledge doesn't ease Souma's worries in the least.

Gently, Sora's hand bumps him. A careful and quiet reminder. He isn't alone. Neither of them are. And this is going to work. It has to.

(ROOT taught its soldiers to plan based on their skills. ROOT never taught its soldiers to get by on hope when it's all you have. And yet, Sora and Souma know this well.)

Upon reaching the Hokage's office, they're soon ushered in for their quick meeting. The Godaime Hokage sits behind her desk whilst Sora and Souma face her, standing in parade rest.

She looks up from some paperwork. "Abe-san, Asano-san, you applied for training leave, correct? Estimating two weeks maximum outside of Konoha's walls?"

Souma and Sora both nod. Don't shift their feet, no matter how much they feel the need to.

The Hokage audibly hums, places the paperwork on the top of a pile. Tsunade surveys the two ninjas in front of her. She doesn't know them properly, just has vague familiarity with their files. They've spent something like three years in ANBU and before that they were ROOT, (and Tsunade remembers reading those files, remembers raging, remembers weeping).

Neither of the ninjas in front of her were labelled flight risks. But neither was Toru Uchiha, (who hadn't ran but had left, and Tsunade's starting to realise that the Uchiha seemed more important than she'd initially assumed), and they had been ANBU teammates. Tsunade's never been in ANBU, but she knows that teammate ties runner deep. Something in her chest tells her that these two aren't leaving Konoha for training purposes, but going hunting, searching.

"Your training leave has been accepted," she says. The two ninjas are too well trained, (children taken to be soldiers), to visibly relax, but she imagines they do anyway. "Good luck." The two bow in response and leave her office.

(They don't know where they're going. There have been no rumours and there's no information and they don't even have a direction to run in. But they know Toru. And Toru spoke about Uzushio in grief and in joy, and perhaps they should start their search there if nothing else. Besides, Uzushio could've been theirs, once. It wasn't, but they'd like to see their homeland once even if it lies in ruins.)

Day 31

Kakumau initially had one goal: to provide resources to the street kids. But the organisation's goals grew alongside the organisation itself. With Toru and Tomoe at its head, they began programs and resource caches. It became bigger than Toru ever thought it would be. It was everything Tomoe had never imagined and she tried to make it everything she had ever wanted when she was younger.

With Uzushio as a proper base where they can operate out in the open, Kakumau takes on another—temporary—purpose. Ever so slowly, missions start slipping through shadowed hands to Uzushio with their cheap prices. Already, there are imports and exports going on with ninjas guiding the ships. Toru can't be prouder of how everyone's working together and understanding that it will be difficult, (but they will get through it in time).

As he reviews a report, Toru considers the fact that he probably shouldn't be the one doing this. Raising his head, he glances around at the other people surrounding him. They're in one of the temporary shelters that's big enough to house multiple desks and acts as a main point of contact with everyone.

"We really should get around to electing an Uzukage," he says, squinting at a paragraph that doesn't seem to be staying on topic at all. Absorbed in his work, he doesn't notice the sudden silence that stills the people surrounding him, and their quick exchanges and signed conversations.

"Toru-sama," Michi starts, and Toru looks up when he hears the hidden laughter in her voice, "we've elected an Uzukage."

Toru frowns, thinks back over the past few weeks. "I don't seem to recall having an official election?"

"Not official, no," Michi agrees, "but it was a pretty obvious choice." She glares at someone over Toru's shoulder. He doesn't turn around to see who it is, (but he does wonder why they all seem to be stifling their laughter at Michi's words).

"And the new Uzukage is...?"

Michi's left eye twitches in the corner. Maybe. However, there's a smile on her face and she bows deeply.

Toru's breath catches in his throat and he finally understands.

"Uzukage-sama, Uzushiogakure is yours to serve."

It's easy to smile, easy to breathe, despite the fact he's overcome with so much love for these people, this village. He wants to do his best to protect it. "I feel like someone should've told me that," he says, knowing full well he didn't entirely manage to hide his emotions. Still, he soldiers on, "In which case, there are some things I need to do outside of paperwork."

Standing up, Toru subtly stretches his muscles out before relaxing into a state of readiness. He supposes his promotion, (is it even a promotion or is it a reinstatement?), explains why there's usually at least one person tailing him. He gathers his thoughts.

The councils. He should figure them out first. The Clan Council is straight forward and won't require much input from him. The Civilian Council will operate the same way it did previously—he can't say much about it since he never actively took part. But perhaps there should be a civilian representative, elected like the Uzukage is. There'll be the Ninja Council as well, which should have an elected representative to make things fair as well.

First order of business is ensuring that everyone in a position actually has an official position then. Second order of business is organising all three councils along with the Uzukage Council, and probably instating Michi as an Uzukage advisor, (which she's already been doing).

"Let's get started then," someone says from a nearby desk, meeting his eyes and smiling. "No better time than the present."

Day 32

Sora twitches when Souma steps up next to her, already on edge. She breathes out carefully, loosens her shoulders. "You alright?" Souma asks quietly as he passes her something that isn't a ration bar.

She takes stock of herself. She's tense, but there's no panic accompanying it. It's easy to breathe. "Yes," she answers, a few beats later. "I'll be better when we have Toru with us again." Because she can pinpoint why she's anxious and it's because Toru's not with them, watching their backs. She's grateful for Souma, but there should be three of them.

Souma leans against her, pressing his shoulder against hers. "Same here," he says softly. "I didn't manage to hear any rumours or anything even suggesting that he came this way."

This is the third town they've entered relatively close to Konoha. None of them have contained any information on Toru. They've kept away from Hi no Kuni's borders so far and hopefully Toru hasn't gone past them. After all, they can't cross the borders legally and whilst they can—theoretically—sneak past the patrols, it's easier to avoid doing such things.

"I didn't either," Sora says. "I have nothing to go off. There wasn't even anything that just didn't add up."

Souma pulls a face. "Guess we could do with some help from Toru's information network," he jokes. She smiles in response.

(It isn't so much a joke as either of them make it out to be. They all know that Toru has some kind of information network, even if they don't know how it came about. They don't ask either. Toru knows they know, but when they didn't ask, he seemed to relax.)

"However," she continues, Souma shifts, becomes sharper, at the serious tone she adopts, "I did hear something interesting. They wouldn't say much about people moving, either individuals or groups, but they did mention a phrase: 'the sea never dies'. Don't suppose you've heard it before?"

Souma tilts his head, thinking back through his memories slowly. "I think I have," he says at last, glancing at her. "It feels familiar in a strange kind of way. I think… That mission, remember? When Eruku went down and Jakkaru led us forward—he said that phrase. They were people of Uzushio. He claimed that Uzushio's last Uzukage said it."

"That's…" She trails off. Souma shrugs in response. "That's something," she eventually says. "Do you reckon it's a message for us or something else entirely?"

"Could be both," Souma offers. "We wanted to check out Uzushio anyway, right? This way we check out the origins of the message and the village itself. We should get there in a few days."

"And maybe our luck will change," Sora says, even though she doesn't quite feel hopeful about such things. Still, she nods. "Let's do it."

Day 37

The darkness of the night shrouds him as he slips through shadows and around corners. A mask sits comfortably on his face, carefully created over the past few nights, with seals hidden on the back.

No one sees the person with the mask. No one even thinks to look for someone with a porcelain mask, made almost invisible with various layered seals. This is how the masked shinobi wants things to be. They are alone. For now. He has plans to change that.

Those plans begin with entering trapped rooms and safe spaces—but with warning, (that is important). Those who open up windows and doors and tents to him, see his mask, (it is his face in more ways than one), and incline their heads. He gives no orders, but presents them with an opportunity in careful instructions.

(This is yours to decide, he says with no words. You will receive no backlash for your decision. There is power, yes, but there is silence too and both are wearisome. But you can hold these things in your heart and on your shoulders, and Uzushio will always be at your back.)

A few will not take the opportunity. And he knew this from the beginning, when he looked at them and thought, (and decided that he would ask because sometimes you need to hear the choice even if you were always going to say no). But most will accept, he knows.

He will find out soon. After all, the decision itself, whilst important, isn't the only thing that makes someone ANBU. Not only does the decision have to be made, but the candidates, (they aren't ANBU until they've got masks), have to get to the meeting point he told them about.

As night trickles into dawn, he pauses on one of Uzushio's centre buildings and gazes out at his village. He can't see anyone moving, but if he could see them without looking for them, then they aren't ready for ANBU. He gives himself another minute to breathe, watching the sun start to rise, before he throws himself off the building.

The lone ANBU, (the only ANBU left who could take up the position once again, but not the only Uzushio ANBU—not for long), travels to the ANBU headquarters that are situated below Uzushio.

While the sun sits above the horizon and shines down on Uzushio and the sea, a group of ninjas wait patiently and ahead of them, looking down, stands a single ANBU with a jackal mask.

(In the end, he was Jakkaru in his past life and in his current life. It seems important, to retain the symbol, to retain one thing from one life. His first mask was different, more precise; his second had broader lines and more ridge; his final mask is one he has made himself. It is imperfect, made by inexperienced fingers, with long ears that were slightly different lengths, the thick red lines around the eyes were different widths. But it was his and Uzushio's. More importantly, the foundation seals were all standard ANBU ones and then he started adding his own. He knows he will add more in the future.)

"Welcome to ANBU," he says, and the crowd instantly falls silent, (watchful-silent, rather than danger-silent, and some of them—perhaps—excited-silent). "Once upon a time, you'd be placed on an ANBU team and they would show you the ropes and teach you all you needed to know." Jakkaru pauses, surveys the crowd, (thinks about all the things he won't say, can't say, because they don't need to be said and there's no kindness in saying them; it'll only make his heart ache). "Things will be different to start off with. We'll be working on rotations until people settle into a team, and we'll be going back to the basics with a rulebook containing information and so on. "Not everyone will be starting together, simply because such a thing isn't logical. We'll work on a rotating roster until teams click together naturally for the most part. There will be a number of you who'll be picked to receive more information first and you will be responsible for ensuring that everyone else learns this information.

"We don't have a quartermaster at the moment, so you will be making your own masks with the name you will be granted shortly," he concludes. Behind his mask, he doesn't smile—but he doesn't frown either, (he doesn't quite feel shattered or broken, despite knowing that the people he stands with now are not the people who once stood with him—they never will be, but he's starting to make peace with his ghosts). "Protect Uzushio with all you have and all you are. Uzushio will always be grateful in return." With nothing more to say, he leaps off and enters the crowd, mingling, although aiming for a few specific ninjas to talk to in more detail soon.

(He has an idea who will form his second-in-command ANBU-wise, and he already has an idea for who might be a good teammate. But he doesn't know who else will form the rest of his squad.)

(There are two gaps at his back. He can't do anything about that.)

Day 40

Dai is only one person. She is one of the few people who talk to Toru often, but she knows him as Jakkaru too, (she may be the only one to know who Jakkaru actually is, because there are legends and whispers and conspiracies and theories, but there's no evidence which is what they all thrive off). However, they haven't known each other for long, haven't worked together. Outside of the fight with Orochimaru, they haven't had to rely on each other and trust wholly in each other.

She's stood next to him, offered her support and her friendship, but such things grow over time and can't be forced. She can't get him to stop, take a break, pause. She doesn't know him well enough for that. She can suggest things, but only when alone, (even in Uzushio, you have to hide how tired you are—especially if you're Uzukage with a village full of refugees watching you and wondering and constantly fluctuating between desperate hope and dark grief). She watches and she wonders, and she aches, (there are rumours that skate around in the shadows saying that Toru is their last Uzukage reborn; she doesn't know whether she agrees with it or not but she does know that he's full of grief like those who were forced to flee Uzushio as their village was invaded and massacred).

However, she wishes she could do more, be more. She wishes she could speed through time so that they were at the point it wouldn't be weird for her to step forward and offer her shoulder when unmasked and not hidden away behind a wall or beneath the cover of night.

Even if she can't do anything yet, she can stand by him, (earn his trust), even when out of ANBU, (which is somehow terrifying and inspiring at the same time; it makes her want to be more and try harder, and she lives for the training and the camaraderie and learning how to do everything; most of all, she loves watching as ANBU comes together under the words of their various leaders), she can be nearby. It's not too unusual and everyone's willing to accept that she's tentative friends with Toru, at the very least.

(She's caught both Michi—Uzukage advisor and Toru's friend—and Shōta—medic-nin and Toru's friend as well—giving her pleased looks whenever she's around. She hasn't spoken with either of them much, especially as Michi always seems busy managing quite a bit of work and Shōta does his best to get his hospital department up and running. It means Toru also doesn't see them often, but they both clearly care for him—as their Uzukage, as their leader, as their friend. Still, they aren't close friends, something keeping them from blurring the line between friends and close friends. If Dai can blur that line and ensure that Toru actually relaxes, she has a feeling that everyone who cares for Toru will thank her.)

(Most of all, she'll be thankful to see Toru relaxed—that's enough of a reward by itself.)

Dai shifts, suddenly, somehow knowing that something's changed, although she doesn't know what. There's something pinging in her head, urging her to take action yet she doesn't know what for. She turns her gaze to Toru and finds him standing, facing towards one of the docks. She can only see part of his face, but she can easily see raw emotion on his face—hope and joy, and she wonders why.

On the edges of her sensory range, chakra crests randomly then fades into the lull that spoke of little or no chakra use. Toru almost surges forward, tension in every line of his body.

"Toru?" Dai says, heart beating adrenaline-quick in her chest, "Is everything alright?"

"Yes," Toru says, twisting to look at her and blinking rapidly. "Yes, I believe it is. I think- It's- Someone I know might've just arrived."

Dai's not a fantastic sensor—definitely not anything like Uzumaki or Nanami sensors, who are well known for their range and ability—but she can sense a genin's chakra pool or anyone with a bigger chakra pool. She's gotten used to Toru's chakra, (campfire-crackling-gently; sea-waves-crashing-against-the-shore), resting in her range, shifting almost restlessly but somehow calm.

(She could never quantify how everyone's chakra felt to her. They seemed to be beyond description that made logical sense to her mind. She could tell how much chakra someone had, could identify the difference between individuals, and—if she knew someone well enough—could get a rough idea of their emotions if it resonated enough with their chakra. Most of the time a person's chakra reminds her of specific sensations, but she's met other people who related chakra to specific smells or even certain colours.)

Toru takes off, not quite sprinting but definitely moving faster than Dai had expected. She follows behind him, and wonders who Toru knows. Because whilst some of the groups of Uzushio refugees had known Toru, very few had clearly had multiple interactions beforehand—Dai can only think of Tomoe and her crew, (it's not quite clear how they know each other or what Tomoe's position in Uzushio is, but it is obvious that they know each other well).

There are two ninjas disembarking from a ship. They both look like they could belong to Uzushio; one is clearly from the Abe Clan, (soft-rain-against-skin; lull-between-wind-gusts), Dai reckons, but the other's an unknown, (sun-warm-stones; fires-barely-contained).

However, it's Toru's chakra signature that grabs her attention. It flares, bright, campfire sparks and crackling, almost like something that will warm Dai's hands; not anything like the danger of sea waves as they grow and grow and threaten to slam into your back and over your head if you don't watch. It's something light and gentle and overwhelmingly happy. He seems better than Dai's ever seen him be before.

And Toru's laughing, throwing himself forward. The two ninjas meet him, arms slamming around each other, and-

They cover each others' backs, Dai notices. There's maybe one ANBU currently guarding Toru and Dai's technically standing-in even if she isn't under her mask. The ANBU twitched, but none of the three moved except to reaffirm their stances.

"Fuck, it's good to see you Toru," the Abe Clan member said. "But why are you here? You couldn't have left a better message?"

Toru pulls back slightly, chakra still gentle and warm and happy, but there's something uncertain to him now. Not that the uncertainty remains for long, because the Abe Clan member tugs Toru closer, soothing it away with gestures of comfort.

"I-" He pauses, swallows, searches for his words. "Konoha was your home," he said softly. "You didn't need me and I couldn't selfishly ask you to come. You're active ninjas. How are you even here?"

"You're an idiot," Sora says, even as she knocks their heads together lightly. "You're our home. Team, right? Konoha's nothing compared to you. We could've been at your sides from the beginning."

Blinking, Toru pulls back just enough so he can see both Sora and Souma's faces. "But why?" He asks, dazed. "There's no reason to. I'm just…"

"Someone once told me that 'if you do something, do it because you want to,'" Souma says, and the words are familiar, (are Toru's from many years ago). "You don't get to dictate how we see you and how much you matter to us." He meets Toru's eyes, tightens his grip around the base of Toru's neck, just enough so that Toru can feel that he's there, that he's present. "This is our choice. Nothing we've done will backfire on you either. You and your—our—people are safe."

Sora squeezes Toru's shoulder. "And just because we don't need you doesn't mean we don't want you in our lives. Our decision, right?"

"Right," Toru says, voice almost a whisper. He squeezes his eyes shut, knows that tears will be clinging to his eyelashes. "Right." He breathes in, breathes out, senses the others do it as well.

(His team is together once again and he can't be anything but overjoyed. He has his team at his back.)

"Do you- Do you want to meet your clans?" He asks. "All of Uzushio's clans are here."

"We'd love to," Sora agrees, glancing at Souma. "But we came here for you. We're going to take care of ourselves first, everything else is secondary."

"Mission protocol," Souma adds with a nod. "Self-care is mandatory." Toru closes his eyes again, leans against his teammates, and lets himself laugh, (lets himself remember old memories from Konoha fondly, without regret, without grief for those he left behind). "When did you last have a proper break? When did you last sleep?"

"A while. Last night for a few hours," Toru answers. He feels like he can take a break now, with his teammates to watch his back and everyone else to keep things running smoothly, (he feels safe; like he can let his guard down entirely without worrying about the repercussions).

"You need to look after yourself," Souma says, presses his hand against Toru's skin, (you're not alone, he says wordlessly).

Sora meets the eyes of the kunoichi standing a few paces away, half-watching them and half-not. She has a feeling that this is their new squad mate, but she doesn't think she minds. "We could all do with a good rest for a few hours," she says, leaning her shoulder against Toru's a little bit firmer, (I'm here; we're here; we're together).

Stepping forward, Dai doesn't feel like an intruder. Neither of Toru's old teammates, (and that's what they must be), seem to tense up or try to chase her off. She will have to prove herself to them—and they will have to earn her trust, but she has a feeling that things will end up well. "Uzukage-sama can definitely take a break," she agrees. "I can send a runner to let the proper people know," she continues, meeting Toru's gaze when he turns around to face her. "And, if you want, I've got first watch."

Toru breathes out evenly, smiles, and looks more relaxed than she's ever seen him. "That sounds good," he says, (and it's a step closer to complete trust). He has Sora and Souma at his back and a new teammate looking out for him and willing to prove herself. His smile grows. "Actually, that sounds great."

A month has passed and, at long last, Sora and Souma leave Konoha under the guise of a training mission, planning to look for Toru. Meanwhile, Toru finally learns that he has been selected to be Uzushio's current Uzukage as his old teammates scour Hi no Kuni in an attempt to locate him. Within Uzushio, the ANBU Corps begin to be reformed, with Jakkaru finding a potential teammate. Then, ten days after beginning their search, Sora and Souma arrive at Uzushio's shores surprised to find not only a village, but also their lost teammate.