(Chapter 16 Start)


The encroaching darkness in his eye never fades away.

It does not give him pain, nor does it ever feel strained. But there is an absolute truth in the secret power of the Sharingan for one who hasn't been born to use it's cursed power. There is only one natural child born with the unholy union of the Uchiha and Senju, but he himself is not Madara's progeny. Through already unnatural means, his eye clings to the light for far longer than it should have. By all rights, he should have been blind well over a decade ago. But the patchwork is not flawless, and one day it will become a burden too hard to ignore any longer. He will lose his light if he doesn't do something to evolve. To become the greater version of himself.

What little remains of his actual flesh on his right side aches predominantly. The scars warping around his face are familiar creases and the softest blow of the wind can make them tingle uncomfortably. But these minor things are parts of what little identity of his own that he has left, and he clings to it. It is motivation, this burning hatred that screams in his mind whenever he sees the injustice of this disgusting world. Every pore of his body emanates rage that those born lesser in this world are doomed to be ruled and abused by the strong.

It would end, of course. For that is the persona that is Uchiha Madara. There will always be an Uchiha Madara, for Madara is he who rejects this cursed world. Madara is he who commits the foulest, most evil of deeds so that none more may ever need to. It is a life of sacrifice in the name of absolute, inarguable peace. His real self will be allowed time to flourish in the dream. He will shed the skin of evil and rejoin a pure life that was robbed from him for the crime of being born in an evil world.

Obito stalks through the walls and rooms of Kabuto's underground lab. He keeps his chakra clamped in his body while his Sharingan scans each and every surface for traps and anything that may be capable of surveillance on him. His decision to turn Kabuto into a research slave had paid off immediately, but he is no fool. He knows that having Kabuto do this research in the first place is a risk, so naturally he learns as much as possible from the boys' notes now while he can before Kabuto decides to get too big for his britches.

The Plan is ever in motion, and sometimes that requires him to consider each factor contributing to its ultimate fulfilment. Whether or not Nagato becomes disagreeable and attempts to forge his own cursed destiny, or whether or not Zetsu as an extension of Madara's will, also becomes sympathetic to Naruto who has shown no inclination to follow Tsuki no Me. Irrespective of reason, he has to try and make things work, which is why he approached Kabuto in the first place, so that maybe he could discover the power required that he wouldn't have to rely on subordinates to get things done for him.

That had been why he'd helped that poor child Itachi in his quest to destroy the Uchiha Clan. You never know when you need spare eyes...

Madara would have been able to acquire the Bijuu in one fell swoop back in his prime, provided that he had the Rinnegan. Swift like the wind and like a ghost, but Obito does not possess such velleity yet. For as unnaturally powerful his Chakra and Sharingan are, he isn't built like Madara. White Zetsu's matter had been an expedient solution to replace his limbs and organs, but it does not contain the same innate potential that human flesh does. Naruto is proof enough of that.

Obito glides through a wall and spots Kabuto toiling over a microscope. The lab is surprisingly well-lit for one of Orochimaru's musty old hideouts, the new lamps on the walls decorating spiral dark spiral architecture make an almost stylish picture. The scent of burnt Zetsu is prominent, not unlike that of natural forest ashes after a purging fire.

Zetsu clones are lined up against the walls, some of them malformed from Kabuto's prodding experimentation. One of them has taken an appearance similar to that of Orochimaru, although the strange quiet chittering coming from it and the other Zetsu makes it seem as though they are struggling to let their typical strange eccentricities surface while under the influence of foreign chakra.

"Kabuto." Obito greets almost casually, and the boy doesn't startle. He has good training as a Shinobi, such talent has been squandered until now. "What do you have for me?"

The silver-haired boy takes off his glasses, showing Obito dark orbs that are transitioning into slitted yellows, not unlike his traitorous mentor. He is calm, sometimes smug, and other times has an inkling of childish joy at success in his field. He is a prodigy of research, it is his calling and he loves it clearly. It is his purpose and his passion. The modifications he is performing on himself have seemingly stripped the deep-seated Genjutsu that once rented him under Sasori's control, and he seemingly relishes it.

He'll have that and more. Later. Every last being will.

"Your theory was correct about the White Zetsu not being capable of producing chakra." Kabuto waves an arm gaily over his requisitioned test subjects. "They aren't good for much more than infiltration. Once the chakra that they steal has depleted, they're basically useless. I'd say that their better off being farmed for prosthetics for a living chakra source-"

Obito rolls up the sleeve of his right arm, showing the spongy matter that replaced his arm.

"I am aware of that utility." Obito drawls, embellished in Madara's own smug persona. "Hashirama was not a gentle fighter. Enough of my body has been replaced that I do not need much sleep."

Kabuto's sharp gaze assesses it curiously. "...It's a good replacement, I'll give it that. It's like you said, it can take on the traits of a human while passing on the benefit of a weaker Mokuton to its user, but it consumes chakra far quicker than natural organs. I'm surprised that you can walk around and fight at the rate it eats your chakra. It has too many fringe benefits not to have an equal cost."

'Ah, Kabuto. People have always underestimated me.' Obito feels his cheeks pull into something nearly like a smile under his mask.

"Can these traits be transferred to human flesh?" Obito questions, it was his original question that he acquired Kabuto as an asset for, after-all.

"It's been done before." Kabuto reveals simply, making Obito blink somewhat confusedly. "Orochimaru-sama,-" he catches himself for a second. "Orochimaru successfully implanted Senju Hashirama's cells into a human child. It's dangerous, but the boy was compatible enough with the cells to receive every one of the Shodai's genetic chakra traits, just not nearly as strong as the man himself. He was the only test subject that survived a full-transfusion."

"Is this procedure theoretically possible for an adult?" Obito asks, knowing that it's possible to obtain the Mokuton at least but not for his current survivability.

Kabuto shifts somewhat. "Only if the recipient has extremely powerful chakra, and a body strong enough to withstand it. I'm sorry to say that your current body wouldn't be a viable candidate. The Zetsu research has helped show a safer way of performing it and other Kekkei-Genkai ability transmission, but-"

"-Without real flesh, I would die." Obito nods stoically. Kabuto nods as well, eyes calculating. "Very well. Your research has been a boon to me, so name something that you want in exchange before I give you your next project."

Kabuto looks openly surprised before it shifts into something of an understanding expression.

"I take it my next study is finding out how to regenerate original flesh and bone?" Kabuto sighs, but his demeanor is confident. "Alright. I want you to keep Konoha off of my back."

Obito nods. "Is that all?"

"Kukuku, anyone else would pale at the thought of fighting Konoha now." Kabuto chuckles. "That's all. I have everything else that I need."

"In that case-" Obito walks over to a glass cabinet containing Orochimaru's statue ring. "-Then there's only one thing left."

He picks up the ring and offers it clearly.

"I am presenting to you the opportunity to officially join the Akatsuki. You are free to refuse, but you may come across some interesting things for your personal research should you choose to become one of us."

Kabuto looks at the ring and takes it gently out of Obito's hand.

"You know, Madara-san," Kabuto slides it onto his finger. "No-one else has ever given me a choice. It's always 'do this or die'."

Obito puts his hand on the boys' shoulder, and Kabuto looks into his Sharingan.

"You and all others will be a part of the world I am creating. A world where everybody will be ruled by their own choices, and not of others. Where every soul has the agency to choose their destiny. The goal of the Akatsuki does not discriminate by the circumstances of one's life."

Kabuto is a frail and easily manipulated boy, lost in a cruel world. But a useful tool in securing the fate of their entire species. But he is like a cornered animal that can only run away so many times. Best keep a person like this close to him.

Kamui

He whisks them away with a whirl of space.


Sora-ku


Kabuto blinks when he's suddenly in a completely unlit room. His enhanced eyes help him see that it's barely the size of a bedroom, and there is moist dirt under his sandals. The only feature of the room is a stairwell with roots seeping in from the trap-door access.

Madara pokes his head through the top of the entrance, appearing to be intangible. He seemingly assesses the outside before he bobs back down and knocks open the hidden entrance. A dark canopy of leaves shadows much of the light that might seek to enter, but the rushing winds and grey background make it clear that the beginnings of a storm wouldn't let much light through anyway.

"We have some rules." Madara explains briefly, not so much as motioning for him to follow. "You are to never divulge the nature of any goal of the Akatsuki, short or long term. You will represent an image of strength when in battle, no matter how deviant your personality you choose to wear. And lastly, never take action against a potential asset of the Akatsuki."

"What constitutes an asset?" Kabuto asks, wondering just how much it will take to actively piss off a man as powerful as Madara. If Orochimaru could slither around for as long as he had, then it must mean that Madara didn't consider him even worth taking out.

"You'll get the full list and induction from Pain, the faux-leader of our organisation. But the closest asset between your bases of operations is here, Sora-ku. It's a remote city in Hi no Kuni, bordering on Ame."

Kabuto could probably have thought as much on his own. They step out of dense woodland to see a near-abandoned city. Few strangers bustle around with raincoats and dark clothes. Some buildings have lighting and others look destroyed.

"Perfect for covert gatherings." Madara continues, small droplets of rain beginning to fall on his mask. "It is a city of those who have been abandoned. The Uchiha Clan once had a strong presence here as a hired Police Force for the local lord, but they weren't easily replaced and this place has since been claimed by every kind of scum you could imagine. Black-market contraband, human-traffickers, murderers, rapists and everything else. Uchiha Fugaku's occasional presence here was enough to convince Ame that this place was more trouble than it was worth."

"If this exists in Hi no Kuni, I'm surprised the Hokage has done nothing about it." Kabuto says, pulling his hood up to hide from the increasing downpour. The wind seeks to drive it off his head and they both have to raise their voices to be heard over it.

"Being this close to Ame is its greatest deterrent. Tsunade, pitiful as she is, may still be fearful of Hanzo of the Salamander. Any mobilization of her Shinobi anywhere near this place will be retaliated against with extreme prejudice. War takes a very large toll on any nation involved, and fighting Ame after many consecutive tragedies in Konoha wouldn't be wise when they're already aware of Akatsuki's goal of taking possession of Bijuu and Jinchuuriki. They need to gather their strength if we're to even capture one Bijuu, and that gives this town some safety from external conflict."

Kabuto toils over that. He wonders just how much Konoha can know about the operations of the Akatsuki at all when they're so busy contending with Bijuu attacks, Clan Massacres, increasing Missing-nin numbers and multi-nation invasion attempts. It would be impossible to police a place like this when they have so much on their plate to deal with as it is.

"You must have a leak for that kind of information to be out in the wild." Kabuto comments idly.

"I am aware, and don't think that it isn't intentional. The Five Great Nations are greedy, if even one speaks up about a threat to all of them then it will immediately be presumed as a power-play to lower their guards and steal from each other. With a nation as hated by the entire world as Konoha, the risk of all the nations mobilizing is low compared to the benefit of sewing more discourse between them, and the addition of nurturing Uchiha Itachi's eyes full of potential should I ever need some spares. Even if I'm bound to hold my word to leave Konoha alone for now, Itachi will end up getting himself killed sooner or later. Hatred runs strong in that boy."

"My, my. You really do think everything through." Kabuto can't quite hide the admiration in his voice.

"'Beware of an old man in a profession where men usually die young.' Be on your guard, Yakushi Kabuto, else you may just learn something."

They weave through the streets and not one person gives them a side-by glance. The pouring rain is annoying but not completely intolerable with a smattering of rusty metal sheets forming veranda's. Kabuto notes that many buildings that he presumes to be apartments, do not have stairs or ramps leading to their doors. Instead it seems that the high-density apartments must be accessed by walking up the walls. A haphazard strategy to fit more people into what few of the habitable buildings remain.

"This place is where the ultimate truth of Shinobi culture rears its head." Madara speaks up as they stop in front of something a bit more cozy looking. "This is where all of the platitudes of peace and loyalty will fall apart, and everyone defaults to their true selves. The only truth a Shinobi understands... is Power, and Order through it."

They step into the well-lit warehouse. Dust cakes every crate and surface, but there seem to be a few spots where animals may have been sitting that have a lesser grey layer covering it.

His enhanced hearing picks up purring and an occasional meow. He didn't even know pet life could survive in a desolate place like this, and happily too.

"About time." An old womans' voice summons from a living-space.

"Nekobaa." Madara nods to her, presumably in a kind of respect. "Is my order complete?"

The old woman blows rings from a thin pipe, looking upon them both casually.

Her head ticks in the direction of some fresher-looking crates.

"Everything. Giant Shuriken, metal stakes, standard weapons, and your cloaks. And your end." 'Nekobaa' is not subtle with her demand for recompense.

"I will personally escort you and your granddaughter away from this place." Madara ensures. "I'll take you to Nami no Kuni. It is remote enough from Shinobi conflicts, and I'll give you double the price of this requisition so you can settle in easier."

Nekobaa nods. "Tamaki!"

A teenage girl steps out from a storeroom. Or bedroom, Kabuto can't really get a handle on the ridiculous layout. Cats are walking around and hissing at him or running away, from all kinds of directions.

"Are your belongings packed?"

"H-hai, Baachan." Tamaki confirms shyly, not wanting to glance at Kabuto himself. Probably not too keen on strangers.

A loud crash from behind them has Kabuto whirling around to face the disturbance.

"As I said, Kabuto." Madara says as if nothing is happening. "These people are governed by power alone. Leftovers of the great nations."

"I told you, there's a girl living here! Fresh and pretty, she'll fetch us a good price!"

Madara is unmoved. "Tamaki-chan, please help my new employee find a good fit for his clothes and cloak, hmm?"

Tamaki shakes violently but gives him a weak; 'Hai, Tobi-sama.'

There were light steps of what had to be twenty experienced, strong Shinobi that had once been gifted and functional members of their villages. And then there was a lot of screaming, agonizing screams of terror and pain that shattered the silence of the warehouse.

The girl doesn't speak a word to him, she only holds up Akatsuki uniforms to his body and judges if they're to his stature. Kabuto doesn't try to entice anything out of her, keeping to the rules about Akatsuki assets.

And when he comes out of the storeroom with new clothes and spares, Kabuto says nothing of the splattered pieces that were once human beings, all skewered by roots and ripped apart or had their bodies crushed or sliced open.

It is a veritable shower of blood, and if he didn't have a healthy fear of Uchiha Madara before, then he does now.

To think... that this is Madara's weaker self.


Nami no Kuni


In contrast to the bleak weather in Sora-ku, there is sunlight shining in a thriving seaside village, complete with signs of life as far as the eye can see. Seagulls harass the locals for pieces of food and dolphins splash playfully further out. The citizens of this place are happy, Kabuto can tell.

After leaving Nekobaa and Tamaki to their own devices with stern warning not to reveal anything about them, Madara gives him the quick rundown before his official induction.

"The ring will allow you to communicate with Pain when he summons you and the other members of the Akatsuki. You won't be involved in the process of sealing the Bijuu until we start losing those who are involved. I need you to do those little important things we've been talking about."

Madara takes out a ring and puts it on his finger, and suddenly Kabuto is submerged in darkness.

Phantom images of other Akatsuki members start appearing before his eyes, although much of them is obscured by their flashing forms. The red clouds stand out, as do their eyes. A pair of Sharingan stands out the most, along with the rippled purple eyes.

"Ohayo, Pain-sama!" Madara screeches out in a high-pitched voice

Kabuto blinks in confusion.

"Tobi." Pain, the man with what is quite clearly the Rinnegan greets deeply. Such powerful, mystical eyes. It seems the legends are true.

"I did as you asked and got a new recruit for the super-secret plan!"

"Tobi," Sasori interrupts, a grating growl of a voice. "Deidara is rather upset that you stole his ring."

"Eh?! Deidara-senpai?!" 'Tobi' flails his arms around fearfully. "Oh no! I just wanted to help Pain-sama!"

The silhouette of who Kabuto supposes is Hoshigaki Kisame, chuckles openly with mirth.

"Don't worry, Tobi. I'm sure your senpai will forgive you if you apologize."

"Phew!" Tobi wipes imaginary sweat from his... mask.

"The new member." Pain's voice crackles over the dramatic acting.

"Introducing left! Yakushi Kabuto! He's strong, smart, and he can keep a secret! Perfect for what you asked!"

"Good." Pain seemingly picks up that as a faux-leader, he is taking responsibility for Madara's recruit. "Welcome to the Akatsuki. With this organisation, you will be a part in changing Shinobi history and culture forever. Speak with me when the others leave, but to reiterate to the other members, in-fighting is forbidden. You are never to hinder your fellow members in any capacity-"

Kabuto listens to Pain's drawl as the other members slowly flitter away, and thinks that this man and Madara truly believe in what they're saying.

They want to change the world. Even for people like Kabuto. And it was his own choice to join.

Sounds like something he can get behind.


Unknown Location


The blizzard pelting him begins to let up for the first time after many months. He is hidden. He is distant.

And he has been learning. To master himself so that no other may take domain of him against his mighty will again.

He has a hunger not for food, but for a different kind of fulfillment. He had a purpose once. Those wicked children of a man who let him feel love had robbed him of his purpose. He was a weapon. A being that could be subdued. He is that no-longer.

They toyed with a force beyond their ken. He would remain loyal to that man and his vision. He too, can change and move past years of tragedy for the sake of a dream. It is his time to return to the world left to him, left to all of them.

That fiery woman was a vessel of base instinct. She was a lesson in learning what you truly yearn for. She made a sacrifice that too few others would, and it has inspired him. He admires this world now. Not for what exists in it, but for its future and potential, and perhaps it has taken him too long to understand himself in order to see it. To think as that man did once, as that woman did. To earn a better future through action and hope, and he is strong enough. The strongest of all of them.

His breath melts the snow in a desolate wasteland of pure white. It takes more than a moment to remember how to move all of him.

First come his paws, then come his claws.

And with one great flick of his Nine glorious tails, the sky clears and radiant light shines down upon him.

It is the turning of an age.

Best be present to see it.


Konohagakure


A small unit of Naruto's close acquaintances and friends are present in the Hokage Tower, waiting for him so they can say goodbye. It's hardly private, with Genin and their teachers running around and giving him scared looks, but it will do.

"Don't suppose I can talk you out of doing this alone?" Kakashi is persistent.

"I am enough for whatever is happening in that wreck of a nation. Tsunade can only spare so many strong Shinobi for a mission that might not even be successful in the way that we want."

"He's right, Kakashi." Sasuke affirms. "We need to be here or warning the other nations. If what Naruto said is true about how strong the Akatsuki is, we're in deep now."

"I know," Kakashi sighs in defeat. "But I still worry."

"Me too, Kaka-sensei." Sakura frets, bounding over to Naruto with her long pink hair dancing behind her. She locks him into a bone-crushing hug.

"You're ready?" Tsunade leans forward in her chair, fingers clasped in front of her mouth.

"I am."

Tsunade nods and slides over a small scroll to him.

"Good luck."


Karin looks at her fiance and thinks on how he has grown. Not physically, as impressive as his stature and muscle are. She thinks about how all that selfish focus had been simple, young child that he was. And now he is taking the continuation of the entire human race on his shoulders, a soon-to-be-wife, the legacy of the Uchiha Clan, and maintaining himself as a figure of strength and deterrence against those who would even dare to touch a hair on the heads of Konoha citizens.

He sees things very, very differently to others his age. He has a calm, accepting attitude to the world as it is and doesn't think about how it should be.

Naruto once told her that to remove all struggle from the world was to remove its soul. No-one can truly accept a perfect life because it is one vacant of the sensations granted by success. He see conflict of the mind and body as the perfect crucible to ascend to higher levels than humanity is on right now.

When Naruto told her of this 'dream world', she had to admit that the temptation would be far too strong for someone like her if she hadn't met Naruto. Her life had been nothing but suffering with no reward, she would have taken any escape to give her some agency in her life. But she still has her struggles, only now with a bit of help, she understands that they make her stronger than ever before. She would achieve her dreams on her own terms and the reward would be ever-sweeter.

Her love looks to the stars when he speaks of these things. He ponders if they're alone in the vast blackness of the sky. Naruto is always looking towards the future, to a hope that no-one else sees yet.

And he tells her; what if we're not strong enough? It's hard to grasp that Naruto might not think that he's strong enough as a protector to save them. But what if he's right? It would be their end, to surrender completely to a dream instead of the eternal struggle, the eternal growth of humanity.

These thoughts send chills through her and make her stomach sink, so she tries to leave the worry-worting to him. He prefers it that way.

A soft clinking drags her from her doomed thoughts.

Naruto's crimson plate armour is quite vivid.

"I'm ready." He breathes out, saddling his Gunbai to a hook on the shoulder-plate.

"Do you have to?" Karin asks weakly, desperately, wanting to spend every waking moment with the love of her life.

"For your sake." Naruto nods resolutely, eyes determined. "And for the sake of all of us. Inaction will only make things easier for them."

She leans on the tips of her toes and throws her arms around his neck. She breathes in his scent, and the metal and oils'.

"Come home safe, love."

"Always."

She walks outside with him, eyes never leaving him as he slowly rises into the sky with light blue chakra fluttering around him. He takes off in his Perfect Susanoo to the awe of many spectators. She can't be impressed with the light show. She just wants Naruto to come back.


Chapter 16 End

AN:

Very short chapter but I figured I could wang it out before the Christmas bustle. Work will ramp up inevitably and I'm still trying to do this with a buggered finger.

It occurs to me as I'm writing this that I started publishing this fic over a year ago now. It's nuts for me to think that we're at this point now with over 1000 favourites and 500 reviews, gone up from the amount of each that I could count with one hand. So thank you everyone new and old who are reading this story for the support and extra motivation to keep going. I see repeat reviewers from the start and people tuning in more recently so give their thoughts about the story.

I'm definitely not a professional writer by any means, so thanks again for sticking around anyway. I started writing because I wanted to create something for the Naruto fanfic community that I myself would want to read.

Love you all, xoxo.