The Cost of Living

Motion

"Suiton: Suikōdan no Jutsu!"

Naruto quickly stopped channeling chakra to his feet, allowing his body to plummet below the surface of the lake. The Water Shark Bomb sailed harmlessly overhead, splashing mere feet away from where he had been standing. He mentally congratulated himself for his quick thinking, swimming quietly towards where Kisame was standing in the vain hope that the blue-haired man wouldn't know his location.

The blond Jinchūriki had been training on and off with the former Kiri-nin for roughly a year, the lessons stopping due to changing locations based on the missions Kisame and his partner had to go on. With those exceptions, they had stayed around an independent part of the Land of Hot Water which called itself the Land of the Sea, a stretch of rural country between the Lands of Fire and Lightning which bordered the ocean and dabbled in fishing. The area consisted of a large lake which sat in the middle of a dense, foggy forest; judging by how well it was hidden and how well Kisame knew the area, Naruto could only assume that he often frequented the area for his own training.

The nice thing about having Kisame as a teacher was that Naruto had learned more than just swordsmanship from the man. He had left Kakuzu before being able to take full advantage of the new elements surging within him; fortunately, ex-Mist shinobi Kisame had taught Naruto a bunch of common Suiton moves that most Kirigakure Chūnin knew, as well as the basis of some of the more difficult ones. It was, at the very least, more than Kakuzu had ever taught him in one sitting.

As the year had passed, Naruto had noticed that he kept comparing Kisame to Kakuzu. While Kakuzu was ruthless, obsessed with money, and normally wouldn't do anything unless it benefited him in some way, Kisame was a strict taskmaster, forcing Naruto through motions again and again until he had perfected them. Comparatively, Kakuzu usually taught Naruto the bare minimum of what he felt the blond needed to know and then left him to his own devices. Barring the obvious sadistic streak and bloodlust, there were very few similarities between the two giants.

Besides teaching, the most useful contrast between the two was that Kisame was far more willing to talk than Kakuzu. So willing, in fact, that Naruto could swear planting him with the blue-skinned man had been part of Kakuzu's plan all along.

That bastard would somehow find a way to make a gain by getting rid of me.

Apparently, the black cloaks with red clouds that Kisame and his partner wore symbolized their affiliation with Akatsuki, an organization that Kisame described as being dedicated to world domination. The group was still somewhat new, having formed shortly before his birth, but it had already earned a reputation as an effective terrorist organization. According to Kisame, Akatsuki was currently focusing on attaining large sums of money in order to back their plan, which explained its interest in Kakuzu.

The group operated in pairs, and Naruto found himself hard-pressed to find a stranger partnership than the one he was currently enmeshed in. Kisame's comrade was a stoic man by the name of Uchiha Itachi, the surname ringing a familiar bell with the blond. It had taken a solid two weeks for Naruto to find out that information, the raven-haired man silent until Kisame had ribbed him into finally introducing himself.

Naruto was constantly wary of Itachi; the Uchiha clan had taken no great strides in attempting to improve his former life in Konoha, and while he didn't know Itachi personally, he wasn't taking any chances. Additionally, while the Uchiha was an obvious missing-nin from their home village, Naruto wasn't sure exactly what Itachi knew of him, if anything. Fortunately, the raven-haired man – while apparently in charge of the larger and more intimidating Kisame – had done little to nothing to interfere with or stop Naruto's training.

Not that Itachi not interfering with his training made it any easier.

Naruto swam up from beneath Kisame, mentally thanking the man for training him how to hold his breath for long periods of time. He stealthily began to rise to the surface, closing in on twenty feet away when his teacher looked down and grinned wickedly. The blond had seen that look many times on the former Kiri-nin in the past year and had learned that the amount of sharp, glistening teeth that could be seen in his mouth was a good indication of how much trouble he was in.

Even from his current distance, Naruto felt like he could almost count each individual tooth. Ah, shit.

Kisame clapped his hands together and then placed his right one on the surface of the lake. "Suiton: Goshokuzame." From each of his fingers came a shark made entirely of water, all of them swirling down through the lake and targeting the blond.

Naruto yelped in surprise, but only managed to release a stream of bubbles that the sharks promptly tore through. Thinking quickly, he formed three hand seals and began to rotate in place. Mizu no Tatsumaki, he thought. A swirling vortex of water formed around him, serving as protection and partially destroying all five sharks. He stopped spinning after several seconds and mentally sighed in relief. Okay, one obstacle avoided.

Naruto looked up to see Kisame's grin grow wider – How is that possible? – before reexamining his surroundings. The sharks that he thought he had destroyed began to reform before his eyes, the water from the lake filling in the parts that his technique had destroyed. One, he counted, two, three, four…wait…where's the fifth? He turned around just in time to find the last shark bearing down upon him and resisted the urge to yelp in panic.

Stretching out his arms and legs, Naruto caught the shark's wide jaws as it attempted to snatch him up. It thrashed violently, trying to shake the blond off to attack him properly, but Naruto held on tight. Frustrated, the shark raced to the surface, breaking through the glass-like top of the lake at a breakneck speed.

Fortunately for Naruto, the shark lost cohesion as soon as it lost contact with the water; unfortunately for him, the momentum from the shark continued to propel him through the air. "AHHHH!" he screamed as he flew in an arc over the lake and towards the shore. He hit the ground clumsily, rolling head-over-feet before springing up with his wakizashi raised defensively.

The large, bandaged weapon that Kisame affectionately called Samehada connected with Naruto's blade, forcing the blond to dig his heels into the ground to keep his balance; even so, the power behind the attack moved him back a solid foot. Naruto wasn't entirely sure why the blade had a name, but after fighting against it for the better part of a year, he wasn't about to question Kisame's methods, especially considering that he had yet to win against it. All he knew was that letting the bandaged weapon touch him was a bad idea; it stole his chakra and caused an annoying burning sensation that lasted for awhile.

Gotta…gain leverage, Naruto sweated as Kisame applied more pressure to his weapon.

"Khe he he," laughed Kisame, "it's over, Fishbait."

Naruto raised one eyebrow and opened his mouth to respond, but found himself, once again, surrounded by water…a strange sphere of the liquid that was levitating above the ground. "Suirō no Jutsu," commented the Akatsuki member. "You're completely immobilized. Forfeit…or I can take off a leg," he offered hopefully.

"Fine," grunted the blond, "you win." The water surrounding him collapsed suddenly, allowing him to fall to the earth, chest heaving slightly. Naruto craned his head and caught sight of a second Kisame behind him which promptly collapsed into water. Damn, he thought. He heard a heavy footfall in front of him and looked up to see Kisame standing there, Samehada once again strapped to the man's back by its leather harness.

"You did better than I thought you would, Fishbait," Kisame told him. "You're no master of either Suiton or kenjutsu, but you have enough skill to get by for now."

Naruto grumbled half-heartedly, frustrated that he hadn't gotten closer to beating the giant sword-wielder. "The year is over…your training is done," spoke a bland voice from the trees. Both ninja looked over to see Itachi standing in front of a sturdy oak, his expression blank. "Kakuzu is about a four-hour walk in that direction," he pointed. "Kisame, we have a mission. Let's go."

"Sure thing, Itachi. See you 'round, Fishbait. Maybe next time you'll have a chance at beating me." Kisame flashed one of his patented smirks at Naruto before following Itachi in the opposite direction the ex-Leaf-nin had pointed. Naruto waved a hand in farewell, mildly confused at the abrupt exit, then headed to where Kakuzu was waiting for him.


If there was one thing that Naruto would grant Itachi, it was that the man was accurate to a fault. It took just over four hours to find Kakuzu and Fū waiting in a rather large clearing with a small pond nearby. "Brat," Kakuzu greeted as Fū waved, "I trust that your training went well."

"Fine," he replied quickly, trying hard not to compare Kisame's and Kakuzu's sadism. "How was yours?" he asked reflexively.

"Fruitful. It is amazing what one can accomplish when one has a competent student." Naruto narrowed his eyes at the tall ninja but chose not to rise to the bait. "Did you get any…other information?"

"…I knew it! The only reason you got Kisame to train me was to gather information on Akatsuki!" he accused.

"It was not the only reason…I also wanted to get rid of you for a time." Naruto fought the urge to punch his first teacher in the face while Fū tried her hardest not to laugh. "I ask again, what did you learn?"

Naruto told Kakuzu all of the information that he had gathered from Kisame about Akatsuki. The former Taki-nin digested it all with an unchanging expression, waiting until the blond was done talking before humming in thought. "While not overly useful, at least you managed to figure out something," Kakuzu admitted. "As a result, I will allow you an opportunity to claim a reward."

"How unusually gracious of you," Naruto deadpanned.

"What's the reward, Kakuzu?" Fū asked.

"This year, the biannual Chūnin Exams are being held in Konohagakure," Kakuzu explained. "They are open to all allied countries, meaning that ninja from Ame, Taki, Kusa, and Suna will be there competing against Konoha. If you truly want revenge against Konoha's populace for its treatment of you, the Chūnin Exams will be your best opportunity to infiltrate the village and decide how to do so."

"You'd be willing to enter me in the Chūnin Exams, just to help me get vengeance?"

"You and Fū," corrected the bounty hunter. Naruto cheered and Fū gave him a quick hug in celebration, but Kakuzu interrupted by clearing his throat. "However, you have to defeat me first."

"…Say what?"

"Two on one," Kakuzu explained. "If you can kill me just once, I will assist you in entering the Chūnin Exams. If not, we will find some pricey shinobi to kill, reap the bounties, and you can eventually find your own way to get revenge, should you so desire."

"Okay, so…when do we start?" Fū asked.

"Now," stated the taller ninja, detaching both fists from his wrists and allowing Jiongu's tendrils to carrying them towards his students. Fū rolled to the right to avoid Kakuzu's left hand, while Naruto, shorter than the girl, bent backwards to avoid the other one.

The blond grunted as he fell on his rear, Fū charging in to attack Kakuzu. She threw a hasty punch that Kakuzu maneuvered around, spinning in almost slow-motion and delivering a powerful roundhouse kick to her back. Fū skidded head-over-feet along the ground, grinding to a halt a short distance away from where Naruto was currently seated. "Comfortable?" he offered.

Fū coughed once, spitting to the side and rising to her feet. "Very," she retorted sarcastically. Naruto grinned in response, waiting until Fū's eyes met his own before exchanging nods with her. The unspoken message was simple: both would distract their teacher and take advantage of any opening the other could garner. Fū darted around in a semicircle, stopping fifty feet behind Kakuzu. Naruto rose to his feet and settled into a fighting stance, prompting Kakuzu to raise an eyebrow.

For three seconds, only the wind rustling through the foliage made any motion. Finally, Kakuzu turned around to face Fū instead of Naruto, an action which raised the blond boy's ire. What, suddenly she's more important than I am? That bastard…I'll show him! He charged his teacher, Fū following suit shortly thereafter.

Five feet away from Kakuzu, Naruto suddenly stopped…and then fell flat on his face. "I see Kisame did not beat your impetuousness out of you. Your pride will be your undoing one day," criticized Kakuzu as Fū closed in on him. Naruto looked at his feet, blue eyes widening in surprise at the black tendrils wrapped around them. He quickly followed the trail to where the tendrils disappeared into the bottom of his teacher's cloak. That's resourceful…I wonder how long that took to master?

Naruto didn't have long to wonder. Fū arrived on the scene, throwing another, harder punch at Kakuzu, who, unable to dodge, caught it. As the girl reared her other hand back, the black threads holding Naruto lifted from the ground, spinning him around and slinging him in the direction of the pond. "Not again!" he complained, creating a large splash as he hit the water and sank deep.

Meanwhile, Kakuzu had caught Fū's second punch and the two were locked in a struggle of strength that the older ninja was winning. Too…weak, thought Fū, sweating in exertion as the older nukenin pushed her backwards, the black tendrils of Jiongu wriggling around her like snakes. Then, struck by inspiration, she used Kakuzu's grip to flip her body, landing both feet in a solid connection with the underside of Kakuzu's chin. His head snapped back, and the Nanabi Jinchūriki took advantage of the broken deadlock by back-flipping away and rotating the pain from her wrists.

"Clever," complimented Kakuzu, rolling his neck back into its proper position. "But how will you follow it up?"

"Like this!" shouted a different voice. "Suiton: Bakusui Shōha!" A medium-sized wave of water rose from the lake, Naruto riding its peak as he directed it towards Kakuzu, Fū back-pedaling swiftly and finding purchase among some tree branches. "Ha!" panted Naruto. "Take this!" he cried as the wave broke over his teacher.

After half a minute, the water settled into a relatively small area, only a couple inches deep. Fū abandoned the tree she was in, applying chakra to stand on top of the water like Naruto was doing far across from her. "Too much for ya, eh, Kakuzu?" taunted Naruto, his irritation at his teacher granting him cockiness.

"Arrogance must be earned, brat. You overestimate your power," replied the bounty hunter, rising slowly from his crouch between the two Jinchūriki. "I see that Kisame taught you more than mere swordsmanship. However," he continued, reaching his full six-foot height, "do not presume to defeat a former Suiton expert with his own weapon."

Naruto, currently facing the former Taki-nin, scrunched his face in disgust and pointed at Kakuzu. "Ewww," he whined childishly, "what the hell happened to your face?" Kakuzu's eyes darted momentarily to the water, and after noticing a scrap of black fabric floating away, reached up with one hand to feel his head covering. The triangular piece that normally covered his mouth and nose was missing, revealing his full face to Naruto for the first time.

The bridge of Kakuzu's nose looked permanently aged, a crease right below where the mask normally covered; Naruto was briefly reminded of Itachi and the distinctive, premature stress lines he possessed just below his eyes. However, the truly disturbing part about Kakuzu was his mouth, over half of which was essentially stitched shut; from what he could see, three loops of thread kept the former Taki-nin's mouth sewed closed on either side. "Is that a side effect of Jiongu?" Naruto posed hesitantly.

Kakuzu reached down and picked up the fabric, reattaching it to the white head covering and glaring daggers at the blond. "Nothing comes without a price," he stated at last, "something I am sure I have taught you already. And everybody ages, something which I thought I would not have to teach you." His piece said, Kakuzu's fists shot forward with lightning quickness, nailing Naruto in the sternum and belly before he could react.

The older ninja's hands sunk in a little deeper before Naruto turned into water. …He anticipated my move. Perhaps the brat has learned something after all. "I see that Kisame also taught you how to perform Mizu Bunshin," Kakuzu called to the air. "That is good; it is a very useful technique, provided you have the water to use it."

"Kisame-sempai did a really good job with my training," affirmed Naruto, rising from the pond. "Granted, I need water to use the Bakusui Shōha and he doesn't, and mine definitely isn't as powerful as his, but he did open up my moveset a little bit. Now, let's continue," he said, settling into an offensive stance again.

Kakuzu nodded in recognition, but before he could move, he found a spike of earth protruding from his chest. "Sorry, Kakuzu," commented Fū, a foot-long piece of earth formed around her hand, "but it looks like we win. Nice job distracting him, Naruto!"

"Not quite," Kakuzu told her, a steely glint in his eyes. Just like Naruto had, he dissolved into water, but instead of completely collapsing the liquid flowed around and over Fū, encasing her in a bubble held in place by the Mizu Bunshin.

"Aw crap," complained Naruto, recognizing the Water Prison Technique his battling partner was now trapped in. He reached behind and placed one hand cautiously on the handle of his sword before gazing around intently, wary of his teacher. "Where are you?" he sing-songed nervously.

That was when a hand reached up through the earth and grabbed Naruto's leg, surprising him. "Ah!" he cried as he was forcibly pulled into the ground up to his shoulders. Kakuzu rose smoothly from the earth, grabbed the wakizashi from its sheath on Naruto's back, and fluidly moved it next to Naruto's throat.

"Yield," he commanded.

Naruto growled in frustration but acquiesced to defeat for the second time that day. The water clone holding Fū collapsed, dropping the girl to the ground on hands and knees. Kakuzu brushed miniscule specks of dirt from his shoulders as he manipulated the earth around Naruto by channeling chakra through his feet. The blond pulled free seconds later, hauling himself out of the ground and irritably swiping his weapon from the bounty hunter. "I didn't even get to pull off my best moves," he pouted.

"Such a shame," drawled Kakuzu sarcastically. Fū walked over and patted Naruto's shoulder sympathetically. "I am sure your potential must far surpass what you displayed," he continued in the same dry tone, clearly mocking his student.

"Hell yeah!"

"What exactly was the purpose of that exercise?" asked Fū. "Did you really think we would win, or were you just trying to prove a point?"

"The latter. I wanted to make sure there were no misconceptions about the difference between our power levels, even in a two-on-one fight. Also, I felt that the brat needed to relearn respect, just to unlearn any bad habits Kisame may have taught him. Now come; you lost, and we have money to make."

"Actually, Kakuzu-san, I'd like to interrupt your plans."

Naruto and Fū's heads snapped around in surprise, a direct contrast to Kakuzu's slow and purposeful turn. Standing under the shade of a copse of trees was a strange woman wearing a black cloak with red clouds, some sort of white flower stuck in her blue hair. Naruto, apparently mesmerized by the stud stuck underneath the woman's lower lip, leaned in to Kakuzu without averting his eyes and whispered, "Who's she?"

"I do not know," admitted the other man, "but staring like an idiot does not seem to be getting you anywhere. I was once told by a man named Zetsu," Kakuzu stated a little louder, "that anybody wearing that outfit is a member of Akatsuki."

"That is correct," confirmed the woman. "My name is Konan, and I'm the second-in-command of the organization. Might I have a word with you privately?"

Kakuzu nodded and took a step forward, pausing momentarily to throw over his shoulder, "Listen in and I will kill you." The two Jinchūriki jumped slightly, but quickly nodded in understanding. "What do you want?" he demanded upon reaching Konan.

"We," she emphasized, "would like you to reconsider your offer to go to the Chūnin Exams."

The former Taki-nin's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "How long were you spying on us?"

"Long enough," began Konan, "to know that your students have great potential and that you are the best option we have to complete our plans."

"While your concern for me and my students is touching," he drawled cynically, "I am not in the habit of breaking my word, and as the brats did not beat me, we are not going to Konoha," he finished firmly. Kakuzu turned around and prepared to walk away, but was stopped by what Konan's next words.

"We know you are in possession of the Nanabi." The older ninja refocused his attention upon the blue-haired woman, silently prompting her to continue. "We could easily remove her from your presence, if we so desired. Even you could not stand against so many other S-class shinobi."

"…I will hear you out."

"Thank you," Konan bowed. "You have heard of Orochimaru?"

"Orochimaru, renowned as the Snake Sannin of Konoha and one of its most infamous traitors. Few people have not heard of him," he snorted derisively. "Why?"

"We want you to kill him." Kakuzu raised an eyebrow at this statement.

"While not entirely outside the realm of possibility, the fight would be a difficult one," Kakuzu conceded. "Tell me why."

"Thirteen years ago, Orochimaru joined Akatsuki after defecting from Konoha," Konan explained. "When Uchiha Itachi joined seven years later, Orochimaru attempted to steal his body, but ended up failing. He was forced to flee the organization, taking his ring with him."

"His ring?" Kakuzu interrupted.

"The rings are the most important symbol of a person's affiliation with Akatsuki," she told him, flashing her own ring in the process. "However, that's merely one reason we want him gone. Orochimaru's current plans involve the 12-year-old container of the Ichibi."

"The Ichibi…and from what Zetsu has told me, that would interfere with your plans. I can only assume that this container will be present at the Chūnin Exams," Kakuzu extrapolated.

Konan nodded. "From the intelligence we've been able to gather thus far, he plans on using the powers of the Jinchūriki to invade Konoha and take vengeance upon the village by destroying it."

"A universal plan, it seems," muttered the bounty hunter. "And if I refuse to cooperate?"

Konan's eyes darted to where Fū and Naruto were standing. "We'll take her and extract the Bijū, killing her in the process." Kakuzu seemed to consider it for a moment, prompting Konan to finish her offer. "We're also allowing you to keep the money his head is worth."

"Done," agreed Kakuzu without hesitation. That is too large a sum of money to pass up simply because of principle. "However, the brats will need a third teammate. If you would like my services, you will need to provide a competent and obedient person who can serve as one."

Konan remained silent for a long moment, her eyes appearing slightly unfocused. "Very well," she conceded at length, returning her attention to Kakuzu. "Your last student will be waiting for you at one of our hideouts within the Land of Fire, near the border with the Land of Rice Paddies. We appreciate your cooperation, Kakuzu-san." Her piece said, Konan's figure appeared to ripple, breaking apart into hundreds of pieces of paper to be carried away by the wind.

Kakuzu watched her disappear in silence. The shinobi of Akatsuki have very unique abilities. I would fit in quite easily…and would also do well to remain on their good side. Even with my skill, working against them would be…hindering. He walked over to his students – who were currently engaged in a Rock-Paper-Scissors battle – and kicked both of them. "Get up," he commanded. "It appears that you will get your wish after all."

"What do you mean?" asked Fū, standing up alongside Naruto.

The tall ninja sighed wearily. "Despite my desire to the contrary, we are headed to Konoha."

"Really?" Naruto exclaimed, excitement visibly pulsing throughout his body. "Even though we lost to you? What'd that lady say?"

"What have I told you about looking a gift horse in the mouth, brat?!" Kakuzu snapped. "For now, simply accept your stroke of good fortune. Let us depart…we must pick up your wayward third teammate to be eligible for the Chūnin Exams. Another headache to look forward to," he grumbled.

As Kakuzu led Naruto and Fū west toward the Land of Rice Paddies, the two Jinchūriki high-fived in victory, discussing in quiet tones the upcoming Chūnin Exams.


A large quantity of paper fluttered into the center of a large forest in the southeastern part of the Land of Fire. They came together to reveal Konan, looking no worse for wear despite the strange method of travel. She held her ring – which displayed the character 'byakko' – up to a sturdy tree, unveiling a white sheet of paper that was only one part of a complex sealing technique meant to ward off interlopers. The blue-haired woman walked straight into the tree, causing it to ripple slightly, and descended down a stairwell into a humongous open cavern.

The cavern was void of all but two objects, one of which was near the back. A massive stone statue stood there, the top of which came only a couple hundred feet shy of hitting the ceiling. Spikes jutted out from behind the face, which possessed nine eyes – two rows of four with a giant one in the middle to make the face symmetrical – all of which were closed. A stone scroll with a chain running through it was held by the statue's mouth, and two large hands – handcuffed together – jutted up from the ground, coming to about the statue's chin.

The other figure was, surprisingly enough, even more imposing than the statue – a man of average build with spiky orange hair and the traditional cloak of Akatsuki. He turned around upon hearing footfalls, his ringed grey eyes – a series of concentric circles – boring holes into the new arrival. "Kakuzu accepted the terms we set forth," stated Konan. Receiving no acknowledgment that she was heard, she continued, "What are our plans, Na— Pein?"

The grey-eyed man remained completely silent, but despite his unnerving stare and emotionless façade, Konan waited patiently for an answer. "Kakuzu has agreed to take care of Orochimaru," Pein remarked at length, "who has been a thorn in our side for far too long. Even if he has never acted directly against us, his defection and plans have stalled us unnecessarily."

"I still don't understand why we didn't just take him out when we had the chance," Konan pointed out.

Pein blinked slowly, the only motion he made in response to his companion's query. "Orochimaru is clever and resourceful. He has contacts in most of the countries the world over, and knows how to stay under the radar and manipulate the underground. Until now, we have been spread too thin to dedicate resources to attack him, but with Zetsu's most recent information—"

"We can finally begin our real plans," finished Konan. "The Bijū."

Konan's partner nodded once. "Correct. Zetsu and Sasori have managed to piece together enough information to deduce that Orochimaru plans on using Ichibi no Shukaku to destroy Konohagakure during the third portion of the Chūnin Exams."

"I know," Konan intoned impatiently, "you made sure that I knew at least that much to get Kakuzu on board."

"However, what Orochimaru doesn't know is that we will also be there," Pein told her. "And we will capitalize on his upcoming failure."

The blue-haired woman nodded in understanding. "And the girl?"

"I can only assume you are referring to the Jinchūriki of the Nanabi no Kabutomushi," Pein guessed. At Konan's confirming nod, he continued, "For now, we leave her. Kakuzu is a valuable asset and we would do well to not endanger our current partnership with him by overextending our reach. What was his relationship with the children?"

Konan's eyes adopted a faraway look, trying to recall her conversation with Kakuzu. "I don't know the man well enough to make an accurate judgment. He might care enough to pose an obstacle when we target the Nanabi, but if there's more incentive for him in her death, he would probably go along with the plan."

"Then we leave her alone," Pein repeated, "along with the boy."

Konan arched one perfectly thin eyebrow in confusion. "The boy…you mean the blond child with him?"

Pein turned around, eyeing all nine closed eyes of the giant statue. "Yes. Or, if you'd prefer, the Jinchūriki of the Kyūbi no Yōko, the most powerful of the Bijū."

The woman's eyes widened by a fraction. "What? When did you find this out?"

"Itachi informed me earlier today when I assigned him and Kisame their newest mission," Pein explained. "Since the Kyūbi needs to be sealed last anyway, it would appear to be doubly beneficial to keep Kakuzu near us as much as possible, especially following the Chūnin Exams. Keeping track of the two Jinchūriki will be much easier with their teacher close at hand and their power already in our clutches."

"So…we wait until the right time then," concluded Konan.

"Yes." Soon enough, our plans will begin in earnest. The orange-haired man stared at the second eye from the left on the top row of eyes. One down, eight to go. Then, the world shall finally know peace…through true pain.

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