Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.

"Out, get out you damn demon!"

Uzumaki Naruto ran out the door of the shop, skidding around a corner and knocking over a nearby trashcan in his hasty escape. The 5-year-old rubbed his temples to clear the pounding in his head and slowly sat up, looking over his shoulder to see if the shop's proprietor had given chase. When the young boy saw he hadn't, he heaved a sigh of relief and plodded down the alley he found himself in.

Lost in thought, he emerged into the daylight of another of Konoha's main shopping streets and wandered down it in the direction of his apartment. His stomach let out a growl of protest as he passed a fruit vendor and he subconsciously moved closer, hoping for something, anything, to abate the gnawing hunger. The vendor noticed his approach and shot him a dark glare that scared Naruto off, and he rejoined his original path, a hungry orphan.

That was perhaps one of the greatest puzzles in Naruto's young life. He had asked Hokage-jii-san about his parents but had received no real response, and so had gone to the library and attempted to research his lineage. Of course, he had limited reading skills and the librarian had thrown him out with the warning to never come back again when she had discovered him, so he hadn't gotten too far, but it seemed as though there were no records of any 'Uzumaki' except for him.

As if that wasn't strange enough, Naruto possessed unruly, spiky blonde hair – as bright and vibrantly colored as the sun – and crystal blue eyes, both extremely rare traits among the citizens of the Hidden Leaf. The closest he could think of was the Yamanaka Clan, but their hair and eyes were much paler than his, and they seemed close-knit enough as a family to not just abandon one of their own.

Naruto arrived at his apartment and walked in, absentmindedly putting on some water to boil for ramen. He sat in a rickety chair at the kitchen table in silence, the scar of being chased out of yet another store still fresh and aching.

Minutes passed, the water boiled, and Naruto stood up to make his meager meal. He sat back down and slurped down the noodles, thinking over the day's events. That incident was not the first one in which he had been chased out of a shop, or been called a demon for that matter. The majority of the villagers, and even a decent amount of the shinobi, seemed to either outright hate him or (at the very least) act completely indifferent to his existence.

This was the second strangest puzzle in the blonde's life: what had he done to deserve such hatred aimed at him? He was only five years old, and aside from attempting to nick an apple here or there to prevent himself from starving, he couldn't think of a single thing that would warrant such animosity towards him. Unless…

Naruto paused mid-bite, working through a new thought. What if something his family or clan had done was so bad, so despicably vile, that the villagers were taking their anger and grief out on him? It explained why everyone seemed to hate him, as well as why there was no mention of any 'Uzumaki' in any records he could find; if whatever had happened was that bad then it probably would've been stricken from the records. It all fit!

The 5-year-old scowled at his empty ramen cup. What a stupid reason to be mean to him! He couldn't be blamed for whatever his ancestors had done, he was just a child! Yet, it seemed as though the villagers were taking their grief and anger out on him, if the past several years of abuse and exile was any indication. Naruto abruptly stood up, causing the chair to clatter to the floor. "Fine," he said aloud, "I can see when I'm not wanted. I'm outta here…this village, and the people in it, can rot for all I care." Silence greeted this proclamation, but Naruto nodded in assurance of his decision.

Fifteen minutes later found Naruto beginning a trudge along a well-hidden path that led through the forest surrounding Konoha. He had gathered what meager supplies he had, including a small amount of money, and packed them in a shabby-looking backpack that appeared too big for his small frame. He glanced back at his old home one more time. "Bye, Konoha. If you're lucky, you'll never see me again. If you do, I swear I'll get revenge for myself and my family." With that declaration hanging ominously in the still air, Naruto turned around and didn't look back.

-l-l-l-

Kakuzu jumped from branch to branch, growling at the protection the dense foliage the trees of Fire Country provided his latest bounty. He was frustrated that he hadn't caught the little shit yet.

Then a kunai with an exploding tag shot down at him and promptly exploded.

He emerged from the smoke cloud with his clothing smoking and somewhat tattered and darker skin – a sign that he had activated his Doton: Domu; Earth Release: Earth Spear technique.

Scratch that, he was pissed. The fucker was so dead.

It wasn't like the guy he was chasing was even strong, just clever. He was a rogue Chūnin from Iwagakure, but had Jōnin-level abilities in hiding, stealth, and traps.

So basically, he was a coward.

But he was a damn smart coward if he could keep ahead of Kakuzu – a keen analyst in his own right – for the past several hours. That was pretty much the only reason Kakuzu was chasing him…and because the little shit had tried to steal from him. That was just unacceptable.

Kakuzu pushed a bit more chakra to his feet and managed to catch sight of his target. Adrenaline shot through his system as the excitement of the capture built, fueled on by the sight of the renegade in front of him. Fortunately, he had a much larger chakra capacity than the Chūnin, and the chase had been going on for a decent amount of time, so the other man's stamina was running low.

It was time to act.

Kakuzu performed three hand seals and summoned chakra to his mouth. "Katon: Zukkoku; Fire Release: Searing Migraine!" A condensed fireball shot from his mouth and impacted on a tree branch just behind the Iwa-nin. The ensuing explosion felled several trees and sent his target flying.

Behind his mask, Kakuzu grinned.

-l-l-l-

Naruto didn't know how long he had been walking. The forest surrounding the Hidden Leaf seemed virtually endless, and he was willing to wager that he had been wandering around for several hours at least.

Then he heard the explosions.

His ears perked at the loud noises, and he stopped moving and looked around. His eyes narrowed and he took off running northwest from his current position.

Curiosity was a strange thing, Naruto supposed as he ran. Any normal person probably would've run in the opposite direction of whatever made such a huge ruckus. But as a young child, and what's more, a young boy, anything that went 'boom!' or involved fire was automatically classified as 'cool'. He didn't give consideration to the fact that it might be an enemy, or an assassin, or anything. He just had to know who or what was causing the huge explosion.

Ten minutes later, he stopped at the edge of a clearing, mouth agape in a mixture of awe and horror.

Several trees lay on the ground, smoldering and charred black. Huge chunks of bark were missing from standing and toppled forestry alike, branches broken and splintered, some hanging precariously from their perches. Leaves were scattered about the clearing, most of them burnt to a crisp. Naruto stared at the destruction, eyes wide in amazement at whom or what could cause such damage to the area.

"That will teach you to try stealing from me."

Naruto's head swiveled so fast he thought he heard his neck snap. Standing in front of one of the less damaged trees was a giant of a man, boasting a six-foot frame to match his deep, guttural voice. A long black cloak hung around his body, falling to the knees of his blue sweatpants, a pair of standard blue ninja sandals on his feet. Some sort of tan cloth was covering his head and hair, disappearing into the recesses of his cloak, and a triangular black thing was sticking up in the front, tied in the back by a strip of cloth. In front of him…

The Iwa-nin had been unfortunate enough to get caught in the blast radius of Kakuzu's Zukkoku technique. The explosion had sent him careening bodily into a thick tree trunk, which had splintered from the impact and broken the man's right arm and leg. As he sat on the ground, dazed and confused with blood dribbling from his nose and mouth, Kakuzu had appeared and proceeded to slowly approach him, a maniacal grin hidden by the black cloth around his mouth. The next ten minutes had appeased Kakuzu's sadistic side before the bounty hunter decided to end it.

Naruto gasped as the tall man's hand seemed to emerge from the other ninja's chest, a large mass of black…something…attached to the hand, which disappeared into the sleeve of his cloak. The blonde thought he saw the giant's head twitch slightly in his direction, and so he quickly ducked behind a tree to hide his presence. Taking several deep breaths, he heaved a silent sigh of relief when nothing immediately happened to him. He peeked around the edge of the tree, but only the dead body of the other ninja was there.

Wha? Where'd he go?

"Hmph. I thought I sensed someone arriving. Just some damn brat, though."

Naruto saw red; he had had enough of being looked down upon. "Oi! Who're you callin' a brat?" he shouted as he turned around and threw a punch at the tall man's leg.

In retrospect, Naruto would look back on that moment and realize that it was simply stupid to attack this man. He was clearly a ninja – and a powerful one at that – and Naruto had yet to even start attending the Ninja Academy back in Konoha. And even disregarding that, there was the fact that this man had already killed someone else, and Naruto was only half his size, if that. So it wasn't altogether surprising that the ninja managed to simply sidestep his basic attack…but then his foot met Naruto's stomach and the boy slammed into a tree fifty feet away, blood spurting from his mouth.

"Normally, I would not even bother wasting my time with a brat like you," mocked the ninja, taking slow steps forward and stopping a good 30 feet from Naruto's position on the ground. "But I have had a particularly trying day, and that last kill, while satisfying, was not nearly as good as I thought it would be. My name is Kakuzu, brat. Remember it, so you can tell the devil that it was I who sent you to Hell."

Naruto watched as the man – Kakuzu – performed a series of hand seals and brought his right hand to his mouth, forming a ring with the thumb and index finger. "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu; Fire Release: Great Fireball Technique." Naruto watched as the giant ball of fire engulfed him, and then he thought no more.

-l-l-l-

Kakuzu watched as his technique swallowed the young boy and waited until the fire died out, leaving the boy's body scorched and smoking. "Hm…that could have been more challenging."

The bounty hunter turned around and walked towards the body of the Iwa-nin, looting the corpse for anything of value. He found a small bag of money ("Not even worth the time to kill him"), some exploding tags ("Worthless"), as well as a couple of kunai, some shuriken, and a spool of wire ("Substandard quality") which he dropped on the ground. The only other thing of interest Kakuzu found was a small sealing scroll – empty – which he promptly used to seal the body of the missing-nin in.

He was about to leave when a wave of foul chakra washed over the area, stopping him in his tracks. "Hm?" He turned back and watched as a strange, malicious, red chakra covered the blonde boy. His eyes narrowed slightly as the chakra boiled and hissed over the boy's wounds, slowly healing them and causing the burns caused by his attack to disappear. "How interesting," Kakuzu muttered. He grabbed one of the Iwa-nin's kunai and approached the blonde, who had started to moan and stir. When he was standing in front of the boy, he used the black threads in his body to detach his right hand and slide the kunai down the length of the blonde's arm, watching in morbid fascination as the red chakra hissed over the wound and healed it, not even leaving a scar.

-l-l-l-

Naruto wasn't entirely sure what was going on. He remembered being hit by Kakuzu's attack…and then pain. Lots of pain.

He moaned as his body moved, a prickly feeling like ants on skin running through his veins. It took a minute for the feeling to fade, and then he heard footsteps approaching. Please don't be Kakuzu, please don't be Kakuzu! He stayed perfectly still, trying to play possum and praying that Kakuzu would think he was dead.

Then, there was a stinging feeling as a sharp object – a kunai, Naruto guessed – was dragged down his arm. He hissed slightly at the pain, but otherwise tried to remain as silent as possible. He heard nothing for a moment, and almost heaved a sigh of relief.

"Boy."

Naruto flinched, recognizing the deep voice as Kakuzu's. He continued trying to fake death, even though he knew it was pointless.

"I know you are alive, boy. Open your eyes and look at me, or I will make sure you die for real this time." The blonde decided to give in and opened his blue eyes. Kakuzu was standing above him, an imposing, towering figure. A black cloth covered his mouth and nose, and that weird black triangle thing was attached to a hitae-ate that held the crude symbol of a waterfall with a slash line through it – a sign that Kakuzu was a missing-nin from Takigakure, the Village Hidden in Waterfalls (not that Naruto could identify that). His eyes were the strangest feature of all though: green, pupil-less orbs set in red sclera. They stared down at Naruto, and the blonde had the strangest feeling that those eyes were penetrating his very being.

"Where are you from, boy?"

"A-around…" Naruto hedged, hoping that Kakuzu didn't kill him. He'd rather not tell this stranger he was from Konoha, though he couldn't explain why not.

Apparently, Kakuzu didn't care enough to pursue that avenue. "Do you have a kekkai genkai?"

"A…a what?"

Kakuzu sighed and fought down the urge to kill the brat. "A Bloodline Limit; a special trait that runs through your family."

Naruto blinked. "Oh. I, uh, I dunno. I'm an orphan; I don't know my family."

"Interesting," the other man mused.

Kakuzu was silent for several moments, during which Naruto found the courage to speak up. "Why?"

Naruto watched as Kakuzu seemed to debate with himself momentarily (or so it appeared; most of Kakuzu's face was covered, so it was hard to tell). Finally, "You seem to have some sort of healing ability that allows you to recover from any injury. Such an attack would have killed ninja several times your age and possessed of talents far beyond what you have – which seems to be next-to-nothing – and yet you somehow survived it at point-blank range, and do not have even a scratch to show that you were attacked in the first place. It is…an anomaly."

Naruto remained silent as he absorbed this information. So, he had some special ability that allowed him to heal from anything? That was so cool!

"Boy." Naruto focused his attention back on Kakuzu, who was standing in front of him looking rather stoic. "I have never done this before, but your ability to heal and withstand my attack is an intriguing one. If you would like, you can come with me, and I will teach you how to properly harness this power."

The blonde boy stared at Kakuzu. Here was a stranger, who had tried to kill him no less, offering him companionship and guidance, two of the very things he had always desired and been denied back in Konoha. And maybe…maybe Kakuzu would be able to help him uncover his family history, and even help him get vengeance against the village which had so wronged him.

"Hurry up and make a decision, brat. I am not a patient person by any stretch of the imagination; time is money, and I do not waste money."

Naruto gulped and nodded. "Okay, I'll go with you."

Kakuzu nodded in response. "Very well. Now…" he trailed off. Naruto watched as Kakuzu stood still, a statue in the destroyed clearing. Just when he was about to say something, Kakuzu moved. "You are under my care now, brat, so you will do as I say, do you understand?" When Naruto nodded, Kakuzu continued, "Hide behind these trees and do not move, no matter what you may see or hear. Stay there until I tell you otherwise. This should not take long." The bounty hunter watched as the blonde did as he was told before jumping into the trees and moving southeast quickly.

Within a minute, Kakuzu was stopped by the approach of three chakra signatures. Three ninja, all wearing the masks and attire of Konoha ANBU, stood on tree limbs in front of him as he jumped to the ground, searching for better leverage. "We're looking for a blonde-haired boy, age five," began the leader, "have you seen him?"

"That is none of your concern," Kakuzu replied. "You should be more worried about who will find you."

The three ANBU stiffened. "Is that a threat?"

"I do not make idle threats. Prepare to – ngh!" Kakuzu looked down to see two feet of steel sticking through his chest before he collapsed to the ground, the katana sliding cleanly from his body. An ANBU in a tiger mask stood behind him, the sword covered in a fiery aura – a sign that fire chakra was being channeled into it.

The leader nodded. "Good work. Now fan out and find the child."

"Not…so fast…" All four ANBU blanched as Kakuzu's corpse began to rise from the ground. It released a throaty sound which they assumed passed for a chuckle before saying, "It has been some time since someone has taken my life. You seem to have a fire affinity, though…I can replace my destroyed heart with yours!"

"Defensive formation!" barked the ANBU leader. "We don't know what he's capable of, but if he can survive a killing strike, we need to be cautious."

"A smart move," Kakuzu commented as the other three ninja split up, "but not good enough." Then he disappeared and reappeared behind the leader, plowing a Doton: Domu covered fist through the Leaf-nin's chest. Blood gushed from the wound and the dead ninja's mouth before Kakuzu allowed the body to drop to the forest floor.

"Hm," he observed idly, "it will take far too long to hunt down each of these remaining rats. I better get serious." Kakuzu threw off his cloak, revealing a sleeveless blue shirt underneath, as well as strange stitch marks along his arms, shoulders, and back, the latter also sporting four animal masks, one of which was broken. Then the Taki-nin's muscles bulged, and the masks popped off his back, black threads stitching closed the open wounds.

Three of the masks took on monstrous, animalistic forms, using the black tendrils that thrived in Kakuzu's body as a basis for their own form; the fourth mask collapsed to the ground in a puddle of black goo. The three masks took off in one direction, while Kakuzu headed in the opposite one.

Ten minutes later, Kakuzu had cornered the ANBU with the fire chakra and had handily beaten him with water elemental attacks. The other three masks suddenly appeared and buried themselves seamlessly into Kakuzu's back, taking their rightful place as stationary objects once again. Kakuzu turned back to his prey. "Your teammates are dead, and you are about to join them. Do you have any last words?"

"Wh-what…are you?"

"I am a bounty hunter. My name is Kakuzu; remember it, for it will be the last name you ever hear. Now die." With that, black tendrils slithered out from the stitch in Kakuzu's forearm and dug into the Leaf-nin's chest. The ANBU gagged as his heart was forcefully pulled from his chest. Kakuzu waited until the organ had been assimilated into his body before taking off the ANBU's mask, revealing glassy, blood-red eyes with three tomoe in each one. "An Uchiha…no wonder he seemed so skilled; and it also explains the high Katon affinity. Pity…he might have fetched a high price one day." Kakuzu let the black threads maneuver the mask to his back where it was sewn on to cover his newly captured heart. "I am full once again. Now back to the brat."

Naruto waited for what felt like forever, though it had actually only about 15 minutes. When he heard Kakuzu calling – "You can come out now, brat" – he appeared from his hiding spot, taking in the slight puncture in Kakuzu's cloak. "You got stabbed," Naruto pointed out needlessly.

"A minor wound, you will discover in time. Come…I have much to teach you." The bounty hunter gestured for Naruto to climb onto his back, and the blonde did so silently. "So, brat…what is your name?"

Naruto twitched…he didn't like being called a brat. "Uzumaki Naruto."

"Hmph…very well, Naruto. First of all, do not get used to this. I am only doing this to get away quickly, as you do not have the training. We will start rectifying that situation very soon. Second, you will call me 'Kakuzu' and nothing else, or I will kill you for your impudence; honorifics are old-fashioned. Lastly…your training begins now." Kakuzu jumped to the nearest tree branch, taking to the canopy to better hide his trail. Then began the lecture…

"The most important rule you will ever learn is this: money is everything. The world revolves around money; even Hell runs on money…"

Naruto listened to everything with rapt attention, taking in as much as he could. It was the beginning of a new life.

-l-l-l-

Author's Note: Welcome to The Cost of Living, my attempt at responding to pudgypudge's Jiongu challenge!

I decided to do this primarily because I don't believe Kakuzu gets enough respect; he died really stupidly in the anime/manga (in my opinion), and every story I read that introduces Akatsuki early always seems to kill him off way too early or easily (not to say that the story isn't good, it just frustrates me). Kakuzu is my favorite Akatsuki member (alongside Zetsu), and so putting this out helps me memorialize him in a sense.

Anyway, whether you're reading this story for the first time or rereading it because you liked it that much, please enjoy, and feel free to let me know what you think.

Edited 7/29/2013 for grammar and characterization. Despite how rough the first half-dozen chapters are plot-wise, I've decided to leave them that way, both as a testament to my growth as a writer, and because rewriting the whole thing to work better would be a pain.