"Out, get out, you damn demon!"
Uzumaki Naruto ran out the door of the shop, skidding around a corner and barreling into 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 the orphanage. 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.
His lack of family was perhaps one of the greatest puzzles of Naruto's young life. When he'd gotten old enough to understand the solitude, he'd asked the Third Hokage 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'd discovered him, so he hadn't gotten too far, but it seemed as though there were no records of any 'Uzumaki' except for him in the few books he'd scrounged up.
As if that wasn't strange enough, Naruto possessed unruly, spiky blond hair – as bright and vibrantly-colored as the sun – and crystal blue eyes, both extremely rare traits among the citizens of the Hidden Leaf. Some members of the Yamanaka clan possessed traits close to his, but their hair and eyes were much lighter in color than his, and they seemed close-knit enough as a family to not just abandon one of their own (if he was some distant relative).
Naruto arrived at the orphanage and snuck in through the same window he'd escaped from, keeping an eye out for any of the matrons. He made it to his room – small and isolated from the other children – and sat on his futon in silence, the scar of being chased out of yet another store still fresh and aching.
Reaching for the last of some nuts he kept hidden for emergency purposes, he settled himself back and ruminated on the day's events. That incident was not the first in which he had been chased out of a shop, or even been called a demon for that matter. The majority of the villagers, and even a fair 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 blond'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 going hungry – as the orphanage matrons seemed to be as spiteful towards him as the rest of the populace – he couldn't think of a single thing that would warrant such animosity towards him. Unless…
Naruto paused with a handful of nuts partway to his mouth, 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 nothing in particular. It was such a stupid reason to hate him and make his life lonely; he couldn't be blamed for whatever his ancestors had done, he was just a child…and yet, it seemed as though the villagers were taking their grief or anger or…whatever…out on him, if the years of exile and mistreatment were any indication. Naruto stood up abruptly, an idea taking root in his mind. "Fine," he decided aloud, "I get that I'm not wanted. I'm outta here…everyone here can suck it." 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 belongings 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. Better hope you never see me again…'cause if you do, I'm gonna get you back for what you did to me and my family." With that declaration hanging ominously in the still air, Naruto turned around and didn't look back.
Kakuzu jumped from branch to branch, growling at the protection the dense foliage the trees of the Land of Fire provided his latest bounty. He was frustrated that he hadn't caught the little shit yet.
Then a kunai with an exploding tag shot at him and promptly exploded.
He emerged from the smoke cloud with noticeably darker skin – a sign that he'd activated his Earth Release: Earth Spear technique – and his clothes smoking and somewhat frayed, but otherwise unharmed.
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 number of hours the chase had lasted thus far. That was pretty much the only reason Kakuzu was following 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 as the chase had been going on for a decent amount of time, 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!" 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.
Naruto didn't know how long he had been walking. The forest surrounding the Hidden Leaf Village 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 was 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 who or what could cause such damage to the area.
"That should be a sufficient lesson on the merits of stealing from your betters."
Naruto's head swiveled so fast he thought he heard his neck crack. 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 the deep green pants that were frayed at the cuffs, a pair of standard black 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 piece of black fabric 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 Searing Migraine 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 covering his mouth and nose. The next ten minutes had been particularly appeasing to Kakuzu's sadistic nature 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 blond thought he saw the giant's head twitch slightly in his direction, and so he quickly ducked behind a tree trunk 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 that would merely hit 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 – a fully grown man – 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 hardly 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 fulfilling 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 could only stare in horror and fright 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." A giant ball of fire raced towards him and engulfed him, and then he thought no more.
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…I suppose I should try for something a bit more challenging next time."
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"), all of which he dropped on the ground. The only other thing of interest Kakuzu found was an empty sealing scroll which he promptly used to seal the body of the missing-nin in; while he normally preferred to carry the bodies of his bounties for personal satisfaction, the Iwa-nin was unlikely to be worth much, and he'd already wasted enough time chasing him down…he wouldn't waste more dragging the corpse around on his back.
He was about to leave when a wave of chakra – fouler than anything he'd sensed before – washed over the area, stopping him in his tracks. "Hm?" He turned back and watched as a strange, malicious, red chakra covered the blond boy in a vulpine-like shroud. His eyes narrowed slightly as the chakra boiled and hissed over the boy's wounds, slowly healing them and making the burns caused by his attack to disappear. "How interesting," Kakuzu muttered. He grabbed one of the Iwa-nin's kunai and approached the blond, 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 blond's arm, watching up close in morbid fascination as the red chakra hissed over the wound and healed it, not even leaving a scar.
Naruto wasn't entirely sure what was happening. He remembered being hit by Kakuzu's attack, and then…pain. Lots of pain.
He moaned as his body spasmed briefly, 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…
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." Deciding that it was better to obey than face the consequences, Naruto gave in and opened his blue eyes. Kakuzu was standing above him, an imposing, towering figure. A black cloth concealed most of his facial features with the exception of his strange eyes – pupil-less green orbs set in red sclera – and the weird black triangle thing the blond had noticed earlier was attached to a hitae-ate that held the crude symbol of a waterfall with a slashed line through it – a sign that Kakuzu was a missing-nin from Takigakure, the Village Hidden in Waterfalls (not that Naruto could identify that). Hard green eyes stared down at Naruto, and the blond 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.
Apparently, Kakuzu didn't care enough to pursue that avenue. "Do you have a kekkai genkai?"
Kakuzu sighed and fought down the urge to kill the brat. "A kekkei genkai," he repeated, "a special trait that runs through your family and is unique to it."
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; with most Kakuzu's face covered, it was hard to tell). Finally, he said, "You seem to have some sort of healing ability that allows you to recover from injuries which should be fatal. 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. Further, you 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 pretty cool.
"Boy." Naruto focused his attention back on Kakuzu, who was still standing ramrod straight in front of him, body language stoic. "In all my years, I have never extended such an offer before, but your ability to heal and withstand my attack is an intriguing one. Should you choose, you can come with me, and I will teach you how to properly harness this power."
The blond 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 answer the questions he couldn't get answers for in the Hidden Leaf.
"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. If you cannot decide, I can always garner a greater understanding of your ability by other methods."
Naruto gulped at the unvoiced threat and bobbed his head quickly in agreement; Kakuzu was terrifying, but the blond felt he was better off playing along with the man rather than opposing him. "Okay, I'll go with you."
Kakuzu smirked beneath his mask. "A wise decision. Now…" he trailed off. Naruto watched as Kakuzu seemed to stiffen, 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, understood?" When Naruto nodded hastily, 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 blond did as he was told before jumping into the trees and moving quickly to the southeast.
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. The former Taki-nin didn't know if they were there because of the explosions from his Searing Migraine attack or for the blond boy who he suspected was from Konoha, but it was better to be prepared for either scenario. "Stop," began the leader, "what is your business within the Land of Fire?"
"That is none of your concern," Kakuzu replied. "Now move along."
The three ANBU bristled. "You have no authority here," warned the leader. "Answer the question."
"I do not answer to you. Prepare to— ngh!" Wincing, Kakuzu managed to glance down at the two feet of steel protruding from his chest before he fell prostrate upon the forest floor, 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. I suspect he's nearby."
"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 maneuvers!" 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 in a Body Flicker, plowing a fist hardened by the Earth Spear technique 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 torso and arms riddled with sutures that stretched over his shoulders and down his back. Said back sported four animal masks stolen from ANBU he'd killed in the past, 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 places 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?"
"I am a bounty hunter long thought dead. 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 shinobi's chest; the ANBU agent gagged as his heart was forcefully pulled from its cavity, pulsating within the mass of threads that held it. 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 – "Come out now, brat" – he appeared from his hiding spot, taking in the slight puncture in Kakuzu's cloak. "Are you okay?" he asked, unsure if his concern was warranted.
"A minor wound, you will discover in time. Come…you have much to learn." The bounty hunter gestured for Naruto to climb onto his back, and the blond 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. This is simply the most prudent method to escape the premises, as you do not have the training to do so. That shall be rectified very soon. Second, you will call me 'Kakuzu' and nothing else, or I will kill you for your impudence; honorifics are old-fashioned and meant to garner respect by those of higher standing within the Hidden Villages, to which we do not belong. Should you choose to test me, I will have to come up with a more…inventive way of instilling respect in you. 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.