Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. -Joseph Addison
Zabuza had been out for a while.
Haku's senses were piqued by every creak of a floorboard and every door-slam in the building. He never lingered beside the window for more than a few minutes, knowing that Zabuza did not want people to discover him. Haku had deduced for himself that his power was the reason why he ought not to be seen. While he appreciated Zabuza's efforts in caring for him, he was quickly becoming restless.
'I shouldn't fidget…someone may hear me.' Haku would catch himself pacing, desperate for some kind of fresh air. He returned to his pile of literature, occupying himself as best he could. It was the only company he had kept for hours on end.
He had dog-eared a section halfway through a Genin training manual. He had comprehended all of the basic concepts of chakra and types of jutsu, but upon arriving at a technical section about team cooperation and strategies he stopped. Haku decided he would ask Zabuza about the parts he was unfamiliar with. After that, he had picked up a small paperback of fables and morals, which he absorbed rapidly. He moved onto a hardcover that detailed myths about past shinobi.
It seemed absurd that one story suggested a powerful ninja had condensed and lifted the moon in ancient times. Haku had no other explanation for the moon's existence, but he felt as though he inherently disagreed. He read on about wise animals that grew to gargantuan sizes. Reading further he learned of clans and alliances, topics that Haku had an inkling of previously from rumors circulating through the farming community.
He ended up on the couch on his stomach, holding his chin up with both hands. Haku dissected the mythology book that he had propped up on a throw pillow. 'I wonder if Zabuza-san has read any of these…and if he has, if he truly believes any of it?' It looked as though most of the books had been acquired secondhand or by chance.
When he lived on the farm, Haku's mother had taught him how to read so that he would be able to keep records of harvests. His father had not been well educated but could read enough to get by. There had been little to read back then, but his parents had gifted him with two books that they had saved for in their time together. They had been children's books that Haku could not distinctly recall.
Haku spied a small novel near the bottom of the pile. He tugged at it from the floor and readjusted to be comfortable on the sofa again. He turned it over in his hands to examine it. The book lacked creases and looked as if Zabuza had never opened it. It was younger looking than some of the editions Haku had been flipping through. He paused with the mythology book and peeked into the novel.
"The tale of the utterly gutsy shinobi…" Haku read quietly, "A novel by Jiraiya of the three sages…"
In silence he gave his undivided attention to the book for three hours. Haku was introduced to a protagonist named Naruto, a dedicated and courageous shinobi. As he read about the hero's adventure he thought of Zabuza, who seemed almost a stark contrast. Though Haku knew little of shinobi overall, he understood that Zabuza had seen his share of battles without having to ask the man. It would explain his bluntness and fierce demeanor. Haku was also aware that he would one day become a shinobi, even if it was not by his choice. The character in the story was different from Zabuza, but Haku decided that his qualities were just as admirable.
Haku's favorite story was interrupted by Zabuza's return. He marked his page and set the novel aside before greeting, "Welcome back, Zabuza-san!"
"Would you like me to help you with those?" Haku asked, gesturing to the bags Zabuza was carrying.
"No. This won't take long."
Haku stood and considered how he was going to spend his time now. The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi was of a more personal interest to him, so Haku figured it was best to save it for future reading. As for the other materials he had looked at, he assumed Zabuza would be more willing to discuss them. Haku crossed over to the couch and picked up the books he had looked at.
He sat down at the table with them and watched as Zabuza mechanically put away the foodstuffs.
"Is it true that a shinobi made the moon?"
Zabuza paused and turned slowly to look at the boy. They locked gazes for a moment before he replied, "I can honestly say I have no idea."
Haku held open the page he had read that had an illustration to go along with it. The silhouette of a sage was depicted and Haku tapped it with his finger, "This says the first shinobi made the moon. He did it to seal away a great evil."
"Haku, it's just a legend. Just like you can't believe every story someone tells you, you can't believe everything in books either."
"What about the ninja training manual?" Haku patted the tattered volume.
"That's easily testable and so most of it is true." Zabuza gruffed, shutting a cupboard, "You can depend on it; but it can only serve as a foundation. I will teach you the rest of what you need to know."
Haku flipped it open curiously, returning to the team tactics section, "Will I be part of a team?"
"You will be my apprentice. You'll learn how to work with others gradually." Zabuza elected that feeding Haku would be a good way to prevent him from asking more questions, "What do you want to eat?"
"Are there rice balls?"
Zabuza sighed. He cooked enough to function, but not to impress. What would pass in his opinion for a rice ball would likely resemble a piece of garbage to Haku.
"Sure." He said.
Haku smiled. The man unenthusiastically prepared the rice cooker and looked around for the seaweed he had purchased earlier. While he went about the preparations Haku continued to make observations about the manual.
"Is chakra the thing that makes my power work, Zabuza-san?"
"Fundamentally, yeah, but you controlling your chakra and your Kekkei Genkai are not the same thing." He informed the boy, "You have very good chakra control for someone your age, and so your powers are manifesting early."
Haku briefly checked the table of contents of the manual, "There is nothing in here about that…"
"That's because Kekkei Genkai are unique to the clan they are genetically linked to. No book could give you details about those abilities; they are too many and too diverse. Your Hyoton blood limit is known only to the Yuki clan." The man explained, "I've been around long enough to see a few Kekkei Genkai and how they work."
"So that's how you know?" Haku confirmed.
"Yeah. By now I can sort of tell just by looking at someone, out on the battlefield, anyway." Zabuza said with a faraway expression, "The clans in this country aren't that hard to identify."
He didn't want to tell Haku that he had been sniffing around for a Hyoton-user days before. It was true, though, he could tell right away that Haku had been a candidate for a blood limit. Not that it mattered how Haku felt about Zabuza specifically saving him for his power; it was Haku's circumstance like it or not. The child was not yet complaining.
"My power belongs to the Yuki clan…" Haku was beginning to piece it together, "Then that means that my mother was a part of that clan?"
"There's no doubt about it."
"But why?" The boy's voice cracked, "Why do people hate those with Kekkei Genkai so much?" Haku's fists balled on the table and tears welled up in his eyes, "My mother and I didn't do anything! We never hurt anyone!"
Zabuza crossed over to the boy and placed a hand on his head. Haku quieted down but his shoulders trembled as sadness overcame him.
"Relax, Haku." The swordsman said, "What you are going to realize is that this war is all about people being afraid of each other. A person without a blood limit is afraid of someone who could kill him with one, and a person with blood limit is afraid of someone who will persecute and kill him because of his power. This was all caused by a group of self-important people who needed to place blame somewhere."
Haku shook his head. It still did not make sense to him. How did he and his mother fit into this conflict? He flipped the book shut in frustration, and lowered his head onto his folded arms.
Out of what was a twinge of sympathy, Zabuza patted Haku's small shoulder and then returned to preparing the meal. 'He's just going to have to get over it. Once I get him distracted with training he won't mope anymore.' He thought to himself.
He put a cup of hot green tea in front of the boy but Haku paid it no mind. When the rice was ready Zabuza dragged a chair up to the counter and barked, "Hey, do you know how to make these? Get over here and help."
The boy's head snapped up in surprise. He stood and sluggishly crossed over to the counter. Haku assisted in shaping the rice that Zabuza spooned out, and in silence they worked together. After a few minutes Haku had the hang of it and he continued the preparations on his own. Zabuza set a bowl of vegetables on the table for his ward and then found himself meat to fry up.
They set dishes on the table and sat down. Zabuza found it an odd thing that he was sharing a meal with someone. In the past it had been such a rare occurrence. Haku was a beacon of youth and curiosity he had always gone without. He was such a fragile creature…it reminded Zabuza of the little girl he had killed on a mission months earlier, at the behest of the Mizukage. The Mizukage. The source of their troubles.
"I don't have a Kekkei Genkai." Zabuza said, "Do you think you can trust me?"
Haku stared at the man, "I think so."
"Well," He took a moment to compose his answer, "How you speak of people who have Kekkei Genkai…it sounds like you are on their side. Also you have only been trying to help me so far…"
"Don't get the wrong idea," Zabuza corrected him, "I am on no one's side, and if so, only my own. If it's easier to simplify this down to the clans versus the Mizukage, then I should tell you that I hate them both. When I set things right around here they will all answer to me, the only one with sense in this village. If it matters, Haku, you are on my side."
Haku was surprised. He considered Zabuza's statement while he took a bite of riceball. After a moment he nodded, understanding, "Yes, Zabuza-san. I think you're right. I will do my best to help you achieve what you need to do!"
"Good. Now eat. You need to start putting on some weight, kid."
His chopsticks flew between vegetables, rice and meat, hoping to please Zabuza. He had a better idea of what the man wanted now and what Zabuza expected of him. It seemed as if he was destined to enter the fray with Zabuza, competing against the clans and the Mist Village. He would commit himself to it, of course, but part of him would always remain with the gutsy shinobi. Haku wondered if one day he could employ the protagonist Naruto's ideals, even if Zabuza was asking for the opposite.
"Okay, Sori, now just bear in mind that my father is kind of…" Kuina searched for the words, "A…comedian."
Kamisori frowned in confusion, "I thought he was a fisherman?"
"He is." Kuina clarified, "But he thinks he's hilarious. If he starts to annoy you…"
"Don't worry about it." The white haired man assured her, "I don't get annoyed as easily as others do."
They had arrived in a small fishing town on the coast. It was a humble settlement on the edge of the forest, devoid of modernity, and each thatched roof had some form of chimney and there were fishing nets hung to dry in every yard. Kamisori found it a very interesting, innocent place. It was an hour away from the Mist Village as the crow flew. It had very little contact with shinobi, save for a handful of genin students who commuted from the fishing town to Mist for training.
Recently, Kuina had told him, the local genin had stopped returning home for fear of being captured. They did not venture outside of Mist anymore, and were given shelter at Kyonjin's discretion so they could get to the Academy every day. Their parents understood the danger, but longed to see their children again. There was no guarantee they would return home until they were full-fledged ninja, capable of defending themselves during a war.
He had learned that Kuina had done the same commute, many years ago. She had been the only genin representing the fishing town at that time. Her father had insisted that she train, which Kamisori suspected was because of the lineage on her mother's side.
Now at her father's doorstep, Kamisori could see that his home was a notch above the others in the community, 'Maybe Kuina helped him out?' It was a larger home situated on a lagoon, and on the back dock an engine-propelled boat was tied up. A vegetable garden had since frozen over at the side of the house, but by springtime would be yielding tomatoes again. Kuina knocked animatedly and then watched Kamisori's face. He gave her a small, reassuring smile.
Mr. Arashino answered the door after a moment, and with a yell threw his arms around his daughter's shoulders, enveloping her in a warm hug, "Kuina!" They laughed, taken aback by the other's excitement, and then caught their breath.
"It's so good to see you, Dad!" She kissed his cheek and then turned to her companion, "I brought my boyfriend Kamisori with me; he's been looking forward to meeting you."
"Ah…" The older man paused and eyed Kamisori up and down. He looked about Kuina's age and had unusual but attractive traits: white, tufted hair, blue eyes, and expensive clan-clothing that spoke of his heritage. He would not have taken this man as Kuina's type, but it helped when Kamisori bowed respectfully.
"It's an honor to meet you, Arashino-san." Kamisori said, rising up again. He extended his hand and Kuina's father gladly shook it. He was a tanned, fit-looking man who had lost all but a few gray hairs on his head. His eyes were the same bright amethyst as his daughter's. He certainly looked like a fisherman, albeit a well-dressed one, and his smile belied some kind of mischief.
"And it's good to meet you too, at last, Kamisori." The man replied, "Call me Uomaru, please, now come in! Both of you! Welcome!"
He ushered them inside, where the fireplace was crackling lazily.
"How have you been, Dad?"
"Oh, don't fuss over me! It's all the same down here, thank God. Those ninja don't stop by our fisheries." Her father grinned, "The dead-fish smell keeps them out."
Kuina nodded, chuckling, and glanced slowly to Kamisori, 'Here we go…I hope Kamisori can stomach these jokes…'
They sat down in armchairs by the fireplace and Uomaru put his hands on his hips, "So, what are we having to drink?"
"Is there milk?" Kamisori asked. He had finished the last of what had been in the refrigerator back at home.
"Did I just hear that?" Uomaru hollered, "No! I'm talking about hard liquor! What's wrong with you kids? That hidden village of yours has tamed you! Kuina, you still drink whiskey, right?"
"Dad!" Kuina chided, gripping the arms of her seat, "We're not here to booze up! We want to talk to you!"
"Fine, you lot of party-poopers." He relented, "Kamisori, I've got milk somewhere for you. How about you, Kuina?"
"Water is fine, Dad."
"Total party-poopers…" He exited the living room and Kuina leaned back in her chair with a sigh.
"Kuina, he's nothing if not lively."
"I know. I just have to readjust. He's like this with new people…he breaks out the wine and has heart-to-hearts." She explained, "Once we get him chatting he will tone it down a bit."
"Hey!" Her father's voice came from the adjacent room, "What are you two whispering about?"
"You, of course." Kuina replied promptly.
He laughed again when he returned, setting their drinks down in front of them.
"There's your milk, here's my wine and my dear daughter's water…see I put a lemon in it for you?"
"Thank you, Dad."
"You're welcome! I remember how much you like them. In fact, pretty much your favorite thing to eat since you were a kid was lemon." Uomaru turned to Kamisori, "Bet you didn't know that about Kuina, did ya? She was an unusual kid. She said that lemon was her favorite because it was the most exciting thing she had ever put in her mouth."
"Then she grew up, of course…" He said playfully, pleased with the surprised expression he got from Kamisori.
"Alright, that's enough kidding from me. I'm old and ugly and no one talks to me around here." Uomaru continued, "So what brings you kids for a visit, besides a formal introduction?"
Kuina and Kamisori exchanged a glance, wondering how to approach the subject. Kamisori decided to speak on the matter, since it was all his idea.
"Arashino-san, I won't try to amaze you with stories of where I come from or my work as a shinobi, because none of that will matter to you. I believe what is most important to the both of us is Kuina." The white haired man cut to the point, "I love her. I love her more than my own life, she's made my time on this earth worthwhile and so I have asked her to marry me. What should also be said is that I would not proceed without knowing we had your permission first."
Kuina felt her mouth hang open, dazzled by the profession of love that she had not been expecting. Where was the pomp of Kamisori's achievements? His history as a shinobi? She had to give him credit for being smart enough to set all of that aside in favor of reaching out to her father. Still, she carefully watched as her father's expression went from a stubborn to contemplative look, and then he finally surrendered with a sip of his drink.
"Well, kid, I have to say I know nothing about you." Uomaru nodded to himself, putting his hands on his knees, "Though that sounded pretty dang sincere…"
Kamisori did not speak. He waited patiently for an answer.
"Go ahead!" The man laughed, "Sure you have my blessing! I don't care much what Kuina does because I always know she'll do what's right. She chose herself a fine man, so I figure I don't need to do a background check!" He leaned over and lowered his voice, "But listen to me when I tell you: if you hurt her I will use you as chum for my drag-net in the southern straits, you got me?"
Kuina smiled, "Thank you, Dad!"
"Nah, just be happy…"
"Thank you, Arashino-san."
"Yeah, yeah." He waved it off, "So I guess you two have been planning this for a while?"
"Not really, we're keeping it simple." Kuina informed her father, "We don't have time for a ceremony between our missions, so it has to be quick."
"What? No shrine wedding or reception with tons of food for your old man?" Uomaru frowned, "How could you do this to me?"
She shook her head and sipped her water.
"Kuina, I don't care. I would be more upset if I had to drag myself up to Mist, honestly."
"That's what I initially thought."
"So are you staying the night here, kiddo?"
"Yes, if it's no trouble." Kamisori said, adding, "It is better not to travel at night when we may cross into areas controlled by rebels. The daylight is safest."
Uomaru threw his hands up, excited, "Well! The first visitors I have in months and they're shinobi! Maybe a bit unwilling now…but after the wine, ha ha! You may stay another day or two!"
"If only time permitted, Dad." Kuina smiled softly, "Oh! Can I go find the old pictures? I think there is one of my mom somewhere."
"Sure you can look. I think it's up in your old room…in some woven baskets with photos and junk."
"I'll be right back." Kuina stood and went upstairs in a flash, hoping she wouldn't leave Kamisori alone with her father for too long.
"So how old are you really, Kamisori?"
"I will be 30 this year. Why do you ask, sir?"
"You're a bit…" Uomaru gestured to his hair, "Snowy. My God, I mean, even I'm still gray on the five hairs I have left…but I'm twice your age!"
"I was…born looking like this."
"Ahaha! I knew that! Come on, man, it's a joke!" He clapped Kamisori on the shoulder, "Wait here's another: I can't spell Armageddon, but it's not the end of the world! Ahaha!"
He didn't really mean to, but Kamisori smiled just a bit.
"Okay, now you know how smart Kuina is, that's because she takes after me. We can both recite the Periodic Table of the Elements."
Kamisori got the feeling this would lead into another joke, "That's quite difficult."
"It goes: Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron, Carbon, Nitrogen…" Uomaru then leaned into Kamisori and screamed, "OXYGEN!"
He had started a tiny bit, not understanding the point.
"That was the element of surprise, my friend."
Kamisori did laugh quietly at the pun.
"I hear shouting, Dad!" Kuina called down from the second floor, "Cool it!"
There was a brief interlude of silence in which Kamisori was able to get a better look at his surroundings. There was no mystery of what Uomaru favored when it came to decorating. All of the memorabilia and furniture in the room had a maritime theme. Lamps made of old anchors, picture frames trimmed with old twine, glass balls from nets… 'None of it seems too contrived. One could still feel at home here, looking at the story of his life.'
"You like it?" Uomaru asked, referring to the sitting room.
"I do. It's an escape from what you see in the Mist Village."
"Well of course!" He laughed, "Most of it is old stuff I pulled from my boat and reworked! I'd be shocked if Mist had anything like this, though I've never been there to look."
Kamisori was surprised, "Haven't you ever traveled to Kirigakure?"
"Nope, and why would I want to go?" He shuddered, finishing off his glass, "Kuina's told me all about it in her letters. It's a sour deal living there."
"I have to agree." Kamisori replied, thinking of how he too lived away from Mist's agitation.
Kuina came down the stairs cooing happily with a small box in her arms. She sat down beside Kamisori, and excitedly flashed a few ragged photographs.
"Look at these! Oh my gosh…this was my mom, although it's hard to see…" Kuina pointed carefully to a woman grinning in a line of people, "These are her comrades, but this is her."
Kamisori could barely make the black and white image out, but it seemed as though Kuina resembled her mother, 'Maybe the shape of her face…'
Kuina then moved on to photos of a chubby, red-haired toddler, "This is my big sister, Kushina! She lives in the Leaf Village, so I haven't seen her since I was little."
Chubby Kushina did not look as much like her slim, energetic mother, not in the way Kuina did.
"Half-sister, technically…" Uomaru reminded her, "Your mom brought her here for a little while before they split on orders from Leaf. She was a cute kid with big dreams."
"Why did your mother leave you here, if you don't mind my asking?" Kamisori inquired.
Kuina's joyful expression sobered as she placed a few of the photos back in the box.
"This isn't something we are really supposed to talk about…" Uomaru said quietly.
"He won't repeat it, Dad. It's because my mom asked my father to protect me. She didn't want me to be brought to the Leaf Village to be used in the same way as my sister." Kuina explained, "The Leaf Village didn't know I existed, and so they only requested Kushina."
Uomaru wanted to help out, "Her mother was a refugee kunoichi of the former Hidden Eddy Village, you know, before everyone burned it to the ground. The Uzumaki clan was well known for their powers and ability with, oh damn, what's it called, Kuina?"
"Yeah, that's right! Famous for their sealing techniques!" He clapped when he remembered, "They are born with special vitality, and so they live for a long time. Leaf contracted little Kushina because of this, and in return they were allowed to live in Leaf."
"Sealing techniques…I gather that Leaf had something important they wanted to seal away?" Kamisori pointed out.
"Yes." Kuina nodded gravely, "They made my sister the jinchuriki for the Nine-Tailed Fox."
"A young girl?" Kamisori exclaimed, horrified.
She nodded again, saddened, "Oh they usually favor Uzumaki shinobi for it. I never saw her after she went away. From what she's told me in letters, a while ago, it's a beautiful village and…" Kuina chuckled, "She wants to be the Hokage."
"She very well could be, if she wanted." Kamisori muttered, still aghast over the information.
Uomaru held up a photo of Kuina as an infant just before bath time, "Isn't this the sweetest, most unrecognizable lump you ever did see?"
Wide-eyed, Kuina snatched the picture back, "I'm putting these away now! Do not embarrass me Dad, or this will be my last visit!"
He apologized, but luckily in that moment Kamisori had been distracted by Kuina's irritated face. His thoughts were a tangled mess, concerned about Kuina's Uzumaki lineage, 'How many people know?'
After cleaning up, Uomaru fed them a brief, filling dinner of beef stew and convinced them to try the wine. Contented with the food and alcohol, both Kamisori and his intended felt their eyelids get heavy. Uomaru then unfolded the couch into a large cot, "Kuina's bed is a relic from when she was a little kid…I figure this will fit you better!" And after saying goodnight, they made themselves comfortable in the dark and watched as the fireplace smoldered what embers were left.
Kamisori felt Kuina press sleepily against his back, beginning to doze off. He was still too shocked to let his mind rest. He rolled over and pulled her lolling form into his arms.
"Kuina," He said quietly, "Could they make you into a jinchuriki too?"
She rubbed at her eyes, "Why are you worried?"
"I am suspicious that perhaps Kyonjin has purposefully kept you close to him." Kamisori admitted, "It may be because he knows you are predisposed as a container…"
She shook her head, "Higa-sensei already negotiated that with him, a while ago. I don't think Mizukage-sama would go back on his word. I'm almost too old anyway, don't you think?"
"I don't know."
Kuina kissed his bottom lip gently, because it was too dark to see the rest of his mouth. She let her hands roam through his cotton-soft hair before she rolled again, positioning herself as a little spoon.
"It's fine, Sori. Just go to sleep." She yawned, "I love you. I can handle anything when I am with you…"
"Alright," He found her shoulder and kissed it, as if staking a claim, "Goodnight, Kuina."
He drifted off to sleep, wondering why he remembered a report years ago about the Nine-Tailed Fox attacking the Leaf Village. His brain was unable to link the fact that Kushina had been an active jinchuriki when the disaster had struck, and the thought dissipated meaninglessly as his dreams waded in.
A few days passed after the couple's visit with the old fisherman, and Kuina had once again assumed her duties at the hospital. Rama the newly-minted jounin had an arm sprain and mild concussion that she was seeing to. They chatted amiably and eventually the subject of her engagement was brought up.
"Yeah I want to get married too," Rama agreed, "Though I want to do it when this war is over, you know? I just don't feel like I can settle down right now, even if I met the girl of my dreams."
"Rama, trust me, if you met the girl of your dreams you probably wouldn't hesitate." Kuina informed him, "Your priorities change when you really love someone, whether war is raging or not."
He considered it and then nodded, "Maybe. But you went and got Yuki Kamisori, probably the most solitary guy in this village, to fall for you…never would have guessed that one in a million years."
She smiled, "We had to work for it."
Rama cooperated when she fitted his arm with a cushioned sling. She was adjusting the loop when he asked, "So, is he like getting you a ring or something?"
"I don't know. Is that what men are supposed to do?"
"Yeah! Well it's the new trend at least, getting shiny baubles for their women." Rama speculated, "My best friend did it for his lady. She got him one too."
"Oh gosh, should I-?"
"Relax, it's just a fad, it doesn't mean anything unless you want it too. If you are marrying someone then you're married no matter what kind of exchange you make, right? As long as its heartfelt."
"Huh, you're a thoughtful young man, Rama."
"Thanks." He stood from the patient-table and checked his shoulder, "Yup, this is good and snug."
"Oh no, do you think Kamisori got me a ring?" Kuina was concerned, "Would he even think of something like that? I was going to be more traditional and look for family heirlooms and stuff."
"Who cares! But you know what? He probably did. He's rich and hip to the latest crazes. Just you wait." Rama looked at her before he went to the door, "Did you even care if you got one before I mentioned it?"
She shook her head laughing, "No, I don't care; I just want to be even with him. I wouldn't want to receive without being able to give."
"Kuina-san, all you do around here is give to people. It's about time someone gave back."
Today Zabuza had once again donned Black-Ops armor for a hunting mission. Kyonjin fancied catching the Leaf ninja spies rumored to have settled about 10 kilometers outside of Mist. It was bound to be a fun time.
The major drawback to this mission was that he had not been assigned as captain. At first he had been peeved that Raiga had been put on the squad as well, but Zabuza was further disappointed when one of the Mizukage's war-pets, Ao, was appointed leader. Ao was a sensor-type ninja of acute skill and an acclaimed hunter; he was also a prideful jackass about Zabuza's age.
'Kyonjin wants me to enjoy staring at the back of this asshole's head for the next few days.'
Knowing that this undertaking would be a handful, Zabuza had provided Haku with a week's worth of food and plenty of reading. He hoped to return in less than two days, but he was certain the boy was capable of avoiding detection while he was gone.
With any luck Kyonjin would not decide to audit him while he was away and check the apartment. On occasion Zabuza did have these fears, but he had no other place to keep Haku at the moment. It was a chance he would have to take, and hope that Haku would not be discovered.
On the team of four, Munsu, a middle-aged, no-nonsense hunter flanked Raiga on the left. Zabuza was ahead of them, just a hair behind Ao to his right. They flew on a southwestern path behind their swirl-marking masks, oriented towards a port town, but planned a sweep of the forest on its borders. Ao had already locked onto several unknown chakra signatures in the woodland they were approaching, his hunch suggesting that is was the targeted group.
Zabuza was confident in Ao's sensory abilities, but chose to be cautious of the man's leadership. If an appropriate time for improvisation arose Zabuza would happily take it. Before moving into the targeted range, Ao had his team halt in the treetops to go over strategies.
"I am absolutely certain these are the Leaf ninja." He informed them, "In addition to that there are four of them, most likely of jounin level. They could possibly be a match for us depending on who is among them, but a swift ambush will give us the advantage."
Ao turned expectantly to Zabuza, "You are the most talented with silent-assassination, Zabuza. This task was made for you. Move in with fog cover but do it quickly, there's a chance they may have a shinobi who can detect you. I will cover you." He then addressed Munsu and Raiga, "Raiga, you deal follow-up damage after Zabuza, and Munsu, interrupt any counterattack they try to make."
They nodded in understanding.
Ao smiled as he gazed out into the wintery forest, "Coming here will be their final mistake."
As directed, Zabuza promptly moved in for the kill when a blanket of mist had formed. Confused, the group of four Leaf nin wandered briefly in the fog before realizing the danger, but by that point Zabuza was standing between them with the Seversword raised.
There was a shout of fright and then something unprecedented, for Zabuza at least, occurred.
A mighty wall of chakra spun with immense force, knocking Zabuza, his blade, and the other Leaf ninja back and away; dispersing some of the mist in the process. A jounin with long, dark hair and completely white eyes was staring Zabuza down while in an offensive stance. He called to his comrades, "There are more of them coming!"
As per his instructions, Raiga descended with incredible speed, bringing with him a volley of lightning strikes. He successfully struck two of the Leaf ninja, and as Munsu moved in to prevent any counterattacks, it seemed to be a guaranteed victory.
It seemed to be.
Munsu flew back from the powerful taijutsu assault, hurtling past Raiga who closed in on the fleet-footed young jounin. They danced around each other briefly before Raiga lashed out with another technique, "You're dead! Lightning ball!" His blades generated a screeching orb that would have blown his opponent away, but the white-eyed shinobi dove in and deflected the attack with another rotation.
The young jounin was grinning, "Thank you, Himori, my youthful comrade!"
"Gai, this is not the time!"
Furious, Raiga redirected his lightning-style attacks on Himori. Munsu recovered just as soon as the other two Leaf ninja did, and Ao appeared in the snowy clearing to assist him.
This left Zabuza face to face with Gai: the man with a bowl-cut.
'What the fuck am I looking at?'
Zabuza had the good sense to create several water clones as a distraction to assess his enemy's techniques. The man was a grinning whirlwind of kicks and punches that wrecked his surroundings. He had never seen anything so asinine in all of his life, and it made his already hair-trigger temper tip over the edge. 'Hack off his limbs first…slow him down enough to separate the head from the body…and silence that mouth!'
A few swings of his massive Seversword had the young Leaf ninja reevaluating his choice of an opponent. He maneuvered Gai away from the clearing and towards a footbridge over a stream. Zabuza built up momentum and then hurled the blade, forcing Gai to dodge it, and he followed immediately with a powerful jutsu, "Water Dragon Blast!"
The creek was entirely consumed and fired a jet in a bestial shape, blowing Gai away. Zabuza wasted no time in retrieving his sword from the trunk of a tree and diving into Ao and Munsu's action. Ao had pinned a struggling Leaf ninja who was down to his final kunai, and Zabuza took liberties.
He rounded on Ao's catch and raised his colossal blade, focusing his chakra for a technique that was very rarely used. Zabuza's slash appeared superficial as it had barely sliced open his enemy's skin, but as he pulled back on the sword, blood spurted forth in an unnatural torrent.
Ao made a sound of disapproval as his prey instantly collapsed from the dramatic blood loss, and it joined with the Seversword as a new iron-coating. The blade's passive ability was a means of repairing itself and draining foes. It worked best when the sword was actually damaged.
The Leaf nin's comrade made a start to retrieve his fallen friend, but Zabuza loomed over the injured man, "One more step and his head's coming off."
Ao backtracked to Raiga, who was still harassing Himori. Deciding it was an appropriate time to lay more pressure on the team, Zabuza followed him, leaving the last Leaf ninja to collect his mortally wounded teammate.
Zabuza and Munsu circled around Gai, who had become considerably troublesome after opening three chakra gates, 'How could a fool like this have such a skill?'
They clashed furiously as Gai wielded nunchaku to defend himself from sword-swipes. The two were unnecessarily pummeled and substituted nearly a hundred times before they heard Ao's command to retreat. The captain had an unconscious Raiga hauled over his shoulder. They reacted immediately, knowing the quickest route to put distance between themselves and the Leaf team.
After retreating for several kilometers back into what was deemed "safe" territory for Mist sympathizers, Ao called for them to stop. He looked very, very smug.
"Did any of that accomplish the Mizukage's wishes?" Zabuza growled, "They were a little too prepared to deal with an attack."
"Oh we accomplished his wishes, my friend." Ao was grinning as he pulled Raiga from his shoulder, and undid the combination transformation to reveal one of the Leaf shinobi.
As if on cue, Raiga leapt down from a tree branch to join them, lauding the captain's clever idea. Earlier he had made himself scarce after Himori had let his guard down and been knocked out, and Ao made it look as if the casualty had been that of Mist's squadron.
The group stood over the unconscious man on the ground, curious as to why Ao was so pleased with the capture.
"Aside from this one being able to supply us with intel about his team," Ao explained, "This here is a Hyuga! Now look…" He lifted the man's headband to reveal a smooth and clear forehead, "This indicates he is not a member of the cadet branch, which if I have heard correctly…means his Byakugan belongs to us now."
"Very well done!" The Mizukage was thrilled with the results of the mission, "Now this is a rare find, isn't it? Nearly every captured member of the Hyuga clan has been from the Branch Family…rendering their blood limit untouchable to outsiders."
Zabuza stood beside Ao who had propped up the drugged and unconscious Hyuga in an office chair. Ao had been sure to put their captive under after binding his hands and dragging him back to Mist. Raiga and Munsu stood off to the side, their expressions indifferent to the victory. Raiga had earlier complained that only one Leaf ninja had been killed, and that it would have been more satisfying to leave only one alive for questioning. Ao pointed out it was not worth the risk of injury if they could take just one hostage and leave the rest behind. Konohagakure was more likely to negotiate than to attack in retaliation, unless of course, a whole team was wiped out.
"Zabuza, I am pleased that you made such short work of your opponents, it comes as no surprise!" For once Kyonjin was genuinely delighted to have Zabuza as an underling, "And Raiga! You assisted in a very valuable capture! You two can expect a little extra compensation this week…"
"Thank you, Mizukage-sama."
Zabuza chose not to reply.
After a curt knock on the door Hayago entered. He stopped beside Zabuza and silently regarded him from the corner of his eye as the Mizukage concluded the debriefing.
"Are you here to perform the interrogation?" Zabuza asked the veteran under his breath.
"No," Hayago answered, "I came here to make sure something gets done. This is a delicate situation."
"What is it? The Hyuga?"
"I knew this was going to happen."
Zabuza's eyes narrowed, "How could you know?"
Kyonjin interrupted the quiet exchange, "Well done, all of you; you're dismissed. Take your leave now. I will be having a few of my intelligence specialists coming in shortly for a…talk with our guest."
"Would you mind terribly if I stayed to make a request, Mizukage-sama?" Ao inquired.
"Not if you're quick about it," Kyonjin said, and then looked expectantly to Hayago, "Any news?"
"Yes. We must speak."
The Mizukage nodded and then repeated, "You're dismissed."
Munsu exited first and was followed closely by Raiga. Zabuza stole one final parting glance over his shoulder at Hayago, who for some reason seemed to be aware of the high-profile capture before the news had become common knowledge. Even more curious was the Mizukage's interest in what Hayago had to say. Zabuza left the office, choosing not to dismiss the odd feeling he had about the old jounin.
It was a relief to find Haku well read, fed and watered back at the apartment. The boy sprang up and animatedly greeted Zabuza. He had not been gone for very long, but Haku had been looking forward to his return.
It was time to unwind. He set Kubikiri Boucho on a display in order to oil and sharpen it later, and then unclipped his Black-Ops vest and pulled it off.
"Why are you dressed like that, Zabuza-san?"
"I was on a high-level mission that required this armor."
"You don't need to wear it all the time?"
"I'd prefer not to. It's conspicuous."
"Did you eat enough? Took those vitamins?"
"Yes, I did."
"Good. Sit tight, I need a shower."
And Haku happily skipped back to the couch to where the Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi was dwindling down to its last pages. Zabuza was gone for a while and Haku listened to the sound of water running while he read. It was an exciting feeling every time Zabuza returned from a mission. Now that he had been reading more of what shinobi did, Haku was dying to ask Zabuza what his missions were like. 'Maybe he'll tell me!'
Zabuza entered the room again in civilian clothes, carrying a work box with items clanking around inside of it. He sat down in a chair beside the display and began to retrieve things from the toolbox. Haku sidled up to him, smiling, and then asked, "So what was your mission like?"
"Hm…you've been wondering about that, have you?"
"Yes! I want to know."
Zabuza gestured to the huge sword he was starting to work turpentine into, "Take a guess, kid."
"Did you have to defeat someone bad?"
"Not bad, more like inconvenient. Leaf shinobi had been spying on the Mist Village."
"And you fought them?" Haku pressed further.
Zabuza paused in his care for the Seversword and smiled slightly at Haku, "If you want to know, you'll have to work for it. Things have been coming to you too easily as of late. You probably would not like what you'd hear anyway."
"Oh, what can I do?"
The man stood and took a bowl from the drying rack beside the sink. He filled it with water and then set it on the table. "You can start by practicing with your Kekkei Genkai. Show me some progress and I'll tell you all about the mission."
Haku frowned, taken aback by the request. So far he had been unable to associate his bloodline ability with anything positive. He had made no attempt to use his power recently, but if Zabuza asked it of him then he would do it.
Zabuza went back to work on the sword and Haku crossed over to the table slowly, contemplating his next action. He understood what he had to do. He had read about using chakra and he had a basic knowledge of how to apply it to his power, but it was the feeling that came with it that made him hesitate. The guilt and anger he had felt on the day of his parents' deaths was still anchored in his heart.
And yet, what business did he have being hung up on the matter? People died every day, he knew, and he understood from the start that Zabuza had adopted him only because of his power. If he chose not to develop it, he risked being abandoned. He had to learn to wield his Kekkei Genkai, but he didn't have to use it for the wrong reasons.
'I can become a brave and good ninja like Naruto…and protect what's important to me!'
With a resolute attitude, Haku raised his hand over the bowl and made the water tremble. It came so easily to him, he noted. It was barely an expenditure of effort, unlike what the books claimed. Injecting just a hint of chakra allowed him to pull the water from the bowl, dip it back in, freeze it, unfreeze it, and then finally he launched it into the air, letting it hover playfully over Zabuza's head.
"Huh, and what do you plan to do with that?" The man asked.
Haku let it drop.
A bowlful of water soaked Zabuza's head and shoulders and he grunted in response. He ought not to get angry because 1) it would attract attention and 2) he had asked Haku to practice. Before he could give a mild reprimand, Haku had manipulated the water off of him, dried him and condensed it into a sphere. He walked it back over to the table and willed it into the bowl in silence. The man was surprised, 'He's better at that than I thought he'd be…'
Haku crossed back to his guardian and sat cross-legged on the floor.
"Not bad." Zabuza told him, not acknowledging the fact Haku had splashed him without consequence.
"You think so? Thank you. Will you tell me now?"
"I said I would." Zabuza said as pulled a whetstone from the box, "Yesterday I left on a squadron of four to go hunting for a team of Leaf ninja. We were ordered by the Mizukage to capture at least one of the Leaf team for questioning. Our captain was a sensor-type shinobi and so he quickly located our targets. I lead the ambush."
"What is a sensor-type?"
"It just refers to a ninja who is able to acutely feel the presence of or identify the chakra of other people. They are good at finding other shinobi and so they are valuable on teams."
"I'm not a sensor-type." Haku gathered.
"You're not, but who cares? Neither am I."
"Anyway, the ambush was a combination between the Mist Hiding Jutsu and Silent-Assassination Jutsu. Nine times out of ten that will finish off anyone who is not prepared to counter it, however the Leaf ninja had a shinobi on their team who had a Kekkei Genkai that could see in tough conditions."
"He saw you?"
"With a powerful doujutsu called the Byakugan."
"Ninja in the Leaf Village also have Kekkei Genkai?"
"Pft, yeah. That village has tons of unified clans with crazy abilities. They are a force to be reckoned with. For future reference, study the abilities of Konohagakure's ninja well and be prepared for difficult battles."
"I used this in combat," Zabuza continued, tapping on the Seversword, "Let me tell you what I did with it…"
Zabuza completed caring for Kubikiri Boucho well before he finished his tale. Haku even followed him to the sink when he washed his hands, to the bedroom to put away the toolbox, and then back to the kitchen when he began selecting foods to turn into the evening meal. He gave more detail and perspective than any of the books did: those volumes touted the ideal while Zabuza dealt in reality.
"What will happen to the prisoner?" Haku asked after hearing the conclusion.
"Can't say for sure…he may be released to his village for a price, he may be kept in captivity in Mist or executed when he is no longer useful." Zabuza shrugged, "That is the Mizukage's decision."
"That doesn't seem fair."
Zabuza shook his head as he set a pot on the stove, "There is nothing fair about being a shinobi. You should be aware of the risks you are taking when you accept a mission. I don't ask anyone for a guarantee that I won't be killed or become a prisoner of war when I walk out the door." He drizzled oil into the bottom of the pot and then lit the burner, "Haku, the fate of that man is probably not going to be a good one, you and I both know that…and that is just one of the reasons why the Fourth Mizukage needs to be eliminated."
"Is he really so horrible?" Haku asked, hopping up on the counter and sitting on the far side of the sink, "He is a village leader and he has to protect his people."
"Let me put it to you this way," Zabuza said as he added stewing meet to the heated oil, "If it weren't for him, many people with Kekkei Genkai would still be alive. He exacerbated the hysteria and hatred of people with blood limits…and it resulted in the deaths of many people in his own village. Just because he's the leader doesn't mean he's done anything positive."
The boy sat quietly on the countertop, staring blankly ahead. The news hit him hard, redirecting his anger and frustration at a man he did not even know, but like Zabuza, hoped he could stop one day. His hands fisted in his lap and his thoughts roamed.
Zabuza went back and forth between a cabinet and the refrigerator collecting ingredients for the stew. He let Haku dwell on the thought, hoping the realization would align the boy more with his own principles.
Haku broke the silence, "If he wasn't the Mizukage anymore…would the fighting stop?"
"It probably would. I can't promise that, but if a more open-minded leader took power, that leader would most likely work to end the conflict."
Although neither of them said it, they both thought it: 'What if Zabuza became the Mizukage?'
Once the meat was ready Zabuza added vegetables, spice and flavored stock. Nearly any meal that revolved around meat he could cook rather well. It was his default meal and with time Haku's diet would adjust, 'He needs the protein and he's almost finished taking those vitamins.'
"I will train hard and do whatever I can to help you defeat the Mizukage." Haku told him, "I promise."
"I know you will." He nodded, putting tea on to boil, "And I promise to teach you everything I know, just don't make the mistake of disobeying me. In times like these, it could cost you your life."
"Hey, while you're over there, grab those bowls and go set the table." He added flour to the pot in increments.
"Oh!" Haku glanced to his left and saw ceramic bowls on the drying rack. He quickly reached out and took them and hopped from his perch.
"Take it easy, we won't be eating for another hour or two."
"Oh right! Sorry." Haku acknowledged, and relaxed as he went about his task.
Zabuza watched the boy from the corner of his eye. It was unusual for him, but he could not deny a growing fondness for the child. He enjoyed Haku's intelligence and hardworking attitude, knowing they were traits that would serve him well as he trained as a shinobi. It was also obvious he possessed a strong and natural command over the Hyoton. While it all seemed to be going his way, time was beginning to run out.
'I've got to get him out of here soon. Every day that passes is another day a Black-Ops snitch could stop in here to check things out. If we don't find a new place within three weeks I'd wager we'd be pushing it…'
Haku walked around the table, setting glasses and spoons down.
'When he's out in the fresh air, out in the wild…then he'll show his stuff. Haku's power will be more fine-tuned than Kamisori's…than that of the Yuki leader, even. I'll watch him soar.' He looked back to the boy and folded his arms, 'There's no way Kyonjin will survive the two of us.'
Night descended and between the two companions they finished off an entire pot of beef stew. An ordeal followed when they had nearly lost the will to wash dishes they were so stuffed, and it was a struggle just to turn the tap on. They collapsed on the couch afterward, and Haku managed a few more pages of "The Gutsy Shinobi" before his eyelids began to droop and his head was lolling.
Zabuza took the novel from his hands and set it atop the stack of books the boy had accumulated. He put them on a lamp-side table and draped a blanket over Haku, maneuvering his head onto a pillow just before he fell asleep. He turned the lamp off and drowned the room in darkness.
Twenty paces across the pitch-black floor Zabuza arrived at the door to his bedroom. Without any further ceremony he walked until his knees touched the edge of his mattress and he fell face-first onto it. Zabuza squashed a pillow between his shoulder and face and quickly found sleep.
His dreams were strange and troubled. For a time he dreamt he was walking through Mist but he was Haku's height and he was tragically unarmed. Though he was shorter than in reality, people treated him with the same suspicion they typically did. He felt himself reliving past battles; felt the twitch and reaction of every muscle as he swung the Seversword and used ninjutsu, abilities which disappeared as his dream continued. A white bird swooped angrily at his head and then took off. He walked past the captured Hyuga on the street, nearly feeling sympathetic for the man, and then finally came face-to-face with Hayago.
The dark jounin's fearsome orange eyes pierced him, and Zabuza instantly felt powerless. Hayago informed Zabuza that he knew many things, and that he knew he was raising Haku in secret. After a moment Zabuza realized he was short and defenseless because he had visualized himself as Haku. He was Haku. He desperately tried to use any jutsu to escape. It became cold. Then he woke with a start.
It was cold.
In fact, it was freezing in his apartment, and he rolled over groggily in his bed before feeling alarm. He detected a worrying amount of chakra in the room beside him, and his super-agility activated in response as he leapt into the darkness and located the boy.
Haku tossed and muttered unintelligible things while he slept on the couch. His nightmare had caused him to manifest his power in reality, which had Zabuza perplexed and convinced he would have to explain the wintery indoor-conditions to his neighbors. Waking Haku could potentially make it worse but he had no other choice. Very carefully, he kneeled down and gently shook the boy's shoulder, saying quietly, "Haku. You're dreaming."
The boy stirred and the rapidly dropping temperature in the room returned to normal. His eyes snapped open and he sat up with a sob, throwing his arms around the man's neck.
"It wasn't real?" The boy confirmed in terror, "I don't even know how to fight yet…'
"Calm down, it was a nightmare." Zabuza tried to pull back, but Haku's grip was cemented to him in fear, "You can let go."
Haku's brief crying transitioned into hyperventilating when he seemed to be stuck in a waking-dream, looking at things across the room that weren't there. Zabuza lightly tapped the boy's cheek, "Hey. Hey!" It seemed to bring him back, if only a little, "You can't go nuts in the middle of the night. Guards will be over here like stink on shit."
Haku had ensnared his neck and considering his hold did not waver even when he stood up, Zabuza scooped the child into his arms, aggravated, and returned to his bedroom, delivering gentle wake-up slaps to his face, "Hey!"
Haku shook his head and blinked sleepily. His anxiety upon waking instantly tired him out again. "I'm sorry…I wasn't trying to do anything."
"Don't have any more bad dreams."
"I can't help it."
"You've been reading too much."
"What else can I do…" The boy replied tiredly, "I'm sorry."
Zabuza sat down on the bed, deposited Haku in it, and threw the blanket over him, "Go to sleep and do not do that again. I swear if I have to explain anything to the night-watch I will have you up every night on caffeine if that's what it takes…"
Zabuza fell back, trying to quell his anger before it woke him up entirely, but luckily his full stomach was reacquainting him with sleep.
"Not one goddamn peep do you hear me? I will decapitate anyone who…who stops…here…"
Haku answered with a snore.
Then there was peace.