The mid-winter snow lay thick and plentiful on the cold forest floor. The leaves on the trees had long since dropped off of the thin, wiry branches and most, if not all of the animals had taken to staying inside their burrows, tree hollows and nests, whatever home that could provide them with much needed warmth. Even though it was well into the day, the forest lay virtually silent under the clouded sky. There were no birds out announcing their presence on the wiry winter trees, nor were there any squirrels scampering around on the ground. Promptly as if on cue, small and regular snowflakes steadily floated down to add to the growing pile of snow.
A young boy of eight ran and ploughed his way through the dense ice crystals, not bothered the least by how his ankles sank deep into the freezing mixture and slowed him down. He stopped once in a while and every few metres he would rustle around in the bushes, apparently looking for something but could never find it. At last he became tired and seemed to give up with a dejected expression on his rosy-cheeked face. He let out a long miserable sigh, and looked at his feet.
"Haku! Boy, where are you? I told you to hurry up minutes ago, why are you still so far behind? We don't have all day! We have to get to the village by nightfall, unless you want to stay out here in the cold be my guest! … Haku?"
Haku's head immediately jerked up and he hurriedly yelled out an apology, running once again to catch up to his master. "Oh I'm sorry! Master Zabuza, I'm so sorry! Please don't be mad!"
Haku arrived at Zabuza's feet panting and heaving on the snow but not for long. After allowing himself to gain his breath for a few seconds the boy jumped to his feet and commenced searching amongst the bushes once more, beating the shrub with his hands and kneeling down to inspect the bushes from underneath, earning a puzzled look from his master who stared on with a raised brow.
"… Haku what are you doing?"
"I'm… I'm looking for Cuddles." Was all he said, briefly looking up meet Zabuza's eyes before focusing on the bushes once again as if there was something fascinating about them.
The Demon of the Hidden Mist was at a loss. "Cuddles? What…?" Zabuza scratched his head.
"Cuddles, my snow rabbit. Master Zabuza you forgot!" The young Haku whined.
A moment of realization came over the missing-nin's face. "You mean that dopey, beady eyed rodent that you picked up from the side of the road last week?"
Haku frowned in disagreement as Zabuza continued.
"You should just forget about that dumb animal, rabbits are inferior animals. Don't you know that they're food for the much larger and stronger predators? What good would that do you in keeping it? I'm trying to turn you into a fearless and ruthless shinobi! Do you see me, the Demon of the Hidden Mist carting around bunnies while I travel? Huh? Well do you?"
"No sir…" Haku shook his head slowly. His bottom lip started to quiver and he pouted in defiance. "But Cuddles isn't an inferior animal… he's my friend."
"Friend? Who says you need friends? You've got me and that's all you need kid. Friends just end up slowing you down. Besides, I don't think that rabbit liked travelling with you."
"But, but Cuddles… he likes me. He licks my fingers when I carry him and he snuggles into my chest when it snows! Cuddles is warm, fluffy and… and nice. When I pat his fur, he gets all relaxed and he likes it when I scratch him behind the ears. I really like Cuddles and I took great care of him but just then I tripped over and Cuddles ran away from me. I want to find Cuddles again master Zabuza, please! He's the only friend that I've got and I don't want to lose him…" Haku's voice shook.
Clearly Haku was distressed in losing his Cuddles because he had now begun to cry. Little droplets of tears welled up in his childish eyes, his bottom lip trembled even more and his hands curled into small fists and rubbed at his eyes.
"Ma-master Za… Zabu-za, p-please hel…p me find Cu-Cuddles!" He said between sobs.
Zabuza didn't know what to do. It was the first time Haku had cried in front of him and they'd only been together for a few months. Obviously, deadly assassins from the Hidden Mist weren't trained in handling crying little boys and so Zabuza just stood there like an idiot watching Haku cry and couldn't help feeling a little guilty, as he was the one that had caused the fuss.
"There, there…" Zabuza made an attempt to comfort Haku, placing one awkward hand on his shoulder and gave it a little squeeze, though he then thought that he might have squeezed a little too hard when Haku wailed even louder.
Now, Zabuza wasn't completely stone cold. He did have a heart and deep down somewhere in its midst, there was a subtle tugging on his heartstrings. Zabuza felt an emotion that he hadn't felt in a long while… compassion. It made him want to do whatever it would take to cheer up his young companion. Maybe it was the fact that Haku was still a child, a child who was naïve and immature. Sure he was going to him into the ultimate weapon someday but not right now, Zabuza thought. At this moment, he needed to put a stop to Haku's tears.
"Look… Haku…" He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. "If that rabbit meant that much to you then… then I guess I'll help you look for it."
The sobs decreased somewhat and two watery eyes peered out cautiously from between two clamped fists. "R-really master Zabuza? You'd do that? You'll find Cuddles?" A small hopeful voice asked.
Zabuza agreed without a second thought. "Yes, I'll help you find Cuddles."
The way Haku's face lit up was more valuable to Zabuza than all the riches of the 5 nations put together. For a second he felt a pang of happiness and relief. How hard could it be anyway to find a stupid rabbit? He was already a trained expert on tracking so it should be a cinch. Even if he couldn't end up finding the original Cuddles, he figured it would be easy to catch another one to present to Haku.
Little did he know that the search would take 3 long, gruelling and humiliating hours.
"Master Zabuza, you're not doing it right! You have to call for Cuddles in a more gentle voice, you're scaring him away."
The missing-nin muttered something under his breath and growled. "Fine."
Haku watched expectantly as his master cleared his throat to continue calling and stifled a giggle when he heard his master's voice. The sound that came out of Zabuza was different and very much out of his character. In a high and broken pitched voice, Zabuza recited what Haku had taught him.
"Cuddles! Where's my favy-wavy snow bunny? I have some nice grass for you!" The pride and dignity of the 'Demon of the Hidden Mist' was all but gone, as he rustled around in the bushes with Haku while brandishing a handful of grass. It had taken them both at least an hour to dig up enough grass from underneath the hard-packed snow, as Haku had suggested that Cuddles would run towards them if he smelt food.
Zabuza wasn't so sure. He was beginning to think this whole search was stupid, pointless and time wasting. After being corrected by Haku once again for the 7th time regarding his tonality, he decided that he didn't want to take part in this wild goose chase for a rabbit that was probably miles away by now. Zabuza wanted to do it his own way. Catching a different rabbit for Haku was what it was going to take, any one would do, he didn't care!
Closing his eyes and focusing his chakra, he blocked out all of the outside noise and concentrated on picking up any slight flickering chakra signatures around him in the surrounding bush. It took a few seconds, but he soon came to notice a small chakra signature about 20 metres away to the east of where he and Haku were at the moment. Wasting no time, he honed in on the chakra signature and analysed it. It was in a small concentrated quantity and fragile enough to fit the description of a small animal. It could most certainly belong to that of a snow rabbit.
Without saying a word to Haku, Zabuza took off in the direction of the supposed rabbit he'd detected. Haku didn't even notice his master was gone; he was still too preoccupied with peering into the empty bushes. Zabuza's skilled tracking ability soon brought him to the roots of a Japanese maple tree. His eyes immediately sought out and found a little, vulnerable rabbit sniffing and nibbling at the bark on the tree, minding its own business. The rabbit was pure white from head to toe. Perfect. Zabuza sniggered and moved in for the catch. The swiftness and stealth at which Zabuza moved at was no match for the rabbit and it stood no chance. In the blink of an eye, it was caught and hoisted up by the ears.
"Now to get you back to Haku," Zabuza chuckled to himself before making his way back.
"Master Zabuza?" Haku looked inquisitively at what his master was concealing in his arms. "Is… Is that Cuddles? Did you find him Master Zabuza?"
"You bet I did boy. Here's your beady-eyed bunny alright." Zabuza held out the rabbit in his hand and passed it to Haku.
The young boy grabbed the rabbit and stroked it in his arms but then a frown made its way onto his face. "This… this isn't Cuddles! Master Zabuza, you caught the wrong rabbit!" Haku accused.
Zabuza's smile turned into a tight-lipped indication of annoyance and he argued back. "What do you mean boy? This is Cuddles! He's white and everything! I went through the trouble of looking for this darn animal when I could have been doing something else, just keep it Haku."
"But… but I don't want to, it's just not the same when it's a different rabbit. Cuddles is special and I want him back. I'm sure he wants to get back to me too!" Haku whinged.
Zabuza was starting to lose his patience. "Look Haku, it's hopeless! We've been searching for 3 hours already and there's been no sign of anything. I suggest it's about time we get going."
Haku was not one to argue with his master so in an act of submission he agreed with a nod of his low hung head. "I… guess you're right master Zabuza. Oh- Hey! Come back!"
The rabbit that had been struggling in Haku's arms for no longer than a minute had managed to nudge its way under his elbow and leap out of his arms to the cold forest floor. In despair, the boy and his master watched the small animal hop frantically back into the bushes in a flurry.
"It's gone…" Haku voiced softly. Being the curious boy that he was, Haku walked over to the section of bushes where the rabbit disappeared and let out a gasp of surprise at what he saw.
The bushes were at the foot of a large tree and there among the various tangled roots there lay a deep hole that was carefully dug into the snow; but that was not all, there hopping around the tree close to the burrow was not one rabbit, but at least half a dozen more. Haku squealed in delight, for he had found a burrow complete with an entire family of snow rabbits.
"Master Zabuza! Master Zabuza, come quick! Look how many rabbits there are here!" Haku's eyes were wide with excitement, never before had he seen this many rabbits in one place. All of them were perfectly white, their fur sleek, fine and fluffy. It had looked like the rabbits were out of their burrow investigating their surroundings and looking for food, the mother and father of the litter had taken their kits with them, keeping them in close proximity while the family were out of the protection of the burrow.
An expression of longing and desire took over Haku almost immediately; he wanted those rabbits, and he wanted them now.
As if propelled by some unknown force, Haku shot forward, arms reaching out and back bent forward, he chased the rabbits around and around the tree. In no time he managed to catch all 6 of the kits, plucking them from the ground one by one as they were unable to keep up with their parents. Cramming them into his arms, he proceeded to look for the mother and father, who were at a fair distance away eyeing Haku warily as he stood in front of the burrow, blocking the way in. Haku grinned and then lunged forward with such speed that the parents were soon caught too. Now the whole family was in Haku's tight embrace, and it didn't look very comfortable at all.
"Master Zabuza! Look!" The boy laughed, turning around to let his master see what he had managed to catch. The snow rabbits were all squished to Haku's chest, their paws poking out in awkward places, ears sticking out in all directions and noses twitching rapidly in displeasure.
"Haku! What have you-? Put them down at once! Are you listening to me?" Zabuza bellowed.
Haku didn't hear his master's command, nor was he paying any attention to him at all.
"I'm gonna name you Fluffy! Alfie! Flopsy! Mopsy! Percy! Pansy! And you two can be called Mr. and Mrs. Fluffles!"
Zabuza groaned and a vein on his forehead bulged and twitched.