The place where I have fallen
is the place where you forget.
The sky is overcast, and though Kabuto's strings are what urges him forward, he can still feel the knife edge of the wind, can see the dark birds scattering against the clouds. There, at the cliff's edge, Zabuza can make out the figure clothed in black, standing in stark relief against the chill gray air.
At first he doesn't recognize him: not the lean comma of his body, nor the hardness around his eyes.
"Haku," Zabuza says. "You've grown."
Around them, the wind shifts, cold and sharp and spinning dervishes in the fresh snow.
The meeting had stretched well into the night, and Ao watched, increasingly troubled and confused, as the enemy shinobi and his Mizukage sat knee-to-knee, exchanging stories in the middle of their hotel room.
"Who is that?" Chojuro asked. He spoke in frightful whispers, hiding behind Ao's back. "Senpai?"
"He is a dangerous missing nin, trained by one of the former Seven Swordsmen," Ao said. "You know him, Chojuro: that is Haku. Zabuza's boy."
Chojuro's eyes widened. "I thought he died," Chojuro said.
"Evidently not," Ao said. His eyes narrowed as he watched the Mizukage speaking quietly. Even without the Byakugan, Ao could tell the boy was still on his guard.
Boy. Ao's mouth thinned. That shinobi was no boy. Under the thin black shirt, Ao could make out the muscles of the boy's shoulders, hard and lean from years of training. The last time Ao had seen him, he was just a child, a mere wisp of the thing under Zabuza's arm. The boy was lovely, soft like a woman with warm brown eyes, someone completely unsuited for combat. And yet they had engaged, senbon sailing toward him with deadly speed.
But now? Now the boy stood, all hard angles and a low, steely voice, long hair matted from the day's travel. There was no softness in this boy's eyes. Not now. Not what Ao had remembered.
"Haku," Ao said, and the boy - the man - turned. "How old are you, now?"
"I will be twenty-one this spring," Haku said. The voice disturbed him, as did the likeness - he looked too much like Uchiha Sasuke for his own good. "Forgive me, Ao-san. But I had been tracking Uchiha Madara for close to two years now, and this was my first opportunity."
"But I don't understand," the Mizukage said. "Haku. We were told you died."
Haku smiled. Slowly, he unbuttoned the top of his hakama, revealing the ugly scar marring his chest. "Zabuza-san had healed me," Haku said. "His last act before dying. I was in a near death state, but the chakra he had infused was enough to get me through."
"I see," the Mizukage said. Haku's eyes dimmed.
"I had spent five years training to hone my skill," Haku said, quietly. "My battle with Uchiha Sasuke showed me my shortcomings. I had not yet mastered my bloodline, but Gatou's men still plagued me. It was easier for me, for everyone to believe that I had died."
"And yet you were found," the Mizukage said. "Haku. What will you do now?"
But to this, Ao found, Haku had no answer.
His skill with blade amazes him; Zabuza pulls back, awestruck as his former pupil wields his broadsword better than he ever has. Zabuza flips back, narrowly missing a hard strike as Haku leaps forward, hair loose and whipping in the wind.
He blocks, his katana threatening to snap under the weight of the kubikiribochou, a slow bead of sweat dripping down Zabuza's brow. "You've gotten good, Haku," Zabuza says, and they break with a harsh strike, Haku lurching back and Zabuza just barely regaining his footing. "I wouldn't have pegged you for a swordsmen."
"A lot has changed," Haku says, and chakra coils at Haku's feet until he springs, rocketing forward. Zabuza blocks and parries, all the while feeling the screws of Kabuto's control beginning to tighten, his strength of mind stretched perilously at its limit.
"You still use senbon?"
Strike. Slash. Block. The muscles of Zabuza's arm quake with the effort.
The thing about the Byakugan is, Ao mused, as he spooned himself a bowl of rice and watched his would-be trainee sitting on the edge of the tatami mat, is that one can see everything. And indeed, Ao could see everything, each small gesture and odd twitch of the lips, the subtle tightening of the youth's neck that let Ao know Haku simply didn't want to be here.
When Ao first implanted the Byakugan, he had no control over it. The veins in his temple throbbed even with the eye patch, bleeding chakra to almost suicidal levels. It was only through sheer force of will that Ao learned to shunt away chakra from his eyes; he was almost as proficient as native Hyuuga in controlling it.
Almost, except he could never really turn his Byakugan off.
Even now, as the youth ate in silence, Ao could almost see his memories swirling in around him. There is a Hyuuga technique, the resurrection of silence, which could recapitulate memories as if conjuring them from the air.
"Tell me about what happened," Ao said, and as Haku began to speak, he could almost see Haku's memories being laid out in front of him, like a film in a dark room playing in the theater of his mind.
"I was born at the edge of a snowy village. This much you already know.
We were in the midst of the bloodline purges; my family was shattered and I was alone. Zabuza-san had saved me. Found me and raised me to be the man that I am. But I know, too, that you are not interested in this; already you have conjured sordid images of our time together. I will not give credence to those rumors. I will say however that I loved him, and that I still love him. You may think me foolish, but it is so.
It snowed the day that Zabuza-san died. I remember I was lying on the concrete, wisps of it falling on my face. I turned with difficulty; the joints in my arms ached and my chest felt weighted as if by boulders. It was only later that I would come to understand the enormousness of my wound, and how much chakra had bled out around me. But most importantly and most pressingly, the thing I could feel most was my master's hand.
He died, Ao-san. He had died cradling my face. And somehow, in those last minutes, whatever remnants of his soul had passed and bled into mine. I don't think he meant it - it was a touch. The smallest thing. But in doing so I think his chakra had fused into my own; it gave me breath, and pushed me back into being.
I had never buried a body before.
The bodies of our enemies, if they were worthy enough, Zabuza-san would bury them. He had a superstition - the dead should not be left to rot. Those that he killed because of contracts, or because of money, because we were paid, he'd take the heads of the ones who died to show them.
That blade of his, the great decapitating knife, I would watch how easily it would slice through the tendons of their neck, how easily it would crunch through vertebrae like they were fish bones at a meal. But there was no disrespect.
And afterward, when the day died down and the sun was fading with the evening night, he would wrap the bodies in canvas and bury them where they lay. 'They'll stink,' he told me once, but even then I knew the truth.
It was out of respect, Ao-san. For the dying and the dead.
I buried Zabuza-san that night. Wrapped his body in canvas and hefted him into the grave. He was heavier than I thought, and cold, and his skin was gray as the blood pooled to the ends of his extremities. Gravity, I think. But I will not lie: it was disconcerting.
It hadn't really hit me then. Not until the clumps of dirt fell onto him that I really felt it. He had touched me and given me life. And in the dark I was helping him home."
He moves with impossible speed, one strike, then another, the perfect arc of Haku's blade crashing down on Zabuza like a torrential rain.
Zabuza takes a step back, then another, blocking the assault even as Kabuto's control tightens around him. His legs move as if sucked in by quicksand, and Zabuza feels his mind begin to slip.
"Damn!" Ao said.
They were training in the garden, Haku and Chojuro clashing, sword to sword. Ao watched, awestruck, as Haku fought. There wasn't a single wasted movement; his body was a muscled ribbon, springing up from the earth and landing with one deadly strike. Chojuro staggered back, once, twice, the weight of his sword buckling under Haku's strength. Ao frowned, then clapped his hands.
"Enough," Ao said. Chojuro mopped the sweat from his brow and Haku merely nodded, squinting his eyes. It was strange: the youth moved with the same feline grace as a woman would, but he was made from something stronger than that; something harder Ao mused. Tougher. The Mizukage was not only strong, but she looked strong as well, squared shoulders and regal jaw. The boy on the other hand looked like he could snap in two.
Ao watched as the boy bent over his tools, taking each sharpened senbon and quietly placing them back into his pack. There were rumors, of course: a missing nin of Zabuza's reputation made for many unsavory suggestions. The con man and the child, whose slender body seemed to fit so perfectly by Zabuza's side...
The last memory Ao had of them, after he had been pummeled and nearly beaten to death by Zabuza's hand, was how the man had placed a hand against the small of Haku's back, and as Ao's vision began to blur, it looked almost tender the way he was touching him there. Tender and obscene, Ao remembered thinking, before he lost too much blood and promptly passed out.
"What are you thinking, Ao-san?"
Ao looked up. Haku was watching him quietly, long hair loose from his top-knot and falling in soft strands. Ao bristled, then straightened, frowning. Haku cocked his head.
"Nothing," Ao said, and he picked up his pack without so much as a word. Behind his eyepatch, his Byakugan throbbed.
Ridiculous. Why should he be fixated on the baseless rumors of a man who died five years ago, it was absolutely groundless.
"Haku," Ao said, and Haku turned. "Have you had yourself a woman?"
"A woman," Ao said. Beside him, Chojuro sputtered and blushed but Haku merely frowned. "Surely your master-"
But he stopped; he stopped himself, seeing Haku's face and the look in Haku's eyes.
"I see," Ao said. Haku watched him for one long moment before turning away again, wordlessly packing his things. "What will you do when you catch him?" Ao asked. Haku glanced up again, the light catching his face. "Uchiha Madara. What will you do after you get your revenge?"
"I do not know," Haku said. He rolled up his tools in the leather skein and stood, wiping his hands on his side.
That night, Ao watched as Haku sharpened his sword; the great decapitating knife, which once belonged to Zabuza, the great blade glinting in the watery moonlight. Ao watched as Haku carefully oiled the handle and wrapped it with sandalwood, the long straps of cloth winding in his hands. He watched as Haku touched the metal blade with the tips of his fingers, and how gently he seemed to look at it. There was something in his eyes. Even without his Byakugan, Ao could see it: something infinitely sad.
"Will you tell him?" Mei said. She poured over the maps spread out on the table, the orange glow from the candle flickering with her movements. "Ao?"
"Mizukage-sama. I regret to say I have not."
"I see." Mei frowned and pushed back a lock of hair. "And what will you do, Ao, when that boy sees his beloved master among the army of corpses Madara controls?"
"Beloved nothing," Ao said. "Mizukage-sama. I was wrong to have accused Zabuza of treason; he attacked who I thought was our Yondaime. If he were alive now I would welcome him with open arms."
"But?" Mei said.
"But," Ao said. "You cannot tell me the relationship he had with that boy was not an inappropriate one. It is a perversion, Mizukage-sama. That boy was only a child."
"You have no proof of this," Mei said.
"My eyes do not lie," Ao said. "And if I may be so blunt, placing the boy at the center of our attack compromises the rest of the unit."
"That boy has a bloodline limit, one that can be augmented with my own," Mei said. "Whatever personal misgivings you may have, you know having him is a tactical advantage. I do not care about his past; what I care about is how best he can serve our village, and how he can serve me. I am his kage," Mei said, and she rose, standing to her full height. "It is all the more reason we tell him," Mei said. "Hakuwillbattle Momochi Zabuza; he will have to, if he wishes to defeat Madara."
"But can he?" Ao said. He walked toward the window, crossing his arms and looking out into the dark. "Are we right to stake our hopes on a single child?"
"He is not a child," Mei said softly. Ao sighed, then closed his eyes.
That night, Ao had a dream.
He was walking down a shadowed corridor, dark, high walls looming over him. Stripes of shadows fell on him as he walked forward, the lights from the passing rooms making fractured rectangles on the floor.
There was a door that was half opened, and as Ao stepped forward he could just make out the shapes of the two of them, Zabuza and Haku, twin phantoms from his old memories and the whirling maelstrom of his Byakugan filling in the blanks. Zabuza's fingers finding the curve of Haku neck. The youth bowed, and Ao watched as Haku closed his eyes, body trembling slightly as the snow around them began to rise.
Ao woke, blinking up at the darkness and moving a hand to his face. His eyepatch, which he usually kept on even when sleeping, had somehow fallen off and was crumbled at the edge of the bed. The veins to his Byakugan pulsed with the rhythm of his chakra, and Ao was struck with the uncomfortable realization that it wasn't his dream he was seeing.
In the room beside him, Chojuro was snoring softly and Haku was curled up on the pallet cheek pillowed by the dull edge of Zabuza's blade. Ao frowned and held the door open just a moment, before turning and closing the door.
Gusts of snowbursts whirl, cutting through trees and skin like fractured glass. Zabuza staggers heavily on one knee, then another, each sliver of ice cutting into the dead flesh of his skin.
He does not bleed. Not with the Makyou Hyoshou, which rises and thrusts from the mouth of the earth; nor with the strike of Haku's sword, which lands swift and sure at the center of Zabuza's gut.
But it isn't Zabuza who's fighting now; Zabuza, the most skilled of the seven swordsman, would be the first to dodge the blow. But somewhere in the darkest edges of his mind, he knows that Haku watches, stomach-sick and ice prickling his eyes, as the man who was his master staggers, then finally falls.
From behind the fray, Ao lurches forward. He sees the look in Haku's eyes.
"Haku!" Ao says. He throws out his arm. "Wait!"
But the blade glints, and has his answer.
He had killed himself. Ao stared, struck dumb and speechless as the coterie of chuunin gathered Haku's body, hefting him into the cart and tossing him onto the pile of bodies. The one that was Zabuza had fallen and cracked, the animated corpse falling to dust.
The sun rose, and as it did motes of sunlight flickered across the landscape, casting cold gray shadows among the trees. Ao frowned and adjusted the straps to his eyepatch, the veins of his Byakugan receding. Across from them, the white fields trembled as the army of corpses moved forward, and Ao knew there was nothing left to comfort him now, not the rolling gray mists nor their inevitable reunion, just the coldness of snow and the flush of a terrible dawn.
"I will have to fight him?" Haku had asked. "Zabuza-san?"
His voice was hushed. Ao tightened his jaw.
"That corpse is not your master," Ao said. He stepped forward, then touched Haku on the arm.
"My Byakugan can see through everything," Ao said. "Believe me, Haku. What you're seeing there is just a thing. Not a man," Ao said, but Haku shook his head.
"You are wrong," Haku said. "Ao-san, forgive me. But you are wrong."
We have not touched the stars,
nor are we forgiven, which brings us back
to the hero's shoulders and a gentleness that comes,
not from the absence of violence, but despite
the abundance of it.