A blizzard was raging, but Zabuza's heart was starting to melt. Done for the One Blanket challenge on LJ.
Notes: This was written for the One Blanket challenge community on Livejournal. There are slight spoilers for the Land of Waves story arc. It's really interesting to write from Zabuza's point of view.
The young boy followed obediently, like a puppy put out in the cold, and it was both irritating and flattering for Zabuza. The boy was quite hopeless: meek and altogether too gentle for what Zabuza had planned for him, yet the older man thought that with some discipline and rigorous training the boy could become the disciple he needed. He was starting to feel slow, and he didn't want to take any chances; already the boy showed incredible reflexive ability and intuition. He frowned, remembering the startling words the boy had said when Zabuza found him. He willed the memory out of his mind. It would do no good to dwell on such matters.
He heard the boy stumbling along behind him in the snow that had fallen a few hours before. He was wearing one of Zabuza's cast-off coats which was ridiculously too large for him and an oversized gray knit hat which covered his ragged bangs. His steps were awkward and stumbling. It would take a lot of work to change the boy's clumsiness, Zabuza thought. He stopped to adjust his pack and felt a gentle tug against his coat. He looked down at the boy, who was peering up at him with large, inquisitive brown eyes.
"Sir," he began timidly, "I think it's going to snow." Zabuza frowned slightly, but not at the boy. He shut his eyes, and felt the flow of chakra in the environment shift. There were great amounts of chakra energy in the upper atmosphere, which meant that a storm could be on its way. And that would be a disadvantage with the boy in his current state of weakness.
"We'll find shelter," he said as he opened his eyes. The boy was still watching him; his gaze was somewhat disconcerting. "Let's go."
The path they were following was one which Zabuza had traveled many times, and though he could not see it through the snow he instinctively felt a change whenever he stepped off course. Around them was a barren snow-covered land, dimmed to gray by the approaching twilight. A few dead bushes stuck up like dark corpses in the twilight. It would not be well for them if they were stuck in a storm in such open land. Zabuza remembered a town which lay about ten miles to the southwest. If they quickened their pace and didn't stop for rations, they could probably reach the town in three hours, accounting for the boy's slowness. He glanced at the tiny body of the boy walking behind him. It would be much faster if he carried the boy, but he wanted the child to learn endurance and gain strength from an early age, if he was to be a successful shinobi.
The rag-tag boy had his head back and his eyes half-closed, his little pink tongue poking out between cracked lips. Zabuza blinked as something cold and wet landed on his eyelash. A snowflake. The boy was trying to catch them on his tongue.
"They're cold," the boy said, giggling. He leaned back, trying to catch another one, and fell on his behind in the snow. Zabuza yanked him back out by the arm. "Don't be foolish," he said harshly. "If you slow me down I'll leave without you." The boy nodded, hiccupped, and walked solemnly behind him again.
What started as tiny flakes of snow broadened to a centimeter or more in length, and they were clustered together, obscuring Zabuza's vision. His senses were developed enough that he could detect obstacles even in zero visibility, but in the flat landscape there were no landmarks to go by. The sky was darkening quickly; it was brushed with shades of indigo and violet. The temperature would drop below zero degrees at night, and Zabuza knew the boy couldn't survive it unless they reached a shelter.
He quickened his pace, hearing the boy shuffle along noisily. The snow stung the parts of his face that were not covered by a thick wool muffler, and the horizon disappeared in a haze of white. He could make his way fine--snow was really no different than mist--but he didn't want to lose the boy. There was a gasp behind him and the thud of impact, and he sensed that the child was no longer moving. He turned around and reached out towards the boy's chakra, and touched cold fingers. He grabbed the boy's wrist and pulled him out of the snow pile.
"I fell," the boy sobbed, spitting snow out of his mouth. We can't keep going like this, Zabuza thought, as the boy shivered next to him. Without a word he picked the boy up and tucked him over his shoulder, and the boy clung to his neck like an infant. It was an annoying show of vulnerability and weakness, and he hoped the boy would grow out of it.
Now that he didn't have to worry about the boy falling behind, Zabuza ran easily on the snowy ground. The boy was a barely noticeable weight in his arms, his coat dangling like a sash around Zabuza's waist. The cold was starting to become irritating, and the child was shivering.
He kept moving for some time, only aware of the minutes by the drop in temperature; the sky was obscured in the snowfall. Suddenly he sensed a large object only a few meters ahead. He made for it, aware that it might be a shelter. The shape gradually came into view, and he realized it was a cabin of sorts. It was strange to find one in the middle of nowhere, but he felt for the door anyway and found a handle. It was frozen shut. With a strong kick the door flew inward, showering Zabuza with ice. He couldn't sense any signs of life within, so he entered. He set the boy down (who collapsed with a shudder on the wooden floor). The door might have frozen shut again in the night, so he took off his muffler and slipped it between the door and the wall. The door still shut, but now there would be space to break out if it froze again.
Zabuza now turned his attention to the room. It was really nothing more than a wooden shack, possibly used as a rest point for travelers or shinobi. There was a single uncovered light bulb attached to the ceiling, and it shed a small amount of light. Zabuza thought it was probably kept lit by a domestic jutsu, an easy technique which ordinary citizens with some chakra ability could use in the household. The walls were bare and warped with age, and there was a dark patch in the corner which looked like a burn mark.
There was nothing else in the room, except a large blanket which the boy had wrapped around himself. It was faded and thick and seemed to be made of an animal skin.
"We'll stay here for the night," he said finally. The boy sleepily opened an eye.
"Yes," he murmured, and yawned. Zabuza smirked at how small the boy looked. He was a doll, a cast-off, in his over-large clothing and ragged blanket. Something stirred in Zabuza which he didn't care to think upon, which he would never admit to himself.
"You'll get cold, Master Zabuza," the boy said without opening his eyes. "There's room for you, too."
"Such a kind offer," Zabuza mumbled, but he felt some gratitude. He could have withstood the cold anyway, but keeping warm would help him maintain his strength, and he wouldn't waste chakra trying to raise his body temperature. He doubted he would sleep--he hadn't slept well in five years--but he could rest.
He shuffled underneath the blanket beside the boy, and when he stretched his legs out the blanket barely covered his calves. But it would do. He rested his head on his hand, and closed his eyes.The boy moved closer to Zabuza until he was nestled into the man's side. He felt some embarrassment at such a show of affection, but the boy was asleep, and Zabuza didn't want to wake him. The boy's body was a comfortable warmth, and the minutes faded into hours as Zabuza just listened to the boy breathe.
Sometime in the night, Zabuza's coat became wrapped around the both of them, and his arm somehow found itself holding the sleeping Haku to his side. The next morning was clear and sunny and there was no snow in sight.