A/N: Long wait, no? Well, I have my excuses all prepared. It turned out that the rough draft of this chapter was crap, and I got halfway through typing it before I threw up my hands and said "Screw this!" and just re-wrote the damned thing. There were also RL issues, such as me shelling out a fuckton of money taking my cat to the vet (the issue is still unresolved, by the way, so there's more to come), the death of two of my three snakes within two weeks of one another, and just general RL being busy.
Thanks to everyone who kindly poked me with sharp sticks to get my ass in gear, though ;3 Hope you enjoy the chapter~
Chapter 13; Of Two Minds
There was a trick, Harry reflected, to not feeling the sharp sting of guilt. A trick to not feeling too strongly about anything, really.
So, he happened to be absolutely inept at Occlumency, incapable of using magic to shield and organize and hide his memories… But long before Harry became aware of the untapped power within himself, he had discovered a way to not think about things. He locked it up.
The resentment he felt for his relatives? Bundled away and locked in a box; apt, for the pleasure they took in locking him in the Cupboard. The loneliness of being outcast amongst the other children? Buried in a hole so deep that he stopped caring. The burn of hate, of disgust, when his teacher wouldn't stop, wouldn't leave him alone..? Hidden so far that he almost forgot why he didn't like people to touch him. Almost.
By the time the weight of Cedric's and Sirius' deaths settled onto his shoulders, Harry barely had to try. After that, any guilt or doubts were pushed so far away that they would be nearly impossible to uncover. It was what allowed him to so firmly exclude Ron and Hermione from his training, and eventually what allowed him to keep his wandless magic secret from Voldemort's relentless Legilimency.
(It was so easy, to just not think about something…)
It was that avoidance of thought that Harry utilized just then, as he left the tiny room Jackal brought him to. The ANBU –limp and unmoving, sprawled over the cot-like bed– wouldn't be discovered until the weak repelling charm on the door failed and the rest of the privacy wards came down. Harry told himself that there was no purpose to feeling guilt for taking actions he knew to be necessary; Jackal simply knew too much of his magic, and Harry knew that if the man was allowed to spread word of that he would very likely be hunted down. Killed.
Stilling suddenly beneath his advanced invisibility spell –an involved bit of magic, but necessary to avoid the Tower's cameras– Harry chided himself for his egregious inattentiveness. Suddenly more keen to his surroundings, Harry slipped in the open doors to the large arena-room; the thin net of magic sent out to feel counted about twenty shinobi, some of them registering as familiar.
Debating for only a moment –the invisibility really did take quite a bit of concentration– Harry layered a heavy notice-me-not spell over himself instead, and stepped farther into the room. The familiar presences were easy to identify once he started actually looking; the Hokage, for example, stood on the platform very close to the corner Harry had occupied some nine hours previous. The Yamanaka child –Ino– was up there as well…
Harry paused when he realized it was Ino's teammate –the smart one, the one with such branching, complicated thoughts– that was fighting a long-haired girl on the arena floor. He appeared disoriented, and Harry felt a strange ripple against his senses when the girl threw… senbon: The chime of small bells rang out, and the boy was unable to stumble out of the needle's path. He watched this with interest, and a sense of foreboding worry, as the bell-girl suddenly froze and mirrored her opponent's stance. Exactly.
Harry stifled an uneasy laugh as the little shinobi dodged one another's thrown weapons, resulting in the girl smashing her head against the wall behind her as she bent back. The majority of his attention was warily fixed on the dark shadow streaming from the boy, apparently what granted him that control. Danger.
Shaking himself and sidestepping the medics come to carry away the unconscious girl, Harry drifted up the stairs silently, eyes set on where the Hokage stood. It was important that he be there before anyone found Jackal. He needed to be there so he could discover what they would do…
As he reached the top of the stairs, slinking unobtrusively into the corner, a sickly man on the floor called out: "Next match! Uzumaki Naruto vs. Inuzuka Kiba." Harry tilted his head, acknowledging the new, familiar name. Wasn't that..?
Alarm shot through him like a bolt of electricity when the strikingly bright blue eyes of the orange eyesore glanced at him curiously, heedless of the charm that should have kept Harry unnoticed. A tendril of unseen magic reached out to prod the boy –now on the floor below, trading insults with his opponent– and found a massive, furious, and inhuman energy buried deeply beneath the cool human chakra.
Before true realization even came, Harry's eyes sought out the other source in the room, the one that made his stomach churn uneasily because it had come after him before. Harry saw him, the smallest of the shinobi on the opposite platform, among a fraction of the number that stood on this side; red hair and light, dark-ringed eyes and without a doubt looking at him.
Harry's hands twitched in an aborted movement, the desire to tug his hood lower over his face almost overwhelming. After a moment his fingers found contact with the sleek scales of his incorporeal companion, and Harry forced himself to look away from the first source and back to the new one. The blond was taking quite the beating from his opponent.
With cautious, light brushes of his magic Harry realized that the two inhuman chakras were actually quite different. Though he knew without a hint of doubt that the source in the blond was exponentially more powerful, he also realized that it was also more securely trapped and away from the shinobi's native chakra. It felt… red, and barely stirred at all when Harry's magic wrapped around its human host more deliberately.
In a slow, dull way that was very much unlike his usual function, Harry recalled why one of the boy's names was familiar. Uzumaki Naruto. Uzumaki. Jackal had thought that name, immediately following his speculation on Harry's lineage, on demons. Something 'sealed' inside the 'Uzumaki brat'.
Harry glanced between the fighting blond and the still-staring redhead, frowning, trying to ignore the uneasy fluttering in his chest; he couldn't help but place the both of them in a category separate from the other ninja. Young…but far more deadly that their ages or appearances gave the impression of, if only they tapped that power…
Blinking slowly as he attempted to shake off the foreboding thoughts, Harry realized that he was having a hard time keeping hold of time – that his distraction had been enough that he'd missed where the little white dog had gone, and how the second feral boy had come to be. His tenuous grasp on reality didn't help; if anything the screams of his self-preservation instincts were louder in face of the boy-shinobi's fast, physical attacks.
And Harry was angry. Angry that he was so stupid to have ignored all the signs that had been shoved in his face. That he hadn't realized that there was more to these shinobi than their chakra, that he'd been blinded by the thought of the near-magical potential they could achieve with it.
The shinobi he was watching then –twin spirals of flurried attacks, the orange eyesore thrown between them, pummeled– were only genin. The weakest. They may have all been there to be tested, to advance their rank and standing, but these children –most of them the same age his body was!– were not the strongest ninja around. Not by a long shot. And Harry knew beyond reasonable doubt that just one of those hits that the blond recovered from would have easily broken his frail bones.
These shinobi were physically strong, and Harry was not. With one good, clear hit any one of the people around him could incapacitate or kill him before he could escape. Or even defend himself. Very few of the standard shield charms, the ones that came to him almost instinctively now, could protect against solid, physical hits.
Harry didn't like this. Oh no, not at all.
"Lord Harry?" Pretty whispered hesitantly; it took Harry a second too long to realize that his magic was beginning to manifest his unease. He took a slow, deep breath to calm himself, and the slight chill in the air around him dissipated. That was another thing, his magic reacting to his emotions so strongly; though emotion-driven spells were so much more powerful, it was terrible to try to keep it secret, requiring control he did not have.
"I want to escape these people," Harry whispered back venomously. "I need to get away, to prepare myself against their abilities. But if I were to simply leave they would never give up hunting me…"
"Can you not wipe your existence from their minds and memories?" The ghostly serpent returned slyly, head peeking out of the collar of his robe to nuzzle against his chin.
It seemed like the perfect solution…but Harry knew better. He blew out a short sigh.
"It is doubtful that I could find all the people who have seen me, and even less a chance of getting to them all before my part had been discovered. Even if I could, they have proof in words, inscribed and hidden in their leader's place, where I cannot reach." Harry rubbed a hand over his face, drawn. "It would only be worse for me if they learned I could addle their minds as well."
Pretty let out a stuttering hiss that sounded remarkably like a sigh, and Harry knew that his companion understood the problem.
"I'll think of something," Harry muttered, more to himself than his companion, and then immediately frowned. That sounded so… juvenile. He hated how…how unprepared it made him sound. How unrepentantly Gryffindor…but he had never felt so bitter about belonging to the House of Lions before. His frown deepened. "I will think of something."
Voldemort may have infected him with his soul, but Harry had won this battle before. He was still himself.
(He had to keep telling himself that, he had to.)
Sharp, hidden eyes panned over the room suspiciously, taking in anything that could be the something he needed, the perfect excuse to slip the bonds of Konoha's supervision. He skipped over the blond and his smothered red chakra; over the old Hokage who was blissfully unaware of Harry's presence in the room; over all the child warriors with leaf-marked hitai-ate, avidly watching the fight below. Away from everyone but the boy with blank, bruised eyes watching him from across the room.
An idea sprouted, dark and wonderful, but Harry was still wary of getting too close to that aggressive chakra unless he had no other option. It would be so easy, though, to provoke that inhuman chakra into action, into attacking him. Leaving could be as easy as apparating away, and no one would even suspect him of anything…they could not blame him for fleeing for his life…
Harry missed the match ending, but the winner was obvious; despite the heavy beating he took the blond seemed to have boundless energy. Again, those bright blue eyes looked at him strangely as the boy passed him on the way to his team. Harry followed the boy with his eyes –feeling still the heavy gaze of the redhead across the room– and tentatively decided that it must have been the inhuman chakra the boys held that let them see through his spell. He didn't know how to feel about the fact that the strange chakra most likely belonged to demons, or that they were aware of his magic at all when nothing else seemed to be.
"Quiet, now." Harry murmured to his companion, finally moving beyond his indecision and towards the fringes of the gathered shinobi. The way they were clustered led him to believe that the spectators on this side were all familiar with one another; unlike the ninja on the other deck –who stood with large a large amount of space between each group– the teams mingled freely. Harry cautiously increased the magic in the charm that kept him hidden, and almost considered trying to layer it with invisibility before he banished the idea. He didn't have enough practice to guarantee he could keep the spells stable together, and he wouldn't try now when a failed casting would surely bring down any existing spells.
As he skirted by a man in a ridiculous green jumpsuit –another who could probably break his neck without even trying– Harry wondered if anything had come of Orochimaru's supposed plot to infiltrate the exam. From the tidbits he'd stolen from Inoichi –and then a little more from Jackal– it was the foreign teams that would be most likely used for whatever he was plotting…
(Harry couldn't help but think –the thoughts coming unbidden, unwanted, and with experience– that infiltration was best carried out with spies and not outside elements. That he should look more closely at the people of Konoha, instead.)
He smothered the urge to snort, glancing uneasily at the shinobi as he quickly passed through one's line of sight, and pushed his thoughts of Orochimaru aside. Though the awareness that the Hokage had wanted Harry to be in the Tower just then –probably visibly and as bait, at that– remained on the periphery of his mind, there were more important things to concentrate on than what the ninja though about him in relation to their enemy… Like navigating through the gathered shinobi without brushing against them and causing a big scene when they discovered him.
"…Hinata's medicine is amazing!" A loud voice cut through is focused attention, and Harry glanced back as he passed a strong –dangerous– chakra belonging to a white-haired man with a cloth mask covering his lower face. Making sure he wasn't under anyone's direct gaze –(Out of sight, out of mind…)– Harry's eyes first stuck on a girl with raggedly cut pink hair, and then skipped to the speaker. The blond, who may or may not have a demon trapped inside of him.
Harry couldn't help but notice the miraculous speed with which his scrapes healed. That was the work of no medicine Harry (or Voldemort) had ever seen; only a lot of raw magic or a good healing spell under an experienced wand could do that. Potions that worked that fast always left scars behind, even if only temporarily.
Harry shook his head –later, he could look more closely into the boy later– and made to continue on, but as if sensing his gaze the blond looked up: His tanned face squinted up into a confused, belligerently curious expression that was nearly cringe-worthy for its openness.
"Hey, hey, who're you?" The orange-clad genin demanded, tilting his head in an attempt to peer through the deep shadows the hood cast over Harry's face. Before the boy had even finished speaking, Harry was backing away, trying to keep out of the gazes drawn by the demon-boy's exclamation.
"Who… are you talking to, Naruto?" Asked the pink-haired girl, almost reluctantly, her eyes slipping over his cloaked form blindly. Still cautiously creeping backwards, it was impossible to miss the painfully confused look the yellow-blond wore. He pointed at Harry, a large frown pulling his face in an unattractively petulant way.
"Right there, Sakura-chan, with the hood." Heart beating painfully fast –anxiety, anticipation; never fear for this– Harry snarled and drew as much power as he could into the spell that was the only thing keeping him hidden.
In a move that was obvious to any wizard or witch, all the eyes that had been drawn near Harry by the blond's pointing suddenly turned away. Harry almost felt fear then (had he been too obvious? Had he just inadvertently revealed himself?), except the spell apparently caused some strange effect in… Uzumaki. Bright blue eyes glazed over momentarily, unfocused, and the boy actually staggered.
Barely daring to breathe, Harry stilled his retreat as a lone, dark eye glanced briefly around him: Harry had gleaned enough from the thoughts of others to know a jounin on sight, and know what it meant. "Do I need to call the medics for you, Naruto?" His voice was low and didn't express anything but long-suffering boredom, and Harry almost sighed when it drew the blond's attention from him at last.
Then his mind –too slow; he was usually more quick, wasn't he?– caught up with the implications and Harry bit down on a laugh: The stagger, the glazed look, seeing something no one else could… The jounin though Uzumaki was suffering the effects of a head injury!
With a mild smirk, Harry quickly turned and began carefully weaving his way through the other shinobi – all stopped to watch the boy's little spectacle. "No, Kakashi-sensei, I'm alright—Hey!" He had just passed a boy wearing a jumpsuit suspiciously identical to the jounin he'd passed already when the blond exclaimed, and Harry sensed the demon-boy lunge at his back—
Harry spun at the last moment, just as the boy's tanned fingers brushed the fabric of his robe, and a pointed stab of magic struck into the other. The genin stopped dead, blue eyes glazed as he swayed in place: Harry slipped away before the momentary confusion of the Confundus spell wore off and he could be pursued again. Shuddering with adrenaline, he lifted a hand to his head and changed the focus of his magic just slightly, to something he knew he could cast safely; when he tapped his crown, the cold trickle of disillusionment settled over him.
Harry breathed a silent sigh of relief when the next fight was called and everyone turned their attention back to the arena. Glancing back only briefly Harry saw Uzumaki leaning over the railing enthusiastically, showing no lingering effects from the spell, though his white-haired teacher was standing a bit closer to his student than before.
(Safe. He was safe.)
With the loose folds of his robe held tight to his body, Harry wove between those of little-Yamanaka's team. Though the urge to lash out and hurt the little mind-reader was still there, it was easier to ignore with such a strong objective in mind, and his goal in sight. He still had to tread carefully, however; neither of the spells cloaking him were perfect. Though the notice-me-not charm would make people ignore what they should see –and strong enough, what they should hear– it couldn't always force them to disregard direct contact if the person was alert enough…
Alert and aware in the way Jackal's memories said all ninja were trained to be.
As he drew closer to the aged Hokage –and the scarred brute of a man standing at his side– Harry tasted something strange in the air, a scent barely discernable from the many others emanating from the gathered humans. Dirt, sweat, blood; skin, leather, cloth; fear, bloodlust, anticipation… faint, old snake skin… Under all that –getting faintly more detectable the closer he came to the two men– was something slightly bitter that clung to his tongue like the juice of an herb he could almost remember…
"My Lord," Pretty whispered, bright red tongue tasting the air, flickering furiously. "The dark hunter, I cannot smell them. The false skin they wear, yes, but not the human." Harry tilted his head down to brush his lips over the phantom, acknowledging, even as he stopped and looked more keenly at the heavily scarred man.
His eyes traced the two thick, almost ropy scars crossing prominently over the shinobi's broad face, and the first thing Harry though was just how very much those must have bled. The second was somewhat vain thankfulness that he at least could hide the scars he carried. And the third thought was of what other scars the man had, because Harry was only a few feet away and he could see strange dimples in the bandana's material…
He blinked slowly when a sluggish hypothesis crawled from the whirling depths of his mind, and wondered just how likely it was that those (deliberate-looking) scars came only from combat. No, not very likely at all…
Shaking off his fanciful ponderings, Harry quickly passed behind the two to stand at the railing a few feet away. He was still close at hand, but far enough away to hopefully remain undetected. If his guess wasn't mistaken, any 'urgent' news would be brought to the Hokage's attention… Certainly, news of Harry's 'disappearance' and Jackal would be urgent. And if Harry could listen in on what they thought of that, what they would do — that information was priceless, and could decide his entire future in this world.
Harry licked dry lips and deliberately looked away from the old leader, leaning over the railing some to better see the two dark-haired genin on the floor below. Head tilted to one side as he listened to the male verbally pick apart his …cousin?... Harry decided that he was unimpressed by the boy's attitude, even if he had to acknowledge the skill it took to cut the girl to the state of a quivering mouse. Not even through fear! Playing with another person's doubts and failings was something he'd not done since his earliest Hogwarts' years…
(No, not Harry – Voldemort. Tom Riddle had used such tactics against his classmates, not Harry Potter…)
Harry pressed a palm to his temple and sent a careful pulse of magic through his head in an attempt to rid himself of the …odd, disorienting feeling. Forcing his attention back on the ninja's match didn't do much to distract him from the oddness; the magic cast out to allow him to so clearly sense the shinobi also made him aware of the chakra the two used to enhance the power of their strikes. He could feel it when their chakra pushed forcefully into the other's body, and the way each landed blow disrupted the brightness of their chakra a little more.
He narrowed his eyes in distaste as the rather one-sided match continued, though if he didn't lie to himself he began to experience the faintest pinprick of fear. Through the knowledge gained from Jackal he was aware that the healer –Owl– had sensed chakra within him… but Harry couldn't feel it. All Harry could feel was his magic.
But if he had chakra –the power of these shinobi– or something close enough that an experienced medic couldn't tell the difference… It meant that they could attack him and hurt him the same way they fought and hurt their own.
His fingers twitched around the handrail, eyes wide and unseeing as the thoughts swarmed him, drowned him. He had never realized it before –not really–, how strange this world was, how alien and different it was from his own. The dangers he could protect himself from changed and replaced with ones he'd never had to anticipate, would have never thought to look at before.
Even the young ones –the children, the weak– moved so quickly, and fought so hard, and Harry (Voldemort – whoever, whatever, he was) felt woefully unprepared. A wizard's battle could move quickly, yes, could involve rapid movement, but very rarely were spells cast from less than six feet from the target. Close-distance combat was unwise, because offensive spells cast within the aura of another wizard could weaken or even warp the magic… but the ninja thrived in those conditions.
He wasn't ready, he wasn't prepared. Harry had never trained himself to fight anyone who would gleefully get into his personal space and break him…
When the inexplicable weakness hit, Harry didn't even try to keep on his feet; he slid down the support of the rail and curled against it until he was able to keep an eye on the ongoing match. An odd fogginess clouded up his head like a stinging, poison fog, and no matter how hard he tried his magic couldn't clear it up. Harry bit down hard on the distressed whine he could feel building in his throat (quietquietquiet, danger too near, quiet…).
Pretty, no longer staring between the two boys with inhuman chakra, coiled up higher around Harry's neck and rubbed its head against his fluttering pulse. Harry shuddered at the searing contact, but slowly relaxed into the heat the phantom radiated – he hadn't realized he was so very cold. He also hadn't realized that his nose was bleeding until he scented the air and the thick, bitter flavor of his lifeblood bloomed on his tongue.
"You are far too cold, Lord Harry, but I do not smell sickness… You should escape from the hunter's place before they use this against you." Its voice, quiet and whispery, gained a quality that made its next words sound sour. "Unless this is a problem the humans can make better?"
It took a half-dozen times of replaying his companion's words in his head before he could make sense of what it spoke, and heavy dread crept over him. His mind was slowing, was failing him, leaving him helpless at the worst time; if they found him now, away from Jackal and dazed as he was they would only assume the worst.
Harry felt a poignant sensation, deep in his head. Crackling, not unlike someone crunching wet eggshells between their hands… It was strangely painful in a fashion that was not physical, but familiar all the same.
And still, through the pain/not-pain slowly consuming him like weak acid, he felt the small storm of chakra below. Flashes, like lightning, when the stronger hit the weaker and the chakra flickered like a dying flame, fluttering like a wild bird trapped in a cage. But the stronger was still bright and sharp and intent on the kill, until there were pulses in the storm and much stronger presences kept the two apart.
"I don't know what's wrong with me." Harry slurred through a numb mouth, the slightest of sounds because he remembered he needed to be quiet, even if he could no longer recall why. The wet crackling feeling changed to a not-sound like dry static from an old television, and then a high-pitched whine that made him wince and drop his head against the pole.
He barely held focus long enough to cast a self-diagnostic spell, for all the good it did him. Be it too much active magic or something else entirely, the spell didn't read any difference since his last casting, since his awakening from something that was almost death…
A new pain ripped through his brain with all the viciousness of untamed Fiendfyre, and Harry almost bit through his lip to stifle a cry of agony; the feel of blood running down his chin grounded him when all he wanted to do was float away to escape. It hurt to even touch his head, but Harry pushed his hood off and pressed his palms to his temples anyway – the pressure helped.
"Lord Harry, a new hunter is approaching!" The near-scorching coils looped around his throat tightened, breaking the tenuous calm on his pain and making him spit out a stuttering, wordless hiss as something else crumbled in his head.
Licking at his torn lip, focusing on the pain he knew the cause of, Harry woozily lifted his head and willed his eyes to clear and focus on the presence quickly coming towards the Hokage. Almost immediately he recognized the dark purple hair and tan coat identifying the snake-lady Anko. It took considerably longer –a few moments of eternity– to decipher the quick, intense expressions that flickered over her face. Annoyance, anger (fear), shame, disgust (betrayalhurtloss).
Harry saw her lips moving as she stopped between, and slightly behind, the Hokage and the scarred one, but realized quickly enough that she was deliberately keeping her voice low. It left Harry little option besides sneaking closer to eavesdrop, for he had the strongest feeling against using the obscure little charm to increase his hearing…
The effort it took him to crawl the four feet that put him against the wall directly behind the group of three was torturous: Whatever instinct he'd suppressed since coming to Konoha was now screaming that he hide away and be still, until this pain and weakness passed.
"I'd like to know where you found that boy, Hokage-sama." The woman was saying grimly when Harry tuned into her voice. "If there are others that will be using the same jutsu against us, we need to know everything. None of us detected it." The old man just sighed in response, the wrinkles on his face deep.
"Describe it to me; what exactly did this justu do?" Harry found that he couldn't look directly at the Hokage, disturbed by the ferocity of the rage that boiled up when he looked at the man's dark eyes.
The next match was called before the woman spoke again –"Sabaku no Gaara vs. Rock Lee."– and Harry discovered it was considerably easier to watch her and the silent scarred man instead. "Genjutsu, Hokage-sama. Anyone and everyone who went to check on your ANBU and the little snake returned with reports giving the all clear." She paused deliberately, murky eyes flashing with some bitter emotion that Harry was too sick to make sense of. "As of ten minutes ago everyone could clearly recall going to the room, remember giving their status report, but no one actually has a memory of seeing either of them in over nine hours. I doubt anyone would have even noticed, had the boy not been missing now."
"And what of Jackal?" The incongruous rage spiked again at the leader's grim tone, and Harry had to bury his face in his knees to keep control. (Too close to Dumbledore, too familiar. Voldemort hated him so much.) His paranoia wouldn't let him hold the position longer than a couple seconds, so when Harry lifted his eyes again it was to stare at the blank face of the other shinobi.
"I had him taken back to Konoha Main when nothing we did could wake him." Snake-lady Anko's voice somehow sounded wrong, like it wasn't suited to be as flat as it was then. The scarred man's dark eyes narrowed slightly, as if to confirm Harry's thoughts. "His vitals were steady and strong, no sign of blood or trauma… Hokage-sama, nothing in your ANBU's brief said anything about abilities like that." It couldn't have been anything but accusation, but the drawn look of hidden panic made it seem more like personal betrayal and less like her questioning her leader's motives. Harry wondered if she would be reprimanded –punished– for her insolence.
With his attention wavering and the words floating through his head like a soft, warm wind, it was the scarred third that caught Harry's focus. Intimidating, stoic, dark… familiar. Nothing of the shinobi's thoughts were expressed on his face, though his eyes were so watchful, intense. The man reminded him so starkly of Snape that it almost hurt, but Harry was even more set on watching him because of it. Men like Snape were some of the most dangerous, not only for that rigid control but because when they lost that control they were the most unpredictable people one could encounter. It was a beautiful, deadly thing to watch.
"There cannot be a report for that which is unknown, nor a forewarning for a threat that had never proven itself to be one. Not without raising unreasonable prejudice." The leader sounded tired then, and the rage bubbling in Harry's chest spat one single, acidic word: Liar. "Accuse this old man of sentimentality, but Konoha is not Kiri, and Harry is not Orochimaru. You would do well to remember that." There was silence between the three following the reprimand, the sounds of the ongoing fight suddenly very loud; Harry couldn't help digging his nails into his arms at the jarring noises he couldn't place.
"Why aren't you more worried about this?" Anko's voice was definitely accusing, then, little more than an angry hiss; the still silent man frowned briefly, just the slightest bit. "That boy took out your ANBU, did who-knows-what to him, and has disappeared completely from our sights. Now. With Him around. This can't be coincidence!" Her voice had gained a breathless quality by the end, and the taste of her anger –(and fear)– was almost stronger than that of his blood.
Harry breathed out a silent, shuddering sigh, Fire Scales shifting around his neck reassuringly. (No, no, it couldn't come to pass like this. If she would bear a grudge against him, her passion could be enough to spark a manhunt. A true search. No. Please, no…)
"Calm yourself, Mitarashi." Harry jumped and sluggishly refocused at the scarred man's growl. "Mind that we are not alone here." The sound of combat spiked again, and Harry couldn't decide if he was distressed or relieved that he couldn't see anything but the three ninja before him.
"I apologize, Hokage-sama." Snake-lady sighed, but Harry stopped listening to them as Pretty tucked its head next to his ear and started to whisper.
"That female can call on the stronger members of my kin, Lord Harry. A Pact. An alliance with this hunter could help, if you are to remain amongst these humans…" Harry didn't have much will to respond, so simply ducked his head enough to press his cut, bleeding lips to his companion's warm body.
Their voices washed over him, meaningless drivel that held nothing for him but whose meaning drilled deep into his head, imprinted because he could not afford to ignore them. It was like being caught in limbo, like being tethered to Voldemort's throne again. Too muddled and hurt to listen but too paranoid and needy to completely ignore. When the quiet came –(and it always did, leaving him to toil alone in his old thoughts)– he would remember it all so clearly, but right then the only thing that mattered was they couldn't see him and Harry was waiting.
(Waiting for what?)
"As soon as possible there will be a quiet search of this training ground, as much manpower that can feasibly be spared now. I do not believe he has gone far."
"But this place? I saw him yesterday, Hokage-sama! He doesn't look like he could stand a stiff wind, let alone the beasts in there…" A pause. "The snakes, maybe." Another pause. "If it's all the same, Jackal must have been caught off-guard, but genjutsu doesn't work the same on animals…"
"…I can recall only one …person who was comfortable wandering this Training Ground alone. Only one who ever riles you this much either, Mitarashi. That boy who you gave free reign of this Tower, is he..?"
A snort, bitter. Harry knew it was snake-lady, though they all had their backs to him now, faces directed at the chakras he could feel on the floor.
"Like father, like son." The woman laughed a little hollowly. "Don't feel bad, Ibiki—I wouldn't have know what the little snake looks like either, if his babysitter would've acted a little more professional."
"What do they mean, Lord Harry? You were not born to their ilk. There cannot be another like you—there is only one Lord Snake." As his companion spoke it slipped more of its body under his shirt to better warm his clammy skin. Harry swallowed thickly, dizzy from the strange way his magic was roiling under his skin and sick with fear that it would disrupt the spells keeping him hidden. He barely had the ability to form a single confused thought: Since when could Pretty understand the human tongue?
"I would have preferred him to remain secret longer than this, but the needs of Konoha must always come first. Of course, there was always a chance this gambit could go terribly wrong, but I didn't expect to lose him like this." That tone. Harry's fingers clenched around each other tightly enough for the joints to pop. That tone, that benevolent, kind, yet still firm and cruelly deliberate tone…
"…You wanted to use him to draw out the spies. Have him seen and hope to lure Orochimaru in as well." The deep rumble sounded contemplative, slowly tasting the plan on his tongue but offering no opinion of his own.
"Where did you even get him? I could smell the hospital on him, so that's where you've kept him, for some time too… No, how long has he been in the Village?" The woman's voice was dropping back into a faint hiss, and for an absurd moment Harry couldn't decide if it was in her effort to keep quiet or if it was something she'd picked up from the snakes she could apparently call upon.
Whatever the aged leader responded with was lost to Harry as a sudden, heavy stillness overtook the previously busy arena. Both of the combatants were still, still, still, and then one –the weaker chakra, the faster body– seemed to explode with chakra, a painful sear against his senses, and then was moving so quickly as to almost disappear completely. In response, the wild and malicious chakra boiling within the other genin soared to new heights –barely hidden at all, how could they not feel it?– and Harry shook as it touched the trailing edges of his magic.
In one swift, thoughtless motion, Harry curled in more tightly on himself and sank his fangs deeply into his forearm. His vision went white in agony –(He didn't remember it ever hurting so bad…)– and Harry felt it in his jaw when he scraped against bone, but it drew him back from the distressing precipice of madness from the sensation of too much. So instead Harry focused on himself: The rusted, musty taste from the fabric of his robe pressing on his tongue, the way his fingers twitched from his fangs pressing a nerve, the bubbling of blood through his teeth as he panted in quiet agony.
An old habit, ingrained deeply into his subconscious, had Harry painstakingly unlocking his clamped jaw and pressing his lips to the deep wound, drawing more blood (warmth) to the surface and trying to spread it along his arm. Slowly, slowly, as his companion hissed worried reproaches into his ear, pieces of the ninja's words filtered through.
"…-naka Inoichi, every day since the patrol found him. With the state he lives in, there is no way he could have hidden an agenda against Konoha… if he ever had one." The lethargy creeping over him didn't allow Harry more than an angry tremor at the old man's voice, but even still the strain of the reaction caused his magic to draw in close to his body. While before it had brought him disorientation, this time it brought only relief; with the part of him that always –always– stayed with his magic he felt it condensing into a tight point in his chest.
It was with the far too familiar mixed feeling of relief and fear that the edge on his senses dulled, and he could no longer feel the chakra around him so keenly. After so long of feeling everything, it was like suddenly being struck blind… but if he couldn't see the evil chakra (the demon) maybe it couldn't get him…
"Hokage-sama, we need more. He attacked one of our shinobi and is now missing. Possibly conspiring with our most notorious missing-nin. This cannot remain secret for much longer." After the scarred one spoke there was a long moment of silence between the three, broken only by the crashes of shattering stone and the rasp of moving sand.
A sigh, then: "Not now, not here. When this is concluded you two will be briefed by Yamanaka Inoichi and the other ANBU assigned to the boy. With any luck we can keep this blunder under wraps for longer yet."
Slumped as low as he was, sight blocked by the shinobi looming before him, Harry did not see the conclusion of the match. He heard it; a grinding crunch and a bloodcurdling scream. He felt it, even with his magic tucked away tightly inside. It was the barest tendril of that golden, gritty chakra that snuck out and brushed against him –curious– before it retreated to the confines of its human vessel.
His spells –weakened by the quiet disorder overtaking his mind and shaking his control– wavered and fell around him. Harry knew, the same way he had known the way to wandlessly manipulate his magic, that he couldn't hide himself again; his magic was too bound, too tight and too intent to conjure the delicate control necessary for that. He was exposed, but not yet discovered. Yet. The subconscious effects of the spell would linger, the murmur that said 'nothing is here, nothing interesting at all, I have always been here, just ignore me…' … But only so long as he managed to keep attention away from himself.
The group was silent still, almost strained. Even with his mouth and tongue covered in his own blood, Harry could taste still more in the air, and astonishingly copious amount. (Had one of them died?)
"They're training them brutal in Suna, don't you think?" Anko's tone was dark, question rhetorical, and no one answered.
"Please, Lord Harry." Pretty rasped, arrow-shaped head tucked tight against his ear. "Please. You must leave, my Lord. You are ill and need peace away from these hunters, these humans. Please, go and let the others in the forest take care of you…" It was…pleading. His companion was begging for him to leave…
Though Harry dared not speak –he was too close to the shinobi for speech to go unnoticed, and the hiss of Parseltongue would probably have them attacking before they even saw him– he slowly nodded his assent. Yes, the Forest, that sounded lovely, so peaceful… But he'd meant to stay here for some purpose, to see some plan through. What was it? Something he'd so desperately wanted to hear..?
Ah. He'd wanted to make sure they found Jackal, unconscious but unharmed. (And if all went well, they would never discover the alterations to the young ANBU's memories. Would not find the ones that Harry had buried within the deepest, longest forgotten childhood experiences of the ninja, because he didn't want to take the chance of damaging him with an Obliviate, which would have been so much easier. Would accept the things the ninja would recall, the memories Harry created, as the truth.) But… he had wanted to say something as well. What was it?
What was it?
Harry buried his mouth into his knees, trying his hardest to bite down on the noise of his terrible frustration. He couldn't… why couldn't he… he couldn't think, he only wanted to think! So confused, so angry, and scared (oh gods they were everywhere, what if he couldn't ever think right again, they could break him hurt him kill him—). A tremor started as he fought himself, a twitch under his eye that spread downwards, that pulled his lips into a snarl and had him shaking against the wall.
And then he snarled.
It was a quiet thing, barely louder than a sigh, but it was still too loud. The lingering obliviousness from his broken spells failed, and Harry raised his head defiantly even as his body pressed defensively into the wall, refusing to succumb to his fear as the three turned on him.
After the initial, shockingly fast movement, the shinobi turned into a study of stillness. Anko held a single kunai, arm half-poised, but the expression on her face was one of wary doubt, and the tip of her weapon had tilted almost immediately away from him. The old Hokage's face was oddly expressionless, masked; Harry tilted his head slightly, and managed to wipe the grimace of a snarl off his own face to match the leader's.
The scarred one bothered Harry the most. The intimidating man seemed larger somehow, and his body held a peculiar kind of stillness that Harry was intimately familiar with… Poised, like a predator just waiting to strike.
Harry moved slowly –thoughts even slower– to uncurl some and press a palm to his temple (his blindfold was damp with sweat), just keen enough still to notice the attention it drew to his blood-soaked sleeve. "Are you going to attack me again?" He rasped, head tilted to direct his question at the woman, the only one who had (visibly) drawn a weapon. An odd expression flickered over her face, too fast to read, and though the kunai was lowered further it stayed steady in her hand.
"Harry," The Hokage stated, voice low and level and so unsurprised it had to be fake. "You are supposed to be with Jackal-san right now. Do you understand that you are breaking the terms for your asylum in Konohagakure?"
Harry twitched as paranoia flared. Was that a trap? They already knew he'd done something to Jackal—why would they ask that..? Ohh, he couldn't think…
"You already found him—you know." Harry accused sullenly, dropping his raised hand when the pressure against his temple felt like it was doing more harm than good. There was an inkling, even deeper in his head than the cracklingbreakingfalling, that told him he had to say something important… What? Harry's fingers twitched. "I think he will wake, soon enough." Three pairs of eyes narrowed at him.
"What did you do to my shinobi?" There was a growing harshness in the leader's voice, something that Harry never heard directed at him from Dumbledore; the difference and brief clarity allowed him to look upon the man without that rage. "Why did you attack him?" He had begun to wonder just when the well-being of the Hokage's underlings would override the man's strange desire to shelter him. Now was that time, apparently.
Another spike of pain shot through his head, unexpected enough that Harry couldn't prevent the wince of pain, the harsh pull of his lips over his fangs as he grimaced. In a kind of daze he swiped his fingers over the fresh lifeblood from his cut lips, stared a long moment at the contrast between chalk-white and dark crimson –(not black, still not black)– before he lifted his head to face the ninja. He could only hear his voice dimly, couldn't feel his lips move at all, as if the words weren't really coming from him anymore.
(The wall crumbled further, leaving nothing but broken shards between two halves—two halves that could've once been the same but for one factor that turned them to the most hated (most important most beloved) foes.)
"He should not have been so close to me." Oh, that was it; he had wanted to give them an impression of his part in the debacle he'd made for Jackal to remember. Harry smiled –bared his fangs mockingly, knowingly– and felt the blood color his mouth red, felt what had already dried crack and flake on his cheeks. "I told Birdy, so you have to know—my eyes are dangerous." True, so true, but that wasn't the point, was it? Such an easy excuse…
Harry saw them (sawsawsaw but didn't know, couldn't know, couldn't focus) exchange looks that should have been subtle but were as loud as the screams from the broken ninja that'd just fought. The old leader spoke.
"Morino-san is going to take you back to your room." A statement, abrupt, one that was an order and would tolerate no argument. "You will stay there with him until Inoichi-san comes to see you."
It went against everything that Harry wanted, that Pretty insisted he needed. His companion was hissing at them, fangs bared and dripping venom, harsh words falling from a forked tongue—unseen and unheard by all but him. "You cannot order my Master anywhere you witless, useless primates! Get away! I will bite you, kill you, laugh as your cold, dead bodies are picked apart by the crows!" How the incorporeal serpent intended to bite them was beyond Harry, but the sentiment was pleasing…
Harry used the wall to stand, pushing with his hands and back when the weakness of his mind spread to his body as well. This had gone on long enough; he had done what was needed, and wanted to rest. "No. No hospital. Can't help me, can't…" He frowned and drew a breath as the rest of the Hokage's words registered, and when he spoke again his voice was little more than an angry hiss. "Not Inoichi—his fault!"
The next match was called and Harry startled –turned– when one of little Yamanaka's teammates shouted something akin to a battle-cry. At the same time he just barely saw a flicker of movement as Anko shot forward.
In one swift movement one of her hands wrapped around his arm, her other palm on his shoulder to spin him around and slam him forcefully against the wall, pinned and fully restrained. Harry flinched and stiffened, mouth already pulled in to a vicious, angry snarl (get off getoffgetoff!) as the Hokage exclaimed his underling's name, and then his magic lashed and hummed under his skin as the woman jerked back, involuntarily releasing him.
(One of the most instinctive forms of accidental magic, rarely seen in anyone but scared children. A static surge that made touching the child feel as if they've grabbed hold of a live electrical current instead.)
It was there, but a pittance of what he usually had access to, but Harry grasped it with needy hands, called forward all the magic he could reach with a twist of intent focus and Disapparated.
Behind him he left only the crack of displaced air and a few drops of dark blood on the floor… And a room full of either curious or alarmed shinobi.
A/N: Next chapter's an interlude, which means this is the last chapter of this Arc, which means everything's going to shift again ;3 Love to know what you thought about this chapter, please tell me~