A/N: First, thank you for your condolences, everyone c: I'm doing better than I had been (which is why I'm actually writing again), but your sympathies mean a lot. Secondly! Some of you may have noticed that the first chapter has a new note at the top? Yeah? I mean that! Seriously, I had no clue before I started writing this that my angst-meter was so fucked. I can do nothing about that. I don't go out of my way to make it angsty, or make it not, because I seriously have read a lot worse. So there's that. Although, I wonder why you suffered through this much of the story if you hated the angst so much... *shakes head in mild wonder*

/-/-/-/-/

Chapter 14; Creep

The loud crack that announced his return to the Forest sounded oddly distorted to Harry's ears. The moment his feet touched the ground, he collapsed, boneless; he was drained, empty, the energy that allowed him to escape gone just as suddenly as it had come. His fear was gone as well, however. There was none of the paranoia that'd so long been rooted into his heart, completely vanished with the presences of the humans, the shinobi.

The instincts he had so carefully kept contained while around them –so he could at least pretend to be normal, human– now broke free and spread out, coloring his thoughts dark and startlingly vivid. Those instincts, so strong and unhindered, gave him another kind of knowledge. Harry knew; any other time, shifting into his Basilisk form would've been the best solution, but not now. His stronger form would be just as helpless and immobile, the weakness just as disabling with the added risk of making himself a much larger target.

Harry sighed into the ground, feeling the thin, scraggly grass flutter against his cheek and nose at the passing of his breath. He should have been scared, terrified of his complete inability to move… But he wasn't. Only one tired thought passed through his mind; the probability that his scent –that of a highly venomous snake, despite his current shape– would drive away the other predators that dwelled here. He had no desire to be eaten by a tiger, regardless of how impressive its size…

Harry felt the warm body of his incorporeal companion move along his skin, coming to rest with its triangular head on the cheek not pressed to the ground. It spoke, but Harry's magic retreated like the tide –danger passed, escape assured–, taking the last of his cognizance with it. Soft hisses became nothing more than static noise, and the dark shadow emerging from the trees sparked no alarm in his dulling sight.

Like brittle glass, the last of something fragile within him broke; a wash of gray fell over Harry, body and mind.

An all-encompassing sensation overtook him: Harry was weightless, floating in the eye of a missive storm, hot and cold winds deadlocked as they swirled around him. It was controlled chaos—a war without end as the opposites clashed, shearing off pieces of the other. Hot turned cold and cold turned hot, trapped in an endless cycle with no middle ground… Except… The eye. Upon Harry's realization that there already existed a middle ground –for the eye of the storm was in fact calm and temperate– the violent winds immediately calmed from their extremes. Though the storm remained intense, the temperatures lost much of their warring intensity; but for the occasional gust of blistering heat of freezing chill, the winds became uniformly warm.

Harry remained in the eye, bemused but more relaxed than he could ever remember. This was peace. This was what it was like to exist without worry, or pain, or fear. It was bliss. Nirvana. The condition he had strived for when he sought escape from the terrible reality he was forced to experience… But where was he? What was this place? It wasn't his mind—there was only pain to be found there… Nor could it be a dream conjured by his body…his body, lying somewhere in a dark forest…given that he was still alive, and this wasn't death..!

He fell out of the storm, then; the peaceful sensation receded as suddenly as it had come on, and Harry knew he was once more tethered tightly to his body. Confusion emerged, weak from exhaustion. Where was he now? Absolute darkness existed behind his closed eyelids, the air pulled into his lungs tepid and humid and rancid. The awareness granted him –despite, or maybe because of his exhausted weakness– made Harry know that his surroundings were strange; small, closely enclosing him with walls that were slick with warm, slimy moisture.

The walls moved.

A distant sound, a tangible sensation, pulsed against him through the walls.

Tha-thum, tha-thum, tha-thum…

Harry drifted off in the darkness, a strange sort of peace falling over him as he realized that he felt safe. Unlike the storm, but still safe…and so tired. Like he had been very sick, a strong fever that had finally broken. He slept.

Harry understood.

Calling what had happened a 'fever' wasn't exactly wrong, for all that it wasn't really correct. It was his magic –was always his magic– that had caused his weakness, sapped him of his strength and mental fortitude. All so that he wouldn't fight, so that he would be relaxed during the most vital times, wouldn't undo the process that had been ongoing for months.

It all came back to his magic. The nature of his magic had changed –been changed–, first by himself and then later by Voldemort. For the longest time it had been changing Harry in turn: It adapted his body and mind to function on nearly no sleep, more effectively than should have been possible. It started to absorb Voldemort's horcrux –(horcrux! Soul shard, soul anchor! Voldemort's immortality…he finally knew!)– to prevent the takeover and destruction of Harry's own soul, to which it was bound. It took his fortitude and desire to survive; Harry's magic, near sentient but still his, had melded itself to Voldemort's stolen power to make something different than what had ever existed…

And that power, that changed magic, had turned back and made sure that Harry would continue to survive. Two souls were not meant to dwell in one body—it was incompatible for life. But Harry and Voldemort had become similar enough over time, and the primordial magic, no longer separated as the souls were, could feel that. And so they had been fused; slowly, painfully, imperfectly, in an attempt to remedy the incompatibility of their divided states.

Tempering Harry's traumas and Voldemort's madness, but also joining their ways of reasoning, their morals, their personalities

It was as fascinating as it was horrifying.

Harry's curiosity wouldn't allow him to dwell long on the horror, however; all he wanted then was to use that spell, so that he could look upon his magic and soul now. It was… Soul Gazing magic…learned during his –ah, Voldemort's– first reign; it was spoken in the language of the Dementors, for their own use. It had been the boon he'd demanded in return for allowing the dark creatures to freely feed on the muggles of Great Britain, whilst under his allegiance.

Had he the energy for the action, a wide, victorious smile would have nearly split Harry's face. He knew.

But Harry was exhausted still, and his thoughts continued to fade away at the end, and he felt so safe.

Harry woke, a scream trapped in his throat. Voices; faint, barely heard, but he still knew them to be many, all talking at once. A faint touch of warm air danced across his face, briefly distracting him from the voices and back to the sensation of clinging wetness, and the low, continuous noise.

Tha-thum, tha-thum, tha-thum…

Preternatural yellow eyes cut through the absolute darkness, and Harry discovered he could open his eyes again, could see. It took more than a few minutes of blank staring, however, to understand what he saw. Smooth ridges –fleshy, organic– moved mere inches from his nose, pale and slick with viscous strings of moisture. The moisture moved with the deep, rhythmic pulls of warm air. Breathing? …Saliva?

A…mouth? He was in a mouth? When..? How!

On his back, arms tucked in close to his sides, Harry spread his hands out, fingers trailing gently over what he knew to be teeth. Fangs. Very sharp fangs. He wondered at first why the feeling of safety, of absolute security, hadn't faded away to fear… Until his searching, curious eyes located two long fangs tucked up against the roof of the mouth. And it somehow made sense that he should feel safe, there, held in the mouth of what must've been a huge serpent.

Slowly, tentatively, Harry cast out his magic—he sighed, immensely relieved that he had the ability to do so, and then again when he felt no signs of shinobi around him. Only the diffuse pulse of faint chakra, something he had learned existed in all living things. But…no shinobi, and the chakra he was used to feeling in the civilians –untrained humans– was absent as well… Which meant that the voices he'd awoken to, that he could still very faintly hear, must be the voices of snakes.

That fact brought up more questions than answers, though, since snakes very rarely gathered in large numbers. Barring hibernation –and mating, in certain species– it was absolutely rare to have any number of snakes gather, owing to the fact that cannibalism was quite common… Harry sighed again and pushed it out of mind; he had more dire thoughts to dwell on, and would rather take advantage of the pervasive feeling of safety to do so.

Harry needed to think about what his magic had done. He knew what it had done, what had happened –his magic was closer to him than ever before, he and it may as well have been the same–, knew what had been happening since he was thrown through the Veil, and just finally had come to its completion. It was hard to wrap his head around.

Harry felt like a whole person. It was a strange, but most satisfying sensation—a kind of content he had never experienced. For longer than Harry could remember, it had always felt like he was missing something important, like there was a hole in his heart. He wondered if it was that missing part that caused the pain in his chest that had haunted Harry his entire life, sometimes prominent and sometimes faint, but always there… Now, the newer, more experienced part that he had to call 'himself' said that the pain was similar to when one made a horcurx… The killing curse may very well have sheared away some of his soul. His mother's protection hadn't been perfect, after all; he'd felt Death every day since the spell failed to kill him.

Harry swallowed hard at the last thought, but shook himself and refocused on the matter of his 'wholeness'. Most of his fascination stemmed from Voldemort's experiences, and his horcruxes; he hadn't been whole for so long, either, having begun his path to immortality at only seventeen years old… (Ah, that made so much more sense.. .The Diary had actually been a part of the Dark Lord's soul, not some powerful artifact…)

The most relieving thing to come from all this, however, was the fact that Harry no longer felt like two people. Feeling the constant contradiction, the constant war, had been worse than feeling like less than a whole being. It was just easier –even for a Dark Lord– to feel broken and incomplete than it was to feel like too much of a person. Having another voice in your head, constantly talking, constantly pushing you to think things you didn't want to think. Neither of them had ever been a shining beacon of mental health, but having conversations, arguments, with a voice that existed only in their head… Talking to it aloud when it became too insistent to keep inside… It was too much, even knowing that it belonged to a separate soul. That it really was someone else talking…

Harry would have cocked his head to the side if he hadn't been effectively paralyzed from his lingering weakness. Technically, he supposed, he was more that a whole person now, even while he was no longer two. Harry knew from the memories still emerging that the Dark Lord had tied his lifeforce tightly to Harry's own, slowly initiating Harry into his immortality. And now he knew –from Voldemort's last moments as a singular being– that the spell Harry used to rip out his magic had also ripped out his soul, dragging the shards from the remaining horcruxes as well…

remaining horcruxes. Harry felt momentarily dizzy as he recalled the Dark Lord weaving those three strings of soul into Harry's, and the one that'd already been irreversibly fused in. Him, an accidental horcrux. Slytherin's locket. The Gaunt ring. Hufflepuff's cup. And with the theft of the Dark Lord's magic –which he had gone farther than anyone before to tie to his soul, to live forever– Harry also drew the two remaining horcruxes. From Nagini, safely ensconced in Malfoy Manor; from Ravenclaw's diadem, in the Room of Hidden Things—the Room of Requirement at Hogwarts.

So really, Harry was more than whole. Two souls, both nearly intact, joined.

He closed his eyes and grimaced. Harry didn't like that. Voldemort didn't like that. They were both the same, now, but neither liked the loss of his (their?) sense of self. They were still different—they had to be. How were they different?

I am myself.

Memories. Memories were easy to tell apart. Memories from Voldemort felt less real, being only imprints on the soul and magic, not experienced, not etched into his brain. Besides that, their behavior towards the people they'd interacted with over the course of their lives was always enough to tell them apart.

Knowledge…in that, they weren't different enough. Everything came easily; there was no struggle to recall—spells, conversations, legends… It was only when he thought about where or how he'd learned something that he would discover who had been the originator…and sometimes that still failed. Voldemort had learned so much in his insatiable quest to know everything about magic—why bother to remember where or how he'd learned a spell, so long as he knew it? And Harry had learned so much, so fast, and the Room had taught him so many eclectic things. The line blurred to nonexistence, there.

I am not the sum of my parts.

It…surprised Harry to discover that when he wasn't incorrigibly insane from soul-damage, that their personalities weren't as dissimilar as he would've liked to believe. But they were different, markedly so. Though both terribly possessive of what they considered theirs', they showed it in drastically different ways: Voldemort would hide it away for no one to see, while Harry would proudly display his claim. Voldemort hoarded knowledge and power with the intent to lord it over others, to establish himself as superior and unchallengeable. Harry wanted to be strong only because of the freedom power gave him, and because he loved his magic, first and foremost; though he enjoyed testing his strength, Harry never wanted to rule.

But… Those extremes continued to clash within him, upsetting the balance that was establishing itself. He didn't want to change.

I am Harry.

Harry wondered what would happen if he could return to the Wizarding World, then. As himself, he had never cared for the government; corrupt and generally useless… And Voldemort had wanted to tear that useless farce of a ruling body to the ground…after his rule was established and he no longer needed such an easily manipulated government, anyway.

But the Wizarding World wasn't important anymore; Harry couldn't allow himself to hold onto the idea that he could return. Because he knew he shouldn't—no one would want him, be they the Order of the Death Eaters. Only he and his magic were of importance, and what he could do with his abilities in a world that knew nothing of magic, and nothing of him.

A small smile curled thin lips. Yesss… What could he do, when there was no Ministry to try and regulate his actions, no other magic users to counter his spells?

Had it been Voldemort who was the more dominant presence from their joining, a takeover would have been in order; from what he had learned, shinobi could make strong, competent servants. But Voldemort wasn't –if only because he had been more broken, and Harry had more experience in keeping that soul in check– and Harry had no desire to rule, to become an infamous figurehead…

My name is Harry.

But Harry liked being strong, having power that few could ever hope to match, and had discovered that he enjoyed learning new applications of magic. And now, with even stronger magic, and new access to knowledge of the most interesting magics in the world… It was just a matter of re-learning the spells, manipulating them to be cast wandlessly. He had all the time in the world, after all.

Ohh, no he didn't, no he didn't. He'd almost forgotten in this new chaos… The Konoha shinobi would be searching for him now; he had escaped their watch, and now they would be hunting him. If he didn't want them attacking him on sight –there was no way he could avoid them forever– he would have to go back, and before they got too worked up, thinking that he was working with their traitor or some other nonsense. The fewer enemies he had, the easier his life would be.

…But then again, he would love an excuse to break Inoichi, and of course they would sent someone who knew him to hunt him…

Nonono, mustn't think that! (There were plenty of ways to do it, too. Could Imperio the man and make him do unspeakable things. Could transfigure him into a snake and have him respect and obey like the others were wont to do. Could cast so many spells to simply torture him; melt bones, rip intestines, burn flesh… The medic-nin would be hard-pressed to save him!) He couldn't think it, couldn't let himself think that doing that would solve anything, would give him anything but instant gratification. It would be so easy, though…

Harry grimaced, forcefully turning his thoughts away from Konoha, its shinobi, or any human at all. He thought that most other people didn't have that problem—he hadn't always, either. Harry was able to keep it out of what he said, most of the time, but to restrain his thoughts was infinitely more difficult. To stop the thoughts of ripping, tearing, hurting; of the anger, of wanting to make others just scream. Harry didn't like it, how easy it was to think these things and just not care.

Worst of all, Harry didn't think that Voldemort's soul –his motivations or desires– had anything to do with those bad thoughts. The Dark Lord only used pain as a tool, and his satisfaction came not from hurting, but primarily from the awareness that his plans were progressing from it. (Until his fourth horcrux, at least, when his soul started to unravel and he was stricken insane, and then wanted to inflict pain like the pain he felt…).

Inoichi must've been right, then; it must've been the insanity speaking. Harry giggled, and slipped into silence once more.

Twenty-nine thousand beats of his heart, long since slowed and synchronized to match the giant serpent whose mouth he sheltered in, and Harry stopped counting. His mind had finally cleared of the last lingering dullness caused by his magic's forced sedation.

Clarity of thought allowed Harry to look back at the muddled events that caused him to flee from the Tower. While he cursed the circumstances of his flight –he had spoken little sense at the end, and the simple fact that he had been there and hidden would make them much more suspicious of him– Harry was even more intrigued by the words of the Hokage. More specifically, the lies he spoke to his underlings. Because that was what they were—pretty little lies, absolutely worthless.

…There had to be a reason that the aged leader hadn't put a word of his powers –however little they concretely knew– into the reports those at the Tower received. The question was; why? Did he not trust his underlings with the truth? That he was attempting to gain Harry's trust, gain he and his powers for the benefit of Konohagakure? Or was it something else… What the dark shinobi had warned the snake-lady of. Did the Hokage fear the wrong information getting to the wrong ears? Those flowery words about prejudice and compassion just that? Useless words for the ears of those not meant to hear the truth?

Harry didn't know. He could only hope that his luck held out, and the Hokage decided that discretion was the better choice; he had no desire to become an enemy of Konoha, but death would be hard to avoid if he was to be hunted… And Harry had no intention of being the one dying, either.

By all rights, he should let them know that he was in their Forest, that he needed to be there, away from people. But…if he appeared and told them, they would either force him back to their hospital, or perhaps even a cell –which he would not allow– …or try to kill him, depending on the Hokage's decision. Either way, that was unacceptable. Harry needed time, and most importantly, space. Without both, there would be no way for him to master, or at least control, the fatal power of his eyes.

If only he knew how to write in their language, then maybe he could just leave them a note… Or perhaps not. Perhaps he was just over-thinking things again. Wouldn't it be better if they didn't know he was in their Forest at all? Let them think that he had completely gone, and maybe he could come back to their village in the distant future…

Harry shifted uncomfortably in the damp, close quarters of the serpent's mouth. Then he stopped, frowning, and shifted again. And then froze, a strange expression crossing his face as he realized that something felt…off. Without warning the large, forked tongue he was lying on moved, and Harry barely bit down on the startled yelp that tried to escape, eyes widening hugely as he realized the cause of the strange sensation.

Before he had the opportunity to make sense of it, a crack of light appeared above his head, allowing fresh air to waft over his face. Harry became acutely aware, then, of the overpowering smell that surrounded him; venom and old, rancid death. It wasn't nearly as offensive as it would have once been, the scent familiar now, and conversely linked with the feelings of peace and safety. Squinting and tilting his head back, Harry caught a brief glimpse of dark green before his sight was overtaken by the vibrant red-orange form of his companion as it slipped into the massive serpent's mouth.

"Are you awake yet, my Lord?" The phantom whispered gently as it reached him, strangely warm body slithering onto bare skin without hesitation. "The Behemoth indicated that she thought she felt you stirring…" Its voice trailed off at the end, as if his companion wasn't expecting an answer. Harry shifted again, shivering as yet more cool air invaded the tepid space, touching far more skin than it should've been able to.

"I am awake," Harry rasped, voice mild as one hand twitched and slowly crept towards the phantom on his chest. "Tell me though, Pretty; where have my clothes gone?" Before he'd finished speaking his fingers were wrapped firmly around the sinuous form, pulling it closer to his face. The only reason he hadn't already disapparated in panic was the distinct lack of human presences around, though he still felt terribly out of sorts.

"Ah. Ehm…yes, that." The serpent twisted upon itself, apparently in embarrassment. It was then that Harry realized that something fundamental had changed within his companion as a result of tying its spirit to him: He couldn't remember it being nearly as expressive, before. "The, ah, the hunters were trying to track you. To lead them away from you and the Behemoth, we tore apart your false skins and scattered them across the forest. The old piece held your scent very well."

Harry was silent as he contemplated the phantom's words, though he twitched again as it slid out of his loosening grip and cuddled against his chest. His head fell back against the large tongue, and he stared blankly at the fangs above him as his thoughts slipped from his mouth in no particular order. "So, the other snakes can see you –I can still hear them out there…– while the humans apparently cannot… I need to test that. Can the tigers see you? The insects? Birds? Clever of you to lead the hunters away with false trails, though I hate to think what conclusions they would come to if they saw the trails being set. I'm glad that you kept me away from them, though… Even if you could have left me with something to wear." Harry rolled his eyes up to peer out the barely-open mouth, face blank. "I needed those, you pervert." His companion slithered half onto his face, peering into one of his eyes and radiating an inappropriate amount of glee.

"I am glad you are cognizant again, my Lord." The phantom hadn't sounded as gleeful as it did, now, even when he'd discovered it still dwelling in his head: The end of its tail was still curled around the hand resting on his chest, tightening occasionally as if to remind Harry that it was still there. Harry smiled slightly, despite the annoyance he felt over the loss of his clothes. "And I am not a pervert; the skins you wore under your outer one barely held your scent at all, but the forest is very large and we needed it all… Also, there is a Greater Snake here, and he would not trust his tongue with your identity until he saw your scales as proof."

A confused frown creased Harry's brows: Pretty said 'Greater Snake' like it was a title, like whenever it had called him 'Lord Snake'. And what did it mean about his 'identity'? Harry blinked and ran his fingers down his companion's nearly-intangible body, almost grateful to have something to distract him from the destruction of his clothes, his robe. (The last material possession he had from his own world…). He had the most particular feeling that it would be useless to ask his companion to elaborate further—that same feeling that made every snake he came upon address him as 'Lord'. It was something his Fire Scales was not unwilling, but instead unable to clarify for him.

Harry licked his lips, grimacing for forgetting where he was and again at the foul tasted of the 'Behemoth's' thick saliva. "Will this… Greater serpent try to make any trouble?" Something within him rankled at voicing the thought, for thinking it at all, though the reason why continued to elude him. It was even stronger than what Voldemort felt when faced with the prospect of disobedience from his followers.

The very idea of a snake acting out against Harry was…unacceptable.

Pretty shifted, an action reminiscent of a shrug. "He has been quiet since he saw you, and has not left the Behemoth's side since she decided to hold you." Disdain entered the whispering voice. "He was the only one to refuse to assist with the scent trails; said, it was below him." That, more than anything, seemed to anger Pretty: Harry reflected that the level of loyalty displayed in his companion would have been borderline horrifying in a human.

Harry hummed acknowledgement. "I should talk to him before he causes any trouble—he sounds like someone I knew, once." He paused and blinked before sweeping the thought away carelessly. "Hm. Would you ask the Behemoth to let me out?" The request wasn't exactly that, but Harry was too fond of the phantom to word a command when one wasn't necessary.

"Yes, Lord Harry." It responded, already moving off his neck and passed his head, to the small gap the massive serpent's parted jaws created. Harry tilted his head back again, breathing in a tantalizing wisp of fresh air, but refocused as Fire Scales paused and spoke again. "I made sure they left you your eye-cover. I remember that you hadn't wanted anyone to see your eyes… They are very beautiful, my Lord; I wish you wouldn't hide them." It slithered out without giving Harry time to respond.

Without his notice, a small smile pulled the corner of Harry's lips as he felt around his throat and pulled the damp material of his blindfold up over his eyes. It felt…good. Not to cover his eyes again, but that he had his blindfold. Even if it had been the shroud of his torture, that piece of his robe was still a piece of home. Harry didn't know why it was so important –neither of them had ever been particularly fond of the world they'd lived in– but the cloth made him feel…connected to something.

A moment later –the faint sound of his companion's voice– the great mouth opened, top jaw going nearly vertical, and Harry found himself looking up into the familiar canopies of dark trees. He sat up slowly, careful of the unsteady surface on which he rested, and carefully maneuvered himself over the sharp teeth and onto solid ground. It was soft and cool under his bare knees, only a few patches of hardy grass that could survive on the small amount of sunlight that could reach the forest floor.

Even before he looked around, Harry could feel multitudes of eyes on him, and though he knew them to be snakes the attention was very nearly uncomfortable all the same. A subtle, complex motion of his hand –a necessary focus for a spell that only Voldemort had had need to use– formed a shroud or mist and shadow around him, an almost opaque robe that obscured him body passably enough.

Fire Scales came close and gave a wordless hiss, prompting Harry to lift the intangible serpent to his shoulders and finally glance around, finally behold the most unusual sight around him. The Behemoth was aptly named, an immense snake well over a hundred feet in length, her body curled in a loose semi-circle and completely encompassing the rest of the gathering. More than two dozen other serpents coiled within the loose boundary, benevolently still; the largest of them was about thirty feet, though the majority were less than five, and Harry knew these were but a few of his denizens within the Forest. They were all dark in color, scales mottled brown and green and gray—perfect for ambushing even the most wary.

All were focused on him, unblinking eyes attentive.

"My companion tells me that all of you took part in the ruse against the human hunters, and have thus protected me in my time of weakness…" Harry spoke in a soft, carrying voice, covered eyes trailing over the assemblage, looking for the 'Greater' one. He remained kneeling, sitting almost-comfortably on his feet and leaning against the smooth scales of the Behemoth's head, scales he could feel starkly through the illusion clothing him. "I must thank you all for your actions. I fear, that had none of you assisted me so, that the hunters would have taken me again." He smiled at them, showing impressive fangs in an expression that would make any human dearly uncomfortable.

"Lord Snake?" A small, grayish serpent separated from the group to come before him, body strangely flat and the scent of her venom peculiar; a bird-eater, a rare snake that could launch itself from high branches and glide. "The word of your arrival here was spread almost two moon cycles past, yet we only find you four suns back—your Guardian says you'd been with the humans." The tone turned slightly accusing, wary suspicion permeating her scent. "Why are you only here now?"

(Four suns, four days. He'd lost yet more time to the mess in his head…but at least his magic was done.)

Harry frowned at the bird-eater, but when he reached for the outspoken snake it was only to trail a pale, sharp-nailed finger along its narrow head. It arched into his touch, catlike. "It is quite simple. I had been in very poor health, and with human care I could recover more quickly than I was able to here." He looked up, taking in the natural scenery, the unstressed quiet. "It was worth the time, though I found their company to be…tiresome." The food as well—Harry was very much looking forward to eating something warm and bloody, again.

"The humans –hunters– took care of you, willingly?" Another snake spoke, the same species as the mottled-brown Behemoth but much smaller, younger; he remained where he was, as there was yet another smaller snake draped across his head. "Could they not tell that you were not one of theirs'?"

Harry took a long moment to consider the question before he answered—it seemed too important for meaningless assurances. He wasn't human, after all, not if those legends were real: He was a creature halfway between human and Basilisk, and that was only physically. But spiritually… What did his soul make him? His magic? But his snakes didn't need to hear that; they asked what the shinobi thought, and Harry knew all about that.

"They did," Harry said slowly, mulling over what he knew. "They took good care of me, and would still if I hadn't escaped them as I had. The humans do think that I could be one of their kin, despite my differences. The way I understand them, it is not so uncommon to see certain traits like mine in some of their hunters. They rationalized my differences as something they believed could be borne from their own…" He paused, and then bared his fangs in another smile, newly amused. "There were some who thought I was of demon blood, but they don't want to believe that."

Amongst the hissed laughter that followed the end of his statement, Harry leaned more fully against the Behemoth's great head. When she made no complaint –only a popping hiss of amused fondness–, Harry settled in comfortably, drawing his knees up to his chest to preserve what little body heat he had, now bereft of real clothing to aid him in keeping properly warm. It was something he would have to remedy soon, but it could afford to wait just a little while in the pleasant calm. The whole time he'd spoken, none of his audience had struck him as the so-called 'Greater Snake'; his companion had remained watchful but quiescent around his shoulders. A shame. Harry had almost been looking forward to what the 'Greater' on had to say, but apparently it had lost interest in him…

Almost thought too soon.

"Be quiet, you dim fools." A new voice broke easily thought the quiet, budding hisses of stilted conversation—as a rule, snakes on their own were not the most social, nor gifted conversationalists. "All of you, every one of you low worms, taken in by some human youngling with a few dregs of demon in his blood. Have you no shame?"

The Behemoth hissed angrily and jerked her head suddenly; Harry almost toppled over as she moved, but righted himself and turned to see the presence he could sense unmasking itself. It felt so very unlike the chakra he was by now almost used to feeling in human shinobi, but still so blatantly unmistakable. Such strong chakra…

"And you. A mere racer from Grass—as if one of your lowly ilk would be the Guardian of Ouroboros. Yet still, you should have more pride than to allow yourself to be tied so intimately to a human, a pathetic little human. Are your senses so weak that you cannot tell? That little runt of a youngling barely has enough chakra to sustain his own life, let alone Summon."

Harry was rapidly becoming less impressed with the newcomer, slicking back slimy-wet hair to clear his vision and better observe the serpent as he slithered over the Behemoth's massive form—where he had been hidden, the presence of his chakra artfully masked. He was large –an even length to Harry's Basilisk form, before his age and size reduced with his 'rebirth'– and impressively muscular even for a constrictor –which he obviously was not–, his coloring mainly a mix of dark grays and blacks. What erased any idea that the snake could be less mundane than his chakra were the frequent jagged slashes of vivid purple along his body, and large, nearly glowing acid green eyes.

The great head –horned protrusions arching back from the crests above his eyes; an intimidating visage– came in close to Harry, heedless of the Behemoth's warning, warding hisses; a forked black tongue flicked out languidly, tasting the air not an inch from Harry's face. Harry felt the first stirrings of a dark, dangerous anger breaking his calm. It wasn't for this powerful serpent's words against himself –not as such; he knew his body was weak, his power different from theirs', even if he didn't appreciate being called weak. Or human.–, but the implication that Fire Scales wasn't good enough..!

There was no doubt in Harry's mind that this was the Greater Snake, nor any that the title was indeed fitting. It was obvious. Even if he were to completely disregard the staggering amount of chakra, it was in the way the other spoke. His choice of words: That he said 'chakra' instead of 'power', and the fact that his speech wasn't punctuated with the wordless hisses of expression that every other snake used. There was something about this serpent that was more, and Harry was willing to bet that it had something to do with that chakra…

But that wouldn't mean a damned thing if he kept belittling Harry's Fire Scales.

"I would ask you to quit mocking my companion. They courageously gave their life to preserve mine…" Harry's voice once more emerged deceptively mild, but quickly turned sharp; like a blade hidden beneath the softest silk. "I would ask, except I am telling you. Do not mock my companion." Fire Scales was his, and nothing or no one would condemn the little serpent for its bravery. Neither would they for Harry's grief-stricken act to consume the serpent's body, and somehow bind its spirit to him in the process.

The crested head jerked back, green eyes calculative in a way that was very strange to see in a snake…but not in a human. Harry was only distantly aware of the warm body of his companion slithering down his arm, and then silently to the ground; only vaguely aware of it saying "Away, away, hurry!" to the rest of the gathered snakes as he stared down the serpent looming over him. Without fear, but slowly growing aggression as it wouldn't defer. The dark and purple head cocked to one side; had it the physical capability, the other would surely be sneering at him.

"Yet more proof that you cannot be the Lord, little human." He drawled slowly, head rising yet higher from the ground and swaying side to side, cobra-like. "Would our Lord allow himself to become so weak as to necessitate another to preserve his life? No." The thick tail thumped the ground for emphasis, and his raised head turned slightly to aim his words at the retreating others—a carpet of serpents clearing away from the powerful duo, lead by Harry's Pretty. "If you are the Ouroboros, you should be nigh-invincible, shouldn't you?"

Harry cocked his head to the side, blindfolded eyes watching the swaying Greater keenly as his mind rushed towards the implicated challenge gleefully. Somehow, the parallels fell almost too perfectly: Like within the Slytherin hierarchy –the Snake House of Hogwarts– when a powerful newcomer came along and they had to prove themselves worthy of respect. Whatever weight their family name held meant next to nothing if the challenger wanted to prove themselves fitting for the top position… Not until they bested the current House leader.

The cloak of mist and shadow flickered around Harry as his magic stirred with anticipation, briefly revealing the frailty of his body, his supposed weakness. But the fact that he was standing at all proved that he was strong; that he could hide proved he was stronger. Harry had endured, and though physically he was feeble, magically he was more than capable. He could win. Harry was worthy of the respect the snakes seemed to instinctually hold for him.

And now… Now, Harry wanted to play.

"I've never claimed to be your Lord." Harry stated blandly, not to refute the claim –though he still had next to no idea what the title entailed, though he strongly suspected it was simply for being– but as part of the dance, to see what the Greater would do. His magic curled around him lazily, just barely unseen, poised and waiting.

"Well, I suppose that's unfortunate for you then, little runt. They believe, and you have to prove it now." A brief spike of chakra was the only warning Harry got, but it was more than sufficient; by the time the Greater's purple-slashed snout impacted the ground, Harry was a dozen feet away, moved with an instantaneous snap-snap of air, Apparation near instinctual with his new freedom from the ninja.

Harry smiled sharply as the other snake reared back and shook his head with an angry curse, green eyes already searching for him. It was to be to the death, then. Harry's smile widened enough for one of his longer fangs to slit his lip cleanly, even as his magic whisked him a farther dozen feet as a new explosion of displaced dirt flew from the Greater's strike.

The other didn't immediately rear again after the second failed strike, glaring at Harry balefully with his head flat to the ground…and Harry felt his chakra moving, building, doing something, but—

He Apparated before he even knew why, but had no time to look back because when he reappeared the Greater lunged with impossible –chakra enhanced!– speed, mouth red and gaping, long fangs shining with chakra-laced venom and intent to swallow him whole. The trailing shadows of his cloak brushed the tip of the serpent's snout and Harry disappeared just in time, the snap of his teleportation drowned out by the sound of the Greater's strong jaws slamming shut, empty.

Smile sharp and exhilaration high, Harry slapped a near-skeletal hand down on the thick scales, crouched upon the back of his opponent—nothing more than a taunt before Apparating once more, to the boughs of the immense trees high above. The adrenaline made him high; he felt so alive!

Harry leaned forward on the large branch, fingers curling around the edge to steady his crouch as he peered at the ground so far below, finally able to glimpse the attack he hadn't seen but felt coming. A spiral of sharpened spikes of earth jutted starkly from the torn forest floor; any one of the spears would have been potentially fatal, each of the score barbed with yet more wicked hooks of earth. Impressive. It was a shame that this fight could only end one way: Greater's superior intelligence and ability to use chakra (like the shinobi!) would've been quite the boon. But there was no middle ground here. The fight would end in death—and Harry would hold his respect with the death of the one who called him weak. The fact that the Greater had belittled his companion first would only make Harry enjoy it more.

Far below, the dark Greater was becoming visibly frustrated, head whipping back and forth, forked tongue tasting the air nonstop. Harry inched farther along the branch, until he was perfectly visible if only the other looked up, but it gave Harry the perfect position right above

Harry jumped, completely without fear as he twisted and fell headfirst towards the Greater, mouth split with a wild grin as he went fasterfasterfaster and let out an improbably loud hiss. He only smiled wider when the snake coiled and launched itself up at him, mouth gaping (weakness!), and Harry stretched one hand towards it, directing, focusing, and when he felt damp breath on his arm he released his spell, and Apparated.

Harry tumbled hard into the soft, torn earth beside the stiff, toppling body of the Greater. He groaned quietly as he pushed himself to his hands and knees; his magic hadn't managed to negate all the speed of his fall, and Harry knew he was damned lucky that the ground was upturned and soft or he would have likely broken something. Harry was in no hurry to pick himself up, however, because he could feel that he had won. Magic spread out in ecstasy –no longer forced to hide from fear of discovery–, Harry could feel the thrum of the spell holding the other snake harmlessly petrified.

Suppressing a new limp with only some success, Harry leisurely walked the few feet to the Greater's head, one hand trailing over scales much smoother than his own. He didn't know if he had been expecting more of a challenge, but Harry found himself inexplicably disappointed that it hadn't lasted longer, that it had been so easy. Would it have drawn out longer if he had defended himself from the attacks, rather than dodging everything, apparating?

Would he have risked harm to himself if it had drawn the skirmish out, allowed it to escalate? Yes. Yes, he would have. Harry was genuinely disquieted to discover that he would have dragged the fight out…if it hadn't been so vital to his pride and position to end this quickly. To prove that he was that much stronger than the Greater. But in any other hypothetical situation… (Against shinobi..?)

"I have defeated you soundly." Harry murmured, head tilted to one side as he stood just far enough away from the other's snout to clearly see both acid-green eyes. Though the serpent was petrified, he was aware –unlike the petrification from a Basilisk's indirect gaze– and Harry saw the way the weak light from above flickered as its focus shifted. The cool smile on his lips turned abruptly more sharp when he sensed the Greater's chakra begin to build—

(Not even in his most intense duels with Dumbledore had Voldemort needed to apparate as much or as quickly as Harry had in these scant few minutes.)

Harry didn't flinch as a rain of dirt pelted against his back, crouched with cool scales under his hands and feet. He didn't have to look back to know that there were yet more wicked spikes of earth protruding from where he stood not a second ago; Harry could tasted blood in the air from where the wicked hooks had gouged the Greater from his too-close proximity to his own attack. Slowly, when no more chakra built, Harry slouched back out of his cautious crouch to sit on the Greater's blunt snout, thin fingers tapping his lips thoughtfully.

It really was a shame… But at least he had learned something valuable: Mundane petrification didn't effect the use of chakra, at all.

"Are you going to do that again?" Harry asked musingly, making a point of looking over his shoulder at the massive, looming spikes. It was clear as day that to do so again would be suicide for the great snake; there was little chance the Greater could do that again without impaling his brain on one of them, and no chance that one wouldn't at least pierce his jaw. Harry leaned forward, his head inches away from one acid-green eye, voice dropping to a low whisper meant only for the Greater. "I am not a Lord without mercy. Do you want my mercy, Greater Snake? Do you wan to experience firsthand the power that you claimed I am without?"

Of course, no answer was forthcoming; the Greater was petrified. Harry saw his fangs reflected in the eye, a demented smile that he made no attempt to hide, and reached up with both hands to carefully curl his fingers under the only thing keeping so many from instant death.

"Know that this is my mercy," Harry murmured, eyes closed as he carefully dragged the blindfold away, a sinister smile still twisting his lips. "I could have decided to torture you first."

Yellow eyes met green, and the body of the Greater Snake slumped loose in sudden death: The anticlimactic end to a brief but exhilarating battle for respect.

Harry remained seated on the corpse for a long moment, pensive as he drew the blindfold back over his face; he had felt the moment that death claimed the other, the immediate warp and drain of the pressing, unique chakra. He frowned at the dark scales and empty eyes, perturbed, but largely unbothered otherwise.

"My Lord?" Harry blinked and looked up at his companion's voice, and blinked again at finding all the other snakes gathered around the Greater's corpse. Quite suddenly he recalled that it had only been the Greater that had ever challenged his 'identity' as the serpents' Lord—the rest of them had never expressed any doubt. Harry smiled at them, wide and near (too close) to manic, and pushed himself to stand even as Pretty joined him, coiling quickly up leg-arm-shoulder to neck.

It was easy to pulse out yet more magic, easy to exude the kind of power and charisma that attracted the Dark Lord's first –most loyal– followers as he faced the blanket of silently waiting snakes. Easier still to twist the magic with the genuine, if strange, affection he held for them. "This 'Greater Snake' challenged me with the intent to kill, and in doing so forfeited his life to me. But you…none of you doubted my power, did you?" As he spoke, Harry climbed atop the corpse's horned head, idle hands twisting strands of loose magic into something with purpose. "Allow me to share my bounty with you, as thanks for your loyalty."

The sound of skin splitting punctuated his last word, and the smell of fresh blood permeated the air as a long cut started down the Greater's hide, following the path of Harry's pointed finger straight down the spine.

"Let us feast."

/-/-/-/-/

Belly heavy with the most revitalizing meal he'd enjoyed since Hogwarts, Harry smiled serenely and leant heavily against the Behemoth's massive side. Pretty remained coiled loosely around his neck –equally if not more content than Harry–, and the other snakes who had partaken in the fulfilling meal lounged about the Greater's carved, stripped carcass.

There was much to do, even more to be concerned about, but none of it seemed to matter so much just then: Not when Harry was pleasantly lethargic and surrounded by beings who would give him their souls if only he wanted for them.

Humanity was highly overrated.

/-/-/-/-/

A/N: So, there's your real chapter. Tell me what you think? (Do I need to prepare to be flamed? *blank stare*) Mahh, whichever. Before anyone freaks, no, Harry's not gonna just cut and run; time skip and return to Konoha next chapter ;3