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When Worlds Collide
An Unexpected Battle
If Harry was to be completely honest, he would have to admit he hadn't even considered the possibility of being attacked right then, right there.
It seemed simply impossible to be ambushed just outside a Cloister... almost... wrong, on a fundamental level – a profanation of sorts, if you will. Stupid, really. Why would the sense of serene accomplishment, that always filled him after gaining the alliance of an Aeon, have any relevance on other people's actions?
Thankfully, his Guardians weren't as unprepared as he felt, unexpected though the attack was. It was probably impossible to catch Itachi off guard – being alert was his default mode and his senses and combat instincts were just freaking good. And Seifer and Scar weren't slouch either.
No sooner had the first green beam shot out of nowhere – or rather, Harry realized, from where a disillusioned group had to be standing – that it impacted with an intercepting kunai flawlessly thrown by his impassive Guardian.
The metal weapon exploded in dangerous shrapnel, but Itachi, his supernatural speed only honed by training and a judicious use of the Autohaste ability painstakingly earned under Seifer's direction, had already moved the Summoner out of the way and behind the shelter of a tree, shielding him with his body. As for the other two Guardians, the first barrage of curses had barely exploded around them and already they were springing into action, lashing back at their attackers with those amazing skills and coordination that always left Harry smiling in wonder.
The young Summoner breathed deeply, forcing himself to recover his balance and to push away the feeling of irritation – at himself for being surprised like this, at the ill-timed attack for disrupting his peaceful satisfaction, and at the enemies that just wouldn't leave him alone most of all. Why were they even targeting him? This wasn't a chance attack, it was planned.
Itachi stepped out of the tree sideways, his fingers moving in a blur that contrasted sharply with his still, composed frame. Pressurized water erupted from apparently nowhere and jumped forward in a spinning motion, drilling through where he was reasonably sure the nearest bunch of attackers would be. Judging by the screams of pain, he was right.
Lethal green and purple beams zoomed around him and Harry, but their aim was wildly off.
The Summoner glanced quickly beyond the barrage of glittering shurikens Itachi was skilfully disseminating among their disillusioned enemies, somehow making them explode on impact into scorching flames that marked the contours of invisible robes and suddenly contorting bodies, and caught sight of Seifer's powerful Reflect shield blazing white and green from the other side of the improvised battlefield. His attackers were screaming in frustration at being hit by their own curses, while the blond struck as unexpected as lightning, with his characteristic backhand slashes.
Scar was weaving his own attacks beautifully with Seifer's, moving around and alongside the blond gunblader with ease: they had the confident fluidity of a team that knew each other's style inside out, born of long hours shared, in and out of practice time, and a common goal they were devoted to.
They didn't waste a second, neither to discuss their own moves, nor to worry about Harry, correctly trusting Itachi to protect their Summoner; they also didn't need any visual targets to wreak havoc: Seifer, because he'd trained himself to fight under Blind status to the point his accuracy was unaffected; Scar, because he only needed a rough estimate of where the enemies were, to explode the ground around them and leave them bleeding and disoriented, incapable of keeping the Disillusionment Charm up through the pain, and unable to gather their wits and strike back because either him or Seifer were almost instantly on them, fists and kicks breaking bones with frightening ease and gunblade slashing through the black-robed wand-wielders as if they were mere toys.
The first wave of ambushers was dispatched in mere minutes, the battle cries turned pained screams and the booming shouts of destruction tapering off for a breathless moment. But it was far from the end.
As the dust raised by the struggle attempted to settle, Harry felt the atmosphere changing: he recognized the peculiar quality of tension spreading, that heralded a more even fight.
Higher-ranked enemies were entering the frame.
With a meaningful glance, Itachi and he agreed on a battle plan they had elaborated and honed ages before, in one of their many hypothetical-scenario kind of practices (and, if Harry was to be honest, in countless exasperation-filled quarrels, which his Guardians had relentlessly pressed upon him until he'd at long last come to accept that it was not his role in battle to actually fight).
The lean, black-haired warrior raised an Earth Wall before Harry then vaulted above it agilely. He didn't go far, scared of leaving the Summoner defenceless and exposed to possible treachery, the mindset of a ninja pointing out strongly the possibility of decoys and deceptions – Harry always was, and always would be, his first concern, his first thought – but his infallible shurikens struck true, disabling the last struggling wand-wielders nearby with ease, and then he went completely still, the terrifying stillness that was one of his most dangerous battle-modes, when he looked like he wasn't even breathing, and he started crafting one of his Illusions.
Harry, ready and willing, took over watching duty and with calm precision cast Shell and Protect over himself and Itachi in quick succession, all the while observing the newcomers.
They didn't look like wand-wielders. They moved more aggressively, and more economically, like fighters trained for close combat rather than the ranged spell-fire the previous ones had favoured. Moreover, they didn't wear fancy robes, but what was clearly a very sensible uniform, of grey cotton fitted loosely, to allow freedom of movement and perhaps conceal some weapons: trousers fastened at the ankles, knees and waist, a jacket with overlapping lapels over a black and grey camouflage outfit and protective arm-and-hand sleeves. The only thing they had in common with the wand-wielders was the fact that they wore a mask and a hood too.
All in all, however, they didn't seem much more competent than the first wave of attackers and almost too soon, Itachi was shrugging his head very slightly, signalling that his Illusion had taken hold; however, right at that time a grey-white blur launched himself at the immoveable Guardian, who reacted lightning-fast, meeting the strangely bone-white blade the new attacker had thrust at him with a steel one of his own.
Not worried for Itachi in the least, Harry turned to check on his other two Guardians, ready to shield them as well, and was momentarily distracted by the sight of Scar holding his bleeding side with an arm and panting. A curse or a weapon had to have broken through his defence, but luckily it didn't look serious; he evoked his White Magic softly, directing a gentle glowing Cure his way, absently registering that four of their attackers nearby were now fighting enemies of thin air, apparently oblivious to their real opponents: the first victims of Itachi's Illusion.
Seifer, for his part, was squaring off with a tall, dark-robed wizard who moved with lethal elegance. The rebound of an attack had blown off his hood and while his face remained hidden behind a bone-white mask, his long, pale blond hair spilled out in a straight, silky curtain, as attention-catching as anything.
He was displaying far more confidence than anyone else had so far, but noticing that his mouth was curled in a rictus under the mask, Harry judged that Seifer and his usual insults had to have got under the wizard's skin already. Now, that was talent.
As Harry watched, the man twisted his golden-brown wand into a double-helical movement and stabbed it with a snarl in Seifer's direction, generating a murder of tiny crows, incredibly small-sized but with razor-sharp beaks, that streaked through the air towards the blond Guardian with determined viciousness.
Impassive, Seifer stood unwaveringly, gunblade raised horizontally at shoulder level, until the very last useful instant, when he exploded into action, turning on the spot and gathering momentum like a coiled spring, only to release it powerfully in a brutal slash that tore through the insect-like birds, scattering them before their needle-like beaks could pierce him: he triggered a round right in the middle of the storm, causing most of the tiny monsters to explode in a gory mess, and laughed derisively: "That all you've got, blondie? Chickenwuss could do better, and he's a wimp!"
In spite of Seifer's mocking, though, Harry had to recognize that the mysterious blond made for a worthy opponent. He didn't waste time and pelted the Guardian with a series of flashing bullet-like spells, which anyone without Seifer's experienced agility would have had serious troubles dodging. A couple impacted nearby trees, exploding the bark, and one hit a black-clad wizard that was battling something existing only in his mind, blowing his left arm and part of his chest up into dust. The poor man collapsed screaming, and already Seifer was being assaulted by two huge snakes his enemy had conjured out of nowhere, buying himself the time to retreat and keep out of range of the Guardian's blade.
Seifer though made quick work of the two weak threats and, true to himself, didn't stop goading his opponent: "Come on, you blond ponce! Surely you aren't such a ninny? Show me what you got!"
In a move that had seldom worked when he tried it in training, he triggered a round while holding his gunblade behind him, letting the recoil push him forward much faster than the wizard could back away. Unfortunately, he didn't manage to thrust the blade into his enemy, because right at that moment another man suddenly stumbled into the path of his blow. Immediately after, a second one, wearing the same grey uniform, slammed into him with enough force to make them both run themselves through Seifer's blade, which fell through the two bodies like a table knife through butter.
"What the hell!" shouted the blond Guardian.
A careless "Sorry" came from somewhere on the blond's right, where Scar, who was apparently responsible for the ill-timed interruption, was rather distracted by the three opponents he was busy beating soundly, and Seifer spared a half-hearted glare for his fellow Guardian before shrugging and triggering another round, mangling the corpses his gunblade was embedded in, so that the recoil of the shot pushed the blade back, freeing it without effort.
He was barely in time to shield from a whip-like purple spell the blond wizard cast from where he'd sought the cover of a tree.
"Hiding now?" taunted Seifer. "What, are you a coward, too? Not that I'm surprised..."
The wizard snarled in contempt, disgust oozing from his tone as he disdainfully addressed Seifer: "Look at you, relying on that ridiculous contraption like a mudblood-loving fool! You're a disgrace to the name of wizard!"
"Who are you calling a wizard?!" shouted Seifer, stopping the other in his tracks and making him gape unattractively. "Why, you wand-loving asshole! How dare you insult my Hyperion! I'll show you!"
He charged with fury, but the tall blond calmly moved out of the way, throwing a spell at him that made him stumble and slowed him down; then, when Seifer tried to rush him again, the wizard set into a pattern of disappearing and reappearing randomly, always throwing off a couple spells in quick succession before vanishing again with a soft crack. It was a highly effective tactic, because it kept him carefully out of the Guardian's range, frustrating any charge Seifer tried, and allowed him to exploit as cover the other fights that were going on around them. A fair few of his attacks even hit, and soon the Guardian was bleeding from a number of minor wounds.
"What's the matter? Afraid I might bite?" roared Seifer, growing exasperated with the way the wizard was eluding him.
"If you did, it'd probably give me rabids, you disgusting mongrel!" was the sneered reply. "To think, that I must be here, wasting my magic on you... when you're nothing but a filthy muggle!"
Seifer had no clue what 'muggle' even meant, but it was beyond the point, it was clearly an insult. "You're on my list!" he shouted furiously.
He charged again, but this time, instead of carrying it out like before, he abruptly changed direction in mid-stride, not breaking his run: he swung his gloved fist around with all his might... and grinned ferally when his fist connected. His careful, if discreet, observation of the other's apparitions pattern was paying off: the wizard had been caught completely off-guard!
The bone-white mask was knocked off, baring a pointy face almost as white, on which the blow had left a trail of blood and a rapidly darkening bruise.
The wizard shoved him away with a jab of his wand and a growled "Repello!" and scrambled away, catching himself on the dirty ground before straightening and turning, panting, to face Seifer, whipping his wand around just as the Guardian regained his own balance and readied himself to face him again. The wizard was heaving heavy breaths and slowly, very slowly, wiped the trail of blood clean off his chin, never once taking his cold grey eyes off the confident Guardian.
Seifer grinned, and it wasn't pretty: "Looks lovely on you, that bruise," he mocked. Then he raised his arm in an arrogant, come-hither gesture: "Come on, come closer, now... Let me add a few scars to that pretty face of yours! Might do you some good in the manly department!"
His opponent's eyes flashed with fury, but he apparently had excellent self control. "And what... would a mere boy know... of virility?" he drawled, voice dripping with contempt. "You worthless mudblood, you aren't worth the saliva I would waste should I spit on you... and that poor excuse for a weakling you run around with, who..."
"You don't want to finish that sentence." Seifer's grin vanished with unnatural speed, leaving only a stormy, glacial expression in his face.
The wizard merely narrowed his eyes malevolently: "...who wouldn't be worth to kiss the feet of a true wizard, let alone a real Summoner, if he even knew how to recognize someone so above him...!"
Cold fury burned in Seifer's eyes. How dare this bastard insult Harry. How dare he!
Left hand extended, he called up a fire spell from his dwindling stock, letting it coalesce in his palm, spiralling red and blue-white flames twirling in an apparent orb for an instant before he released it.
The cold grey eyes went wide with shock as the spell shot straight at the wizard and a terrified gasp was torn from him just before he was hit: "Wandless magic!..."
The fiery blow left the man stunned and reeling with pain and fear and Seifer didn't give him any time to recover: in an instant, he was looming over him and there was no stopping his blade this time. A powerful slash cut the black-robed enemy almost in half. His face was frozen in his last expression of utter shock as he fell slowly forwards, his bleeding form crumbling in the dirt.
A shocked cry rose from the trees and a short but bulky man, with broad shoulders straining the black robe and long gorilla arms, came running out, stopping abruptly over the fallen blond: "Lucius!"
"Get back here, you idiot! We must wait for the signal!" roared another masked wizard, running a few steps out of the trees as well, before thinking better of it, and running back with a string of muttered curses.
The man who'd cried out raised his head to look at Seifer wildly, aghast: "You killed him!" he exclaimed in a low rasp. And then, as if he simply couldn't comprehend the fact, he repeated dazedly: "You killed him!"
Seifer rolled his eyes: "So I did," he agreed sarcastically.
"No, but," fretted the man, almost gasping. "You killed Lucius." He looked back down at the dead wizard, then up again: "What am I supposed to do now?" he asked pitifully, sounding like a little lost child.
Seifer gaped at him: "Are you for real?" he asked, then shook his head and turned away, dismissing the man outright.
It was a mistake.
With a roar that was more uncertainty and fear than rage, the bulky wizard aimed at him and shouted: "Sectumsempra!"
Blood spurted from Seifer's back as though he had been slashed with an invisible sword. He staggered forward and Hyperion fell from his suddenly limp hand as he crumbled to his knees, coughing up more blood.
"Seifer!" shouted Harry, horrified. So far, he'd kept out of the way like his Guardians had drilled into him and had merely kept a keen watch on all fighting going on around him, ready to help out with a stray spell or a small bomb or a spot of healing as needed. The moment he saw Seifer crumbling, though, he started running towards the blond, all thoughts of his own safety forgotten.
He whipped out a couple handy items while he ran: a cheap, shining gem charged to harm a target upon contact and one of his Blaster Bombs, the kind Rikku had taught him to build, mixing this and that with common grenades, and which did little damage but were a pain to deal with for his opponents because they inflicted various deleterious status on the targeted enemies.
The first was thrust with precision at Seifer's vile attacker: the burly man yelped in pain and, taking one look at the enraged boy charging him, turned tail and ran for the woods; the second was thrown a lot more carelessly at where the other wizard had appeared and then hidden again among the trees, but Harry didn't even bother to check if the bomb had had any significant effect. All his attention was on Seifer's unconscious form and he collapsed on his knees next to his fallen Guardian, tearing the cloth to see the injuries better, healing magic already dancing on his fingertips.
With almost all of his concentration focused on saving Seifer's life, he barely registered a man with dark eyes and a bandanna with an odd symbol attempting to take advantage of his distraction to stab him; nor did he notice Scar suddenly appearing to kick the attacker back before he could reach Harry and then taking up position to guard his back and Seifer's while the healing continued.
He merely crouched over his Guardian, murmuring incantation after incantation and letting his White Magic wash gently over him, heedless of how fast he was expending his energy and fairly oblivious to Scar's efforts as well as to whatever was going on on the battlefield at large.
Finally, the bleeding was stopped, the wounds closed into angry scratches, and Seifer groaned and twitched laboriously, fighting to regain consciousness. Harry breathed in relief, resting back on his calves and blinking at the sudden realization that they were still in the middle of a chaotic battle, even if he'd tuned it out in his worry for Seifer.
"Do you think we could move him safely?" asked Scar from right behind him. His rather strained tone was a testimony of how busy he was, keeping them safe in such an exposed position. "Some cover would be helpful."
"Right," agreed Harry, but before they could put words into action, a booming explosion rocked the ground a little further away, enveloping them in smoke, while bulky earth debris rained down on them. Scar quickly moved to protect Seifer's body with his own.
Instinctively turning away to shield his eyes from the irritating smoke, Harry caught sight of Itachi still engaged in combat with his odd adversary.
The grey-white blur had turned out to be a pale-skinned man who, unlike all other, wasn't wearing any kind of hood or mask to conceal his vivid green eyes, muscular features, or the two odd scarlet dots on his forehead.
Everything, from the way he dressed to the way he moved and talked, made it clear that he wasn't a wizard. On the contrary, he wore the kind of traditional fighting outfit that Itachi himself might have favoured once upon a time: loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt, that kept sliding down one shoulder, black pants cut off around mid-calf, bandages wrapped around his ankles, traditional sandals; and the light lavender, rope-like belt tied in an inverted bow around his waist was just the kind of detail highly skilled ninja would add to their attire in a fit of individuality. He also used the sharp, fluid movements only highly trained martial artists acquired.
In fact, many details about him and his fighting style reminded Itachi strongly of his childhood, making him wonder if the white-haired man was originally from his same world.
Certainly, Itachi had been more prepared to face him than any of the others could have been, and had taken in stride the disturbing way in which he manipulated his own skeletal structure to wield his bones as weapons in battle. It was obviously a Blood Limited Ability, though not one Itachi had ever heard of – but then, most Hidden Villages renounced bragging about their clans' best abilities, preferring to keep such essential advantages as under wraps as possible.
The first few exchanges of blows had been enough to establish their skill level in general terms and while outwardly as impassive as usual, inside Itachi had revelled in finding a challenge of such familiarity so far away from his long-abandoned childhood home.
Since his opponent, even counting his odd ability with bones, was restricting himself to martial arts and body-enhancing techniques, Itachi had done the same at first, and with relative ease: despite not specialising in it he possessed high-level hand-to-hand combat skills and they'd only been honed by sparring with Scar on a daily basis; and the small craters his kicks were disseminating on the ground were a testament of his not inconsiderable physical strength.
However, Itachi knew all too well that he couldn't afford to draw the fight out too much.
His stamina had improved tremendously thanks to training with Scar and Seifer: neither of them had been born with the natural gifts of the Uchiha clan, which meant they'd had to build up their abilities a little at a time, and thus they knew how to help Itachi do the same; in spite of this, his endurance was still below average if compared with someone from his home world and he was very conscious of this.
The white-haired ninja, for his part, didn't show the slightest hint of being fatigued, or of slowing down. He was an extremely adept close-range combatant, demonstrating impressive control over his body. His agility and dexterity were almost on par with Itachi's own, though the Guardian's higher proficiency with the Body Flicker Technique gave him a distinct advantage, since he could chase his opponent instantly after a hit struck true, affording him very little time to initiate a counter-attack.
On the other hand, even when he hit his opponent, his efforts didn't seem to do much at all.
The odd Blood Limited Ability was a near-invincible defence, able to withstand most impacts unscathed, even chackra-laden blows. Itachi speculated within himself that it must allow him to manipulate his osteoblast and osteoclast cells, granting him absolute control over the density of his bones, as well as the building and breaking down of bone tissue. It was rather fascinating.
In any case, it meant that Itachi had to work hard to keep himself on the offensive. More than once, only his insanely fast reflexes saved him from being speared by a hastily grown bone. The way the man manipulated them was arresting.
Thus it had taken very little time for Itachi to decide he had to switch the focus of the battle slightly towards what he was more comfortable with.
His adversary, however, had been unfazed by the introduction of Fire Release techniques and shurikens into the fray.
The hand-held throwing blades had been a favourite weapon of his since Itachi could barely walk, and his accuracy in their use had been almost legendary within the Uchiha clan, yet his opponent had dodged his every throw easily, at least until Itachi had resorted to one of his signature moves, summoning a large flock of crows to hide the next barrage.
Even then, the white-haired ninja hadn't been much bothered by the many hits – and Itachi acknowledged silently that his skill was admirable, since he'd managed to protect the primary targets, eyes, face, hands or feet, letting only his clothes and torso take damage. He clearly had a very strong determination and endurance, anyway: the thin trails of blood oozing from the many cuts hadn't slowed him down at all, nor had the few burns he'd suffered. He would probably prove to be a deadly opponent even one step away from his own death.
Itachi had to admit that he was enjoying the rare challenge, and more, the bittersweet taste of familiarity he found in it. The predominance of chackra-enhancements, the discreet use of seals – as they fought, Itachi caught sight of a circular pattern of three curved lines tattooed at the base of the white-haired man's throat and his curiosity was picked, though he knew it was likely destined to remain unsatisfied – the rapid gaining and nullifying of advantage after advantage, using every ounce of tactical thinking and every element of their surrounding to turn the tables on their opponent, the way the stranger courteously inquired after an obviously peculiar technique – when Itachi displayed the Uchiha clan's typical giant fireballs in rebuttal to an explosion of bone spikes protruding abruptly from the ground in an attempt to impale him – even as he politely offered the denominations of his own Dances of the Bones in exchange... all spoke to Itachi of the life he'd long ago left behind. And surprisingly, he liked it.
Their fight was following the rhythm Itachi had been used to as a child, too, starting off with standard techniques any academy or clan taught and slowly moving up to better and better ones, in an effort to one-up each other and show themselves superior as much as knock the opponent out.
After all, they were both determined to win, but neither was in any hurry to simply kill. Each recognized in the other the dangerous quality of a high-ranked fighter and their unexpected, but welcome, mutual respect had needed no words to be acknowledged.
From Harry's point of view, even just the glimpse he was getting of the ongoing fight was a truly memorable show.
Itachi was like a lean, cat-like predator, all sharp focus and liquid movement; the white-haired fighter was an extremely powerful combatant, whose obvious strength was made greater by his control: nothing was wasted in his motions.
It was a deadly dance, but quite beautiful to watch.
Still, when he realized they were still at it after he'd healed Seifer, Harry frowned, surprised and worried that his ninja Guardian hadn't yet managed to dispatch his opponent; was the stranger truly that good?
Then he realized that Itachi's attention might seem to be fully on the fight he was engaged in, but his gaze was instead faraway and opaque: he was splitting his focus and still maintaining the Illusion he'd woven at the start, even while fighting.
A bit amazed, a bit worried at what looked like arrogance on the ninja's part, Harry shook his head in wonder, admitting to himself that perhaps, just perhaps... Itachi was having fun.
But the smoke was dissipating and a mocking laugh called him back to the fray, so the young Summoner reluctantly returned his full attention to his other two Guardians: Seifer was still too weak and in pain to do much, so much so that he was supporting himself on his gunblade and looking unsteady, and Scar...
There were two Scars standing in the last swirls of dusty smoke, perfectly identical and mirroring each other's pose. Both sported flabbergasted expressions, too. One of them was clearly an excellent actor.
Harry's lips curled in disgust. Yes, on the surface, they looked undistinguishable – they both had Scar's dark complexion and distinctive red irises, not to mention the unique X-shaped scar, they both wore the familiar gold-coloured jacket with the white cross... if Harry bothered to examine the arm tattoo, he had no doubt he would find it identical to the last ink drop.
But only one of them was his Scar. The bond of Summoner to Guardian, that was usually just there in the background of his mind, almost unnoticeable in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, was suddenly singing loud and clear to his soul. There was no possible way he would ever mistake a- a whoever, for one of his own. The imposter was out of luck with this strategy.
Unhesitatingly, he threw a steel knife – the only weapon his Guardians had agreed to teach him to use – at the fake Scar; but the fraud dodged promptly, letting it flew past harmlessly.
He tried to play Harry, though, widening his eyes and twisting his mouth downward in mock horrified surprise: "Harry, wait!" he cried out in Scar's voice.
"Spare me!" the young Summoner said harshly. "Do you really think you could ever trick me like this, you pathetic fool?" He threw another knife, with no better luck than the first. "Looks are irrelevant. You don't feel like my Guardian!"
"Is that so?" Scar's familiar voice was suddenly underlined with sneered cruelty and Harry's eyes narrowed in indignation.
"Give it up!" he shouted harshly. "You won't be able to trick me."
Frowning, the imposter came to a full stop and rose to Scar's full height. "Then perhaps I shan't bother offering you a show..." he hissed and a line of blinding white light ran over his body in a quick pace, at once dissolving Scar's appearance and leaving behind a different one.
Now he looked like a pale-skinned androgynous teenager, with a lean muscular build and bulging biceps, barely covered by a black form-fitting bodysuit. A matching headband held back a wild mass of long, wispy hair.
Harry wondered if that was his true form, or just a convenient one, and almost flinched at the malevolent, violet pupils that rested on him with clear enmity.
Then the frown changed into a malicious smirk and the quick white light ran its path over the body again, morphing its appearance to Seifer's, complete with cut-filled vest and pants: "Or perhaps I will!"
Faster than thought, he snapped a head-height roundhouse kick at where Harry stood and it was more luck than skill that had the young Summoner roll away with a yelp in time to avoid it.
The imposter laughed harshly: "Tell me. How do you feel, having to fight your own pet?" Another kick, which Harry sort-of parried by swinging his Rod around – and the precious length vibrated unsettlingly under the force of the hit – followed by a punch so fast Harry barely ducked in time – as it was, his goggles were torn from his head and flew away to crash somewhere in the background.
Harry gritted his teeth. All of his concentration was needed to dodge the raining blows, but if he could spare any thought to truly register the mocking words, he'd shout out his rage to the skies.
"Aren't you having fun?" the imposter gloated. He twirled a gunblade that he had somehow reproduced around and around in his raised hand, just like Seifer always did, and laughed again: "I sure am!"
He stilled his arm and Harry braced for another attack, grasping his Rod tightly and whispering hastily "Armour of light, halt physical might!" to evoke at least some protection around himself.
Then Scar – the real one – shot past Harry, striking the muscled arm of their enemy to push it off-kilter just as the fake Seifer swung around at the Summoner, his blow half-deflected by Scar's counter-attack and half-sliding over the bluish tortoise-like shell of Harry's Protect shield with an irritating screech.
Wasting no time, Scar kept moving with his momentum, his powerful fist narrowly missing the imposter's face.
The fraud jumped back unbelievably fast, putting some distance between them, and landed heavily on the ground, the impact depressing the soil into a small crater.
Scar growled with revulsion and hatred. "Homunculus!" he hissed with utter disgust.
The shapeshifter burst out laughing hysterically.
Filled with the repugnance and fury those awful constructs always arose in him, the Ishvalan launched another attack immediately, hand flashing out for a punch that was blocked far too easily. He caught the counter-punch the homunculus threw at him in retaliation just as easily, ignoring the pain that flared in his hand from the contact.
And then they were fighting in earnest, blows coming fast and furious, with no time to analyse anything beyond the next step, the next stroke.
While Harry and the real Seifer tried to recover their breath and their shattered concentration, the homunculus pelted Scar with a series of attacks, and the Guardian met every kick and punch with matching ferocity.
The fake Seifer's agility was frightening. It was like he wasn't earthbound like the rest of them, but able to almost fly: he was continuously leaping from one perch to another, barely touching the ground before he was off again. His body moved through the air around it like a sword cleaving through yielding flesh.
Scar was faster than a swift wind, but still he was slow enough for the homunculus to see and counter any move even as he began to make it: he tried again and again to land a blow that the shapeshifter couldn't block, yet failed, over and over. The homunculus was simply too good.
It was only when the real Seifer, having quickly downed a Potion and feeling recovered enough, launched himself into the fray, that they gained a very slight advantage.
The two friends' coordination was such that they moved as one, and smoothly inserting their own moves into their partner's breathers, they maintained an almost continuous barrage of hits that kept the homunculus fully engaged.
Unfortunately, their opponent had an overwhelming advantage over them, in that he didn't get tired: it was not long before the two Guardians were breathing, if not quite hard, not quite easily either and their blows, while still accurate, started becoming less incisive.
Frantically trying to come up with a way to help them, Harry bemoaned the fact that most White Magic, while powerful, needed to be precisely targeted, which made the tangled hand-to-hand fight less than ideal: the last thing they needed was for a stray spell of his to accidentally boost the homunculus even further.
By a stroke of luck Scar managed to fend off a one-two combination punch deftly enough to nearly unbalance the shapeshifter, and Seifer, instantly ready to exploit the opening his partner had provided, went on the offensive: letting the enemy block his weapon's blade, he used that as leverage to hit the homunculus right in the face with the pistol-shaped hilt, holding nothing back, and as the shapeshifter reeled from the blow, he freed the blade and pivoted on himself, slashing a downward thrust on the other's exposed arm.
It worked: the limb was almost cut off and was bleeding freely; in response, the homunculus snarled furiously and, moving too fast to keep track of, shattered Seifer's right arm, knocking his gunblade from his hands.
As Harry rushed to his side and washed the broken bone in the healing glow of a Cure, Scar attempted to press their enemy, leaping sideways and, nearly horizontal in mid-air, snapping a kick at the other's head.
It hit, and hard enough to blow the homunculus backward, but the monster twisted in mid-air and landed on all fours in a cat-like crouch, growling ferally.
And that was when the homunculus turned the tables on them. The lightning-quick white line coursed once more over the stolen appearance, this time morphing it... into Harry's.
Same untidy jet-black hair, same lean but tall frame and peculiar fashion sense, same startlingly green, almond-shaped eyes... same, all too familiar expression, warm and welcoming.
Even knowing it wasn't really him, even knowing it was all a trick, even knowing they were being cruelly manipulated, Scar and Seifer faltered.
The combined attack they were about to launch wavered – an hesitation that lasted no more than a second, but long enough to render their effort vain. The monster wearing Harry's face evaded it with insulting ease and laughed – Harry's laugh, bright and clear and wrong.
"What's the matter? Scared of harming your precious little Summoner?" mocked the homunculus cruelly.
Seifer growled and leaped forward, determined to punch that source of irritation in the face, but the homunculus took a half-step back, mimicking an expression of shock and sudden hurt, widening Harry's eyes pleadingly, and against his will, the Guardian's fist faltered, his blow resulting far less potent than it should have been.
Cartwheeling away with a jeering laugh, the homunculus mocked him again: "You can't bring yourself to hit me now, can you? Ha ha ha! I shouldn't be surprised, you... humans!" he spit the world like it had a nasty taste, "You always put emotion before common sense!"
He twirled the copy of Harry's rod he'd fashioned for his ruse for a moment, then threw it at Seifer like a javelin, with such force that it split a crack of several feet open in the ground where it hit after the Guardian had hastily thrown himself aside to dodge it.
"That's just how all you humans are!" shouted the homunculus. It was clear that he was taking great delight in tormenting them. "The last man I killed... all I had to do was make myself look like his daughter and he was helpless - he couldn't even fight me! You humans are so easy to take advantage of!"
Scar roared in frustration, furious with himself for letting the abomination play with his emotions like that – and to add insult to injury, the real Harry was not ten steps from him, yelling encouragements! It was beyond ridiculous... it was pathetic!
And yet... and yet. When Seifer and he tried to rally, and charged the homunculus, there was an almost buried hesitancy underlying their movements that spelled disaster for their attack. They couldn't help it: no matter what their minds were screaming at them about appearances and deceit, there was something deep inside them that revolted against harming their Lord Summoner's form.
And the homunculus took shameless advantage of that.
Seifer was blown to the side, flying through the air and crashing violently against a tree trunk. Scar managed to dodge the first kick at least, then realized in a split second he wouldn't be able to avoid the following fist – the homunculus was too fast – so chose to grab the arm with both his hands instead, trapping it in a vicious grip in an effort to stop it... he managed – barely – but with a malevolent smirk, the monster transformed the trapped limb into a flesh-coloured tentacle with an impossibly sharp end that elongated abruptly and pierced his shoulder.
Scar's eyes widened in shock and fear and he had less than a moment to berate himself – why hadn't he thought of this possibility, Lust had been able to do the same with those unnatural claws of hers! – before the spiked appendage twisted away and struck again, piercing his lower belly, making blood and gore spurt onto the shaken ground.
Harry cried out and swung his Rod around, in the attempt to form a Curaga for him, but the shockingly fast homunculus didn't give him the time and, abandoning Scar to collapse where he stood, rushed the young Summoner, disrupting his concentration – the spell was lost, to Harry's chagrin – and spinning the spiked tentacle around, hit him unerringly in the shoulder. The blow crashed through his Protect shield as if it wasn't there and his bones fractured with an excruciating pain; Harry couldn't help screaming.
At once, the cry was echoed from the other side of the battlefield by another, tortured scream and though his vision was blurred by pain, Harry forced himself to turn enough to see Itachi running at his full speed towards him, his opponent crumbled and forgotten.
The ninja Guardian might have been enjoying his fight, but a part of him had remained alert to the other, more important battle going on, only his utter confidence about being ultimately able to draw his own struggle to a close very quickly if necessary allowing him to indulge himself like that.
And no matter how he'd come to respect his opponent, the moment his Lord Summoner's scream signalled that he was in real danger, all bets were off.
Dropping the Illusion he'd kept up all along – with barely a thought for the few victims still standing, pained and disoriented – he changed his motions on the fly, leaping and grabbing and twisting, to force the white-haired ninja to meet his gaze, black swirls already spinning on suddenly red irises: determined to put an end to his fight at once, he called up the most devastating Illusion he could slap together in no time at all, 'suggesting' pain and paralysis and heart-stopping terror, and didn't even bother checking the results properly, beyond registering the torment in the white-haired fighter's verdigris eyes fading into unconsciousness.
Sparing no thought for the fallen adversary at all, in less than an instant he was running to his Lord Summoner's side.
The homunculus snapped his stolen eyes up and burst out into a mean laughter, jumping eagerly to meet the running ninja at equal speed, changing in mid-stride to his androgynous teenager appearance and shouting with glee: "What? Is this Christmas? Here comes another pathetic fool, free of charge! I will have such fun breaking you... I'll yank your spine out of your mouth! And then I'll kill your pitiful little friends..."
In a flash, the two combatants were meeting half-way with a resounding crash.
Quickly, a still panting Seifer skidded on his knees to Harry's side, then lifted him bodily and whisked him away to deposit him behind a fallen tree trunk – the nearest cover – before dashing back for Scar.
Harry grasped listlessly at the charred wood, uselessly hoping it would somehow lend him the strength to ignore the pain he was in. When Seifer darted behind the cover again with a bleeding, gasping Scar in his arms, he gritted his teeth, realizing that if he didn't pull himself together they were all goners.
"What can I do?" asked Seifer frantically. "Harry. Harry, look at me! What can I do?"
Harry blinked the blur out of his eyes, grimacing at the pulsating pain in his shoulder.
"Harry, tell me how I can help!" Seifer sounded almost pleading, and if Harry could just think, he'd wonder about that. The gunblader was fluttering from one to the other of his injured comrades, uncharacteristically lost: he clearly knew not what to do for either and it wasn't settling well with him. "Give me something to do before I go spare!" he half-cried.
Swallowing the desire to scream or cry, Harry fumbled with one of his many pouches and somehow managed to produce two Hi Potions. Relieved, Seifer snatched them up, pouring one down Scar's throat before gently helping Harry swallow his.
The rapid knitting of bone and tissue was excruciating, pure agony, but at least it was quick.
It was all over in a matter of minutes, and Harry took deep breaths, moving his shoulder to check its mobility. It was unimpaired, thankfully, and he felt fine, if tired. By the looks of it, Scar was recovered too.
"I don't know what's worse, the pain of the healing, or the taste of this stuff," Scar grumbled and Seifer chuckled, relaxing a little more. Harry half-smiled as well, agreeing that the typical taste of bitter sawdust was a big downside of Potions. Magic was so much better. Speaking of which...
Closing his eyes to block out the sounds of fighting, Harry quickly evaluated what strength he had left and heartily cursed the bad luck of having used their Ethers already, in the earlier fight against the Aeon. His reserves were dangerously low.
There was an option... a spell he had thought up himself and had been studying and perfecting for a while now... If it worked as Harry intended it, it would slowly, but surely, restore their physical and spiritual energies over a span of time. And he had just the energy for it left.
Uncertain, he tried to decide whether or not to risk it. It was still experimental... and far from mastered... but it was probably their best chance too, under the circumstances.
Grasping his Rod tightly, he gathered all his concentration and pushed himself to his feet, ignoring Seifer's half-hearted protests. Then he turned on the spot, the motion swift and graceful, balanced on one heel, his body rotating compactly around his centre of gravity, shoulders drawing back for an instant, before bending in a half-bow. "Let streams of hope refresh us and restore us," he whispered hurriedly.
To his immense relief, he felt the magic of the spell take, rushing out of him in a wave and smoothly taking the shape he'd intended for it.
Iridescent ribbons of light swirled around the three of them in large, flowing snakes, their faint red tinge growing more and more intense before they vanished in a shower of faint golden specks, that settled slowly on them. Not an instant later, he felt the first, tiny boost to his almost emptied reserves and smiled victoriously.
Seifer smiled too: "Cool." He flexed his fist absently, looking pleased. "This going to heal us a little bit at a time? Like Regen?"
Harry silently nodded, and Seifer repeated: "Cool."
Scar inclined his head in thanks, and they all turned to look at the ongoing face-off.
Itachi had taken over the fight with grim ferocity and was holding his own a lot better than the three of them had – mostly, they guessed almost at once, because he was completely unfazed by whatever shape the homunculus tried to morph into. Something that was clearly frustrating their enemy greatly.
The dangerous shapeshifter was obviously used to playing on his target's emotions in order to have a psychological advantage before killing; but against Itachi, the tactic was pretty much futile. The Transformation Technique was such a common and abundantly used tool among even the most inexperienced of ninjas, that fighting enemies that looked like your own comrades was practically routine. Consequently, Itachi had since childhood relied on different methods to tell friend apart from foe.
The homunculus had already tried wearing both the other Guardians' faces, then the Summoner's, to absolutely no avail, and he was growing more and more peeved at this new, imperturbable opponent.
After a few more blows, exchanged more to get each other's measure than anything, the shapeshifter decided to attempt a different tactic: with a quick passage of the shuddering line of light, he turned himself into a little girl of five or six, with a pretty yellow dress, huge brown eyes and a cute short ponytail held by two beads on a rubber band, fluffing up atop her head.
She looked adorable.
But Itachi had been thrown onto a battlefield at age four himself, and remembered what kind of devastation a seemingly sweet and innocent child could bring if trained – underestimating an opponent or feeling guilty about going all out against a child was not an option among ninja clans. Impassively, he pelted the sweet-looking girl with short burst of streaming flames that she only barely dodged; it was not long before the homunculus regained his androgynous form with a snarl.
Beyond irritated that his strategy wasn't paying off for once, he was growing both enraged and careless. He had to fall back to overwhelming his opponent with his superior speed, but that, too, didn't work very well, as Itachi was just as fast, and moreover, he had no compunction in tricking his opponent. After the fourth time in a row the shapeshifter punched or kicked straight through the ninja's body, only to see it dissolve in a storm of black crows, he shouted in sheer rage and refrained from attacking again.
He just stood straight, glaring furiously at the ninja.
Taking advantage of the lull in the fighting, Scar and Seifer came up to Itachi's sides, flanking him calmly, both slipping in their favourite combat forms, ready to support their friend.
Mouth twisting in disgust, their enemy spit on the ground in their direction.
A long moment of silent stretched.
Then, coolly, Itachi commented: "You're a fool."
That tore an inarticulate shout of rage from the homunculus, who for an instant looked ready to charge the ninja again; but then a sudden thought stuck him and he calmed somewhat, observing him closely with a calculating gaze: "You think you can fight... anyone?" he asked, voice dangerously low.
Itachi merely regarded him steadily.
The homunculus smirked and asked slowly: "But can you fight... yourself?"
And a moment later another Itachi – absolutely identical to him down to the last detail, except for the smirk that didn't remotely mirror his stoic expression – stood right in front of him.
Another heartbeat, and the fake Itachi launched himself at him with unnatural speed, engaging him in a fast and furious close quarter.
Scar and Seifer held themselves at the ready, but the fast-paced struggle wasn't leaving any opening for them.
It was also messy and jumbled, as if the homunculus was less concerned with hitting Itachi and more intent on deliberately kicking up as much dust as possible, and a moment later Itachi realized why, when they abruptly separated, both jumping back a few meters to take a breath, and suddenly even the expression on the other's face was exactly his own.
Itachi wasn't bothered. The other should have realized by now, that the looks of whoever he was fighting meant less than nothing to him. Or was he hoping to confuse his allies enough to prevent them from offering help?
It didn't matter.
The three Guardians knew each other so well, that all Itachi had to do was twitch his fingers in code to signal his position and coordinate their next attack just as well as if they'd used words. The homunculus couldn't hope to break apart that mutual reliance, born of friendship and hard-earned trust.
Rushing him all together, they soon had the monster bleeding and bruised, and scrambling to keep up with their barrage of blows.
Snarling with rage, the homunculus tried to go back to the Summoner's form, that had worked so well against his enemies earlier; but this time, there was Itachi to lead their charge, and to cover the fractional hesitations of the other two.
Step, strike, block, whirl – the three friends moved in perfect accord, as smoothly and precisely as if this was just one of their daily practice kata: block, push, feint, strike, one after the other without glitches or indecisions, speeding up as they went, pressing the shapeshifter harder and harder until he was retreating backwards with each move.
"You're all pathetic!" shouted the homunculus, but his confident smirk was belied by the fury and envy blazing in his eyes.
He was being cornered. And he knew it.
"No. No, no, no, no! This can't be!" he yelled in fury and fear. "You... are just pitiful humans! How can you fight me like this? …humans... love to watch other people suffer while making fools of themselves... that's why you're constantly at war with each other!"
He tried one last time to grab Scar and throw him against a tree, but the Ishvalan flew with the motion, not fighting it, but instead going down in a controlled fall and bouncing back up before the homunculus could take advantage of his momentary weakness; and it was instead the shapeshifter who was distracted enough to let Seifer strike him.
The blond Guardian drove his gunblade through the homunculus and all the way to the tree trunk behind him, Scar helping by adding his strength to the momentum, until the monster was pinned like a butterfly mounted for display.
"No way... NO WAY!" shouted the homunculus, struggling against the resolute grip the two Guardians were maintaining on him. "You don't cooperate! You play sick games! Fight each other! Grovel in the dirt! How could you ever hope to team up? There's no way. No. No, you can't! Never! NEVER! It's impossible! How could you? How could you do it? HOW!?"
"Don't bother trying to make sense of our friendship," Itachi told him disdainfully. "You cannot even comprehend the deep connection we share."
"Don't look down on me, you WORMS!"
Itachi didn't deign the bellowed retort of any consideration; his eyes swirled and bled to the colour of blood again, then he closed them for a long instant, and when he snapped open the right one, the usual commas had been replaced by a pointy triskell.
Scar and Seifer leaped away from the homunculus, clearing the path for the scorching black fire that roared into existence, perfectly controlled, and perfectly unstoppable.
It was the most powerful of Itachi's Blood Limited techniques and although the price was high (he knew Harry was going to yell at him for this later, because his eyesight would only worsen after every time he used it, and not even the Summoner's magic would prevent him from eventually going blind if he wasn't careful), this was no doubt a time that called for it.
The all-consuming flames could burn anything, including fire itself, yet even so, the body of the homunculus kept regenerating itself again and again through the raging inferno, until, after longer than was reasonable to expect, it turned at last to black, powdery ash that fell to the ground in the sudden silence.
Itachi let the black flames taper off as Harry and the others came up to him and the four of them gathered close, silently watching the smoke dissipate. When it dispersed, the Summoner stood among his Guardians, straight and proud and inscrutable, the three painting a powerful picture around him.
In the wake of the devastating attack, a nasal voice shouted out from the trees: "Now! They must be exhausted...! Now's the time! Attack!"
Harry groaned. Was this never going to end?
From the cover of the trees, no more than a dozen men ran out, most of them in the black robes and white masks labelling them as wizards; more than half of them looked reluctant, even as they raised their wands.
Seifer caught his fellow Guardians' eye. A rapid exchange of hand signs was enough to coordinate them. The gunblader marshalled his tired body and cast the most powerful shield in his dwindling stock, knowing that he wouldn't be able to keep it up for long, but also that he wouldn't need to, and started bellowing insults to keep the attackers' attention on himself while they bombarded his shield with weak spells.
Behind the evanescent pink protection, Scar's strong arm encircled the young Summoner's shoulders and Harry sank against his trusted side gratefully, feeling rather exhausted.
Meanwhile, Itachi slipped away, silent as a shadow, and quickly circling behind these last scattered ranks, he wove an Illusion once more.
A moment later, a fire wall that emanated no heat ran in a fast, straight line between his three comrades and the remaining enemies, shrouding each other from view. Itachi took advantage of the cover to silently reappear at his friends' side.
As abruptly as it had started, the fire wall vanished. In its wake, the few wizards and combatants still standing were all screaming and running around like headless chickens, clawing at their own eyes or ears. One went so far as to thump his own head against a tree trunk, repeatedly.
"I don't even want to know," commented Scar in mid-voice.
"You're scary, Stoic Kid," Seifer shook his head. "Damn cool, but scary."
"But brilliant," said Harry softly, his expression sad.
Scar squeezed him gently, his arm comforting but heavy on his shoulder. "You are not at fault. You are not responsible for their actions. Not even indirectly."
Harry nodded uncertainly. "Let's go," he said tiredly.
They made their way out of the Forest in what seemed like an interminably long time.
Harry felt wrung out. All he wished was to hide out in his room for a while, come to terms with things. Catch his breath if nothing else.
But of course, it couldn't be that simple.
Not ten steps from the border of the forest, rows and rows of eager, overexcited students were laying in wait.
As soon as they appeared, they were welcomed by a round of resounding applause, shouts and catcalls; many were calling out to him. Or to his Guardians... especially Seifer.
Harry grimaced when he noticed that the teachers were attempting to corral the teenagers into some sort of wide circle. And that the adults looked almost as excited as the students.
He sighed. It was pretty clear what they hoped for. Truthfully, Harry didn't blame them in the least: he knew it was part of his duties, in a way, and had certainly not begrudged the villagers of Besaid when they'd gathered to bear witness to his first success... Just because he'd been lucky enough to avoid having to show off after the first time, it didn't mean he could – or would – back out of it now that, like on Spira, people knew what to expect and, well, expected it.
But had there been the slightest chance of avoiding it, Harry would have seized it gratefully.
With an unnoticeable sigh, he moved to the centre of the improvised arena, trying to ignore how his Guardians were glaring everybody into cowedly keeping their distance with even more determination than usual. When he stopped and the three of them fanned out, leaving him, so to say, on stage, the crowd went wild.
Too tired and cranky to launch into the Invocation of a newly acquired Aeon, however, Harry found himself wondering if he could get away with a little cheating. When he tentatively probed his Aeons' opinion, he got back a feeling of amused agreement from all of them, even the last one.
Rather relieved, he went through the motions to evoke his very first Aeon.
Much like that day so long ago, the winged lion-like creature fell fast from a spinning vortex of clouds and glided regally down to him, eagerly nuzzling the hand Harry raised to pet its eagle head.
The magnificent creature was an instant hit: all of the teenagers whooped and crowed and generally behaved like a crazed crowd at the blitzball final and many a flash went off from cameras scattered among the crowd, sometimes accompanied by an odd purple smoke.
Harry ignored them all and smiled at the Aeon, stroking its feathers gently. "Thank you," he murmured inaudibly, conveying all his gratitude along their bond, to him, and to the others so far away and so close.
Barely a couple of minutes later, though, he released the Aeon, the strain starting to get to him, and in a moment, his Guardians were closing rank around him, shielding him from the crowd, to his enormous relief. Had someone got close enough to demand an autograph right then, he wasn't sure he could have kept his composure.
Unfortunately, while the students could be intimidated, there was no avoiding the row of shiny-eyed teachers in the same way. The Headmaster in primis came up to him, arms outstretched, looking as giddy as a schoolboy on his first day: "My dear boy... such a wondrous..."
Harry, however, was not in the mood: "We were attacked by black-clad men with white masks," he said abruptly. His clipped tone arrested the gaggle of cooing adults as much as the words themselves. "On our way back, after we'd completed our task," he clarified.
Distressed sounds and dismayed exclamations broke out from the gathered teachers. The Headmaster looked sad and grave: "Alas! I feared... we are at war, my Lord Summoner, and..."
"You knew?!" Scar rounded on him, outraged. "You expected something like this and didn't think to warn us?"
"Never mind," Harry interrupted brusquely, unwilling to enter a discussion right that minute, with exhaustion pressing down on his shoulder like a heavy coat. "We're going to rest, now."
"Of course! Of course...!"
"But afterwards," he spoke over the hasty reassurances of the old man, raising his voice just a little, "I will expect explanations."
The Headmaster looked uncomfortable: "Well, I..."
"In the meanwhile," said Harry with clipped precision, "you would do well to contact the local authorities and have them investigate." A heartbeat. "And collect the bodies."
Horrified gasps echoed that short specification. The Headmaster went so pale his skin looked like cold ash. Many teachers looked shocked and scared. Only the acerbic wizard with dark, oily hair they had already agreed to keep under careful watch spoke up, though: "What do you mean... what did you do?" he snarled, his tone surly and accusatory.
All three Guardians swung to glare at him at once, their fury so apparent it almost gave the impression of rising flames.
"Our Lord Summoner was attacked," hissed Itachi furiously. Somehow, he spit out the last word in such a way that it was heard as the most despicable, heinous crime ever.
"Did you truly expect us to leave those bastards standing?" demanded Seifer, venomous, his contemptuous glare implying the dark man was a moron for even entertaining the notion.
"They're lucky we're not going after their families!" spat out Scar, just as vicious.
An awkward silence ensued, filled with pale, shocked faces staring at them in horror, that parted hastily before Seifer's determined stride, inching away from them and closer to each other.
Harry didn't let it faze him in the least and merely followed the tall blond's form, drawing his cloak tighter around himself, Itachi hovering close like a protective shadow.
Scar treated the rest of them to a last, contemptuous glare, before hurrying after them.