A/N: Returning readers, hello! Should I expect a lynching? It's only been, what, two years and some change? New readers, hi! Please disregard any of those A/N's of any chapter but the Prologue, they're not applicable. Enjoy the chapter!


Chapter 15; Reemergence

Harry looked up from his project with a mild frown, observing the quiet clearing that could almost be called home. In the near distance he could make out the orange light of sunset, where the lush canopy of trees broke thinly to make way for the river, and beyond that the slight shimmer of privacy wards that were invisible to anyone else.

He stood from his seat atop the skeletal head of what was once the Greater Serpent, body long since picked clean, petrified in a pre-strike pose that gave Harry a great view of his domain. The only thing organic left in the skeleton were the carefully preserved acid-green eyes, and Harry smiled every time he looked upon them. The magic in them thrummed in time with his heartbeat.

Time had passed well for him, away from the shinobi of Konoha; not that they hadn't searched for him, however. He'd later found out that in those four days he spent unconscious in the Behemoth's mouth, she had carried him far from the Tower but had encountered no less than six shinobi. And only minutes after he'd erected privacy wards around the area he'd claimed as his own, at the conclusion of his feast, another team of ANBU ninja passed by.

It had been a bit of a challenge to keep the snakes from attacking the masked shinobi in his defense, but none would deliberately defy him so soon after his display of power.

Harry tilted his head in confusion as he felt the sensation again, the same tugging at the edge of his consciousness that had originally distracted him. He concentrated and flared out his magic, and only then felt the little string that acted as a tether for his companion's spirit; it felt like it was vibrating. Alarmed, Harry 'grabbed' the tether and yanked it close, and his Fire Scales was suddenly wrapped tightly over his shoulders, the connection between them going still and relaxed again.

"Lord Harry!" it exclaimed, loud enough to rouse a few of the serpents resting on some of the magically heated boulders scattering the ground. "A Toad taller than the trees just left the vessel of the red demon at the human's healing place!" And just like that, Harry's thoughts were struck quiet. It could only have been a couple days since he sent his most trusted companion to watch the hospital, if for no other reason than to keep check that Jackal wasn't there, meaning the memory modification hadn't been discovered.

What a strange coincidence. His curiosity about the demons and their vessels had never really waned, however much apprehension they caused him.

He shook himself and sat back down, lowering his companion onto an outstretched leg as he draped his current project –his robe– across a folded knee. "What of this giant toad, then?" he asked, running his fingers along the modified snake skin, checking for flaws in the newest enchantments he'd woven into it. At this point, Harry seriously doubted any but the very strongest bladed weapons could pierce the scales, and yet it kept the weight and malleability of fabric. It took more work than he'd anticipated, and still it didn't look like much; neither his or Voldemort's skillsets had included much to do with making clothing.

(While he was working, he didn't have to think. Didn't have to wonder who he was just then. If he was still really Harry. If he was thinking and feeling the right things.)

Pretty was busy scenting his robe, translucent red tongue nearly touching one of the streaks of vivid purple, and when it did respond it sounded distracted. "It was immense, taller than the trees, the Tower, and wore a piece of false skin, like a human, as well." The ghostly serpent coiled itself into a tight ball, and Harry knew it would be frowning if it had been capable. "The power it had…the chakra…not all it had was its own. Some of it was the vessel's own. I think he summoned that Toad."

Harry's expression betrayed little of his mixed thoughts, though after a moment he felt obliged to ease some of the worry he felt from his companion. "Don't worry yourself, my Pretty One, I doubt we have anything to worry about. If even Greater Snakes mistake my identity, the likelihood of another species knowing me is laughable. And I have done nothing to them, besides." He shook his head and turned the robe over in his hands, enjoying the smoothness of the scales against his fingertips. "It will be fine. Was there anything else you wanted to tell me?"

"No, my Lord, just that," it murmured, sprawling across his leg in a more relaxed manner. Harry raised his eyebrows, but the expression was blocked by the curtain of lank hair hanging before his face; he hummed an incredulous note and poked the phantom with a clawed finger.

"I felt something from the tether that holds you to me. You were trying to bring yourself back, weren't you?" It wasn't really a question so much as confirmation, but he was getting back in the habit of speaking thanks to the constant company of the Forest's snakes.

Luminous orange eyes looked at him with near-adoration. "I could feel it better the further I moved from you, as easy as if smelling a line of blood on dried grass. When you brought me back I felt it even more; I think I can bring myself back to you on my own now!" The serpent's hisses sounded breathless, excited.

"Very good," Harry praised, pleased. "And you can still understand the humans when I am not there with you?" He got the affirmative answer he expected, but the affirmation was appreciated; it was proof that the tether –Harry's magic– had linked them so that his companion was practically an extension of himself, conforming to its needs as it did his own. It was reassuring. Not only could the phantom be an invaluable eye where even Harry could not sneak, but he could not lose his companion, either.

"I think it just may be time for me to go check on the humans," Harry mused quietly, staring out at the swaying branches of the grand trees surrounding him. The wind tugged at his hair, briefly uncovering poisonously yellow eyes, unburdened by the blindfold hanging around his neck. "It has been some time since they've come looking for me, now."

He didn't know how long it'd been since he'd fled the Tower for the safety of the Forest, but in that time Harry felt he'd accomplished much. Much more than he could've done surrounded and constantly watched by the shinobi, and not only because he just might've killed them accidentally while trying to master his eyes. While admittedly unaware of very many things, the way the presence of humans caused him stress and worsened his flimsy mental stability was not one of them. Even now, he couldn't honestly say if he was ready to be near someone not a snake again, but Harry knew this: If he allowed himself to keep putting it off, he would likely never come out of the Forest again. So from the very first moment he'd calmed down from his battle, he started preparing himself to face the outside world again.

The very first item on his agenda was his eyes. No longer distracted by the joining of his souls, Harry found himself increasingly perturbed by the blindfold he'd donned so long ago, bordering on resenting the piece of cloth. It felt like he was denying himself something by covering them, and he didn't like that, not at all. He'd been denied too many things over the course of his life (lives), and the thought of doing it now was more than repugnant; it was repulsive.

So at first he spent his days sitting at the river's bank, staring at the rippling reflection of brilliantly yellow eyes in deep contemplation, though for all his accumulated knowledge no ideas were forthcoming. There had been no spells, enchantments or otherwise, that could protect one from the killing gaze of the Basilisk; it meant that he would have to create something original, and that was what had him stymied. What branch of magic would he base it off of? Charms? Transfiguration? Wards? He knew what he needed, but going about it was the problem.

Perhaps he could've tried to Transfigure his eyes, but what if he made a mistake? Transfiguration wasn't his best subject, and nor was it Voldemort's; Harry didn't trust himself not to accidentally cripple himself without a wand to do such delicate work, even if he'd known where to start. That was discounting the fact that Transfiguration wasn't a very fast branch, which was one of the requirement he'd set for himself.

He wanted to make his eyes harmless, yes, but not permanently. This world was dangerous, as he very well knew, and his eyes were his most valuable –if yet unused– weapon, one that needed to be available in less than a moment's notice. That was what made him turn his attention away from that branch of magic so quickly; it would be too slow.

After Transfiguration was ruled out, he mulled over the idea of enchantment, but also had to discount it almost immediately for lack of materials and hypothetical problems involving destruction or removal. The enchantment would've had to be indecently strong, and that would require it to be anchored to a physical object. Traditionally, that would've been a precious stone or metal for their generally harmonious resonance with magic, but a more mundane item could've been used as well. Harry had none of these precious items, and no intention of sneaking back into Konoha to steal some. He also didn't like the idea of using the poorly transfigured tunic he wore now. That route also had nearly the same problem as Transfiguration: He would either have to remove the enchantment from the anchor –a slow process if it was as complicated as he thought it would be–, or remove the item from his person.

In the end, like so many ideas, the inspiration came to him by complete accident.

Early one morning as he seethed at the river's edge, one of the serpents approached him, reverential as so many of them were. It was the Behemoth, the one who had used her own body to protect him for those four days he was insensate, and Harry greeted her with a nod and a clawed hand on her massive snout. She had formed a close attachment to him, and often kept him company, rarely leaving the area he had warded for them but always keeping him informed about the climate within the Forest. She seemed to think that it was his, now, and the idea of owning something was so pleasing that Harry felt no inclination to say otherwise.

The Behemoth was also the one who taught him about the tiers of the serpent hierarchy, and the concept of Summoning. It turned out that a Greater Serpent was one that hailed from a faraway land –he was yet unsure if it was a geographical distance, or another plane altogether– and could manipulate chakra…but also fell under a contract made with a human. The human would use their chakra and blood to summon a creature, and the contracted creature would do their bidding in some sense, usually fighting.

The Greater Serpent he'd killed had been something of an oddity. According to the Behemoth, his mother had been summoned to the Forest some many years before and while there laid a single egg before returning to her home. It resulted in a Greater Tier serpent born, exempt from summons by the contract holder but powerful like a Summon. Fascinating, though the Behemoth had not known if the act of exempting had been deliberate; Harry was surprised that the snake had even known that much, until she demurely informed him that she was nearing a century in age, and made it her business to know these things.

She was quiet while he sat and discarded so many ideas, but his frustration made him shift often, and it was then that he happened to catch a strange movement from her in his peripheral vision. Beside him was a large boulder, and the Behemoth was deliberately rubbing her great, blunt snout against its roughened edges. Confused, Harry opened his mouth, but then noticed that her mottled, earth toned scales seemed…dull. A whitish film seemed to cover her entire body—she was shedding her skin. Still growing, at a century and over a hundred feet, which was quite the thought, but that was when inspiration finally came, as Harry watched the eye-caps peeling off as well.

Of course. Snakes didn't have eyelids –they couldn't blink– but they had to have some way to protect their eyes from dirt and such; in his other form, Harry had no eyelids, either. But the idea sprouted; he could form himself eye-caps and make whatever spells he needed to block the power of his gaze into them. He had been foolish to so quickly throw away the idea of something like enchantment. This would be similar to it, but better for the fact that it was his own body he would be using; in this way, he could dissolve the spells all the more quickly if his eyes were ever needed. Also, since he would be creating the spells himself, he would know exactly how to take them apart. And deconstructing spells was something that Harry excelled at.

After he had an idea of what, the how could finally be worked towards; the process was trial and error, and thankfully he'd had the foresight to warn the snakes away so none inadvertently died. They were all well-fed, though, as most of his trials ended in error and hundreds of fish died while he tested his eyes. Voldemort's knowledge of magical theory was invaluable, then, as Harry had never had time to learn so much about magical resonances (and Voldemort had never been so sensitive to feel them so acutely as he did now).

In the end, what he did to his eyes was unlike anything he'd heard done in the Wizarding World, and he'd come perilously close to some minor Transfiguration despite his best efforts. The caps over his eyes were thickened slightly and hardly immensely from the topmost layer of skin on his eyes, and barely posed a challenge: The difficult part was finding the correct…frequency…of magic to weave into them to counteract whatever it was that made his eyes kill. It took time —and a few splitting headaches when he got the frequency just wrong enough to turn his eyes against him—, but he was quite sure that it would've taken him years to accomplish the same feat if his magic hadn't changed to work towards his will.

While he was still working to make his idea into something real –and just beginning to doubt if it was even possible to accomplish– Harry inadvertently found that he could Petrify. True petrification. Those fish, and the occasional unlucky bird, he did not allow his snakes to consume, and buried instead. While petrification rendered something in a perfect state of suspended animation –and practically indestructible, incidentally– Harry sat the idea aside in favor of his current goal, though he made note of it for later as useful.

Even after he was sure his eyes were safe to expose to the world, Harry continued to practice the magic until it was deeply ingrained, until he was sure that he could dismantle the caps in a bare second if he should ever need to. It still took him more than a minute to re-weave the magic to the transfigured caps on his eyes –which he found did not need to be dissolved–, but he was satisfied enough with it that it didn't rankle so much to keep the blindfold loose around his neck, just in case…

With some chagrin Harry came back to the present to find that he'd let his mind wander again, and the sun was already below the horizon, the sky transitioning from dusky purple to a truer blue-black. He stood once more and surveyed the ground below himself, eyes easily piercing the deepening shadows; there were even more snakes gathered now, taking advantage of the warmed boulders as the slight chill of evening seeped in. It was what he put them there for, after all.

(They were his; they would be treated well.)

In one easy movement, Harry pulled the dark snakeskin over his head, tugging at the robe until it settled around him reassuringly. It was just as shapeless as the relic that he'd brought over from his world, now scattered in pieces around the Forest, and if nothing else he found comfort in that; the sleeves were long and billowing, hiding all but his fingertips, and the bottom hem dragged the ground at his feet. There had been plenty of hide to work with; even after making a hooded cape that he magically attached to the robe, there was still over forty feet bundled up and buried under the skeleton of the snake it once belonged to.

Harry stretched until his spine popped, and then stepped off his high perch, gliding easily to the ground. He saw no reason to hide the smile of sheer exhilarated glee that spread across his face, then. Voldemort's magics were coming as easily to him now as if they'd always been his, but this; who would have thought the Dark Lord had mastered the lost skill of broomless flight? (The one thing that Harry found absolute joy in, he now had again; there were no words…)

Fire Scales phased through his robe from where it'd moved while he thought, coiling around his forearm. Harry absently stroked a few fingers over the phantom's head as he strode though the clearing to the Behemoth's side, hissing acknowledgements to the snakes that raised their heads as he passed. The massive snake breathed out a silent hello when Harry leaned against the side of her head, and he hummed absently as he thought about the trouble this would likely cause him. He was well aware that this lucidity was a tenuous thing, a state that couldn't be maintained indefinitely, that the only reason it hadn't broken yet was he'd kept busy with an arduous task. That there had been no people nearby to trigger anything.

(He'd been living as Voldemort among his most loyal Death Eaters, is all, where he held all power and all authority…)

"My Guardian has brought something important to my attention," Harry murmured as the night was deepening, and the Behemoth popped a tiny hiss of acknowledgement. His companion's warm presence shifted around his arm. "I will be going to the human settlement outside the Forest to investigate." The giant's head shifted away from him, and she breathed humid, venom-scented air over his face, discontented. His eyes flashed a brighter yellow in the dim light as he made sure to meet her gaze. "You know I can defend myself. I just need you to spread word to the others that this place will remain safe when I leave, should they require sanctuary."

She looked away. "It will be done, my Lord." Harry nodded and ran his fingers over her snout once more before turning away, satisfied. The snakes were odd, sometimes; they knew he was much more powerful than they, but still treated him as if he were infirm. Every time it occurred to him he assumed it was because of their first impression of him —insensate and weak— and then put it out of mind as not important. As long as they didn't refuse him, he didn't much care what they thought.

Close to the edge of his privacy wards, Harry took a moment to recall the tame forest outside of Konoha's hospital –it would be monumentally stupid to appear inside the building; who knew who could be waiting…– and then disappeared with a snap and the sensation of being forced through a narrow tube.

He landed in a crouch –soft grass cool under his bare feet, vastly different from the harsh prickle of the Forest's scarce grasses–, sharp eyes searching the area even while his magic detected no nearby human presences. Harry relaxed and stood, pulling his hood low over his face and heading towards where the Hospital's light shone through the darkened wood. He stopped once, briefly, when he came upon a tangle of moonflower vines that thrummed faintly with magic. His magic. He stared at them, just barely recalling that he had splashed a flower with his blood on one of the walks, though he couldn't remember why, now. The one he'd splashed had gone to seed, and the reddish pod thrummed similarly –but not exactly– in time with his magic, his heartbeat. Harry didn't hesitate to pluck it from its vine and seal it into one of the many pockets lining the inside of his sleeves; he would study it later, when he wasn't already busy.

"I can feel the vessel," Harry murmured to his companion, remembering at the last moment to cast a notice-me-not spell over himself as he pushed open the glass door. He had to concentrate on drawing his magic in a moment later as the overhead lights began to flicker, the woman at the reception desk looking at them with some alarm; Harry laughed softly and passed her by, dimly grateful for the empty lobby.

"Are you alright, Lord Harry?" The spirit's orange eyes were tracking the medic-nin he'd just skirted by when Harry could spare it some attention, most of him still focused on the range of his 'feeling' magic, having lost the vessel when he'd had to draw his power in, but he could almost feel it now… "I could go alone if you don't want to be around these hunters yet." And then more quietly. "You don't need to force yourself."

Harry sighed and didn't respond; he and his companion had already had similar conversations before, but the smaller serpent still didn't understand for all that Harry's magic had made it more perceptive than its kin. It wasn't the same restlessness that'd often driven him from his hospital room, but restlessness all the same. Though there was no magic to search out here –to quest for–, there was still much to learn about the world he found himself in, and he couldn't do that if he isolated himself in the Forest, no matter how safe. It would be his world, now, and he would not allow himself to be so ignorant to it.

His Fire Scales couldn't understand the stubborn streak that he'd had all his life, the same trait that had turned him into who and what he was now; the trait he'd kept despite all the hardships it'd caused him.

"There," Harry purred in satisfaction, stopping suddenly before a single door in a hall of closed doors. He noticed that in the other rooms there was almost always more than one occupant: This hall seemed to contain wards, as opposed to the single rooms like Harry's isolated hall had. But the vessel was housed alone. Deliberate, or not?

He opened the door silently and slipped inside, ophidian gaze taking in the open spaces, furniture and unwarded window before locking onto the vibrantly blond boy. His hair was almost as toxically yellow as Harry's eyes, and he didn't appear nearly as obnoxious while unconscious as he had in the Tower. When he got close enough, Harry slid up onto the side of the bed opposite the door –so that he would not be unaware if it opened– and focused all of his attention on the unconscious ninja. He spent a good few minutes staring unerringly into the boy's slack face, and then slowly –slowly– traced the odd lines marking healthily-tanned cheeks with a single fingertip. They weren't scars; Harry knew the feel of scars, and the boy's skin was smooth. Birthmarks? They reminded him of whiskers.

It seemed so strange to him, that this normal looking boy could have a demon trapped inside him.

Curiously, Harry prodded for the red chakra that he blearily recalled feeling through his delirium in the Tower, and found it much closer to the surface than he remembered, just below the vessel's own much-depleted reserves. Unlike the last time he'd felt the demon's chakra –and he knew what he was feeling this time, thanks to Jackal's mind– it actually stirred under the touch of his magic, a tiny portion of its massive power forcing itself into the vessel's chakra, closer to Harry.

Fascinated, Harry tilted his head and reached a hand out, brushing his fingers over the boy's skin once more and this time feeling the burn of demon chakra reaching out to touch him. It seemed to be just as curious as Harry was, if not more so from the way it was prodding back. Fire Scales shifted uneasily on his shoulders and then sank into him, rejoining the whirling tide of magic that couldn't be completely contained within his body, despite his efforts. Harry let it go without complaint, knowing his companion would reappear if he needed them.

It was only instinct that had Harry Apparating across the room when he felt the red chakra shift, and he barely escaped the wave of caustic red that surged out of the boy the moment his attention moved to his companion's departure instead of the demon.

Harry stared warily at the prone boy, lips pulled away from his fangs in a silent snarl as he stepped off the chair he'd reappeared crouched on. The demon chakra radiated around its vessel, a faint aura of red that ebbed and flowed, somewhere between a living thing and water in a strong, changing current. A single tendril reached out again, and there was no blind searching as it came towards him. The demon knew where he was and it was reaching for him unerringly.

Harry hissed wordlessly and reached out an answering tendril of magic –unseen but for a slight distortion in the air, like a heat mirage–, but his was for the purpose of lashing the approaching chakra in reproach. It paused, coiling in the open air, and Harry had to wonder… How sentient was the demon, really? Was this hesitation the mindless instinct in reaction to pain, or was it thinking just then?

Then suddenly the demonic chakra was gone, as if it had never been there in the first place, the red aura around the boy dissipating; it was trapped again, forced out of the boy's recovering reserves by the cool, human chakra. But Harry was cautious now. He knew that his magic ate through chakra when the two powers came in contact, but he couldn't tell if it had done so to the demon chakra; he didn't know if it could. It had felt toxic –caustic and hot–, and he'd been playing with fire by touching it through skin contact with the vessel. So why did he feel so drawn to do it again? To tempt the demon to reach out for him once more?

Harry wasn't one to deny himself much anymore, though this… it felt like maybe he should. He didn't, but he was more cautious this time. He moved no closer to the boy than he was while he reached out and settled his magic over the unconscious vessel, trying to coax the demon out again with a gentle touch. Though it stirred it did not emerge from under the human chakra again, and Harry found himself inexplicably disappointed. (This was so different from anything he'd ever known before…)

The door started to slide open and Harry disapparated once more, without thought; he would search out the demon again, eventually. His curiosity demanded nothing less. Though he hoped the vessel would be unconscious next time, as well, if what he remembered of the boy from the Tower was an accurate judge of his character.

Once more outside the hospital's main doors, Harry stalked away, cape snapping sharply behind him as he –otherwise silently– made his way out of the park and into Konoha's streets. The moon was still low, and the sky still dark, so he hadn't lost track of time while he'd been with the vessel. At least there was that; he was beginning to get a little better about losing himself to his thoughts so often.

The streets weren't busy, though they weren't barren either. People occasionally gave him curious, passing glances, but nothing more; Harry realized belatedly that the demon chakra must have unraveled his notice-me-not spell, like the other demon had done in the Tower. Though somewhat bothered by their presences for simply being, Harry was mostly unconcerned, as none of them felt of the honed chakra of ninja. Either daring or simply disinterested –Harry couldn't tell– he decided against hiding himself, and continued on.

The murmur of their strange language washed over him, unintelligible without his focused concentration. Drifting down the streets, eyes uncovered but obscured by his hair and low-drawn hood, Harry observed the night life of regular people like he never had opportunity to before. As he watched a rowdy group of teenagers –near the same age he should have been– Harry's mind wandered, this time to what he had missed out on in his relatively short life.

Could he have ever been like them? Had the war not happened… had he been born without a Prophecy looming over him… Could that be him right now, enjoying a night out with his friends?

Even if everything had come to pass exactly the same way, but he'd not been thrown into the Veil and summarily displaced, could he have ever had a life near normal?

Harry couldn't even conceive the first; a world without Voldemort's looming threat or his own cursed life. Couldn't imagine having friends other than Ron and Hermione: And if everything in the world was different, what was to say that they would even be the same people? Harry himself certainly wouldn't be.

And maybe it was just his cynicism, but he imagined himself to be exactly as he was at this very moment, even if he could have somehow evaded his ordeal with the Veil. Even his basilisk traits would be there, because –now that it seemed the myths about magical creature animagus forms were true– someone would eventually discover that Voldemort's soul lived within him, and they would try to kill him. And they would probably succeed, because he had no illusions about just how weak he had been…

And then Harry would have killed them all with his newly-awakened, uncontrolled, basilisk eyes.

Upon reflection, this was probably the best thing that could have happened—banished into the middle of nowhere as a nobody, where he couldn't hurt the people he –(still? Had once?)– cared about.

The teens had long since disappeared into one of the bars along the street by the time Harry emerged from his ponderous thoughts. His lips twitched into a brief frown before he continued along the street. In short order he decided he was done wandering; he was going to go to the places that Inoichi had very deliberately never taken him. Once he was far enough away from any humans that would notice, Harry glanced up and Apparated to the roof of the highest building he could see.

The village of Konoha stretched out all around him. The silver moonlight colored everything stark; light and shadow were clearly defined and absolute. Harry could see it all, clear and perfect in a way that his old eyes couldn't. He turned in a full circle, marking the most prominent landmarks and devoting them to the mental map he didn't yet have, being full-tilt insane the last time he'd set foot in the village as opposed to his current level of …general unwellness.

The main gate. The hospital. A tower, standing before a cliff into which four faces had been carved: Harry concentrated on the landmarks, a furrow deepening between his eyebrows, and after a moment 'the Hokage's Tower' and 'the Hokage Monument' trickled to his awareness as just more miscellaneous knowledge stolen from Inoichi with his frequent, information-starved mind-reading of the mind-reader. He tilted his head, brow smoothing out. Inoichi had never let him anywhere near the Hokage's Tower.

A slow smile spread across his face, and a cold trickle of magic spread from his head down a moment after, quickly rendering him Disillusioned—see-through. Positive that he would be quite invisible against the night sky, Harry launched himself into the air and shot towards the Monument, wind snapping through his robes with his sudden speed. The joy of flight overtook him for a moment; a laugh escaped him unhindered as he quirked his arm a certain way and sent himself into a corkscrew. It evolved into a cackle when he twisted and changed velocity, finally stilling some couple hundred feet above the village, swaying his arms gently at his sides as if he were underwater.

Oddly, from above the shadows of the streets weren't quite so deep. There were many lanterns illuminating select streets, while others remained dark and still. From this height he could see even more: An immense stadium in the distance; a large, many storied building that looked something like a palace, with two statues that looked something like fish on the roof; the unmistakable trees of the Forest of Death rising up in the distance. He hummed and drifted towards the Tower, a considerably more leisurely glide than his takeoff.

Harry touched down gently on one of the spires curving up from the top of the Hokage's tower, unfurling his magic to reach out and feel the presences wandering within. With some disappointment he found the bright-but-fading chakra of the old Hokage to be absent, but…the man had to sleep sometime, he supposed. The few presences he felt within were, for the most part, stationary.

It was boring. Harry wanted to do something, now that he finally had the proper motivation to leave his Forest. Since there were no giant Toads about…

He jumped off the spire and let himself freefall for a few seconds, the visceral, thrilling fear of the speed and approaching ground making his stomach lift and a wild grin split his face. With a victorious laugh he stopped mere feet from the ground, arms outstretched, and then twisted bonelessly and shot skyward when he brought his arms down.

Flight was something Harry was absolutely sure he would never tire of, no matter where. Though, admittedly, flying branch to branch in the Forest appealed more to the child in him, while these stunts were more for his inner daredevil.

Whilst drifting over one of the far-reaching edges of the village –even at his comfort altitude of a hundred feet, the air was warm with the smell of mineral laden hot water– Harry stilled, his eyes catching on a man walking leisurely down a deserted street. With his magic spread so vastly he could feel the potent strength of the chakra in the shinobi below him—could feel something else tied to him, something indistinct but attention-grabbing because it was different.


Harry landed, crouched atop a thick wooden pole –top worn smooth; ninja traffic? – across the street from the building the man entered. With little thought he cancelled his Disillusionment and pulled his hood back over his head, all while continuing to track the white-haired shinobi by feel; there were very few people within the structure, but he could feel them all quite clearly…meaning that they were very likely ninja as well. (One of them…one of them felt familiar…)

As he waited and thought in the quiet darkness his companion drew itself out of his body, curling over his shoulders like a warm ribbon, as if it had never left. Harry tilted his head down to rub his lips over the phantom affectionately, attention never truly leaving the building as the serpent hissed its quiet pleasure.

"How aware are you of what I've been doing?" Harry queried softly, eyes half-lidded but intent on the entrance of what he suspected was a bar, too paranoid to look away even if he was deeply interested in what his companion had to say. The spirit's awareness of the outside while it was inside Harry's magic was something that still needed work; most times they became too enthralled with the twists, ebbs and flows to know of anything else.

"I felt the demon, and your eagerness to make contact with it, but nothing after that." Harry hummed, unsurprised but not particularly disappointed. They had only tried to have the phantom keep its attention outwards a few times before, but there had always been more important things to attend to than an idle interest.

He shifted, attention sharpening as he tracked one of the more-than-likely shinobi moving towards the door. "You should keep trying. If you cannot achieve it on your own, I will see if I can assist you somehow. Just because the humans have been unable to see you so far does not mean they all will." He trailed off as a person exited the building, features largely obscured by the fact the man was leaning bodily into the frame of the door with the boneless slump of the truly smashed.

Fire Scales swiveled its head to stare fixedly at the shinobi below, but seemed content not to express any concerns it had about Harry being so near a 'hunter'. "Yes, my Lord." It sank easily back into his magic, and Harry almost thought he could feel it slithering over the wild currents that erratically stirred the surface.

"Watch, Pretty," He whispered distractedly, and observed with mean amusement as the drunk shinobi startled against the wall and almost fell as he jerked his head up to the source of the quiet sound. Harry shifted enough for the excess of draped snakeskin to drag across his perch, a soft and deliberate scrape that he followed with a chuckle when the man staggered right back into the bar that he hadn't left a minute before.

A moment later two men stepped out –the drunk nowhere in sight–, moving without hesitation into the street and full illumination by the moon high overhead. Harry tilted his still-hooded head and hunched down lower, clawed fingernails digging into the hard wood of the post as he leaned forward to get a better look at them. One was very tall, very big; the white-haired man he had followed in the first place because he felt interesting. His eyes were black under the unusual metal plate he wore across his forehead, the symbol on it unfamiliar to Harry, and red lines ran down his cheeks like bloody tear tracks.

Harry recognized the other man immediately and did nothing to stop the almost-pleased smirk that grew on his lips. Auburn hair, jade green eyes, pretty face… it was Jackal, sans ANBU mask. By the slight widening of the man's eyes, he at least suspected who was watching him in turn; Harry wouldn't have been surprised at all to learn that all the ANBU who had been his babysitters could recognize him somehow, even with a wardrobe change and none of his features showing. Jackal tilted his head down and his lips moved, saying something under his breath far too low for Harry to hear, but he wasn't pleased with the sharp way the white-haired man started watching him immediately after.

They hadn't moved aggressively, though, and that was the most he could hope for.

Harry Disapparated, only to reappear at the base of the pole, a careful distance from the men and the snap-snap of his teleportation loud in his ears. Sure, he could've jumped, could've flown, but why give that away yet? The more of his abilities that he kept hidden meant more things he could surprise them with later, if they ever turned hostile: He wasn't any under illusion anymore that they had ways to take him down that he couldn't anticipate. Yet.

"Hello, Jackal," Harry rasped, the hiss in his voice more prominent from speaking nothing but Parseltongue to his snakes. "It is good to see you well." Because, according to the memories he'd implanted, Jackal had been knocked into violent unconsciousness from meeting Harry's eyes after a nightmare. Idly, he wondered just how long his spell had kept the man from waking.

"Harry," the ANBU acknowledged in that accented way they all said his name, apparently unsurprised that Harry recognized him without his mask. "I didn't expect to see you again after I was told you'd disappeared." His eyes told another story; Harry laughed quietly, but it sent the white-haired man tensing anyway. He rolled his neck until it cracked, turning his hooded head to the shinobi he didn't know for a tense second before looking back to the ANBU.

"Liar," He chided lightly, voice a little lower as some of the humor left the situation. Now, what ever could Jackal have said to get this man's hackles up around him so quickly? "You expected me to return to attack your village. Why would I do that, Jackal? I told Inoichi more than once that I am crazy, not stupid; it would take one hit from any of you to incapacitate me. If I wanted to destroy you, why would I show myself at all?"

(It would be so easy now, too, to destroy them all. Just one spell, just a little bit of Fiendfyre, and he could annihilate everything…)

"You have changed," Jackal stated after a long, strained pause. "What have you done this passed month? Where have you been?" He sounded genuinely curious, but Harry knew all about affecting his voice; his scent gave away the slightest bit of hostility, though it was hard to detect under the other shinobi's bitter aggression. The promise of violence made his magic surge, his pulse race, anxiety and exhilaration so thoroughly mixed that he couldn't say then how he felt.

So he focused on what he could. "A month," Harry repeated quietly after another too-long pause. Of course he had known it had been some time, but to actually be told that he had been working on something, day and night, for a full month was…

"Enough." The other shinobi said lowly in a voice that grated like stone; Harry exhaled a long breath through his fangs and connected his gaze with grim charcoal gray eyes. "Where did you get that?" He pointed to Harry's chest, the gesture just as unfriendly as the demand; Harry didn't have to look down to know there was nothing there beyond the loose folds of his robe.

It felt different doing now that he was no longer two, but it still came as easy as a reflex to glance over the surface of the shinobi's mind: A huge serpent, hundreds of feet long –Manda–, colored in equal, neat bands of black and purple and vivid acid colored eyes. A figure atop the prominently ridged head—Orochimaru.

Harry frowned and traced one of the jagged stripes of color across his front, perturbed to realize that although the pattern was different, the color was very nearly identical. Another unwanted coincidence. Another supposed link from him to this man, Orochimaru. Another person who seemed to have made an assumption about his person, and… Well, Harry was the Dark Lord. Who was he to disappoint such a delightful legacy, especially when they kept pushing it on him?

Harry slowly lifted his head and grinned at the man, knowing it bared his fangs in a most sinister way, particularly with the shadows cast over his face by his hood. "I don't believe I know you, but you seem to think that you know me." He drifted forward a couple steps, smooth, the sound of his robe dragging after him made it like he was in his other form. When he was a bare dozen feet from them, Harry stopped and lifted his head, posture straight in a way he didn't think he'd ever carried in Konoha before. "Continue to do so, please, and I will be more terrible than your highest expectations."

A long beat of silence.

"Harry," Jackal said slowly, giving what was unmistakably a warning look to the other man. "We know that you've never tried to hurt any of us before, but this is very important. What did you do after you left the Tower, and what made you come back now?" Harry considered the man closely, some of the icy simmer of his temper waning upon hearing the same genuine curiosity –nearly worry– he faintly remembered from the Tower, back before everything got dull and the ANBU asked about his life.

It made Harry settle back, his shoulders relaxing into a loose slump. The lowered tension made it easier for him to take a step back and think, if only for a moment, long enough to realize that there was no way he could pretend to be the same person they were used to dealing with. No, he was not that shattered thing, the broken pieces of two people that were barely people held together by a stubborn will to live and a chronic fear of death. He was something so much worse, now. Something that could really do them harm, that could think long enough to hold a grudge and carry it out. He was a Dark Lord with the instinct of the King of Serpents. He was too much magic to fit in one body. He was Harry and in no way close to sane, but his shattered pieces were fit together now; maybe not in the right places, but there weren't gaping holes where something was meant to be.

This…was going to be a problem. But there were more immediate things to consider.

Like that Jackal was trying to remind him of the deal he had made with their leader, their Hokage, so long ago. So long as he didn't actually attack anyone, they wouldn't try to kill him: They would very well try to take him in –by whatever means necessary– for escaping them in the first place, but they still had no intent to hurt him. They were willing to give him a chance… So long as he hadn't been away conspiring against them.

Harry dropped the malicious farce of a smile from his face and replaced it with the mild, neutral expression at least Jackal would recognize: It was one of his 'safe' moods, as Inoichi often thought them. He could do this even without playing the same flavor of crazy; it would be best if he could lead them to believe that he wasn't completely changed, even if he was now more 'damaged' than completely unhinged.

"I remember now why I liked you and Birdy so much," Harry stated softly, catching a noise in the back of his throat that could've passed as a chuckle but was actually the beginnings of a deep hiss; the white-haired man was watching him too closely. The ANBU made a noise of inquiry that thankfully drew his attention to a safer target; less tense, less aggressive, hands loose and not even twitching for a weapon in the pouches that hung so near them. Harry hummed. "I stayed in the Forest and hid from the shinobi, and the only things that I killed were some of the beasts, which I ate. And I came back…" Harry paused to consider what to tell them, because he should not lie. "I came back, because I was curious about the giant Toad, and then the boy it left at the Hospital."

The white-haired shinobi's chakra spiked alarmingly and Harry snapped his head over to stare at him, scenting the air and for the first time recognizing the odor of toad spread thinly through his scent, mostly hidden under the myriad of other smells he carried.

Harry tilted his head back, allowing for the first time the moonlight to pierce the shadows under his hood, yellow eyes gleaming as he stared into slightly widened charcoal. He heard Jackal's breath hitch, but didn't break eye contact with the other shinobi, whose chakra was still doing something that Harry had never felt before. The sheer strength of the aggression in the ninja's scent roused his ire, made his eyes narrow to poisonous slits and his clawed fingers twitch within his sleeves.

"You summon Toads, don't you?" It wasn't a question. Harry thought about what the Behemoth had told him about Contracts, and realized belatedly that that might have been what felt so strange about the man, but what about the demon vessel..? Fire Scales said it was the boy's chakra that was tied to the giant Toad, but… "Did you have business with that boy in the Hospital?" The small smile that pulled at his lips was one of Voldemort's, sharp and sarcastic and quietly cruel. "You had best wait if you do; he was very drained when I went to see him."

The last word was barely out of his mouth when the white-haired man's face went grim and dark; the chakra he'd been constantly seeping suddenly turned sharp, and dark scribbles of writing shot out from a previously unnoticed scrap of paper nearly under Harry's foot, enclosing him in a circle that would've just barely given him the space to lie down. Face wiped clear of expression, Harry negligently pushed the hood off his head and dropped to a crouch, eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he reached out and brushed clawed fingertips over the symbols.

He didn't need to know their techniques to know what this was. He could feel it.

It was supposed to be a cage, a prison. (Like how Voldemort had his cells and torture rooms warded.) Harry could feel the chakra released in the writing pressing down on him, chaining him to…this ground. Within this space. But –Harry glanced up and saw a similar slip of paper under the shinobi's foot, could still feel him seeping chakra, even if not at the rate he had before– only while the man was still there, actively powering the prison. The pressure of the chakra was like chains: Harry didn't know if he could Apparate without either splinching himself or taking the shinobi with him.

"Why are you doing this?" Harry demanded poisonously, head low and hair hiding his face. His voice broke on the last word, and it wasn't faked. His hands shook for a moment before he clenched them into fists, glaring hatefully at the toad-summoner.

(This chakra prison was so much like the wards he had been under those months as Voldemort's prisoner—he could remember the feel of them, caging his magic. It was so much worse now. Because Harry was Voldemort, too, he didn't care so much what he had undergone by the Dark Lord's hands, but that he had been so powerless as to let it happen at all. To be trapped. It made him angry (scared), so angry… And now, some know-nothing was trying to trap him and do who knew what..?!)

"..riHarry," Jackal's voice brought him back to awareness, just as his body was mindlessly going through the same action that'd served it so well in the past; Harry came back to himself with one of his sleeves pushed back and his forearm mere inches from his mouth. "Harry, calm down. Jiraiya-sama isn't going to hurt you; he doesn't know you, doesn't know how you are. He thought you hurt someone, but I know you try your hardest not to, that you don't always mean things seriously when you say them. Remember what Inoichi-san told you, who you look like? Jiraiya-sama knew him well. Please calm down. We won't hurt you, but you can't run away again."

Jackal was rambling. Harry knew the man was doing it only to calm him down and keep his attention, but it was working. It shouldn't have, but more than that, it shouldn't have had to. Just then, Harry was furious beyond words, beyond thought, because he was supposed to be better. He wasn't broken anymore, so why was this still happening..?!

"Are you with us, Harry?" Harry lifted his head enough so that his glare was no longer focused on his snakeskin-covered lap, but the unmasked ANBU just outside arms reach, just outside the border of the prison that had sent him into a fit.

"I want out." He nearly hissed, aggressively narrowed eyes switching to stare down the man called Jiraiya, whose expression was as unreadable as Harry's had ever been. Maybe more so. He couldn't even trust himself to cast Legilimens just then, so furious he was afraid he would tear the shinobi's mind apart to find out, and he never wanted them to be able to confirm that skill. "Let me out. You can't keep me here forever. Let me out now before I have to let myself out and you will regret it. Let. Me. Out!" By the end his voice was raising, both in volume and octave; he was dangerously close to sounding like Voldemort, and he didn't care.

Jackal opened his mouth to say something, pretty face so sorry(was it just another mask?)– but he was interrupted by Jiraiya, who was watching Harry with cunning dark eyes like he was picking him apart. Harry hissed through his fangs.

"What makes you think I can't keep you there, hmm?" The man sounded smug, and amused, but his eyes were grim. It was a serious question, made heavier when Harry felt another increase in the weight of the chakra holding him in. Harry smoothed out his face and narrowed his eyes—saw something in the man falter at his expression.

"This cage of yours is inferior. Rushed. It should be…" He couldn't quite stop the spasm that pulled his face, even if he managed to keep himself from speaking the rest of his sentence aloud, the parallel he automatically drew to wards: "…powered by something else, not a person.". He breathed out and scraped his claws through the dirt, vainly trying to let some of the anger out before he did something…regrettable. "You are powering it. The moment you stop, or run out, I am free."

He couldn't guess what had been so odd about his sentence to put the thoughtful look on Jiraiya's face, but Harry was too angry to care. He gathered his bearings and stood, swaying slightly from the lingering weakness of his fit (whywhywhy had that happened; he was supposed to be better..!)– but taking the two steps that brought him within inches of Jackal, anyway. The barrier of chakra that separated them was invisible; Harry saw himself reflected in the jade green of Jackal's eyes, face blank but eyes practically glowing with barely reigned fury.

His voice was little more than a whispered hiss when he spoke, but it was clear. "You shouldn't have trapped me like this, Jackal. You shouldn't have let him; I would have stayed. The Dark Lord kept me trapped like this, did you know? Only his, I knew I had no hope of escaping." Harry was close enough to see the micro-expressions flicker across the young shinobi's face, too fast and not distinct enough to decipher, but still there. "This? This is just making me angry."

When he looked, Jiraiya's face was grim and set; he may have heard, and he may have understood enough even without context, but it was obvious that although Harry may have swayed Jackal's pity, this man would not be moved. The toad-summoner wouldn't let him out until he was good and ready.

Harry's simmering temper spiked briefly higher when he felt the brush of familiar presences rushing towards them and realized that all this had been them stalling, biding time until they could bring in reinforcements. Now that he was feeling for it, he noticed that one of the shinobi inside the bar –one of the few he had felt and not seen– was missing, when he hadn't seen anyone leave.

There were only two of them, but even before they came into view, Harry knew they were his medic-nin ANBU Owl and the interrogator Yamanaka Inoichi. One was missing, though. They all knew –he never made a secret of it– that Birdy had been his favorite, so why wasn't he there? If they had to do this, then Birdy should be here.

It was the first thing he asked (demanded) when they too stood outside his chakra cage, blatantly ignoring the pale shock on Inoichi's face and masked-Owl's scent of fear as he paced and snarled. "Where is Birdy? Where is he, I want to see him." This wasn't right, something wasn't right; his magic finally found a way to touch the cage's strange chakra and lashed it, and the way Jiraiya narrowed his eyes at Harry made him do it again in spite.

"Harry…" It was still Jackal speaking, carefully, Inoichi beside Jiraiya and half turned so his low words were left unknown to Harry. "Sparrow was killed, the day you left—"

Harry stilled immediately, attention honed on the auburn-haired ANBU still standing so close to the cage: Harry couldn't think of anything but the way he had felt the last time he saw Birdy, the way his cracked mind had made him want to cling to the man, to refuse the separation going to the Tower meant.


"—it was one of Orochimaru's men."


A/N: I can offer my excuses as to why this took so long, but does it really matter? I will give you all this reassurance, though: This story WILL NOT be abandoned, even if it takes a decade to get done. Know why? 'Cause I've already written well over 300k words of assorted tie-ins and future!fics that require this fic to be COMPLETE before I can post them, and some of them I'm absolutely in love with.

*spreads arms wide* Well? Let me have it. Questions? Comments? Explosions of inarticulate rage or glee? I'm game.