The farmer stopped his rickety cart just before the road branched into two different directions. To the left, the dusty and well used road led straight through flat fields in the distance. The other branch meandered into thick trees.
The farmer bowed once they were off the cart and drove his ox cart towards the fields.
"I'm sorry about all these detours," Sentoki said as he stretched and twisted with audible cracks.
Harry shook his head as he dusted off the hay from his clothes. "It makes sense that people want a monk to pray for them. But, I don't remember any praying when I travelled with," Harry faltered and had to take a deep breath before he said, "Ichigen."
Leading the way down the tree bordered path, Sentoki glanced at Harry with worried eyes but said, "People are more wary now."
"Wary?" Harry asked, the stiffness from the bumpy cart ride fading with each step.
"The Akatsuki's actions weren't subtle. And with the distance from Konoha, people tend to expect the worst. Actually, there were quite a few prayer requests in Konoha itself," Sentoki said. "The extra time there really helped."
Harry lowered his eyes, sheepish at what had happened. "Sorry that we left much later than you had originally planned."
Sentoki waved away the apology with an amused laugh. "There's no need to apologize. I'm not on a fixed schedule, so you didn't make me late for anything."
"Still, it took more than a day to deal with everything."
"It's good to have a lot of work," Sentoki said. "Keeping busy is good."
"It wasn't all work but it needed to be done," Harry admitted. The slew of conversations and roaming around that he'd done right until he left Konoha wasn't something he considered work. "Listen, there's something I've been meaning to tell you about the via..."
A loud screech interrupted Harry. Hedwig swooped down from the grey sky and landed on a tree branch beside them. Within her claws' grasp, a small black snake struggled to get free.
"You went off to catch a snake?" Harry asked in surprise. "It must be another dangerous snake if you want me to see it before you eat it. Good job!"
Hedwig screeched and hooted at him, her wings twitching in annoyance.
The snake hissed as it struggled even harder to escape Hedwig's claws, "Take my venom? My wonderful, hard made venom. I won't let..."
Hedwig shook the snake until it quieted down.
"You want me to take it's venom?" Harry asked.
Hedwig bobbed her head up and down, mimicking a delighted nod, and hooted some more.
Though still in Hedwig's tight grasp the snake hissed at her in dazed outrage, "Give my venom to a flower tree. You vile winged menace, how dare you suggest such a wasteful cruelty!"
It took Harry an embarrassingly long moment to make sense of the snake's hisses. "Sakura wanted to ask you for snake venom." Harry was sure that he hadn't had a chance to mention that to Hedwig amidst everything else he'd been busy with. "When... how did you two even meet?"
Hedwig puffed her chest in pride but didn't make a sound, implying that he didn't need to know.
"Okay, but how am I even going to get it's venom?" Harry asked, as the snake struggled in Hedwig's grasp with renewed vigour amidst insensible hisses. "I'm not going to carry the snake back with me to Konoha. That's cruel. And dangerous."
Sentoki, who had watched them in silence the entire time, stepped forward. "If you have a clean glass container to store the venom, I can milk it for you."
Harry stared at the monk in blank incomprehension.
"Something with a sturdy rim should make things easier," Sentoki elaborated with an smile. "It has been a while since I've done this."
"Is that safe?" Harry asked.
Sentoki laughed. "Nothing in life is safe. But I know how to handle a snake. It won't hurt me and I won't hurt it."
The snake hissed in obvious disagreement.
"I might have something that could work." Harry crouched down and rifled through his backpack. From the medicine bag that Sakura had given him, Harry emptied out a thick pill container and cleaned it with a quick spell. With another spell to make the container unbreakable, just in case, Harry turned to Sentoki and gaped.
With it's body curled around Sentoki's arm in languid loops, the snake didn't protest when Sentoki turned it's head one way and then the other for a closer look. In fact, the snake's lazy and nonsensical hisses sounded amused rather than angry.
"Is that the container?"
"What did you do to it?" Harry asked, even as he handed the container over.
"Our Temple's techniques are quite good with soothing," Sentoki said, turning his hand so Harry could see his fingertips haloed in golden yellow light where they touched the snake. "I might not be very experienced with the technique but I can manage this."
"When you say soothe," Harry said as he ventured a closer look at the docile snake. Flecks of vibrant purple, that he couldn't see before, dotted the black scales.
"When they feel safe, they become easier to deal with," Sentoki said and coaxed the snake's mouth open. "It allows us to relocate dangerous creatures away from human settlements."
"You do a lot of snake relocation then?" Harry asked.
"Animal relocation is one of the many ways that we can help," Sentoki said, eyes on his work as the snake's fangs folded out onto the container's rim. With golden glowing fingers, he massaged the snake's open jaw until liquid dripped down the fangs and into the container.
In the light of Sentoki's technique, the venom glinted like liquid gold.
Hedwig leaned forward from her perch on Sentoki's shoulder for a closer look at his work.
"Is milking snake venom also a monk duty?" Harry couldn't help but ask as the venom dripping down the fangs slowed and stopped.
Sentoki handed Harry the venom filled container and the golden light, his chakra, from his fingers expanded to enveloped the snake's entire head. "The world is filled with many dangers, so we do what we must when the need arises. Whether that is healing, animal relocation or even venom milking. Prayers are not enough to do good."
With a locking spell on the lid to ensure that there wouldn't be any accidental spills, Harry stored the container away. "Are all monks that knowledgeable?"
"One of the perks of travelling is bringing new skills back to the temple." Sentoki knelt close to a bush well away from the road and released the snake. Without a backward glance or hiss, the snake slithered away. "Even though our archives were nothing like the Capital's, it had enough to teach us an extensive variety of subjects."
"Can't you just ask Konoha to give you copies of their records to rebuild your archives?" Harry asked.
Sentoki blinked at Harry with confusion for a moment before he smiled. "The Capital of Fire Country is the place where the Daimyo holds court."
Harry frowned. "Konoha isn't Fire Country's capital? I thought..."
"The Daimyo exercises his authority over the entirety of Fire Country's various inhabitants from his court, so that is the Fire Country's Capital. The Hokage can only exercise her authority over the ninja from Konoha," Sentoki said as he returned to the road. "Informally, people consider Konoha the ninja capital."
"That sounds like a political disaster waiting to happen," Harry said after he parsed through the information.
"A lot of samurai thought the same."
Harry glanced at him in surprise. "Really?"
Sentoki nodded. "One of the many reasons that the samurai's Iron Country exists up north." He sighed. "Chiriku-sama had actually managed to get quite a few tomes from his time in the capital on the matter. I never got around to reading them."
With a quick check that no one was around to hear or interrupt them, Harry clutched the vials in his pocket and said, "There's something I need to tell you before we reach the temple. I wanted to tell you earlier but with all the prayer requests and everything, I never got the chance."
Sentoki nodded, a picture of calm acceptance. "You're worried about the Temple, aren't you? I could tell but I didn't want to push you. Have you talked to anyone about what happened?"
"I told the Hokage about it. And anyway, I'm not worried about the Temple!" Seeing Sentoki's raised eyebrow, Harry said, "Okay, I am, but there's something else." He pulled out the glass vials that Sentoki had given him three days ago. "These vials, I gave them to someone that I healed."
"At the Temple?" Sentoki prompted when Harry fell silent.
Harry shook his head and took a deep breath. "Before I entered Fire Country, I healed a ninja. A missing-nin, actually. I didn't know who he was when I helped him."
Worry flickered in Sentoki's eyes.
Harry didn't give him a chance to interrupt. "But I know now. He's part of the Akatsuki. Someone who didn't come there that day."
Sentoki's mouth moved, but no sounds came out.
They stood in silence for a long moment, breathing in the humid air.
"Why would the vials be at the temple? How?" Sentoki asked finally.
Surprised at Sentoki's easy acceptance, Harry said, "The thing that worries me more is how Bansai-san knew the vials were mine."
Sentoki straightened, his eyes going wide even as his voice dropped to a whisper. "You think..."
"I don't know what to think," Harry admitted in a rush. "Unless they met, I don't understand how Itachi could..."
"Itachi?" Sentoki asked with a strange tone. "A missing-nin named Itachi."
"Do you know him?" Harry blinked at the monk and realized, "You might, he's from Konoha. He had their headband."
Sentoki paled, the scar on the left side of his head standing out even more. "Uchiha Itachi?" When Harry stared at him blankly, Sentoki said, "He's infamous for murdering his entire clan a few years back. Monks from our Temple handled their final rites."
Harry flinched back in shock.
"The Uchiha were known for their ability to cast strong genjutsu with their unique eyes."
A memory of swirling black marks in red eyes accompanied by Itachi's remark of a 'family curse' manifested in Harry's mind. He was so caught up in chilling significance of those memories that it took a moment to catch Sentoki's unspoken implication. "You think he did something to Bansai-san?"
"Genjutsu shouldn't affect monks of Bansai-san's calibre. The serenity from our techniques is potent protection against genjutsu. Even an Uchiha's." Sentoki bit his lip. "Why didn't you tell anyone? Any of the ninja that you know, I mean."
Even though there was no accusation in Sentoki's voice, Harry looked away and admitted. "I want answers from him. If the ninja got him, I wouldn't get any answers." Harry shook his head and looked down at the vials. "And honestly, I don't know if any of the older ninja would have believed me. You probably don't. This sounds too fanciful to be real."
"I admit that a large part of me hopes that he isn't involved in any way. But I do not doubt your word, Harii-san."
"Thank you," Harry breathed out, genuinely grateful at Sentoki's sincerity.
"The sensible thing to do is go back to Konoha and get an escort." After a brief glance at the vials with furrowed brows, Sentoki sighed. "But your words will make them deliberate and that will delay me from checking on Bansai-san or our Temple's chakra barrier."
"Chakra barrier?" Harry asked.
"There was no need to use such a draining technique before. At the moment, outsiders can only pass through the barrier if accompanied by a monk." Sentoki looked at Harry. "Bansai-san has not left the temple grounds since he returned after the attack."
"So we continue to the Temple," Harry said. "And hope this is all just a strange coincidental mistake or something."
"Do you think that's a possibility?"
"No," Harry said, without any hesitation as he pocketed the vials.
Unsurprised at the answer, Sentoki nodded and resumed their journey. "We could reach the Temple by the end of the night."
"That's only if we don't meet anyone in need of prayers."
Sentoki shot him a quick smile. "I think an excess of prayers could only work in our favour." After a few steps forward, he asked, "Why would he want to meet you?"
"When we parted ways, I told him he could contact me if he needed help," Harry said, kicking away a loose stone. "I know, dumb, right?"
"You are a very kind person, Harii-san."
Harry shook his head with a wry smile. "I think you mean stup..."
"I mean kind," Sentoki interrupted with a firm voice that brooked no argument. Still perched on the monk's shoulder, Hedwig bobbed her head in agreement. "The hardest but most important part of being kind is remembering to be kind to yourself too, Harii-san."
Stunned by the words, Harry couldn't think of anything to say so they continued down the tree bordered road in a contemplative silence.
True to Sentoki's earlier estimate, they reached the bottom of the Temple's massive mountainside staircase later that night. Darkness enveloped the top of the carved stairs and prevented Harry from seeing much of anything. He couldn't even tell where Hedwig had gone off to.
Still, the tangled mess of his emotions left Harry physically sick at the thought of being up at the temple.
"Let us rest for the night," Sentoki suggested in a gentle tone, as though reading Harry's reluctance. "It might be easier to go up in the warmth of daylight."
"I," Harry curled his hands into fists and admitted, "I didn't think this part through."
"You don't have to go up there," Sentoki said. "I think that's what those three ninja at the gate would want."
"Those three idiots were being ridiculous," Harry said as he sat on the bottom most step, turning his back to the looming staircase.
Sentoki sat beside Harry, putting down the frosted glass lantern that he had pulled out earlier. "They were concerned about you."
Harry sighed. "I know, but I need to go up there. And I wouldn't get any rest down here, anyway."
"Then," Sentoki said, "the exercise up might be more beneficial."
"Thanks," Harry said as he stood. "For putting up with my, all this."
"You really should be kinder to yourself, Harii-san," Sentoki said as he picked up his lantern. The soft light of the dusty lantern only illuminated a few steps at a time.
Eager to have a distracting but non-personal conversation as they climbed up the stairs, Harry asked, "Do ninja visit the Temple often?"
"The Temple provides sanctuary to those who need it. But the only time we ever see ninja is if they need a safe place to rest during their travels," Sentoki said, climbing up the stone stairs without a sound. "Fighting on the temple grounds is forbidden. And ninja usually adhere to that rule."
"I guess ninja from the other countries don't know about that no fighting rule."
"All ninja know the rule. We're not the only temple in the world. But we're probably the most non-confrontational," Sentoki said. "Wind country's Scorpion Temple is deep in the desert and the scorpions there are quite a hazard."
"The desert itself is quite a hazard," Harry muttered, remembering his rushed travel through Wind Country. "All that sand. Everywhere."
Sentoki chuckled, the lantern shaking with his amusement. "I wonder what you'll think about the Lava Temple then. It's on one of the distant islands and it's built in a dormant volcano."
"That's crazy," Harry exclaimed in surprise. "Isn't a dormant volcano still a danger?"
"It is still capable of erupting and raining down fiery destruction," Sentoki agreed with a chipper tone. "I haven't been there but I hear it's quite a marvel to behold. The temple and the volcano itself."
"That's crazy," Harry repeated. "Wait, is this mountain a volcano? Is that why it's called the Fire Temple?"
"Don't worry, it isn't. We don't have any scorpions lurking about either," Sentoki said, his wide smile hard to miss in the lantern light. "But due to how high up we are, we get many migratory birds stop by the temple."
"That must be nice," Harry said.
"They are quite a sight to behold. Especially the exotic ones with colourful plumage," Sentoki agreed. "It's lovely to have birdsong fill the air in the mornings."
"They don't mind being around people?"
"I'm not sure about people in general, but they are used to us up at the Temple," Sentoki said, his lantern much steadier as they climbed up into the darkness. "They know we won't harm them."
"Do they stop at the other temples?" Harry asked, strangely curious about the matter.
"Considering the numerous temples scattered around, it isn't hard to imagine that they do stop at some of the others."
Harry turned to the monk. "How many temples are there?"
"Every country, even the smallest one, has at least one temple within it's borders. And then clans in each country might have their own private temples as well," Sentoki said, his tone turning contemplative. Without any prompting, Sentoki delved into his extensive knowledge of temples, keeping Harry distracted through their break-filled climb up.
In fact, the conversation kept Harry so engrossed that he didn't even realize how much time had passed until Sentoki switched off his lantern.
"It's good to see the sun after so long!" Sentoki motioned up at the sky. The gloomy cloud cover that had threatened rain their entire trip had finally parted, allowing early dawn light to illuminate their path.
Not feeling any real travel fatigue, Harry said, "We must have climbed very slowly."
"We climbed at the perfect speed to reach just in time for breakfast. And even though Zenza-san is in charge of cooking, a hot meal is always good after a long travel," Sentoki said. "I've had a lot of experience climbing up these stairs, so I know how to reach the Temple at the best possible time."
At their current position, Harry couldn't see the bottom of the staircase anymore. "It must be hard to travel up these stairs constantly. And even harder when you have to carry things up."
"That's why one of the first things we requested from Konoha was sealing scrolls." Sentoki moved his hands, allowing the tips of his scrolls to peek out from white sleeves. "These scrolls transport food, building material and money around with relative ease. Thankfully, we didn't need any costly medicines this time."
"Konoha is good with medicines and healing," Harry said, flexing his healed arm.
"They've had to become very good with it. The current Hokage certainly worked hard to ensure Konoha's top spot in the medical field during the Second Wa..."
Whatever else Sentoki said was lost to Harry as he realized just how close to the top they were. All that time spent immersing himself in random conversation felt futile as dark blood-drenched memories drowned out everything.
"Harii-san?" Sentoki's voice cut through with sharp and much needed clarity as he gripped Harry's shoulder.
"I'm fine," Harry gasped out, more to himself as he took another step up. He could take his Calming Draught, should have taken it earlier, but then Sentoki would know.
"No, you're not," Sentoki said.
Harry took a deep breath and looked down at his boots as the memories threatened to overtake him again. "I don't know if I can go in. I need to but this," he motioned to his head, "makes everything difficult. I wish there was some way to skip these hard parts."
"For now, you will have to suffer through this hard part. But I'm here to help," Sentoki said, as they climbed the last few steps to the temple.
When they finally stopped, Harry looked up from his feet and wished he hadn't.
The majestic Tengu statues that had bordered the iron gates, the giant winged humanoids that had fascinated Harry with their long noses, bore deep cracks and broken sections.
And even though lines of gold light zipped across the space from one cracked Tengu to the other to create a gate of light, it was the ruin and rubble beyond it that drew all the attention.
In the growing light of dawn, the broken temple grounds couldn't be mistaken for anything other than the site of violent slaughter.
A slaughter he had been unable to stop. A slaughter that Harry had only escaped out of sheer luck. Harry gasped and turned away, "I can't."
"Take a deep breath," Sentoki moved in front of Harry, blocking his sight. "Ground yourself in the present."
Harry took a deep breath and gagged. "Blood. There's blood."
"No. That's your mind playing tricks on you. There's no blood here."
Harry shook his head, flinching away from the Temple grounds even as he reached for his wand with trembling fingers. "I can smell it. The bodies..."
"We've dealt with every single body." Sentoki grabbed Harry's shoulders. "Trust me, the only thing you should smell is the cleansing incense we've been burning."
Harry bit his lip, wanting to believe Sentoki's words.
"I can smell lavender and sage from the incense, can you?"
Now that Sentoki mentioned it, Harry could smell something vaguely herbal but also floral under the metallic scent of blood. Lavender.
"There's even a bit of citrus," Sentoki said. "These are just a few herbs and plants that can purify and cleanse a location."
Another cautious breath brought up the fresh scent of citrus.
"Can you smell anything else from the incense?"
"Some sort of mint," Harry said after some consideration.
"That's good," Sentoki said with a smile. "You're doing good."
"I can still smell the blood. I can't go in," Harry shook his head, hating his uselessness. If they'd slept at the bottom then Harry could have taken the Calming Draught in secret and he wouldn't have created such a fuss.
"Keep your eyes down," Sentoki said, his reassuring voice breaking through Harry's unhelpful thoughts, "I'll lead you to a closed off section of the temple."
Harry took a deep breath of the herb incense mingled with the phantom scent of blood and looked down.
"Concentrate on the incense." With a steady hand, Sentoki guided Harry through the light gate as he chanted under his breath.
Gold light from Sentoki's hand resonated deep within Harry like the gong of a bell, making his insides thrum with a calm warmth. More than the earthy smell of the incense and the cracked earth beneath their feet, Harry concentrated on the calm from Sentoki's technique during their long walk until they finally entered a room.
When the wooden door closed and blocked the outside world behind him, Harry took a much deeper breath and relaxed at the stale smell of indoor dust.
"This is one of the outlying sheds that survived the attack intact," Sentoki pulled his hand away, taking most of the calm warmth. Sunlight poured in from one of the high and narrow windows, illuminating the shed's square interior that had shelves against every wall.
"You can use that technique to calm people too?" Harry asked.
"It's difficult to use on people. You need to be calm to maintain it but strong enough to drown out a person's existing emotions," Sentoki flexed his fingers with a wince, "and that's hard to do when people are so emotionally complicated at any given time. Especially in battle."
"And I suppose keeping your hand on the enemy is hard," Harry said.
"That too," Sentoki agreed as he rotated his wrists. "I'm sure someone has already informed Bansai-san of our presence, but I should go and meet him."
"We passed a monk?" Harry asked in surprise.
Sentoki reached for the door. "We passed quite a few actually."
An old monk with a bushy grey beard opened the door from the outside and entered, bringing in a strong scent of incense and a welcoming smile. "Sentoki, I'm happy to see you back safe." He turned to Harry, "You must be Harii-kun. I am Bansai. How are you doing?"
Harry shrugged in response, "I'm fine."
"Then, not good at all," the monk said.
"No, I suppose not," Harry admitted with a weariness that made him want to curl into himself.
"Youngsters shouldn't sound so tired," Bansai said with a sigh. "But it's always the young who end up in the most difficult situations." He shook his head and looked at Harry, the wrinkles around his eyes deepening, "Tell me, how are you acquainted with Uchiha Itachi?"
Sentoki sucked in a deep breath. "Bansai-san, you knew?"
"Why else would I have given you those vials?" Bansai said, as though he was commenting on the weather.
Sentoki slapped a gold glowing hand on Bansai's shoulder and frowned in confusion.
"He didn't use any jutsu on me," Bansai said, calm and unshaken.
"Then why?" Harry asked, finally finding his voice. "Do you think Itachi is a harmless person?"
"Harmless?" Bansai shook his head. "An Uchiha, no, he's definitely not harmless. But then again no one is truly harmless. Not me. And not even you."
"But you met him," Harry pointed out, unable to keep the accusing tone out of his voice.
"I did," Bansai said. "I allowed him one visit to hear what he had to say."
"Why?" Sentoki asked, anger and outrage seeping that one word.
"Should I have turned him away?" Bansai asked, his voice inquisitive instead of admonishing. "Should I not have shown him the compassion that I did in allowing him to be heard?"
Sentoki bowed his head but his hands were clenched into tight fists at his side.
"I don't understand," Harry said, looking between both monks.
Bansai looked at him with kind eyes. "Wrath helps no one."
"But he's part of the group that..." Harry waved his hand around, unwilling to put into words the horror that had visited the Temple.
"He came here of his own accord," Bansai said. "Not to cause us any harm."
"How can you be sure of that?" Harry asked.
"I can't, but I choose to believe that he hasn't completely lost his childhood sincerity. The fact that you came here shows that he was honest and whatever he has to say could be important. I think you feel the same or you wouldn't have come."
Harry frowned at the monk. "You knew him as a child?"
Bansai nodded. "The Uchiha held on to some old elemental worship ways, so it wasn't strange that our paths crossed rather often."
"He killed his clan."
"Yes," Bansai said. "His eyes were certainly burdened when he spoke to me."
"And that's why you let him on to the grounds without telling anyone?" Harry asked.
"Did you tell anyone about him?"
Harry tried not to sound too defensive as he said, "I wanted answers."
"So did I," Bansai said.
Harry took a deep breath to calm himself. "And if this is a trap?"
"Then we deal with it accordingly," Bansai replied without hesitation as he combed through his beard. "Do you know why he wishes to meet with you?"
"I healed him before, when I didn't know who he was. I told him to contact me if he needed help."
"You think he wishes for more healing and you still came?"
"I thought it would be a good way to bargain some answers out of him," Harry said, his brows furrowing into a frown. "Is he here?"
"He has left a means of contacting him when you are ready to meet."
Sentoki who had been silent up until then, finally spoke up. "Not now."
Harry nodded. "I'll wait. Rest up and maybe even fix some things while I prepare myself for the meeting."
Bansai smiled. "We would definitely welcome any help."
"I'm sure some ninja help could make things easier," Harry said.
"Oh, there's no doubt it would. But even we have to follow the noble's stipulations to protect this Temple from political problems."
Harry tilted his head in consideration. "The nobles don't want the ninja to help you rebuild? I thought it was just the Daimyo."
"Something like that," Bansai said after sharing an unreadable look with Sentoki. "Both sides can be equally problematic at times, if they feel like it." He shook his head. "But forget about that for now, I'm sure you are hungry. I'll have Zenza send breakfast over for you."
"You don't have to," Harry said, not wanting to distract the monks from their work.
Sentoki cleared his throat pointedly.
Wary of being lectured, Harry nodded his thanks and said, "I'll fix whatever you bring here." When Bansai left the shed, Harry said, "Is it okay for me to stay in here?"
"The only other resting spot is the large tent that's housing everyone while we rebuild. I think being here will be much better for you. There shouldn't be any scents or sights to drag up unpleasant memories for you here."
"Thank you," Harry said softly, once again surprised by Sentoki's consideration. After a warm breakfast with Sentoki, Harry busied himself with 'work' to repay that genuine care. Decorative tiles, calligraphy brushes and even wall hangings were some of the many items Harry fixed and even cleaned over the course of the day.
And even though he gave up a few hours of sleep to repair things, Harry greeted the morning of October 2nd determined to meet Itachi and get answers. But it wasn't until much later that night, that Harry finally got called to a meeting.
Sentoki guided Harry through the rather dark temple grounds, past where tired but determined monks were gathered around a large crackling bonfire, and towards a quieter section where chunks of grass, dirt and crumbled stone crunched under his boots.
"This way seems familiar," Harry said, almost absently.
Sentoki's lantern twitched, as though he was surprised to hear Harry speak, "This is the way to one of the escape passages. But we're going past it to one of the wild untouched areas we have. The area where the migratory birds usually visit."
"Are you saying he's a migratory bird come to visit?" Harry couldn't help but ask.
Sentoki turned to Harry in surprise, "You're doing better today. You're calmer."
Though not as solidly reassuring or warm as Sentoki's method, the potion induced tranquillity from the Calming Draught kept Harry moving through the Temple grounds. "It's a temporary calm.
Sentoki didn't question Harry's strange phrasing as they walked towards the very back of the temple grounds, passed through an concealed gap in the natural stone wall and down into a field of thin trees and grass as high as Harry's knees.
"I never realized how warm it is up here," Harry said in wonder. "What is this place?"
"We don't usually allow visitors in this area. It's easier to protect the birds when we control who walks in," Sentoki said as they waded through the tall grass towards a waving lantern in the distance. "As for it being warm, this mountain has never seen snow because it's always warm up here no matter what time of the year it is."
"Did Itachi walk in here through another path?"
"There's only one way to walk in," Sentoki said, a frown on his face. "He must have come in some other way."
"He's waiting in the spirit cave," Bansai said when they got close, taking them through the grass and towards the rocky borders. "He wasn't interested in an open air meeting."
"Spirit cave?" Harry asked, worried at the thought of entering a holy place.
"It's where we allow our brewed alcohol spirits to age," Sentoki said.
Harry snorted in surprised amusement as they neared the cave. "This entire wilderness for migratory birds is just a cover for your alcohol?" A barrier of subdued golden chakra covered the cave's entrance. "And you put up a barrier to protect your alcohol?"
Sentoki huffed. "The barrier is for the visitor."
"That does make more sense," Harry conceded. "But will it be enough to keep him in there?"
"The barrier keeps things out ," Bansai said, taking a cross legged position at one side of the barrier covered entrance.
"He requested privacy so we'll wait outside," Sentoki said, his tone unhappy as he handed Harry his lantern and then mirrored Bansai on the other side. "But if you need help, I'm here."
"We're both here and ready," Bansai corrected.
With a deep breath, Harry stepped through the barrier. He followed the heady scent of alcohol, fruit and old wood, down into the cave and within minutes reached his destination.
Already seated with a lantern of his own, Itachi's black eyes followed Harry's movements with sharp intent.
"Itachi," Harry greeted as he sat opposite the criminal. Even in the dim light of the lanterns, Itachi's face lacked the haggard paleness that characterized a long illness. "You look healthy."
"Your healing and medicines worked well," Itachi replied to Harry's surprise. "Unnaturally well in fact."
"What's so unnatural about it? Have you seen what the medics in Konoha manage on a daily basis?" Harry said.
"Konoha's medics couldn't and still can't cure the terminal illness that I've had for years, Uzumaki-san."
"I never introduced myself as that to you." Harry narrowed his eyes and pulled out the empty vials that had been in his pocket. "If these vials did what they needed to and you don't need any healing, then why are we meeting?"
Itachi looked at the vials with a quick flash of red in his eyes. "You removed the seals I put on them. Then, you do have knowledge of space time techniques. No, something better."
Harry's indignation morphed into confusion, sure he had misheard. "The... what?"
Itachi's lips thinned into an unimpressed line. "You used some unknown variation of it to fix piles of splinters back into their previous forms."
Harry stiffened at Itachi's choice of words. The only piles of splinters he'd fixed were the Suna puppets. "You've been spying on me?"
Itachi stared at him steadily. "I keep track of important happenings in Konoha."
"You're a missing-nin," Harry snapped. "You have no reason to keep track of anything in Konoha. You don't have any family there."
"You know about my clan."
"Yes, I heard what you did." Harry hated Itachi's impassive face, so he asked, "Why would you keep tabs on Konoha?"
"Can you not tell why?" Itachi motioned to his red-cloud covered coat.
"I can't read your mind," Harry retorted without any hesitation.
"We keep tabs on the Jinchūriki to better capture them in the future." Itachi tilted his head at Harry's silence and continued, "With your constant proximity to Konoha's Jinchūriki, it wasn't that hard to know what you've been doing."
Harry mentally catalogued the list of Konoha people that he spent a lot of time around.
"Given his propensity for being the centre of attention, it's easy to keep watch on your cousin," Itachi said.
The Calming Draught had nothing to do with the eerie blankness that filled Harry's mind. "Naruto?"
Itachi stilled, his eyes searching Harry's face. "You do not know."
"Know what?" Harry asked, unwilling to acknowledge the connections his mind had already made.
"Naruto is one of the targets," Itachi replied, without any trace of apology or hesitation. "I am well versed with Konoha's security, enough to exploit it's flaws if I need to."
Anger rose past the potion's forced calmness. "You are after Naruto."
"I wish to make a trade," Itachi said, as though he hadn't just upended Harry's world.
"A trade," Harry repeated, his hands itching to cast some nasty curses at Itachi's sheer audacity.
"Give me everything you have on space time techniques."
Confusion pulled back Harry's anger.
At Harry's silence, Itachi's lips thinned. "You're manipulating time in some way to heal and fix items to their original state," he accused.
Harry stared at him blankly, unsure of what to say.
"In exchange, I'm willing to give you information that can keep Naruto safe."
Harry snorted, angry and confused at how things had turned out this way. "Ridiculous."
Itachi stilled and his eyes narrowed in the first show of true anger that Harry had ever seen on his face. "You would risk Kushina oba-san's son to keep your clan's seals secrets?"
At any other time, Harry would have rejoiced at cracking that emotionless facade, but at that moment he could only repeat blankly. "Oba-san? You wouldn't give a stranger a personal title like that."
A thick silence fell over them, and Harry had no intention of breaking it. Itachi owed him an answer.
With obvious reluctance, Itachi finally admitted, "She took care of me occasionally when my mother was indisposed."
That obviously wasn't the whole truth. But Harry said, "And you repay her care by going after her child."
"None of that matters." In a blink of an eye, a sharp blade pressed against Harry's throat. "You should have taken the deal," Itachi said, his steady voice managing to sound more threatening than an angry snarl. "It didn't have to turn out this way."
A memory rose to the front of Harry's mind. "Sasuke." A name that Harry had read in Naruto's blacked out medical files, files that he still didn't know the origins of. "Uchiha Sasuke," Harry said, his voice calm despite the blade against his skin.
Itachi stilled, his breathing almost non-existent.
Harry didn't know what significance the name had to Itachi, but he gambled on the possibility. "Something else that also doesn't matter?" The blade against his skin didn't falter, but the continued stillness allowed Harry to snake his right hand up.
A flare of red hit Itachi's clone.
Instead of the smoke Harry had expected, the clone tore apart into dozens of angry black birds that rushed at him with deafening caws.
Harry ducked down and curled into himself as fast as he could but wings still smacked against him and sharp claws raked across any exposed skin.
"Harii-san," Sentoki yelled from the entrance and golden light enveloped Harry. The birds left in a flutter of caws. "We felt a surge of chakra."
Harry straightened as the golden light around him dissipated. "I dispersed his clone."
"What happened?" Sentoki asked, concern palpable in his voice as he knelt beside Harry.
"He turned into crows, I think." Glancing at Sentoki's raised eyebrow, Harry said, "Oh, you mean, before that. We had a disagreement." Harry marvelled at how steady his voice was. "I'm fine."
"You're bleeding," Sentoki retorted in disagreement.
Harry rubbed the thin wet line across his neck, wincing as the wound stung beneath his fingers. "Not a lot. I can heal it myself."
Behind Sentoki, Bansai stared at Harry's neck with solemn eyes as the last remnants of gold light disappeared from the monk's skin.
"I just want to sleep. Please," Harry said.
Though his concern didn't fade, Sentoki nodded and led Harry past a silent Bansai and back to the shed.
Harry woke late the next afternoon and stared up at the wooden ceiling, lacking the will to actually get up. He would have preferred to lay there and go back to sleep but Hedwig had other ideas.
When tugging on his hair didn't yield results, she nipped his ear and screeched until Harry sat up. Under her impatient stare, Harry downed some Calming Draught and followed her out of the shed and onto the Temple grounds.
Afternoon light revealed clear grounds with little to no rubble. Monks clad in a variety of coloured robes, not just the white and blue combination that Sentoki wore, used the items that Harry had repaired to work.
Instead of revelling in the delight that his work was being useful, Itachi's words about space time techniques and Uzumaki seals haunted Harry. Did other people assume similar things about Harry's skills?
Harry started and turned to the speaker. "Bansai-san."
"While I'm glad that you had a long undisturbed sleep, you need to eat," Bansai said as he pushed a cloth wrapped object in Harry's hand. "Zenza wasn't on cooking duty today, so there's no reason to hesitate and miss out on such a delicious treat."
Harry unwrapped the cloth and bit into a warm bun. He swallowed a few bites of the sticky creation before he asked, "Have you been a monk for a long time?"
"I used to be one of the older monks of this order," Bansai said, watching the monks work in the distance. "Now I am the oldest."
"I," Harry hesitated and looked down. "Can you tell me about the… Jinchūriki?" His conversation with Ichigen about the matter so long ago had been too vague. Harry needed to know more.
Bansai leaned back and shot Harry a piercing look. "Did he say something about them?" When Harry nodded, Bansai frowned but said, "There is a lot that can be said about them. I wouldn't know where to begin."
"Is there a reason someone becomes one?" Harry asked, trying to keep his tone even.
"You mean what makes a person an ideal candidate to become a Jinchūriki? I assume they must have strong chakra or willpower to imprison and resist the beast's influence," Bansai rubbed his beard in thought. "Or they might just be someone who was unlucky enough to be chosen at random."
"Not everyone knows how a Jinchūriki is made, so most people don't trust a Jinchūriki to be the safest person to be around. It must be very lonely existence."
"Especially when they're surrounded by people," Harry said.
"Especially then," Bansai agreed. Then, as though realizing that Harry wasn't in the mood for any more conversation, he said, "Would you like to see our orchard? It's a bit of a hike to get there, but it's quite lovely."
The orchard, like the grassy wilderness he'd visited the night before, could only be accessed through a concealed and rocky path from the Temple grounds. A path that required all of Harry's patience, concentration and energy to traverse in small steps.
As Harry stood beneath plum laden trees too catch his breath, he wondered which hidden area Ichigen had hoped to hide Harry in during the attack. And if Harry had been hidden in such a place, would those two Akatsuki members have followed and destroyed those areas too?
That morbid question lingered in Harry's mind even when he returned to the shed that night. As Harry hunched over his communication mirror and stared into tired brown eyes, thoughts that he'd been pushing away surged up, demanding to be released.
"Is the Calming Draught helping with being at the Temple?" When Harry just nodded, Hermione frowned. Her tone turned cautious as she started to ask, "Did Ita..."
"Naruto," Harry interrupted her.
The tiredness in Hermione's eyes shifted into reassuring and steely determination. "What is it? What's happened to him?"
"He's a…" Harry thought he'd struggle with the words. But once he started speaking, he couldn't stop. He started with the existence of the tailed beasts that could destroy entire villages and how the ninja dealt with the danger by creating Jinchūriki like Naruto, who were currently being hunted down. Everything poured out in a mess of emotions and thoughts.
"Is Naruto in danger?" Hermione asked while Harry caught his breath.
Harry's voice rose in irritation. "Didn't you hear the bit about Itachi's organization?"
"I meant from the monster creature that's been put inside him." Hermione sounded moments away from calling him an idiot.
Harry slumped down. "I don't know."
"Did he seem in pain to you?" Hermione asked, her no-nonsense tone soothing.
"No?" Harry scrutinized the time he'd spent in Naruto's company. "No physical pain. He just seemed so... cautious." Harry frowned, realizing just how much that word fit. "I thought we were similar, but his childhood must have been so much worse."
"Harry, you've both suffered an unfair amount," Hermione said, her voice gentler than he'd ever heard. "Different kinds of suffering is still suffering."
Harry shook his head but said, "Itachi put something on the vials, a seal."
Hermione's eyes widened. "You said nothing showed up with the spells!"
"I used all sorts of cleaning spells the moment I took the vials from Sentoki. After Suna and all their poisons, I thought," Harry admitted with a sheepish shrug. "One of those spells must have removed it before I used the reveal spell, maybe?"
Hermione closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as though she was holding back a stern lecture. "I knew you shouldn't have gone to the Temple! Did he mention exactly what he put on it?" She asked with clenched teeth.
"Can't have been anything nice," Ron's unhappy voice emerged from the mirror, startling Harry.
Hermione looked away from the mirror with narrowed eyes. "What happened to letting me talk?"
"You've been talking for a while already," Ron said, a whine easy to hear in his voice.
"What was that about tampered vials?" Another voice asked, a voice that sounded eerily like Harry's.
Ron groaned. "Why are you using his voice right now?"
"Sorry forgot," Tonks said, her voice rising to her usual lively self. "The vials, what was that about the vials? You didn't tell me anything about vials before."
"You know now," Ron said with an unconcerned tone.
"I'm the auror here, remember? The one with actual training to deal with these things. I would have told you how to handle the vials and check for nasty things."
"You heard Harry, he messed up before using the revealing spell," Ron said.
"Did you hex him?" Hermione asked, raising her voice over the arguing pair that Harry couldn't see.
"He sent a clone," Harry said, not sure he wanted to elaborate that Itachi's clones had been made of crows. "I don't know how much good the spells would have done."
"A what?" Tonks interrupted.
"You should have tried, maybe even used one of the curses like I told you to," Hermione said, waving off Tonk's question with impatience.
"Hermione," Harry said, frowning at her.
Hermione didn't back down, instead her voice rose as she said, "He's not just part of the group that destroyed that Temple, Harry. He's after Naruto. That changes things."
Harry rubbed his forehead, not knowing what to say.
"I'll find some better spells, something stronger. He won't get Naruto!" Hermione decided and then frowned at him. "What? You're thinking of something. And I'm not sure I like the look in your eyes Harry."
"It's not just him," Harry said. "There's others like him who are after Naruto. An entire group of them. The two who came to the temple, they were monsters who massacred the entire temple. Surely the others would be capable of the same thing."
"And?" Hermione asked through pursed lips, sounding like she already knew what he'd say.
"Naruto wouldn't be in danger if the group didn't exist," Harry said.
"What are you going to do against a group of monstrous ninja?" Hermione asked.
"Nothing, I can't do much of anything right now," Harry said. "But I can't sit back and do nothing. They're after Naruto. Maybe I can take Itachi's information and give it to the ninja who can do something about it."
"How exactly do you plan to take information from a dangerous criminal?" Hermione asked with narrowed eyes and a look that she wanted to hex him through the mirror. "It's not like you can give him what he's demanding." Probably reading something in Harry's expression, Hermione said, "And you can't give him fake information either."
"I could trick him with magic."
"Which magic?" Hermione asked. "And you said something about his cursed eyes. What if those eyes make him the one person who'd be immune to any kind of magic trickery."
"How else will I get any information about the group?" Harry asked. "Should I actually find whatever it is he wants and give it to him?"
"You're not giving the criminal what he wants, Harry! If he ever tries to contact you again, make him sign a contract," Hermione said, her brown eyes blazing with fury. "A magic contract that will have dire consequences for him. The fact that he put something on the vials to affect you means you don't have to be nice anymore."
"I wasn't being nice," Harry protested. "When was I being nice?"
"You didn't use any spells on him!"
"I stunned his clone to end the meeting," Harry said.
"You're an idiot!" Hermione took a deep breath and sighed. "An utter idiot."
"I can't believe I ever saw Sirius in him," Harry admitted.
Hermione's eyes softened. "You're allowed to make a mistake."
"This mistake can kill Naruto."
"Well, it's not like you possess the ability to divine the future," Hermione said with raised brows. "You couldn't have known who you were healing and how he'd be connected to Naruto and you. You were just being your usual decent self."
"What concerns me the most," Hermione said, "is him thinking you can manipulate time."
"I didn't think fixing things would cause this kind of trouble."
Hermione snorted. "History of magic shows two possible extreme reactions that the non-magical community can have to magic. Either it's evil and needs to be destroyed or it's a divine skill that needs to be revered and used to benefit them."
Harry stared at her for a long moment. "No more Goblin revolutions to study about with Binns this year?"
"He wouldn't miss a chance to talk about the Goblins." Hermione rolled her eyes. "I've been reading up on magical and non-magical interactions over the years. Idle curiosity."
Harry knew there was no such thing as idle curiosity when it came to Hermione's reading. But he said, "He mentioned it being my clan's seal secrets. Like they would have had the seals that could do these things."
"They were wizards?" Ron asked.
"Could explain why there's so much danger in being one," Harry said, trying not to sound too hopeful for that theory.
"Then what about Naruto?" Hermione asked, ever the voice of reason.
Ron replied. "Wizard families can have squibs. Or that monster they put in him could have done something."
"You need to find out more about the Uzumaki," Hermione said.
"I need to find out more about the Uzumaki," Harry said at the exact same time. They stared at each other and chuckled. "I've made so many mistakes since I came here, I just hope I don't do anything worse."
"Don't heal any more criminals," Ron advised and yelped in pain.
Looking smug, Hermione straightened the mirror and said, "What are you going to do about Naruto?"
"I like Ron's idea to knock him out and take him away from here."
Ron made a loud agreeing sound.
"Harry," Hermione admonished, her voice serious. "You need to find out about the other Jinchūriki. How many of them are still out there? How long before someone tries to come after Naruto?" Hermione looked to the side and sighed, "Fine, I'll remove the spell, but you better have some useful ideas, Tonks."
When Harry put his mirror away later that night , he had lists of both concrete things he needed to do and vague ideas of what he could possibly do to protect Naruto.
But before doing anything for Naruto, Harry realized that he needed to do something for himself first.
Harry spent the next two days alternating between fixing as much as he could and then braving the Temple grounds without any Calming Draught. At first, he could barely take a few steps out of the shed before he had to rush back in to fight off the memories.
But then Hedwig brought a concerned Sentoki who refused to leave until Harry gave him an explanation. And after he got an explanation, Sentoki refused to let Harry continue his scheme without help.
When Harry struggled to stay outside, instead of using his calming golden chakra, Sentoki pointed out things that Harry could concentrate on to combat his memories.
The ever present scent of incense pushed back the phantom scent of blood.
Watching the monks move around the grounds countered the images of dead bodies.
The items that Harry had fixed reassured him that nothing remained broken.
And though it was a constant struggle against the persistent memories, by the end of those two days, Harry could actually spend long stretches of time outside without resorting to any magic.
"You're getting better at pulling yourself out of the memories," Sentoki said, sounding genuinely happy, as they sat outside the shed.
"It's slow but I think I'm getting where I want to be."
"You don't have to rush this process, you know. You can take your time to heal."
Harry shook his head and leaned back against the shed door. "I've got to get back to Konoha soon. So, I'll be leaving in a day or two."
"Ah, even if..." Sentoki hesitated and glanced away, but Harry understood the unspoken question.
"I don't care if he comes back. We have nothing to talk about," Harry said, "I stayed here because I wanted to fix things."
Sentoki looked at him for a long moment and then smiled. "It's heartening to have so many of our things just waiting to be put back in when we finish rebuilding."
"You know that you could have sent me things to fix in Konoha, right?"
"We couldn't burden you with reminders of this location. That would have been cruel."
Now that he knew just how debilitating his memories of the Temple were, Harry said, "You're right. I don't think I could have handled it before I came here. I haven't completely moved on, but I'm getting there. This visit helped. You helped."
Sentoki rubbed the scar on his head. "I just wish you could have come here with the express reason of healing instead of having to meet that man."
Harry sighed. "Does this mean I owe him? Because if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have come here willingly."
"That's one way of looking at it," Sentoki said, not answering Harry one way or the other.
"Have you talked to Bansai-san about him?" Harry couldn't help but ask.
"No, I didn't know how to bring it up," Sentoki said and sighed. "To be honest, I've been finding it hard to talk to Bansai-san."
"Sorry," Harry said.
Sentoki waved away the apology, "It's not... I've been struggling with our tenants of compassion and forgiveness. Of not giving in to wrath."
"You shouldn't be so hard on yourself. The more I think about it, the more I realize why he wasn't much of a talker when we first met. Everything he said just made me angry." When Sentoki didn't say anything, Harry prodded, "Don't you want to know what he said?"
"From your tone, I imagine he had nothing good to say."
"He wanted to make a deal with me," Harry said, wondering if he was doing the right thing. "He was willing to give me information about his group."
Sentoki frowned. "Why you?"
Deciding to trust the monk who had helped him over the past few days, Harry said, "He thought I would be willing to do anything to keep my cousin safe from the Akatsuki's hands."
"Your cousin?" Sentoki's frown deepened. "But from what I've heard, that group is specifically after..." he paused and glanced at Harry with a troubled expression. When Harry didn't disagree, he said, "Oh."
"After I healed him, he mentioned his cousin, Shisui. I felt sorry for him and I helped him but now, now I realize he probably killed that cousin along with the rest of his clan." Harry shook his head and swallowed the lump in his throat. "How could he do that? Just the thought of Naruto being in danger makes me desperate to protect him. And I haven't even known Naruto all that long."
"I was mistaken before," Sentoki said, staring at him in wonder. "It's not just kindness in you, it's love. You are filled with love."
Harry snorted. "What good is any of that?"
"You healed an injured man. It was a good and caring thing to do. And that act of healing him will benefit you," Sentoki said, his voice strong with conviction.
Harry was unconvinced. "Really?"
"He was willing to give you information to protect your cousin."
"Not for free," Harry countered. "He has his own agenda."
"That might be, but he could have easily compelled you to do whatever he wanted. After all he's an Uchiha and he has those eyes," Sentoki said, absently motioning to his own eyes.
"His cursed eyes?" Harry grimaced. "Are you trying to defend him?"
"I'm trying to understand this situation," Sentoki said.
"There's no point in trying. Itachi is a good actor," Harry said. "Bansai-san saw him and remembered a sincere child and I.. well, I came here like an idiot. And anyway, we didn't exactly part ways on friendly terms."
"You sound unhappy," Sentoki said cautiously.
"I don't really know how to protect Naruto from the Akatsuki." Harry rubbed his forehead, weary and unsure. "Any information would have been helpful."
"Harii-san, while I do not have any information, if you ever need help with anything," Sentoki said with an unwavering gaze. "Then I will do my best to aid you."
"You can help me by doing something about Zenza-san's cooking. How can he so bad when he cooks so much?"
Sentoki's lips twitched up as he shook his head. "Some things in this world cannot be changed. Zenza-san's cooking is one of them."