"Ha!" grunted Pell, lashing out with a punch that Naruto deflected with his forearm.

"Listen, Pell," said Naruto as he ducked over a spinning kick from Nell, "What do you think is the most important factor when it comes to power?"

The boy didn't pause as he continued with his barrage, knowing from experience that pausing to think in the middle of a spar was a painful mistake.

"Um…" he said as he transitioned from a right hook into a left elbow, "Hard work?"

"I meant literally," replied Naruto, sidling back to dodge the elbow and then catching Nell's answering punch, "It's not a trick question. How do you generate power in your strikes?"

Pell squinted his eyes and dodged the ragdoll that was his sister as Naruto picked her up and tossed her at him like a sack of beans.

"...muscles?" he answered tentatively, striking with a hooking low kick that was blocked yet again by a casual foot raise.

"Wrong," said Naruto, this time raising his hands out of their normal combat stance.

Taking this as a chance, and knowing of Naruto's 'anything goes in a fight' mentality, Pell stomped forward to hurl a double fisted strike at his mentor's stomach.

"It's your centre of gravity," continued Naruto, wriggling his fingers.

Immediately, Pell felt the ground shudder beneath his feet. Losing his balance, he tumbled forward, right into the path of a light push, which ended up completely knocking him backwards to land on his backside.

"I've taught you to punch using your entire body weight," said Naruto, "Rotating from your hips, twisting your shoulders, following through with your body – that's how you create a powerful blow. But without a solid foundation, no strike can generate power. A punch from someone off-balance is as weak as a baby's."

By now Nell had recovered and had joined them, so Naruto turned to her as well.

"Nell, this is important to you as well – try to cast your strongest spell at me."

Giving him a suspicious look, Nell nonetheless furrowed her brow and began to coalesce mites of light in between her palms. Her strongest spell wasn't something she could usually use in a spar – neither Naruto or Pell gave her the time and focus to gather enough mana to cast it.

But just as the spell had almost finished its preparations, Naruto once again wiggled his fingers. The ground beneath Nell shifted as it had to her brother, making her lose her balance with a yelp. She flailed her hands to try and regain her footing, the light she had gathered dissipating with a soft hiss.

"Mages also generally need to maintain their focus to cast powerful spells," lectured Naruto, "Disrupt their footing – and their concentration - and you disrupt their magic."

He then hopped up to land on a column of stone that rose out of the ground.

"So," he said, "That's our next lesson. Shifting your centre of weight so that you can still generate enough power to strike effectively, yet not so heavily that disrupting your balance will destabilise you."

"How will you teach that?" asked Pell curiously.

"Well, eventually we'll be sparring on top of spires like these," said Naruto, patting the rock fondly, "But the first step is an old tradition from where I come from – tree jumping."

"Whoooooa!" shouted Pell, looking over the side of the branch.

The distance to the ground from up here seemed far higher than it did from before he climbed the tree.

"C'mon, Pell!" called Nell, already jumping from branch to branch, "This is kinda fun!"

"Easy for you to say," muttered Pell darkly.

It made sense – after all, Nell was always persuading (read: bullying) Naruto into taking her flying whenever she could. Any fear of heights held by the girl would have long since evaporated.

Pell, meanwhile, was starting to hit his growth spurt, and this, alongside all the muscle he was starting to put on meant that in contrast to his high-flying twin, he was someone who was far more comfortable with his feet on solid ground than off it.

However, knowing that Naruto would never do anything without a good reason, the boy swallowed his fear and leapt off the branch and onto another one.

Unfortunately, bravery did not turn out to be a good substitute for balance, and having not gauged the landing properly, Pell ended up overbalancing upon arrival. He desperately leaned back to compensate and windmilled his arms frantically, trying to regain his footing. Feeling his feet slipping as he started to topple over, he gave a panicked yell, only to feel a solid hand grasp him by the shoulder and steady him.

"Thanks," he breathed out to Naruto's clone, who grinned and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Take it slow," the clone said, "Speed comes later. But I like the attempt. Don't worry, I'll catch you if you fall."

"You make it sound easy," said Pell, still trying to calm his racing heartbeat.

"Oh, you don't know the half of it yet," grinned the clone, "Just wait 'til we start sparring on trees."

Pell groaned.

"They've grown," remarked Lamb as she nibbled on a meat skewer.

"To be worthy hunts!" agreed Wolf, floating over her shoulder.

"Yes," grinned Naruto, "I'm very proud of them."

The trio were currently overseeing a spar between the twins, this one unusual in the way that it was being conducted almost completely arboreally. After the initial foray into tree jumping, Naruto had begun to incorporate it much more into their regular routine - both in the twins' training, as well as a way to expedite their travelling. Now instead of following the regular road towards Demacia, the party instead travelled in a straight line through the trees where possible, a fact that was quickly cutting their estimated travel duration to be shorter and shorter.

"Hey!" yelled Pell, drawing Naruto's attention, "Get back here!"

The boy leapt mightily from a tree branch to soar across the space, landing with a grunt on the branch his sister was on. His weight caused the stout branch to sway dangerously, but to Naruto's proud pleasure, both siblings adjusted admirably, maintaining their balance with subtle adjustments that didn't compromise their combat-ready stances.

There was a brief pause, and then Pell rushed forward, stepping into Nell's guard to unleash a series of rapid punches. Nell took the assault on with composed determination, deflecting and parrying every strike perfectly as she retreated, step by step.

The twins' bodily control and footwork were on full display as they fought with poise and precision despite their precarious perch shaking violently with each step and strike.

A break in the combat ensued as Nell raised a hand to send out a sudden flash of light, blinding Pell momentarily despite the latter's lightning-quick reaction to shield his eyes. The girl took advantage of his distraction to lash out with a high kick, which was somehow forearm-blocked by some miracle or uncanny instinct by her brother.

The force of the blow was still enough to knock Pell off the branch, but despite the perilous situation he was in, the fruits of his training was clear to all the onlookers.

Instead of screaming or panicking as he was wont to do earlier on in his training, Pell instead fluidly tucked his body into a ball to control his fall, only to stretch out and snag a branch with both hands as he fell past. Utilising his momentum to swing up and over the branch like a gymnast, the boy launched himself back up the canopy, leaping and weaving through the branches and leaves as naturally as any tree-born primate.

However, Nell hadn't been waiting idly in the meantime, and it was clear to all who watched that although Pell was impressive in his traversal through the trees, Nell was no slouch either.

The girl slipped and danced through the boughs like a dancing sprite, springing through the trees as sure-footed as any mountain goat. She moved away steadily from her pursuer, and even as he closed the distance, she turned and proved that she could do more than just evade.

"Take this," she sang cheerfully, as she tossed a ball of light behind her.

Pell cursed and dodged away, a move that proved wise judging by the explosive pop and flying bark that resulted from the spell hitting a tree.

But to his credit, he persevered, gritting his teeth and redoubling his effort to catch his sister, who was now fully invested in keeping her distance, skipping away while lobbing those explosive balls of light at him.

"I don't know how neither of you have gotten seriously injured from this nonsense," said Evelynn as she ladled out a generous portion of onion soup out into Pell's eagerly offered bowl.

"Oh, Naruto has his clones ready to catch us, so we're not worried," said Nell as she bit into a warm, fluffy piece of bread with relish.

The beauty of Naruto's wind-sealing storage trick was that freshly baked bread stayed freshly baked, even if that baking had been months ago. It was a luxury that all the party members had grown very, very attached to.

"What's that now?" asked Naruto upon hearing his name, too busy tucking into his own portion to have been paying prior attention.

"Oh, I was just saying that tree-sparring is safe because you have your clones ready to catch us if we fall."

"Oh," said Naruto, nodding dumbly, "...riiiiiight."

Nell's eyes narrowed.

"...you do have your clones ready to catch us if we fall, right, Naruto?" she asked, her voice dangerously low.

Naruto was suddenly very interested in his soup.


"What? Ow!" complained Naruto as Nell slapped his arm, "Look, I had them around when you guys were learning, but now you guys are, like, pros at this stuff! You can't always have a safety net! And besides, nothing like healing off a broken arm or two to make sure you really understand the importance of keeping your balance. Either that or breaking your fall before you hit the ground, haha."

Watching Nell slap her guardian's arm again and give him a glare that promised at least one flying session in the near future, Evelynn looked over to Pell, who was too busy inhaling his lunch to join in the hijinks.

"You're not worried?" she asked.

"Nah," answered Pell as he lifted the bowl up to his lips to drink the rest of his soup.

He swallowed with a loud gulp, and smacked his lips in a satisfied way before continuing.

"Like Naruto said, both Nell and I are pretty comfortable up there now. Even when I'm falling I know how to land or interrupt my fall mid-air now. And I know that despite Naruto's jokes, he'll somehow manage to catch us if we're ever in danger of a serious fall. He's always watching our spars, and you know how fast the guy is. Can I have seconds, by the way?"

Evelynn chuckled as she obligingly picked up the ladle.

"Yes, you're right," she agreed.

"You know, it's not that hard," said Pell as he watched her fill up his bowl with hawk-like eyes, "Why don't you give it a try?"

But Evelynn only chuckled and waved him off, something that the boy only shrugged easily at, more than happy to focus on destroying his second helping.

She had given the tree-jumping malarkey a go, back when the kids were starting to learn it, but had quickly discovered that her new body wasn't just human, it was a very weak human. Her muscles were completely untrained, her balance was terrible, and her senses were dull. Despite a week of trying, and the attention and help of him during that week, it was all to no avail - her ability to traverse the trees with any sort of grace remained at a level zero.

She had thrown in the towel then, frustration at her lack of progress mixing with the infuriating feeling of being reminded of what she had lost. He had encouraged her not to give up, of course, but she had declared that she would not slow down the group any longer than she already had.

So he ended up carrying her as the group travelled through the trees (bridal-style, in order to avoid any further mishaps), and she liked to pretend that the strong, secure feeling of his big, muscled arms around her was not a factor at all in her decision not to keep up her pursuit of tree-jumping.

"Here," said Naruto, tossing a wrapped package at Pell, who was slumped on the ground after getting his ass whooped in a spar by one of Naruto's clones.

Exhausted as he was, the boy still managed to catch the long stick-like object handily.

"What is it?" he asked curiously as he hefted the surprisingly heavy object in his hand.

"A present," replied Naruto, "Go on, open it."

Puzzled, Pell unwrapped the cloth, only for his eyes to widen as he saw a cross-shaped guard.

"No way…" he breathed, "Naruto, you didn't!"

"It's been about a year," grinned Naruto happily, "You've worked hard, and I think you can handle it now. And what kind of knight doesn't know how to handle a sword?"

Pell jumped to his feet, prior exhaustion forgotten.

Unsheathing the blade, he whistled as he admired the reflective sheen of bright steel in his hand. His hand clenched around the handle, and he couldn't resist pumping his fist high in the air as he cheered.

"This is so cool!" he grinned.

He carefully sheathed his blade, before turning to Naruto, joy practically radiating off his beaming face, and rushing over to give him a heartfelt hug.

"Thank you so much!" he said sincerely.

"Aw shucks," laughed off Naruto, scratching the back of his head abashedly, "It's nothing. And this is just a cheap practice blade anyway. I got it from one of the local blacksmiths."

He patted Pell's shoulder a little awkwardly. Nell had always been the more physically affectionate of the two, whereas Pell was quickly growing into the cool, stoic, 'emotions are ick' phase of male adolescence.

"I don't care," said Pell, who could not resist pulling out his sword again to admire it, "I love it. And it's mine. I'm going to give it a name."

Naruto watched as Pell gave the blade a few experimental swings.

The sword was slightly shorter than the average bastard sword, and was specifically geared towards young men who were still growing into adulthood. It had a hilt that allowed for a two-handed grip, but was also perfectly suited to also being wielded one-handed.

Despite the considerable weight of the steel blade, he was impressed to see the Pell wield it effortlessly with one hand - his strength training was definitely showing its results, especially as according to the blacksmith, such swords were typically wielded by boys at least five years his senior.

"Do you have any ideas for a name?" asked Pell excitedly.

Naruto blinked and shook his head.

"Nah, I don't usually name my weapons," he said with a shrug as his tanto materialised in his hand to illustrate his point, "Mine are generally pretty replaceable, but I have grown attached to this one."

"Okay," nodded Pell in understanding, "Maybe Nell will have some ideas!"

He eagerly turned to run off in search of his sister, causing Naruto to yell after him.

"For gods' sake, Pell, don't run with the damn sword out! Put it away first!"

The blond guardian shook his head in exasperation. hoping he hadn't made a huge mistake.

Pell rushed through the woods, looking for his sister. The comforting warmth of his necklace slowly faded as he approached her location - a nifty trick that both twins had learned to use with impunity.

"Nell!" he yelled as he burst into the clearing in which they had made their camp … only to screech to a halt as he took in the scene in front of him.

Six strangers in rough looking garb were in their camp - five men and one woman. By the way they looked to be rifling through their bags, it was clear they were bandits.

Pell quickly scanned the clearing and felt his blood run cold when he realised that Eve was lying motionless at the edge of camp with a trickle of blood running down her head and Nell was nowhere to be found.

One of the men stood up, a dark look on his face.

"Look, kid," he growled threateningly, brandishing a large knife.

"S-stay back!" stammered out Pell, fumbling at his belt and pulling out his new sword, almost dropping it as he unsheathed the unfamiliar weapon.

One of the other bandits grinned and elbowed his neighbour.

"Kid thinks he's a hero."

Pell stepped back, but tightened his grip on his sword. The weight was unfamiliar and unwieldy in his hand, but having a weapon felt better than having nothing at all.

The man who had initially stood up stalked closer, licking his lips in an intimidating way.

"You think just because you have a sword you're a big shot now? Let me tell you, kid, that sword ain't gonna do shit-"

The bandit suddenly thrust out with his knife mid-sentence, which caught Pell off-guard. He stumbled back, dodging by mere centimetres, and brought his sword up in a ready stance.

"Heh heh … scared, boy? Think you're all tough because daddy bought you a sword? How many times have you swung it in practice?" taunted the bandit, continuing to circle around Pell, his knife lazily carving a circle in the air.

"Ten times?"

A stab was side-stepped.

"A hundred times?"

A slash ducked.

"How many times have you swung it in a fight to the DEATH?!"

The bandit's roar and accompanying swipe was met in a clang of steel as Pell brought up his sword to block the strike, catching it on the corner of his guard.

"None," the boy replied through gritted teeth, "But I can still beat you."

He twisted his wrist and allowed the heavy sword to drop out of his hand, taking the knife he had parried with it, the bandit forced to relinquish his weapon or have his wrist broken. At the same time, Pell leaned in to the left and lashed out with a brutal right elbow. His opponent, not expecting the sudden loss of support from Pell disarming him, tumbled forward, right into the perfectly placed strike.

"Oof!" the bandit grunted as his nose made a crunching sound under the impact.

However, Pell wasn't done.

With the bandit rocking backwards from the blow to the face, he kicked out, sweeping the man's feet out from under him and sending him crashing heavily to the ground. Pell wasted no time in leaping onto the downed man, straddling him, and then raining blows onto his helpless face.

When the third one caused the man to go limp, Pell rolled off, quickly regaining his balance in a combat-ready crouch.

"What the-" he heard the female bandit say in disbelief.

The entire exchange had only taken seconds, and it seemed as though realisation was only now beginning to dawn on the remaining thieves.

"Anyone else want a piece?" hissed Pell, baring his teeth.

His sword was still on the ground a few meters away, but he couldn't afford to pick it up as the other bandits were now starting to approach him, wary now that they had seen what he could do. A variety of short swords and daggers found the hands of his opponents, but what worried him the most was the crossbow he saw slip out of the cloak of one of the men in the back.

Fighting barehanded against blades wasn't ideal in the first place, but add in the numerical disadvantage as well as the ranged weapon, and the odds weren't looking too good at all.

He snuck a glance behind him, looking to see if he could perhaps retreat and call for Naruto to come and help, but a flying bolt whizzing past his ear dissuaded him from making a run for it. He clicked his tongue as he heard a familiar mechanical hiss and click. It was a self-reloading crossbow from Zaun - looks like he couldn't rely on the reload time as a window of opportunity either.

Bouncing on the balls of his feet, Pell made it his first order of business to block the field of view of the crossbowman, darting behind one of the other attackers to prevent him from getting another clear shot.

He dodged a sword slash and a knife stab, and, finding himself in a precarious position after the dodge, threw himself bodily into another opponent, all the while trying to keep at least one bandit between himself and the crossbowman.

A heavy blow struck him in the side as the man he had tackled tried to force him off, and Pell was all too happy to accommodate, retaliating with a heavy punch to the stomach that folded the man in half as he scrambled to his feet.

Pell panted as his eyes flicked uncertainly from one bandit to the next. They weren't especially well-trained, and he could tell from their slow and telegraphed strikes that normally it would be child's play to take any one of them down. However, it was four against one, which was not a situation he had ever trained to handle. Having to face three opponents simultaneously in hand-to-hand combat while constantly monitoring the ranged threat was taxing on his concentration, and his nerves were strung so tight that he found himself flinching inadvertently at every minor movement any of the bandits made.

The reach of fully grown adults was also something he was not particularly well-equipped to handle - while he had some experience sparring with Naruto, his teacher was so skilled that he rarely found exploitable holes in his defence anyway. Factor in the extra, deadly length of their various weapons, and Pell was unfortunately not too optimistic about his chances to come out of this engagement the victor.

A yell and an attempted slash from one of the men was swiftly dodged, but as he turned away, the man's comrade stepped forward, trying to get close enough to stab the boy with her dagger.

Adrenaline pumping through his veins, Pell yanked his arm away hurriedly while lashing out with a kick that didn't quite hit the knee he was aiming at. The strike hit the bandit in the shin, and he heard her hiss in pain and stagger away, cursing.

However, even as he started turning his attention back to the first bandit, Pell noticed out of the corner of his eye a flash of movement - as the female bandit hobbled back, the crossbowman had circled around to get a clear shot!

Pell jerked back, only to gasp as a powerful arm wrapped around his neck.

"Gotcha!" he heard the bandit say triumphantly as his grip tightened.

Pell grunted, teeth gritted as he scrabbled at the arm choking him.

"Hold 'im still!" he heard the crossbowman call out.

"Easy for you to say," his captor grunted back, his voice straining with the effort of holding the struggling Pell, "Fucken kid is strong as fuck."

"Hurry up!" another bandit interjected worriedly, "We counted the bags - there should be more than two people in the party. Kill him, and then the woman, and let's get out of here with the loot before the others come back."

Pell strained with redoubled effort as he heard the callous words, but the iron grip the bandit had on his neck was unrelenting, and growing darkness started to creep at the edges of his vision as the lack of oxygen started to take its toll.

As if from underwater, he heard the twang of a loosed bolt, and squeezed his eyes shut as he waited to feel the impact.

After a few agonising seconds with no burning pain in his chest, Pell peeked out, only to feel his spirits lift.

"Looks like I'm just in time," said Nell, the intercepted crossbow bolt suspended in front of her outstretched hand.

Dropping the bolt, she spun around and hurled a sphere of light with her other hand at the crossbowman. Hitting him with a thunderous boom, it exploded with concussive force and slammed him against a tree, where he slumped unmovingly.

Then, without missing a beat, she ducked under a haymaker from a bandit and retaliated with a gut punch that sent her attacker reeling.

"What the…" Pell heard the bandit choking him say in bewilderment.

He felt a minute slackening in the chokehold and he immediately capitalised on the opportunity. He momentarily stopped trying to pry the arm off his neck, and instead lashed out with double backward elbows directly into the bandit's stomach, which released him as the man doubled over and gasped for breath.

Falling to the ground, Pell was not in much better shape as he took desperate lungfuls of air, trying to regain his wits as his vision spun from almost being choked unconscious.

He rolled over and propped himself up on one elbow, trying to take stock of the situation while his head throbbed in pain. Through a blurry haze he watched as Nell danced between the blows of two bandits and the protective brotherly instinct that roared its outrage was enough to rouse him out of his daze and spur him into action.

He scrambled to his feet while shaking his head blearily and adopted a fighting stance out of sheer muscle memory.

Seeing a knife strike aimed at his sister, he stepped forward and grabbed the offending wrist roughly, forcibly pushing it aside. His free hand intercepted its bandit counterpart, and as a result, the two combatants locked into a stalemate, each glaring at the other.

The other man was far taller than him and much heavier, but Pell's training had yielded a strength far beyond his years. The two struggled against each other in their contest, first seeming quite evenly matched, but as the seconds ticked by, the bandit's height and weight started to give him the edge.

Grinning victoriously as he felt his advantage grow inch by inch, the bandit continued to leverage his position to push down on the smaller boy, who gritted his teeth and continued to push away with all his might.

However, try as he might, Pell could slowly feel his resistance being worn away, physics and age forces too powerful for him to conquer. At a glacial pace, he could feel his grip slipping and his muscles protesting - his body forced back in defeat.

Pell gritted his teeth, sweat beading on his cheek, when suddenly he felt a back impact against his. A familiar back, one he knew almost as well as his own.

A small hand peeked up over his shoulder, and started to glow with an arcane light.

A wild grin graced his face, and Pell closed his eyes and turned his face away as Nell blasted a quick flash of light behind her, right into the eyes of her brother's opponent.

"Aaaah!" Pell heard the man cry out, and the iron grip he had been fighting against instantly slackened.

Seeing the man hunched over with his palms clasped to his blinded eyes, Pell had no hesitation in putting him to sleep with a vicious rising elbow to the chin.

He cast around scanning for his next target, when it was made suddenly obvious by the large man roaring as he blindsided the boy with a reckless tackle, slamming into him and sending them both rolling across the ground.

"Pell!" he heard his sister cry out, but he could not spare the breath to answer her because by the time he managed to bring his body to a stop, his opponent was already on top of him.

Pell did not quite manage to roll away, and instantly felt the full weight of an adult man bear down on him. One arm made it up to protect his neck and face, but a vicious downwards blow struck his forearm, producing an audible crack.

Pain erupted out centred around his wounded limb, and Pell couldn't help but cry out and jerk it away reflexively.

The bandit took full advantage of this, and quickly wrapped his bear-like hands around Pell's already-sore throat, squeezing with violent glee.

Pell writhed on the ground, one hand trying fruitlessly to pry away the unyielding clamp on his neck, while the other scrabbled in the dirt, searching for something, anything, to save him from his predicament.

As he began to feel the darkness once again encroaching on his consciousness, his questing fingers found something - a long cylindrical object. Grasping it, he swung it up and around with desperate strength - and stabbed the knife straight into the side of the bandit's head.

He managed only the slightest glimpse of the expression of sudden confusion on his attacker's face before the man collapsed on top of him.

The dead weight was suffocating, but Pell couldn't muster up the strength to push it off just yet - it was only after he caught his breath and remembered that his sister was also fighting off a bandit that energy surged into his body and he jumped to his feet.

"Nell!" he cried, kicking the body of the bandit to the side.

He spun around, only to see the last remaining bandit slump down to her knees - slowly, almost gently. Then, with an unceremonious flop, she toppled over, and from his perspective, Pell could see the reason - a very familiar knife sticking out of the back of her head.

He breathed an enormous sigh of relief as he stood up and made his way slowly over to Nell, cradling his injured arm.

Pell felt rather than saw Naruto leap from the trees to the ground, and there was a hurried rustle of cloth as his guardian rushed over.

"What happened?!" he was asked, the concern and fear evident in Naruto's voice.

Pell let out a weary grin, the first inkling of triumphant victory finally leaking through after the desperation and adrenaline of the past few minutes.

"We won," he said, resting his forehead on Naruto's arm and embracing him, "We fucking won."