Kinjo slammed his gunbai onto the unsuspecting man's head, cracking his skull and pummeling his body into the ground. Nearby, Izumi cleaned her sword, which was covered in blood, a beheaded man lying still underneath her feet.

He sighed as he glanced around and ensured his surroundings were clear. Once he was certain they were alone, Kinjo slapped his weapon on his back and walked over to the Uchiha. "I swear they always underestimate us 'cause we're small."

"Yep! That's good 'cause we can beat them up after they let their guards down." Izumi sheathed her blade and held it while waiting. "I can't believe this country can't handle a group of bandits; they're not even that big or scary."

"The Land of Rice doesn't have a shinobi village, remember? Their military is pretty small too."

"Maybe they should make a shinobi village."

"I would rather they don't."


"... So they can hire our village for help? More missions and pay for us."

It was definitely not because Orochimaru created his Otokagure in the Land of Rice. Definitely not.

Izumi nodded. "Huh, that makes sense."

"Let's not dawdle around; we still have to deal with the main camp," Kinjo said as he motioned for her to follow.

Team Five was split into two groups: Kinjo and Izumi in one, while Hayama and Shin were in the other. They were attacking from different angles to pincer the main camp, and the bandits they had killed were sentries on the outer limits of the bandit haven. The camp was in the middle of the woods, below a mountain range hidden in the southeastern parts of the Land of Rice.

Three months had passed since their first mission to Yugakure. They had taken plenty of missions outside of the village during that time, ranging from delivery missions to outright clashes with non-shinobi groups. They were more than familiar with battle; Hayama had made sure of that.

As the pair dragged the dead bodies into nearby bushes, Kinjo stared at his kill and winced. The 'man' he had killed was actually a teenager, a young life snuffed out from a broken neck. His hand unconsciously reached for the bloody coin in his back pocket. "These bandit scums have been killing and plundering merchants and locals for months now. They deserved to die."

"Well, duh?" Izumi replied.

"It's nothing; I was just talking to myself."


"Let's get ready. We'll need to rush in after they're distracted."

They submerged themselves in the vast shadows of the trees, leaping branch by branch with careful precision and softening their landings to muffle any sounds. The moon was faint in the sky, providing little shine and comfort to the unknowing bandits below. Kinjo checked his watch with a careful spark from his index finger as they weaved through the forest, noting that they still had five minutes to reach their destination.

A bandit appeared in their vision, patrolling the ground as they waited above in the trees. Izumi pulled a kunai from her holster, but Kinjo patted her hand. "He's too close to the main camp. There might be others nearby."

Sure enough, seconds later, another bandit joined the first one, and the two chatted as the duo continued their way through the forest.

Finally, they arrived near a clearing lit brightly by numerous torches. The camp had dozens of hastily built shelters made out of wood, along with four bigger structures which Kinjo knew were their storages, armory, and meeting place. Wooden walls protected the outer limits, and Kinjo counted nearly a hundred people milling around. Most of them were armed with swords and spears, with a distinct lack of any evidence to suggest a shinobi among the bandits.

Kinjo and Izumi crouched on the topmost branch of the tallest tree nearby and watched silently at their prey below. He pulled out his gunbai and gripped it tightly with his gloved hands while Izumi pulled out her sheathed tachi from a scroll. Both breathed out ash carefully and joined by two of Kinjo's Ash Clones and one of Izumi's. Kinjo also sprayed a coat of ash onto his gunbai, the powder radiating heat as it wrapped around the fan like a blanket.

"Remember not to burn down everything," Kinjo whispered.

"I was going to tell you that," Izumi retorted quietly. "You always pull out a Great Fireball whenever you get the chance."

"Whatever. On the sensei's mark."

Two minutes later, an explosion occurred on the other end of the camp, followed by a wave of water that doused the entire area and most of the torches. The bandits yelled in confusion when a giant rolling ball crashed into the walls, followed by someone wielding a sword and blowing away the bandits with a mix of fire and water. The ball unrolled into a person, who immediately slammed the ground and created large earthen spikes.

Immediately, Kinjo and Izumi sprang into action. Izumi unsheathed her tachi and sliced any nearby bandit that she saw. Meanwhile, Kinjo rushed forward and whacked a bandit who broke his sword, hitting his fan, a satisfying sound of shattering steel followed by a loud crack.

He bolted into the center of half a dozen bandits in close proximity to each other, spinning and whipping his gunbai around as if it was weightless. "Leaf Tornado!"

His ash-covered fan slammed into the bandits in a blur, the heat radiating on his skin and the impact rattling his hands. Kinjo counted his fan hitting seven people during his attack, throwing them all up like ragdolls. Towards the end of his spin, a woman charged forward with her spear and jabbed at his legs.

Kinjo frowned and side-stepped the slow attack, throwing a kunai into her face in a fluid blur. A spray of blood landed on his cheeks, making him grimace as he looked around for more while she slumped to the ground. His ears pounded from the sound of roaring blood, his body heating up as he entered a familiar flow of battle.

Some of the bandits looked at him in shock, finally noticing that their opponent was a small child. Yet, Kinjo held out his hand and motioned for the others to attack him with a calm expression. An eager man swung his sword at his head just as Kinjo jumped away and replaced himself with his clone, which exploded in a thick cloud of ash. The bandits nearby screamed in agony when the ash covered their faces, entering their mouths and noses and making every breath a suffocating cough of burns.

He smelled charred flesh and burning cotton as he moved, yet Kinjo's expression remained impassive while he continued his assault, teleporting behind a large nervous man and crashing his gunbai into his legs. The bandit toppled onto the ground and managed a small whimper before Kinjo heaved the flat side of his fan onto his face, his head splitting open like a crushed watermelon.

Most of the remaining nearby bandits broke ranks, and Kinjo dispersed his other Ash Clone to create a wall of hot ash around his opponents, herding them into a square. He sighed and released a Great Fireball onto his opponents, roasting them alive with a giant ball of inferno that lit the night.

The smell of burning leather, combined with singed hair and a tinge of metal, assaulted Kinjo's nose, amplified by the charred corpses of his new victims. This was not his first mission killing someone with fire, but the vile smell after the act never left his nose or his mind.

When the smoke had cleared, Kinjo was surrounded by more than a dozen dead bodies, many still aflame. A lone bandit remained, his legs shaking as he clutched his katana and looked around at his dead comrades.

Kinjo offered a smile of sympathy before throwing his gunbai with enough force to send the man flying into the ground a dozen meters away. He tugged at the chain attached to his fan, and it flew back to him in an instant.

Before settling down, he went through all the dead bodies and whacked them in the head to ensure they stayed on the ground, as his sensei had instructed him numerous times.

Despite his quick victory, his face was expressionless as he glanced back at Izumi. She sliced through a man that was barely taller than her and finished off her last opponent with a fireball. Her Ash Clone was nowhere to be seen, presumably cut down by a bandit or used for an attack. Half a dozen bodies were strewn around her, many sliced up like ribbons.

"It never gets much easier… but they deserved it. Killing them saves lives. If it weren't me, it would've been someone else," Kinjo muttered, the nauseating smell still drifting into his nose. As Izumi walked over to him, his mouth twisted into an uneasy smile. "Nice work."

"... I hate these bandit missions. I don't like cutting people up." Izumi blew her hair out of her face to reveal her Sharingan with three tomoes and stabbed every corpse in her vicinity while cringing.

"Tell me about it." He looked away to see his sensei and Shin moving through the camp, slamming into the armory and clearing the insides with ruthless impunity. "No time to waste. We need to clear each building. We still have people to save."

From their scouting prior to their onslaught, Team Five had determined that the people the bandits had kidnapped were kept in one of the bigger buildings, near the main meeting hall. While Hayama and Shin handled the bigger buildings, Kinjo and Izumi ensured that none of the remaining bandits left the camp alive and watched the other team's flank.

Even a skilled shinobi could die due to a careless mistake or a stab in the back.

"It's your time to shine," Izumi mentioned as they sprinted to a nearby hovel.

"Do you want to burn a few down yourself?" Kinjo asked.

"Nope! Don't want to use up too much of my chakra."

He rolled his eyes before craning his neck at the starry night sky. He shot out a dozen consecutive fireballs, each the size of a basketball, and made them rain onto each hovel. As each house burned, he gripped his gunbai with one hand and a kunai with the other. Izumi did the same with her sword, her Sharingan seemingly glowing in the warm glow of the burning buildings.

A dozen bandits fled their alit homes while shouting, prompting Kinjo and Izumi to rush in and dispatch them all within seconds. After the last bandit was cut down, the two made their way to their sensei and other teammate. Izumi glanced at him with a pout. "Was that jutsu Incinerating Hail Technique? That was cool."

"Yes, yes. It's very cool. You can gush after we finish the mission."

"Oh, yep! My bad."

Before they arrived, Hayama and Shin walked out of the building sporting grins. Behind them were two dozen civilians kidnapped by the bandits, including a small boy that Kinjo had seen in a photo before.

"We got them," the jonin announced while sheathing his blade. "Good work."

Team Five returned to the village without fanfare and turned in their mission report before heading off to celebrate the completion of their tenth mission. Shin led them to a familiar restaurant that had become their team's de facto lunch hangout, especially since Shin's mother owned it.

"I still can't believe your mom runs this place, Shin," Kinjo mentioned as he looked up at the large neon sign.

"Why?" Shin asked as he inhaled the smell of grilled meat drifting through the air.

"I dunno, it just seems… like fate."

"Fate because you love meat and eat stacks of it every time we come here?"

Kinjo read the sign, 'Yakiniku Kyu,' and nodded. "Yeah, I guess."

"Come on guys, let's go inside and eat!" Izumi shouted as she waved the rest of the team forward.

The team entered a crowded restaurant filled with patrons. A few servers were walking around to take care of the guest while a short, stout woman with curly brown hair sticking out under her serving cap rang up a group in front of the register. When she spotted Team Five, her face lit up, and she enveloped Shin while rubbing his head. "Shinsuke! How was the mission? You're looking a bit thin. Did you eat alright in the Land of Rice? I heard they have some excellent rice, but…"

"Mom," Shin grumbled. "Not this again. You're embarrassing me in front of my team!"

Kinjo and Hayama chuckled while Izumi snickered. Shin's mother, Kyoushi, looked undeterred as she squeezed her son tighter. She turned to Hayama and bowed. "Thank you for always looking after him. I know he can be a handful."

"It's not a problem; he's my student, after all," Hayama reassured. "Is the usual room open?"

"Of course. Go right in, and I'll bring up some plates for you."

They headed upstairs into a private room in the corner of the restaurant. It contained a long low table with two grills and a view of the busy commercial district. Two fans hung from the ceiling, waiting for the cooking to suck up the smoke and smell.

"Why didn't the Rice Daimyo or whatever hire someone before the situation got that bad? Why wait until after one of the nobles' kids was kidnapped?" Izumi complained as she sat down near the window. "The poor locals were suffering for over a year."

Shin sat next to her while Kinjo sat with Hayama across the table. Kinjo leaned against the wall and sighed. "He seemed really stingy with his money, maybe that's why."

"You're probably right, Kinjo," Hayama affirmed. "The village offered to send a more experienced team consisting of chunin to handle them, but the Rice Daimyo refused because 'it cost too much.' Unfortunately, his sentiment is shared with a number of our clients. Sometimes, they prefer a more inexperienced team since it's cheaper, putting themselves and their team in potential danger."

"There were a lot of bandits this time, though. The last group of bandits we fought, there were only a dozen of them," Izumi said.

"Doesn't matter if there are a dozen or a hundred," Hayama declared. "I knew you three were more than capable enough to handle this mission. To those that aren't shinobi, it looks as though we are using magic and moving at impossible speeds. As long as you're careful, you can dispatch entire groups by yourselves."

Izumi huffed as she crossed her arms. "If it's that easy, they should've hired us before it became such a big problem! The bandits had been there for a while, and the locals were terrified."

Shin looked disinterested in the conversation as he looked forlornly at the door while Hayama calmed her down. "Some people only act when something personally affects them, Izumi. You can't get mad over every problem that crops up during our mission."

"... Once I get older and stronger, I'm going to go give that Rice Daimyo a piece of my mind," Izumi declared.

"You said that last time about the rude merchant we had to deal with," Kinjo mused.

"Him too!"

He laughed as Kyoushi walked in with plates of meat and rice loaded up on her tray. She placed them on the table and placed a bowl filled with hot charcoal underneath the grills. "Take your time and eat up! There's plenty of meat to go around."

"Meat!" Shin cheered as he grabbed a plate and sniffed. "Pork belly… I've missed this."

"Shinsuke, you can eat after ten minutes. Let the others eat first," Kuji warned as she walked out of the room.

The Akimichi grumbled and leaned back while the rest of Team Five placed the meat on the grill and waited for it to cook. Before they could dig in, there was a knock on the window, and Kinjo turned to see a short shinobi wearing a bird mask outside. Hayama raised an eyebrow but opened the window and greeted him. "What do you need?"

"Hokage-sama requests your team's presence in his office as soon as possible." the ANBU member answered.

"Was there something wrong with our mission report? Shin's handwriting isn't the best, but it should be legible…"

"It's for a new mission."

"I see… can we eat first?" Hayama pointed to the pork belly sizzling on the grill.

"... Very well, I will inform him that you will see him in an hour."

As the ANBU operative bolted away, the genin glanced at their sensei, who looked deep in thought. Izumi spoke up first. "A new mission already?"

"Seems so," Hayama said as he cut up some pork belly. "Odd… Lord Third rarely sends an ANBU member to fetch a genin team, even if he has a mission in mind for us. And to call us in so hastily too…"

"Huh. Should we be worried?" Kinjo asked.

"The only reason he would call us like this is because there's an urgent mission that we fit the requirements for, and there isn't anyone else available. Which isn't too unlikely, but something to keep in mind."

"Maybe an eating contest?" Shin commented as he stared at the pork belly hungrily. Despite his stomach growling, his hands remained firmly away from the table.

Hayama scoffed as he passed a piece to Shin, who gobbled it up. "Probably a C-rank mission on the 'more difficult' end of the mission pile. Anyways, eat up, kids. We might be sent out immediately, so mentally prepare yourselves before we head to Hokage-sama."

As Kinjo dug into his rice bowl and chomped on three pork belly pieces at once, a sinking feeling settled into the bottom of his stomach. Perhaps it was due to the training he received from Hayama, but something felt inexplicably off about the situation.

He shook it off and continued eating. The Hokage would give him answers, so he would wait until then.

Maybe it was good news…

"Another incident has occurred near the Land of Rice, the biggest one yet," the Third Hokage announced as he gripped his pipe. "I have called your team here because your previous mission may be related to this."

"And you want us to investigate?"

"Precisely. For over a year, we've had instances of mysterious robberies and thefts involving some of the far villages near the borders of Rice and Hot Springs. They weren't serious enough to warrant a full shinobi team to investigate. However, a few days ago, an entire village was raided and destroyed. With the information I have received from your previous mission, I have determined that it is a potential cell related to the bandit group your team eliminated."

"Which you want us to track down and destroy since it could lead to a diplomatic row with the Land of Rice. You called us specifically because of our familiarity with these bandits and our recent mission to the area."

"As sharp as ever," the Hokage praised."Some officials in our Daimyo's court are… eager to expand our power and influence into other nations nearby due to our successes with Yugakure. However, considering our current diplomatic standoff with Kumo, we can not take any aggressive actions against our neighbors, even if we are not at fault. Threatening the balance in Rice may result in both Kumo and Iwa working against us, as our alliance with the Hot Springs has upset the other major villages. Thus, it is imperative we settle the matter with Rice quietly before word leaks out to the public and the Daimyo, which would force our hand."

"Why would it force our hand?" Kinjo asked. His hands were steady as he stood at attention in front of his village leader. This was not his first briefing, and he was familiar with the elderly man's presence, despite the immense power behind the Hokage's voice.

"Because, young Kinjo, the Rice Daimyo is very… reluctant to part with his money. That was one of the chief reasons the bandit problem grew as large as it did. A problem that he could've easily taken care of long ago by paying for a shinobi team. Yet, he didn't, and the problem grew so large that it spilled over to our land and caused misery to our land's people. I believe we can settle the matter peacefully and quietly, but it is likely that our Daimyo will press the Rice Daimyo for concessions and reparations for the damages."

Kinjo nodded. "Which will either be accepted and be seen as an aggressive move by the other villages, or rejected and warrant an even bigger crisis."

Technically, the Fire Daimyo allowed Konoha to act independently from the Daimyo's courts. The shinobi village had numerous tax exemptions, which was why the village had a sizeable civilian population. However, the Daimyo handled much of the village's finances and 'rented' out the land the village sat on. As the military arm of the Land of Fire, Konoha was expected to obey the Fire Daimyo to a certain extent. If the Daimyo really wanted a war with another nation… then Konoha would follow.

Usually, going to war was left up to the villages. Even so, wars required the Daimyo's approval, and in return, the Daimyo could also call the villages to war.

The Hokage took a hit from his pipe and smiled at Hayama. "I see you've passed down some of your wisdom to your students."

"He has always been the sharpest of the bunch," the jonin chuckled as he patted Kinjo on the back. "Both Shin and Izumi are fast learners as well."

"Considering your team's mission successes so far, I'm inclined to believe you. As you may have guessed, this is a C-rank mission. However, the pay will be the equivalent of an A-rank mission due to the mission's importance. Do you accept the mission, Hayama?"

"Of course. Leave it to Team Five, Hokage-sama."

"Excellent. You are set to leave in two days' time. I know your team is tired after returning from your previous mission, so I will give you a day's worth of rest before sending you off again. I place my faith in you, Team Five."

With that, the team departed the Hokage's Office with a clear understanding of their mission. Yet, that sinking feeling in Kinjo's stomach persisted.

It was several minutes past seven in the evening, yet the sun was still shining brightly as it was barely the beginning of August. Kinjo walked to Naruto's apartment while holding hands with Mika, who was skipping energetically. He hadn't seen her in two weeks, and her desire to monopolize him was evident as her hand held his like a vice. The streets were rather empty, though nearby restaurants and stores were full as people settled down for dinner and nightly activities.

"What are we going to eat with Naruto today, big brother?" Mika asked as she hummed.

"Mom packed us some beef bowls," Kinjo answered as he held up a paper bag. His sister perked up, but he calmed her down with a head pat. "Since Naruto is eating your favorite food today, we'll eat his favorite food next time, ok?"

"Ok… but if we let him pick what he wants, he always eats ramen!"

"You always eat beef bowls when you can too."

"But… they're good!"

"So is ramen."

She frowned. "Which one is better: beef bowl or ramen?"

"Both," Kinjo replied.

"You can't say that, you have to pick one!"

He shook his head and laughed, relaxing for the first time in weeks. Mika pouted and protested his indecision, but he ushered her along and arrived at a large apartment complex. It was only a ten-minute walk between his house and Naruto's, as they were both on the western side of the village. As they climbed up the stairs to their destination, Kinjo glanced towards the village and enjoyed the peaceful sight of sprawling buildings and trees.

"... I've almost forgotten how the village looks from above," Kinjo muttered. His team only received a short amount of downtime between their missions. Usually, he spent time with his close ones and trained during those breaks, but even then, everything seemed like a blur before he was forced to head out for another mission.

It was unreal how busy his life had become.

"Come on, big brother! Don't be such a slowpoke!" Mika hollered as she jumped up the stairs and landed smoothly on her feet.

"Yeah, yeah. I'm on my way," Kinjo grumbled as he marched up the stairs.

They didn't need to knock as the moment the pair arrived in front of Naruto's apartment, the door flung open and creaked on its hinges. Inside was the familiar blond, who was grinning from ear to ear. "Big bro! Mika!"

"Hi!" Mika waved as she dashed inside.

"Is that ramen?" Naruto pointed at the bag in Kinjo's hand with widened eyes.

Kinjo shook his head as he walked in and closed the door. "Beef bowls. Ramen will come next time."

Naruto groaned. "I knew it! She always gets beef bowls! I'm going to convert her to the ramen club today for sure!"

"Good luck with that," Kinjo said as he rubbed Naruto's head. His fuzzy blond hair tickled Kinjo's hand as the small boy puffed out his chest.

"... Are we going to be learning shinobi stuff today?"

"Not until you're a bit more grown up, Naruto. Being a shinobi is tough work, and it's better for you to play around and have fun for now. You can always be a big bad shinobi when you get older."

"How much older? Because I want to do cool stuff and get strong so I can become the Hokage!"

"Maybe when you're nine or ten," Kinjo assured him as he set the bag down on the dining room table. "For now, let's eat."

The trio dug into their rice bowls while Mika and Naruto chatted between themselves. Kinjo smiled as he saw Naruto laughing and making exaggerated movements with his hands as he spoke to Mika, who replied with similar enthusiasm. "No way! You caught a fish that big?"

"Yeah! And even gramps came by and congratulated me for it!" Naruto boasted.

"Why do you call Hokage-sama 'gramps?'"

"Because he's an old man, that's why!"

Mika giggled. "He is kinda wrinkly."

"He is! Like a raisin!" Naruto agreed.

Both of them collapsed into fits of laughter, and even Kinjo scoffed at the image of a raisin with the Hokage's face on it. "Finish your food first, then you can laugh about the Hokage being wrinkly."

"Oh yeah! What did you do at the Academy today, Mika?" Naruto asked. "Learn anything awesome? Did you get to throw a kunai?"

"It was only boring book stuff again…. Oh! We did do some weird leaf spinny exercise thing with our foreheads. Big brother did that a lot when he was at the Academy. The teacher told me I was really good at doing that! But there was a boy in our class that couldn't do it at all and kinda cried…"

"Wait, what was his name?" Kinjo inquired.

Mika furrowed her brows and frowned. "... I dunno. He has really bushy eyebrows, though!"

"I see…" Kinjo grimaced. It was something that he should've remembered despite the recent hubbub.

Rock Lee. Gai's student and son in all but name.

It was never Kinjo's intent to replace Lee as Gai's 'star' student. Gai was a sensei he greatly admired and learned much from. Yet, no one could truly master and carry on Gai's teachings other than Lee.

While Naruto's life was arguably worse, Lee was written off by many early on due to his inability to use genjutsu and ninjutsu. There was nothing more discouraging than being told to give up because of a lack of talent. If there was anyone that could use some comfort and happiness, it was Lee.

Perhaps he could bring Lee into the group since Mika and Tenten were his age. Or even nudge Gai in his direction…

He would have to look into the matter.

They finished eating in record time, and before Mika and Naruto could scatter to play within the apartment, Kinjo held them back and pulled out a few books from the bag. "I think you two might like this."

The books were the books Kinjo had purchased when he arrived in this world, years ago when he first met Izumi and began his shinobi career. There were other books in the pile as well, mostly from his Academy days. They ranged from subjects like math and history to ninjutsu theory and squad tactics.

"These are the books you need to know by heart before becoming a genin," Kinjo asserted. "A good shinobi isn't just strong or fast; they're also smart and wise. If you want to achieve your goals, you need to study."

"Aww, but studying is so boring!" Naruto whined.

"I already read a lot of books in class, big brother," Mika complained.

"Well… how about this? I'll make a quiz for each book. If you finish a book and ace the quiz, I'll show you how to do some cool stuff."

Naruto's eyes gleamed. "Like walking on water?"

"Or blowing stuff up!" Mika laughed.

Kinjo backed away unconsciously at Mika's statement. "... Sure. We'll go with that. But remember, you have to read them thoroughly."

As Naruto scurried away with the books, his sister looked up with teary eyes. "But why did you only give him books?"

"I'll get extra copies for you," Kinjo reassured her by patting her shoulders.

It was hard to imagine that Naruto would have the fate of the world on his shoulders a decade later. While Kinjo was reluctant to train him in the shinobi arts this early on, he was willing to give Naruto a small push to grow and develop into a finer shinobi. If Naruto's raw power and talent could be combined with an intelligent mind, then the sky was his limit.

Until Naruto was ready, Kinjo would do his best to help people and to weed out the obstacles to a brighter future. It was the least he could do, considering the changes he had made so far.

Kinjo stretched and cracked his neck as he easily moved his weight-bound limbs. He shadow-boxed while jogging in place, his arms lashing out like whips with every thrust.

Four months of constantly wearing his weights outside his missions allowed his strength and speed to exceed his expected limits. At this point, he was confident he could outspeed most of his peers and punch well above his size. Yet, that was not the final goal in his mind.

"Isn't it better for you to rest with your family, Kinjo?" Hayama asked as he watched his student while frowning.

"Just a short spar, sensei," Kinjo said. "I'm pretty close; I can feel it."

They were in Training Ground Nine, where Kinjo's shinobi career officially began. It was early morning, with the sun slowly rising just above the eastern horizon. The freezing wind bathed his skin with waves of chilled air, yet his warm body exuded immense heat, making him feel toasty despite his thin hoodie and shorts.

"... I see. Well, it would be useful as an ace up your sleeve, and if you think this will help you reach it, then so be it. Ready?"


The two entered their respective fighting stances, with Kinjo's Strong Fist Style squaring off against Hayama's own. While the jonin stood around with his arms crossed, Kinjo lowered his core and opened his posture with his right fist ahead of his left.

Kinjo kicked off with his back foot and dashed in, the cold air becoming freezing slices scraping against his skin. He jabbed out his right fist at Hayama's face while lowering himself. When Hayama slapped the punch away, Kinjo immediately dashed behind his sensei in a blur and plummeted towards him with a drop kick, the added weights making his leg drop like a tree trunk. His teeth chattered as his grin grew, the foot an inch away from his target.

Hayama rolled away in the nick of time, with Kinjo's kick creating a small crater that threw up a spew of dirt. The jonin raised an eyebrow but motioned for his student to continue with his chin. "Control your attacks. Focus on trying to hit me rather than destroying me. You're the one that suggested we needed to maintain a flow. Don't lose focus."

After pulling his foot out of the ground, Kinjo wiped away some dirt from his mouth and dashed forward. Kinjo was within Hayama's guard in the blink of an eye, and his initial punch resounded in a loud thump against the jonin's forearms. For a brief moment, he saw a glimpse of Hayama's eyes, squinting and looking at him with disappointment. He felt a surge of chakra within.

The jonin twisted his body away and weaved through Kinjo's ensuing attacks gracefully, avoiding each strike by a single hair. A front kick barely grazed Hayama's jonin vest while Hayam's elbow nudged away a headbutt. The missed headbutt forced Kinjo to snap away and readjust the weight attached to his head, his neck groaning from the pressure.

After the short lull, the dance continued.

With every miss, Kinjo gritted his teeth harder, his swings becoming more violent. Every time he attacked, his surroundings blurred, yet his teacher moved even faster. It was as if Kinjo could slow down time, but Hayama could freeze it.

He needed to be faster. He needed to hit stronger.

Something clicked in his mind, a tug that itched his brain.

Kinjo jumped in with a flurry of punches aimed in and around Hayama, an endless stream of fists that enveloped the air to the normal eye. Each punch was expertly dodged by the jonin, who even folded his entire body to jump above a sweeping Leaf Whirlwind by Kinjo.

The Elusive River Style, Hayama's fighting style, was aptly named.

After twenty minutes of playing their strenuous version of 'tag,' Kinjo wheezed out a breath and waved his hand. He swore he felt something in his head that was different than before. Yet, it was just out of his reach. Something was missing.

Instead of winding down, Hayama struck out with his fists and rattled the bones of Kinjo's arms, which were desperately closed together to block the hits. Kinjo looked at his sensei with widened eyes, holding up his numb arms in surrender. This wasn't part of the exercise.

The jonin's leg slammed into his stomach, blowing Kinjo away while he clawed at the ground to recover his footing. He barely had time to gag before something entered the edge of his vision.

Without thinking, Kinjo scurried out of the way as another punch shot toward his face, barely missing his nose by an inch. He felt the rush of wind from his sensei's punch tickle his nose, beads of sweat rolling down Kinjo's neck as he swerved his bruised torso away from a kick.

Instead, a fist slammed into his chin and knocked him into the air. Kinjo felt something crack in his mouth and gasped but shook his head to clear his vision.

Hayama was above him, winding up his leg.

Kinjo cried out as he narrowly dodged being diced in half in mid-air, rolling onto the ground moments before Hayama's foot pierced the ground like a spear. Instantly, Kinjo's skin chilled as he shivered at the sight.

His sensei was actually going to kill him.

He barely saw the next kick barreling towards him, but for a moment, Hayama's leg slowed down and suspended itself in mid-air. Kinjo felt something clicking in the back of his head, a rattling that grew louder as his mind screamed for his body to move faster than he was able.


The leg crashed into Kinjo's stomach and sent him flying. He tumbled on the ground and rolled a few meters before slowing to a halt, his clothes laced with dirt and wrinkles as he pushed himself off the ground.

"Who the hell…" Kinjo growled as he turned to see a familiar man with a bowl cut looking at him with widened eyes. He frustratingly sighed before his scowl melted away into a soft smile. "It's good to see you, Gai-sensei. It's been a few weeks."

"It is inspiring to see my dashing student training this early in the morning! I'm overjoyed that you are willing to train from dawn to dusk like me between your missions." Gai raised his thumb and blinded Kinjo with a radiant smile. "Come! Let us run fifty laps around the village together and release our youthful energy to start off this beautiful day!"

"Kai!" Kinjo yelled as he released himself from his sensei's genjutsu. Suddenly, the dread creeping in his heart and the icy feeling enveloping his skin disappeared. "... More training is always nice."

Gai blinked before embracing Kinjo and muffling him with his jumpsuit. "You are truly my student! How goes your new training?"

"The funny thing is…"

Hayama landed next to them, looking at Gai with a raised eyebrow and an amused smile. "Gai. I haven't seen you since that mission to the Land of Frost. Thank you for training my student."

"It is good to see you again, Hayama! I hope that Kinjo is showing you the same enthusiasm he has when he trains with me," Gai replied.

"He does. You've trained him into an excellent shinobi. We were working on your technique, and he was close to achieving it."

"Is that why you were beating him into the ground?"

"Kinjo theorized that the way to harness the First Gate was to force his body into a situation where it needed to move beyond its limits. Which is why I decided to… escalate to force the awakening."

Gai rubbed his chin. "Hmm… I suppose he is correct to look at it that way. That is a method I never considered, but it could work. However, that is not the only thing that is necessary to use my technique. The weights are meant to intensify pressure upon his body and force it to strain itself, preparing it for the extreme stress of the Gate of Opening. Additionally, I warned Kinjo about when to use the technique. That is also a clue on how to reach the Gate of Opening."

"I see." Hayama nodded. "Then perhaps Kinjo will need to figure out the rest on his own."

"The genjutsu method was helpful. Fearing for one's life combined with Gai sensei's warning… I think I know how to reach the final step. Thank you, both of you."

"Of course!" Gai boomed with his arms crossed. "You will succeed and reach your goals! Because when I first started training you, I promised that I would help you surpass your rival and become a splendid shinobi! You are a splendid shinobi, but you are still young and have plenty of time to grow into something even more magnificent! I have no doubts that you will finish the Gate of Opening and go beyond. Now come! Let's train some more. We will never be as young as we are right now, and we must spend every minute improving ourselves!"

Kinjo turned to Hayama, who grinned at him. "Go on. As much as I enjoy training you, I think Gai is a better teacher than I am when it comes to physical training and taijutsu."

"Thank you," Kinjo said, bowing his head. "And sorry for waking you up so early."

"It's not a big deal. As I said, I am a terrible sleeper."

With that, his jonin instructor walked away with a wave.

"Now, show me the Gate of Opening!" Gai proclaimed, watching his pupil expectantly.

"Got it." Kinjo took off his weights and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and tightened his muscles, focusing on the leftmost part of his brain. The only image occupying his mind was his father in distress and needing him to move faster than humanly possible.

If it meant protecting those he loved and saving people, he was more than willing to risk his life. That was why he was a shinobi.

He slammed his right foot on the ground and gripped his fists tightly as a surge of energy exuded from his body. His brain rattled within its cage, and Kinjo felt the bars weaken as something in his mind clicked. With a triumphant cry, he felt his inhibitions give away and urged his body to move.

In the blink of an eye, Kinjo rushed forward and slammed his fist into a tree, bashing into the trunk and toppling the tree over. He looked around and saw that he had moved a hundred meters in a single jump.

His hands felt strong enough to crush boulders, and his legs vibrated as if they were attached to jet engines. His head pounded like his heart, yet it wasn't an unpleasant feeling. Power coursed through his veins, warming every inch of his body with tangible chakra.

He had never felt more… alive.

"Great Fireball Jutsu!" Kinjo roared. He breathed out an immense fireball, double the size of what he was familiar with. The fireball mushroomed into a giant sphere akin to the size of a small moon and engulfed the ground, creating a massive crater.

"Excellent work, Kinjo!" Gai said as he placed his shoulder on Kinjo's shoulders and squeezed. In an instant, the energy disappeared, and Kinjo slumped onto the ground, his legs giving away. "The Gate of Opening. Remember the power, and learn to respect it."

"That was an… experience," Kinjo answered while he panted and sprawled onto the ground with his limbs spread apart.

"After you open the Gates, there is a physical and mental crash. The technique forces your body to exceed your limits and push your body beyond what it is normally capable of. The longer you use it, the more deadly it is to you. As such, there is a price: ripped muscles and tendons at best, death at worst. That is why you must remember to open the Gate to protect someone precious to you. That desire must be strong enough for you to risk your life."

"I'll make sure to remember that - always."

Gai grinned and pumped his fist. "I know you will. Because you and I still have many years as shinobi together! And I will not rest until you surpass your rival one day!"

Kinjo slowly rose to his feet and gripped his sensei's arm. "Thank you, Gai sensei. Also, I was wondering if you were interested in taking on another student. He's even more motivated and better than I am…"

After Gai sprinted into the distance to continue his daily training, Kinjo leaned against a tree and sighed as he watched the rising sun. His joints creaked as he moved his arms, but his thoughts drifted to the power he felt with the Gate of Opening.

"It empowers ninjutsu too…" Kinjo muttered. "That'll be dead useful in the future. Now I need to practice the Front Lotus and work for the Gate of Healing…"

As he felt the light wind cooling down his heated cheeks and damp hair, Kinjo glanced at a nearby tree and sighed. "You can come out."

There wasn't a response.

"I know you're there. Save us both the trouble and show yourself."

A lone masked figure hopped off a branch covered by shadows and landed in front of Kinjo with ease. His long ash-grey hair was prominent around his deer mask, and he was dressed in standard black ANBU gear. "How did you detect me?"

"I figured that the old man wasn't watching me directly. That leaves only one other option." Kinjo fanned himself with his clothes as he rose to his feet. "So, what does Danzo want with me this time?"

"He wants to know if you have completed the task he gave you."

"Not even a 'How are you doing' or 'How was your last mission?' Wait, if you're spying on me, then shouldn't you already know?"

"... I do not spy on you all the time."

"So there are others then."

"It does not matter. Have you finished the task?"

"You tell me." Kinjo whipped out a scroll from his pocket and drew a seal he had practiced hundreds of times. The seal glowed for a moment before settling into the parchment. Within a blink of an eye, he breathed a small fireball and poured some of his chakra into the scroll.

The fireball was sucked into the paper, leaving an undamaged scroll with a glowing seal. Kinjo waited a few seconds before activating the seal remotely with his chakra, a ball of fire hovering over the scroll before dispersing into the wind.

"You have completed it then. Congratulations."

"Only took a few months."

"Which is quicker than most. The art of fuinjutsu is a neglected one, often overlooked and seen as trivial or archaic. In the right hands, it can move mountains and control the forces of nature. You are lucky to have Danzo-sama to help you with your training."

"You speak from experience?" Kinjo asked as he leaned against a tree.

Danzo's agent nodded. "I do. It was something I attempted to learn to establish a unique style for myself. Unfortunately, I lacked talent in the area. However, I am not here to discuss my life story. I am here to give you an option for your future endeavors."

"An option?"

"There is always an option." The masked man pulled out a pair of scrolls and one in each hand. "In my right hand is a scroll containing the methods of Wind elemental training, along with a pair of powerful Wind jutsu. With enough effort and time, perhaps a year or two, you may be one of the youngest to wield two elemental natures. "

"... Tantalizing. And the other?"

"Danzo-sama did not say much about this one other than that it is related to fuinjutsu. It could be something simple, or it could be something extremely difficult that takes years to master. It will have instructions and information to help you piece together a seal, but other than that, I do not know."

Kinjo pondered the agent's words with a fist under his chin before smiling. "Is this a moment where I need to 'look underneath the underneath' and choose both?"

"Clever, but no," the man chuckled. "You can only choose one."

Knowing Danzo's attitude and recalling his previous interactions with him, Kinjo knew that this was a test. At least, he was sure that this was a vague and nonsensical test Danzo was utilizing to pry more of Kinjo's personality and thought process.

He knew it wasn't the best idea to accept anything more from Danzo… yet the things he was offering piqued Kinjo's interest.

Damn the elderly man for offering him something he couldn't find elsewhere.

After a few minutes of silence, Kinjo took the scroll in the agent's left hand.

If Danzo was going to hound him, then it was better for him to learn a few things before breaking things off and to humor the man so he wouldn't knock down his house's door. He didn't want the 'cyclops' scaring the hell out of his family.

The masked man let go of the scroll and placed the other into his pocket. "The fuinjutsu scroll. Danzo-sama expected you to make that choice."

"I have enough on my plate for elemental training," Kinjo said. "If I can't master my main affinity, then what good is a second one that I have less inclination for?"

"Sound logic. Yet, you do not know what is in that fuinjutsu scroll. It could be something potentially useless."

"It's not the end that matters, but the process of getting to the end that does. The basic sealing scroll isn't extremely useful, but it helped me understand the basics of fuinjutsu. Now I know what to avoid and focus on when working on a seal." Kinjo raised the scroll toward Danzo's agent with a grin. "I'm sure this scroll will help me learn more, even if I can't fully utilize the seal."

A memory surfaced in his mind as Kinjo finished speaking.

'One step at a time. While your fan may help your main affinity in the future, it is important to master that first before jumping into other elements.'

Patience was key. He needed to take things one step at a time. One step for his elemental training, another for his fuinjutsu learning. Besides, his sensei could help him with Wind elemental training.

"... Interesting words. I will make sure to inform Danzo-sama of your development and your choice. Take care, Kinjo."

After the masked man left, Kinjo looked around and walked out of the training ground. He opened the scroll and read through its content, much of which was gibberish to him. After glancing through the text, he placed the scroll away and jogged back home.

He could dive into the scroll later on. For now, he had a mission to prepare for.

AN: And so begins the second arc of the Genin Period. What will be in store for Kinjo and his team? Will things go smoothly, or is disaster right around the corner?

Find out next week :)

Now onto the reviews!

Tobi-kun-is-a-good-boy: Thanks! I really enjoy writing Hidan and Gai, so expect to see quite a lot of scenes involving them in future chapters. Chunin Exams... is a maybe. Hayama is not the rash type, and if he thinks his team is better off preparing for a few months more or even another year, then I could see him sitting his team out. As for Tenma... I have plans for him :). We'll see how everything ties together in the future.

evilstatistic19: Thanks!

HikkiNEET: I envisioned that elemental clones could act somewhat autonomously. The more powerful ones can fire jutsu (I think it's seen in canon a few times of elemental clones utilizing some abilities their users have), but they don't 'return' the memory to the user once they disperse. The Academy Three clone jutsu is the weakest one and is a mirage. It is not tangible or autonomous.

cherrypicker-001: Thanks for the words of encouragement. That is true, but I do need to make sure that I'm treading the lines of realism instead of purposely nerfing my character. So criticism is always appreciated. As for Tenma, I have some things prepared for him. We'll see how that goes.

A friendly dude: Thanks!

toxx83784: New ship just dropped. Holy hell.

Anyways, thank you for the reviews. I will see you all soon!