Thanks to B for betaing this story

It was supposed to be a fairly easy mission; the Fifth herself had handpicked the two chuunin for it. Of course, after the attack on the village, and sending her best genin and jonin after the Uchiha boy, there wasn't really any other option. Still, an assassination job carried a fairly hefty price tag, and Konoha needed it.

The objective was a high class criminal targeting villages just outside Konoha. 'Yes,' the client had answered the Hokage, 'it was possible that he could be an ex-ninja. All we know is that he's stolen precious items from higher class families, and left many dead in his wake.'

Tsunade sighed, swirling a cup of sake around. Looking through the list of available ninja, she quickly made her choice. For something like this, sending a single jonin out would usually be sufficient, but due to lack of ninjas, they would have to do. Tsunade set her cup down and yelled for Shizune before realizing her aide was already out on a mission. Sighing again, she stood up and went to look for Kotetsu and Izumo herself.

Izumo straightened his vest while Kotetsu finished securing the scrolls in his own. For a moment they looked at each other in silence. They'd been chuunins for years, and had gone on plenty of missions before. But neither of them had ever gone on an assassination mission. Sure, they'd killed enemies when things had gone awry, but missions where the entire point was to kill someone discretely? That was usually left to jonins.

Kotetsu was the first to break the silence, forcing a smile and punching his friend in the arm. "Pretty exciting, eh?"

"Anything's better than dragging books back for the Fifth at four in the morning," Izumo agreed.

They walked to the gates in a comfortable companionship. Somehow, the silence that ensued after stepping out of the boundaries of Konoha was not quite as comforting.

They made good time as they flew through the treetops. By dusk, a decent-sized town appeared close on the horizon.

Izumo jumped from the tree and landed on the ground, one arm down to help brace the impact. Kotetsu was right behind him, kunai in hand.

Izumo looked at his friend, who was standing in a position that was meant to appear casual, but looking more like a sloppy battle stance. "You okay, there?"

Kotetsu looked back at his friend; he'd been scanning the area for any sign of movement. "There is a homicidal maniac on the loose around here; remember, ne? Aside from that, I'm fine."

Izumo nodded. "Alright. Let's split up and work around the perimeter. If he's going to strike tonight, he's got to be outside the village somewhere. I'll take the left side of the village, you take the right. We'll meet in the back if neither of us runs into him." Izumo shoved the earpiece he was wearing a little tighter into his ear. "We'll be in radio contact if we spot him…" Or, if either of us runs into trouble, was the unspoken end of Izumo's sentence.

Kotetsu nodded and straightened his earpiece as well. They shook, hands on forearms, albeit a little awkwardly, and agreed on the plan. Instantly, they were up in the trees, and taking off in different directions.

Kotetsu had always felt rather protective of Izumo. Really, he knew in the back of his head, there was no logical explanation for it. Izumo was only a few months younger than himself, and at any rate, he was at least as good a ninja as anyone else, including himself.

Still, the nagging desire to keep him out of danger was always there. Deep down, he was a bit of a mother hen at heart. He'd been only a tiny bit sorry when he and Izumo were assigned as the Fifth's assistants. While it meant less action – a definite drawback for a ninja, it also meant less risk to them. It was cowardly, but true. It was something he would never admit it to anyone.

Izumo flew from tree to tree, searching for visual movement or any signs of chakra flares. Deep down, he hoped that the target would be out tonight, and that it would be him who ran into him.

It had nothing to do with glory. It had everything to do with proving himself to Kotetsu.

They'd been friends since their first day at the academy. That horrible day where your parents take you to a strange building, and just leave you there all alone, assuring you that the teachers are nice and you'll make lots of friends. Plus, you'll learn to be a ninja! Isn't that great? And then you're left on your own until you work up the courage to talk to someone, or until someone else gathers the courage to talk to you.

It had been Kotetsu that strode over to Izumo and introduced himself with a grin that simply exuded confidence. Izumo smiled back, and that had been it. They'd graduated together, made Chuunin together – on their first try – and had gotten jobs as chuunin examiners together.

Even so, Izumo thought sometimes he lived a little too much in Kotetsu's shadow. His friend had retained that smug confidence he'd first shown the day they met. Now, they were as good as paper pushers in the Hokage's office. If Izumo ever had a chance to prove himself to his friend, it was now.

All ninja were stealthy. It was kind of a prerequisite. But Kotetsu had an uncanny natural ability at sneaking up on people. It was a bit odd, considering his normal volume when he wasn't trying to sneak up on people. However, it did come in handy for playing jokes on people, and he'd honed this skill using Izumo as his unsuspecting prey several times. Kotetsu grinned at the thought.

The ability he had wasted on annoying his friend so often might actually help save Izumo's life…And the villagers, he'd realized as an afterthought. Because that's who he was supposed to be protecting. That's who he'd been hired to protect. Watching out for Izumo was just a part of his mission. At least, that's what he told himself.

Izumo stood quietly in a tree and scanned below him, around him, above him – anywhere someone could hide. Suddenly, he heard a rustle below him.

Izumo leaned, looking down. He could hear a man's low voice, but couldn't make out what he was saying. Another man answered the first. There were two people below him.

That couldn't be the target…it was a lone operator. At least that's what the intel said. But Izumo knew from experience that intel wasn't always accurate.

He ran through a mental list of options. They could just be villagers, out for a walk. If he slaughtered them, that would be bad.

They could be the criminals he was after. If he let them saunter into the village, that would be bad as well.

Ultimately, Izumo came to a conclusion. He had to confront them. If they were just innocent civilians, he's keep looking. If not, he'd…take care of them.

Izumo jumped out of the tree, behind the two men. From the fighting stance the men instantly assumed, Izumo knew they were who he was looking for.

"Konoha? Weren't you all destroyed by the Sand a few weeks ago?" taunted one of the men after glancing at Izumo's forehead protector.

"Don't underestimate Konoha's ninjas," warned Izumo as his hands quickly formed a genjutsu. Make them think they were asleep, and then take them out, Izumo reasoned.

"Nice try, kid," one of the two men snarled. He lunged towards Izumo, pulling a large kunai from behind his back.

Izumo braced himself, arms crossed in front of his face. The man's kunai plunged into his forearm; he almost heard it before he felt it – the soft ripping of skin and the grinding of metal against bone. Too much adrenaline running through his system to think rationally, Izumo wrenched the kunai from his arm and threw it at the other man.

Kotetsu was pretty sure this was the spot he and Izumo were supposed to meet. He hadn't been waiting long, but he still had a bad feeling. He pressed the radio talk button down. "Izumo, where are you?"

No answer.

Kotetsu checked to make sure he was still on the correct frequency before trying again. "Izumo, what's your position?"

Still nothing.

Kotetsu inwardly cursed as he set off to check the other side of the village. It had taken him long enough to scout out his half. Making himself move faster, while still taking care to search thoroughly, Kotetsu tried desperately to keep any "what if" thoughts from his mind.

Izumo dragged himself upright, looking at the gaping slash on his arm. Thick lines of blood disappeared into the cloth of his sleeve. 'Pressure. Put pressure on it to stop the bleeding,' he thought to himself. He pulled his way across the ground to the nearest tree. Resting his back on it, he placed his injured forearm against his head, using his other hand to hold a kunai. This was, of course, pure instinct. If the logical part of Izumo's mind had been working properly, he would have known there was no way he could fight off anyone at this point. But that part of his mind was currently being overwhelmed by thought and memories Izumo chose to concentrate on instead.

There was the time Kotetsu had been getting ready for his first date. Izumo had come over to 'help him get ready.' Of course, that just meant being moral support for his friend.

Kotetsu had been leaning into a mirror, scowling at his reflection.

"It's not that bad, man. Keep poking it and it's just going to be redder," Izumo stated.

"I'll just pop it. It's red either way. At least this way it will be flat instead of grossly engorged with zit pus," groaned Kotetsu.

Izumo walked over and closely examined the blemish on his friend's cheek. "It's not ready to pop, Kotetsu," he warned.

Kotetsu growled and turned back to the mirror, zit between two fingers. After a couple minutes of squeezing, scratching, and seething, Kotetsu admitted defeat. Izumo grimaced at the large, red welt now gracing his friends face.

"Great. Now what do I do?" moaned Kotetsu.

"You look fine. Put some ice on it or something."

"That doesn't help the fact I have a huge zit on my face."

"Everyone gets them. You're fine. Just be yourself." Izumo gave his friends shoulder a friendly slap before heading to the door. "You're so filling me in on everything tomorrow," he said with a wink.

Kotetsu rolled his eyes. "I thought it was only girls who did that."

"Girls and good friends who wish to pass on sage advice." With that, Izumo grinned at his friend and walked back home.

Kotetsu found Izumo propped up against a tree, chin resting on his chest and his arm on top of his head.

"Izumo!" He ran to examine his friend. Noticing the blood caked on the side of the man's face, he went to move the arm away. Kotetsu winced a little as hair ripped from Izumo's head, having dried in the blood around the wound on his arm. He reached down hesitantly underneath Izumo's chin. Lightly prodding, he sighed in relief as he found a slow pulse. "Let's get this bandaged first," Kotetsu told his friend, not caring whether he'd been heard or not.

Taking out a kunai, Kotetsu cut off the rest of Izumo's long sleeved shirt to allow better access. Pulling the sides of the wound close together, he taped them in place with a bandage.

"Izumo." He shook his friends shoulder gently. "Wake up."

Izumo's head lolled a little, as he mumbled something incoherent. "Okay, just rest here for a minute," Kotetsu said softly as he stood, surveying the surroundings.

Two men lay dead a little ways off, the ground littered with throwing stars and kunai. A few feet away from that, the gleam of the moon on Izumo's bandana-style forehead protector caught his eye. Shoving it into his vest, Kotetsu took the two men's finger prints before discarding the bodies with one of the fire scrolls he's brought along. The sickening stench of burnt flesh filled the area as he made his way back to Izumo.

"Come on, let's go home," said Kotetsu as he worked his way into a position where he could carry his injured friend piggyback. "By the way, nice work."

Tsunade had given Izumo a blood pill to replenish what he'd lost, as well as quickly mending the laceration with her own chakra. "He'll be fine," she spoke. "He's lost a fair amount of blood, but he'll be up soon. As soon as he wakes, he can go home. Good work, both of you."

Kotetsu gave a polite bow as Tsunade left the room, and then sat next to Izumo's bed. They'd certainly gone through a lot together. Everything, in fact. He thought back to the day they'd moved into their apartment. That had been almost five years ago, right after they'd been made Chuunin examiners. The two of them finally made enough doing examiners work on the side to afford a decent two-bedroom flat by pooling their money together.

The moment they'd stepped into the flat, they'd argued over who got which bedroom. One had an attached bathroom, and the other had a large closet, and a large window looking out over the village. Both of them ended up fighting over the room with the second bathroom. In the end, it was Kotetsu that had out-argued his friend.

It had been a long, slow trip back to Konoha, and before long, his head fell back onto the chair, and he drifted off.

Izumo groaned as he opened his eyes. He was…in the hospital? The previous night's events slowly came back to him as he gently ran his hand across his bandaged arm. He looked at Kotetsu, snoring softly on a chair next to him, not quite having the heart to wake him, and at the same time, knowing for a fact hospital chairs are not comfortable to sleep in.

In the end, Izumo reached over and gave Kotetsu a small poke. If he woke up, fine. If not, that was okay too. Kotetsu was instantly on his feet and shook his head, trying to get rid of his post-nap drowsiness.

"It's okay, no homicidal maniacs running around this time," said Izumo hoarsely.

"You're up! The Hokage wanted to see you when you woke up. How are you?" Kotetsu asked, coherent speech not coming easily to him.

"I'm fine. My arm hurts."

"Let me go get the Hokage. She told me you could go home as soon as she saw you."

"Alright. Wait," he called as Kotetsu had begun to walk towards the door.

"Thank you."

"For what?" Kotetsu asked, slightly confused.

"Getting me back. I can't believe I couldn't counter attack in time." Izumo hung his head.

"Izumo, you don't need to thank me for that," Kotetsu said softly, sitting back down. "I'd have done it for anyone. You'd better believe I'd get my best friend back home."

Izumo nodded, not looking up.

"Whatever you may think, you managed to take both of those guys out by yourself. You know that, right?"

"Yeah, it's just the 'making it back home in one piece' I have to work on now," sulked Izumo.

"There's a reason Tsunade-sama sent the two of us out on this. We work well together, Izumo."

"She could have sent out one jonin, and he'd have done the job without a scratch on him."

"You're not a jonin! Neither am I! How can you beat yourself up over that?"

Izumo didn't answer. Kotetsu sighed. "Look, I'll be back with the Hokage. After that we can go home."

Izumo stared out the window from his bed, wishing he could fall asleep. Suddenly, he heard what he could only imagine was the world's softest knock.

"I'm awake," he spoke towards the door. Kotetsu opened it and walked over to the bed.

"Couldn't sleep," he explained, sitting on the edge of the mattress.

"Me neither," said Izumo, moving over to make room for his friend. Soon, both friends were staring at the starry sky, as if it held all of life's answers.

Kotetsu turned his head and looked over at Izumo. "Want to tell me what all that in the hospital was about?" he asked.


"Try again."

Izumo rolled his eyes before turning to look back at Kotetsu. "It's no big deal."

"It is. That wasn't like you back there," Kotetsu said.

Izumo squirmed a bit, resting his hand on his bandaged arm. "It's…embarrassing."

Kotetsu quirked an eyebrow. "How can you still be embarrassed after knowing me for almost twenty years? I tell you everything. And don't even pretend to deny that, because you know it's true."

Izumo sighed. Kotetsu was still looking at him, waiting for an explanation.

"I just…wanted to show everyone – you – that I'm good at what I do. And I don't mean carrying around folders for the Hokage."

Kotetsu blinked has he took in everything Izumo had just said. "You're a great ninja, Izumo. I know that. The Hokage knows it. What do you think you're trying to prove?"

"I…" Suddenly, Izumo wasn't sure.

Kotetsu looked up at the ceiling. "You were thinking that before we left?"


"I'm sorry I didn't notice, Izumo."

They looked at each other in silence for a few seconds before Kotetsu continued. "You really are a good ninja," he repeated. "But that won't keep your friends from worrying."

Izumo swallowed, playing idly with the sheet in his hand. "Yeah, I know."

"So," Kotetsu rolled onto his side and grinned. "How did you manage to beat those guys? Give me a play-by-play."

Izumo grinned and faced his friend, going in to great detail how he'd managed to single-handedly defeat two other men with his arm hanging by a thread. Kotetsu laughed at Izumo's obvious embellishments.

By the time Izumo had finished, it was quite late. The both rolled onto their backs, staring at the night sky over Konoha. Kotetsu finally broke the silence.

"Mind if I just stay here tonight? The sink in my room's been dripping."

The End.