It was seven thirty in the evening as Hyuuga Neji walked down the road towards central Konoha. The warm, summer breeze carried the delicious scent of steaming noodles emanating from Ichiraku Ramen a few blocks ahead. Neji was looking forward to a peaceful dinner after a long day of training.
It had been an exhausting day; Gai-sensei had assigned Neji and his teammates a surveillance and concealment exercise that morning. The three genin were each instructed to follow a fox to its burrow and capture it without being detected by the prey. Thanks to their ability to use genjutsu and ninjutsu, Neji and Tenten had been able to complete the drill successfully, but Lee...
Neji sighed in annoyance as he thought back to that morning. Granted, it was not Lee's fault that he had no talent in genjutsu or ninjutsu. In an open-combat situation, Lee's impressive taijutsu skills served him well. But shinobi were expected to complete reconnaissance and assassination missions, tasks that required stealth and subtlety. And Lee, for all of his strength and speed, did not have much of either.
As Neji walked past a local grocery store, a green blur suddenly flashed across the road in front of him into an alley alongside the building. He stopped and peered into the shadow of the alley. His teammate was impossible to miss.
"Lee?" Neji called out. He walked towards the alley and saw his teammate crouched behind a garbage can. "Lee, what in the world are you doing?"
Lee's peered up at Neji, eyes wide, and put his fingers to his lips. "Shhh!"
Neji stared at him, and Lee beckoned him to come closer. Looking around for a moment to see who or what Lee was hiding from, Neji then stepped into the alley and crouched down next to his teammate. "What is going on with you?" he demanded.
Lee whispered, "I'm on a surveillance mission." He nodded at the camera he was holding.
"What?" Neji asked, confused.
"I'm on a surveillance mission," Lee repeated. "I can't let my victim notice me."
Neji rolled his eyes. "Lee, your victim must be pretty stupid if he hasn't noticed you already. You stick out like a sore thumb."
Lee looked offended. "If you must know, I've been following my victim for over seven hours and I have yet to be noticed," he said. "And it's a she, not a he," he added.
"Who are you following, and why are you doing this?"
Lee peered over the garbage can before ducking down and turning towards Neji. "It was Gai-sensei's brilliant idea! Do you remember how I failed to capture the fox this morning?"
"How could I forget?"
Lee ignored him. "Well, Gai-sensei took me aside after training and ordered me to complete this task, or I shall have to run 500 laps tomorrow." He checked the digital screen on the back of his camera. "Fifteen minutes left," he noted.
Neji was completely lost. "Fifteen minutes left before what?"
"My next picture," Lee explained. "To prove that I'm actually following this person, I have to take a picture of my victim on the hour, every hour for ten hours. The time is displayed here on the camera that Gai-sensei gave me."
Neji scoffed. "That doesn't sound like a very difficult exercise. And who are you following anyway—Sakura?"
Lee looked appalled. "No! And anyway, that's not the whole of it." Lee paused dramatically. "After I have taken eleven pictures on the hour, I must assassinate this person."
Neji stared at him. "Are you serious?"
"Well, not literally," Lee whispered, reaching into the pocket of his green spandex suit and revealing a red marker. "Before the stroke of midnight, I must secretly, without my victim noticing, mark her throat with this red marker, so that Gai-sensei will know that I have figuratively slit her throat and completed my mission!" Lee's expression was filled with intensity. "I will prove that I can succeed in surveillance and concealment, even if I cannot use genjutsu or ninjutsu to do it!"
Neji was momentarily at a loss for words. Finally, he said, "This is the dumbest exercise I have ever heard of."
"You'll see, Neji," Lee said, checking the time again. "I'll show you." He peered over the garbage can again, before ducking back down.
"Who's the lucky victim, anyway?" Neji asked, amused.
Lee looked through the camera and fiddled with the focus. "Tenten."
Neji had to restrain himself from bursting into laughter. "Tenten?" he repeated, smirking. "You've been following Tenten around for seven hours? And she hasn't noticed you, yet? She must be a worse ninja than I thought."
Lee fixed a fierce glare on his teammate. "Tenten is an excellent ninja. But the reason she hasn't noticed me yet is due to my improved surveillance and concealment techniques."
Neji did not even try to conceal his skepticism. "Sure. Right. So where is she, anyway?"
"In the store, of course!" Lee said. "She's buying groceries for dinner. Since noon she's also eaten lunch, read a book, chatted with Ino, sharpened her weapons, and vacuumed her apartment."
"What a challenging mission you have," Neji said, sardonically.
"The hardest part is yet to come," Lee said, grimly, completely missing Neji's sarcasm.
Neji stood up. "Well, good luck. If I don't see a big red line across Tenten's throat tomorrow morning, I'll be sorely disappointed."
Lee grinned up at him and saluted. "I won't disappoint you, Neji!"
Neji did not even deign to reply. He turned, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and walked out of the alley. Even if he tried, he could not have come up with as stupid an exercise as Lee's.
It was nine thirty at night as Hyuuga Neji walked down the road towards the outskirts of Konoha. He was headed home after having a pleasant dinner and losing a game of shogi to Shikamaru. Neji yawned; he was ready for a good night's rest in preparation for training at six o'clock tomorrow morning.
The crickets were chirping as he walked past a nondescript, two-story building in which he knew Tenten's apartment was located. Tenten, like Lee, was an orphan, so she lived by herself. It was probably a good thing for Lee, too. Neji was not sure how parents would react at the thought of their daughter being stalked by a green spandex-clad paparazzi—even if it was an exercise.
Curious about Lee's progress, Neji paused and activated his Byakugan, scanning the area for his teammate. He finally saw Lee standing on a narrow balcony on the second floor with his back pressed to the wall of the building, clutching his camera. Neji could not resist once again letting Lee know how utterly absurd the entire "mission" was. As if it was difficult to follow Tenten around for a day. She was not exactly the most secretive and unpredictable person in the village.
Neji crept up to a tall tree that stood by the balcony on which Lee was standing. Silently, he leapt up onto a branch and stealthily approached his not-so-vigilant teammate. Lee was peering through the window into the apartment, his back to Neji.
"Lee!" Neji called out.
"Wahh!" Lee gasped, nearly dropping his camera. He turned around carefully on the narrow balcony and noticed Neji crouched on the tree branch. "Neji?"
Neji rolled his eyes. "If you were on a real mission and I was a ninja hired by Tenten to assassinate you, you'd be dead."
Lee smiled good-naturedly and shrugged. "Not much longer," he said, patting his camera. "One more picture left. And then..."
Neji leapt from the tree and joined Lee on the narrow balcony. "You know," he said, "I don't think this mission is going to improve your surveillance and concealment techniques. Your real victim will probably be heavily guarded and not wandering about by herself all day. She'll probably be smarter than Tenten, too."
Lee was undeterred by Neji's remarks. "I can feel myself improving!" he said. "I even almost had a close call earlier. Tenten was making dinner and I was just about to take a picture when my stomach growled really loudly! I haven't had lunch or dinner, you know." He wiped his forehead. "She might have heard something but thank goodness I moved away from the window just in time."
Neji just stared at his teammate in disbelief. The whole thing was too inane for words.
Lee peered into the apartment again, and Neji looked inside with him. Tenten's place was quite small. The window looked into her sparsely-furnished bedroom. A door to the right led to a bathroom, and to the left Neji could see a small kitchen. Tenten herself was sitting on her couch, folding laundry and putting them into neat piles of shirts, pants, and underwear.
Neji turned slightly red and looked away from the window. That was a little more detail into Tenten's everyday life than he wanted to know.
"You know, Lee," Neji said. His teammate was unabashedly checking the time on the camera and trying to get into position for a good picture. "I don't think Tenten would approve of your using her as a guinea pig for your mission."
"Don't be silly," Lee said. "She doesn't even have to know." He drummed his fingers impatiently on the window sill. "Fifteen minutes before my last picture!"
Neji frowned and risked a glance into Tenten's apartment. She was thankfully putting her folded clothes away into her closet.
"And how exactly are you planning to sneak inside her apartment and draw a big red line across her throat without her noticing?" Neji asked.
"Easy," Lee said. "I'll wait until she's asleep, then enter through her window and complete my mission!" Lee brought the camera up to his eye and twiddled with the focus. Lee's camera eye and Neji's natural eye observed their teammate's back for a moment as she rummaged through her closet.
Then Tenten turned around, let down her hair, and began to unbutton her shirt.
It took a moment for Neji's horror to register before he turned away from the window in panic, feeling the heat rise to his face. He glanced at Lee, who was still fiddling with the focus lens, and forcefully shoved his teammate's camera down away from the window.
Lee stared at Neji in surprise. "What's the matter with you?"
Neji stared back at him. "What's the matter with me?" he hissed. "Don't you...Can't you see she's...she's..."
Lee jerked his camera away from Neji's grip. "She's what?"
Neji gritted his teeth. "Taking off her clothes?"
Lee looked back into the window. "Oh. Yeah, she is." Lee lifted the camera up to his eyes and adjusted the focus again.
Neji could not believe his teammate. He shoved Lee's camera down away from the window again.
"Neji, quit it, will you?" Lee demanded.
"Have you no sense of shame?" Neji growled through clenched teeth. "Are you seriously going to take a picture of her right now?"
Lee gave his teammate a puzzled look. "Why not? She's not completely naked."
Neji could feel himself growing hot around the collar. "You're unbelievable," he said.
Lee wrenched his camera away. "It's not even time yet, don't worry. Maybe she'll put on some..." Lee trailed off, and Neji saw his eyes grow wide.
"What?" Neji said, keeping his eyes averted from the window. "What's going on?"
"Oh, no, she's going to take a shower!" Lee exclaimed. "How am I going to get a picture of that?"
Neji was thankful that the darkness concealed his very deep blush. "This is so wrong," he hissed.
Lee's expressed was taut with concentration. "I suppose I'll just have to sneak inside now and somehow get inside the bathroom, and..." Lee did not complete his sentence, but slung the camera strap around his neck and started to lift open the window.
Neji grabbed his arm in alarm. "Lee! I can't let you do this."
Lee looked at Neji and shook off his grip. "I won't let you stop me, Neji. I have to prove that I can succeed in surveillance and concealment, even if I cannot use genjutsu or ninjutsu to do it! That is everything to me!" He paused and noticed his teammate's panicked expression, then said, "Look, Neji. This is purely a business operation to me. If you can't handle it, just go away!"
Neji could feel his blood start to boil. "Who says I can't handle it?"
"Well, you're clearly losing it."
Neji growled. "I don't know what you're talking about. This is highly unethical. You are stalking your own teammate and taking pictures of her in her own home, while she is in the shower, no less."
"I won't actually take a picture of her in the shower. I just need a picture of her silhouette," Lee said, matter-of-factly, pushing the window open and climbing inside. Neji could hear the shower running. Tenten had left the door to the bathroom slightly ajar. He watched, frozen in horror, as Lee tiptoed into the bedroom and towards the bathroom door.
Just as Lee was about to slowly push the bathroom door open, Neji could not stand it any longer. He leapt inside in a flash and grabbed hold of Lee's arm.
"Neji!!" Lee hissed. "What the heck are you—"
Neji said through clenched teeth, "You're insane if you think you—"
"You're ruining my entire mission—"
"What you're doing is so wrong—""Let go of me—"
"We're getting out of here—"
Suddenly, the two of them heard the faucet turn off and the shower curtain open. Lee and Neji stared at each other with identical expressions of panic. Without thinking, Lee dashed into Tenten's closet and Neji looked around in utter terror for a hiding place. Just as the bathroom door was about to open, he dived under Tenten's bed and bit his lip to keep from making a noise.
He tried to control his heavy breathing as he saw Tenten's bare feet emerge from the bathroom and walk towards her closet. "Lee, you better have concealed yourself well, you idiot," Neji thought to himself, his heart pounding. He braced himself for a very loud shriek, but to his relief, none came. So the fool was good for something after all.
Tenten had apparently put on her pajamas and went back into the bathroom. After a few seconds, Neji could hear the blow dryer turn on. "I need to get out of here," he thought, desperately. He did not know how long Tenten would spend drying her hair, so his first thought was to bolt immediately. But he could not leave Lee here to complete his nefarious task. Should he wait until she was asleep before leaving and taking Lee with him? He slowly poked his head out from under the bed to scan the room for Lee. He spotted his teammate half-concealed on the top shelf of Tenten's open closet.
"Lee! Now's our chance to get out of here," Neji whispered, fiercely.
Lee shook his head and held up his red marker and camera. Neji wanted to throttle him.
"No, Lee!" Neji hissed. "Can't you get it into your thick skull how bad this looks? Forget about your stupid mission! We have to get out of here!"
Lee glared at him, stubbornly. Neji hesitated, then decided to jump up there and drag Lee bodily out of Tenten's apartment. But before he could fully emerge from under the bed, the blow dryer stopped and he scuttled back into hiding.
He saw Tenten's feet emerge from the bathroom once more. He tried to stay calm as she puttered about her room for a few minutes, stopping to close the window that he and Lee had left slightly open before turning out the lights and enveloping the room in darkness. Then, he felt the mattress sag slightly as she got into bed. Silence descended in the room.
"Now what am I going to do," Neji thought. It was too risky to move before Tenten fell asleep. His only choice was to sit tight until she did. At the same time, he could not help thinking that Tenten was a worse ninja than he thought if she could not detect the presence of two other people in her own apartment.
The seconds dragged on. After perhaps twenty minutes, Neji could hear his female teammate's slow, even breathing, signaling that she had indeed fallen asleep at last.
Neji slowly rolled out from under the bed, and bumped right into Lee, who had jumped down from the top of Tenten's closet. Neji could hear Lee stifle a gasp and looked towards Tenten's bed in alarm. She did not stir.
Neji stood up and whispered fiercely, very close to Lee's ear, "Lee, this is insanity. We have to get out of here. You are going to wake her up if you try anything!"
In the dim light, Neji could see Lee's round eyes set with determination. "Neji, it's your fault I didn't get my last picture," he hissed. "Stop interfering and let me salvage what I can from my mission!"
Lee took out his red marker and crept toward Tenten's bed. The cap squeaked a little as he took it off. He hovered over Tenten's sleeping figure and prepared to reach down and mark her throat with his marker when Neji suddenly grabbed his arm again. "Stop!" he whispered. "I'm leaving first. I don't want to be around when you make a complete fool of yourself."
Lee glared at him in exasperation. "Well, good riddance! This whole thing would have gone perfectly well if you hadn't—"
It all happened very quickly: Lee and Neji heard a popping sound before the lights flipped on and the two of them were left staring at a pillow in the place where Tenten's sleeping figure had been. They stood, frozen in horror.
"What are you two doing here?" came an angry voice from behind them. Neji felt his face grow hot with mortification and found himself wishing that the ground would open up and swallow him whole. This was not good.
Lee and Neji turned around slowly to see Tenten standing by the light switch on the wall, dressed in her pale blue pajamas, kunai in hand, her dark hair framing an expression of infuriated confusion. They stared at her, stunned and at a loss for words.
"Well?" she demanded, lowering her weapon. She looked from one to the other, expectantly.
Finally, Lee burst out with a loud wail. "Noooo!! I can't believe I failed my mission!" He grabbed his hair in frustration.
Neji groaned inwardly.
Tenten stared at Lee, then turned to Neji. "Neji, what in the world is going on?"
Neji kept his eyes on the ground and avoided her gaze. "Gai-sensei sent Lee on a mission to draw on you with a red marker while you were asleep to practice his concealment technique," he muttered. The scenario sounded even more ridiculous when described out loud.
Tenten's utter bewilderment was evidence on her face. "What?" she said.
"It's true!" Lee wailed. "And I would have succeeded, if it weren't for Neji here!!"
Tenten was momentarily at a complete loss for words. Then she noticed the camera Lee was wearing around his neck. "And what's that for?" she demanded.
When Lee did not answer, Neji muttered, "He's been following you all day and taking pictures to practice his surveillance technique."
Tenten stared at the two of them. "You've been watching me all day?" she asked Lee.
Lee nodded miserably.
"And taking pictures of me?"
Lee nodded again.
"Without telling me?"
Lee did not say anything, but the answer was clear. Tenten thought for a moment. "You were here...the entire evening?" she asked slowly.
For some unimaginable reason, Lee said earnestly, "Oh, don't worry, Tenten. We didn't see anything when you...I mean, not really..."
Neji slapped his forehead.
Tenten looked like she was torn between wanting to flay them alive and wanting to die from embarrassment. Instead, she took a deep breath, then turned to Neji. "And did Gai-sensei give you this mission, too?"
Neji froze and the absurdity of the situation revealed itself to him in full force. What was he doing here? Why in the world had he decided to follow Lee along on this ridiculous mission? He looked up to see her glaring at him, expectantly. "I..." he stuttered, feeling utterly stupid.
"Actually," Lee piped up. "Gai-sensei only gave the mission to me because I failed the training exercise this morning."
"Then why are you here, Neji?" Tenten asked, folding her arms across her chest.
Neji did not know what to say. His brain duly noted that Tenten looked unexpectedly cute in her pajamas and with her hair down. Then he recalled the scene from earlier and felt his face grow warm for the hundredth time that evening.
"Yeah, Neji," Lee said, looking at him with obvious amusement in his eyes. "What are you doing here?"
Neji would have killed him right then and there. "I..." Suddenly he became indignant and angry. Stupid Lee! He was going to make that idiot pay. Fighting down a blush and summoning all of his customary arrogance, Neji said, "I don't think I have to explain myself. Besides," he added, as condescendingly as he could, glaring back at Tenten, "I would think that by this point you would have been able to tell when a ninja as awful at surveillance and concealment as Lee is following you."
He saw her clench her fists. "Hyuuga Neji, you—"
Before she could finish her sentence, he said, "Now if you will excuse me, I'm going home to get some sleep before training tomorrow morning." With that, he turned and, in as dignified a manner as he could, walked to the window, opened it, and jumped outside.
The cool night air was a relief. Neji paused and leaned against the wall of the building for a moment, wiping his forehead and willing his heart to stop beating so quickly. He swore to trounce Lee in training tomorrow morning. In the meantime...
He could do with a cold shower.
"I'm sorry I invaded your privacy, Tenten," Lee said to his teammate as she walked him to the door of her apartment, still exasperated at him and furious at Neji.
She opened the door and took a deep breath. "It's okay, Lee. I will take this up with Gai-sensei tomorrow. Of all his crazy ideas...!"
Before stepping outside, Lee paused at the threshold for a moment and turned to Tenten with a thoughtful expression on his face. "You know something, Tenten?"
She looked up at him.
His face broke into a wide grin. "I think Neji likes you."
Embarrassed, Tenten pushed Lee outside and closed the door, shutting out the sound of her teammate's mirthful laughter.