Title: Hidden Chapter #2: Empire Ants

Characters: Lee, Neji, Tenten

Summary: "I'm sorry, Neji," Lee finished, all melodrama from his voice already gone. "It was my fault. I failed to protect Tenten the way you used to."

A/N: Second hidden chapter of the series. This one is from Lee's POV.

Hidden Chapter #2: Empire Ants

He sprang out of bed, enthusiastic as ever, although his jump lacked its usual beat. It was, after all, the morning after their last mission—his and Tenten's—and although it was successful, it felt like a failure still.

Because Tenten had killed someone.

And he had failed to stop her from doing so.

Because of this, Lee promised to punish himself by running laps around the village a hundred times that day. And if he failed, he would do five hundred pushups, using only his thumbs and index fingers. And even then, that might not be enough punishment for his failure to look after his friend, to keep the promise he made to his other friend.

"Don't worry about it, Neji. I'll be sure to keep an eye on Tenten while you're gone!"

He had been so sure of himself, so certain of his conviction to take care of their youthful flower while his eternal rival was on a solo mission, that he immediately accepted the mission that the Godaime had given them without considering Tenten's feelings in the least. If he had, he would have remembered that Tenten was generally wary of seduction missions, even when they were still working as a team—him and her and Neji and the ever-reliable Gai-sensei. It was only because they made it a rule that Tenten had to be in the range of Neji's byakugan whenever she engaged a client that she even still agreed to accept missions like that, ever since the incident of the first one.

Neither Neji or Tenten told him nor Gai-sensei what had actually transpired during that first seduction mission. But when they found them a couple of minutes after Tenten's shriek (they had to knock down the mark's bodyguards, after all), Tenten was clinging tightly onto Neji's jacket, and the Hyuuga was holding her shoulders in an almost possessive manner, and would not let either Lee or Gai-sensei escort her back to her home that night.

Slipping into his favorite green spandex (which he almost always wore, even during his off days), he quickly left his flat, determined to start with his punishment early, and then check on his teammate and friend after.

He was on his eighty-seventh lap when he spotted Neji come out of the Hokage tower. His first instinct was to run away from the Hyuuga, but then realized that Neji deserved to hear what happened, and he deserved to be glared at (and maybe jyuken-ed) for his failure to protect Tenten.

So he ran toward him and called Neji's name. The byakugan user stopped and turned around, and waited for his friend. Only when Lee saw how tired Neji looked did he have second thoughts of confessing his crime there and then.

"What is it?" came Neji's monotone, and Lee suddenly felt the need to flee.

But he was a man, a youthful one at that, damn it, and he will face whatever consequences his past actions will have.

"How did your mission in Suna go?"

Neji nodded. "Longer than expected," he answered, forehead creasing a little. "How did your mission go?"

Lee gulped. Why was Neji's tone more hurried than usual? Was his guilt that obvious? Was it written all over his face? Neji hadn't even activated his byakugan yet. How could he have known?

"Lee." Lee gulped again. "Where's Tenten?"

"Our youthful flower is currently resting in her apartment," Lee answered. He had made sure of it; he dropped by her place earlier to check on her, and her door was locked, all her traps set in place, so he was certain she was inside. He didn't want to intrude; he knew how Tenten was after seduction missions, and he respected her enough to let her be by herself if she wanted to.

Neji's frown deepened. "What happened?"

And Lee suddenly teared up, and started spouting a litany of apologies while sniffling and sobbing and Neji had to smack him in the middle of his forehead to make him stop.

"What happened, Lee?"

And there was such worry in Neji's voice that Lee suddenly stopped, looked at his teammate closely, and noticed for the first time how panicked the Hyuuga seemed. Taking a deep breath, Lee began to tell Neji all that happened—how he heard Tenten's scream and then had to fight his way through hordes and hordes of armed bodyguards twice his size, how he reached the masters' bedroom too late, because Tenten was already stabbing their mark repeatedly in the face, how mechanical her movements had become, as if she was stabbing a puppet and not a man.

"I'm sorry, Neji," Lee finished, all melodrama from his voice already gone. "It was my fault. I failed to protect Tenten the way you used to."

Neji was silent the whole time, his eyes shadowed by his hair, but when Lee apologized, Neji looked up, shook his head and answered, "It's nobody's fault."

And just when Lee was about to say how cool and youthful his rival was, Neji turned around and, quick as a snap of a finger, disappeared.

It took Lee a couple of seconds to catch up with the Hyuuga.

He found him standing outside Tenten's door, fist poised to knock, but Lee could tell from where he was standing that Neji was hesitating to do so.

He was about to reveal himself when Neji did knock, and then Lee had to hide himself behind a pole to avoid being seen. It took Neji about twenty knocks before Tenten appeared, and when she did appear, she looked so terrible that Lee's heart broke at the sight of her.

He realized that three hundred laps around Konoha and a thousand pushups were not enough punishment for making Tenten feel that way.

He watched as Neji entered Tenten's little apartment, and then closed the door behind him. It wasn't in his nature to eavesdrop, but something told him he needed to hear what they would talk about. So as quietly as he could (which took a lot of effort, considering how noisy he could be), he tiptoed around the apartment, and positioned himself near a window.

"Lee didn't…?" he heard Tenten say, and he feared for his life all of a sudden.

"He did."

There it was again, that sound of worry in their otherwise emotionless teammate.

"You didn't have to check on me," Lee heard the kunoichi continue, "I'll get over it. I always do." And Lee's admiration for his friend just went a notch higher, maybe ever five notches more, because with everything she had recently gone through, how could she still hold herself together like that?


Neji's voice sounded tired and thoughtful at the same time. Lee risked a peek. He saw Tenten hunched on the sofa, head hung low, as if the weight of the world was literally on her shoulders. Neji was sitting a hand's width away, and Lee would have thought something was going on between them, had he not been so surprised with Neji's next words.

"I am sure that after that mission, you are still," Neji started, then paused, as if straining to say his next words, "as Gai and Lee would say," and as Tenten looked up, Lee pressed his nose against the window just in time to see Neji clench his teeth, "…youthful."

And Tenten suddenly started laughing, laughing and crying at the same time, and as Neji placed a hand on her shoulder, Lee found his tears were streaming down his eyes too.

Maybe he could be forgiven for his failure to protect someone important to him.

Gai-sensei, I promise to work triple hard, so that Tenten will not have to go through that ever again.

"Yes," Tenten whispered, and as Neji cracked a small smile, Lee grinned his usual blinding grin as well. "Youthful indeed."

I really enjoyed writing this chapter. I loved Lee's resolution in the end, about forgiveness and working harder. What I admire most about his character is his loyalty to his friends, and his desire to protect those important to him, even if it costs him his life.

Reviews will be lovely, and flames will be used to roast marshmallows.