*~The Panda Princess~*
Lady Tsunade stared at them with bloodshot amber eyes, seeming absolutely exhausted even though it was barely ten in the morning. "I know that one of you is a jounin and the other two are chuunin, but..." She hesitated, fiddling with the files in front of her, making sure all edges aligned perfectly with each other as well as the sides of the desk before she looked up again. "I'm giving you a D-rank mission today."
Tenten fought back an impulse to twitch. D-rank? She searched her memory, flipping through her team's last few missions in an attempt to remember if any of them had done anything unforgivably horrible. Lee, of course, had been Lee: wildly loud and enthusiastic and himself; Gai, as always, an older version of Lee (or perhaps Lee was, instead, a younger version of Gai?); Neji his unflappable self: strong, silent, with that one vein in his forehead occasionally protruding from suppressed irritation. And as far as she remembered, she hadn't done anything out of the ordinary, either. So
why then the undeserved punishment of a D-rank mission?
To her right, Neji softly cleared his throat. "If I may ask, Lady Hokage -- have we done something wrong?" Although he kept his voice civil and level, his narrowed eyes betrayed his annoyance. If he'd hated any suggestion of failure before, since attaining jounin rank he loathed it even more.
The ever-present Shizune sent Neji a sharp look. The blonde leader of the Leaf, however, gave no hint she'd noticed as she waved one red-nailed hand dismissively. "Not at all," she said airily. "It's just that before Gai left last night for his mission, he specifically asked me to give the three of you this mission. He actually didn't give me a reason why. He just said it would be ... good for you all."
Somehow Tenten doubted that. If she knew Gai-sensei (and, after so many years spent on his team, she liked to think she did; even though she didn't really want to, per se), he'd shouted words like "youthful," "springtime," and other such nonsense. She couldn't really blame Tsunade for not wanting to repeat any of it.
On the other side of her from Neji Lee's wiry body snapped to quivering attention. "Another challenging mission from Gai-sensei!" he exclaimed, the tears he always seemed able to shed so easily streaking down his face. "Please, Lady Hokage, impart to us the nature of our mission so we may enthusiastically complete it to the full of our youthful abilities, and not disappoint our sensei!"
A long sigh escaped Tsunade. She looked down at her hands, folded together on top of her paper-strewn desk, and her knuckles whitened slightly. "The Land of Fire's feudal lord has come to Konoha for a meeting with me. He also intends it to be something of a vacation for his family. And since the family's nanny is recovering from an illness, he is in need of--" Oh no, please don't let her say what I think she's going to say, Tenten thought desperately, "--babysitters for his three young children for the day so he and his wife can have some time alone to tour the village and visit our hot springs."
Lee let out a gleeful shout and jumped into the air, pumping his fist victoriously. "Oh, is Gai-sensei not wonderful for providing us with this opportunity? Could we imagine anything better than to spend our day refreshing our own youthfulness while gaining a better appreciation for the next generation of our beautiful land?"
Well, to be perfectly honest, yes. Yes, she could. And evidently so could the others in the office because Neji, Shizune, and Lady Tsunade all twitched at the same time she did. "Ah..." the Hokage said slowly. "Well." She sat up straight again and spoke in a brisker tone. "You'll have them until later this evening, and you're free to go wherever you wish with them, and do whatever you wish -- within reason," she stressed. "I'm sure I don't need to make myself clearer on that account." Lifting a scroll from her desk, she held it out toward them. "This contains all the information you need. The children's names are Haruka, Akira, and Kohaku -- two girls and a boy. Good luck."
They'd need all the luck they could get. By the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, Tenten already knew it.
"We are not watching three children. We are watching four."
Tenten wholeheartedly agreed with Neji's hushed, horrified remark. After less than five minutes in the daimyo's hotel suite, their D-rank mission had devolved into complete and utter chaos. The two youngest children -- Kohaku, three, and Akira, five -- cowered in front of Lee as he rhapsodized to them with terrifying intensity about the wonders of youth and how excited he was to have this mission. The eldest -- Haruka, eight -- sat in the corner, arms crossed scornfully, glaring with dark eyes at her wailing siblings and the chattering Lee.
"This is so gonna be a disaster," Tenten moaned. "Neji. Do something to distract Lee." No response. Glancing sideways, she saw her normally stoic teammate staring at the scene, his pale eyes glassy. Irritation flared inside her. "Neji!" She poked him in the ribs, her elbow as sharp as her voice. He jumped and gave her a startled look. Motioning toward Lee, she snapped, "Do something about Lee, will you?"
The young Hyuuga's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed hard. He asked tentatively, "What -- do you want me to do?"
Tenten barely controlled an urge to snarl. "Choke him, gentle fist him, I don't care! Just get that babbling idiot away from those kids!"
With Lee no longer in the way Tenten cautiously approached Kohaku and Akira. Kneeling before them she took a deep breath, trying not to show how nervous she felt. Her trusty weapons' scrolls contained nothing useful for this situation: little kids (especially when the little kids belonged to the Land of Fire's feudal lord) and sharp, pointy things didn't mix. She never carried any sweets, since giving them to Lee at any time was a really bad idea, and Neji didn't like them. So what in the world could she do to win these kids over?
Well, she needed to do something to get things under control. Just as she opened her mouth to say she wasn't sure what, Kohaku peeked up at her from his huddled position. His tear-streaked face suddenly brightened, and he threw himself at Tenten with a delighted cry of, "Panda!"
Squelching her immediate instinct to defend herself against what her reflexes considered a sudden attack, she barely had time to brace herself before a warm little body impacted hers. He snuggled against her chest and tucked his head of thick chestnut curls under her chin. Surprised, she slowly lifted her arms to wrap around the little boy. A moment later, as if by its own will, her right hand began a gentle, rhythmic thumping against the middle of his back in what she hoped was a soothing way.
Lee's wide eyes suddenly appeared in her peripheral vision. "Amazing!" he breathed in a stage-whisper. "Tenten, my springtime flower, I did not know you possessed such an amazing power of motherly instinct!"
Akira crept closer, too, and began investigating the huge scroll strapped to Tenten's lower back. She hummed softly as she lifted the edge, wrinkling her nose as she tried to read the patterns -- necessary to the kunuoichi's ability to summon her weapons -- written on it. "I -- it's not motherly instinct!" Tenten hissed at Lee under her breath. Badly as she wanted to tell the hyperactive twit to shut up, she didn't dare take the chance of scaring the kids again. "I -- he just latched on to me."
"Panda," Kohaku sighed into her neck. "Comfy."
Letting out another delighted sound, Lee shut his eyes, though it did nothing to halt the tears once again streaming down his cheeks. "Tenten, this makes me so happy! You have a gift with children that few others have, and it is! So! Beautiful! I can hardly wait to tell Gai-sensei when he returns from his mission!"
Horror streaked through Tenten as her future flashed before her eyes. If Lee told their team leader that, she had little doubt they -- or at least she, possibly along with (shudder) Lee -- would be assigned more babysitting missions. Unlike jounin Neji who had only been given this mission because of Gai-sensei, they were still chuunin. And chuunin were occasionally called on to take up the slack for the genin when there happened to be an overabundance of D-rank missions. "Lee! Let's just keep it a secret among us, okay? This is just some kind of a fluke." Because for some reason, the kid thinks I'm a panda, of all things--
Haruka suddenly spoke up from the corner in which she'd sequestered herself. "You know, Kohaku is right," she commented. "Those buns of yours make you look like you have panda ears."
"Panda!" Kohaku repeated happily. Leaning away from her, he reached up with his tiny, grimy hands (how in the world had he gotten so dirty indoors?) and tried to bat at her "ears." Tenten involuntarily shied backwards.
Suddenly Neji was there, crouching next to her. He captured Kohaku's hands in his, gently encouraging the little boy to turn toward him slightly. "Her name is Tenten," he corrected softly.
"Panda!" Kohaku insisted, lower lip poking out in a pout. He turned his head up to look at Neji, and his liquid brown eyes widened. "Pretty!" he declared, staring up into Neji's eyes. Without relinquishing his hold on Tenten, he leaned his little face up toward the Hyuuga's, straining to get a better look. "Pretty eyes!"
Akira leaned around Tenten to look up at Neji, at last abandoning the kunuoichi's weapons scroll. "Where'd you come from?" she asked. "Who are you?"
Neji's eyes shifted uneasily from Kohaku to Akira and back. It seemed that now he'd succeeded in drawing the younger children's attention away from Tenten, he had no clue what to do next.
Tenten smiled at the sight and even chuckled a little. "That's Neji," she said. "He's my sparring partner. And this is Rock Lee, my teammate." She grasped Lee's sleeve and jerked him down into a sitting position, hoping the two smaller children would feel more at ease with him if he was on their level.
"Tenten, Neji, and Lee," Akira repeated, looking from person to person. She smiled toothily. "I'm Akira!" she announced proudly. "Haruka, and Kohaku," she said, pointing to her siblings in turn.
Haruka rolled her eyes. "Mother and Father already introduced us before they left," she sighed. Picking up her book again, she ignored them.
All right, Tenten thought analytically. So really all we have to do is watch out for and entertain Akira and Kohaku. Apparently Haruka is good at entertaining herself. So, here's the question: what do we do to entertain a three-year-old and a five-year-old?
Akira leaned toward her brother. "Kohaku! Come on," she wheedled. Her hands opened and closed encouragingly, trying to get her brother to come to her.
The child let out a thin wail and snatched at Tenten. "Nooo!" His little hands fisted into her shirt as he clung even more tightly to her. "I want my Panda!"
Okay. Surely she could handle one small boy for the day. With Haruka able to entertain herself, that left Akira -- and surely between Neji and Lee, the girl would be safe and sufficiently occupied...
Tenten desperately resisted the urge to slap her hands over her ears, curl up in a corner, and sob until her eyes fell out of her throbbing head. Kohaku still clung to her like a little monkey, arms around her neck and legs around her waist, as his cries quickly turned into ear-shattering shrieks in decibels previously undiscovered by man (or woman). Across the room Akira's grew shriller and shriller as she tried to outshout her brother.
And the trigger for all this bedlam? The simple word "naptime," innocently if fatally uttered by Lee.
Kohaku didn't want to fall asleep for fear his "Panda" would leave him. Akira, trying to exploit the situation, loudly insisted she always had ice cream before her nap. (Thanks to the Hokage's scroll, Tenten knew this claim to be a blatant falsehood; Akira was, in fact, lactose intolerant.) Haruka, beyond naptime as a venerable eight-year-old, kept remarking pointedly and with increasing volume that all she wanted was quiet in which to read more of her book.
Feeling a certain grim sympathy for the daimyo and his wife, Tenten wondered how (or if)they managed to cope with their offspring. Even if the children didn't want to nap, she did. At only one in the afternoon, she already felt like she'd just gotten back from a week-long A-rank mission -- a failed week-long A-rank mission. She slid a glance towards Neji. Far from being his usual unflappable self, he appeared overwhelmed as he stood in one corner, eyes glazed over, jaw taut, the just make it go away! expression she knew so well on his face. If not for her own stress, she would have laughed at him.
Ironically Lee was the only one in the room who seemed calm. "Children!" Assuming a no-nonsense stance he suddenly spoke in that tone which Gai-sensei adopted whenever he wanted to address his students about something of "infinite, youthful importance."
Even Kohaku went silent, little hiccuping sniffles escaping him only every now and then as he turned his red-rimmed eyes toward the younger of Konoha's Green Beasts. "Naptime is one of the most important pursuits ever to be undertaken," he said with a gravity almost shocking considering his usual happy-go-lucky, enthusiastic approach to everything. "It refreshes our inner youthfulness, preparing us to face the rest of the day and whatever trials may later await us. It would be a tragedy indeed to encounter a situation and face defeat, all because we did not rest our bodies and minds sufficiently when we had the opportunity."
Most of the time Tenten considered Lee sweet but annoying; but at times like this, when he waxed so intimidatingly philisophical, she marveled at him. "It's true," Tenten said, hurrying to back up her teammate, since she wasn't sure how much of what he'd said had been understood by the little ones. "And I promise I'll still be here when you wake up, Kohaku," she added gently.
The little boy sniffled and furiously rubbed his eyes. "Promise?" he demanded, his intensity marred with a yawn.
"I promise," Tenten repeated, giving the youngster a gentle hug. "And, because something said three times is absolutely true, I promise I'll still be here when you wake up."
Evidently awed by Lee's eloquence, and with her little brother calmed and reassured, Akira slowly trailed along. After getting them settled in, Tenten closed the door and let out a long, relieved sigh. "Thank goodness," she sighed.
"Hn," Neji agreed fervently.
Lee dropped to the floor and instantly began doing pushups. "I shall do one thousand before retiring for a nap of my own," he said decidedly. In her corner Haruka lifted her eyes from her book to give him a disbelieving stare before snorting softly and resuming her reading.
Since watching him made her even more exhausted, Tenten turned to the only other sane person in the apartment. Tipping her head slightly towards the glass doors giving onto a screened balcony, she raised one eyebrow in a silent question. Neji silently dipped his chin in acquiescence and followed her, closing the door behind them.
"How are you holding up?" she asked in a low tone, seating herself on a plump cushion.
Neji dropped down onto a cushion across from her and assumed a meditative position; but she knew he was listening. He always listened to her, even while meditating. "Hyuuga children are never so uncivilized and--" Neji paused, brow wrinkling as he searched for the correct term.
"Bratty?" she supplied.
"Spoiled," Neji corrected.
"That explains so much," she teased. Snagging another cushion, she placed it behind her and reclined backward onto it. She stared up at the ceiling, enjoying the relative peace as she and Neji fell into the easy banter they always shared when alone.
"Hn." Neji exhaled, a long sound that eased the tension out of her shoulders just hearing it. "Since you do not meditate, Tenten, perhaps you should take this opportunity to sleep a bit yourself. I doubt you'll have another chance until the end of the day."
She moaned. "This has been one of the longest days I've ever suffered through, and it's only one in the afternoon. We still have at least five more hours of this." She peeked inside to make sure Lee was still absorbed in his exercise before speaking again. "When this is finally over, I am going to go prostrate myself in front of Lady Tsunade and beg her never to give us any more of these missions -- no matter how Gai-sensei postures and implores her."
"If you consider the endeavor likely to succeed," Neji said austerely, "I will join you."
Tenten smiled up into the bamboo ceiling. "I'll hold you to that."
They lapsed into companionable silence. Tenten tossed an arm over her eyes, feeling the instant relief in her pounding head at the darkness. Letting out a sigh long enough to rival Neji's, she allowed all her tension to release through her very pores and seep into the cushions beneath her...
...She snapped awake an indeterminate time later to the sight of two wide dark eyes suspended a foot or so above her. Confused, she blinked up at Kohaku, who in turn blinked down at her. How...? Blinking rapidly again to clear her sleep-blurred eyes, she widened her focus. Neji stood above her, the little boy's waist grasped in his hands so he dangled over her in midair -- as though intercepted mid-pounce. "He intended to jump on you," the Hyuuga said by way of explanation. "Onto your ribcage, to be precise."
Embarrassed she hadn't sensed the little boy coming, yet at the same time grateful to Neji for having the foresight to grab Kohaku and keep him from startling her awake (thereby undoubtedly unleashing some particularly nasty instinctive moves on the child),
Tenten sat up. She quickly readjusted her messy hair buns. "Thank you," she murmured, taking Kohaku from Neji's hold.
Instantly, Kohaku snuggled against her, head resting on her shoulder. "Panda," he sighed.
Looking around into the suite's common room through the now-open glass doors, Tenten noticed Haruka still involved with her book and Akira just coming out of the little kitchenette area with Lee, nibbling on a rice ball in one hand and carrying a plate with more in the other. She grinned at the kunoichi, revealing her two endearingly missing front teeth.
"Feel better?" Kohaku asked, looking up at her with those big, brown eyes, completely melting her heart and resolve.
"Yes, thank you. And you?" She ruffled his head of curls.
Kohaku nodded vigorously. "Playtime!" he said, grinning up at her.
Akira stuffed the rest of her rice ball into her mouth, hurriedly set the plate down, and came over, dropping to her knees in front of them. "No!" she objected through her last enormous bite. Turning to Neji, she laced her fingers and held up her hands prayerfully. "Please, please tell us a story?" she begged.
Neji, looking remarkably alarmed (at least for him), turned his pearlescent eyes to Tenten pleadingly. Help!
"Is not the story supposed to come before the nap?" Lee asked, obviously puzzled.
"We didn't get one before our nap!" Akira said cheerfully. "So we get one now, after." Still looking adoringly up at Neji, she tucked herself against his side, nudging and wiggling until she'd managed to get his arm wrapped around her.
The young prodigy opened his mouth, but no sound escaped. He stared down at the girl snuggled against him, looking for all the world like he had no clue what to do with her now.
Kohaku leaned back against Tenten, playing with the hem of his shirt while he, too, stared expectantly at Neji. Even Haruka looked up from her book, obviously interested in what the Hyuuga would come up with.
"What kind of story?" Neji finally found his voice to ask.
"Monsters!" Kohaku requested loudly. "And Panda!" He tugged on Tenten's sleeve for emphasis.
"With a handsome prince!" Akira added happily.
"You're ninja," Haruka stated. "Why don't you tell us about one of your adventures?"
"They're all classified," Neji stated firmly.
Akira and Haruka visibly pouted.
"What's that?" Kohaku asked.
"It means we can tell no one about what happened on our miss-- ah, adventures," Lee explained.
"Story!" Kohaku demanded in surprisingly stentorian tones.
"Right." Neji's eyes darted uncertainly from face to face, his expression an almost comical mix of terror and cluelessness. "A -- story."
"With a handsome prince!" Akira prompted again.
"And monsters, and Panda," Kohaku grinned.
"Right," Neji repeated. "I--"
Akira interrupted. "Every story is supposed to start with 'once upon a time,'" she said authoritatively.
Tenten swallowed the smile twitching at her lips. She knew from painful experience that real life was nothing like a fairytale, but even she was interested to see what stoic, realistic Neji would come up with. (Though she was, naturally, prepared to rescue him just in case. As a last resort, naturally!)
"Of course." Neji cleared his throat, pale gaze (which pretty much mirrored his skin tone at the moment) shifting to stare somewhere over Tenten's shoulder. "Once upon a time, long ago, there lived--" His eyes narrowed slightly, and he seemed to have to force out the next words "--a handsome prince in a far-off castle."
As if it had been rehearsed, Akira and Kohaku "ooh"ed at the same time.
"Handsome prince!" Akira corrected.
"Hn." Neji glanced down at her, forehead wrinkled slightly. "He was still very young -- a child, not much older than you."
"Oh." Akira nodded. "Not handsome yet. Go on."
Tenten bit her tongue to keep from giggling. She knew she shouldn't be enjoying her teammate's obvious awkward discomfort, nor the harrowed look in his eyes as he groped for something, anything to say to placate the children. But he just looked so -- adorable like that.
"The prince grew up with only one friend, a very dear and close friend -- the only person in the world with whom he could share anything, or do anything and everything. This friend was a little girl, a commoner, but the prince didn't see her that way. He -- he always called her 'Princess.' She wore her hair in two buns atop her head, ones that made her look like she had the ears of a panda, so he called this dear playmate 'Princess Panda.'"
Despite herself, Tenten felt her breath catch in her throat. As heat rushed into her cheeks, she snapped her gaze up from Kohaku's enraptured face to Neji's, whom she could have sworn had been looking straight at her a moment ago. But now he was focused down on Akira as he continued.
"As the years wore on, the prince's father, the king, began to realize something. Not only did the prince's playmate become more and more beautiful as time passed: His son seemed to become more and more attached to this friend." Neji paused for a moment, his free hand curling in a nervous fist against his knee before he continued. "So the king decided he -- he had to do something about it. The girl was not royalty, but a commoner and thus unworthy of his son or the throne of his land. Or so he thought."
Akira and Haruka gasped, eyes widening to the size of Lee's. Kohaku squirmed in Tenten's arms so he could lean closer, little hands fisted into the fabric of his shirt. Even Tenten felt herself shift slightly as she got caught up in the story.
"While the prince was occupied one day, the king called the panda princess to him. She went willingly, since not only was he the king, he was her dear friend's father. When she arrived before him, he sternly forbade her from ever seeing his son again. But since the king wanted to make sure his orders were followed, he had a wicked sorcerer turn the girl into the very thing his son called her: a panda. The king then banished her into a bamboo forest at the edge of the kingdom, also placing a hideous monster on the edge of it to guard her. She could not escape, and no one could rescue her."
Four pairs of eyes filled with tears. Kohaku's hand reached out, snatched up Tenten's arm, and hugged it around him. Feeling her own heart fluttering unsteadily with sadness and sympathy, Tenten glanced over at Lee, since she didn't trust herself to keep staring at Neji. Her green-clad teammate had tears welling into his eyes, though his expression was one of fury, indicating how unjust he felt the king's actions were, even though it was just a story.
"The king knew he could not tell his son the truth about what had happened. So instead he told the prince the girl, an orphan, had been taken in by a family that had moved very far away, to the very most-distant edge of the kingdom. The prince, very much saddened his only friend had left him alone -- the one thing she'd promised never to do -- wanted to follow her, but his father said no. He told him it was too far away, and too unsafe to cross such a vast distance in pursuit. He most strictly ordered the prince to remain in the castle. Though he knew there was nothing he could do to make his son forget his playmate, at least for now, the king determined to do everything he could to bring in other girls, real princesses, to make his son forget about the girl he'd come to -- to truly care for." Neji's eyes lifted, briefly meeting Tenten's before darting away to take in the three childrens' expressions; for Haruka had laid aside her book and left her corner to sit just inside the doorway.
Tenten felt her heart flutter again, but this time it had nothing at all to do with sadness. Did he just...? No. No way. I'm blowing all this out of proportion. It's just a story, Tenten! Don't get so involved, and don't overthink it!</i> Still, though, she found herself focusing her entire attention on him, hoping, hoping he'd look at her again with that expression she'd thought she'd glimpsed before in his eyes...
"The handsome prince," Neji said, smiling slightly at Akira's squeal of happiness, "eventually grew up. He took his aging father's place as general of the kingdom's army, promising he'd do all he could to protect his land, his people, and his father. Even though this was true, at times during his training all he could do was think about his panda princess, the girl he'd lost so long ago but had never, never forgotten. He missed her so much, but knew so much time had passed that by now surely she had forgotten about him."
Has this soft side of Neji always existed? Tenten wondered as the children and Lee let out soft whimpers of sadness. I never knew he was so good with children, and his imagination...!
Neji's long fingers moved, brushing one of Akira's dark brown curls off her enraptured face. "One day, the prince decided to find somewhere new to train. So he set off from the castle without telling his father or anyone else, not wanting to be interrupted. He had a new techn-- ah, some new things he wanted to practice, and he didn't want anyone to see him until he'd perfected them." The slightest hint of red stained his cheeks at that, and he quickly cleared his throat and continued. "The handsome prince kept looking and looking, getting farther and farther from the castle all the while, but he didn't find anywhere suitable until..." He stopped, eyes glinting as he shifted his gaze from face to face quickly.
Tenten found herself leaning forward with the others, eager to find out what happened next. Kohaku hugged her arm even closer to himself, little hands fisted in her white top eagerly as he bounced slightly in excitement. "And?" he prompted.
"'Until' what?" Haruka demanded impatiently. For the first time since Team Gai had met her earlier that day, genuine interest glittered in her eyes and brightened her face.
"Until," Neji continued, face serious, "he came upon a hideous monster guarding a bamboo forest." He paused again, very deliberately, as he waited for their reactions.
Kohaku clapped and squealed excitedly, Lee visibly brightened, and Akira and Haruka gasped and covered their mouths, eyes round and anxious above their hands as they continued to stare impatiently at Neji. Tenten had to resist the urge to pull out a kunai and throw it at him to get him to hurry up -- it wouldn't be a good example for the children. How in the world has he managed to get me interested in this story? I don't believe in fairytales, yet I can't help but hope that he'll find the princess and -- ugh, Neji, will you hurry up?!
Apparently the Hyuuga enjoyed putting everyone else on pins and needles. At last he took pity on them and continued. "Fortunately the monster was sleeping. This made the handsome prince very excited. He thought bamboo forest the perfect place to train, and the presence of the monster--"
"The hideous monster!" Haruka corrected.
"Hn. Yes. The presence of the hideous monster, just added to the challenge. And the prince couldn't resist a challenge -- it wasn't in his nature." Neji's eyes briefly flashed up and met Tenten's again, the hint of a smile lurking in those silvery, hypnotizing depths. "So he sneaked his way past the hideous monster and into the bamboo forest, searching for just the right place to begin his training. He knew he had to be quiet, lest he waken the beast and be caught, but that just made everything seem all the more exciting." His voice hushed slightly on the last part, and this time he who leaned in slightly.
"'Cause the handsome prince couldn't resist a challenge," Akira said knowingly.
"A truly noble and brave man," Lee agreed.
Tenten bit her lip to keep from laughing at the expression Neji's face at that. "Yes," he said flatly. "While investigating the bamboo forest, which had been thus far curiously empty of animals or birds or the like, the prince came upon -- of all things -- a panda."
More squeals of excitement issued from the girls. Kohaku gave a little bounce in Tenten's lap.
"Naturally, this made him remember his lost panda princess. Thinking about her, he became incredibly sad. Finding it difficult to look upon the thing that reminded him most of his childhood companion, he turned to leave, so sad he didn't even know if he was leaving to find another place to train, or the forest in general. He just knew he had to get out of there."
At the same time, Lee, Kohaku, Akira, and Haruka let out cries of protest. Even Tenten's mouth opened as a shocked sound escaped her. Neji held up one hand, shaking his head. "Wait," he ordered softly.
Slowly, they all settled down again, reluctantly heeding his gentle warning.
After reassuring himself that they'd all calmed, Neji continued. "The panda, naturally, recognized the prince. He was older than she remembered -- taller and more handsome than she remembered," he said, smiling down at Akira's suddenly radiant face. "But she felt very, very happy that, somehow, the prince had found her. But then he started to leave, and it made her sad. She could not speak, to she could not tell him who she was. So she did the only thing she could: She followed him, desperate to find a way to make him recognize her."
Tenten realized she was squeezing Kohaku too tightly. She released him, though he still clung anxiously to her sleeve. C'mon, Neji, don't disappoint us!
"The prince realized he was being followed, and turned to face the panda, who stopped in front of him. The two stared at each other for a long time, each sad for their own reasons -- the prince because the panda reminded him of his lost playmate, and Princess Panda because she saw the prince did not recognize her. She knew he had not come to rescue her after all, as she had hoped and prayed he would for so, so long."
Neji wove his story so masterfully, Tenten felt despair grip her heart and twist her insides. Surely that must have been what the panda felt; she would feel like that in the girl's place.
"Unknown to the pair, the monster--"
"Hideous monster!" This time Akira corrected him, scowling ferociously.
"I beg your pardon. The hideous monster had woken, realizing that someone had invaded the domain he protected. Furious and intent on destroying the intruder, he stormed into the forest, tracking the prince to where he still stood with his panda princess."
Kohaku whimpered, tucking himself back against Tenten's chest as he hugged her arm around his chest again, tightly. Akira buried her face in Neji's white shirt, and Haruka (surprisingly) reached out cling to Lee, who clung back with equal fervor.
Smiling reassuringly, Neji rested his hand atop Akira's head and stroked her dark curls. "The prince heard the hideous monster coming, and immediately drew ba--" Cutting himself off abruptly, Neji coughed slightly, almost sheepishly. "Excuse me. He drew his sword and prepared to face the creature to defend himself and the panda, whom he was determined to defend in memory of his lost friend. When at last it appeared--"
"Did it have sharp teeth? And long claws?" Kohaku interrupted hopefully.
"Yes," Neji said, nodding. "All the handsome prince had was his sword, but he faced--"
"Bravely faced!" Haruka half-shouted.
"Hn." Neji blinked. "Yes. He bravely faced off with the monster--"
"Hideous monster!" Akira did shout.
"Pardon me. The handsome prince bravely faced down the hideous monster with nothing but his sword against its sharp teeth and long claws."
Tenten smiled at his exaggerations on the parts the children had insisted upon, the warmth flushing through her having nothing at all to do with the hot little body pressed against her. With Neji finally and fully warmed up to the story and the children, she saw a side of him she'd never known existed. Now she suddenly realized a long-repressed truth: She fiercely, undeniably loved this new facet of his personality -- just as she loved the rest of him.
"A fierce battle ensued between the handsome prince and the hideous monster. They fought, and fought, neither of them gaining the upper hand, until the panda princess could stand it no more. She threw herself upon the beast's back, doing all she could in her clumsy animal form to fight it and help the handsome prince. The prince took advantage of the distraction she'd caused to defeat the vile creature, saving the panda and himself."
The children and Lee burst into cheers and exclamations of victory, claiming they'd known all along that would happen. (Personally, Tenten hadn't seen the part about the panda jumping in to help coming, but it made her appreciate the panda princess and her bravery all the more.)
"With the hideous monster's defeat, the spell the evil sorcerer had cast upon Princess Panda was broken. She turned back into her human self, and even though she too was older -- and more beautiful -- than the handsome prince remembered, he recognized her. So they were at last reunited."
Neji held up his hand. "But that isn't all of the story," he said, once more allowing his gaze to drift from face to face. "Even though his heart nearly burst with the joy of having found his Princess Panda again, the prince also felt deeply saddened, knowing this meant his father had lied to him. He went back to the castle, taking her with him, intending to face down his father." Straightening his shoulders, Neji's eyes turned to
Tenten's again. He said, "Imagine the king's surprise, his fury, when he recognized the girl with his son. Before he could say anything, the handsome prince spoke. He told his father no matter what happened in the past, he would not allow his Princess Panda to be sent away now he'd found her again. He loved her, and wished to marry her at once, because he intended never to be parted her from again -- even in death."
Tenten swallowed hard. Suddenly she had the almost absurd feeling that Neji was no longer telling the children the story -- he was telling it to her.
"The king protested, saying that the girl was nothing but a commoner, unremarkable, with no royal blood or particular talent to recommend her. He claimed it would be shameful, more than shameful, for her to marry someone as important as the prince, the future king. But the prince held firm in his resolve, insisting that he would have no other bride, only his Princess Panda. The king made one last argument, calling it unheard of for the royal lineage to be tainted with the blood of a commoner. The handsome prince replied by saying simply, 'There are some things more important than blood and heritage. Love is one of them. If you will not allow me to marry her, I will renounce my throne and my birthright. Either way, I will marry the woman I love.'"
Tears prickled at her eyes and streamed down her cheeks at the look on Neji's face, the earnestness in his voice when he spoke. Neji, are you...?
"The king gave in to his son's wishes. The prince married his princess. Even though she was known by her name throughout the vil-- ah, kingdom, to the prince, in private, she remained Princess Panda." Neji at last broke eye contact with her. "The end."
Once more, Lee and the children cheered happily, talking over each other in order to be the first to say how they loved the story best. Neji smiled at all of them, a smile that curled his lips, and warmed his eyes -- and Tenten's insides.
The door into the suite abruptly rattled open. The children scrambled away from the three ninja. They tore across the room to their parents, who had returned early, excitedly clamoring about monsters and pandas and princes and the best story ever.
Neji caught her gaze and smiled again. She found she had to agree with the children. Perhaps, she thought with a secret, inward smile, the mission hadn't been as much of a disaster as she'd feared it would be.
In fact, when Neji's hand brushed hers as the three of them bowed to the daimyo and his family before they departed, it had turned out to be a very good day, indeed.
Tsunade leaned back in her chair and sipped her tea, closing her eyes as she smiled satsifactorily. "Another mission can be marked as a complete success," she sighed.
Shizune still stared at the door, her dark eyes round with shock. "They -- they gave us extra," she whispered.
The blonde Hokage cracked open one eye. "Not just them, though they said that the job Team Gai did with their children was remarkable," she said. "The feudal lord reported that his children were actually sitting quietly when he and his wife returned. Apparently this is a rarity." She sipped at her tea again.
"Did you know that this mission was going to be that much of a success, milady?" Shizune asked. There was a certain note in her voice that sounded dubious, as if she hadn't really believed it would be anything less than a complete and total disaster.
"Sometimes you have to take a risk," Tsunade said knowingly. "A lot of people thought this one was worth it." She smiled smugly. "Besides, I don't think I've ever seen that old geezer so satisfied with himself."
Shizune let out a squeak. "Milady!" she gasped. "Please, I beg you not to let the daimyo let you hear you call him that!"
Scowling, Tsunade opened her eyes and stared up at her elder apprentice. "What are you talking about? I was referring to Hyuuga Hiashi!"
"Oh." Shizune stared down at Tonton for a moment, abashed. But then she looked up again. "So he, too, thought the mission was a success?"
Tsunade nodded. "He gave us a bonus as well," she said, once again feeling smug. "Now that he's been reassured his nephew and Tenten get along well with each other and children, particularly ones as -- ah, hyper as the feudal lord's, I get the feeling it won't be too much longer at all before we hear the announcement of their engagement."
"I didn't even know they were seeing each other," Shizune commented, puzzled.
"Oh, they weren't." Tsunade hesitated, cup halfway to her mouth. Her sharp amber eyes narrowed, and she reviewed a number of things she'd heard through rumors in the village and observed for herself. "Those sneaky little...!"
Sighing, Tsunade leaned back. "It doesn't matter," she said wearily. "As long as everyone's happy and everything's worked out all right -- and Gai doesn't find out I used him as an excuse to send his students on a babysitting mission -- I don't care what has or hasn't happened in the past."
"Excuse me, Lady Hokage, but did I hear you just mention my name?"
Oh no -- he's back early! Tsunade's eyes widened in horror at the glimpse of green and orange, accompanied by that unmistakable voice, coming from the cloud of smoke that had just appeared before her desk. Oh no! Her hand scrambled for her saké drawer as she firmly told herself that making the feudal lord of Fire Country and
the most disagreeable man in Konoha, not to mention two of her best shinobi, happy was well worth any and all headaches Maito Gai could (and would) cause her.
After all, any day where four out of five things went as planned could be counted as a win. Perhaps she'd celebrate by buying a lottery ticket on the way home.
Three months later, during the ceremony in which she wed Neji and Tenten, if the Hokage thought she heard the stoic Hyuuga genius murmur, "Princess Panda," to the weapons mistress, she decided not to comment on the matter. Even if she did hear the reply of, "my handsome prince."
Some things, she decided, were better off left unquestioned.