"Have you ever wondered what it'd be like to have a brother?" Po asks, prodding the Adversary. It bobs back and forth like a metronome, anchored to the floor by eighty pounds of mineralised sand.
Tigress lurches mid-strike; her fist glances off the studded surface of the wooden monstrosity in front of her. She spins forward, carried by the inertia of her blow, and wobbles a few feet to her right, planting her feet to regain equilibrium. Her mind is still in a mess, reeling from Po's odd question, and she suppresses a suspicious glare. "Why do you ask?"
He shrugs and mumbles something along the lines of just because, continuing to toy with the sandbag doll. On one rebound, he catches it with both hands, curiously examining it and its painted zigzag mouth. Po glances sideways at Tigress, his eyes full of hope.
She doesn't respond and returns to training, trying to forget that subliminal niggle at the corner of her mind that had screamed in protest at the word brother.
Between the solid skin of the Earth and the Eighteen Levels of Hell is his eternal purgatory, Chorh-Gom. Death is a sweet release they will not grant him because they feel the noble need to be better than him. No, let him live, they argue, ignoring the fact that he's already dead. He has been for twenty years.
They'd picked him out of the ruins of a house situated on the furthest reaches of town, where he'd been blown by the Wuxi Finger Hold. Then, it was just a matter of rebuilding Chorh-Gom for its solitary tenant and recruiting new wardens. Eight-point acupuncture restraints, iron manacles, chains – rinse and repeat, until a carbon copy of the original prison has been created. Except they've thrown away the key; there is no lock to pick, no loophole to exploit, no way out. Once, he contemplates ending it for real – he still has his fangs and his spongy tongue – but decides otherwise. He doesn't want to give the cowards the satisfaction of him doing the job for them; it's an executioner's axe or nothing.
His visits are sparse and infrequent, scattering across the mental calendar Tai Lung holds in his mind. Each visitation is a matchstick mark on the mental countdown to absolutely nothing; there're eight so far. On the first day, Po comes alone, sitting awkwardly on a chair and staring at Tai Lung. The panda squirms and fidgets throughout the length of a full hour before posing a query about prison food and accommodation.
It only makes Tai Lung want to wring his fat neck even more than he already want to, if that is even possible.
But he can't. So he keeps quiet and looks away in contempt, calmly thinking of several ways he could kill the panda if he were foolish enough to come within two feet of him. The chains clink and scrape against the stone walls as he clenches his fists in preparation, falling back into deadened silence as the shell on his back becomes heavier and tighter with every movement.
He wonders quite honestly if he could focus someone to death with only his mind.
When it becomes clear that he will not speak with him, Po leaves, but promises another visit next month that Tai Lung doesn't want. High above him, he hears the stone doors grating to let Po out, and a vestige of Himalayan mountain air swirls down to greet him in the ghostly catacombs of his prison. It smells vaguely like the freedom he used to enjoy, and Tai Lung closes his eyes slowly, feeling a pang of longing sear the back of his throat.
Oddly, Tai Lung comes to look forward to Po's loquacious stopovers, not because he likes the company, but because he's always importing in bits and pieces of the alien world outside. While Po babbles on about how he managed to perfect the texture of his egg noodles over the weeks, Tai Lung inhales deeply, tasting elderberries and the clear zest of rime percolating off Po's snow-strafed pelt. Sometimes he trails in tundra grass and melting ice, scattering it everywhere he walks. Curiously, he always manages to smell like food somehow, a pleasant trade-up from the slop he's served by the leering rhinoceros guards. The scent of assorted condiments and fried shallots is a rare treat that flanks Po when the winter winds aren't as harsh.
On the fourth visit, Po does the unthinkable – he clandestinely brings Tai Lung his Secret Ingredient Soup in a flask. Still, he does not talk to Po, and he does not eat, but he's sufficiently surprised to glance upwards at Po as he departs from yet another fruitless evening.
"Come on, big brother!" She seizes him eagerly by the paw, dragging him out into the market. They weave around customers and merchants and displayed wares like fish in a pond, outstripping the harangued voice calling their names a hundred miles behind them. Her face is wild with the excitement of adventure, an expression he has to emulate when he nearly runs down a bunny, pirouetting out of the way in time.
The dreamer trips and is deposited back into the night, and reality starts to reaffirm itself, slowly, surely, caught against the icy backbone of a realm where everything and everyone is connected.
"…and really, who makes soup like that nowadays?" Po complains, juggling three steamed bean buns with his paws. Lately, he's taken to bemoaning the culinary inadequacies of the cooks at the Jade Palace, smuggling in 'sub-par' morsels and trying to convince Tai Lung to agree with him by tasting them. Po ended up having to eat all of them himself, making the silliest faces as he swallowed the food. "That's horrible, that is," he had gasped, after choking down the stir-fried ginko leaves that 'could have used a lot more soy sauce'.
"They'd get much better grub if they'd just let me do all the cooking," Po sniffs primly.
Tai Lung looks up warily. "Why?"
Po's eyes widen in shock and surprise at his response. "Wah…uh…because I'm a better cook?"
"No. Why are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" He looks genuinely confused.
"Coming here. Talking to me and bringing food. The Dragon Warrior doesn't have anything better to do?" Tai Lung sneers the title with as much derision as he can muster. The title that is rightfully his.
Po gives a loud chuff. "Nope. Just the occasional pilferers and bandits, but the Furious Five alone takes care of that easily."
"Shirking responsibility, eh? How very warrior-like," Tai Lung says silkily.
This seems to annoy Po greatly. "You're not exactly one to talk, Tai Lung. You're the major bad guy, remember?"
"And here you are, secretly calling on the major bad guy. I do wonder why you waste your time so. Shifu probably doesn't know, does he?"
Po opens his mouth, then closes it and shakes his head. "He doesn't need to know. I'm doing this for him. For all of you."
Tai Lung draws himself up as much possible, straining against the metal that locks him in place, so he can look Po directly in the eye. "Pray tell, Dragon Warrior, what 'this' is?" he asks softly, challenging Po.
There's no answer; Po presses his lips together, holding his ground. Then, he turns and leaves, bested by someone who cannot even move.
The next trip comes roughly two weeks after, but Po isn't alone.
Tai Lung hears urgent whispering several floors up accompanying the cinderblock doors groaning open. As the muttering closes in on him, two shadows stretch towards him, one of them rounded like always, the second more slim and built. His eyes flick upwards and catch a pair of a similar hue.
Tigress frowns down at him angrily, thoroughly repulsed at having to see Tai Lung in person again. She grabs Po's arm in a vice grip. "There. I've come. Now let's go, quickly," she hisses at him.
"Not until you've talked, now stay." Po shakes off her hand and folds his arms decisively.
"There's nothing I want to say to him!"
"Leaving so soon, dear Tigress?"
Tai Lung's voice slices between them like a sword. Tigress whips around, furious and looking fully ready to hit something. "Shut up. Shut up!" she shouts.
"Tigress, please!" Po pulls her towards himself, trying his best to placate her. "I mean, he's technically your brother."
Tigress rounds on Po, her eyes flashing alarmingly. "I have no brother. If I did, it certainly wouldn't be him!" She stabs an accusing finger in Tai Lung's direction.
"Yes, you do. And he's not going anywhere anytime soon, so just talk to him. Don't make me sit on you to keep you here."
"I will kill you."
"Get in line; I've yet to serve him, and I'd say it'll take quite a while." Po thumbs over his shoulder. He drags a chair over to Tai Lung and pats the seat. "Come on."
Hesitantly, she acquiesces, but refuses to look at Tai Lung, a gesture that he reciprocates gladly. A vast ocean seems to form before them, empty and impassable, while Po floats over them expectantly. He's clearly anxious for them to start conversing. When the stalemate refuses to end, he takes it upon himself to be the catalyst. "Nice day, huh?"
"It was a nice day," Tigress mutters.
"It's day? Gets a little hard to tell in here." Tai Lung sighs in a mock display of melodrama.
"Maybe you should have thought about that before destroying the entire Valley of Peace," she replies coolly.
Tai Lung snarls, all pretence forgotten. "That scroll was mine. Shifu was a fool for siding with the tortoise."
At this, Tigress stands up so quickly the chair topples over. She swings her leg up and smashes her heel on the back of Tai Lung's head, pushing his face into the ground. Dry silica cuts his lips, permeating his mouth and nostrils.
"How dare you," she whispers. "Don't you dare say his name! He gave you everything he could give, and you threw it all back in his face, so you don't get to say his name!" Grinding her foot into his head one last time, Tigress releases him and strides away in a single long motion.
"Tigress, wait!" Po wails. He throws his hands up in exasperation and turns back to Tai Lung. "Look, if everything was about the stupid Dragon Scroll, then ask yourself this, Tai Lung: Was that shiny piece of gold really worth it? Think about that."
By the time Tai Lung has finished coughing and regained the ability to swear, Po's already gone.
Po doesn't return for months. Eventually, he does, bringing Tigress along with him a second time. Wordlessly, he sidles up to Tai Lung, grasping Tigress tightly around the shoulder, and pushes her forward. Sitting down and crossing his legs, Po gestures at Tai Lung, looking meaningfully at Tigress. She snorts in disgust and takes the seat she abandoned all those weeks ago.
"Okay, so we're finally back here again," Po says firmly, assuming a mediator's tone. "We've all had some time to think long and hard, haven't we?" His gaze flickers between Tigress and Tai Lung.
"Yes," Tigress admits grudgingly.
"And you?" Po eyes Tai Lung with what he assumes is a threatening expression.
He looks up soberly, trying not to roll his eyes. "Yes."
Po's face brightens with delight. "Good. We just need to find something to talk about, that's all. Any ideas?"
The silence surrounds them, rapacious and dense. A thought nips at Tai Lung's tongue, and he forces himself to say it.
"Empty." His voice is hoarse, commanding their attention. "All those years, and it was for nothing," Tai Lung whimpers piteously.
Po shakes his head firmly. "It wasn't nothing, Tai Lung – I've told you this before. It's just you, and everything you've accomplished and become. There's no mystic cosmic power to attain from reading the Dragon Scroll because you have everything you need already. Don't you get it?"
"I thought it was nothing, too," Tigress interrupts. "We all did."
"Even Shifu?" Tai Lung asks.
She looks at him sharply, and nods. "Yeah. Even Master Shifu."
"Not as bright as he once was, then?"
"What do you mean, 'once was'?" Tigress gives him a tiny smile. "Was he ever?"
A grin spreads across Tai Lung's face. He can't remember the last time he's felt this amused. "Does he still do that thing with his nose when he gets angry?"
"What? You mean this?" She breathes in excessively and exaggeratingly, causing her nostrils to flare wide and open.
"That's a yes, I presume."
They have more in common than either will admit. Here they are, making small talk over the person who has spoiled them both in different ways – it is inevitable, unavoidable, that their conversation gravitates towards him.
"Was he good to you?"
Tigress tries to keep her voice measured as she works up a reply. "It was difficult. After you, he never wanted to keep anyone close. Even me. I grew up without a father." She shakes her head sadly. "You did. How did it end like this?
Tai Lung brings himself to gaze at her. His face is carved in ice and set in stone, and his eyes reveal nothing. "I promised to make him proud. I wanted him to be proud. And he always was, but I'd forgotten what it was like to be his child. You know what it's like, don't you?"
"It's not his fault. He didn't choose this for you. For either of us."
"I never said it was."
"You may as well have."
He blinks and looks away from her. Shame is a funny thing for him, washing over him like a tide. Sometimes it's as if it's not there and other times it takes the most savagely righteous state of mind for him to bear it, but now Tigress is making too much sense for him to ignore.
"He'd tell stories," Tigress murmurs. "He'd still tell stories every other night. And he'd look at me with so much pain I don't even want him to continue; I just want him to leave me alone. But he still did it. I think…I think he was seeing you, all the time."
"I don't care. Stop," Tai Lung grits out.
"You must care and you will! You were his son, and you know what I mean when I say that you can't bear to do anything that would make him upset!"
He grunts ungraciously. "You know what I've done."
Tigress ignores him. "He loved you so much, and he's the most wonderful father anyone could ever have. Didn't you love him back at all?"
He doesn't say anything, his reply lodged between his teeth. Yes, I did.
"There's this little quirk he has, Master Shifu," Tigress says contemplatively. "He gives out so much of himself to everyone around him, and sometimes, he gives even more. Then, it's yours forever, and you feel so loved and cared for, despite the shouting and punishments and block-headedness, because you can hold on to the knowledge that in the end, he's always there for you. You belong with him, and him with you. Then he comes to you when it's over, and asks if you're okay with those soft, brown eyes; it feels like a spark in my chest – I don't exactly know how to describe it."
"It's warm. Safe. Secure," Tai Lung agrees. "He'd care so much more than he needed to."
"He'd never leave anyone behind, no matter what. He'd do anything in his power to pick them up and carry them forward, towing them all the way if need be. That's our master. That's our father." She removes something from her pocket and offers it to him – Shifu's mandarin orange sash. As she places it in front of him, fighting back tears, Tai Lung slowly understands. "He's gone, Tai Lung," Tigress whispers.
Something prickles all over Tai Lung's shielded back, and he goes deathly still. "Gone?" he echoes.
"He was sick for weeks," Po explains. "Even when he was dying, he called for you, so he could see you again. The guards – they wouldn't let you out. They didn't want to take the risk."
"Rightfully so," Tigress says jerkily, "that they wouldn't capitulate just for one dying person. But that person was Master Shifu, and that should have made all the difference."
Tai Lung tries to concentrate through his quickly waterlogging vision. "He's dead?" he asks again, seeking certainty.
Tigress is too distraught to nod, so Po does it for her. "I thought that this would bring him some peace," he says. "My last great gift to him – helping him to bring his family together." Po smiles morosely.
A few minutes pass by in utter quietude. Then, Tigress speaks. "I can't forgive you for what you did to him. I probably never will, and I'm sorry. But that doesn't mean that we can't continue on in his name, and in his memory. He'd want that for us both. We're the only children he has left, Tai."
And their gazes connect in the mournful light, seeing reflected fire and the onset of grief.
Po and Tigress leave, together this time, walking out of the labyrinthine depths of Chorh-Gom as two-thirds. The last one-third remains behind, shackled down with steel and jade, and is powerless to stop himself from crying through the wind-shorn night, for a father whom he knew would move heaven and earth to be with him. Because of him, they all know by now that some things can be forgotten and others can be left behind, but not people, and definitely not family, and the knowledge expedites their journey, paving it beneath their feet, lifting them outwards and upwards into the brave new world that was once too good, and it was true.