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A Different Lesson

Chapter Text

A Different Lesson
 

Chapter 1 Icon

Light, warm and inviting as the summer day of which it was a part, spilled down through the bars of the small, latticed window to wash across the stone floor of the otherwise dismal, dimly-lit cell. It wasn't actually a cell, of course, merely an unused storeroom on a lower level of the temple, but it was the best that could be mustered under the circumstances.

 

After the room's sole occupant had single-handedly overcome all the guards, fail-safes, and cunning devices which had held him prisoner before, in the most advanced and impregnable fortress ever known, there seemed little point in quibbling over where he should now be held. If he could escape from Chorh-Gom, he could escape from anywhere. So why not hold him where an eye could be kept on him?

 

Besides, for all the gloomy interior, the dank and grimy floor, the moss-covered walls and cobwebbed ceilings, there was one thing this room lacked which any other in the Jade Palace—one more suited, perhaps, to closer scrutiny and greater security—was sure to possess. There were no carvings here, statuary or otherwise, of dragons.

 

No need to torment him with what he cannot attain. He's already undertaken more then enough of that all on his own to last several lifetimes.

 

Standing just out of range of the slanting sunbeams so that his diminutive form lay hidden in the shadows—though he didn't think for a moment his presence hadn't been marked the moment he stepped inside—Master Shifu forced himself to resist the habitual stroking of his long, drooping whiskers and instead clasped his slender hands at the small of his sloping back. He did not move, did not speak...only stared, in disbelief, suspicion, and infinite sorrow at the sight which lay before him.

 

In the exact center of the chamber, so that the rays of sun slanted across the stones in front of him but also did not touch more than his whiskers in passing, Tai Lung knelt just as if he were back in his solitary confinement, his arms even extended and bent at the wrists as if he still wore the colossal manacles which had chained him in place for so long. Nothing held him here; if he wished, he could attack Shifu now, or simply rise and dart past him through the open door.

 

But it was plain to see that he would not be going anywhere, had no inclination to. His massive shoulders were visibly slumped...his thick, bushy tail lay listlessly on the floor...his claws were sheathed, leaving his paws upturned in an incongruous image of supplication. And while his rosette-studded fur remained ragged from his battle with Po, blood and dirt and sweat matting it in clumps and snarls, and a certain dazed cast still hung over his features, much more seemed to be at work here than mere weariness or lingering shell shock.

 

This was not the student he had once trained, nor was it the implacable foe who, just yesterday, had nearly ended his life in the temple above. Shifu was not even certain who this was...and he wondered if Tai Lung himself knew. The expression on his face, for all its rigidity, flatness, and refusal to give any quarter even in displaying the inner workings of his heart and soul, was still easily readable to Shifu...but terribly complex and conflicted. Despair, confusion, denial, anguish, self-loathing, hatred, and above all, an utter helplessness, as if he had given up and lost all hope.

 

The Wuxi Finger Hold which had ended his reign of terror was indeed a devastating move, and in general the entire fight which had preceded it had been one long series of crushing, humiliating defeats. But instead of still manifesting the fires of insane fury and a new resolve for revenge, as he had expected, the snow leopard seemed...resigned to his fate. Lost.

 

And Shifu knew exactly why.

 

It was for exactly the same reason that Tai Lung had been such a dangerous adversary and had seemed to hold such promise in the arts of kung fu. The warrior had been the best of his generation, had striven with such passion, dedication, and talent to become everything his master had promised him he could attain—indeed, his agonized words of slaving away and breaking his bones to please Shifu were the literal truth. No one had been his match or equal, save Shifu and Oogway. Even Tigress, years after the fact, had never been able to match his accomplishments, a fact she denied to this day and struggled mightily to keep secret.

 

His strength had seemed limitless, his ingenuity and creativity astounding, his loyalty unquestionable, and his abilities always growing by leaps and bounds. It was no wonder that so many, from the other students all the way down to the lowliest villager, had been so shocked when he was not chosen as the next Dragon Warrior. It had seemed to make no sense, a sign that the turtle was beginning even then to succumb to addled brains. And if Tai Lung had possessed a certain dark savagery in some of his attacks, why, that had not justified any distrust or...

 

No. Stop it. You went down that path of pride and blind arrogance long ago. And look where it got you. And him. Oogway was rightin trying to avoid a fate, you made it come true. He would never have become so power-hungry and unstable if you hadn't filled his head with delusions of grandeur. And if you had overruled your master and let Tai Lung be given the scroll, instead of shying away from the darkness he said he saw in your prized student, that darkness would never have had a chance to flourish.

 

The point was, Shifu sighed to himself as he continued gazing raptly at the cowed snow leopard, that it was Tai Lung's own pride and arrogance that had ruled his entire life. They were what drove him, controlled him (though he, too, believed he instead had the illusion of control over them), gave him strength...but in the end, were his downfall.

 

So. The great master of kung fu, the one who had believed without a shadow of a doubt that he was destined for greatness, had lost. The one who had always left a battle victorious, save for that fateful day when he had gone mad and attempted to steal the scroll...had now been defeated. Not just any defeat; a shameful, disgraceful defeat in his eyes, made a mockery and a laughingstock by entering into combat with a big, fat panda, and losing.

 

No longer could he hide behind an untarnished reputation. The strength and skills he had always believed in had not been enough. He had not passed the test, and everything he had been determined to claim as his own had been denied him—not by another, but by his own self-deceptions. So what could possibly be left for him now?

 

It was the only way, the red panda knew. In no other manner could the combat have been decided in Po's favor, and any other denouement would actually have resulted in Tai Lung's death. As he had told the new Dragon Warrior before (even if it had been during the embarrassing stint when he'd been trying to drive the panda away), the way to achieve victory, particularly in kung fu, was to use the opponent's strengths against him, turn them into weaknesses, while maximizing your own.

 

Aside from his great size, martial prowess, and the knowledge he had gleaned of rare and unusual combat forms, the snow leopard's strengths had always been his pride and confidence in himself, and later his unquenchable rage. But that rage had been turned against him, made to serve Po as, in his increasingly frantic and desperate attempts to seize the scroll, he had missed opportunities, fumbled, allowed emotion to trump logic, forgotten his knowledge of anatomy, focused himself only into a single-minded insanity that had made him look a fool. And once that was accomplished, Po had only had to use his own size and strength, and his...unique fighting style, to bring the debacle to an end.

 

And that defeat had crushed utterly Tai Lung's pride...leaving him with nothing.

 

But knowing this, knowing Tai Lung had to be stopped and this was the only way Po could do it, did not make Shifu have to like it. Because what he saw before him now was no longer a threat, could not wreak havoc or destroy the Valley of Peace. But it was also the most painful, heartbreaking sight he had ever seen.

 

This, he knew, was what a broken man looked like. And that man was one he had once loved. Still did, and probably always would. How could he take pleasure in seeing the snow leopard in such a state, regardless what it meant for the valley? How could he enjoy seeing that downcast face, or the fact the fire seemed to have left those lambent, golden eyes that had always drawn others in, ever since he'd been found as an orphaned cub on the temple doorstep...?

 

"Well?" The word, spoken with a harsh, vicious growl as startling for its suddenness as its pitch and gravelly nature, nearly caused Shifu to have a heart attack, or perhaps leap several feet off the floor. "Have you come to stare at your caged prize, Shifu? One last look before you send me back to Chorh-Gom? Or did you just come here to gloat?"

 

At last Tai Lung looked up, and though some of the fire had returned to his eyes, it was not at all the same—dredged up from some unknown depth, ignited to stave off the inevitable sense of loss and shame, but certain to burn out quickly and leave nothing behind. His jaw quivered; with barely restrained fury, with uncertainty, with a growl he couldn't vocalize.

 

"No, of course not. How could you think such a thing? You know me better than that." Shifu couldn't keep the rebuke, or the hurt, from his voice, and didn't bother trying.

 

"I thought I knew you, you mean." The tone was bitter, unforgiving, but not nearly as accusing as it could have been. The snow leopard averted his gaze, though he didn't seem to be staring at anything in particular...not at anything that could be seen. "I thought I knew...a lot of things."

 

Putting a weary hand to his forehead, the red panda fought the urge to sink down to the floor as well, or worse attempt to approach and offer comfort. The former would put him at a disadvantage should his old student become violent again, and the latter would be sure to guarantee said violence. "For what it's worth, I meant what I said yesterday. I truly am sorry, for having failed you so badly as a teacher..." And as so much more. "...and I wish there was some way I could set right the ills I have done to you, son."

 

Now, for the first time, Tai Lung seemed to recover the full force of his titanic rage. He still did not rise to his feet, but his fists clenched tightly, the muscles knotted beneath his barrel chest, and a flash of loathing exploded in his narrowed eyes.

 

"How dare you!" he hissed, a threatening growl rumbling in his throat. "How dare you call me that, after what you've done to me! I gave up everything for you, and you threw me away! I fought to become the best kung fu master in the valley, in the world! But that wasn't good enough for you! Now I've lost everything, wasted my life chasing after something that wasn't even real, and all you can do is say you're sorry...twenty years, Shifu. Twenty. Years."

 

His biceps knotted, making the spots in his fur dance and ripple almost hypnotically. "You don't deserve to call me your son. A father doesn't treat his son that way. So don't ever use that word again..."

 

Shuddering, Shifu closed his eyes and turned his face away—for what he saw in those lantern-like eyes was not just anger or resentment, it was pure, molten hatred...but also an undeniably genuine suffering. Behind his lids, memories flooded through the red panda's mind...a tiny, cloth-wrapped bundle scooped up from the grass, innocent eyes blinking open sleepily before small, black-padded fingers curled around Shifu's...an adorable cub, tottering to his paws and mimicking his father's movements in the training hall, only to turn and gaze up for approval, nuzzling affectionately under the panda's chin when he received it...an older cub, bravely acting to save the lives of numerous villagers after a sudden downdraft had snapped the Thread of Hope and sent it plunging down into a mountain ravine...an adolescent, coming to his chambers, face glowing with pride as he spoke rapidly of having bested Oogway at sparring for the first time...and nearly an adult, having grown into a colossal specimen of a warrior whose combat prowess and prodigious strength were already legendary in the valley, executing flawlessly every form and exercise in the training hall, then bowing deeply to his master.

 

In every memory, those eyes were the same...filled with love, respect, trust, and honor. How...how could he have fallen so far, so fast, and I failed to see it? How could that love have turned to such hatred? But then...there is a fine line between love and hate, they are two sides of the same coin.

 

Remembering the look in Tai Lung's eyes when he was crushing the red panda's throat, just before Oogway's staff broke, he shivered again.

 

Yet...it didn't stop him from yearning for what was lost. And something of the sentiment seemed to echo, if only briefly, in the snow leopard's eyes now. Slowly his fists lowered and relaxed, going limp. Unknitting his brows, Tai Lung stared at him with a helplessness very unlike him, as if he were floundering in one of the great mountain rivers and could not stay afloat. Regret, pain, loss...it was all there, written on the feline's features. The moment passed, and he turned away abruptly, giving a dismissive snort...but unless Shifu missed his guess, there were tears standing in his golden eyes.

 

"You're quite right," he said at last, his voice shaking. "I don't deserve to call you that anymore. But that doesn't mean my feelings for you have changed."

 

Glancing sharply at him, the snow leopard managed a low, barking laugh. "Oh, really? Is that why you're here? To come and kiss my wounds and make them all better?" His laugh became a growl. "It's a bit late for that, don't you think?"

 

In spite of himself, Shifu had to hold back an angry retort, take a few calming breaths, and count to ten before he trusted himself to speak. It would do no good rising to the bait, when Tai Lung so obviously wished to argue and place blame. That was not why he was here. He was here because he had lied to Po—not that he hadn't done that before, though hopefully this would be the last time. He was not completely at inner peace, would never be until he knew, once and for all, that he had done all he could for the student he had failed so miserably and that, whatever the outcome, Tai Lung would be at peace. The Wuxi Finger Hold had taken his will to fight. But now he needed a will to live in its place.

 

"No, Tai Lung. If there is anything I have learned in my long life, it is that it is never too late. That is why I am here. To help you."

 

Snorting, the snow leopard chuckled. "You mean you have learned something after all? I think you've done quite enough helping. As far as I'm concerned, you can walk out that door and never come back. I am nothing now, you understand? Everything I wanted, everything I believed in, has been stripped away from me. So why don't you just let me die already?" It was hard to tell whether the pain in his voice was due to his ignominious defeat, the worthlessness and self-loathing he felt, or having to admit such things aloud.

 

Something seemed to shrivel inside Shifu, but he would not allow himself to back down, not when he had come this far. Standing up straight, he said with as much authority as he could muster, "When you've finished whimpering like a cub, Tai Lung, perhaps you'd be interested in knowing that I had hoped to offer you a place here again."

 

Dead silence greeted this pronouncement. For the first time he could remember, the snow leopard was absolutely speechless. Once again a conflicted morass of emotions darted across his face—fury (at the insult, no doubt), puzzlement, disgust, and fleetingly (before being hurriedly squashed) a flicker of hope. Finally he seemed to settle on neutral skepticism. "Really? Would that be before or after Tigress rips me a new one?"

 

"It's no trick. The others already know. And while they're not exactly happy about it—" Understatement of the dynasty. "—I am the master here, and they will follow my wishes because they trust in my good judgment." Even if they should not. "You may not be exactly trustworthy yet, but you can be trusted not to lose control and go on a rampage again. Or didn't you notice that your rage is gone, Tai Lung?"

 

Which it was—he'd felt the absence as soon as he entered the cell, like having a suffocating dark blanket ripped away to let in the light of day. And with it had vanished the snow leopard's phenomenal chi as well, all drained away by his ultimate combat and more importantly what it had revealed.

 

An ugly look crossed the feline's face, but after flexing his claws in and out of their sheaths for several moments, he grunted and smacked his fists into the floor—wincing slightly in pain, Shifu was relieved to see, for the ability to feel pain proved his berserker rage was indeed gone. Slowly he sighed, seeming to deflate once more...becoming a rather lonely-looking, somewhat pathetic figure as his shoulders sank and his chin fell to his fuzzy chest.

 

"So it is. I suppose that's what happens when the thing you fought your whole life for, what you'd been denied and had hidden from you, turns out to be a lie."

 

"Or perhaps just a different truth than you expected. As Oogway always said, there are no—"

 

"Accidents, yes, I know. Spare me the platitudes, especially from that senile idiot. If these kernels of wisdom are all you have to offer me, then I don't see what the Jade Palace could possibly give me now." For a moment a sadistic grin crossed his muzzle, and an unconvincing note of sympathy entered his voice. "But then it seems I wouldn't have to worry about seeing him dodder about in his shell anymore, would I? So sorry to hear about your loss..."

 

Not pulling any punches, I see. But did you really expect otherwise? And when did he ever? Maintaining a stoic, unthreatening façade, the red panda sighed and shook his head. "Patience never was your strong suit, Tai Lung. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The simple fact of the matter is," he paused slightly. "I failed in your training. And as your battle with Po shows, there were one or two lessons you missed, too. If it's all the same to you, I thought I might rectify that little oversight. Of course you'd have to agree to certain guidelines while you're here—I'm sure you know which ones." Not killing your fellow students would be a delightful start. "But maybe, just maybe, you can learn the last and best lesson I can teach you."

 

He hated dangling the proposition before Tai Lung like that, since it smacked of manipulation (not to mention the treatment which had originally corrupted the snow leopard in the first place). But he had no choice, if there was any chance whatsoever of his son being redeemed.

 

And the suggestion seemed to have planted its seeds, since the fallen warrior could not disguise the naked hunger on his face. What those seeds might grow into remained to be seen. I only know it will not be a peach. "Quit speaking in riddles, Shifu! What do you mean?" A beat, then, "Not that I'm agreeing to anything. Do you really think I want to come back to a place I've outgrown in so many ways? Plus, I imagine it still smells terrible."

 

Haha! Got him! And the mockery was actually a very good sign, since it was the only time in the last twenty years he could recall seeing any flash of the snow leopard's former good humor returning. "That would be Monkey. I'll have a word with him. As for you...while you were not destined to be the Dragon Warrior, there may yet be something extraordinary you can do, and be. If you are willing to accept my help."

 

Again the flash of hope, this time lasting much longer before it dissolved into rejection and wrath. Fingers flexing spasmodically as if he longed to wrap them around the panda's neck, he snarled, "If this is another of your vaunted karst dreams, Shifu, so help me...and why should I listen to you, when you failed me so badly before? Isn't this just the way it started then, with your glorious promises puffing me up too far?"

 

"You'll never know if you don't try, will you?" He smiled impishly. "And we'll just have to wait and see what develops."

 

"But...what more can you teach me? You said yourself I was the strongest and most powerful student you've ever trained." In spite of himself, Tai Lung thrust out his chest proudly.

 

"So you were. But a true kung fu master also knows his weaknesses." Shifu stared intently into those golden orbs as he stressed the final word. This was the key point…everything hinged on how the snow leopard responded.

 

At first, matters seemed hopeless—Tai Lung only swelled as if he were a dragon about to belch a roaring inferno of flame, and his face turned a very dark red under the fur. But then, gradually, his ire subsided, and as a rather comical, querulous yowl escaped his muzzle, he looked at Shifu—and in his eyes was not anger, or at least not only anger, but genuine puzzlement. "I don't have any weaknesses."

 

Once, such a statement would have been screamed at the top of his lungs, flecked with a rabid froth, and backed up by a dizzying array of punches and kicks designed to pummel Shifu into submission, until he denied such a blatantly false accusation. But now...it was more of a tentative statement, and though Tai Lung would never dare say so aloud, the red panda could almost hear the unspoken follow-up: 'Do I?'

 

"That is why you failed, and so did I. Because we both believed that." But the manner of the snow leopard's reply had convinced him this was the right course...he had this one last chance to set things right, and if it took the final breath in his body he would not rest until Tai Lung finally had the power and glory he craved—this time, the right kind.

 

"I promise, this time will be different, however. By the time I'm through with you, you're going to have a whole new place here at the temple...something neither of us could ever have imagined." If I can just figure out what that is, and how to get him there. What else can the Great Wall be besides a wall?

 

Tai Lung tried to look scornful and disdainful, but somehow failed. "Well...then I shall think about it. But I can promise nothing."

 

"Naturally." Moving back toward the door, for the first time believing it was safe to turn his back on his former student, he called over his shoulder, "I shall have food brought to you, then."

 

Behind him he heard Tai Lung shift, followed by a massive thud as he flopped down on the pallet that had been provided for him—for all he knew, the first time the snow leopard had moved from his kneeling position since he'd been brought here from the crater in the town square. A low mutter came back: "Just so long as it's better than that sludge Vachir gave me."

 

Smirking, Shifu stepped into the corridor and closed the door behind him. But as he paused in the hallway, a thought struck him and he smiled wider than he had since Oogway's death. Two birds with one stone. I know just the fellow to ask... With his usual spry agility, he darted off for the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2 Icon

Two hours later, just when Tai Lung's stomach was growling so loudly it could be confused for the ones his throat usually produced, a diffident knock came at his cell door. "About time," he called with his habitual snarl. But as he sat up and turned to face the newcomer, he froze instantly in place—tail twitching, fur puffing, fangs bared and claws unsheathed.

 

Slowly, uncertainly, something very large, and very black and white, became visible alongside the doorframe, and then a furry face with rounded ears and a sheepish, apologetic expression peeped around the corner. It was the panda, the one who had publicly humiliated and defeated him—Fo? Po?—bearing, of all things, a huge china bowl in both paws, filled to the brim with steaming liquid that smelled, from that distance, like some sort of noodle dish. Managing to balance the heavy dish with one paw—oh but of course, he was the Dragon Warrior!—he lifted the other to give a sort of half-wave with wiggled fingers. "Um...hi?"

 

Sadly, he didn't have enough energy or anger to duplicate his usual trick of appearing to materialize right behind someone, so all he could manage was to spring to his feet and lunge across the room until he stood only a few feet from the panda. Chest heaving, shoulders thrown back, eyes flashing with hate, he snapped, "What do you think you're doing here? Get...out."

 

"Wh-what?" Either the bear was even denser than he looked, or he was actually that naïve and clueless as to not realize he was unwelcome. "B-but, I was just bringin' ya your food...Master Shifu said—"

 

"So leave it here, then. What makes you think I'd want to see your flabby butt again? Unless it's as you're on your way out, of course." Fists clenching and unclenching, he could not even begin to express the white-hot, molten rage he felt upon laying eyes on Po again.

 

The fact he seemed like (or was assuming the role of) a happy-go-lucky, amiable fellow just ground his muzzle in the fact that this half-witted, out-of-shape, spineless tub of lard had taken his rightful place...without a care in the world, depriving him of what should have been his...only to prove that the scroll he had fought, sweated, bled, and killed for was a fraud, utterly useless, and claiming there was no secret, just something in him. Implying there was no such thing in Tai Lung.

 

And Shifu! He had sent the panda? Was this his idea of new training? Subjecting him to the presence of this blathering idiot until...what, he cracked, ran away screaming, never to return? Was it all a big joke to him? Or was this supposed to 'prove' something?

 

Or maybe the bear was just the first one Shifu had found in the kitchen (of course!), and he was getting paranoid.

 

Even as he put a paw to his forehead with a groan, Po was scrunching up his face and tilting his head to the side, as if by looking at him from a new angle he could understand him. Rolling his eyes, he muttered to himself, but Tai Lung's sharp ears still caught it: "Geez, somebody got up on the wrong side of the den..."

 

Snarling again to let the bear know he'd heard exactly what was said, he posted both fists on his hips. "On second thought, if you made this, take it back to Shifu and tell him I want something that's actually edible."

 

To the snow leopard's shock, Po seemed to swell larger before him, eyes going flat and his expression actually turning menacing. In a low, threatening voice, much colder than how he usually spoke, he said, "You take that back. I may not be as good a cook as my dad, but everything I know, I learned from him...and that's one of his best recipes. Don't...diss...the noodles."

 

Tai Lung would have laughed, if not for the deadly serious look in the panda's eyes...and the memory, as Po took a step toward him, of just how the fellow had soundly trounced him with innovative and daring techniques...and used moves on him he'd never even heard of or seen, let alone learned.

 

Swallowing hard for the first time since he was a cub, and feeling like a weakling for doing so, he held both paws up in a placating gesture. "Uh...sorry...just kidding? But what are you, from some long line of legendary chefs, or something?"

 

Po stopped, and if he didn't know better, the snow leopard would have thought he was struggling between declaring with pride that that was quite right, and forcing the words out like each one caused him an obscure pain. Or maybe he was just constipated. Tai Lung strained to hear as the panda muttered to himself, but all he caught were the words "broth" and "veins" which made absolutely no sense at all. Then he spoke up again. "You could...kinda say that. Anyway, you gonna eat it?"

 

Closing his eyes for a few moments—if the panda was as persistent in his training as he was regarding food, it's no wonder he managed to master kung fu well enough to defeat him—the snow leopard sighed, threw his paws in the air, and crossed back over to his pallet, flopping down on it heavily. "Whatever." Probably asked only so he could chow down if I say no. Never knew pandas could be such pigs.

 

But to his surprise, Po simply sat down cross-legged near his pallet, placed the bowl down within easy reach, and rested his paws on his belly, staring at him. "Well it's there if ya want it, but don't let it get too cold."

 

Slowly Tai Lung turned his head to stare at the panda. From the decidedly uncomfortable look on Po's black-and-white features, his golden eyes had delivered precisely the right amount of scorn and rebuke. "Don't you have somewhere else to be, chubby? Crackers to chomp, cookies to munch, dumplings to gnaw? Or hasn't Shifu introduced you yet to the joys of floor polish and elbow grease?"

 

For a moment saliva seemed to gather at Po's mouth, but then he shrugged and nervously twisted his paw fingers around each other. "No. Well, yeah I guess I could be doin' some laps or push-ups or somethin'. Or go down to the village and help everyone clean up the mess...you know, all those buildings that fell down, roofs that came off, or yeah, that big suspension bridge that needs hangin' up again."

 

The panda's tone had shifted, almost without him noticing it, from casual nonchalance to fake innocence, and Tai Lung was surprised to see a very pointed, direct look in his eyes. Touché. And he's smarter than he looks.

 

"Anyway," Po went on, "I'd rather be here with you."

 

"What?" He could not have heard that right.

 

"It's true!" The panda held up both paws for silence. "Yeah, you almost destroyed the village, scared all those poor villagers out of their skins, wrecked our livelihoods, tried to kill Master Shifu, and the Furious Five, and me. But I don't hate you for it."

 

Now Tai Lung sat up, all pretense at sarcasm gone as he stared in astonishment at Po. This was the most nonsensical thing he'd heard yet. Granted, the panda had seemed more to be having fun than participating in a combat to the death when they'd duked it out...but everyone hated him once they heard of all the atrocities he'd committed, starting with the 'betrayal' of Shifu and Oogway. Tigress certainly did...

 

If hatred was what he had to contend with to achieve true justice, so be it. He'd gotten used to it, even come to expect it. And never had he been disappointed, until now.

 

Before he could even hazard to ask a question, Po seemed to have figured out what was up from the look on his face. "Really, I don't! I'm not happy with the stuff you've done. And I knew you had to be stopped. But I did it 'cause it was the only way, and I was the only one who could do it, not 'cause I liked it or anything." He made a face. "Okay, I kinda liked it, but you know what I mean."

 

"Not particularly, but let's pass on that one," Tai Lung replied dryly. "Are you seriously telling me that you've grown up in this valley, heard all the horror stories about me and my exploits, and never once felt like screaming in terror when you heard I was coming?"

 

Not that he cared if Po had, or if this conversation caused the panda to no longer enjoy being with him—in fact he rather hoped that would be the result. But at the same time, he couldn't help but be curious.

 

"Of course I was scared!" Po blurted out. "I know I'm a schmuck, but I've been around the block a few more times than you think. But being scared of you, and hatin' you…that's two different things. Truth be told, I'm shakin' right now." Indeed, he was. "But Master Shifu still believes in you, so I'm gonna trust you 'til you give me reason not to." He paused, his voice dropping. "Besides...I don't think you're evil."

 

"What, you don't believe all the tales, that I was dropped off as a cub at the Jade Palace by a group of wicked snow leopard assassins? That the darkness is in the blood and I was merely born this way?" The stilted, sarcastic tone he adopted was there solely to disguise his shock...and the sudden lump that formed in his throat.

 

Once Oogway made his fateful pronouncement (word of which had spread to the Valley proper, naturally enough, through the gossip of the Jade Palace servants and guards), no one had looked at him without shuddering. And once it had almost immediately borne fruit in his rampage, no one had thought of him without making signs to ward away evil—as during his ignominious ride in the prison cart bound for Chorh-Gom that had carried him right through the village streets, to show the people they were safe from him, the menace had been contained. To let them harangue and mock him worse than ever before. And of course, there was the treatment he'd received from Vachir and his men...

 

This just was not possible...no one could be this innocent and good-hearted! If he pushed enough, if he showed his true colors, Po would have to give in and conform like all the others, that was all.

 

Yet the panda seemed determined to win even this battle of dueling viewpoints. In fact his expression was horrified and even a touch infuriated. "Of course not! Nobody's born bad, no matter what they say. At least, I don't think so. You just got a really tough break, that's all. I understand exactly how ya feel. You and I, we're actually kinda alike."

 

"Shut up!" Now the panda was going too far.

 

But the bear seemed incapable of ceasing talking once he'd gotten started—something which, to his chagrin, Tai Lung recalled was true of himself when he was a cub.

 

"No really, I mean think about it! You were, like, the greatest kung fu master EVER—well, after Master Oogway and Master Shifu, of course—and I always wanted to be a great kung fu master too. And you got left here on the doorstep, nobody knows where you came from, so Master Shifu adopted you—and me, well I love my dad and all, but there's no way he could really be my father. Then there's—"

 

"Shut up, I said!" Would he never take the hint? His claws unsheathed and began to itch for something to slice and sever.

 

As if he'd said nothing, Po kept on rambling. "—and I always wanted to be somethin' other than a noodle-maker, and you, well LOOK at you! You're about as far away from a noodle-maker as you could be! Not t' mention what you were when you first got here. And even the Dragon Warrior thing—you always dreamed of bein' the one, and didn't get chosen, while for me, that was the last thing I ever wanted but I got chosen anyway! So—"

 

Letting out a furious, fearsome roar, Tai Lung lunged at Po, and finally his mouth snapped shut as he let out a satisfying squeak and scooted back several feet. "Who do you think you are? You have no right to compare our lives and say we're anything alike, or that you understand me! I don't have anything in common with a fat panda with a penchant for stuffing his face, and that's that. All I ever wanted was for Shifu to be proud of me—"

 

Having recovered from his fright, the panda gave him a hard, direct look. "Same thing with me and my dad."

 

"—and be recognized for my true talents, for how special and different I truly was—"

 

"Oh, look! Same thing again."

 

"—but all I ended up doing was losing twenty years of my life, pursuing a hopeless dream, only to find out in the end that it wasn't real! I was chasing a fantasy, and wasted my life for nothing!"

 

Chest heaving, Tai Lung sat back with a huff on his pallet, and even though he felt incredibly infuriated with himself for allowing his buttons to be pushed, and spilling out his own secret fears of inadequacy to Po, at the same time it somehow felt...good to get it all out. Only after he had fallen silent did the panda's words start sinking in—and he stared at the bear in disbelief.

 

Po smiled at him, a little sadly, a little sympathetically, and nodded. "I thought the same thing too, for the longest time. But guess what? We were both wrong. My dad wanted nothin' more than for me to make noodles in his restaurant. Now I'm a kung fu warrior...well, sort of...and he couldn't be prouder of me. I know Master Shifu is, or was, proud of you."

 

"How do you—" Was Shifu airing all his secrets in the whole valley?

 

"He told me so himself," Po cut across him. "And why shouldn't he be? I mean, before you went bad, you did so many incredible things! You were brave, you were a hero, everyone knows about it! The way you single-handedly took out that army of foxes from the east, or how you defended the Great Wall from the Huns, or when you saved all those families on the pleasure boat when it was goin' to go over a waterfall..."

 

Tai Lung swallowed hard, again. I thought no one knew about those tales anymore. That they'd all been scratched out and burned after what I had done.

 

"...and even after you went bad, you still did some pretty cool stuff! So you see, we've both been tryin' too hard, for somethin' we already had. I didn't need to make noodles to earn my dad's love, and you didn't need some stupid scroll to tell you you were a great warrior! If you'd just believed in yourself, you probably would've never gone bad in the first place. That's the only waste I see here."

 

Now bemused as well as overwhelmed, the snow leopard tried to shake it off, to brush it aside as he had the words of everyone else in his life who'd tried to tell him he was in the wrong—except Po was saying he was right, in a way. And all that hero-worship for the warrior he used to be...that had shaken him. "So...you don't think I'm evil...because you admire me?" Impossible. I have a fan.

 

"Well that's only one reason," Po said seriously. "I got the full story from Tigress. You were raised from a cub by Master Shifu, taught everythin' he knows, loved like a son, and then you get denied the top position. Of course you're gonna be angry—I would've been too! Okay, you got your priorities mixed up, so that a scroll was more important to you than love and respect—or you thought it was gonna give them to you. But that doesn't make you evil. It just makes you someone who's been really hurt. I believe in you, though. I believe you can come back, and be a hero."

 

The panda's earnestness would be touching, if it weren't so ridiculously cheesy and overwrought. The cruel, cynical side of Tai Lung, that which had been nurtured and allowed to fester and grow during all those years of imprisonment, couldn't help smirking at the possibilities inherent in manipulating this hapless panda into also betraying Shifu, into joining his cause. But the rest of him...

 

I was always convinced that solitude was my destiny. That friends, lovers, family were all superfluous, that love was an encumbrance I could not afford. That by virtue of my fate and my position as a warrior without peer or superior, I didn't need anyone because I would be alone at the top regardless. But was that only because I had never truly known differently? Because I convinced myself something I couldn't have wasn't worth havingonly the power was? Look at this fat fool. I nearly killed him several times over, and he can still sit there, smiling like an oaf, and tell me he believes in me. What gives him such powerful faith that even Shifu couldn't have...that I couldn't, once upon a time?

 

For a split second he wondered if this trust, this inner goodness, this heart filled with unconditional love and shining, optimistic simplicity, was the true power of the Dragon Warrior. If so, that would for the first time explain why he was not chosen...because, even before he left the Jade Palace, he had become so focused on training, perfecting himself, achieving victory at any cost, that he'd forgotten or deliberately discarded the emotional element.

 

Even though it seemed hokey and preposterous, there was an insidious appeal to the part of him that was weary of fighting, enough to keep him from laughing it off derisively. He had tried everything else to achieve greatness, and it had always somehow eluded him. What was left but establishing bonds between himself and others again? What did he have to lose at this point? There was, after all, nowhere else to go but up.

 

Leaning gingerly against the wall, since his back was still sore from some of the blows he had taken during the battles yesterday, Tai Lung sighed and shook his head regretfully. "And just how do you know all this, eh? How'd you stumble upon such insight about both of us?"

 

"From this," the panda said simply, and reaching behind him he removed something from the waistband of his pants—where it must have been a very tight fit, judging by the sudden look of rapture on his buffoonish face.

 

As soon as the snow leopard saw the scarlet and gold cylinder held in his black-furred paw, he growled nastily and tried to push it away. "In case you've forgotten, panda, that thing is a hoax. It can't teach anyone anything."

 

"Wrong again!" Po said, annoyingly cheerful. "It taught me everythin', and it can teach you too. I don't feel wrong in sharin' this with you, because I think I was meant to. Who else can teach a Dragon Warrior but another Dragon Warrior?"

 

"What?" Tai Lung sat up abruptly and almost bumped his head on a low-lying shelf. "What are you—"

 

"Here, take a look. Tell me what you see." And suddenly the scroll was thrust in front of him, spread open for him to gaze upon.

 

Somehow, even though he knew what it held, or rather didn't, he found he couldn't look away. There was the blank sheet of parchment, somehow coated with a glistening varnish or else enchanted in some other way to resemble reflective gold. And of course, looking right back up at him was his own visage.

 

For a moment he was simply startled at how good he still looked. After twenty years rotting in Chorh-Gom, thinking of nothing but plotting his revenge and ascension to power, he was rather surprised that he didn't look as aged and wrinkled as Oogway, or ugly and deformed like some of the rhinoceros guards. But other than a slight gauntness to his features, and the sunken, haunted look to his eyes, he looked the same as he did the day he went in.

 

Yet at the same time, those eyes said so much more about the journey he had traveled to this place and time...to the point that he could not bear to look at them for more than a few moments.

 

Averting his gaze and closing his eyes, he murmured, "A failure. That's what I see."

 

Po nodded, but at the same time he also tilted one paw from side to side, as if the matter were in doubt or undecided. "Yeah...then again, maybe not. Okay, so I beat you. That's one loss out of how many wins? And you never earned this scroll, no matter how much you thought you deserved it. But the only secret it holds, is that you are the secret. You don't need a scroll to give you special powers. You've already got them! I mean, what's that nerve-pinchin' power you have?"

 

"I call it the Leopard Claw," Tai Lung managed to observe, wiggling a claw ostentatiously.

 

"Oh! Er, yeah. That makes...uh...sense." The panda stared at his claw, while absently rubbing at various spots on his arms, shoulders, and especially his belly—evidently the places where, despite the fat padding which had prevented him from paralyzing Po, there were still quite a few bruises. Tai Lung smirked.

 

"Anyway, there's so much you know, so many things you can do, and Master Shifu wouldn't have believed you'd be chosen as the Dragon Warrior if he didn't think you'd mastered all he had to teach. So you know what I think? I think you already were the Dragon Warrior."

 

Tai Lung's jaw dropped. This was absolutely unbelievable, as crazy and wild a theory as any he'd ever heard...and yet it was also compelling.

 

Po, meanwhile, was boring in relentlessly, as if the problem were a gigantic cake he were devouring. "I was able to defeat you 'cause I believed in myself, that I had the power in me all along, because the scroll told me I didn't need anythin' extra to help me win. But you believed you were meant to be the Dragon Warrior. You put all your heart into learnin' everythin' you'd need to be the best. Master Shifu believed in you—he only hesitated because of Master Oogway. You know what I think you should've done, when he said you had too much darkness in you?"

 

The snow leopard shook his head, quite lost in where Po was going with this.

 

"You should've gone out there and proven him wrong. Instead of demandin' the scroll or tryin' to steal it, you should have just kept continuin' bein' a hero. Because if you'd done that, and you did it because it was the right thing to do, not just to look good, there's nothin' anyone could have said against you. They'd have gladly handed you the scroll then."

 

He reached out and in a daring move rested his paw on Tai Lung's shoulder. The snow leopard flinched, but did not pull away. "But it's not too late. Just because you lost the chance once, doesn't mean it can't come back and choose you again. I thought I was rejected and unworthy because the scroll was blank. I was wrong. Maybe you are too, Tai Lung. Maybe instead of worryin' about a piece of parchment sayin' you're ready, you should be goin' out there, takin' action, and showin' you're already ready. Maybe there's even somethin' really special in store for you. I mean, the rest of the Furious Five all have their own styles of kung fu named after them. But you don't. And I think I know why. You've mastered all their styles, haven't you?"

 

Not exactly a stunning example of deduction, since he's fought me and trained with the Furious Five. But if he can already see their styles in mine, after such a short time of learning... He nodded again, silently.

 

"Then already you've done somethin' no one else has done. Who needs a Dragon Warrior when we've got Tai Lung? Everybody's got somethin' special to offer, that's what I've learned. So you don't need to go lookin' for it, or showin' it off for all the world to see. Just be yourself, and the rest'll fall into place." Po sat back, crossing his arms over his chest (a tight stretch), looking quite pleased with himself.

 

Taking a deep breath, the snow leopard sat forward and looked at Po, his mind reeling with all these possibilities. Was it possible? Could he have been seeking something he already had, and that's why he couldn't find it? Could he make a mark for himself, and earn the respect and approval of the people—and especially Shifu—by becoming something unique, his own kind of kung fu master instead of the Dragon Warrior? Something better, perhaps? Something, again, he'd already discovered in himself? He had, after all, taken to the martial arts with shocking quickness as a cub...

 

"You know if you're right," he said at last, his voice tight and a growl still rumbling in his throat, "then everything I ever believed was wrong, and I caused all this suffering and hardship for nothing."

 

"We all make mistakes, Tai Lung. Believe me, I've made more than my fair share. All you can do is try and make up for 'em, and people will forgive you eventually. I know you're this big, muscular warrior, while I'm just a big, fat panda. But maybe if you try things my way for a while, you might be surprised how things'll change..."

 

For a long time, the snow leopard said nothing. He found he had lost his hatred of Po some time ago, once he started seeing the eerie similarities in their lives—how each could have turned out like the other if circumstances and choices had been different—and once he realized that the panda truly did wish to help him, cared about what happened to him.

 

But at the same time, the suggestions he'd made and the choices he'd offered were daunting. If he took them and followed them, his road ahead would be even more perilous and difficult than the one he'd already trodden, if for no other reason than his dark past continually rearing its head to threaten his present and future. There was no guarantee, even if things played out exactly as Po hoped, that he would ever have the greatness and respect he craved.

 

Even if he received it, there would always be the danger that his pride and arrogance would make him seek out more, too much, and he would backslide. And the Furious Five, especially Tigress, would always be there, just waiting for him to trip up so they could slay him. Might it not be better to just give up, let them return him to prison or perhaps exile somewhere else outside China?

 

No. Whatever happened, he would not be confined again. He would rather die than suffer that terrible fate once more.

 

And as for dying itself...he had fought too long and too hard for everything he was and wished to become. He was never one to give up, and never would be. Tenacity would be my middle name, if I had one. If he had been misshapen by Shifu and his own mad desires, then he would simply have to be reshaped. And if he retained some darkness in him, perhaps it could be turned to beneficial ends. All he knew was, he didn't want to curl up and expire. And he didn't want to be alone anymore.

 

Lifting his head, Tai Lung gazed at Po, then managed a small, wry smile. "Shifu put you up to this, didn't he?"

 

The panda smiled goofily. "He might have mentioned one or two things. But it was my own idea to talk to you. I figured you might need it...or could at least use a friend."

 

I don't know if I'll go that far. Yet. But if you can truly teach me about the missing pieces of myself, and help me to truly prove that I am the greatest, best, but also noblest warrior in the Valley of Peace...and everyone else can come to see me the same...then you truly are worthy of the title Master.

 

Tai Lung said nothing. He was not the sort for gushing, emotional speeches—never had been, never would be. And he certainly wasn't about to admit intimate thoughts or how truly wrong he had been. So instead he decided to show it, as was his wont...through actions. Reaching down, his eyes on Po the whole time, he snagged the bowl of noodles and broth and lifted it into his lap. From there he raised it to his lips and drank.

 

More silence. Then, slowly, as if each word were dragged from him reluctantly, he spoke.

 

"This...is good."

 

Now it was Po's turn to chuckle. "See? You're learnin' already..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3 Icon

"You did WHAT?"

 

The viciously snarled roar echoed up into the exposed beamwork of the kitchen ceiling, making the dishes, crockery, silverware, and other utensils rattle on the shelves and in the cupboards. Po winced, squeezing his eyes shut so he wouldn't have to see the frightening expression on Tigress's face or the molten fury in her blazing eyes.

 

Trying very unsuccessfully to appear small, he clasped his paws behind his back and vacillated from one foot to the other. "Uh...well...you see...the thing of it is...Master Shifu said...seemed like the right thing to do...and I thought..."

 

"You thought what?" She stepped closer, looming over him despite their great difference in height, since he instinctively flinched and hunkered down before her as she approached. Her fur bristled, her stripes seeming to undulate and writhe in the lamplight. "A little heartfelt, encouraging pep talk and some of your noodles would magically turn him into a purring pussycat?"

 

Beside and slightly behind Tigress, the golden form of Monkey scratched his head, then spread his hands in acceptance, his expression quite amiable. "Well actually, Po is a pretty good cook..." A gasp filled the air as the feline elbowed him in the ribs to cut him off, after which Monkey fell strangely silent.

 

As the infuriated kung fu master whirled back to face Po, however, she discovered to her shock that the panda had risen to his full height—which, truth be told, was actually much greater than her own, to the point it made her extend herself to the utmost tips of her pawtoes, squaring her shoulders proudly and glaring at him. But he seemed to have found the same well of strength as he had only yesterday when he defeated Tai Lung, for he would not back down, jaw set and eyes narrowed.

 

"Of course not, Tigress," he snapped vehemently. "I know you thought I was a chump when I came here, but I know better than that. There's no way this is gonna be that simple. But we gotta start somewhere, don't we?"

 

Tigress couldn't believe her ears. Even as she struggled to rein in her temper and refused to unsheathe her claws—as Shifu had always instructed her never to cheat so dishonorably in combat—she did ball her fist and poke Po, rather forcefully, in his oversized belly, making him step back a pace by sheer force of will.

 

"No. No, we don't. We don't have to do anything. If Master Shifu is smart, if he does the right thing instead of being deluded by sentiment, he'll send Tai Lung right back where he belongs—or better yet, execute him for his crimes! We certainly don't need to be waiting on that killer hand and foot, and anyone who tries talking to him, or listens to him, or especially believes him, is a fool!"

 

Chest heaving with ragged breaths, every muscle as knotted and rigid as after the most grueling and intense of workouts, she lunged at an inoffensive chair, tipping it over so it smashed a shelf to pieces in passing. She could not—would not—strike Po, but the more she thought of that smug, arrogant, sadistic bastard trying to pull off an act of contrition and humility, the more her aggression and rage burned out of control.

 

A soft, kind voice, but one laced with an undeniable firmness, spoke behind her. "But Tigress...isn't that what you always wanted Master Shifu to do for you? To care for you, love you, and think with his heart?"

 

She spun about, tail lashing wildly. It was, of course, Viper, perched on one of the kitchen chairs with her exquisitely tattooed, muscular coils wrapped around a brass stand-lamp for support. As she caught Tigress looking at her, she habitually began relaxing and tightening her body, looping and unlooping her tail—a serpent's way of showing nervousness.

 

"Yes," Tigress hissed. "Yes I did. And look where it got him! The last Shifu, or any of us, should do is let ourselves be blinded by emotion!"

 

"Yeah, like you're all nice an' Zen right now," Po retorted.

 

"Stop it," Viper commanded before Tigress could snarl and turn on the panda, and though she still sounded as gentle and sweet as ever, there was a core of iron in her tone. "You're not helping, Po. Although, Tigress...he's right, you know. You need to calm down. You're not seeing things clearly."

 

"And you are? You've always had a soft spot for the underdog. And you're far too forgiving," Tigress said firmly.

 

"And you aren't forgiving enough," Crane observed, speaking for the first time since Po had come to the kitchen and told them where he'd been and why.

 

Tigress narrowed her eyes at the bird. "Good. At least one of us isn't walking into this blinkered. Have none of you thought of the consequences?" Becoming more and more distressed, she began pacing restlessly around the room. "What if we trust Tai Lung, and he betrays the Jade Palace again? What if this time, he does kill Shifu...or everyone in the village?"

 

"Of course we've thought about it," Viper said, sounding both stunned and hurt that the feline could think otherwise. "But turn that around, Tigress: what if we don't trust him, when all he wanted was a chance to start over, to make amends? Deny him that, and Tai Lung's sure to stay just the way he is—why change when no one will allow him to? At the least, you'd be sentencing him to a life of loneliness and despair."

 

"It's what he deserves," Tigress sniffed, turning away and crossing her arms over her chest.

 

Crane snapped his bill shut to draw attention, his wing feathers rustling in agitation. "Look...we all know how you feel. In case you've forgotten, it wasn't just you he almost killed at the Thread of Hope. But I don't think you're being very objective here."

 

"Objective? Hah!" The striped feline swung about to sneer challengingly at Viper. "You want to give him a chance, don't you? You believe he means what he says, he has goodness in him?"

 

"Yes," the snake replied with determination. "Or at least, that he deserves the chance to prove it, one way or another."

 

Feeling more and more incensed and volatile the more she listened to her fellow masters speak, Tigress finally burst out with all her pent-up resentment and contempt. "And you're all a party to this—this madness? Monkey?"

 

The golden-furred simian, who'd been in the middle of noisily slurping broth from his bowl, looked up furtively, his lips still wet and dripping. "Eh...I'm with you, Tigress." He looked apologetically at the others and shrugged. "Maybe not so strong, but...he did do a number on us. Getting paralyzed again, maybe having heart stopped—not on my to-do list."

 

"Thank you," Tigress said with a huge sigh of relief, starting to relax. "At least one of you has sense." Though not the one I wanted, or ever believed would.

 

Crane, the very one she'd been thinking of, frowned at Monkey and, a bit ostentatiously, fluttered one wing, which was still splinted after the battle of the day before. "I was hurt just as badly as you were. But I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Tai Lung hasn't attacked either Shifu or Po since we brought him here—"

 

"Only because he's in too much agony to do otherwise," Tigress muttered.

 

"—and we should trust our master's judge of character," Crane continued as if he hadn't even been interrupted. "He was right to give the Dragon Scroll to Po, wasn't he?" The feline fumed, unable to dispute that point, while the panda blushed furiously and busied himself with quietly collecting dishes to be washed.

 

"And there had to be some good in Tai Lung, for Master Shifu to love him in the first place," the bird pressed on relentlessly. "All we have to do is help it grow. Or, if you prefer, step back and let Shifu handle it."

 

"Ever the diplomat," Tigress snorted. It all sounded so fair and reasonable...but she didn't want to be fair and reasonable. Those were in fact two things she could not be at this moment. For although she had calmed down a trifle, she could still feel her fury boiling inside—stirred to new life by Crane's thoughtless reference to Shifu's love...the one honor the red panda had never seen fit to give her, but which Tai Lung had received. The birthright she should have had, which the snow leopard had abused and dismissed as irrelevant, worthless. She would have treasured it as the precious thing it truly was...she would have seen it for what it was, if she'd ever been granted it. Not like him.

 

Instead, no matter how much she'd striven to make Shifu proud...that wall would always be there, far too high to surmount, too thick and impenetrable to be smashed through. The more she thought about it, the more she hated Tai Lung for it.

 

It didn't help that she now felt ganged up on, surrounded by those who were supposed to be her friends and family. Her and Monkey on one side, Po and Viper on the other, with Crane riding the fence in the middle. You see? Tai Lung's doing it alreadyhe's divided us. This is how it all starts. It can only end in blood and betrayal. It's what he does. It's all he knows and loves. The only one left who hadn't chosen, who could still sway the balance, was—

 

But as she turned to look at the insect, in fact as all eyes turned to him, Mantis flinched, held up both front pincers, and scuttled back on his stool. "Hey, don't look at me! I'm staying out of this one."

 

Letting out another roar of pure frustration and anger, Tigress threw both paws in the air and shoved her chair in roughly against the table. "If that's the way it's going to be, fine. But don't say I didn't warn you!" Clenching her fist, she stared down at it as she cracked one knuckle after another, a fiendish gleam of wickedness in her golden eyes. "I'm going to go let off some steam in the training hall...then I'll give Tai Lung a piece of my mind, make sure he knows just what he's up against here."

 

Snapping her head up, she glared belligerently at each of the startled, blanching faces arrayed before her, her chin held high and her chest thrust out in pride and determination. "Don't any of you dare try and stop me."

 

And with that, she stalked from the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.

 

For a few moments, dead silence filled the room. Then Mantis observed lightly, "Well, that went well."

 

                                                                       


 

 

The dream remained the same, even though he had not suffered from it for over fifteen years.

 

Even after all this time, every detail, every sight and sound, was as vivid and burned into his memory as it was the day it had first occurred. He could pick out the delicate traceries of hanzi and ancient scrollwork on the temple walls, pillars, and tapestries...the cries of herons, loons, and partridges in the air...the scent of lotuses, cherry blossoms, and lemon trees on the breeze...and of course, the emotions made as plain as day on the faces of his masters.

 

To one side, the short and diminutive form of the red panda Shifu, tiny hands clasped at the small of his back, the drooping white mustaches framing his face like the long fronds of moss hanging from the river trees, whiskers twitching in faint amusement...whiskers he had a vague memory of plucking from his cheeks when he was but a cub.

 

On the other side, the venerable sage Oogway, his expression as vapidly distant and beatific as ever, his motions and words slower than sap but exuding a confidence, wisdom, and presence that had always earned Tai Lung's respect and deference if not his loyalty.

 

Both of them had trained him well, had taught him all they knew, and had said on more than one occasionespecially Shifuthat he was the best student of kung fu they had ever instructed. To hear this from the panda, especially, made the snow leopard feel as if his heart would burst.

 

He stood before them, prouder and more excited than he had ever been. Today was the day. The day he would be chosen. He would receive the Dragon Scroll, peruse its contents, obtain the unlimited power held within it. And once he was the Dragon Warrior, he would be all Shifu had envisioned he would be. Never again would he, or his father, have reason to doubt him. Never again would he be mocked or derided for being an orphan who did not know his family, or his station in life.

 

And with his newfound power, he would defend the valley, the village, the countryside for miles and leagues in every direction. Why, he could even range across the length and breadth of China, defending it and its borders from invading armies, so that all would be safe and protected, able to sleep at night knowing that the noble Tai Lung would always be there to watch over them. He would be a hero, a legend. It would all begin today.

 

Except, it never happened that way. No matter how many times he replayed the memories, or had this dream, it never occurred any differently. He always stood there, poised on the edge of greatness, beaming in the morning sunlight, eyes bright with promise, practically bouncing on the balls of his footpaws as he prepared to give the deepest, most respectful bow he had ever given.

 

And then...then the turtle turned aside, bending his sinuous neck down to Shifu, and gently shook his head. Tai Lung's jaw dropped, and he looked swiftly from one master to the other, certain he had heard wrong, that there must be some mistake...he must be the Dragon Warrior, who else could it be? And surely Shifu would stand up for him, explain to Oogway how he must be mistaken, that this was his destiny...

 

But he didn't. His master...his father...had merely stood there, looking helplessly back and forth between his son and his own master. And then he had met Tai Lung's eyesand gave a weak, apologetic smile before turning away, following after Oogway. And as the snow leopard had watched them depart, his shoulders had slumped, his entire body felt as if it were made of lead...and he swore he could feel his heart breaking one by one into a thousand pieces...

 

The dream shifted. He sat in the local tavern, perched upon a stool and hunched over the bar, nursing a mug of corn liquor as the raucous noises of laughter, conversation, scraping chairs and pounding fists washed over him...wrapped in a dark, hooded cloak to conceal his identity as he did his level best to avoid being noticed, to simply mourn his loss and brood in silence.

 

But someone recognized him, a slovenly boar who stank of sweat, grime, and swill, peering beneath his cowl with beady, unintelligent eyes until he caught sight of the leopard's jutting jaw and unique golden eyes shining in the shadows. Then he immediately started guffawing and chuckling deeply, mockingly, clutching his massive belly while he sneered in contempt.

 

"Well look who we've got here! If it isn't the Dragon Warrior! Oh wait, I forgot...you got turned down, didn't you? What's the matter, Tai Tai? Weren't good enough to make the cut, huh?"

 

More laughter, this time coming from the surrounding patrons as they slapped their knees or each others' backs, tears of mirth coming to their eyes, some of them leaning back so far in their chairs they almost tipped onto the floor. Trying to exercise the self-discipline he'd been taught at the Jade Palace, he forced himself to refrain from speaking, to not take the bait, even as a low, ominous growl began rumbling in his throat and his fists began to clench around his mug.

 

The boar was on a roll, though, and didn't stop there. "Don't know why you thought you would. Guess that'll teach you to try and be something you're not! Gotta accept the place you're born in, and be grateful. And why would we want someone like you defending the valley, anyway? You're just a pathetic orphan. Why don't you go back wherever you came from...kitten?"

 

That did it. After thinking he would finally make something of himself, become the warrior and hero he had always dreamed he would be...after having all that dashed away, to return now to this endless teasing and insulting which he had been so certain he would be free of from this day forward...adding that to the ignominy of losing the scroll, and the impugning of his own worth...it was all too much.

 

Whirling about on his stool, he hurled his mug with all the power in his phenomenal shoulders, smashing it right into the boar's sneering tusked face. The pig flew backwards a full ten feet, crashing onto a table and snapping it in two, his cheekbones broken and blood pouring from his nostrils. Even as the table's occupants were surging to their feet, yelling and crying out for his pelt, the leopard let out a furious, venomous roar, one vicious and wrathful enough to chill anyone's blood in their veins.

 

Wrenching his cloak free to give him freedom of movement, his muscles burgeoning with the fire of his uncontrollable rage...what had always been the bane of his training, what he had always struggled to channel into useful outlets in combat, now allowed free rein for the first time he could remember in ages...he leaped to his feet and launched himself across the bar toward his tormentor.

 

"Pathetic? PATHETIC, am I? Then what does that make YOU! You aren't even worthy enough to lick the dirt off my pawpads! I'll show you what I am…I SHOULD be the Dragon Warrior, and I WILL be!"

 

Claws unsheathed, he savaged his prey like he had no opponent before, tearing and ripping and slashing through flesh left and right as the boar screamed and flailed, pinned beneath his great weight. He heard bone crunch when his fists met the idiot's snout, but that was not enough for him, it would never be enough, not until he utterly flattened his sneering face, drove every piece of his skull deep into his puny brain, until he was nothing but a battered pulp.

 

He never got the chance, as soon other patrons were hauling him off of their friendpresumably to administer their own beating to him. But they had forgotten he was the best kung fu master Shifu had ever trained. He was the Dragon Warrior, no matter what that senile turtle said otherwise, and he would prove it. Now. This instant.

 

Forgotten were the soothing and gentle words of his master, promising that they would find a way to purge the darkness from his heart so that Oogway would change his mind and give his blessing...or else that they would find another role for him, another destiny that would suit his talents and prove his worth. Forgotten were the lessons that kung fu was meant only for defense, never to be used to harm or kill except in the extreme last defense of his own life or that of his charge...that he was to be calm and centered, at one with the universe so he could hear its call and listen to its voice, knowing just what to do and where he was meant to go.

 

Instead he became a literal whirlwind of hatred and fury, his eyes blazing with a molten fire which struck fear into everyone who beheld themexactly as it should. Instead the snow leopard easily and effortlessly hoisted four of his attackers right off the floor, two to each arm, and in a violent, twisting movement starting at the waist hurled each of them slamming into each other, then across the room into still more tables. Free, he darted forward, wading into the mass of bodies surrounding the fallen boar, and suddenly the entire tavern dissolved into a free-for-all with him as the target.

 

But he fought them all.

 

Roundhouse kicks, snap-kicks, and fierce, aggressive punches in the Tiger style. Spinning hook-kicks, Mantis style. Amazing acrobatic leaps, flips, and backwards somersaults, Monkey style. Lashing sweeps and stinging blows of his stiffened tail, a form of Viper style. And an almost preternatural ability to sense when an attacker was coming at him from behind, so that he could strike sideways or at impossible angles to deflect broken bottles and meaty fists alike, Crane style. He knew and had mastered them all, and proved it again and again against every opponent who came before him.

 

But he was so lost to his fearsome temper, and so focused on dealing out as much punishment as he could muster, that the snow leopard didn't pay attention to his surroundings. An enormous bull came lunging at him with a chair, and he smashed it to pieces with a few well-placed chopsbut this allowed his attacker to come body-to-body, grappling and stumbling with him around the room while others cheered and jeered from the sidelines.

 

Neither of them noticed the bull's horns catch in the handle of a nearby lantern hung from a post. Neither of them saw it fly across the room and land in the straw coating the floor, igniting it in seconds. It wasn't until the roar of the flames drowned out his own snarls and growls, and the stench of the smoke started making him cough, that Tai Lung realized the danger and turned.

 

The entire tavern was ablaze, the tendrils of orange and red licking and leaping up along the rafters, consuming the tables and chairs, burning through the beams to the floors above, exploding with gouts of increased heat and bursts of glass as bottles of alcohol were caught in the fire. Screams rent the air as those patrons who could do so fled into the village streets, and many were trampled in their haste to escape the horrific death which awaited them in the incinerating chimney the building had become.

 

Tai Lung was not among them, as he was still struggling with the bullthough not for long, as he had soon ducked down, catching hold of the crazed drunkard's legs and flipped him up over his outthrust hip, tossing him back across the burning room to crash right through the wall of the tavern, sprawling groaning and barely conscious face first in the cobbled street. Only then did the snow leopard take his leave of the inferno, pausing briefly to spit in the face of the boar that had started it all.

 

Outside in the street, he stood with chest heaving and shoulders flung back proudly, inhaling deeply of the cool, crisp night airclearing his lungs of the intoxicating smoke and ash, but also drawing in the rush of power and dominance he felt flooding through his body. He had done it, finally made a name for himself. No one would ever dare to mock him again in the Valley of Peace, and soon his fame would spread. The tale of this night would never be forgotten, told in hushed whispers from faces taut with fear and awe, and others would be added to it as his exploits became more numerous and ever greater.

 

Glancing around, he saw that the fire had leaped from one roof to another, that the whole street was joining the tavern in its roaring pyre, and even as he watched the sparks leaped to another street, and another...if the panicking citizens or aid from the Jade Palace did not arrive soon with a bucket brigade, the entire village would be lost. For a moment, his resolve weakened, and he stared in horror at what he had wrought. Only for a moment, before a sinister, wicked grin crossed his muzzle, and his fists clenched powerfully at his sides.

 

What did he care if the whole valley went up in flames? None here had loved him, cherished him, or welcomed him, not as Shifu had. No one had respected or honored him either. But they would now, should they survive. None would ever doubt that he was to be feared and propitiated at every turn. All would acknowledge his true glory and destiny, and they would do so because he would claim what was rightfully his, what Oogway in his imbecility and weakness had tried to deny him.

 

His eyes blazing a brighter and more disturbing gold than ever, as if the very flames around him had taken up residence within them, and his soul, Tai Lung turned and strode through the town square and the throngs of fleeing villagers, headed toward the stairs leading to the Jade Palace...vanishing into the fire...

 

Gasping in terror, the snow leopard sat up with a jerk on his sleeping pallet, clutching violently at his heaving chest, his lantern-like eyes now wide with disbelief and anguish as he stared off into space, his gray-furred body soaked with the clammy layers of sweat that had suddenly sprung into being all over him.

 

For endless minutes, he could not stop shaking, and no matter how hard he squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his paws over them, he could not banish the images dancing behind his lids. They haunted him, tormented him, and to his extreme annoyance, he heard soft whimpers and moans come from behind his lips as he firmly pressed them together.

 

Finally, after several more minutes of this shuddering activity, one more violent spasm ran through him and he allowed himself to lean back gently against the cold stone wall. Bringing his paws down from his face, Tai Lung trusted himself at last to open his maw, letting out another rasping breath. He knew if he could see himself, he would see an expression of stark fear on his face, as well as one of deep regret and sorrow.

 

He tried to shake it aside, to ignore it...it had all happened so long ago, over twenty years to be precise, and nothing could be done about it now. He had thought himself justified at the time...even if the fire had been unintentional and an accident, he still believed himself justified in meting out punishment on that wretched idiot who had started it all. And if he truly intended to make a new start of it, to follow Po's advice and accept Shifu's offer, he would only succeed by looking to the future, not dwelling on the past. What is done, is done.

 

Still...he could not banish his memories with the wave of a paw. Especially now that he could not deny almost everything he had done, every act he had committed during his rampage, had been at best completely unnecessary and a waste...and at worst, truly wicked and reprehensible. When he had believed himself denied what was rightfully his, that he was the Dragon Warrior, he had been able to excuse, deny, or otherwise turn a blind eye to it—after all, they had merely been peasants, not even worth his notice.

 

Now that he was beginning to suspect everyone, from Oogway on down to Po, had been right...that even if the role of Dragon Warrior had been slated for him some distant day, he had not been ready for it all those years ago...and was still not ready for it now...now he could no longer hide from the atrocities he had committed.

 

This dream was not new to him. He'd first had it all those years ago, after the sage turtle had so casually and deftly, yet with impossibly blinding speed, completely unmanned him and left him collapsed on the temple floor, victim of a series of paralyzing nerve strikes. After he had been hauled away in the steel-bound prison cart, already locked securely in the shell-like restraint designed by Oogway himself, carried to Chorh-Gom and placed under the 'tender' cares of Commander Vachir...he had dreamt it that very first night, kneeling on his pinnacle in solitary confinement.

 

And he had dreamt it every night thereafter, for almost all of the first five years. He had wept often, the rhinoceroses' guffaws and chortles falling on deaf ears as he gave in to the surges of grief and self-loathing which had wracked his powerful frame, until tears stained his cheek fur and dripped onto the stone between his knees.

 

For even then, some part of him, that which had been trained by his father to be a noble, honorable, heroic warrior, had known he had done wrong...that the very darkness Oogway had prophesied had come to pass, and the temper which had always been his curse and bane, which he had struggled to control ever since early adolescence, had completely taken him over...and there was no going back. He had failed Shifu...failed them both, when he had sworn he never would.

 

A simple nod or smile from the red panda when he perfected a move, landed a punch, defeated the newest and most complex series of devices in the training hall...that was all he had ever sought, and should have been content with. Even the admittedly much rarer praise he'd received from Oogway, in his earliest years of study at the Palace, when he was first learning to read and devoured voraciously every scroll the turtle had placed before him, debating endlessly on philosophy and morality. He'd wanted that too.

 

Tai Studied with Oogway

 

But he had lost it all by his acts on that fateful day, and would never earn it again. That was why he cried.

 

Of course, over the years the tears had dried...the pain and despair had turned to resentment, then molten fury and white-hot rage. The dream had come less and less frequently, perhaps because instead of fearing and cringing from it he had begun to welcome it, to revel in the destruction and death he had caused, to relish watching all who had scoffed and denied him, laughed and turned their backs on him, losing everything that mattered to them...the same as had happened to him.

 

It had become more and more clear to his increasingly dark, cruel, and narrow mind that it was better this way, that Oogway had been a doddering has-been whose time was long gone and was vainly attempting to keep Tai Lung from supplanting him. That Shifu had not loved him enough to stand up for him, perhaps had not loved him at all and only saw the snow leopard as a means to achieve what he himself could not...that the panda had most likely already replaced him with new students and felt not even a twinge of remorse for his son's predicament.

 

And so he had hardened his heart, put aside the memories of cubhood and his training as the worthless baubles and trinkets they truly were. And the dream had eventually vanished, leaving him blessedly alone in the darkness he had welcomed...alone to plot and scheme the revenge that would one day be his.

 

Yet now it had returned. And he knew why. The Wuxi Finger Hold was even more powerful than he could ever have imagined. It had not only taken away his rage. It had also purged him of his instability, his insanity, all that had blinded his understanding and twisted him into a caricature of the loyal, devoted student he had once been, the corruption and envy and hatred that had tainted him for so long. Or at least, of enough of it to let common sense reassert itself, to allow reason to get through to him. His conversation with Po had done the rest. So now his guilt had returned, full force.

 

A fresh wave of grief assailed him, and he hurriedly wiped the tears away even as they ran down his cheeks.

 

After he finally felt sufficiently recovered, and could trust himself not to dissolve into weeping again like a pitiful cub, the snow leopard sat up and looked around his dimly lit cell. It was pitch black, barely illuminated by the moon and stars without—it had to be close to midnight. His stomach rumbled, his meal of the panda's delicious noodles long since consumed and gone, but there would be no one awake at this hour who could feed him.

 

No matter. Like so often in his life, he would suffer in silence. Whatever else he might have been mistaken about, he still considered pain one of the most equalizing and effective of teachers.

 

Then, as he shifted around on his pallet to try and find a better position which would not aggravate his bruised, aching back, a sudden sound came to him in the stillness—faint, but easily detected by his sharp ears…the sound of feet scraping softly against the stone floor of the corridor, breath rasping in someone's throat, and the metal bolt beginning to turn in the door.

 

Before he could even hazard a guess as to who would be visiting him this late at night, let alone why, the bolt suddenly shot home with a heart-stopping snap, the knob turned, and the door was flung open with shocking force to slam into the wall—hard enough to make dust and dirt sift down from the ceiling! Sitting up hurriedly and keeping his back to the wall, as much to protect it as to keep the intruder in his sights, Tai Lung instinctively raised both paws into a fighting stance...biceps bunching powerfully beneath his rosette-studded pelt, one leg extended and tensed to either swing out in a scissors kick or tuck underneath him to help him spring to his feet. Then he heard a venomous snarl that would chill the blood of most anyone—and admittedly, even he felt rather disturbed by it.

 

More disturbing still was the growl's identifiable pitch and tone...the recognizable silhouette looming in the doorway...and the very familiar, burning golden eyes not too different from his own, boring holes into him as they glared out from the furrowed brows and striped face of Master Tigress...

Chapter Text

Chapter 4 Icon

Standing utterly still with her fists balled tightly at her sides, Tigress only refrained from leaping into the cell and pummeling the hated prisoner within an inch of his life by the strongest restraint she could muster. Simply resting eyes on him again, seeing his hulking form and those blazingly bright golden eyes...which she had last seen gazing coldly down at her after their owner had paralyzed and humiliated her at the Thread of Hope...it brought all of her hatred, pain, and fury flooding back.

 

Never mind that she had just spent the last several hours leaping through flaming rings without once singeing her fur, navigating the entire course of Wooden Crocodiles while barely breaking a sweat, and smashing yet another Iron Ox to pieces single-handedly. For the workout, while purging a great deal of the energy and aggression from her system, could never eliminate it all. Not where Tai Lung was concerned.

 

Never taking her gaze off of him for an instant, lest he spring at her with lightning speed to crush her to the floor and make good his escape, she ran her eyes up and down him from head to foot, observing every facet of him—for even the tiniest detail could be relevant in determining what his next move would be, what he was planning, whether there was even a shred of truth in his claims of having changed. That, and she dearly enjoyed seeing him laid low.

 

In that regard she was not disappointed. Tai Lung had already been prone upon his pallet when she entered, and though he had leapt to his feet he now stood as far away from her as the cell's dimensions would permit, pressed back into a corner in a half-crouch, half-kneeling position. And though his paws were raised in a battle stance and his legs angled to leap forward so as to kick her breastbone with stunning force, she couldn't possibly miss the alterations in his appearance and demeanor.

 

His fur...disheveled, dusty, still matted with clotted blood. One arm—the right one, the one held back against his body—was still badly bruised and battered, the finger which Po had gripped in the final moments of combat crooked at a slightly unnatural angle. Sweat was drying in his creamy white chest fur, as if he had either awoken very suddenly thanks to her barging in, or he had been involved in some strenuous exercise...trying to develop himself back to peak condition so he could make a breakout, no doubt. All of his muscular form heaving and flexing powerfully—Stop that!—constantly on the verge of fight or flight, while a harried and satisfyingly distressed look sat upon his blocky, intense features.

 

For a moment she found herself lingering inexplicably on the way his sweat trickled downwards to delineate the deep cleft between his well-rounded pectorals and the chiseled outline of his abdominals, and with an inarticulate snarl of disgust and self-loathing, she slammed the door closed behind her—careful even in her fury not to accidentally lock herself in with him—and stepped several paces closer. To her delight, the snow leopard actually seemed to step back from her, as close to cringing as he would ever come.

 

"So," she growled with a throaty, gloating purr. "How the mighty have fallen! You were supposed to be a legendary and phenomenal warrior, the greatest Shifu ever trained. None were your parallel or equal in all the Valley of Peace. Everyone feared you, respected you, hated you, fled from you. And now look at you...look at what you've become."

 

For a moment something very dark and frightening flickered in the depths of those half-lidded eyes, quickly squashed and vanishing before she barely had time to see it. Rising from his crouch, the other feline lowered his paws nearly to his waist, though clearly ready to raise them again if she attacked him. When he spoke it was in that same velvety smooth, confident drawl that alternately made her quiver with desire and a nameless dread. "Hello to you, too, Master Tigress. Fancy meeting you here."

 

Tigress came to a halt, so startled that she almost swallowed her growl into a querulous mew. She stared at him in disbelief, eyes narrowing as she searched for some trick, some subtle intonation or inflection that would suggest deception, a false veneer of politeness to mislead her until he was ready to strike. But it wasn't there. What was going on here? This made no sense! He should have attacked her on sight...especially after those mortal insults she'd flung at him...

 

Trying to shake away her confusion, she recovered her stride and shook her head, smirking. "Don't try and play coy with me, Tai Lung. We both know it's all just an act. If there's one thing all the stories about you make clear, it's your fiery, uncontrollable temper. You must be simmering right now...you must want to smash my face into the wall right now until I'm spitting out blood and fangs. Don't you? Come on! There's no need to hide who you are with me. I won't tell anyone." She grinned even broader, showing off those fangs in question.

 

But the snow leopard didn't move, didn't even twitch. He didn't even let out a low and venomous snarl. Instead he flicked one black-tipped ear and shook his head, as if judging her heart and finding her sadly lacking. "I'm not hiding anything, my dear. Terribly disappointing, I know, but you'll just have to get used to that. And I wouldn't dare damage the fair petals of a blushing bloom of the Orient such as yourself."

 

The stilted tone of sarcasm in his words was quite obvious, but there remained just enough hint of genuine compliment as to leave her feeling even more confused—and vaguely offended. While hardly averse to being recognized for her feminine beauty, it was also certainly not the extent of her character, and any who emphasized it to the detriment of her fighting skills and warrior's heart were blind...as well as setting themselves up for a truly ignominious fall.

 

"Funny," she managed to retort at last, "that's not what your actions were saying at the Thread of Hope the other day."

 

Finally, she seemed to have struck a nerve with that one. Flinching visibly, the leopard gritted his teeth, grimaced, and looked away—surprisingly letting down his guard by taking his eyes off of her for many silent moments. "Touché," he murmured. Could that be...regret in his voice? Surely not. He was much more of a consummate actor and deceiver than she had ever given him credit for. Apparently there was more to the murderer than mere violence and slaughter.

 

Deciding to assume, at least for the moment, that Tai Lung was not about to leap upon her in a frenzy of bloodlust, Tigress crossed her arms over her chest and regarded him with one eyebrow raised. Something more would be needed to rattle his cage.

 

"Hmm. You act as if you're civilized and urbane, Tai Lung. But you're not, and you never will be. Not after what you did, all those years ago. And what's truly sad is, you could have been great. Instead you failed because you're so damned limited."

 

She dared to move close enough to glare right up into his down-turned face, and although it wasn't what she was going for, she was nevertheless encouraged to see contrition and shame beneath those heavy brows. "Your impulsive nature...all that rage and strength you set such store by...Po used it against you in your battle, you know. He knew just how to manipulate you. Over thirty years of kung fu experience—and it was all wasted, because you didn't think clearly, or try another approach."

 

Truly starting to warm up to her subject, Tigress allowed more and more disdain to enter her voice. For while, quite obviously, Tai Lung's inability to control his temper and Po's cleverness in exploiting this weakness were both quite fortunate for the valley, the townsfolk, and Shifu himself, nothing angered or earned her disapproval more than a pathetic performance in combat—especially one caused by such an undisciplined character flaw.

 

"You never thought, only acted. And from what Master Shifu has told us, you were the same way when he trained you. You've...learned...nothing." With each word she actually poked Tai Lung hard in the chest. "You'd be a disgrace to the Jade Palace even if you hadn't betrayed it."

 

The snow leopard's entire colossal frame shook, though whether with barely repressed fury or a shuddering recognition of the truth, she couldn't tell. Then he looked up...and she was startled all over again to see acceptance, and even agreement, in his eyes.

 

"You're absolutely right," he said simply. "That is why the panda is a kung fu master, and the true Dragon Warrior. As for me...you can be certain I've learned my lesson, and won't be letting my rage control me ever again."

 

She didn't believe it, not for an instant. Not just the part about reining in his temper, which in her mind was manifestly impossible, but also his acknowledgment of Po as both a kung fu master and the Dragon Warrior. The snow leopard had only shown ridicule and cruel mockery toward Po for his size and build—something the panda had of course not stated aloud, but she could read between the lines as well as anyone. The fact this was only slightly more vicious and hateful than how she herself had first treated Po was something she would not allow herself to think about...

 

In any case, more important was how Tai Lung's entire reason for living, for training, for fulfilling his own self-appointed destiny, was the Dragon Scroll. To believe, even after being defeated so humiliatingly, that he could have abandoned such a lifelong dream just like that...

 

Laughing derisively, Tigress began to pace back and forth in front of the prisoner, still keeping him trapped in his corner. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! Ever since you were a cub, you've had this unhealthy obsession with being the Dragon Warrior, and though we all might wish otherwise, you're never going to let it go." This all had to be a smokescreen, hiding his true intentions.

 

"You may have fooled Po and Master Shifu, but I know what you really are. You can pretend all you like that you've changed, that you're an honorable and good-hearted warrior. But you're no such thing. You're just going to take the scroll again and turn on us at the first opportunity. I guarantee it."

 

Now, for the first time, she finally got a rise out of him. Balling his fists so tightly that he mistakenly jabbed his aching, twisted finger into his palm pad, making him wince openly, Tai Lung rose to his full height and loomed over her, nostrils flaring, but she refused to be intimidated.

 

"Of course I wanted the scroll—how could I wish anything else, with Shifu filling my head with dreams and pumping me up full of pride and overconfidence all my life, making me think I was destined to be the Dragon Warrior and had no other purpose?" The snow leopard rolled his eyes and laughed bitterly. "Shifu even named me 'Ultimate Dragon'—with a name like that, what else was I supposed to do when I grew up, read tea leaves?"

 

In spite of herself, Tigress snorted in laughter at the thought of the rampaging snow leopard indulging in such a genteel pastime as that. But Tai Lung didn't allow her time for good humor, even if she'd been inclined to relax and let down her guard around him enough to make it possible. Because he continued to press his point, stabbing a finger toward her own chest though he did not take even one menacing step toward her.

 

"No, I'm not going to steal the scroll again—there's no point, since it has already taught me all it could, all I'm capable of learning from it. Any other lessons there are to learn, I must learn on my own."

 

Growling, she batted his paw away and shook away the lingering traces of sympathy she'd almost caught herself feeling, scoffing openly. "Right. Now why do I not believe you? Let me make one thing clear, if I haven't already. You cannot be trusted, certainly not by me. If we let you stay here and train with us, you will stab us in the back and kill all of us in our sleep after you've learned all you can from us—and that's if we're lucky...if, in your pride, you even allow yourself to be taught by us."

 

Unexpectedly Tai Lung stepped back a pace, and the look on his broad face and bony, low-slung brows was one of naked hurt and open insult. Tigress could not believe he'd have the gall to take offense at her not trusting him, since there was nothing else even remotely upsetting in her words…his pride and his bloodthirstiness were legendary and undeniable.

 

Which was why her jaw actually dropped when the snow leopard glared at her in true anger, rather than the typical demonic rage she expected from him. "I already know you won't believe this, but I never kill indiscriminately," he said, his voice pitched low and strained, even diffident. "It wouldn't be honorable."

 

Hearing such a bald-faced, blatant, horrible lie coming from Tai Lung's mouth so enraged Tigress that she would have launched into him right then and there, never resting until she had bruised and beaten him to a pulp. Except that the snow leopard didn't give her a chance, cutting across her rising snarl with one of his own. Holding up his good paw, he began to tick off points on his fingers.

 

"What happened all those years ago, when I went on that rampage in the valley, was simply an accident, at least at first. And the rest took place when I gave in and truly unleashed my temper. As you're all so fond of saying, I was mad with desire—quite literally, and so was not myself. If I had been, it all would have turned out quite differently.

 

"Those rhinos of Vachir's? I had no choice in the matter, it was them or me, and how else was I supposed to escape Chorh-Gom? And as for you…you know very well that there were many times I could have killed the Five if I really wanted to. But I didn't." He crossed his arms in finality, looking quite pleased with himself.

 

Tigress, however, didn't know whether to laugh or roar in frustration, and not only because of his supposedly honorable conduct; the fact he dared to claim he'd had no choice in killing so many members of the celebrated, incomparable Anvil of Heaven would infuriate her even more if it weren't completely in-character for one of his ego and pride. Even if no one else in the Valley even thought of them any more, let alone honored them, once they'd vanished from the public eye for twenty years, she knew just how stunning and awe-inspiring they had been as warriors. They did not deserve their fate simply because they'd been made jailers, and even if more had survived than Tai Lung let on, he could easily have spared even more if he'd truly wanted to.

 

Turning her back on him—as much to prove how little a threat she saw him as to register her disapproval of his self-defense—she did not bring any of this up however, as she knew he'd have a pathetic prison sob story to regale her with, just as he had a carefully contrived comeback for everything else. Instead she snapped over her shoulder, "There are plenty of reasons why you might have chosen to spare us, and none of them have anything to do with mercy or fair play. To show your contempt for us, for example. To send a message to Shifu how beneath your notice his new students are. Or as our master himself said, to make us all afraid of you. Take your pick."

 

Softly, Tai Lung said, "I saved your life, you know."

 

She whirled around and stared at him in consternation. "What are you talking about?"

 

"At the Thread of Hope, when you fell off the bridge and grabbed hold of my paw."

 

Tigress snorted derisively. "I only fell because I was fighting with you! And you didn't exactly grab my paw or try and pull me up—in fact if it hadn't been for Crane, I'd have fallen into the gorge and be dead right now. Or did you forget twisting those ropes around my neck? Some hero."

 

The snow leopard flared his nostrils, clenching and relaxing his fists as if he sought a target to pummel. Closing his eyes, he seemed to be counting silently to himself, something which would have amused her if it didn't suggest he was very close to resorting to type and attacking her…vindication, proof that he truly hadn't changed, but something which put her in grave danger should he turn on her when she had no one else to back her up…

 

Opening those golden eyes again, he answered her with words bitten off between his fangs, yet still lacking in true rancor. "I didn't deliberately throw you over the edge and make you fall, either, Master Tigress. And when your claws dug into me, I could have shaken you off rather easily. But I didn't." He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "Besides, I wasn't the one who threw the first punch, you know. If memory serves me correctly, that was you—after I called the panda the worthy opponent I'd been waiting my whole life for."

 

The larger feline smirked at his implication, and Tigress couldn't hold back the soft snarl of resentment...even as she knew he had her pegged. In that moment, at least, she'd allowed her jealousy of Po to trump logic. And even if she could turn his words back on him by suggesting he'd goaded her into attacking so he could claim the moral high road, or that she'd only reacted to the overt threat to the Dragon Warrior, the fact was none of this exactly painted him as a lunatic or even dishonorable. Just fiendishly clever.

 

Meanwhile, Tai Lung was spreading his paws somewhat helplessly. "Perhaps this wasn't the best example. But I was fighting for my life, not being deliberately malicious or attempting to take your lives. All I wanted was the Dragon Scroll, and you chose to place yourselves in my path. You were obstacles to me...not carrion to be slain. There would have been no honor in killing you."

 

"Oh really?" She tried to inject as much venom into her voice as she could, but was finding it harder to do than she cared to admit, for truth be told, somewhere in the back of her mind she was beginning to see merit in Tai Lung's words. Against her will, and with the rest of her kicking and screaming the entire way, she was finding sense and truth in her enemy's reasoning.

 

As a kung fu master with years of training behind her, she knew precisely what various attack forms looked and felt like, and more importantly, what their intended results were. And none of the moves he had pulled at the Thread of Hope had been intended to be fatal. While many of his blows could have severed the spine, smashed the skull, or broken and dislocated limbs severely, none of them had been carried to their full potential to do so.

 

Most of the danger from the encounter had come from its precarious location. Indeed, in many ways it seemed as if, for all the positive jing he was expending in defeating them, Tai Lung's only crime had been overzealousness in reaching his goal. He had wanted the Dragon Scroll, and would never have fought them if they hadn't placed themselves in his way...

 

But that reminded her of another angle of attack. Shaking off these traitorous thoughts, she stalked past the prisoner to pace along the moss-covered wall again, as if by doing so she could wear her opponent and his justifications into the ground with her measured tread. "And what about Po? Don't tell me you never tried, or wanted, to kill him. He had the honor you always wanted, and would never have. He made a fool of you in front of the whole valley. And you said it yourself, your battle with him would be legendary."

 

"Legendary battles don't always off the participants," Tai Lung replied dryly. "I intended to defeat him, not to kill him. Not at the start, anyway. The panda just stood in my way as well. All I wanted was the scroll...it was only after I found out it was blank, and thought it was a lie, that everything I'd worked for had been for nothing, that I turned murderous...and at that point, I'm not sure I was sane anymore."

 

"That's always your excuse, isn't it?" Tigress paused in the lonely emptiness of the silvery moonlight spilling down through the cell window, its stark beams picking out the razor crescents of her flexing claws but leaving her face in disturbing shadow. "You were not yourself, you'd lost your mind, you can't be held responsible for your actions. Well guess what? That's not going to cut it with me, Tai Lung. You had a choice. We all have choices.

 

"If you truly want me to believe you've changed...if you truly intend to...then you need to be man enough to face what you've actually done. Not your insanity, not the machinations of others, not the abuse and betrayal heaped on you by Shifu and this valley. Only you."

 

That should have been enough, but she had to dig the knife in deeper. He had to know the truth of what he'd become, of why she hated him...and if anything would push him back into a wild and vicious rage, would prove he hadn't changed, would make him show his true self, it was this.

 

Coldly, bitterly, she snapped, "And even if you're right, even if you truly never meant to kill us or Po, you did try and kill Shifu...Po told me what happened, what he saw at the Hall of Warriors. If you'd spared him at all up to that point, it was because you needed him to use Master Oogway's staff and fetch the scroll for you. Once you learned it had already been taken, and you didn't need Shifu anymore, you were going to kill him. Your own father! Don't deny it."

 

His back was still turned to her, massive shoulders heaving and flexing with the sheer power of the emotions he had to have been feeling, surging with his futile attempts to restrain them before he finally lost it completely and attacked her. She could see the incredible strength contained in him, and had to shove down the feelings of admiration and desire she'd felt when she first laid eyes on the snow leopard. He was filth, pure evil...and if he possessed exactly the kind of stamina, determination, skill, and drive to succeed that she would wish in a mate...that she carried within her own heart...it only made his betrayal all the deeper and crueler, made him even more anathema to her.

 

But just as she expected him to fulfill her low expectations of him, she noticed something—and had to blink and rub her eyes to make certain it wasn't her weariness or a trick of the light confusing her. His shoulders were still rising and falling, shaking even...but not with anger or fury. It almost looked as if...he were sobbing. Impossible!

 

After a few moments, Tai Lung slowly turned around—and indeed, his eyes were swollen and puffy, and she could even see tears in them, trickling down to stain his cheek fur. She couldn't hold back her gasp.

 

"You're right, Master Tigress," he said at last, simply, but with conviction and remorse. "I have been blaming others for my own misdeeds for far too long. It's time I accepted the truth and took responsibility. It was my temper that raged out of control, no one else's. Master Oogway may have made the prophecy, but the darkness was still in me. And as for Shifu..." The snow leopard stared down at his paws, as if they belonged to someone else, as if he could not believe what they had done, or almost done.

 

"It's true. He dared try and apologize for all the years of suffering he'd put me through, and in my pride all I could see was how he had used me—he was arrogant enough to believe he could mold me into the Dragon Warrior, something he could never be, and so live his life vicariously through me, his son...I saw red; what would you have done? He had failed me, turned me into a monster, stolen my birthright, denied me any chance at greatness or a normal life...and all he could say was he was sorry?"

 

The tears in his eyes now were ones of rage and fury at last, but Tigress, staring into his ravaged face, could not congratulate herself for causing them. All she could see was the true, naked longing and suffering in someone she had always believed incapable of human emotions.

 

"I'd been ready to kill him," he said heavily, shoulders slumping in resignation. "But Po stopped me...and now, I am glad of it. Because even though he made mistakes, he was still my father and still loved me. Even when I refused to believe he could, that no one could, because I was not worthy if I wasn't the Dragon Warrior. And if I had killed him...it would have been the worst mistake I ever made."

 

Tigress didn't know what to say to that. Everything she thought was true, everything she had believed about Tai Lung, was being torn to shreds before her eyes, leaving her without a ledge to stand on, and making it more and more glaringly obvious that she had been mistaken. This was not the villain she had fought at the Thread of Hope, or the ravening killer who had nearly destroyed the Valley of Peace years before her birth, stories of whom she'd heard from geriatric villagers still terrified by that long ago day or from Shifu himself.

 

She did not want to believe he could have changed, and so quickly, because it would leave her with no one to pin her fury upon. But the more he said, the more evidence she gathered, the more it seemed he was not the same anymore. What was most clear was that, against all logic and reason that would suggest otherwise, the snow leopard still loved Shifu.

 

Trying for another spike of nastiness, she stepped back and peered up at him suspiciously, fingers drumming on her striped arms. "You have a funny way of treating those you claim to love."

 

But Tai Lung saw right through her attempt to deflect him, and even with penetrating insight realized something she'd been determined would stay buried in her heart, where no one else could ever see it or bring it out into the light of day. Wiping away his tears, and seeming surprisingly indifferent to her having witnessed him when so vulnerable, he managed a small, rueful smile. "I understand, Tigress...you love Shifu, too. That's why it hurts you so, to see him in such pain. That's also why I am so grateful Po stopped me from doing what would be truly unforgivable, irredeemable..."

 

After several more silent moments of sniffling, the snow leopard dried his cheek fur, coughed uncomfortably and cleared his throat in embarrassment, then looked up to her with a rather sheepish and oddly shy grin on his muzzle. Tigress had to fight the urge to rub her eyes in an attempt to banish the image. "In fact, you know...the two of us are rather alike...proud and stubborn, great warriors who only wished to be the best, both wanting Shifu to love us. Unless I'm mistaken, we both even believed we would be the Dragon Warrior."

 

Leaning back against the wall, casual and relaxed as he'd been that day at the bridge, he added almost matter-of-factly, "I admire you...you're the only one who's ever stood up to me so bravely. And you may not be the Dragon Warrior, but you almost beat me. No one's ever done that before...well except Po, of course." For a moment his ears flattened to his skull sullenly, only to prick up again attentively.

 

But she wasn't paying attention to such visual cues anymore, for as soon as the snow leopard had begun listing the things they had in common, and implying as well as outright stating that the two of them were kindred spirits, the rage which had finally been quenched to a soft simmer within her had been stoked up to blaze hotter, fiercer, and more viciously than ever inside her heart, ready to explode and engulf Tai Lung.

 

What made it even worse, what truly raised her ire, was that in an insidious way, she could see he was right—the two felines were like dark mirrors of each other, scarily alike. If she had made different choices in her life, if she had been less in control of her own fiery temper, if she had not learned discipline from Shifu at the orphanage to get a handle on her strength and rage, if she had been less selfless and more arrogant...she could have easily become him. If she had let her anger at Po being chosen as the Dragon Warrior instead of herself consume her, if she had turned to hatred instead of determination to prove herself all the more worthy... She shuddered at what might have happened.

 

That didn't make her feel inclined to trust and reach out to Tai Lung, however. It made her even more inclined to rear back and pull away from him. And the way he praised her, complimented her, suggested an almost intimate connection between them—it only made her all the more disgusted, not only with him but with herself...for she could feel her heart pounding faster and her pulse rising in spite of herself, as a part of her uncurled like a purring kitten, enjoying the recognition and inordinately pleased that one as skilled, competent, and legendary as the great and feared Tai Lung could consider her worthy of notice and respect.

 

No! This was wrong! She had to resist his dark allure. Why was it the nature of evil to be so vile and tempting?

 

Balling her fists again, Tigress stalked as close as she dared, until her face hovered only a whisker's breadth away from his, until she could see every hair of rosette-studded fur but he could also see the unattractive veins of her bulging golden eyes. Resisting the powerful strength of his musky scent at those close quarters, she hissed with more hatred than she ever remembered feeling in her life, as molten as the fires of the mountains far to the east. "How dare you compare us...how dare you say we're anything alike. I refuse to believe we have anything in common!"

 

Unsheathing her claws, she splayed them suggestively beneath his muzzle, narrowing her eyes to thin slits. "I will be watching you like a hawk. If you cross the line even once, if you backslide, if you seem to be doing anything at all two-faced or evil, I'll be right there to stop you. And I will kill you."

 

To her utter shock, Tai Lung actually smiled. "I wouldn't have it any other way."

 

"What do you mean?" she snapped, even more wary. "Do you have a death wish or something? Because I'm never going to trust you."

 

Something seemed to flicker again in Tai Lung's eyes—frustration, anguish, and a growing resentment. Why it should matter to him that she did not trust him and never would, that she refused to believe he could change, she didn't know. It couldn't be that he meant what he said, and actually cared about her. It had to be that he saw her as his biggest obstacle to being accepted at the Jade Palace, so that he could worm his way into everyone's hearts and then betray them again. Yes, that had to be it...

 

Tai Lung's voice was still as infernally calm and controlled as ever. "Not at all. Simply this: I know I need someone to watch me, and make sure I do not falter. Po is too good-hearted to do what needs to be done, Shifu is too willing to forgive, and none of the others are strong enough to stop me should I rampage again." The snow leopard spread his paws in supplication, his voice imploring.

 

"You can help me, Master Tigress...you can save me from myself. If the darkness does take me again, and I have to be stopped, I wouldn't want anyone else to do the deed." He paused, and then a low humorless chuckle sounded in the shadows. "Besides, you know what they say about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer..."

 

She bared her fangs in that disturbing predator's grin again, flexing her claws a few more times before finally retracting them into their sheaths and lowering her paw. "Indeed I do...but you're not helping your case. I don't know..."

 

It seemed too good to be true, so it probably was. Tai Lung was practically giving himself into her custody, making not only his freedom and his acceptance at the Jade Palace dependent on her good will and judgment, but even placing his life in her paws, too. There must be a catch to this. Granted, if this were all merely an elaborate and clever ploy, she would need the help of Po, Master Shifu, and the rest of the Five to take him down...but still, the scourge of the valley would then be no more.

 

On the other hand, if he were honest and truthful, and the snow leopard were truly trying to change, the responsibility of ensuring that he did so...the wisdom to help him accomplish this monumental task, and to know if it was progressing properly...his entire fate and Master Shifu's peace of mind and soul...all of these things were borne squarely, and solely, upon her shoulders. Could she handle such a burden? And indeed, who else would she trust with making sure Tai Lung had changed, and killing him if he had not?

 

Even as she pondered, however, the snow leopard smirked at her, and added off-handedly, with a suggestively sly tone, "Hmmm...or could your reluctance be because the real reason you'll always be keeping an eye on me...is because you can't keep your eyes off me?"

 

If it had been anyone else, any other time, she might have laughed it off as what it might have been intended as, a rather inappropriate joke made to lighten the mood and relieve the tension in the cell, which had become thick enough to cut with a dao saber. But with this man, in this place, Tigress refused to be lenient or forgiving. Because whether or not he had truly changed, or wished to, she could not deny his joking words...since secretly...she knew they were right.

 

For whatever reason, whether his rugged handsomeness and well-built body that appealed to her through animal magnetism alone, his silky voice that could stir and stroke her innermost fibers like the strings of a zheng, or because part of her really did believe in his sincerity, she found herself unable to resist thoughts of him. Her mind told her he was a twisted, evil, sadistic creature who would sooner kill her than look at her, or that if he were truly turning over a new leaf any relationship would be counterproductive, would compromise her objectivity. But her body told her something else.

 

And that, the fact that what had always obeyed only her own will was now actively rebelling against her, was what finally made her lose it entirely.

 

Letting out a full-throated, thunderous, earth-shattering roar that again brought soil sifting down from the ceiling, as well as made the blocks of the walls shift as the temple shook to its foundation, Tigress launched herself at Tai Lung. Even now, she did not use her claws, but in all other respects she completely and violently gave him every ounce of her hatred, fury, and pent-up desire.

 

The snow leopard only had time for widened eyes, a gasp, and a hurried throwing up of his paws as a barrier between them before she slammed into him—pummeling, pounding, battering his chest and arms, trying to put a dent in those rock-hard muscles so she could get at the heart and soul inside, make him hurt, make him hurt as she was hurting.

 

But to her chagrin and increasing fury, after the initial momentum of her charge and the element of surprise had sent Tai Lung tumbling back into the wall, he had risen easily to his feet—and now, no matter how hard she tried, she could not knock him backwards again or topple him to the floor. Like a mountain peak that would not bow before the wind, or a mighty tree that refused to sway because its root systems ran so deep, the snow leopard was an immovable wall, seemingly unhurt by anything she did to him.

 

Which only made her try all the harder, punching his gut and his sides, slamming her shoulder into his chest to bruise, elbowing him to knock the wind out of him, anything to leave a mark. Stoic and unwavering, even looking rather sad and regretful, he stood unmoved, and Tigress let out a shriek. She didn't want his pity!

 

Finally, after several eternal-seeming minutes of this treatment, Tai Lung let out a grunt of pain and reached down with annoying ease to latch onto first one of her wrists, then the other—catching her in the middle of her abusive attack, trapping her limply against his body. Dryly, but not without a touch of gentleness, he said, "All right now, that's enough. That was starting to hurt."

 

"You bastard," Tigress snarled, longing to rip his eyes from their sockets, his lying tongue from its root—or was it to wipe away his tears, to kiss those warm lips? What was wrong with her? "How can you say such things...damn you, Tai Lung!"

 

"I'm sorry, Master Tigress," he said, and for a wonder he actually sounded as if he meant it. "I spoke out of turn, that was unbecoming of me. But I meant what I said before. You're the only one I trust to help me. I know it will be hard for you—"

 

"Hard for me?" she spat, still struggling to get free of his grip. "Do you have any idea what you did? You took Shifu's love from me! He loved no one—no one!—but you, and after you he would love no one else. You stole that from me, all I ever wanted from my teacher, and you expect me to help you?"

 

Tai Lung visibly winced, his face almost seeming to cave in with disbelieving agony, and he turned away as if he couldn't bear to look her in the eye anymore. "So...I threw away his gift, thinking I had never received it...and cost you the same thing I always wanted. Life isn't fair, is it?" Slowly, he released her wrists and backed away, leaning against the wall and then sliding down it to slump on the floor.

 

His words, so similar to her own thoughts in the kitchen, were enough to hold her back, and Tigress stood staring down at him...slowly feeling the adrenaline bleed out of her limbs, sapping her strength and leaving her feeling wrung out and overcome by weariness...and shame. What would Master Shifu say if he had seen her just then? Or worse, Master Oogway?

 

Tentatively, grudgingly, she rasped a reply. "No...no, it isn't. Not to me...and not to you."

 

Looking up at her with some surprise, the snow leopard nodded slowly. "But that's no reason to give up. I refuse to. Shifu was wrong to raise me to be the Dragon Warrior, and he was wrong to turn on me when I was refused the scroll. But there had to be a reason I was left on his doorstep, if not for this." His voice turned sardonic, resigned. "Master Oogway always said, there are—"

 

"No accidents," Tigress finished the aphorism with him, still truculent but also with a stirring of thoughtful wonder. Could there have been a reason none of them, except perhaps the old turtle, had known? Was it too late for Tai Lung to find it...if she could find it in her heart to give him a chance to do it?

 

"I mean to find it," the snow leopard continued, as if reading her thoughts, "and Shifu's promised me he'll help me do so. It will be hard for me, too. But I have to be strong..." He smiled in a way she'd never seen from him before—not malicious, smug, or vindictive, but genuinely approving and proud. "And I know you will be, too."

 

Tigress put a paw to her forehead, her mind in a whirl. Was anything what she had thought? Could Po and Master Shifu be right about him? Oogway had been so insistent on the darkness within Tai Lung...but just because that prevented him from becoming the Dragon Warrior, did that mean it could not still be put to some useful and noble purpose? And Oogway would be the first to make some cryptic statement about looking beneath the surface of a still pond to see the true beauty of the world swimming in its depths. Perhaps things weren't what they seemed, perhaps Tai Lung's interpretation of events had as much validity as her own.

 

Yet to admit she was wrong was something her pride would not allow, certainly not in front of the snow leopard. And after all, how could such a terrible murderer, such an insane, unstoppable force with seemingly no conscience and an endless bloodlust, have changed so completely, so quickly? Unless the Wuxi Finger Hold had powers even she did not suspect...was that why Master Shifu was so willing to trust? And he had always taught her that mercy and forgiveness were virtues of the true kung fu warrior...

 

The scales tipped back and forth inside her head, and she could not decide. Not now. Not with so much at stake, not when she was so confused, angry, and torn apart inside. Not when she didn't even know what she wanted or believed anymore...

 

"I...I can't...I need to leave. I need time to...think." Cursing herself for how inarticulate and juvenile her stammering sounded, Tigress began to slowly back away toward the door...away from Tai Lung. Not because she feared him or what he might do to her if she turned her back on him, but because she feared what she might do or say if she stayed any longer.

 

Wryly turning up the corners of his mouth, the snow leopard nodded companionably, even as he looked around to encompass his surroundings. "You're not the only one. But take all the time you need. It doesn't look like I'll be going anywhere."

 

"Damn right you're not," she retorted instinctively, her dander rising again—made even worse by the amused look on Tai Lung's face, as if he'd fully expected her answer and derived great enjoyment from her continued resistance. He likes his prey to struggle before he strikes, does he? Well whatever happens...no matter what he may become...I swear, he'll be in for the struggle of his life where I'm concerned!

 

And with those stubborn thoughts to batter down her recalcitrant heart, Tigress managed to get hold of the doorknob behind her back, wrench the door open, and slam it into place again once she stood in the hallway. A swift thunk of metal as she shot the bolt home, and he was locked in again...separated from her by thick stone blocks and heavy panels of wood. But Chorh-Gom had had much more extensive barriers and restraints, and he'd still escaped the prison which had held only him. If he wanted to come after her...nothing would stop him.

 

He was still in her thoughts.

 

Letting out a wordless cry, she turned and fled for the illusionary safety of her bedroom.

 

                                                                       


 

 

As the last echoes of the slamming door and Tigress's final shout faded away into the empty stillness of the temple's post-midnight darkness, Tai Lung let out his own roar of frustration and anger, turning and slamming both fists into the stone wall beside him. Despite the throbbing pain in his right paw, he still managed to crack the blocks severely, leaving huge impressions surrounded by razed cracks radiating outward from the point of impact...but he didn't even care or notice.

 

"Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid!" Clutching his head in both paws, he shook it violently from side to side before finally leaning sadly against the wall, forehead pressed to the cool stone as he cupped his muzzle in despair. He had been close, so close. It had taken all of his willpower, every last ounce of self-control he possessed, to not lash out at her, verbally or otherwise.

 

He'd refrained from shouting, sneering, unleashing all the nasty, venomous, sarcastic comments he'd longed to snarl, and by staying polite and well-mannered under the circumstances, he had thus avoided provoking a battle he'd been in no shape to win...one that even if he'd won it, he still would have lost. For it would have cost him the ultimate victory, the acceptance and forgiveness he craved as the only things now left to make his life worth living.

 

Yes, inciting a battle with one of the Furious Five when she visits you in your cell, knocking her senseless, twisting her up in a paralytic knotthese are all things to convince Shifu and the others you're not a bloodthirsty psychopath anymore, of course. Quite the opposite!

 

So, thanks to all this careful control of his temper, he'd been making headway, finally starting to persuade and convince the obstinate Tigress that he had changed, that he deserved a chance to prove it and keep following his new and redemptive path. And what had he done? Opened his mouth and let his hormones do the talking for him.

 

Now, she might never listen to him. She might never see him as anything but the monster he had been. And he wanted her to, more than anything in a long time...it was not an obsession, as the Dragon Scroll had been, but it was just as strong, irresistible, and uncompromising. She could be a great ally, a true friend, something he had never had before—because once she got past her unreasoning rage, and the trials and losses she had suffered, directly or indirectly, due to him, she could understand him. There was so much they could teach each other. She, at least, might be his equal, in more ways than one.

 

He knew it was hopeless. He knew he was acting out of desperation, uncertainty, and opportunity, lest it vanish forever. He knew she would likely never view him in such a light, that the best, the very best, he could hope for from her was a comradely acceptance and the friendship born from bonds between fellow warriors. But he was lonely. And at this point, the only thing he might have left to give to the world was to pass on what he knew...to leave a legacy behind.

 

Sighing, he slowly leaned back against the wall, ran his paws down over his face, and closed his eyes...tried to slow his breathing and relax so he could recover some semblance of calm and try to get back to sleep. Softly, he let out an aggrieved groan as he tenderly cradled himself, wincing as he brushed his bruised ribs and battered chest and stomach. Although he had stoically refused to show it, not wanting to give Tigress the satisfaction, those blows had hurt! As if he wasn't injured enough already...

 

Yet his mind was racing so wildly he could only stare at the door, gaze boring into it as if his will alone could drag her back to confront him once more. Such spirit. And if he could harness it somehow, it just might be the key to laying his demons to rest, to leaving his grief behind so those dreams would no longer haunt him.

 

"Run all you like, Master Tigress," he purred softly in the moonlight. "And when you come back, feel free to take your pound of flesh from my pelt...everyone else already has dibs on it, and won't rest till they get it, so you might as well get in line. But after you've done so...I will show you. I'll prove to you I've changed. I'll do it for you.

 

"And somehow...I'll win your heart. I swear it."

Chapter Text

Chapter 5 Icon

The next morning, after his dawn meditations, communing with the natural world and its life, and engaging in a sprightly game of Go with Mr. Ping, Master Shifu discovered that Tigress had locked herself in her room and refused to come out no matter what importuning the other Five employed, instead having given them a very terse and roughly scrawled note from beneath her door, instructing them to leave a plate of tofu in the hall for her come mealtimes.

 

The red panda had sighed, but after wryly observing that at least she was still in the Jade Palace and hadn't taken off for a week-long pilgrimage to Wu Dan Mountain, he had instead decided it was time for the first stage of his course of instruction to take place—Tai Lung was to be subjected to an acupuncture session with Mantis.

 

Although oddly subdued and pensive, especially compared to their first talk in his cell the day before, the snow leopard had of course objected strenuously to this suggestion. Completely aside from the still unyielding pride he bore, which rankled at the thought of him accepting help from anyone (especially an insect), the prisoner had made the rather astute point that after twenty years of being treated to endless pressure upon all his nerve points by Oogway's restraining device, the last thing he wanted was to have them inflamed and probed all over again by needles.

 

But Shifu would have none of this. Oogway's device, he said, had completely paralyzed Tai Lung; Mantis's acupuncture would do no such thing, merely drawing chi to those points without causing the same pain and agony as he had suffered the last twenty years. And what better way to release the chi that had been blocked within him for so long? The restraints had bound up his spiritual energy; stimulating those same points again would unleash it.

 

Although the red panda had not raised his voice even once, let alone applied his staff with the forceful, bruising raps the snow leopard well remembered from his early days of training, somehow Tai Lung could not gainsay him this. Partly because he knew Shifu and his plan—whatever it was—were his only hope at this point...partly because, buried deep down within where he could try to hide and deny it, he still saw the panda as his father and therefore found it too easy to fall into the old habit of instantly obeying...and partly because, in the end, when Shifu spoke in that tone, no one refused him; that may have had something to do with it.

 

So it was that, grumbling and muttering the whole way, Tai Lung found himself being escorted from the cellars of the Jade Palace up to the bunkhouse, to the room where the smallest (though no less deadly) of the Furious Five would preside over his torture—excuse me, medicinal therapy. And, perhaps inevitably, Po was the one accompanying him.

 

Po, for his part, was positively bouncy, or as much as one of his size and bulk ever could be. Aside from the fact that he still hero-worshiped the snow leopard and believed, earnestly and completely, that change was possible and he could earn his redemption and forgiveness, the panda was simply happy to see Tai Lung allowed out and about again.

 

Exercise and activity were always good ideas, especially for one who'd been cooped up as long as the ex-convict—twenty years in Chorh-Gom, only to be made a prisoner again after their climactic battle. And there were a lot more possibilities for talking, interacting, and breaking through Tai Lung's walls of distrust and anger out here than there were down in the cellars of the temple.

 

Besides, if matters with Mantis went as, er, well as they had with him, he rather thought someone should be there just in case the snow leopard decided to 'reward' his caregiver...

 

His thoughts were interrupted by a rather grumpy growl, and then Tai Lung snapped, "Do you ever light in one place, panda? I mean, honestly...with as much energy as you burn up, you'd think you'd be as svelte as a cat, instead of a fat butterball..."

 

For a moment Po actually allowed annoyance and disapproval to show on his face, his ears flattening and teeth clenching briefly. But then, drawing upon his kung fu lessons to center himself, the bear breathed in and out slowly, as if in a meditation trance, and made himself smile at the snow leopard—albeit ruefully. He knew Tai Lung was only trying to get a rise out of him, and it was hardly as if that was the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) insult he'd ever heard.

 

And more importantly, one talent Po had always possessed, aside from a natural propensity for cooking, was the ability to listen, really listen, to others...to read their tones, facial expressions, even postures, to learn things about them. He could tell there was no real malice in Tai Lung's voice, as if his verbal attack were simply an old habit he could not shake off, something he wasn't even aware he'd slipped into.

 

Yeah. Being gruff, mean, nasty, driving everyone else away by being the cold, heartless monster everyone believes him to be...that's his defense mechanism, all right. He puts up walls to keep people from getting in. But it's not me he hates. It's himself...for being weak and a failure.

 

A wave of sympathy washed over the Dragon Warrior again, the same he'd felt when he spoke to Tai Lung in his cell—the same, in fact, he'd felt when he first heard stories of the snow leopard, years ago. It wasn't right, what he'd been put through. And it didn't even matter the atrocities he'd committed during his rampage...Po still couldn't imagine what it must have been like to be locked away—from life, from light, from everything—for twenty years. If that had been done to him, he'd be insane too. At least I would've made sure he got some decent grub!

 

Chuckling, the panda shrugged amiably and spread his paws. "My dad always says, if you stay in one place, you never go anywhere. I know, it sounds like fortune cookie wisdom, not to mention pretty obvious. But if you think about it, it goes a lot deeper than that."

 

Tai Lung groaned and put a paw to his face to shade his golden eyes. "Wonderful. I'm getting lessons in enlightenment from a noodle-maker."

 

"Stranger things have happened," Po persisted doggedly. "And anyway, I'm really excited 'cause I'm looking forward to this, Tai Lung. I really think this will help you out! You're gonna get better, an' show everyone who doubts you that you really do have good in you." He put as much sincerity into his voice as he possibly could—because it was what he truly felt.

 

He knew there was good in Tai Lung...had suspected it all along, but had confirmed it near the end of their battle, when the snow leopard had finally gotten hold of the scroll and opened it...only to stare at its blank surface in such heart-rending confusion, despair, and loss. He had seen it in those expressive eyes...and he was determined it was not going to get the chance to disappear, to burrow down into the stone his heart had become, never to be seen again.

 

He wanted to see the brave, noble kung fu warrior Tai Lung had once been return—for his own sake, but also for Shifu's. It was the least he could do for someone who had believed in him and helped him achieve his lifelong dream.

 

The massive feline remained silent for a long time, other than a noncommittal grunt, whether because he could not trust himself to speak or didn't believe Po's words deserved an answer. Then at last, very quietly, he said, "I hope you're right, panda. I really do. But I can't bring myself to believe it. Not yet. How is it you can see this in me when no one else can? Why do you believe in me?"

 

"Why not?" The words came to him instantly, without forethought or planning. They just felt right. Maybe because, as he had for most of his life, he was only following his heart when he said them. "Sure, you're a legendary warrior, and a rampagin' killer who nearly destroyed the valley. But I don't see that when I look at you. I just see a person. Isn't that what you are?"

 

Tai Lung turned and looked at him in astonishment and disbelief for a few moments. Then, as his face seemed to close, becoming an inscrutable mask, he observed, "You know, I've never met anyone quite like you before. You're very...unique."

 

Po beamed happily at this compliment, and only after the snow leopard had strode down the hall a few more feet did it sink in that the other's words might not have been meant in a positive light. But by that point Tai Lung was already almost to Mantis's room, and he had to huff and puff to catch up.

 

Unsurprisingly, when he reached the feline's side, the panda discovered that Tai Lung was being uncooperative, as well as just plain uncommunicative. Standing in the middle of the room with arms crossed resentfully and arrogantly across his broad chest (although Po noted he still favored his right paw, not allowing it to press tightly against his body), he simply stared off into space, gaze fixed on some imaginary point, and refused to answer Mantis's questions about where he was most in pain or which places were most sensitive—or even to speak to him at all.

 

To the insect's credit, the smallest member of the Five did not take offense or even raise his voice, although Po thought he recognized the flat glare starting to enter his eyes. Immediately he hastened to intervene.

 

"Hey now, guys, we're all friends here—" At this Mantis gave him an extremely skeptical look. "—okay, some of us are, an' maybe in time we all will be—" Tai Lung snorted. "—anyway, point is, there ain't gonna be any fightin' while I'm around. Master Shifu wouldn't like it."

 

The panda turned to the snow leopard again, who while he hadn't budged an inch from his position did seem slightly less disgruntled. "I know you may not believe in acupuncture or somethin', I didn't either at first—"

 

"Actually," Tai Lung drawled, "I do. One of the first things the old turtle taught me when I was a cub here at the Palace, in fact. But I don't see the point in it right now. Being poked by needles is neither my idea of a good time, nor a miraculous cure that will change me. No offense," he added to the insect, a trace of sarcasm in his voice.

 

"None taken," Mantis said stiffly. "And I think you're probably right. But what Master Shifu wants, he gets—though I bet you already know that. Besides, it's a good first step...the amount of chi you've got blocked up in you has got to be tough to deal with."

 

For a moment Po thought Tai Lung was going to swell up and explode at this affront to his dignity and warrior's pride. But then he rolled his eyes and uncrossed his arms, shoulders slumping a little and fists flexing and relaxing at his sides. "Fine, have it your way. Stab me to your heart's content."

 

A wicked gleam entered Mantis's eyes, and the panda had the distinct impression he might just take those words literally if Tai Lung didn't watch himself. But all he did was nod and turn aside, opening the finely lacquered sandalwood box which held his acupuncture kit. "Okay then, sit or lie down on the mat, whichever you like."

 

While the snow leopard grumbled but did as he was bidden, spreading himself out flat on his stomach on the mat, Po had a chance to actually look around and take in his surroundings—something he hadn't exactly been able to do the last time he was here, seeing as how he'd been distracted by all the sharp needles being inserted into his back.

 

Like all the other rooms in the bunkhouse, especially the dormitories of the Furious Five, it was rather Spartan in nature, containing only the bare amenities needed for comfort, hygiene, and everyday living. But like the rest of the Five, Mantis had also added tiny touches here and there to personalize the space, make it his own.

 

Aside from the identical bed and end table that existed in all the other rooms, the insect had also added woven mats fashioned from the cunningly plaited stalks of reeds and strips of bamboo—Po wondered idly if Mantis had made them himself? It wasn't as if a great deal of the Five's legends which had traveled all across China were concerned with such things as their crafts and hobbies...although Mantis would have the patience for it...

 

The small, open-mouthed oil lamp of jade was identical to those each of the other Five had, but instead of the usual beeswax candle fitted into it, the insect had lit one of rich and fragrant agar—to further soothe his patients, the panda presumed, or else to steady Mantis's pincers as he inserted the needles—and suspended jasmine blossoms in the oil filling the bowl around it. A little chest of drawers made of cedar which contained various holistic medicine scrolls and several beautifully painted wall-hangings depicting various views of the valley from the palace completed the furnishings.

 

By the time Po had finished his survey, Mantis was already well under way with the treatment, glancing with a critical eye and jerky, rapid movements from Tai Lung's broad, spotted back to the snow leopard nerve point chart, ensuring he never failed to find the right pressure points to hit.

 

Considering how incredibly thick and heavily layered the feline's cold-weather fur was, surely even more of a detriment to locating the nerves in question, the fact Mantis had made no comments about this strongly suggested to Po the insect had indeed been unfairly biased before against the panda's...padding. Crossing his arms over his chest, he grumbled to himself.

 

Then again, Tai's not exactly a happy camper at the best of times. When you've got a guy with that touchy a dignity, major anger management issues, not to mention the fact he handed the Five's butts to them in a sling at the Thread of Hope...yeah, not teasing him about the fur is probably a good idea.

 

Glancing down at the snow leopard, Po was startled to see not a trace of pain, discomfort, or any emotion at all on his blocky features, except for the same bored disinterest he'd displayed since entering Mantis's room. Certainly not a hint that he might be about to crack a smile if a needle succeeded in tickling him rather than hurting him. He might as well have been one of the statues on the Jade Palace's façade.

 

Impressed all over again, the panda shook his head in wondering admiration. "Wow...how do you do it? That would've had me in stitches by now, or else whimperin'. That is just so totally awesome."

 

Tai Lung's gaze, which had been studiously fixed on nothing, flicked up to him beneath his black-furred brows, which Po had always thought looked like ink had been spilled and swirled on them. And then he smiled—cockily, sardonically—before lapsing back into an expression of faint superiority.

 

"Yes, well, that's what separates the men from the boys, panda. For eighteen years I never once let anyone know when my training pushed me past my body's limits and caused me pain, and I'm not about to start now. Pain is nothing more nor less than nature's way of telling you to slow down. And that I refuse to do. Only by pushing beyond could I prove I was the best—anything less and I would be weak."

 

Po let out an exasperated cry and brought his fists down on the wooden plank flooring. "Jeez! What is it with you and weakness, anyway? There are different kinds of strength, y'know."

 

Whiskers twitched spasmodically, and the cat narrowed his golden eyes, looking something between amused and annoyed. "The strength to lift chopsticks between your bowl and your mouth doesn't count, chubby. Or am I about to be treated to yet another tired old chestnut about the strength of the heart, the wisdom of the mind, and all that rot?"

 

The panda felt his cheeks flush, in shame and in resentment. But before he could think of a comeback from Oogway's repertoire of brilliant (if odd) sayings, Mantis twitched his feelers and snapped, "Tai Lung, you stink!"

 

"What?" The snow leopard's head jerked up and he immediately swiveled it about to glare at the insect furiously.

 

Perched at the small of his back, directly above his indigo pants, Mantis rolled his eyes. "No really, I mean it! You've been wearing these things for twenty years, after all..." He waved his pincer about over his nose holes.

 

Tai Lung seemed unable to decide whether to be mortally offended or relieved that the comment hadn't referred to more than hygiene. "Forgive me, a full laundering service wasn't one of the perks of Chorh-Gom!"

 

Po, who was afraid he looked as green as he felt, eyed the trousers under discussion and made a face. It wasn't as if Vachir and the other rhinos would have cared about Tai Lung's condition, let alone bothered to approach him with the sorts of things most people took for granted—fresh clothes, soap, a bedpan—when it would have been difficult to do anything around his restraints. But still...! They probably drew straws, with the loser gettin' those kinda duties. Suddenly he was angry all over again.

 

"Don't worry, Tai Lung," he said soothingly, holding up both paws. "I'll talk to Master Shifu, we'll get the palace seamstress to get you some new duds lickety-split. Then the next order of business'll be the bathhouse."

 

If he'd expected the snow leopard to act like a stereotypical cat and shudder at the prospect of getting wet, he would have been disappointed. The warrior only rolled his eyes a bit theatrically and sighed, and Po in fact could have sworn he saw a flicker of relief deep in those golden eyes, perhaps at finally getting something he'd been denied almost as long as the Dragon Scroll—common decency and courtesy.

 

Feeling a bit daring, the panda added, "Unless you want me to go get Monkey and have him do the honors for ya. I hear he knows where to find the coldest water west of the Yangtze. A few buckets of that, and—"

 

"No!" The panic was very evident in Tai Lung now, and Po had to keep himself from smirking too openly. "Anything but that...I'll take care of it. I'm a big kitten, you know—I can tie my own leg wraps and everything." And there was the sarcasm again, the eternal defense mechanism.

 

For a moment silence reigned once more, other than the sound of birds singing in the juniper trees outside the dormitory window, while Mantis calmly and painstakingly inserted the next several needles. Then he spoke again, with a note of challenging reproach. "I was also talking about what you said, Tai Lung. I think Tigress is right about you. For a kung fu fighter with almost forty years of experience, you really don't know anything."

 

Po thought this would begin a new round of backbiting with a leg up, but amazingly, the snow leopard only opened his mouth...paused...and then hung his head until his chin almost brushed the floor. "You're right. Nothing is what it seems anymore...and now, I really don't know what to do with my life. But this isn't exactly easy for me. Training endlessly, surpassing all boundaries, becoming the strongest and bravest and most legendary warrior the world has ever known—that's all I have ever known." He looked up, his gaze very direct and pointed. "You can't expect me to change overnight."

 

"No," the panda said slowly, thoughtfully. "But if you want to, and if you're really gonna give Master Shifu a chance to help you do it, ya gotta keep an open mind."

 

"What he said," Mantis chimed in.

 

Tai Lung swallowed, looked away at the rice-paper partition between the insect's room and Viper's. "I...will try."

 

"No one can ask any more than that." At least it's progress.

 

A thoughtful look appeared on Mantis's face, and Po was about to ask him what he was planning when the snow leopard gritted his teeth and snarled softly. "Shifu did. So did Oogway. Nothing I ever did was good enough for them." His voice rose, becoming bitter, self-mocking. "I don't know why I'm even considering accepting his offer to stay—I must still be mad. We're just fooling ourselves here...a leopard can't change his spots."

 

As the last, sarcastic words left Tai Lung's mouth, a sudden breeze picked up outside the palace walls, swirling across the mountaintop and setting wind chimes to tinkling somewhere out of sight. The treetops tossed and danced about like gnarled hands with long, green fingers, and as the wind picked up to buffet the temple itself and blew open the shutters to Mantis's room with a shocking report, Po seriously began to wonder if he was imagining things. For he could have sworn that carried on the air currents was the scent of...peach blossoms.

 

Moments later, the wind had died down as if it had never been, leaving the shutters creaking and banging slowly but all else as it was before—well, almost everything. Because as it had blown through the room, the strange breeze had gently, rather like someone breathing on a bank of candles to extinguish them, rustled across the needles Mantis had inserted. Needles which, unlike the jade-adorned set that had kept the snow leopard paralyzed for a score of years, were only tipped with delicate red feathering and so easily set to swaying and quivering—stimulating every nerve ending all at once.

 

Which meant Tai Lung had, quite reasonably, stiffened in place as his entire pelt frizzed out in a gigantic ball of fluff.

 

After staring at this ridiculous sight for several moments, during which Po had to struggle harder than ever in his life not to laugh, Mantis put a pincer sagely to his chin and observed, "No, but it seems he can change his hairstyle."

 

Po finally did burst out laughing at this, only to stop when he heard a strange sound coming from Tai Lung's throat. For a wild moment he thought the feline was actually having a hairball—then, as the snow leopard shuddered more violently, pulled back as he expected the ex-convict to smash a fist in his face for daring to laugh at his predicament.

 

But when he rose to hands and knees and began to spasm and clutch at his stomach, the Dragon Warrior became alarmed. "Tai? What's wrong, buddy? Are you—" He whipped his head around faster than he ever remembered in his life. "Mantis, what in the heck's going on? What did you do to him?"

 

"Nothing!" The insect actually looked visibly shaken and upset, not to mention completely confused. "I've never seen anything like this—"

 

He cut off as the snow leopard again froze in place, dry heaving as if he were about to vomit...but instead, something began to emerge from his mouth—and not just there, but also his nose, his ears, and even his eyes which were squeezed shut in terrible agony. Something...dark. The panda didn't know any other way to describe it. Flowing, undulating, wriggling in mid-air like tendrils of mist, or dancing cypress fronds. For a weird, nonsensical moment it seemed as if Tai Lung were weeping black tears, as if he had two sets of mustaches.

 

Then, without warning, the diaphanous cloud of inky smoke-substance seemed to snap free of the cat, hover independently in the air below his face...and then ever so slowly drip downward to the floor, there to vanish inexplicably from sight. But not without leaving a mark—for every reed within the mats that it touched immediately smoked, curled in on itself, and then shriveled into a blackened husk.

 

"Whoa! Holy—" Po leaped backward away from the reeds, looking about with a vague sense of seeking out something with which to smother the 'fire,' even as he instinctively knew better than to let any part of him touch it.

 

He was still staring in shock at the floor—which, if his eyes weren't playing tricks on him, was also smoldering beneath the mats—when Tai Lung finally coughed, gasped, and then collapsed, heaving and breathless but otherwise very much alive and well. Seeing this, the panda wiped clammy sweat from his brow and again looked to Mantis for an explanation.

 

"Well, that wasn't a pretty sight," the insect deadpanned, seeming unable to take his eyes from the ruined boards. When he saw Po looking at him, he shrugged his narrow shoulders, although when he spoke again it was in a hushed whisper. "I can't be sure...I'll have to check some of my medical texts, but...I think that was his chi."

 

"What?"

 

"He was holding his stomach, wasn't he?" Mantis demanded in a hiss. "That's where it's concentrated. And I can't think of a better way to unblock and release it than setting off all the nerves at once. Wouldn't have done it quite like that, but..." He shook his head. "That was unexpected."

 

"You think?" This, of course, came from Tai Lung, who had at last recovered enough to sit up and glare with rather wild, bloodshot eyes at both of them, though he seemed to reserve most of his ire for the insect.

 

Putting one paw to his head with a piteous groan, the snow leopard winced, blinked a few times, then with a resentful glare tried to flatten his fur back into some semblance of order. Twisting his arm behind him, he then began deliberately yanking out one needle after another.

 

"Oh here, let me do it," Mantis said, leaping up onto the cat's shoulder to start plucking out the needles with more delicate care. "You might hurt yourself."

 

Tai Lung snorted. "I think you've done quite enough, thank you. I thought you said you were an expert."

 

Silently, soberly, Mantis stared at him as if he were prey he had just caught and trapped—then reached out and struck one needle with both pincers, tweaking his facial nerve.

 

After one look at the embarrassingly goofy expression twisted onto Tai Lung's features, and realizing that was exactly how he had looked in the same position, Po closed his eyes, covered his face, and turned away.

 

Yet after a few moments the panda somehow found himself drawn to look again. This time the sight was so comical, and he felt safe enough thanks to the accompanying paralysis, that he giggled and couldn't resist one little jab.

 

"Hey...that looks good on you."

 

The words the snow leopard spoke were aggrieved and deeply frustrated. "If I weren't immobilized, panda, you'd be bloody dead."

Chapter Text

Chapter 6 Icon

By the time afternoon had arrived, the news of Tai Lung's remarkable acupuncture session had spread throughout the Jade Palace—helped along mostly by the gossipy nature of Mantis, naturally. Such tales grew in the telling, of course, so that by the time Master Shifu heard of it from Monkey, the snow leopard had practically been swimming in the disturbing black chi and his fur, rather than standing on end, had all fallen out.

 

Once the incredulous laughter had died down, the red panda had of course sought out Po for the true account. And once that had been related, the kung fu master had sighed, fixed his gaze on the floor, and murmured—not for the first time in the last few days—that he wished Oogway were there.

 

Completely aside from the fact that the suspicious wind which had been the impetus for the strange occurrence had clearly been some sort of spiritual sending from the turtle, Shifu knew that his master would have understood what was happening, what it all meant. He was the one who first foresaw darkness in Tai Lung, after all...and matters of the soul had always been his province, regardless.

 

Yet Oogway was not here, and it was up to him to chart his son's future course from now on.

 

Tai Lung, on the other hand, once he had recovered from his mortifying shame, had become surprisingly relaxed, calm, and at peace. It was as if the release of his pent-up chi had also unbound a strap which had been wrapped tightly about his heart, allowing him to at last let go of the emotions he had always kept buried so deeply within. This seeming banishment of darkness and evil from his heart had mollified objections from Tigress and Monkey, at least for now, since it seemed to put paid to the notion that he was incapable of change and didn't have a chance to redeem himself.

 

Not that he miraculously transformed into a kind and perfectly balanced Zen master—not by any means! But a great deal of the tension which had always seemed knotted up beneath the prodigious muscles of his shoulders, as well as hovering in the air whenever he entered a room, had retreated, leaving him more clear-headed and focused than Shifu ever remembered seeing him.

 

More to the point, the acupuncture session had also had one appreciable difference, what it had in fact been intended to do all along—the snow leopard now seemed in much better health than at any point since the great battles he had fought. Almost literally bouncing on the balls of his feet, a revitalizing energy coursing through his veins and a hope in his golden eyes that hadn't been there before, Tai Lung seemed bent on getting back into peak fighting condition.

 

Any time Po or one of the Five brought him his meals over the next several days, they invariably caught him doing push-ups (vertical as well as horizontal!), tai chi stretches, the opening stances for the kung fu styles in which he had always specialized and excelled—most notably, Tiger style... And at least once, it had seemed the feline somehow managed to escape his cell—until Shifu looked up, and found him dangling upside down from the ceiling joist, performing belly crunches while barely breaking a sweat.

 

Seeing this amazing change in Tai Lung, Po had decided to take it as a sign that he could try a new approach in befriending his once-feared enemy. And so he had asked permission to take the prisoner to the training hall, for a one-on-one sparring session. Despite the encouraging shift in his son's attitude, Shifu was quite understandably reluctant.

 

Even if this were not an elaborate act on Tai Lung's part, he found it rather hard to swallow that the feline could have so readily conquered his temper and his pride, let alone proven worthy of being released from his cell and allowed the run of the palace. After all, he still had not, as yet, agreed to Shifu's terms...and even if he had relinquished all claims to the Dragon Scroll, being left alone with Po, the one who had both denied him his destiny and utterly humiliated him—well, that seemed like far too risky a temptation to dangle in front of the snow leopard.

 

At the same time, though, trust had to be extended and offered sometime...and what better way for Tai Lung to purge the jealousy, anger, and resentment from his heart than by learning to interact with Po? So, after a great deal of worrisome thought, Shifu had compromised—the two could train together, but only under his direct supervision, never alone.

 

Which was why the red panda now found himself standing on the platform overlooking the Spinning Serpents, watching unblinkingly as the student he had raised from a cub and the student he'd striven his hardest to drive away bowed to each other and took their proper positions. Tai Lung, he saw, had that familiar, challenging gleam in his eyes, the one that said he was the best, he knew it, and he was about to prove it. But Po's green eyes were no less cocky and excited.

 

This is not going to end well.

 

At first, however, it seemed as if Shifu's pessimistic cynicism had been unfounded, for the snow leopard did not immediately launch into a whirlwind of smashing, crushing blows, nor kick Po in the chest and hurl him back into the Gauntlet of Wooden Warriors as he had feared. Instead Tai Lung merely circled his opponent slowly and cautiously—perhaps having learned from their last encounter?—while he eyed the panda up and down.

 

Darting out with a paw every now and then, as if prepared to strike, only to draw back and prove it to be a feint. Sizing up the Dragon Warrior, gauging his true skills, plotting a foolproof strategy to defeat him...or could he possibly be holding back, giving Po a fighting chance to see what he was truly made of?

 

Shifu knew, however much he now believed in his newest student, that Po was nowhere near the level of a true kung fu master in terms of skills and knowledge of the scrolls. His defeat of the feline had been due to wisdom, cleverness, insight—and more than a little luck. The snow leopard knew this too, and so surely must wish to take the panda's true measure...

 

Even as Shifu's unease grew and he once again doubted his sanity in allowing this 'rematch', Tai Lung suddenly struck. And despite the fact he'd trained the leopard from cubhood, and had recently had a rather up-close-and-personal reminder of his abilities from what had nearly been a combat to the death, the red panda found himself marveling all over again at just what his best student could accomplish.

 

Whether because he'd learned his lesson in the town square, because he was actually only fighting as a training exercise, or for some other unknown reason, Tai Lung did not use his nerve strike attack. Instead he drew upon every legal and honorable kung fu move in his repertoire that he could—though of course applied with as much vigor, force, and power as he could muster; as always, the snow leopard played to win.

 

A Tiger punch aimed straight for the panda's face, turned at the last second into an open palm strike, rocking Po's head back. An upsweep of one leg to smash across the Dragon Warrior's neck, instead abruptly curled back before lashing out with Viper-like speed into Po's breastbone. An immediate duck and crouch, followed by a scissors-kick to knock the panda's legs out from under him. A flurry of blows going by in rapid succession, each one either blocking a return punch from Po, or smacking hard into the black-and-white furred bear—the very audible thunks only made less painful than they sounded by all of the fat he had as padding.

 

In his defense, the panda truly did try his best to weather the assault. In fact he put into practice a great many of the lessons Shifu had taught him, as well as some unique moves he'd come up with on his own to fit his 'panda style.' Only half of the blows Tai Lung made actually landed since the Dragon Warrior succeeded in blocking the rest, and with a boulder-like steadiness that seemed to startle and even impress the snow leopard.

 

When he received that kick to the sternum, he absorbed the momentum of the blow by rolling backwards, landing harmlessly on his massive belly and soon standing upright again. And he actually succeeded in dodging the scissors-kick before launching his own flurry of blows in return, including one rigid chop that produced a choked gasp from Tai Lung as it connected with his throat.

 

It was clear, of course, that he remained sadly outclassed...but rather than grim or resigned to this fate, Po looked positively giddy, that endless and irrepressible grin on his face the whole time he was being trounced.

 

It was, in fact, the same look he'd worn all throughout the grueling crash course to kung fu that Shifu had subjected him to—when no matter how furiously he'd tried to discourage the panda and send him packing, Po had only seemed to gain strength from his abuse and come back raring for more. The panda truly was an eternal child, as well as a fanatical devotee of kung fu, with a determination and willpower Shifu had never expected, and could only admire.

 

What truly surprised him, however, was to see a nearly identical expression on Tai Lung's face, or as close to it as he could come. Not manic excitement or unholy glee, but a broad grin he had not seen on his son since before his adolescence...when kung fu had been more than his life, a means of achieving greatness or his father's love. A grin he never thought he'd see again. He was enjoying himself. He was having fun. Shifu fought the urge to rub his eyes in disbelief.

 

Suddenly, something shifted. In one of his all-too-frequent fits of klutziness, Po tripped on the edge of a loose plank in the wooden flooring and fell flat on his face in an ignominious heap. Tai Lung, who had been in the middle of a lunge that, had it connected, might well have bounced him off the panda's belly again, instead let out a yowl of surprise as he tumbled helplessly over Po's head, coming so close to his intended target that he passed by literally a hair's-breadth above the Dragon Warrior. And his inertia carried him on—right off the platform, into the middle of the Furious Five's obstacle course.

 

Instinctively, Shifu found himself leaping forward even though it was far too late—as had been his habit all throughout Tai Lung's early years of training, he wished to spare him any harm or pain, wished to catch him before he fell and take the blows of the training equipment meant for him. At the edge of the platform, though, the red panda stopped himself with a muttered curse.

 

He's not your little boy anymore! Even if he has changed, he never wanted you to coddle him, and would be furious if you tried. Besides...he hardly needs your protection anymore, if he ever...did... He lost his train of thought as, in spite of himself, he stared with jaw hanging at just what the snow leopard was doing.

 

Despite the long years of his incarceration, despite the injuries he had recently sustained, despite the changes Shifu had made in the kwoon since his rampage, and despite having tumbled into it by accident...Tai Lung was navigating the course perfectly.

 

Landing inverted on his paws atop the Spinning Serpents, he tilted his body back and forth with consummate balance, performing the prolonged handstand as if it were his usual means of locomotion. When the Swinging Clubs of Oblivion dropped toward him, he flexed his shoulders and pushed off, springing high above their arc so that none of them even came close to touching him—as he flipped down to the rim of the Jade Tortoise of Wisdom, he even used his tail to bat one club back the way it had come, so it smashed into one of its companions instead. Riding the shell as it rolled and gyrated around the floor, he timed his launching point so as to land between the Wooden Warriors just as their spiked limbs swung away, leaving him unharmed in the spaces amidst them. As they rotated back around again on their greased wheels, he struck with fists and feet alike—but without smashing them to pieces, instead making each spin about to embed itself in its neighbor, again leaving him room to maneuver between them.

 

As the last row twirled about to form an impenetrable phalanx, the snow leopard lashed his tail, gathered the strength in his powerful legs, and from a standing start leaped more than twice his own height, catching onto one of the Seven Talon Rings as it swung by overhead...and although his upper body was far too bulky to fit through them, he seemed to have no difficulty whatsoever in swinging adroitly from one ring to the next, using acrobatic moves that would make even Monkey whistle. And as he reached the final ring in the line, its chain sending him out above the Field of Fiery Death, he only narrowed his eyes and watched clinically, calculatingly, as he observed the pattern of the spurting tubes. On the next arc, he let go—and sprang again and again, taking a winding, circuitous course across the field rather than the direct route an amateur would be tempted to use, thereby avoiding each fiery geyser as it shot upwards...so that not even a single hair or whisker was singed.

 

Shifu snapped his jaw shut, his teeth making an audible click. In spite of himself, pride welled up in his heart. That was the student he had trained. Simply magnificent.

 

Barely out of breath, Tai Lung landed on the far platform, wrenched his neck about with a few disconcerting cracks, and then calmly strode back along the narrow side walkway to return to his former master's side. Unsurprisingly, there was a rather cocky grin on his face, a smugness far too pleased for his liking...but something else in his eyes, puzzlement turning to understanding, perhaps as he realized that the feat he'd just performed had not, in fact, required the Dragon Scroll. That he did not need a title or a special artifact to prove he was a great warrior.

 

Po seemed to be of the same opinion. As he struggled back to his feet, holding his ribs where the snow leopard had gotten in a fairly powerful punch, the panda was staring at Tai Lung with the same sort of hero worship and awe as he had when he first met the Five. He stared from the feline to the obstacle course, eyes flicking back and forth, one finger raised to point at each of the deadly challenges and then the virtual kung fu master who had defeated them, his mouth working soundlessly. Then at last, with eyes as wide and round as rice bowls, he stammered, "Th-that...was...awesome!"

 

Leaning casually against a ceiling post, the snow leopard rolled his eyes. "Is that the only word you know? You seem to use it far too much."

 

"I know, but—just, wow! That's gotta be a record!"

 

"Probably." Tai Lung smirked, and Shifu frowned to himself. This was starting to move into dangerous territory...

 

Flustered and overwhelmed, Po gestured wildly, as if he could snatch the right words he wanted out of the air. "Really! With moves like that, I can't believe I beat your tail the other day."

 

Oh no. Shifu slapped his forehead and ran his paw down his muzzle.

 

A very loud thud, and a rather pitiful squeak from the Dragon Warrior, made him open his eyes in time to see the snow leopard pinning Po against the post behind him, one paw wrapped tightly around the panda's throat as he held him several feet off the floor, the other paw clenched and drawn back—prepared to smash his face in. He hadn't even heard Tai Lung move.

 

"You..." Tai Lung growled, the venom and bitterness simmering beneath the surface more frightening than any rage or hatred his father had ever heard in that harsh voice. "You ridiculous, self-righteous, smug...how dare you patronize me!"

 

"I wasn't—I just—"

 

"Tai Lung, ENOUGH!" Shifu marched forward, banging his staff into the floorboards to emphasize his point. He knew this had been a mistake, he knew the vicious killer who had once been his son would revert to form, he knew he'd been wrong to trust and believe—

 

"No no, it's okay, Master Shifu, I got it!" Po's voice came out comically nasal and muffled thanks to his predicament, but for a wonder he sounded as if he meant it. And indeed, in moments he had latched onto Tai Lung's injured finger, lifting his pinky in the telltale position.

 

If matters had been otherwise, the red panda would have been deeply amused at how quickly the feline dropped the Dragon Warrior.

 

Still, the snow leopard's shoulders remained extremely tense, and the resentment and genuine hurt on his face didn't fade even as he stepped back and rubbed his knuckles absently. "Is that all you have? A one-trick pony, are you? I know Shifu must have taught you better than that!"

 

Po rubbed his throat, still gasping and coughing. "Got your attention, didn't it? And no, of course he—"

 

Tai Lung sneered, continuing as if he hadn't even heard him. "Or maybe not. Maybe you're still just a big, fat panda who just got lucky."

 

"Hey now, that's hitting a little below the—"

 

"I get it, I understand!" The snow leopard's voice was rough and fierce, and Shifu felt a familiar stab in his heart as he heard the true pain in it. "You're the Dragon Warrior, and I'm not! But you don't have to rub it in. You already humiliated me once, isn't that enough?"

 

"What are you talking about?" Po snapped.

 

"Do I have to spell it out?" Tai Lung snarled sarcastically. "You battered me senseless, made me bite my own tail, bounced me off that belly of yours, and turned me into a laughingstock! No one in the village, or the whole valley, will ever take me seriously again!"

 

The panda winced, looking rather guilty. His voice became evasive, even as his eyes shifted uncomfortably about, never meeting Tai Lung's gimlet gaze. "Yeah, well, ya didn't leave me much choice there, buddy. It was you or me, and you're the one who made it that way. I gave you every chance to call it quits, but you just wouldn't stop—"

 

Tai Lung's nostrils flared. "You made me...bite...my tail." He seemed very stuck on that point.

 

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry! Is that what ya wanted to hear?" Po held up both paws and backed a step or two away. "I was just doin' whatever I could to win, same as you. You wouldn't listen to me, what else was I supposed to do?"

 

Throughout this exchange, the red panda was looking back and forth between the two warriors, following the volley of insults, retorts, and demands as if he were tracking the blows and punches in an actual kung fu tournament. After recovering from his flabbergasted silence, he was about to step forward and intervene again...except, to his shock, the snow leopard was not snarling and lashing out in fury, whether with words or his meat-hook fists. He was actually listening! Could it be that Po was reaching him?

 

Wisely, Shifu decided to step back...let this play out, and see where it led. Neither he nor Oogway had been able to reason with Tai Lung. Perhaps the panda could. He had already proven himself capable of things Shifu could not have imagined...and if the scroll had indeed given him power, not cosmic abilities or kung fu prowess but wisdom, faith, insight...yes, there was a chance.

 

The snow leopard was still paused, mouth open to retort a reply...but then he closed it, sighing heavily. All the anger seemed to bleed out of him as he deflated, replaced by confusion and shame. He turned away. "I...I don't know. I seem to be saying that a great deal lately as well. But that still gives you no right to treat me like this!"

 

"Like what? I was givin' you a compliment, ever heard of it?" Po was angrier than Shifu had ever heard him, but there was also a note of true sympathy in his voice, a willingness to understand. "Geez, what is your problem, anyway?"

 

"Oh, I don't know, panda," the feline drawled. "Maybe it's the fact you took away everything I wanted to be?"

 

"And what do you wanna be?" Before Tai Lung could answer, Po held up his paw again, shading his eyes with the other. "No, wait, I know that already. What I don't know is why. And don't just give me the same old spiel about Master Shifu. I think there's more to it than that."

 

After a few long moments of silence, during which he seemed to be struggling with whether he should bother to answer Po, or perhaps simply with what words he should use, the snow leopard at last looked up challengingly.

 

"Why did I want to be the Dragon Warrior...isn't that the question of the century. I wanted it...because Shifu wanted it. Because Oogway never gave him the scroll either, so I thought...if I could achieve it, the thing that had made my father feel like a failure...then he would be proud of me. Then, he wouldn't feel like a failure anymore."

 

Tai Lung studiously avoided looking at the red panda, who for his part was absolutely stunned—and overcome with sorrow as he realized at last just what he had done to his son. His shoulders slumped, his whole body hunching over as, for the first time in a long while, he felt the weight of his years lie heavily upon him.

 

"One other thing." The ex-convict fixed his gaze on the panda, his eyes burning like twin suns, though with what emotion, Shifu could not have presumed to know even if he'd had clear vision to observe him…rather than seeing the hulking snow leopard through a watery film of tears. "I wanted to be the Dragon Warrior...because then finally I would have a place. I wouldn't be a lost orphan anymore. I'd be a hero—the greatest hero in all of China."

 

Clenching his fist spasmodically in front of his chest, Tai Lung had an odd mix of belligerence and desperation in both face and voice as he tried to make them understand.

 

"All that phenomenal power he was supposed to possess. A vision to grasp and fully understand the universe, from the farthest reaches of the stars to the depths of the human heart. Courage, wisdom, fortitude...stamina that would never yield, always enduring...everything I lacked. And most of all, a purpose."

 

He spread his paws helplessly, as if trying to grasp at clouds. "I would know what I was meant to do, and I could do it. I would fight so that no others had to, defend our borders so that all of China could be as safe and protected as this valley. I would be legendary...because I would never fail in my charge."

 

For a moment he stood straight and tall, chest puffed out proudly while a fervent, if menacing, fire of resolve shone from his countenance. "I could be the Emperor's personal bodyguard...make sure the Huns never crossed our borders, or if they did they would regret it." He chuckled darkly...but then his voice turned oddly tender. "Ensure all of those helpless, defenseless people in the village could grow their crops, raise their children, bring a bright future."

 

Abruptly the gentleness was gone, as he whipped about to skewer first Shifu, then Po, with his vicious stare. "But all of that was denied me by Oogway. Everyone I could have protected—they only saw me as a worthless man without a family or lands, no children, no legacy, only shattered dreams and nothing to show for his life! It didn't matter that I'd mastered the thousand scrolls—to them, I would always be the man who wasn't the Dragon Warrior."

 

Crestfallen, he clenched his fists again as if longing to strike something. Finally, after a few moments of seeking about futilely, his eyes locked on the Adversary nearby and he lashed out—punching the dummy so hard it hurtled completely across the training hall and smashed into the wall, breaking the boards behind it.

 

Shifu winced, squeezing his eyes shut, even though part of him was grateful the leather hadn't split to let the sand inside spill out. For all the disparagement he'd shown toward it during Po's initial training, the Adversary held many memories for him...some fond and as precious as jade, some incredibly painful, all of them bittersweet.

 

As he looked up at the snow leopard, he saw reflected in his eyes some of them—a tiny, adorable cub delivering an almighty kick for his size, knocking the same dummy back several feet before turning, his shining gaze clearly saying 'Look what I did, daddy!' The red panda giving him that rare but treasured smile and a squeeze of the shoulder for a job well done...and the utterly elated cub rising up to nuzzle him, purring ecstatically.

 

"No," he finally managed to say, his voice hoarse and shaky. "You couldn't be more wrong, Tai Lung. No matter what anyone else in the valley thought, you were my son, and I loved you. No title or scroll could ever have changed that, one way or another." The forcefulness that had come with these last words faded into earnest regret.

 

"I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am if I made you think otherwise. You certainly weren't worthless. You mastered all one thousand scrolls, and the number of warriors who have done that in the thousand years Oogway lived here, I can count on the fingers of one paw. And none of them did it when as young as you were. You may not have believed it, but that alone would have made you just as legendary as my master and I." He paused, then added firmly, "But you didn't have to be...I would have loved you no matter what."

 

Just as had occurred a few days ago in the Hall of Warriors during their confrontation, Tai Lung stared at him with a bleak, anguished expression, his brows quivering as if he were about to burst into tears. He did not...but neither did his heart harden and refuse him. "Forgive me for saying this, but you didn't exactly make it easy for me to believe that."

 

While the red panda flushed at the rebuke, which only stung because it was undeniably true, Po stepped forward. All trace of anger and frustration was gone from his face, replaced by compassion and warmth, the same sort of service he might have given down at Mr. Ping's noodle shop to a lonely, solitary customer. "I get it, I understand," he said, a bit wryly. "I told ya before, I know you had it bad, Tai. And I really feel for ya. Gettin' rejected for not bein' the Dragon Warrior? I know just what that's like—same thing happened to me, just before I fought ya. But you're wrong about somethin' else."

 

"Oh?" the snow leopard muttered. "And what might that be?"

 

The Dragon Warrior stepped forward and slapped a paw on Tai Lung's shoulder. "When you said I took away everythin' you wanted to be. Because you haven't lost any of that stuff you were dreamin' of—you can still be a hero, buddy. Like I said before, an' I'll keep sayin' till it sinks in, you don't need a scroll for that." Sincerity vied with conviction in his voice. "The only one standin' in your way...is you."

 

Now it was Tai Lung's turn to let his jaw drop. Despite how simple and sensible this advice was—so simple he had somehow not seen what was before his own muzzle—he could not seem to find the words to respond. Finally, after several moments during which Shifu was certain he would fall backwards and sit down hard on the wooden floor, the snow leopard put a paw to his head, shook it, and sighed, looking rather mournful.

 

"But...how? After all I've done...no one in the valley will ever forgive me. Tigress certainly won't. And I don't deserve it. I can't...I can't be what you think I can."

 

"Of course you can!" Po's grin was like the sun beaming out from behind the clouds. "If you don't believe it, look at me! I always wanted to be a kung fu warrior—do you think I ever thought I'd be livin' the dream? If I can be a hero, anybody can!"

 

Shifu snickered behind his hand, trying very hard not to ruin the moment.

 

The feline rather looked as if he wanted to agree, if for no other reason than because of the panda's...unorthodox means of defeating him, except that to do so would be to admit Po could be right about him, too. Finally compromising with a high degree of skepticism, he said, "I...suppose so."

 

"You don't believe me?" A strange look passed over Po's chubby face, which if Shifu didn't know any better he'd have called one of cunning and plotting. Coming to some sort of decision, the panda posted his fists on his nonexistent hips and turned to face the training hall.

 

At the same moment Shifu figured out what he was up to and was about to hastily intervene, Po gave that devil-may-care grin he'd come to know all too well and, without warning or hesitation, nonchalantly leaped forward, off the platform, into the obstacle course.

 

To Shifu's surprise, even Tai Lung cried out, but it was already too late to do anything but helplessly watch. What stunned the red panda even more was that despite the crash course he'd given Po on Wu Dan Mountain, and his defeat of the snow leopard, he seemed to have learned nothing when it came to the deadly devices of the kwoon. Although...Shifu narrowed his eyes, focusing closely on the Dragon Warrior as he windmilled his arms atop the Spinning Serpents, his overweight body constantly in danger of toppling into the water. Was he overcompensating deliberately?

 

By the time Po had rolled and banged around inside the Jade Tortoise (with decidedly more grace and style than he had any right to) and smashed into the middle of the Wooden Warriors with agonized screams of pain, the kung fu master was certain of it. While hardly an expert fighter, Po was opting to fail the course as dismally as he had his first day at the Jade Palace. But why...?

 

As a crocodile arm spun about and stabbed its spikes right into Po's rump, sending him several feet off the floor with a howl, an echoing cry came from beside Shifu, and he turned to stare at Tai Lung. The snow leopard had his eyes screwed most of the way shut, though one remained cracked open enough to keep watch of the catastrophe in progress...and while he flinched, winced, pursed his lips, groaned, and murmured in sympathy at all the right places, an amused and contented look was definitely struggling to make its way to the surface at all times.

 

At last, Shifu began to understand. Very good, panda. Very wise indeed.

 

Eventually the panda staggered out the other side of the course, his fur nearly as ash-covered, smoking, and burned to a crisp in places as it had been when he established 'level zero.' Lurching in a lazy zigzag down the walkway, he finally reeled to a stop only a few feet from Tai Lung, giving the feline a cheesy grin that came out more like a grimace.

 

"There...ya see? I ain't...that much of a hero. Title's...still open for ya, buddy." He grinned proudly, holding up one finger. "But at least that time...I missed my tenders." Suddenly going cross-eyed, Po stiffened, then collapsed on his stomach with a thunderous thud.

 

A dead silence filled the training hall for several moments. Shifu looked at Tai Lung, and Tai Lung looked at Shifu. The snow leopard seemed absolutely incredulous, clearly unable to believe what he'd just witnessed. Then...slowly...he began to chuckle. The chuckle became a snicker, then a guffaw, and finally outright, full-throated, belly-bursting laughter.

 

Gasping between paroxysms of hilarity, the man who had become the feared scourge of the Valley of Peace peered down at Po, who was staring at him through bleary eyes. "I...I can't believe...you beat my tail...the other day!"

 

At that, Po too began to laugh, softly at first and then with ever-increasing gusto, while Tai Lung actually clutched his stomach and leaned against the wall before collapsing beside the panda, tears of mirth streaming from his eyes.

 

And slowly, Shifu smiled.

 

Bonding in the Kwoon

Chapter Text

Chapter 7 Icon

 

Morning dawned clear, cool, and misty, as it often did on the peak which supported the Jade Palace, bringing with it rich, thick banks of pearlescent brume draped over the distant hills ringing the Valley of Peace, tattering and tearing the clouds into strange, ragged formations that undulated and shifted with the slightest breeze. It also brought warm rays of sun slanting from the east across the ruddy roof tiles, the scent of jasmine and cherry blossoms on the breeze, the sounds of birds singing sweetly in the tree branches...

 

And the grumbling, vicious snarling of a very displeased feline, interspersed with deep, heavy gasps and grunts, as of one very out of breath.

 

On the aged, rough-hewn staircase which extended for so many countless steps up the mountainside, Tai Lung glared balefully from beneath his jutting brows, even as he marveled anew at just how he had gotten himself into this situation...allowed Shifu to once again get the drop on him, and manipulate him.

 

It had all started when the red panda had announced, upon visiting his cell at the crack of dawn (the master's usual time of rousing himself, as it had been since the snow leopard's cubhood and probably for much longer), that the temple was in need of supplies from the village. Foodstuffs, mostly, but also medicines and herbs for his continued treatment and bolts of fabric to be used in fashioning him new clothing. Tai Lung had been grateful to hear of these further attempts to look out for his welfare—until Shifu had blithely noted that he wished his former student to be the one to fetch the supplies.

 

Only by sheer force of will had Tai Lung not immediately launched into a blistering tirade, speaking volumes of eloquence on just how displeased he was at being demoted to an errand boy. When he had instead noted, through gritted teeth, that the people of the valley would hardly countenance their collective bogeyman casually strolling through their streets to pick up groceries, Shifu had agreed—which, aside from the unwise course of allowing Tai Lung unfettered access to the town, was why he would not be going alone.

 

At this the feline had jumped at the chance, demanding that Shifu accompany him—or better still, go in his stead. But the panda had pleaded infirmity. With both tiny hands clutched at the small of his back, and an expression of rather unconvincing anguish and suffering on his mustached face, his former master had, with equal parts gall and guile, complained bitterly of the aches and pains that came with age—and in particular, the terrible bruises on his spine and shoulders that he'd received days ago in the Hall of Warriors...though he "couldn't imagine where they might have come from".

 

Flatly glaring at this not-so-subtle reference to their climactic battle—as he always had been, as any parent in the history of parenting, Shifu was master of the guilt trip as well as kung fu—Tai Lung had yet been unable to rebut that claim. But when he had, with surprising hopefulness, suggested Po, the red panda had only laughed ruefully and said that the snow leopard would have to be a sadist if he wanted to force the poor, roly-poly Dragon Warrior to trek up and down that colossal stairway carrying such a heavy load. And what makes you think I'm notor that that wasn't precisely what I was after...? The fact Tai Lung, his upper body strength notwithstanding, would be the one doing that instead was somehow not remarked upon, oddly enough.

 

Besides, Shifu had added, whoever went with him also had to be able to reassure the townspeople that Tai Lung would not go on a rampage again—and actually possess the skill to prevent him from doing so. And there was only one member of the Furious Five he was confident could do that.

 

As soon as the ex-convict had realized just whom Shifu was referring to, his heart had jumped in his chest (and, he had to be honest with himself, so did another portion of his anatomy) at the thought of finally getting to be alone with Master Tigress again. She'd been avoiding him ever since their last talk, but now with her master giving her a direct order, she'd be unable to weasel out of it this time. Finally, he could have a chance to continue breaking through the chinks of her armor and get through to her... With ill grace that barely disguised his eagerness, he had at last agreed to the excursion.

 

That, however, was before he discovered what a harsh taskmistress Tigress truly was.

 

"Come on! You call that marching? If I didn't know better, Tai Lung, I'd think all your time in Chorh-Gom left you out-of-shape and flabby. A true kung fu master would have been up and down the stairs several times already with that load..."

 

"I'd be quite able to run circles around you, Master Tigress, if I weren't burdened down with these," the snow leopard snapped, teeth clacking together as if about a throat he would soon be tearing out violently.

 

These being the collection of oversized wicker baskets and hampers he'd been ordered to carry—one around his neck so as to bang upon his chest, several on each arm, and still more dangling down his backside until he rather resembled an ambulatory laundress' shop. The only thing marring that image—aside from his complete lack of skill at the task, so that the baskets were constantly in danger of tipping over or toppling him down the steps—was his bare head. And even that would have been supporting another basket if Tigress had had her way!

 

"I mean, really!" Tai Lung continued waspishly. "Are all these baskets strictly necessary? Just how much were you planning to buy? Surely Shifu didn't give you that high an allowance..."

 

Tigress smiled at him in a lofty, superior fashion. "What can I say, I like to be prepared for anything."

 

"And the reason you can't be bothered to carry any of them would be...?"

 

Her smile became, if anything, just a bit too sweet for his tastes. "What would be the point of that? I'm not the one who's supposed to be learning lessons here."

 

Narrowing his eyes at her striped backside as she swaggered down the stairs ahead of him, nonchalantly paring an apple with her claws, Tai Lung considered her words intently—but after several minutes couldn't make heads or tails of them. It didn't make any sense...why would Shifu be using such inane tactics to try and train him, or convince him to be trained? The acupuncture, the sparring session at the kwoon...they at least were understandable. But this?

 

Perhaps I hit him a bit too hard the other day, and jogged his brain a tad loose. He's starting to get as nutty as Oogway was. And that sort of idiotic thinking is not going to earn me what I want.

 

Of course, he still didn't know what that was—other than a life, an identity, a chance at normality and happiness that everyone else had, something to replace the yawning void in his life which had abruptly opened up to swallow him whole as soon as he learned the scroll and the title of Dragon Warrior could never be his, or weren't what he thought they were. And, of course, Master Tigress. For while he might not appreciate her attitude just now, a part of him still couldn't help but admire it, and her.

 

He knew, more than ever now, that the path he had set himself, the task of wooing her heart, would be even more complex, conflicted, and difficult than he had believed—and he'd hardly been wearing blinkers on that score to begin with. But he believed he'd read, somewhere or other, that faint hearts never win fair maidens. While Tigress was certainly no maiden, he couldn't see how anything less than stalwart courage and unyielding determination would be sufficient to even gain her respect, let alone anything more—in fact they'd be even more required. Luckily, he had them in spades. Or at least he would, if it weren't for this wretchedly demeaning servant act Shifu compelled of him!

 

That he would succeed in the end, he had not the slightest doubt. He had, after all, succeeded at far more demanding, and far more monumental, acts than this. He had mastered all one thousand scrolls before the age of eighteen. He had escaped every single restraint, booby trap, guard, and deadly weapon at Chorh-Gom used to house and bind him, from a prison that had been set aside and prepared solely for him, tailored precisely to his skills and ways of thinking—and he'd done it with the aid of a single feather. He had defeated the Furious Five in single combat, something even whole armies hadn't been able to accomplish. And while it had been short-lived and, in the end, pointless, he had at least for a time managed to hold the Dragon Scroll in his paws.

 

Surely, after all of this, he could achieve something as relatively simple as a woman's affections! Especially with the way she was looking at him, back in his cell that night... If only he blasted well knew how to win her, make her his own!

 

Obviously trying to play up his heroism and honor were right out. Granted, the example he'd used on her hadn't been a very good one, as he himself had admitted. For while he had not deliberately hurled Tigress off the Thread of Hope, to say that he had saved her life through anything more than blind chance and instinct would be, if not a lie, then certainly a half-truth.

 

Of course he'd had no compunctions saying anything of the sort if it would convince her he wasn't a stark raving madman...but after the way she had so neatly deflected him, shot down almost every point in his argument and even come up with rebuttals he couldn't defuse, all he had been able to think was how deeply he regretted not saving her life. Maybe one day, she'd give him the chance to remedy that.

 

In the meantime, exactly how he would prove to her he had changed, or at least that he wished to, was still beyond him. The most obvious answer, of course, would be to do something undeniably good-willed and selfless, something which would testify to his trustworthiness and responsibility. But there rather seemed to be a shortage of natural disasters to avert or villainous invaders to trounce. That's what happens when you're the scourge of the valleyeveryone and everything else pales in comparison.

 

He might attempt to manufacture one, but that would require the cooperation of everyone in the village—extremely unlikely, that—or at least a hapless, trusting soul like Po as his accomplice. If Shifu found out, he could kiss good-bye any possible chance for his staying at the Jade Palace any longer. And if Tigress found out, or more likely saw right through it...

 

Damn. I really don't know which would be worseno, I do. Forget Shifu; if he lost faith in you, you'd be right back in prison, after being beaten into a mass of bruises. But if Tigress suspects anything, you'll be dead. Gutted, eviscerated in ten seconds flat. Or worse, she'll hand you your family jewels on a silver platter.

 

He shuddered. No, a very bad idea.

 

So where did that leave him? He couldn't demonstrate it, and if the other night was any indication, simply talking to her wouldn't even put a dent in her obstinacy...and adopting Po's tactic of pointing out commonalities between them had failed dismally, too...

 

By the time they'd finally reached the foot of the staircase and were standing before the smoothly cobbled pathway that led toward the moon bridge into the village proper, Tai Lung had completely exhausted all the possibilities he could think of to change Tigress's mind about him—to the point he was on the verge of simply falling on his knees and begging her, pride be damned—and he'd also exhausted his body from carrying the baskets, which had somehow seemed to gain ten pounds with every step.

 

Staggering to a halt and dumping them in a heap on the steps, he mopped at his sweaty brow and studiously avoided looking behind him, back up toward the palace. The fact the hampers would be even heavier on the return trip only made him groan aloud all the more.

 

"What's the matter?" Tigress interrupted his bemoaning reverie, taking a juicy bite out of her apple. "Had enough already?"

 

He was about to answer her with what would probably have been a far too scathing and unwise retort, when something happened that completely drew his thoughts and focus away from romance, redemption, or even his constant grumbling about his current plight.

 

Across the river, beyond the bridge's curving arch, the morning bustle had overtaken the village, with throngs of pigs, rabbits, sheep, goats, and even one or two storks going about their daily business. An innkeeper was sweeping his front steps, a washerwoman was just pouring soap into her gallon tub, and vendors and customers alike were already haggling in the marketplace. He thought he spied a contingent of the temple guardsmen in their distinctive brocaded robes of jade green, and several messenger geese fluttering about, their golden garments glittering brightly in the sunlight. And of course even this early, there were swarms of children darting about, ignoring their parents' desperate cries as they got underfoot, their joyful, innocent shouts floating easily to him on the air, mingling with the sound of the bell tolling from the hillside overlooking the valley.

 

But that wasn't what drew his attention. It was the fact a young, rather harried-looking mother, a lapine clad in the typical homespun garments of a peasant and herding a fairly sizable horde of children in front of her, had stopped in the middle of the roadway...one paw clutching the front of her apron, the other clapped to her mouth to hold back a scream, while her eyes stared across the village in horror.

 

Straight at him.

 

Tai Lung froze in place too, not quite certain what he should do—flee back up the stairs, run for cover, stand up tall and brazen it out? But before he could make any decision, another mother, this one a pig, noticed her friend's paralyzed state, turned, and saw what she was staring at. Immediately she pointed with one hoof and let out a piercing, squealing scream.

 

As the snow leopard stared in disbelief and mounting despair, everyone around the two mothers saw at the same time what had so frightened them—and immediately the throng turned into a milling, scrambling, terrified mob as every single villager tried to flee at once in every conceivable direction. Most of the children seemed utterly confused as to why their parents were so upset, but others were a bit more aware...and the ones that weren't running as fast as their little legs would carry them after their mothers and fathers were trying to avoid being trampled, or else standing stock still in the middle of the road, tears streaming down their cheeks while they bawled to the sky. Even the guards seemed taken aback and stunned into immobility, despite the fact he was fairly certain some of them had been responsible for carting his unconscious body up to the Jade Palace a week or so ago.

 

Tigress, meanwhile, had finished her apple, taken one look at his bewildered face, and was now glaring at him, contempt mingled with genuine puzzlement in her golden eyes. "I can't believe you...what did you think was going to happen?"

 

It was on the tip of his tongue to blurt out one of his typical sarcastic comments—in this case, that he'd had no idea the villagers had never laid eyes on her this early in the morning, though she was indeed a terrifying sight so soon after rising. Except...he couldn't. Instead, he could only gaze at the traumatized valley and shake his heavy head in denial.

 

"I never wanted...this." He caught himself, forced out the bitter truth. "Or maybe I did, once. Not anymore."

 

At one time, he had reveled in the thought of countless innocents cowering and fleeing before him, that the simple utterance of his name let alone catching sight of him would strike such fear into so many hearts. But without the Dragon Scroll, with every act he had committed to attain it as his rightful spoils now revealed to be, not a legend to inspire respect and awe, but one vicious atrocity after another...it only left a rancid taste in his mouth.

 

The striped feline glanced sharply aside at him, as if she doubted her own ears, and then snorted derisively. "It's too late for regrets." She looked as if she wished to say more, but then her good sense and concern for the welfare of others made her dart forward, her feet barely seeming to strike the planks of the bridge. But she was still able to toss back over one shoulder, "I'll handle this. And don't you forget your baskets."

 

Bristling until he was certain all of his fur, and not just that along his spine, was standing on end, and cursing so foully under his breath that he was surprised the river waters didn't turn black, Tai Lung started yanking his load off the ground and back into place. Damn her. Vicious, cruel woman. Nothing can be worth this aggravation...can it?

 

By the time he'd caught up with Tigress in the middle of the village square, the kung fu master had managed to worm her way into the center of the screaming, panicking animals—and to his surprise and begrudging respect, she had cleared a space and was holding forth, risen to her full height and looking as calm and authoritative as if she wore her ceremonial robes for the Imperial court. Though all the villagers still had their voices raised in fear, fury, and confusion, hers rose above them, cutting through with a determination and strength that, almost against his will, had him admiring and desiring her all over again.

 

"Citizens of the Valley of Peace!" Her voice rang across the crowd, stilling many of them into silence as it echoed back from the storefronts and houses. "I know many of you are frightened, even angry. That one who has brought nothing but death, destruction, and great trouble to you all is here in your midst, and you can't help but worry about your families and loved ones. But I ask now that you trust me, as you have in Master Shifu and Master Oogway before him—and believe me when I say that you have nothing to fear."

 

"B-b-but...it's Tai Lung!" a grocer stammered tremulously.

 

"Yeah!" another pig, this one a merchant by the look of his richer, more ornamented clothing, cried, seeming to work up a stronger nerve thanks to her presence. "Shifu said he was keeping him under lock and key 'til he decided what to do with him—he shouldn't be here!"

 

Shopping in the Village

 

For a moment Tigress's mouth became a grim line, as if she longed to agree with him. But then she shook her head. "He is only here as part of his penance, working off the very great debt he owes you all. I am here to make sure he causes you no harm...I hope you know I will allow nothing to happen while he is in my charge."

 

A brief snarl escaped from her throat, turning into a low chuckle as she flicked her eyes to the snow leopard standing several yards behind her, once again a comical sight overloaded with baskets. "Besides, does he look like much of a threat to you?"

 

Somewhere in the crowd, someone tittered behind their hand, and then a wave of nervous laughter swept across them before sinking back into silence. Although he knew it was necessary to reclaim some semblance of normalcy and control, Tai Lung couldn't help but glower, and he could feel the heat radiating from his cheeks as he flushed in shame.

 

"Once I've finished purchasing supplies for the Palace," Tigress was saying soothingly and with supreme confidence, "I'll be taking him back, and you won't have to worry about him anymore. So if you could all go back to business as usual, this can be done as swiftly and painlessly as possible. Agreed?"

 

A few more grumbles and resentful murmurs answered her at first, but slowly, one by one and then in larger groups, the villagers began to nod, shuffle their feet, and gather their carts, packs, and children back around them. Creaking wheels and scraping sandals on stone concealed all other sound for several minutes, until at last the knots of clustered people had dispersed and forward motion through the streets had resumed. Some faces still looked terrified and ashen, others enraged and hateful, while still others only looked with gratitude and warmth to their savior.

 

He noticed several children in particular beaming up at Tigress, or waving at her shyly from behind their mothers' legs, before they were scooped up and carried away to safety. And to his considerable amazement, Tigress responded with cordial waves, gentle smiles, and even kneeling down to ruffle the hair between one little goat boy's vestigial horns before giving him a soft pop on the rump to send him scurrying back to his parents.

 

He never would have pegged her as having any skill with, or love for, children. Seems there are many things to learn about her still...

 

When at last the crowd had retreated into the other streets and squares of the village, Tai Lung succeeded in making his way up to stand beside his unwanted chaperone. "Nice speech," he muttered, still torn between resentment and astonishment. "And it certainly seemed to do the trick. Good thing too, it might have become rather dicey otherwise. I have to th—"

 

He didn't even get the words of gratitude out before Tigress was wheeling about to skewer him with a withering look. "I didn't do it for you. I did it for them, and for Master Shifu. Don't ever forget it."

 

Someone has issues. Not that he blamed her... If he could have, he would have stepped back and held his paws up placatingly—but with the baskets weighing him down, he could only sigh and let his shoulders slump, presenting an even more abject and ridiculous image.

 

"Don't worry, I won't," he snapped...then let his voice fall until it was barely audible. "Could we, perhaps, get this over with, then? The sooner I'm out of here, the better."

 

"For once, we're in agreement," Tigress said, with a great deal more satisfaction at his having 'learned his place' than he would have liked…though oddly, something seemed to have unsettled her, too. Then, with a peremptory wave of a paw, she pulled a tightly rolled scroll from an inner pocket of her vest and began consulting it as she led the way into town—leaving him no choice but to shuffle along dutifully behind her.

 

The next several hours went by in something of a blur for Tai Lung. While the snow leopard trailed along behind his unwilling companion, with as much meek docility as he could stomach, Tigress proceeded to run down her shopping list with just as much thoroughness, dedication, and no-nonsense attitude as she did when training in kung fu—or any other aspect of her life, he suspected.

 

By contrast, those she dealt with were extremely nervous, uncertain, and terrified the entire time the purchases were being made. Where the merchants didn't slam and bolt their doors and shutters upon seeing their approach, or leave out perpetual signs proclaiming they'd "Gone to Lunch" or were "Closed for Renovations", they refused to meet Tigress's gaze, stammered constantly as they spoke, wrung their hands endlessly, and vacillated from one foot to the other.

 

In spite of himself, Tai Lung was rather impressed at Tigress's skill at haggling, especially under the circumstances. And not only was it unusual for her to have such specific knowledge of proper herbal remedies, fertilizers for the gardens, and ways to determine the freshness of certain spices and vegetables (though he supposed she was given that information by Mantis and Po), she also seemed to have a surprising amount of insight into choosing proper colors and dimensions for cloth.

 

If he'd given the matter any thought, he'd have assumed Tigress to have no skill whatsoever at womanly pursuits—and she'd likely rip the throat out of anyone who claimed she did! Whether there was more to her than met the eye, or she were again following instructions—from Master Viper, say—remained to be seen.

 

But that wasn't what made the time pass so quickly, or occupied his thoughts so he could not focus on her. It was the burden of memories laid upon him.

 

For it wasn't enough that everywhere they went, he passed locations, buildings, and landmarks that he identified with painful jolts of recognition. That when first returning to the Valley a week ago, he'd been far too focused on facing Shifu and achieving the Dragon Scroll, or later distracted by his battle with Po, to truly notice and acknowledge his surroundings...but now he could see and remember all too clearly. That everywhere he looked, he spied glaring reminders of his rampage of twenty years prior, with the contrast between the village's current state and the carnage of the past sending chills down his spine...

 

Where the tavern his insane brawl had started in had once stood, there was now only a vacant lot, apparently never rebuilt—the burned timbers and heaps of ash covered over by grass, weeds, and wildflowers. There, across the way, he spied a noodle restaurant he had nearly wrecked and torn to pieces, scaring the poor proprietor so—some silly, simple-minded goose named Ping, if he recalled correctly—he'd practically gone into molting season early and lost all his feathers. It seemed to be doing rather well for itself now, judging by the line at the door...

 

A bridge where he'd stood his ground against a platoon of temple guardsmen, never letting a single soldier pass so that instead, the shimmering, crystalline waters of the river had become strewn with groaning bodies, discarded weapons and pieces of armor, and swirling clouds of blood like spilled scarlet ink. At least now the stream was clear and pristine again, though he could still see deep hack marks in the wooden railings where the guards' axes and halberds had whizzed by, just missing his fur by centimeters.

 

A well where he had hurled a bucket about like a windmill and sent scores of hapless villagers flying across the square...it looked placid and still now, the bucket restored to its position and serving as a communal gathering place (until the gossiping old women fled when they saw him coming, of course). But he could swear some of the stones were still out of place, and the metal stand supporting the windlass was bent out of shape...

 

No, what truly disturbed Tai Lung even more than this was the people of the valley and the way they treated him. Not that they flung insults, demanded he leave and never return, or shrieked and ducked down helplessly before him, begging for mercy. That would almost be preferable. Instead, he saw them...out of the corners of his eyes, peeking out from behind window curtains, standing huddled on street corners, ducking down alleys to avoid crossing his path as if he were a source of bad luck.

 

It was not what they said, it was what they didn't say that unnerved and upset him. Each eye resting upon him, each scowl sent in his general direction, each tremulous lip of a child as it peered up at him with enormous, moon-like eyes filled with stark terror...he could feel them even when he couldn't see them, and they only made the whole thing that much more unbearable.

 

By the time Tigress had finally stuffed the last of the comestibles and textiles into the baskets and hampers, and he was lugging them back through the village toward the Jade Palace steps, Tai Lung was utterly, thoroughly depressed—he hadn't felt this rotten since he was first incarcerated at Chorh-Gom. Seeing the way the villagers truly viewed him didn't just open his eyes to the enormity of the task ahead of him...it ground his muzzle in it and crushed his neck to the cobblestones so he couldn't escape the unkind truth.

 

How...how could he ever redeem himself, be accepted, make a name for himself and become the great hero he'd always envisioned himself to be, when this tragedy could always be laid at his feet and no one would ever let him forget it?

 

As well they shouldn't. The day I can forget what I did, is the day I can do it all over again.

 

Shaking his head, he looked up from his bitter thoughts and noticed a tiny cow-girl—she couldn't be more than four or five years old—standing in the back garden of her house, staring at him with jaw hanging and eyes bulging. Just when he was certain she, too, would scream pitifully and run for cover, the child instead leaped toward the fence at the edge of her property, arms spread wide...and the look on her face was one of rapture and excitement.

 

Good grief, does she actually want to play? She must have no idea who I am... Completely flummoxed as to how to respond, and unable to really move thanks to his burden, he simply stood in the road, waiting.

 

Just before the calf would have leaped through her gate and come running to his side, however, her mother suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Rather roughly grabbing her daughter's arm and jerking her back out of harm's way—never mind how the child cried and demanded to be let go so she could 'pet the big kitty'—the cow instead glared wrathfully at Tai Lung. As if he had somehow tempted or beguiled her precious brat into coming to him!

 

Seeing the child dragged away when, in her innocence, she so clearly wished to play with him, was bad enough, like a knife thrust to the heart. But as he looked at the mother again, he gasped in true shock...he knew her, he realized at last. A flash, to twenty years ago...

 

Smoke, rising from the village to mingle with the mountain mists and wreath away all view of the sparkling stars, flecked through with the same embers that had ignited and were even now consuming one building after another. Shouts, screams, the splashing of water somewhere out of sight as some enterprising individual finally started fetching it from the river. And one woman's heart-breaking wail, floating above everything else.

 

A bull, one of the ubiquitous temple guardsmen who had dared to get in his way, to try and prevent him from ascending the steps so he could face Shifu and Oogway, and at last take the Dragon Scroll for his own. Collapsed in the street, crumpled at an unnatural anglehe was fairly certain, in a detached sort of way, that he'd heard the fellow's neck snap when he landed.

 

The wife, weeping piteously over her fallen man, her tears staining his tunic...looking up at him abruptly with grief, pain, and an almost savage hatred in her eyes. If she could, if she'd had the courage and the skill for it, if she'd dared attack the scourge of the valley, he who had mastered all one thousand scrolls of kung fu, she would have. And would not rest until she had personally disemboweled him herself...

 

Shaking his head to snap himself out of it, Tai Lung was shocked for a moment he could even remember this with such clarity, after so many years...after he had attacked and killed so many. But he realized it was the look in the woman's eyes that did it. For it was exactly the same. Twenty years later, obviously remarried, having children, rebuilding a new life for herself...and she still hated him. The same as everyone else in the valley did.

 

So much concentrated hatred, fear, and worry assailing him from every side…it made him long, for the first time he could ever recall, to escape who he was. For while he had told Tigress, in all honesty, that he did not kill indiscriminately, that he remained an honorable fighter...the fact was, he had failed to stay true to that path twenty years ago.

 

Though he had not killed the Five, Po, or Shifu out of hand...it had been a different story when he went on his rampage. The memories of it were burned behind his lids. And now, more than anything, he loathed being inside his own pelt.

 

The sound of the door slamming behind the bovine as she pulled her daughter out of Tai Lung's sight jarred him out of his self-pity. When he turned to look at Tigress, who had been watching the proceedings with something akin to witnessing a rapist's execution, he couldn't help himself—even though he knew she wouldn't sympathize, didn't give a damn about him and probably never would, he felt he had to say something.

 

"I didn't want to kill them, you know. I only wanted them to hurt, as I had. I only wanted to claim what was rightfully mine." Despite the blazing fire in the other feline's eyes, he kept his spine stiff and straight as he said what he needed to say, what she needed to hear. "But I went too far."

 

Something seemed to shift inside Tigress. Her mouth, which had surely been open to deliver some snide, demeaning comment, closed briefly...and then, to his surprise, as if she'd finally begun to realize that just perhaps, there might be some true regret and sorrow within him for what he had done, she spoke without rancor or accusation—although her voice was still quite firm. "Yes. Yes, you did. And someone had to stop you."

 

Even though he knew he really shouldn't, the snow leopard couldn't stop the slightly provoking words. "Is that why you fought me, too? Surely you didn't believe you could win."

 

Tigress almost seemed unaware of his relapse into arrogance. Instead she was staring off into space, across the village rooftops toward the verdant hills surrounding the valley, in the direction of the Thread of Hope. "I had to. It was what I was meant to do."

 

Finally seeming to realize he was staring at her, she sighed, as if extremely reluctant to confide in him...yet somehow she spoke anyway. "The night before we went to face you, I overheard Po and Master Shifu talking. After all that time of putting the panda through the most excruciating, abusive kung fu course imaginable, Shifu was finally willing to make Po into the Dragon Warrior, because Oogway believed in him. And Po wanted him to, if for no other reason than so he could cease being a walking catastrophe waiting to happen. But neither of them knew how they could make it so."

 

She glanced up toward the Jade Palace on its mountaintop, at the late afternoon sun glinting sharply off the golden dragons which stood guard above the tournament arena. "I realized then that I had to give my master time to train Po. Because it was the only way to stop you. Because the panda truly wanted to better himself." She took a deep breath. "Because I was wrong about him."

 

On one level, Tai Lung found all this very interesting, and if it were any other time he would be filing the information away—as moments of weakness he could use against either the Dragon Warrior or Shifu, if nothing else. (The panda who had told him to believe in himself had once wanted to be anything but himself? What hypocrisy! And Shifu's pride was as great as his own, if he couldn't bring himself to train Po as the Dragon Warrior even to stop another rampage of his once-prized student in the valley.)

 

The fact that Shifu seemed to have no difficulty standing up to Oogway when the turtle chose Po, but couldn't do so when it was his own son's future on the line, was also enough to engender a whole new explosion of rage inside Tai Lung. Truth be told, he was severely tempted to confront the red panda about it, and likely would later on, after he'd had the chance to ponder the implications more fully...and, preferably, a very therapeutic session in the training hall. I can understand why he refused to accept a big, fat panda as the Dragon Warrior...but why didn't he object just as strongly that I didn't get chosen...?

 

For now, however, all he could think—aside from a brief, selfless thought, swiftly squashed, that it was Po she should have been telling this—was that perhaps, for the first time, he had a real chance to get through to Tigress.

 

"Did you ever think," he observed casually, "that Shifu might be wrong about me? That perhaps, just perhaps, I wasn't just a ravening, mindless killer who had to be put out of his misery?"

 

She didn't immediately lash out at him for his temerity, but neither did she express sympathy. In fact at first she didn't seem to have an answer. Then, just when he had given up and started to turn away in disgust, she finally said, "I don't know. I really don't. But I'm not the one who you have to convince."

 

"Oh?" Tai Lung rolled his eyes. "And to whom do I owe that dubious honor? Shifu?"

 

"No." Tigress lifted her gaze to stare at him intently. "You."

 

The snow leopard swallowed whatever he was going to say, stunned into silence.

 

Of course, the striped feline couldn't leave it at that; as she turned back toward the moon bridge and the stairs, she added, "And the villagers, of course."

 

Hearing this, Tai Lung sighed and heaved the baskets back into position, following her with a heavy tread and bowed back, and not only because of his burden. As he caught up with her on the other side of the bridge and began to scale the steps once more, he said, very softly, "Well then, I'm never going to be forgiven, am I? Not if I depend on their good graces."

 

The kung fu master glanced at him, then finally decided to take pity, tugging the straps of one of the baskets off his back and lodging it on her own, then doing the same with one of those on his arms. As she distributed the weight more evenly between them and led the way up the mountain, she replied. "Probably not. But this wouldn't be the first time either of us has been proven wrong. And I meant what I said before...even though I can't believe I said it." Her lips quirked wryly, then relaxed back into seriousness.

 

"If you're really going to change, if you really want to be a hero and a true kung fu warrior, then you won't get anywhere until you believe in yourself. It's your heart that is the true measure of who you are, and it's in there you have to change, before the way anyone else sees you can change."

 

Words of wisdom. But so much easier to say than to put into practice.

 

Peering up toward the Jade Palace, where the afternoon sun already hung above the treetops and red roof tiles, Tai Lung muttered, "That...is going to take a great deal longer, and a great deal more, than the panda thinks. I'm going to need...time to think about this."

 

Smirking at the echo of her earlier words in his cell, Tigress shrugged. "Perhaps you should meditate? I'd never have believed it as a cub, but it works wonders for me. All you need is someplace quiet and peaceful. The Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom?"

 

Tai Lung snorted, and not only because of that place's association with Oogway, the last person he wanted to think about at the moment. "What, you'd let me go there alone?"

 

"There's only one way up or down from there, Tai Lung. And I'll be guarding that." She flashed a gleaming smile at him that showed a little too much teeth. "Unless you'd rather take the shortcut down?"

 

Even though he could tell, amazingly, that she meant her words as a joke, not a true suggestion he commit suicide as she would have meant it just a few days ago, the snow leopard couldn't help but sneer at her. "Oh you'd like that, wouldn't you? Yes, that'd save the world a lot of trouble, I wager. But I'm not a coward!" And I'm not done with the world yet. Not by a long shot.

 

"No," Tigress said, almost gently. "No, I suppose you're not. Something else we can agree on."

 

And with that rather mystifying statement, as he wondered just what he had said or done to make her see him in a different light—even for a moment—she shouldered her baskets without complaint or protest and boldly ascended the steps, leaving him once again to hurry after her.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8 Icon

 

By the time the pair of felines had finally achieved the great doors of the Jade Palace, where Shifu was waiting for them like one of the frowning guardian dragons, Tigress had given her rather clinical report on what had transpired in the village—but admitted, albeit grudgingly, that Tai Lung had neither provoked it nor done anything untoward or destructive—and the supplies had been stowed away in their proper places, it was already almost sunset.

 

And so it was that when the snow leopard trudged up the trail at last to the rugged promontory where the Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom stood, with Tigress being true to her word by standing at the foot of the ledge, back propped against the cliff face and legs extended across to block passage, the crimson, orange, and ocher rays of the dying sun had painted the western sky and were bathing the jutting peak with fiery luminescence.

 

They also picked out, quite clearly, the stark silhouette of the tree extending its branches upward...and in spite of himself, Tai Lung came to an abrupt halt, staring upward in disbelief.

 

Even when he still respected and listened to the teachings of the loopy tortoise, the snow leopard had rarely been one to simply sit still and serene, communing with nature and the universe—a failing which Oogway would point to as the first sign of his inner darkness and thus being unfit for the Dragon Scroll, no doubt.

 

But he had never seen much point in it: there was far too much to learn, to see, to do, and the time which would have been lost and wasted on silent contemplations could be better spent on further training, honing himself into the perfected and awe-inspiring kung fu warrior his father had raised him to believe was his destiny.

 

As a result, he had rarely, if ever, come to this lonely spot for meditation or any other spiritual practice; offhand, the only times he could recall making the trip were those when he had been particularly struggling with one of the thousand scrolls and wanted the uninterrupted time and space, without either of his masters constantly watching, assessing, and judging him, in which to master it.

 

Or when his temper had been on the verge of exploding out of control, and even the impetuous and arrogant student he had turned into could see something needed to give before he lost his head completely...and hurt someone he cared for.

 

Obviously, once he had turned his back on Shifu and tried to take the scroll for himself, the peach tree held absolutely no attraction for him whatsoever. Thanks to Chorh-Gom, even if he'd wanted to visit he was kept from doing so for twenty years. And once he was brought to the Jade Palace following his battle with Po, although Shifu, the Five, and the Dragon Warrior had held a small, private ceremony beneath the tree's withered boughs to honor the memory of their beloved Oogway, Tai Lung had of course not been invited—and would not have attended even if he had been.

 

Thus, he had not had a chance to see the change in the tree until now...and even one who cared little for natural beauty, and even less for the Grand Master who had so cherished it, had to be shocked by what he now saw.

 

Leafless...skeletal...its bare limbs and branches rising toward the deepening hues of red and purple like unsheathed claws, or clusters of brambles scraping and slashing desperately at the skies. So utterly empty, alone, and forlorn on its windswept cliff, having given up its blossoms long before it would be in season to do so...yet, at the same time perhaps, long overdue, considering the legend was the tree had remained in perpetual bloom ever since Oogway first came to the Valley of Peace... Surely only hibernating and dormant until its time would come again, yet at first glance it appeared...disconcertingly dead.

 

Rather like my chances at redemption and making amends.

 

No. No, he could not allow himself to believe that. If he did, he might as well lay down and die, or let Po use the Wuxi Finger Hold on him again, this time to obliterate him entirely.

 

Trying to shake aside the feelings of despair and dejection threatening to settle over him like a death shroud, Tai Lung pushed aside the dolorous air of this place, instead striding the last few yards up the ledge to the promontory. Ignoring the looming presence of the gaunt tree, he came to a halt beside the upraised slab of rock where Oogway, and later Shifu, had been wont to commune with the universe (or in his father's case, made the woeful attempt and failed utterly).

 

There he paused, gazing out across the panorama of the valley spread out below him...lush and vibrant forests, fresh and teeming with life...the terraced steps of the mountainside, alternately planted with well-watered rice paddies to sustain the villagers and rich, shockingly gorgeous gardens profuse with flowers, trees, and small waterfalls...the lanterns of the distant town, more being ignited as the sun sank lower past the horizon and shadows crept across the valley, looking like fireflies dancing on the breeze...and far beyond it all, tier upon tier of sugarloaf hills rising into the distance until first their peaks, then the massive pinnacles themselves, vanished into the evening mist.

 

After all this time, after twenty years of being chained in a place of darkness, rock, and dust, a place where night was eternal and nothing ever changed, where suffering could crush even the strongest spirit and the paralysis of his body had only been an outer reflection of his heart and his fate, a life that was going nowhere—after all of this, to be free at last, to have the chance to stand in such a wide-open space, behold the world in all its natural splendor, and simply breathe clean, moving air again…something he had taken for granted...it was like crossing over to the realm of the gods.

 

At the same time, this wondrous vista was no nirvana—it was, or had been, his home. At one time, he had marveled at the Valley of Peace, thanked his ancestors every day in his prayers for blessing him with the chance to live in such a hallowed place—and later, for the chance to train with Shifu and his Grand Master. When had he lost the ability to appreciate such beauty? When did he stop looking at the world around him for inspiration and guidance, and decided not to bother with such trifling, simpering pursuits, that only the power mattered and what he could do with it? And how had he possibly lived without it?

 

Then again, perhaps he hadn't been living after all. Perhaps, even before he was sealed in the literal oubliette of Chorh-Gom, he had placed himself in his own lonely prison. Perhaps he had stopped truly being alive when he lost sight of what he was supposed to be protecting. Perhaps only now did he have the chance to come alive again.

 

Leaping nimbly atop the rock, the snow leopard sat down and crossed his legs, even after all these years easily able to adopt the lotus position. There, facing the valley as it lay bathed in the hues of sunset and gradually receded into the velvet cloak of night, he closed his eyes and tried what he had been unable to do for decades: to center himself, to meditate and thereby find peace.

 

It didn't work.

 

Oh, it wasn't for lack of trying or focus. Even now, Tai Lung had an almost preternatural ability to tune out his surroundings if he had to, to ignore the sounds of the wind, nightingales singing in the treetops, the distant voices of the villagers floating from miles below.

 

And the place could not be more suited to inner contemplation—he had traveled outside the valley in his youth with Oogway and Shifu and seen many places worthy of veneration, from the gardens of the Imperial Palace to the stark and severe beauty of the Himalayas, the mountains that had been his people's home for centuries. But none of them could compare with the Valley of Peace.

 

What made it impossible for him was two things. Firstly, that this place had been sacred to Oogway, that everything about it from the sounds and scents to the overall atmosphere, reeked of the aged tortoise who had presided with such magnanimity and wisdom over the valley, guiding it through gentle advice and amusing but sage anecdotes. A fact which both made him feel completely unworthy of this place...and filled him with an unquenchable rage.

 

He used to believe in me, once. He loved our conversationsI was so nimble-minded I could do philosophical gymnastics to rival those in the kwoon. He always won our debates, of course, but he enjoyed them. What happened? Damnit, why wasn't I good enough for him?

 

Gritting his teeth and grinding his claws into his palms, Tai Lung opened his eyes and stared out into a sky nearly the same color as his still-atrocious pants. Giving in to the rather petty and nasty streak he'd nurtured ever since being denied the scroll (and, truth be told, for quite a few years beforehand), he spoke to the empty air. "You're dead, and I'm not. How's that for a twist of fate, eh?"

 

Behind him, the peach tree creaked and groaned in the mountain winds, and for a moment he could swear he heard Oogway's dry, feathery chuckle echoing on the hilltop.

 

Infuriated all over again, he slammed his fists down on his knees and screwed his eyes shut again, but as he tried once more to meditate, the second interference reared its head—and it was much harder to dismiss.

 

For every time he attempted to calm his mind, still his heart to a slow, gentle rhythm, and match his breathing to the same beat, his thoughts kept returning to everyone and everything plaguing him, all that swirled in and around his consciousness, demanding attention...all that had to be dealt with if he ever expected to make a new destiny for himself, let alone find peace.

 

Po...his legendary opponent, the one who had stolen his birthright and mastered its secrets with such annoying ease, who even after soundly trouncing him insisted upon taking pity on the snow leopard—the last thing he wanted from anyone. An overture of friendship from the panda that left him feeling so ambivalent...part of him longing more than anything to accept, the rest of him wishing only to smash his amiable face in.

 

After what happened at the training hall, Tai Lung could not believe Po truly meant to humiliate or hurt him...but to admit to the Dragon Warrior that he'd been wrong, and accept his companionship at the Jade Palace—he didn't know if he could swallow his pride without choking on it, to make that possible.

 

Tigress...a woman so much his equal it was uncanny, as fiery and determined and overbearing as he was. When he'd first met her at the Thread of Hope, after hearing all the stories of the most powerful of the Furious Five trickled down to him by Vachir, he'd fully expected to hate her—if not for sullying the perfection of kung fu by proving a female could master it just as well as he could, then for daring to make such a name for herself that her legend eclipsed his own.

 

But, he reflected wryly, as soon as he'd laid eyes on her—or rather, once she'd soundly smashed him back onto the bridge with a blow that would have caved anyone else's chest in—he'd been entranced by her beauty. And the longer he'd fought her, the more he grew to like and admire her.

 

Yet even if the softening toward him she'd experienced at the village were more than a brief lapse in judgment, he had no idea how he could make her his own, convince her he was willing to change so that the striped feline would be his to possess, claim...and conquer...

 

The villagers...many of whom had once treated him with the same awe and outright worship for his heroics as the Dragon Warrior did, now turned against him—and rightfully so—hating him, despising him, wishing nothing more than to see him hanged from the gallows, beheaded, dragged and crushed under the wheels of a cart, placed in the stocks, or shoved in the deepest pit they could find, the key thrown away. Women weeping, children screaming, men turning their backs on him...he could never earn their trust or forgiveness, not if he had a hundred years to work off his bad karma.

 

And Shifu...the father who had once doted upon him, trained him all he knew, given him every ounce of love he possessed in his small frame, transformed him from a helpless cub to the phenomenal powerhouse and undeniable master of kung fu he had become. The one who had made him believe no other course lay open for him but kung fu, that it was his destiny to be awarded the Dragon Scroll, and who had praised him to the skies until he had genuinely believed he could do anything—whether knock a hole through the Great Wall with one punch or single-handedly defend the Emperor from an army of Huns thousands strong massing around the capital. Hell, if Shifu had told him his chi would one day enable him to walk on air or fly to the moon, he'd have believed the red panda!

 

And he had turned on him...refused to defend him...left him behind because of that insane turtle. Yet now he expected Tai Lung to trust him again, to believe in him once more, simply because he promised to make up for his many failures.

 

How? How could he?

 

The faces danced behind his lids, and before his eyes in the deep blue sky when he opened them, taunting him with memories he wished he could gouge away, gifts and prizes dangled before his paws he longed to snatch away but which he knew instinctively would be forever beyond his reach, and feelings he longed to deny with every fiber in his being.

 

Finally letting out an inarticulate cry of frustration, he slammed his fists down into the boulder, cracking and pulverizing its surface into dust. "Why does this have to be so bloody difficult?"

 

When the painfully familiar voice spoke up from behind him, it was almost a relief from the loneliness and agony of his own thoughts. Almost, because as soon as he knew who had come to visit him, he could feel his terrible temper boiling over, ready to erupt in another rampage of violence.

 

"Oh, my dear boy...this was always the one lesson I feared you would never master."

 

Tai Lung whirled around, fists clenching and lips curling back to bare his fangs despite the fact he knew he could do no injury to his visitor. And indeed, there he was, hovering between two massive roots at the base of the peach tree, looking exactly as he had in life save for a few telltale differences. His perpetual slouch was gone, for he stood up straight and true, as if passing into the next world had granted him strength and surety he had lacked as a mortal.

 

His staff, of course, was conspicuously absent, although he seemed not to have need of it any longer, being a diaphanous spirit. And naturally, he was not physically present—for aside from having an immaterial, vaporous quality to his body, he was actually quite luminous, giving off a pale, rose-pink light that softly illuminated the rocky space around him, and as the snow leopard peered closer he saw the turtle was actually composed of endlessly shifting peach blossoms, dancing and swirling on the breeze.

 

The whole image was one of utter peace, serenity, gentility, and beauty...and it so made him want to retch uncontrollably.

 

"Oh, for the love of—could you be any more cloying?" He spread his paws helplessly, taking in the entirety of the turtle's over-the-top image of enlightened wisdom.

 

Oogway said nothing, merely continuing to smile at him in that vague, vapid way that he'd always found so maddening...as it usually indicated he'd missed something incredibly obvious and the turtle was about to wax eloquent and, perhaps unintentionally, make him feel even more dense.

 

"Let me guess," Tai Lung sneered sarcastically. "You're here to teach me some mystical kung fu technique from beyond the grave, some snatch of knowledge that's supposed to change me into a bleeding pacifist! Or—no, wait, I've got a better one! You've come to say I told you so, that everything you foretold came true, and the darkness in my heart has consumed me, nearly destroyed the valley, and even now threatens my very soul!"

 

Still the turtle said nothing, only regarding him with a mingled sorrow and understanding, as if deeply regretting what the snow leopard had become, but also seeing a way out for him, a hope to guide his path.

 

This only incensed the feline all the more. "Well? Come on, say something, you old nutter! I know you're just dying—hah!—to lord it over me. I know you hate me!"

 

For the first time since he had known the turtle, Oogway actually looked confused...and even hurt. "Why do you say such things, Tai Lung? I have never hated you. Worried for you, been concerned for your future, disapproved of your choices, yes, but never that..." He shook his wrinkled head and fixed his rheumy gaze upon him. Faint amusement tinged his voice. "And you call me crazy."

 

Tai Lung stared at him in disbelief. This made no sense. Had he fallen asleep while meditating, and was only dreaming this conversation? Yes, that had to be it. Because there was no possible way the one who had decreed him to be too full of darkness and evil to ever obtain the Dragon Scroll, the one who had left him a twisted ball of knotted, frozen muscle on the floor of the Hall of Warriors, the one who'd had him hauled away and locked forever in the cruelest restraining device ever devised, could not hate him...

 

As if reading his thoughts, something he had often seemed capable of even when alive, Oogway sighed like a breath of rattling wind and regarded him with even more sympathy and kindness. The snow leopard cringed slightly, for the turtle's attitude filled him with guilt as much as it did contempt.

 

"My boy, you have always been harder on yourself than anyone, even Shifu. It has always been your greatest failing, as well as your greatest strength. We do not grow if we do not challenge ourselves...but do not expect more than you can give, either."

 

And they were back to the cryptic speech. Why had he believed it would be any different? Leaping down off the boulder, he stalked toward the turtle's ghost as if he could truly intimidate him—something he'd never managed to do even in life, a fact which still rankled him even now—or even bring him to blows.

 

Clenching an upraised fist, he snarled, "Enough with the riddles, old man! You're dead, but you still haven't changed, and I've had it up to here with you! Either spit out already whatever you came here to say, or leave...me...alone! D'you hear me?"

 

His sarcasm became the thickest and most repellent he could ever recall it. "And if all you have knocking around in that shell of yours is more criticism disguised as the truths of the universe, then I won't hear of it! Because this is all your fault!"

 

Oogway looked at him, and somehow even though his expression remained as serene and unthreatening as ever, he could sense the disapproval in the old master—and it only made him angrier. "Is it now?" he responded mildly, with a slightly mystified tone—as if he'd just been told the answer to a great riddle of life himself.

 

Tai Lung rolled his eyes. "You're not fooling anyone, you know. Or did slipping into your dotage cost you more than I thought? Let me refresh your memory." He stabbed a thumb into his chest, then pointed it at the turtle. "Me. You. In the Hall of Warriors. Sounding any gongs yet? You remember—the part where you took away everything that gave my life meaning, turned the whole village against me, made all the hard work I'd slaved away at worth less than warm dung, and all because you 'saw too much darkness in my heart'?" He gestured in mid-air to suggest the quotation marks, his tone sneering and constantly hovering on the edge of a vicious growl.

 

"Well, congratulations, Oogway! As you're so fond of saying, you met your destiny on the road you took to avoid it. Because you got exactly what you didn't want—I never would have turned to darkness if you hadn't stolen my life from me! You made me, you old fool. I was a hero once; so many praised me, I had so many dreams, I had such a future ahead of me—and you took it all away with one little word. And you can seriously stand—well, float—there and tell me it's not your fault?"

 

He shuddered violently, his entire frame wracked with convulsions as he struggled not to launch into another rampage...crushing the boulder into gravel, perhaps, or smashing through the peach tree's trunk until it ripped out of the ground and toppled over. "I just hope you're happy..."

 

For several long minutes, silence reigned on the mountain top, while Tai Lung gasped, trembled, and flexed his paws spasmodically, his chest soaked with sweat from the fury of his tirade. Even though anger still had a tight hold on his heart, secretly he felt better than he had in twenty years...he'd been keeping those words bottled up inside him for so very long now. Getting them out felt like being leached of a debilitating poison. Maybe something good would come of this after all.

 

Slowly, the turtle looked up at him. Though his words were as soft-spoken as ever, the reproach in them was unmistakable. "I see. Are you quite through?"

 

When the snow leopard nodded, somewhat sheepishly, Oogway continued, "Good. Because of course, you were only a helpless victim in this. You had no free will in the matter, no ability to choose at all."

 

Tai Lung stared at him again—in confusion, in resentment...but at the last, in shame. For though he would sooner subject himself to leeches than admit it, he knew the turtle was absolutely, infuriatingly right.

 

Whoever had started the downward spiral of his life, whatever confluence of events, emotions, beliefs, and circumstances had conspired to place him in the perfect position for his seemingly inevitable fall, it had been he who took the first step, and the next...and continued taking them, even when a paw had been offered to him in assistance or a light had shone to beckon him back.

 

He was as much to blame as anyone...if not more.

 

A sad little smile took the place of the rather severe look Oogway had been giving him. "Your path has been hard, my boy. Harder than any student's I have ever taught. And you have barely begun to unravel the myriad twists and turns that still lie unseen before you. But now, wisdom at last comes, and you begin to understand. It is true that no one thing, or person, or act can be pointed to as what set you on your course. A single pebble can shift the course of a rockslide, and a single straw can break the ox's back.

 

"But we always have choices, Tai Lung. Choices are the backbone of all we do, all we think, and all we become. Choices are how our karma is measured. And our choices determine our destinies, not our abilities. If something I decided, or Shifu taught you, made your fate more likely...it was still you who chose how you would react. It always was. You still can."

 

"What...what do you mean?" The snow leopard put a paw to his head, a gesture he was becoming far too familiar with, and shook it as if to clear it of cobwebs. "I still don't understand. You say I had a choice to be different. But you were the one who said I had too much darkness in me, and so I couldn't be the Dragon Warrior. Sounds to me like my fate was decided for me after all..."

 

To Tai Lung's shock and puzzlement, not only did the turtle's face—so far as he could tell from the shifting peach blossoms—become more melancholy and distressed than he ever recalled seeing it, but tears actually began to stand in his great luminous eyes, tears that seemed to draw tracks of starfire down his translucent cheeks.

 

"My boy...my poor, wandering child...always you see in absolutes. Everything is black and white to you. Either you are the Dragon Warrior, or you are nothing; there is no middle ground for you. To have darkness in your heart is to be condemned to evil through every incarnation. Is that truly what you think?"

 

Oogway drifted closer to him, holding up one shimmering, stubby-clawed hand in a mute appeal, yet his eyes never wavered, so direct and intense they seemed to bore straight down into Tai Lung's soul...as they always had, which had always made him wrench his gaze away as a student—for he had feared what the turtle might find within him. But this time, he found he couldn't look away, for as always when giving a lesson, his soft, wasted voice was strangely compelling.

 

"Do you not remember...what I taught you? I may have forgotten more things than you ever learned, but you must remember this." A brief twitch of his lips, the faint traces of a wry grin, quickly vanished back into seriousness. "Yin and Yang, my boy...you must recall it..."

 

For a moment he stared blankly at Oogway; then, almost without even thinking about it, the long-ago lesson came back to him, rising up from where it had been buried in his mind, and he recited it by rote, just as he had as a cub: "What one reveals, the other obscures, what was obscured is then revealed. Opposing forces, rooted together, each created in a single movement, they must and always shall be...equal..."

 

He trailed off, as he recalled the last line, suddenly understanding its import for the very first time. "...for if one disappears, the other must disappear as well, leaving only emptiness..."

 

Nodding firmly in approval, for all the world as if the snow leopard had merely performed his figures correctly, the turtle beamed at him. "Yes. Exactly! If you had been patient, and calm, as I always tried to instill in you, and if you had come to me that day twenty years ago, instead of giving in to your rage...that is what I would have explained to you.

 

"What I told Shifu, what I told you, was that you could not receive the Dragon Scroll because you had too much darkness in your heart. Not that you had any at all; too much. The Dragon Warrior must be a soul with a pure heart and a clear mind...which, I am afraid, you were not and might never be.

 

"But what on earth ever made you think this doomed you to be evil? There are no absolutes, not when it comes to the soul, my child. The purity you lacked was one of balance, but that is something we all struggle with. You despaired because you could not achieve the scroll. But I have only seen it granted twice in my lifetime, and that includes the panda.

 

"Just because you were not meant to be the Dragon Warrior, does not mean you must discard everything you were taught as useless! Many students with darkness in them still became great warriors."

 

"You...you mean—?"

 

"Look around you, Tai Lung. Is darkness wrong?" Oogway gestured, and the feline saw that, as they had conversed, night had fully fallen, spreading its mantle across the land. The stars twinkled like millions of crystals, while the faint sliver of the crescent moon added its own effulgence to the scene. Everything seemed somehow wondrous, the valley filled with gentle quiet and soothing softness...rather like the concept of Yin, in fact.

 

"It is imbalance that is wrong. You had too much darkness, my boy, because you had too much light."

 

Tai Lung blinked, tried to wrap his mind around this, and failed. "Come again?"

 

Oogway chuckled. "Your Yang outweighed your Yin. Shadows can surround us, ensnare us, make us lose our path. But when the light is brightest around us, we are just as blind."

 

Now, the snow leopard fell to his knees with a thud, collapsing in the dirt and staring at the turtle in anguish and amazement. How...how could he have so deluded himself? His temper, his wrath...they had indeed led to his rampage, and were as dangerous as fire when allowed to run unchecked. But like fire, they could be useful tools if properly controlled.

 

What had set them off in the first place...what had caused him such pain and torment when the Dragon Scroll was denied him...what had been wounded by the implication there could be anything wrong, or lacking, or improper in his heart...was his pride.

 

As he knelt there, shoulders slumped and paws hanging at his sides, stunned by this realization, he felt...something...brush his fur. Not the touch of living flesh, but something more ethereal, the barest breath of a zephyr. Looking up, he saw Oogway's ghostly hand hovering above his shoulder...and something akin to relief in his kind eyes.

 

"We all have darkness in us. It's impossible not to. But just as light illuminates it, darkness sets boundaries on the light. Each is the absence of the other. If we did not have both to guide us, we would not know ourselves. If we were to lose one, there would be no interaction to give rise to our greatest potential. As long as you can learn to keep the two in balance inside you, Tai Lung, then just as the world around us can bring forth beauty and life whether the sun is there or not, you can be a true kung fu warrior, and a hero. You just have to believe in yourself."

 

Tai Lung gripped his thighs, digging his claws into his pants and the thick fur underneath, trembling once more with anger—but this time, not at Oogway. At himself. Blast it all! When the old codger happens to get something right, he doesn't aim small, does he?

 

The fact that, for all his wise and introspective speech, he was essentially saying exactly the same as Po had was not lost on the snow leopard either. Seems when I choose the wrong way, I don't aim small either. More like fail spectacularly.

 

Sighing, he peered up morosely at the turtle, who had silently given him time to consider his words...for their meaning to truly sink in to his thick, bony skull. "I totally screwed up, didn't I?"

 

"Totally." Was that a smile he spied through the winking blossoms?

 

"You were right all along, and I was wrong."

 

"Absolutely." Now he knew Oogway's eyes were twinkling mischievously.

 

"I never deserved the Dragon Scroll, because I wasn't ready."

 

"No, you didn't. And no, you weren't."

 

Nettled, Tai Lung snarled softly. "D'you mind? I'm trying to apologize here."

 

Oogway spread his misty hands in acceptance. "Oh by all means, please continue."

 

The snow leopard sighed again, shaking his head, which suddenly felt ten times heavier. "I was an idiot, an ass, and worst of all, a spoiled cub who never grew up. I don't even know who I am anymore. Everything I thought I knew, everything I thought I would be, all revolved around that damn scroll."

 

He paused, then narrowed his golden eyes. "Of course, Shifu's as much to blame for that as I am."

 

"That I do not deny." The turtle sighed too, clasping his hands in a surprisingly nervous motion, his smile fading into sorrow and contrition again. "What you became, came by his own hand. He was convinced, once he saw you in Master Golden Takin's hall, that you would be the Dragon Warrior. And no matter how I tried to dissuade him, his will was set in stone. I believed that this was Shifu's journey to make, to learn from, and so I allowed him to proceed as he saw fit. But I neglected to consider his journey was also yours, that the forks in your road would be placed there by Shifu, for good or for ill."

 

Oogway paused again, then spoke very softly, regretfully. "I did not foresee where this would all lead. I did not see how you were changing, and step in to stop Shifu before it had gone too far. An old man's mistake. I hope one day, you can forgive me."

 

It was the last thing Tai Lung ever expected to hear from the aged turtle's mouth. And although on some level he had longed for it, even gloated to hear it, all through his score-long imprisonment, now that he finally received it...he had absolutely no idea how to handle it. Not when he was painfully aware how gravely he had erred, and how much more terrible the repercussions had been. What was the point in holding a grudge? The past could not be changed. And yet...

 

Finally, he said, with simple and real honesty, "I don't know."

 

Unsurprisingly, Oogway seemed to take this in stride, perhaps even expected it, only nodding slowly. "Very well. That is as fine an answer as 'yes' or 'no.' And it is all I came to hear. Except, one other thing." Once again he fixed his moon-shaped eyes on Tai Lung. "I came to tell you that, while this too is also your own choice, I strongly urge you to accept Shifu's offer."

 

The snow leopard glanced sidelong at him, suddenly wary. "Why? So I can purge the darkness and pride from my heart?" He couldn't keep his old companion, sarcasm, from his tone.

 

"No—although that is rather a good idea, too." Oogway chuckled briefly. "It is because, however many mistakes he made in raising you, Shifu still loves you. This is his second chance as well as yours. And because...you will be needed. You have a destiny to fulfill, the same which kept me from giving you the Dragon Scroll all those years ago."

 

Before Tai Lung could protest, he held up a hand for silence. "Even if your heart had been as light and unburdened as Po's, I still would not have given it to you. It would have interfered with what you have to do."

 

"And that is...?" he managed to blurt out at last.

 

"I cannot tell you." Tai Lung fought the urge to grab what wasn't there, so he could hoist the turtle high and shake him, as he had Shifu when the panda refused to give him the scroll. "To do so would be to render it meaningless. You can only do what must be done if you come to your task willingly, without being forewarned of it. Your choice will decide everything—but it cannot be over-thought. I can tell you this—it will come from being true to who you are. All sides of you."

 

The snow leopard groaned and ran his paw down over his muzzle. "That's as clear as ditchwater."

 

Oogway shrugged apologetically, starting to turn away toward the cliff face. "Clear, not clear. Ditch water, don't ditch water. It will all make sense, eventually. You will understand."

 

Glancing back over his shoulder, the humor suddenly gone from his tone, he spoke with a grim finality Tai Lung had never heard from him before. "Someone is coming. Someone I cannot hold back any longer. While I lived, I did what I could to keep him at bay. But now the time has come to face him, once and for all. That is why I freed you of the dark chi that lay trapped within you. That is why you must listen to Shifu, and obey your father as you never have before, even though you doubt him. Be ready, and mindful."

 

Utterly bewildered now, but feeling a strange surge of dread and worry crawling up his spine, the snow leopard could only nod mechanically. "I...I will try."

 

"Good. Oh...and if you would, bring my staff by, the next time you happen to visit."

 

Giving up completely on trying to follow the leaps in Oogway's thought processes, Tai Lung could only laugh weakly. "So you can knock sense into me, I suppose?"

 

"I'm not sure my poor old stick is tough enough for that." The snow leopard did a double-take, but the turtle still stood before him with the same saintly visage as ever. Either I'm starting to lose my hearing, or the old coot's a lot sharper-witted...and tongued...than I thought.

 

"No," Oogway continued blithely, "you must bring it to me because there will be need of it, before your destiny has played out."

 

Rubbing uncomfortably at the back of his neck, Tai Lung looked away, once again unable to meet the old master's eyes. "Ah...yes. Well. About...that. You do know it's...rather...not in one piece anymore?" Could this be any more awkward?

 

But strangely enough, Oogway was smiling. "Not for long, my boy. Because when you bring it here, you will fix it for me."

 

Now he knew the reptile had to be pulling his leg. "What do I look like, a woodcarver?"

 

The tortoise grinned, then waggled a finger at him chidingly. "Just consider it a favor to your old master...after all, how better to show you apologize, hmm?"

 

Posting his fists on his hips, Tai Lung pursed his lips thoughtfully at that fairly low blow. "You're a lot more evil than you look, old man."

 

Oogway's expression became, if possible, even more sly. "You should have seen me in my youth! Anyway, simply bring it here when the moon is full again, and you'll find everything...coming together." Another mysterious—and far too amused—chuckle...and then he began to drift toward the promontory as a breeze sprang up out of nowhere to swirl and flow around him, stirring the peach blossoms into a dance of ecstatic delight.

 

Rising to his feet, Tai Lung followed him until, just as he reached the boulder again, Oogway held up a hand to ward him away. Turning back to face him, his shell already becoming a blazing corona of otherworldly light, the sage clasped his hands before him as if in prayer...the tears he had shed beforehand turning now to petals of the palest blue.

 

"Just remember Yin and Yang, my boy...find your balance, and you'll be all the hero you can stand. Listen to Shifu...he has just as much need of this, as you do..."

 

And with those words, he dissolved into mist and a shimmering, lambent halo of sweet-smelling blooms, carried away on the wind to join with the broad swath of diamond-like stars...leaving a very confused, awed, and overwhelmed Tai Lung alone, under the vast canopy of midnight blue, with his even more distracted and uncertain thoughts...

Chapter Text

Chapter 9 Icon 

The pale beams of morning sunlight streamed into the Jade Palace, through gaps between the boards which had been nailed as a makeshift barrier across the huge, yawning holes where Tai Lung had smashed the main doors into splinters, and across the aged, worn marble that comprised the floor of the Hall of Warriors. They also poured across the absolutely still, poised form of Crane where he stood half-bent over alongside the door to an adjoining chamber, head cocked at a sharp angle so he could hear the raised voices speaking from inside.

 

If the rest of the masters watching his every move had not been aware of his foray into espionage, they'd have been unable to miss him thanks to the rays setting off the sparkling plumage of his guard feathers, shining a pristine white beneath the dark gray pinfeathers layered atop them—like it or not, he stood out like a beacon on a hillside. And the bright light also made him grateful once again for the straw hat he wore, as it shaded his eyes from what otherwise would have been rather irritating blindness.

 

But it was quite necessary, as the future of the Furious Five, the Jade Palace, perhaps even the Valley of Peace, hinged upon what would be said and decided by the pair conversing in the antechamber.

 

About Po, there could be no question which way he would vote; with every hour that he passed in the snow leopard's company, the panda seemed to become ever more a devoted fan and personal champion of Tai Lung, rather like one of the commissioned poets in the Forbidden City whose role it was to extol the Emperor in complex, high-class verse.

 

Everywhere he went in the village, the Dragon Warrior struck up random conversations with storeowners, schoolteachers, and travelers, employing his usual brand of subtlety to nudge all the local storytellers to "tell the one about Tai Lung and the Four-Armed, Yak Demon God of Fire, I haven't heard it in years."

 

Or commenting to anyone who would listen, "Hey, did you ever hear about the time Tai Lung beat the Crocodile Bush-bandits blindfolded with one paw tied behind his back? Yeah, those were the days..."

 

And while he seemed to know better than to loudly proclaim the snow leopard's dubious virtues when Tigress or Monkey was about, the next time he strode down the halls of the temple jokingly (at least, he hoped it was a joke) suggesting they should all make way for the Master of the Thousand Scrolls, there was no question Po was going to get hogtied, slashed with the Thousand Cuts of Death, and left beneath dripping water for days on end; it was just a matter of who got to him first.

 

Yet Viper also remained surprisingly adamant in her defense of Tai Lung, insisting the feline deserved a second chance to prove he could once again be a hero for the valley. Whether this was wishful thinking on her part; her experiences with her own deeply loving family pushing her to try to help Shifu and his adopted son reclaim what they had once possessed; or, the avian thought sarcastically, the romantic reptile being swayed by a well-endowed male with a gorgeous body, he had no idea.

 

Crane himself was only too happy to assist, no matter what had happened at the Thread of Hope—for one who would still be a lowly janitor if not for the encouragement of a dear friend, he understood all too well how important it was to stand by people who needed you. After the unusual results of the acupuncture session and how it had seemed to change the snow leopard's outlook, Mantis had warily agreed to at least not stand in the way of Shifu's new training. And Monkey, though still extremely suspicious and distrustful of the ex-convict, had reluctantly agreed he would go along with the majority.

 

Which meant that the crux of the decision lay squarely on one person, the one who, in truth, it had always been up to all along. And it was she Crane was listening to with such avidness, as she was questioned closely on the topic which was most central to all their minds...

 

Master Shifu was speaking first. "Very well, that's about the best that can be hoped for. I knew the villagers would hardly be happy with my judgment, but I needed to know exactly how deep their hatreds and fears ran before I could proceed. Not very encouraging, perhaps...but at least they didn't gut him on sight. It does complicate my plan somewhat, though..."

 

He sighed, then there came the sound of swishing fabric, presumably as he moved closer to Tigress. "But what about you? Am I going to have to worry about you gutting him as well, every time I turn my back?"

 

A snort, then a muttered reply. "Don't think I haven't been tempted. And the verdict's still out on that one." After a long pause, she spoke again, her voice surprisingly harsh and judgmental. "Why are you asking me, Master? You know all you have to do is give the word, and I'll comply whether I like it or not. I won't ever disobey you."

 

The note of challenge accompanying those last words made the implication more than clear: Unlike Tai Lung.

 

"No, of course you wouldn't. Except for the time, not too long ago, when you raced off to the Thread of Hope, without my permission, against my express orders, and nearly got yourself and the rest of the Five killed."

 

Even though Shifu's tone was deceptively mild, Crane could hear the hiss that accompanied Tigress's wince. "Um, yes. Except for that."

 

The bird wondered idly if she was showing one of her highly rare blushes, even as he privately recalled more than a number of times when she had, if not outright disobeyed, at least skirted the boundaries of their master's good graces...

 

"That isn't the point though, Tigress," the red panda continued as if the matter were of no moment. "Your opinion matters to me. I want to hear your reasoning on this, and know where you stand. Frankly, whether you will be working at cross purposes with me or not." Shifu paused, then added sardonically, "Because ordering you won't do any good if you don't obey."

 

Tigress sighed heavily. "I know what you're trying to do, Master. I really do. And I sympathize. But even if this works...and I highly doubt that it will...well...do you want my honest opinion?"

 

"I would not have asked if I didn't."

 

"I think you're insane. Absolutely, certifiably nuts."

 

Now it was Crane's turn to wince.

 

Silence for a few moments, during which the bird could only guess at the expressions flickering across Shifu's face, though surely that trademark eye twitching of his had to be one of them. Then, after clearing his throat uncomfortably, the panda began, "Blunt as always, I see. Well—"

 

"I wasn't finished." By her silhouette on the wall, Tigress had held up a paw to forestall him. "I think you're crazy...but, I trust you. I don't trust Tai Lung, not half as far as I could throw him. But I know why you want to do this...and though I believe you are setting yourself up for a terrible disappointment, Master...I will help you do this. I will let him stay."

 

Crane blinked, fought the urge to wriggle a feather in his ear. Who are you, and what have you done with Master Tigress?

 

Shifu seemed to be of the same incredulous opinion, as after another few moments he said dryly, "Are you certain you're feeling well, Tigress?"

 

From the sound of her voice, it almost seemed as if the feline was almost as entertained by the suggestion as her teacher was. But she remained solemn and focused all the same. "Quite well, Master. And don't get me wrong, this would be only a temporary stay. If he fails to shape up as spectacularly as I expect, he'll be out of here faster than sweat off an elephant's back when the sun's shining.

 

"Even if he does as well as you hope, I think even you will agree he can't stay here forever. The citizens of the Valley will never accept him...and all things considered, he would probably do better beginning a new life somewhere else. But...now that I have given the matter more thought, I agree he should at least get a chance."

 

"Hmm. And what, pray tell, is responsible for this sudden turnaround in your outlook?" Shifu's voice was unmistakably laced with amusement. "Since last I heard, you were quite ready to have Tai Lung flayed and roasted alive. Or put to death for his crimes. Or at least given the rough edge of your tongue."

 

Tigress inhaled sharply. "Who was it who told you? Was it Viper?"

 

The red panda chuckled. "No—you did. Just now." A beat, then, "It wasn't exactly hard to figure out, Tigress. I've known you how many years now, and raised you from an orphaned cub?"

 

Even as Crane was silently congratulating Shifu on achieving a new level of evilness, the master of the Tiger style had managed to gather her tattered dignity about her and responded with aplomb, even diffidence. "Seventeen, sir. And I'd rather not go too much into it. Let's just say I have seen and heard things from Tai Lung that, if they haven't convinced me entirely, are at least somewhat encouraging."

 

The bird could almost hear the gears turning in Shifu's head, but before he could register his disapproval and demand a more satisfactory answer, Tigress continued, "Now, may I ask you a question, Master?"

 

"Yes..." the panda ventured uncertainly.

 

"Why is it you are so ready to forgive him and welcome him back? Because, if you don't mind my saying so, only two weeks ago you were terrified at the thought of him escaping and coming back for his revenge."

 

That was a very good question, and Crane strained his ears to hear what answer Shifu would give. After a few moments of flabbergasted silence, the kung fu master spoke solemnly. "There are many reasons for that, Master Tigress. Some which I choose not to go into presently, and some which I cannot.

 

"But one thing I can tell you, which will most likely calm your worries, is this: I did not expect the panda to even decipher the mechanism of the Wuxi Finger Hold, let alone to employ it against Tai Lung. And it is the fact he did that makes all the difference."

 

"But why...?"

 

"There are two possible results when a kung fu master dares to use the Wuxi Finger Hold," Shifu intoned. "Well, three. But we never talk about the third...anyway, it all depends on the heart and intent of the master. If I, or you, had used the hold against Tai Lung, he would now be dead. Utterly blown to smithereens. Consumed and vaporized by our chi until not a trace of him was left.

 

"However, the Dragon Warrior is different. His is a heart untainted by cynicism, hatred, or vengeance. His kindness, generosity, and dare I say it, innocence made him a completely different sort of warrior...one which, I am sad to admit, has not been seen in China for several dynasties. One which has sorely been lacking and in need of renewal."

 

Crane's breath rasped in his throat, and while he was on the verge of hurriedly summoning Po to his side so he could hear this, somehow he couldn't tear himself away from the door.

 

"In short, there is not a malicious bone in the panda's body," Shifu concluded. "So when he used the Wuxi Finger Hold, he did so not to destroy, but to create. Not to obliterate, but to wipe the slate clean. Instinctively, of course, all without even being aware of it. But he did it all the same.

 

"I'm certain you noticed, after the final battle had ended, that all the damage to the valley, and the town, had been repaired and restored by the wave of Po's chi?" Tigress must have nodded, because he continued with a touch of vindication. "That is the other manner in which the hold can be used. Po did not kill Tai Lung; he saved him. He washed away Tai Lung's anger, his hatred, his insanity...leaving him purified."

 

Tigress snorted, began to speak, but Shifu cut her off. "My son is hardly an enlightened soul. Nor has he been purged of his darkness, his pride, his vicious temper. No power on earth can do that. But he has been given another chance. If we act now, if we can show him the way, he has every possibility of choosing the right path, and redressing his own balance. His destiny, his heart, his very self, perch on a dagger's edge. And I will be damned if I let this chance pass me by without trying to save him!"

 

His jaw clacked shut with a snap. "I may not succeed. Even restored as he is, he may be beyond my reach. But I have. To. Try." Each of his final words was emphasized by the sound of his staff striking the floor.

 

More silence, stretching out an impossibly long time, until even the infamously patient Crane was tempted to clear his throat just to break it. Then, at last, Tigress replied—in resignation, but also in acceptance.

 

"All right, Master. I can see your mind is made up. I don't believe Tai Lung deserves the devotion and loyalty you're giving him—you're practically bending over backwards for him. But if you're even half-right about him...then I hope you succeed. It is...an admirable goal."

 

"Thank you for your approval," Shifu said dryly. "Now, we should be getting on with this. The day is wearing on...and I do believe Master Crane's shoulder must be sore after leaning on the doorjamb for so long."

 

It took a moment for that to sink in. Then... Oh, no. Busted! But how did he know...? Hurriedly scrambling back from the doorway, Crane rose up to his full height, adopting as dignified and serious a pose as he could muster, and started to back away from the antechamber. "Oh! I am so sorry, Master. Didn't mean to disturb you—I was just coming to see if you were ready, everyone is here and gathered by the Moon Pool. Ah, just the way you asked me to."

 

Shifu wasn't buying it, of course, a very knowing and suggestive smirk on his face as he pushed the door aside to grant him and Tigress entrance into the Hall of Warriors. But in a rare fit of mercy, he allowed the matter to drop. "Very good. Then have everyone line up. Assuming they haven't done so already."

 

Crane hurried back to the others and passed the message along. As Tigress joined the rest of the Five and each of them took their assigned places, waiting breathlessly for Shifu to bring the meeting to order, the bird took a few moments to reflect on why, exactly, their master had chosen to gather them here, as opposed to the dormitories or even the arena.

 

The red panda had never been known for his subtlety—the "pointers" he had given them just before Grand Master Oogway imparted his vision of Tai Lung's escape had actually been rather covert for him. And it wasn't as if the evidence of the terrible battle which had been fought here was unobtrusive. Aside from the shattered doors and the gaping hole in the front porch where the snow leopard had smashed a boulder free that Shifu had barely in time turned into rubble, there were marks and signs of the combat everywhere.

 

Cracks and chunks missing from many of the pillars lining the hall...several craters in the walls where the two masters had repeatedly smashed each other into what should have been unyielding stone...the Shield of Fire Monkey Pass, still embedded in one of the columns...a sword from the weapons rack, similarly buried in the marble floor...and of course, the beams of sunlight spearing down from above, through the holes which had been smashed through the roof tiles.

 

Many of these repairs would require specialized craftsmen from the village, and still others—such as the damaged marble—would entail the transport of rare, expensive materials from distant quarries. All of them would cost a fortune, and even taking into account the size of the palace coffers, it was no surprise Shifu hadn't gotten around to drawing up a list and getting the repair crews moving.

 

But the fact he'd still chosen to bring Tai Lung before them, to learn whether he would accept the red panda's offer, and had done so here...well, the symbolism could not be lost even on the snow leopard. Remind the felon of just what he had done, what he was guilty of, and how serious his offenses were—so that if there were any hesitation or lack of commitment on his part, it could be brought out in the open now, before Tai Lung wasted all of their time.

 

Perhaps not the wisest move, as the feline was hardly the sort to respond well to such tactics, but being obscure and mysterious wasn't the way to go either.

 

Then again, perhaps Shifu had only wanted, by contrast, to show Tai Lung what he would be working toward and just what glories could one day be his...by gathering them all in front of the many sacred artifacts of kung fu housed here. Crane knew for a fact that every time he entered the Hall of Warriors, he was as awed and inspired as he had been the day he'd first arrived from the Li Dai Academy.

 

The Ninja Weapons of Master Dog, gifts from his rescue of Lady Lotus Blossom and said to contain the tears of her blacksmith father which had been wept into the blades during their forging...how he would love to wield them in battle!

 

The Ring Blades of the Grand Masters Twin Weasels, which Shifu had granted him the use of once—and after single-handedly severing a thousand-year-old bridge of stone in Yunnan province, plunging an army of Sumatran tigers into a jungle ravine, he dearly yearned to carry them again.

 

The Sword of Heroes, which if legends were true had once been employed by Shifu himself. The Invisible Trident of Destiny...which Crane, in typical down-to-earth fashion, had actually asked the red panda how he knew it was really there if it was invisible; a demonstration had soon followed which had proven its reality, one the bird would never forget.

 

And then...there was the Urn of Whispering Warriors.

 

Glancing sidelong at the pedestal where the legendary relic had once stood, Crane couldn't help but flash back to a few days ago, just after Tai Lung and Tigress had returned from the village supply run. The snow leopard had, for the first time, noticed that the urn was gone from its usual resting place—and for a few moments, when he had mistakenly believed it had been inadvertently smashed during his battle with Shifu and he'd never even noticed, Tai Lung had been absolutely mortified.

 

Seeing the real pain and despair in those golden eyes, as the feline had clutched at his chest as if his heart had been constricted, it had been a toss-up as to who was more startled, and even moved—Tigress, or Monkey.

 

When Mantis had instead thoughtlessly blurted out that Po had been the one to break it, and in a fit of clumsiness no less, not even Monkey and Tigress together could hold the righteously furious snow leopard back from trying to batter the panda to a pulp. Only when Crane had intervened, and explained that Zeng and the other palace messengers were gluing the broken urn together, had Tai Lung relented and let the Dragon Warrior be.

 

The whole incident had startled all of the Five, Tigress most of all...especially when, in an attempt to make amends with his new hero, Po had retold the story of the Warriors of Tenshu and how deeply he admired and respected their courage and honor. To hear Tai Lung recite along with his former adversary the rallying cry of "hold fast, brothers, hold fast" while tears stood in both their eyes had been...touching, and, to Tigress and Monkey at least, troubling.

 

Crane wondered, in retrospect, if this were one of the "somewhat encouraging" things Tigress had witnessed to change her mind—like the occasions in the last several days when several of the Five had come to bring food to Tai Lung's cell, only to discover him horrified, sweat-soaked, tightly embracing himself, or even in the midst of jerking awake from what had clearly been terrifying nightmares—or if more had happened between her and the snow leopard than she was telling...

 

His thoughts were interrupted, however, as Shifu at last cleared his throat and tapped his staff—gently—on the cracked steps leading up to the Moon Pool. At once every member of the Five instinctively stood ramrod-straight and at attention, just as they did when greeted each morning in the bunkhouse—even, Crane noted humorously, Tai Lung.

 

The snow leopard also looked better than he had in the last week, the reason for which wasn't precisely clear. Granted, he'd finally taken a bath in the immediate aftermath of his acupuncture session, and had done so again today at the behest of both Po and Viper, with the end result that his spotted pelt was cleaner, fluffier, and softer than it had any right to be—certainly than it had been during the years of his incarceration, since Crane didn't exactly believe fur care products were high on Vachir's list of necessities. (The thought of the rhinoceros guards washing, drying, and brushing their lone prisoner was perhaps a little too droll for his own good.)

 

Maybe it was the new clothing which the palace seamstress had fashioned for him from the fabrics Tigress had purchased. Even Crane, who had to admit fashion was hardly his forte, had to agree the snow leopard looked much more dashing than he'd ever seen him. A pair of deep blue trousers, in the same style and material as his old indigo ones, now clad his lower half, while a dark green, high-collared shirt with gold trimming concealed his bulky torso—rather like Tigress's formal garb, although made of wool, not silk.

 

His pride in his new garments was offset somewhat by how overheated he appeared, for even with the sleeves rolled up and the first few buttons undone, Tai Lung was continually tugging at his collar, his thick pelt already starting to soak through with sweat while his breaths became deep and labored as the heat of the day intensified. Crane imagined, though, that this rather miserable state was exactly what Tigress had been hoping for when she chose the material. But why she would have chosen those exact colors for Tai Lung, he could only speculate...

 

Not at the moment, however. Because as soon as Shifu had all of the Five's attention and had glanced pointedly at the massive feline, a brief scuffle broke out as Po did his level best to shovel Tai Lung forward while the snow leopard tried to resist.

 

Listening to the panda gently chastise his 'enemy', then smooth out his clothes and offer heartfelt encouragement ("Oh stop it, buddy, you look great! Now, go knock 'em dead—uh, you know what I mean..."), Crane had to duck his head even farther beneath his hat and conceal a broad grin behind his wing.

 

Looks like I'll have to find a new job around here. And Tai Lung doesn't stand a chance with Po as the den mother.

 

"Well." Shifu leaned his staff against a pillar and clasped his hands at the small of his back. "The time has come, Tai Lung. I think you've been given more than enough opportunity to consider your options...which, I am sorry to say, are few. You've seen how things are likely to be around the Jade Palace, at least for the immediate future...and I won't lie to you, neither the training I intend to give you nor the challenges you'll be facing from all sides will be easy.

 

"Of course I don't even need to ask whether you feel you are up to these challenges—for one who mastered the thousand scrolls and set his sights on becoming the Dragon Warrior, I already know you are capable of withstanding any amount of pain and suffering if it will bring you what you seek.

 

"But that is the most important point of all. Do you want this? Is this truly something you will pledge your life and your fate to? I cannot make you accept my offer, not unless you truly wish to redeem yourself. And while you can't exactly be allowed the freedom to wander China, and the Jade Palace is essentially the only place where you can expect any sort of welcome...it will still do you no good unless you actively choose it for yourself. So...what have you decided?"

 

For a moment the Hall of Warriors was silent, save for the echoes of Shifu's voice dying away from the vaulted ceiling and the occasional cough or rustle of fabric as one of the Five shifted in place. Then Tai Lung chuckled, low and throaty, as he regarded the red panda with a lopsided smirk that was at once dismissive and genuinely amused.

 

"Well, when you put it that way, and make it sound so attractive, Shifu, how could I possibly refuse? Yes, a real lark, that..."

 

Before anyone could say anything (though Crane was sure he could see Tigress bristling out of the corner of his eye), the snow leopard continued. "You're right, of course, I don't have a lot of choices for where I go from here. But then, that would be true even without your offer. I know now that no matter how hard I try, the Dragon Scroll will never be mine—not unless it's many years in the future.

 

"But that was the only thing I ever wished to attain, all that ever gave my life meaning. Without it, I need to find...something else, something more. I don't know what just yet. But I'll know it when I find it." He made a face. "Good grief, now I'm starting to sound like Oogway..."

 

The feline sighed, then glanced sidelong at Po and the Five—for some reason, his gaze lingering longest on Tigress. "I can't begin to imagine how I could ever make up for the terrible things I've done. Or how I can control myself, and keep from ever repeating them. But...I want to. I need to at least give it a chance, before I toss away my life and everything you ever taught me.

 

"If there's even the slightest possibility I could succeed, and be the hero I always dreamed of being, then I have to take it, and see it through to the end." His golden eyes fixed unerringly on Shifu's blue ones. "I don't want my life to be summed up with the words 'if only.'"

 

Someone—Crane thought it was Viper—gasped softly. But the red panda's posture and expression never wavered, as if he were fashioned of stone. "Then...I take it you're accepting?"

 

For answer, the haughty snow leopard pressed his right fist into the open palm of his left handpaw, directly in front of his breastbone...and slowly bowed in the proper kung fu manner. Now Crane knew he heard Po squeak.

 

"Yes...Master. I still don't know what you hope to make of me...or whether I can trust you to do things right this time. But...I'm going to take the chance, while I still have it."

 

Whatever Shifu would have said in reply, no one ever got to hear it. Because, just as the old master half-closed his eyes and gave a nod and a small smile of relief, the Hall of Warriors suddenly erupted with loud cheers, whoops, and hollers as the Dragon Warrior began pumping his fists in the air, dancing wildly in place, and chanting Tai Lung's name as if he were already the greatest hero in China.

 

Unsurprisingly, this outburst of frivolity and merriment was short-lived...for after staring at Po in disbelief for several moments, Monkey's eyes flashed and he balled his fists. "Okay, that is it, Po! I've had it, no more acting like Tai Lung's better than your dad's soup or something!" Immediately he leaped at the Dragon Warrior and started pummeling him into submission. Gently, of course, since they were friends.

 

As the simian shouted random disparagements of the panda, including accusations that made it very clear he knew who had been stealing his almond cookies, Viper tried vainly to intervene, wrapping her coils around Monkey's arms to hold him back. Mantis rather looked as if he wished he'd been placing bets on the outcome, while Tigress was studiously avoiding looking at Tai Lung, Po, or anyone else, apparently finding something extremely fascinating in a nearby silkscreen. Shifu and the snow leopard himself, oddly, had struck the exact same pose of hiding their eyes behind a paw and groaning in despair.

 

Crane could only shake his head. My, we live in such interesting times. Do I even want to know what will happen next?

                                                                      


 

Many leagues to the north, at the place where the province of Xinjiang met the far western border of Mongolia, howling winds drove knife-like blades of ice in a whirling frenzy all about the peaks, ledges, and cliff faces of the frigid massif known as Tavan Bogd, marring the rough, granite surface of the mountain range...and the sole fortress carved within its heart...with scratches and cracks, as if it had been formed by natural erosion rather than the hands of man.

 

Blinding snow swirled from the heavens, blanketing the earth, making it impossible to see farther than a few feet before one's face. Across the vast wastes of the barren countryside, all features of the landscape were scoured clean by the endless snowstorm, packed ice and snowdrifts hundreds of feet high creating a repetitive vista of eternal winter, enshrouding every inch of ground as far as the eye could see, and far beyond that extent as well.

 

Yet somehow, even through this concealing white haze that seemed determined to leach all warmth, life, and soul from the land and its inhabitants, the dark silhouette perched atop its rocky outcropping—nearly buried in the mounding snow—could still be seen, clear and stark as if lighted by a smoldering fire from deep within.

 

It was ruined, of course, thanks to Tai Lung's incredible and awe-inspiring escape almost a month ago—parts of it half-collapsed into rubble, whole segments of towers and battlements smashed into unrecognizable fragments by the explosives, the mighty gates now only a gaping hole more like the yawning mouth of some monstrous creature forever screaming its agony to the skies, while greasy columns of churning black smoke still rose from deep within its interior.

 

But Chorh-Gom had been built to withstand anything, whether earthquakes, the violence of the elements, or the endless capacity for destruction its sole prisoner had possessed. Its battered shell would likely stand for centuries still, a testament to the ingenuity and devotion of its builders...a monument to Tai Lung's legend, that he should need such a place to house him...and a mausoleum for the hundreds of sentries whose lives had been lost there.

 

Not every rhinoceros had died, of course. Many had managed to escape the prison just before it became a fiery furnace of Hell, deciding discretion was the better part of valor and living to fight another day could hardly be called cowardice—not when it was the scourge Tai Lung they had been facing.

 

Still others had survived the blast that had left them groaning and crumpled in the snow, bruised and battered and in some cases horribly disfigured and burned. These lucky souls upon whom Kuan Yin had smiled had managed to bury those of their clansmen who had not been so fortunate, thus creating a fairly sizable graveyard on the vast ledge fronting the keep.

 

But the roiling flames, crumbling platforms, and generally unstable nature of Chorh-Gom's interior had kept them from returning inside—whether to try and rescue any of their comrades, fetch prized possessions, or gather more bodies for proper interment.

 

Then, too, terrible fear and superstition had also warded them away—for some of the rhinoceroses swore Tai Lung had not been a snow leopard at all, but a demon come to feast upon their still beating hearts...or at least, that he'd had the aid of something supernatural and unknown. For what else could explain his uncanny ability to thwart all their traps and weapons and escape without so much as a scratch on him?

 

As a result, those of their kinsmen whom they could not save were left abandoned to rot in the cold and darkness, or else entombed in the miles of tunnels and shattered rock...their spirits left to wander the mountain forever, wailing in a bitter inability to gain the vengeance they craved, which would allow them to pass to the next world in peace.

 

And they were not the only things sealed away there.

 

Within the chill, ominous shadows of Chorh-Gom…past the piles of rock that had once been stalactites, the ruined guardhouses and busted lanterns...beyond the collapsed bridges and walkways, the splintered remains of the wooden elevator, and the suspended, massive links of chains clinking and rattling with hollow emptiness against towers with lonely windows staring out like the eyeless sockets of bare skulls in the gloom...even below the pinnacle on which Tai Lung had been restrained for twenty years, in the depths of a chasm that many had whispered was bottomless...something stirred. Lusted. Hungered.

 

He had been here long before the prison was ever constructed. His reach had once extended across the breadth of China, granting him power and control over every being from the richest Emperor to the lowliest servant. He had cast his shadow over the Valley of Peace before Shifu had been more than a twinkle in his father's eye...a shadow driven back and restrained only by one whose light was greater, stronger, and more pure than he could ever hope to defeat.

 

But now Oogway was gone. The final barrier had been broken, and the power he sought, the true dominion over all, and the ability to shape destinies, souls, and civilizations into the glory he foresaw for them was now at last within his grasp.

 

He had waited...oh so patiently, oh so carefully, knowing that this day would come...feeling the turtle's wisdom, presence, and chi fading from the land with every passing month, like the color from a painting allowed to stand bathed beneath the sun for too long. He had bided his time, for in his companion within the darkness, he had held his ace.

 

And now, he was free.

 

Tai Lung was gone, of course. Inflamed by his mad, bloody thirst for revenge, power, and utter mastery, he had needed no more than, ah, a feather's urging to make good his escape. So much slaughter...so much destruction...so many screams of agony, squeals of fear, whimpers for mercy. They had all fallen like dulcet musical notes upon his ears...burning within him, strengthening him, building up to a crescendo which would soon engulf the world. And with the snow leopard's feral bursting of his chains, he had been unloosed for another rampage upon the Valley of Peace.

 

He had failed, something which had not been foreseen—Oogway had been even cleverer than he'd imagined, thinking several steps ahead and preparing the way so that, even after his demise, the Valley would still be protected by the one he had chosen to act in his stead...the accursed Dragon Warrior. Against that sort of cosmic ability and inner wisdom, even the master of the thousand scrolls had not stood a chance. But that did not matter. Only a minor setback.

 

For the corrupted, amoral, cruelly twisted feline had not spent two decades incarcerated here only to twiddle his thumbs, so to speak. One such as he...so consumed with thoughts of madness, despair, grief, and resentment...could not help but leave a mark on his environment. The darkness which had grown within him had its vile mirror all around him...a chi as vast and seemingly endless as Tai Lung's, bolstered by such strong emotions, centered in a heart and willpower as unyielding and adamantine as the mountains around them—well, it would have been quite impossible for this not to imprint Chorh-Gom with his essence.

 

The Villain Looms Over Tai Lung

 

Twenty years of aggression, hatred, and insane lust for murder...it had saturated every stone, every scrap of iron, every fetid wind moaning through the abyss. And it was now his to command...to shape...to control.

 

Slowly, sinuously, but with ever increasing confidence and determination, he rose from the pit where he had dwelt for a score of years...listening, siphoning, feeding... He sent tendrils of dark, churning mist across the pinnacle where Tai Lung had knelt, up the walls of the abyss, creeping—appropriately enough—on silent cat-feet up torches and stanchions, stairwells and tunnels, absorbing from every crevice and boulder, every surface and corpse, the echoes of what wardens and prisoner alike had felt, thought, and believed.

 

Gluttony. Sloth. Fear. Wrath. Greed. Oh, and pride. Pride most of all. It was like oxygen to him, a clinging miasma which filled him with life, satisfaction, and above all...ecstasy. He glutted himself on it, became bloated with it, until he felt he could hold not a drop more. And with it he felt more power than he had in nearly a century.

 

Yes. Yes. What a delightful bouquet it has. I could feast on this for a thousand years, and yet never grow sated. And this is but a foretaste of what I can have at my disposal, once all of China falls under my thrall. This power is indescribable. I must have more...I will have more.

 

Gradually, he began to pick his way through the charnel house, not only lapping up with exquisite delight every last trace of negative thought, emotion, and energy which a place of such horror, torture, and suffering had to offer...but seeking the one, he who would be his vessel to the world above, who would finally bring his dominion into reality. If none survived here, he would range farther afield.

 

He would not rest, had no need of it with the veritable banquet he had just consumed…and so he knew that, with persistence and skill, he would find the key. And once that had been accomplished...

 

Tai Lung had been his, once. He would have him again. The snow leopard's chi belonged to him, as no other's in many a dynasty had or ever would again. And it would bring him victory. The fool still lived, and so had a second chance to give himself to imbalance and chaos.

 

He would serve him...or die, and serve him still. That was the way of things, and there was nothing and no one that could possibly intervene. If they tried...his servants would see to them.

 

He chuckled softly to himself—a sound as eerie and hair-raising for being utterly devoid of mirth and vitality...as if it came from the throat of one already dead who had been kept sustained in a mocking semblance of life...as it was for emanating from a place where there should have been no such sounds to hear.

 

And then he leaped upwards, and his darkness swallowed torches, moonlight upon the rocks, and Chorh-Gom itself...as he hurtled out into the night.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10 Icon
 

Dawn light shone in bright rectangles through the rice-paper doors, as well as the broad windows facing across the mountaintop toward the east, spilling onto the old, creaky floorboards of the bunkhouse until the wood became quite warm underpaw. In spite of himself, in spite of the tremendous hurdles and obstacles which lay in his way and the very real fear that without the Dragon Scroll he would amount to nothing at all, Tai Lung could not help but stand straight, proud, and true as he waited for Shifu to appear and begin his new training. He had never been a morning person, never would be, but something about this morning seemed full of hope and new promise.

 

He'd remember those thoughts much later, and between smacking his forehead hard and laughing mockingly at himself would wonder exactly how much sugar the panda had put in his bean bun dough...and how he possibly could have kept from gagging on it.

 

For now, however, he remained blissfully ignorant of the terrible fate in store for him, instead trying very hard (and failing) to keep the rather smug grin from his face—for he knew no matter what lessons and exercises the red panda threw at him, he would master and conquer them all, as he had everything housed in the thousand scrolls.

 

Unsurprisingly, the Dragon Warrior and the Furious Five (who had also gathered in the hallway, regular as clockwork to keep to the temple's rigid and infamous schedule) seemed rather puzzled if not outright disgusted by his demeanor—he could see Tigress visibly roll her eyes and Monkey glowering, while Viper exchanged a confused look with Mantis and Po elbowed Crane with a knowing wink (while the bird began to very slowly edge away).

 

But he couldn't help it...his heart felt so light, finally relieved of the burden it had borne for so long, and though his confidence reminded him—like an icicle buried deep in his chest—of how he'd felt the day he was supposed to be granted the Dragon Scroll, the feline somehow knew that everything was going to change. This day was the start of...something new.

 

Of course, just how much of his ebullient feelings were due to having spent his first night free of imprisonment since being brought back to the Jade Palace was something he refused to admit aloud. Specifically, he didn't know which was more heartwarming—the surprise of Po's stunning 'welcome home' feast (won ton soup, egg rolls, shredded bamboo, mushroom chow mein in garlic sauce, and—the snow leopard's absolute favorite, which Shifu must have told the panda—teriyaki salmon with asparagus and black beans); or being allowed to sleep in his old dormitory room after twenty years away.

 

Not that he particularly enjoyed layers of dust over everything making him sneeze uncontrollably, or that the room itself was that remarkable—his extreme sense of decorum and discipline had kept it even more austere and unadorned in decoration than the rooms of the Five. But there was something about it all the same. Even though he knew the other kung fu masters, especially Tigress, would likely never accept him, Shifu had allowed him to resume his old place. And he knew Po, against all odds, would always feel he belonged here and do his best to make the snow leopard feel at ease. It all brought a tightness to his chest he hadn't felt in...how long?

 

If you have to ask yourself that question, it's been far too long.

 

His thoughts were interrupted as the tiny form of Shifu stepped into his customary place at the end of the hall, and each of the Five—even the panda, too—snapped to attention. Instinctively, so did Tai Lung.

 

"Good morning, students," Shifu said, emphasizing the last word blatantly as he gazed at the snow leopard.

 

Despite this, Tai Lung recited with the others: "Good morning, Master." His heart beat a little faster.

 

After silently contemplating each of them for some time, an inspection which the snow leopard couldn't help noticing all of them passed except Po—for the impatient bear was soon wriggling and bouncing from one foot to the other as if he were about to thrust a paw up and ask permission to go relieve himself—Shifu at last said, "Tigress...you and your fellow masters have your...instructions. See that they are followed to the letter, and I will join you shortly. Dragon Warrior, your place will be in the kitchen today—there will be a great deal of food to prepare, as you well know."

 

Po seemed to deflate for a moment, ready to protest at not getting to continue honing his 'awesome' kung fu skills, but then he perked up at the prospect of more cooking...while Tai Lung listened to all this with growing confusion.

 

Then Shifu turned at last to look right into the snow leopard's golden eyes. "This morning I will be devoting my full attention to Tai Lung, for his first lesson."

 

The spotted cat didn't know how to respond to this. Special attention, or remedial work? The devotion of a father, or the intense scrutiny of a relentless teacher? It could be any or all of these. But he had promised he would try...Oogway, of all people, had given him the faith to believe, at least for a little while...and while he could not be certain, something in Shifu's gaze told him that whatever the red panda had in mind, it was meant to help, not to harm.

 

He'd remember that thought later too.

 

Tai Lung waited, patiently and quietly, no matter how on tenterhooks he was inside, until each of the Furious Five and Po had filed (or in the latter's case, bounced) out of the dormitory. Then at last he glanced at Shifu expectantly.

 

"Well. Here we are then." His master paused, then said significantly, "Are you ready?"

 

The snow leopard couldn't keep from beaming. "You know better than to ask me that, Shifu. I was born ready." What would he teach him, he wondered? Were there some lessons he had somehow missed in the thousand scrolls? Lessons he had not fully mastered? Or could new moves, or even whole new kung fu styles, have been invented and set to parchment in the last twenty years which he was not aware of?

 

If so, he would learn them too! There was nothing he could not do, if he but set his mind to it. Perhaps there were something even more awe-inspiring and powerful than the Leopard Claw, or the Wuxi Finger Hold. Something which might impress Tigress?

 

Shifu, meanwhile, was eyeing him with faint amusement, and a certain mischievous glee that he didn't like at all; whenever he'd seen such a look in the past, it was a signal that his old master was about to yank the rug out from under him. "Hmm. I'll remember you said that. Well then—"

 

He couldn't hold it back anymore. "Where are we going to start, Master? Striding bare-pawed across hot coals? Backwards hand walking down the palace steps—with weights tied to my ankles? Balancing on a sword point? The Quivering Palm? The Leap of the Clouds? Anything you ask, just name it and I'll do it."

 

Although none of the feats he had just referred to had ever been required of him, he could say with only slight exaggeration that with Shifu's legendary discipline and unrelenting challenges, they might as well have been. And if it came down to it, he knew every single thing he'd said was achievable.

 

Not waiting for an answer, he rushed on. "Or I could run the gauntlet in the kwoon again, I'm sure I missed something before. Believe me, it won't take more than a few minutes!" He posed theatrically, showing off the massive bulges of his biceps and shoulders until his spots danced and jumped—quite proud of the fact that his muscles were as hardened, knotted, and sculpted as they'd been when he was sixteen.

 

(In the only benefit he could ascribe to his time at Chorh-Gom, Oogway's restraining device had had the perhaps inadvertent effect of locking his metabolism along with his chi, so that his body neither deteriorated nor atrophied despite his lack of exercise. If anything, it had actually concentrated his strength.)

 

"Tai Lung!" Shifu did not yell or shout, but the authority in his voice was unquestionable. At once embarrassed and fumbling for his dignity, the snow leopard swiftly dropped his flexed arm and instead grasped his wrist behind his back. After he thought he looked sufficiently contrite, he dared to glance back. The red panda seemed uncertain whether to laugh or shake his head ruefully.

 

"Forgive me, Master. It's just, you promised me you would teach me what I never learned, what I had been missing. You promised you would help me be a great hero and warrior after all." For the first time since he'd accepted Shifu's offer, a growl crept back into his voice, as behind his back his knuckles began to crack. "I'm holding you to that, old man..." No. Steady. Steady.

 

"Peace, Tai Lung. Patience. I know that will be difficult for you…but I said I would train you, and so I shall." Shifu reached behind him as well, fumbling for something beneath the hem of his robes. "Your first lesson will be in weaponry."

 

Despite everything, Tai Lung couldn't keep the disappointment from his face. He had been trained in weapons combat already—more, he suspected, than any of the Five knew, at least individually. But…perhaps there was something he wasn't thinking of. A new technique, a different combination of weapons…and if he was to start his life over, aim it toward a new goal, he might well need to begin with the basics.

 

Recovering gamely enough, he said, "All right then. What shall it be? The tonfa? The butterfly sword? Battle axe? Or perhaps the ji...you may have forgotten how good I was with halberds and lances." Again he found himself grinning, this time slyly.

 

Shifu's large eyes regarded him solemnly as if considering and rejecting each of his choices for reasons he couldn't fathom. Then he gave a tiny smile, even as his hand finally seemed to clasp around something behind his back. "The weapon in which you are about to be trained is not like any other you have ever wielded, Tai Lung. With this in your hand, you can create as well as destroy.

 

"A man who carries this can bring together towns and families in long-lasting peace, end feuds, drive home any point he wishes to make against his adversary. As long as you have this, you can spare the weak and the infirm, shelter your charges, and ensure the continued progress of civilization. Without it, you will be exposed utterly to the elements, and all you do shall be as a house upon the sand."

 

The longer he listened, the more awed...and consternated...the snow leopard became. What weapon could do all of that? Yet, if it existed—he had to master it. It sounded like the weapon of a truly incredible warrior. With such a tool in his hands, he could carve out a proper name for himself...he could surely earn his redemption then.

 

Yet in the back of his mind, warning alarms were starting to go off. Shifu was never this philosophical. What was he really up to?

 

"What is it?" he finally ventured at last.

 

For answer, Shifu promptly whipped his hand from behind his back to produce—a hammer.

 

Tai Lung stared, as every single thought and surmise came to a screeching halt in his head. "WHAT?"

 

The panda blinked with exaggerated care, seemingly unperturbed. "Is something wrong, my student?"

 

After working his jaw soundlessly, the snow leopard stammered, "Surely you're joking!"

 

Shifu smiled faintly. "Now really, since when have I ever joked?"

 

He had him there. "B-but...I don't understand." There was far too much of a whining complaint in his voice for his liking. "What are you playing at, Shifu? No matter how you look at it, that is not a weapon. Certainly not for a kung fu warrior, anyway. Why are you wasting my time with this nonsense?" In the back of his mind, he wondered if Shifu had sent the Five and Po away expressly so there would be no witnesses, because he had anticipated this argument—but the rest of him was mortally offended.

 

For the first time since their battle, Shifu actually looked deeply, furiously angry. "It is not nonsense. Everything I said to you was true—and it is something you desperately need. All you have ever done is learned to hurt, to maim, to break and batter and tear down. It is high time you learn to undo the damage you have wrought.

 

"When Po used the Wuxi Finger Hold, it restored most of the destruction you caused in the village...and in your soul. But not all. Like you, it needs to be rebuilt. And you will start here, with the Jade Palace that was once your home, and shall be again."

 

Tai Lung could not believe his ears. There was a twisted logic to it, of course...and it was true that working to literally repair everything he had ruined during the fights with Po and Shifu would go far toward convincing the Valley that he had changed and wished to make amends. But... Stalking forward, he clenched his fists before stabbing a finger at the hammer.

 

"You are as mad as Oogway if you think I'm going to—that is menial labor, peasants' work!" He felt his blood boiling, and his whole body trembled with his barely restrained rage. His pride needed to be reined in, yes, but this... "I refuse to—"

 

Shifu glared at him. Cowed, he immediately swallowed what he had been about to say…but he couldn't halt the cresting of despair within him. This was Shifu's great plan? To degrade him, mock him, humiliate him even more than he had been before? How could he...he'd had such high hopes...he should have known better...

 

Slowly, the red panda seemed to relent, sympathy and understanding appearing in his blue eyes. "You gave your word, Tai Lung. You said you would obey me, and follow my instructions in whatever I taught you."

 

He hadn't promised those exact words, but leave it to Shifu to whip out a fine print he hadn't even contemplated. "I've changed my mind."

 

Even as he said it, of course, he knew his master would not allow it...and secretly, neither would he. He had come too far to give up now just because an unexpected task had been set before him...no matter how personally distasteful it was.

 

Shifu balled his fist on one hip. "There are no take-backs in the Jade Palace."

 

Cringing a little before his determined gaze, he tried again, a little more feeble. "You...you wouldn't make me do this, Shifu. Even you wouldn't stoop this low."

 

"There is nothing wrong with honest work, work that you do by the sweat of your own brow." He paused, then his lips twitched. "And you can hardly say you don't have the strength for it."

 

Playing to my vanity? You should be ashamed. Especially since it was working, as almost against his will, his stubborn streak—as wide as the Great Wall was long—insisted that he was indeed capable of anything, including rebuilding the whole damned town by himself if he had to.

 

"I...are you sure there's no other way…?"

 

"I promise you...if you can master this weapon, and every other responsibility that comes with it, you will learn what Po already knows, what enabled him to defeat you, and find a new path in life." The red panda smiled fiendishly. "And at that point, I will teach you secrets of kung fu that are still beyond you. Trust me—they're worth waiting for."

 

Hearing that, his resistance crumbled. For several more moments the tableau remained frozen, as each of them stared at each other, their equally indomitable wills set against each other. Then slowly, fighting it every step of the way, he reached out, wrapped his paw around the handle...and snatched the hammer away.

 

"Fine...Master." Damn you, Shifu. If any of the Five let out even a peep of laughter, so help me...

                                                                       


 

But surprisingly, none of them did. Tigress looked entirely too satisfied with herself, and Mantis did smirk behind his pincers, but otherwise the Five only acknowledged his presence with a nod, then went back to what they were doing—which was awaiting the arrival of various craftsmen and supplies from the village. Apparently Shifu had been preparing for this day for quite some time, most likely while the snow leopard was still recovering in his cell. Now that the word had been given, all those who would be needed—stone carvers, blacksmiths, quarrymen, carpenters, and more—had gathered to bring the materials to effect repairs.

 

And while Po had made lunches for everyone and planned to keep ginseng tea warm on the fireplace all day, and Tigress, Mantis, and Viper aided the villagers in carrying barrows of bricks, stones, and tiles up the stairs, it was left to Tai Lung to join Crane and Monkey in the 'easiest' task—patching the holes which had been smashed through the Jade Palace roof.

 

Off to the side of the massive crater in the temple porch, where he had ripped up an enormous chunk of the hillside to hurtle at Shifu only a week and a half ago, the ex-convict did his level best to studiously ignore his fellow laborers as well as the collection of supplies they would be using in their task—planks of freshly cut and cured wood, sheet-thin slabs of crimson slate mined from the nearby mountains, hundreds of dowels for securing tiles in place, and fragile jade for use in retouching damaged decorations. Each of them, it seemed, was also to carry a leather satchel for lugging about their equipment, as Crane and Monkey already wore theirs.

 

While the squeaking of wheels echoed behind him, from the barrows which stonemasons were using to dump and smooth out crushed rock for filling in the crater, the avian kung fu master looked at him somewhat warily, rustling and interweaving his wing feathers nervously. "So...uh...were you, perhaps, needing a little...assistance? I could, er, carry you up, if you don't mind, that is..."

 

Tai Lung grunted contemptuously; the last thing he wanted was to appear helpless and dependent on others. "No, I don't think that will be necessary."

 

Now it was Monkey's turn to try...and he was much less solicitous, more harsh. "If you can't keep up, we're not going to wait for you, you know. Maybe you need me to hold your paw, while I pull you up there?"

 

This time, the snow leopard swiveled his head to impale the primate with the coldest, most hateful glare he could muster, enough that even the usually unflappable Crane took a long step back out of the line of fire. The langur, more was the pity, remained as steady as the mountain. "Thank you for the offer, Master Monkey. But I think you're forgetting we felines have a natural agility and knack for climbing." Better even than yours, I daresay. "Just stand back."

 

Uncrossing his arms and cracking his neck about—an ostentatious display, he knew, but the joints actually did need loosening—he jerked his satchel up on to his shoulder and then gazed up at the façade of the Jade Palace. Though it had been years since he stood before it like this, and during his youth he had to admit he'd never really studied its architectural features, particularly with the intent to mount them, it didn't take him long to see a course upwards. Stepping back until he stood near the edge of the porch, he dropped down to all fours for greater speed and traction, then instantly scrambled forward.

 

In seconds he had crossed the intervening space and, with a slight grunt of effort, hurled himself skyward. Such was the power contained in his powerfully developed quadriceps that he cleared half the height of the temple pillars in the first leap, almost seeming to defy gravity as he hung in mid-air high above the pavement stones.

 

Then, as he slowly began to sink downward, Tai Lung drew his legs up like a coiled spring, only to thrust them out at full extension—twisting sideways in the same motion, so that his feet struck the nearest column and sent him hurtling the opposite direction, where he repeated the action against the neighboring column. Back and forth, from one crimson, tree-trunk pillar to the other, catching onto the coiling golden dragons with his unsheathed claws whenever he needed purchase, he ascended higher and higher toward his goal.

 

At last, when the sweeping curvature of the lowest roof tier hung only a few yards above his head, the snow leopard gathered the energy into his haunches one last time and sprang with all the force of the skillful predator he truly was. At the height of his arc, he caught hold of a wooden dougong supporting the eaves, then inverted himself, flipping backwards—and up.

 

With barely a scrape of the tiles as his weight settled atop them, Tai Lung landed adroitly on the roof, his satchel still in place without any of its contents having fallen out. Damn, I'm good.

 

He turned to nonchalantly call out to his companions—only to find Monkey and Crane already there. The latter merely blinked at him patiently, while the former smirked openly. "What took you so long?" the simian taunted. "Bet you were showing off again."

 

The snow leopard so longed to wrap his paws around that nonexistent neck and throttle him—if for no other reason than he knew Monkey was right. Stupid, nimble little ape with that damn prehensile tail! With the golden langur around, and a kung fu master who could actually fly in the form of Crane, there was no chance he could get away with slacking off...and little more that he'd succeed in impressing, or outclassing, anybody.

 

Forcing the knotted ball of his temper back down again, he snarled softly and turned abruptly away, toward the second and third inclines of the roof. "Whatever. Let's just get on with this."

 

Since the rooftops from there up to the peak of the gable were a relatively smooth, gradual slope, it didn't take them long at all to reach the top, where the battling father and son had broken through twice in their attempts to batter each other senseless. By the time they did so, the sun was already almost at its zenith overhead, and that coupled with the mostly cloud-free summer's day allowed for a rather spectacular view of the Valley extending out for miles around the mountaintop.

 

Choosing not to look directly down the vertigo-inducing drop of the stairway, Tai Lung instead gazed outward across the forested hills and peaks, marveling anew at the bold, rugged grandeur of the bordering mountains, the shimmering prisms of the ever-present mist, and the vibrant colors picked out by the blazing sunlight. His sharp eyesight could see the milling citizens in the village far below, looking like ants at this distance, as well as the bell enshrined on the opposing promontory and the occasional bird winging its way southward...and even, if he squinted, the glint of water and the flash of green that marked the heights of far-off Wu Dan Mountain and its Pool of Sacred Tears.

 

But no matter how stunning the backdrop, he wasn't here to gawk at the scenery. He had a job to do, and however much it infuriated and demeaned him, he would not allow the Furious Five to mock him for failing to obey Shifu to the letter...nor do anything to disappoint the panda, or prove Tigress right about him. He couldn't risk his freedom, or his chance of a future. And if he was going to do this, he would still do it right and properly. He refused to do a half-assed job at anything. Such a thing would be truly beneath him.

 

He wheeled about to face the other kung fu masters, his feet making a soft scraping sound as they shifted some of the slate tiles. "So, exactly how are we to do this, eh? Take a plank or two and hammer them down over the holes? Hardly seems worth all three of us working up here then."

 

Monkey looked at him as if he'd just insulted the Emperor's name. "Okay, maybe all you know is kung fu, cat, but for an answer like that, I should beat you 'round the mountain a few times." Before Tai Lung could sneer at him and voice his snide thought ("You and what army, you lice-infested baboon?"), Monkey continued.

 

"If we did what you said, that roof would be ruined. You can't just slap the wood over a hole and hope it just fixes everything. It wouldn't be flat no more, and all the tiles would slide right off! And the water, it would leak through, rot the wood. No, you gotta very carefully take off every single tile, replace the whole plank backing underneath, then put 'em all back again. May take a lot longer, but when you're through, you got a real strong roof that'll stand the test of time."

 

The primate nodded firmly in vindication, fists on hips...and then paused, staring at them quizzically. For not only was Tai Lung fairly gaping at Monkey, even Crane looked startled and puzzled by his sudden and unexpected outpouring of knowledge. "What's the matter? Do I got something stuck in my teeth?"

 

Tai Lung snorted, then cocked his head to the side. "Can't speak for the birdbrain here, but I was never under the impression Shifu trained the Five in anything that didn't have 'greatest fighter in China' written all over it."

 

Crane narrowed his eyes. "Well, that shows what you know." He shifted his gaze to his fellow master. "But he does have a point...since when do you know anything about roofing, Monkey?"

 

"I don't," the golden simian replied with a touch of aspersion. "But my brother does. He was a carpenter, you know."

 

For a moment the bird rather looked as if he wanted to say he did not, in fact, know and that this was actually the first time he'd ever heard such a thing. But the annoyed look Monkey gave him—basically implying that he would have known, if he'd ever bothered to ask—silenced Crane. Instead, he tipped his hat and performed a sweeping, fluid bow that, though it could have been interpreted as mocking, actually seemed quite sincere. "In that case, I guess you'll be leading us in the repair work."

 

Hearing that, Tai Lung could only groan anew.

 

But he had to admit, several minutes later as he was grimly but with extreme care removing the slate tiles from the roof for careful piling off to one side, that Monkey did seem to know what he was doing. Once he was convinced the snow leopard wasn't going to haphazardly toss the slate about (and in the process, smash it to bits), he left Tai Lung mostly to his own devices, instead working with Crane at the edge of the roof to start loosening the plank they would have to replace—and considering Monkey did so by literally hanging by his tail from one of the dragon carvings, so he could get at the dowels from underneath, he was in fact eminently suited to the task.

 

For his part, as he traveled back and forth between the wooden tray where he had been told to deposit the tiles for sorting and inspection, and the holes that were the cause of all this labor in the first place, Tai Lung reflected ruefully upon his activities. On the one paw, it was lucky that the two holes happened to be on the same plank, or else there would be many more tiles to remove and a great deal more work in laying out the new wood upon the rafters. On the other paw...it wasn't lost on him that none of this would even be necessary if he hadn't so savagely and thoughtlessly attacked Shifu in the first place.

 

Pausing above one of the holes, he stared down toward the marble flooring of the Hall of Warriors many yards below. Unperturbed by the height, he only fixed his gaze on the shimmering waters of the Moon Pool, which even from his vantage point he could see still bore the image of the golden dragon's head which had, for as long as he could remember, held the Dragon Scroll.

 

When he'd first seen it as a cub, it had transfixed him with awe—and terror. Later, once he had grown enough to learn the full story, it had become a true wonder for him, something he would gaze at for hours on end while he sat beside the pool, forever pondering what secrets could lie within and what it would be like to wield them. And later still, it had become a study in contrasts...an old friend and reassuring companion as he moved farther down his checklist, closer to mastering all one thousand scrolls, but also a simple symbol of his destiny and a challenge to be overcome.

 

If only he had known the truth. If he had only realized everything he viewed as only a means to an end was in fact the true goal. That all the techniques and moves he had mastered already made him a great warrior...and the powers he had unleashed within himself were all he would ever need to triumph and make a name for himself. That if he'd only believed in himself, he would have had everything he needed to be more than an orphan without ancestors and honor, more than a mere student taken in out of compassion because apparently, no one else had wanted him.

 

If only he hadn't listened to Shifu.

 

"Hey, lazybones!" Monkey heckled from behind him. "Get a move on, we don't have time for you to groom yourself. Do you think these boards are gonna hammer themselves? Or were you taking a catnap? Heh-heh."

 

Oh, like I haven't heard that one a million times before. How brilliantly original!

 

"Not at all," he drawled. "I was just...thinking."

 

Now it was Monkey who snorted, as if the idea of Tai Lung thinking was manifestly impossible. But Crane eyed him from beneath that ridiculous straw hat of his with what he swore was genuine curiosity. "Oh? What about?"

 

The feline paused, mouth hanging open a few seconds, then shut it abruptly. He couldn't believe it, but he'd been on the verge of spilling his guts to the bird. As if they could possibly understand, or care if they did! Even if each of the Five had secretly hoped, or at least vaguely believed, that one day they might be chosen as the Dragon Warrior, none of them had thought about it, fought for it, or dreamed about it as long as he had.

 

None of them, so far as he knew, had come to the Jade Palace as younglings to be trained, let alone been found left on its doorstep with nowhere else to go. They'd all had lives prior to coming here, families, loved ones who cared for them. He hadn't...and the way he'd been abandoned, perhaps he never had. They all had names for themselves, came from distinguished lineages or even other kung fu academies. How could they possibly understand what he was going through?

 

And they had never known Shifu's love—as Tigress had made so painfully and regretfully clear—only to have it seemingly withheld along with the scroll.

 

Sighing, he cast about for and discarded a number of options before at last, in a fit of desperation, he said, "What was I thinking about? Er...noodles."

 

Both Monkey and Crane stopped what they were doing—hauling one of the boards in place and replacing some of the inset jade, respectively—to stare at him dumbfounded.

 

"What?" Tai Lung replied, lamely. "I'm starving." I really need to find someone else to stand guard over me...the panda's starting to rub off a tad too much.

 

When the other masters remained frozen where they were, still staring at him, he growled until they flinched into motion again. "Never mind," he muttered. "If you must know, I was thinking about my fight with Master Shifu." Which, now that he actually was thinking about it, wasn't exactly a lie. The last thing they needed to hear was that Tai Lung was still thinking about the Dragon Scroll...and it wasn't as if contemplating the results of his combat didn't keep it forefront in his mind.

 

Sourly wondering if that was another reason the red panda had assigned him this task in the first place, he continued. "I was thinking...that in the end, it wasn't even worth it."

 

"Ah. I see." Crane nodded sagely. "Because you hurt your own father, and almost killed him, and it was all for nothing?"

 

Inwardly, Tai Lung winced, as actually he'd been thinking that the battle had made more work for him in the end, now that he had to clean up after it. That, too. "Um...yes."

 

For a moment Monkey and Crane exchanged a knowing and, on the part of the primate, skeptical look. Then the bird spoke up again. "Oh. Well, you know what they say: 'before enlightenment, pour water; after enlightenment, pour water.'"

 

Now it was the snow leopard's turn to glance in confusion at Monkey. Not only did the saying make no sense, but neither of them had ever heard Crane be so insightful. Seeing how they were looking at him, the bird shrugged uncomfortably. "Sorry...not one of mine. Master Oogway said that, once. Don't ask me what it means."

 

That explains a great deal. Shaking his head, Tai Lung nerved himself and plucked from his belt the hammer which Shifu had given him. "All right, I won't. Instead I suppose I should start getting the hang of this, shouldn't I?"

 

The rest of the day passed mostly uneventfully, save for a few hiccups and false starts. After several hours, the snow leopard succeeded in piling all the slates in the tray without chipping or breaking a single one, a feat which made him obscurely proud. Of course, those which had been smashed through would have to be replaced, and some of them were old and fragile enough they had to be discarded anyway.

 

This was made clear to him in a seemingly ridiculous manner, when Monkey had quite casually lifted a slate to his ear and held it there, balanced on his fingers, while he knocked on it with the knuckles of his other hand. This, he explained to the befuddled Tai Lung, was how you knew if a particular tile was worth salvaging for the new roofing—a good piece of slate gave off a clear, solid sound, while a deteriorating one only made a dull thud.

 

It took a little while for the snow leopard to listen and detect the difference, but thanks to his keen feline hearing he soon proved a natural at it...to the point that even Monkey had to reluctantly admit his expertise.

 

Of course, he was hardly good at everything involved in the roofing procedure. There were more than a few awkward moments when it came to laying the long plank of teak atop the temple gable. Not so much in removing the old batten he had smashed through—all that took, once the dowels were loosened, was securing the grip of both paws under the eaves and with an almighty heave of his broad shoulders, ripping it out of its moorings.

 

The awkwardness came afterward, when it was time to lay the new plank. Crane had easily flown the wooden tray up to the heights of the Jade Palace, and he had been able to carry the rest of the paralyzed Five back to the Valley of Peace all by himself—and neither Tigress nor Monkey were exactly lightweight—so there was no question the avian was quite strong.

 

The plank, however, being long and top-heavy, required all three of them to maneuver into position: Monkey, again suspended by his tail, holding onto each of Tai Lung's ankles while he swung down from the curving rooftop, catching hold of the upper end of the plank and hauling it up as Crane, wings flapping frantically, held the other end with his taloned feet. By the time that task was accomplished, all three of them were sweaty and sported any number of muscle aches...but there was still more to do.

 

Luckily they had a brief respite when they broke for lunch—and though Tai Lung was still loathe to admit it aloud, he was becoming fonder and more appreciative of Po's cooking with each meal the panda offered him. Today it was shrimp dumplings, fried oysters, and steamed rice with mixed vegetables (cabbage, snow peas, and water chestnuts, mostly), and if the scents wafting up hadn't been enough to make his mouth water, actually tasting how delicious it was clinched him as a lifelong fan.

 

Not that meals at the Jade Palace had been terrible when he was growing up, for of course a healthy diet and well-built body were important prerequisites to kung fu and inner balance in general. But beyond such considerations, Shifu had never been particularly concerned with quality over quantity, and while Oogway had never forbidden it (for it was, after all, only the way of the natural world), the consumption of meat had always been rather frowned upon. And of course the snow leopard didn't even want to think about meals at Chorh-Gom...

 

With such a filling meal, washed down by some of the Dragon Warrior's exquisite tea, Tai Lung threw himself into the next stages of the repair work with a will—perhaps too much so. For once the board was in place and the time came to begin inserting the dowels and fitting it into the dougongs, the feline became perhaps a little too enthusiastic in his pounding...since his first target wasn't one of the dowels, but his own thumb.

 

Thankfully (and rather wisely, he thought), neither Monkey nor Crane commented on how he was forced to suck on the bruised digit for the next several minutes until the pain subsided. Having experienced much more terrible injuries than this in his time, Tai Lung was soon right back at it again, and once he'd cleverly discovered how not to bash his own paw with every blow—viewing the dowels in his mind as nerve points, which had to be struck with exact precision to achieve the desired paralysis and not, for example, stop the heart and kill his opponent outright—he was soon falling into the rhythm of the hammer far easier than he'd ever expected.

 

Shedding his new shirt so as not to soak it with his sweat, he pounded away throughout the rest of the afternoon—affixing the ends of the board securely, then inserting the fastenings which would hold the curved tiles in place once Monkey had shown him how it was done. Soon enough, the pleasing burn of aching muscles, a sensation with which he was quite familiar, added to the heat of the day as he labored beneath the summer sun.

 

And though he still found the chore itself at least monotonous if not demeaning, it gave him a great deal of time to think—even, to his marked surprise, to find the sort of calm and centered state of mind which had previously always slipped away from him. For with his body on autopilot, his thoughts were free to wander, drift, and seek solace in whatever happened to strike him at the moment. It was...soothing, somehow, not to have any pressure upon him.

 

There was no deadline, no need to rush—the job would be finished when it was finished, with a definite endpoint in mind. Unlike with his kung fu training, where there had always been another scroll to master, another style to contemplate, another move to integrate into his repertoire—so that even once the thousand scrolls were completed he had habitually gone seeking for something more, something greater—now, he knew exactly when the task was done. It could neither be hurried, nor supplemented. Like a lotus blossom, it simply was what it was.

 

And with each dowel he drove into place, each slate he laid in its course, he directed his energies into new avenues. Some he viewed as his personal demons being smashed into a semblance of order and proper behavior. Others he saw as giving blows to all those, from Tigress on down to the lowliest villager, who had sneered at him and believed him worthless for anything except as a training dummy, or compost perhaps. And still others only reminded him of how far he still had to go, how there would always be another tier of challenges to meet, more goals to achieve—not as a warrior on his way to claiming the Dragon Scroll, but simply as a man trying to make a place for himself in the world.

 

It wasn't until the sun was sinking past the horizon, and Crane gently tapped him on one shoulder to let him know it was time to head back to the kitchen for dinner, and after that to retire for the night, that Tai Lung even became aware of his surroundings. As had often been the case for him when training in the kwoon—and even, once in a while, when studying the scrolls with Oogway—the snow leopard had completely lost track of time, become so focused on his work that he had walled away everything around him while confining himself to his narrow task. The turtle had called it 'focusing on the dewdrop'. Tai Lung had simply considered it ignoring everything, including emotions, that would distract him.

 

"Hey." The avian kung fu master rested his wing feathers on the snow leopard's arm in a vaguely comforting gesture. "You did well today. It may not be much, but...it's a start. Maybe you can do this after all."

 

Tai Lung glanced from Crane, to Monkey (who stood nearby with his arms crossed over his chest, looking extremely annoyed that he couldn't gainsay his friend's words), to the rooftop—which was now as smooth, unblemished, and perfectly fitted together as if there had never been any damage to it. Between the three of them, they had repaired it all. He looked down at the hammer in his paw with bemusement, confusion, and in the end...satisfaction.

 

Slowly, he picked up his shirt from where he'd hung it on an ornamental dragon. Silently, he slipped it into place and began hooking the fastenings. And then, softly, he spoke.

 

"Maybe I can..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 11 Icon
 

When Tai Lung, Po, and the Five gathered again the next morning—this time in the Hall of Warriors since Shifu no longer made any pretense at disguising the nature of his son's training—the snow leopard was, if not eager and brimming with energy for the day's repair work, at least more accepting of and resigned to it. But when the feline had stretched the kinks from his sore muscles, flexed his arms gingerly a few times, and then declared he was ready to help haul the timbers which would be used to replace the Jade Palace's doors, the red panda disagreed.

 

While it was true the temple did need a better and more secure portal than the boards spanning the massive hole, there was another, much more crucial task which must be dealt with if the Valley of Peace were to be truly healed, or even resume normal commerce with the rest of China. The doors could wait, with the craftsmen putting the final artistic touches on them in the meantime, until the kung fu masters were available to aid in transporting them.

 

Instead, the ex-convict's lesson this day, Shifu said, would be raising a new span on the Thread of Hope.

 

Viper was watching the snow leopard's face very carefully, and with some concern, as this pronouncement was made, and she wasn't at all surprised to see resentment and anger, Tai Lung's constant twin companions, flaring inside his golden eyes. But what did startle her somewhat was a definite tinge of despair to his features.

 

To be sure, she was no more sanguine about the three-day round trip, or the rather complicated and, honestly, dangerous activity they'd be performing once they reached the gorge. But there seemed to be something else motivating the big feline that she couldn't quite put her tail tip on. Could he be wary of being left alone, without Shifu's good graces or Po's almost unconditional friendship, in the company of the five masters who had nearly beaten him almost two weeks ago? Did he have some other reason he didn't wish to leave the Valley? Or could it be he found the job itself too arduous?

 

Whatever the reason behind it, the snow leopard seemed to have realized by now that nothing he said would deter Shifu, for he was bound and determined Tai Lung would do his penance and change his ways if it killed one or both of them. Sighing despondently, he only listened glumly as the red panda outlined the procedure, stressing that more than any other lesson he had planned, this would require close teamwork between all six of them, and that in his absence, Tai Lung was to obey Tigress as if she were his Master—in fact, he should consider all of the Five his masters for the duration of the journey.

 

The serpent winced to herself, quite certain Tai Lung would not take to this arrangement at all well—and in a way, she couldn't blame him. For one who had been the greatest (and, for a time, the only) student of the Jade Palace, to suddenly find himself demoted and forced to both obey and consider his superiors five warriors, all but two of which (Mantis and Crane) were at least half his age, must be deeply discouraging. But to her shock, he did not object, or even comment upon it—instead only asking whether Po would be going with them.

 

Hiding a grin behind her coils, Viper wondered which was the real reason Tai Lung wanted the Dragon Warrior along—so he could sample more of the panda's exquisite cooking, or if he was actually starting to accept and even enjoy Po's company. When Shifu noted that Po needed to stay in the Valley to resume his kung fu training, but that he would be sending warm baskets of packed lunches for everyone, the snow leopard seemed inordinately satisfied, but she also thought she detected a little disappointment still. That is SO sweet!

 

Of course, she seemed to be the only one who found it so, and one of the few who wasn't upset at the prospect of spending so much time traveling and working with the ex-convict. After the roofing work of the day before, Crane had warmed up considerably to Tai Lung, and even Monkey had mellowed—a little. But overall the simian was still rather hostile, Mantis had been cold since the acupuncture session, and as for Tigress...

 

Viper shook her flowered head sadly, watching her closest friend among the Five as the striped feline turned her back and stalked in the direction of the bunkhouse—ostensibly to fetch a rucksack, but she could see the stiffness in her spine and shoulders and knew Tigress was extremely unhappy with this arrangement. Or at least, that she had a great deal of nervous tension within her at the thought of having to be around Tai Lung. Was she still that bent out of shape at losing to him? Or did this have something to do with the confrontation they'd had in his cell, which she still refused to talk about...?

 

Whatever was going on with her, however, Viper wasn't likely to pry it out of her so long as Tai Lung was within earshot. And the fact the serpent had not taken Tigress's side against the terrorizing killer made her fear her friend might never confide in her at all.

 

But, she reflected several hours later as she slithered along the last cobblestone street of the village outskirts alongside her companions, she truly couldn't help how she felt. She knew, of course, that Mantis for certain and probably Crane as well believed her choice in the matter had more to do with the rippling pectorals and well-defined abdominals the snow leopard sported. And she had to admit, with a trace of shame, one possible reason she might have lost at the Thread of Hope herself was the distraction afforded by being in such close quarters with an undeniably handsome man, one who was clearly aware of how seductive he was and took the utmost advantage of his charm and charisma. Not to mention what she'd caught sight of at the bathhouse when she was spying—er, checking up on Tai Lung...

 

Yet there was much more to her than the shallowness Mantis and Monkey usually saw in her...and she had a very good reason indeed for wanting to believe in Tai Lung that had nothing to do with his appearance.

 

Glancing up at the spotted feline as he carried on one shoulder, without a grumble of protest, the bulky burden of the new bridge rolled into a wooden coil, Viper dared to peer into his rather somber, solemn face when she was sure he wasn't looking. Though she would never act in such a reckless, murderous fashion as he had, she understood why it had hurt him so deeply, to have everything he ever believed in, his future and self-worth and above all, his father's love, stripped away from him.

 

Because these were all things she had always possessed and taken for granted. She had come from a high-class, extremely wealthy background where she had never wanted for anything, and moreover, both of her parents had doted on her extremely. Despite the fact she'd been born fangless and so seemed incapable of following in the...slither prints of her father's kung fu mastery (until they grew in later, of course), she had never been made to feel that this rendered her inferior, that she would ever be loved any less or deemed unworthy.

 

All she had ever experienced was kindness, devotion, and love...everything Tai Lung had been denied, or believed he had. He'd certainly been made to feel, perhaps inadvertently, that only if he attained the scroll and became the Dragon Warrior, or at least mastered kung fu, could he ever receive Shifu's love and approval.

 

As such, Viper was determined now that the snow leopard would not suffer these losses any longer—that she would not rest until Tai Lung had found the happiness he'd been denied and the fulfillment he craved. Though she had no reason to, she felt guilt that she'd led such a sheltered, almost charmed existence while he had been through so much anguish and torment. So in some strange way, she wanted to share her good fortune with him, to help give him a taste of what he'd been missing...what he might one day have with Shifu after all.

 

The only way to begin that process, however, was to interact with him more—and certainly not on the level of teacher and student. So as the other four masters led the way along the river's winding courses and began ascending the mountain ledges that would take them to the Thread of Hope, Viper hung back, crawling along at the snow leopard's side.

 

And even as she gathered her thoughts, trying to decide how best to approach the matter, Tai Lung (unsurprisingly) could not mistake her seemingly coincidental presence for anything other than what it was—certainly not for anything innocent or meaningless. He was, at least in some ways, an observant fellow.

 

"Something on your mind, Master Viper?" The tone of disdain he'd adopted throughout their battle at the bridge was gone, although his voice did seem...detached, she would have to say. As if his mind was preoccupied with something else. "Or are the rest of the Five starting to be a bit too much for you? Because I don't know about you, but I'm rather finding them to be a bit...cold."

 

Viper lidded her eyes briefly, and not only because of the rather predictable and annoying reptile pun. For she also knew he was absolutely right. And while she understood, for the most part, why her fellow kung fu masters distrusted and rejected Tai Lung—aside from what had happened the first time they'd encountered each other—she also couldn't help being disappointed in them. Crane at least was trying, but the others varied from neglectful and apathetic to downright hostile. As she'd said in the kitchen over a week ago, this sort of attitude not only hurt the snow leopard, it completely undermined his chances of changing himself for the better. Not to mention that now that he'd accepted the offer to stay at the Palace, refusing to cooperate in Tai Lung's rehabilitation constituted disobeying Master Shifu...

 

Finally, after she could no longer justify her silence and it had stretched to an extremely awkward length, she sighed and nodded. "I hate to admit it, but it's true. Still, I think if you give them enough time, and they get to know you better, things might change."

 

The feline snorted. "Yes, and the Emperor will arrive on his palanquin tomorrow to pardon me in person. And when the New Year arrives, I'll suddenly have more good luck and prosperity than I can shake a stick at. Oh, and all the pigs in the Valley will sprout wings, too."

 

Viper didn't appreciate the sarcastic, mocking tone Tai Lung used, or the lack of confidence he displayed in her friends' ultimately generous natures...but privately, she had to agree that at the moment at least, the snow leopard couldn't be blamed for feeling doubtful of his acceptance. "You don't need to be so unfair to them. They have plenty of good reason to be wary of you, you know. But they're also reasonable—" Well, most of them. "—so they can't stay distrustful of you forever."

 

Glancing sidelong at her over the wooden slats of the bridge, he raised an eyebrow curiously. "I get the odd impression you aren't wary of me, then. Or distrustful. May I ask why?"

 

If she'd had feet, the serpent would have tripped over them. She hadn't meant to make her feelings so obvious, her tongue having run away with her while she did her best to reassure Tai Lung that things didn't have to stay fixed and immutable. But now that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, she wasn't quite sure how to explain herself.

 

"Well...it's not that I'm not still nervous around you. You did leave all of us in pretty bad shape, after all. And you do know more kung fu than all of us put together. But my mother always taught me to see the best in people—to believe that, given the chance, most of them are generally good, and will make the right choices, as long as they have good examples to follow."

 

For several minutes the snow leopard said nothing, only focused on putting one foot in front of the other as he scaled the ever-rising ledge along the cliff face, his breath coming in deep, even pants that suggested one used to strenuous exercise rather than gasping for air. Then he shifted his burden to a better position and eyed her askance.

 

"You know, I used to think people like your mother were fools. Sad, pathetic do-gooders who couldn't see the real way the world works, who'd keep mindlessly parroting their blind beliefs until reality bit them on the arse. Now...now, I don't know what to think."

 

Well, at least it was some progress anyway. Frowning, Viper said, "Every time I hear you say things like that, Tai Lung, it makes me see just how truly hurt you've been."

 

Tai Lung bristled instinctively before visibly forcing himself to calm down. But when he spoke his voice was still quite tight and brusque. "I don't want, or need, your pity." Seeming to catch himself, he forced his tone to soften. "Er...there's really no good way to answer that, though. Let's just say I've had my fair share of misfortune and leave it at that, hmm?"

 

Before she could take issue with that answer, or think of another way to approach him, he continued. "Anyway, don't think you can distract me. Because unless I missed something, you still haven't told me why you sought me out."

 

Damn. She'd hoped he might have overlooked that, so she could keep up her subtle probing...but he was far too clever for his own good. "Well...you may not believe it, but I actually wanted to apologize."

 

"For what?" The snow leopard sounded both puzzled and wary.

 

Viper crawled in an agitated wriggle, her scales rasping on the rock as she nerved herself to say it—not because she didn't truly wish to, or harbored as much distrust and resentment as the rest of the Five did, but for the simple reason she didn't know how Tai Lung would take it. The last thing she needed, when trying to convince the feline that someone cared and was willing to help him work toward some sort of peace and happiness in life, was to have his arrogance rear its ugly head again because one of the greatest kung fu warriors in China admitted wrongdoing where he was concerned. Still, she couldn't avoid it any longer, and perhaps it just might help him.

 

"Um...I'm sorry that I made you hit yourself, when we fought at the bridge," she finally said, lamely.

 

Tai Lung blinked rapidly, though she couldn't tell if his confusion was because she'd actually done him the courtesy of an apology, or because she actually thought one was necessary for such an action. Then he smirked rather cheekily and spread his free paw in an expansive, magnanimous gesture. "Quite all right, Master Viper. All's fair in love and war, you know. And anyway...I've had worse, believe you me." He winked conspiratorially.

 

She supposed he was attempting, in his own way, to reassure her he meant her no ill will, but his tone came off as rather condescending—as in, that the reason he'd had worse injuries was because they hadn't been delivered by sweet, gentle females. If there was even a hint of truth to that interpretation, he needed to be put in his place before Tigress encountered such a misogynistic attitude—she had never been one to settle for the 'traditional' role of women in Chinese society. Her taking this out on Tai Lung wouldn't help his situation at all.

 

Besides, he was being annoying.

 

Narrowing her eyes, Viper stiffened and gazed up at him just as patronizingly. "Really? Then the next time my deceptive dancing defies your nimble nerve strike, remind me to bring that up again."

 

The snow leopard stared at her, dumbfounded, for several moments...swallowed imperceptibly...and then softly gasped, "That...that was you? You were the Protector of the Moon Festival, the one who took on the Gorilla Bandit all by yourself, and won? I...I heard about that from Vachir, while I was in prison..." All trace of jocular teasing and knowing cockiness vanished. "Forgive me, Master Viper. I meant no disrespect to a legend such as yourself. I was only saying I didn't suffer unduly, so you have no need to apologize."

 

In spite of herself the serpent felt the glow of pride in her heart. It was gratifying, seeing Tai Lung act so polite, well-mannered, and cordial. It also proved something else. Master Shifu was right in one respecthe can be trained. Ducking her head graciously, she smiled. "No harm done. Try to be more careful though...if you say the wrong thing to the wrong person, there's no telling what might happen. Not that you couldn't fight your way out of it, I'm sure. But you shouldn't have to resort to kung fu unless it's absolutely necessary."

 

He sighed, accepting her gentle reprimand much more readily than she'd expected—perhaps she'd been too harsh in her judgment, and he really had meant nothing by it. "Every time I think I have things figured out, another pitfall opens up under me. I feel like I'm in the training hall and Master Shifu keeps adding new obstacles every time I turn around."

 

Viper paused as they reached the summit of the ledge, even though the rest of the Five were waiting for them (Tigress with extreme impatience) at the narrow wooden stilt bridge leading to the next peak over. Resting her tail tip on Tai Lung's arm, she said sympathetically, "I know exactly what you mean. I hate to say it, though, but...that's the way life is. It never lets you settle down and become complacent—it's always testing you."

 

Tai Lung nodded, even as his expression became decidedly unhappy. "I know. And I wouldn't have it any other way, really—the day I could ever do such a thing, I'd be dead...or there'd be no challenges left for me, which amounts to the same thing. That doesn't mean I have to like it."

 

"No," she agreed. "But there is one thing you're missing. You don't have to be alone in this. You have Po, and Master Shifu, to help you face them. And you have me. Because I think you have a chance, too."

 

Chuckling ruefully, the ex-convict rubbed the back of his neck. "I still don't understand...this is going to take some getting used to."

 

"Tell me about it," Viper muttered, her gaze locking on Tigress where she stood, arms crossed severely and visibly fuming. "But as Po said once, we have to start somewhere."

 

"Fair enough." Tai Lung paused too, then smirked lopsidedly. "But no matter what, there's no way in hell you're turning me into a ribbon-dancer."

 

At this, Viper began to laugh.

 

Catching up to the rest of the Five, and pointedly ignoring the nasty looks Tigress and Monkey sent in her direction, Viper continued to converse animatedly with the spotted cat as their group traveled through the mist-shrouded and eerily silent mountains. And as the day wore on, very slowly, by fitful stages and uneven, jerky jumps, Tai Lung uncertainly began to respond to her persuasion and open up about himself.

 

Small tidbits here and there at first, memories from his cubhood almost forty years ago when China was a different place: massive tracts of untamed forest which had once covered this whole region, until they were cut down to make room for the farmsteads and croplands which now spread along the mountain passes; rare early days before his training intensified, when he was allowed to go down to the village and play with the young rabbits and sheep who didn't know to fear him for his species; the first time he entered the Hall of Warriors, awed and overwhelmed by the centuries of history and art preserved there; and the excitement of the fireworks at his first New Year's celebration—complete with gorgeous dragon puppets, their antics on the Jade Palace steps viewed from his perch on Shifu's shoulder.

 

With further prompting, however, Tai Lung admitted—often with apparent pain—deeper moments from his past that resonated with him...and with the Five. Lunches with Shifu at the Pool of Sacred Tears, and his first sight of the Imperial City. The awe-inspiring spectacle, in far-flung Tengchong, of plains and mountains of fire—Oogway called them volcanoes—including one nearly constant plume of molten rock which rose almost high enough to consume the glittering gem dangling from the cliff face above it...no one knew if it were a diamond or merely rock crystal, but the formation was known as the Dragon Stealing Heaven's Tear, and figured largely in the mythology and superstitions of the area.

 

Dragon Stealing Heaven's Tear

 

The appearance in the Valley of a contingent from the Anvil of Heaven, before twenty years of complacency, boredom, atrophy, and dependence on weapons and devices instead of kung fu had ruined their later generations at Chorh-Gom, turning them into a pathetic shadow of the great army they had once been centuries ago, under Master Flying Rhino. And, told with grudging but genuine wonder, the tale of how a Mongol army assaulting the Great Wall had received a visit from Master Oogway...who, with assistance from Shifu, had almost single-handedly repelled the entire ravening horde while an adolescent Tai Lung could only watch, stunned and awed. After that display of blinding speed and shimmering waves of chi washing across the battlefield, never again would he consider a turtle slow, no matter the reptile's usual languorous attitude.

 

Considering how rare it had been for the Furious Five to see the Grand Master in action, every one of the masters listened raptly and intently to this last tale—even Tigress could not keep the amazement and appreciation from her face, though she quickly turned it back into its rigid, heartless mask and denied everything.

 

Understandably, by the time evening was falling and they had to stop to make camp for the night in a sheltered cave, Tai Lung had become rather withdrawn again, his eyes a mystery as they danced with so many haunting memories. So as he politely but firmly excused himself to sit on a shelf of rock near the fire, away from the others, Viper instead slithered over to Tigress's side. She intended to plumb her fellow master's thoughts on what they had heard, to see if it had made any difference at all in her cold, unyielding wall of hate and suspicion.

 

But before she could even open her mouth, the striped feline made her feelings undeniably clear. The conversation, such as it was, was short, succinct, and to the point, the words clipped and brittle.

 

"If this is about Tai Lung, Viper, I don't want to hear about it. I've been listening to him ramble on all day—as if hearing his memoirs is supposed to wipe away all the evil he's done! So forgive me if I'm not in the mood to talk about him any more."

 

"Tigress!" Viper gasped, genuinely shocked at her friend's harsh words. "How can you say that? At least he's making an effort here, unlike someone else I could name. What is wrong with you? Why won't you give him a chance?"

 

Whipping her head around as she stopped stripping away the green, moist, non-flammable wood from the rest of the logs they'd gathered, Tigress skewered her with a furious glare. "Because you are my friend, Viper, I will forgive you for that breach of etiquette. But I will say this once, and once only: leave...me...alone."

 

She knew she shouldn't keep pushing, that the growl in Tigress's throat and the smoldering heat in her eyes were very dangerous warning signs. But she couldn't allow things to end like this—or for Tigress to think she could get away with being so, well, immature. "Is this about what happened in Tai Lung's cell that night? You never would tell us about it."

 

The tree limb in Tigress's grip snapped in two as her paw clenched uncontrollably. The fact there was uncertainty and even anguish in her eyes, as well as anger, completely floored Viper. "Yes! No. I don't know! I...I can't explain it. Not now. I don't even want to think about it."

 

A terrible thought came to Viper, and suddenly she forgot all about defending Tai Lung as instead her venom, so to speak, was directed at him. "What did he do to you? Did he hurt you, Tigress?"

 

Taken aback, Tigress recoiled a little. "No."

 

"Did he threaten you, then? Or Po, or the rest of us? Did he say something he shouldn't, or abuse you in any way?"

 

"What? No, no! Nothing like that." Only the real confusion and disbelief in her voice convinced Viper to back down.

 

"Then what is it? What did he say, or do?"

 

"Something unforgivable. But I said, I don't want to talk about it. Please?"

 

Viper blinked. She made a statement like that, and expected her to just drop it? "No, I'm not letting this go, not until you tell me what—"

 

"Arrgghhhh!" Venting her frustration at last, Tigress surged to her feet, her claws actually unsheathed and brandished in Viper's direction. While the rest of the Five stared in shock, and even Tai Lung looked up in mild distress, the feline snarled and turned instead to swipe at the wall, her claws drawing sparks and leaving deep gouges in the stone.

 

"That's it! If you like that bastard so much, why don't you go cuddle up with him for the night? I'm going to bed..."

 

And with that she stalked away into the deepest, most shadowy corner of the cave.

 

Viper stared after her, hurt and shaken in more ways than one. She was not about to push things any farther, nor cause any deeper rift than had already formed between her and Tigress—not even for Tai Lung's sake. But for a moment she was strongly tempted to snap her tail rigid and smack the striped feline hard on the rump as she passed—because she certainly deserved a paddling at the very least. She's acting like a spoiled cub! I don't understand...I don't understand this at all...

                                                                       


 

After they awoke the next morning, Tigress acted as if nothing whatsoever had happened—though her cold shoulder toward Tai Lung seemed to have grown as high as the snowdrifts of Tibet, she was once again friendly and solicitous toward Viper.

 

On the one coil, the serpent was relieved that their friendship had not been irrevocably severed by her refusal to take no for an answer; on the other coil, she found it rather audacious of Tigress to brush the whole matter aside and pretend it never took place, while the rest of them—especially Viper—still had to contend with the emotional fallout.

 

Still, she wasn't about to rock the boat this time, so with a fair amount of internal grumbling and distress, Viper let it drop.

 

Not only did her decision to do so encourage the rest of the Five, even the snow leopard seemed inordinately relieved that hostilities weren't renewed. Whether this was because he was afraid any bad feelings amongst the Five would be blamed (and rightly so, unfortunately) on him and so get him in trouble with Shifu, or because he'd actually escaped his selfish mindset enough to care about what his actions did to others, Viper had to smile reassuringly at Tai Lung. Even if he'd been the source of contention, he clearly hadn't done this on purpose or wished for it to happen. And whatever he had said or done in his cell (if in fact anything had really happened beyond Tigress's usual tendency to overreact), he seemed to be quite sorry for it.

 

Once their supplies were gathered together and Crane had double-checked to ensure the embers from the fire were all thoroughly doused, the six of them set off once again to the south. Without Viper slowing them down with continued conversation, they made good time, and so by midday they had reached the forested plateau which fronted the Thread of Hope, and then at last achieved the massive stone gateway that marked what had been its northern boundary.

 

Coming to a halt atop the precipice, all of them couldn't help but stare across the Devil’s Mouth at the distant peaks and the bridge which was strung between them. Though they had all seen it before, the sight never ceased to amaze Viper at least—she didn't know how the rest of the Five felt—and Tai Lung, she imagined, hadn't exactly been focused on the view when he stood here last.

 

Angling back and forth from one mountaintop to the next, the wooden span swayed visibly in the whistling air currents, but otherwise remained as rock-steady and stable as it had for the last century. Some gossips in the Valley of Peace actually claimed it was a millennium old, that it had been here even before Oogway arrived and the grateful citizens built the Jade Palace in which he would dwell, something which was manifestly impossible. But it was certainly ancient enough that at times it seemed incredible it still stayed suspended at all, let alone supported all the traffic it received.

 

Of course that might have been due to the fact that parts of it were much newer and of more modern construction—the fate it had suffered thanks to the climactic struggle between Tai Lung and the Five was not the first such accident it had met with in its long existence, and probably would not be the last; plus general upkeep and maintenance meant rotten planks and unraveling ropes were routinely replaced. All in all, the Thread of Hope was aptly named, as it provided the only lifeline to the outside world for the sheltered valley, but its ten spans could always be counted on whatever else changed in China.

 

Or rather, nine spans. For of course, the yawning chasm directly before them remained empty and uncrossed, the plateau they stood upon utterly cut off from the nearest peak by the toppling of the only link between them. The near side of the bridge had dropped completely away into the river valley when Tigress had severed the ropes and Mantis released his hold, while the far side (or what was left of it, after Tai Lung had smashed Tigress through nearly every plank) now dangled in the shadows of the opposing cliff-face, barely visible save for the rope which Crane had used to entangle the snow leopard. There was, in fact, absolutely nothing salvageable; it was a good thing the craftsmen in the village had fashioned a whole new span for them.

 

For several long moments, the kung fu masters contemplated the very visible evidence of their violent combat only a week and a half ago—and while Viper had no idea what the others were thinking, she had decidedly mixed feelings on the matter and was fairly certain some of them did, too. Except Tigress, of course, who despite giving Shifu the go-ahead on his plan seemed to have her opinion of the snow leopard set in granite.

 

After staring down into the ravine with what seemed to be genuine shock, Tai Lung at last looked up and gave the rest of them a rather helpless look. "Damn. And here I thought all we'd have to do is hoist up the remnants on this side, and have Crane fly out to tether the sections together again. Not going to be as easy as all that..."

 

To the avian's credit, he only glanced soberly and expressionlessly at Tai Lung for the unlikelihood of that prospect before ducking down beneath his hat and shaking his head. Tigress, of course, rolled her eyes and snorted contemptuously. "Of course not! And here I thought you were an observant warrior who always paid attention to his surroundings...oh, that's right—you couldn't. You were rather...tied up at the time."

 

Silence for several moments, broken only by a soft wince and mutter from Mantis: "Oooo...me-oww." He might have said more, if Crane hadn't deliberately clipped him with his wing.

 

An extremely resentful look crossed Tai Lung's muzzle, and for a moment his paws clenched into flexing fists. But then he shook his head and shrugged philosophically. "A fact which I cannot deny. How, pray tell, are we going to fix it, then?"

 

Monkey indicated the bird with a smirk. "What, you forget already? We got wings on our side here. Crane can fly the ropes across just fine."

 

Tai Lung looked dubious. "No offense meant to Master Crane, but wouldn't the entire bridge be just a tad too weighty for him? He needed you and I to help him lift one plank onto the Jade Palace roof..."

 

"None taken," Crane said evenly. "But I wasn't going to be carrying the whole thing by myself—that's why the craftsmen made the bridge this way, already strung on its ropes and handrails and compressed together. It'll weigh down the middle, but I can handle it for a short flight."

 

Rubbing his jutting jaw thoughtfully, the dawning of understanding in his golden eyes, the snow leopard glanced at each of the other masters, as if mentally calculating all their strengths and weaknesses and adding them together to make a coherent mosaic.

 

"Let me guess...you're going to take Mantis across with you, since he's the smallest and lightest. Because he's also got the strength to pull the ropes taut and help you tie them off." He nodded in acknowledgment to the insect. "I saw what you did, holding up the entire bridge by yourself with all of us on it. Quite a feat, Master Mantis, I salute you."

 

For the first time since he'd been welcomed back to the Jade Palace, Crane smiled at Tai Lung. "Right in one." Mantis, on the other hand, just dipped his head perfunctorily, though he couldn't hide the gleam of vindication in his beady eyes.

 

Tai Lung considered the others. "Which I'm guessing leaves Monkey and Viper to tie off the ends on this side. But that leaves only one problem." He pointed out into the middle of the drifting, pearly-gray clouds spread across the mountain range and turning each of the Cliffs of the Great Awakening into a lonely island. "Just how is the bridge supposed to be extended, when it's out there, and we're over here?"

 

That was the same question Viper had asked the other members of the Five when they'd devised this plan...and though she didn't like the answer anymore than Tai Lung would, she knew it was really the most efficient and in fact the only way.

 

"Heh-heh." Monkey crossed his arms over his slender chest. "That's where you come in."

 

It took several moments for the full import of this to sink in. When the snow leopard finally picked up on the meaning of the simian's smirk, and how both he and everyone else kept glancing between the promontory and the place, currently in the middle of empty space, where the bridge boards would be hanging once the ropes were tied off, his eyes widened and he actually took a step back. "You can't be serious!"

 

Mantis twitched his feelers, his expression flat and unmoved. "I might be wrong, but I think we can."

 

Again, Tai Lung pointed out into the gorge. "Out there. You want me to go out there?"

 

Now, at last, Tigress was smiling, the predatory look she saved for only the choicest of occasions. "That's right."

 

"Out on nothing but ropes above a thousand-foot drop?"

 

"Uh-huh." Monkey grinned too.

 

"All by myself?"

 

"That's about the size of it," Crane observed.

 

Another silence. Then: "Are you all out of your bloody minds?" Though the snow leopard was doing his level best to adopt his usual urbane, drawling tone, there was more than enough of a twinge of incredulity and a slight hint of panic to give away how truly on edge he was.

 

Monkey and Mantis instantly burst out laughing. Crane merely looked uncomfortable, while Tigress took on the task of 'convincing' Tai Lung—stepping forward with an impatient snarl and the rather suggestive cracking of her knuckles. "Look. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way, but no matter how it plays out, you're doing this. End of discussion."

 

"No! No, I'm not! Fixing this damn bridge is one thing, but no one said anything about putting my life in danger to do it."

 

Giggling even more uncontrollably, Monkey put a hand to his forehead. "Oh, this is rich! What's the matter, Tai Lung? You scared of heights?"

 

The snow leopard snarled wrathfully, whirling about to stalk toward his accuser. "Like hell I am! I don't have a damn problem with heights—it's the sudden stop at the bottom that I take issue with." This time Crane laughed, though it seemed to be at the feline's distinction, not at him.

 

Viper, meanwhile, was tentatively testing the air with her tongue—and to her surprise, she did indeed pick up the scent of fear coming from Tai Lung. But how could that be? He'd fought them here at the Thread of Hope without a single indication he was bothered by the locale, shown no compunctions about smashing and shredding his only means of support, raced easily on all fours along nothing but ropes, and leaned against them to converse as if he stood on solid ground.

 

Unless that had all been a pose, to mislead them and distract himself...she recalled, now, that never once had she seen him look down during the battle. Or perhaps he'd been able to tune out the danger when so given over to bloodlust, adrenaline, and vengeance—but now that he was outside combat, and free of the fog with which they clouded his mind...

 

The latter seemed to be the case, as Tai Lung soon snapped, rather coldly, "Being out there in the middle of a duel, when my blood was hot, was one thing. This is entirely different! And I still don't see why it has to be me—just because Shifu, or you, say so? What will Tigress be doing, eh? Why can't she help?"

 

Before the leader of the Furious Five could answer, Viper finally intervened. Softly, gently, she explained, "No, that isn't it at all. The reason you were chosen is because you have the best balance out of all of us—I'm sorry, Monkey, but it's true!—and were such a natural out there on the bridge. We just assumed you'd be able to handle this job just as easily." Flattery never hurt, especially when it was true.

 

While Tai Lung grumbled and crossed his arms over his chest, looking as if he couldn't decide whether to be pleased or annoyed, the serpent continued. "There's also something very specific we need to get the bridge in place, and it's something only you can do." She took a deep breath, then amended her statement. "Or only the highest level of kung fu warrior can do, anyway. We've seen Master Shifu do it before...he taught you all he knows...and you did master all one thousand scrolls. So—can you redirect your chi, and use it to shove the air, send out a blast of wind?"

 

Blinking, apparently not having expected this, the spotted feline looked from one warrior to the next until finally, reluctantly, he nodded. "Yes. There's a trick to it, of course...but it's really not that difficult. Anyone can do it, if properly taught." From the sound of his voice, he hated having to admit this, yet clearly at the same time he saw such a claim as his only possible escape clause, training one of the Five so they could act in his stead.

 

"Not in enough time to suit our purposes," Crane interjected. "And anyway...I don't know if any of us have enough chi for that. It has to be you, and it has to be like this. A wind like that can separate the boards, blow them out along the ropes and into position faster than any other way we might try."

 

Viper, however, had been thinking rapidly, and now with a new confidence she dared to disagree. "I don't think that's quite true, though. There's one other here who I'm certain has more than enough will to make a blast like that. And she's advanced enough that Shifu has taught her how, too. Hasn't he, Tigress?"

 

The master of the Tiger style glared at her in betrayal, but Viper wasn't moved by it one bit—she was bound and determined that her friend would get over this immature display and start treating Tai Lung with decency and respect, if not trust and acceptance, whatever it took. Tigress had promised, after all, not to interfere with or work against Shifu's plan, yet right now her stubbornness and pride were doing exactly that.

 

And if I have to force you two to work together to get you to snap out of this and remember what forgiveness is, so be it.

 

Monkey, meanwhile, seemed just as against the idea. "What? That's crazy talk, Viper! You wanna put Tigress and him together, alone, out there on those ropes? Are you trying to get her killed?" Tai Lung growled at him, and the serpent didn't blame him—considering how he'd acted since being brought back to the Jade Palace, it was rather unfair to expect such treachery now.

 

But Mantis and Crane, however, were looking intrigued and even amused by the possibility. "No no," the insect said, holding up his pincers calmingly. "This could actually work."

 

"What?"

 

The bird winced at their leader's furious exclamation, looking a little glummer, but he glanced from Viper to Tigress with a rueful smile. "Um...I hate to say it, but they have a point. You do know how to do it, and in case anything goes wrong out there, it'd be better to have someone else on hand."

 

Visibly composing himself, Tai Lung bowed formally to his fellow feline, though she could hear the strain in his voice as he spoke—the conflict between his reluctance to ask for help and the undeniable fact he truly needed it must have been strong. "Master Tigress...I promise you, no harm will come to you while you're out there, at least not from me. And if the two of us work together on this, it'll be done that much faster. The sooner we're back on solid ground, the safer we'll be."

 

Faced with such cogent and well-reasoned arguments, the striped cat looked rather cornered and pinned, but with no way out (intellectually as well as physically), she had no choice. Sighing heavily, she then stood straight and skewered each of them with a fiery gaze. "Fine. If you're all so certain this is needed, I'll go out there and coax the kitten along if he freezes up. But he's going first; I'm not about to let him ogle my backside if I can help it."

 

Mantis, ever the pervert, chuckled appreciatively, while Crane covered his face with his wing and Monkey looked scandalized. The snow leopard, meanwhile, who had been on the verge of spluttering persistent defenses of his dignity, instead flushed briefly and fell silent. Which only made Viper stare wonderingly at him...and then slowly smirk.

 

True to his word, the avian kung fu master succeeded in easily flying across the gorge, all four ropes of the span clutched in his taloned feet while the insect perched on his shoulder. About five or ten minutes after they had disappeared into the mist, the trailing ropes slowly began to rise, the sweeping loops becoming brief arcs and then finally pulling taut, the compressed bridge now hanging as a solitary dark blotch marking the middle of the span. And once Crane's voice floated back to them, saying Mantis had secured his ends, Viper's adroit tail tip backed up by her muscular coils did the same with one set of ropes, while Monkey's dexterous fingers mirrored her on the other side.

 

With those tasks accomplished, there was only one job left to perform, one which neither Tigress nor Tai Lung looked upon with relish. But they could not shirk their duty...and so, nerving himself and refusing to look down, the snow leopard rolled his shoulders, adopted his typical proud, casual strut, and began inching along one of the support ropes while gripping the handrail at chest height—and belying his earlier trepidation and uncertainty, he placed one foot in front of the other with ease and balance, as if he did this sort of thing every day. Viper, having slithered up next to the nearest stone pillar of the bridge, could still scent Tai Lung's nervousness...and the fact he managed to conceal it so well behind his bravado and confidence made the serpent admire him anew.

 

Several minutes after he'd started his trek through the skies, Tigress sauntered out onto the other support, mirroring Tai Lung's hold upon the guiding handrail—an attitude most unlike her. Whether she was trying once again to prove herself better than the snow leopard, or if his presence simply brought out the worst in her, Viper couldn't tell. But she did exchange a look with Monkey...who, despite his own continued dislike for Tai Lung, seemed almost as worried for their leader as she did. As they well knew from the ex-convict's encounter with the Dragon Warrior, and from many sparring and training sessions in the kwoon, overconfidence and cockiness were a surefire way to get you into trouble...

 

Yet when it did strike, it wasn't Tigress who was the victim.

 

It happened when the pair of felines were nearly at the center, where the rolled-up boards waited to be pried and hurled apart. Tai Lung was only a couple feet away, and Tigress lagged behind him by another yard or two, when out of nowhere the wind began to whine, rushing through the mountain crevasses as it picked up speed and force. From the west, a frigid blast burst from between the nearest peaks, its progress made visible by the unexpected roiling and churning of the fog, whipping away to reveal the sheer, jagged faces of the sugarloaves, seamed and pockmarked like an oldster's lined brow.

 

More and more of the mountains were exposed as the wind came closer, its howl rising steadily in loudness and pitch until Viper could barely stand it—she could only imagine how it sounded to the felines. Below, the cracked and spiky sides of the ravine stood stark and clear, and a thousand feet beyond that, looking so small it seemed to be a slender blue ribbon winding through the forested chasm, was the river. Viper suffered a brief siege of vertigo.

 

Then the wind rose to a shriek as it finally reached the unfinished span, and the serpent snapped out of her fear as she screamed herself into the wind, hoping it reached the other side. "Mantis! Secure the lines!" As Monkey also followed her orders, Viper wrapped her coils as tightly as she could around the remaining ropes, drawing them to a perfect horizontal. "Everyone, hold on!"

 

Each of the Five did as she commanded, even Tigress—dropping down to a half-crouch as she clung to her pair of ropes with her hands as well as her feet. But Tai Lung, the farthest out and right in the middle of the gale, could not hear her. Nevertheless, he felt the stretching and bouncing of the ropes as they were drawn in place, and his sharp ears picked up the high whine and the changing in air pressure as the wind approached. He turned...stared in blank shock for a moment or two as the mist raced ahead of the maelstrom as if reaching out with clutching white fingers to seize him...and then immediately ducked low as Tigress had to grasp the ropes.

 

A moment too late. The wind washed over him, buffeting his much larger, bulkier body and making his fur ripple and billow up wildly—and then with a yowl he lost his balance, and his hold on the handrail, and flipped backwards and sideways, switching positions until he hung upside-down by all four paws from the bottom of the span's rope. A few more moments he clung desperately to his perch as the wind continued to rush over him, making him sway back and forth like a kite while his tail lashed furiously. Then, with another strangled cry, his claws tore free and, limbs flailing, he fell straight down into the fog.

 

Luckily, Viper didn't even have to call out, for the other master across the bridge had seen what was occurring, and launched into action even before Tai Lung lost his hold. Out of the clouds, a dark silhouette appeared with flapping wings, and then Crane streaked downward after the snow leopard.

 

Minutes passed, as the roaring wind finally died down and the feline vanished into the swirling mists, followed by the avian, descending deeper into the gorge until neither could be seen, only the shifting clouds...and then something moved, something large, awkward, and strangely shaped as it rose upwards out of the Devil’s Mouth toward the bridge. Viper held her breath.

 

Gasping and panting, Crane hove into view, chest burning and wings flapping vigorously as he clutched Tai Lung with both feet, gripping him so hard the talons had dug into his shoulders deeply enough to draw blood. But despite the pained expression on the snow leopard's face, he didn't complain—in fact he looked extraordinarily relieved, and an emotion Viper never expected to see there...grateful.

 

Just before the bird would have lost his hold, or plummeted back into the ravine with his burden, they reached the rope and Tai Lung leaped, latching onto it with a death-grip from all four paws. Crane landed wearily beside him, taking off his straw hat to fan himself tiredly, while the spotted feline waited until he was certain the wind had passed before finally releasing his hold and rising back to his full height.

 

Surprisingly, as Viper watched from the cliff edge, she saw Tigress looked rather worried, even a bit distraught, as she rose as well—could she have actually been concerned for Tai Lung? Afraid she was next? Or disturbed at what Shifu would say if he learned she'd allowed harm to come to his son?

 

"Th-thank you..." Tai Lung gasped at last, wincing as he rolled his shoulders again, making crimson fluid well up from the wounds. "That was...rather terrifying. I owe you one."

 

"Don't mention it," Crane replied. "Ever." But unlike when he'd said these words to Po, his tone was not flat or bitter, but genuinely humble and pleased. And with that, he slowly flew back to the other side of the bridge.

 

After another minute or so of panting and shuddering, the snow leopard cracked his neck and declared he was ready to continue—something which seemed to startle Tigress, as his recovery time was remarkable. But she certainly didn't object to getting on with things, since there was no telling when another wind might come up...and with Crane exhausted from carrying the hulking Tai Lung, he would likely not be able to effect a rescue a second time.

 

So together, the two felines proceeded the rest of the way along the ropes until they reached the bridge slats. There, each of them took up an identical pose but facing in opposite directions—the snow leopard aiming south, the tiger north. For several more long moments, there was silence, as Tigress and Tai Lung centered themselves, paws clasped before their chests and eyes closed while they drew deeply upon their chi, redirecting it into the air around them. Then, in the same motion, and with a synchronized kiai, both thrust forward with a two-palm strike.

 

Instantly two winds, just as powerful as the one which had toppled Tai Lung off the bridge, blew below the handrails with a thunderous clap of sound. Just as planned, the boards responded, wrenching apart and racing along the lower ropes like barges behind a supply boat, sharp reports sounding as wood pulled apart and bumped together—reminding Viper vaguely of the time she'd been in a bamboo forest during a windstorm. Banging and clattering, the spans lengthened and spread out until finally, as the twin gales reached the cliffs and funneled between the stone gateways, the last boards fell into place.

 

Slowly, with solemnity but also weariness—for it took much more energy to do what they had done than to, say, blow out a bank of candles—Tigress and Tai Lung lowered their arms and stepped back from the forward stances they'd adopted (one leg extended behind them, the other bent in front). Then, oddly, they rose and, back to back, bowed formally to what looked like nothing. After a moment, Viper realized they were honoring the wind itself—or perhaps Tai-Yi.

 

In an almost coordinated dance of smooth, supple movements, the felines darted and twisted along the Thread of Hope, bringing their feet down with regular, forceful stomps to flatten any stray boards and ensure each fitted perfectly into its neighbor. Then, finishing with one final flourish, they stopped at opposite ends of the bridge, the ex-convict turning back to cross and meet his fellow master at the northern gateway.

 

There, standing upon the same grassy plateau where he had paralyzed the Five with his nerve strike, they paused, facing each other in silence, save for the creaking boards and ropes behind them, as each sized the other up. Tai Lung quirked a brow, barely restraining a somewhat smug grin, while Tigress's lips twitched in what Viper swore was the ghost of a smile.

 

Then she crossed her arms over her chest and sniffed. "Adequate, I suppose. Let's get back to the Jade Palace, shall we?"

 

Tai Lung's face fell, the expression of pride in a job well done disappearing as if chalk erased from a slate board. Then he snarled viciously and wheeled about, glaring out across the Cliffs of the Great Awakening while his tail lashed behind him and his paws adopted a white-knuckled grip on his biceps.

 

But as Mantis and Crane appeared from the far side of the bridge, and Tigress smirked and began a jaunty pace back the way they'd come, Viper could have sworn she saw the striped feline glance back over her shoulder...eye the snow leopard's backside...and then turn away again with a definite blush to her cheeks.

 

Viper peered from Tigress to Tai Lung...noticed the look of longing mingled with frustration on the snow leopard's blocky countenance...and began thinking furiously. And as Monkey chortled annoyingly behind her, the truth finally dawned on her.

 

Oh. Oh my! It can't be...he couldn't...and she wouldn't...but that would explain so much!

 

Grinning from ear to ear, until she swore the ends of her mouth touched the flowers atop her head, the serpent hummed thoughtfully to herself as she slithered down the trail with the others. Already all manner of plans and speculations were forming in her head...yes, this would take careful managing. She looked at Tai Lung, so morose and dejected as he trudged along behind her he didn't even notice her expression.

 

She knew how she was going to get the snow leopard accepted by Tigress. And the best part was, just how much fun she'd have doing it...

Chapter Text

Chapter 12 Icon

 

"Hey, you there! Yeah, I'm talking to you, kitten. Put your back into it! You're supposed to be so damn strong, why don't you put your muscles where your mouth is?"

 

His paws gripping convulsively on the ropes strung back over his shoulders, a growl so low and menacing it was almost subsonic rumbling under his breath in the back of his throat, Tai Lung fought with every fiber within him to hold back the volcanic anger on the verge of exploding in his heart. Staring studiously ahead before him, up the Jade Palace steps, the snow leopard only kept his eyes fixed on his goal, the terrace fronting the temple, and struggled to ignore the disdainful, nasty voice behind him.

 

It had been like this all morning, truth be told. After rising with the gong, he had eaten breakfast with the Furious Five and Po—a rather uncomfortable and awkward affair, what with the long stretches of silence, the constant glares from Tigress and Monkey across the table, and the Dragon Warrior's pitiful attempts to keep a conversation going which all ended with him staring at his plate, wringing his hands and mumbling around mouthfuls of food. Meeting them in the Hall of Warriors again, Shifu had then put all of them (save Po) to work in hauling the polished timbers and dressed stonework which would be used to replace the smashed doors and repair the damaged marble.

 

Or at least, he, Tigress, and Monkey were doing so; Crane, whose upper body strength wasn't that considerable to begin with and who was now sore from having to carry Tai Lung out of the gorge, was instead using his keen eye and talent with calligraphy to aid in laying out mosaic tiles and repainting the intricate scrollwork on the temple floor and pillars. And Mantis, intriguingly enough, was in the kitchen with Viper and the panda, aiding in brewing some sort of bracing concoction that would temporarily boost strength and stamina for the workers.

 

Tai Lung winced briefly as one of the ropes pressed hard into his shoulder, scraping across the wounds Crane's talons had made almost two days before; once they'd made it back to the Valley, Mantis had applied bandages and a healing ointment, and other than residual soreness he was recovering from the injuries nicely (he'd always been blessed with an amazing constitution), but aggravating them didn't help. That wasn't the source of his problems, however. It was the foreman of the work crew.

 

"C'mon! We don't have all day, you know. And don't let that end lag, you're gonna bust the cart open! You think I'm harsh? Wait'll you got the stonemason on your case for smashing his stock..."

 

These words were accompanied by a sudden crack in the air—a sound disconcertingly like that of a whip, though it was actually produced by the foreman's snapping trunk. For he was an elephant, and unlike the mild-mannered and generous sorts usually found among that species, he seemed to have a belligerent nature and short fuse to match Tai Lung's.

 

Either that, or like so many others in the Valley, he had a particular issue with the 'heartless murderer' and was determined to make him suffer for his sins. At this point, it didn't really matter which and the snow leopard didn't really care. If this was what it took to convince everyone—including himself—that he was worthy of redemption or at least could be trusted to bring no more harm to the Valley, then he would simply grit his teeth and bear it.

 

No matter how much he hated it. No matter how dearly he would love to skin the bastard and use it to make a new pair of pants.

 

Wiping sweat from his brow as the heat of the summer sun beat down on his bare back, and wishing—not for the first time in his life—that he could shed his thick pelt when the winter snows were only a distant memory, he retightened his grip on the ropes, bunched the powerful muscles of his arms, shoulders, and legs, and once more began dragging the wheelbarrow of marble blocks up the stairway. The task wouldn't be so hard, he reflected, if he weren't already rather worn out from hauling the ungainly, square-shaped lengths of oak which would become the new doors to the palace—they hadn't had any wheels to aid him.

 

On his other side, Tigress had not, of course, shed her scarlet vest as that would be both unseemly and appalling in his presence—not that it was even needed, as the garment had plenty of breathing room and was made of a lightweight material, and she hardly seemed to be overexerting herself in any case. Nevertheless, she was making full use of her muscle tone and the strength which had so stunned and impressed him during their battle, pulling behind her a cart just as fully loaded as his own.

 

Once, he would have been deeply offended at a simple female managing to match his feats or even surpass them. And if he were much fresher and better able to focus, he would be sneaking many more sidelong glances at the play of her supple body beneath her gleaming pelt. Instead he could only admire her anew, and be glad of her assistance. Not to mention he had the feeling the foreman would be much more cruel if she were not present...

 

That notion was, in fact, about to be put to the test. Because, just as he finally succeeded in lurching the wagon the last several steps up to the flagstones of the terrace, with Tigress arriving only a heartbeat or two after him, Tai Lung heard the solid thud of broad, massive feet on the stairway, and felt more than saw the looming presence behind him just before a humongous, gnarled, leathery hand clapped on his shoulder and wrenched him around.

 

Perhaps he had gotten far too used to the diminutive heights of both Oogway and Shifu, although to be fair there were few warriors in China of the same intimidating size as Tai Lung—whether the felines of the Imperial Guard, the rhinos of the Anvil of Heaven, or the wolves of the Mongolian steppes, most of those he had encountered (whether as allies or enemies) had at most been only a few inches taller than he.

 

This pachyderm, however, stood tall enough that the snow leopard only came up to his chest, and out massed him by several hundred pounds—and while a good portion of that was fat, just as much was not. He fought the urge to step back, and refused to be intimidated into cowering. Allowing the rope harness for his cart to slip free onto the stones, he instead crossed his arms over his chest, stoic and unyielding without being overly pugnacious, and stared up into the glowering, tusked face.

 

"Yes? Was there something I could do for you, or did you just plan to glare daggers at me all day? Because I'm quite attached to my face, as it's the only one I've got, and I'd rather you didn't wear it out."

 

As soon as the sarcastic words left his mouth, he knew he'd crossed too far over the line and wished he could take them back. Granted, there were far worse things he could have said, and he could only imagine how the foreman would have reacted if he'd made reference to the old cliché by asking if the fellow were looking for peanuts. But for whatever reason, the elephant clearly hated his guts, and as had often been the case throughout his life, Tai Lung's big mouth had gotten him into trouble again.

 

"Why, you smug little smartass!" If anything, the elephant somehow seemed to swell even larger as he brought an upraised, heavily callused fist into Tai Lung's face. "I've been holding back up 'til now, out of respect for Master Shifu, but just for that, I'm gonna let you know exactly what I've been thinking of you..."

 

Dread warred with fury inside of him as he waited for the inevitable attack. When it came, he was not disappointed by its fire and hatred—although he couldn't hold back a pang of despair. The elephant, whose name he'd never caught and didn't even care to know, looked ready to blast out a deafening trumpet on his trunk, and his tusks, rather dulled with age—which Tai Lung knew from experience would actually make them hurt more than if they'd been properly sharpened—were brandished high.

 

"I don't know who you think you are, Mr. High-and-Mighty, but around here you don't get nothin' 'til you've earned it. You may be master of the thousand scrolls, but that don't mean diddily after the stunts you've pulled. So if you really want us to believe you're gonna change your ways, then you better be well-behaved and proper. Speak when you're spoken to, follow every order—without question!—and work harder than you ever have before." The foreman smirked mirthlessly, crossing his own arms in satisfaction.

 

Tai Lung couldn't believe what he was hearing. And what, exactly, d'you think I've been doing, you overgrown waterskin? Barely able to hold in his rage any longer, the snow leopard took a long step forward, glaring up into his persecutor's tiny and, in his opinion anyway, unintelligent eyes, his jaw jutting angrily.

 

"Now you listen to me, I've been nothing if not cooperative, but don't you think this is going a little too far? Respect goes both ways, and I've yet to see any reason why I should grant you that little rarity. And as for who I think I am..." He drew himself up to his full height, nostrils flaring as he growled softly. "I think I'm the one who defended this valley when you were knee-high to a grasshopper. I know I'm the one who kept the peace and protected all the outlying communities in Hubei province years before Oogway ever made his judgment or Chorh-Gom was rebuilt, so don't try and tell me how to do my job!"

 

He knew he shouldn't be boasting, but he couldn't help it—as Po had made him realize, there was a lot more to his life and what he had done with it than his short-lived rampage (however horrific it had been), and everyone, himself included, needed to remember that.

 

Naturally, the elephant was unmoved, only snorting derisively at him and blowing a sour-noted blat from his trunk. "Yeah? So? That was then, this is now. And you're also the one who nearly destroyed the Valley, twice! There's not a soul in the village who hasn't lost a livelihood, a home, a family or a lover, thanks to you. So don't expect any compassion from us. Oh, and by the way, watch who you talk down to, I'm just two years your junior, buddy." Even as Tai Lung bristled at both the insult and his own mistake, the elephant continued. "Anyway, from what I've heard, this whole thing started because you didn't learn your place...maybe that's the lesson Shifu's tryin' to teach you, huh? Maybe you should pay better attention this time. Don't go puttin' on airs with me, kitten. To me, you're just another grunt, and slave labor'd be too good for you. Am I clear?"

 

Pure hatred surged inside his rapidly beating heart, and he wasn't at all surprised to hear his growl become uglier and more vicious than any he'd produced in years. Even Vachir, at his worst, had never been this hostile and cruel! Well...no, scratch that, he had, but those wounds were old and healed over, he had become inured to the abuse and eventually immune to it as he tuned the cocky rhino out. This was new and fresh, and coming right after he'd decided to turn his life around, to accept Shifu's offer, and had taken strides in making peace with the Five...

 

It was recalling that which held him back. He couldn't jeopardize his future again, or undo all the progress he'd made, just for the admittedly delicious enjoyment he'd get from thrashing this fellow within an inch of his life. No matter how much he deserved it.

 

Even as he privately catalogued each and every way in which he could snap the elephant's bones, wrench his limbs from their sockets, shatter his joints, and generally leave him a whimpering babe begging for mercy, he counted silently to himself with closed eyes, drawing on two decades' worth of training which he'd either ignored or been unable to apply before now. He wasn't sure whether to be proud or disturbed by the fact he had to go all the way up to twenty-five before he felt calm and controlled enough to dare speaking again.

 

"Perfectly," he snapped. "Now, if that's all, perhaps we could finish this?"

 

"Finish this, what?"

 

It took a few moments for him to realize what the smug grin and faintly amused tone meant. Snarling venomously, he yet managed the sullen reply the foreman clearly expected. "Finish this, sir." At this the elephant chuckled openly, starting to turn away to his other workers.

 

At Tai Lung's side, for the first time since they'd reached the summit, Tigress at last stirred. "Don't you think you're being a little too hard on him?"

 

The foreman paused, glanced back at her in obvious confusion and disbelief, while the snow leopard himself was staring at Tigress as if she'd grown another head. "Eh?"

 

Ignoring the strange looks everyone, from Monkey on down to the pigs and sheep working on the paving stones of the terrace nearby, was giving her, the striped feline took a deep breath and continued as she stepped forward—quite deliberately in front of Tai Lung.

 

"Believe me, I would be the first to agree that Tai Lung has done wrong and needs to atone for it. But what you're doing...it's not going to help. If anything, it might make things worse." She flicked her eyes briefly to him, and had the grace to flush in what he guessed was shame. "As someone reminded me recently, if we want...things...to change, we all have to do our parts to make that happen. And that means…sometimes, giving them the chance to prove their worth. Treating them the way we'd want to be treated."

 

Suddenly Tai Lung had the distinct impression her words were meant more for him than for the foreman…and also, that this was the closest to an apology he would ever get from her.

 

Before he could even marshal his confused and contradictory thoughts for a response, the elephant spoke again—and the snow leopard didn't know whether to gasp at his audacity, or grin at what Tigress's likely reaction would be. "Humph. Shoulda known you'd take his side in the end. Leave it to a woman to get all emotional and show too much sympathy."

 

If he hadn't known better, Tai Lung would have thought his fellow kung fu master had some sort of mystical power over the weather—because he could have sworn the temperature on the mountain top had just dropped from a blistering summer day into the frigid depths of a winter snowstorm. The flat look she gave with her golden and ruby eyes certainly could have chilled anyone. "You might want to rethink your position," she said...soft and cold.

 

The elephant smirked. "Yeah, yeah, I know. Big bad leader of the Furious Five's gonna put me in my place and tell me what to do. But y'know, there ain't a damn thing you can do about it. You can wish all you like you could rough me up, make me eat those words, but that'd ruin your image, wouldn't it? Nobody'd ever believe you were peaceful protectors anymore."

 

Turning his back on her in contempt, he started to walk away back across the terrace, but somehow couldn't resist tossing back one last jibe at the fuming Tigress, who did indeed seem to be impotent and paralyzed by the conflict between her desires and her duties. "Like it or not, I'm the one who's gonna make him shape up or ship out, little girl. So why don't you get back to it, before I double your load on the work detail?"

 

A vicious, murderous snarl filled the air, and Tai Lung was as surprised as anyone else that it came from his throat and not Tigress's—not that she didn't look just as insulted and ready to come to blows, kung fu oaths or no. But what the elephant said had been the very last straw. It was one thing to attack him, whether verbally or physically; he at least deserved it on some level. But Tigress certainly did not. And he'd be damned if he allowed anything to happen to her...especially if it occurred because she interceded on his behalf.

 

He didn't stop to think; he simply knelt down, scooped up one of the loose paving stones...hefted it in his paw...and then hauled his arm back and threw the stone with all his might.

 

His aim was true, and the brick smashed right into the back of the elephant's head, shattering with the impact. Wiping away the rock dust that now coated him down to his shoulders, the foreman whirled back around, one hand clutching his bleeding scalp as he glared at Tai Lung. He cursed sulfurously. "What the hell—all right, no more Mister Nice Guy..."

 

The elephant never got a chance to finish his thought, as two things happened almost simultaneously. The first thing was the snow leopard rushing forward, shoving Tigress aside and behind him (eliciting a cry of outrage and annoyance that made him wince inwardly, certain he'd pay for that later), so as to brazenly attack the bullying pachyderm. Even now he still held back, knowing that killing or severely maiming the idiot would not at all help his case—in fact it'd make him look all the more like the unchangeable, unforgivable monster everyone still believed him to be.

 

But in all other respects, he made the bastard suffer for every snide taunt and vicious innuendo he'd made at Tigress's expense...punishing him, pummeling him, battering him within an inch of his life. He ducked under those rather dirty tusks to smash first one fist and then the other right underneath the chin, throwing that thick-skulled head up in a wide arc. He jumped up high to deliver a stunningly powerful dropkick right into the elephant's breastbone—hurling him back several feet across the terrace, almost off the edge to topple down the stairs. And a well-placed roundhouse that struck the side of one leg made the bully topple over on one knee, as the other had been caught by his hooking foot, wrenched to the side, and snapped.

 

Rising up on his good knee, the elephant lashed out to grasp Tai Lung around the throat with both hands, bloodlust in his eyes—when the second interference occurred, as from behind the combatants a voice of authority and distinct disapproval echoed from the doorway of the Jade Palace. "What is going on here?"

 

"M-Master Shifu!" Instantly the foreman's demeanor changed from cruel and contemptuous to servile and fawning as he dropped Tai Lung rather unceremoniously. "You won't believe this, but Tai Lung had the audacity to attack me—and after I simply asked him to do the chores you assigned him! He hasn't changed at all, he's the same scourge and killer he always was..."

 

As Tai Lung stared at him in mounting disbelief and fury, the elephant proceeded to weave a completely false and blatantly one-sided tale of what had transpired before the master of the temple had arrived on the scene. Eventually the foreman wound down, having painted himself as the hapless victim of the wicked snow leopard's arrogance, bloodthirstiness, and overweening pride, begged Shifu to remove Tai Lung from his crew before he hurt or murdered anyone else, and insisted on justice being served—which seemed to consist of him receiving proper compensation for his injuries and extra pay while he was kept from working and unable to support his poor wife.

 

And by the time all of this had been said, Tai Lung was not the only one filled with disgust and hate—for out of the corner of his eye he could see as well as hear Tigress cracking her knuckles as she seemed to swell inside her pelt, and even Monkey looked uncomfortable and annoyed.

 

But just as the tiger stepped forward and began to refute the elephant, Shifu held up one tiny hand to cut her off. "No, Master Tigress. This is a matter between myself and Wei Chang here, and you are not to get involved. No discussion." As the leader of the Furious Five looked on helplessly, the red panda turned back to the foreman. "Now...are you certain, Master Wei, that you have told me absolutely everything? Because I need to know it all before I can render judgment."

 

For a moment, Wei faltered, his eyes flicking from Tai Lung, to Tigress, to Monkey—the word of three kung fu masters against his. But then, whether because he thought no one would dare stand up for the ex-convict who had laid waste to the Valley, or because he was just that cocky, he evidently decided to brazen it out. "Yes, Master Shifu. I've told you everything, just the way it happened."

 

Something flickered across Shifu's mustached face, there and gone so quickly the snow leopard wasn't sure what it meant, or if he'd even seen it. Then he nodded solemnly, hands clasped behind him, and stepped forward into the sunlight. "I see. In that case, I should probably tell you that I only asked you as a formality. Because I've been standing in the palace doorway for some time now."

 

Absolute silence reigned on the mountain top, as the blood slowly drained from the elephant's face. When he spoke again, it was in a rueful and chagrined whisper. "H-how long...?"

 

"Long enough," Shifu replied, a trifle smugly. "Believe me, I heard and saw everything."

 

Chest heaving as he struggled to get his temper back under control, and to recover from the surge of adrenaline that had overtaken him as he began combat with the foreman, Tai Lung stared at his master and adopted father in shock—turning briefly to anger at Shifu for not intervening sooner and putting a stop to the abuse, and then finally satisfaction and even admiration as he realized just what the panda had done...basically, stood back and watched long enough to give the elephant the rope with which to hang himself. And, perhaps, to see exactly how the snow leopard would handle the situation...

 

Realizing far too late that he'd been caught in his web of lies, and that he had no one to blame but himself, Wei seemed poised to flee, and he certainly cringed enough to make it seem there were mice about. "M-Master Shifu...this isn't what it looks like..."

 

"Oh no?" The red panda stepped closer still, and despite the fact he wasn't even a fourth Tai Lung's height, he intimidated the elephant as much as if he towered above him like a giant. "I do believe what I observed speaks for itself. I have two words for you: you're fired."

 

"What?" Wei looked stricken. "You can't do that!"

 

Shifu's brows quirked. "I think I just did."

 

"B-but...my wife, my family, how can I—?"

 

"You should have thought of that before you decided to pass judgment where it was not your place." Now, instead of amused and confident, he finally showed the anger he must have been feeling all along. Even though he wasn't the one it was directed at, Tai Lung swallowed. "You deliberately provoked my son to get a rise out of him—and he showed considerable restraint in the matter, I might add, more than I would have were I in his position. Though even I would not have thrown a brick at your head."

 

For a moment Wei relaxed, looking relieved, until Shifu added harshly, "I would have used the Wuxi Finger Hold on you. You also insulted Master Tigress, and by extension the rest of the Five, questioned my judgment in allowing Tai Lung to stay, and dishonored your name and your ancestors by lying. Have I missed anything?"

 

"No, I think you got it all," Monkey supplied cheekily from one side.

 

"Because you are a long-time resident of this Valley," Shifu finished with a slightly more mollified tone, "you will be allowed to stay, and to seek other employment. I am certain a fellow of your skills and talents will be able to find any number of construction opportunities. But I will be watching you...and if I hear one whisper, one rumor that you are causing trouble for Tai Lung again, or even that you disrespected myself or the Furious Five one more time, you can consider yourself exiled. And the temple guardsmen will make certain you leave and do not return." He turned away dismissively. "Now get out of my sight."

 

With each word Shifu spoke, the elephant seemed to deflate and shrink, becoming more and more of a pathetic figure. If he hadn't been so detestable, Tai Lung might actually have felt sorry for him; he'd been on the receiving end of tirades from Shifu before and knew how that felt, and to come that close to dishonoring his name and ancestors had to be a sobering and frightening prospect. "I...forgive me, I didn't mean—"

 

"You heard him!" Monkey snapped, waving his long-fingered hands in the pachyderm's direction. "Get outta here!"

 

Whatever the ex-foreman had been thinking on the subject, he shared none of it...only nodding reluctantly, hurriedly, before hobbling back to his cart, gathering his supplies and possessions, and beating a hasty, limping retreat down the stairs.

 

Silence reigned a few moments more—and then, almost as one, the work crews of sheep and pigs all began to applaud. To his credit, Shifu did not do anything as ostentatious or arrogant as bowing, instead only nodding briefly before turning back to his students.

 

Tigress was smiling now, her fist in the palm of her hand as she did bow to him, in respect and gratitude. "Well played, Master."

 

"Thank you." The red panda looked penetratingly at Tai Lung, who despite everything couldn't help jumping guiltily. Was he still going to be punished, even after all that? "Tai Lung...you did well. I think you're taking to these lessons much more swiftly than I could ever have hoped. I might just need to accelerate the schedule, and teach you what I promised that much sooner."

 

The snow leopard looked from him, to Tigress (who, of all things, was actually smiling at him—grudgingly, still a trifle brittle, but smiling all the same), to Monkey, who seemed to be wondering when Tai Lung had traded places with his heretofore unseen good twin. Even the messenger goose Zeng, who had apparently followed Shifu so as to take down whatever memorandum he'd been dictating, was staring at the spotted cat with wonder and pleased respect rather than his usual nervousness and fear. He knew what he'd done, of course…but really, why were they making such a big deal out of this? And it wasn't as if he still hadn't lost his temper, in the end. "I don't understand. I just did what anyone else would have done."

 

"I know," Shifu answered mysteriously. Then he looked at one of the other high-ranking workers, a bull who had been laboring nearby all throughout the proceedings. "You there—unless anyone has any objections, you are the new foreman. Now get back to work!" This last was delivered, not as a sharp order, but with a twinkle in his eyes...and then the red panda turned and disappeared back into the shadows of the palace without another word, Zeng trailing silently after him.

 

As he departed, the bull he had singled out strode over to where the three masters still stood gathered, trying to process all that had occurred. Tai Lung frowned worriedly—the fellow didn't seem threatening, despite being of a size with the snow leopard, in fact he looked downright friendly. But after what happened with Master Wei, he wasn't taking any chances. "Yes?" he asked, warily. "If this is about making sure I follow orders correctly, you can be certain I know just what to do next. I was only taking a brief break."

 

"What?" The bull looked blankly at him, glanced back at the cart filled with cut stones and carved timbers which he had lugged onto the terrace before this all started, then laughed and shook his head. "Are you kidding me? After all the hard work you've put in today, and how much you've hauled up here, you could take the rest of the day off as far as I'm concerned. We'd never have gotten all this up here today without you." He paused, as if debating the advisability of his action, before stepping forward and resting a hand on Tai Lung's shoulder. "No, I just wanted to let you know—no one here's gonna hold a grudge against you for what you did. Wei was a hardass to everybody, thought he was the gods' gift to this green earth, and nobody's gonna miss him."

 

He paused again, then squeezed Tai Lung's shoulder as he leaned in close, dropping his voice to a whisper. "I also wanted to tell you...not everybody's against you in the village, Tai Lung. Yeah, you did some bad things, and hurt a lot of people. But the way I see it, the gods like to test us. Maybe that's all that was...maybe that's all this is, too. And even if you made mistakes, well...how else are you supposed to learn from them if we don't give you a chance? Maybe you can't earn everyone's forgiveness...but if you keep up what you've been doing, you might just get it given to you freely." The bull smiled, turning away. "So don't give up, okay? Because you never know where you might have friends you don't know about."

 

As the bull slipped easily back into the crowd of workers, who all seemed to be toiling away much more assiduously and happily than before, Tai Lung swayed a little on his feet, rather feeling an urgent need to sit down. Friends? How...how can this be?

 

What stunned him even more than this nonsensical announcement was what he'd just experienced. In the space of a few minutes, Tigress, Shifu, and a man he didn't even know had all shown their willingness to stand up for him, to trust and believe in him, and to even fight his battles for him. On the one hand, he could easily have taken that elephant, and neither wanted nor needed anyone protecting him and eliminating threats to his welfare, as if he were a helpless cub.

 

On the other hand...no one had wanted to protect him, or stand up for him, in over twenty years. And now that he'd felt it, and experienced it...he wanted it again. In fact it shocked him how he could have gotten along without it, how he couldn't have missed it the way he'd missed light and air and freedom.

 

Surprisingly, both Monkey and Tigress gave him time and space to consider all that had happened, and when he finally nodded his readiness to go back to work, they remained at his side—not so much as guardians or jailers, but like concerned companions. He felt his heart swell in his breast again. He didn't know what this had to do with his future course, how it would help him become a true hero and attain the greatness he'd always craved...but the simple fact was, it felt good. And he didn't want to stop feeling it if he could help it.

 

For the present, however, all he was feeling was more soreness in his aching muscles, as the next several hours were spent continuing the repair work chores. And while nothing which was left on the agenda was quite as backbreaking as bringing all the stone and wood up the stairway, there was still more than enough going around to break a sweat. When he wasn't kneeling on the hard paving stones, following the directions of a pig in how to pour and smooth out with a trowel the wet, fast-drying rock being used to fill in cracks, or fitting newly quarried stones into the crater he'd smashed into the terrace, he was hoisting up the beams for the new doors under the supervision of the bull.

 

In that task, at least, he had the assistance of both Tigress and Monkey, which was a very good thing—even his powerful muscles had trouble lifting the massive panels into place, and in any event their top-heavy nature and the sharp angle at which they had to be lifted would have made it awkward even if they'd been extremely light.

 

At last, by mid-afternoon, all the major work which could be done had been accomplished. The enormous slabs of oak had replaced the ragged hole and splintered doors he'd made, fitted quite snugly in their jambs and with all the proper brass fixtures—such as hinges and lock plates—riveted and screwed into place. The only thing not yet completed was the reconstruction of the gorgeous jade designs which had always adorned the doors, depicting the twirling vines and gigantic leaves of the fan palm. And that was something which, like the interior marble, only the skilled craftsmen of the village could handle.

 

Even so, so much had been completed already, with so many hands laboring together to finish the repair work in record time. And as Tai Lung stood beside his fellow masters and gazed up at what they had wrought, and as the bull foreman joined them to offer words of congratulations and a hearty slap on the back, the snow leopard couldn't keep a renewed swelling of pride from taking up residence in him.

 

It was as Shifu had said, though he had doubted him, distrusted him, and thought him as blind and foolish as Oogway, once upon a time. There was something immensely satisfying about all this. Not that he'd ever wish to devote his life to such pursuits; he might have the strength for it, but certainly not the eye for fine detail, or the patience. But it was good to know this now, before he made a mistake in what his life's calling should be…and because it proved to him that in at least one respect, both he and Shifu had been right about him.

 

Although he could do other things, if given the time and instructions, he had not, as yet, found anything he excelled at or had taken to so quickly as kung fu. While there were many other possibilities yet to try—and for the first time, he actually wished to attempt them, if only as supplemental hobbies rather than lifelong vocations—he was now even more convinced that whatever else might change for him, kung fu was his life.

 

How he would employ it when he could never be the Dragon Warrior, he hadn't the foggiest. And even if threats to the peace and safety of the Valley manifested themselves, he somehow doubted merely protecting and defending others would make him feel fulfilled. But then, he'd found he was wrong about so much already, and he had yet to truly protect the innocent—not as an end to itself, not when his achieving the Dragon Scroll and proving himself worthy of Oogway's blessing hadn't been riding on it. So who knew how it might feel, now.

 

But he wanted to learn. He wanted to know if it felt as good as having people who cared, friends, a purpose...a life of his own.

 

Tossing his trowel back into a wheelbarrow, he glanced again at Tigress and Monkey, then idly twirled the hammer before shoving it back in his waistband with a wry smirk. I've helped build a new set of doors. Now I just have to open them, walk through...and see where they lead.

                                                                       


 

With most of the difficult labor accomplished, Shifu decreed that the Five, Po, and Tai Lung could take the rest of the day off—not only to recover their strength and as a reward for all their hard work, but to prepare their bodies and minds for the midsummer Ghost Festival which would be held the next day.

 

Hearing this, the Dragon Warrior immediately began cooking up a storm, devising a feast such as the Valley of Peace had not seen in years. Most of the Five either went to their rooms to rest and meditate, or hung over Po's shoulder, offering advice or simply reveling in the delectable aromas emanating from the kitchen. But Tigress, still yearning for privacy and having so much to think about, decided to go down to the village...and to her annoyance and puzzlement, Tai Lung chose to follow her.

 

Ever since their encounter in his cell, and certainly since their trip into the village together, the striped feline had been at a loss to explain her conflicted feelings, let alone properly deal with them. Although the latter time in his company had begun to convince her that, even if she still could not trust him to avoid a relapse or otherwise choose to revert to his old ways, at the very least his regrets for what he had done and his desire to atone for it were genuine, she still refused to believe that he should be given a free pass from imprisonment.

 

His time in Chorh-Gom had been meant to keep him from repeating his atrocities, from coming back to steal the scroll and exact revenge—something which, she could no longer deny, did not seem to be his goal any longer. But he had also been incarcerated as punishment...and while he could whine, moan, and complain about the terrible treatment he'd received from Vachir, or how inhumane and cruel his restraining device had been, the destruction and numerous deaths he'd caused made her doubt any punishment could ever truly fit his crimes. Even death might be too good for him.

 

That had been why she'd agreed, in the end, to go on the shopping expedition in the first place. Because if anything would truly convince Tai Lung to walk the straight and narrow path, to repent his rampage and ensure nothing like it could ever happen again, it would be witnessing firsthand the true pain and hatred of the Valley's people. And if he could not, or would not, change...if this were all an act, or if he were beyond redemption no matter how much he might wish it...then to be haunted for the rest of his days by what he heard and saw in town was the most fitting punishment she could devise for him.

 

Of course, he'd surprised her with the real contrition and sorrow for his misdeeds, and since then he'd surprised her again—with his ability to restrain his legendary temper, with his determination to do all Shifu asked of him, with the warrior's soul and nobility of heart she'd caught glimpses of in his reaction to the Urn of Whispering Warriors and his tales of his cubhood and adolescence. Hell, he'd surprised her by not simply murdering Po that first day in his cell, let alone in the kwoon almost a week later.

 

She didn't know what it all meant. Or rather, she had an inkling but didn't want to believe it. Because if Tai Lung were not truly evil, then her behavior towards him was unconscionable and inexcusable. Because if the snow leopard were not the vile, twisted, cruel beast she had been raised to believe him to be, then she no longer had anyone to blame for the great loss of her life, the denial of Shifu's love—no one except Shifu himself, someone she could not bring herself to hate. How could she, after what he had done for her at Bao Gu, after he was the only one to believe she herself was not a monster...the only one to open his doors to her and give her a home, friends, a family?

 

Because if, instead of the heartless villain who had slaughtered so many innocents and laughed over their bloody corpses, Tai Lung were a deeply wronged and hurt soul who had only been denied what he'd been rightfully promised, then that meant two things. That the line separating the two of them, the line she had but to cross to become exactly like or no better than he, was fine indeed. And that there was no longer any justification for her to resist what her body was telling her.

 

She wanted him. Wanted him more than anything in her life, even kung fu mastery or the Dragon Scroll—save for Shifu's love and approval. And that frightened her just as much as the prospect Tai Lung might still be playing them all for fools.

 

It was not that she had any issue with her femininity, or with one day taking a lover and even raising a family, she thought defensively as she hurried down the endless staircase. While it was not and never would be the preeminent thought in her mind, neither had she avoided it or rejected it. For on the rare occasions when she managed to contemplate life outside of the Jade Palace, she had to admit that having children of her own was a very attractive prospect.

 

Though some might doubt it from first impressions, or find it hard to believe after how she'd been treated at Bao Gu, she loved children, and always had. She might not always have the patience for them, but that would come with time and meditation, she was sure. Being so focused on achieving the highest standards Shifu could set for her merely made her appear more harsh and unforgiving than she truly was. And as for the orphanage...while at the time the fear and distrust she'd experienced had been heart-rending and even enraged her, with maturity and hindsight she understood why her fellow orphans, and even the poor headmistress, had reacted as they did.

 

Besides, in the end they did finally accept her…and what better way would there be for her to assure no child went through the same suffering, than to raise her own?

 

No, what upset her and completely undermined her confidence and strength of purpose, what made her continue to lash out at Tai Lung even when it seemed nonsensical...what distressed her to the point she barely had any appetite these days and was destroying the devices in the training hall with upsetting regularity, was that she wanted Tai Lung so badly it hurt—and she didn't know why.

 

It wasn't as if she'd never known attractive men before the snow leopard. Not her fellow masters in the Furious Five—Crane and Monkey were more like brothers to her, Mantis was far too irascible (and raunchy) for her tastes, and none of them were even very compatible in species or size. But there had been males who caught her eye, if only briefly.

 

The massive, thickly furred wolf from the snowy northern reaches of Siberia, a soldier or mercenary of some sort—she'd never caught the specifics, since he spoke with such a thick, indecipherable accent, and he'd also been something of an enemy. The slender fox merchant from the east—where had he said he was from? Honshu?—who'd been a delightful conversationalist and knowledgeable on so much in the rest of the world...but excessively formal and hidebound by tradition. And the felines she'd encountered—a handsome but rather boring tiger from the capital, a bureaucrat or courtier of some sort; and a lion monk from across the Himalayas, in a land called India...who somehow even with his shaven mane had appeared extremely regal, but also oddly sad.

 

None of them had drawn her attention for more than a passing interest, certainly not to the extent that Tai Lung had...nor had they incited such intense and contradictory emotions within her. She didn't understand it—was it merely timing, and he had caught her off guard when her body was telling her it was time to settle down with a mate, before she had lost all her chances? Was it just the adversarial nature of their interactions, the combination of a competitive drive and a proud craving for recognition and acceptance, that created such a strong bond between them—one she was mistaking for something else? Were they so much alike that it made him innately, and illicitly, appealing? Was it the sheer presence he exuded?

 

Or could it really be just chemistry, some sort of natural attractant she'd never encountered from a male before? She had not, after all, ever met a snow leopard before he came into her life. If the latter was the case, this upset and worried her all the more, since it suggested that no matter what other considerations there were, the fact they might not ever be friends and would probably never be capable of a real, healthy romance, her body might ignore all these danger signs and plunge headlong into it anyway. Something she could not allow even if he really were to redeem himself. And even if there were more to the attraction, one of her previous surmises or something she hadn't even thought of yet, it was no guarantee she and Tai Lung could ever make something real and lasting.

 

And that was almost the worst possibility of all...for while these feelings could blind her to any duplicity on his part, thus allowing the ex-convict to betray and slaughter her friends, her master, and the Valley, if he were everything he claimed to be but they could still not make this work... She didn't know if she could face such hurt. She didn't believe her heart could take such rejection, not when after being sealed away so long it finally was leaping at the chance to have its first taste of love, in any form.

 

And the very fact this would be her first real relationship with a man—if she actually pursued anything with Tai Lung, which of course she would not—made her resist it all the more. Being new to this, how could she trust it? She couldn't afford to make a judgment that could adversely affect her life if she based it solely on feelings and urges she had no experience with or understanding of.

 

No, until she knew the truth, and could truly trust him, she had to keep him at arm's length. Even if such a miracle occurred, she still had to hold back until she was sure. This was no exercise in the kwoon, where if she made a mistake she could simply correct her stance, choose a different angle of attack, and try again. Real lives, and real hearts that could be broken, were at stake. And if Tai Lung hurt her, then she would hunt him to the ends of the earth.

 

Or else chase him there, if he tried to get away from her advances.

 

Groaning to herself, Tigress shook her head and rubbed her temples. These thoughts were getting her nowhere. What was absolutely critical was, whatever would or would not happen with the snow leopard, and whatever she was missing that both drew her to him and created such obstacles between them, it didn't justify the way she had treated him—or poor Viper.

 

They could not know why she was acting so strangely, just as she could never admit, to the serpent or anyone, that the unforgivable act Tai Lung had committed in his cell was to make her care about his welfare...and even worse, to make her desire him. If Tai Lung were truly trying to change, as shockingly seemed to be the case, then he did not deserve her bitterness and mockery—hence why she had defended him against Wei Chang, and the fact he had defended her in turn was promising indeed. If he were not, she still needed to relent—to confuse and throw him off the scent, make him let down his defenses.

 

As for Viper, she had only been trying to help, in her harmless if somewhat busybody way. She really needed to make it up to her friend, buy her a festival gift for her ancestors with as much of her allowance as was appropriate without being insultingly extravagant...

 

As she reached the foot of the steps and was crossing the moon bridge into town, however, her thoughts were interrupted as Tai Lung finally caught up with her. Whether she'd set an even faster pace than usual or he was still winded from hauling the stones and timbers up the mountain, she didn't know, but he actually had to gasp heavily for a few moments and get his breathing back under control before he could speak.

 

"Where's the fire, Master Tigress? Is there something you forgot in the village? Too stifling and cramped up at the dormitories? Or was there something you couldn't find at the Jade Palace you absolutely had to have?" He smirked knowingly, as if he'd just hit upon her true, secret vice, the feminine proclivity for shopping.

 

For a moment she was tempted to match him sarcasm for sarcasm by saying yes, she had to come down to the village in order to find intelligent company, a hope which had been dashed by his presence. But instead, after a few deep, calming breaths, she replied evenly, "As a matter of fact, no. There's just something I have to do, now that Master Shifu has given me the time for it. Since you're already here, and I still can't let you wander around unsupervised, I suppose you can accompany me."

 

Despite the reluctance and resentment she put into her voice, in point of fact Tigress hoped Tai Lung would come along. The errand she had to run would be an...interesting test for him. It would certainly prove whether he was truly changing or not. And best of all, it would be terribly fun, something she hadn't indulged in since she was a cub.

 

The snow leopard, meanwhile, fell for her line like a fish on a hook. After a brief, flat stare, most likely at her refusal to grant him his freedom, the feline smirked again and nodded, spreading his paws in seeming helplessness and giving a high sigh. "I'm afraid you're right, there's nothing for it. I'll just have to be your shadow 'til we get back to the temple. I'll try not to step on your toes or get in your way."

 

"See that you don't," Tigress purred coldly, even as she struggled to restrain a giggle. This will be entertaining.

 

Without another word, she led the way through the cobblestone streets with her usual purposeful stride, and it may have been a debatable point whether the villagers who parted to let them pass were doing so out of fear of Tai Lung or respect for her. Although she nodded and smiled, albeit tightly, to anyone who spoke to or otherwise acknowledged her, she remained focused on her goal and refused to notice those who continued directing hateful, venomous looks at the snow leopard. Not because she was completely convinced, yet, that he deserved his second chance or would truly prove himself worthy of it, but because she couldn't stand the looks of betrayal and disappointment those same villagers gave her when they saw her in Tai Lung's company, seemingly sanctioning his presence...

 

By the time they reached a fairly large house on the western edge of town—long and low, built of white stone and roofed with the ubiquitous golden bamboo and brightly-painted, green wood, with fairly extensive gardens and grounds—the snow leopard seemed to be more confused than she'd ever seen him, as he clearly couldn't tell what sort of place they'd come to, let alone why she had brought him there.

 

Taking great care to ensure her face was turned away from him, so he would not see the enormous grin she was sporting, Tigress remained silent just to annoy Tai Lung further, until they finally arrived at the crimson door of the structure, just across another bridge where the river waters lapped at the pilings.

 

Pausing there, she turned back to him with an absolutely serious, stern expression. "I should warn you...what you're about to see may come as a bit of a shock."

 

Tai Lung threw her a very odd look, then snorted. "I'll take that under advisement, but I'm ready for anything."

 

Twisting the handle, she shoved hard, pushing the door open wide.

 

"AUNTIE TIGRESS!"

 

Out of the corner of her eye, she spied Tai Lung utterly frozen in place, an expression of unmitigated panic locked on his features while, just as it had during his acupuncture session, his thick, luscious pelt puffed out in a ridiculous ball of fur. The sight was so comical she'd have joined in on the peals of wild giggling that filled the house, if she weren't focused on the approaching horde. Ready for anything, hmm?

 

Bunnies, sheep, pigs, goats, geese, cattle, even a few tigers and turtles—they all greeted her effusively, with shrieks of delight, excited chatter, and of course more clinging hugs than she could ever hope to count. She lost track of the number of faces peering up at her with shining eyes and enormous grins, and after a few moments she closed her eyes and just let the tide wash over her.

 

"Master Tigress, Master Tigress! Look what Baba taught me to do!" A rabbit did a passable, if shaky, handstand.

 

"How long are you staying? Oh I hope it's all day!"

 

"Mama bought me your action figure, isn't it cool?"

 

"Where's the Dragon Warrior? He promised he'd come see us soon!"

 

"We thought you'd never come back, it's been ages!" a piglet said solemnly.

 

"I was just here yesterday," Tigress observed in bemusement.

 

"Like I said, ages!"

 

"Is it really true, the Thread of Hope is back? And everyone's fixin' the Palace?"

 

"I'm hungry, when's dinner?"

 

"Yeah!" a chorus of childish voices resounded.

 

"I wanna be just like you when I grow up," a little tiger girl with a lotus bloom above one ear said shyly.

 

"Yeah!" the chorus repeated, even louder.

 

"Can you get me Master Shifu's autograph?"

 

"Baba says you're the best thing since sliced asparagus. What's that mean?"

 

Somewhere behind her, she was sure she heard the sound of furred flesh smacking together, as of a palm striking a face. Then, when the headmistress appeared to try and hush the over stimulated children (an attempt that was, admittedly, somewhat in vain), and a brief lull entered the jabbering conversation, Tai Lung finally stepped forward beside her. Staring down aghast, he managed to point an accusing finger at the group of cubs still gathered around her kneeling figure. "What...where did those come from?"

 

This time she couldn't hold back her first instinctive response. "You're almost forty years old, and Shifu still hasn't given you that talk yet?"

 

Amazingly (and amusingly), the great and mighty Tai Lung actually blushed beet red. Oh, I really shouldn't be enjoying myself this much. But he makes it so easy!

 

Spluttering and grumbling under his breath, he soon recovered well enough to hiss at her, "That's not what I meant, as you bloody well know! What are they doing here, and more to the point, why are we here with them?"

 

Tigress bit her lip to keep from laughing, even as she directed at him an innocent look. "You may not have heard of it, but this is what is known as a daycare. It's where parents bring their children to be looked after during the day when they have to work and can't be around to watch them. And right now, in fact, it happens to be housing the cubs of all the workers helping to repair the Jade Palace."

 

The snow leopard still looked disgruntled and annoyed, as if he longed to take issue with her choice of words—which had indeed been deliberately chosen to make him seem as ignorant as possible. But before he could speak again, the children in question finally noticed him.

 

A very long, hushed silence ensued, as those who knew who he was became absolutely still with fright, and for a moment Tigress's self-satisfaction fled as she cursed inwardly at her stupidity; she'd been so focused on humiliating the snow leopard she'd forgotten how some of the young ones might react to him. However, not all of the children were afraid—most just seemed confused and uncertain what they should say or do. And at least one was rather thrilled.

 

From the pack of huddled cubs, one little girl squirmed out to stare up at Tai Lung intently. It was, Tigress saw, the cow child from the other day during the supply run. And as she watched in mingled bemusement and worry, the child suddenly leaped into motion, making a beeline for the snow leopard and wrapping her arms around his lower leg like a leech. "Kitty!"

 

If anything, the look on Tai Lung's face became even more despairing and uncomfortable—but also resigned. Gazing down at the bovine at a complete loss, he finally sighed and slumped his shoulders. "Yes. Yes I am. And you know your species. That's...that's good."

 

Of course, as soon as they heard a halfway friendly voice (instead of terrible, savage growls) come out of his mouth, and saw he didn't immediately lash out at the cow, the rest of the children started slowly but surely gathering around him, peering up in awe and curiosity. And as he rather weakly sat down in a handy chair, more than a few reached out and, like the little girl, started gripping his legs or petting his bare-furred arms.

 

"Your fur is so soft..." a soft-spoken sheep marveled.

 

"Yes, and I'd like to keep it that way," Tai Lung muttered. He looked up at Tigress in a mute appeal, but she only crossed her arms over her chest and imperceptibly shook her head at him, her message quite clear: 'You're on your own.'

 

Instead, the tiger peered down at the cow, frowning thoughtfully. "I don't think I've seen you here before, little one. What's your name?"

 

Immediately the girl let go of Tai Lung so she could twist her hands behind her back and stand awkwardly on one foot—but she remained as precocious and bright-eyed as ever as she answered eagerly. "I'm Yi, Master Tigress."

 

Of course. A perfect name. "So you are. And who are your parents? Are they working up at the palace, too?"

 

Yi looked thoughtful for a few moments, then she smiled. "Baba is. He makes things! Big doors, and steps, and walls, and houses, and..."

 

"I see, that's very nice, sweetie." Tigress briefly exchanged a troubled glance with Tai Lung—it seemed almost beyond coincidence, but there were not a large number of bovines in the Valley of Peace. Chances were this girl's father was the very bull who had spoken so kindly to the snow leopard...yet her mother was also the one who had shown him such hatred. This didn't bode well at all...

 

Shaking these gloomy thoughts aside, she instead clapped her paws together for attention and answered one of the cubs' earlier questions. "All right everyone! Master Po said he'd be down later on, with some of his candied walnut apples for us, but until then we have Mr. Tai Lung here to keep us company. And maybe, if you're all very good, he'll show you a few kung fu moves. How's that sound?"

 

The sound of cheering was mildly deafening—which was a good thing, as it completely drowned out the snow leopard's cry of anguish.

 

For the next several hours until it was time for the evening meal, the children of the daycare did their level best to mob Tai Lung, and to Tigress's surprise and (she had to grudgingly admit) relief, despite his extreme displeasure at being coerced into this the snow leopard never once laid a hand to any of the little ones. Oh, there were more than a few tense moments—such as when, quite by accident, a young caprine hoof came down on Tai Lung's still sore tail, or when a rather gawky stork asked with complete innocence why one of his fingers was crooked.

 

And at one point the matronly rabbit who ran the facility came rushing out in a fright, ready to smack away some interloping criminal with her broom when she heard what she thought was the screams of the terrified children...only to discover they were merely squealing in delight as they dangled and swung from the snow leopard's arms while he crouched on the floor for them. (Not by his own will, at least not at first—the sheer weight of all the cubs clambering atop him had borne him down over time.)

 

It was also true that he'd hardly appreciated being relegated to changing duties when one of the youngest, a tiny red panda with eyes and ears even larger than Shifu's, had soiled his linen diaper. To his credit, Tai Lung had done his best, gritting his teeth manfully against the stench and only briefly wavering as if on the verge of passing out before muttering that if he had mastered the Scorpion pose, he could handle this. It had even looked as if he'd properly fastened the cloth in place, albeit with an excess of loops and bulk. But when he proudly held up the fellow for inspection, the diaper had of course fallen right off.

 

Staring down in despair at the floor, and watching morosely as the panda cub proceeded to relieve himself on the rush mat, he'd given Tigress a long-suffering look. "This is karmic justice, I suppose."

 

"Quite."

 

"And a devilishly nasty way for Shifu to get a little revenge on me."

 

"Could well be."

 

"And this is probably exactly the sort of thing I put him through when I was this age."

 

"Most children do."

 

He'd sighed heavily. "I take back every bad thing I ever said about him, then."

 

Giggling, the panda cub had reached out and, with unerring accuracy, grabbed hold of Tai Lung's mustache, ripping it out with one good yank. A pause, as the snow leopard worked his muzzle painfully and squeezed his watering eyes shut... Then the feline had uttered one, agonized word: "Owwww..."

 

Tigress had only shaken her head ruefully and smiled as she came over to take the cub and, without complaint, proceeded to diaper him properly. Behind her, she'd heard him mutter, "All right...I take back almost everything...owwww..."

 

"Should I get some ointment for you, or were you going to suffer stoically as usual?"

 

His voice turned miserable and sullen. "I hate you."

 

"You're only saying that to make me feel better."

 

But eventually even Tigress had been forced to conclude that the snow leopard had far more patience and understanding than she could ever have expected from him—for in time, struggling and resisting all the way, he had begun to soften and become more accepting of his innocent playmates. And more than once, as the children begged and persuaded him to get down to their level for some wild romps on the floor, she could have sworn she'd caught him smiling, very faintly. Could this have taken him back to his aborted cubhood, perhaps? Reminded him of the days before everything had become all about discipline and severity, when it was still allowed to have fun...?

 

Whatever sympathy she'd been starting to gain for him, however, evaporated when Po at last arrived at the daycare with the promised snacks. Because the children were so engrossed in their game, they actually failed to notice him in the doorway, thus giving him a perfect display of how they had laid the snow leopard low. And after taking one look at the spotted feline absolutely smothered in cubs, several of them riding between his broad shoulders so as to tug encouragingly on his ears, the Dragon Warrior had melted, tears welling up in his huge green eyes.

 

"Awwwwwww! Would ya look at that...always knew ya had it in ya."

 

Tai Lung froze, mid-pony romp. "You didn't see anything."

 

Po smirked. "Sure did. Every last, beautiful minute of it."

 

"No! I'll deny everything. You couldn't get me to swear to it in front of the magistrate!" The snow leopard, once again, looked rather panicked.

 

"Don't worry, buddy. Your dark secret is safe with me. Can't speak for Master Tigress, of course, but..." The panda glanced at her meaningfully, but she chose to look away, whistling idly to herself. Whatever Master Oogway said, blackmail is not beneath a kung fu warrior.

 

As the children finally leaped off of Tai Lung to swarm around Po, begging for their sweets, the Dragon Warrior grinned kindly down at each one of them—ruffling hair here, rubbing ears there, his chin actually quivering a little as he saw how each and every one of them seemed in awe of him for his new heroic status in the Valley. Then he looked up at the snow leopard again, watching as Yi once again refused to let go of her kitty, while several others were returning to offer him their desserts.

 

"Ya see? Told ya ya had a good heart in there somewhere! You're gonna make it, big guy. You can do anythin' ya put your mind to."

 

Something nasty and venomous flared deep inside Tigress's heart as she once again heard Po heap praise onto Tai Lung—and this time for something she had helped orchestrate no less. It never would have happened, he never would have had the chance to perform this good deed, if not for her...and something that had been her own idea, something which should have earned her gratitude and acknowledgement, had instead once again been diverted and usurped by the snow leopard, as if he had thought of it! She wanted to laugh bitterly at the irony.

 

Suddenly it didn't matter how much she'd been enjoying herself, or that in her own, vindictive little way she'd been helping Shifu train the snow leopard in humility. Because somehow, as soon as she heard the panda once more fanboying over his idol, and saw Tai Lung avert his gaze in embarrassment, she felt something she never thought she would, something she would deny with her dying breath.

 

She was jealous. Jealous of Tai Lung. He had mastered all one thousand scrolls, when she had not. He had received Shifu's love, the one thing she'd always yearned for above all else. Kung fu had come to him with such ease, when she'd had to slave and sweat and toil away simply to control her strength. And now he even had Po's affections and hero worship...something which had annoyed and infuriated her when he first came to the Jade Palace, but now... You don't know, and miss, what you have until you lose it. Against her will, she'd begun to find the panda's mannerisms and obvious affection for her endearing, had secretly enjoyed it.

 

But now she'd lost it. To Tai Lung. He was the panda's new hero, not the leader of the Furious Five. And what made it worse was, it was most likely her own fault, for how she'd treated him since the choosing ceremony.

 

Now she knew, at last, the source of so much of her hatred, resentment, and anger for the snow leopard. And she had not the faintest idea how to deal with it, or overcome it.

Chapter Text

Chapter 13 Icon

 

Of course, no matter how dearly he wished otherwise, Tai Lung wasn't able to keep his moment of weakness a secret for long—because about twenty minutes or so after Po's arrival, Shifu and the rest of the Five also put in an appearance at the daycare. Luckily by that point he had at least persuaded the children to allow him some semblance of dignity by putting an end to the impromptu horseback rides, so that when the other kung fu warriors entered the airy, twilight-lit front room of the house they didn't catch him doing something quite so shameful.

 

Instead, while Tigress was engrossed, appropriately enough, in weaving a cat's cradle between Yi's fingers and Po was the one making an utter fool of himself gamboling and whooping and leaping across the wooden floor with cubs atop his back, the snow leopard was quite sedately playing checkers with a succession of inquisitive, bright-eyed faces, while the headmistress looked on warily but approvingly.

 

The children, naturally, were hardly the most stellar players, but it had been over twenty years since Tai Lung had played the game, making him more than a bit rusty, so it was a toss-up as to who won more often than not. But that wasn't the point. The point, he noted somewhat acerbically when Mantis and Crane looked on the verge of smirking openly, was that it was a surefire way to keep the 'little darlings' quiet—and that was the only reason he indulged in it.

 

Somehow he didn't think he fooled any of them, especially Shifu and Viper who exchanged a knowing look. But what was of paramount importance was that his masculine image hadn't been tarnished any further, that no one else suspected he'd actually, grudgingly, almost against his will been enjoying himself. He was adamant in this!

 

Eventually, however, the playful scene was forced to draw to a close when Shifu revealed that all the work at the temple had been completed, and the craftsmen would soon be returning to pick up their children. Predictably, there was a great deal of disappointment and regret expressed—by Po as well as the cubs—but under the firm, no-nonsense direction of the rabbit matron, the young ones (save for Yi) began the process of cleaning up and putting away all their toys, so they would be presentable when their parents came.

 

The little cow girl, of course, would simply not let go of Tai Lung's arm, and no matter how frustrating it was becoming, he didn't have the heart to raise his voice to her. He certainly wouldn't try to remove her by force—even before his wild rage had subsided, he had never harmed a single child, and he certainly wasn't going to start now. Only after she'd extracted a promise from him that he would come back to play with her again very soon did Yi let him go and toddle off. At that point, his master had noted that he had one small, minor task he wished accomplished before the night was out, and then they could retire to the bunkhouse to sleep and rest up for the festival the next day.

 

Wondering what more Shifu could want of him, and absolutely refusing to take his words at face value—what the red panda considered "small" and "minor" would be arduous and painful to anyone else—Tai Lung had yet agreed, on the condition he could at least pause first to have dinner.

 

Which was why he was now on his way through the village once more, enduring the company of Po, so as to sample (in the panda's estimation anyway) the best soup and pasta dishes in the province—at his father's noodle shop. And despite how uncomfortable and irritated the Dragon Warrior made him feel, he was actually grateful for the chance to get away...and not just because it allowed him to escape the clinging children and the scrutiny of Shifu and the Five.

 

Because ever since Po had turned up at the daycare, Tigress had become harder, colder, and more closed off than ever—instead of the playful, bantering (if still needling) attitude she'd started to ease into, she had reverted back to the flat, vicious stares he'd begun to hope were a thing of the past. And the most upsetting part of it was, he had no idea why.

 

Maybe all felines were mentally unstable. Or else women were.

 

Tired of having to try and puzzle her out, however, he was glad to get away from those accusing eyes even for only an hour. Even if it meant having to put up with the panda's ridiculous antics. Case in point: while most of the citizens they passed in the streets still eyed Tai Lung askance in terror, hatred, or at least uncertainty, Po seemed completely oblivious—his conversation careening from one subject to another, from the adorable cuteness of the village children to the 'cool' kung fu moves Shifu had been teaching him, with barely a pause for breath. Combine this with his still surprisingly bouncy nature, as he alternately demonstrated his latest lesson or gave his points more 'punch' with a gesture, and the snow leopard swore his teeth would be ground down to points before the panda ever ran down.

 

How could Po truly be unaware of the way the townsfolk saw the spotted feline? Or...was he? Could he be deliberately tuning them out, not allowing their negativity and distrust to get him down? Could he even, wonder of wonders, have learned the same sorts of focusing techniques as Tai Lung had, so as to be able to literally ignore whatever sights and sounds he chose? Food for thought.

 

A low, fierce, violent rumble resonated from just above his beltline, and Tai Lung grabbed at his abdomen with a wince. I really shouldn't have thought of food, just there.

 

"I hate to sound like one of our new fan club, but are we there yet? To coin a phrase, I can't exactly fuel this body on dewdrops and the energy of the universe." He grunted sourly. "And not just because I'm not the Dragon Warrior." An odd queasy feeling had also settled in the pit of his stomach, one he couldn't explain since it seemed to have nothing to do with the topic he'd just brought up. Something felt...wrong.

 

Po ceased his vigorous motions, pausing on one foot with the other leg extended, having just performed an amazingly flawless roundhouse kick—one the snow leopard suspected would have had an awful lot of power behind it, if he hadn't idly ducked it out of instinct. Then the panda chuckled. "Neither can I, and I did open the scroll. Don't worry, buddy, it's right around the corner up there, then two blocks down..."

 

Tai Lung almost tripped over a cobblestone, and actually had to force his paws to keep him moving along the street instead of freezing him in place. Now he knew what felt wrong—those directions sounded far too familiar. He'd been here before. No. It couldn't be. That would make his father a...goose?!

 

But it was true. Because as soon as the two of them crossed another bridge, then rounded the corner the panda had referred to, he could see the noodle shop just down the street...and even after twenty years and some major renovations, the place was unmistakable. Now he did stop in place, eyes widened and paws spread helplessly in front of him as he struggled with this unwelcome and unexpected truth. "Wait a minute...you never told me you were..."

 

The panda, who had been sauntering along whistling a jolly tune, stopped and looked back—first confused, then concerned as he saw the look on Tai Lung's face. "What's the matter, big guy? You look like you just saw a ghost!"

 

Licking his lips, he forced the words out even though his throat was quite dry. "Your name. It's not...Ping, is it?"

 

Scratching his white-furred belly, the bear frowned. "Well yeah, Po Ping. Why?"

 

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the nasty voice of sarcasm that had been implanted and flourished under Shifu's tutelage only to reach new heights (or depths) during his years at Chorh-Gom, the one which observed everything around him with cynicism and suspicion, was laughing snidely. 'Precious Peace'? Ugh. I may become violently ill.

 

But the rest of him was facing a very unpleasant fact—one which he knew had to be dealt with now, before it was revealed for him by the idiotic goose who ran the place. He knew this revelation might well upset, even anger, the panda...though why that should bother him, he had no idea...it must be because it could put an end to the ego-soothing hero-worship, make his acceptance at the Palace that much more difficult, or possibly even lead to another fight he couldn't win. Yes, that had to be it. Yet he couldn't avoid it, either.

 

"Er…I'd rather not have to tell you this, panda, but I'm afraid I won't be very welcome at this particular establishment."

 

"Why? What'd you do, stiff a check?" Po gave a snort of laughter.

 

"No." Tai Lung sighed. "Twenty years ago, it was one of the places I nearly destroyed during my rampage. And I almost killed the owner, too." There, he'd said it. But why had it been so hard to say? "So you can see why I'd not be on your father's favorite customer list."

 

For a shocking and rather disconcerting moment, Po remained absolutely silent, staring at the snow leopard with an inscrutable look on his placid, broad face. Tai Lung braced himself for a sudden attack—and instead, the panda threw back his head and laughed.

 

While the feline wondered if his companion had lost what little mind he had, Po chortled, "Is that all? Okay, first of all, I already knew about that. You think my dad would've left that part out when he told me stories about ya? Second, so what? Between the two of us, you and I destroyed almost as many buildings when we fought—at least you didn't actually kill my dad, ya know? And last...that was twenty years ago. You think I'm gonna hold that against you now, after everything else ya did that I've been willing to forgive?"

 

Reaching over to slap a paw on a bemused Tai Lung's shoulder, he smiled fondly as he steered the feline down the road toward the noodle shop. "Don't worry, my dad ain't one to hold a grudge. And if there's some kinda issue at first, I'll smooth it over. You'll see."

 

Allowing himself to be guided, the snow leopard sighed and hung his head slightly. For the first time, he hoped Po's incurably positive mindset would prove to be correct...because he'd rather the first time reality and the panda came crashing headlong into each other wasn't when he himself was caught dead-center between them. And after the incident with Wei Chang, and Tigress's bitter snub, he didn't need another bad encounter today.

 

At first, the noodle shop met with his low expectations—not that it looked any worse for wear, or more rundown and poor, than any other of its competitors he'd been in over the years, in fact it was actually quite clean and well taken care of. It was the fact that everywhere he looked, from the narrow, crowded interior to the equally packed, lantern-lit courtyard, the patrons were all staring at him. The usual looks—hate, fear, resentment, anger—but also a new one, annoyance at him having invaded what they viewed as their private, personal space. Despite it being a public restaurant, the citizens of the Valley acted as if this had been their last bastion of hope, the one place they believed they could retreat without having to deal with his tainted legacy and threatening presence.

 

As he felt all the eyes upon him, and futilely wished for the hood of a cloak to hide behind, his thoughts flicked back to the daycare...and as he wondered what the people would do if they knew he'd been playing with their children, even with Tigress and later Po as a chaperone, he shivered.

 

However, the Dragon Warrior seemed to be right in at least one respect—for when the absentminded and rather ridiculous goose, Ping, scurried over to greet them personally and give Po as expansive an embrace as his small wingspan could manage around the panda's ample belly, at first he didn't even seem to recognize who Tai Lung was. Only when his erstwhile adversary very carefully, quietly, and even nervously introduced him did the noodle maker's vapid smile falter and his empty eyes display any wariness and distress.

 

But only for a moment. Almost immediately his expression cleared, and he chuckled as he fluttered a wing at the snow leopard, waving off his murderous past as if it were no worse a transgression than growing a mustache or wearing the wrong color to a wedding. As Tai Lung stared at him in bewilderment, Ping shook his head in amusement.

 

"Oh, what are you going on about, Po? You taught him a lesson, he isn't causing trouble for the Valley anymore, and that's that. What more do I need to know? Besides, any friend of yours is welcome here, my boy, you know that."

 

Then he rested his feathers on the feline's leg. "In any event, that was years ago, when my father ran the shop. And it needed remodeling anyway." Perking up, he turned around and bustled off across the courtyard. "This way, I have just the right seats for you!"

 

Tai Lung watched him go, glanced at Po (who looked far too smug for the leopard's liking), and shook his head too. At least now I know where the panda gets it from. Everyone in this family is bloody crazy!

 

He had to admit, however, that the goose knew what he was talking about. For after threading their way between countless rows of tables, which were jammed so close together that even Tai Lung had trouble squeezing through let alone the panda, the two warriors were brought to a booth in the far corner, out of the way of the main pedestrian traffic and hidden from the view of almost everyone by a giant potted palm.

 

Feeling far more relieved than he'd care to admit that he was no longer the scrutiny of public cynosure, the snow leopard settled down with a sigh into his seat and began peering at the menu. He couldn't resist the obvious dig, however. Leaning forward over the table, he muttered, "This is where you lived and worked? You're braver than I thought."

 

On the other side of the table, Po let his menu droop down to stare at him with a surprisingly flat look. "Didn't we already go through this, buddy? I ain't gonna put up with ya bad-mouthin' my dad, or his shop."

 

His expression faltered, and he glanced around evasively as if he expected Mr. Ping to pop out of hiding from behind the palm and overhear him. "Okay maybe it is a little too cramped for me, and maybe I was always dreamin' of kung fu…but I loved learnin' how to cook here, and I was pretty darn happy, too."

 

Tai Lung looked at him, nonplussed and, despite himself, impressed by the panda's loyalty. "My mistake. But for the record, it was the lack of maneuvering capability I was talking about. Must have been a devil of a time delivering orders around here."

 

"You don't know the half of it," Po grumbled under his breath.

 

The next several minutes were spent, at least for the snow leopard, in uncomfortable silence, as both of them eyeballed their menus and the feline tried to think of something intelligent and worthwhile to say. Not that he felt a compulsion to fill the air with mindless chatter the way the panda seemed to, or even cared to learn about the bear's past and establish a friendly rapport with him. It was just that the long, extended silence between them was unnerving. Somehow, despite the background hum of the noodle shop patrons, Tai Lung was reminded unpleasantly of the endless quiet of Chorh-Gom.

 

Nothing came to mind, however. And as soon as he realized, from listening to Po mumble to himself, that he was not trying to choose his meal but simply marveling at the changes his father had made in the menu, Tai Lung rolled his eyes, then stabbed a finger down randomly to make his own selection: the Secret Ingredient Soup. Well, why not? I like to live dangerously, and what's the worst that could happen? The panda swears by it, and he isn't dead yet.

 

Ping seemed to materialize out of nowhere to take their orders, and after both of them had chosen, as well as asked for beverages, the goose vanished again...once more leaving them staring at each other. The panda didn't seem any more sanguine with the arrangement than Tai Lung did, he could almost see the desperation in those bright green eyes as he sought something, anything, to break the ice between them. At last, Po said, "So...I heard about what happened today, and what you did."

 

How had he—of course, Shifu. The snow leopard sighed, then fixed his gaze pointedly on his companion. "And? Is that supposed to prove something, big guy? Like I told Shifu, I just did what felt right at the time. You're reading far too much meaning into it."

 

The Dragon Warrior didn't seem convinced, however—what else was new? Like everyone else around here, he thought he knew better what was truly in Tai Lung's heart and mind than the snow leopard himself did. "I dunno, Tai. I may not have your, uh, short fuse, but even I wouldn't've stood for what that guy was sayin' about ya, if it'd been me. Ya really...held it together up there. And ya showed him what for!" He grinned and smacked a fist into his other palm. "After what he said about Tigress, I would've loved to help ya knock the stuffings outta him!" He chuckled with a surprising bit of nastiness.

 

For a moment a surge of jealousy burned fiercely in Tai Lung's heart at the implication that the panda might care more deeply for the striped feline than was acceptable, and a growl began to rise dangerously in the back of his throat. But then as the rather preposterous idea of Po and Tigress hooking up together took form in his mind, and he recalled how often the leader of the Furious Five had cast aspersions and deprecating comments to cut the panda down to size, he swallowed his snarl and instead had to fight back a completely inappropriate burst of laughter.

 

Ludicrous! While she didn't loathe the Dragon Warrior on general principle as she seemed to do with him, Tigress was just as likely to deal a crushing blow to his 'tenders' if he even looked at her the wrong way. If anything, they were only friends, nothing more...and Po's rather admirable determination to protect her stemmed only from his hero worship for the Five.

 

"Well," the snow leopard at last managed to reply, "I suppose I did do all right at that." Even if Tigress still barely knows I'm alive, and wishes I weren't. "But as Master Wei proves...I still have such a long way to go before I can be accepted."

 

"Yeah...I heard what happened, down at the marketplace. Give 'em time, Tai Lung. Like you said, these things don't happen overnight." Po's eyes and voice both dropped.

 

At that moment Ping fluttered by with their drinks and then departed again. Po, it seemed, had ordered green chai tea which he flavored with milk and honey, while Tai Lung had of course insisted upon the strongest, richest, and purest black oolong the goose had available—the sort of bracing drink he had always preferred, one which he'd often declared 'put hair on your chest.'

 

For a long while the two warriors were silent again, enjoying their tea—the snow leopard in particular spent several minutes simply inhaling the steam and aroma from his cup, unable to get over how wonderful it was to have access to such relative luxuries again...they too were not available to him in prison. Then at last, the panda spoke up again—and his words both startled Tai Lung and made him narrow his eyes suspiciously at the abrupt change of subject.

 

"So...by the way, what happened that night after you came back to the palace? Tigress said ya went t' the peach tree to meditate. Did it help?"

 

Tai Lung could tell the Dragon Warrior was fishing, but for what, and for what purpose, he hadn't a clue. Did he suspect something unusual had happened? Tigress certainly hadn't—either her guard had still been raised high thanks to, well, standing guard over him, or despite all her advanced kung fu training she was the spiritual equivalent of a daikon radish. Or Oogway'd been concealing himself.

 

Regardless, it didn't matter—he wasn't about to tell Po about this, whatever reason the panda had for asking. The encounter and what came of it was intensely private to him, and he certainly didn't care to bare his heart and expose the realizations he'd come to about his own shortcomings and mistakes.

 

"Yes," he said, succinctly. "As to what happened, nothing did. Why should you think otherwise?"

 

"Are you sure?" Po frowned. "You sure seemed...distant, when ya got back to the bunkhouse. Like ya went someplace else entirely."

 

Yes, to get away from you! Biting his tongue, Tai Lung crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair huffily. "None of your bloody business."

 

"Okay, okay, don't get your fur ruffled!" The panda held up both paws soothingly.

 

Tai Lung was considering showing him just how ruffled it could get, as well as an extreme close-up of his fist, when their food arrived—something of a surprise, since they'd only been seated for about fifteen or twenty minutes, and he was certain other patrons who'd been there longer hadn't yet been served. Apparently, he thought a bit smugly, it paid to be with family of the owner. He also had to admit that the bowl of soup placed before him smelled absolutely delicious. Whatever other faults the panda and his adopted father had, their skill in cooking was no lie.

 

Only after he had stood by for several annoying moments, wringing his feathers and waiting until he heard the food met with Tai Lung's approval, did Ping finally vacate the premises and go to see to his other clientele. Even after the goose had left, though, the snow leopard quite thoroughly continued to enjoy his dish, since the Secret Ingredient Soup was in fact one of the best things he'd ever tasted.

 

He also noted, wryly, that it seemed virtually identical to the noodle dish Po had brought him in his cell, over a week and a half ago, despite the fact the panda claimed he didn't know the secret ingredient. Considering what he'd told him during their final battle, he rather suspected this was a pose to keep from ruining Ping's reputation, but he chose to humor Po.

 

When the snow leopard had drained over half of his bowl and his stomach finally stopped complaining so bitterly, he at last looked up to catch the Dragon Warrior staring at him, an intent and nervous look on his face while he stirred his spoon around idly. Sighing and rolling his eyes, he leaned across the table and fixed Po with a steely gaze. "All right, what is it? I know you have something on your mind, panda, so why don't you just spit it out and get it over with? The worst I can do is refuse to answer you."

 

For several more moments the panda studied his soup bowl as if it held all the answers he sought. Then, sighing, he reached down to the waistband of his pants and produced, once again, the crimson and gold Dragon Scroll. Tai Lung was beginning to wonder if he carried it everywhere with him—not that he blamed him, if he'd ever been granted it, he wouldn't have let it out of his sight either, though for a very different reason. "I was just wonderin'...y'know...that day, when we fought. There's somethin' I don't understand. After I told ya what the scroll really meant...why'd ya keep fightin' me? Why didn't ya stop, once ya knew it wasn't gonna give ya any special powers?"

 

So that was it. And here he'd thought the Dragon Warrior simply suffered from an inability to stay quiet. Something which would have been even more infuriating than it was, if Tai Lung hadn't had his fill of silence and solitude in prison. Right now, he'd put up with the inane panda if the alternative was to listen to the taunts and nasty chuckles of Vachir's rhinos...or to be utterly alone for the rest of his life. Once, he'd believed himself aloof from others, beyond the petty emotional concerns of the rest of the world. But now…whatever happened, the snow leopard did not wish to be alone, ever again.

 

Leaning back in his chair, he crossed his arms and sighed. "I wondered when you'd get around to asking me that." When Po, of course, showed no signs of dropping the matter, only continuing to peer at him beseechingly, Tai Lung was the one to lower his gaze to his plate and not raise it. This would be extraordinarily difficult to say...but he had to do it, for his own peace of mind as well as to shut the bear up. "I thought it would be obvious, panda. I didn't listen to you, because I didn't want to believe you."

 

"Because then you'd have to accept you'd been fixated on somethin' that wasn't gonna magically make you the best?" Po asked shrewdly. Again, he had to remind himself not to underestimate the panda's intelligence just because of his buffoonish exterior.

 

"Only partly." He hesitated, then reached across the table to rest his paw on the Dragon Scroll. "May I?" By contrast, Po didn't hesitate even a second, simply handing the artifact over without question. For an absurd moment the snow leopard fleetingly wondered if this was how he could have won the scroll during their battle—if he'd simply said 'please.'

 

Shaking the thought aside, he held up the metallic casing without opening it, instead running his finger gently along the hanzi characters inscribed on it...something which, to be fair, he hadn't exactly had time to notice let alone read during the battle, what with the inordinate number of times it had changed paws. But even when there'd been a lull, after smashing Po into a crater, when he had at last removed the scroll to read it, he'd been so eager to obtain the vast secrets within he hadn't even bothered to look at it closely.

 

And now it was all so very clear. Softly, bitterly, but also wryly, he read the words aloud: "The greatest power in the universe lies within." Oogway, you mad genius. Even after eighteen years studying with you, I still didn't know how to think like you when it counted. Are you laughing at me now? Ha very ha.

 

Looking at Po again, who unsurprisingly was gazing at him sympathetically, he placed the scroll softly on the table, as if it were an ancestor tablet, and then placed both paws on the table edge. He was shocked, and rather displeased, to find they were shaking. "That's why, panda. Because when you told me that there was no secret, that I only had to look inside myself to find the power I wanted...I just couldn't do that."

 

"Why?"

 

It was a simple question, with a fiendishly difficult answer. "Because...I was afraid."

 

The panda, who'd taken the opportunity afforded by his long pause to take another drink, almost choked on his tea before spraying the table. "What? You? But you're Tai Lung, you're not scared of anything!"

 

I used to think that too, he thought ruefully. And that was half the problem.

 

"Honestly? I may have built up a legend as this unstoppable, unfeeling juggernaut...but I'm as human as anyone else." And what a letdown it was to admit that. Not because he naturally believed himself superior (although he did), but because he'd spent all the years of his training trying to convince himself as well as everyone else that he was something better, greater...because he'd thought that was the only way to make Shifu proud of him.

 

"I didn't want to look inside myself, to find whatever powers I already had, because...I was afraid of what I would find. I'd turned myself into a monster in pursuit of my goal...if I truly looked at myself, I knew, secretly, what I would see. And anyway...I didn't believe there was anything there to find."

 

"What do you mean?" Po looked even more distraught. "We've been through this too, you got a lotta special abilities."

 

Tai Lung shook his head. "Yes, but that's not what I thought I would see. Oogway denied me the scroll, he didn't believe in me...at least, I thought he didn't." These last words he said so softly he hoped the panda couldn't hear them. "Shifu wouldn't stand by me. And the villagers...well, I've done this song and dance already. I was an orphan, and worthless in their eyes. How could I draw upon my ancestry for strength, or find honor in where I came from, if I didn't know where I came from? I had no past, and without the scroll, no future. I thought..."

 

He swallowed hard. Why was he telling the panda this? Could he actually be coming to trust the fat fool? Or...had this been inside him for so long, he simply had to tell someone, anyone?

 

"I thought that no one believed in me, so I didn't either. So when you told me there was no power in the scroll...that the only place I could look to achieve greatness was inside me...where I was convinced there was nothing by itself that was worth trusting in..." His voice broke, as once again he could see himself in his mind's eye, staring in anguish and helpless loss at the Dragon Scroll, and his reflection in it—'It's nothing!' he'd cried, and it hadn't just been the artifact that he meant...

 

"Oh, Tai," Po breathed. He sounded as if he was going to cry, and from the way he squirmed in his seat and twitched his arms, he probably wanted to leap up and give the snow leopard a crushing hug, too. Tai Lung was very glad of the table between them—because if the panda had attempted such a public display of affection, then witnesses or no witnesses, father or no father, he would have punched Po's lights out.

 

By contrast the snow leopard was not on the verge of tears, and not only because he viewed such a thing as unmanly. It was because facing the truth about himself didn't fill him with sorrow or pain…it made him numb. He didn't feel anything. Perhaps that, too, was part of the problem.

 

After several long, uncertain moments, the panda finally found the courage, and the strength of voice, to speak. "I...I think I see what you're sayin'. I know how important it is to know who your ancestors are, and do honor by them. We got a festival comin' up tomorrow to remind us, if we ever forget. But y'know sometimes, I think people focus on that stuff way too much. No disrespect to the gods, or to the village elders, but...there's a lot more to who somebody is than who they're related to.

 

"I mean look at me! I don't know who my real parents are either. Do I think about it sometimes, and wonder? Sure. Does it hurt, not knowin'? You bet. But that doesn't mean I can forget who and what's right in front of me. I got my dad...and if not for him, I wouldn't know how to be such a good cook. I just plain wouldn't be the guy I am today.

 

"Same's true for you, Tai Lung. You and everyone else can argue whether this is a good thing or not, whether what you became is even worth honorin', but the fact is, you're who you are because of Master Shifu. The bad, and the good. And what he raised you to be is one of the strongest guys I've ever met. And I don't mean your muscles. You've been through more pain and suffering than anyone I know—and you survived it. I don't think I could've done that. So maybe you better think again, before you start decidin' there's nothin' inside you to make you a great warrior."

 

Tai Lung could hear his own breath rasping in his ears in the long silence which followed this testimonial. It wasn't the words he said, or the sentiment he expressed—he'd known for some time Po felt this way about him, and if he had to be honest he could admit he knew most of these things were true. Even if he didn't believe they mattered, or were enough.

 

What struck him was the change in the panda's demeanor. He was, in essence, still being a fan boy...but instead of the excitable, bubbly, eagerly infectious one of the past week and a half, now he showed seriousness, sincerity, and faith like never before. And unlike that day in his cell, when he'd still been seething with anger and hatred, now he could hear it, and see it, in a whole new light.

 

Even as he was struggling to accept this, and what it might mean for the new direction his life was taking, Po spoke again, chuckling a little. "Reminds me of somethin' Oogway said to me, the last time I saw him. 'Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That's why they call it the present.'"

 

The snow leopard groaned under his breath and placed his head in his paw. "That sounds like him, all right."

 

"I know, I know, it's hokey and corny. But it's also true. I've taken it to heart, when I realized I had to stop second-guessin' myself and focus on the here and now. Maybe you should too."

 

There was really nothing which could be said to that, for or against it, and so Tai Lung allowed the silence to stretch out interminably while he and the panda quietly finished their meal. But the entire time they were eating, he found himself literally looking at Po differently. The panda had been his enemy. He'd hurt him, both physically and emotionally, in ways no one else ever had before. But here he was, talking to him, caring about him, listening to him.

 

Even though Shifu had been his father, the red panda had never treated him like this. Oogway had been far too distant and unapproachable. There had been no one, not a single person in the Valley, who had treated him like a person. Before his rampage, he had only been a trainee, a student, the hopeful Dragon Warrior-to-be, a weapon being honed for the defense of the Valley but otherwise kept safely in its sheath, ignored until it was needed. After he'd gone mad, of course, everyone had seen him as only a vicious, heartless animal—never mind that he'd promoted that view, inadvertently, and then later embraced it.

 

But Po didn't do that. Why, he couldn't understand. But for whatever reason, whatever made the panda different, he was showing Tai Lung the one thing he'd never received, something he had no idea how to cope with.

 

Compassion.

 

When the meal was finally over, and evening had almost fully descended into night, the time finally came to pick up the check. After everything that had been said, Tai Lung somehow felt obligated to pay, but although Shifu had promised him a resumption of the allowance he had once received, he had not as yet gotten around to instating it. So unfortunately Po was the one who had to reach for his cash string. But of course, Mr. Ping wouldn't hear of it, insisting that their meal was on the house.

 

Out in the streets, all was quiet and peaceful, the only sounds being the wind whining between the houses, carrying distant voices and laughter—most everyone was still enjoying their dinner or else resting and preparing for the big day tomorrow. This only suited Tai Lung all too well, as right now he couldn't deal with any more ill will and rejection…and privately, he didn't want anything to disturb the companionable silence he shared with Po.

 

Naturally, something did...although it wasn't onerous, nor at all what he expected. For as they came around a corner into a narrow alley which Po swore was a shortcut back to the Jade Mountain—which Tai Lung could hardly refute since it had been twenty years since he'd been in the village and much had changed in that time—the snow leopard suddenly spied a flash of movement ahead of them.

 

For a moment he tensed instinctively, as the motion was so fast and stealthy he was certain it was some miscreant, whether robber or otherwise, intending to waylay them and cause trouble. But then, as he saw the darting form again, he realized it was far too small to be an adult. Not that that precluded it from being a thief, some urchins started young indeed down the path of iniquity, and even they could be dangerous in their way. But it certainly made it less cause for alarm.

 

Shushing Po, who had begun to hum happily to himself again, Tai Lung crept forward on absolutely silent paws, not even disturbing a grain of sand between the cobblestones as he followed the little form ahead of him. Just when he was certain he'd either been imagining things or the unknown child had fled, and just when he was almost out of eyesight of the panda, he finally saw his target...and he froze in place, puzzled and confused by what he saw.

 

Right beside him, alongside yet another rippling tributary of the Valley's mighty river, stood a house like any other in the village, although it had a surprisingly sumptuous and verdant garden plot adjoining it. It wasn't the beauty of the blooms hanging in the shadows, softly glowing in the light of the emerging stars, or the rich scents wafting to him on the breeze, or even the nightingales calling from the tree branches that drew his attention, however. For there, leaning over one of the flower beds and seemingly searching for something, was the child he'd been pursuing.

 

A snow leopard cub.

 

That in itself was startling and unbelievable—there were no snow leopards in the Valley of Peace, hadn't been for decades even before his birth, part of the reason his discovery on the Jade Palace doorstep had caused such a stir and sensation. His people, from what he had learned over the years, were a very reclusive and secretive lot, known for being closed-mouthed, distant, and standoffish—not prone to great displays of emotion or for trusting easily. Where have I heard that before? Has a definite ring of familiarity to it...

 

They also didn't travel much outside their mountain homes—which, while it had always begged the question of why and how he had ended up in the Valley of Peace, also made it nearly impossible for another snow leopard to be here now. Especially a cub, and all alone.

 

But when the cub at last found what it was looking for and turned back around to face him—looking unerringly up into his face as if it'd known he was there all along—he received an entirely new shock. For the cub was a spitting image of himself at that age, right down to the black markings on ears and face, and the warm golden eyes.

 

Slowly, unhurriedly, the cub wended his way out of the garden and crossed the bridge over the river again, coming straight for him as if drawn by a magnet. The closer he came, the more uneasy and distressed Tai Lung became—because as each detail grew clearer and easier to discern, the more he found himself coming to an incredible conclusion. The cub didn't just look like him; it was him. How that could be, he gave up trying to figure out, but even assuming that by some wild coincidence another snow leopard cub could be in the Valley and have similar markings and coloring to him, there were far too many exact matches to leave any doubt.

 

Not to mention the way he walked, how he carried himself—even at that age, he'd exuded confidence and strutted about as if he owned the training hall and the Jade Palace, though in a way far more adorable than when he'd later done so as an adult. Even his clothes were the same. What was going on?

 

The cub reached his side and stopped, staring up at him calmly, expectantly. Fighting the weird sense of doubling, he stared down into eyes the same as his...only untainted by pain and loss, still filled with the wide, unabashed innocence he had lost so long ago—when, he still wasn't sure. He shuddered...and yet he felt his heart going out to—himself. Inexplicably, he wished he could trade places, get back what had been stripped from him.

 

Suddenly, the cub smiled—eyes dancing, fat cheeks dimpling, ears pricking attentively. And then he reached up, standing on tiptoes as he held something out to Tai Lung.

 

It was a flower, picked from the garden no doubt. Nothing special, an orchid like hundreds of others which grew in the Valley, albeit a beautiful specimen. What was more remarkable was that, as he took it he discovered it was real and solid—how could a ghost of his past, or a figment of his imagination, hand him something?—and that as it changed hands something else seemed to pass between them. What, he couldn't say. A memory, an understanding, a forgotten truth, he didn't know. Whatever it was, it shook him...but it also reassured him.

 

"What's this for?" he managed to whisper hoarsely. The cub only kept smiling at him, knowing a secret he wasn't telling.

 

"Hey! Tai, what's goin' on?"

 

The Dragon Warrior's sudden shout seemed to break whatever spell had fallen over him. As if emerging from a cold mountain lake's waters, he gasped and turned away, glancing down the street to see Po racing toward him, panting and gasping as he clutched at a stitch in his side—he'd had no idea he ran so far or so fast.

 

When the panda reached him at last, he stopped, bent over for a few moments, and then looked up with the same sort of puzzled look Tai Lung was sure he'd been wearing a few moments ago. "Don't run off like that, buddy, you know I can't keep up with ya. I gotta get you back to the Palace before anyone jumps to the wrong conclusion or somethin'..." He looked around. "So what made ya dash off like that?"

 

Tai Lung held up the flower, gestured with it as he indicated the house and garden, the street, and the cobblestones where the snow leopard cub stood watching him intently. "I saw...someone. And when I got here, I found...well, you wouldn't believe...d'you see...?"

 

He stopped. For in the instant he'd turned away to look at Po's curious face, the cub had vanished as if he'd never been. They were alone in the street, with only the wind whipping their fur to create any movement. And the evening mists settling down over the valley, of course.

 

"See what, Tai? I didn't see anythin'..." He did, however, notice the orchid in the snow leopard's hand. "Hey, where'd you get that? It's beautiful. You should give it to Tigress."

 

"I don't know," he said, answering both of Po's questions. "Maybe I will." Was he losing his mind? Had all their talk of the past, of not knowing who he was or where he came from, of not believing in himself because he thought no one else had, made him imagine a visit from his cubhood self, to remind him of whom he had once been?

 

Or...could it have truly been more? The legends did say that the day of the Ghost Festival, which was tomorrow, was a time when the boundary between light and dark, and life and death, became fuzzed and more diffuse...something which he had never put much stock in. Now, however...

 

Shaking himself, he turned away to follow Po slowly back toward the Jade Palace—but he still held the flower gently in his paw. What he did know was that, however much he longed to deny it, how he still fought against it kicking and screaming...he was beginning to care for the panda. And, whether he wanted to admit it or not, he found himself wanting, even needing, his friendship with a fierceness that was daunting.

 

I must be out of my mind.

                                                                      


 

At the same time, miles to the east...but not very far away at all, as the soul flies...another tall figure loomed out of the shadows as he contemplated something hidden from his sight. But rather than doubting his own sanity, or coming face to face with deep, inner truths which could well help his battered heart to heal, he instead only kept his eyes closed, reaching out with every sense—including those hidden to most people, those which allowed him to understand (and manipulate) the essence of anyone's spirit—to get a fixed reading of his surroundings.

 

He stood upon a vast, barren plain of dry, cracked soil and bone-scouring sand, alkaline flats that had once been a scintillating lake centuries ago but which had dried up for reasons unknown and immaterial. Before him, across the flat, featureless land, beneath the sky of racing stratus backlit by gold and orange as the setting sun ignited the clouds with a weird fiery glow, a wrecked and battered ship loomed...left abandoned and ruined after the waters which had once borne it had deposited it there.

 

The type of craft known as a junk—a designation he found all too apropos—its ragged, crimson sails now hanging tattered and rotting from the leaning masts, its rigging swinging and dangling in the fitful breeze, the ship was no longer seaworthy—in a sense, it no longer had a life anymore, its days of mercantilism and travel long past. A hollow thing, bereft of meaning, crumbling and forgotten by most of the world, a remnant which would in time collapse and dissolve into nothing…as transient as everything and everyone who had not embraced his power. A relic, a corpse, a dusty shell masquerading as a place.

 

In many ways, he felt a certain kinship for it.

 

Of course, until such time as it did give up the ghost and tumble into the void of entropy, it still existed, and there were those among the living who made use of it. The gangway, in fact, had been ripped free of its housing and set up as a ramp, angling up from the sand to a gaping hole in the ship's stern—whether the cause of the ship's ignominious sinking or having formed since it began to succumb to the forces of nature, he knew and cared not.

 

And both this massive opening, as well as the portholes running below the gunwales, were lit by the unmistakable, cheerily flickering orange of lamp and firelight. Sounds, too, drifted to him on the wind—glasses clinking, raucous laughter, off-key singing, and something which tried to pass itself off as music.

 

Bandit Inn

 

The ship had been transformed into what was known in common parlance as a dive—a tavern of the lowest sort, populated by ilk he would normally never even deign to notice, let alone dare to associate with even for brief instances. Ruffians, cutthroats, murderous scum and ruthless mercenaries that would help the Emperor drive off invading barbarians, only to then turn around and slaughter the entire royal family if the price was right. Known as the Bandit Inn (though that was of course not its true name), it was frequented by the castoffs and rejects of society...those who, like him, preyed off of others regardless of their legitimate place in the food chain, those who plotted and schemed, stole and cheated, and otherwise haunted the outskirts of civilization.

 

If he could, he would avoid them—not because he was bothered by their activities and immoral manner of living, in fact he rather approved, but because their methods were so...petty. Beneath him. No sense of style or subtlety about them at all. Utterly crass and detestable. Not to mention they believed themselves the vilest and basest of beings, cruel and venal beyond all others...yet if they knew him for what he was, what he could do, and what he had become by his own choice, they would flee screaming and gibbering in terror.

 

He almost wished he could reveal himself to incite such a riot. But he had better things to do with his time than toy with these lesser beings, no matter how amusing and enjoyable it might be. And he also didn't wish to advertise, as yet, that his presence once more was free to stalk the land. He doubted anyone would know of him, let alone the full truth, now that Oogway was gone. But you could never be too careful, and his plans were far too delicate, and too critical, to leave to the whims of chance.

 

His wandering thoughts suddenly snapped alert, and he opened his eyes with a twisted smile as his mind brushed the thoughts of those he sought. No different, really, from those of any others in the bar, save perhaps for how much more regimented and confident they were—not the cockiness and bravado of the other thieves, but the surety of ones who knew they truly held the upper hand and could take or leave the lives of all around them at their fancy.

 

But he knew them just the same. They had a...flavor to them which he found particularly delicious. Not only the dark emotions they themselves indulged in, but due to their line of work. Death was their gift which they brought to others, and it spread in such ample and prolific degree from their paws that they were steeped in it, draped themselves in it as much as they did the cloaks they typically wore...it had corrupted their chi as much as any others he had ever encountered.

 

Best of all, of course, was the wry amusement and detachment they seemed to feel for the world around them, as if they knew it was all really just a great game which they had mastered long ago. They saw the world as he did. They had been useful to him in the past...and now they would be again.

 

Nodding to himself, he focused his will and gathered the shadows close about him, drawing them from the earth, the air, even the few pathetic plants and animals which struggled to eke out a life here, until they formed into a pitch black cloak which shrouded him close, concealing almost all details of his appearance and identity. He did this not out of ostentation but because it was necessary. Upon leaving Chorh-Gom, he had been successful in locating his chosen vessel, but the creature was obdurate and stubborn, his will much stronger than expected—as yet, his control was not sufficient to trust himself to the fellow's body at all, let alone in the outer world.

 

So it had been left in a place of safety, there to be subjected to the delightful process of further breaking, and he had come here alone instead. Besides, the one he had found had a certain notoriety among the people, he would be recognized—that could not be allowed until it no longer mattered whether the game was given away. And the fellow was not the sort who would ever be found at the Bandit Inn. There would be questions. Nothing he could not handle, but it would be...vexing. A bit of unpleasantness he would rather avoid.

 

Abruptly, with purposeful and determined steps, he strode across the waste to the towering junk, allowing the light to bathe his figure despite how this lessened his power to an extent. Regrettable, but it could not be helped, and it would hardly be for long. Soon enough he had crossed the threshold and stood staring down into the interior of the ship. In what had once been the hold, at the foot of the companionway, a large space had been cleared so that a circular stage of sorts could be built—a broad, metal ring containing an expanse of smoothed out sand, surrounded by guttering torches set upon high poles, their greasy black smoke rising into the sails and tarps which hung from the ceiling.

 

There, a crocodile and a wolf were duking it out in a rather primitive battle arena, using their claws and fangs rather than any weapons to slash, bite, and tear into each other indiscriminately. Meanwhile, like a theater in the round, a series of scarred wooden tables with spindly chairs had been scattered all around the stage, and at each sat more of the disreputable bandits, nursing or guzzling their alcoholic drinks while they alternately cheered and booed the combatants, or simply observed silently. He spied a gorilla, a rhinoceros, what looked like a panther, and some other canine type he couldn't identify before he bothered to notice anymore.

 

Bandit Inn Interior

 

As he entered, he only had eyes for one table on the far side of the hold—and as he fixed his gaze upon it, a sudden chill seemed to descend over the room, one that none within it could fail to feel. Several cutthroats drew cloaks close in a futile effort to ward it away, while others looked up to the entrance to see if a bitter wind had blown in...and as they spied him, all as one trembled visibly. Many a battle-hardened killer cowered, shrank back, or averted their faces from him, and still others seemed ready to soil themselves just from sensing his taint in the air.

 

The crocodile and wolf ceased their fighting at once, stumbling and leaping out of the arena circle so quickly they almost toppled the torches and ignited the whole ship—yet none of the patrons who had previously been so enthusiastic about the show seemed willing to lodge a protest. In point of fact, the murmur of conversation nearly died out completely, leaving the tavern in a pregnant and oppressive silence.

 

In an aside, he was pleased to know he still had such an effect, that he had not lost his touch with the gullible, the weak-minded, and the easily misled. But these reactions were truly of no moment to him. All that mattered was the three he had come to see.

 

He glided down the companionway from the overlooking balcony, aware and yet not aware of so many eyes upon him, sliding over and away from him, struggling to ignore his baleful presence, and with each step he took into the belly of the ship, his servants—for such they were, though they amusingly believed themselves to be free agents—became clearer and more identifiable, for all that they too were clad in dark, concealing cloaks.

 

Slim and slender, they somehow combined idle laziness with a constant and dangerous tension ready to explode into action at any given moment—though they seemed to be ignorant of his arrival, and to not even observe the other patrons, he knew better than to trust appearances. They marked everything and everyone, were aware of even the tiniest of movements, and would be ready to take out anyone who came too close or even twitched a hand toward a weapon. Swift, surgical, and deadly—and lovely too, if he cared to notice such things anymore. Which he did not, though he would make use of it if it suited him.

 

One of them had a pair of bone dice she rolled and rattled on the tabletop, the sound an eerie counterpoint to the stillness of the junk. The second held her war fan close to her chest and seemed mesmerized by the way the firelight glinted off its metal ribbing and razor-sharp blades whenever she slid it open and closed, which was frequently. And the third, incongruously, was erecting some sort of intricate structure out of mahjong tiles.

 

Finally, he reached their table...paused...and without invitation proffered or words spoken, sat down in the only empty chair across from them—almost as if it had been left there purposefully, as if they had known he was coming. Behind him, some of the sounds of the tavern resumed—though still greatly muted—as people let out the breaths they'd been holding, shuddered, and slid their chairs (and tables) as far from him as possible.

 

"Well, well, well." The fan-wielding figure was the first to speak, her tone of voice as bored and disinterested as always. "Look who decided to crawl out from under his rock."

 

The dice fell from the fingers of the first figure again, coming to a stop on the tabletop before being scooped up without her even having looked to see what number she had rolled. "Maybe he should have stayed there." Her voice, by contrast, was a throaty purr of cunning and cleverness.

 

Looking up from her tower-building, the last of the three smiled brightly at him, something most would have to be insane to consider doing. Her expression matched her voice, which had an odd, accented lilt to it. "We thought we'd never see you again!" It was left as an exercise of logic whether those seemingly sweet words of greeting had actually been meant as a threat or not, or at least a fervent hope.

 

The seconds ticked by as he regarded them in a mix of disdain and admiration—though of course they refused to be intimidated, and neither retreated from him, begged his pardon, nor showed any discomfort at all. Then at last, he spoke, his voice as rich, sepulchral, and yes seductive, as it had always been, even after so many years of disuse. "Greetings to you as well, ladies. My lethal lovelies."

 

"Yours?" the one with the dice said archly. "You presume much."

 

"Oh, but he's so charming about it, isn't he?" the bubbly one cried, clapping her paws together delightedly—in the process revealing the thick, silvery-gray, rosette-dotted pelt that covered them. "Don't you just love to hear him talk?"

 

"Ask me if I care." The fan snapped shut with a shrrik, only to spread open again in the blink of an eye.

 

Utterly ignoring the bantering byplay, he leaned forward, fixing his gaze on them intently—although all they could see was the darkness within his hood. "I knew I would find you here. Evil always seeks out its own...and corruption the lowest point it can find."

 

A pattern of fire-breathing dragons was unveiled before his eyes, as the fan flipped across her face, leaving only her glowing green eyes exposed above it. "Ouch. Was that supposed to be a compliment? If so, no lychee nuts for you."

 

"I don't know, sister," the sweet-voiced one said, with surprising thoughtfulness. "I think he managed to combine a compliment and an insult in one. That takes talent."

 

The dice came to a stop, and suddenly a dagger stood between them, twirling slowly between her fingers. "I'm sorry, but was there supposed to be a point to this?"

 

Whether or not that pun had been intentional, her sister smiled at her faintly, closing her fan once more. "Hmm, I always knew you were on the cutting edge."

 

Giggling, the last sister rested her chin on her clasped paws. "Any way you slice it, we're the best!" And all three dissolved into laughter.

 

Very slowly, he closed his eyes and fought down the rising urge to drain someone—anyone—in the room dry. As long as he had known them, the three had been tricksters, playful and taunting as much as they were serious and focused. If he hadn't needed them so badly, he would have severed all ties with them long ago—and if they weren't absolutely right about being the best at what they did. Spies, ninjas, manipulatrixes of the highest caliber. And their greatest and most skillful calling...assassins. Yes, that was the Wu Sisters.

 

The Wu Sisters

 

"If you're quite through," he interrupted, "I have a proposition for you."

 

"Oooo!" Wu Jia, the bright and bouncy sister who was also the youngest, perked up considerably. "Those are always fun! We've missed them, haven't we, sisters?"

 

"Be still, my quaking heart," Wu Chun, the middle sister, said flatly. "Can I stand the anticipation?"

 

"Quiet!" Wu Xiu, the eldest, hissed, spearing her dagger into the tabletop. "I want to hear this. You know very well he never comes to us unless he believes it worth our while. Unless he makes it worth our while." She shifted her gaze back to him, the dice cupped tightly in her paw, and her expression, from what he could read of it, became highly suggestive.

 

But he didn't take the hint, although not because he hoped to haggle for a better price; he wished to impress upon them the gravity of the mission before such banal trivialities took over the conversation. And if they knew ahead of time just how much he intended to offer them, they might well accept without thinking things through. What he had in mind for them played right into their strengths and was challenging indeed...perhaps too much so.

 

Not that he particularly cared if something unfortunate were to befall them—as long as it happened after they had fulfilled their part of the bargain. Ensuring they understood, however, would guarantee they'd be on their guard and ready to bring their finest talents down to their sharpest focus.

 

"Firstly," he said at last, with a sibilant whisper, "I would have you know that the...impediments I have referred to before are no longer an issue. So you will be seeing much more of me from now on...and I will in turn be able to offer you greater rewards, and protections, as you carry out increasingly dangerous, and critical, missions for me."

 

For a moment he saw a flicker of something—fear? Worry? Disquiet?—flash across Wu Jia's face, but then she was all smiles again. "Well, that sounds like good news to me! You've always given us the most interesting commissions, we never know what to expect—do we?"

 

"Mmm. The best news, yes." Wu Xiu narrowed her eyes calculatingly. "And it's the unexpected that just gives life that certain zest. But why don't you quit beating around the bush and get on with it already? Time is money, ours is precious to us, and we do have other clients interested in our...services."

 

He smiled sardonically. "But none who can give you what I promise."

 

Wu Chun snorted. "What, empty shadows and a headache?"

 

"No." He drew the word out, lingering with relish upon it, then lowered his voice even further in depth and softness, glancing at each of them in turn, from youngest to eldest. "Immortality. The Deathstrike. And soul knowledge. You know it, and I know it."

 

The prettiest and most sweet-natured of the sisters was also rather shallow and vain, and would dearly love to preserve her youthful beauty for all time. The mistress of the war fan keenly yearned to obtain the secret of the deadliest kung fu move ever devised, aside from the Wuxi Finger Hold—a single finger flick without nearly the catastrophic and destructive results, as it literally caused instant death in whoever it struck, and without the extended bodily tremors found in other martial arts.

 

And as for Wu Xiu...the coldest and blackest Wu Sister of them all, the one whose soul was most like his own...she wished, above all things, to know the secrets of life itself. To be able to control chi as he did, to have power over whomever she wished, whenever she wished...to see into their hearts and learn truths they would otherwise never confess, to compel obedience that no drug or blackmail ever could, and when the time was right, to draw their souls from their bodies without even having to lift a finger. In short, she wanted to be Mistress Death.

 

He knew this, he had always known this, and they knew he knew. Everyone knew. It was a little game they liked to play, pretending they served him only because their goals coincided or because he paid them so handsomely, pretending he had to come to them begging favors and that his desires were met only at their sufferance, when it was all truly the reverse. He indulged it because he did enjoy the looks on their faces as they contemplated so openly and wantonly the things they coveted, and because once it was gotten out of the way, they could get down to cases.

 

When he felt enough time had passed, he continued. "The offer I make to you this night is not without risk, but the reward is indeed commensurate. I must know, however: are you capable of operating within the Valley of Peace? Is there a bounty on your heads there which would prevent you from revealing yourselves?"

 

Wu Chun smirked. "No more than anywhere else. We're listening."

 

Though they could not see it, he smirked as well—as usual, they were falling oh so willingly under his influence. "Good." Very carefully, then, he proceeded to outline just what he wished of them. Predictably, there was a certain resistance on their part—in fact they balked outright.

 

"We're good, but we're not that good," Wu Jia exclaimed, showing more worry and distress than he'd ever seen from her. "You really expect us to do that? And face the Five, too?"

 

Feeling a trifle impatient, he forced his voice to remain calm. "Yes, and I have every confidence you can achieve this, as you have every other request I have made of you, or else I would not be here. As to how you can do so with so many forces arrayed against you, I trust I do not have to tell you how to do your job. But I will say this: divide and conquer."

 

Lips pursed, Wu Chun nodded slowly. "It could work, at that. But if we are to do this, we're going to need...insurance. Much more than usual."

 

Without even deigning to answer them with words, he reached within the folds of his cloak, produced a leather pouch, and tossed it nonchalantly on the table. The sound of clinking metal from within was loud in the stillness, and the bag was so near to bursting that the seams looked in danger of splitting—in fact some of the coins spilled out of the mouth, each circle with the square cut out of the middle gleaming in the torchlight. "That's five hundred yuan. Feel free to count it."

 

The three snow leopards blinked, with even Wu Xiu looking startled, and then she swiftly reached a paw over to cup the money and its bag close, to conceal it from the other untrustworthy patrons of the Bandit Inn. Before she could begin tallying it up, however, he spoke again, offhandedly.

 

"And there will be another five hundred, after you are successful."

 

Even Wu Chun gasped at this. But her elder sister merely looked at him cagily, one sweeping black eyebrow upraised. "My, my. If I didn't know our skills, I'd think you were overpaying us."

 

Wu Jia's eyes goggled, and she looked back and forth between him, the bag on the table, and her sisters. "Is that five hundred for each of us?" Wu Chun hurriedly swatted her with her fan and hushed her, muttering about not souring the negotiations.

 

"You need not worry about me, I have plenty more where that came from." Which was true; whether through mental manipulation, possessing the right officials and merchants, or outright bribery through corrupting their chi or otherwise influencing political figures, he could obtain funds whenever he wished, in whatever quantity needed. Worldly goods and riches mattered not to him anymore, if they ever had, but he knew how to play the game for those greedy fools still drawn in by it. "And money is no object, when it comes to achieving what I have been working toward for so very long."

 

"And what would that be?" The narrow muzzle of Wu Xiu lifted from the folds of her hood, exposing the snow leopard's face fully to the light for the first time. "You never would tell us."

 

"All in due time, my dear. You will learn everything in the end, when I am ready to reveal it. But not now, and not here. There are too many eyes to see and ears to hear. Return to the place where we first met, and I will there explain exactly what I have in mind."

 

The snow leopard grunted noncommittally, obviously displeased with his answer, but that was the best she was getting and she knew it. In fact she was lucky she'd gotten that much, and that he had left her alive and with a will of her own, after she had the temerity to pry into his affairs so bluntly.

 

"If you have no other questions, then that will be all. There will be further instructions later on, depending on how matters go in the Valley, but for now I believe you know what to do." He paused, then his voice hardened as he skewered each of them with a blazing, vicious glare, one they could feel even if they could not see his eyes. "And remember, I cannot stress this enough: you are not to harm, or kill, Tai Lung unless we are left with no other recourse, and I give my permission. Do you understand?"

 

"Yes, yes," Wu Xiu muttered irritably. "Paws off the snow leopard. More's the pity."

 

"Yeah, it's a shame, really," Wu Jia said archly, her eyes twinkling with lust. "I'd love to have him all to myself—bet I could make that pussycat roar. We're pretty rare, you know, and I've never seen one as hunky as he is!"

 

The eldest of the sisters rolled her eyes and growled, while Wu Jia giggled naughtily. Even her middle sister got in on the act, as after twitching the corner of her mouth into a tiny smile, she said, "Don't worry, we'll keep her well away from him. Wouldn't want to interfere with your own plans to have the stud all to yourself."

 

Now all of them except Wu Xiu were laughing, while he glared at them, even more incensed than before. "Very amusing, yes. I trust you will be more professional when the time comes for you to actually commit the deed." Behind him he could hear the sounds of flesh connecting, low grunts and growls, and shuffling feet in sand as the crocodile and wolf finally worked up the nerve and testosterone to resume their bout of fisticuffs, but he ignored it, piercing the three snow leopards with his gaze.

 

"Of course," Wu Xiu purred, fangs gleaming between her black lips. Scooping up her dice again, she allowed them to fall to the table once, twice, thrice. The pips on the bone added up to four, then seven, then four again. Auspicious numbers for his purposes, though he wondered if the dice were weighted to give the assassin what would please her best. Tucking them back into a pocket of her tunic, then tugging her knife free of the wood to also disappear within her clothing, she smiled...darkly, sadistically, an expression that made his heart beat faster and a thrill of incipient victory surge through him.

 

"You can count on us. We'll do just as you asked of us: kill the Dragon Warrior."

Chapter Text

Chapter 14 Icon 

 

"What do you think this is?" Monkey said, holding up a gnarled length of wood and eyeing it skeptically. "Another walking stick, or a backscratcher?"

 

Putting the tip of her tail to her mouth in a puzzled gesture, Viper peered over his shoulder at the item in question, tilting her head to the side to get a better look at it. "You know, I have no idea."

 

Smirking, Mantis eyed the length of wood up and down in a decidedly suggestive way and chuckled. "That's funny, I thought it was something else. Something really personal, if you get my meaning."

 

"Mantis!" The serpent was blushing furiously, which only made the insect warm up even more to his subject—it was notoriously difficult to prompt that sort of response from Viper, and he dearly enjoyed every time he managed to do it.

 

"What? Sure, Oogway was no spring chicken, but do you think he was born old and wrinkly? Why, I bet when he was young, he could—"

 

"Enough." This came from Tai Lung, who had his eyes squeezed shut and his muzzle twisted in pain, as if he now couldn't banish the unwanted images from his mind and very much wished to blind himself. "Thank you so much, Master Mantis. As if I didn't have a small enough store of happy cubhood memories to begin with, now I can't even think of the turtle the same way anymore."

 

The insect took a bow, grinning smugly. "Welcome, welcome. I'm here every festival day."

 

Rolling her eyes in the light of the lamp they'd brought with them to ward away the cloaking shadows of night, Tigress turned away from him to continue rummaging through a cabinet, and Mantis paused to consider, not for the first time since they'd begun their task, just how odd it was. Shifu had informed all of them upon returning from the village, as well as Po and Tai Lung once they came back from dinner, that he wished them to clean Grand Master Oogway's room and catalogue all the possessions within it, so that whatever was in good condition could be prepared for donation.

 

Despite the immense practical streak he possessed, Mantis had to consider that decision to be rather cold and shocking. It was only just shy of two weeks since the turtle had passed on, and already Shifu wanted to toss his things? Talk about not knowing how to grieve. On the other hand, Oogway would be the first to agree, generous soul that he'd been, that if anything he had owned could be useful to another or would bring happiness to someone in the Valley, it should be theirs—particularly since he no longer had need of possessions.

 

Then again, the insect was beginning to suspect that Shifu didn't really intend to give anything away at all, that this task had an entirely different purpose. Even if they really would be clearing house, their search and organization was already turning up intriguing things...and prompting reactions just as varied.

 

From the side of the turtle's narrow, low-slung bed, where a pudgy, black-and-white form was only half-visible as he scrounged beneath the furniture with one paw, Po suddenly let out an exclamation. Tugging up his flaxen pants which had, once again, begun to slide down to expose his rump, the panda slid out something large and very heavy with his other paw. "Hey, guys! Look at this!"

 

Turning back from the cabinet, Tigress raised an eyebrow. "Calm down, panda. What's got you so worked up?" As she crossed over to his side, the lantern light shone off the shimmering white petals of the orchid perched above one ear, rendering them translucent enough that even the pale violet in its center was made visible. The flower, inexplicably, had been brought up from the village and offered to her...by Tai Lung.

 

A peace offering, he supposed, but he didn't know which surprised him more—that the snow leopard had made such an emotive and thoughtful gesture, or that Tigress had accepted it, let alone chose to wear it in such an overtly feminine fashion. She'd acted bored, even disdainful, when he gave it to her, and yet she hadn't tossed it aside either. In fact when Mantis had begun teasing her about it, she had pressed her lips together and then deliberately fitted the blossom above her ear, as if made all the more determined to be gracious about it. Something very strange was going on there.

 

"It's a mahjong set," the Dragon Warrior explained excitedly.

 

"So?" Tai Lung crossed over from the other side of the room, where he'd been alphabetizing a set of scrolls from the closet. "We've seen those before."

 

"Not like this. It's got a teakwood case, for one thing. That's pretty rare and expensive." Po lifted the lid, sending up a large cloud of dust into the air—which, unfortunately, billowed right up into the spotted cat's face. Instantly, his golden eyes began watering, and even as he screwed them shut and scrunched his muzzle up to belatedly avoid it, Tai Lung was suddenly, and explosively, sneezing.

 

"Hey!" Monkey cried, the spray of mucus blasting over him, along with the cloud of dust settling like a gray blanket into his golden fur. "Watch it!"

 

"I...I...I cahn't help it, Mohnkey...it's not mhy fault I'm ah...ah...ah-choo! Allergic."

 

"Are you sure it's not work you're allergic to?" Mantis quipped.

 

"Shut up." Tai Lung rubbed furiously at his leaking nose, then his reddened eyes widened as he too stared down into the mahjong case. "Wait a minute...that's ivory!"

 

Suddenly the rest of the Five were crowding around to stare down in awe at the beautifully crafted, one-of-a-kind game. Considering ivory could only be found, for the most part, in the tusks of elephants, the only time an item could be fashioned from it was when a pachyderm died or shed his tusks. To find anything carved from it bespoke luxury and incredible honor bestowed on the one who owned it—the amount needed to make the one hundred and forty-four tiles must have cost a fortune.

 

The artwork painted and etched on the tiles, too, was exquisite, painstakingly hand-crafted by the look of it, and the inks used to do it were so vibrant and glowing even after all these years—for the mahjong set looked quite old—that they must have been available only to the rich elite as well. There were even the rare Flower tiles included in the set.

 

Shaking his head in disbelief, Crane ran a feather along an ivory piece. "I wonder who gave it to him...?"

 

Viper was peering at the side of the teak box, trying to read the hanzi inscribed in the wood. Then she gasped. "Oh my—it was a gift from the Emperor!"

 

While Po looked even more stunned, and even Tigress seemed impressed, Mantis didn't even twitch. After all, he knew that Oogway had been close to the Emperor—in fact, he'd been close to almost every Emperor, having known at least ten of them during his long life in the Valley of Peace. And while the ruler of China did command deference and respect, the insect was not as easily awed as the others since he'd been to the Imperial City a number of times over the years, before the rest of the Five were even born. This was, in fact, how the turtle had first heard of his exploits, and bade the Emperor send him to the Jade Palace for further training.

 

"That would explain this, then," Monkey said suddenly, holding up something else he had pulled from beneath the bed—something hard and cylindrical which rattled and clacked in his hand, as he slowly unrolled it and presented it to them.

 

It was a painting, one of such gorgeous and lustrous watercolor, its hues and brightness as fresh and unfaded as the day they'd been applied, that it clearly must have been created by a master artist. Probably one of those commissioned by the Imperial family. Preserved on a long, tightly woven expanse of bamboo paneling, it depicted Master Oogway—looking much spryer of body and sharper of eye, but as bemused and clever as ever—standing beside an Amur tiger who was kneeling down to be more of a level with him. He did not wear the heavy royal robes of the Emperor, suggesting he was either still the Crown Prince at the time the image was painted—or that he was newly ascended to the throne and still getting used to the protocols and formalities. Or perhaps he even didn't set much store by them in those days. Sounds like Oogway's influence to me.

 

What was even more surprising, at least to everyone else in the room, was that the tiger, who was quite young—no older than Tigress, and possibly closer to twenty-one—was also in superb physical condition. Not just the sort of well-proportioned, healthily fleshed figure expected for one of the nobility who would become the leader of such vast lands and their numerous people, and who might often need to lead his armies into battle against invaders. Just come right out and say it, Mantis. The guy's BUFF. This was made quite evident by the fact his garb, rich and costly crimson silk with gold trimming, consisted of a sleeveless vest which showed off his bare arms to great effect. The feline was not as bulky and sculpted as Tai Lung, but he certainly gave the snow leopard a run for his money.

 

After everyone had stared in silence at the painting for many long moments—at how their Emperor's bright blue eyes seemed to spear right through them, how his muzzle was turned up in a surprisingly warm, companionable smile which seemed to invite them in on a private joke, and how his image in fact seemed to ripple on the bamboo as if alive—Tigress finally managed to speak.

 

"That...is Emperor Chen? I...we met him once, when he traveled here from the Imperial City to witness all of us earning our titles as masters. But I had no idea...he was a stately figure, handsome but so old. I never thought—" Amazingly, she was blushing! Mantis hid a grin behind his pincer and began to laugh, low and wickedly.

 

He wasn't the only one who had caught on. Gasping in disbelief, Monkey yanked the picture out of sight and began rolling the bamboo up with hurried motions. "Tigress! Are you crushing on the Son of Heaven? Do you know how many taboos that just broke?" The corners of the simian's mouth turned up in a faint grin, but he still sounded rather nervous, as if he expected the gods to be listening in and preparing suitable chastisement.

 

The striped feline stiffened abruptly, doing her level best to wipe away all mirth and appreciation from her features. "I am not. I was just...startled, is all. It's not every day you find out your sovereign used to be...attractive." A peep of a giggle escaped her lips, quickly replaced by a mortified look and then her typical stern glower.

 

An annoyed and oddly resentful growl came from the side, and when he turned to look that way, Mantis was puzzled to see Tai Lung sitting on the bed with his arms tightly crossed, his back turned to where the painting had been in blatant rejection. For a moment he thought the arrogant snow leopard was actually daring to disrespect the Emperor because in his superiority he would bow to no one. But then as he snorted, rolled his eyes, and glanced sidelong at Tigress, the insect saw something in his golden orbs he would never have predicted in a million years—jealousy.

 

"He's hardly all that," the ex-convict drawled dismissively. "And he wasn't when I met him, either." Everyone turned and looked at him, some offended or disbelieving but most merely puzzled. He caught them looking, spread his paws, and shrugged. "What? D'you think I spent my whole life in the Valley of Peace? Oogway always said I needed to 'broaden my horizons.'" His wry tone made it clear what he thought of that proposition, and yet after a moment he added, "Maybe I did, at that. Anyway, we made several visits to the capital in my youth—and Oogway had such clout there, we were always let in without question, even though it was forbidden for everyone else to even gaze at the Emperor's face..."

 

He trailed off, as if only now appreciating the many gifts and privileges he'd received growing up which he had taken for granted, or even never bothered to acknowledge as worthwhile. But then he snapped his focus back on Tigress, his eyes blazing with an inner fire Mantis hadn't seen since their fight at the Thread of Hope as he ground his teeth together. "Gifted ruler or not, though, he's just another pampered pretty boy as far as I'm concerned!"

 

The vehemence in his voice was strangely intense...but as Mantis looked from his jutting, quivering chin, to Tigress where she knelt on the floor, staring at Tai Lung in mingled confusion and resentment, the insect felt like smacking himself in the head. And then following up with just as healthy a whack to the snow leopard for good measure.

 

Dense, dense! How could I be so dense? He's been locked up without a woman for twenty years, and I bet before that he couldn't be bothered to notice if one got right up in his face and shook heranywho, yeah going without would've been a real challenge for him, he'd have lapped that up in a minute! Not to mention the whole 'I must be the Dragon Warrior!' shtick, couldn't let anything interfere with getting that scroll. But now that's been put paid, and he's free as a bird, and there's Tigress all tempting and luscious in front of him, and is it getting hot in here and WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?

 

Clamping down manfully on his extremely inappropriate thoughts, Mantis forced himself away from his libido and instead continued to stare in disbelief at Tai Lung—for his urgent shout to himself could apply just as readily to the spotted feline. He's dead. He is so dead. If she even gets one whiff of thiswaaait a minute, is that why she won't talk about that night in his...oh man. He's worse than dead. She's going to castrate him, then feed it to him. After she's through, he's gonna wish Po vaporized him. He'll beg him to! There won't even be little pieces left, and I couldn't rouse him even with every needle I've got...

 

While his somewhat crazed rant continued on blithely in his head, Tigress did indeed look on the verge of exploding. But before she could do so, Po of all people intervened. Whether he'd actually wised up enough to recognize the warning signs, or his insatiable curiosity had gotten the better of him so that he spoke up at just the right moment, was up for debate.

 

"I dunno, Tai," he said, rubbing his chin as he watched Monkey stowing the roll of bamboo in the basket for 'things to keep'. "He didn't look very wimpy to me. Though now that ya mention it, that is kinda weird...since when do noblemen have bods like that guy?"

 

For a few long moments everyone looked at each other, perplexed—save for Mantis, who was still panicking at the imminent murder in their midst, and Tai Lung, who looked...uncomfortably knowing. "That would be because...he knew kung fu," he admitted at last, with extreme reluctance.

 

More amazed stares, and then Po finally blurted out, "Really? Wow, that's hardcore!"

 

"Who knew..." Viper murmured.

 

"I guess it figures, him being best friends with the guy who invented it," Crane noted.

 

"I wonder which style he specialized in," Tigress mused.

 

"What do you think?" the Dragon Warrior joked, nudging her side.

 

"Actually," Mantis cut in at last, "it wasn't Tiger style at all. I got to see him perform with Oogway once, when I was in the capital." He paused significantly, as it was rather rare for him to have knowledge none of the others did, especially about such a surprising topic. Then he glanced aside at the avian kung fu master. "It was Crane style."

 

Everyone blinked, gasped, and marveled to themselves, and then Monkey finally said, "That...makes a lot of sense. Evasion, deflection, cleverness...all marks of a good diplomat, you know." The others nodded in agreement, looking quite impressed—even Tai Lung, against his better judgment. Crane, of course, only ducked his head in embarrassment.

 

After another awed silence had passed, Po at last looked down at the mahjong set again, then closed the lid and carried it over to the same box as the painting. "Huh...learn something new every day. I wonder if Oogway played with my dad, or maybe my grandpa? Bet that would've been almost as fun to watch as a kung fu tournament!"

 

The snow leopard sniffed, but Tigress chuckled darkly as she got to her feet and went back to resume her own cleaning. "I doubt it, and that's probably a good thing. I watched him play Master Shifu many times when I was young, and he won every single time. If he had played any of your family, Po, you'd have a turtle for a grandfather."

 

To that, the panda had no reply—perhaps because he was blushing furiously while everyone else laughed.

 

After that, another fifteen or twenty minutes passed before anything truly interesting turned up. Very little seemed worthless enough to discard, except for some moldy, moth-eaten books and scrolls, and of course the turtle's minimal clothing—while it was all, for the most part, adorned with the sacred symbol of the Yin-Yang, it was also sized for him and there were very few turtles in the Valley. But not everything amongst what they were keeping was that remarkable either, so that time passed silently for the most part, save for the sounds of sweeping and folding, and the wind whistling outside the shutters which caused their lantern to flicker and sway from time to time.

 

Then, as he took the last of a set of books down from a shelf, which was high enough along the wall that Mantis wondered if Oogway'd had to perch atop his staff to reach it, Crane let out a soft exclamation. "Well, you don't see one of these every day."

 

"What?" Monkey asked him, peering over his shoulder.

 

"It's a book of haiku."

 

"You mean that weird poetry from Japan?" Po raised his eyebrow with a skeptical and confused look. "I've never been able to understand that stuff. But I guess that sounds like something Oogway'd like."

 

Tigress looked over Crane's shoulder too as he opened the small book and randomly flipped pages. "Down by the old pond, a small frog leaps off his pad; the sound of water." She furrowed her brows. "I don't get it. But he did put a nice lily in there to go with it."

 

Indeed, as Mantis hopped up on her shoulder to look, he saw that flowers had been neatly pressed between all the pages—and while most of them were native to China, there were many others he had heard of through his herbal lore as hailing from far-away lands...and others he didn't recognize at all.

 

"The winds of Tibet," the insect read slowly, "come knocking on my doorstep; I must grow a peach." He paused, then shook his head. "What the hell?" If that's the kind of stuff he liked to read, and write, no wonder he lost his marbles near the end there. Except...he always talked like that.

 

Even as he wondered why Oogway had placed a peony next to that page, Crane was reading a third poem. "The first cold shower—even Monkey seems to want/a small coat of straw."

 

"Wait, that one I do get," Mantis chuckled.

 

Even as he was explaining about Japanese rain-gear to Crane and Tigress, Po rubbed the back of his neck, looking from the book to the rest of them. "Huh. Guess that just proves what I always heard, growin' up. Oogway liked to travel a lot, didn't he?"

 

Viper giggled. "That's something of an understatement, Po. He wasn't even from China, was he? Where did he say he was from..."

 

"Somewhere across the ocean," Monkey offered, as he started digging through an ancient chest in one corner. "An island...Galapagos?" He frowned, as if not sure he'd gotten the name right.

 

The Dragon Warrior scratched his head. "But...how'd he get here?"

 

"By ship?" Tai Lung ventured, rolling his eyes at the panda's obtuseness. "Unless you think the old codger swam all the way to China."

 

Po crossed his arms defensively over his chest and stuck his tongue out. "You never know, he just might have. What I don't get is why he stopped here in the first place."

 

"Maybe his arms were tired?" Monkey joked. Everyone laughed again.

 

As Crane thoughtfully placed the book in the 'to keep' pile, he said, "From what he told me, I think he just liked to travel, and this is where he let the winds take him. Maybe this was the first place that called to him to stay. Or he just loved the beauty of the Valley."

 

Tai Lung snorted as he took down an old stone planter trailing kudzu and placed it near the door, to be taken out to the Jade Palace gardens. "If you ask me, travel is overrated. The people are never polite, your feet get sore, the accommodations are terrible, and the only good thing about it is, when you get back home you suddenly appreciate just how wonderful it is."

 

Po grinned and waggled a finger at him. "But what about all the different cuisine, huh? Someday I'd love to sample all that, see if I can get some really good recipes out of it."

 

"That's it, panda, always thinking with your stomach."

 

"Oh!" Viper suddenly exclaimed from another corner, as she peered down into the drawer of a sandalwood desk she'd opened. "Oh my goodness..." As the others watched her, the serpent plucked a package of rolled up parchment from its cubbyhole, untying the silk ribbon that had been holding it shut. As she opened the first scroll and began to read, she immediately smiled, then chuckled, her cheeks starting to tinge pink.

 

Mantis, who had finally fully recovered from his shocking discovery about the two felines, scuttled over and hopped up on the desk, peering down at what she was reading. "What is it?"

 

The serpent smiled rather dreamily as she looked up. "Love letters."

 

There was a pause. Then, from Po: "Ewww."

 

Viper looked offended. "No really, this is beautiful, listen! 'You are truly a garden of sweet fragrances, a cherry grove blooming at the height of spring, jasmine wafting up with your every step, an orchid's fragile petals in your touch, and the peony exhales with your every word. Who could compare you to a lotus blossom? I only need you to ensnare my mind from the cares of the world.'"

 

Behind him, Mantis could hear Tai Lung mimicking the sounds of retching, and he was fairly certain those were the signs of nausea on Tigress's face as well. And Monkey was wondering to anyone who would listen who the lucky lady was. But he couldn't be bothered with that; instead he hurriedly began shuffling through the other scrolls, searching madly. "C'mon, where's the good stuff? I know it's gotta be in here somewhere..."

 

The serpent hissed at him warningly, but he ignored her, only snatching away the letters and darting across the desktop out of her reach. And after discarding one sappy, poetic ballad after another, he finally found what he was looking for. "Ah-ha!" He scanned the lines...paused...and then let the scroll fall from his suddenly numb pincers.

 

"What? What is it?" Monkey asked curiously, reaching over. Viper tried to intervene, but the langur was too quick for her...and as he read with Crane looking over his shoulder, both males gasped openly, the bird swallowed hard, and the simian covered his mouth with his free hand to choke back a laugh. "Oh...I see..."

 

Tigress rolled her eyes and grabbed the letter away. "Oh for goodness' sake! It can't be that bad, this is Master Oogway we're talking about..." When her eyes scanned the document, however, they widened in disbelief as she bit her lip and cringed visibly. "No...that can't mean what I think it does..."

 

"Not listening!" Tai Lung cried loudly, clapping his paws over his ears and singing (deliberately off-key) mindless syllables to drown her out. "La la la, I'm not hearing this!"

 

As he took the letter from Tigress and very carefully hid it back in the desk drawer, Crane muttered. "That was more than I needed to know."

 

"What?" Po said blankly, as his raging curiosity finally overcame his good sense and initial disgust.

 

"Trust me," Mantis averred, "you don't wanna know. Let's just say, there are some people who shouldn't read the Kama Sutra..."

 

On that note, the seven of them hurriedly went back to their chore, desperate to find anything to take their minds off what they'd just learned. Sadly, there wasn't much left of the room to catalogue: a map of some distant land none of them were aware of; what looked like a recipe for a sweet, brown dessert that would reputedly melt in one's mouth which Po latched onto immediately; a pair of nunchuku that Monkey thoughtfully appropriated; a battered set of wooden tiles that Tigress stared at in shock before wiping her eyes and complaining of all the dust still floating in the air; and an ancient, well-preserved manuscript that, incredibly, seemed to be an original copy of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

 

This last was practically pounced upon by Tai Lung, which didn't surprise Mantis in the least; the novel was notorious for its lurid scenes of bloody battles and complex warfare, political intrigue and terrible treachery—all things the snow leopard would either love to be a part of, or might have wished to stamp out, once upon a time.

 

Finally there was nothing left except for one cabinet. Po was about to open it when Tigress intervened. "Don't bother, as long as I've been here it's always been kept locked."

 

"Not anymore," Mantis interjected, holding up a large iron key about half his size that he'd been concealing under his carapace. "Master Shifu gave this to me..." And he had a sneaking suspicion why, too...

 

By now everyone was either slightly traumatized by the things they'd learned about the Grand Master, or feeling decidedly ill at ease for prying into his privacy, despite or even because of his death. But Mantis, figuring they'd better get this over with or else Shifu would tan their hides, urged Monkey to unlock it, and so he did. When he reached inside, however, the first thing he pulled out was the last thing any of them expected.

 

The Dragon Warrior recognized it right away, since he had five just like it back in his room above the noodle shop and he'd always wanted one growing up. Made of carved and polished wood with articulated metal joints and brightly painted in true-to-life colors, it crouched low to the ground, one leg extended while the powerful upper body leaned back, perfectly balanced to whip around in a devastating combo that would bring fists flashing or a leg driven down from above. It was, incredibly, an action figure of Tai Lung.

 

For several more moments everyone stared at the object as if it were a sacred relic. Then, slowly, the stunned snow leopard reached out and took it from Monkey's hand. "I...I don't believe it. I thought they were all destroyed, long ago. After what I did, they certainly wouldn't be giving their children toys of me..."

 

"Looks like Oogway saved one. Or maybe Shifu," Crane said just as softly.

 

"But why?" Monkey actually sounded a bit resentful, which made Mantis peer at him suspiciously. All of them had been defeated, humiliated, and paralyzed by Tai Lung at the Thread of Hope, yet only the golden langur seemed to take it as a personal affront, or hold a deeper grudge than the rest of them. Why this should be, the insect didn't know...and he hated unanswered questions.

 

Speaking of which, no one seemed to have an explanation for why the Grand Master, the one who had predicted Tai Lung's fall to darkness and in the end had been the one to singlehandedly bring an end to his rampage, would have kept a figure of him like those the Furious Five had inspired. Except, of course, that he was a senile old turtle.

 

"Maybe," Crane ventured at last, speaking to the spotted feline, "he knew you'd come back, that Master Shifu would try and help you, and he wanted to remind you of who you used to be."

 

For a moment, Tai Lung bristled visibly, though whether at the implication he needed help or the reference to how far he had fallen since his days as a student wasn't clear. Then he sighed, shoulders slumping. "Perhaps so." He paused, then chuckled lightly as he turned the figure around in his paws, making the joints bend with soft, unoiled squeaks as he put it through stances and poses he'd probably memorized until he could perform them in his sleep. "I suppose, if I'm to be a hero again, I'll need my badge of honor..."

 

Next to him, the panda looked fairly fit to be tied, however, bouncing from one foot to the other as his paws wriggled in eagerness. "Really, Tai? 'Cause...I was kinda thinkin'...I could add it to my collection, y'know? It's, like, really rare, and I always wanted one growin' up, but of course Dad couldn't find any..."

 

From the look on the snow leopard's face, he was absolutely mortified, even disturbed, at the thought of Po owning a facsimile of himself, let alone playing with it. Mantis couldn't blame him on that one.

 

"...or, maybe not?" The bear backed away nervously, smiling lamely.

 

After a few moments of discreet silence—maintained by Viper glaring daggers at Monkey to keep him from making the teasing barbs he surely had on the tip of his tongue—Tigress then broke it by reaching into the cabinet to find the second item contained within. This proved to be a roll of silk that, when unfurled, brought a furious blush to Tai Lung's cheeks and made all the rest of them dissolve into much needed laughter, and more than a few heart-warmed 'awwws.'

 

Once again, Oogway had been depicted in soft pastel watercolors, this time looking much as they had known him, but he was sitting down so as to hold someone in his lap—the utterly adorable, and quite unmistakable, form of Tai Lung when he was only a cub. Huge, twinkling eyes, a broad smile that displayed his little predator's fangs, and silver-gray fur that made him look even more like a puffball waiting to happen. The way he was so studiously attempting to adopt the same pose as Oogway was even more hilarious, and even Mantis had to admit the little guy was cute, to the point he could hardly believe they were the same person.

 

"Good grief," Tai Lung muttered, trying to avert his eyes and yet somehow unable to look away. "I don't even remember the day that was painted...well, none of you get any funny ideas about me, you hear? Don't believe everything you see, I was a little hellion back then, believe you me." He seemed rather proud of that declaration.

 

"Somehow, I think I can believe that," Tigress smirked.

 

Crane nudged her arm with his wing, however. "You should. From what I heard from Master Shifu, you weren't much better at that age."

 

For a moment she stiffened, and Mantis was afraid she had every intention of lashing out furiously at the avian for daring to reference her days at Bao Gu—or just as bad, bringing up yet again how Shifu had always remained aloof and critical, generous with correcting faults but miserly with praise. But then, she forced herself to relax, shook her head, and only smiled sadly in acknowledgment. "You may have a point there."

 

Po, meanwhile, had apparently recovered enough to risk life and limb yet again. For this time he did reach out to lay claim to the painting, holding it in both paws as he stared down at the sweet, tender image before he glanced decisively at Tai Lung. "Okay, you've got to let me have this one then."

 

"Why?" the snow leopard asked guardedly.

 

The Dragon Warrior grinned triumphantly. "So I can show the whole Valley, of course, why else? I mean, there's no way they could keep on hatin' ya and distrustin' ya if they saw this...who could turn on a face like this?"

 

A welter of conflicting emotions flitted across the feline's blocky features, so fast Mantis couldn't place them all—though by the way Tai Lung's paws twitched and flexed as if seeking a neck to throttle, he judged most of them weren't very good ones. When he finally spoke, his eyes narrowed to slits so that their bright gold seemed even more ominous in the shadows beneath his brows, it was in a very soft, almost conversational tone. "Is it that you think you're so wonderful that the universe can't survive without you, or are you so dense you don't know how close to dying you really are?"

 

Po's face fell, and Mantis couldn't blame him—Tai Lung seemed far too sensitive about anything which made him seem more human and less of a badass. On the other hand, the people of the village surely saw the snow leopard as he was growing up, and it hadn't changed how they felt about him now—what good would one picture do? Still, at least he was trying...and despite the venom in the snow leopard's voice, Mantis had the odd sensation his heart wasn't truly in the insult.

 

Which is a real shame, that was a classic. Have to remember that one...

 

Viper, meanwhile, had crawled over to the cabinet and peered inside...and what she found there seemed to startle and shock her as much as the action figure had Tai Lung. Slowly, she reached in with her tail and withdrew something wrapped in her coils, something small, soft, and fuzzy which she held up mutely to the ex-convict. The mix of shame and annoyance he'd been displaying since the picture was unveiled vanished into perplexity...and solemnity, as he reached over to quietly take it from the serpent.

 

It was a stuffed animal, the sort any child would play with, meant for hugging, squeezing, cuddling...sleeping with at night to ward away fears of darkness, and carrying during the day as a constant companion. Though quite old—Mantis had a feeling it was almost as old as Tai Lung himself—it was still in very good condition, its fur complete and whole, if a little dusty. It was also a snow leopard.

 

No one said a word; no one seemed sure what to say. The toy could mean any number of things, or nothing. After several long moments had passed, Tai Lung finally looked up, shook himself, and glanced around uneasily. "Eh...am I the only one starting to get a little...disturbed by all this? It's as if Oogway had...a shrine to me. I knew he was off his rocker, but..."

 

But Viper, who was always the most insightful of them all when it came to matters of the heart, shook her head and peered up at him beseechingly. "No, I don't think that's it at all. Don't you see? He loved you."

 

Tai Lung froze.

 

"Maybe not as much as Master Shifu, or in quite the same way," she pressed her point. "But he did all the same. I think he kept all these things because...he hoped one day you'd change, that you'd repent what you did and ask for forgiveness...and then he would have released you from prison so you could come home."

 

Behind her, Monkey looked indignant as well as contemptuous, but thankfully Crane smothered whatever he would have said with his wing. Po, watching from one side, soon sported a trembling lip and tears running down his cheeks. Even Tigress looked a little overwhelmed at this revelation and its extremely likely interpretation. And as for the snow leopard himself...Mantis couldn't believe the depth of naked emotion on his face: disbelief, denial, confusion, anger, and finally...infinite sorrow. For opportunities lost, perhaps, and regrets of the past...or perhaps something more.

 

At last, after shaking himself visibly Tai Lung turned away abruptly, though whether he was placing his back to them or to Oogway's collection wasn't apparent. But he didn't let go of the snow leopard toy either—in fact he clutched it tightly in his paw. "That...that can't be possible. It's probably just an old gift Shifu was going to give to me but never got around to it, and he asked the turtle to hold onto it. Oogway...he couldn't have felt that way."

 

Po started to reach out a paw to rest it comfortingly on Tai Lung's shoulder, then for once seemed to think better of it, drawing it back and curling it uncertainly against his chest. As he bit his lip and shuffled back, Tigress of all people took his place. "I know what you mean," she said uncomfortably. "I feel the same way, a lot of the time, about Shifu. How could someone so disciplined, so distant, ever feel something like that? Sometimes, though...what we think we see, and what is fact, are not the same."

 

The snow leopard didn't answer...which was at least better than him lashing out, as Mantis was afraid he would. Then again, perhaps it was because he didn't trust his voice, as the insect could see something wet gleaming at the corners of his eyes, and heard a faint sound that might have been the feline sniffling. Rubbing his nose with the back of his paw, Tai Lung at last mumbled, "Damn allergies."

 

Monkey placed one fist on his hip, smirking openly, but before he could set off a truly violent attack with one of his thoughtless, mocking remarks, Mantis intervened. "Well, that seems to be everything, so why don't we get this stuff to the storeroom like Shifu wanted? And Tai Lung...we'll let you..." He almost said 'pull yourself together.' "...clean up here. Right, guys?"

 

Everyone agreed, even the simian once he saw which way the wind was blowing and that no one was about to allow him to torment the feline as he so wished to do. With a few soft grunts of effort and the scraping of stone and wood, they gathered together the boxes and chests of possessions and, one by one, began to file out of the room. Other than Monkey, each of them looked introspective, saddened, and bemused by turns. Tigress seemed the most shaken; Po, of course, the most sympathetic.

 

But as Mantis stopped in the doorway and looked back...watching as Tai Lung sat listlessly on the bed, gazing down at the figure and the painting while he held the stuffed toy tightly against his chest...he realized, at last, why Shifu had given him that key and what this lesson was supposed to teach. He wondered if the red panda were making this up as he went along, or if he'd planned each step out some time ago. All he was sure of was, their master had to be the cruelest man he'd ever met. Or the kindest. Possibly both.

 

Either way—there was a lot of pain to be dealt with, there. And seeing that made Mantis wish, suddenly, that even though the odds were stacked high against him, the snow leopard could get what he sought with Tigress. Because he didn't know how else to ease that ache in Tai Lung's heart. It was certainly nothing the insect could fix, whether with needles or herbs. And that made him feel helpless...something he wasn't used to, and didn't like one bit.

 


 

The pain was what brought him back to consciousness first—and once he stirred, it became so agonizing, so excruciating, he had no idea how he couldn't have noticed it before, how he could have stayed dead to the world at all.

 

He wished he had. Not that he was any stranger to pain, of course, it was part of his job description—literally—something he had come to view as a companion if not a friend as he had trained himself in the arts of kung fu, and in the end, an indelible part of life that could not be avoided. Something which had to be tolerated, accepted, even embraced. But that view had not taken into account something as constant and unrelenting as this. It felt as if his every nerve ending were exposed to the air, his skin abraded and scraped down to the bone, his flesh stinging and flayed until there was nothing left of him but the pain itself and a long, endless scream.

 

And that was just in the first few seconds he became aware of it.

 

Such was its intensity, and it was so uniform and all-encompassing throughout his body, that it took him several more minutes before he realized there was more to it than the never-ending, marrow-deep claws which dug into his every fiber until they sank even into the sluggish channels of his brain. There was a lesser pain, one physical rather than mental or spiritual—what felt like cold, hard metal digging into the flesh of his wrists, his own weight making it increasingly unbearable as his arms, in turn, seemed to be slowly wrenching from their sockets.

 

It was a pair of manacles, with chains rising to the wall above and behind him to unseen fastenings, and he hung from them with arms suspended over his head and his toes barely touching the floor, thus aggravating his position all the more. How he could have been maneuvered like this, he had no idea—while he obviously couldn't have struggled against them, his unknown captor must be incredibly strong to manhandle his dead weight.

 

But it didn't matter. He'd weathered torture before, and would do it again until he could repay the atrocity with justice. That was what he did. He always found those he sought no matter how they tried to hide, and made sure they suffered for their wrongdoings. The guilty would be punished, always.

 

He'd remember that thought later...with hatred, but also with stark fear.

 

He had no idea where he was, how he had gotten there, how much time had passed since he was last awake. He only knew there were walls and floor because he could feel the rough stone touching him; otherwise all was lost in darkness, with not even a single torch to cut through the gloom. And while the musty staleness to the air, as well as the lack of air currents and daylight, suggested he was indoors somewhere, beyond that he hadn't a clue where. Although there was something about the oppressive silence, the feel of thousands of pounds of rock crushing down on him from above, and the scent of the place that seemed upsettingly familiar...

 

Only after many long minutes of forcing himself to adapt to the pain, so that it had dulled down to a throbbing ache in the background, did he realize he wasn't alone.

 

Movement in the shadows before him—or was it the shadows themselves moving, coalescing together to create a physical form? Whatever it was, it made his skin crawl, and if he could have, he would have reared away in revulsion and terror. When it finally manifested before him clearly enough to be seen, the fact it could be pinpointed somehow didn't lessen its disturbing nature in the slightest.

 

The figure was large, easily his height and maybe a few inches taller, broader in the shoulders and even more barrel-chested—whoever he was, he was either extremely vain when he drew upon magic (for what else could explain the way he'd appeared?) to fashion a body, or he had spent much time on labor and exercise—although there was also a sinuous litheness about his frame, as if he could move exceptionally fast should he wish it. But it wasn't his size that made him so intimidating and inspired such fear. It was...something else about him, an aura of sorts that only grew more pronounced the longer he felt it.

 

Even though the shadows seemed to form a cloak around his captor that completely hid his identity, there was no sound of swishing fabric as he approached...it was as if he didn't really exist, though the prisoner knew better. He was damn real, all right... Lurching upright as best he could in his bindings, he glared out into the darkness, trying to focus on the mysterious visitor who somehow seemed to slide out of view whenever he looked directly at him. Fading in and out of sight, evading him as easily as if he were a crane in flight, never in the same place twice...

 

"Wh-who are you? And what the hell do you think you're doing with me? You let me outta here this minute! When Master Shifu hears about this, he'll—"

 

"You're assuming he'll ever know anything about this conversation or your ultimate fate," his captor cut him off, his voice low, soft, and strangely compelling, as if he were a storyteller who knew how to captivate an audience. He also had an oddly urbane tone, as if the two of them had sat down together for an afternoon of hobnobbing at the local tea shop. "You're assuming he even cares...or that he even matters. No, I'm very much afraid Shifu can't, and won't, do anything to help you.

 

"As for who I am...I am someone who can give you what you most desire."

 

The prisoner snorted derisively, even as he slumped back against the rocky wall in defeat—the bastard was right, no one knew where he was or even that he was still alive. "And what would you know about my desires?" he asked rhetorically, trying as usual to bravado his way through.

 

For answer the cloaked figure lifted a hand to gesture—and suddenly a tendril of black mist wafted toward him...and as soon as it brushed his cheek, he stiffened, back arching and every single muscle wrenching out of alignment as sensations coursed through him he couldn't put a name to. Except to know they were intense, uncontrollable...and despite their frightening nature, inexplicably appealing. He didn't know whether to laugh or cry, scream...or let out moans of a much different bent.

 

By the time the mist receded, allowing him to once again droop in his cursed chains, the prisoner was shuddering from head to foot, panting and sweating even though every inch of him also trembled with a chill so bone-deep he didn't think he could ever get warm again. And from the large wet patch in his trousers, he knew he'd been made to soil himself. Either that, or a more depraved alternative he didn't want to think about...

 

Casually, as if nothing untoward had just occurred, his assailant observed, "I think I know a great deal about them. Wouldn't you agree?"

 

Before he could muster up any sort of reply, let alone the sarcastic one he longed to make, the figure continued in a more direct and authoritative tone. "But I expect you were wishing a more informative answer. So, to be more straightforward—I can give you Tai Lung."

 

As soon as that name was hissed out of the shadows—as if by thousands of tongues in overlapping echoes, as if the walls themselves were speaking it—he stiffened again, though not due to any malefic power being brought to bear...as twenty years of memories coursed through him...

 

Those golden eyes. Those blazing, insane, loathsomely wicked golden eyes. They had always been there, haunting and tormenting him, whether asleep or awake. He'd first seen them from the shadows of the Hall of Warriors, when he'd achieved captaincy in the Anvil of Heaven and had been brought to the Jade Palace to be congratulated by Master Oogway himself. His father and grandfather, and who knew how many generations back, had been close friends with the tortoise, and it had been the Grand Master himself who trained him in the arts of kung fu, trained all of them ever since his great-great-great-and-then-some-grandfather Master Flying Rhino. And it had been standing before the sage, kneeling by the Moon Pool to receive his blessing, that he'd spied the bright yellow orbs fixed on him from the darkness.

 

The best student Oogway and Shifu had ever trained, they said. Master of all the thousand scrolls of kung fu even though he was not even yet eighteenwhich meant he must have been reading and mastering them at a rate of sixty or seventy a year, a feat never matched before or since. A snow leopard, handsome, cocky, with a devil-may-care attitude and a pretension toward sophistication (even though he rarely left the Valley of Peace) which had rubbed him the wrong way the moment they met. The fellow'd been polite enough, had even honored him with a bow after Oogway's introduction, after he'd ceased leaning nonchalantly against a pillar and graced them with his presence. The Dragon Warrior hopeful, everyone said, a kung fu fighter like none the world had ever seen. Only two years older, and already a hero throughout the land for his numerous great deeds.

 

But something in those eyes had chilled him. Not outright darkness or evil, that would have been too obvious. More the sense that the feline would do anythingabsolutely anythingto get what he wanted. Or to right a wrong done him, however slight. Something the two of them shared in common more than he cared to admit.

 

Of course, the next time he'd seen those eyes was a few scant months later, after Tai Lung had been denied the Dragon Scroll and gone on his rampage in the village. He'd stood on a bridge, defending the helpless townsfolk fleeing behind him and keeping the snow leopard from reaching the stairs to the palace. And no matter how many rhinos had been arrayed against the feline, he'd tossed them aside as if they were no more than cherry blossomshis father, his uncles, even his elder brothers had all been smashed through mercilessly, murdered without a second's thought simply because they were obstacles. And as the rest of his troop was decimated, and he was left groaning and collapsed on the bridge planks in a pool of blood, he'd seen those eyes staring down at him in contempt.

 

Several days later, after the insane snow leopard had been demoralized, utterly defeated by Oogway with only five simple nerve strikes, and a restraint had been devised by the clever turtle to hold Tai Lung, he'd been carted off to Chorh-Gom to serve his lifelong sentence (at least so far as the Valley had been concernedOogway and Shifu had always been rather evasive and tight-lipped on the subject, respectively). And the entire journey to Tavan Bogd, as he'd sat on the running board and clutched painfully at his bandaged side, he'd felt those eyes on the back of his head...boring in relentlessly with hate, malice, and cruelty, most likely inventing all manner of shocking ways to do violence upon his warden once he was free again.

 

He never was, of course. Not for twenty years. But for all of that time, while the snow leopard languished and rotted in the fortress armory that had been converted to a prison solely to hold him, those eyes had never stopped staring at him. Whether smoldering like molten lava; half-lidded when given in to despair or boredom, or on the verge of sleep; or resolute with the belief that he was superior to his jailors in every way and would one day escape from them...those eyes never wavered. They tormented him, burned into the back of his skull so he could never escape himself.

 

What they told him was, even though he held the keys, the weapons, the traps and the authority...he could never sleep easy. Because he would always fear, as well he should. Because even though his prisoner seemed docile and controlled, he was anything but the sort. Because no matter how often he abused Tai Lung, with word or with whip, he knew he could never truly break that indomitable spirit.

 

And that fear had been realized, the last time he saw those eyes. It was for that reason, not the collapsing stalactites and bridges, nor the ignited explosives being flung in his direction, that when Zeng shrilly asked if they could run, he had agreed in a most-unmanly squeak.

 

Because he knew Tai Lung had marked him for death. And that the way those eyes flared up at him, as the spotted feline hurtled down from the heights of the cavern, he would never rest until he knew for certain he had achieved his revenge...

 

Shuddering violently as he snapped out of his reverie, Vachir gasped and snarled under his breath for several minutes—for those few moments which had seemed like an eternity, it had been as if he'd truly relived his memories. Glaring again at his tormentor, the rhino somehow managed a sadistic chuckle. "Tai Lung? Is that what all this is about? What, you want me to capture him, kill him? Why the hell didn't ya just say so, instead of all this crazy smoke and mirrors shit? I'd have gladly done that for you!"

 

Even as he said it, though, he knew why. Whoever or whatever this...thing...in front of him was, it was well and truly evil, rotten to the core. Which meant that even if its ultimate goal was something he would hardly disapprove of and might even support, its methods would leave something to be desired. Surely it would ask of him something he did not wish to give...something which would be against his code of honor. Something truly despicable—the fact it had trapped him in his own prison, after all (for thanks to his memories, he had at last discerned he was somewhere in the depths of Chorh-Gom), didn't bode well at all...

 

Indeed, when the figure spoke again, in a sardonic tone that would have been accompanied by a lopsided smirk if he could have seen within the hood...if there was even a mouth to see...what he said sent both a chill down Vachir's spine and made his temper begin to boil.

 

"Kill him? Why would I ask you to do a disgraceful thing such as that? Tai Lung is a work of art...I'd hardly wish to discard him so cavalierly...no, that would be a terrible waste. Capture him? Perhaps, if it comes to that—if you believe you can manage it." The dark mist, which had been swirling sluggishly around his feet, now churned up in extreme agitation, as if it too were excited about these nefarious possibilities.

 

"What I do wish of you is for you to lure him. Bring him to me...so that I may complete what I started twenty years ago, and make him wholly my creature."

 

A long pause, while the rhino tried to come to terms with this, stared incredulously at his captor, and then finally gritted his teeth. "Let me think about that...uh, no?"

 

He expected the creature to fly into a towering rage, but he actually laughed—and that was almost worse, as the laugh in question was both dry and hollow, like hearing a corpse laughing from its grave...and genuinely regretful, as if the thing really pitied him for the limitations of morality. "Come now...are you telling me, and do you expect me to believe, that you don't wish revenge on Tai Lung?"

 

"Of course I do!" he retorted instantly. "He made me look like an idiot, cost me everything I've worked for, and killed almost all my men. And I'll be damned if I let him destroy the Valley of Peace again. But I ain't gonna do it at that price. I wanna stop his evil, not help him give in to it even more! And I won't be a stooge for nobody..."

 

Something seemed to shift in the shadows—not a movement, but a change in aura or intent. A decision had been made...and it didn't feel very pleasant. "I see. I'm sorry you feel that way. I had hoped an accommodation could be reached, that we could work together for mutual advantage. But it seems I must be more...persuasive."

 

The cold tone in that voice, as well as the choice of words, told Vachir what lay in store for him—and he drew himself up to his full height, clenching his fists as he nerved himself to face what was to come. "Torture, huh? Real cute. I've seen it all before, mister. Ain't nothing you can do to me that'll make me help you. Do your worst, but it ain't gonna do you any good. Guess you'll just have to kill me."

 

Later...when he could manage to form a coherent thought, when even a trace of his former self could trickle through and focus its scattered bits together, he would regret those words, and his big mouth. Because in truth, he was only a babe compared to what he faced—torture could not even begin to describe it.

 

"That could be arranged at a later date. But I don't think it will." A tone of self-satisfaction filled the dark voice. "You see, I don't have to kill you..."

 

Once again, the dark spirit did not move, only sent its serpentine onyx fog in his direction...but this time, it kept coming, more and more of it building up like a thunderhead expanding, ready to explode with streaks of lightning to reave the heavens and incinerate hapless fools caught without shelter. And as the cloud surrounded him, teasingly touching him as if with a lover's caress, he stiffened again—he could feel himself...drifting. Rising. Being drawn away from his body.

 

He dared to look down—and choked back a scream. Slack-jawed, drooling, its face twisted into a caricature of life, his body lay below him, slumped against the wall. His consciousness, the part which was staring at this sight in horror, hovered amorphously in the air...and he could see something—what looked like misty light, golden like the sun but intermixed with dark spots and patches like some repellent disease—connecting him to his body.

 

Somehow, his captor had latched onto his chi, and drawn out his soul.

 

"No...I don't have to kill you at all..."

 

He only had time for a desperate prayer to the gods, and a fervent wish that he had better studied matters of chi under Oogway, before the pain flared anew. Deeper, more keening and agonizing than any before—for this was not pain of the body, but of the spirit. It wasn't merely that his soul was where it wasn't supposed to be, or that the dark filaments of mist were sliding over it as if strumming the strings of an instrument. Something seemed to lurch inside him, prompting the same sort of feeling that would normally make him release the contents of his stomach. Except for this, there was no recourse, no relief. It was as if he were vomiting the essence of his self out.

 

Darkness enveloped his senses. There was something out there, peering at him, judging him, salaciously hungering for him to be ripped asunder from his body so that it could claim him and feast upon him. The gods, demons, his own men's ghosts craving payback—he had no idea. But they terrified him. Somehow, he knew they could see straight into his heart, see his greatest sins, his most deeply buried insecurities, his most hated weaknesses. Their eyes bored into him like his captor's mystical fingers, probing and teasing...scraping and impaling, giving the very sickening sensation that someone had taken hold of his innards, as through an open wound, and were stroking things which should never be touched.

 

Above all, a foulness surrounded him...penetrated him...filled his every pore and orifice, until he felt literally unclean. That he could never be free of this taint, no matter how he might bathe or frantically abrade himself to remove it. He felt violated, in every sense of the word, and it drew at last from his throat a strangled, shrieking scream—then another, and another, echoing and resounding in Chorh-Gom's empty vaults and tunnels.

 

What was worst of all was, on some level...buried deep down where he refused to see it...a part of him enjoyed it.

 

Hatred boiled up within him, pure and surging like an avalanche on the slopes without—not directed at the wicked being torturing him, but at Tai Lung. It was his fault, all of it! It was because of his rampage Vachir had been relegated to worthless guard duty for twenty years instead of being out there, defending China and protecting the people as he had sworn to do. The snow leopard was the one who had murdered his platoon, his kinsmen. It was him that this bastard wanted, it was for his sake he was being subjected to this horrific fate. He would not even be here for the creature to attack if not for Tai Lung...

 

And it was this burning desire for revenge, this unholy, obsessive wrath, that gave his captor the inroads he needed to corrupt him.

 

It started insidiously at first, a gradual darkening of his vision, a slowing of his heartbeat, and a vague sense that the connection between his body and soul was becoming attenuated. But then the pain within him...shifted, changing until it leaned toward the other end of the spectrum. The longer he experienced the shadow's touch, the better it felt—the more he wanted to give into it, to draw it into him. In fact the more time passed, the more he felt a sickening urge to smile and chuckle, to groan in appreciation, and to open his arms wide to his abuser.

 

Part of him watched this in mounting disgust and despair, but it was a very small part...the rest of him seemed to be taking control of the shadows and siphoning them in—even getting off on them. It felt like when he would lord his superiority over Tai Lung, bullying him with words as well as fists and some fairly sadistic devices. Only better—he felt a tightness in his trousers, and this time it only made him grin cruelly to himself. There was power here, power like he'd never tasted before, more than he'd ever felt even leading the Anvil of Heaven. With this, he could finally make Tai Lung pay. And if his...benefactor wished to twist the snow leopard, as he was doing to Vachir?

 

Well he'll just have to get through me first. I'll lure him in, all right. But because I want to, not 'cause he does. No matter what he thinks, I'm still my own man...I'll use what he gives me, but fight him every step of the way so I can get just what I want.

 

The blackness swirled up around him, only this time it was his to command. As his soul suddenly snapped back into his body, a darkling aura sprang into being around him, and on some level, he felt an even deeper and more paralyzing fear as he saw that the cloaked figure had somehow moved when he wasn't looking...that it now stood directly before him, so that not even an inch separated them...and it was pressing closer, closer, grinding up against him, and then into him. Merging with him. Becoming him. Burrowing in like a parasite latching its fangs into his gut. Horrifying...and yet strangely absorbing.

 

One way or another, he thought...even as he realized his thoughts were no longer his own, that another voice echoed sometimes beneath, sometimes above his own, saying exactly the same words...Tai Lung will be mine. He'll be mine.

 

Unnoticed, the manacles holding him snapped free, dissolving into rust and dust as if dunked in acid—smoke rising from his wrists where the black mist had broken him loose—and he stepped forward on the ledge...gazed up toward the pinpoint of light which was the exit to the surface...and began to laugh.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15 Icon 

 

It took almost the entire day, even with everyone in the palace and the valley rising at the crack of dawn to begin the preparations, before the feast for the Midsummer Ghost Festival could begin. Unsurprisingly, Tai Lung was not among those assisting—because he was still so deeply affected by the contents of Oogway's secret cabinet, according to Po and Viper, but Monkey more cynically thought he simply wanted to get out of more work he considered beneath him and was using that as an excuse.

 

But for whatever reason, Shifu believed the snow leopard and let him be—though at this point, the simian didn't know why he should be surprised. The red panda seemed to have forgotten or discounted every heinous act his son had committed and was willing to forgive everything, if only he would come back to him and be the loving, devoted child he had once been.

 

Monkey felt sorry for Shifu. He truly did. He had never known their master to have any happiness, friendship, or love in his life—if such things had existed before the Furious Five began training together, or even before Tai Lung's arrival on the doorstep, he knew nothing of them, because Shifu guarded his secrets and kept them well close to his heart. So it was perfectly understandable the panda would want to get back even some semblance of the one time in his life when he had been fulfilled, happy, and at peace.

 

But even when Monkey reined in his distrust and hatred of Tai Lung to look at things more objectively, he still could not support their master's decision. Because he knew that no matter how hard Shifu tried, or how willing to cooperate the snow leopard might become, neither of them could ever bring back the feline's lost innocence, or restore the powerful bond and pure, intense love they had once shared.

 

They might, possibly, be able to forge a new relationship of respect and honor, even achieve a certain loving commitment to each other again. But the past was over and done with, and could not be reclaimed. There was far too much bad blood and animosity between them to ever be overcome...and the things of childhood could never last, even in the best of times. With this relationship, and these circumstances, it was even more impossible.

 

No, the familial love and firm, unshakable trust between them was as dead and buried as Tai Lung's cubhood, or the thousand rhinos he had killed escaping Chorh-Gom. And, Monkey privately believed, as dead as the goodness and loyalty the snow leopard had once possessed.

 

Yet as the primate somewhat distractedly and absently went through the forms with Mantis and Viper in the kwoon, as Po finished cooking up a storm in the kitchen—a feat which somehow required him to balance an eyebrow-raising number of bowls and plates, only reiterating how talented and nimble he could be when food was involved—as Tigress and Shifu meditated beside the Moon Pool, and as Crane helped the workers put more of the finishing touches on the floor and walls of the Hall of Warriors, Monkey griped and seethed to himself at how his feelings in the matter were being completely ignored.

 

Even Mantis, who normally could be counted on for support and a willing ear, seemed unusually noncommittal and uninterested in bashing Tai Lung behind his back. And Tigress, for all her rash actions, boiling hatred, and towering resentment, seemed to be gradually warming up to, or at least retracting her claws from, the spotted feline—whether she wanted to or not.

 

And that annoyed and angered him most of all. For as the eight of them gathered at the temple doors for the trek down to the village, and he eyed askance the way the snow leopard—looking oddly somber and pensive, as well as far too elegant in his umber and crimson feast-day clothes—hovered protectively close to Tigress without seeming to, Monkey was very much afraid this left her completely open and vulnerable to anything Tai Lung might try.

 

And that upset the langur so deeply...because he loved Tigress with all his heart, and always would.

 

Not in the romantic sense—at least, not anymore. When they had first met, just over ten years ago when he had first come to the Jade Palace from Sichuan, he had found even the teenage Tigress to be an alluring beauty, as well as a stunningly fast and incredibly versatile fighter. The longer he spent in her presence, whether learning from her or training at her side, the more he came to respect, admire, and eventually care for the striped feline.

 

Those feelings had eventually blossomed into love, which he had one day thoughtlessly and foolishly confessed to her while they were out having a rare quiet meal at the village teashop. To his horror, and annoyance, she had not only laughed the idea off as patently ridiculous, and patted his hand with a rather unwelcome condescension, but she'd then proceeded to explain their species were completely incompatible. And that even if they weren't, she only saw him as a brother—a very close brother, but certainly nothing deeper or more lasting than that.

 

Over the years since then, once he recovered from this blow to his ego and heart in concert, he'd gotten over the rejection, and once his ardor cooled his feelings ebbed into the same sort of brotherly comradeship Tigress had described. But that didn't stop him from carrying a torch for her, pining on the offhand chance she might one day change her mind—and regardless, it made him an extremely protective and suspicious defender of her rights and honor.

 

Not that she'd had many suitors over the years, or that the ones she did have hadn't been easily dismissed or frightened off by Tigress herself. And of course Shifu had been most men's worst nightmares when they dared to approach his precious little girl. But Monkey'd appointed himself her guardian as well, and he took his job very seriously.

 

Which was why he resented, distrusted, and wanted nothing to do with Tai Lung. Being defeated and paralyzed by him was humiliating, yes. And he had no more reason than anyone else to think the snow leopard wished to turn over a new leaf, or was capable of doing so. But beyond this, he knew full well what the ex-convict wanted from Tigress, and it didn't even require the primate to think about what happened to most men in prison or the fact the feline had been isolated from female (or any) contact for twenty years.

 

Because he'd seen it in Tai Lung's eyes, heard it in his voice, and observed it in his posture when they met him at the Thread of Hope. The snow leopard had been flirting with her, attempting to seduce her! In mid-air, in public, and in front of her friends, no less.

 

He didn't know whether this was because she was the first female he'd encountered since his escape, because she was a kung fu warrior and thus the only female worthy of him in his estimation, or simply because they were both cats, but the signs had been unmistakable. Tigress, of course, had been oblivious to them (at least, he hoped she was), and they'd managed to defeat him, a process which had included an extremely pleasant kick (from Monkey's point of view) right to the chest.

 

But after they had all been paralyzed, and Tai Lung had stared down at their crumpled forms contemptuously before racing off on all fours again for his meeting with destiny, Monkey had been afraid for a few horrified moments that the snow leopard would take advantage of Tigress's frozen body.

 

And now that he was in their midst again...walking and talking and living amongst them...the simian was very much worried it would go even further than that. When Po had first come to them in the kitchen and told them how he had tried to befriend his enemy, Monkey had not been particularly concerned, only mildly distressed. At that point, he'd been certain the arrogant warrior would never accept forgiveness from his father, or to return to his old home, become one of a team of equals, and serve beneath Shifu's command again, no matter what the panda promised. Not to mention Tigress had been practically guaranteed to cut out his organs and bleed him dry if he tried anything.

 

After that night in his cell, however, when she had locked herself in her room, Monkey had begun to seriously worry about what he might have said and done to her—he didn't believe she'd given herself to him (or that he had taken his pleasure from her), but obviously something had happened that wasn't acceptable. And after he had taken Shifu up on his offer, and Tigress had not objected, Monkey had decided at once that if neither she nor their master could see the danger, it was up to him to intervene.

 

To drive Tai Lung away by hook or by crook...to never leave the two of them alone together for long if he could help it...and if nothing else worked, to at least keep a very close eye on them—and teach the snow leopard a lesson he'd never forget if he ever brought her any harm or tried to ravish her...

 

"C'mon, guys!" Po suddenly urged them, interrupting the well-worn tread of Monkey's thoughts. "Let's get down to the village—I worked really hard on this meal and I don't want it to get cold."

 

Hearing that, Monkey could only agree they needed to get moving—whatever else was on his mind, he did not want to miss out on the Dragon Warrior's cooking for anything, particularly when it was practically the only thing about this day he was looking forward to. And so the eight of them set off, with Shifu leading the way at his usual stately pace and the simian doing his best to insert himself between Tai Lung and Tigress as much as possible...which proved difficult since for some reason Viper kept insisting on getting there first and slithering between him and the striped feline.

 

At least they all looked fairly superb in their rich finery—trousers and long-sleeved, collared coats for all the men but Crane (who instead sported a vest while his pants were gathered up at the knee, billowing in the breeze), and a swirling, form-fitting dress with a loose train for Tigress, each matching Tai Lung's clothes in various combinations of gold and scarlet; a sleek ebony body-sleeve for Viper stitched with crimson dragons, which she had paired up with a bamboo parasol and chrysanthemums to replace her usual lotus headdress; and their names sewn in hanzi on each of their garments (inked instead on Mantis's carapace). Even Po had been wrestled into one of the formal silken shirts, while Shifu had consented to wear golden robes rather than his usual slate red (and typically dusty) set, with all their garments being loose-fitting and flowing to better cool them in the summer heat. Although of course, Monkey's appreciation of this was marred by how admiring the snow leopard was of Tigress, whenever he thought no one was looking...

 

By the time they reached the town square, it was late afternoon and approaching sunset, and the villagers were all eagerly awaiting their arrival since the preparations had already been made. In the middle of the plaza, and extending down several of the town's main streets, a series of long trestle tables had been set up—made necessary not only by the large population, but by the fact every household had to include at least one chair for their deceased ancestors and other family members.

 

Even before the Five arrived with Po's dishes, a very large spread had been laid out on the golden tablecloths, which were brought out of storage and aired out once a year. Sticks and braziers of incense had been lit everywhere, adding all manner of varied and unusual fragrances to the air, and along with the food for the living there was also arranged trays and platters of rich and exotic meals, as well as goods and possessions the dead would need in the afterlife, all formed of the local joss paper—which, unsurprisingly, was either marked with the Yin-Yang, an image of the Jade Palace, or Oogway's beneficent face.

 

After everyone had gathered around the Dragon Warrior and gratefully taken the steaming crockery from his arms to the tables, a long and sustained cheer echoed down the village streets. Everyone seemed particularly grateful to celebrate this year, perhaps because of their brush with death due to Tai Lung's escape. The snow leopard, for his part, seemed downright bemused by all the spectacle and splendor—whether he'd never been allowed to attend the festival before or simply didn't understand or care for its significance wasn't clear. But Monkey also thought he detected a definite sense of melancholy about the feline, and this brought a somewhat smug grin to his face.

 

Heh. He better not be thinking we're gonna feel sorry for him, just 'cause he don't know who his family is. Bet they're rolling over in their graves, or turning their faces away from him down in the underworld, after what he did. Or maybe he's thinking how many people being honored here are dead 'cause of him? Just as long as he doesn't

 

As if his thoughts had encouraged the snow leopard, Tai Lung turned morosely to Tigress and shook his head, his voice pitched low and awkward with discomfort. "I...really don't think I should be here. There are far too many here who would consider it in very poor taste, considering I'm the one who killed their families. And...I don't exactly have anyone I can honor. Or who would feel honored by my prayers."

 

"Got that right," Monkey interjected pugnaciously. Viper hissed at him, and he had to spend several minutes batting at her tail and dodging to avoid her crushing coils (and parasol).

 

Ignoring this, Po of course reached over to place a paw on Tai Lung's shoulder. "Buddy, don't talk like that. Okay, you hurt a lot of people, but you can't keep dwellin' on the past, ya know? You're doin' your best to turn your life around, that's all anyone can ask. And as for your own family...you're still their son. Wherever they are, I'm sure they still love you."

 

Tai Lung looked rather dubious about this prospect. Before he could say anything else, though, Tigress spoke up in a subdued tone. "You're also...not alone in this, Tai Lung. I don't know who my family is either, and have never been able to properly honor them."

 

"Really?" The spotted cat looked surprised—apparently Tigress's background was not one of the bits of gossip revealed to him by Vachir over the years. "And here I thought you were from a prestigious and regal family that was only too happy to send their strongest and loveliest daughter to be trained by the great Master Shifu." His tone was so oddly pitched and accented, it was hard to tell what, if any of this, was sincere and what was sardonic.

 

"Hardly." Tigress snorted and looked away. "With my luck, they'd have happily bound my feet and carted me off to marry some snobbish aristocrat, had they lived."

 

The ex-convict growled softly and cracked his knuckles ominously. "I'd love to see them try!"

 

"Me too," the leader of the Furious Five purred.

 

"Me three!" Mantis and Po chorused. Tai Lung and Tigress rolled their eyes and exchanged an identical look of resignation and imposition. Monkey, who had finally managed to escape Viper's wrath by hiding on the other side of Crane (who in turn was not at all pleased at being turned into a shield), could only glare over the bird's shoulder at the two cats—further bonding between them was the last thing he wanted.

 

Luckily Shifu, who'd put his hand to his forehead in obscure pain, prevented anything more from developing by taking charge and guiding all of them to their places near the end of the largest table. There, a massive chair carved from peach wood presided at the head, standing in for the wise turtle who had been so revered and respected in the Valley—not, of course, taken from the Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom, but another.

 

Whether by design or chance, the two felines were seated on either side of their master, something which soothed Monkey's ire—a little. The fact he got to sit across from them was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it kept him front and center to put a stop to any funny business going on...on the other hand, it forced him to be a witness to such funny business. If they start holding paws, I've had it.

 

After Shifu had brought the people of the Valley to order, offered a brief but sincere prayer to both the gods and the ancestors, and pronounced the festival begun, everyone sat down and at once began digging into their food. Whether because they were too distracted by the meal and the music which had started up, or because they'd actually begun getting used to his presence, not many villagers seemed up in arms about Tai Lung today—at most, only eyeing him uncertainly and fearfully from time to time, but otherwise not raising any alarms or causing a commotion.

 

As a result, the festival was soon an animated, lively, and joyous affair, one in which gossip, old family stories, and fond memories were passed around in equal measure. Rather then bemoaning those whom they had lost, or dwelling on the sadness of separation, everyone in the Valley seemed focused on happiness, camaraderie, good humor, and celebration.

 

Everyone except those from the Jade Palace of course, or some of them. Viper, Crane, and Mantis at least seemed to be joining in on the fun and enjoying themselves—the serpent was happily dangling baubles and other glittering toys from the tables to awe and enchant the little ones nearby, the bird was busily creating calligraphy prayers and blessings for villagers to burn for their loved ones, and the insect was telling spooky ghost stories to anyone who would listen to him.

 

And when he wasn't entertaining the children as well with his tales of kung fu legends, Po was having a rather vigorous discussion (or was it a debate?) with his father about the merits of dim sum versus stir-fry. But Shifu, after his initial warm greetings to the Valley, remained silent and still in his chair—whether because of the painfully felt absence of Oogway, or some other distant memory from his past, Monkey couldn't say. And Tigress and Tai Lung both looked extraordinarily awkward, upset, and depressed.

 

As for Monkey himself? He was getting drunk.

 

He hadn't drunk alcohol in years, let alone completely besotted himself—not since he swore off the hard liquors, just before his brother Lei was summoned away to help fight the Manchurians and he himself came to train at the Jade Palace. (Though he could still perform Drunken Monkey style with the best of them.) Yet just now, he thought the situation warranted becoming dead to the world. He didn't know how to keep Tigress and Tai Lung apart, or his sister from being hurt by the grubby ex-convict, and no one else seemed willing to help him do so. In fact unless he missed his guess, Viper at least was actively working to actually bring them together!

 

He couldn't get rid of the snow leopard altogether unless the cat did something major to screw up his chances with Shifu—something the primate wouldn't want to have happen if it might cost someone he cared about, or the whole Valley, something dear, particularly since he still wasn't sure they could take Tai Lung on. And if matters kept going as they were, it looked like the two felines would keep growing closer together no matter what he did.

 

Case in point: when Tigress noticed he had just finished his third mug of shaojiu and was about to start his fourth, the striped cat curled her lip in disgust and glared down her nose at him. "I can't believe you, Monkey! What do you think you're doing?"

 

He looked at her over the rim of his cup, his already slightly fuzzy mind trying to think of a proper response. "This's a festival, inn't it? I'm bein' festive."

 

"If that's what you call it," she sniffed. "You're going to make a fool of yourself, you know."

 

"Prob'ly."

 

"And you're going to regret it in the morning."

 

"S'pose so."

 

Growling under her breath at his apparently one-track mind, she twisted in her seat to spear Tai Lung with the same accusing gaze. "And I suppose you'll be next, hmm? A nice, long-winded, overblown contest to see just how manly you can be, by how many drinks you can hold?"

 

The snow leopard blinked, first at being singled out so unexpectedly, and then in what seemed to be genuine disbelief. He held up both paws reassuringly. "No need to embed your claws in my flesh, Master Tigress. I had no intention of doing anything of the sort. As far as I'm concerned, alcohol is a terrible poison no one in his right mind would ever want to partake of, let alone a kung fu warrior."

 

A brief silence met this declaration, as Tigress blinked several times in rapid succession, and then she actually smiled—slowly, reluctantly, but with real approval and admiration. "Well. I never thought I'd be saying this, but good for you, Tai Lung. It seems some people here could learn a few things from you after all."

 

She shot Monkey another withering look, then turned back to the snow leopard with a decidedly warmer expression. He in turn seemed on the verge of clasping his paws behind his head and whistling innocently, while Shifu only raised an eyebrow curiously but said nothing.

 

Monkey felt like slamming his head into the table. Or else dunking it in a bucket of his rice wine. This definitely deserved another drink.

 

Before he could pursue either of those options, however, someone very large suddenly loomed over the table behind Tai Lung, slapping a hand on the snow leopard's shoulder. "Hey—mind if I join you?" It was the bull foreman from the Jade Palace work detail yesterday.

 

For a moment the feline seemed to debate with himself as to the merits of this request, but then he finally heaved a sigh and nodded, sliding his chair a little farther down the table—and squeezing poor Shifu in between himself and Tigress—so as to make room for the chair the bull had brought with him. "Why not...the more the merrier, or so I've heard. Any particular reason, though?"

 

The bull shrugged enigmatically, even as he turned the chair around and plopped into it, crossing his arms over the back which now pressed against his broad chest. "Not every day I get to say I shot the breeze with the Furious Five, you know? Besides, that conversation was getting boring anyway...and I've also got someone here who wants to see you again."

 

He smirked in open amusement as he tossed back his own mug of liquor—and as a small figure squeezed through the crowd to rush down the table toward them, and Tai Lung groaned under his breath, even Monkey had to laugh.

 

It was, inevitably, little Yi. For a wonder, she only gave her favorite snow leopard a brief but tight hug around the waist before clambering up into her father's lap without being told to. Of course, she kept her shining brown eyes on the ex-convict the entire time, as if waiting for just the moment or prompting to leap on him again. And that might have explained why Tai Lung rather looked like a man waiting for the inevitability of an execution.

 

Finally finding his voice, he observed, "So this little...bundle of sunshine is yours after all, hmm?"

 

"What was your first clue?" the bull asked, a smile in his voice as well as on his face. With clear and honest love in his eyes, he looked down at his daughter as he twisted sideways in the chair to make room and cradled her against his stomach. Yi, of course, looked up at him adoringly before she hid behind his arm, peering out shyly at each of the Five and their master. When she wasn't fixated on Tai Lung, she seemed fascinated by Shifu's enormous eyes and ears...apparently something which all young ones could not resist.

 

Sighing, Tai Lung shook his head as if at how he seemed to be going soft, and Monkey had to wonder if it was the liquor truly going to his head—for he swore he almost saw affection in those golden eyes. "She does certainly seem to have her father's generosity." He paused, then looked a little nonplussed. "Er...I don't even know your name, I'm afraid."

 

The bull looked startled, then annoyed at himself, before he chuckled and extended a heavy, callused hand first to Tai Lung, then Tigress and Shifu. "Shen Zhuang, at your service. Though you can call me Zhuang."

 

This announcement caused all of the Five, even Monkey, to look at him in startlement, though the snow leopard seemed the most floored. Granted, they were five (or six, depending who you counted) of the most famous and respected kung fu masters in all of China, so it would seem only natural that a laborer would defer to them and consider them more than worthy of using his first name. At the same time, though, they had only just met him yesterday, and the fact he was extending this honor to them so soon was unheard of. Either he was particularly confident in his own self to introduce himself so...or he was simply that open and honest.

 

After a few more moments of silence, Tigress finally ventured to ask a question. "So...have you been a builder long, Master Zhuang?"

 

"All my life," he replied, sounding both proud and matter-of-fact about it. "Been in the family for generations. Can't be sure, but I think one of my ancestors helped Grand Master Oogway design and build the Jade Palace. Or maybe he just really marveled at its craftsmanship? Anyway, there're lots of pictures of it on my walls back home. And either way...I'm glad to have helped fix the place up again."

 

He paused, then pursed his lips at Tai Lung and reached over to poke him in the chest. "Doesn't mean I want to make a habit of it, though. I hope you aren't gonna be crashin' the place again anytime soon."

 

Each of them exchanged awkward looks, but amazingly, Tai Lung actually chuckled and held his paws up in a gesture of surrender. "What, so I can have the pleasure of repairing it twice? I don't think so...besides, I never meant to...harm it so." His voice dropped, the good humor turning to something akin to...nostalgia? "It was my home, once. Too many memories there, that I'd ever want to destroy the place."

 

Monkey, becoming steadily more tipsy with every minute, snorted and tried to object in no uncertain terms to this ridiculous claim, but unfortunately at that moment his body decided to rebel with a bout of hiccups.

 

"Good for you," the bull said, without a trace of irony and a very clear sense of propriety. "Though I meant what I said, you did an incredible job yesterday. I don't think even Wei could've carried as much as you did. Maybe you missed your calling?"

 

Again, everyone froze, eyes flicking from Zhuang to Tai Lung—all of them filled with trepidation except for Tigress, who merely watched intently, and Monkey, who had to clap both hands over his mouth to hold back his gleeful guffaws. He's gonna blow, I know it! No way he'll ever live that down...

 

Except, after breathing deeply in and out to maintain his calm, and forcing down the surge of fury that made him bulge the muscles of his shoulders and arms, the snow leopard somehow did not give in to his temper. Instead, albeit with a rather dark tone, he only said, "I'll take that in the spirit I hope it was meant—as Master Shifu can attest, I've always been strong, but I'd hope you didn't mean I should spend my life as a stone-hauler."

 

Zhuang, who'd paused to take another swig from his mug, almost choked and had to have his back pounded by Tigress before he could breathe properly again. When he could speak again, rather hoarsely, he gasped, "No, of course not! I just meant, you'd be a great builder. You've got the strength and stamina for it, and you're damn smart, too. From what I know of ya, you could be and do anything if you put your mind to it. With the talent you showed, putting those doors together, you'd be wasted just dragging wheelbarrows around." He paused again, then added, "Actually, I've been looking for an apprentice for some time now. Interested?"

 

Now it was Monkey's turn to inhale his shaojiu. He didn't know which stunned him more—someone actually offering the snow leopard a job and a chance to learn a craft other than kung fu, or the even greater likelihood of a vicious tirade from Tai Lung. As much as anyone else, the simian knew the ex-convict still had his heart set on being the greatest kung fu warrior in China (save Po), and he wasn't about to give that up even for a possibly lucrative career in construction—even assuming he could swallow his pride to take such a lowly position in society.

 

Yet somehow, again, Tai Lung surprised, and angered, him. For after a silence during which he gazed down alternately at his plate and his paws, as if contemplating what else they could do besides break bones and paralyze opponents, the feline looked up with an inscrutable expression. "I...I'm afraid I have to decline, Master Zhuang. At least for now. I still don't know what my place will be, what I can make of myself. I...I need to finish my training with Master Shifu, see where it leads me. Then...once I know all my choices, maybe I can reconsider. But I have to be sure of myself first."

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Monkey noticed Shifu's eyes widening, then lidding again while a small warm smile turned up the corners of his mouth. The primate, though, was grinding his teeth impotently.

 

"Okay," the bull said easily, companionably, as he ruffled his daughter's hair and gave her a brief tickle, making her giggle. "Offer's always open."

 

After that, somehow, the builder seemed to become invited into their circle as if he'd been their friend for years. Shifu questioned him closely on his knowledge of construction techniques and proper materials, and while Monkey highly doubted the red panda knew what the right answers should be, he seemed satisfied he'd chosen well for his foreman—and the primate himself knew they were all the right answers.

 

Tigress had already met little Yi, and both she and Viper were falling for the darling girl rather swiftly. Po, who seemed to love everyone he met unconditionally, had his loyalty cemented for life when Zhuang gave effusive and genuine compliments to all the panda's dishes in the feast. Crane seemed to admire him for his rock-steady calm, while it turned out the bull and Mantis shared the same naughty and irreverent sense of humor.

 

This became abundantly clear at Tai Lung's expense, one of the few high points of the evening as far as Monkey was concerned. Having been asked by the snow leopard to recount his memories of growing up in the Valley—perhaps, in an odd and futile way, to recover the years he had missed while in prison, since Zhuang had been born only a year or two before the rampage—the bull had no problem describing the simple and bucolic lifestyle of the Valley of Peace with an affection and contentment that were quite real.

 

But when he noted, off-handedly, that his first introduction to carpentry had been at the age of two or three, when he'd been determined to aid his father in his workshop...and that the project in question had been rebuilding the village after Tai Lung nearly destroyed it, the snow leopard had interrupted an amusing story of Zhuang trying to manage a hammer almost as tall as himself to sigh despondently and mutter to himself about the pain and heartache he had caused.

 

Monkey was about ready to smack the maudlin feline, but Zhuang got there first—jabbing Tai Lung in the ribs and then swatting him on the shoulder. "Oh, come on, man! Lighten up, would you? Keep up all that moaning and groaning, and I'm gonna start thinking you're opening up a brothel!"

 

Dead silence met that comment, and then Mantis burst out laughing uproariously, closely followed by Monkey. Viper blushed deeply, while Tigress only rolled her eyes in disgust. And after a few moments, even Tai Lung had to shake his head and chuckle sheepishly to himself at his ridiculous attitude bringing down everyone else at the table.

 

"Don't get your tail in a twist," the bull continued at last after all the laughter had died down. "Like I already said...the only way you and the rest of us will ever get past what happened is if we move on. Yeah, it was an awful thing, for everyone. But we've got to let it go." He lifted his glass to drain the dregs of his drink.

 

"Oh really?" a soft, cold voice said from behind him. "So good to know you've decided everything for the rest of us…when you never even lost anyone in that vicious attack. We actually know what it is to suffer and grieve."

 

Even Monkey, who had been hoping and praying for something to finally happen to put a stop to the constant comforting of Tai Lung—did everyone forget he was the one who actually killed people here?—couldn't help but stiffen at the hatred in that voice. And when they all turned as one to see who had approached them, both Tigress and Tai Lung blanched, their faces flat with shock.

 

The langur didn't know why, other than that they apparently knew the cow woman standing in front of them...and from the look on her face, he didn't want to know her. Though dressed in festival finery like everyone else in the village, something about her made her stand out from the rest of the crowd. Maybe it was her vicious, enraged stare, quite at odds with the frolicking and merriment on everyone else's faces...

 

Unsurprisingly, she was directing most of her ire at Tai Lung—but also, strangely, Zhuang. Glancing at the bull, Monkey didn't know whether to be amused or feel sorry for him, for he had cringed back and shrunk down in his seat, futilely attempting to look small, as a flush of shame stained his cheeks crimson. That, coupled with the excited glow of eagerness on little Yi's face, identified the woman even before she spoke again—in an overly sweet voice laced with venom. "So...and what, may I ask, brings you here in such...interesting company, honored husband?"

 

Zhuang flinched, then forced a sheepish smile onto his face. "Oh…um, sorry everyone. This is my wife, Xiulan. Loveliest blossom this side of the Valley, aren't you, dear?"

 

To her credit, the bovine succeeded in adopting a respectful and appropriately deferential air as she bowed in acknowledgment to each of the seated masters—a trifle lower and less perfunctory for Tigress and Viper. But after Shifu had nodded to her and absently murmured his greetings, she immediately fixed her gaze on Zhuang again, clearly not letting him off the hook. "I'm still waiting."

 

"Well...er...I was helping with the repair work and reconstruction of the Jade Palace. I got to work in pretty close quarters with the Five, and Master Shifu selected me personally to be the new foreman after Wei...threw his weight around one too many times. So...I've been thanking them for giving me a chance, and getting to know them."

 

"Yes, that's wonderful news," Xiulan replied rather testily, as if she couldn’t care less at her husband being given such an auspicious and noteworthy contract at which he could excel. "But why are you here with him?" And she stabbed a finger at the snow leopard.

 

"Mama!" Yi chose that moment, the worst one possible, to chirp in excitedly. "Look, look! I got a kitty!" And she scrambled down from her father's lap to leap into the ex-convict's.

 

Tai Lung groaned and shaded his eyes with one paw, but being clung to was the least of his concerns. For as soon as she saw her innocent daughter in such close proximity to the scourge of the Valley, the cow swept along the table with shocking speed, reaching down and snatching Yi up into her arms. "What did I tell you?" Her voice shook, with fear as well as anger. "You mustn't go near him! Listen to Mama, he is bad, he will hurt you if you let him touch you, and I don't want to ever see you with him again! Is that clear?"

 

Yi struggled in her mother's grip, huge tears welling up in her eyes even as she set her chin stubbornly and glared up as only a toddler could. "No! He's a nice kitty, I know he is! He played with me, he never hurt me…"

 

Xiulan's jaw dropped, and somehow she looked even more terrified and hateful as she backpedaled away from the table. "What is she...how dare you! What did you do to her, you monster...!"

 

Holding up both paws in a calming gesture, Tai Lung started to rise from his chair. "Now, now, madam, I can assure you, I never laid a—"

 

"Get away from me!" the cow shrieked, her voice carrying down the table and through the town square until every villager at the festival froze in place, their conversation dying into a fearful silence as every eye turned their way. "You are a menace, and I will not let you hurt my little girl! If you try, you'll have to go through me first!"

 

Now it was Tigress who was rising, looking more uncomfortable and conciliatory than Monkey had ever seen her. "Wait...wait a minute, Mrs. Shen. It's not what you think. Tai Lung was only at the daycare, helping me look after the children—"

 

"What? You let him near our...how could you? What sort of protector are you, Master Tigress?"

 

As the striped feline fell back aghast at this onslaught, the rest of the Five (minus Monkey) and Shifu tried to stand up for her, and the entire head of the table dissolved into a rapid-fire, increasingly unrestrained argument.

 

"Now that is unfair," Viper protested. "Tigress has been here, guarding and defending this valley, for over ten years, and she's never let the people down before!"

 

"That's a matter of opinion," Xiulan sniffed. "She couldn't even stop him at the Thread of Hope when she had the four of you to back her up. Maybe she wanted him to get into the Valley—or she was in league with him?"

 

"What the—lady, you are way off-base!" Mantis hopped up onto the table, and whether by instinct or conscious choice, his pincers were poised for combat.

 

"Am I? I know I was wrong to trust her with our children!"

 

Tigress, who normally would have been flying into a rage about now, could only stare at the cow with a blatantly injured look—in fact she looked enough like a cub being chastised by its mother that Monkey finally staggered to his feet to come to her defense, too. "What're you talkin' 'bout? Master Tigress's like a...like a...like a mother tiger wit' those kids. Won't let anythin' happen to 'em...dat wuz a mortal insult, now ya gotta fight her. Or me." He balled his fists and cracked his knuckles suggestively.

 

"No, I don't think that will be necessary," Master Shifu cut in soothingly. "This is all just a big misunderstanding, and I'm sure Mrs. Shen will apologize immediately. Won't you?"

 

"Apologize for what?" the cow sneered. "The truth hurts, doesn't it? And anyway, you're one to talk, when you let that mad killer stay here. Maybe it's your turn to go senile now?"

 

At this latest sally, everyone started talking at once—even Tai Lung—demanding that she take back her harsh words and show proper respect to the master of the Jade Palace. Yi was crying, Zhuang looked as if he wanted to sink through his chair straight down into Di Yu, and his wife's voice was becoming ever more strident and ringing with vindication.

 

Then, just as everyone's tempers were reaching a fever pitch, a large, black-furred fist slammed down on the table with such force and suddenness it made all the dishware rattle and startled everyone into silence.

 

"HEY!" Po glared belligerently around the table, a fire in his eye and a fierceness in his expression that none of them had ever seen before. "Now that's enough of that! You're all actin' like children, an' I ain't puttin' up with it anymore. So everyone just calm down, stay quiet, an' listen…or else the next one t' say something's gonna get sat on. And don't think I won't know. I can hear a butterfly's wings, y'know."

 

At any other time, Monkey would have laughed, and he didn't think he was the only one, but at the moment they could only step back, slowly sit down, and eye the Dragon Warrior with a new appreciation.

 

Once all was quiet again, the panda took a deep breath, then let it out gradually to expel his anger, just as Shifu had taught him. Then he looked at Mrs. Shen. "Now. What's got you so bent out of shape, ma'am? Why've ya got such a mad-on against Tai Lung?"

 

Xiulan looked as if she were chewing rocks, or else simply stunned Po wasn't seeing the obvious answer. Finally she said, bitterly, "He killed my first husband, twenty years ago."

 

Again, everyone was quite silent at this declaration. Monkey didn't know what everyone else was thinking, but to him at least everything suddenly made perfect sense. Not that he was ready to forgive those insults to Tigress and Shifu, but her attack on Tai Lung was now completely justified in his mind.

 

Of course some of the others didn't seem to think so. Viper lowered her head, her expression crestfallen, but she didn't turn on the snow leopard the way Monkey wished she would, and even Shifu, whose gaze briefly turned flinty, shook his head after a few moments and let the matter go. Po, naturally, wasn't even fazed, although his voice did turn softer, more soothing. "All right, okay. I read ya. But I bet you he's sorry for it now...aren't you, Tai?"

 

For a few moments the snow leopard looked as if a slug had crawled into his mouth, though whether because he wasn't sorry at all, he didn't like having to apologize to this woman, or he just hated being put on the spot like this wasn't clear. But then at last, diffidently, he said, "Yes. I regret a lot of things about that day. And his death was...particularly unnecessary. I'm sorry."

 

With barely a pause to consider his apology, the bovine turned away with her nose elevated. "Words. It's actions I'm looking for...and there's nothing you can do to change what you did."

 

Very softly, Tai Lung said as he sat back down in his chair, "Yes...I know."

 

Yet another silence settled over the table, other than the wind whistling down the streets and setting the lanterns to swinging, making weird shadows dance over the square as if the night that had descended on the town were creeping out of hiding to swallow them all. Then at last, Mrs. Shen stood up straight, cradled her still softly weeping daughter against her chest, and said firmly, "In any case...I am going home now, Zhuang. You had better be following me within a very short time, or I make no promises what kind of reception you'll be getting." A very stiff nod to Shifu, the Five, and the Dragon Warrior, only the barest minimum of honor given...and then without another look at Tai Lung, she turned and disappeared into the crowd.

 

Slowly, unevenly, the conversation of the villagers began again, though much more subdued and lacking the boisterous air from before. Someone—he thought it was Master Shifu—let out a very soft, resigned sigh, and then only the sound of scraping chair legs on stone and utensils on plates could be heard. No one seemed to know what to say, and nothing really could be said. Monkey opened his mouth to muster up something anyway—a few choice names to call the woman, but also a suggestion that she had the right of it when it came to the ex-convict—except what came out was a very loud, crass, rude belch.

 

There was a pause. Then Tai Lung said dryly, "My sentiments exactly, Master Monkey." While everyone laughed at the tension-breaker, albeit nervously or uncertainly, the snow leopard turned to Zhuang and continued. "No offense, but I think your wife may have been who they had in mind when they invented the phrase 'ball and chain'."

 

"None taken," the bull mumbled, still looking down at his plate while he interlaced his hands together, twisting them about as if they were caught in a finger-puzzle. "I can't apologize enough for her behavior. She's a good woman really, and I love her very much...but she's been through a lot, and whenever something like this crops up and she really gets going, well..." He sighed again, then winced. "I hate to leave like this, but if I don't..."

 

"You'll be sleeping on the couch tonight?" Mantis said shrewdly.

 

"Something like that. It was nice meeting you all...and I hope to see you again under better circumstances." He got up from his chair, turning it about and putting it gently back against the table as if it were a fragile piece of artwork. But before he could leave, Po called out to him.

 

"Hey...maybe, uh...maybe this is kinda personal, but...with what happened to your wife an' all...why did ya decide t' reach out t' Tai? Since, um, that sure ain't gonna make things easy for ya at home."

 

Zhuang paused and looked back, and rather than offended he had a small smirk on his face. "Like I said...all that happened twenty years ago. And it wasn't me who died...it was a guy I didn't even know. Hell, if I were a bastard, I could be thanking Tai Lung for killing him, since I couldn't be married to Xiulan otherwise." Monkey privately had to wonder if the bull should be resenting the snow leopard instead for making that possible.

 

"But the simple fact is, she's right: I never lost anyone in the rampage, I was only two at the time so I barely even remember it. Makes it a lot easier to forgive, you know? And anyway...he did his time, twenty years of it. I think it's about time he gets a chance to have a life again, and see if he can do things right this time."

 

Tai Lung stirred, glanced at Po. "So...you never hated me, or thought I was evil?"

 

"I didn't say that. But there was someone who set my head straight on that one, and reminded me of something really important...something I wish my wife could remember. That those who are free of resentful thoughts will surely find peace. And holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned."

 

"Who was it who told you that?" The snow leopard sounded like he already knew the answer.

 

"Master Oogway." And with those words, and a small, sad smile, the bull headed off into the village in the direction his family had gone.

 

Those were also the last words spoken for the next several hours, other than occasional requests to pass an item. While it was not as taboo as at the start of the New Year, it did feel rather inauspicious to have such an argument on a festival day, and Po at least seemed worried that the ancestors might have overheard and disapproved, or evil spirits could have been drawn to them. Add in the awkwardness of the encounter and Tai Lung still seeming floored by the fact Zhuang was willing to be his friend...and Oogway himself, even during the years of his imprisonment, had been planting the seeds of forgiveness and acceptance...and it was no wonder no one knew what to say, or felt anything could be said. As it was, the festival itself did seem to be rather ruined now, at least for those from the Jade Palace.

 

Finally, after they could no longer pretend they had any appetite left and the darkest portion of night had settled over them with the extremely late hour, everyone decided almost en masse that it was time to finish the last rituals of the festival and then get back to the temple immediately. The first part of this, the burning of the joss paper possessions so they could be transported to the next world, was over relatively quickly, but the second part required all of them, as well as the villagers, to travel to the lakeshore at the edge of town, there to light and set asail the paper lanterns which would, if the gods were willing, bring guidance and hope to their lost loved ones.

 

The offerings from each of them varied—Crane only had one boat, for a maiden aunt he had been quite fond of who had died just before he first started working at Li Dai, while Viper had a pair for her revered grandparents. Shifu, as reticent and laconic as ever, only admitted under duress that his lanterns were for his parents and older siblings, who had died long ago—how, he refused to say—and one other whose recipient he would not name at all. Mantis, humorously enough, had an entire fleet of them (since, as he said, insects tended to have very large families), and the majority seemed to be for his male relatives...

 

As for the three orphans, Po didn't hesitate to light candles for his parents—since, as he said with his unusual mix of practical wisdom and simple honesty, it didn't matter to him he didn't know their names or who they really were; he could honor them just the same. Exchanging a look at this, Tigress and Tai Lung nodded in unison and followed his lead, kneeling by the lakeshore together to release their four boats to sail out alongside one another.

 

The two felines, in fact, were quite close themselves, leaning in to whisper and murmur under their breaths...seeing this, Monkey glared furiously at the snow leopard's backside, strongly tempted to put him back in his place again. Maybe he the one who should go home without his pants, huh?

 

Unfortunately he couldn't act on that admittedly happy thought, since he was currently being held up by the coils of Viper, to keep his drunken form from falling in the water while he put down his own lanterns—for his parents, long dead before the war, and his old uncle, one he remembered with amusement as an eccentric scholar of arcane learning and kung fu skill alike...one whose answer to any problem or situation had always been, "Must do research!"

 

Together, all of their lanterns joined those set adrift by the other villagers...together forming a vast carpet of golden light, streaming and flowing out across the darkened waters of the lake, as if opening a pathway to the next life...a winding road which extended infinitely into the distance until it vanished from mortal sight. A silent procession that crossed the open boundary between life and death. Or maybe he'd just been drinking too much.

 

The gathering began to break up, with the villagers returning to their homes while the Five, Po, Shifu, and Tai Lung headed back for the stairs to the Jade Palace. As they reached the moon bridge which led there, however, Monkey turned away to stagger back toward the village square. Everyone looked after him quizzically, but it was Po who actually had the gumption to call out to him. "Hey, Monkey? Where're you goin'? I know ya been drinkin' an' all, but...home is that way."

 

Rolling his eyes, the primate leaned against one of the shi lions guarding the entrance of a nearby restaurant. "I know dat, Po. Just goin' back for a li'l more drink, t' tide me through th' night."

 

The panda frowned worriedly. "Are you sure? It's...it's getting pretty late. Aren't you worried about wandering spirits?"

 

"Or passing out in the street?" Tigress quipped, a definite edge to her voice.

 

Monkey glared at both of them in equal measure. "Don't tell me you still b'lieve those old bedtime stories? I don't t'ink there's gonna be any dead people out tryin' t' take over my body tonight. An' I can hold my liquor better'n you, Tigress!"

 

The striped feline bristled, but before she could say more Shifu gently put a hand on her leg and she froze docilely beside him. "Considering this is the first time in years you've sampled it, I think I can trust you to make it back to the temple on your own. But do be quick about it, Monkey; with or without ghosts, the sooner you get back the better. Because if you think I'm going to be easy on you tomorrow, well..." The grin he gave was decidedly wintry.

 

Grumbling under his breath, the langur hurried as fast as his staggering gait would allow him to through the village streets back to the main plaza—not because he was afraid of being caught without gifts to propitiate the spirits, or because of Shifu's threat, but because he'd much rather be curled up with his bottle someplace warm.

 

Unsurprisingly, when he got back to the trestle tables, most if not all of the festivalgoers were gone, leaving only some very tired-looking temple guardsmen and messenger birds to clean up the mess and put away all the dishes and uneaten food. It took him several minutes to figure out a foolproof way to slouch and gyrate down the table without falling over every other step, and about ten or fifteen minutes more before one of the pigs, either taking pity on him or annoyed by his poking and scrounging, asked what he was looking for.

 

Upon being told, the guard considered, then handed him a large earthenware jug from a nearby stall, telling him it was some imported drink from Japan known as sake, and swearing by it when it came to drowning your troubles and helping you forget. Patting the pig on the shoulder in a comradely way, Monkey thanked him with slurring speech, promising to make it worth his while later—if not with money, then with some repair work on his roof or maybe an acrobatic performance for his children. Then he started back.

 

Taking a different route on a whim (or, if he were honest with himself, because he couldn't quite remember how he got there), the golden simian sampled the sake and indeed found it to be potent stuff, something that could probably knock out an elephant—or Tai Lung, if the elitist snow leopard weren't so 'perfect' as to be above that sort of thing. Back in his drunkard days, Monkey could have handled the drink easily, but now he knew well enough to take it in small doses, at least until he became accustomed to it.

 

As he lowered the jug, smacked his lips in satisfaction, and tied his belt around its neck, he thought he caught a glimpse of something from the corner of his eye. Jerking his head that way, he saw nothing, only the shadow of a tree shifting back and forth across a house front as the wind tossed it. Shrugging, he then began humming to himself as he reeled down the road, along a sharply angled, narrow alley, then back into another street. He stopped again, however, when he thought he heard something and turned to look.

 

Again, nothing...except for a few lonely lighted windows, this section of town was completely dark, the streets empty except for himself, and the only sounds he could hear were wind chimes tinkling, leaves rustling on the cobblestones, water rippling softly in the darkness, and his own breathing.

 

Once more he returned to his circuitous path through the town, trying very hard not to trip over his own feet, as well as to ignore the ambiguous shadows cast by the flickering flames of the lanterns suspended here and there on eaves and dougongs, creating wan pools of light at each street corner. He was almost back to the moon bridge (at least, he thought he was), when he was certain he heard a noise this time—coinciding with an odd flicker in the shadows which was not made by the tossing of the trees...for the wind had just died down.

 

Slowly, feeling the fur stand up on the back of his neck, he turned his head to peer behind him, narrowing his eyes to try and focus his hazy vision on whoever might be near. "H-hello? Who's there?"

 

No answer; only a very faint whisper of sound, followed by the creaking of a shop sign, somewhere out of sight. With only the light of the crescent moon spilling down, it was very easy for someone to be lost in the shadows...and no matter how he strained, he could hear nothing...just the distant moaning of the wind down another alley, the settling of stone...

 

"All right, I know you're there. Who are you? Whaddaya want? You wanna rob me? Better be careful; I know kung fu!" Damnit. Could you be any more dumb? Of course he knows that. Wouldn't be followin' you unless he knew who you were. Or did you forget you're in the Furious Five?

 

Still no answer, although he could have sworn he heard a low chuckle, deep and amused, on the breeze before it died away.

 

For several more long, unsettling minutes, he continued to stare behind him, trying to see anything out of the ordinary, anything at all. Finally, when his eyes ached as much as his head throbbed with the sake, Monkey uneasily and warily turned back to face the Jade Mountain again, leaving the deserted street behind him. Lettin' all those ghost stories Wen used to tell go to my head...and listenin' too much to Po...

 

He had just turned a corner into another alley, and glanced once more behind him, when someone or something loomed up ahead of him and he ran headlong right into it. He had a confused impression of blackness and size, of a swirling cloak and what he could have sworn were shadows flowing and melding together like pooling ink to rise up in a monstrous silhouette above him, of a flash of sinister red.

 

Then something seemed to enervate him, sapping all the strength from his limbs, and Monkey collapsed on the ground—a dark haze overlying his vision, washing the world away in an impenetrable veil of mist, and he knew no more...

Chapter Text

Chapter 16 Icon

 

The next morning, Monkey had locked himself in his room, refusing to come out and moaning through the door, when they pressed him, to go away and make sure Mantis didn't walk so loudly through the bunkhouse—something which surprised no one who'd seen him at the festival. Po, who had never been one to drink and was now even more determined never to start, observed this and then quietly resolved to find any stores of alcoholic beverages there might be in the Jade Palace and hide them where the simian would never think to look...in his room, for example, or Viper's.

 

Thankfully the lack of the primate's assistance at this juncture was not particularly critical, since the majority of the repair work had already been accomplished. In fact, Shifu instructed the rest of the Five to return to training in the kwoon, so that he could instead supervise Tai Lung and the Dragon Warrior as they put the final finishing touches on the Hall of Warriors.

 

None of the other kung fu masters seemed to mind, except for Viper who, every time the panda glanced at her, had a very introspective and even calculating look on her face. Which made him a little uneasy. The serpent was easily the nicest, sweetest, and most good-natured member of the Five...so when she started looking sneaky, you knew you were in trouble...

 

In actuality, there really wasn't much labor to be done in the Hall of Warriors; Po wasn't sure if Shifu was just killing time until he figured out the next step in his, er, unusual lesson plan, or if he only wanted to limit the amount of time Tai Lung spent with the Five. He did have to feel sorry for Tai Lung though, being put through this befuddling and off-putting training—even if it were exactly what the doctor ordered as far as the snow leopard was concerned, the panda was fairly certain this new way of teaching dated from Shifu learning to think outside the box...and that was entirely due to the Dragon Warrior requiring a different approach, in which case this whole thing was somehow Po's fault.

 

But he didn't complain, and not just because he was enjoying every moment he spent with his former enemy. The Hall of Warriors was still his favorite place on the mountain, and he didn't think he'd ever get tired of staring at the artifacts he found here, drinking in their rich history. Whether Tai Lung was still so affected by them (aside from the Urn of Whispering Warriors) he couldn't say, but the feline did at least seem somewhat reverent as he finished setting to rights the mess he'd created. Days before he had jerked the sword from the floor so it could be placed back on the weapons rack and flexed the powerful muscles of his arms and shoulders to yank the Shield of Fire Monkey Pass from the pillar so it could be gently placed back in its stand, so that instead he now passed the time attending to those items by polishing their surfaces and smoothing out any rough edges, as well as checking to make sure no pieces of Master Flying Rhino's armor had fallen off during the battle.

 

He even clambered up on a ladder with a broom to sweep the tapestries and paintings adorning the walls, despite the fact Po was pretty sure none of them were harmed in the fighting and Shifu was just taking advantage of his new indentured servant to get some free dusting in the bargain. Po had to hold that ladder in place, not because it was rickety but because it was in danger of toppling over whenever Tai Lung sneezed uncontrollably...which was often.

 

Finally, after the third such fit in as many minutes, the panda called out to him. "Hey, Tai, why don'tcha let me get up there to finish that? I don't want ya to hurt yourself."

 

"I think I can handle a little fall from a ladder, panda," the snow leopard growled resentfully, yet he was down on the floor again with very little in the way of protest. Sometimes Po thought he objected to things just to be contrary, or to keep from appearing too docile and compliant, rather than because he didn't actually want to do them or see the wisdom in them. Sometimes he also wondered if that were something unique to Tai Lung, a trait all cats shared, or even something he'd absorbed as a cub after watching Shifu—a thought he kept very much to himself.

 

As the Dragon Warrior picked up where the ex-convict had left off, running the bristles of the broom along the top rail of the painting of Jin Hu, the Iron Ox (the one he'd only seen copies of), he noticed Tai Lung erecting the collapsed brazier near the temple doorway and re-hanging the lantern which had hung above it, now sporting a new, un-smashed globe, and that thought reminded him of something Shifu had mentioned to him. "Uh, Tai? Got a question for ya. Kind of a kung fu question."

 

Golden eyes gazed up at him flatly for a moment from beneath heavy brows, and then the snow leopard sighed and leaned back against the pillar, crossing his arms and smirking sarcastically. "Fine, ask away. All my knowledge of the thousand scrolls lies at your disposal."

 

"Well..." He didn't know how to ask this, since it would bring up bad memories of the Dragon Scroll, his humiliating defeat, and the years of pain he'd felt at being denied his destiny. "When you were fightin' Master Shifu...he said ya knocked over those lanterns there, and ya...scooped up the fire, swingin' it around in your paws while ya struck at him."

 

A closed look appeared on his face, making it impossible to guess what he was thinking, though when he spoke his voice was rather uneven. "Is there a question in there?"

 

Po nodded. "How'd ya do that? Especially without gettin' burned?"

 

He expected the snow leopard to either start bragging about the amazing feats of kung fu that only a true master such as he could attain, or kindly suggest it was none of the panda's business. Instead, he became absolutely quiet. Sweeping away the last of the cobwebs, Po turned and looked down to discover Tai Lung standing right where he'd last seen him, not having moved a muscle—and to the panda's startlement, he actually looked genuinely, and completely, confused.

 

"You know, panda...I really don't know." He sounded both mystified, and extremely annoyed at being caught in ignorance. "I...I wasn't even thinking, at the time. I was angry, I wanted Shifu to hurt as much as he'd ever hurt me, so I came at him with everything I had. I just...did what felt right, and somehow it happened. I can't explain it better than that."

 

Some might have been displeased with that answer, but Po thought he understood. During his fight with Tai Lung, he'd done all kinds of things which Shifu hadn't taught him at Wu Dan Mountain, things he didn't even know could be done until he did them—things which, he guessed, the Dragon Scroll had enabled him to do once he truly believed in himself. So he knew how it was, to perform some absolutely cool maneuver and not even know how to explain it to yourself afterward, let alone anyone else.

 

The fact Tai Lung could be the same way might just be because this sort of thing was true of all great kung fu warriors—not that Po felt he could ask the Five, since it might seem like belittling their skills or asking about a trade secret—or it could be because the snow leopard was just that amazing. Either way, it only made him all the more impressed by the feline...and all the more stunned (and grateful) that he'd been able to defeat him before.

 

He didn't get a chance to say anything else, though, because at that moment a diffident cough came from the nearby passageway, and both of them suddenly noticed Master Shifu standing there. The red panda must have overheard at least some of their conversation since he was peering intently at both Tai Lung and the brazier behind him. "I believe I can explain it, however," he said simply.

 

When both of them looked at him expectantly, Shifu burrowed his tiny hands within his voluminous sleeves and stepped forward until he stood between the two warriors as well as the first two sets of columns, in the exact center of the entranceway. There he stopped and looked down at the marble floor. "Tell me what you see."

 

Po curiously did as instructed, since he'd never thought to examine the floor before, but Tai Lung, having lived in the palace for almost twenty years, apparently didn't even have to. "The symbols of the five elements, of course."

 

And the panda saw that he was right: just inside the doors curled the pale blue waves of Water; extending straight down the hall to dead end at the steps up to the Moon Pool was a mahogany-hued panel of whorls and swirls like the knotted grains of Wood; angling out at a sharp forty-five degrees to skewer the walls were the gray hatches and etchings of Metal filings; spreading like lily pads across the floor were the blue-green flowers which represented Earth; and just before the Moon Pool danced and twisted the orange tendrils of Fire. He felt like an absolute dunce for not having seen them before. Some fan of the Furious Five I'm turnin' out to be. Don't even know what they've got on the floor of the Hall of Warriors!

 

"Gotcha," he said at last, trying for a knowing tone but instead sounding more dubious than he'd have liked. "But, uh...what's that got to do with Tai's kung fu?"

 

Shifu closed his eyes for a moment, and Po groaned inwardly as he realized, once again, he'd just said something which made him sound like a total newbie. "You are aware, Dragon Warrior, that each of us has an affinity for one of the elements, based on the year in which we were born?"

 

"Uh, yeah, of course." He paused, then gasped and stared at his master with widened eyes. "Wait a minute! You don't mean a kung fu warrior can—"

 

"That is exactly what I mean." This time Shifu was looking at Tai Lung as he spoke. "While all life produces chi, only those who are properly trained, such as kung fu warriors, can draw upon it to perform unique forms of fighting styles. One way this can be done—the most common way, for all that it is still quite rare, because it usually comes instinctively to students—relates to one's personal element. What Tai Lung did was redirect his own energies into the fire, to shape it, wield it, and turn it into his weapon. I'm sure you can guess which emotion he used to fuel his chi."

 

"Rage," the snow leopard replied, quietly.

 

Shifu nodded. "However, fear not, my student. That is not the only way in which you can control your Fire. Any extremely strong, deeply felt emotion will do. Passion, determination, courage, and yes—even love—will do it. It will take time and training, but you can learn this, Tai Lung. All those at the Jade Palace can."

 

While the feline stared at him in amazement and shock, Po was bouncing from one foot to the other, overwhelmed with giddy excitement. He'd heard stories of legendary kung fu warriors who could use their chi to produce fireballs with every punch, draw moisture from the very air to strikes whips of water at their opponents, and any number of other elemental attacks. But he had never seen such things done, not even by his heroes the Furious Five, and so he'd believed them to be just that—stories. Now, however... "Oh, oh, oh! Can I learn to use fire like that, Master Shifu? Since, y'know, I'm the Dragon Warrior and all."

 

Rolling his eyes, Tai Lung looked on the verge of bopping him one on the head. "Weren't you even listening, panda? The fact you have a shiny scroll and a title has nothing to do with it. Your element will come from the year you were born." He let out a sigh of disgust. "Don't you ever pay attention to your teacher? How you ever learned enough to win our battle is quite beyond me..."

 

Po might have been offended by this, if it hadn't been yet another example of Tai Lung slipping into student mode without even being aware of it. Instead the panda had to hide a grin behind his paw, then adopt a suitably crestfallen look.

 

Ignoring this exchange, the red panda only clasped his paws behind his back and nodded. "Indeed. I am not certain yet what element you are, we will have to ask your father about that one—though I have my suspicions. In any event," and here he turned back to the snow leopard again, "I have every intention of training both of you in this, and other means of employing chi in combat. This was, in fact, what I was referring to when I spoke of teaching you kung fu skills which were beyond you. I'm sure you can appreciate why I didn't want to begin lessons in Fire manipulation until I was certain you had gotten control of yourself and were willing to change."

 

With that understatement, Shifu turned again to stride toward the doors. As he did so, he raised his voice to echo in the hall. "But all of these lessons must wait until we have completed your next task, Tai Lung. That is why I came here...to check and see if you were finished, which you are...and to inform you that this afternoon, once Monkey feels sufficiently recovered from his adventure, we will be setting out on a tour of the province. There are quite a number of people in need of our hospitality and assistance—the orphaned, the poor, the homeless, the hungry. I'm certain you remember Master Oogway always insisted on such excursions at least once a year when you were growing up. It is high time the practice was reinstated."

 

To Po's surprise, the snow leopard did not turn truculent or mocking at the notion of aiding those less fortunate than (or inferior to) himself. Not that he looked exactly pleased and eager to leap into action, either. If anything, the panda thought he looked...pensive. As if he still weren't certain yet what the point of this was, or what he would get out of it, but he was willing to try. Sighing softly, he pushed off from the pillar at last and began to stroll in the direction of the dormitories, but he paused once to glance back. "And what will our first stop be, Master?"

 

"The Bao Gu Orphanage."

 

Tai Lung groaned audibly.

 

Just as Shifu and Tai Lung were both almost out of earshot, Po finally found his voice to ask the question that had been burning inside him since the red panda first began discussing chi. "Um...Master Shifu? What element can you use?"

 

The small, robed form halted, and then the mustached face turned back to him with an amused smirk. "Why, Earth of course."

 

A snort came from the other side of the hall. "I could have told you that, panda. How else d'you explain the way he completely shattered that boulder I tossed at him?"

 

"Oh. Yeah." Once again, a sadly frequent occurrence, he felt extremely stupid.

 

"Not to mention, he's got the hardest head I've ever met. He's even more stubborn than me," Tai Lung muttered.

 

"You don't have to tell me," Po muttered back, quite fervently, as he too joined the feline in heading for the bunkhouse.

 

Behind them, Shifu cleared his throat. "Were you wanting to do your twenty laps around the mountain before we left, or after we return?"

 

Both of them looked at each other...exchanged the same worried glance...and then fled before he could give them any further punishment.

                                                                       


 

All the members of the Furious Five gathered together to join Po, Tai Lung, and Master Shifu at the head of the stairs—even Monkey, who had been made to flee his room by the threat of the other kung fu masters practicing their forms on the roof of the bunkhouse right over his head, while the Dragon Warrior played with fireworks in the bushes outside his window. And after the simian had groaned rather piteously and begged for a spare hat from Crane to shield his eyes from the afternoon sunlight, Shifu had at last led the way down the steps to begin their journey to Bao Gu.

 

Po, waddling alongside and slightly behind Tai Lung (and privately swearing he would work on his endurance training and diet as soon as possible—he was really getting tired of being out-of-breath all the time), gave the snow leopard a few odd looks as they descended the mountain. Because just before they had set out, the ex-convict had held a hurried conference with Shifu, and Po (who, um, couldn't help overhearing) had soon understood that for some reason, Tai Lung was concerned as to when they would be returning to the Valley—specifically, whether it would be before the next full moon. Shifu had reassured him that at most, they would be away for a week, which still left a good four or five days before Chang-O would grace the heavens with her presence.

 

When pressed about why he was so insistent upon returning before then, the spotted feline became rather defensive and his usual reticent self, only commenting that he had an appointment he had to keep with someone very important. Although raising an eyebrow at this, Shifu had backed down. From the looks he and the Five wore, they were obviously suspicious of him, but really, what could he possibly be plotting, when there was no one in the Valley who would help him bring further harm? When would he have had time to meet with anyone? And how could he pull off any sort of scheme when they never allowed him to go anywhere alone?

 

No...even though it was almost as impossible and hard to believe, the Dragon Warrior rather suspected Tai Lung had found a girlfriend—something which made the panda grin in unabashed delight. About time he started livin' again! And who knows, maybe there'll be the pitter-patter of little cub feet before you know it. Wouldn't that be awesome? Kinda hard to be full of anger and dwell on the past when you've got a family to think about. And I can already see he'll be great with the kids...

 

As they reached the foot of the Jade Mountain and, instead of crossing the moon bridge into the village, turned to follow the course of the river northwestward toward the forested hills which held the Bao Gu orphanage, Po couldn't keep his thoughts on such happy possibilities for long, though. For while both Viper and Crane succeeded in engaging Tai Lung in an animated conversation, with the snow leopard being exceedingly cordial and even bantering in friendly fashion with them, and even Mantis seemed less suspicious and distrustful of him, Monkey was of course surly and snappish—and the panda didn't think that was all due to his hangover. And Tigress...well, while she had softened considerably toward Tai Lung, she certainly hadn't let her guard down around him. Worse, ever since the daycare, the striped feline seemed to have resumed the cold resentment with which she'd first greeted Po at the Jade Palace.

 

The panda didn't understand it at all. He knew, of course, that Tigress had been angry at him for the longest time for 'stealing her thunder', and that she'd also been infuriated and contemptuous thanks to what she viewed as his complete lack of respect for the arts of kung fu. Something which had, quite frankly, made him feel two inches tall when she'd scathingly accused him of it, that night in the doorway of her dormitory room. Was it any wonder he'd been found only a short time later with his cheeks stuffed to the choking point with peaches?

 

It wasn't just that she was belittling his love of kung fu and claiming he didn't believe in what she and the Five stood for, though that was bad enough; it was that Master Tigress, who had always been his favorite, was treating him with such dismissive and callous rejection. To have her bow to him, after his defeat of Tai Lung, and call him 'Master' had made him feel bigger, stronger, and more heroic than he'd ever been in his wildest dreams, had brought him just as much happiness as hearing his father say he was proud of him. It had been the greatest day of his life.

 

And now it all seemed to have been for nothing, he was right back to square one with her. Now that he thought about it, he was pretty sure he knew why, too. It wasn't fair! He shouldn't have to choose between them. Both Tigress and Tai Lung were worthy of honor and support, both had equally impressive lists of heroic feats as long as the Hall of Warriors. Tai Lung deserved a second chance...yet it seemed he couldn't give the snow leopard one, or prove to the feline that he had good in him, without alienating Tigress. There had to be some way to win her over, to show her Tai Lung wasn't the horrible villain she still believed him to be.

 

It was too bad she'd gut Po, or the snow leopard, if either of them made the suggestion the two felines should hook up as a couple. Because that would be the perfect way to get her to see him in a much more favorable light. The thought of the likely look on Tigress's face at this prospect was rather frightening, and made him swallow hard, yet at the same time the more he thought about the possibility, the more he had to laugh out loud—at its audacity, and at his insanity in even entertaining the notion for more than a split second.

 

Unfortunately, his laughter actually had been aloud, thus causing everyone to turn and stare at him in disbelief, shock, and annoyance. Po broke off immediately, flushing in embarrassment, and clasped his paws nervously over his stomach. "Uh...sorry about that, guys. Just had a weird turn of thought, and it came out all funny-like. So...yeah." That effectively put an end to his good humor for the moment, so he retreated to the back of the group and actually remained silent for the rest of the journey.

 

In the early hours of twilight, the Jade Palace entourage finally reached the grassy plain dotted with oak trees, high up on the edge of the northern mountains, where the orphanage crouched like a squat old bullfrog. Gazing up at the circular, white-washed walls with their small, narrow windows and surmounted by roofs of gray slate, Po couldn't help but have two related, yet oddly opposed thoughts.

 

First, a slightly suspicious one directed at the back of Shifu's head, as he pondered the reason for the old master choosing this particular orphanage to visit—was he hoping someone would slip up, give away the fact Tigress grew up here, and so plant the seeds for she and Tai Lung to finally establish a relationship aside from raising their hackles at each other every moment they spent any time together? And secondly...not for the first time, the panda had to wonder why, forty years ago, the bunting-swathed infant snow leopard had not been brought to Bao Gu, rather than the Jade Palace doorstep.

 

Not that that would have worked out any better, in the end; if Tigress was thought a monster by the other children and the headmistress, how much more so would Tai Lung have been, who equaled her in strength if he didn't surpass her altogether? And perhaps whoever had left him had a particular reason to bring him to Shifu and Oogway...or wished him to be guaranteed a family with strong, loving bonds, rather than the benign but unfocused attention of an orphanage and the whims of future adopters. Of course, despite or even because of this love, it hadn't worked out that way... What if, what if...we'll never know what might've happened.

 

Bao Gu

 

The sound of childish laughter floated across the field as they entered the gate in the low stone wall, and Po caught Tai Lung wincing out of the corner of his eye, then drawing himself up to his full height—apparently girding himself for what was to come. The panda grinned to himself. He knew the snow leopard would deny it wholeheartedly, but whatever else could be said about him, he seemed to have a soft spot for children.

 

In moments the crowd of cubs was bursting out onto the grounds when the enormous wooden door swung open to admit them, and the entire group was soon surrounded by small, hugging bodies and upturned, excited faces. As had occurred at the daycare, Tigress seemed quite happy to cuddle and embrace the children, and Viper was just as affectionate and loving, but there were a few surprises among the kung fu masters. While Crane was predictably stiff and nervous, and Mantis seemed to enjoy using his pincers to playfully tickle various nerve points before he got mobbed, Monkey was apparently still sullen and grumpy thanks to his hangover, and thus stayed out of the proceedings for the most part, arms crossed and silent.

 

The biggest surprise of all was Master Shifu—the orphans seemed intimidated by him, and rightfully so, but after a few minutes of observing them with his typical stern gaze, the red panda smiled mischievously and produced a handful of ginger cookies from within his robes. These he dangled above the heads of the eager tots, only giving them out when a cub succeeded in imitating a Tiger fist, assuming the lotus position, doing a backflip, or some other kung fu feat. When he started giving the treats out for a proper kung fu bow or staying perfectly still, however, Po knew Shifu was a lot more relaxed and fun-loving than he let on.

 

As for Tai Lung...despite his earlier resentment, not only did he easily hoist a pair of bunnies up onto his shoulders without even a word of protest, he also made it a point to speak to the headmistress, an aged sheep, with a deferential and respectful air. "Madam...I can't tell you enough how grateful I am you've been so dedicated, running a place such as this for so many years. Not many would sacrifice their time and money for abandoned children, without families or a place. You...you've ensured so many young ones would have fulfilled and happy lives, knowing someone loved them, that they had a place to belong. Thank you..." And he bowed to her, deeply and reverently.

 

"Oh...well..." The sheep seemed flustered, whether because of his high praise and genuine humility, or because of just who was speaking to her. "You're welcome, of course, but it's nothing really. How could I ever turn them away, or not let them all into my heart? It's not their fault they have no one, and no matter how much I love them, I won't rest till they all find homes..."

 

The snow leopard nodded in distinct approval, not even seeming to notice the various stunned and troubled looks coming from some members of the Five. Shifu, at least, looked extraordinarily proud, if rather sad, and Tigress had to work hard to conceal her expression of wonder and admiration. Po, of course, couldn't stop himself from beaming and wouldn't if he could have.

 

With that out of the way, the spotted feline retreated looking a little out of sorts and rather embarrassed by his effusive greeting, gently bouncing his charges on his broad back to their evident delight. This allowed Tigress to step forward and press into the sheep's hands the packages Master Shifu had prepared in advance—a generous donation of money, food, and toys for the children, the latter gathered and purchased in the market by Viper over the last several days. This brought tears to the headmistress's eyes, and she patted the striped feline's paws familiarly, squeezing them tightly.

 

"Bless you, Master Tigress. You have always been so kind to us, even after what happened so long ago. How long has it been now? It's still so hard to believe how much you've—"

 

"Changed, yes," Tigress quickly interrupted her with a tight smile. "But there's no need to go into that, is there? Water under the bridge, and I've more than made up for my...little lapses. Right, Mrs. Fa?"

 

The sheep looked at her strangely, even as she nodded. "Yes, of course. Still, I'm sure you do have some good memories. Wouldn't you like to see your—"

 

"No." There was a pause, as Tigress apparently realized her voice came out sharper than she'd intended. "I don't think that will be necessary. If you could just show us where we'll be staying the night? Since it does tend to get darker here sooner in the mountains, as I recall, and we shouldn't set out for the north till it's full light."

 

Mrs. Fa looked extremely flustered and nonplussed now, but finally having gotten the hint that Tigress didn't wish to discuss her tenure at Bao Gu any further, the ovine smiled vaguely at Shifu and urged all of them, in a somewhat breathy whisper, to follow her. From the way she almost tripped on the hem of her dress and then clutched blindly at it to lift it out of her way, something Tigress said definitely seemed to have disturbed her, though Po couldn't figure out for the life of him what it was. Unless...there were more to the story of her time at Bao Gu than he'd heard in the Valley?

 

He was determined to find out what it was, if so. And in the middle of the headmistress's tour of the facility, the panda suddenly got his chance.

 

As they turned another corner, or rather a curve, in the stone-walled passage encircling the orphanage, Po happened to glance behind him and noticed that Tigress was no longer with them, having vanished somewhere along the way...and Tai Lung had noticed it too, for he already had his back to the panda and was sneaking down the corridor back the way they'd come. Po glanced ahead, saw that Shifu was enmeshed in a murmured conference with Mrs. Fa, and then quickly turned around and snuck after the snow leopard—grateful for the stone floor, which would not creak under his weight and give him away.

 

Several yards back the way they'd come, the Dragon Warrior discovered another passage he hadn't noticed, one slicing away at a sharp right angle into the heart of the orphanage. Despite the fact it was lit by shafts of wan sunlight spilling down from the windows high along the ceiling, something about it seemed ominous to Po...perhaps it was the fact the rest of the hall still lay deep in shadow, or that he had the sense there was a secret kept at the end of it which he didn't want to learn. Nevertheless, he could see Tai Lung passing through a ray of light far ahead of him, disturbing the dust motes in a frenetic dance, and so he kept pursuing the feline.

 

When the sound of unoiled hinges whining in the corridor echoed suddenly ahead of him, Po flattened himself against the wall in the shadows, his black-furred back facing outward so his white belly wouldn't give his presence away. He knew he looked ridiculous hugging the wall, but at least this way he wasn't visible...he hoped. Peering over his shoulder, he saw that Tai Lung had stopped too, although he certainly wasn't trying to hide.

 

Standing with arms crossed, he was staring toward a massive, iron-bound wooden door that marked the end of the passage—a door which now stood open, allowing Tigress to stare at the darkened interior of the room beyond.

 

"I knew it," the snow leopard murmured, though his voice still seemed shockingly loud in the twilight silence. "Don't know why you thought I wouldn't figure it out. You said you didn't know your parents, so you must have been an orphan, and this is the only orphanage in the province close enough to the Valley for you to have lived in. What I don't understand is, why you were trying to hide it. Did you think I'd look down on you for that? You don't know me very well then, Master Tigress."

 

Po expected her to say she didn't want to, but she said nothing for a very long while, giving the panda time to wonder himself why she had hid her past, prevented the headmistress from revealing it. Had she wanted to avoid admitting she had anything in common with Tai Lung? Or was it simply something she wanted to reveal herself, in private?

 

Just when he thought she wouldn't answer, Tigress finally turned around and said, "Not that it's any of your business, but yes...I did grow up here. And while you can't begin to imagine how it annoys me that we do have something in common after all...that's not why I hid this. I...I did things when I was here that...I'm not proud of."

 

"Really." Tai Lung sounded dubious, and Po couldn't blame him. Tigress was a noble warrior, possessed of many virtues, and just plain incredible in every way. Okay, so she had a temper that gave the snow leopard's a run for his money, and she was often far too judgmental and unfair...but she was otherwise a good person. How could she ever have done anything that terrible?

 

"Yes," the striped feline snapped, as if angry at being contradicted even on something she shouldn't wish to be true. Tai's not the only contrary one here. "When I was young, before I knew any better, before Shifu trained me to control it, I was exceptionally strong, and I used my strength in ways I should not. This...room...was my punishment."

 

The snow leopard stiffened briefly. "A bit excessive, if you ask me. Not to mention harsh."

 

"No," Tigress said, her voice shaking slightly. "It was right on the mark. You see, it wasn't just that I couldn't handle utensils without breaking them, or that I smashed furniture and toys without meaning to. Once...when I grew angry I couldn't be allowed to play a game with the other children, one of them tried to help me. She meant well, but when I failed yet again, I lost my temper...and I hurt her. Badly."

 

Po had to fight back a sharp intake of breath. Tai Lung did gasp, slightly, and from what the panda could see of her, Tigress looked stricken and deeply distressed. Despite this, the snow leopard didn't try to embrace or otherwise comfort her. In fact by the way he rubbed the back of his neck, the feline seemed at a loss what to say.

 

Finally, he managed to say, "I see. That...explains a bit. But it wasn't your fault, you know. You didn't do it on purpose, and you couldn't help what you were."

 

"What? A killer? That's what I would have been, if my claws had been an inch nearer her jugular." Her tone was laced with bitterness.

 

"No. A predator. It's what we were born, both you and I. When I was allowed to go to the Valley and meet other cubs my age, I learned they were afraid of me, too. Perhaps with reason. But what's important is, you learned to control it, Shifu helped you do it. And you haven't done anything of the sort since, outside of the field of battle, right?"

 

Tigress sighed, looked away sullenly. "No...though I have come close. And sometimes, in battle, the rage becomes much more difficult to deal with."

 

"Ah. Now that's something I'm even more familiar with." Tai Lung crossed his arms to contemplate her suggestively.

 

The leader of the Furious Five glared at him. "And there you go, trying to draw parallels again."

 

Tai Lung lifted his paws palm out, then sighed. "Not at all. Just trying to explain to you...I do understand. You see, there was at least one time when I, too, didn't know my own strength, and hurt someone I didn't intend to."

 

"One time?" Her voice was rather incredulous.

 

But the snow leopard ignored her. "Yes. The day of the rampage, when I broke into the Hall of Warriors to claim the Dragon Scroll. Shifu leaped at me, to prevent me from taking it...I couldn't believe it, my own father hadn't just failed to stand up for me, he was actually attacking me!" Tai Lung's shoulders heaved, and a frustrated growl rumbled in his throat. "I was so furious at him for getting in my way, I batted him right out of the air. But I hit him too hard...I never meant to break his leg as I did."

 

Again he sighed, hanging his head in shame, and Po wished he dared reveal himself, so he could offer a tight embrace. "That sound, when it snapped...it stayed with me the whole time I lay there, paralyzed on the floor. And for the first few years in Chorh-Gom, too. So...don't think I don't understand. Don't think I don't know what it is, to hurt someone you wished you hadn't...to go too far."

 

Throughout his speech, Tigress had been watching him with a riot of emotions crossing her striped, pinched face—fury, disbelief, sarcasm, sorrow, anguish. Finally, it settled on slow acceptance...and though she didn't change her posture one inch, Po got the impression a wall of some sort had come down, if only for a moment. And no wonder...for the panda realized poignantly that this was yet another thing she had in common with Tai Lung—each had hurt someone, each had been locked away; but she had been rescued by Master Shifu...while he'd had to claw his way free.

 

"I don't know why...but somehow, I believe you. Maybe you do regret. Maybe...you do understand."

 

Tai Lung looked up, and though Po couldn't see his face, by the sound of his voice he was greatly relieved. "Well, I can't promise anything. Only to try. But, if you ever do need to talk about this..."

 

"I know who to ask. I must be out of my mind...but, thank you." Tigress turned away, but not before Po saw a brief tinge of pink beneath her cheek fur. "I will...consider it. But for now...I'd appreciate it if you...left me to myself."

 

The snow leopard nodded, and before he could turn and catch sight of Po in the shadows, the panda hurriedly backed around the corner, then dashed down the hall to rejoin the others. But as he went, he couldn't help but smile to himself. Maybe there was a chance Tigress would forgive him after all. Maybe there was still hope, for both of them.

                                                                       


 

Or maybe Po needed to check just how many mushrooms he'd put in his stew, or the felines'. Because the next time he heard them talk, they were so at odds with each other, and saying things he never thought he'd hear, that the panda wasn't sure which, if any of them, had lost their sanity.

 

It happened the second night of their journey northward. That day had been spent traveling from village to village, homestead to homestead, doing good deeds and charity work everywhere they encountered a need for it. Mantis had delivered innumerable sacks of rice and wheat to the more destitute farmers of the region, to aid them with their crops; Crane had flown water from hilltop wells to the houses of the elderly and infirmed who could not fetch it themselves; Po had made many a good dinner for those who had no food; Viper gave out money, whether to the poor directly or to the local temples; and Tigress and Monkey (the latter finally recovered from his binging but still rather out-of-sorts) worked on construction projects together, whether repairing damaged houses and outbuildings or erecting whole new structures for those who were homeless.

 

Throughout all of this, Tai Lung had not objected once, only aiding where he was asked by offering another willing pair of paws or a strong back for support. Those among the villagers who recognized him had been fearful at first, but once they saw he meant them no harm, most chose to ignore him—and some few began to smile in gratitude and dawning hope when he came near.

 

After such a long day of strenuous work and heavy travel, everyone was fairly exhausted, so as Po prepared the evening meal at the camp they gathered, each of the kung fu masters relaxed or otherwise occupied themselves in their own ways. Shifu meditated, while Crane and Mantis assumed their usual positions for sleep—the bird standing on one leg, bill tucked beneath one wing, while the insect posed as if he were indeed praying. Monkey began practicing the forms with his bamboo staff, muttering and murmuring to himself endlessly under his breath.

 

Viper too was muttering to herself as she peered down at a bare patch of dirt, on which she had scratched out something the panda couldn't see—a map, a drawing, even lines of poetry for all he knew, but when he tried to sidle close to get a look, the serpent swiftly wiped the soil smooth with her coils and stared at him pointedly until he took the hint and moved off.

 

Dishing up two bowls of the stew he'd prepared, Po then went to look for Tigress and Tai Lung, who almost of their own accord had drifted off into the trees, one after the other. And it was then, as he approached on silent paws along the trail, trying to avoid rustling the underbrush, that the Dragon Warrior overheard the felines again. It wasn't that he was trying to spy on them, he swore somewhat petulantly to himself. He just wanted to know if the cats would ever manage to make peace...or else be there to pry them apart before they killed each other. Sadly, what he heard made it unclear which way things were going to turn out...

 

"I cannot believe you, Tai Lung." Tigress sounded disappointed as well as angry. "And here I was beginning to believe, and to hope, that Shifu was right, and you were cured of your insanity."

 

"Insane, eh?" Surprisingly, the snow leopard seemed to be a bit desperate, not furious. "Some would think so. Hell, two weeks ago I'd have called myself mad for believing this. Actually trusting someone else with something as easily hurt as the heart? Opening yourself up till you're damn vulnerable to whatever fireworks they decide to set off under you? Making a bloody idiot out of yourself just to earn their affections? Sounds like insanity to me, woman."

 

He paused, and then his voice turned softer, but no less impassioned. "But by the same token...if wanting you with everything I have, and loving you with everything I am, makes me out of my mind, just call me Oogway. Because I'm proud of it, if it means I can be close to someone like you."

 

Po gasped and almost dropped his soup bowls. No, he didn't! Really?

 

He fully expected Tigress to explode into a whirlwind of violence, beating the snow leopard within an inch of his life until he took back such disgusting words—or at least snarl and shout at him until she ran out of steam. But she didn't. In fact when she spoke she only sounded skeptical, condescending, and yes, cold. "Uh-huh. You love me. That'd be funny, if it weren't so sad."

 

From where he stood out of sight behind a tree, the panda could see Tai Lung's fists clench instinctively, only to relax immediately. "And why is that?" he demanded tightly. "Because you think I'm not capable of real love?"

 

"No." The master of the Tiger style shook her head, even as she frowned and sighed. "I thought so once, just two weeks ago. I certainly believed it when I first spoke to you in your cell. But...I know better now. Whether I want to accept it or not, you obviously loved Shifu once...and on some level, you still do. No, the reason I know you're wrong is because it's impossible you could love me. Tai Lung, you barely know me."

 

"What's there to know?" He started ticking off points on his fingers. "You're beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed, not to mention bolder and braver than anyone I know. You're an incredible fighter, and you're the only who dares stand up to me most of the time. I think that tells me all I need."

 

Tigress rolled her eyes, then gave him a flat look. "You're even worse off than I thought. A real piece of work. You've got it all mapped out in your head, don't you? Why we're destined to be together." Before Tai Lung could do more than splutter in protest, the striped feline started making her own list, much more clinical and direct, but also with a rather stilted tone.

 

"You aren't in love with me. You're in love with the idea of being in love with me. You, the Master of the Thousand Scrolls, and me, the leader of the Furious Five. It must seem like poetic justice to you, that we should be fated to meet and become lovers. Who else is there worthy of you, after all? We're the perfect couple, and once I accept the truth, give into your charms, and fall into your arms, all of China will have to marvel at how our love was written in the stars, and we can spread a legacy of kung fu all across the land."

 

She crossed her arms and smirked mirthlessly at him. "Sounding at all familiar? Am I hitting pretty close to the mark?"

 

Hissing between clenched teeth, the snow leopard drew back. "That was uncalled for. Not to mention damn well unfair."

 

"Is it? Don't deny at least some of it is true. I don't hate you as much as I used to, Tai Lung, but even if I were willing to entertain the possibility of us getting together—which I'm not—the fact is, you mindlessly pursuing this fantasy version you have of me would always get in the way. You can't really know me, or love me, or do the right thing. Not so long as you delude yourself into thinking this warrior-wife who always defers to you, and me, are the same person." Despite the disgust and resentment in her voice, there was also an odd catch...as if she regretted this somehow, wished it weren't so. But how could that be?

 

For a long time, Tai Lung was silent, whether mulling over her words, trying to come up with proper rebuttals, or working to restrain his fearsome temper. Finally, he turned away dismissively, and Po could see, in the shadows of the forest clearing, that his expression had become bleak and furious, though with whom he didn't know. But there was also an obscure pain in his lantern-like eyes. "You may be right—partly. But that doesn't mean things can't change, or that I'm giving up. I'll fight for you."

 

Tigress seemed torn between pride that the snow leopard believed her worth fighting for and a yearning to smack sense into his stubborn skull. "And once again, we're back where we started. With you always thinking with your muscles. There are some fights that can't be won, and many things that can't be solved with fighting!"

 

His jaw clenched, quivering. "Maybe not. But I never said it was you, or your feelings, I'd be fighting. It'll be an opponent I've never succeeded in facing down before, but there's a first time for everything. And I'm going to have to, sooner or later...if not for this, than to stay on the path I'm on. Might as well start now." Narrowing his eyes, he gazed at her with a smoldering heat that made even Po uncomfortable. "But mark my words, Master Tigress. Things will change, and I'll prove to you you're wrong. Just you wait and see."

 

Forceful, even rough, his words might have been, but Po didn't think that was why Tigress looked so worried and distressed as she watched Tai Lung stalk back to camp (luckily, in a different direction than toward the panda's hiding place). And he didn't blame her. Because like the striped feline, he could also tell the snow leopard had the strength of his conviction in his voice—not only had he meant what he said, he fully believed in it. And the larger feline had such a willpower that he always received what he wanted, if he put his mind to it.

 

What that meant for the future, Po didn't know. Even as he marveled at how his thoughts of yesterday on hooking the two felines up had not been so ridiculous after all, as well as incredibly prescient, part of him wildly hoped Tai Lung would succeed, for his own sake as well as Tigress's. But as he too hurried back to camp before the striped cat discovered him lurking nearby, he was also mildly terrified at what might happen if the spotted warrior didn't get his heart's desire—and what would happen if he did.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17 Icon

 

A rumbling crash of thunder shook Po awake and made him sit up violently in bed, whimpering and terrified—and not only because of the suddenness and power of the sound. Because as a bolt of lightning luridly illumined the room, followed by another peal echoing through the heavens like kettle drums, for a few heart-stopping moments he didn't remember where he was or why.

 

Finally, as his eyesight adjusted to the darkness and details of his surroundings started filing in, he let out a series of calming breaths and ran his paws down over his face. Of course. He was in an inn, the same one he was staying at with Shifu, Tai Lung, and the Five. A fairly well-appointed one, especially for such a small village—the bed wasn't lumpy, the sheets were freshly laundered and neatly arranged, all the amenities were provided (even a fireplace and a bed warmer in which hot coals could be placed, not that either would be needed for many months yet), and it was well decorated with tapestries and hand-carved furniture. There were even fresh flowers on the windowsill.

 

And they were in a little place called Yunxian, quite near the border of Henan province, a town of forests and rivers, gently rolling fields and scattered ponds, with mountains looming over it all just to the south. They'd reached it on the third day of their travels, and while even here in a place as far away from the Valley of Peace as you could get without leaving Hubei altogether, the villagers had heard of the Furious Five, they had rarely ever received a visit. While there wasn't time to throw a parade and festival as the village headman clearly wanted to do, there had certainly been a great amount of people packing the narrow dirt streets, cheering and clapping and waving as they passed.

 

The Five, of course, were used to this sort of reception, and Shifu didn't bat an eye either, but Po had stared at it all, wide-eyed and blushing the entire time—and as for Tai Lung, between having been locked away from light, sound, and other people for twenty years and the fact it had been at least that long since anyone celebrated his appearance, the snow leopard had looked rather harried and overwhelmed himself.

 

But once the villagers had calmed down, all had settled into the normal congress they'd encountered throughout their trip—Shifu asking with his usual directness where assistance might be needed and rendered, the headman demurring and trying to insist that they were self-sufficient and could hardly impose upon such great kung fu masters, and the Five finally shoving parcels of yuan and fresh food at him until he was forced to relent.

 

After that, there had been the usual tasks and activities to see to: quite a number of roofs to repair, as well as boards to replace in sagging floors and ceilings, all of which was handled by Monkey and Tai Lung (the latter having gotten good enough at it he could work on his own); numerous tubs of heavy washing which had to be strung up on lines between buildings (a task Crane handled with a certain wry grin, since as he pointed out his time at Li Dai had made him an expert at it); a bridge which had been washed out by the recent heavy rains, its reconstruction labored over by Tigress and Mantis; Yunxian's rice paddies needed checking over for various pests, something which Master Shifu claimed to be quite proficient at but which he refused to explain; and Po and Viper had been only too happy to watch over the village's children while all this was going on.

 

Once the sun began to set, it wasn't at all surprising they were all worn out from their disparate jobs and needed to retire somewhere to rest. They'd been set to make camp in the forest again, as they had the night before, but the headman wouldn't hear of it. When he offered to sleep on the ground himself so they could stay in his own house, Shifu in turn would not hear of that; and so the inn had been a compromise.

 

Shaking his head to himself in amusement at the memory, Po sighed, rubbed his eyes again, and groaned as he forced himself up out of bed. He'd never get back to sleep with this storm pounding away, and now that he was awake he found that, as usual, his grumbling, complaining stomach needed its midnight snack. This might not be the Jade Palace but surely the inn had something good stashed in its pantry!

 

As he crept to the door as quietly as he could so as not to wake the others, however, a lull in the pouring rain made him realize they were already up—or at least two of them were, since he could hear Tigress and Viper's voices floating from the next room over. As far as he knew, neither were light sleepers, so he didn't think the weather was responsible for their being awake. What could they be discussing?

 

For what might have been the first time in the panda's life, curiosity won out over hunger. Because, though he knew the chances of it were extremely slim, he hoped they were talking about Tai Lung—specifically, the incredible tale they'd heard from Yunxian's headman, from over twenty years ago, when the snow leopard was just a teenager...

 

They all stood arrayed in the village square, bowing to the aged boar who was the headman of Yunxian. Each of them, even Po, maintained the formal façade proscribed by ritual and tradition, even as inside most of them were quite stunned by their receptionor more specifically, Tai Lung's reception. For every one of the townsfolk seemed just as deliriously happy to see the snow leopard as they were the Furious Five or the Dragon Warrior. And it wasn't as if they didn't know who he was, or had confused him with someone elsequite a number of the elders called him by name as they hobbled forward to take his paws in a palsied grip, and the children all stared at him as wide-eyed and excited as those in the Valley had at the panda.

 

When a lull finally broke in all the chattering, cheering, and gossiping, Monkey finally managed to insert himself rather rudely into the conversation. "Don't you know who he is?"

 

The boar looked at the langur as if he were dense. "Of course we do! He's the Hero Tai Lung, the one who saved this very village twenty-three years ago. Don't tell me you don't know the story?"

 

"The only story we know," Monkey retorted, "is the one where he almost destroyed our Valley and killed everyone in it."

 

A hard, suspicious gleam appeared in the pig's eyes, and he clenched his jaw firmly as he placed both hands on his hips. "I don't believe that. No one here ever has! It simply isn't possible something that terrible could have been done by our savior. And if somehow, it did happen...well, from what we heard, he might have had every right to be upset. If it were up to us, we would've given him the Dragon Scroll long ago. No offense to Master Po."

 

While Tigress and Monkey both glared at the fellow, the others all simply exchanged mystified glances. Shifu, Po noted significantly, remained silent and expressionless, neither agreeing nor disagreeing, approving nor rejecting. Finally, Crane was the one to step forward, bow again with a rustle of feathers, and ask, "I'm afraid we don't know what you're talking about. Could you, perhaps, explain?"

 

The headman's face cleared, taking on almost the giddiness of a schoolboy, as he turned and pointed behind them to the south. "Do you see that peak there? That is WuShon Mountain, a sacred place in these parts. And two decades ago, it was the place where ten thousand yaoguai tried to break through into our world, to corrupt WuShon and slay us all. There was nothing we could do, we are simple farmers and know nothing of warfare. Even if we had, what could we do against demons of fire, and in such numbers? We desperately sent out messengers for help, praying they would reach the Jade Palace in time, that Grand Master Oogway or Master Shifu here would come to our aid.

 

"They sent Tai Lung. Only fifteen summers old, already a greater warrior than many men twice his age, already a legend from the Yangtze to the Gobi. And we are forever grateful that they did."

 

Po stirred, swallowing hard as his eyes bulged in disbelief. He had heard this tale before...but he had never known it was Tai Lung whom it centered around. Apparently, after his rampage, his name had been expunged from the legend. But the confrontation itself was unmistakablehe knew it so well, and had memorized it as a cub, that it was no surprise it had figured prominently in his dreams. The very day he'd been chosen as the Dragon Warrior, he had dreamed it, inserting himself into the heroic role as he always had...

 

Mantis, meanwhile, was speaking. "So what exactly did he do?" He didn't seem to be leading the conversation but genuinely curiousdespite being older than all of them, he must have been elsewhere in China at the time and so had not heard the rumors.

 

The boar grinned delightedly, his eyes shining and voice awed. "Well, since they were demons they only came out at night, which gave him all day to scout out the lay of the land, figure out just what kind of strategy to use. He put some of us to work making scarecrows dressed up to look like monks, because he knew yaoguai seek out holy men and women above all else; then he joined our quarrymen in hollowing out tunnels under a fallow field at the base of the mountain, and had our carpenters build structural supports to hold the ceilings up that could be knocked down or pulled free if struck in just the right place. Then he waited for nightfall."

 

Everyone, except for the skeptical and grumpy Monkey, listened raptly, spellbound, as the headman's voice became hushed and intense, instinctively taking on just the right traits of a storyteller continuing a sacred oral tradition.

 

"When darkness covered the land, they came, and they were a frightful sight indeed. Horrible claws, enormous horns, eyes that burned with flames and mouths that roared like furnaces in faces like fleshless skulls. There seemed to be no end to them, they flowed across the fields like waves in a black sea. But Tai Lung stood his ground, and all alone. He had hidden himself inside one of the scarecrows, waiting for just the right moment to spring his trap.

 

"The yaoguai suspected nothing, they believed there was no one who could stop them from scaling the peak and absorbing its holy energy. When they saw what seemed to be an army of warrior monks ready to dispatch them back to the underworld, they rushed forward with cries of delight...but as soon as they ignited one rank of scarecrows to discover they were only straw men, they gave out unearthly howls of rage instead.

 

"And it was then Tai Lung burst out of his disguise. He...he was a whirlwind, I still don't know how he did it! He seemed to be everywhere at once, kicking, punching, twisting, flipping so nimbly it was as if he'd vanished from one place to appear in another. He had a weapon of some sort, a sword so sharp I couldn't even look at it for long...but it changed somehow when he held it, it turned into a huge, double-bladed halberd! It must have been magical, because he mowed them down with it, split rank after rank of demons so they just...dissolved into mist.

 

"Only when the yaoguai almost had him completely surrounded did Tai Lung retreatand even then it was only to set off his trap. There was this boulder, embedded in the soil...he dislodged it with one punch, sent it flying up in the air, and then leaped up himself to kick it all the way across the battlefield. It smashed apart the log he'd propped up, to hold another boulder in place, and it rolled right down into the tunnels we'd made for him, breaking all the wooden supports. Without those, all that hollow earth couldn't support the weight of the demons...it collapsed, making a huge chasm, and they all fell into it.

 

"But Tai Lung wasn't there anymore. He'd scaled the cliff face, so light on his feet he didn't even seem to touch the ground. He looked like he was leaping at random, but he was actually striking all the weak points he'd found in the cliff...and when he got to the top, he turned around and swung his weapon, which had turned into a broadsword again. It...it flashed green, and sent out this arc of super-sharpened airthat's the only thing that makes sense. Because when it struck the cliff face, it slashed right through the rock. And the whole mountainside below his ledge sheared right off, and fell. It swept the demons down off the peak, back into the gorge...and buried them. When the dust settled, that was what we saw."

 

And he pointed again to WuShon, this time indicating a huge pile of scree and rubble which lined the entire base of the mountain on one sideovergrown with grass, trees, and vines after twenty years, so that they wouldn't have been able to recognize it for what it was if the boar hadn't drawn their attention to it.

 

"They were entombed there, and there they remain to this day. Sealed off from our world for all time, we hope. They certainly haven't bothered our village again since that day. And it's all because of Tai Lung."

 

As the headman's vindicated voice died away into silence again, all of them took turns staring at him, at the distant mountain, and at Tai Lungexcept Shifu, who only gave a small smile of pride and nodded in satisfaction, and the snow leopard himself who was staring wordlessly at his feet. He seemed to be fighting two warring impulsesthe desire to stand up tall and puff out his chest at this great deed, and the equally strong desire to slump over and hide his face in shame at what he had done with his life since then.

 

Finally, Tigress turned to the spotted feline and spoke, her voice as neutral and non-accusatory as she could make it. "You used the Sword of Heroes."

 

Tai Lung looked up at last, met her gaze unflinchingly. "That's right."

 

Her gaze shifted to the red panda. "I thought you were the only one to have used it."

 

Shifu raised an eyebrow. "I told all of you I had done so; I never said I was the only one. And Tai Lung wielded it with just as much courage and strength as I did. More so, in fact, since he was fighting to defend the innocent...and I employed it for revenge." A sorrowful look crossed his mustached facebut then it became one of pointed determination. "So I would ask all of you to remember that, my students...before you decide you truly know a heart."

 

Snapping out of his reverie as another crash of thunder reverberated through the inn, Po couldn't help but still grin sappily to himself. He didn't know if the others had been as deeply affected by the tale as he had—he suspected Monkey and Tigress certainly had not been, as for whatever reasons they were the last holdouts on giving Tai Lung a chance.

 

All that mattered to him though was that this seemed like a sign to him. It had to mean something that the kung fu legend which had always awed and excited him the most growing up, the one which he'd latched onto for dream fuel for years, had turned out to be a feat the snow leopard had performed, long ago. It had to...

 

Again he heard the voices of Tigress and Viper coming from their room down the hall, and even though part of his mind registered the fact they sounded rather emotional and impassioned, he found he couldn't hold back any longer. He had to talk to someone, or he would burst. He had to tell them about his dreams, find out if they meant anything.

 

Hurrying down the hallway, heedless of the squeaking, he hesitated only briefly by the door, then knocked even as he was opening it to peer inside. "Master Tigress? Master Viper? What's going on, can I come in? I just gotta...oh."

 

The looks both females gave him could have frozen fire, and he could easily understand why. Viper's makeup was smeared, both of them seemed a bit teary-eyed, their faces were only a few inches apart, and Tigress was cradling the serpent in her arms, giving her what appeared to be a tight embrace, while Viper's tail was wrapped around the feline's middle. "Um...okay then. I can...see you're busy. I'll...just be going..."

 

"Panda!" Tigress snapped testily, though he thought she sounded a bit worried. "It's not what it looks like." Hearing that only made it worse though, as even one with his inexperience knew what that was code for.

 

Viper, disengaging from the striped feline, was both blushing and chuckling ruefully now as she crawled over to him. "We were just apologizing to each other, Po. I pushed her a little too hard, when we were going to the Thread of Hope, and she overreacted a little. That's all."

 

"Oh...oh! Thank goodness." Open muzzle, insert paw. "I thought—"

 

"We know what you thought," Tigress retorted, drumming her fingers on her arms.

 

"Not that there's anything wrong with that!" he hurriedly backpedaled. "Just kinda...came outta nowhere there. Yeah."

 

For several long minutes, they all stared at each other, very uncomfortably. Then, as another bolt of lightning illuminated the room, Tigress finally said, "Anyway, what are you doing here? Couldn't sleep either?"

 

"Nope," Po agreed quickly, quite eager to change the subject, and not just because of what he'd wanted to tell them in the hallway—which had, in fact, almost been driven completely out of his mind by what he'd seen. "So um...other than apologizin', what're you guys up to?"

 

Viper exchanged a glance with Tigress, then inexplicably smiled in a naughty, suggestive fashion. "Well...I thought we could have a slumber party, of sorts. Though I was going to invite the other boys, too."

 

"Really? Sweet! Want me to bring some snacks?" When they both looked at him in exasperation, he rolled his eyes. "Don't worry, I'll leave some money down in the kitchen for the innkeeper. I may be a lotta things, but I ain't no thief."

 

He bit his lip, again wondering if he should talk to them about the yaoguai and his dream...though neither kung fu master had said so, he was fairly certain their argument had something to do with Tai Lung, so bringing the snow leopard up again, even in connection to a clearly heroic tale, would probably be a bad idea.

 

His worried thoughts were interrupted when Tigress gave a high sigh, and after narrowing her eyes suspiciously at Viper, shook her head in resignation. "Fine. But be quick about it, now that you mention it I'm rather hungry too. We'll see to getting the others." Something in her crafty look, which was almost as naughty as the serpent's had been, implied the rest of the Five and Tai Lung would not appreciate how she fetched them...or how she woke them, if they weren't already up...

 

In about fifteen minutes or so, Po had returned from the kitchen with a large bowl of still warm dumplings, some steamed spinach, and a jug of cider (since even if he'd been willing to drink alcohol, he rather thought that would be the last thing Monkey would want to see right now). When he did so, the storm (though somewhat calmer) still continued outside, and the other males had all gathered in Tigress's room—where Viper had come when she couldn't sleep. Monkey seemed as irascible as he had ever since the Ghost Festival—though who would enjoy being woken out of a sound sleep?—and Tai Lung, bleary-eyed and with sleep-snarled fur, glared about just as nastily. "All right, what's the big idea? I'd just gotten to sleep, damn it."

 

On the other hand, both Crane and Mantis, who were light sleepers, didn't seem particularly perturbed at being summoned, in fact they looked curious. And they didn't have to wait long to find out the answer to Tai Lung's question, for even as they all gathered together on the rush mat and Po began passing out the food and drink, Viper produced from under the bed something she'd apparently stashed there while the panda was in the kitchen—a small book in some foreign language.

 

"I thought we'd play a game," she said, both brightly and deviously.

 

Tai Lung immediately groaned openly. "You woke me up for this? That is just indecent and immoral, and I don't know if I like you anymore, Master Viper."

 

Po started to laugh, while the others merely exchanged skeptical looks. "What kind of game?" Crane finally ventured to ask.

 

The serpent slithered forward and laid the book down on the mat, opening it to a page she'd had marked. Her eyes twinkled merrily. "Well, you know how I like reading imported books from other lands, right?"

 

"Yes, we're well aware of your tastes," Tigress said dryly. "They usually involve men and women caught in compromising positions."

 

Viper flushed, then made a disparaging noise. "So I like romance! Not like I'm getting any around here...anyway, this isn't like that. I found out about a game that I think would be a lot of fun to play, and it'd certainly help us pass the time until the storm quits. It's called Truth or Dare."

 

Immediately Mantis chuckled, low and deep, as apparently he'd heard of the game in question. The others merely looked confused. "I...don't know if I like the sound of that," Crane finally said.

 

"Oh, don't knock it till you've tried it, Crane," Viper dismissed his concern. "It's really quite simple. We just go around the room and ask everyone 'Truth or Dare?' If the person chooses truth, they have to answer the question put to them, and they can't lie no matter how revealing or embarrassing their answer might be. If they choose dare, then they have to—"

 

"I think we get it," Tai Lung cut her off, even as he levered himself to his feet, cracked his neck, and started to turn away. "And I think I've heard enough. There's no way in hell I'm playing anything, let alone that game, with all of you."

 

"Why not?" Viper demanded. "It's just harmless fun, and I've always wanted to try it out."

 

"You're joking. Tell me you're joking!" The snow leopard turned back, and although he was angry and annoyed, there seemed to be a genuine confusion in his voice. "D'you really think I'd subject myself to something that only a group of giggling women would enjoy? Or that I'd give any of you the chance to dare me to do humiliating things? No, thank you, I will keep my dignity if it's all the same to you."

 

Once again he turned to leave, and this time he made it to the door before Monkey called out, "Don't tell me you're afraid, cat."

 

Tai Lung froze in place, tail lashing and fur puffing slightly, then wheeled back to glare coldly at the langur. "And where would you get an idiotic idea like that? What could I possibly have to be afraid of from a silly game?"

 

"I don't know, you tell me." Monkey crossed his arms over his chest and gave him a considering look. "Or d'you got something to hide?"

 

Watching this, Po couldn't blame Tai Lung for being wary. Not only was the snow leopard a very private person who didn't like confiding secrets about himself to others—the only times the panda had gotten him to do so were when they were alone or with Master Shifu—but he himself didn't like the idea of accepting dares anymore than the feline did.

 

Because sure as anything, Tai Lung would likely pick on Po the entire time, demanding he do increasingly ridiculous and infantile stunts just to soothe his ego and in some obscure way prove himself superior to the Dragon Warrior. Then again, if that was what Tai Lung needed to salve his wounded pride...it wasn't as if Po hadn't been humiliated before, he'd gotten used to it. And it sounded like this game wasn't really malicious, so it would all be meant in good, clean fun.

 

He opened his mouth to support the snow leopard's decision, but also to add he was sure certain elements among the Five could learn to restrain themselves somewhat for the duration of the game—when Tigress got there first. Arms crossed rather defiantly over her chest, she sniffed disdainfully.

 

"Cowardice has nothing to do with it. And I for one think he's right. I didn't want to do a 'slumber party' in the first place, Viper had to twist my arm to get me to submit to it. This just seems like a frivolous waste of time to me. I'd much rather be meditating, or doing the forms down in the dining hall—there's plenty of room there."

 

All eyes turned to her, then to the ex-convict, and Po's jaw was actually hanging open. Tigress, and Tai Lung...agreeing on something? Should I be checkin' the almanac for an eclipse? Or lookin' out the window for a red comet?

 

However, even as all of them were still trying to come to terms with this impossibility, the snow leopard was leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed himself but much more casually. And he was grinning at his fellow feline in a way Po wasn't sure he liked. "On second thought, maybe I will play—but only if Tigress does."

 

Was the master of the Tiger style blushing in embarrassment, or flushing in fury?

 

There was no time to really ponder the matter though, because immediately the rest of the Five were all importuning their leader to be a good sport and join in—or, when she seemed particularly recalcitrant, turning to make their appeals to Tai Lung. Po was fairly certain most of them were doing so only because they wanted the snow leopard in on the act, not because they cared about Tigress's involvement, but even though he wasn't sure having both of them play was a good idea, he couldn't help begging Tai Lung too. It seemed like the best chance yet to get him to open up, reveal more about himself, and establish common bonds with the Five. And there was so much he wanted to know!

 

"Aww, c'mon big guy! I'll give ya all the free food you can eat!"

 

"You do that already," Tai Lung observed wryly, not without a bit of warmth and appreciation.

 

"Please, Tigress?" Viper wheedled. "I'll buy you that jade and ivory comb you had your eye on down in the marketplace."

 

"How did you know I—no!"

 

Monkey held up one hand to Tai Lung and solemnly promised, "I swear, I won't make you do anything stupid."

 

"You're a terrible liar. You know that, right?"

 

"Tigress, you know you have to do this," Mantis put in intensely under his breath. "Look what's on the line here—we're never gonna get a better chance to make a fool out of Tai Lung!"

 

Po pleaded with Tai Lung again. "Look, don't you wanna get to know everybody better, and get them to like ya? Plus, when's the last time you really had fun, anyway?"

 

The snow leopard sighed and actually looked less belligerent, for a few moments at least. "Yes, panda. Or at least, I know if I'm going to be staying at the Jade Palace for the foreseeable future, I need to learn to get along with all of you. But that's not going to happen from a touchy-feely party game! Which, by the way, also isn't my idea of fun."

 

Tigress, who seemed to be wavering, pricked her ears at Tai Lung's words, then turned back to the others with a pointed scowl. "Even if I wanted to do this, what happens if...someone...refuses to do a dare? It won't even work if we don't all follow the rules."

 

Hearing this, Viper smiled a little too sweetly, flicked her eyes to the other feline as well, and then said, "Why, that's simple, Tigress. If anyone won't participate properly, or even won't participate at all, we can just tell Master Shifu all about it, and let him set the punishment. He does want us all to learn to work together, after all...he probably would be rather unhappy if he heard someone wouldn't take part in this..."

 

That settled it. As soon as everyone heard their master's name brought into it, especially Tai Lung and Tigress, all of the kung fu warriors hurriedly agreed that they would play along—from the rather ashen look on both cats' faces, and even Crane's (who hadn't seemed particularly eager to accept dares either), none of them wanted to know just what torture the red panda would devise once Viper tattled on them.

 

And Po couldn't blame them—while he'd not been at the temple nearly as long as any of his idols, he'd already had more than enough hellish experiences courtesy of Shifu to last him a lifetime. And that had just been from the training!

 

So, as thunder continued to rumble and rain hiss and splatter against the windows outside, and the shadows of the trees shook and tossed across the ceiling in each flash of lightning, the seven of them all took their seats in a circle surrounding the crockery and dishware. Tai Lung, of course, grumbled the entire time—and as soon as he saw the big grins on the faces of Mantis and Monkey, surely due to privately gloating as they thought up painful questions to ask and ridiculous challenges to set, the snow leopard could only mutter, "Oh, damn it all..."

 

After several minutes of awkward silence, during which some of them munched on Po's snacks and the rest stared at each other uncertainly, Viper finally laid out the ground rules. "We'll just go around the circle, you can ask whoever you want, though they always get the choice of truth or dare. Once they've answered, they can turn the question back on the person who asked them, or they can choose someone else, unless they can't think of anything. And no one can be asked twice in a row—if you do, then we get to ask you twice in return."

 

Tai Lung grunted sourly, but everyone else simply nodded in understanding. Another silence fell over them, and then finally Po inquired, "So, uh...who gets to start?"

 

Viper smiled at him winsomely. "Why don't you do the honors, Po? You are the newest one here...I bet you have all kinds of things you'd love to ask us." The snow leopard groaned audibly, but what was even more noticeable was the fact Crane, Monkey, and Mantis also joined in. Po couldn't help but pout at that; did they really still find him that annoying and off-putting? He'd tried to tone it down ever since he knuckled under and entered real training with Master Shifu...

 

Interlacing his fingers, the panda flicked his eyes from one master to the next, then finally settled on Mantis, who gazed at him unblinkingly with his beady eyes. "Uh...okay, Mantis. Truth or dare?"

 

"Truth," the insect said warily.

 

"How exactly...do you bathe?"

 

Everyone burst out laughing, but Po persisted. "No, I mean, really—how do you? Viper can curl herself to hold things, that's how she puts on her make-up. But you've just got those...thingies. They can't hold soap, or a sponge or cloth..."

 

When he'd finally managed to get control of himself again, Mantis smirked. "I've got four words for you, Po: sponge on a stick."

 

"...What?"

 

"You heard me. I've got a sponge, on a stick. Bought it at a specialty store. Really good for those hard-to-reach places, too."

 

In spite of the funk he'd seemed to have settled into, Monkey chuckled appreciatively at that. "Sponge on a stick...sounds like a punch line to one of your jokes, Mantis. Gotta remember that one..."

 

After everyone had settled down again, Mantis couldn't think of anything to ask Po, so instead he turned to Tai Lung, the next in the line—and once it had been settled (unsurprisingly) that the snow leopard would be truthfully answering a question, the insect shocked the panda to the core with what he asked. "How and when did you lose your virginity?"

 

Viper almost inhaled a dumpling, Crane sprayed the floor with cider, and Po turned so red he swore he could have fried won tons on his cheeks. "What?" Tai Lung cried in disbelief.

 

"You heard me. A big, tough, manly cat like you must've been quite the hit with the ladies in your day. Bet you had 'em lining up for you whenever you came down from the palace. So tell us all about it." Mantis clasped his pincers expectantly.

 

"I will not tell you all about it! That is strictly private, and none of your business, and—"

 

Monkey cupped a hand beside his mouth and half-turned toward the doorway, calling in a squeaky falsetto, "Yoo-hoo, Master Shifu! Tai Lung just isn't cooperating..."

 

Looking quite trapped and distressed, the snow leopard hurriedly raised both paws in an up-and-down, dampening gesture. "Keep it down! All right, you've made your point. But the thing of it is...I can't tell you."

 

"Why?" Tigress narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "Was it that awful? The girl wasn't willing? You mistreated her? You were just sowing wild oats, so it meant nothing?"

 

"No, I..." He hung his head, and his voice dropped to a whisper. "I can't tell you because...I haven't lost it."

 

Dead silence met this pronouncement, with more than one face blank with astonishment or sporting a skeptically raised eyebrow. Then the laughter started up even more uproariously than before.

 

"What's so funny?" the snow leopard snapped, fuming. "Sod off, I've been in prison for twenty years! Not exactly a range of opportunities there."

 

"Yeah, but what about before that?" Mantis snickered. "You saying Shifu was that strict, never let you off your leash to go down to the village?"

 

"No! Well, yes, but that's not the point!" Tai Lung's paws clenched visibly. "D'you think I was taking the qipaos off of girls every time I turned around? I had a lot more important things on my mind, unlike you. All I ever wanted was the Dragon Scroll. I wasn't about to jeopardize my chances of getting it just to satisfy some base urge and put notches in my bedpost! Shifu would've let me have one night out on the town when I was sixteen, one night of freedom from obligations to pass as I wished. But I refused. I thought I was to be the Dragon Warrior—I would be out performing great heroic deeds, defending China, not running around boffing anything that moved."

 

The disgust lacing his voice was quite evident, as well as a certain bitterness and regret. Po thought he understood—he had given up his entire life for the scroll, so he could make his father happy and proud. Knowing now he wasn't the Dragon Warrior and never could be must make all those sacrifices seem even more painful and worthless.

 

"Maybe someday I would've considered it...tried settling down, raising a family. But I had that chance taken away from me, so we'll never know, will we?" Tai Lung shook his head. "In the end, it doesn't matter. Kung fu was my life...still is. Doesn't leave room for emotional attachments and petty concerns like that."

 

Out of the corner of his eye, Po saw that Tigress's sneer had faded completely into stunned understanding. There was also, unless he missed his guess, a gleam of respect in her eyes (most likely for the snow leopard turning out not to be a womanizing beast)...and more than a little uncertainty. Perhaps what he'd said had hit a little too close to home for her, and she had recognized more than she wanted to of herself in him...

 

Meanwhile, Mantis and Monkey were still chuckling, causing a definite bent for murder to gleam in those golden eyes. "Hang it all, would you please quit laughing?" He skewered the simian with his glare.

 

"Sorry," Monkey giggled, not sounding it at all. "It's just, I can't believe...at your age, and you've never been with a girl?"

 

"I don't see you dating much, monkey boy!"

 

The langur smirked knowingly. "You'd be surprised. But it's not my turn to answer."

 

"Fine then." The snow leopard whirled on Mantis, his persecutor. "Same question to you then, twiggy. When were you first with a woman?"

 

For a moment the insect looked a little flustered himself, but then his expression cleared and he winked. "Well, I can tell you it wasn't with one of my own kind, or I wouldn't be here today. It was years ago, before anyone but the spotty cat here and Crane were born. As for what happened...I'll only say that a girl out there is now thoroughly convinced that size doesn't matter." He smirked, to the chorus of groans from everyone.

 

Once that had died down, he then looked back to Po, apparently having thought of something after all. The panda, afraid Mantis was about to ask him about his sex life, tremulously accepted a dare instead...only that turned out to be worse, as the insect proceeded to ask him to imitate what Tai Lung was acting like during their battle for the Dragon Scroll...as exactly and truthfully as he could, down to the last little detail.

 

Cringing, and swearing to himself he would sit on Mantis later for this, Po did exactly that...and by the time he'd finished covering everything from the pitiful mew when he'd bitten his own tail, to how he'd looked as Po sat on him, to the way he'd staggered out of the snow-leopard-shaped crater, and the brief, relieved smile when he thought Po didn't know the Wuxi Finger Hold, everyone but Viper and Tigress were shedding tears of mirth.

 

Very slowly, Po turned to look at Tai Lung, trying to be as sheepish and apologetic as he could—nevertheless, the feline was more mortified, infuriated, and hateful than he'd seen him since their combat. He didn't know if this was all directed at him, or if some was also meant for Mantis and Monkey, but in any case he was certain he'd soon be taking the brunt of the feline's wrath, a fact which made the panda rather nervous.

 

And he was right to be worried. Because once all was calm again, the fiendish gleam in Tai Lung's golden eyes, and the way he crossed his arms smugly over his chest, perfectly matched his drawling voice as he revealed he had nothing good planned for his former adversary. "All right, panda, truth or dare?"

 

Po sighed and girded himself. Might as well get it over with now. "Dare."

 

The feline grinned evilly. "Dragon Warrior...I dare you to stand up, bend over, and try to touch the tips of your toes without bending your knees."

 

Again the room burst out in laughter, although Po noticed through his deep flush of shame that while Viper wasn't part of it, Tigress wasn't joining in on it either. Of course, she never had—when he'd overheard the Five discussing him while climbing the steps to the bunkhouse that first night, she had been angry, contemptuous, dismissive, but never directly mocking and certainly not making jokes at his expense. He had hoped the others had gotten over their disparagement of him, but it seemed Monkey, Mantis, and Crane couldn't resist a few needling jabs—or at least that they still saw the humorous implications of it all.

 

He wasn't going to refuse, though. Even apart from whatever terrible retribution Shifu would have in store for him, he wasn't going to give Tai Lung the satisfaction of seeing him give up. Whether the snow leopard came up with this all on his own, or had heard stories from Monkey and Mantis, didn't really matter; if the male members of the Five still had doubts about him, he would prove himself to them, too! And as had been the case in the kwoon...if humiliating himself was what it took to get Tai Lung to like and accept him, so be it.

 

Besides, he'd been working out. A little. He could do this now. And after what Mantis had made him do, he probably deserved this. Especially after he'd been so awed and excited by the tale of the WuShon fire demons.

 

Setting his jaw and fixing his gaze determinedly on the group of laughing males, he slid back on the mat, wriggled his rump, and leaned forward to support himself on his paws while he got his feet under him. In less than a minute he'd levered himself upright and stood looking down at the seated masters, whose laughter was now dying away as they saw the resolute expression on his broad face. Even Tai Lung seemed startled, and Viper looked very concerned. "Po...you don't have to do this."

 

"No. No, I do. Don't worry, I'll be fine. I've been practicin'." Taking a deep breath, he lifted his arms to shoulder height and swung them back and forth a few times to work himself up, then sucked in his gut as much as he could before snapping his legs straight and bending down.

 

He tried his best. He really did. And he almost made it, too! But just when he thought his fingers would touch his toes, the breath he'd been holding escaped, his belly bulged out—and suddenly top-heavy again, he tumbled forward, rolled across the floor, and smashed into the opposite wall. Luckily his belly also cushioned the blow, and the room next door wasn't occupied so he didn't disturb anyone's sleep. But as he tried to sit up again, his head quite dizzy, naturally he heard a great deal of laughter—with Tai Lung joining in.

 

"That was not funny," Viper retorted, as she slithered over to check on Po. "And also very unfair to Po. Don't ever ask him to do anything like that again. And you!" She turned then to glare at Mantis and Monkey. "Don't egg Tai Lung on like that! This was supposed to be a way to have fun, not to mock people or laugh at their pain. You especially should know better, Monkey! If I hear one more humiliating dare like that from either of you, I'll be talking to Shifu myself. Got it?"

 

That shut the laughing males up. All three of them had the grace to look abashed and apologize to Po, while even Tai Lung looked discomfited, avoiding looking at Tigress the whole while—who looked rather offended and upset by the treatment of the panda as well. And Mantis, who had been as impressed as anyone by the story the headman had told them, also made it a point to apologize to Tai Lung, saying his joke had only been meant in fun.

 

"It's okay, it's okay," Po said as he sat up and put a paw to his head with a groan. "'S'all just part of the game, right? Brought it on myself anyway...I should've taken the punishment from Master Shifu, instead of that dare...sorry, big guy..."

 

The snow leopard sighed and shook his head. "No, she's right, I took it too far, and I shouldn't have let them get to me." He glanced at Viper and Tigress again. "That was two dares in a row...so I suppose that means I have to suffer two now?" The serpent nodded, and Tai Lung forced himself to relax even as he murmured to himself. "It may just have been worth it...all right, fire away."

 

Surprisingly, it was Tigress who went next, and she seemed willing to go easy on him, perhaps because after Tai Lung's admission of his...chastity, she hadn't enjoyed what Mantis had made Po do anymore than the snow leopard had. "Truth or dare, Tai Lung."

 

He winced. "Truth."

 

She paused to gather her thoughts, then asked, "Other than not receiving the Dragon Scroll, what is your biggest regret?"

 

Po blinked; he heard someone (he thought it was Crane) whistle low. Tai Lung himself, however, seemed to take it in stride—at least he didn't look angry, merely thoughtful and a bit melancholy.

 

The minutes ticked by as the rain pattered and drummed on the inn roof, and then finally the snow leopard seemed to come to a decision and began to speak.

 

"I was eleven years old. Master Shifu had received a message from the southern cliffs, saying there'd been a freak wind storm, and the Thread of Hope had been snapped. A merchant train, as well as a group of villagers on a pilgrimage to the southern temples, had been caught on it when it fell, and they needed to be rescued. I raced there as fast as I could...when I got there, I found the bridge had fallen in two segments, and those who hadn't already fallen were hanging on the near side. I pulled up so many people, I lost count...and when I'd saved all the ones near the top, I tried to haul the bridge itself up, to get the others closer to the safety of the plateau...but...I couldn't."

 

He looked up from his paws, flexing them instinctively. "I...I saved as many as I could, but there were many who fell before I could get to them...and I couldn't lift the bridge fast enough.

 

"That's what I regret," Tai Lung finished at last. "Not being strong enough..."

 

Everyone was silent for a long time, not knowing what to say. Even Monkey was sobered by the experience, while Mantis looked like he wanted to scuttle over and rest his pincers on the big cat's leg. But it was Tigress who placed a paw on his shoulder and nodded. "I understand."

 

Crane, who still seemed quite upset at how he'd allowed himself to be amused by both Po's predicament and Tai Lung's humiliating defeat by the Dragon Warrior, cleared his throat uncomfortably. Then he tried to smile broadly, apparently attempting to cheer the snow leopard up. "Um...I won't even ask you, Tai Lung, this'll be an automatic truth question. What did you enjoy doing most with Master Shifu, as you were growing up in the Valley?"

 

"You mean, aside from kung fu training?" the spotted feline asked sardonically. When Crane nodded, he rubbed his chin musingly and then chuckled a little. "Well, before I got so wrapped up in studying to master all the thousand scrolls, I'd have to say...fishing."

 

"Fishing?" Crane echoed.

 

"That's right," Tai Lung replied, a bit defensively. "There are a hell of a lot of little streams running through the Valley, you know. And we'd go up in the mountains, too. He always tried to make it some kind of training exercise to hide what he was up to—hand-to-eye coordination, instilling patience in me, not to trust appearances, that sort of thing. But I knew what he was really up to...and it was...relaxing." He smirked, showing off a fanged grin. "Not to mention a very different sort of battle, where you got to eat the loser."

 

Mantis snickered. "Typical cat."

 

The bird, on the other hand, was smiling, and rested his wing feathers on Tai Lung's arm. "Hey, maybe you and I should try that sometime, then. Maybe you didn't notice, but I like to eat fish, too."

 

He clacked his bill suggestively, drawing a barking laugh from the snow leopard. "You're on!"

 

Another few moments passed, during which everyone looked at each other in a much more friendly and amused fashion—except for Tigress, who seemed rather disgruntled at yet another mention of the close ties and warm relationship the snow leopard had once shared with Shifu which she had not. Then they all resumed their seats in the circle, and Po finally clapped his paws together as he looked around at them all. "All right, this one goes out to all of the Furious Five, then: did you have to pose for your action figures? And if so, why'd you pick the poses you did?" The five masters groaned.

 

And so it went, for the better part of an hour, as questions and dares flew fast and at times sarcastically around the circle. Monkey asked Crane how many times he'd taken embarrassing falls while learning to fly as a chick (he'd lost count between five and ten). Tigress challenged Viper to go a full day without her make-up (something which made the reptile go very pale), but then the serpent got her revenge by daring Tigress to wear the make-up instead, along with her flower headdress.

 

The striped feline then coerced Tai Lung into finally accepting a dare—at which point she insisted he had to take over cleaning the communal bathhouse for a whole month. Snarling under his breath, he shot one right back at her by forcing her to admit to a 'girly' pastime—after much frowning and dithering, the fact that she enjoyed getting a deep massage and other beauty treatments at the local sauna. This, she snapped, was something she usually avoided since it was something only single women with no jobs or rich wives indulged in...which only made Tai Lung chuckle and surmise that made her a single woman with no job.

 

Just for that little sally, Po dared Tai Lung to praise him, the way the panda had been hero-worshipping the ex-convict for the past two weeks. Surprisingly, the snow leopard was a good sport about it, and while a couple of his digs were not much better than those of the Five (flaming balls from the sky and the ground shaking when he walked were once again brought up), quite a number of laughs greeted his over-the-top, highly melodramatic re-enactment of his speech at the Thread of Hope.

 

Then, surely to get back at the simian for his earlier teasing regarding still retaining his virginity, Tai Lung demanded to know Monkey's most embarrassing moment—which, of course, proved to be the day he slipped on a banana peel and his pants fell down around his ankles. Monkey, seeming to have learned his lesson, challenged Tai Lung to do something completely ridiculous but not really demeaning—burying his muzzle in Po's belly and blowing hard, a feat which made both of them dissolve into laughter after only a minute or so.

 

Sitting up and trying to recover some semblance of dignity, the snow leopard then turned to Crane and asked him, in all seriousness, just where and how he'd learned to write such beautiful calligraphy. Blushing furiously, the bird had ducked his head until only his hat could be seen, mumbling it had been at the Li Dai Academy, and from an old friend. He then turned to Po and asked him an old stand-by: if he could be anyone else in the room for a day, who would he choose?

 

The panda didn't even hesitate, immediately naming Tigress, as she was his favorite among the Furious Five, the most awesome hero, and always would be...a statement which actually made her cheeks flush darkly and a small smile of pleasure appear on her lips. He'd beamed right back at her, his heart thudding hard in his chest as he witnessed what he hoped was a mending of fences between them, Tigress accepting that he could be Tai Lung's friend without snubbing her.

 

After that renewed hope, another bubbly and random query then came from the Dragon Warrior, something he'd always wanted to know of Viper: just how did she pay for all her beauty accessories and the romance novels she imported? The serpent had a very simple reply, too: she sold her venom to traveling healers, for usage in making antidotes.

 

By this time, the storm finally seemed to be breaking up outside, as the thunder had retreated faintly into the distance, the lightning now flashed only infrequently, and the rain and wind were only a soft sighing and dripping beyond the windows. Taking that as a cue to bring the game to a close, Viper at last rose up and pursed her lips consideringly, looking around the room one more time before she at last rested her eyes on Tai Lung. "All right, last one for the night, and then I think we'll all be able to get some sleep. But I have to warn you—it's a dare."

 

Tai Lung grinned lopsidedly at her, seeming much more relaxed and at ease than he'd ever been in their presence; despite how the Truth or Dare had started, Po had to commend Viper for the idea, since it had apparently done the trick. All of them were much friendlier and enjoying each other's company, with Tai Lung the most laid back of all, his paws clasped loosely behind his head as he leaned back against the bedpost. "Very well, I've made it this far and weathered everything you all threw at me. What can one more hurt?"

 

As if she'd been waiting to hear just such an admission, Viper bared her fangs briefly in a naughty smile (which made Po wonder just how wise it had been to give her free rein), and then she said, nonchalantly, "I'm glad you said that. Because I dare you to kiss Tigress. Right now. With tongue." And she sat back with a very smug expression.

 

Silence, for a few heartbeats...and then everything started happening at once. Mantis collapsed in laughter on the floor, his legs actually kicking in the air. Po just missed spilling the rest of the cider jug as it slipped from his slack grip. Crane leaned against the wall and started fanning himself as if he felt faint. And everyone else started talking, or rather arguing, over one another.

 

"That is patently unfair!" Tai Lung burst out, sitting up and stabbing a finger toward Tigress. "That makes whether I meet your terms entirely dependent on someone else. It involves two people instead of one, it shouldn't count!"

 

Viper continued to look, ironically, like the cat that swallowed the canary. "Ah ah, I never said more than one person couldn't be involved in a dare, just that only one had to be. Theoretically, there could have been a dare made for all seven of us. And anyway, you already did a dare involving someone else when you blew on Po's belly."

 

"A blessed loophole!"

 

"What ever gave you the idea I'd agree to something like that?" Tigress snarled, her claws unsheathed and brandished at the serpent; apparently their apology of earlier had been forgotten. "I'd sooner kiss a pig! A dirty, smelly pig!"

 

"Goodness, princess," the snow leopard smirked suggestively at her. "Am I really as bad as all that? Why don't you tell me how you really feel?"

 

"I wouldn't kiss you if you were the last man on earth!"

 

Mantis let out another whooping gale of laughter.

 

"Good, because she's not going to!" Monkey stalked over and positioned himself between the cats, glaring down at Viper. "What d'you think you're trying to pull, Viper? Even if Tai Lung do change, he ain't never gonna be anything but a friend to any of us."

 

The serpent rose up on her coils and met the simian's gaze unflinchingly, even as she maintained the same bemused smile. "It's just a little harmless fun. And if a friend's all he'll ever be, and it doesn't mean anything, then what's the problem?"

 

Po shot her a sharp glance, as suddenly things made sense—a scary kind of sense. She knew. She knew that there was a spark of something between the felines, that at least one of them had designs on the other, who was in turn resisting. And she was trying to... Oh no. This is gonna be a disaster. She's been readin' too many romance novels!

 

Meanwhile, Tai Lung was now glaring at Tigress with as much molten heat as she was—apparently her last shot had crossed the line from humorous to outright insulting. "Well that's a bit unfortunate for you, eh? Because I am the last man on earth. The last real one, anyway."

 

Mantis, who had started to wind down, let out a new round of giggles and chuckles. "Oooo, you should not have said that! You're gonna be paying for that one for years!"

 

Indeed, the striped feline looked ready to explode, and would likely have set upon Tai Lung with fangs and claws as well as pummeling fists if Viper hadn't risen up to quite forcefully push her back, and even wrapped her tail around one of Tigress's arms. "Don't...don't...he's just baiting you. And you did have it coming; that was a terrible thing to say!"

 

Still glaring at her, even if he looked less certain of himself and aware of the faux pas he'd made, Tai Lung crossed his arms defiantly over his chest and finally turned his face away dismissively. "Why I should want to kiss an ice queen like you anyway is quite beyond me..."

 

The Dragon Warrior heard more than a little sour grapes in that statement—and he also thought he knew why the snow leopard was being so reluctant, aside from the nasty things Tigress had said about him. In the forest the night before, he had poured his heart out to the striped feline...and she had trodden upon it as if it were no more than sackcloth. He had pledged his love, and she had insisted he had deluded himself with an infatuation, or that he only loved an imaginary Tigress. After being hurt so deeply, why would he wish to prolong the agony with a kiss, tempting him with what could never be?

 

And if he still believed he could somehow win her...well, being compelled to kiss her in front of the Five was hardly the right way to go about it.

 

Tigress heard him, of course, and somehow managed to be stunned and upset by his words—even though he was hardly the first to accuse her of being cold. "Well, why would I want to kiss an old man like you? You're almost twice my age, damnit!"

 

In spite of himself Tai Lung grinned cockily. "But I don't have the body of an old man, now do I?"

 

Mantis gave up entirely on trying to get up again, only wheezing and gasping between laughs. "I can't breathe, I can't breathe..."

 

Viper shot a harsh look at Tai Lung to shut him up, then turned the same expression on Tigress. "Stop it, you're both acting like children! Now, you both agreed to the rules of this game at the outset, and you're going to adhere to them, or you know the consequences."

 

"I'll take my chances," Tigress purred dangerously, never taking her eyes off the other cat for a second. "And if Shifu knew what you'd asked of me, he'd agree with me!"

 

"All I'd tell him is you disobeyed and cost Tai Lung a chance to become closer to you," the serpent said ominously. "And I'd love to hear you confess to our master just what had been asked of you."

 

That seemed to faze her, as the striped feline took a step back and cringed visibly, her ears drooping and tail lashing slowly. "But...but...he's so old," she protested again.

 

"Age just gives me more experience," the snow leopard purred confidently.

 

"You're a virgin," she pointed out flatly, with more than a hint of vicious vindication.

 

"That sort of thing comes naturally. And I've always been a quick study." He leered at her.

 

Snarling in disgust, Tigress took another step back and balled her fists on her hips. "And we were both adopted by Master Shifu. It'd be like...kissing my brother!"

 

"Except for the ways it's not," Crane noted somewhat clinically from the side. "Since, you know, you're not really related..." He trailed off as both cats and Monkey skewered him with glares, then interlaced his wing feathers and ducked back beneath his hat again. "Uh...I'll be over here now."

 

Po, who had been watching the proceedings with more and more alarm, his gaze tracking and bouncing back and forth between everyone (when he wasn't simply hiding his eyes behind his paws), finally tried to be the voice of reason...a very quiet, small one. "Uh...Viper...doesn't this seem like it's not fun anymore, if ya gotta force 'em? Maybe you should drop it and—"

 

But the serpent ignored him, only staring meaningfully at first one feline master, then the other. And finally, after darting her eyes about for some avenue of escape (but there was none, as both Tai Lung and Viper were between her and the door, and she clearly didn't want to leap out the window into the rain), Tigress sighed heavily. "Oh fine, whatever. Let's just get it over with then, shall we?" Her voice dropped to a mutter. "And maybe baking soda paste will get rid of the taste afterward..."

 

For several long moments, everyone was frozen, waiting to see what would happen—Mantis as if he longed to have more snacks to wolf down as he watched avidly, Monkey looking more furious than Po had ever seen him, and Po himself eyeing Tigress oddly, for a strange thought had just struck him.

 

He remembered his dad, or maybe it was Shifu, saying something once about the 'woman who protested too much'. What if she were fighting this kiss so vehemently...because she secretly wanted it, and didn't want that confirmed, for herself or the rest of them? What if her excuse in the forest had been just that, a way to ward him away so she wouldn't have to contemplate her real feelings? Or what if she really wanted to be sure Tai Lung truly loved her, because she was starting to care too deeply for him and didn't want to be hurt?

 

It couldn't be...could it? But then Oogway had said nothing was impossible...

 

Finally, Tai Lung stirred and strode forward, surprisingly restraining himself from adopting his typical strut. When he was only a few inches away from Tigress, for a moment his expression became unusually gentle, even tender. "I promise it won't hurt, or be as arduous as all that," he said lightly.

 

"Spare me," she spat scathingly. "Just don't expect me to enjoy it."

 

"No, that'd be too much, wouldn't it?" he growled. "Hussy."

 

"Bastard."

 

"Bitch."

 

"You wish."

 

And then they were kissing.

 

Po's jaw dropped. He suspected everyone else's had, too—he knew Mantis had stopped laughing abruptly, at any rate—but he couldn't check, because he couldn't tear his eyes away. At first it was a very stiff and unemotional example of the breed, quite perfunctory and unremarkable.

 

But then, as the moments passed, and it kept extending, things changed. Tigress's knees started to buckle...Tai Lung's arm came up around her, first to offer support, then to cradle her close against his body...both tails began to lash, only to gradually intertwine...eyes slid closed, muzzles turned at just the right angle, the way it was always described in all those old stories. And softly at first, then more loudly, the sounds of two purrs could be discerned in the silent room.

 

Finally Monkey let out a hooting grunt and took hold of both their shoulders to pull them apart. "Okay, okay, that's enough. I think they satisfied your dare, don't you, Viper?"

 

"I think so," she smiled somewhat dazedly as she watched the two felines. For several more moments they remained locked together, and even Po who knew little of such things had to admit they looked rather romantic together. Then Tigress, who'd relaxed enough to adopt a dreamy cast to her features, finally seemed to come back to herself. Furrowing her brows and narrowing her golden ruby eyes, she pulled away somewhat roughly and stepped back from Tai Lung.

 

Although she didn't do anything as ostentatious as rub the back of her paw across her mouth, she did stare at him in resentment, anger...and uncertainty. She opened her mouth to say something, closed it...tried again, then flicked her eyes to Monkey and the rest of them before abruptly turning and fleeing the room without a word.

 

For a long moment, the snow leopard stared after her, one paw upraised as if he honestly thought he could call her back. Then he shook himself and turned back...his face closing as he retreated once again behind his debonair, sardonic façade. "Well," he drawled. "It's a good thing you saved that for last, Mistress Viper. After that, anything else would be anticlimactic. Anyway, I thank you all for such an...interesting evening. It's such a shame though, really..."

 

"What is?" Monkey said suspiciously.

 

Tai Lung crossed his arms over his chest again and smirked. "Just that, if you'd been using your brains, rather than only looking for amusement from this game, you'd have dared me to do something else." He turned and strolled to the door, leaving his thought hanging and all of them standing stock still, until he was almost out of sight—then he glanced back over his shoulder. "Such as, I don't know...teaching you all my Leopard Claw nerve strike."

 

And with that, he was gone down the hallway.

 

As what the snow leopard said sank in, Monkey smacked his hand hard into his forehead, groaning, and Mantis soon followed suit with his pincer. Viper, however, only looked inordinately pleased with herself despite the fact that, with Tigress having run out on them, it seemed she and the leader of the Five were exchanging rooms for the rest of the night.

 

More silence. Then, trying to muster up as much enthusiasm and excitement as he could, Po reached down, picked up one of their guttering candles, and held it beneath his chin so the flame cast its halo over his face and flickering shadows beneath his muzzle. "So, uh...who's up for tellin' some spooky stories?"

                                                                   


 

His name was Shing Fai. His family had lived in Yunxian for many generations, and he himself had run a successful and thriving farm on the outskirts of the valley for many years. Every summer, after the season's crops had been planted and before the harvest was to be reaped, he made the journey into town—to pick up supplies, food, entertainment, and gossip in equal measure.

 

His children, all fully grown now, lived on the far side of the village, and ranged from successful blacksmith sons who were rather deprecating of their father's quaint, old-fashioned ties to the earth, to daughters who had married into the magistrate's family and now wanted nothing more to do with him. And plenty of grandchildren who adored seeing him on his infrequent visits, when he brought them sugarcane treats and small, hand-made toys. His wife, aged but still spry, stayed on the farm to tend the hearth fire and look after all the duties and tasks which needed doing while he was away—she didn't get around as well as he did, and didn't enjoy trips into town anyway...most of her friends had moved away or passed on.

 

So, the goose made the trek alone, dragging his small, rickety handcart filled with eggplants, squash, and melons behind him as he followed the well-worn, rutted road from the western hills. And truth be told, that was how he liked it. He'd never been a very garrulous fellow, and being alone allowed him time to think, to take in the beauty of nature, and to happily hum to himself without annoying anyone else.

 

He'd left midmorning, to give himself plenty of time to get there before dark, but he had underestimated the weight of his load and overestimated his own supply of energy. Then, too, there had been the procession of Imperial soldiers he'd had to stand aside for for several hours, and the surprising number of travelers he encountered whom he knew—ones who just had to spend even more time chatting blithely away with him heedless of the time or other people's schedules. Not that he didn't enjoy it, but he didn't want to have to stay in town any longer than necessary—his wife would worry.

 

And he didn't want to be caught outside after night fell.

 

There were stories and legends, of course, of dark spirits and fell beasts which haunted the forests and mountains in these parts, as there always had been—and while he had never personally encountered one, it never hurt to be careful, especially after being frightened into good behavior as a boy by his grandmother's tales. The yaoguai of WuShon Mountain were one such. But even beyond such ancient mysticism, he had another reason for fearing these isolated trails. Stories had begun to filter in of a much more recent creation, and a much more modern bent.

 

Someone, or something, was hunting and stalking the western provinces. The whispers had come from Qinghai and Gansu first...of something no one ever saw (at least, none who then lived to speak of it), only its very real and undeniable marks and...leavings. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to its atrocities, nothing to explain how or why it chose its victims, or if it had any motivation beyond base cruelty and mindless slaughter.

 

All he knew was that stern, gruff men—men who had seen war, men who had experienced firsthand how terrible and wicked other men could be—had turned pale or even seemed in danger of losing their last meals when they spoke of just what had been done to the dead. And most frightening of all was this specter's speed. Somehow a journey which should have taken two weeks, one at a minimum, had been covered in only four days. For the killings had spread eastward...across Ningxia and Sha'anxi, Sichuan and Chongong...

 

And just yesterday, merchants had brought word of them from across the border in Henan.

 

If Shing Fai had known of the Furious Five, the Dragon Warrior, and their master having arrived in Yunxian, he might have felt more at ease. If he'd known of Tai Lung also being with them, he would surely have felt safe. As it was, he could not help but curse his aching joints and wearied limbs that slowed him so, and wish that he were still young enough to abandon his produce and simply fly the rest of the way.

 

So it was that when he found himself still outside the valley when night fell, the farmer was utterly terrified...constantly looking back over his shoulder or peering into the forest foliage, trying to keep his eyes on every unusual shape and shifting shadow in the faint moonlight. When it began to rain, he had offered a quick prayer to Yu-zu to spare him this storm, but apparently the god's pot had needed emptying no matter what mortals wanted, for the weather had only worsened as the night progressed.

 

Quite often he'd had to take shelter behind tree trunks or under bushes to protect himself from the pounding sheets of water. Between that, the darkness, and the covering of the moon by the clouds, he could not see more than a few feet in front of him...let alone to know if anyone or anything were nearby, following him. Yet good fortune was with him after all, for somehow both he and his cart made it through the worst of the squall, drenched and soaked but otherwise well. Though he couldn't help but wonder later on, looking back with hindsight, if he had been spared for a reason...as a messenger.

 

It happened when he reached the final hilltop overlooking Yunxian. He had dragged his cart to a halt, panting and wiping his sweaty brow with his wing feathers, then stared down through the draping veil of fine mist still descending from the heavens. The twinkling lanterns of the village, though few and far between at this late hour, were more than welcome to his waterlogged, weary body, and the goose could only smile happily as water dripped from his bill.

 

But then...he heard something.

 

Slowly, very slowly, Shing Fai turned around to look tremulously behind him. At first, he saw nothing but the same endless forest landscape he'd been struggling through all day, heard only the sighing of the wind, the creaking of the branches, and the distant rumble of thunder...and he was quite convinced he was imagining things, that this would be the last time he would ever make the trip into town—not unless he left before the crack of dawn, anyway.

 

Then, gradually, he made out something between the trunks...something tall, broad, and massive, yet at the same time almost seeming shapeless, as if it were formed from the fog around him, constantly changing size with the vagaries of the wind or its own whims. Even in the night's dark shadows, it seemed impenetrably black, like a blot on his sight—an absence not only of light, but of life, of goodness, of soul. It did not move, and yet he knew it was there, it was real. And it hated—not him in particular, but all living things, the world itself.

 

"Wh-who's there?" he squawked tremulously, trying futilely to keep the terror from cracking his voice.

 

No response.

 

"A-are you...lost? Th-there's a town, just a few more miles that way. They have a v-very nice inn, you can get warm food, rest, dry...off..."

 

In the short time he had looked away to point down at Yunxian, the figure had vanished.

 

The wind moaned in the treetops again, keening like someone being tortured in agony, but otherwise there was no other sound. Feeling he had expended the meager store of his hospitality—more than was warranted, truth be told—the goose started to turn away again to lift the handles of his cart. But at that moment two things happened almost simultaneously that caused him to forget all about it, to abandon it entirely.

 

A rush of air surged past him to the right. He had an impression of a deep, bone-chilling cold, strong enough to sap all life and warmth from him forever, and he was surprised his breath didn't begin fogging immediately. There was also something there, something not made of shadows, something definitely large, solid...and threatening. But it passed him by, he was not its target. Not yet. It had only been a warning...for today.

 

At the same moment, as he whirled about to try and catch a better glimpse of his attacker, clapping a wing to his chest to still his aged heart, a lurid flash of lightning illuminated the sky above the hilltop clearing. And in its stark white glow, he could see what he could not before...something else had been there, where the shadow had stood so intently and eerily watching him. Something which had once been alive. Something which now hung suspended from the trunk of a ginkgo tree, limbs splayed—and violently, furiously nailed into the wood behind it.

 

He saw dark stains which looked black in the night, now revealed as a murky red.

 

He saw a face twisted by terrible pain and fear, eyes sticky and sightless as they stared without seeing from a dangling head, a head with horns—a goat.

 

He saw the rest of the body hanging loosely, yet at the same time stiffened by the rictus of death...only, it wasn't all there anymore.

 

And he saw one other thing, before the lightning bolt faded, leaving him in a darkness comforting because it hid the horrible sight, yet also worthy of molting because he was left alone in it with the thing he couldn't see. It was a thing burned into his mind as he dropped his cart, turned toward the road, and ran as fast as his old legs could carry him toward the village, screaming piercingly into the storm and the night.

 

The goat, an old friend of his and a common sight at many a tavern in town, still wore the remnants of his Hanfu pao...and crudely scrawled across what had once been a yellow cross-collar were four words in bright red ink—or more likely, blood:

 

"TAI LUNG—I COME."

Chapter Text

Chapter 18 Icon

 

At the doorway of one of the inn's bedchambers, a small, large-eared form stood poised, silent and still, the wooden floor not even creaking under his weight, and the tiniest of fond…but also extremely wistful and bittersweet…smiles turning up the corners of his mouth as he gazed into the room beyond.

 

He was watching Tai Lung sleep.

 

Sighing to himself, Shifu clasped his tiny paws together so as not to nervously twiddle and fidget. It was something he had begun out of necessity when the snow leopard was only an infant, an obsessive need to check and make sure his new charge was safe, content, and well. During the terrible twos it had become even more required, since like almost all children Tai Lung had the unfortunate tendency to wake up in the middle of the night, thirsty or hungry, and then would stubbornly refuse to lie down again…or be quiet…no matter how much others in the Jade Palace might long for sleep.

 

And then it had simply become a habit he had fallen into, one which became all the more important to him as the boy approached adolescence—during the day, he refused any kind of 'sissy stuff', especially displays of affection and a father's doting and hovering, so spying on him at night was the only way to reclaim even a remnant of the past…of the days when the feline had been only too happy to cuddle, nuzzle, and cling to him with earnest, unabashed love.

 

Even now, in sleep, the massive and powerful man his son had become—nearly forty years old—looked surprisingly…peaceful. Whatever twenty years of incarceration, darkness, paralysis, and endless brooding on revenge and the power of his destiny had done to him, he seemed not to suffer from nightmares now. All the pain and anguish, the ravages of loss, the sorrow and resentment which always seemed to haunt his features when awake…they had retreated, or vanished altogether. He looked so handsome…like the good boy he had once been.

 

Why could he not have that boy back?

 

Shifu shook his head at his own maudlin fixation. An old man's dream. He should know better than to think such things, to believe that the past could live again. No matter what he did for Tai Lung, no matter how he might redeem himself and hold true to the noble path once laid out for him, there was no way his innocence, or the closeness they had once shared, could ever return. No matter what Oogway said, some things truly were impossible.

 

But that didn't stop it from hurting.

 

Squeezing his eyes shut, the red panda could not help the images that rose unbidden to him from his memories: the first time he'd held the baby left on their doorstep, after the local midwife showed him how to do it (complete with the blessedly critical knowledge on the proper usage of a 'shoulder-bib'); gazing down into that adorable face after a feeding, when a full belly and warm arms had caused him to yawn hugely and drift off into slumber; watching him scamper madly about the temple, getting underfoot, knocking over messengers in a flurry of startled feathers, but somehow never toppling Oogway as the turtle always stepped aside at the last moment with preternatural insight; teaching the boy his first letters, and seeing the dawning of knowledge in those intelligent eyes.

 

Later, after he'd begun his kung fu training, seeing him smash apart one device after another in the kwoon, only to demand more, deadlier, faster; the day he'd mastered the five-hundredth scroll, and proceeded to demonstrate…in a blur of twisting, spinning, limber movements…each and every one in order, to the generous and genuinely amazed applause of Oogway; peals of laughter ringing through the kitchen on his eighth birthday, when an exploding present courtesy of the Emperor had left Tai Lung covered with streamers and confetti…

 

He knew when such amusing and playful times had come to an end, of course. Adolescence, when Tai Lung had decided to set aside the silliness and games of childhood so as to focus, seriously and with every ounce of his will, on achieving the mastery of all the scrolls, obtaining the Dragon Scroll…proving himself worthy of his father's praise, of being a true hero of China. And he knew, if he was completely honest with himself, what had caused the change.

 

Whether because he believed it the right way to raise a man, because it seemed the only way to create the next Dragon Warrior, or because only such a person could truly master all one thousand scrolls…he had taught Tai Lung to be strong above everything else. And the snow leopard had equated strength with hardness…so that not only his physique, but also his heart became like granite. Shifu rarely expressed his emotions, that was (he believed) the woman's way…so Tai Lung had imitated him, and so lost that sweet and gentle innocence the panda had so treasured.

 

At the same time, in open contradiction, he had also done his level best to protect Tai Lung from the world…refusing to let him leave the Jade Palace after a certain age unless it were a special mission or he were accompanied by temple guardsmen, determined that the boy would not experience the travesties and cruelties of life until he were old enough to understand, accept, and survive them. But by keeping him behind closed doors and stone walls, never interacting with the Valley's citizens—those whom he literally lived above—he had kept the boy from love and compassion…had bred contempt and superiority toward the peasantry who did not know kung fu and didn't receive special attention as he did. Tai Lung had no friends, no fellow students, even no rivals.

 

By the time warriors from other academies came to test their knowledge and strength against the mighty snow leopard, it was too late—the feline only looked down his nose at them, refusing to mingle or fraternize with those he deemed beneath him, only caring about the tournaments and contests. And while he did not cheat or otherwise fight dishonorably, neither did he enjoy the combats or consider himself having learned anything from them—the only joy he took was in winning, and with enough skill and prowess that he would receive that coveted nod and smile from his master. Beyond that, they bored him, his impatience to get back to the thousand scrolls making each only an exercise in proving he was the one destined for the Dragon Scroll, not those he fought.

 

It was Shifu's own fault, what happened the day Oogway did not grant the snow leopard the scroll. How else should he have expected the boy to react? Completely aside from being raised to believe it was his destiny and he had no other purpose than to become the Dragon Warrior, he had been emotionally sheltered, if not cut off from them entirely—all he had ever known was to fight. Of course he would go on a rampage, of course he would lash out, hurt, kill…

 

Opening his eyes and gazing down again at Tai Lung's still face, his calm and measured breaths as his chest rose and fell in the rhythm of sleep, the red panda found himself inexplicably recalling the last time he'd seen him lying prone like that. The day twenty years ago, after Oogway had used the nerve strike to put an end to the rampage…when he also lay unmoving on the cold marble floor of the Hall of Warriors, his broken leg immobilizing him, yet he could not stop himself from trying to crawl toward the collapsed form of his ward…one paw outstretched futilely before finally falling away.

 

He could not have offered comfort—nothing he could say or do could give Tai Lung what he craved, or make up for his many mistakes. And if the villagers had seen him making the attempt, after the feline had murdered so many of their friends and families, they would have furiously—and rightfully—demanded Shifu vacate the premises, and the Valley. He could not show favoritism.

 

But that hadn't changed the fact it was his boy lying there. And that somehow, even though it made no sense, he had felt if he could only touch him, hold him as he once did, everything would be all right.

 

Roughly wiping away the tears that had come to his eyes, Shifu couldn't help feeling, even now, that after what he had done, it would have been properly karmic if Po had not made it to the temple in time. If Tai Lung had succeeded in killing him. It was what he deserved. But since he was not dead, all that was left…was to find some way, somehow, to make up for the grievous injury he had done the snow leopard—and let him know, once and for all, that he could be forgiven…because Shifu really did love him…

 

Suddenly, in a completely incongruous contrast to Shifu's tender and paternal thoughts, the peaceful, still silence of early morning was broken by a piercing scream from somewhere outside—quickly occurring twice more, then no longer repeated. While the red panda clapped a hand to his chest and tried to soothe his racing heart, the sleeping form of Tai Lung sat bolt upright in bed, shoulders tense and eyes narrowed as they flicked about, rapidly trying to discern whatever danger had appeared to menace him.

 

It was startling, and disheartening, to watch the change in the snow leopard as he woke…how the contentedness, warmth, and gentle nature of his features almost immediately returned to their usual harsh, suspicious, distrustful cast, how everything about him became rigid, focused, and wary. Like a predator constantly ready to pounce on his prey, or an animal afraid of being caught in a trap. Some of this, he knew, was due to his disciplined training—but just as much, he feared, dated to his time in Chorh-Gom.

 

After determining there was nothing amiss in the room, Tai Lung at last glanced to the doorway and spied Shifu. For a moment he kept his eyes slitted and his mouth pressed in a disapproving line. Then he visibly forced himself to relax—although his expression didn't lose its confusion. "Master? What's going on? Is someone hurt? Or is the village under attack?"

 

"I…don't know." The red panda frowned, as now that he was no longer preoccupied with Tai Lung, he had no idea himself what was going on. Whoever had screamed, Yunxian was hardly known for violence or disturbances of any kind, not even crime. The only time in recent memory, of course, was when the yaoguai attacked…and if they had somehow managed to free themselves from WuShon, Shifu was fairly certain there would be more than one shrieking citizen. What seemed even more odd, though, was that no one had come to the inn to ask the Five and their master for help. Something rather dire must have grabbed their attention.

 

And while some might accuse him of being a busybody, Shifu felt it was his duty to find out what was taking place—and if at all possible, set it to rights.

 

"Come," he said decisively. "I'll gather the others, and we'll get to the bottom of this." As he tucked his hands in his sleeves and started to turn away, Shifu noticed Tai Lung sigh heavily and look resigned, but then he squared his shoulders and nodded firmly in acceptance…and the panda had to smile to himself. One step at a time.

 

It took less than fifteen minutes to gather most of the Five—Tigress and Crane, as always, were light sleepers, the former ready to fight at a moment's notice, and Mantis seemed able to get by on meditation alone. Viper complained (but not too loudly) about not being granted the time to put on her face, and Po of course was the last to rise—his snoring interrupted by mutterings of 'feel the thunder' and 'shashabooey' until Tai Lung (carefully) kicked him awake. Once all were conscious and prepared, and Monkey had trailed along behind them, the masters followed Shifu as he sought out the village headman for answers.

 

Apparently they were not the only ones wanting to know the cause of the disturbance. For when they reached the headman's house in the center of town, the boar stood in the dirt street, completely surrounded by milling, chattering, extremely upset villagers. To one side, on the stoop of the local tavern, sat an old goose in the somewhat threadbare garments of a peasant farmer, his eyes permanently wide with trauma, his cheeks pale with terror, his bill working soundlessly as he stared off into space.

 

Nearby, a squat, grandmotherly sheep who looked to be a washerwoman stood tremulously weeping in the arms of the innkeeper, blubbering so incoherently she was as useless as the goose. Whether either of them had confided in the headman before retreating into insensibility wasn't clear, but the townsfolk certainly seemed to think they had. The boar, as a result, looked harried and frustrated—and actually quite relieved when Shifu's arrival gave him an excuse to pull free of the crowd.

 

"Master Shifu, thank goodness you're here!" the pig exclaimed fervently. "I was just about to send for you. You won't believe what's just happened…"

 

"Calm down, friend. Go slowly, one step at a time, and tell us what happened." The panda placed a hand on his shoulder.

 

The headman swallowed hard, nodded, then spoke again—hurriedly, in a hoarse whisper. "Master Shing here," and he gestured to the goose, "was coming into town during the storm last night, and he found something…terrible."

 

"What sort of something?" Tai Lung demanded from the other side, coming close to loom over the boar. He seemed surprisingly intense, but also typically impatient. "What aren't you telling us?"

 

The headman hesitated, clearly debating with himself, then licked dry lips before gesturing to the south. "I…I can't really bring myself to say. Perhaps it's better if you…see for yourself."

 

Shifu frowned thoughtfully as the eight of them followed the elder through Yunxian's narrow streets toward the road that headed up into the mountains. What was going on? Not to brag, but as kung fu masters they were used to all manner of violence, death, and injury. What could possibly have occurred to justify the headman treating them with such caution and solicitation, not to mention the state the farmer and washerwoman were in? What would they find, and see?

 

Despite his many years of being exposed to the worst of what sentient beings could do, even Shifu was not prepared for what they discovered. By the time the headman had explained that Shing Fai had come barreling into the village in the middle of the night, screaming that a demon had come to murder them all in their beds; his wife had brewed the goose a calming tea and insisted he rest until morning; and after the sun rose, the washerwoman had ventured to the hilltop to determine the veracity of the farmer's story, the group had arrived at the same deep forest grove. And as soon as they laid eyes on the atrocity which had been committed there, everyone was stunned speechless.

 

As the headman had tried haltingly to explain to them, the poor old goat had essentially been crucified upon the ginkgo tree—which meant, of course, the nails had been driven in while he still lived. What was worse than the gaping wounds in his outflung wrists, however, and the fact he'd also been impaled through his heart and each shoulder by sawed-off spears, was that the entire lower half of his body was gone…and if the amount of dangling flesh and blood soaking the ground were any indication, he had also been literally gutted.

 

For several horrified moments, the warriors stared in shock at this gruesome display. Then, with a violent shudder, Viper burst into tears and buried her face in Po's gigantic, cushioned belly. The panda himself looked so nauseated by the sight, even as he awkwardly caressed the back of the serpent's head, that he seemed ready to bring up his last meal—which with his appetite was saying something.

 

Everyone else seemed equally silent, furious, and upset—ranging from Tigress's blazing eyes and white-knuckled grip on her arms to Monkey's menacing glower and Crane's disbelief. Tai Lung, of course, was as stoic and stone-faced as ever, but Shifu still knew the snow leopard well enough to know the feline was as flummoxed, discomfited, and even infuriated as the rest of the Five. He certainly seemed ready to grind his teeth into nubs. And the red panda wasn't far off from the same state.

 

"Who…" Tigress snarled softly in open hatred and righteous rage. "Who would do such a thing?"

 

"Who—or what?" Mantis amended uncertainly, and in spite of themselves, several of the masters turned their gazes toward the distant peak of WuShon Mountain.

 

"And more importantly," Crane added worriedly, "why would they do it? What was the point?"

 

"To scare us?" Monkey suggested after a moment.

 

"If so, it's workin'," Po said, weakly raising a paw. "Could be a warnin'."

 

"Or maybe there isn't a purpose," Shifu offered darkly. "Perhaps it is only senseless, random mayhem, and there is no reason at all." That, after all, would be the worst possibility—that something so diabolical and cruel could happen anywhere, anytime, purely by chance.

 

"It doesn't matter!" Tai Lung growled fiercely from the far side of the clearing, where he'd paced in his agitation. Turning back, the ex-convict lifted one clenched paw in a threatening gesture. "What matters is, we find out who did it, and make sure they don't ever get the chance to repeat it." He whirled to the side and, with all his claws brandished, swiped powerfully and ferally at the nearest tree, ripping its bark and trunk to shreds, slashing and gouging ever more deeply. With a bunching, flexing heave of his mighty shoulders, he smashed right through the trunk so that it toppled to the ground at last with a resounding crash.

 

Even as Shifu was staring at his seething son in shock and the first rekindling of pride—for it seemed the big cat was finally becoming selfless and heroic again—Tai Lung added bitterly, "Besides…I know why he's here. He's after me."

 

Tigress narrowed her ruby eyes flatly. "It's always about you, isn't it?"

 

Sighing theatrically, Tai Lung posted one fist on his hip and stabbed a finger at the bloody goat's remains. "In this case, it is. Look at what's written on his clothing."

 

The Five and Po looked blankly at one another, while Shifu narrowed his eyes assessingly. Finally, Viper admitted, "Tai Lung…we can't read it. What does it say?"

 

"'Tai Lung, I come,'" he recited with a sneer, apparently directed at the unknown killer. "And of course you can't read it, it's in a language I became very familiar with at Chorh-Gom. Mongolian."

 

An uneasy silence met this revelation, and the red panda furrowed his brow like a fearsome thunderhead—for while he could not speak the tongue either, now that he focused on the blood he did recognize the alphabet. Then, reluctantly, Crane vocalized what they were all thinking of. "Mongolian? So the one who did this is…?" He trailed off meaningfully, even as his face turned ashen and sick.

 

"No," the snow leopard snapped nastily, though there was also a touch of vindication in his voice. "I blew Chorh-Gom all the way to the Jade Emperor's throne when I escaped, and no one could have survived that. Except me." A vicious, hateful malice gleamed in his golden eyes for a moment, long enough to keep Shifu from reprimanding him for that bit of backsliding into arrogance, as he wondered instead what Vachir had done to warrant such loathing…then decided he didn't want to know.

 

"It's just as likely," Tai Lung continued more thoughtfully, "that someone wants us, or me, to think Vachir is behind this. Why, I haven't a clue. Someone else whose life the bastard ruined? Or maybe it's just a distraction, something to send us running off in the wrong direction."

 

"Of course we just have your word that's what it says," Monkey muttered.

 

"Actually," the headman, whom all of them had forgotten was even there, interjected before the spotted feline could do more than growl at the simian, "Master Shing said the same thing. I believe he trades with Mongolian merchants for his farming tools, that's how he knows the language."

 

Several more disgruntled and concerned glances darted around the clearing, as those who still distrusted Tai Lung had the wind taken out of their sails (at least for the moment) and the rest tried unsuccessfully to piece the facts together and puzzle out what this all could mean, and what could be done about it. It wasn't hard to tell that more than one of them was frightened or at least disturbed by their conclusions, if they weren't plain stymied as to what to do next. Then at last, Shifu addressed them.

 

"It seems there is more going on here than all of us know. We must pool our information if we're to get anywhere—and if the killer is still in the area, he must be stopped and brought to justice." Everyone seemed to be in undeniable agreement on that aspect at least.

 

"Students, I do believe it would be prudent for you to pair up and fan out into the forests around Yunxian, and see what if anything you can discover—if nothing else, such a patrol will ensure the village's safety and reassure its people. Tigress, go with Monkey and canvass the western foothills. Viper, you and Mantis search nearer the northern border of the valley…" He hesitated for the briefest of moments, but the need was great, he trusted his son, and if necessary the Dragon Warrior could handle him should the snow leopard somehow choose now to betray them. "Po, accompany Tai Lung along the lakeshores to the east."

 

Sweeping a hand curtly to cut through the expected objections, the red panda drew himself up to his full height and glanced at the avian kung fu master. "Crane, sweep the marketplace, see what if anything you can learn from the vendors there." The bird bowed low until only the peak of his hat could be seen; whether he was relieved to avoid the wilderness where an insane, bloodthirsty monster might be on the loose, or simply had no issues obeying with alacrity (unlike some of his fellow masters who might have chafed at being relegated to such a sheltered, passive role) was debatable.

 

"I will be doing the same with our host," Shifu added. "I have heard the rumors of other deaths throughout the neighboring provinces; I had thought them mere superstition and exaggeration, but now we have the proof they are not. Only by comparing these tales can a pattern emerge. Return here within three hours so we may meet again—so that we may save his next victim, and bring an end to his reign of terror."

 

With an air of finality, he turned his back on his students, and was privately pleased to hear each of them move into their respective partnerships and slip off into the rustling underbrush with only token grumbles. As Crane joined him, Shifu at once focused his attention on the flustered boar, applying one probing inquiry after another as they descended the road back toward Yunxian, for he was bound and determined to discover what was afoot. He was not about to let the peace Po had brought to the Valley be destroyed, or kept from spreading to the rest of China. This wicked, amoral slaughterer had to be eliminated.

 

And if he did seek Tai Lung, whether to kill him, punish him for his past misdeeds, or turn him back toward evil and darkness…then this creature would soon find there'd be hell to pay for anyone who dared go after his son.

                                                                       


 

Despite the very real loathing and feral desire to rip limb from limb whatever had killed that goat so graphically—for even at his worst during his rampage, the snow leopard had never gone beyond the bounds of decency, his killings bloody without being sickening, and he had not seen such a sight since defeating the yaoguai—Tai Lung could also not keep the stunned excitement from his thoughts. Not at the prospect of finally proving himself a changed cat, of having something wicked to defeat, innocent people to protect (although that factored into it as well), but because Shifu had allowed him to traverse the valley alone…in the company of Po.

 

He trusted him. He believed he would not harm the panda. He thought the ex-convict had earned the chance to demonstrate his heroism.

 

As the Dragon Warrior and the feline descended the hill where the body had been discovered and circled Yunxian to the south, heading toward the countless lakes and ponds which lined its eastern boundary, Tai Lung tried to figure out just what he had done to earn this unexpected gift, and what he was to do with it. Had it been the way he stood up to Wei Chang? His reaction to the discoveries in Oogway's chamber? Any number of conversations reported by Po and Tigress? The fact he hadn't attacked Zhuang's wife for the hateful things she had said at the festival? The even more simple point that he hadn't raised a paw against any of his fellow masters, or indicated he would even lay a finger on them? Or perhaps it was not any one thing, but an accumulation of little details and choices…

 

Whatever it was, he finally had his opportunity. If he took it, for the first time since he laid eyes on the blank parchment of the Dragon Scroll he believed he could truly accomplish what he'd set out to do: earn the acceptance of the Valley back, be forgiven by the Five, become a great hero and legend again. And it was all because Shifu had given him the chance, albeit with this cockeyed, illogical course of 'instruction'. The red panda was offering him a way out, and for no reason he could discern other than the fact he still loved Tai Lung…even though there were countless reasons why he should not, and plenty of indications from the last twenty years that he did not.

 

Did that mean, perhaps, maybe, just by a faint margin, he should also consider giving Shifu a second chance in return…?

 

Clenching his eyes shut and gritting his teeth, Tai Lung let out a soft snarl and lashed out at the nearest tree. No. No. He couldn't allow deluded sentiment, a pathetic yearning for the past, or a brief lapse of altruism on Shifu's part to blind him to the truth, what he had accepted and embraced years ago. No matter how much he wished otherwise, he could not condone what the old panda had done to him. It wasn't that he resented the harsh, disciplinarian training—that sort of strict mentality was only to be expected in as rigorous a course as kung fu, especially as it had only challenged him to become better, stronger, cleverer, and it wasn't as if his master had been truly cruel to him.

 

Nor was it the fact this attitude had replaced the affectionate and tender relationship they had first shared—such a thing, after all, was only meant for cubhood, not something which a true man would ever stomach as he grew older. If such an atrocious thing as 'cuddling' had a place at all in his life now, it would be with Tigress, not Shifu—and even then he preferred to think of it as clasping close the rightful spoils of his victory.

 

What truly upset him, what made him refuse to contemplate reciprocating his adopted father's forgiveness, was what he had done the day of the naming ceremony. Because how he chose to show it aside, if Shifu truly loved him as deeply as he claimed, he should not have refused to defend him to Oogway. Whether or not Tai Lung had too much darkness, or imbalance, in his heart to be given the Dragon Scroll, whether or not the red panda were not in the habit of disobeying his own master, whether or not he had just had his hopes of seeing the Dragon Warrior in his lifetime dashed for the second time…Shifu should have said something, anything.

 

He should not have stared at the snow leopard so helplessly and hopelessly, only to give that worthless, apologetic smile and rush away after the turtle. He should not have ignored the one who had given up everything because Shifu had told him he should, made him believed he had to, because only then would he achieve his destiny and prove himself worthwhile. The panda should have defended him, pleaded with Oogway, even argued with him—and not in private where it would remain secret and concealed like dirty laundry, but right in front of Tai Lung so he could know where he stood, how he rated.

 

He'd promised his son. He'd told him he would be the Dragon Warrior. He'd told him he would be the greatest warrior and hero in China who ever lived. He'd promised him. He should not have turned on him. He should not have left him alone in the dark for twenty years.

 

"Jeez…Tigress was right, what kinda psycho would do stuff like that? I know we're supposed t' be huntin' him down an' all, but I really hope we don't run into him. Don't you, Tai?"

 

The words Po spoke bounced right off him, as Tai Lung glared off into the distant reaches of the forest without even seeing the trees. It wasn't fair. He knew that thought sounded like whining and bewailing his life, but he couldn't help it. Shifu hadn't even tried to talk to him, after he lay paralyzed on the floor of the Hall of Warriors—never mind that the state he was in at the time rather precluded logical and intelligent conversation, the attempt would still have been appreciated on some level. Hell, after one feeble reach of his little hand that had dropped away as if the panda were afraid of being burned (or tainted) by his touch, Shifu hadn't even bothered to acknowledge him—had refused to look him in the eyes, clearly too repulsed by and dismissive of what he'd become.

 

Whether the shell used to restrain him had all been Oogway's idea or the panda also had a hand in its design didn't matter—he hadn't objected to its use either way. Granted, there probably hadn't been any other way to ensure he didn't wreak havoc again…but how could a father who loved his son allow such an inhumane punishment to be dealt to him? And while he'd had a pretty good excuse for the first couple weeks—his broken leg—Shifu had only visited him at Chorh-Gom very infrequently after that. What…three times, at most? All within the first five years? With only messenger geese like Zeng checking on him after that? And Oogway had never visited even once.

 

They could claim all they liked it was because they couldn't stand to see him in that condition, that it hurt too much to lay eyes on him, but he knew the real reason. It had to be because they hated him—or at least, hated what he had become. Which on one level he understood…he hated it too. But that still didn't justify their abandonment of him. Once he showed his inner darkness, or imbalance, they had written him off, decided he was beyond help or hope of redemption.

 

As he had told Zeng, they had refused to acknowledge his existence, most likely hoping to forget him…or that he would finally succumb and do them the courtesy of dying so they didn't have to pay for his upkeep any longer. After all, there were surely better things for the Anvil of Heaven to be doing than babysitting him; Vachir had made that perfectly clear.

 

And someone who had been able to do such a thing, who had with a clear conscience discarded him like a worn-out cloak no longer of use to anyone, was not a real father…and could not be forgiven. Because even if Tai Lung were willing to believe Shifu regretted this, and would truly atone for his mistakes, to forgive him would require trust. And that, the snow leopard was not ready to extend. He had loved the panda with all his heart, even more than he had kung fu at first—and that love, of course, had come about because of Shifu and consumed so much of him only to equal his first love.

 

Though some might doubt it due to thinking him a selfish creature, he may well have loved Shifu enough that there was no love left for himself. And Shifu had betrayed him, as surely as Tai Lung had betrayed his noble calling and the Valley he had sworn to protect. That could not be forgotten. That pain would not go away, no matter how he might wish it. Shifu had hurt him deeply…and when he managed to delve down past the hatred and fury to where his most well-hidden feelings dwelled, the snow leopard knew that because of this, he might never be able to trust the panda again. He wanted to. But he was afraid to…afraid that if he did, the hurt would happen again, and this time he would never recover from it.

 

"Tai? Buddy? You there? Where'd ya run off to?"

 

For a moment, as he snapped out of his conflicting thoughts of rage and anguish, longing and contempt, Tai Lung was quite ready to batter his companion to a pulp, just to get him to shut up and leave him to his loneliness. But then, as he turned to glare at Po, he saw the same thing that, ever since their encounter over a bowl of noodles and broth, had always stayed his paw—that look of deep concern, caring, and kindness on the Dragon Warrior's face.

 

Sighing, and letting his anger bleed out with the long, slow exhalation, he forced his fists to unclench and looked at Po apologetically. "Er…sorry, panda. I just…had a lot on my mind, is all."

 

He expected the panda to take his usual tack of poking and prying until he either learned what he wanted to know or made the snow leopard explode in another tirade. But this time, the bear didn't. Instead, only wringing his paws slightly, he bit his lip and nodded. "Oh…okay, bud. Well, if ya ever wanna talk about it…"

 

Tai Lung felt a sudden surge of gratitude well up inside his heart, even as part of him rolled his eyes and grumbled inwardly. Damnit, every time I want to grind his face in the dirt, he has to go and turn all bleeding-heart on me! But he couldn't deny how he was feeling. The panda was giving him everything he'd never had growing up, hadn't realized he'd needed and had even denied as worth anything. And he was doing it unconditionally. Even though he didn't deserve it.

 

"I know what noodle-maker to turn to," he finished sardonically. "I never thought I'd be saying this…but thanks, panda." He wasn't ready to discuss with Po what he'd been thinking of—whether despite or because of the fact the panda would most likely understand. But he might be, someday soon.

 

"Anyway, you were saying?"

 

"Huh?" Po blinked, then nodded. "Oh…uh, I said I didn't really wanna meet the thing that killed that poor guy."

 

"I'm not particularly keen to make his acquaintance either," Tai Lung said dryly. "But I'm sure as hell not going to allow him to get away with this. I don't care what anyone thinks of me, even when I was at my worst I would never have done anything like that." As he thought about what they'd seen, the snow leopard couldn't help but knot his fist all over again until the knuckles cracked.

 

Noticing this, Po gulped slowly, but then his face split in a broad, congratulatory grin. "Good for you, Tai! See, what did I tell ya about bein' good at heart? And I bet if we do run into that guy, you'll pulverize him, an' without even breakin' a sweat!"

 

"I don't know if I'd go that far," the snow leopard replied cautiously, as common sense began to reassert itself over his temper. "That fellow may just have been a villager and not a kung fu warrior, but what was done to him…that suggests our killer is both highly skilled, and incredibly dangerous."

 

"So are you," Po grinned impishly.

 

Tai Lung smirked in reply, but otherwise didn't dignify that with a response—and not only because it would have been giving in too much to pride. Because as he thought about what their unknown enemy might be capable of, a chilling thought came to him: whether or not he could take the thing down, there were others out there looking for it that would also be in danger. And while he had come to care about all of the Five to various degrees (save for Monkey—what was his problem? He hadn't struck him any harder than the others at the Thread of Hope…), it was of course Tigress to whom his thoughts immediately turned first. Not that she couldn't defend or otherwise take care of herself…but with such a horrific madman on the loose, even the striped feline might be in for more than she bargained—and one mistake would mean the end of her life, and his hope for a future.

 

As the two of them continued in a broad arc across the hilly, forested landscape, gradually descending into the bowl of the valley to the southeast of the village and approaching the glint of rippling water through the trees on their left, Tai Lung found his thoughts drifting in a completely different direction then—one which brought a rather lustful, satisfied smile to his lips. Tigress…the more he learned of her, the more he got to know her, the stronger and more intense his desire for her became.

 

If he had ever in his many years at the Jade Palace sat down to contemplate the rather theoretical notion of what his future mate would be like, almost every single feature of her would have matched the leader of the Furious Five precisely. It's as if she were made for him, made to be his equal. Only the fact that he would never do anything as disgusting and deplorable as forcing his advances on her—and that he had a fairly good idea what her response would be, one which he was determined to avoid as he'd rather keep that portion of his anatomy intact, thank you—kept the snow leopard from pinning her to a wall, slicing her clothes off, and proceeding from there to sate his instinctive urges as vigorously, fervently, and repeatedly as possible.

 

He didn't know how he would make her his mate, when there were so many obstacles in his path. But he knew that he would, somehow. After all, he'd made so many inroads with her already, more than he would have believed when she first confronted him in his cell. Granted, he hadn't exactly been pleased that she so blatantly dismissed his contributions in helping to raise the Thread of Hope, nor with the truly evil trick she'd played on him at the daycare. But she had defended him from Wei Chang—and the coldness and nastiness which had reared its head again following Po's appearance had thawed again when he gave her the orchid.

 

The snow leopard shook his head in bemusement and self-deprecation. He'd been an absolute wreck when he presented the flower to her—frayed nerves, sweaty palms, nervously trembling knees, the works. And no surprise really, this was after all the first time he'd ever attempted something like this with a member of the fairer sex.

 

Whether due to the gesture itself or the regrettably boyish demeanor it had given him, Tigress had seemed rather touched, and even before Mantis started making his ribbing jokes, Tai Lung was certain she was going to accept it anyway. When she'd actually fitted it above her ear, he'd thought his heart would stop. Taking a token from him in that fashion might not seem like much, but compared to how badly she'd wanted to kill him just a scant week and a half ago, that was actually an incredibly major step.

 

And since then, there had been more encouraging signs, even with certain setbacks taken into account. The fact she stood up for him again against Xiulan; their connecting over being orphans, both at the festival and later at Bao Gu; their shared understanding of what it meant to have too much strength and temper; her sympathy at the familiar dilemma of earning Shifu's love, which they had spoken of as they set their lanterns adrift at the Ghost Festival; the questions she had asked him, and her reactions to his responses, during the ridiculous Truth or Dare game; and of course, the kiss they'd shared. That kiss!

 

He had never experienced anything like it. Shifu had made reference to it when he gave Tai Lung 'the talk' after he turned twelve—yes, he did know where babies came from, thank you very much!—but it had been rather clinical and vague, and no description could truly compare. It made him both molten hot and shiveringly cold, made his legs turn into limp noodles and at the same time stiffened his…spine.

 

He couldn't get enough of it, he couldn't believe he'd gone this long without it, and he wanted it again. And more. In fact the sensations had been so blissful, so intense, and so overpowering that as soon as he'd made it back to the safety of his own room at the inn, he'd had to, ah, take matters in paw—and for the first time in his life.

 

Like any other male, of course, he'd had the urges, but it had always been a mark of pride and strength for him to utterly ignore them. While the ridiculous, disgusting boys of the village had let their desires consume them with rut and chased after the girls with wild abandon, he had risen above it all, dedicated himself to what was truly important.

 

A true kung fu master was above the needs of the flesh, and as he had told Mantis, he'd had other things to focus on, better ways to spend his time than servicing a need which brought only momentary pleasure and was, in fact, far too easy to satisfy. There was no challenge in it…now, to resist it, to pay no attention to it whatsoever and become a great and mystical warrior rather than descending to such crude levels…now that was a challenge.

 

Tai Lung sighed. On the other paw, he was beginning to see now that, among other things, one of the flaws which Shifu had suggested he might possess was his very divorcing from his emotions. He had known no friends or love, formed no bonds with others, and had not concerned himself with frivolity and amusement. When training, the only emotions he had allowed himself were pride and, quite often, his trademark dry sarcasm.

 

After his descent into darkness, he had felt only wrath, hatred, and determination. At no time had he allowed himself to relax…to do something for the mere fun of it…to seek out pleasure for its own sake, to enjoy something without it needing to have a point or earn him an achievement.

 

Hence why he had begun to befriend Po, and why he had participated in Viper's silly game. (Which he had to admit had turned out to be entertaining in the end—if for no other reason than the opportunity afforded him for that kiss. Could Viper be on to his designs, and wish to encourage them? That opened up all manner of possibilities…) Because he knew that he had to be open-minded enough to achieve his new path in life, to learn what Shifu had to teach him. And one way to do this, perhaps the most important of all, was to let himself unreservedly, genuinely, without shame or hesitation, feel.

 

And last night, had he ever.

 

A very broad, lazy smirk crossed his muzzle—swiftly turning to a scowl, however, as he recalled how Mantis and Monkey had reacted to the news of his being virginal; there was no way in hell they would ever learn he was completely inexperienced even when it came to solo matters…they'd badger and heckle him till the day he died, otherwise!

 

Then, too, even setting aside the fairly venomous and backbiting nature of her exchange of insults with him, he had been made painfully aware of one other glaringly large problem with his pursuit of Tigress: the fact she believed he could not truly love her, and that he wasn't altogether sure she was wrong.

 

In particular, her point that he had simply matched himself up with her in his mind because he viewed her as the only possible choice, and an attractive prospect as far as the symmetry of two unparalleled kung fu masters being linked romantically was concerned…that was a little too apt. That wasn't how he'd intended to come across, nor what he believed about himself—the same traits that made them seem 'destined to be together' also happened to be what attracted him to her, that was all.

 

But…if there was even a sliver of truth to her words, he owed it to both of them to explore it—and do his best to grow beyond it. Or as he had said, to fight an opponent he had never beaten before—himself, his own selfish desires which lusted for her, regardless whether it made sense or was believable. Because while it might well be true he didn't know everything about her yet, he wanted to. He wanted to understand her, and in doing so enable both of them to understand him. He wouldn't rest until that was true, until he convinced her that he wasn't in love with a fantasy…or if he was, that that fantasy was indeed her.

 

Because even though her mercurial moods, fiery temper, annoying arrogance, and blatant insults were difficult to deal with—and reminded him enough of himself that he had begun to see why others disliked him—Tai Lung relished the challenge. He thoroughly enjoyed matching wits and trading barbs with her, and he was convinced only someone of her caliber—as warrior and as woman—could be worthy of him, and vice versa.

 

Perhaps he should not have jumped the gun in confessing his feelings to her that night. It had been more painful than he could put into words hearing her reject him—in particular, with such cold logic and a trace of pity; anger and contempt would almost have been better, certainly more in character. But after how close they'd become, and especially after their connection at Bao Gu, he'd felt compelled to spill it all out to her, he'd thought she was ready. It seemed he was wrong…but as he'd told her, that didn't mean he was anywhere near ready to give up on her.

 

He would win her, claim her for his own…because he didn't think he could live without her. And he knew for a fact his life would be very dull and empty if she were not in it. So, if anything were to happen to her, if the depraved murderer of that goat were to get his clutches on her, or her own fury caused her to charge recklessly into battle, and he were not there to save her…

 

The increasing darkness and nastiness of his thoughts, as he both worried for Tigress and planned twisted, cruel fates for any who dared to harm her, made him almost completely oblivious to his surroundings, and certainly inured him to their beauty. But as he and Po at last broke through the cover of the trees to arrive on the shore of a lake so large its flat surface seemed to vanish infinitely into the mist swathing the far side, Tai Lung suddenly froze in place.

 

The Dragon Warrior, who was still nattering on about the killer, and hoping it wasn't one of the fire demons since they had left the Sword of Heroes back at the palace, continued walking on for several more paces, only to stop when he realized the snow leopard wasn't still beside him. "Hey, Tai, what gives?"

 

Hurriedly he shushed the panda, even going so far as to dart up beside him and clap a paw over his mouth when the insatiably garrulous bear tried to protest. Ignoring those hugely widened green eyes darting about fearfully above his fingers, Tai Lung snapped his head around to look over his shoulder…into the sun-dappled shade of the forest, then out once more across the water…adopting a stance of such motionlessness and utter silence that he might have been mistaken for a statue, save for the very slow, sinuous motions of his lashing tail.

 

Finally, when he could feel Po wriggling mightily to free himself and noticed his face was starting to turn a bit blue, he dared to uncover the panda's mouth—though he glared meaningfully and let out a very soft snarl to emphasize how important it was to stay quiet.

 

Luckily Po seemed to take the hint, as when he spoke it was in the barest of whispers. "What's wrong, big guy? What'd you hear?"

 

"Nothing," he murmured, lips barely moving as his words escaped in a faint hiss. "And that's just the trouble. What happened to all the birds?" For indeed, the forest around them had become deathly still, unnaturally so, and that made the snow leopard wary.

 

Though he had once decried it as superstition and stupidity, he knew from his long-ago lessons with Oogway that the natural world was highly sensitive to change—whether imminent weather patterns, the onset of an earthquake…or an emotional and spiritual disturbance in the atmosphere of a place. That was something even the most simple-minded creature could sense—and he felt it now, too. Even though the day around them seemed as serene, lovely, and unblemished as ever, something felt…off.

 

Breathing so shallowly the air hardly seemed to move past his lips, his awareness so hyper-focused on every stimulus coming in that he could hear his own pulse thrumming in his ears in time to his heartbeat, Tai Lung flicked his gaze from one part of the landscape to the next, trying to discern what was hidden from him. The treeline, looming above them to the right and extending to encompass the valley, yet somehow detached from the earth…looking like emerald clouds floating lazily above the pearly-gray fog. Vines and oversized fan palm leaves hanging low over the path, only adding to the cloaking shadows and eerie feeling of the quiet. The surface of the lake, covered as far as the eye could see with enormous lily pads, a carpet of green upon the crystal-blue waters…shifting faintly whenever the wind stirred, marred only by the equally impressive pink blossoms and isolated seed stalks. And looming above it all, the purplish-gray of the mountains which ringed this part of Hubei, adorned with clumps of woodland and split by cascades of waterfalls…rather seeming to cut them off from the rest of China, as if the world did not exist at all, as if they were all alone here…

 

Lake

 

Finally, when he could not pinpoint the source of his unease but knew its general bent, the ex-convict turned back to Po, who had amazingly stayed silent the entire time, though to judge from his anxious face he was on tenterhooks to know what was amiss. Rising back to his full height from the instinctive crouch he'd adopted, Tai Lung peered about guardedly once more, then again spoke softly. "We're not alone, panda…"

 

With those rather obvious but ominous words, he turned and stared out across the lake, into the trees, trying to see in every direction at once. "We know you're out there," he suddenly exclaimed, shouting peremptorily, and mockingly, into the forest around them. "So why don't you just do us both a favor, and come out where we can see you? I'd like to see the whites of your eyes before I kill you."

 

Ignoring Po where he stood looking aghast and stunned, the spotted cat began pacing in a slow circle…never leaving his back to a part of the forest for long, always in motion and always testifying to his keen feline senses, proving to whoever might be watching that he would not be taken by surprise. It might seem suicidal, or at least foolhardy, to call the hidden watcher out, but Tai Lung had never been one to, pardon the pun, pussyfoot around. Or as Shifu was so fond of reminding him, he lacked patience.

 

Besides…he hated this sort of clever cat-and-mouse game, at least when he was the mouse. He much preferred to have it all out in the open, everything visible, clear-cut, revealed at the outset, so he knew what he was up against and could act accordingly.

 

Or to put it yet another way, he wanted his enemy to sit still, show itself, and quit the gamesplaying so he could settle into the task of beating the bloody hell out of it. It was what he'd wanted when fighting Po, it was cathartic, it was the way it was supposed to be. And there was no reason such a mindset couldn't be put to a good use now.

 

Except, when the enemy finally answered his challenge, they didn't sound at all intimidated by him…their voice by contrast tinged with amusement and a trace of scorn. And despite all his preparation and talent, his cleverness and observational skills, they also spoke from directly behind him, so that only his firm sense of discipline and control kept him from leaping out of his pelt.

 

"Well, when you put it that way, whatever was I thinking hiding in here? I'll come right out then, shall I?"

 

Po, sadly, did not fare nearly so well, since he did in fact leap several feet off the ground, let out a shriek of aggrieved surprise, and landed with a terrible splash in the shallow waters of the lily-strewn lake. But Tai Lung still ignored him, for at the sound of that voice he had become even more stiff and tense, and his heart had grown cold in his chest. He knew that voice. He hadn't heard it in over twenty years, but he knew it as well as he knew his own—how could he ever forget?

 

Very slowly…dreading what he would see with every moment, but knowing he could not afford to keep his eyes off of her, yet at the same time being sure to make no sudden motions that might set off her assassin's instincts…he turned yet again. No. No!

 

She stood beside the trunk of an elm tree, perfectly poised and ready, looking as if she'd just come out into the woods for a stroll and did this sort of thing every day. He could not see anything of her features at first, save for her chilling blue eyes within the shadows of her hood, for she was wrapped in the folds of a long, black cloak drawn close about her body.

 

But that in itself told him who she was, as it had always been her trademark style. It also showed off her slender, svelte physique, another telltale marker…and if he needed any further proof of her identity, she was not alone—for two identically clad and slim figures stood arrayed on either side of her.

 

For several moments, the tableau remained frozen before him. Then, with a casual nonchalance he knew to be both feigned and genuine—feigned because it concealed a constant state of deadly readiness, genuine because her skills were such she had every right to act so supremely confident—the central figure strolled toward him across the grassy forest loam. When she stood less than a foot away, she stopped again.

 

Small paws, covered with silvery, rosette-dotted fur, emerged from her sleeves, reaching up to doff her hood—in the same motion revealing, as her cloak fell open, the brown leather pants and skintight black leather vest she wore. And hanging at her waist the pair of circular weapons known as Wind and Fire Wheels, each sprouting sharp blades of metal in the shape of tongues of flame…more than reminiscent of her own claws.

 

Her face bared to the light, as narrow, angular, and oddly elfin as he remembered…yet also somehow harder, flatter, more heartless…the snow leopardess smiled at him, a rather suggestive and vicious example that showed off her sharp fangs to glint in the light.

 

"Hello, Tai Lung," Wu Xiu purred throatily. "Remember me?"

 

Oh shit.

Chapter Text

Chapter 19 Icon

 

As the sun rose higher above the cliffs of the mountains, its rays setting fire to the slopes of WuShon almost as if the fire demons had after all escaped from their decades-old prison, the hustle and bustle of Yunxian became all the more evident, especially here in the marketplace. Potters and weavers, woodworkers and jewelers, grocers and bakers, merchants from the neighboring provinces and local farmers just coming in to sell their crops—they all formed a vibrant, raucous hubbub around Crane, hundreds of distractions to make it so he almost couldn't think.

 

On the one hand, he had to admire the fine dishware; the tapestries and silkscreen paintings; the simple yet sturdy fabrics and plain clothing; the small but beautiful display of jade, nacre, and pearls; and the many mouth-watering examples of fish from the nearby lakes, as well as seafood brought in from the coast. Yunxian, despite its fairly tiny size, was quite prosperous! And unsurprisingly, aside from the haggling which was usually heard at such an affair, most of the conversations he overheard were gossip regarding Shing Fai's distressing discovery on the hilltop—much of it baseless speculation and worth very little, but enough rumors with substance to them that he was sure Shifu would want to have it repeated back for him.

 

On the other hand, despite the relative importance of his mission, the avian kung fu master was not particularly happy at so much noise and randomness swirling around him. Distractions were the last thing any of them could afford at this juncture, and as for being unable to hear himself think…Crane had always prided himself on his intellect and his innate ability to analyze and discern truths hidden to others.

 

It was a talent which served him well in combat, letting him observe and study his opponent until he almost seemed to know what they would do before they did it, thereby complementing his clever and skillful deflection. It was how he remained such a calm, neutral force for balance in arguments and discussion, figuring out answers and noticing contradictions or fallacies others would not. And it was also why he had been chosen for this task, he believed, and how he could be of use to Master Shifu.

 

Because, he reflected as he drifted down one street after another and across a series of wide open squares of tightly packed dirt, only barely acknowledging the crowd of villagers talking around him, it wasn't as if there weren't plenty to think about. And if he put it all together with what he might learn here at the market, it could well mean the difference in preventing another atrocity.

 

The most glaringly obvious questions raised, ones which demanded an answer before it was too late, was who had killed that poor goat and why, why he'd been so disturbingly slaughtered, and what the purpose was for those taunting words in Mongolian. As Crane himself had given voice to, this last implied that Vachir, or at least one of his platoon, had committed this murder as a way to draw Tai Lung out, so that they could then either re-imprison him or get their revenge upon him for the events at Chorh-Gom.

 

The snow leopard had put paid to that line of inquiry by stating in no uncertain terms that his escape (which had apparently been quite spectacular as well as catastrophic) had taken the lives of all the rhinos there, including their commander. There was no guarantee Tai Lung was right, of course—he didn't even have to be bragging about his accomplishments, merely mistaken, and Crane doubted the feline had exactly wasted any time before heading to the Valley by doing a headcount of the bodies. But he sincerely hoped the snow leopard was indeed correct.

 

Not that he approved of the murder of so many great warriors, although he did understand why after twenty years of imprisonment and mistreatment Tai Lung would not exactly have been in a charitable and merciful mindset when breaking free of Chorh-Gom. And the truth was the Anvil had, to a man, been composed of warriors, soldiers who knew that at any moment their enemies could slay them in battle, that death would surely claim them one day or another. Such was a fate they had accepted from the moment they answered the calls of Flying Rhino, Thundering Rhino, and all others in that lineage, even welcomed like an old friend.

 

It didn't make what Tai Lung had done right, but he couldn't deny that the Anvil of Heaven had died as they had lived, and while doing so at the hands of their prisoner had surely not been on the agenda, at the same time they would not have had it any other way. They would rather die in combat than peacefully in their beds—something he also knew was true of certain members of the Furious Five, especially Tigress.

 

No, the reason Crane hoped the snow leopard was correct was because if the rhino commander was indeed dead, he was also cleared of being a suspect in this crime...and to think Vachir was capable of doing what they'd seen on that hilltop was terrible, as well as unbelievable.

 

On the other hand, if it were not Vachir, who would wish to see he got the blame, and who would know Mongolian? Crane knew very little of the rhinoceros's history, only what rumors he had heard and the little he'd gleaned from conversations with Oogway and Shifu. He knew many believed Vachir to be a descendant of Master Flying Rhino; that he was a highly-decorated member of the Anvil of Heaven, perhaps the most in its long history, with many of his medals being for extreme bravery and ingenuity on the battlefield as well as acts of valor and honor—such as moments of courage when he almost lost his life in protecting his men.

 

Crane had heard, when he was still at Li Dai Academy, that the Grand Master had been rather strongly against Vachir being placed in charge of guarding Tai Lung—something which Oogway had later confirmed for him in private but refused to explain. But he had been overruled, either by Emperor Chen or his generals, and perhaps understandably so…since tales also said Vachir had personally saved the tiger's life during a Mongol invasion.

 

Which meant the only ones offhand the avian could think of who might hold a grudge against the rhino were the Mongols, or perhaps the Huns, both of whom had been repelled numerous times by the Anvil of Heaven and lost many of their men in the process. But somehow Crane didn't think any of them, even the Great Khan, were clever or patient enough for such a plan, let alone so indirect in obtaining revenge: they wouldn't frame Vachir for an atrocity so Tai Lung would kill him, or he would be put on trial in the Imperial City, they'd want to do the deed themselves.

 

Besides, it was not yet common knowledge in China that Tai Lung had survived his encounter with the Dragon Warrior—Shifu had been determined to keep it quiet until the snow leopard had proven himself a changed man or until some other fate could be decided for him. And considering Chorh-Gom's location, Crane would think the Mongols or even the Huns would know of Vachir's death during the escape even before those in the Valley of Peace. So why pin such a crime on someone who was dead and gone?

 

Unless he wasn't dead. Unless Tai Lung not only didn't check to be sure he'd actually killed Vachir, but had simply hoped he was dead, after whatever torture the rhino had subjected him to in prison… Still, even taking into account the snow leopard's reaction whenever his warden was brought up, and the Grand Master's inexplicable desire to keep the two of them apart, it simply wasn't logical for Vachir to have done such a thing. It was random, cruel, and dishonorable—and wouldn't Vachir simply be trying to incarcerate Tai Lung again? Even if for some reason the rhino had decided his prisoner had to die, that wouldn't explain why he killed the goat.

 

They were missing something here. And Crane was very much afraid if they, or he, didn't figure out what it was in time, it would get some or all of them killed.

 

Whatever it was, however, would have to wait until later to discover. Because at that moment, he was jolted out of his thoughts by something he heard one of the vendors say to a customer, and swiftly turned back to skewer them with an intent stare. "What did you just say?"

 

The merchant, a gorilla of all things (since most members of that species he'd encountered had either been bandits or mercenaries), looked startled, but then he bowed to the kung fu master and said in his gruff, raspy voice, "Oh, a thousand pardons, Master Crane, I didn't see you there…I was just saying this wasn't the first time some unexplained death happened around here. Just a few days ago, one of the magistrates was found dead in his home. No sign of how anyone could have got in, the doors and windows were all still locked, but his throat had been cut—looked like by the blades of a war fan. And this was right around the time those three strangers came to town."

 

"Three strangers?" Crane couldn't keep the fear from his tightened voice, even as he leaned in intently.

 

The customer who'd been speaking with him, a rather overweight pig, nodded adamantly, clearly eager to spread this particularly juicy bit of gossip. "That's right! No one could get 'em to take down those hoods of theirs, or open up their cloaks, but they were all real tall and slender. Had to be women, no way mistakin' how they walked, and they all moved the same, like they were triplets. Feline too, unless I miss my guess, only cats have that kind of grace—look at Tai Lung!" She chuckled, then frowned uneasily. "Seemed to be looking for someone too…something makes me hope they didn't find whoever it was…"

 

The bird gasped softly, eyes wide, as he managed a tiny nod in reply. "Yeah...I don't think I want them to either..." Even softer, he muttered to himself as he turned away in a slight daze. "No...no..." But there was no mistaking it, it had to be them. And if it was...if it was, then all of them were in even more danger than they'd realized.

 

Barely managing the minimum of politeness in excusing himself, he hurried away down the street in the direction of the headman's house, where he was certain Shifu would still be holding forth. He had to tell the red panda, this news was even more critical than the death they were currently investigating. Because if he was right, and the ones he'd just learned about were still in Yunxian or nearby in the hills, and they caught any of the searching pairs alone...

 

Lost in his thoughts, Crane didn't pay much attention to his surroundings, even jostling villagers aside so they almost dropped their packages and baskets in his haste to reach his destination. Which was why, just as he was about to give up in frustration and fly the rest of the way, he was caught completely unprepared when a pair of hands suddenly grasped his narrow shoulders and yanked him back out of the clot of traffic, underneath a nearby awning.

 

Gasping, he flailed briefly with his wings, trying by main force to break free as well as land a blow on his assailant, but even had he possessed more upper body strength, he doubted he could have escaped—the paws gripping him felt like iron vises. Yet also, strangely soft, even feminine. And so was the laugh that rang in his ears as the tall figure he saw out of the corner of his eye seemed quite entertained by his desperately ridiculous struggle.

 

He knew her too, he realized. Or at least, he thought he did. It must have been the three assassins he just learned about, putting memories of her in his mind so that he now saw her where she couldn't possibly be. Except…she spoke, in the warm, velvety purr of a voice that had always made him feel like melting, whenever he'd heard it in the training court and halls of the Li Dai Academy, and he couldn't possibly mistake it for anyone else.

 

He tried to twist around to get a better glimpse of her, and only received the barest snatch of large, round, black ears and beige fur before those same paws, now grasping him much more gently but still refusing to let him out of her reach, clapped down over his eyes in a playful gesture.

 

"Well, well. It is you! Wasn't sure at first, but I'd know those 'skinny little legs' anywhere. Hiya handsome, how's tricks?"

 

Crane felt his heart jump into his throat, and despite his current predicament, and the very real danger posed to his master, the rest of the Five, and the Dragon Warrior—even Tai Lung—he couldn't keep a broad, if stunned, smile from gracing his bill.

 

"Mei Ling?"

 

"In the flesh. Or fur, rather."

                                                                       


 

As was often the case, the Dragon Warrior was a little slow on the uptake. Staggering up out of the lake shallows, his black-and-white fur drenched and dripping while a lily pad rested on top of his head like an absurd hat, Po glanced rapidly back and forth between Tai Lung and the three figures accosting him. His mouth worked soundlessly, his eyes wide and staring, his finger pointing back and forth. "Wait a minute...do you guys know each other?"

 

"We've met," the snow leopard replied, low and contemptuous, the fierce and hateful growl never leaving his throat.

 

"Oh, we've done much more than that," Wu Xiu noted with pleasure. "You mean you never told your father, or your new friends, about us? For shame."

 

The youngest Wu Sister, Jia, giggled surreptitiously, offering a vapid yet winsome smile to the panda even as she flicked her violet eyes unerringly back to Tai Lung. "Yeah, we and Tai Tai were very close, weren't we? Of course when we knew you, you didn't wear shirts." She paused, then licked her lips in sultry fashion as she placed one paw on her hip and eyed him up and down appraisingly. "You really should go back to that style, big guy. It's a crime to cover all that up."

 

She brightened considerably. "At least you were clever enough to go without sleeves, though! Mm-mmm, I've never seen biceps as delicious as that..." Her paws flexed visibly, as if itching to tear his shirt right from his body.

 

Beside her, Wu Chun rolled her eyes. "Ugh, I'd rather not see my breakfast for a second time today, if you don't mind. He's old enough to be our grandfather."

 

Cursing under his breath, the ex-convict glared hatefully at the snow leopardess as he lifted one fist to shake in her direction. "That's not why I didn't wear them, as you damn well know! D'you think I was insane enough to train in the kwoon, lather up a sweat, and wear clothing on top of all this thick fur too?" All right, fine, so I did like showing off a little. That is entirely beside the point! And I am not that old...

 

The point was the assassins were making their 'relationship' out to be much deeper and more extensive than it truly was. He had met them a year before he was denied the Dragon Scroll and went on his rampage. It had been one of his last missions to prove his worthiness, and one of the few aside from the journey to Yunxian that he'd been allowed to make completely on his own. He forgot the details of that particular excursion—something to do with bandits in Hunan, he thought it was—but he would never forget his encounter with the Wu Sisters.

 

Although he had never learned the specifics of it, apparently they'd been hired to also take out the same group of bandits as he was, or perhaps there had simply been no honor among thieves...a falling-out, a betrayal, too much bitter rivalry, or even personal dislike. Whatever the reason, the four of them had come upon the same battlefield from opposite sides, all of them a whirlwind of fur, claws, punches, and kicks as they took out one robber after another.

 

He had vague memories of using a Mantis strike to gouge out a set of eyeballs, swinging a mace with crushing force into a gorilla's groin, leaping from a standing start to literally smash in a wolf's breastbone, and twisting in a wide-arc roundhouse kick to knock out a whole line of crocodiles. But the sisters had been just as impressive and amazing, wielding a plethora of weapons—from common ones such as the tonfa and the throwing star to obscure, foreign ones such as the chakram and the blowgun...with poison darts, of course. And their kung fu had been so smooth, flawless, and graceful to watch, like flowing water, that it had all seem rehearsed well in advance.

 

After all the bandits were dead, the four had faced each other across the expanse of bloody corpses, intent and alert as they gauged each other's abilities and skills and decided whether they faced ally or enemy. In the end, a truce had been declared and introductions made. Tai Lung had never heard of them—two decades ago their legend had not yet grown enough to be whispered in every tavern common room across the land, certainly not enough to eclipse his own—but they had of course known who he was. Fascinated by the chance to meet and get to know others of his kind, he'd agreed to dinner and drinks before heading back to the Valley.

 

He didn't remember a great deal about what happened after that—it had been the one and only time he'd imbibed alcohol, and the fact it had left him with hazy thoughts, a killer headache, and large gaps in his memory was the real reason he'd sworn off all liquors, contrary to what he'd made Tigress believe. But what he did recall, in bits and flashes, was that at least one sister, possibly all three, had tried to seduce him—though he had of course resisted even while under the influence, what would his master have said if he'd known? And that the crafty, dark-hearted women had tried to persuade him into joining them.

 

They'd failed at that too—even drunk, the snow leopard had had his eyes set on only one prize, and nothing could deter him or make his steps falter and deviate from the path he'd set himself. Not to mention when his answer had displeased them, they'd revealed their true colors...Wu Xiu, the eldest, had seemed particularly infuriated at being balked in claiming him for herself, or for her sinister, death-dealing purposes. For perhaps the first time in his life, he'd felt that his life hung in the balance, as the assassin had held a knife to his throat, so close he could feel the edge of the blade brush and slice through a few hairs—and by the scent of the liquid staining the metal, he was fairly certain it had been treated with juice of the oleander.

 

But for an inexplicable reason he still couldn't understand, she had let him live. With a twisted smirk, she had only backed away to the window of his inn room and sketched a brief bow before commenting that she was sure, one day, he would change his mind, when he knew where he belonged...when he found out the great dream of his life would never be realized and he would never truly be accepted. Then she'd vanished into the night.

 

Tai Lung had never told his father or Oogway—the first time in his life he ever lied to them. (The little white ones all boys told as they grew up didn't count...this was much more serious.) And he'd had the uneasy feeling the sage turtle had known, even if not what the lie had concealed. That alone would have planted the seeds of his doubts, suspicions, and distrust for the Grand Master and Shifu, but of course the Wu Sisters hadn't stopped there.

 

The hint that the red panda did not love him because he was not his flesh and blood, that even the magnanimous, wise tortoise believed him unworthy of the great heroism which would come with the Dragon Scroll, had lodged themselves like poisonous barbs in his insecure heart. And while he could not lay the blame for what he had done at their door—the choices had still been his, as well as the actions—it would be fair to say the Wu Sisters helped place him on his downward spiral.

 

And now they had come back for him.

 

Snapping out of his rather dangerous reverie, Tai Lung growled again and bared his fangs at the assassins even as he spoke to Po. "Just ignore them, panda. They're implying something that was never there. And as hilarious as they seem to think it is to make fun of my age, they’re nearly as old as I am. Allow me to introduce the Wu Sisters—Xiu, Chun, and Jia."

 

As he indicated each of them, they nodded in acknowledgment...Jia winking, Chun gazing at the panda unblinkingly, and Xiu never taking her cold blue eyes off of the ex-convict. In spite of himself, and the warmth of the day, he shivered—he didn't know whether her look was meant to murder him where he stood or pierce him to hold him still while she made him hers...but either way, he didn't like it.

 

He wasn't the only one—for as soon as their names passed his lips, Po gasped, backpedaled a little, and swallowed visibly. "The...the Wu...?"

 

For the first time, Xiu allowed herself to glance at the panda, a sardonic tilt to both lips and eyebrow. "That's right. I see you've heard of us. And who might you be?"

 

Somehow mustering a well of strength and determination despite knowing just who he faced, Po struck a kung fu pose—the opening stance for Tiger Fist, in fact—and put on his best stern glower. "Lady, I'm the Dragon Warrior." Sadly, the image was marred by the lily pad he still wore on his head.

 

Even as Tai Lung smacked his forehead and groaned piteously, the Wu Sisters were laughing—the sound ranging from the youngest's genuine merriment to the eldest's cold disapproval. It was the middle sister, Chun, who spoke, however, looking emotionlessly at Po before turning her world-weary green gaze to the snow leopard. "And here I thought he'd be something of a challenge for us."

 

Wu Xiu nodded in agreement, tsking softly under her breath as she crossed her arms over her narrow chest. "My, my. The greatest warrior in China, in the history of kung fu...is a panda. I had no idea the standards at the Jade Palace had sunk so low."

 

Unsurprisingly, Po looked incredibly ashamed, upset, and resentful. But even though he shared the sentiment, a part of Tai Lung couldn't help still guiltily agreeing with the snow leopardess—for though the panda did have the wisdom, heart, and soul of a true kung fu warrior, his fighting skills left so much to be desired he understood why Shifu had been so reluctant to train him at first.

 

Yet he couldn't allow them to belittle his first and only friend. (If anything, that was his job.) And after all, he had severely underestimated the panda during their battle; perhaps the assassins would too. Especially if he kept their attention focused on him. "Leave him out of this, why don't you...and tell me why you're really here."

 

"Oh, how sweet," Xiu said with scathing sarcasm. "He's made a friend."

 

"Darn right he has!" Po finally blurted out. Having at last swiped the offending pad off his head, he stalked out of the lake to stand dripping, but otherwise with a surprisingly menacing air, as he glared at the three hired killers. "But right now, all that matters is you tellin' us why ya killed that poor farmer. That was you, wasn't it? You gutted him, ripped him apart?"

 

To Tai Lung's shock, all three of the sisters stopped, blinked, and stared at the panda in genuine confusion. They recovered quickly, of course, especially Xiu, but it didn't change the fact he'd seen behind their façade...and they truly didn't know what Po was talking about.

 

Which, now that he stopped to think, made sense; for while he had, perhaps understandably, assumed the sisters were to blame as soon as he laid eyes on them, he recalled now that all of them, but Xiu above all, prided themselves on clean, swift, surgical killings. Nothing like what had been done to the goat, that would be beneath them. And while they were not above a little torture or cruelty to gain information for their employers or merely for the fun of it, from what little he knew of them they seemed unlikely to descend to the horrific levels applied to that farmer. But if they didn't do it, then who...?

 

Interrupting his thoughts, Chun actually allowed a note of reproach and irritation to enter her tone as she stared at Po, then Tai Lung. "Oh, please. If you know who we are, 'Dragon Warrior', then you must know that's just not our style."

 

While the panda looked openly puzzled, Xiu turned back to Tai Lung, that familiar predatory gleam in her eyes. "As to why we're here, we came here for you, Tai Lung. To offer you a deal."

 

Despite being certain she would come for him again one day, and this time not allow him to refuse, this was the last thing he'd expected her to say. In point of fact, assuming she wasn't after Shifu or one of the Five (who surely had many enemies), he'd have thought she came to finish what she started, tying up the loose end she'd left dangling when she leaped out that window twenty-one years ago. Granted, she hadn't attacked him on sight...but she was also the sort to play with her prey before she pounced on it. Could she actually mean what she said? After all this time, had she still not given up on recruiting him? Or was this merely a smokescreen for something else?

 

Even as he remained perfectly poised on the balls of his feet, ready to leap and dodge aside the moment he spied the twitching and flexing of muscles that indicated an incoming blow, he crossed his arms over his chest. "Oh really? And just what might that be, hmm?"

 

"The same I made you twenty years ago, of course." She smiled, but it was brittle and didn't reach her eyes, except to make them flash menacingly.

 

Ignoring the panda, who looked even more worried and befuddled than before, the snow leopard glared at Xiu. "And what makes you think my answer will have changed? Even back then I was a solo act...and I think you'll agree I've proven I don't work well with others."

 

Jia laughed, but the others remained stoic and silent. Then a slow smile twisted Xiu's muzzle. "Because this time I can offer you something I didn't have before."

 

In the back of his head, Tai Lung could feel his unease and even fear growing. She seemed far too cocky, but what could she possibly have up her sleeve? "And that would be...?" he finally asked, hoping he sounded as bored and disinterested as was Chun's wont.

 

The eldest Wu Sister turned up her black lips, fangs pressed together in a wicked grin. "Your family. We know who they are, and where they are."

 

For a long moment a stunned silence filled the glade along the lakeshore, with only the sound of the wind to disturb it. Then, quite deliberately, even though he felt his stomach lurching and roiling inside, Tai Lung threw back his head and laughed mockingly. "Of course. How could I have missed it? Why, they were just misplaced, you lovely ladies just happened to find them, and now out of the goodness of your hearts, you wish to restore me to their bosom." His teeth snapped together, jaw clenching and trembling with the incredible fury he felt building within him. "D'you really think I'm that damn stupid? I'm not going to fall for a trick like that, so you're just wasting your breath."

 

Wu Chun blinked with exaggerated care, then shook her head slowly. "Believe what you want, Tai Lung. The fact is, we have information you want, and we're prepared to give it to you...at a price, of course."

 

"Naturally." He bit the word off. "But I only have your word on this—that you'll tell me, that you actually have the information, that it's even true."

 

"Hmmm, yes, that is a dilemma," Wu Xiu smirked, tapping one finger on her lip. "I guess you'll just have to trust us."

 

Tai Lung snorted. "As if that will ever happen."

 

Wu Jia pouted, her lip quivering tremulously. "Aww, don't be like that, Tai Tai. We really want to tell you...but you don't get something for nothing, you know."

 

"Would you please quit calling me that?" he finally exploded, loudly enough to set the nearby birds flapping out of their roosts in the branches overhead. "And I know very well what you're asking—my soul, or it might as well be."

 

"Don't be so melodramatic." Chun rolled her eyes. "Have we ever lied to you before?"

 

He actually had to stop and consider that for a few moments—and realized, to his discomfort, that in the short time he'd known them, he hadn't caught them in an outright falsehood. That he knew of.

 

Even as he started to waver, though, it was Po's turn to intervene, stepping up to the snow leopard's side and maneuvering his bulk protectively in front of him. If the idea of him protecting the scourge Tai Lung weren't so ludicrous, and didn't make him rather distressed at the prospect of what the sisters might do to him, it would be an extremely touching gesture. Actually, it still was.

 

"Don't you listen to 'em, Tai. They're just tryin' t' goad you. They ain't got nothin' on ya."

 

Jia shrugged. "You'll never find out unless you take a chance on us."

 

"Stay out of this, panda. This is between me and them."

 

Po flicked his eyes around the glade, as if studying and tallying all the exits, then started to sidle backwards as slowly and unobtrusively as he could, even though his size and coloration made him stand out so plainly it was painfully obvious what he was up to. And indeed, before either of the warriors could do more than blink, Chun suddenly stood next to Po, as calm and cool as ever, but her war fan was now open and held horizontally in front of the Dragon Warrior—and several of its blades were this close to piercing his throat. He froze.

 

"I'm afraid you won't be going anywhere," the snow leopardess said conversationally, mildly. "Not until we've settled accounts, anyway."

 

Tai Lung stabbed a thumb over his shoulder at Chun as he glared at Xiu. "Not exactly the most conducive way to convince me you're on the up-and-up, eh?"

 

Those blue eyes fixed on him again, never wavering...as steady as stone. "The choice is yours. Stay with your perfect little friends, holed away in your precious little palace, and never know who you are, or join us, and learn everything about how truly great you are, and were meant to be."

 

She was good. She knew just what buttons to push. And once, it would have worked. In all honesty he had to admit he was still tempted. But he had come too far now to give up, especially when he had Tigress to think of, to give him strength. "No deal. Because there's no way you could have found out anything anyway. I don't doubt your skills...but Shifu turned over every stone in the Valley, questioned all travelers going in and out, even had the Emperor send his men to question all the nearby villages. He never learned anything. There was nothing to find."

 

Wu Xiu was still smiling, however, as if in on a private joke only she knew. "Is that what he told you?"

 

For several long moments, he almost gave in, almost agreed. Because there had always been the secret belief, buried deep down inside where he had never let it out in the light of day to be examined, that the red panda might not have been fully truthful with him. So many reasons he could have hidden what he had learned: selfishness, a refusal to let Tai Lung go back to his family instead of staying at the temple and earning the scroll that was beyond Shifu's own reach; love, an inability to let him go even if a family waited for the abandoned cub; disgust with the sort of people who could orphan their child, people he never wanted Tai Lung to meet; a plea for humility, trying to keep the snow leopard in the noble life of service rather than the powerful lineage to which he belonged; or simply habits he had learned training with the evasive, circuitous, secretive tortoise Oogway.

 

But then he growled, both at himself and at the sisters, and took a menacing step forward—putting Po in turn behind his spotted back—as he bent one knee and crouched, tense and ready to spring. No. No, it couldn't be. Whatever else Shifu was or had done to him, he was not a liar. He knew how much it hurt the snow leopard to remain ignorant of his heritage. He would not have kept such a thing from him. Would he?

 

"It's not going to work," he snapped at last. "I'm going to give you one last shot at this, Xiu. Even if you're telling the truth, I know you didn't come here just to lure me into a trap, or whatever this bait is intended to do. And it can't just be chance you're here. Someone sent you...I want to know who, and I want to know why."

 

The snow leopardess regarded him contemplatively for a few moments, then chuckled softly. "All right, you got me. We are working for someone. Someone who pays well, and who's very interested in you. And I'm sure you'd love for me to tell you all about him." The mirth in her eyes vanished as they went flat. "But you know, I don't think I will."

 

One of the other sisters hissed between her teeth. Po swallowed again. The water rippled and splashed on the shoreline, the limbs creaked above them, and he heard the distinctive sound of metal clinking against metal as some weapon or other was grasped, about to be brought into play. But although he noticed and took stock of all of this, Tai Lung only had eyes for Wu Xiu as he replied to her...very softly, his voice as laced with deadliness and determination as it had ever been. "Then I suppose...I'll have to do it the other way, and make you."

 

"You'll try," she amended archly. "But...be my guest."

 

And even as the words were leaving her mouth, he exploded into action.

 

Crossing the intervening ground between them in less than three strides, he leaped through the air as if floating, his pulse pounding in his ears—as always happened to him in combat, everything outside his vision and his immediate surroundings faded into nothing, leaving him utterly focused on his adversary. It was how he had always fought, what worked best for him, and it had never failed him before—well, except for when he fought Po. But the panda was unorthodox, and the sisters for all their skill were still typical kung fu warriors in most respects...

 

He landed on the ball of one foot, the rest of his forward momentum already being twisted around into a roundhouse—but to his utter shock, Wu Xiu ducked it as if it were mere child's play, a bored look even appearing on her narrow muzzle. Luckily he was well-trained enough not to twirl around ridiculously on one foot, as the Dragon Warrior probably would have, nor did he even stumble—he directed his energy instead around and down, his foot slamming into place even as he leaned forward to punch right into the snow leopardess's face. But somehow, she ducked that too, as if she were a tree bending in a mountain gale, and this time she smirked openly at him. "Too slow, Tai Tai," she purred. "You are getting old."

 

Enraged, he didn't bother to grace her with a scathing reply—he let his actions speak for him. Spin-kick, side-kick, Crane chop, Dragon Fist…one after another, without let up or hesitation or even a pause for breath, he launched them in a flurry at Xiu, determined to smash that smug grin off her devilish face. But to his increasing fury, she continued to dodge and weave, step aside and even pirouette away as if she were some damned court dancer, and not a single blow he attempted ever connected. "Come on, Tai Lung, are you even really trying? What did Vachir have you doing all those years, embroidering socks? You really have gone soft…"

 

The underbrush nearby rustled, but so intent was he on his opponent that he barely noticed, writing it off as the lakeshore wind. Letting out an inarticulate snarl, he launched himself again at the assassin—only, at the last moment, he caught sight of a flicker of movement in those heartless blue eyes, a reflection of something behind him displayed in their flat emptiness.

 

It was Jia, emerging from the leaves to leap soundlessly at him, both paws held up and apart as if something were clutched between them...something invisible he couldn't see.

 

Even as he cursed at himself for allowing Xiu to distract him with her taunting, the snow leopard's incredible reflexes acted without thought. One paw came up in a blur of speed in front of his face—and at the last possible second, caught the strand of razor-thin wire that had been about to close over and slice through his throat. Grasping it tightly—and ignoring the pain that flared in his palm as the garrote bit into his flesh—he yanked forward and down, at the same time his other paw twisted back behind him, catching hold of Jia's tunic and yanking.

 

As the garrote came forward and slipped out of her paw, the youngest sister let out a startled shriek—but she couldn't check her progress, he'd pulled her completely off her feet, and in seconds Jia was hurled over his hip, right into Xiu's hateful visage. Both spotted felines came together with a satisfying smack of flesh and bone, limbs entangling as they fell prone in the mud.

 

Tai Lung tossed the wire aside contemptuously and smirked down at the sisters. "You were saying?" He leaned back on one foot, his opposite arm upraised in a defensive block for the attack he knew would soon be coming.

 

A cry from behind him suddenly drew his attention however—a feminine cry. Twisting about, he stared...and didn't know whether to laugh, groan, or chuckle in grudging respect. Chun, of course, had been the only one free to tackle Po, and the fact she'd already had him under her sights while she kept the war fan to his throat had placed her in prime position when the fighting started. It didn't look as if she'd landed any blows on the panda, though his fur did look mussed and sliced in a few places.

 

At the moment, however, the snow leopardess was at a disadvantage—for the Dragon Warrior had stomped on her foot, the same as he had Tai Lung's during their final encounter, only instead of stepping back, he still had the appendage in question pinned to the ground, trapping Chun only a few feet away from him—and the reason for her cry was apparent, too. Po was casually, even eagerly, boxing with the feline's face, both black-furred fists rocking her head back as they punched in endless circles.

 

He caught Tai Lung looking at him. "This is easier than I thought!"

 

"Panda, look out!"

 

Po whipped his head back to look—somewhere in there, one of his punches had stunned her enough to make her drop the fan, but in its place she had pulled out her Wind and Fire Wheel, and the gleaming, jagged blades were already slashing straight at his unprotected belly.

 

Letting out a cry, he managed to dodge aside just in time—but this freed the feline's foot, and in seconds she was twisting up and to the side, so that Po's sideways leap took him right into the path of her waiting kick. The wind knocked out of him, the panda landed hard on the muddy ground…right next to an apple that had fallen from a nearby tree.

 

The snow leopard wanted to rush to the Dragon Warrior's defense, but a groan made him look back to his own opponent in a hurry. Looking rather dizzy and out of sorts, Jia knelt at the base of a tree, clutching her woozy head. But Xiu, who had rather disgustedly shoved her there, was already back on her feet—and she had her own Wind and Fire Wheel out and brandished, the light glinting coldly from its metal the same as it did from her eyes and fangs.

 

Narrowing his eyes, he leaped at her in the same instant she moved. A powerful kick actually struck this time, striking Xiu's narrow chest and toppling her backward. Recovering faster than seemed possible or fair, she landed on one knee, only to bring her fire wheel about in a crescent slice—which would have cut his chest open, if he hadn't skidded to a stop just in time. While he was thus off-balance, she swung again, this time stabbing down toward his foot.

 

Again he dodged, so that the blades buried themselves in the mud instead, and brought his fist down to strike her elbow—hoping to numb the nerves there and make her drop her weapon. Yet the assassin was as slippery as an eel, evading the blow with a quick roll to the side—and as she got her feet underneath her again, the back of the fire wheel came up, aimed right at Tai Lung's jaw.

 

Stars exploded in his vision as he didn't duck in time, and he staggered back at the power behind that attack. If the padded handgrip hadn't been what struck him, he had a feeling his jaw would have broken. Trying to shake off his dizziness, he hurriedly brought his paws up in another block—just in time, as Xiu tried the same tactic again, this time with alternating X-blows.

 

He managed to latch onto her wrist—except she used his grip as a bracing point, literally turning her sinuous body about to run up his stomach and chest, inverting to perform a flawless backflip and tear free, sailing several feet away and landing with all the grace and perfection of their species. And along the way, she kicked him in the chin, again. Damnit!

 

Rubbing his chin, he shook his head several times to clear it of the ringing…and the inexplicable, puzzling sound of...laughter? Again he turned, daring to look—since for an odd moment, Xiu too had stopped, poised with the fire wheel drawn back for another whirling blow, to also stare in the same direction he was.

 

Both of them saw that it was Jia who was laughing, and she had good reason to: Po had succeeded in stepping on Chun's other foot, and when the snow leopardess let out a yowl of pain, he'd shoved the apple right into her mouth, as if she were trussed up and ready to serve for dinner.

 

Jia wasn't laughing long, though, because as Chun stumbled backwards—courtesy of a kick from Po!—and tried to wrench the apple free, the panda was already scooping up an armful of apples...and with surprising accuracy and more than a little cocky enthusiasm, began throwing one after another at the youngest sister, pelting her with the shiny red fruit.

 

Overhand, backhand, even between his own legs, he tossed them indiscriminately, until a veritable hail of them filled the air. One struck Jia right in the middle of her forehead, and Po let out a belting laugh of his own. "Hah! An apple a day keeps the assassin away!" Smirking, he actually bent over and thrust his rump at her, shaking it from side to side and wriggling his tail in a blatantly provocative gesture.

 

Annoyed, Jia threw one of her Wind and Fire Wheels at him, but it missed as he danced aside. "Aww, c'mon! What was that? Ya couldn't hit th' broad side of a rickshaw!" Her second fire wheel came much closer, one of its blades actually tearing a hole in the side of his shorts. He clapped a paw over his exposed rump fur. "Whoa! Okay, that was a close one, I'll give ya that..."

 

From nearby he heard a snort, and then Xiu chuckled. "Please don't tell me you trained him."

 

"Certainly not." Though I'm starting to wish I had. He isn't going to last long like that. "Shifu did."

 

Xiu laughed again. "That explains a few things."

 

"And what's that supposed to mean?" He started to turn, hoping to take the eldest sister by surprise while her attention was still focused on the other battle, but then he saw another movement out of the corner of his eye—and as he looked at Chun again, who had succeeded in dislodging the apple and was glaring at Po with offended dignity, he gasped as he recognized the weapon she had pulled from inside her tunic. The one she was now twirling and swinging in an increasingly widening arc around her head, its flexible rope tensing and stretching as the heavy metal weight at its end accumulated more and more energy with every whirl. Bugger! She's got a meteor hammer! He started to leap towards the middle sister, ready to duck under the arc of the rope to knock her off her feet...

 

But he'd forgotten Xiu. Without warning, a pair of feet locked together slammed into his hip, making his legs buckle—and then they swung around again, this time smacking him painfully in the gut. He toppled sideways and backwards, landing hard in the mud…and as he lay there, panting and breathing hard, he saw the sun become blocked out by a silhouette standing over him, as the Wu Sister smiled—teeth gleaming brightly in the black featurelessness of her face—while she lifted her fire wheel high. "I don't know though," she commented almost conversationally. "You certainly seem just as inept as the panda is."

 

Gritting his teeth, Tai Lung slithered his paw through the mud—easily missed, since it had turned almost the same brown as the ground around it—until it was only a few inches away. "Snow leopards," he growled, "should match." And latching onto her ankle, he gave a vicious yank.

 

Wu Xiu, who'd been about to bring the fire wheel smashing down again, let out an unladylike shriek as she toppled into the muddy shallows of the lake with a splash. Chuckling nastily to himself, the ex-convict rolled over, got his paws beneath him, and leaped adroitly to his feet.

 

In seconds, he saw that Po too had fallen victim to a tripping attack—this one perpetrated by a swing from Chun's meteor hammer, which had in fact been wrapped and coiled tightly around the panda's ankles, the weight at the end fixing it in place to entangle him quite properly. Looking up from where he lay flat on his belly, once again covered with lily pads and broken seed stalks, he rested his mournful gaze on Tai Lung. "Oops."

 

The snow leopard started toward him to help him up (after making sure to smack him around repeatedly for the ridiculous antics he'd pulled to put him in such a vulnerable position). But then Jia, who had managed to extricate herself from the mound of apples, leaped in his way—and even though she had the same playful, if rather disgruntled, expression as ever, Tai Lung found himself freezing in place as he saw what she was bringing into play against him. Her sister's war fan, scooped up at some point during the fighting. And the way she held it indicated clear competency, even expert skill.

 

Oh hell. They're cross-trained!

 

The violet-eyed sister didn't leave him long to consider this development, however, as she was already leaping forward with the fan brandished, its sharp blades aiming right at his throat. At the last second, though, she faltered, and this gave him time to lean backwards out of reach of the weapon, counterbalanced by his whipping tail. Jia paused, her face hovering only inches away from his heaving chest, and smiled suggestively—until her eyes screwed up in pain, as he kicked her hard and sent her flying back across the clearing.

 

Of course she was right back up again and heading back toward him, this time much more serious and intent, but that gave him enough chance to kill two birds with one stone. Ducking down beside Po, he latched onto the metallic ball at the end of the meteor hammer, giving it a good jerk upwards. Immediately the rope unspooled—in the process making the poor panda whirl and roll around in mid-air before landing on his back again in the water. "Sorry, panda, but I have more need of this than you do," he muttered. Jia was only a few feet away now—but Tai Lung was already springing in the opposite direction, back across the glade toward the path, as if he were attempting to flee the scene.

 

At the last minute, however, he turned back—and was already coiling the rope around one paw, the other whirling the meteor hammer's free end in an ever-tightening circle at eye-level. Tossing it outward, he retained his hold on the other end...if he had timed this right, and remembered his lessons well... He had. With a snarl of frustration and an annoyed curse, Jia stopped short, glaring down almost cutely at the winding rope that had wrapped completely around the war fan in her hand. Tai Lung gave her what he knew was a pompous smile and jerked on the weight. "Mine!" The fan flew free of her grip, fluttering through the air, and disappearing into the underbrush as the rope twisted around it unwound and loosened.

 

While Jia went darting back across the clearing, either leaping into the brush to find the fan or going to reclaim the fire wheels she'd thrown at Po, the snow leopard turned back, looking for his most dangerous opponent. To his disbelief and contempt, Xiu was just now emerging from the waters of the lake, since apparently she'd taken the time after his last rather, er, dirty move to actually wash her fur clean of all the sticky mud.

 

Now, dripping and furious as any cat dunked in water would be, her blue eyes more vicious and murderous than ever, the eldest sister came at him again with her own circular slasher poised before her. Cracking his neck, he spread both arms wide, ducking low to find his center of gravity and draw strength from such a well-rooted support...he pushed off with one foot and began to leap forward, the meteor hammer already twirling...

 

The only warning he had was a faint whistle in the air, and it wasn't enough to prevent the ignominy. Even as he slid to a stop (and just managed to avoid falling flat on his face as his feet skidded on a lily pad), he felt the constriction around his sides, then pinning his arms in place as rope bit into his furred flesh. In seconds, another meteor hammer had completely coiled around his body, trapping his arms and cutting across his chest and back as the weight at its other end whirled around a few more times, only to settle atop its own anchor, smacking in between his shoulder blades with bruising force.

 

Glaring back behind him, he saw Wu Chun standing there looking quite pleased with herself—or as much as she ever did, in this case consisting of both eyebrows being raised and the corner of her mouth turned up a few more centimeters than usual. He'd thought she would continue focusing on the Dragon Warrior...

 

But he couldn't bemoan his stupidity, for both Xiu and Chun were coming for him now, while he spied Jia re-appearing with her fire wheel and making a beeline straight for Po where he'd just made it back to his feet. If he expected to win this fight, he had to go on the offensive, he had to turn the sisters' advantage of numbers into a liability, and he had to get free. So...

 

Clenching his fists, he bunched the massive muscles of his arms and shoulders, gathering all of the strength that nearly twenty years of arduous training, and another twenty of chi saturation, had built within him. Furrowing his brow as sweat began to soak into his pelt, he stretched...strained...flexed...he could feel the fibers beginning to give way...

 

And just as Xiu came in low—if he knew her, about to bash him in the groin with the back of her fire wheel—while Chun raised her own wheel above the back of his head, with a roar of mingled fury and triumph, he burst his bindings, the meteor hammer's rope snapping completely apart under the pressure of his biceps.

 

He surged free, leaping at Xiu with a punch that rocked her head back and sent her skidding on her rump along the lakeshore, then whirling to give the same treatment to Chun with a kick to the stomach. Old, eh? Top that, bitches!

 

The middle sister staggered back to her feet, leaning against a tree trunk and clutching her stomach painfully, yet her face still betrayed no emotion except wry amusement. "Damn. We lose more weapons that way."

 

Xiu, wiping blood from her mouth with the back of her paw, appeared on his other side, and both of them lifted their fire wheels. Somewhere in the breaking of the rope, he'd lost his hold on his own meteor hammer and so no longer had a weapon. But this time, as they caught him in the middle of their formation, he was no longer confined, and it showed in how he reacted with split-second timing to stop them.

 

Using the same tactics Xiu had when the fight first started, he ducked and leaned, twisted and bobbed, always using his feline flexibility to avoid every single strike the sisters made at him. Just when their frustration at not landing a blow must have reached a fever pitch, he rose to his full height and lashed out once, twice, in quick succession—first, a Crane deflection strike that knocked Chun backwards yet again; then he hooked his other arm around Xiu's elbow, wrenching her about and placing a crushing pressure on the nerves there in the same motion, so that she cried out and dropped her fire wheel from her suddenly numb fingers.

 

But he wasn't through with them yet. Tossing Xiu to land beside her sister, Tai Lung ducked low and did a quick handspring to put him in just the right position. Landing on one paw—easily supporting himself with his upper body strength—he executed a perfect swivel-kick, rotating his entire body three hundred and sixty degrees with his paw as the pivot so that all his weight was brought to bear in the blows he dealt.

 

His feet struck Chun first, right in the knees, and she was completely knocked off her feet and sent flying into Xiu. Then, as the latter was struggling back upright with her second fire wheel in her paw that still had sensation, his feet separated so as to grasp Xiu around the neck, jerking her first above the lake, then releasing when she was above solid ground again. She flew across the clearing and vanished from his sight.

 

He lost track of her after that, since even as he sprang back to his feet again, the relentless Chun was coming for him again, now joined by Jia—who, it seemed, had gotten a bit of revenge on Po for the apples, since the panda was on his knees in the shallow water, the slashes of the war fan leaving red streaks like claw marks across his chest and arms, while he was clutching at the crotch of his shorts with an agonized expression.

 

But the snow leopard tuned out his friend's plight because he had no choice—if he let the pair of sisters defeat him, there would be no one to stop them from hurting Po any further before help could arrive.

 

Jia came at him with her wheel slashing hard—but at the last moment she twisted aside and instead ducked down to bring one foot slamming into his breastbone. He landed on his back in the lily pads with a splash. But he was only staggered a moment...and as she and Chun came for him again, one from either side, he gathered his paws beneath him and pushed off, jumping up to bring his legs apart in a perfect upside-down split. Both feet struck their targets, sending the sisters back yet again with kicks to the chest, and he was up and leaping at them again.

 

Back and forth they sparred in the shallows of the lake, atop the lilies, the only sounds now their harsh breathing, flesh and bone connecting with metal and wood, and the occasional growl and snarl. There was no breath now to spare for taunting and teasing, and no inclination for it now either—not even from Jia, who for the first time looked concerned, even scared, something which was making her attacks increasingly desperate. Chun, of course, only appeared implacable and adamant, but he could see something gleaming in her green eyes too...the beginnings of despair, or at least an understanding of futility.

 

And with those sights, he felt his heart pound faster. He was winning. He was going to beat them.

 

The snow leopard blocked another blow of a fire wheel, only to strike in the same movement, his forearm keeping the weapon from landing even as his fist plowed its curled fingers into the face hovering behind it. He brought his other elbow back to catch one of them in the stomach—he'd lost track of who was who—then rotated again to hook his foot behind a knee and send her flailing in the waters.

 

One of them succeeded in wrapping her slender arm around his neck, but he reached back to grab her tunic and pulled her forward, bending at the waist and snapping his torso down to send her flipping over his head. The other—he thought it was Chun—got hold of one arm and jerked to the side and back, attempting to dislocate his shoulder, but he brought his other paw up in a secret move he'd invented, curling his index finger up at the knuckle as he punched so as to strike the pressure point right at the temple.

 

Chun released him immediately, staggering backwards as if drunk, although she'd been holding on so tightly that a large chunk of his fur ripped out in the process, still clutched between her crooked fingers.

 

At last, in a last-ditch effort to subdue him, both sisters sprang at him from opposite sides once again, their fire wheels pointed so that, no matter how he blocked them, their metallic flames would pierce his arm—or his heart, if he didn't block them in time. Gathering all the power in his haunches, he drew upon another unique move he had developed, one he'd put into play against the rhinos during his escape from Chorh-Gom: leaping high into the air above the lake, he threw himself into a horizontal position and caught hold of each snow leopardess with ankles and wrists—one around the chest, the other the neck—simultaneously twisting them around in mid-air.

 

By the time he'd tossed both of the extraordinarily dizzy, weary, battered assassins to the ground and landed himself, prepared for another assault, he found it wasn't needed. Chun and Jia could barely hold their fire wheels, it seemed, one quivering on hands and knees, the other leaning weakly against a boulder. Grinning in spite of himself—he knew he was better than them, and now at last he had proven it—Tai Lung at last turned back to slog out of the lake to look for Wu Xiu.

 

When he got there, however, and looked where he'd last seen the wicked killer, his breath caught in his throat…and his fists clenched spasmodically, helplessly.

 

The panda was almost exactly where he'd last seen him, still on his knees, though he didn't think the bear had been there the whole time—not if the sheer amount of churned mud and the telltale marks of deep gouges created by a fire wheel were any indication. Though he didn't seem to be any bloodier than before, there were a large number of bluish-purple bruises already clear through his fur...a number of them lining his ribs, as if he'd been kicked there repeatedly. He had a black eye, nearly swollen shut; he was nursing one elbow, as if it had been sprained; and from the glazed look in his eyes, he was barely conscious. But that wasn't what so shocked, infuriated...and terrified Tai Lung.

 

Wu Xiu stood behind Po, one knee pressed into the small of his back, one arm wrapped around his broad chest to keep him pinned against her—or even upright, for all he knew. The other paw held both ends of a fine cord...one which was wound around the panda's throat. The garrote, the one he had discarded near the very start of the battle and completely forgotten about. And even as he watched, thick red fluid was welling up around it, slowly staining the pristine white fur.

 

"Buddy...?"

 

"Panda..." He swallowed hard, then looked up at Xiu as he took a menacing step closer. "Let go of him this instant, or else I—"

 

"Not an inch closer, or this gets tugged the rest of the way and your friend loses his head."

 

Tai Lung froze. Slowly lowering his paws, and forcing them to relax, his voice to modulate to a softer tone, he said, "Come now. We can be reasonable, eh? Some sort of accommodation can be reached?"

 

"You already know my terms." Xiu's eyes never wavered as she stared at him, nor did her fingers loosen on the garrote. "You come with us, and you join our clan. Perhaps you've changed your mind about that after all, now?" Tai Lung was silent. "Hmm. I thought not. A pity." The wire tightened, drawing still more blood.

 

"Xiu...please." He swallowed again. "This has nothing to do with him. It's me you want. Let him go. I...I'll meet you again later, after I've had time to think about this, and we'll...discuss the matter."

 

Before she could do more than open her mouth, sounds suddenly emanated from the forest—what seemed to be pounding feet, snapping twigs, rustling leaves, shouted voices. He thought he recognized Tigress's, and from farther off, Viper's. The sounds of their combat must have drawn the rest of the Five. The odds were about to completely tip away from the Wu Sisters' favor.

 

Wu Xiu seemed to know it too—he could see her calculating her chances, especially with Chun and Jia out of commission for the foreseeable future. In seconds, her expression became resigned…then frustrated, even annoyed. With a small cry of disgust, she released her hold on Po and tugged the garrote free in the same motion. With only a small gasp of pain, the panda fell forward into the water, sending up another loud splash.

 

"Your 'friend' is very lucky I don't feel like dying today, or answering too many questions. And I have orders to follow that don't include gracing a prison cell or quizzing you on how to plot the perfect escape. But we will meet again, Tai Lung. Of that, you can be quite sure."

 

He watched, both confused and angered, as Xiu returned to the lakeshore, leaning down to gather up all evidence that she and her sisters had been there—the war fan, the discarded meteor hammer, the remnants of the other he had broken. By the time she reached her fallen siblings, both of them were awake and on their feet again...groggy, clutching their sides or their shoulders, but sure as anything recovering.

 

Even though he had won, they were going to get away...and that, added to Po's condition, really made it a draw. But that wasn't what upset him.

 

They had almost made it to the path heading east, and were at the edge of the glade, when he came up behind them, growling nastily. "What's the matter, Xiu? Afraid of the Furious Five? Or their master? And it's not like you to leave a job unfinished. Aren't you going to take even a moment to kill me?"

 

Xiu glanced back at him, and his heart sank as he saw a very contented, satisfied look in her eyes to match the smug grin she wore. "Who said I was after you?"

 

Tai Lung stared after her, as paralyzed as if he'd been hit with one of his own nerve strikes, as the full import of what she was saying struck him and sank down into his very marrow. The whole fight...a distraction. The target...had been the Dragon Warrior the entire time.

 

And he'd fallen for it. He'd let himself be goaded, provoked, driven to focus on the others, until he hadn't seen anything but what was right in front of his face...and then, Xiu had taken her hit. She had made an utter fool of him...and it had been Po who had to pay the price.

 

Po!

 

Dashing back to the lakeshore, the snow leopard prayed harder than he ever had to the gods that he was wrong in what he'd seen, that it wasn't too late, that there was still a chance to save him. But when he found the black-and-white form crumpled in the lily-strewn water, his worst fears were confirmed. He wasn't moving. He didn't even seem to be breathing.

 

And as he grasped the panda's side to roll him over, pull his face out of the water so he wouldn't drown...if he even could anymore...he spied the expanding cloud of scarlet staining the water with his life-essence.

 

Letting the Dragon Warrior land on his back with another splash, he stared down at him, aghast...at the incredibly deep cut, like a gaping mouth, that continued oozing and leaking crimson at an astonishing and horrifying rate. Who knew the panda had so much blood in him?

 

Hurriedly he tried to stop the flow, pressing his paws as hard as he dared into Po's throat—he could feel his pulse throbbing against his fingers, and it was slowing down, slowly but surely, a fact that only made Tai Lung's pound all the faster. He put his ear to the panda's chest, listening desperately. He pushed harder still, until both the blood still spurting and that which had already escaped welled up around his fingers. And even though it was futile and pointless, even ludicrous, he found himself shaking the panda back and forth, as if he were only asleep and would waken with a little urging.

 

"Panda? Panda? Speak to me! Damnit, of all the times...I know you can hear me. C'mon, wake up! You have to tell me all about how you defeated Wu Jia. I know you want to. It was legendary, right? But you can't tell me unless you wake up. I know you're stronger than this. I threw everything I had at you when we fought, and you still beat my tail. C'mon. Please, panda...panda..."

 

He heard his voice break, and didn't care. In fact it only made him more insistent, even as his voice lowered to a very small, quiet plea: "...Po...?"

 

Tai Lung was still leaning over him, feeling the tears staining his cheeks, when he again heard the pounding of feet on the pathway, and then suddenly twin exclamations of disbelief, anguish...and rage. Hurriedly he looked up.

 

There, at the edge of the lake, a face of umber fur striped with black and another of gold stared down at him as their owners' fists clenched and unclenched visibly. He couldn't move, his paws still trying to stem Po's blood loss. He could only shiver, bite his lip, and pray once more...as Tigress and Monkey slowly stalked toward him.

 

Aftermath of the Lake Battle

Chapter Text

Chapter 20 Icon 

 

Chest heaving, her breath still raspy and slightly short as she struggled to recover from the dead run she'd taken here from the west, Tigress could not believe her eyes as she stared down at the tragic sight before her.

 

Po, the Dragon Warrior…the bear whose kind and forgiving heart, incurable optimism, and sheer, unbridled enthusiasm had brought life, harmony, and change to the Jade Palace and especially its master…lay half-in, half-out of the water, flat on his back, lily pads and broken stalks strewn over him like fallen garlands—the seemingly festive air horribly dispelled by the fact the water around him was starting to turn a cloudy, rusty hue, only becoming a deeper and darker red as his life's blood leaked out from the deep slash in his throat.

 

And Tai Lung, kneeling over him in the mud, clutching his shoulders as if on the verge of wildly shaking him, or more likely trying to shove him under and drown him…his paws stained the same vivid vermilion. When his sharp ears detected her presence, the snow leopard jerked his head up violently, letting go of Po as if he'd been burned. His expression as he gazed at her was stricken—and terribly guilty.

 

And the instant she saw that, Tigress saw red.

 

Dimly, she was aware that Tai Lung was staggering to his feet, holding out his bloody paws to her helplessly as if he actually thought she would sympathize with his plight. "Tigress! Oh, thank the gods you're here! You have to help him, he—"

 

The snow leopard didn't get to finish his sentence, because with a fearsome, snarling roar into which she poured all of her hate, the striped feline leaped forward so quickly the tree trunks and wet, hanging leaves whipped by in a streaking blur—and just like that, the ex-convict was on the other side of the clearing, pinned to the bole of a beech tree, her paw clenching and constricting around his throat until the claws broke the skin.

 

"You bastard," she growled, her voice sounding feral and barely recognizable even to herself. "You evil, fucking bastard."

 

Tai Lung remained perfectly still where she had slammed him, whether because he knew how dangerous it was to make a wrong (or any) move or because her incredible strength had actually taken him by surprise and rendered him helpless; she dearly hoped it was the latter. "T-Tigress…" he choked out around her paw. "It…it isn't…what it looks like…"

 

"Like hell it isn't!" she snapped. "We caught you red-handed—literally!"

 

The snow leopard actually looked mortally offended, which only made her even more furious. "No…I was just trying…to help him. Staunch…the bleeding…"

 

She let out a cynical, snide laugh. "Right. Tell me another one. You've been waiting for this, planning this, ever since the beginning, haven't you? Just hoping we'd get complacent, someone wouldn't be paying attention, you'd get him all alone, and then wham!" She slammed his head back into the bark again for emphasis, bringing down a shower of wet leaves. "I can't believe you…I can't believe I—we trusted you."

 

"Damnit, Tigress!" For the first time he sounded as if he were getting angry—not that it would do him any good. "I didn't…hurt him. I swear it! But you've got to help him…"

 

"Oh, we will," she purred confidently. "Mantis is the best healer in Hubei, maybe the whole empire. He'll be able to save Po." She squeezed his throat again. "I don't think the same can be said of you." As she spoke, she felt her anger becoming all the more molten and uncontrollable, her teeth gritting in rage.

 

It wasn't just that Po was the Dragon Warrior, the key to maintaining peace in China and the one who had finally brought it to Master Shifu as well. He was her friend…even if she'd had a funny way of showing it before this…and she cared about him more than she wanted to admit. Underneath all that bumbling idiocy, ridiculous playacting, and corny humor beat the heart of a good man, a gentle soul, a surprisingly wise fellow…and a true hero.

 

It had taken her so long to see it, to realize he hadn't intentionally stolen her birthright, did not disrespect kung fu—in fact, he probably respected it more than anyone she had ever met—and practically worshiped the ground she walked on. Once she had, she'd become fiercely protective of Po. Knowing he found Tai Lung more praiseworthy than she had hurt her to the core…finding out later that he still admired and looked up to her as much as he ever had, had been extraordinarily gratifying and wonderful.

 

So to know that Tai Lung had not just targeted the panda thanks to his possession of the Dragon Scroll, but had actually dared to hurt him, had come this close to killing him…it only made Tigress all the more frantic with the need to rip his throat out.

 

"Tigress, listen to me! Listen to yourself!" the snow leopard choked out. "It…wasn't…me. Why won't you believe me? Why would I stay here for you to catch me at it, if I'd done what you said?"

 

"Pride," she sniffed. "You wanted to savor your victory, show off what you'd done. Or you wanted to kill us, too, so you lingered. Besides, we got here too quickly—we heard the sounds of battle and showed up just in time…"

 

Tai Lung stared at her, seemingly bewildered and stunned, yet also with a bit of contempt in his gaze. She couldn't believe how good an actor he was. "So that's it then, eh? No trial, no chance to give my side of the story? You'll be my judge and executioner all in one?" He struggled against her, but aside from her paw on his throat, her other arm held his own trapped against his body, while one knee came very close to slamming him in the groin as her lower half crushed his legs into place. "Doesn't sound like the fair, just woman you're reputed to be…"

 

"You don't deserve fairness," she snarled, as coldly as she could manage. "Not after what you've done. You betrayed our master—again. You let down all those people who thought they could believe in you. And Po…he was the one person who never gave up on you, who always thought you could change. And this is how you repay him? How could you?" She couldn't keep her voice from breaking as the tears started to well up. How could she ever have accepted a flower from this man? Xiulan had seen the truth about him, and been utterly in the right to chastise Tigress at the festival.

 

Those golden orbs—eyes which had alternately enticed her and repelled her, drawn her in with the intense, fiery soul shining behind them and turned her away in disgust when she saw the malice and indifference they could hold—flicked away briefly, over her shoulder to where Po's wound was being tended and compressed by Monkey. And he had the nerve to look upset, to swallow against a lump in his throat! "You're right about him. Absolutely right. He's the only one who could forgive me, unconditionally." His eyes flashed. "And that's why I could never do that to him, not now. Please believe me."

 

For a moment—just a moment—she wavered. No matter how much she longed to deny it, there was sincerity and remorse in those lambent eyes. But that had to be feigned too, just another lie, just like what he'd told her in the forest the other night, just like everything else he'd ever said to her. Because there was no one else who could have done that to Po, not with Tai Lung fighting alongside him—even if someone else had done this, he must have stepped aside and allowed it. And it all made so much sense, when she'd heard Monkey explain it before, what the snow leopard would do…

 

"Why should I?" she said instead. "There's no way you could mean that. You hated him, you tried to kill him before. Why not again?"

 

"Things change. People change. I've changed." He gasped as she once again came close to crushing his windpipe. "Or at least I'm trying to."

 

"No, they don't. Not like that. And not for you." She couldn't keep the smugness, or the callousness, out of her voice. "And I'll make sure you don't get another chance to try and fool us like that again. Remember what I said to you, that night in your cell?" She paused meaningfully, waited for the dawning of understanding to appear in his eyes. Then she leaned in close to hiss to him. "Consider the line crossed."

 

She waited again until she was certain he understood…until she saw the light die in his eyes, until she actually saw fear take up residence there. Then she drew back her free paw, claws unsheathed, to strike…

 

…only to have something supple, muscular, and powerful wrap and coil around her arm, wrenching it back so she could not land her blow.

 

Twisting about with a rather rancid oath, Tigress was not at all surprised to see Viper there, her tail wrapped around the feline's waist for support while she kept her leader's arm restrained. Nor was she very pleased, since the serpent was staring at her in shock and the beginnings of fury. "What do you think you're doing, Tigress?"

 

"What am I doing?" she snapped, only by sheer force of will keeping herself from mouthing off at her dearest friend. "I think I'm putting a stop to his evil, once and for all."

 

Viper's jaw dropped, then closed in a grim line. "I don't know what you're talking about, but I think you'd better step back and let the rest of us handle this. You seem to be…a little too close to the situation."

 

At any other time, Tigress would have groaned at the inadvertent pun, or else laughed at it. Now, however, all she could do was unobtrusively clench her fist (though she was sure Viper could feel the muscle contractions through her coil and so knew what she was up to) and prepare to tear it free, even as she jerked her head back over her shoulder in the direction of the lake. "Look at Po, Viper. Look. At. Him! And then see if you can tell me you don't know what I'm talking about."

 

"I know," the serpent said, sorrow and worry mingling in her voice, even though she only flicked her eyes aside briefly to the panda, never looking away from Tigress. "And Mantis will take care of him; I hope and pray he'll be all right. But that doesn't excuse this. You are our leader, but we need to handle this the way we always have—all of us working together, not you deciding it all for us. Let Tai Lung go. Now. Please."

 

The striped feline glanced back at the killer in question, noticed he still looked rather frightened as well as growing more resentful and furious as time passed and he was left impotent to do anything. She found she liked seeing him that way more than might be good for her…but she didn't obey Viper.

 

In fact she bristled at the clear rebuke; how dare the serpent question her leadership? She had the right of it here, she knew it. Viper hadn't seen what she had, or heard what Monkey had to say… "If I do, he'll either run away, or attack us. All five of us couldn't defeat him before, what makes you think we could now? And either way, we won't get justice for Po."

 

"I won't do either," the snow leopard rasped, still having difficulty breathing—and she intended to keep it that way. "I'm in this for the long haul, remember? Whatever happens to me…whether good or bad…it's going to happen at the Jade Palace, nowhere else. And even if I wasn't…I won't leave until I know Po's all right."

 

"Like you expect me to believe that," Tigress growled. But, even though she longed to keep him pinned until she had crushed his trachea entirely, she also knew that in the short time she'd known him, Tai Lung had never broken his word. If he promised not to attack or flee, she had to believe him…and in any event, soon enough the others would arrive, and she didn't think the snow leopard could defeat all of them, especially Shifu; the defeat of their master had occurred when Tai Lung was more driven by rage and hate, not to mention involved a great deal of unfair attacks.

 

But there was no fire here to strike the red panda with, nor solid marble walls and floor to smash him into. All of them were fresh, while the snow leopard was not, since he must have just fought Po. They had the upper hand here…

 

"But fine," Tigress finally spat as she released his throat with a jerk and stepped back, letting the snow leopard collapse to his knees. "Enjoy your freedom while it lasts. I'm only doing this so you can tell us everything. We have to know all the details before we can render judgment. I hope you know every word from your mouth will condemn you."

 

Gasping and coughing, the spotted feline didn't move from his kneeling posture for several minutes, as he shakily massaged his throat and struggled to get his breathing back under control. Again, seeing him in such an inferior and submissive posture was far too pleasing to Tigress.

 

Viper released her arm, although the serpent remained where she was, in a clear position to intervene should the master of the Tiger style go for Tai Lung's jugular again—or, she supposed if she wanted to be more charitable about it, should the ex-convict discard his oath and launch himself at Tigress instead. But if he were to do so, she'd be ready for him; for after only a brief glance aside to check and see that Mantis had indeed taken over the medical proceedings, she was right back fixing her steely gaze upon the snow leopard, fists clenched at her sides while her tail lashed violently.

 

Finally, Tai Lung looked up, and though he seemed to still be adopting the penitent air that so disgusted her, she could see the fires of his temper beginning to rekindle in those golden eyes which, damn it all, still drew her in even now with their depth and passion. "It wasn't what it looked like, Master Tigress. I truly was trying to help him. Nor was I the one to do that to him." For a moment a haughty air and a definite smugness hung over his features. "Believe me, if I had attacked him, he'd be suffering from a lot more than a slit throat."

 

"Then just who was it?" Tigress demanded. She knew it couldn't be the one who'd killed the old goat, he too would have done much worse than this. But there wasn't anyone else left.

 

Snarling under his breath, the ex-convict clenched his fist. "The Wu Sisters."

 

For several moments, everyone was silent as they took in this shocking and unexpected information. Then, Tigress laughed derisively. "Right. The Wu Sisters. Who, conveniently enough, vacated the area before we could get a good look at them? Who haven't been seen in action in this part of China for ten years? Who are so damn legendary you could've just picked their names out of the air to pin your crime on? You have to do better than that, Tai Lung. If you're going to lie to us, at least try not to insult our intelligence."

 

Lurching to his feet, his shoulders hulking and swelling with barely repressed fury, the snow leopard stalked toward her, his eyes blazing wildly beneath his bony brows. "Look, princess," he snarled, shaking his fist. "Here's the way this works: first I actually commit a crime, and then you get to accuse me of it!"

 

"Please!" she snapped. "You're not making any sense. Why in the name of the Jade Emperor would the Wu Sisters be after Po? They're assassins for hire, they have no reason to be after the Dragon Scroll. Wouldn't they be more likely to target the one who might actually be a threat to them…you?"

 

Tigress smirked mockingly. Not that she enjoyed belittling Po, but the truth was he was nowhere near as dangerous as the snow leopard. And if she was to be completely honest with herself, she didn't like the idea that someone she didn't know might have it in for the panda.

 

"That's what I thought too, at first," Tai Lung admitted, the anger starting to bleed out of him as his thoughts turned inward. "But I was wrong. They weren't after me at all…I was just a distraction, a feint. In fact they had plenty of opportunities to kill me, and didn't take the chance to."

 

Monkey, who had come up behind Tigress now that Mantis was there to look after Po, snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. "Now I know you're lying, Tai Lung. Why wouldn't they wanna kill you? Everyone who meets you wants to kill you. I wanna kill you."

 

The sound of scaled flesh striking fur echoed shockingly in the quiet clearing, and when Tigress dared to look over her shoulder, she was stunned to see Viper withdrawing her tail from having slapped it, hard, across Monkey's face. The langur had clapped a hand to his mouth, even as he glared over it with pain-filled tearing eyes, while the serpent looked horrified at what she had done.

 

But she didn't back down from her infuriated stance, either, and her voice was only slightly shaky. "I'm sorry, Monkey…but that was one of the worst things I've ever heard you say. What has gotten into you?"

 

Monkey looked oddly evasive at that question, but Tigress, seeing only more division and resentment among the Five, merely turned on Tai Lung again. "He's right, though. Wouldn't you be the natural target? If someone wanted to hurt Shifu, they'd kill you; and if they had an agenda that threatened the peace, well you are the master of the thousand scrolls. If anything, they should have tried to kill both of you."

 

Tai Lung spread his paws helplessly. "Who am I to know the mind of an assassin? All I know is, they didn't seem to want to kill me. Maybe they were ordered not to?"

 

For the briefest moment, she heard a catch in his voice, a hesitation, a suggestion that he might not have been speaking the full truth. He did know something more, something he wasn't telling her. And that pissed her off all over again. Stepping closer and striving for every inch of height, the leader of the Furious Five let out another soft growl.

 

"I'm getting tired of this, Tai Lung. I'm going to give you one last chance to come clean, admit that you did this, and remand yourself over to our custody, so Shifu can decide your fate. Because I know what I saw in your eyes, when I caught you with Po. You wouldn't have looked guilty unless you were guilty."

 

Viper started to angrily protest, then saw the look on Tai Lung's face—not one of denial, but despair. "Tai Lung…no. You…you couldn't have. You didn't…did you?" The aching hurt in her voice would have been a stab in the gut, if Tigress weren't feeling the same way, and convinced Tai Lung was the cause.

 

Looking at the serpent morosely, the snow leopard sighed. "No, I didn't. But I might as well have. I…" He looked down at his paws. "I let the Wu Sisters distract me, confuse me. I was so damned focused on them, I didn't pay attention to what they were doing to Po. I got so caught up in the fight, the adrenaline rush, proving I was better than them, that I didn't realize I was being had…not until it was too late. So what happened…I didn't do it, but it was still my fault." His voice was more bitter and regretful than she'd ever heard it. That couldn't have been the truth he'd spoken, could it? He must simply be that good, that was all…

 

"Maybe so," Mantis suddenly spoke up from the lakeshore. "But that pressure you were putting on his throat, Tai Lung—if that's really what you were doing…it may have saved his life."

 

For a moment everyone stared at each other, at Mantis, and then at Po's fallen body—the snow leopard with the first dawning of relief and gratitude, Viper in tearful happiness, and Monkey and Tigress in equal parts hate and distrust. Finally the striped feline stalked back over to Tai Lung's side and hauled him off the ground by his shirt front.

 

"Well then…whatever reason you have for doing this, whatever really happened here, you'd better hope doubly that Po lives now. Because if he dies, the truth dies with him." She dragged him closer, until she could stare right into his eyes, muzzle to muzzle. "And then you'll be following him."

 

At that moment, a voice spoke behind her, one as firm, authoritative, and peremptory as she'd ever heard. "Tigress…put him down. Then step away from him—I don't want to see you touching him, or even near him, until I say you can. Do I make myself clear?"

 

Turning her head to let out a scathing reply, she rested her gaze on Shifu's diminutive form…and her voice died in her throat as she saw the look on her master's face. She had never seen him look at her that way, not even when he reprimanded her in the kwoon as she was growing up and training at the palace. She didn't think he could, or would, kill her…but the expression suggested he would at least leave her terribly maimed and out of commission for weeks if she didn't obey and back down this instant.

 

For a moment, she felt her heart harden and glared back at Shifu with just as much fury and determination—for his attitude just now proved what she had always secretly known, that she did not have his love, never would, because he had given it first and completely to Tai Lung. And it even still stayed with the snow leopard now, after all the murders committed during his rampage, after nearly being killed twice by his 'son', and after the supposedly reformed cat had come this close to slaughtering Po!

 

But then, at last, she released Tai Lung and shoved him back in the same motion, so that he staggered and almost fell to his knees again. "Fine," she growled, stalking across the clearing until she stopped to lean resentfully against a tree trunk. "But I think you're making a big mistake…Master."

 

More silence, interrupted only by the incongruous sound of birdsong in the afternoon air. Then at last, after staring hard at Tigress for several long moments, Shifu tucked his hands in his sleeves and ran his gaze around the glade, taking in Po's condition with a calm acceptance that would have been callous if it weren't par for the course with him. He met the eyes of each of the masters gathered there, as they regarded him in return. Then he spoke, forcefully and intensely. "Now…would someone please tell me, what happened here?"

 

Between her sullenness and still simmering anger, as well as the current state of affairs between herself and Shifu, Tigress did not trust herself to speak, so she left the relation of events to Viper and Monkey, who of course gave accounts that were diametric opposites of each other—yet still managed to cover all the salient points. After all had been said, and everyone had fallen silent once more, the red panda slowly glanced around the clearing yet again, his expression flat and unreadable, and everyone waited for his response with bated breath—Tai Lung most of all.

 

Of his own accord, the snow leopard had sunk to his knees again, and although he did nothing as maudlin or overwrought as wringing his paws, his throat did seem rather tight. And as Shifu's gaze rested sternly on him, drilling right down to his former son's heart, the feline seemed to quail visibly…but his eyes also pleaded openly with his master to understand, to believe him. He seemed unable to accept the fact that Shifu might turn on him yet again and reject him.

 

Tigress, for her part, understood just how he felt—for she in turn was unable to accept the wavering and uncertainty she detected in the panda's aged blue eyes. How? How could he be willing yet again to forgive, to trust, to fall for the snow leopard's lies and crocodile tears?

 

The same way, she supposed, she herself had been fooled by Tai Lung. Even now, staring down at the snow leopard's crouched form, a part of her found itself longing to reach out to lay a reassuring paw on his shoulder, to let him know everything would be all right, that they believed him. And that same part could not help but remember how intense, passionate, and overwhelming their kiss the night before had been…longed to throw caution to the wind, believe that a man who could make her feel so alive, so desirable, so needed, could not possibly be evil. And as soon as she could get him alone, she would slice those clothes from his body and show him just how sorry she was for blaming him…

 

She squeezed her eyes shut and raged inarticulately within her own mind. No. No! This…was…wrong. He was a handsome man, but beneath that exterior beat the cankered heart of a horrific monster. It had to…

 

Even now, she couldn't believe it, she just could not believe it…that he would have the audacity, the gall, the sheer unmitigated cruelty to betray them like this, now, after everything that had happened in the past two weeks. The entire time she'd been surveying the hills for some sign of the deplorable killer, Monkey had been attempting to convince her that Tai Lung still could not be trusted, that he was a lit firework just waiting to explode, that he would indeed pull something like this when he felt the time was right, and they had all let down their guards sufficiently.

 

He'd even tried to suggest that the snow leopard had killed that old goat himself, with his rage and disgusted hatred all a carefully contrived and orchestrated act, until she'd pointed out, as evenly as she could manage under the circumstances, that because of when the body had been discovered, it was impossible for Tai Lung to have done the deed—he'd been with them most of the night, playing Truth or Dare, and if he had gone out into the mountains before that, he would not have had time to dry his fur or remove the mud from his feet.

 

When that tack proved ineffective, the langur had then swung about to retread all the same tired thoughts she'd been through ever since the snow leopard was brought to the temple: he had changed too quickly, too completely, so it could not be real; his emotions could not be attached to a switch, he could not have truly turned off the genuine hatred he had felt for Shifu—one who had almost killed his father could not have meekly accepted further training from him; he was merely a very gifted and clever actor, one who was waiting for just the right moment to either steal the Dragon Scroll or kill them all.

 

And Monkey had especially been certain that after what Mantis had made Po do the night before, Tai Lung would not rest until he had tormented, humiliated, and eviscerated the panda who had made such a mockery of him.

 

Tigress had weathered it all with mingled boredom, irritation, and uncertain worry, and in the end refused to commit to any opinion, only stating that as always she would keep a close eye on Tai Lung until she knew she had the right of his intentions and heart. To which Monkey had snidely suggested that the spotted feline didn't have a heart…and if she believed he did, perhaps she was getting too close to it, and him.

 

That accusation had stung so deeply (if only because it was true) that she'd very coldly made clear to the simian that he'd be feasting on his own entrails if he didn't lay off the insinuations. That had finally shut him up, allowing her to retreat into her own thoughts—which, while not ordered and calm (as she feared they might never be again for some time), were at least blessedly silent.

 

But the seeds had been planted, she had once more begun to doubt and reject the snow leopard…even as some part of her, the part which wanted to believe he could change his spots because Shifu had once loved him, denied Monkey's suspicions and wanted to believe she was wrong about him.

 

Except she wasn't. She was right, and so was Monkey, the proof of it lay right here before her eyes. And while it filled her with the expected rage and hatred, it also brought more keening, agonizing pain to her heart than she had ever thought possible. Because, of course, he had chosen to reveal his treacherous nature only now—when she was starting to love him...

 

Snapping out of her reverie, and utterly denying what she had just admitted to herself, Tigress looked up to discover that Shifu continued to waffle, the old master still seeming unable to make up his mind whether to believe Viper or Monkey, to accept that Tai Lung had proven his murderous, turncoat nature or to still futilely imagine him to be a noble warrior who had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. And as soon as she saw this, Tigress could hold her tongue no longer. Pushing off from the tree and stepping forward, she growled, "Master…forgive me if it seems I'm speaking out of turn, but surely you know what you have to do?"

 

Very slowly, Shifu turned to look at her, and if it had been any other time, any other issue, she would have immediately backed down, ducked her head in deference, and apologized. But she couldn't knuckle under now, not when so much was at stake—Po's life, the lives of everyone at the Jade Palace, perhaps everyone in the Valley. So she stood her ground and met his gaze with a formidable determination of her own.

 

"What I must do," Shifu said at last, stiffly, "is consider all the evidence, not merely that which conforms to what I would personally like to believe, before I pass judgment."

 

Stung by the rebuke, her cheeks flushing in shame, the striped feline couldn't keep from holding up a clenched fist. She had warned him this was going to happen, back when Tai Lung first accepted his offer. "But, Master…surely you must see—"

 

He cut her off with a lifted hand. "What I see is that your judgment is compromised, Tigress. You are letting your feelings for Tai Lung cloud your reasoning." For a moment she was about to retort she had no feelings for the snow leopard and how dare he suggest she did—until she realized just in time that he referred to her distrust and hatred, not…other emotions. "If you continue to press me on this, I will not hesitate to put you on probation and confine you to the palace once we return to the Valley."

 

Stricken, she stepped back a pace. Briefly she thought she saw regret in Shifu's eyes, as if he did not wish to do such a thing but would follow through if he must. Then the moment passed, and he was all business again. "In any event…I also possess information you do not. I have with me someone who can testify that indeed, the Wu Sisters have been seen in this area." And he gestured behind him.

 

For the first time, Tigress realized her master was not alone—not only did Crane hover silent and uncertain beside him, there was another figure…fairly tall, lithe, a female mountain cat of some sort with oversized black ears, beige fur, and a form-fitting, eminently practical outfit of trousers and vest of navy blue and dark green leather, all shrouded by a black cloak.

 

Up till now she had been observing without a word, but as Shifu indicated her, she stepped forward and clasped her paws, bowing formally. "Master Tigress, greetings. I…I've heard so much about you, it is an honor to meet you at last." Her voice seemed to have a soft purr eternally present, friendly and warm but with a slight edge to it.

 

The leader of the Furious Five blinked a few times, not certain what to make of this. Who was this woman? What was she doing here, and what did she have to do with anything? She could tell from the way she moved, of course, that the other feline was a warrior as well, and the deferential way she spoke to Tigress was both proper and heartening. But beyond that… "Thank you. And you are…?"

 

"Forgive me, I am Mei Ling." She smiled ruefully. "I wish this could be under better circumstances."

 

Tigress was actually startled enough by the cat's identity to forget, momentarily, Po's condition and her venomous hatred for Tai Lung. She had heard of the woman—one of the best students to ever graduate from the Li Dai Academy, a master of both Tiger and Eagle Claw although she was actually proficient at every style. Also, if she remembered correctly, Mei Ling had been a classmate and friend to…yes, as she glanced aside at Crane she spied a faint blush staining his cheeks and a somewhat starstruck grin on his bill.

 

If matters were otherwise, the striped feline would either be teasing her avian friend for his old 'girlfriend' reappearing or genuinely praising Mei Ling for her accomplishments and gifts, things which had led to great deeds of heroism and encouraged women all over China to set their goals higher and believe in their dreams, as much as Tigress's own life had. As it was, though, she could only offer the mountain cat a tight smile and a brief nod before returning to the topic at hand. "I'm sorry, but…why are you here? And what light can you shed on all this?" She couldn't keep the tart tone out of her voice.

 

Mei Ling blinked, then drew herself up to her full height. "I ran into Crane in the marketplace, where he told me something he had overheard from one of the merchants, that three strangers had been seen in town…three women, felines. And there have been other unexplained deaths. He thought we should warn your master and the rest of you, and I agreed…because I was here looking for the Wu Sisters too." Her voice became bleak, its darker edge more pronounced. "I'd heard they were on the move again…and I wanted to stop them."

 

There was a lot more going on under the surface there than she was telling, or Tigress could discern, but what mattered most right now was that the cat seemed to be corroborating Tai Lung's story. But she only hardened her heart and gritted her teeth. It means nothing. Those three strangers could be anyone. And even if it is the Wu Sisters, Tai Lung could have heard the same rumors yesterday, so had a name handy for his story today.

 

"And can you prove they were here?" Tigress demanded, her voice brittle.

 

"Well, someone was," Mei Ling replied immediately, her tone confident but apparently uncomfortable with contradicting the leader of the Furious Five. "Just look at the mud there, by the lakeshore. It's been stirred and churned up by a battle…and just at a glance, I see a lot more than just leopard and panda tracks there. A lot more than just two people."

 

Tigress refused to look, to discover both that she might be wrong about Tai Lung and that she had failed so utterly to apply her training in reading the layout and progress of a battlefield. Instead she crossed her arms and did not move a muscle. "I see. But that still doesn't tell us who did it…or if they were fighting against Tai Lung, or in league with him."

 

Behind her she heard the snow leopard start to growl in fury, then the sound turned into a groan of despair. But Mei Ling shook her head and half-smiled, apologetically…already moving forward to the middle of the muddy expanse, where she knelt and crouched down, running a slender paw to trace out various marks as she spoke: a broad, deep paw print that could only belong to Tai Lung, a series of gouges like gigantic claw marks, a strange smeared patch that suggested a paw had come down hard and turned aside.

 

"No, it's pretty clear here. See, how the tracks are positioned? Whoever made them wasn't standing alongside Tai Lung, like an ally would be. She was facing him, attacking him…and here, these are the marks of a Wind and Fire Wheel, the Wu Sisters' favorite weapon. Buried pretty deep, I'd say, and only an inch or two shy of the leopard's foot. From the way he's standing, it looks like he pivoted at the waist, probably to bring a punch down at her—see how his right print is deeper than his left, because he was putting more weight on it? So…she twisted to avoid him." She shook her head. "They certainly weren't on friendly terms."

 

As Tigress stared at her in mounting resentment, anger…but also disbelief, as cracks began to form in the certainty of her position, everyone else was simply staring at Mei Ling in shock at her wealth of knowledge and expert analysis. Except Crane, who only looked proud; Shifu, who seemed vindicated; and Tai Lung, who looked as if he didn't know whether to give the mountain cat a kiss or a comradely punch to the shoulder. Mei Ling herself merely seemed embarrassed by all the attention.

 

"What I don't see," she finally added, "is much from the panda."

 

"That would be because he didn't participate much in the fight, I think." Tai Lung sounded uncertain, as well as annoyed with himself.

 

"You think?"

 

"I…wasn't watching him very much, I'm afraid." The snow leopard looked away, clenching his jaw.

 

Monkey snorted, then moved into the middle of the clearing as well as the gap in the conversation. "So, you either a killer, or a screw-up. Ain't your lucky day, is it, cat?" He turned to Mei Ling. "But what about Po? You sure Tai Lung didn't hurt him?"

 

The mountain cat flicked her eyes—which were a fairly lovely shade of brown, Tigress noted with distracted irrelevance—first to Crane, then to Shifu. Receiving a nod of encouragement from the bird, and only an expectant look from the panda, she rose and crossed over to where Mantis was still applying healing salve and a temporary skein of bandages to the Dragon Warrior's throat, as well as other wounds on his chest and stomach.

 

There, she paused again, glancing briefly at the insect for permission before peering at the injury, then sniffing at Po's body. "I don't think so, no. Not unless he's fond of using a garrote. And anyway, there's only one scent on his fur I can recognize…and it's Wu Xiu's." Again, there was that brief pause, as if she were about to say more, then thought better of it.

 

The despair and desperation were growing stronger inside Tigress's heart. Snarling softly, she made one last futile attempt to stave off what she was hearing. "No, it can't be. I know what I saw! You do know who you're defending, don't you?" Her fists clenched.

 

"Yes." Mei Ling didn't exactly sound happy about it, but neither did she retract her version of events. "But what he did twenty years ago doesn't have anything to do with this. And while I don't know what you saw, and would never think of second-guessing you, Master Tigress, I do know what I'm seeing, and smelling. And it wasn't him. It was the Wu Sisters."

 

For several long moments, all was silent and still, as each of the Five took this in and realized the implications—for Tai Lung, and for what dangers this meant they would be facing in the future. Out of the corner of her eye, Tigress saw the snow leopard visibly relax and lean against a tree trunk, wiping his brow. He avoided looking at her, only gazing at Mei Ling in gratitude—and at Shifu, who had closed his eyes and given a tiny nod of acceptance, with a touch of wonder. Monkey wheeled away in fury, glaring off across the lake into the mist, while Viper rested her tail tip gently on Tai Lung's arm before crawling over to hover protectively over Po.

 

At last, the striped feline managed to find her voice to utter a final suspicious, somewhat nasty retort. "And just how do you know all this, anyway? How are you so well acquainted with the Wu Sisters—how they fight, what weapons they use, how they smell?"

 

Mei Ling looked up at her, expressionless and sober, then sighed. "Because I went to school with them…at the Li Dai Academy…"

 

"We both did," Crane admitted quietly, making Tigress turn and spear him with a shocked and slightly betrayed look. The avian would not look her in the eye, even as he fidgeted, squirmed, and generally acted like one confessing something he knew he really should not have kept secret.

 

"Also," the mountain cat said shakily, making Tigress look back at her sharply, "I'm afraid I wasn't quite truthful when I told you who I was. My full name…is Wu Mei Ling."

 

Everyone was silent. It was Mantis, looking up from tying off the last bandage, who stated the obvious. "Sisters?"

 

"Half." A very cold, murderous look appeared in her eyes, sending a chill down Tigress's spine—for she could indeed believe this woman was related to assassins. "And I still won't rest until I put a stop to them, and the dishonor they have brought to our family…once and for all."

                                                                       


 

After the snow leopard had washed his paws (and the rest of his muddy pelt) clean in the lake waters, the eight masters set off for Yunxian with their precious burden. It took them much longer to get back than it had to climb up into the hills, for even with Tigress carrying Po's feet, Tai Lung his head and shoulders, and Mei Ling and Monkey taking an arm apiece, they had to move very slowly so as not to jostle him too badly—Mantis had warned that the field dressing he'd applied was only a stopgap measure at best, and only if he could get access to the local doctor's supplies could he do a more satisfactory job at actually stitching the wound closed. And that knowledge would do no good if the bandages came off on the way. So extreme gentleness and care were the watchwords.

 

So it was almost sunset by the time they made it back to the village headman's house. As soon as the boar saw the condition the Dragon Warrior was in, he immediately sent for the physician, and it was with great relief the rest of the Furious Five, Tai Lung, and their master watched Po be taken into the aged white wolf's examining room, with Mantis along for the ride and asking the canine all manner of intelligent and pointed questions about what material he'd be using to thread his needle and which herbs he'd use to deaden the pain and slow the blood flow.

 

After that, however, an extremely awkward and uncomfortable silence fell over the group gathered on the doctor's front porch. Unsurprisingly, Tai Lung absented himself from the rest of them, standing at the far end of the veranda with his arms crossed severely over his chest…a muscle twitching spasmodically in his cheek even as he gazed through a window into the doctor's home. Tigress and Monkey refused to even look at him, the latter out of resentment and the former, Crane believed, because she was simply too damn stubborn to admit she'd been wrong and owed the snow leopard a major apology.

 

Viper, who at first attempted to reassure Tai Lung that she still accepted him and wished to be his friend, only received half-hearted replies and noncommittal grunts—not an outright rejection, but a clear sign he wished to be left alone for a while. Watching this, Shifu merely shook his head sadly and turned away to gaze across the town, eyes fixed on the distant mountain peaks. There was nothing to discuss; with as few words as possible, the various members of the pairs reported they had neither found nor seen anything on their searches before the sounds of battle had brought them to the lakeshore. Whoever or whatever had killed the goat, it seemed to have vanished into thin air.

 

So that left Crane alone with Mei Ling. Which, in all honesty, was how he liked it.

 

He still couldn't believe, even now, that she was back and standing right beside him. He hadn't seen her in, what, ten years? Fifteen? Not since they had graduated from Li Dai. He had traveled China for a year or two, righting wrongs, ending disputes, and making fair, just rulings—as well as wiping out bandit camps and other threats to peace and stability—until Master Shifu had summoned him to the Jade Palace to undergo further training and work in concert with four other masters of the most famous and respected kung fu styles.

 

And Mei Ling…the tales of her exploits had spread far and wide, some so incredible and difficult to swallow that many doubted their veracity despite their not being too different from the heroic feats of other long ago (and male) warriors. If she had not already made a name for herself and proven worthy of a master's title—and if she hadn't been notoriously difficult to track down in her whimsical, seemingly directionless path across China—Oogway had said more than once that he would have heartily welcomed her in the ranks of students at the Jade Palace, and Shifu had been similarly impressed.

 

But now, after all their years apart, she was back. And while she had somehow grown even more beautiful, and he'd had to learn all over again just how talented and amazing she truly was, in all other respects she was still the same. A little harder perhaps, less prone to laugh and more likely to distrust—whether strangers or the unknown—but otherwise the same sweet, charming, lively girl he had known when he was only a janitor.

 

How she had happened to be in Yunxian, seeking the Wu Sisters, and thus had been on hand to help exonerate Tai Lung and testify to what they were truly facing, was something he still could not fathom…other than to believe the gods were with them, and as Oogway had said, there truly were no accidents.

 

Of course…it made sense she would be here, if the three assassins were. Despite their many victims and terrible atrocities, if anyone had the right to hate the Wu Sisters with every fiber of their being, and to seek a personal vengeance against them, it was Mei Ling. And, Crane supposed, himself too—if one as calm and generous as he had any capability for hatred in his heart. Because what they had done to their half-sister had affected him as well…

 

Almost as if she'd read his mind, Tigress suddenly spoke up then—soft, somber, and unthreatening, even though she still sounded rather put out. "So…Mei Ling. Were you planning to tell us just why you hate your sisters so? Not that I blame you, but…what did they do to you?"

 

The mountain cat flinched, both at being spoken to so suddenly and because of the nature of the question. But after smoothing out her fur and clasping her paws in front of her nervously, Mei Ling shot the leader of the Five a pointed stare. "They killed our father."

 

Clearly that wasn't the answer Tigress, or anyone, was expecting; the striped feline, who had looked somewhat bored as well as distracted (surely worrying more about Po, and just making conversation) now stood up abruptly and fixed her golden ruby eyes on Mei Ling in disbelief. Viper and Monkey gasped, Shifu's eyebrows shot up, and even Tai Lung, at the far end of the porch, twisted about, an openly shocked look on his face. Crane of course didn't even blink, although his heart did feel very heavy all of a sudden.

 

"But why?" Viper finally managed to ask. "Did they hate him that much? Or you?"

 

"It's…complicated." Mei Ling managed a wry smirk, as if she knew just how cliché, or at least common, that had sounded. Then she sighed. "As you can tell, we had different mothers…mine was a mountain cat, theirs was a snow leopardess. Father was…a good man, a snow leopard too, but when he was young he liked to dally on the dark side a bit."

 

For a moment all eyes turned to Tai Lung, who rolled his eyes and then crossed his arms again, growling under his breath about always being a target.

 

"The Wu Sisters' mother…Wu Qing. She liked to pretend she was doing it for the good of the oppressed people in Tibet, but that's just a load of bull. As far as I know, Emperor Chen's been nothing but fair to the snow leopards—if anyone's been causing trouble, it's the generals. The truth is," and Mei Ling unobtrusively clenched a fist at her side, "she's an assassin through and through, and always has been. From a long line of them I gather, going back several dynasties."

 

Her voice dropped to a mutter. "Sometimes I think they inbred, to try and make the perfect killer, and it made the whole line crazy…anyway, Father was in his rebellious stage, he liked the idea of living dangerously and trying out things his parents disapproved of—but even then he wouldn't countenance the sort of things Wu Qing was doing. So…he left her. Not long after that, he met my mother Xu Mei, fell in love…and the rest is history. He didn't know at first that his fling with Wu Qing had produced any children, let alone triplets. But she made sure he knew soon enough."

 

Sighing, she turned away and stared out into the gathering dusk, rubbing her paw over the back of her neck. "He and Wu Qing were never married, and he always dutifully sent money for the sisters' upkeep…but apparently that wasn't good enough for them."

 

Monkey made a disgusted face and stared at the floor. "So…they killed their father. Just like that? And for something so stupid?"

 

From the far end of the porch, Tai Lung's harsh voice floated to the rest of them, and as he stepped forward into the light spilling in from the doctor's office, Crane could see his face was surprisingly ashen under the fur. "Stupid is a bit of an understatement, Master Monkey. 'Sick' is what I'd call it."

 

"You one to talk!" Monkey snapped, getting up in the snow leopard's face. "Or did you forget you almost do the same thing?"

 

"The key word there is 'almost', monkey brains!" Tai Lung held a fist in the simian's face. "And I had better reasons than something as stupid as sibling rivalry."

 

"Enough!" Shifu intervened, before it could dissolve into a free-for-all or anyone could take sides and start egging them on. "I know we are all worried about Master Po, but that is no excuse to lose our tempers. If you two cannot be civil to one another, then I want to hear no more words out of either of you."

 

After several long moments, when the two males had lapsed into only barely audible grumbling, and it was clear Mei Ling was either lost in her own thoughts or had no intention of explaining further, Crane took up the tale. "I met them at Li Dai, the same year I first passed the instructor's test and became a member of his next class. It's a good thing I got in first, and had Mei Ling to help me…they were complete naturals at kung fu, and would have beat me out otherwise."

 

He shook his head at the memories…even now, knowing who they were and what they had become, he still couldn't help admiring their skill and grace. "But in the end, they were kicked out of Li Dai, and I was able to nab the number-two spot in my class."

 

"What did they do to earn that?" Tigress rather looked and sounded as if she didn't want to know the answer.

 

Crane pressed his bill shut for a few moments, then finally said, "Did you ever hear about the last Hun invasion? The one when so many of our soldiers started dying mysteriously?"

 

The striped feline looked blank; at the time she would have been a very small cub, if alive at all. But everyone else except Viper, who was even younger than Tigress, looked sharply at the avian. "That was them?" Tai Lung exclaimed, his voice rough with ferocity and hatred. "I can't believe—no, now that I think about it, I can. But…damn. If I'd known that, I never would have—" He broke off as he spied the odd look Shifu was giving him.

 

Monkey shook his head too, glowering knowingly, but Viper and Tigress were still looking for answers, so Crane forced himself to continue. "Yes. The Wu Sisters, it turned out, were double agents for the Huns. Like everyone else at Li Dai, they were acting as nurses for the wounded soldiers who were brought from the front lines to be healed. But a surprising number of their patients returned to battle, only to succumb to strange symptoms—stomach poisoning, odd illnesses contracted from unwashed paws, or so everyone thought.

 

"There were others who refused to go back at all, saying they were afraid they'd get hurt again and end up in the sisters' care—and they'd do anything to avoid that fate, even desert the army or betray us. And then patients started dying right there in the academy."

 

Viper looked angrier than Crane ever recalled seeing her. "And then what happened?"

 

"What do you think?" Mei Ling said wearily. "My master, our instructor, did some investigating, finally caught them at it when they were putting apple seeds and deadly nightshade in the soldiers' food and water. And to cover up their crime, they killed him before fleeing Li Dai in the night."

 

Shifu nodded slowly, as if finally having confirmed for himself something he had always suspected but never proven. "So began their lives of crime and immorality."

 

"And now they've come back," Tigress added grimly. "But why?"

 

All eyes turned to Tai Lung, the only one among them who'd had a chance to speak with the assassins, but either he was lost in his own vengeful thoughts or he'd decided, after being so readily blamed for something he didn't do, that he would not confide anything in them without a very good reason. Crane sighed; hopefully, if the Wu Sisters had told him anything incriminating, or which could be used to ferret out their intentions, he'd do so later in private with Shifu, or perhaps Crane himself.

 

"Whatever the reason," Mei Ling said at last with an air of finality, "I won't rest until they're stopped. They killed our father, they betrayed kung fu and everything we were taught when they killed those soldiers and our teacher, and they've done even worse things since. For nothing better than money and profit. To prove they could, or for the sheer thrill of it. Because they enjoy death."

 

Again, a bleakness and flat cruelty entered her eyes, something he had never seen in them before, something that both worried and saddened him even as he understood why it was there. "So death is what I'll bring them.

 

"Of course, I'll help you all out in the process," she hastened to add, her voice and expression turning to their usual caring, even a bright eagerness. "I mean, they tried to kill the Dragon Warrior! And I'm sure they'll be after the Five next, maybe even Tai Lung."

 

Monkey and Tigress snorted in unison at that last suggestion, clearly not caring if such a thing were to come to pass, b