Disclaimer: I do not own Kung Fu Panda. End of story.
This was an idea that popped into my head late one night, shortly after finishing "That's Why They Call It The Present". This takes place in a 'verse completely different from "Present" (my OCs from that fic don't make an appearance here) and is purely experimental, so let me know what you think, please!
Memoirs of a Master
Po was getting worried. Master Shifu had not been out amongst them, training as he usually did. Lately, the old master had been secluding himself in his quarters, his candle often burning long into the night, long after the panda and the Furious Five were asleep. It had not escaped Po's notice, and it most certainly had not escaped the notice of the other five.
Tigress was especially worried, though she hid her concern beneath her usual stoic demeanor. Crane wisely held his tongue, but it was clear that he, like Po, had a notoriously difficult time masking his emotions. Monkey, Mantis, and Viper wisely stayed out of it as well.
Whenever Shifu did leave his quarters, it was usually for a bite to eat, which he would take with him. The Five were used to him dining alone; Po didn't want to tolerate it. But what could he honestly do?
Dragon Warrior or no, there were some boundaries one did not step over. Forcing his master to eat with his students was one of them. Demanding to know what was going on was another.
The Five kept the panda distracted the same way they distracted themselves: through intense training. After a few weeks turned into a few months though, and as frost began to cover the fallen leaves of the courtyard, the others began to get very concerned indeed. They understood that being prepared for any threat, especially so soon after the defeat of Tai Lung, was vital.
But even someone like Master Shifu had limits.
"We can't interrupt him."
"What would we be interrupting?"
"He could be meditating or…something."
"I don't buy it. If he wants to meditate, why not do it with us, his students?"
"Tigress has a point. Something feels very wrong here."
The six of them were sitting around the kitchen table, talking over the situation at hand. The summer's heat long gone, everyone now covered themselves in long, thick clothes. Even Po for all his "insulation" as he put it, still wore the long-sleeved white robe, which reminded him of the outfit he wore in his dreams, before becoming a kung fu master.
He served seconds for everyone while Viper poured more tea. The serpent looked pensive, "Why doesn't someone just ask what he's doing? I'm sure he'd be kind enough to answer if he knew how concerned we were."
"I don't know," Mantis said, "Can we remember a time when Master Shifu was ever open with us?"
The table stayed silent.
Despite the full plate in front of him, Po wasn't feeling hungry. He finally stood and stated, "I don't care. I'm going to find out what's wrong, right now…"
"Is something wrong?"
The six turned to the doorway and saw Shifu standing there, regarding them cautiously. "What is going on?"
"Exactly what we want to know," Po said, crossing his arms. "Why have you been shutting yourself away?"
"What? What are you talking about…"
"You've been having all your meals in your room," Po said accusingly.
"We haven't seen you in the training hall for weeks!" Viper said worriedly.
"I can feel my form slipping," Tigress said, "And you're the only one I know who can help…" She was not used to wearing her emotions on her sleeve; pointing out something like this—true or not—was just her way of showing concern.
Shifu saw the looks on his students' faces and sighed, "Forgive me then, I did not realize how my actions have affected you. I am truly sorry."
"We just want to know what you've been doing," Po said.
"Are you sick?" Mantis asked.
"I am not sick," Shifu said. "There has just been a lot on my mind…"
"We've been worried," Crane said. "We know you're not really one to share, but…"
Shifu actually smiled. "Of course. I would be happy to tell you what's been going on…"
The red panda froze and rolled his eyes, sighing wearily. "Yes, Zeng?"
The avian messenger collapsed on the floor, holding up a scroll. "This…came for…you…"
Shifu took the scroll, "From…?"
"The…the seal says 'Dong Li'."
Shifu's face paled at an alarming rate; he tore off the red wax seal and opened the scroll immediately. His blue eyes quickly skimmed the document, and the haunted look that had crossed his face now faded to one of combined confusion and sorrow. Letting out the breath he realized he was holding, Shifu rolled up the scroll and handed it back to Zeng. "Send a message back; tell him I'll be there, and that I'm on my way."
"Master Shifu?" Monkey asked.
"Who's Dong Li?" Crane asked.
Shifu paused before answering, then sighed, "He's an old friend…and someone he and I were both close to is on their deathbed. I need to leave immediately. Tigress, I'm leaving you in charge while I'm away. Make sure Po continues his training. Crane, Monkey, keep tutoring him in the 1000 scrolls. Viper, Mantis…" he eyed Po for a moment, then added, "Keep the infirmary well-stocked."
"But…" Po started.
"We'll talk more when I get back. I promise."
Po sighed and opened a cupboard door, handing the master a parcel wrapped in brown rice paper, "Here, it's some of that endurance food you make us take on long trips."
Shifu accepted it gratefully. "Thank you, Dragon Warrior…you have no idea how much this means to me."
"Can you stay for dinner, at least?"
"No, I need to get going. I have a long way to travel, and very little time to make it there. You all will do well for two weeks, at least?"
Two weeks? Po looked around the table and sighed. They'd gone four months without his constantly being around. What was two more weeks?
"We'll get by."
"Good. Oh, one last thing: stay out of my quarters."
Po let out a yelp as Tigress yanked him back sharply. "NO," she nearly roared. "Master told us not to!"
"Come on! You have to admit you're just a little curious!"
"Haven't you heard the saying 'curiosity killed the cat'?" she asked with an arched brow.
"Yeah, the cat, not the panda, or the tiger."
"Absolutely not!" she seethed. "I am not betraying my master's trust!"
"We're not betraying his trust—we're genuinely worried about him, and we want to know what's been keeping him…"
"Po, if you do not turn back right now, I'm going to eviscerate you." He saw from the look in her eyes that she was perfectly serious.
They were maybe five yards from the door to Master Shifu's rooms when they heard the doors creak open. Tiger and panda looked down the hall and spied Viper and Monkey; both masters froze, staring wide-eyed in surprise at being caught. The four looked at each other, Tigress surprised most of all.
"Uh…" Viper started.
"We're changing his sheets," Monkey said quickly.
"Yes! Changing the sheets, dusting, sweeping…he'll be gone two weeks, and nothing's better than coming home to a clean room, right?" Viper backed him up.
Tigress gritted her teeth, seething, "I can't believe you! You're just going to disobey—"
"Oh come on, Tigress, like you don't want to know, too."
"I'm not betraying my master's trust!"
"Yes, we gathered that," Monkey said. "But wouldn't it mean a lot to him if you showed how much you cared by taking care of his things?"
"We're not supposed to—"
"We'll let you water his orchids," Viper offered. "Technically its not touching anything, and you can always blame us later."
Po walked over to them before Tigress could protest further; besides, with the other two there, she was less likely to carry out her threat. Tigress finally groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose in defeat. "Fine, I'll get the water can…"
'Whoa' was right, and so was Crane. They had all expected Master Shifu to keep his place impeccably clean. Instead, his bed was unmade, a jumbled mess of sheets and blankets, papers littering the floor, half-eaten food still sitting on dirty plates, and candles long-since burned out, as if he couldn't be bothered to take care of himself.
"This is worse than I thought," Crane confessed.
"Has he…done anything for himself in here?" Mantis wondered.
"At least he's eaten," Monkey said, collecting the plates.
Po looked over at Tigress, who looked ready to drop the water can in her hands. She looked pale, and finally, worry was etched into her face. She'd lowered her shield, and now didn't seem to care who knew.
"I…I don't understand," she whispered. On the windowsill, Shifu's prize orchid plants were withering.
Something was very wrong here.
Viper and Mantis had stripped the bed of the dirty linens and Monkey returned soon after with fresh ones. Tigress wordlessly put the water can down and took the dirty blankets out to be washed.
She stopped when she passed his writing desk. This didn't escape Po's notice.
She just stared at the open scroll in front of her. She knew she shouldn't, that it was an invasion of his privacy, but…she couldn't tear her eyes away.
Crane walked over and read over her shoulder. His eyes widened.
"'A story like mine should never be told'," he started reading aloud. "'For most of my life, I have kept things—my past, my thoughts, desires and dreams—so close to the chest that I could not see how my actions affected others. Even in my autumn years, I have not learned my lesson. Perhaps I am just a stubborn old fool, and will never learn. That does not mean I should not tell my story. Maybe my life can serve as a didactic tale, and teach others not to make the same mistakes I did…'"
Crane looked around the room at everyone; frozen in place, they all stared back.
"Its…it's a memoir."
Tigress pulled her eyes away. "We should leave it be…this is…"
"Yoink!" Po grabbed it.
"PO!" she yelled, dropping the blankets and trying to snatch the scroll away from him. But she realized with dissatisfaction that she'd trained him too well—he was able to keep it out of her reach. "We need to leave it here! We've overstepped our boundaries too much as it is!"
Then Viper took it.
"No," she said firmly. The other five warriors stared at her in surprise. The serpent looked back, a determined look on her face. "No. We have spent our entire lives serving him, training with him, we've devoted our lives to him, and now we've worried about him ever since Tai Lung was defeated. I don't care what Shifu says—I'm going to read this, I'm going to read everything he's written, and we are all going to learn about his life…whether he likes it or not."
"Are you out of your mind?" Mantis asked. "He'd kill us!"
"Not if we start reading now and finish before he gets back," Monkey said slowly. "But lets finish in here first. I want to know as much as Viper does…"
"Me too," Crane said.
"Yup, ditto," Po said.
Mantis sighed and raised his arm, "Fine…"
All eyes turned to Tigress, who looked utterly conflicted; should she dare to disobey her master, after he had done so much for her? A nagging thought suddenly entered her mind: had he written anything about her? And if he did, what had he said? No, its none of my business…
But she had spent her whole life wanting to please him. Now both her mind and heart were aching, and she wanted, no, needed to know.
With a resigned sigh, she said, "Count me in."
Less than a half hour later, they were all settled in Shifu's room, and Crane continued reading…
I can remember very little of my early life. What I do remember is rice paddies. Many of them. My family and I were farmers; I don't know if we were poor or relatively well-off, but I don't recall ever going hungry. I know my father was a respected man, a hard worker, and my mother was a sweet, affectionate woman who adhered to the Confucian Four Virtues. We were a traditional family, with my paternal grandmother, her two sons—my father and his brother—Uncle, Aunt, and two cousins, my Elder Brother, Second Brother, and me, Third Brother.
Did you always think my name had been Shifu? No, that came much later.
I was the youngest in the family, but not the lowest in rank; those were my two female cousins. Sadly, that was the way in the country; women had very little value in the family, except to marry well and bear sons. I'm glad I never had to adhere to that. When my father died, I would be subservient to both Elder Brother and Second Brother. It wasn't much of a life to live. But it mattered little to me; my childhood was happy.
My brothers and I would run along the paddies, dodging cattails and chasing dragonflies on lazy summer days, splashing in the water until we angered some farmers who chased us away for disturbing the rice. Elder Brother had a ball that we would play with, and when I say we, I really mean he and Second Brother would play a game of "keep the ball from Third Brother". It was cruel, it was unfair, but we were boys, and we knew it was the natural order of things.
Or so I thought.
I was perhaps, oh, four, maybe, when one summer's day we were greeted by a most unusual sight. Second Brother had caught the ball, but dropped it. I took advantage of my smaller size and dashed to grab it, skidding in the dust and coming to a stop right at the scaly feet of a stranger.
And a strange stranger at that!
He held an old staff, as gnarled as his skin, which was green as moss, or what I supposed jade to look like (I was four, and the son of a farmer—what did I know of what jade looked like?). He was bigger than me, much bigger than even Elder Brother, who stood back warily with Second Brother. I was all alone.
I should have been afraid. Strangers were treated with suspicion. Very few traveled to our home. We were surrounded by badlands and the territories of bandits.
But this scaly…thing…lowered his head—what a long neck he had!—and smiled at me.
I smiled back. He had a kindly wrinkled face, just like Grandmother, and I knew she was nice.
He slowly pointed at the ball I had wrapped my small body around. "You had better be more careful, young one," he said. "It would not be good to hurt yourself, with all these sharp rocks around."
I liked him. As a four year old, I liked him; he spoke slowly, thoughtfully, like Grandmother did, his voice overflowing with firmness and wisdom, his eyes deep and green as sage.
"Thanks, mister!" I chirped.
He chuckled, patting my head with his hand. "What is your name, young one?"
I stood up, having a hard time keeping the ball in my arms, for it was quite large, and I was still quite small. "I'm called Third Brother. Those are my brothers, back there."
"I see…how interesting," the old traveler said, still smiling at me. "Can you tell me what village I am in?"
"Uh…" I trailed off. I was four—I could barely remember the very basic characters to spell my name!
"The Southern Zhou-Tong village," Elder Brother said. "Our father is the second-in-command. May we take you to our home?"
"That would be lovely, young man," the old traveler said. He held out his hand to me; I just stared at it. He chuckled—he seemed to like doing that. "There is nothing to fear, Third Brother," he said kindly. "It only looks frightening."
It looked like he had long claws, like the kind only monsters had. But he didn't look like a monster. He was funny-looking, certainly, but no monster. I finally smiled back and took his hand, dropping the ball. I bounced up and down excitedly; I had the honor of bringing a visitor home! My brothers wouldn't be leading him, I would!
The tortoise (I had never seen a tortoise before, and didn't know what one was until Grandmother told me) allowed me to lead him, and I can only imagine with the utmost embarrassment now how we must have looked: me, a tiny little fuzzy sprite pulling on the long arm of a nearly 1000-year-old tortoise, who was remarkably patient. Most adults would wave me away, call me a nuisance, tell me I was an embarrassment to my ancestors (harsh words, yes, but we heard these kinds of things every day).
But he watched me, studied my every move, and listened to my incessant chatter. My brothers tried to shush me, tell me to mind my manners, but honestly, what toddler ever remembers what manners are? Still, the tortoise never said anything to rebuke me; no wonder I liked him so much.
I didn't know at the time who Master Oogway was. I had no clue he created kung fu. I didn't even know what kung fu was. I just knew he was a kind old man, a patient man, and someone always at peace. In years to come, some of my first impressions turned out to be true, others, not true at all.
What surprises me even today is how easily my relationship started with him. Or more accurately, how strong a bond we started on a humid and hot summer day.
"Is there more?" Po asked.
"Of course there is, just be patient…" Crane said.
My father was still in the fields when we arrived home. My mother was shocked to see we had company, and apologized profusely for the state of our home. It wasn't bad, I thought. It wasn't anything fancy, certainly, but it was a typical farmer's home: a packed-earth floor, bedrolls stored away during the day, a fire always going in the hearth, chili peppers and other vegetables drying as they hung from the rafters, and, at least in our house, Grandmother knitting, weaving cloth, and spinning wool donated by the sheep who lived next door.
Mother quickly brewed tea and prepared something for our guest to eat, and was, fortunately, too busy to rebuke me for pestering him with a barrage of questions. Finally, she finished her work and grabbed an ear, twisting it.
"Mind your manners! He is a guest!"
Oogway held up his hand, "Peace, Mother, he is just a child. Too many children grow up too quickly…let him be, he is not bothering me.
Then I asked a horrid question: "How did you get so old?"
My family looked horrified. But Oogway just laughed, "My, how bright you are! And so full of questions…"
"I am very sorry, sir," my mother said, smacking my rump. "You are right, he is still just a young child…"
"Mother," he said again. "I never said it was a bad thing. It is good to ask questions. How do we learn if we do not question the world around us?"
My mother said nothing, but the look she shot me said enough: 'Just wait until your father gets home'.
I was in deep trouble. I hoped he wouldn't ask me to go out and cut him a switch like he did when Elder Brother and Second misbehaved. Unfortunately, my father returned at that precise moment, a no-nonsense look on his face. He'd heard my impertinent question.
But Master Oogway came to my rescue, standing and warmly greeting my father. "Ah, and this must be the husband and father…it is an honor to meet you…"
My father froze, dropping the firewood in his arms in shock. Even though a log landed on his foot, he didn't flinch. He was staring open-mouthed at Oogway.
He dropped down to his knees and kowtowed, "Forgive us, sir! We did not realize you were our guest! Please, accept our sincerest apologies, Master Oogway…"
My mother's grip on my shoulder tightened, her face pale. Grandmother just looked surprised. Oogway bid my father to stand, "There is no reason to apologize. Your family has been very kind to me, and quite hospitable. And your sons are so well-behaved…"
Father and Mother shared a look, as if they had no clue what he was talking about. Was he referring to the same children they thought he was referring to?
"Especially your youngest," he smiled at me. "I've never met a more curious child, and so full of energy. I can feel it; his chi is quite strong…"
"My older sons have energy as well," my father said quickly. "Third Brother is just four, and the youngest, with one of the lowest ranks in our family. He is not worth much…"
Again, harsh words, but we were a superstitious folk; to bring compliments on one's children was to invite the evil spirits to take them away. Since many children didn't live past five years, my family wasn't taking any chances. My father's words probably saved me.
Oogway just nodded. "Yes, of course."
"Would you like to join us for dinner?" Mother offered. "We don't have much, for we are but farmers…"
"Anything you serve will be a blessing, Mother," he said kindly, his smile widening when she smiled. "I would be delighted to spend more time with your family. It warms my heart to see such love and kindness during my travels; it reinstates my faith in people."
This made my father's heart swell with pride. He offered Oogway the best seat at our table, which he politely refused. He wanted no special treatment, and this bothered my parents. Instead, he took a seat amongst us children. I was first at the table and sat next to him, still chattering away. Mother had to remind me several times to stop speaking and finish my dinner; but when Oogway suggested that finishing would be a good idea, I ate everything. Up until the day he passed into the next life, he had a funny way of getting me to do things I didn't initially want to do.
Once I was finished, I felt Grandmother's hand on my shoulder; my heart filled with dread. She was planning the worst possible fate for any tot: the after-dinner bath.
Not oh, thirty seconds to a minute later, I was little more than a ball of fluff, curled up and clinging to the house's rafters while my family hurled threats and promises of spankings in my general direction. I stuck my tongue out like a little brat, repeated a toddler's favorite word: "No!"
"Get down here this instant!"
"Come down now, or I'm coming up there!" my father threatened.
If there was one thing I should respect Father for, he kept his word. He climbed up onto a chair and up the wall. By the time he reached out to me, I jumped. My mother screamed in horror, watching helplessly as I grabbed onto a bunch of drying chili peppers, before dropping onto the table. By then, I was a blur, dashing all over the house, avoiding each of my family members as they tried to grab me. It wasn't easy, considering there were so many in such a confined space.
Oogway just sat and stared as I dashed around, running in circles around the table legs, sliding under chairs and stools, climbing up various furniture, successfully dodging each attempt to grab me.
I skidded to a stop as I came dangerously close to falling into the bathtub. My parents and grandmother had me cornered. I was doomed. I took one last-ditch effort and jumped up, onto the rim of the bathtub and up onto the fireplace mantle, running along it and to the door.
Then Oogway caught me, cutting short my desperate dash for freedom. I looked at him, feeling betrayed. My mother finally grabbed me and shoved me into the soapy water, and began scrubbing harder than usual as a punishment. She didn't scold me; to do so would have been rude to our guest.
As I sulked, Father apologized to Master Oogway. To no one's surprise, the tortoise didn't object. Instead, he lowered his voice and spoke in hushed tones with my father. I couldn't hear what they were talking about, but little did I know as my mother set me down for bed that what they were discussing would change my life forever.
I was the first to wake the next morning, and got out of bed before my brothers awoke to begin their chores. I hoped that the tortoise had stayed the night—I couldn't imagine my parents sending him away. I checked the room—he wasn't there. Crestfallen, I went outside instead, figuring I could make it up to my parents by trying to do my brothers' chores so they wouldn't be as mad for my high jinks the night before.
I walked to the well, struggling with the bulky buckets, and I squealed in delight as I saw the tortoise. He had stayed after all! I dropped the buckets and trotted over to him. He was doing something I didn't think possible—he was balancing upside-down on the top of his staff.
Well, any child who starts to admire someone seeks to do everything their hero does. Sons typically try to be just like their fathers, but that was an honor Elder Brother had already. I wanted to be just like Oogway. So, I decided to try standing on my head.
I fell on my back the first time, but I got right back up and tried again. I teetered, then fell over a second time. Incidentally, I never outgrew my stubbornness.
After the fifth time or so, Oogway finally came out of his meditation and helped me balance. I grinned when I finally got it; when he pulled his hand away from my back, I was standing on my head all by myself!
His smile looked like a frown from my position, but I knew he was pleased. "Precocious, determined…a bit of a perfectionist, as well," he mused. "It seems I've made a good choice, Small One."
Small One. Little did I know that would be my name until Oogway bestowed a new one upon me. I wasn't to become Shifu for another few years. Master Oogway was waiting for the right time, and the right milestone, whatever that would be.
I fell over again. When I sat up, my head was swimming from all the blood going to it. And now my back and rump hurt from falling hard on it. Like all toddlers are apt to do, I started to cry.
Oogway gently patted my back, "There, there, Small One, there is no reason to cry."
Sniffling, I sobbed, "I can't do what you do! An', an'…I wanna know how!"
Oogway's smile widened. "Do you? How much would you like to learn?"
Who could have predicted how my simplistic answer would change the course of my life? "E-everything…" I sniffed.
Oogway nodded and helped me stand, brushing off dirt from my homespun clothes. "Then we'll go ask your father. If you truly want to learn all I can teach you, then I will not object."
Naturally, I worried my father would say no.
But when I woke up the next morning, I discovered that he, Oogway, and myself were going on a journey, and we were leaving that very morning. I was so excited; I had never left the village before, and the thought of going on an adventure like the characters of Grandmother's stories was exhilarating.
Two weeks later, I saw the Valley of Peace for the first time. Three days later, Father left me in Oogway's care, and returned home. I had cried for many days after he left. I was in a new place, with no friends, no family, and the only companions were the swine and waterfowl that served Master Oogway at the Jade Palace.
There was a lot I needed to get used to. Some of it was easy. Waking early was simple as it was habit already, and I did whatever chores my master gave me to do. But I soon learned there was more to the repetitive tasks he gave me…
I learned to read, and quite quickly at that. I marveled how the brushstrokes formed characters, pictures on a page, and pictures in my head. I learned to meditate (well, I learned the mechanics of it. I don't think I learned how to truly meditate until well into my teens).
One day, right after I had turned five, I asked my master what I was doing there. Why was I, the lowest-ranked son in my father's home, bestowed the honor of being sent away to learn to read, and do chores, and sit still for hours at a time? Why me, and not my brothers? Did they not deserve the honor of attending a school more than I?
Oogway answered my question with another question; he was quite fond of that. And riddles, too, which sometimes irritated me in my youth. "Why must a fledgling leave his mother's nest? Why must he fly far away from home, to a place no one has ever known before?"
"Isn't that bird scared to go so far away?" I asked, too young to realize that the bird was me.
"Is he frightened?" Oogway asked. "Or, perhaps, is he just following his destiny?"
"Come on, there has to be more!" Po groaned.
Crane sighed and shook his head. "That's it for this one."
Viper had an odd look on her face, like she was trying to hold something in, or force a smile from her lips. Finally she let out a long, drawn out, "AWW! I bet he was so cute as a baby!"
Mantis chuckled, "I'm having a hard time seeing him running from a bath like that."
"Doesn't make it any less funny," Monkey laughed, snickering at the mental image of a fluffy four-year-old Shifu sulking in a tub of soapy water.
Tigress had her own thoughts to add, "So that's why Oogway took him as a student…"
"Huh? What d'ya mean?" Po asked.
She looked at him, "Oogway must have seen Shi—I mean, Third Brother's agility and speed, and saw potential there. He was the wisest of us all, and gifted with foresight. He must have gone to that village looking for Master…"
"I wonder what happened to his family though?" Crane wondered. "And what he was like as a student…"
The silence in the room was ironically deafening. Each of the six knew what they wanted to do, but were afraid to follow through on it. What if what they sought didn't exist? No, that wasn't possible; if this was what Shifu had been working on, there had to be more…
"Where'd you think he stashed the goods?" Mantis wondered.
"Under the mattress?"
"Clean," Monkey said, shaking his head.
"Closet?" Po offered.
"Under a floorboard," Tigress said suddenly. They stared; how would she know? She blushed, "I saw him putting something under the floor, many years ago…I think, it's where he keeps things that are sacred to him…"
"Sweet, lets go," Po said, standing.
"NO!" Tigress shouted. "Didn't you hear me? I've already disobeyed my master, I'm not performing sacrilege to objects important to him!"
"Well, you're not doing it, I am, and I promise to take the heat for it, for all of you," Po said to them. "No sense in you all getting kicked out."
"We've already invaded his privacy anyway," Monkey reasoned. "Besides, he left that scroll open for everyone to see. Might as well know everything else about him…"
Please let me know what you think. This was just an idea that popped into my head. Please read and review, and let me know if I should continue.