"Tai Lung, I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am for the things I said. It wasn't right of me to accuse you of hurting the Dragon Warrior, especially after how you were actually the one to save his life. I only hope you can forgive me." Tigress's paws were together as she bowed, rather jerkily.
"Quite all right, Master Tigress. I know it must have looked rather bad from where you stood, which is just what the Wu Sisters wanted. Let's let bygones be bygones, shall we? Fighting and holding grudges—that's what got me into trouble in the first place, and it's what our enemies would love us all to keep doing." Similarly, the snow leopard bowed in return, even bending down awkwardly on one knee. His voice seemed artificially deeper.
From the side, Crane and Viper suddenly thrust themselves into the scene. "He's right," the avian intoned sagely. "Our best defense is to form a united front against the villains behind all this. We need to lay aside our differences and join all our strength as one." His head bobbed unevenly, until his hat almost fell off. Po absently straightened it.
"Yes!" the serpent breathed fervently. "Love and friendship, that's always the key, focus on that, and there's no way we can lose! Our chi will be strong enough to blast those Wu Sisters all the way back to the Himalayas, or wherever they came from." Oddly, her voice was less dulcet and gentle, more…squeaky, almost a falsetto.
"What they said," Mantis chimed in, stabbing back and forth with his…thingies…to emphasize his point.
"Besides," Monkey added, his accent much thicker than usual, "you really are awesome, Tai Lung. We should hang out."
"Yeah!" Po himself finally burst out in his own voice, his chubby, black-furred fingers pushing his own figure into a mass group hug with those of Tai Lung and the Furious Five. "This is the way it should be, we're gonna kick their butts and all be the greatest heroes in China, ever!"
There was a long pause, as the panda gazed down at the wooden action figures gathered together on the bedside table between his paws. Then he groaned and slumped forward, his forehead landing with a soft thunk. "Who am I kiddin'? It's never gonna happen that way. Give it up already!"
It was now two weeks since he had nearly lost his life to the Wu Sisters, nine days since they'd made it back to the Jade Palace, and four days since Tai Lung's clandestine visit to the peach tree on the night of the full moon. During that time, everything had changed—and at the same time, nothing at all.
On the one paw, between Mantis's tending, the doctor's tonic, and Tai Lung's strict enforcement of bed rest and recovery time, Po's throat had finally healed, at least to the point his bandages didn't need to be replaced anymore—though he would retain a rasp in his voice for quite some time, perhaps even for the rest of his life. And ever since Oogway's staff had been repaired, the news that Tai Lung had been communing with the Grand Master's spirit and had reconciled with Shifu had spread among all the residents of the palace, courtesy of the still slightly dazed red panda and a resentful Tigress.
Reactions had been varied, from Crane and Viper's awe, to Mantis's almost complete lack of surprise, to Monkey's startlingly infuriated offense—somehow the langur seemed to view the snow leopard daring to even approach the turtle's spirit, let alone speak with him, as sacrilegious. As far as Po was concerned, though, it was one of the most encouraging and heartwarming things he had yet learned about his friend, for while the panda had hardly been close to the Grand Master, he would never forget the compassion and kindness he had shown to the bear that night under the peach tree. And of course he had nothing but respect for the creator of kung fu, even if he had like everyone else doubted the tortoise's wisdom in choosing him as the Dragon Warrior. So to know that Tai Lung had been meeting with him, had helped repair the staff he had broken, and had also mended the broken bond with Shifu was, quite simply, almost unbelievable and, well, awesome.
Considering the denial of the Dragon Scroll, and how long Tai Lung had been blaming Oogway for ruining his life, the whole thing made Po tear up a little to contemplate—finally the snow leopard could have the relationship with his adopted grandfather he should have had and was meant to have!—not to mention want to offer one of those hugs he loved to give, felt the ex-convict badly needed no matter how much he refused to admit it, and unfortunately was rarely allowed to do... But in any event, now at last neither Monkey nor Tigress could deny this endorsement prevented any further suspicions about the feline's character or trustworthiness. If the one who had prophesied his fall from grace had now accepted him back with open arms, who were they to gainsay his insight?
Yet Po was fairly certain that despite all this, despite the very strong, cogent, legitimate reasons why they should not, both the leader of the Five and the simian secretly still harbored an unyielding hatred for Tai Lung whatever their outward actions—and he despaired at ever getting this fact to change. Not for the first time, he wished the real Furious Five were as easy to make get along with the snow leopard as their action figures were.
The fact Tigress at least had seemed on the verge of accepting and trusting Tai Lung before Yunxian…and that now, thanks to the Wu Sisters, her walls were higher than ever and the spotted feline was back to square one with her, made the panda want to tear his fur out in his frustration.
Of course, it wasn't as if Tai Lung himself were a paragon of perfection (whatever he thought to the contrary) and only Tigress had to change her ways. For one thing, just because the snow leopard and Shifu had buried their tragic past and resolved to be a true father and son again didn't mean all friction between them had vanished. Like any parent and child, especially adult ones, there continued to be points of contention, old arguments resurrected periodically, the sarcasm and caustic wit which could only stem from two who had known each other for so very long.
At times it was amusing, even endearing, such as when Tai Lung and Shifu would get into it over such apparently well-gnawed bones as there being too much silver-gray fur being shed all over the temple or the snow leopard disputing just when it was his turn at kitchen duty. Other times, such as when Shifu tried to pry more information about the Wu Sisters out of his son, or when, after a rainstorm had caused Tai Lung to track mud into the Sacred Hall of Warriors, the red panda had insisted the snow leopard had to mop the marble so clean it could reflect as well as the Moon Pool, were much more volatile and upsetting.
And speaking of the assassin trio, no sign of them had yet turned up in the village or anywhere at all in the Valley—and for that matter, the horrendous killer from Yunxian had thankfully not arrived either. Considering the Five and their master had been slowed in their return by having to hoist Po's unconscious body, it begged the question that the unburdened and surely swift snow leopardesses could not have arrived here ahead of them, let alone the unknown killer who was rumored to move with the speed of thought. Which suggested either some other errand had called them away…or more likely, they were already in the Valley, nearby, just waiting for the right moment to strike.
Just thinking about the Wu Sisters, and how they were possibly spying on the palace, poised to cut down innocent villagers whenever the whim struck them, made Po's blood boil. The assassins were responsible for nearly killing him, and pinning the blame on Tai Lung so that all his hard work had been undone. Damn, do I ever want a rematch!
But that would never happen until he had made some major improvements in his kung fu skills. Now that he was finally well enough to do so, however, he was rather torn about whom would teach him—both Tigress and Tai Lung had offered to train him, though the latter might have been a joke. Both could teach him incredible things. Tigress had practically forbidden him to study with the snow leopard—and while he wasn't foolhardy enough to deliberately do so precisely because he'd been told not to (that was more Tai Lung's sort of thing), Po was willing to risk her wrath if it would make him a stronger warrior.
Not that he doubted Tigress's ability to prepare him, but he had the feeling she might be more interested in outdoing Tai Lung than actually training him. And for all the striped feline's bullheadedness, stern demeanor, and unwavering commitment to kung fu, the panda felt his former enemy might actually be better for the job.
Not only was he likely to be even harsher and stricter than Tigress, but Tai Lung simply knew more of the thousand scrolls than Tigress did. He had more knowledge which could conceivably help Po progress as a warrior, he wouldn't be afraid to use it, he would be even less likely to hold back in his training methods…yet the fact they were becoming friends meant the snow leopard would know when to pull back, would not go too far.
And of course, if Tai Lung spent time as a teacher rather than just a student or a guardian warrior, it might change his outlook…show him something else he could do with his life, something that didn't require him to spend almost all his time fighting in actual combat.
Po sighed. The only problem with that scenario was, what if passing over Tigress to train with Tai Lung put their friendship on the rocks again? Not to mention it practically guaranteed the striped feline's hatred would be solidified. Then there'd be no way she and Tai Lung would ever end up together…something which, while it seemed manifestly impossible now, the panda still thought would fix so much and be so good for both the cats' lives.
Looking down at the action figures again, he took the one of Tai Lung (which he had secretly sent Mei Ling to 'borrow' for him from the snow leopard's room) in one paw, the one of Tigress in the other. Then, screwing his brow up in thought, he placed both of them very close together on the table.
"Tigress, I know you believe I'm just murderous scum, but believe me when I say I can't live without you. You give me something to fight for, a reason to stay on the right path, a chance at a good life. I love you. You're my moon, my sun, my starlit sky. Without you, I dwell in darkness."
"You've dwelled in darkness too long," he said in his best imitation of Tigress's voice, moving the figures even closer together. "It's my duty as a kung fu warrior to bring you out, so you can never harm the Valley or threaten the peace again. But…I don't know if I can. I want you too much, there must be something wrong with me."
"Why do you say that?" He was rather proud of himself at getting just the right tone of slyness and faint arrogance.
"Because…because you're evil. This isn't right, I must resist you!" He pulled Tigress away.
Yet Tai Lung 'pursued' her. "No, don't fight it, we were simply meant to be! And evil can't be resisted…er, I mean, you will save me from my evil! Yes, Tigress, I know you can feel it in your heart. You must love me, be my bride!"
"No, no I won't!" She leaned away, her wooden arms flung up to ward him away. Po grinned to himself, starting to get just a little too into his 'hypothetical' situation.
"No!" she cried desperately.
"No!" he sneakily slipped in.
The action figures were by now in each other's arms, awkwardly doing their best imitation of a kiss. After a few long moments of silence, Po frowned and coughed discreetly, feeling far too flushed for his own good. A quick adjustment, and he made Tai Lung's wooden paw rest against Tigress's cheek. "Oh, Tigress…you're the most beautiful woman in the whole Valley of Peace."
He nudged her to return the gesture. "And your fur is…so soft…"
A very long pause. And then a voice suddenly spoke behind him.
"Panda, what are you doing?"
"Ahhhhh!" Shrieking in surprise, Po clutched at the action figures in both paws, hurriedly concealing them in the tightly wrapped curve of his arms as he glanced furtively over his shoulder.
It was, of course, Tai Lung standing there in the doorway of his dormitory room, and while he leaned casually against the jamb with his arms crossed over his chest, one eyebrow quirked oddly, something in his expression told the panda he'd seen more than he bargained for…more than Po wanted him to see.
"Don't…do that, Tai!" Panting and shuddering as he felt his heart thud wildly in his chest, the panda took several long moments to calm down, and only when he felt confident his voice wouldn't squeak or crack did he speak again. "Ya gotta knock before ya come bargin' in like that, ya know…anyway, what's up?"
The snow leopard's face didn't lose its strange look, even as he pushed off the jamb and stepped into the room. "Well, I simply came to tell you I couldn't sleep, and I was hungry, so I wondered if you'd come down to the kitchen and help me out with a little cooking. Viper has some recipe or other she insists I try out, and you are the resident expert on that sort of thing."
Extremely relieved it was something so simple and safe, Po smiled and nodded firmly, rapidly. "Sure thing, Tai, sounds like a good idea to me." As he struggled to lift himself up off the floor, he managed to get the drawer of the bedside table open, unobtrusively swipe all the action figures into it, then close it again—all while blocking the ex-convict's view with his body, a feat which pleased him more than it really should have. Turning back, he met Tai Lung's golden eyes, saw the knowing look and slight smirk about his lips, and clasped his paws together nervously. "Uh…you didn't see anythin', right?"
"No, panda," the snow leopard reassured him with a carefully modulated tone. "I didn't see you playing with your dolls." He seemed uncertain whether to sneer or burst out laughing.
Wincing mid-step as he moved toward the door to join his fellow master, Po closed his eyes for a few moments, then screwed open first one and then the other to accusingly meet Tai Lung's gaze. "…They're action figures," he muttered, very insistent on that point.
Stepping aside to grant the panda passage into the bunkhouse hallway, the spotted feline said nothing, but the soft snicker which became a low, dark laugh said everything for him. Po wondered futilely if there was any place on the Jade Mountain, or in the whole Valley, large enough for him to hide in…and preferably not come out again for decades.
When they arrived at the kitchen, the panda saw from the thick shadows cloaking the room, and the silvery light of the waning full moon rippling on the steps and terraces of the mountain, that it was near midnight. Much later than he would normally be awake, but thanks to all the rest he'd had to endure while healing, his sleeping schedule had become rather out of whack. Tai Lung, of course, was nocturnal by nature, though if he was having trouble sleeping there must be something on his mind. Duh, there's a lotta stuff goin' on. It'd be enough t' make anyone toss an' turn.
They had the room all to themselves. While Po built a fire in the flue to add cheerful warmth to the rather chill chamber, the snow leopard started gathering ingredients from the cupboards. As he did so, he gestured over his shoulder at a roll of parchment he'd laid on the table. "That's Viper's recipe right there, see what you make of it."
Po scanned the lines quickly. "Rice custard? But that's, like, the simplest thing! It's so easy, a cub could make it!"
He turned, only to find himself met by a flat, level gaze and a rather severe crossing of spotted arms over that creamy white chest. For a moment he thought Tai Lung was going to snarl at him; as it was, he certainly sounded rather peeved. "Pardon me, panda. Broth can't run in everyone's veins. And anything's difficult the first time you do it."
The feline had a point. "All right, I get ya," he said soothingly, holding both paws up. "Say no more, buddy. I'll show ya how it's done. First, you get those eggs cracked and start beatin' 'em. I'll get the rice an' sugar."
Po had thought that, after everything he'd been through and the streak of pride as wide as the Valley that he'd nurtured, Tai Lung would refuse instruction from him, no matter how much twenty years of kung fu training might have made it habitual to obey. But other than a disgruntled clenching of his jaw and a soft snort, the snow leopard did exactly as he was told to do, and soon enough the eggs were becoming a lovely, frothy liquid in the mixing bowl. For a worrisome moment, he'd been afraid Tai Lung's legendary strength would break the pottery or separate the eggs, but he'd forgotten the precision the feline needed to perform his nerve strike—once he was shown how, he knew just how much force and speed to put into his whisking motions.
The panda, meanwhile, fetched a rickety stepladder to get the sugar and rice, which were kept high up atop the cupboards to be out of reach of vermin. Unfortunately, between his ungainly weight throwing him off-balance and the slight unsteadiness he still suffered from on occasion, Po soon found himself in a very precarious position. And just as he got his paws on the two sacks he sought, he could already feel himself starting to fall. "Wh-whoa!"
Hurriedly he clutched at the cupboard—but although he succeeded in catching himself, that left him without one paw free. End result: while he clutched the bag of rice under one arm, he wasn't able to stop the sugar from toppling toward the floor. "Aw, nuts!"
Suddenly, Tai Lung was there, without Po even seeing him move. What was truly impressive, though, wasn't the speed with which he came to the rescue, but the fact that he had the wrong paw free—a problem he solved by abruptly switching the whisk from his right paw to the left…without even breaking the rhythm of his beating.
Blinking, the Dragon Warrior carefully descended the ladder to safety again, absently taking the bag of sugar from the ex-convict's proffered grip. "Tai…I didn't know ya knew how t' do things two-handed! I thought you were a lefty, but you're ambi—ambi—"
"Ambidextrous. That's right, panda. It's a fairly useful skill to have in combat, you know. A lot of weapons require different moves and angles depending on which hand you hold them in, so if you can master all of them that gives you a lot more options to work with." He grinned—not smugly, but with a knowing confidence. "Not to mention, it's a damned good way to fool your enemy, if you can switch hands in the middle of a fight."
Po set the rice down on the counter, rubbed at the back of his neck, and shook his head. "Wow. Just when I thought you couldn't get any cooler…the more I learn about you, Tai, the more awesome you get."
"Damn straight." But when the snow leopard glanced over his shoulder, he was smirking lopsidedly and gave a very exaggerated wink—that had actually been a joke, not true arrogance. "Seriously, panda, it's nothing to write home to Mother about. A lot of people can train themselves to be good with both paws. It's fortunate I did though; it let me keep active even while my right paw was healing after our…"
He trailed off, feigning an intense interest in the stirring eggs, but Po knew at once what he was referring to and couldn't fight the twinge of guilt he felt. Tai Lung wouldn't appreciate him bringing it out in the open again, though, so instead he busied himself with getting the pan and the rest of the ingredients.
Neither of them said another word after that, except for a few brief exchanges regarding when it was the right time to add the milk and sugar, or how much rice was enough. Only after the creamy white mixture was baking and the dishes and utensils had been washed beneath the pump did Po feel ready to disturb the silence with more conversation. But as he sat down at the table to wait for the dessert to cook, interlacing his fingers and trying to think of what to say, it was Tai Lung who spoke first.
"Well, perhaps that wasn't so bad after all." The corner of the snow leopard's mouth twitched. "Though perhaps I should wait to make sure the oven doesn't explode first before I relax."
Po laughed ruefully. "Naw, don't worry about it. Everything'll be fine. That's the nice thing about cookin', ya know? As long as ya just follow the instructions, it always turns out just right in the end. Kinda comfortin', really."
Tai Lung snorted, although there wasn't much force behind it for once. "Too bad the same can't be said for people."
"Um. Yeah." Okaaay. Scratch 'try to cheer Tai up' off my list of things to do. Guess he's a glass half-empty guy, huh? He didn't know if the snow leopard had been referring to himself, his former enemy, or even Tigress when he hinted at people who didn't do as they were told, but he decided to shoulder the burden—since he had something he had to get off his chest. "Anyway…look, Tai. I need to know…were you serious before, when ya offered to teach me?"
For a moment the snow leopard blinked and looked at him oddly, but then he nodded and shrugged, crossing his arms on the table in front of him. "Of course. I never say things I don't mean." When Po eyed him dubiously, he chuckled ruefully. "All right, sometimes I do. But I wasn't being sarcastic then. If you're going to survive another brush with the Wu Sisters, let alone any other kung fu battles, then you've got to put your nose to the grindstone and learn as much as you can from the scrolls, as fast as you can. And no one knows them better than I do."
To the panda's surprise, and distinct pleasure, Tai Lung's tone as he said this was simply a statement of fact, not bragging. Still, his muzzle did twist in a smirk as he added, "Let's just say I don't intend to be saving your arse every time I turn around, panda."
He was adopting his usual disparaging and contemptuous attitude, but Po wasn't fooled for an instant. Even aside from the fact he heard wry humor rather than true venom in his voice, as if Tai Lung had resigned himself to his new lot in life whatever he said to the contrary, he'd watched the feline very carefully ever since first awaking back at the Jade Palace—especially when he was feigning sleep and the snow leopard didn't know he was looking.
And after seeing his former enemy performing mundane, monotonous tasks to take care of him; sitting by his bedside for hours on end, regaling him with tales of his heroic exploits or even hilarious anecdotes from Shifu's youth that Oogway had told him once upon a time; changing his dressing and preparing his food; and overall hovering protectively over him night and day…there was no way Po could deny the truth. For whatever reason, whether out of guilt and conscience compelling him, loneliness at having been solitary for so long, or a sense of responsibility he wished to absolve so he could move on and be free, Tai Lung was coming to care for him and view him as a friend.
The thought brought a lump to his throat—not only because he was positive he was the first real friend the snow leopard had had in his life, but because Tai Lung was also his first real friend, aside from Viper and later the rest of the Five. There'd been plenty of cubs for him to play with growing up, but at the same time he'd always been subtly and carefully encouraged not to spend much time fraternizing.
He was different; there were no other giant pandas in the Valley of Peace, his appearance there had been almost as much of a mystery as Tai Lung's twenty years before that. He was not dangerous, but the timid, shy sheep, goats, and rabbits of the village had seemed unwilling to take chances with one who swiftly became much larger than they.
In the end, he'd really only had his father…and by the time the village did accept him, it was only as Ping's apprentice chef and server at the noodle shop—in other words, just the guy who brought them their food and could be chewed out when he spilled their order, got it wrong, or wasn't fast enough to suit them. In a way, he'd been alone too. And his pig friends had never really socialized with him outside the noodle shop...not to mention the way they, like everyone else, had turned on Po when the Dragon Scroll was blank and he seemed powerless to stop Tai Lung, rather showed the true lack of depth in their fair-weather relationship.
Not for the first time, Po reflected—a trifle uneasily—on just how eerily similar that made him and Tai Lung. As he had said in the snow leopard's cell almost a month ago, if either of them had made slightly different choices, they could have had each other's lives…though somehow he doubted he'd have been able to master the thousand scrolls or Tai Lung would have settled for such a lowly job as a noodle chef. Still…only the gods and Oogway knew for sure why there were so many similarities between them and what it all meant.
After a few more minutes of awkward silence, as the feline was clearly struggling not to drum his fingers impatiently on the table top and Po struggled just as hard not to drool at the delicious aromas of the baking dessert wafting from the oven, at last the panda sighed.
"Well…I really don't want ya t' have t' save my butt either. I am supposed t' be the Dragon Warrior, after all. And you're absolutely right…I'm one of those guys who ain't been followin' instructions, or hasn't gotten anywhere even when I did. So…what I'm sayin' is, I wanna follow yours. I want you t' be my Master, an' teach me as much as you can."
Once more, nothing was said for a few moments, and then Tai Lung propped his chin up on one paw and regarded him candidly with that familiar smirk. "Now, if I felt like being cruel, panda, there are so many things I could say to that. But I will say this: you're damn right you need instruction. You may have beaten me, panda, but your skills are still so limited there's no way in hell you'll be able to survive another serious combat like that, let alone become a real master."
The look on the feline's face changed to one of intensity, determination, and genuine worry. "Tigress is right—the things you did against the sisters? They're not going to work. You may have been able to fumble your way through our fight and end up making me look like a fool, but this time the only one who looked clownish was you. And it almost got you killed. Next time you meet them, you have to be properly ready."
Crestfallen, Po couldn't meet the snow leopard's gaze as he stared at the old wooden table and wrung his paws together. He knew Tai Lung was right. Any time he might be tempted to brush his failure aside, all he had to do was recall just how painful his defeat by Xiu had been: she'd caught the apples he'd thrown at her on the point of a deadly-looking dagger, or else sliced them in two with her fire wheel with only a flick of her wrist; turned the weapon about to pummel his ribs mercilessly from both sides; kicked him so hard in the stomach he'd doubled over, barely able to breathe; and smashed him in the face with the iron weight of her own meteor hammer.
Yes, there was no way he could defeat her with only the rudimentary knowledge and laughable 'instincts' he possessed. And it mattered to him more than anything to defeat her—not out of revenge, although the fact her attempt to kill him had also almost cost Tai Lung everything the snow leopard had been working so hard for was rather infuriating, but because it was the right thing to do…and it was the only way to prove to everyone, most of all himself, that his victory over the ex-convict had not just been a fluke.
At that moment, the panda's thoughts were interrupted as he sniffed the air and detected the faint aroma of milk starting to burn. Hurriedly he went to the oven and fetched his thickly padded mitts, taking the custard out of the heat before it could scald any further. Steam wafted up, and he swiftly flapped it away with one mitt as he leaned over to smell the dish. "Got it just in time…mmm, smells good, Tai. Looks like Viper's got a great family recipe. So why'd you wanna make this, anyway?"
The snow leopard grumbled inaudibly from behind him. "What was that? Didn't hear ya, bud."
Tai Lung sighed. "I said, desserts have always been my favorites, my one vice. Didn't get many luxuries here at the palace growing up, and sweets were rather expensive. One of the few ways Shifu didn't spoil me, I suppose. But…I missed them. Viper found out, and the rest is history."
Po chuckled and shook his head as he brought the pan over to the table to cool, then fetched plates and spoons. "Ahhhh, so that's who's been breakin' into my stash."
"I don't know what you're talking about," the snow leopard sniffed, affecting disdain.
"Lemme see, I've been missin' a lotta molasses bars, an' these cookies my dad bought from a trader who came across the ocean—what were they called, cocoa? They're to die for, I'll give ya that. But ya didn't have to steal 'em, bud, you could've just asked."
A few moments more Tai Lung tried to take the moral high road, but then at last he deflated and sighed. "Fine, I did take them, what's it to you? So it's one more crime to add to my account. Somehow I don't think it'll shock Shifu, and even Tigress can't hate me anymore than she already does." The snow leopard looked rather distressed and despondent at this admission.
Po reached out and set his paw on Tai Lung's. "Hey. I said it was okay, don't ya believe me? I was just teasin'…you can have anythin' ya want from my treats, panda's honor. It's the least I can do for you after you saved my life. I only wish I had a better way t' repay ya for trainin' me."
"Just don't lose any more blood for my sake, and show those lovely ladies what for the next time you face them, and we can call it even."
For an instant, the panda was tempted to ask Tai Lung just what the connection was between him and the Wu Sisters—however much the ex-convict denied it, he knew there was more to it than simply having met before. There was far too much venom in the words they'd exchanged, as well as discomfort and evasiveness in their interactions, for there not to be a very personal element to it all. But he knew better than to press the snow leopard on it, at least right now. Instead, after blowing on the custard to cool it, he busied himself with spooning it up onto their plates and handing the dessert out, then settled back down in his chair to sample his own creation.
Time passed slowly as the two of them shared the custard, with both of them silently marveling at how delicious the dish had turned out to be—or at least, Po knew he'd done a good job with the recipe and was quite pleased with himself; he could only guess Tai Lung's opinion based on the fact he didn't spit it out in disgust. In fact he devoured the dessert so rapidly the panda had to blink in disbelief. When the feline saw the Dragon Warrior looking at him oddly, he actually looked sheepish. "Er…it's good?"
"Yeah, I kinda got that impression."
Tai Lung shot him a sullen look. "Well, it's better than prison food, anyway. Much better. Miles better." He sighed. "Who am I kidding…yours is the best I've ever had. Is there anything you can't cook, panda?"
Po squirmed in his chair at this high praise, both because he wasn't used to such treatment from anyone let alone the snow leopard, and because he still didn't feel he deserved it. But he chuckled ruefully. "Uh…sea urchin? My dad could never afford it, and anyway…there's enough people with prickly personalities around here already, if ya know what I mean."
Startled, the snow leopard gazed at him blankly for a few moments, then burst out laughing. "Now that was a good one, Dragon Warrior…fine, fine, I'm working on it, all right? Though I hope you know I'm never going to be polite and well-mannered." He made a face. "I know how to play the role if I have to, you wouldn't believe the intricate little dance of formality they make you perform in the Imperial City. But it's just not my thing."
The panda grinned openly at him, privately relieved his former enemy hadn't taken his words as an insult again. "Never said it was. And just because you need to turn your life around doesn't mean ya have t' change everything about yourself. I kinda hope you don't. You really are too cool."
"Stop it, panda, you're embarrassing me." And indeed, Tai Lung was blushing—unless that was a flush of shame, as he almost immediately averted his gaze and clasped his paws tightly on the tabletop. "It…it means a lot to me that somebody still remembers when I was a hero…and believes I can be again. But I certainly don't deserve all this praise, panda."
Deciding not to dispute that point, particularly since as long as Tai Lung believed that, he wasn't in danger of backsliding, Po instead took another tack. "Well there is one thing I know ya deserve. My apology."
Tai Lung was the one to blink now, which frankly surprised Po. True, everything that had happened since they found the murdered goat near Yunxian would have likely driven it from his mind, and he had indeed grown and changed so much since their battle, but the panda had been certain this was something the snow leopard would never forget, or forgive. "And that would be for…?"
Po sighed. "For what happened during the Truth or Dare game. It was bad enough that I humiliated ya during the real fight…to bring it up again, and make fun of ya too…that was uncalled for, unfair, an' just plain mean-spirited, even if it wasn't my idea. So, I wanted t' apologize for that."
That was what had been on his mind the entire time, and only weighing on it more and more as their conversation continued—the more Tai Lung earnestly suggested that the Dragon Warrior needed more training, and that he was the only one who could give it; the more he accepted the panda as a friend and companion; and the more amazing things the ex-convict proved capable of, the worse Po felt for how he had inadvertently treated the snow leopard.
"I also wanted to thank you," he added after a few more uncomfortable moments. "I mean, you looked so upset with me, but you just made me do that dare of touching my toes, and it really wasn't so bad. Really, it was pretty cool of ya to take it that well."
To his surprise, Tai Lung spread his paws in a magnanimous gesture. "You're welcome. What's past is past, after all."
"Totally!" Inwardly, he began to relax, grinning in what he knew was a goofy fashion—if the snow leopard was going to accept his apology and forgive him so easily, then maybe the worst was past. Maybe now, they could get to the important work of repairing the damage the Wu Sisters had done, so he could be accepted at the Jade Palace again. There was no way even Tigress could twist the way Tai Lung was acting into some clever pose to mislead them.
However, he hadn't counted on the fact that just because Tai Lung wasn't lying to him didn't mean he was giving away all his true motivations either. Because, even as he leaned forward on one arm, scooping up more custard and suckling it from the spoon with a murmur of appreciation, he added, thoughtfully, "But you're not off the hook yet."
Po went still, swallowing hard. "Not...off the hook?" He couldn't keep the apprehension from his voice.
Tai Lung raised an eyebrow knowingly. "Just because I took it better than I normally would doesn't mean I've forgotten about it. After such a humiliation? Oh no, you still owe me, panda."
Closing his eyes, the panda fought the urge to bury his face in his paws. He should have known, really. And truth be told, it wasn't just that he should have expected this…it was actually fitting, even deserving. Humiliating Tai Lung had been the only way to win their combat; that didn't make it right, or keep the snow leopard from being absolutely justified in retaining a certain resentment. And the fact the ex-convict had forgiven him for what happened during the Truth or Dare, and admitted his own response had also gone too far, didn't keep the mockery from hurting. There's a reason someone thought up 'forgiven, not forgotten'.
It was only fair…and as long as Tai Lung wasn't too malicious about it, it would probably even be acceptable. As long as it didn't involve more cracks about his weight. Pandas were supposed to be this big, after all, and it had certainly come in handy and caused the feline to underestimate him during their battle…
Still, Po rather thought he could be excused for suddenly losing his appetite so that he couldn't finish his own custard. Wringing his paws as unobtrusively as possible, he rocked a little in his chair. "So, um...what kind of...payback...do ya have in mind?"
Tai Lung smirked, confident and suggestive. "Let's keep that a surprise, shall we?"
Po watched with a sinking sensation as the snow leopard rose and carried their dishes to the sink to be washed later, a definite bounce in his step and jutting thrust to his chest. When he turned around again and winked, his golden eyes burning molten and intense beneath his brows, the panda knew his number was up.
"Anyway…it's late, so we won't be able to do much, but there's no time like the present, eh? Let's find somewhere to train." He rubbed his paws together almost gleefully, chuckling darkly. "I can't wait to get started."
Po's heart sank all the way down past his stomach and settled somewhere in his feet. Not again. Like father, like son…hoo boy. Well, you did ask for it… Girding himself for what was to come, he smiled weakly. "Heh-heh…no hurty?"
This late at night, it hardly seemed advisable to slip into the training hall—not only was what Tai Lung had in mind something which required more open space, had nothing to do with honing skills using deadly devices, and in fact would benefit from being approached in a more natural setting, but the quickest way to get to the kwoon would have required them to either go through or past the bunkhouse. The last thing either of them wanted was to wake the Five, especially Tigress or Monkey.
So instead, the snow leopard chose to lead the panda out into the garden courtyard behind the Jade Palace: plenty of privacy and quiet, the splendor of the outdoors to commune with, a great deal of land in which to train, and best of all…far enough away from the dormitories that no one would be able to hear the panda scream.
Not that he truly had any intention of harming Po, far from it. But as he'd said in the kitchen, it was about time he finally achieved some small measure of revenge against the 'big fat panda'. He was the real Dragon Warrior; he was a good man, a better friend—in fact, better than Tai Lung deserved. But the sort of humiliation he'd dealt out to the snow leopard was something he could never be allowed to get away with.
Besides, it would be a hell of a lot of fun dishing it out. And everyone around here, including Po, kept insisting he needed to have more fun in his life…
The panda was standing beside a trellis, looking decidedly nervous and worried. "So, um…what did you have in mind, Tai? Like you said, it's pretty late to do anythin' major…"
Tai Lung clapped his paws together authoritatively and pierced Po with an unwavering, determined stare that had the bear looking even more unsettled. "Well, seeing as you need a surefire way to defend yourself, something so easy even a cub could do it—" Here he paused with a pointed look until Po had the grace to flush and avert his gaze. "—then I think you need to be trained in weapons."
The panda blinked, then his face lit up with the biggest grin he'd yet seen from the bear. "Really? Oh, oh—do I get to use the Sword of Heroes? Or, or, the Invisible Trident of Destiny? Wow—I'd just be oozin' bodacity then! I'd be blindin' everyone with my awesomeness for sure, same as you, Tai!"
Pinching the bridge of his nose, Tai Lung groaned. 'Bodacity'? Ugh. How did Shifu do this? How did he train the Dragon Warrior without bloody killing him first? "No, no, panda—Po, settle down!" This last was barked out much louder than he'd intended, and even as the bear was cringing back a bit, lip quivering in fear, the snow leopard looked around hurriedly to make sure he'd awoken no one with his outburst.
When he was certain they were still alone and undisturbed in the peaceful night, he modulated his voice to a more soothing softness. "Panda, first things first: it's not possible to blind anyone with awesomeness. If it were, everyone I ever fought, including you, wouldn't be seeing anything right about now." As Po's face fell, the snow leopard had to rub the back of his neck as he admitted the truth. "And, er, neither would I, since I've watched both Shifu and Oogway in action…
"Anyway, I didn't mean I'm going to start swiping artifacts from the Hall of Warriors for you to spar with." His voice dropped to a mutter. "For one thing, Fath—I mean, Shifu would tan my hide if I even suggested it…" He shook his head and stood up straight as his thoughts organized themselves, as disciplined and orderly as he had always striven for. This was something he was an expert in.
But the panda, who had recovered gamely enough from having his fantasy bubble pricked, was still fixated on his own notion of training. "So, out of all of those weapons Master Shifu taught you about, which one's your favorite?"
"None of them," he answered immediately. When his friend looked at him skeptically, he had to revise his stance slightly. "Oh very well, if you must know I was always fond of all the various polearms out there. It's one of the reasons I took the Sword of Heroes to WuShon. But that isn't the point, panda. Because really, my body is my deadliest weapon."
Po was stunned into a surprised silence, and then he shook his head. "Wow. Your own body is your deadliest weapon? That sounds totally cool, Tai!"
"Thank you. And it's true in your case, too. You defeated me, after all." The snow leopard smirked, then flipped a paw dismissively in the direction of the dormitories. "Anyway, if I may continue: I'll leave that sort of weapons training to Tigress and the others." Conscious of the hammer he carried thrust through his belt, as he had ever since returning from Yunxian and reconciling with his father, he remembered, sourly but with reluctant admiration, how Shifu had misled him as to the nature of his new training. He was not going to pull something like that on Po. Well...not entirely. "We're doing something fundamental, a bit more basic—but it's also something that will never fail you, if you're good enough and clever enough. Weapons are all well and good—you've seen what the Wu Sisters can do with them. But after I'm through with you, you won't need weapons. Because you, and everything around you, will be your weapon."
Po gave him a very strange look. "Uh…are you sure we're talkin' about the same guy, bud? 'Cause I'm about as dangerous as a bowlful of noodles."
Tai Lung chuckled. "Some noodles can be rather deadly, as you showed me during our fight. And that's just the point I was making. One of the biggest reasons I lost against you, panda, is because you weren't fighting the way I was trained. You took advantage of everything around you to bring me down, because you knew the village better than I did, and I was so focused on gaining the scroll I couldn't be bothered to notice anything else. It's the same reason a warrior has the best chance of winning on his home turf, and that an intelligent warrior scouts out an area where he might enter combat well in advance, if at all possible, so he can become familiar with the territory.
"It's the sort of thinking that gives you a lot of potential as a fighter, Po," he said seriously, deliberately using the panda's name to grab his attention so the importance of this lesson would sink in. At the same time, he sighed deeply as he prepared to admit one of his deepest flaws. "I may have mastered all one thousand scrolls, and I've invented my own moves and combat styles in my day, but I still applied them in a very straightforward, traditional manner. I was, and still am, rather predictable. It's the sort of thing that happens when you believe you're the best—you tend to assume you don't need to change, or to practice, because no one can possibly outmatch you." And being locked up for twenty years, brooding on what you lost and running over the same plots and schemes again and again, does not an innovative thinker make.
"It's something I need to work on, and remind myself, if I'm going to be of any use in helping protect the Valley. The fact I know the Wu Sisters, how they think and fight, doesn't do a damn bit of good if they know me just as well. Just look at Mei Ling—she has just as much knowledge as I do, and I'll bet you anything she's much more versatile and insightful than me and the Wu Sisters put together. At the very least, she knows better than to always use the same methods and moves from one battle to the next—especially not against her own sisters. You'd do well to watch her in action when you get the chance…"
For that matter, he'd be watching the mountain cat himself—in a rare moment of humility and generosity, he could admit that Mei Ling might well be his equal in kung fu, and that she certainly surpassed him in her ability to think outside the box. He allowed his opinion might be influenced by the fact she had saved him from imprisonment or death at the paws of Tigress, but even so…he rather hoped she could be brought in on these lessons too—if for no other reason than so he could find out what she was truly made of, and let her do the same with him.
"But you're not like that, panda. You're unorthodox. Right now you're suffering because you don't know enough of the art of kung fu to truly make a difference. But once you do, if you then apply that knowledge to your…unusual way of fighting, then you may well live up to your title and show those killers what for."
He didn't allow Po more than a few moments to turn bright red and shuffle his paws on the gravel pathway, though, before he resumed pressing his point. "You've already proven you know how to use things around you, to confuse your opponent by using objects which aren't meant to be weapons." Like woks, and bamboo, and fireworks… "So what I want to show you is how to take advantage of everything around you, not just what you know how to use, how to make anything your weapon—including you. Observe."
Wheeling about on one foot, he immediately launched into a series of strikes, kicks, and leaps, as if he were dueling with an invisible opponent. There was of course nothing to hit, but for the purposes of the demonstration, he acted as if there were—and with each leap after his 'adversary', he brought a new feature of the garden landscape into play as his ally. He pressed his opponent back toward a stone bench almost hidden in the bushes, so that if there had truly been a person there, they would have stumbled over it and flipped backwards to land in a heap on the ground.
He swiped a vase from a nearby pedestal and pretended to smash it across their face. He backed the other fighter underneath a moon bridge, where the confining space made it difficult to spar and, if the person were tall enough and unobservant enough, they'd be likely to bark their crown on the low-hanging arch. He pushed them on relentlessly, until they were trapped in a corner made by two walls of the compound and could not escape. He even channeled his chi into a blast of wind, setting the fronds of a nearby weeping willow tree to dancing so that each struck out like a whip.
By the time he had finished and turned back to the panda again, Po was outright gaping, his eyes the widest and brightest Tai Lung had ever seen them, and he looked as if he didn't know whether to faint, applaud enthusiastically, or cheer at the top of his lungs. He apparently settled for slapping one paw to his forehead while he sat down on another bench. "That…was…amazing! You're so right, Tai, I never would've thought of some of that!"
In spite of himself, the snow leopard grinned a bit smugly, even as he felt his cheeks burn with a rather bashful blush. It might not be good for his ego to hear all this praise…but then again, when had he ever heard such a thing before? Both Shifu and Oogway had never acted like this; his father was not the effusive sort, never had been, limiting himself only to simple declarations of 'excellent work' or 'well done, Tai Lung', and the turtle's observations had usually been of a more introspective nature, commenting in that lilting, languid tone of his how the feline was improving dramatically but that a wise man knew he would always be learning, always changing as he went through life.
Po's unadulterated, uninhibited excitement over what the snow leopard could do…it made Tai Lung all the more determined to prove himself. Not to be superior to others, not to earn their accolades, but because he simply wanted to see that smile again, to be the panda's hero. It might technically still be a selfish desire, but what did that matter? As his father had said, he wasn't meant to be the Dragon Warrior, so he didn't need to kill himself trying to attain a virtuous state that was quite frankly beyond him.
But there also wasn't anything wrong with wanting to please others, as long as he didn't let them dictate his actions. Po was an ardent fan, not just of kung fu, but of what it stood for. The least he could do was show the panda more of what it was meant to do—and maybe, just maybe, he could show himself as well…could take these lessons to heart, and remember what he had forgotten. It was the only way he could be proud of himself now, could possibly withstand whatever this chi wizard would throw at him—centering himself on his training, and hewing to the philosophy Oogway had taught him as a cub and adolescent: defend. Protect. Aid those who could not help themselves. Destroy the wicked. Answer hate with fortitude, cruelty with kindness, murder with justice, pain with sympathy and understanding.
Well, perhaps some lessons would be harder than others. But…he had to try. For Shifu, for Tigress…and for Po.
"I'm sure you would have eventually," he finally answered the panda, crossing his arms loosely over his chest as he regarded him with a new eye. "After all, some of those tricks I learned from watching you. Taking advantage of your surroundings is the most unexpected thing you can do in combat, the best way you can lower your enemy's defenses and win the day. It's not all just kicks and punches, or mastering a particular style. It's knowing how to use what you've learned in ways that no one would predict. It's winning by out-thinking your enemy, not just out-fighting them. The rest is just fancy footwork, window dressing."
"But…" The Dragon Warrior looked very confused. "Master Shifu taught me knowin' all the forms is important, and that ya gotta master as many weapons as you can, so you'll never be left defenseless if ya don't have th' right one with you."
Tai Lung nodded. "That's very true. Weapons are very important in kung fu, and as you must already know, Tigress and the others swear by weapons. But Shifu can take down anyone with only his fists and his feet…so can I, and for that matter so can you, if you really try. Any weapon is useless if one can't wield it. And always remember, panda, the best weapon you can have, the one weapon you can always count on and must always have complete faith in, is your own body. That's what you should always rely on, what will never fail you."
Po glanced down at himself sadly, morosely, taking hold of his paunch in both paws and trying to hoist it up into some semblance of a warrior's broad-chested build. It didn't work, and he soon let it sag again with an audible slosh. "I dunno, Tai. I think mine ain't as dependable as, y'know, yours. Or the rest of the Five's."
"Oh really?" The snow leopard smirked sardonically. "I seem to recall a certain belly of iron that hurled me about fifty feet above the village. Not to mention your immunity to my nerve strike. Your body's more effective than you give it credit, panda."
He paused, then grinned even more openly, if a bit maliciously, as a thought occurred to him: it would prove to Po he had what it took to be a true kung fu warrior, it would teach him about using one's own body to win, and it would allow him that small measure of revenge he craved all at once.
"Here, let me show you. I bet you wondered just how I became stronger while in Chorh-Gom."
"Yeah…" Po ventured uncertainly.
"Anyone can do a nerve strike," the snow leopard lectured knowledgably. "It's codified in the thousand scrolls, in fact it was the last one I mastered. But the way I made it, and myself, stronger was through Oogway's restraining device. I don't know how to describe it, except to say it…compressed my chi. Gathered it together, built it up, tightly contained it. That's what I drew on to keep myself going all those years…it was dark, probably made me even more unstable, but at the same time it grounded me. It helped me become more focused on the essence of my self…so I could turn it to new ends."
Looking up from the point on the ground where he'd let his eyes fall as he soberly contemplated what he'd done to himself, he forced a suggestive smile. "Like redirecting my chi into my nerve strike. And that, panda, is what I'm going to teach you."
Quiet, pervasive and still, settled over the post-midnight darkness of the Jade Mountain, and then Po at last breathed, "You will? Really and truly? Oh man, Tai, that is like the best thing you could ever do! Please, ya gotta show me—"
The snow leopard struck without any warning. Even as the panda was still babbling and giggling excitedly about the prospect of learning the nerve strike, Tai Lung formed his paw into the proper position, palm out and fingers curled, then struck with the single upraised digit—right into Po's elbow. The bear gasped, his endless litany suddenly cut off as his arm suddenly went limp, dangling paralyzed and useless from his shoulder. "What the—how…?"
Tai Lung didn't let him ponder the implications of this any longer, whipping about with Viper-like speed to strike again. Po instinctively threw his other arm up to block him—only to have that limb, too, collapse, swaying and flopping, at his side. The panda staggered back, a look of betrayal and consternation on his broad face, even as he struggled to get one leg up beneath his top-heavy weight to counter him with. Surprisingly, he did—Shifu must have really worked with him on his flexibility!
But the snow leopard hit his knee too, leaving one leg unable to support him, so that the panda was soon comically hopping about on his single remaining leg. After only a few moments of this, during which Tai Lung watched him while leaning idly against a gingko tree, the ex-convict burst out laughing. As it had been that day in the kwoon, it was not sadistic or nasty laughter, but genuinely amused and heartfelt—because this was easily one of the funniest sights he'd ever seen. And to get this sort of result after the humiliation he'd suffered the last time they fought seriously was…satisfying.
Finally, after several more agonizing moments, the panda collapsed in a heap on the ground, panting and sweating, and Tai Lung crossed over to Po's side and nonchalantly sat down atop his heaving, bulging belly. "So what now, big guy? Now I'm sitting on you."
Groaning under his breath, apparently having a difficult time with the spotted feline's solid weight, the bear spoke between gritted teeth. "Aww, c'mon. This ain't…fair. What'd I ever…do to…you…" He trailed off as the truth sank in.
"Well well. I do believe I just defeated the Dragon Warrior," Tai Lung drawled. Oh yes, revenge was sweet, and so worth the wait.
"But…how? And why? I…I thought ya were my bud." The look on Po's face—crestfallen, pitiful, and hurt—was enough to make the snow leopard stop laughing and grinning, instead letting out a soft sigh and slumping his shoulders.
"I am your friend, Po. Gods help me, I don't know why or how I am, but I am. Doesn't mean I can't have a little fun with you, now does it? I'm only teasing, panda; suck it up and take it like a man, hmm?" Lifting a paw, he started counting off points on his fingers. "How did I do it? Simple. When we fought before, I was enraged, out of my mind with anger. I'd been denied everything I thought would make me happy, by you I thought, and I just wanted to make you hurt.
"But I wasn't thinking…I just kept attacking the same places again and again, even though it was clear I could never paralyze you through all that fat. Now…now with hindsight, calm, and intelligence, I could work out just where to strike you successfully. The joints…the underarms…the face. No pudge there, panda." He chuckled and tapped Po artfully on the nose.
"As for why…to prove a point. Now that I know how, I could have defeated you at any time. But I didn't. Because it wouldn't make any difference, I realize that now. I could take the Dragon Scroll from you—but what would that achieve? It's not going to give me some mystical power to defeat the sisters. I don't need it to earn Shifu's love, already got that one. I've got your friendship, whether I want it or not.
"The only thing I can do now is keep using my skills the way they were meant to be, to defend this Valley, and hope eventually everyone will understand and accept me for who I am. I can't gain the scroll unless I'm a true hero…and if I become one, I don't even need it anymore. How's that for irony?" He laughed, bitterly but also ruefully.
"But I don't think anyone can blame me," he added cheekily, "if I take far too much pleasure out of trumping you. So don't you take all the fun out of it for me by pouting too much, panda." As it was, he would dearly love to keep the panda paralyzed for the foreseeable future, or at least a joint or two. But if he did, the others would never forgive him (though he somehow suspected Shifu would only mildly disapprove).
And while Tai Lung was tempted to only strike Po's paws, so his fingers would be stiff enough to be unable to grip anything, the snow leopard thought better of it. For this would prevent the panda from being able to cook, and that would be an utter travesty—he was becoming fonder of the panda's cooking with every meal he ate, and didn't want to be deprived of all that rich, delicious food if he could help it.
Po grumbled under his breath, and would likely have crossed his arms sullenly if he could move them. "Fine, fine, I get it. But could ya let me up now? We still got trainin' t' do. Unless that was all a line you were feedin' me so ya could get me alone like this."
Tai Lung smirked and nodded, getting up from his surprisingly comfy, padded perch. "Oh no, I really will teach it to you—it's something the Dragon Warrior ought to know, after all. Keep your britches on, just a moment…" And with a deep breath and another focus of his chi, he stabbed with unerring accuracy into each limb in succession, unlocking Po's own energies so he could move and sit up again. As the panda groaned, rubbed at his sore joints, and tried to sit up, he offered him a helping paw.
"Now," he said conversationally after Po was sitting attentively on the bench, "the way it works is like this. I'm going to put you through some tai chi stances, so you can get your chakras open and your chi flowing. Then you have to gather yourself, everything that makes you who you are—all your determination, all your strength, all your emotions, whatever you have to—and push it into your paw, narrow it down to the circumference of your finger. Let me show you how it feels."
The snow leopard held up his right paw, palm out in the proper striking position again…cleared his mind of all distractions, of all his worries, pains, and especially his current cocky amusement at the plight he'd put Po in. Then he nudged his energy up into his limb, felt it burn, seethe, and churn within him, ready to be sent surging down to block the chi of whoever it came in contact with.
"There," he hissed between his teeth; it was much harder to hold the energy back, to keep it in check, then to gather it or use it in a powerful burst—but he had more than enough will to restrain it. "Touch my paw, Po…can you feel it?"
Reaching out to set his paw against the former felon's, the Dragon Warrior paused—and Tai Lung could see the moment when his spiritual energy brushed the feline's own, how his green eyes widened in shock, wonder, and excitement. He could even feel Po's chi in the same moment, and for an instant he was certain his face had the same expression as the panda's—because for whatever reason, the power he felt beneath the surface of Po's paw was easily as phenomenal as his own.
The bear was destined for kung fu—no one with that amount of chi could be meant for anything else, or else it would surely be a colossal waste. At the very least, he had to be one of the most centered, stable, and steady presences he'd ever encountered. And as Tai Lung imagined, then, just what kinds of feats and moves could be managed if he trained Po properly in how to use this natural ocean of chi…if it were then released in concert with the snow leopard's own energies…suddenly, he understood why Oogway's faith was so unshakable. Suddenly, he believed they really did have a chance.
"Yeah!" Po burst out, interrupting his stunned thoughts. "Yeah, I do, Tai. It's…it's like a living thing, ain't it? It's almost…got a heartbeat."
Tai Lung swiftly released both his lungful of air and his control over his chi, allowing the energy to dissipate back down into his body. He shuddered, for more reasons than one. "That's…that's right, panda. Very good. Now, when you can feel that same feeling inside you, when you can draw that heat and power up into your paw the same way I do, you'll be able to perform my nerve strike as well. Let's get you prepared, shall we?"
For the next hour or so, he put him through the forms and taolus. Part of him wished he still had Oogway's staff to use as a correcting device, the same as Shifu had done to him growing up, but all things considered it probably wasn't a good idea to subject the newly-healed wood to such physical abuse again so soon. Instead he made do with a switch fashioned from a cypress branch, using it to swat an offending limb or tap Po's backside to make him stiffen up straight, poking and prodding him into the proper position. Only when he was certain the panda had not only limbered up but also 'loosened' his chi did he agree to move on to the next step.
"All right then, that should be enough to get the energies freely flowing," he commented, watching with a critical eye as Po balanced on one foot, his other leg extended behind him as he bent into a horizontal T-pose, both arms spread wide like a bird in flight. "Now, this is only a beginner's course, you'll need to study anatomy charts to locate all the nerve points—Mantis should have them, I believe. And it requires great precision—a centimeter off and you could lock up a joint forever, or stop the heart."
With those caveats, the snow leopard took up a defensive stance which nevertheless left him wide open since it presented his left arm as a perfect target. "Do it just as I taught you—find your center…draw up all the energy from your stomach…that's it. Think of something or someone to focus your passion—dumplings, Tigress, I don't care. Just, something powerful and intense. Use it to fuel your chi. D'you feel it?"
"Y-yeah…hoo…it's strong, all right. I had no idea…I had all this in me." Indeed, Po's round face was flushed and sweating, and Tai Lung could faintly detect, with his excellent eyesight and spiritual attunement, a shimmering aura of the same golden energy that had washed across the village square when he'd used the Wuxi Finger Hold. "Don't know…if I can hold it though, Tai…"
"That's all right, panda. It's only your first time, frankly I'm surprised you even succeeded in gathering it at all, let alone that much…" Eyeing the panda's arm as he brought his paw up in an open-palm strike, he braced himself. "When you feel you're ready, strike me, pour all that energy into your finger, try and hit one of my nerve clusters…now, don't be surprised if you don't succeed—"
A set and determined look crossed Po's face, and with unerring precision he struck out at Tai Lung's elbow. Instantly, his whole limb went limp with a golden ripple of light that lit up the garden. The feline's words died in his throat, and he stared in shock and disbelief at his dangling arm, which might as well have been made of newly-rolled dough.
It had taken him weeks, months, to master the thousandth scroll. It had taken him twenty years to perfect the application of chi to the pressure point strike so as to create the Leopard Claw. And Po had, if not mastered it, at least showed a stunning ability to learn it in a mere fraction of the time. I don't believe it. Oogway and Shifu were right. He…he's a natural. He can be shown a move once or twice, and know it. And he doesn't even realize what he's done.
"Uh…er, yes. That's more than adequate, panda. Now, if you could strike again, to unblock it…" He could strike himself, of course, but since it was Po's chi blocking his, only the one who had landed the blow could undo it—he had heard and read of great masters from the distant past who had enough willpower and mental energy to break through the binding chi and shrug off the effects of a nerve strike on their own, but he wasn't to that level yet. And somehow, with Po being the Dragon Warrior, he wasn't sure if he could succeed regardless.
"Sure!" Just like that, the panda struck again, in the same spot, and feeling and motion instantly returned to the snow leopard's arm. Rubbing the sore joint and flexing his muscles absently to restore full feeling to it, Tai Lung stared down at his limb in confusion and wonder, then looked up as Po lapsed back into his previous stance. "So now what? Legs? Temple? Chest?"
"No! No…that won't be necessary." If this was just beginner's luck, he didn't want to risk the panda hitting his heart by mistake…and if it wasn't, he'd rather not be humiliated all over again by collapsing like a puppet whose strings had been cut. "I…I think we've done enough for tonight. Just keep practicing your exercises, and we'll take up again tomorrow night, same time and place. But now I hope you can see just what your body can do for you, panda. That power to cut off another warrior from their own body…it came from within you, from your own energies. With that at your disposal, what d'you need a sword or a staff for?"
Po nodded, his expression at once awed, contemplative, and extraordinarily pleased with himself—as well he should be. As he turned toward the gravel walkway that led back toward the western wing and the bunkhouse, the Dragon Warrior gave him a grateful and proud look. "Y'know, you're right, buddy. If I can master this, the Wu Sisters ain't gonna know what hit 'em, let alone anythin' else ya got t' teach me. Thanks, Tai—I owe ya big-time for this."
"Think nothing of it," he waved it aside. "As I said, it'll only benefit everyone here at the Palace. I'm sure if you keep applying yourself, you'll do fine…"
But as he followed the panda toward the dormitories, feeling a sudden wave of weariness and lassitude wash over him that had nothing to do with sleep or lethargy, Tai Lung could only watch the black-furred back on the path ahead of him and shake his head in utter stupefaction. Po wasn't the screw-up he'd assumed him to be; while he was still ignorant of many things, and there were so many scrolls ahead of him to study and master, the panda had proven to him this night that he was meant to learn kung fu. That it really was his destiny to be the Dragon Warrior.
And if the snow leopard could pass on to him all he knew, complete what Master Shifu had started…then nothing could stop the panda. Next time, he would not fare so badly in battle—he could help Tai Lung get rid of the Wu Sisters once and for all, as well as this unseen villain who haunted the Valley with his murderous darkness.
With that being the case…he had a whole new reason to look forward to this training. Instructing Po would not be merely a chore, a fulfillment of a bargain, a repayment of a debt. It would be like nothing else he had ever set out to do…it might well be the most important thing he ever did.
And he was going to thoroughly enjoy every moment of it.
(A/N: The opening of this chapter was, of course, my homage to Mel Brooks. Hoo-ray for Spaceballs! Considering Po's action figures are part of the KFP-verse, I don't think it seemed too inappropriate to include. Also, see if you can find the Willow reference embedded within the same scene... In the meantime, I hope everyone can take that scene in the spirit in which it was written—since, if you look very closely, you'll see it's actually a parody of a great deal of the common features of Taigress fics and Tai Lung redemption fics in general, as well as a parody of some of the very statements I make in my own fic. Just because I love Tai Lung, and the idea of him and Tigress getting together, doesn't mean I can't see the humor value of the things a lot of us Tai fanboys/fangirls take for granted. It's good if you can laugh at yourself after all. But it's all meant in good fun, so please don't be offended.
The bit about Tai learning the nerve strike from Oogway's restraining device is canon, a point described in Art of KFP, but the way he applied his own chi to make it block chi and paralyze his opponent is my own invention. I also thought it fairly obvious that while Tai was too enraged during the battle to figure out how to properly strike Po, with time and his many years of kung fu training behind him he would figure out how it could be done. Good thing he did so after he'd already started to change, eh? In the meantime, you should now have an inkling of the snow leopard's destiny and just what role lies ahead of him. R/R!)