(Well here it is at last, the final chapter of my epic saga. :P Aside from my usual thank yous to Luna, RemTar, and anyone else who has ever assisted me, I'd like to thank Angelus-alvus for something he said in one of his reviews that helped me out with some of Oogway's talk. Also, my thanks to Luna for some assistance related to Chinese cooking, and to FalconMage who long ago gave me some info related to Chap Goh Meh. Now, on with the conclusion...)
High above the Valley of Peace, where the last rays of the setting sun had vanished over the horizon an hour or two ago, the vast vault of the night sky now arched overhead, filled to overflowing it seemed with sparkling, crystalline stars. Unlike the shadows which had haunted the Jade Palace and its residents for so long, this darkness was friendly, welcoming, and soothing—a soft, quiet blanket drawn over the world which brought comfort, reassurance, and tranquility which had not been felt in some considerable time.
Despite the chill in the air which hinted at the winter flurries which would soon be rounding the mountain peaks, everything felt warm and wondrous and alive, as if the prospect of snow only directed thoughts to cuddling close with loved ones, sipping steaming tea, and spending long nights before a crackling fireplace. And the stars above only seemed to add to the sense of all being right with the universe, that the gods were smiling down upon the empire at last and the future was truly an unlimited range of possibilities.
Such thoughts were so unexpected, and so alien, to how Tai Lung had viewed the world only six months ago, that the snow leopard could not believe he was even the same person anymore. He had changed so much in so short a time, and for the better…and he wouldn't have it any other way now. Normally he wouldn't be so introspective and philosophical, but with the way events had played out, and what his destiny had turned out to be, he found it to be entirely appropriate. And it didn't hurt where he was now—gazing up at that star-packed sky through the boughs of the Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom.
Blowing air out of his cheeks, the spotted feline sighed, lowered his eyes at last, and carefully avoided looking at the mound of soil where Zhuang had been buried. He'd brought flowers for the grave, of course (hydrangea—something which caused his mouth to quirk involuntarily in a rueful, amused grin), but despite where he was and why, he didn't want to dwell on the dead or what he had lost. Instead he reminded himself of what he had gained…not only the love of Tigress, and the friendship of Po and the rest of the Five, but his new position in the Valley.
It wasn't hard to do, since he was no longer wearing just his usual clothes but also the robes of a kung fu master and head of the Jade Palace. Unlike Shifu's they were not rust red but silver trimmed with violet, and across the broad back was stitched the black silhouette of a falcon with its wings unfurled menacingly—in honor, of course, of his great victory—but their cut and design was unmistakable nonetheless. They'd been presented to him at the same ceremony in which he was formally invested with his new rank.
He remembered little of the ritual, what with the festival still going on at full swing in the village and his own mind being fogged and hazy with the stunned wonder that had yet to leave him even now. All he recalled was brief snatches of words—his father granting him his titles with more pride and love in his voice than he'd ever heard before, each of the other warriors offering their own testimonials as to how deeply he deserved this honor and what they hoped for their future association, and of course a speech courtesy of Emperor Chen. All suitably eloquent, beautiful, insightful… And long-winded. I respect the man much more now than I ever did in the past, but seriously, does he not know the meaning of the word brevity?
Still, he couldn't complain too much. Having such endorsement and approval from all sides, especially from the ruler of all China, could not be a more auspicious beginning for his tenure as Master. Only one other thing could add the final, crowning touch to this day, which ranked right up there with the day he and Shifu reconciled and the day Tigress said she loved him—and that was why he was here on this isolated but no longer lonely ledge, awaiting the appearance of his old master from the spiritual plane.
He didn't know for sure that Oogway could, or would, manifest once more—though he suspected he would, to make clear that matters with Heian Chao were laid to rest if not to congratulate and bless Tai Lung. But in a way, it wouldn't matter…coming here let him feel he could commune with the turtle's shade after all, as well as simply brought him a surprising amount of calm and inner peace. That was so rare and unheard of for him it was worth the trip regardless.
He closed his eyes, breathing deeply of the night air, laden with the scents of cooking food drifting from the town below as well as jasmine blossoms and, farther distant, the smell of approaching rain. And then, of course, he heard the voice.
"How wonderful to see you again, my boy. And I must say, the new robes suit you." As always, the ever-present chuckle lay beneath the solemn, vague tone and distracted air.
Turning about and opening his eyes, Tai Lung couldn't keep from chuckling sardonically as he spread his paws to gesture down at himself. "What can I say? Po gets a shiny scroll, while I get a brand-new wardrobe. Not a bad trade-off."
Oogway smiled and nodded, and while the pale pink petals which composed his substance were no brighter than usual, the turtle looked far happier, and more pleased and content, than he had ever seen him. "Indeed. And the fact you can realize this, and believe it in your heart, shows how much you have truly grown, Tai Lung. Did I not tell you that you could achieve balance? Did I not ask you to accept your place because it would be one just as noble, heroic, and special as that of the Dragon Warrior? You have earned everything I said you would and more…you have fulfilled your destiny, and achieved another that will last the rest of your life.
"And you did so by acting as Po could not, by knowing when to kill and when to have mercy, learning to forgive but also destroying your enemy because it was the only way to achieve justice and peace. It was your rage, fueling your Fire, that let you defeat Chao's chi…it was your strength and skill that laid him low…and it was your heart that gave you the courage and ability to overcome him by doing exactly as I said—you were stubborn but also clever, domineering but also willing to cooperate, a killer but also a protector. Your Yin and Yang are equal, child, more so now than any other student I have trained…and while it will always be a struggle for you to maintain that balance, I know you will succeed. It is how you overcame Chao, just as I foresaw."
The turtle paused, then chuckled. "That, and of course, working together with Po. I hope you understand, now, why I did not give you the scroll. You were never meant to be the Dragon Warrior—you were meant to teach him, every scroll you had mastered as well as your own innovations. Despite his name, you will be a better teacher than Shifu ever was."
Tai Lung couldn't help but beam at this high praise and unwavering support, but he also couldn't keep back a teasing, bantering reply. "I kind of worked that part out for myself already, Master. So tell me something I don't know."
For a moment, Oogway blinked at him in some astonishment, as if truly startled the snow leopard had developed such keen insight on his own. Then he craned his neck up until his tiny head had risen almost to the middle of the ex-convict's chest, his gaze so intent that Tai Lung almost fell back a pace. "Very well. Perhaps, then, the fact I have always known you were meant to defeat Heian Chao…and that I was preparing you for it from the very beginning of your training?"
He blinked several times in rapid succession, the chuckle dying in his throat and the smile wiped right off his muzzle. No. He couldn't have known. If he had, but didn't bother telling me, or doing anything to change what happened later, then… The longer he stared at the reptile, though, the more he realized with a sinking feeling that the Grand Master wasn't joking. And as soon as he did, Tai Lung clenched his jaw, then his fist, and stood up straight to loom menacingly over the spirit.
"I don't believe you!" he growled in outright disgust. "You knew? All along, you knew? Why didn't you bloody well say so, then? Why did you let me keep believing I'd be the Dragon Warrior…damn it, why didn't you put a stop to what was happening to me, before I went off the deep end?"
Oogway sighed, glanced away, and almost seemed to shrivel inside his shell. When he looked back, he looked very much like exactly what he was not—not an unsurpassed kung fu master, nor a wise philosopher, but simply a tired old man who deeply regretted the mistakes he'd made in life. "I am sorry, my boy. You are quite right, I should have told you.
"But…I was afraid. I did not think you would believe me. If you had not, it would have angered you even further, to think that I was spinning a web of lies to distract you from what you saw as your rightful destiny. And if you had believed me, you would surely have gone storming off at once to face Heian Chao then and there. Which would have gotten you killed, Tai Lung. You were not ready. Not yet."
"You mean because I hadn't learned fire chi yet?" the spotted cat burst out incredulously. "Or to control my blasted temper?" All right, the chi was pretty damned useful, and if I hadn't learned to control myself, Chao would have had me in two seconds. But…
"No. Or at least, not only that." Oogway clasped his hands. "Do you recall the book of haiku you found in my bedroom?"
Tai Lung furrowed his brow in utter confusion at this apparent non sequitur. "What does that have to do with anything?"
The shade closed his eyes briefly, reciting from memory. "'The winds of Tibet come knocking on my doorstep; I must grow a peach.' It was a riddle, my boy."
"Forgive me," the snow leopard growled through gritted teeth. "I've never been good at those. Perhaps if you explain it better…"
Oogway nodded amiably, even as he still looked somehow forlorn and sheepish at the same time. "The first two lines were a reference to you—your people are from Tibet, and you were left upon the doorstep of the Jade Palace. The peach was symbolic, meant to stand for the wisdom I hoped to impart to you through your training, so you could overcome Chao.
"But the poem has a second meaning as well. When you escaped from Chorh-Gom and returned to the Valley, this could also be said to be a 'wind knocking on my doorstep'. And that time, the peach I needed to nurture—as I told Shifu the night I passed on—was Po, the Dragon Warrior who could defeat you."
Part of Tai Lung was kicking himself at missing the now-obvious interpretations of the haiku, but the rest of him still could not believe the old insane turtle was spouting seer gibberish and Zen mysticism to deflect him from the truth—that he had been aware from the beginning of the snow leopard's true destiny, but had allowed him to fixate instead on the Dragon Scroll. Had allowed him to become so arrogant, blind, and violent that he'd gone on a rampage when denied it, murdered all those people, been locked away for twenty years…all for nothing, when it all could have been prevented, when he might never have been susceptible to Chao…
"Is there a point to all this? An explanation? Anything at all?" he finally snapped.
Surprisingly, Oogway didn't reprimand him, perhaps because he knew Tai Lung had a right to be upset. "Yes, and it is this: the reason the poem has two meanings is because it was meant, even then, to suggest the two of you joining forces to triumph. I had hoped one of you would pick up on this in time, before it was too late. I could not tell you directly, just as I could not tell you of Vachir, or where Chao could be found—all had to occur in its own time, in its proper order of events, or you would have failed.
"If you had known of Vachir too soon, you would have pursued him in mad revenge and thus been prey to Chao—as you also would have been if you had sought my former student out in his sanctuary. And if you had known, before you could accept it, that you and the panda had to be equals, that neither of you could win without the other…you would have refused, and all would have been lost." Even through his resentment and simmering anger, Tai Lung had to admit he had him there.
"That is also the other reason," the turtle added quietly, "why I placed you in Chorh-Gom, rather than had you executed as so many wished."
Softly, the wind whistled over the peak, rattling the branches of the peach tree and setting its still-tiny new leaves to whispering, the sounds crystal clear in the oppressive silence. Tai Lung did not know what to say—there were no words to describe his conflicted feelings of betrayal and self-recrimination, fury and despairing resignation. So he merely let the quiet speak for him as he listened, fists clenching and unclenching while he learned, at last, the secrets that had been kept from him all his life…secrets he was beginning to understand, even if he could not agree with them.
"Po was only a small cub when he was brought to the Valley to be raised by Ping, a year after your rampage," Oogway pointed out. "Even if I could somehow have prevented your fall to darkness, or saved you from it—and Chao's influence—after the fact, the panda would not be ready to receive the scroll for another twenty years. Where could you possibly go during that time that would keep you free of Chao until the day your brother warrior was ready to join you? How could I be certain you would not be corrupted while out performing heroic deeds to save the empire? How could I simply keep you safe from him? The only way I could be sure was to place you somewhere I thought he could not touch you."
He held up a stubby-clawed hand to forestall Tai Lung's indignant protest. "I was wrong—more wrong than I have ever been in my life—and I did you a terrible ill I can never undo. For that, I will never forgive myself. If I had known what I know now…what Vachir and his men would do to you, how Chao's spirit would remain at your side even in the depths of the abyss, then I would never have imprisoned you there.
"In fact I did fight quite strongly to keep the commander away from you…but Chen, naturally, believed his old friend eminently suited to the task and did not consider what losing his family to you would do to Vachir… But even though you suffered, my boy, and I would take that pain from you and bear it upon my own back if I could, things still turned out as they should—as I knew they would."
Tai Lung let out a strangled sound, half-snarl, half-barking laugh of disbelief. "You can honestly say that, after—?"
"Yes," Oogway cut him off. "Because in the end, you were stronger for it. And because Po fulfilled his destiny, and my vision, in exactly the manner I had hoped he would."
The snow leopard let his jaw drop, even stepped back a pace until he bumped into the meditation boulder. "You mean…all along, you knew…you wanted him to…"
Smiling sadly, yet also lovingly, the turtle nodded. "Of course. Po was to bring peace to everyone in the Valley. And my vision had said you would 'return'. Not that you would slay us all, that you would die, or even that you would be defeated. Because who you were after I denied you the scroll, the monster you became in the shadows of Chorh-Gom—that was not you. It never was. That was who you chose to be, while influenced by Chao, but it was not your true essence.
"So I knew that because of the panda's powers, and more importantly his heart, he would not kill you, but save you. It was because of him you 'returned'. And it was this that allowed each of you to learn from each other, to be by each other's sides, and so be ready and willing, at last, to bring true and lasting peace. That is, after all, what the peony I placed beside my haiku represents…it is what I worked for my entire life…and it is what I knew we would finally achieve, if only Chao could be eliminated.
"Should I have told you the truth, and not hidden this from you? I believe so, now. Should I have visited you in Mongolia, spoken with you, gently guided you to see how you had erred, and thus lead you back to the path of righteousness? Should I have fought harder to spare you the cruelty of Vachir and the madness of Chao, to help you to truly repent? Most certainly. I believed that if you came to realize your mistakes and repented on your own, it would have made your heart stronger—strong enough to resist Chao.
"But I know now I should have trusted my instincts…I should have come to you, reached out to you, rather than allowed a separation that hurt both of us, even if you would have been too proud to accept. For that, I am more sorry than you can ever know." Indeed, in a startling moment that shocked most of the anger and resentment out of Tai Lung, he saw that the sage was openly crying, the tears burning an ever-brighter blue in the cloaking shadows.
"I have made more mistakes than I should have—out of over-cautiousness, fear, desperation, and flawed judgment. But in my defense, I always had your best interests at heart. And I knew, no matter what happened, you would succeed. I believe in you, Tai Lung, I always have. I knew you would make it through to stand proud and strong at the Dragon Warrior's side." And Oogway smiled, watery but confident, seeking absolution but also offering hope and enduring faith.
Very slowly, Tai Lung sat down on the boulder, his knees feeling a bit shuddery, and gazed at the old master, watching as his tears dripped in dazzling streaks onto the stone only to fade away and leave him dry-eyed but intensely mournful. Even now, after hearing all this, he could not hate Oogway, nor did he take back the forgiveness he'd granted to him under the full moon—how could he, when the turtle made it so very clear that everything he had done had been for the good of China, had been because he loved and trusted the snow leopard?
He couldn't believe the turtle would actually attempt to justify himself through the ends and means argument, that everything which had happened was excusable because he'd known it would turn out all right all along. Yet at the same time, he couldn't deny that, save for the death of Zhuang and all those who had been murdered by Vachir—which would likely have happened anyway, once Chao had gotten free—everything truly had ended up turning out for the good. He certainly wouldn't wish to change what had happened to him if it would cost him the friendship of Po or the love of Tigress.
And knowing Oogway had believed so strongly in him that he'd been willing to wait twenty years and risk freeing the chi wizard and letting all of China fall under his thrall, simply because he wanted Tai Lung to be saved and trusted him to in turn save the Valley and the empire…it was heartwarming and overwhelming to contemplate.
Not to mention, the fact the turtle had managed to orchestrate all of this, as well as manipulate Chao without the falcon even knowing it, and had pulled it off, could only earn Tai Lung's renewed admiration, albeit in backhanded fashion. Master, you are evil. Chao never stood a chance…and I am so glad you were never actually against me…
Looking up at last, the snow leopard finally shook his head ruefully, chuckled, and smirked lopsidedly. "Bloody brilliant, you old nutter. I salute you. Is there anything you didn't know, or predict?"
For a moment Oogway gazed at him solemnly; then he said, "You and Tigress. That I did not expect, nor assist in any way. You did that all on your own, my boy." The turtle paused, then smiled slyly, a naughty twinkle in his lambent eyes. For some reason, Tai Lung began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. "And I must say, you made an excellent choice! Why, if I were still alive, and many years younger, I might have—"
The instant those words left the reptile's mouth—and in the process called up memories of a certain set of love letters and the Kama Sutra—Tai Lung clapped his paws over his ears and once again began very loudly drowning out the suggestive voice. "No, no, no! I'm not hearing this, never happened, I don't believe it and you can't make me!"
When Oogway's wheezy laughter—and, admittedly, the snow leopard's own—had at last died out, Tai Lung sighed, clasped his knees with both paws, and regarded the Grand Master pointedly. "So…that's it, then. It's all over."
"Over," the turtle agreed.
"Chao is gone, and he won't be coming back."
"Deader than dead," Oogway smiled beatifically, sounding quite satisfied with himself.
"And what does that mean, exactly?" Tai Lung pressed. "Was his soul obliterated? His chi dispersed into the great beyond? Or is he going before the Lords of Death with no chance of salvation?" For some reason, despite everything the falcon had done, this last prospect bothered him more than the others—perhaps because, on one of the occasions he'd been sitting by Shifu's bedside during the last three months, the red panda had finally told him the full story of Chao's origins as Oogway had related it.
And knowing the bird had once been a good man, had good intentions once, and had even been poised to become such a phenomenal and unmatched healer throughout the empire, had been pause for disquiet. So much potential, wasted and lost. So much death and destruction which could have been avoided. So many possibilities for how events could have played out. After what Chao had become and done, he did not know if the bird could even have a chance at redemption, let alone whether he should…but as usual, he found more than enough parallels between the chi master's life and his own to feel uncomfortable.
The turtle, meanwhile, had once more become quite sober and introspective. "That I cannot say. Even now, there are things hidden from me, things I was not meant to know. But I do know this: if there is any chance that Xun Chao still exists, and that he will be granted an intercession, to be reincarnated and work off his karma…it will be because of what you did to him.
"The Golden Spear, plunged right into the heart of his evil, thereby destroying it utterly…while bearing the chi of my staff as a purifying force of holiness…if anything could save him, or at least resurrect even the tiniest portion of whom he had once been, it would have been that." He paused, then chuckled, though the sound was more amazed and appreciative than humorous. "That really was a rather good idea of yours, my boy. I wish I had thought of it!"
"Careful, Master," Tai Lung said warningly. "My head's already big enough as it is, no need to swell it any more."
Oogway nodded in acknowledgment, as if this were genuinely sage advice he had somehow failed to hear before. "In any case…we shall simply have to see how it plays out. But even if Chao gets his second chance, I suspect none of us will ever know…even if he is reborn in your lifetime, you will not recognize him. So, as always, we must leave some things in the hands of the gods."
After considering this and eventually accepting, with a bit of stubborn annoyance, that while this answer was hardly satisfying it would have to do, the master of the Jade Palace (would he ever get used to that?) sat in a surprisingly companionable silence with the shimmering ghost. Then at last he sighed and made to rise.
"Well…if that's all there is to it, then, I suppose I should be getting back to the others. Don't want to miss out on the biggest party this side of Chen's coronation." And I can't stand to be away from Tigress any more than I have to be…
"Actually," Oogway said with another knowing smile, "there was one other thing…" And with a beaming grin that somehow lit the mountaintop (almost literally, as the gleaming petals seemed to briefly become two or three times brighter), he glanced over his shoulder, out into the sky above the cliff face…
Tai Lung followed his gaze—and felt his heart and throat both seize up. Slowly drifting toward the promontory as if on a rising breeze, even though the night had gone perfectly still, were two hazy, indistinct figures, striding unsupported and rather nonchalantly on the air—as if they did this sort of thing every day. Although shimmering and translucent like Oogway, they were not formed of peach blossom petals but instead more like the Warriors of Tenshu…glowing a burnished, rich gold in hue.
And the one on the left was as recognizable for his rack of horns as the one on the right was for his dragon tattoo. The former was smiling at him, as proudly and warmly as the turtle himself, but the latter was grinning too—albeit wryly and with a definite sardonic bent.
"I…I can't believe it!" the snow leopard finally blurted out to them. "All right, technically anything's possible and Oogway is here, but…"
Shen Zhuang chuckled, soft and affectionate, just as he remembered—it was enough to bring tears to Tai Lung's eyes. "Did you really think I wasn't gonna come and say good-bye to you, buddy? You really…did a good thing there. The funeral was beautiful…" His eyes, now a dark goldenrod, flicked to the flowers upon his grave, then back to the black armband the snow leopard still wore. "And what you've done for Xiulan and Yi…it's just nothing short of incredible. I know she's gonna turn out just fine, thanks to you."
Tai Lung swallowed hard, then tried for a casual shrug. "Are you kidding me? After the way you saved my life, cleared my name, even as you were dying—which, by the way, was totally and utterly badass…"
"Well, I couldn't let that bitch get away with what she did to me," the bull said reasonably, and with surprising mildness considering his language. "I could see her for who she really was…and that Chao, he was a real piece of work…" He shuddered visibly. "Thank the gods you were able to put a stop to him before it got any worse…but anyway, I did what any friend would, Tai. Just like you did for me. That's why I came to tell you—you don't need to beat yourself up anymore over what happened."
The spotted cat blinked, stunned. How did he know? Am I that obvious? "But…but if I'd gotten there sooner…if I hadn't spent so much time with Tigress…if I'd told you about the Wu Sisters as soon as we got back from Yunxian…"
"And what about me?" Zhuang said pointedly, crossing his arms over his chest. "What if I'd told all of you about the three women that were in Ping's kitchen where they didn't belong? Okay, you guys were pretty shook up when you got back from Chorh-Gom…with good reason…" He didn't look at his fellow spirit, an omission that actually made it even more obvious what he was talking about. "…but I still should have told somebody.
"Point is, we all made mistakes, buddy, so nobody's really to blame here. 'Cept the ones who killed me. And you stopped them. So as far as I'm concerned, you got nothing to be sorry for." Even though (Tai Lung presumed) it wasn't possible to make solid, physical contact, the bull held out a hand to him as if to shake, the gesture still more than meaningful enough.
In spite of himself, the snow leopard returned the gesture, and while his paw passed right through Zhuang's hand, there was a warm tingle that had nothing to do with his fur momentarily standing on end. Even as the bull was laughing along with him, Tai Lung felt a connection, stronger than ever, to the first person other than Po and Viper who had believed in him, and for the first time since his friend's death, he felt at peace. Not that he had ever believed Zhuang blamed him for what happened…but he'd still felt as if he'd failed the bull. To know he hadn't was a huge weight off his shoulders.
A harrumphing cough from the side made him turn and look, somewhat warily, at Vachir. The rhino stood as if he wished he had a wall, a pillar, something to lean on. He also rather looked as if he wanted to gag. "Ugh. Thought you didn't like this kind of cloying shit, Tai Lung? All I can say is, you try and hug me or something, and so help me I'll find a way to make you pay for it. Petition Shang Ti to send ya fleas, or something."
Tai Lung held both paws up where the former commander could see them. "Perish the thought! And there's no need to get drastic there…" He smiled weakly.
Vachir smirked at him. "Thought that'd get your attention."
"So what's with the light show?" the snow leopard smirked back. "Didn't feel like showing up as flower petals?"
The rhino visibly winced and actually covered his eyes with one hand. "You gotta be kiddin' me…nah, it's something the gods use to show somebody's a heroic warrior spirit." He paused, and then his voice and face actually softened a little—as in, from diamond to granite. "And it's something I owe ya for, cat. Because ya forgave me and had mercy on me, I got a good judgment from the Lords of Death. They said the shit I did wasn't all my fault, and that I made up for some of it by resisting Chao for so long. So…I get another chance. Gonna be reborn and everything."
His smile turned back into a stern look, though it was clear fairly quickly that this was due to the nature of his request, not any animosity toward the snow leopard. "But there's something I gotta ask ya to do then. You already avenged me…and my ancestor." He shook his head, in sorrow and disbelief. "Can't believe I let that bastard use me, when he's the one who killed Flying Rhino…Oogway let me know about that…anyway, what I'm worried about is my kid. Yeah, I've got a son. You wouldn't know about that."
Actually Tai Lung had guessed the truth, once he heard the entirety of Mantis's story. But other than the fact it was one more error Chao in his overconfidence had made, and that the snow leopard himself had assumed wrongly about Vachir's family, it had seemed unimportant at the time with so much else going on. And Vachir clearly needed to impart this news himself.
"I did get time off at Chorh-Gom now and then—Chen liked personal reports, and he wanted to make sure I got plenty of time to 'get some fresh air'. Had a good woman, too, I think your Master Mantis met her out in the desert…Odval. Strong, no-nonsense, wouldn't take crap from nobody. Bravest, toughest lady I ever met. But I always told her, if anything ever happened to me, to come to the Valley and somebody here would help her.
"Whether she shows up or not, though…I want ya to take care of my son. Don't let him grow up thinking I was just a patsy for Chao—let him know who I really was. And don't let him think it's okay to get off on pain and torture…I learned my lesson too late, but maybe it's not too late for him. Promise me, Tai Lung."
For a moment Tai Lung could only stare at the rhino in disbelief—not for being asked such a thing by the man who was once his enemy, but because he couldn't believe Vachir would trust him with something as important as his son's education and future. But then again…maybe that's why he's doing it. Saying he does trust me.
In the end, the decision was really no contest—if there was anything he could do to make sure another Vachir didn't show up, and at the same time make up for what he'd done during his rampage, he would take it in an instant. The whole reason Vachir became so bitter, cruel, and tyrannical was because the snow leopard had killed his family. Both the rampage itself and the torture in Chorh-Gom were products of Chao, who was now dead…
But that still left the living to pick up the pieces, to ensure it could never happen again, and deal with the desires, instincts, flaws, and inner demons that had made it all possible in the first place, the things that could bring suffering and loss all without some mystical master to inspire it. What better way to do this than by looking out for the rhino's son? And if he wanted to learn kung fu like his father, well… I am the Master of the Jade Palace now, after all.
Clasping his paws before him, he bowed to Vachir's shade. "It would be an honor, Commander. I'll find him, wherever he is, and see to his welfare. You have my word."
"Good." The rhino smiled then, for the first time he could remember that wasn't malicious, nasty, or taunting, before glancing aside at the still-hovering, rosy shape of Oogway. "Then I think the old turtle's got something else to tell ya. You got a lot of responsibilities now, people depending on ya, oaths to keep. So maybe it'll help to know you still get something outta this too. Virtue's it's own reward, and all that…but it doesn't hurt to get a little for yourself, too. I never thought I'd say this, but you deserve it, cat. I hope when you find what you've been looking for, that it's all you wanted…see ya around…"
The bull nodded too, though there was a decidedly mischievous look on his face very like the one he'd worn in life. "Keep your nose clean, Tai. And don't make me come back and interrupt you and Tigress…I don't wanna see any more gloomy sourpuss from you, got it? You got a lot to be happy for…"
Tai Lung winced. "Ah, yes. Read you loud and clear there, friend. Nothing to worry about…farewell…"
Even as Vachir and Zhuang were still in the process of fading away into the darkness, the latter with one last heartfelt smile and the former with a deep bow of his own, Tai Lung was already twisting about to skewer Oogway with a pointed look. The turtle had waited, silent and beneficent, the entire time he was getting closure with the spirits—who couldn't be more different, though in the end they'd both turned out to be heroes. Now, as he gazed down at the old master, Oogway merely looked up at him expectantly.
"What was he talking about, Master? I've already gotten everything I could ever want, and even some things I didn't know I needed. I finally know where I belong…I have love, friends, a family…no disrespect intended, but I don't need anything else. So whatever you were planning to give me—"
Oogway cut him off with a gentle wave of his hand. His expression hadn't changed, in fact if anything it was even more tender and sympathetic. "Your selflessness is commendable, my boy, but it is unnecessary. I only wish to give you what you have always sought but had denied you…what I did not know until I crossed over, and could speak to the right person." And again he gestured.
The spirit who formed this time was, surprisingly, as familiar as the two who had preceded him, as Tai Lung had seen his portrait many times in Mei Ling's bedchamber. A snow leopard like himself, though of the more slender, lithe variety and with the beige fur he shared in common with his daughter. Clad in the violet trousers and armored bracers of the Imperial Guard, and bearing the prized scimitar he had given to Wu Jia, Wu Xuan, oddly enough, seemed to have returned to the prime of youth—and yes, despite everything he knew about the man, there was a definite strut in his gait as he approached on silent, oversized paws.
Bowing down on one knee, scimitar drawn and planted vertically before him in a warrior's salute, the father of the Wu Sisters looked up to meet his astonished gaze, green eyes both bold and warmly approving. "Tai Lung…we meet at last. Although you don't know it, but…we met once before. Almost forty years ago." His mouth quirked in a small grin. "You were much smaller then, of course. An adorable little fluff ball, in fact."
Even that crack about his once impossibly cute appearance couldn't break through the shock Tai Lung felt at this revelation. "What? It was you…you were the one who left me…?"
"Yes. Yes, I did. As a favor to an old friend…and his wife." Wu Xuan looked both solemn and painfully sad. "Though I wish I had stayed, I might've been able to prevent what happened to you. What you became." Rising back to his feet and slipping his sword easily into the back of his belt, the snow leopard managed a reassuring smile. "But all that is in the past, now. So…if you're ready to hear it…how would you like to know where, and who, your family is?"
Mounting the last, snowy hillside with a grunt of effort and wrapping his black cloak tighter around himself to ward away the chill—he might be a snow leopard, but that didn't mean he could ignore extremes of temperature entirely—Tai Lung lifted his head and gazed down into the valley below. The road he was following, a rather rutted and rugged example of its kind, wound downwards from where he stood to a small farmstead which lay in the shadow of Kunlun Shan, only a few miles to the south.
Here in the heart of Qinghai, where the weather could change in a matter of hours and only the most determined and seasoned of farmers would dare to eke out a living, the place looked windswept, inhospitable, and yes, cold. Why anyone would try and grow anything here, he didn't know, though he supposed the terrain might be more favorable at the start of the growing season and that particularly hardy crops might actually thrive here.
Then again, to judge by what he'd learned from Wu Xuan's ghost, the people who lived here were simply that stubborn and proud. Sounds damned familiar indeed.
Sighing heavily—after the nearly two weeks it had taken to get here, along with the anticipation, nervousness, and dread which had been his sole companions along the way, he was both quite tired and grateful to finally make it to his destination—he glanced back over his shoulder, in the direction of the village of Naij Tal he'd just passed through, where he'd gotten the final directions to the homestead he sought. Then, his back straight and shoulders squared, he strode down the hillside toward the surprisingly cozy-looking log house with its smoking chimney.
Pace by pace, he approached the lone farm along the winding road, passing through fallow fields covered with snow, through which the remnants of that year's crop poked like unshaven stubble. In the far distance, to the east, he could see isolated groves of trees that eventually gave way to sparse forest, but here at least the land was flat, unmarred, and open. To the south and west of the farmhouse was a ramshackle barn, its doors already locked tight in preparation for the winter that lay just around the corner.
Closer in, he spied the rough, rounded stones of an old well crouching above the darkened soil and dry grass, and there was a figure beside it wrapped in oilskin, dark leather, and old furs—from the posture and bulk, a man, and one nearly as burly as himself. The fellow looked up curiously in his direction, but otherwise didn't depart from his work of raising a bucket on a creaking windlass. Another man was chopping logs for the fireplace in the back yard of the barn, similarly garbed but stripped of his outer coat so as not to get overheated by his exertions; it was much clearer that he too possessed a powerful, farmhand's physique. He also had the silver, rosette-studded fur of a snow leopard. I'm in the right place, all right.
Hurrying down the last sweeping curve of the road, Tai Lung made his way at last toward the deeply inset door of the main house—wanting to get out of the cold and perhaps receive some food after his long journey, but also wanting to get this over with. If the information he'd been given was wrong, he needed to leave as soon as possible—so as to leave these strangers in peace and be alone to deal with a grief and disappointment stronger and more poignant than he'd felt since he was a cub. And if it was right…then after forty years, he would not wait a moment longer.
At last he stood on the rough-hewn porch, stomping his feet to get the snow off his boots. He made one last check to ensure his cloak and hood were still pulled tightly close—even here in Qinghai, the scourge of the Valley of Peace might be recognized, and by the opposite token, if Wu Xuan was telling the truth and he would find the answers about his family here, he'd rather not have his identity as a long-lost son interfering with him getting the full story first. Then, taking a deep breath, he knocked briskly on the door.
Shuffling feet sounded inside the building, and then slowly the door creaked open a crack. "Yes? Who is it?" The voice was understandably wary and uncertain; this far out in the hinterlands, the country folk would be unlikely to receive many travelers or visitors.
"You won't know me," he began apologetically. "But I've come a long way to see you…I'm from the Jade Palace, in Hubei…I was a friend of Wu Xuan's." Which in a way wasn't a lie, since the other snow leopard had certainly been close enough to him to save his life and find him a safe, loving place to live.
Very slowly, the door creaked open the rest of the way to reveal a pair of blue eyes staring at him out of the darkness—almost the same shade as Xiu's, but filled with warmth and kindness rather than bitter cruelty. Then the occupant of the house came forward into the light, and he had to gasp softly. Shorter than he (but surprisingly only by a head) and fairly plump and prosperous, the woman yet had a tired, wrung-out air about her, as if life had treated her harshly; he could see pride, determination, and quiet dignity in her face and carriage, but though she had made it through hardship intact and stronger for it, the marks had been left on her regardless.
Of course she was dressed in the common Hanfu peasants' garb, rough linen robes in shades of brown, green, and gray, old and somewhat threadbare but otherwise clean and well-kept. She was also a snow leopard. What had made him gasp, however, was her face and eyes. The latter, though a completely different color, had the same unwavering resolution and boldness as his own—this was a woman who brooked no argument from anyone, not even weather or the gods. But her face…her muzzle, it was precisely the same shape as his own, even the pattern of her spots and facial stripes was the same…
"Wu Xuan?" the old farmwife said at last. "Now that's a name I haven't heard in years. But why would you come here, and now? He and his family lived a few miles west of here, in Kunlun Shan. And he's been dead for a very long time." Sorrow laced her voice and she bit her lip.
"May I come in and explain…Mrs. Qiao?" He said the same name hesitantly, trying it out for the first time on his tongue. It was a fine name, more than fitting for himself (and the woman before him, he had to admit if only to avoid a little too much immodesty), but it also had much more meaning for him indeed…seeing as it might well be his own.
She hesitated momentarily, but whether because she remembered the farmhands were there to help her should the stranger turn out to be a threat or because she felt herself more than capable to stand up for herself, she at last stepped aside with a nod, gesturing to an old, battered table not far from the fireplace. "Have a seat."
A few minutes later they were both situated across from each other beside the hearthstone, the merrily crackling flames a welcome boon against the frigid air, as was the fragrant cup of tea the snow leopardess placed between his paws without even asking. Eyeing him across the table as he warmed himself on the cup and then took a few slow, careful sips, the farmwife finally said, "Won't you be taking off your wet things, Master…?"
"No, I won't take up too much of your time," Tai Lung demurred smoothly, reassuringly. Then, carefully sidestepping her question as to his name, he set the cup down on the saucer again and eyed her from within his hood. He hoped his glowing golden eyes, distinctive as they were, wouldn't give him away, in any sense. "I just have a few questions for you, madam. About your husband."
Mrs. Qiao stiffened, her expression instantly going suspicious and distrustful. "Why would you want to know about him? He died almost forty years ago! And if it's all the same to you, good sir, I would rather not think about that painful time again." Tears stood in her eyes, and even as he felt horribly callous for dredging these old memories up again, Tai Lung couldn't help but be awed by it—forty years later, and it still upset her as if it had happened yesterday. She must have loved him very much. It was trite and couldn't possibly capture what she was feeling, but it was all he had.
"Because," he replied at last, softly, "I might have some information which might help ease your pain." He glanced about pointedly. "You have…no family anymore?"
"I still have my boys," the snow leopardess said with a fierce and undeniable devotion. "Enlai and De. You must have seen them outside." I can't believe it. I might have brothers! "And my daughter Zhin, she's been happily married to a merchant in Naij Tal for the last twenty years."
After a pregnant pause, and another sip of tea, Tai Lung added, very softly. "And…there was one other? A boy you lost when he was only a babe?"
Now it was the farmwife's turn to gasp. "How did you know about that? Who are you?"
"Please." He struggled harder than he ever had to keep his voice from cracking from the strain and emotion. "I promise I'll explain everything, if what I believe is true. But you have to tell me first…did you have another son?"
She gripped the edge of the table until her knuckles turned white, but at last the aged feline nodded curtly. "Yes. I never told another soul…in fact I made Wu Xuan promise not to tell anyone, either…" For a moment her eyes narrowed again, as she clearly tried to connect this with his initial claim of being a friend of Mei's father. "…in fact it happened the same time my husband Yong died."
He nodded. "He was a member of the Imperial Guard, was he not?"
"More than that." Mrs. Qiao sounded justifiably proud. "He was a personal bodyguard of the Emperor, just like Wu Xuan. A brave and noble warrior, it's where my boys get their strength." Her face fell, every line drooping into agony and loss. "That was how he died, too. Defending the Son of Heaven in battle, during a Hun invasion in Xinjiang. I was told Chen himself wept over his body…he would have come back with it, to give his regrets in person, if he wasn't wounded himself and had to go back to the capital. But Wu Xuan was there…as he always was, he was such a good friend to the family. To Yong."
Tai Lung let out a shuddering breath. It was true. Everything Mei's father had told him was checking out so far. Which meant the rest might be, too. "That's why you asked him to take care of your son, then?" She looked somehow stricken, frightened, neither confirming nor denying his words.
Impulsively, his tea forgotten, he reached across to grasp her frail paw in his massive one—and couldn't fail to notice the way she stared at its spotted backside in wonder. In these parts snow leopards were much more common, so it couldn't be seeing another of her species that had so discommoded her. Could she know…?
"It's all right, Mrs. Qiao," he said softly. "If what I've been told is true, you had a very good reason for doing as you did. Your whole family was in danger. You had lost your man. And I don't think anyone would blame you for your choice—you aren't guilty of disloyalty to your blood. I don't think so, anyway…it's safe, you can tell me."
The farmwife—whose given name was Jian—still looked as if she believed a battalion of Imperial soldiers was about to burst in the door and slaughter her on sight. But something in his earnest voice and sincere expression seemed to convince her at last. Waveringly, uncertainly, she began to speak again. "All…all right. Life here has…always been hard. My people are used to hardship here, we love this land and won't leave it without a fight. It's in our blood." For a moment she seemed to recover her flagging courage, even lifting her chin stubbornly in a gesture Tai Lung once more found very familiar.
"But sometimes, matters do get worse. Famines, droughts, invasions…they all take their toll from time to time. That year was one of them…the worst growing season in memory. We barely had enough crops to feed ourselves, let alone to scrape by in the marketplace. Everything we had, all we lived on, depended completely on my Yong's income. And that money…it stopped coming in when I lost him."
"But the Emperor!" Tai Lung objected, still unable to believe this part of the tale. "You said your husband was so valuable to him, one of his best soldiers and bodyguards! Surely he would have—"
"If times had not been so tough all around, I'm sure he would have," Jian agreed dolefully, without rancor or accusation. "But the war with the Huns nearly bankrupted the treasury, I heard. It would take time for the empire's finances to recover enough to pay for all the soldiers already employed to defend our borders, let alone any stipends for retired men…or widows."
She shook her head, though whether in regret or disbelief at such a confluence of unfortunate events wasn't clear. "The Emperor said he would send us funds as soon as they were available—and to be fair he was true to his word. But that was a year or two later. It could not have helped us at the time…not when we had so many mouths to feed. Especially my youngest child, who'd just been born two months before."
"You couldn't take care of him?" the snow leopard asked, even softer than before. In spite of himself, he felt as if a piece of his heart was breaking. Even now, with more and more of Wu Xuan's story proving true, he couldn't be sure how he would have felt, growing up as a lowly peasant…but he could tell how much this simple but strong-willed woman loved her family, and how much it had hurt her to abandon a member of it. Even when she'd had no choice, and it had been for his own good.
Jian again shook her head, this time having to stop to fish a handkerchief from a pocket to dab at her eyes and nose. "My boys were already hardy and strong, built for this life and this farm. And my daughter, too, was old enough she could fend for herself if need be. But there was no way I could take care of a little one. We had nothing to sell for money, save the land itself—and even if I could have parted with it, where would we have gone? Farming was our life, it was all we knew…and there were so many refugees in those days after the war, there was no one who could have taken us in. I had to do something…
"It was Wu Xuan's idea, in the end." The spotted cat sighed heavily. "I was all set to give my child up to an orphanage, even though I knew there were few who would or could afford to adopt anymore than I could raise my own flesh and blood. But he said…he knew a place, somewhere far from here but safe, sheltered from all the invasions and bloodshed…somewhere the Emperor had always said was a place of virtue, goodness, and hope. He'd never been there himself, but he knew where it was…and its leader was a turtle of all things, one of such kindness and generosity he knew my babe wouldn't be turned away. My boy would be safe there."
"He was," Tai Lung said, more softly than ever. "It simply wasn't safe from him."
He looked up and, hoping she hadn't heard him, quickly got the conversation back on track. "So why didn't you ever seek him out, when you had money again, or the drought passed?"
Mrs. Qiao looked both rebellious and annoyed now, though whether with his pestering questions or his implied rebuke of her choices was up for debate. "I would have, but I had sworn Wu Xuan to secrecy. I didn't want anyone to know what I'd done—a mother, giving up her child willfully, instead of by force or through death? Just because she didn't have enough money to feed him, when we are supposed to bear sons and daughters for the empire? Abandoning him when that bond was unbreakable, as strong as the loyalty we owe the Son of Heaven?"
Growling furiously, she crossed her arms and turned away. "No. I told Wu Xuan never to tell me exactly where he had taken my boy. By the time I was in a position I could have taken care of him, he would have already settled into his new home, made bonds of love with his new family. I would not hurt him again by interfering with that. And wherever he was, it was too far for me to travel there. I could only wish him well." She paused. "Then, of course, Wu Xuan died…killed by the Wu Sisters, his own kin! And he hadn't told his family anything…so the secret died with him."
Until now. From here, he knew the rest. Like everyone else in the empire, Mei Ling's father had heard of Master Oogway and his Valley of Peace. Like Qiao Yong, he had been a trusted confidante of Chen's, and thus been in a position to have the Valley's existence and location confirmed for him. And where else would he take the son of his best friend, a snow leopard who was like a brother to him but also one of the best and unmatched warriors in all of China, than to the birthplace of kung fu?
Surely Wu Xuan must have believed the little cub would do well there, would inherit his family's natural instincts for combat and, in studying the thousand scrolls, become an even better fighter than his father. So he had wrapped the cub in the remnant of one of Yong's old sets of trousers, and left him on the Jade Palace doorstep.
Of course, years later, he had learned what had taken place in the Valley…of the awful rampage that had claimed so many lives, and been so unworthy of the lineage Tai Lung was heir to. That horror had convinced him his agreement to secrecy was even more necessary—he would not have broken Qiao Jian's heart by revealing to her what her son had become.
And so, though it had pained him to know the truth, that the child of his oldest friend was locked away in Chorh-Gom for the rest of his natural life and could never know the love and kindness his family would have given him…what well might have saved him from the darkness…Wu Xuan had not told a soul. Years later, he was still good friends with Yong's widow, but no one, not even Mei Ling, had known about the missing cub given away to save his life.
Ironically, in the end Wu Xiu had been connected to his family after all—for by murdering her father, she had eliminated any chance for the old soldier's secret to see the light of day. If not for Oogway's spirit…
As the snow leopard still sat lost in thought, struggling with all he had learned and now knew about himself—and how he could possibly break the truth to this poor old woman—there suddenly came the scraping of feet on the porch, a pair of equally heavy treads, and then the door opened to admit two towering figures. Both Tai Lung and the farmwife—no, his mother, a woman who had loved him and never would have let him go if she'd had any choice in the matter—turned and watched silently as the male snow leopards knocked snow from their boots and then began removing their outer garments.
The more layers they removed, the more clear it became—though they'd achieved it through everyday, hard work and the sweaty labor of a farm rather than through kung fu, both men were easily as muscular as he was. And when they'd hung their clothes on the rack and turned about to face the room at last, he was in for another startling shock. Much older than he—he'd say about fifty and sixty years old, respectively—with grizzled fur and slightly wrinkled features, they nevertheless were spitting images of himself. One had eyes as dark as Zhuang's, the other orbs of jade, and while the elder had a rather stylish goatee, neither had a mustache. But the family resemblance was unmistakable.
"Mother?" the older snow leopard said, and Tai Lung almost jumped. The voice was, again, almost exactly like his—only, amazingly, an octave deeper—but instead of his own accent, it held the lilt and vowels of the peasantry. It was, all in all, rather jarring. "Who is this? Is he…bothering you?" Flicking his eyes from the hooded figure to the farmwife who still had tears in her eyes, the farmer seemed to swell inside his shirt, and the distinct sound of knuckles cracking was ominous in the stillness. A dutiful and loyal son—and Tai Lung's brother, all right.
"No, no," Jian quickly interceded. "He was just a…guest. And he was just leaving." She looked sharply back at Tai Lung. "Unless you were finally going to tell me who you are. I did keep my side of the bargain, after all."
He nodded, even as he rose from his chair, which creaked as his weight left it. "That you did, madam. And I am a man of my word, too." Bracing himself, he lifted both paws in one motion and doffed his hood, unveiling his face to the room.
Somehow, the farmhouse became even more deathly quiet. He didn't dare look at his brothers to see their reaction at seeing a man who so closely resembled them. He only had eyes for his mother. The snow leopardess was staring at him in disbelief, both paws clapped over her mouth to restrain any sound while her bulging eyes took in his every feature. He couldn't help but notice that while she clearly recognized his face, her gaze mostly fixed on his eyes—eyes which had always been distinctive, which she couldn't help but remember even from his infant face.
He took a step toward her around the table, extending both paws. "I—"
"Qiao Gang?" The words came out in a hoarse croak, as much a whispered prayer as an identification. "Is…is that you?"
So that was his name. So much better than one which had always haunted and tormented him with the dream around which his entire life had revolved, the destiny which had forever seemed beyond his reach and which, in the end, had never been his to begin with.
Closing his eyes briefly, he nodded and then opened them again to peer at her beseechingly. "Yes…Mother. I…I've come home."
For one moment more, the tableau remained frozen. Then, with a wordless cry, Jian came rushing toward him, arms spread, and caught him up in an embrace that was surprisingly fierce and crushing for her size and age. Instinctively, he held her close against his chest…and at the same time she began to weep soft tears of joy, so did he.
Winter that year was, as usual, exceptionally quiet in the Valley of Peace. For the first month or so, of course, part of this may have been due to the absence of Tai Lung, gone away on a mission to Qinghai that he refused to explain to anyone except Mei Ling—and when Po had tried to press her on it, the mountain cat had only said, very softly, that the matter was very personal to the snow leopard and they should respect his privacy till he returned and told them about it himself. With that answer, the panda was forced to accept his ignorance for the time being…but he resolved to corner the snow leopard as soon as he returned to Hubei.
Tai Lung being gone, of course, left Tigress rather bereft, especially now that Shifu had recovered sufficiently that she didn't need to take over all the duties at the palace anymore. Of course she spent a great deal of her time smashing the training devices to pieces in the kwoon, but after both pandas pointed out to her that it was difficult to get repair crews up the snowy mountain—which meant there'd be no way for the training hall to be rebuilt for her, let alone the others—the striped feline stalked off for other 'amusements'.
But no matter how much she wished otherwise, both Chun and Xiu had been taken away by the Emperor when he departed—the former to be put on trial, the latter incarcerated at Fēng Diān—and no one would allow her to spar with Jia no matter how much she claimed it would be 'harmless practice'. In the end, Po took pity on her and, perhaps in a fit of desperation, decided to teach Tigress how to cook.
Not because she was a woman and needed to know how as Tai Lung's future wife (though to be fair he highly doubted the snow leopard would or should be utilizing the kitchen for anything other than eating), but because it was the only thing he could think of to keep her occupied and focused which, he hoped, would be relatively easy for an intelligent and quick learner like her to pick up on.
Unfortunately, he hadn't taken into account the fact Tigress knew absolutely nothing about feminine pursuits, including the culinary arts. Her attempts at dumplings literally exploded; her bau buns came out more like black volcanic rocks; her congee was so thick it stuck to the sides of the pan and, in the words of Ping, became "fossilized"; she over-caramelized the onions…and somehow left a glass bowl of salad on the oven top so that it burned almost to a crisp. (Her explanation for why it was smoking? "Because, like me, it's stressed.")
The only positive thing he could see about the whole venture, other than it keeping her from causing trouble elsewhere, was that it led to some bonding between them as they sat on the floor, covered in flour, broth, or limp noodles and laughing uncontrollably—and that somehow, indirectly, it led to renewed father-daughter time for her and Shifu. After he'd walked into the kitchen at exactly the wrong time and had a bowl thrown at him—lovingly, of course—the red panda had sat Tigress down for some calming meditation…and afterward, actually praised her for the first time in Po's hearing, not for attempting to be more 'feminine' but for trying to learn something difficult and outside her usual comfort zone.
The thanks from Tigress (and the embrace afterward) were equally sincere. And perhaps this pep talk was helpful in another way—for when the Dragon Warrior tried to teach her how to prepare mooncakes, a specialty the panda especially excelled at, the leader of the Furious Five actually mastered the recipe with surprising ease. That may have been, of course, because she knew of Tai Lung's love of sweets and wanted to offer him some as a token of her own love…
When the snow leopard did at last return to the Valley after a few weeks, there was something quite different about him that everyone, even Shifu, noticed. It was as if something, a burden heavier than the endurance weights in the kwoon, had been lifted off his shoulders, and now he could walk lighter, breathe easier, and simply stride about the palace with utter calm and relaxation. Few of the residents of the Jade Palace dared to ask him what had happened, for fear of ruining this new good mood, but Po was determined to know—if for no other reason than he had a feeling it was something worth celebrating.
And he was right…for with barely any prompting, Tai Lung admitted to him that, courtesy of a last largesse from Oogway and a bit of timely assistance from the spirit of Mei Ling's father, he had finally been reunited with his birth family.
Reactions to this were quite varied. Shifu, at first rather saddened and worried that his adopted son would now leave the palace for his biological relatives, soon became extremely happy for the ex-convict, pleased that the answers he could never discover for his son had at last been found. Mei Ling, understandably, was conflicted—on the one paw, she was a bit distraught that she didn't get to speak with Wu Xuan's ghost herself, and the fact her family had apparently known Tai Lung's all along and she hadn't been aware of this was equally upsetting.
At the same time, this now gave her something else in common with the snow leopard, and many days in the snowbound palace the two cats could be found in each other's company, Tai Lung hanging on her every word as she described the tales her father had told her of his time in the Imperial Guard…tales which were now as close as he could get to his fallen father.
Viper, Monkey, and Crane each expressed their own heartfelt happiness at the snow leopard having found family, something which was equally important to each of them—though once it was revealed he had two older brothers, the langur did ask him, somewhat cheekily, if they had mercilessly teased him as siblings are supposed to do. (With a flush of mingled embarrassment and pleasure, Tai Lung had admitted that once the shocking news had sunk in, they had.) Mantis had sagely offered the opinion (which, conspicuously enough, he'd somehow never mentioned before) that he'd always known the snow leopard's signature trousers, made in the style of his baby bunting, had meant he had an Imperial Guard for a father.
Po had simply hugged his best friend tighter than ever and congratulated him over and over—not only for finding what he'd been searching for for so long, but because he had reacted so well to the discovery. Once, Tai Lung would have been absolutely infuriated to know he came from peasant stock, albeit a family that had risen in station thanks to his father's warrior prowess…but now, he didn't even bat an eye. In fact, after all that had happened, he seemed even prouder of this fact, as if it were a mark of pride now that he was master of the Jade Palace to not come from an illustrious bloodline. Or perhaps he simply was proud of how far he'd come from such humble beginnings…rather like Po himself. Tai's right…we really are Yin an' Yang.
Tigress was the only one who expressed any reservations—not because she thought he'd drag her away from the Valley, her friends, and the people she protected to live on a mountainous farmstead, but because she worried what would happen when his birth family learned who their Qiao Gang had become, what he had done. But to everyone's surprise, Tai Lung quietly admitted he had told them the truth—only to have his family tell him they already knew who he was. Or at least, that they had heard all the stories already, both the bad and the good. And while it was deeply upsetting, even disturbing, to know he had gone on a rampage and killed so many people, it had been years ago and they knew he had changed, turned his life around…become someone they could be proud of. The fact he was now a kung fu master and master of the Jade Palace was only a wonderful bonus.
Perhaps it was all this talk of family, of traveling, or of doing good deeds that earned praise and honor…but whatever the case, in the following weeks Crane at last went before Master Shifu and gave him his decision. While it would not be a permanent separation, and he hoped to return and at least touch base with the Five if not rejoin them for sorties and more extensive battles, he would indeed be leaving the Jade Palace—in the company of Mei Ling and Jia.
For while she had been pardoned by the Emperor, the former Wu Sister felt it best to be out of sight and out of mind for a while, just so those of the Valley could become more forgiving with time and distance…not to mention she wished to do all she could to repair her tarnished image by becoming a true force for good, a brave and virtuous kung fu warrior like the rest of them. And the best way to do that was by traveling across the empire.
Mei Ling, of course, would not let her go alone—not that she believed her half-sister incapable of protecting herself, but she wanted to spend more time with her, reconnecting and getting to know her all over again. Besides, as she put it, "Do you think I'm going to miss out on the best adventures this side of the Vault of Heroes?" Which meant, naturally enough, that Crane would be going too—after all that had happened, she wouldn't let him leave her side, and in all honesty he didn't want to.
However, while both Mei Ling and Jia were hardy and seasoned enough to travel in winter, Crane was not, and in any event, the roads out of the Valley were all impassable this time of year, with the Thread of Hope being especially treacherous. So they would have to spend time making preparations and wait until the spring thaw anyway…though something in the thoughtful, slightly sly gleam in Mei's eyes made Po wonder if she had another motive for delaying their departure…
Until the weather changed, everyone spent as much time together as was feasible, as well as found new ways to integrate into the palace or village life. Tai Lung, of course, spent the majority of his time with Tigress (and he did indeed adore the mooncakes she cooked for him!)—and while it was fairly likely they still indulged in a great deal of, ah, bedroom recreations, this time they kept it properly private. And on the rare occasions Po managed to get a glimpse of them in what was now their shared bedroom, he was tickled pink to see the two cats merely snuggled together, Tigress quite happily ensconced on Tai Lung's broad chest, surrounded by warm, fluffy fur that kept her cozy and protected despite the winter storm winds which howled around the peak.
Not that they needed encouragement to continue deepening their relationship, but Shifu, in a comical turnaround, began to learn how to knit from Viper—and while he admitted, with both a touch of aspersion and extreme reluctance, that he found the hobby to be rather soothing and that it had finally, somehow, taught him how to achieve inner peace, he also made his feelings quite clear by continually sitting wherever the two cats could see him…knitting all manner of clothes for the as-yet-unconceived little ones. The fact he could use his needles as lethal weapons would have been an even more blatant hint—if, of course, the felines weren't set on beginning a family as soon as they could decide when and how they would wed.
Mantis, by contrast, was spending less time at the palace, since he had decided, seemingly on a whim, to become an apprentice to Ning Guo the apothecary. As Viper noted wryly, concentrating the majority of the Valley's sarcasm and perversity in one place was probably for the best, and it couldn't be argued that the two healers' knowledge didn't complement each other as well as their personalities and humor did.
Tai Lung's only opinion on the subject, when he could be coaxed away from the bedroom or the training hall, was that he was glad the change in status of his relationship with Tigress meant he wouldn't be needing those herbs much longer: he wasn't about to put up with the insect's jibes whenever he walked into the store, and he was absolutely certain that even if Mantis didn't try and exaggerate certain masculine features of the snow leopard into shortcomings, he would be telling the old goat all about Tai Lung's sexual experience or lack thereof.
Monkey, on the other hand, for a reason he didn't explain, decided to take up carpentry again—perhaps in his brother's name? More specifically, not only did he take up the slack at the Weis' whenever Tai Lung couldn't work on their house, but it seemed Xiulan had decided to expand her seamstress shop and asked the langur to build the extensions for her, so that whenever the weather was good and the snow-laden Valley lay under cold but clear skies, Monkey could be found hammering away on both rooftops…seeming quite content to be giving something back, doing something constructive, as some small manner of recompense for his past transgressions.
And as for Po? Perhaps unavoidably, he began spending more and more time in Jia's company. At first, of course, it was simply to thank her for choosing the right side and getting rid of her sister, as well as for telling him about his parents. This had led naturally into her relating all her memories and as much as she knew about Bao and Li-Na—and while he didn't encourage her to tell him everything, even the worst stories of what crimes his father had committed, neither did he forbid it. This, too, was a side of the panda thief, one he needed to understand, face, and accept if he was ever to forgive Bao, let alone one day visit him in prison without punching his lights out. And doing so made Po stronger, too.
But after that, his talks with the ex-assassin spread to kung fu and what she'd learned at Li Dai, as well as how skilled he'd become in such a short time. Which had then led to a few demonstrations on both their parts, and before the Dragon Warrior knew it, he was spending day after day in the training hall, showing Jia just what he was made of. While he learned astonishing things from the snow leopardess, she in turn became more and more impressed with his knowledge and code of honor…
And that led to blushing and flushing, tongue-tied conversations and shuffled feet, averted eyes and ducked chins—until finally, while he had no idea how she felt, Po couldn't deny it anymore. He was starting to care for Jia more and more every day. And as it got stronger and deeper, it scared him…but it was also exhilarating. Nah. C'mon, cut it out! Y'know ya ain't got a chance, it'd never work! Quit dreamin' an' focus on what you're supposed t' be doin'.
Except, of course, it was dreaming that had gotten him here in the first place…and if that could come true…
Finally, at last, the first month of spring came. And when the buds were blooming on the Peach Tree of Heavenly Wisdom, the blossoms releasing their gorgeous fragrance on the cherry trees, and the grasses became rich and verdant instead of dried and dead as they'd been after weeks under the snow, Mei announced it was time for her and the others to be leaving.
So it was that, after each of the others had taken their leave and made their farewells—Viper coiling as tightly as she dared around Crane in a parting embrace, then fixing a beady gaze on Mei Ling as she informed her in no uncertain terms that the mountain cat had better take good care of Jien—Po, Tai Lung, and Tigress were left with the three incipient adventurers at the foot of the moon bridge, in the shadow of the ancient kung fu masters.
Shifu had already patted Mei Ling's paw with a surprising gentleness, Mantis had raunchily told Crane 'not to do anything he wouldn't do', Monkey had given Oogway's nunchaku to the mountain cat and told her he expected her to come back and beat the pants off him someday soon, and Crane had in turn embraced each of them (save Mantis, whom he'd given an intricate gesture of parting with wing feathers meeting pincers).
"Well, I guess this is it," Crane said at last, turning to the remaining three. "If we don't get leaving soon, we'll be caught on the Thread of Hope before nightfall—and sure as anything, there'll be a major downdraft we don't want to run into."
"You really sure you have to go?" Po couldn't help but flick his gaze briefly to Jia—he did care for the waterfowl as much as he did the rest of the Five, he still thought Crane was awesome, but if the snow leopardess left, he was sure she'd find someone else to set her sights on. Even if she didn't somehow try to inveigle her way into Chen's harem, there had to be many other men out there she'd prefer, men like Tai Lung.
Why would she want me, anyway? I'm just the cute one. An' the fat one. If she left, she'd forget about him. But if Crane convinced her to stay…
But the avian sighed and nodded. "Don't worry, I'll be safe out there—even if I didn't have Mei and Jia with me, I have done this before, after all. And Jia has a point…getting to see the empire without having a bounty hanging over her head, getting to see what it's like to be saving people instead of killing them, fighting evil instead of running from the law…that's going to make a big difference for her. And I won't leave Mei for anything."
The mountain cat grinned triumphantly behind his back, eyes flashing with almost fiendish victory, swiftly turned into a sappy, lovestruck smile when Crane glanced her way. "But we'll come back to visit, believe me! If nothing else, then for the wedding." And here he smiled at Tai Lung and Tigress.
The striped feline, who had perhaps out of habit wrapped her arm possessively around the snow leopard when she saw the look on Mei's face, nodded firmly. "You can count on it. But yes, I agree…traveling will broaden your horizons, Jia. It'll be good for you." Left unspoken (but perhaps hinted at more than a little by the extra amount of fang she displayed) was that the farther Jia got from Tai Lung the better, as far as she was concerned.
Po didn't know if, as usual, Tigress was oblivious when it came to how close he and the Wu Sister had been getting, or if she simply felt that even reformed, Jia wasn't good for anyone—especially the Dragon Warrior. But either way, he ignored it. He felt what he felt…and if somehow Jia felt the same, and really would pursue anything despite his looks, then Tigress would just have to learn to accept Jia around more often.
Gods, I never thought I'd be thinkin' this, but the sooner she starts poppin' 'em out, the better. Can't be jealous when you've got a family of your own…
Wrenching his mind out of those highly inappropriate, even misogynistic, thoughts, Po took a deep breath and then forced himself to look at Jia with his usual bright eyes and gentle smile—so she wouldn't see how his heart was breaking inside. I don't know if I love her yet…I don't think she could ever love me…but darn it, it'd be nice t' have a chance t' find out, wouldn't it? "So, you gonna visit your sister in prison?"
Jia winced briefly, making a flash of guilt stab through his heart, but then she smiled and shrugged easily. "Probably. Her trial was pretty fair, and the Emperor gave her a light sentence, all things considered. Like she said, it's a fair cop. After all she's done, she couldn't get off scot-free like I did…but the way she helped you out, and tried to save Mr. Ping that night, has to count for something. Maybe she'll get let out early?
"I know she gave Chen a lot of information about some of our past…associates, and he's going to follow up on them, see if he can clean up the empire once and for all. I doubt the Bandit Inn's going to be in business much longer." She paused, then smiled at Po. "At least for now, she's in Shandong, with your parents. And I know she's gonna tell them all about you."
The panda felt a huge lump form in his throat. If Chun did, all well and good…the more his family knew about him, the more encouraged they'd be to stick to the straight and narrow. But he already knew they at least were aware of his status as the Dragon Warrior. A month ago, in a lull among the snowstorms, a messenger goose had flown in from the capital with a scroll from Chen, which he in turn had been given at the Shandong Prison.
It hadn't said much…but then it didn't have to. I'm so proud of you. Hero of the Valley of Peace, twice over? You're a better man than I ever was, or will ever be. Keep up the good work, son…and don't stop dreaming. Bao. There'd also been a postscript: And if you do ever come to visit, you absolutely must bring some of that Secret Ingredient Soup we hear tell about! Always knew you'd be like your Mama. Li-Na.
After reading that letter, it'd been Po's turn to be held by Tai Lung and Tigress until his tears had subsided. It couldn't make up for what his father had done, or for all those years without them. But it was definitely a start.
"Speaking of sisters," Tai Lung suddenly spoke up, breaking the emotional silence. "There's one question I never did get answered—about Xiu."
Jia was suddenly tense. "Yes?" she asked, warily, looking like a coiled spring.
"Just why were you so pleased when Chen said where he was going to put her?"
The snow leopardess blinked; clearly she hadn't expected the question to be so innocuous. Then, with a rather cold smile, she chuckled. "Oh, well that'd be because I happen to know for a fact who else is being kept at Fēng Diān, as she has been for the past ten years or so. Mother."
Tigress jerked her head around from watching with approval as Mei Ling and Crane embraced and rubbed cheek and bill together tenderly. "Wu Qing? So she's alive? And…mad?"
Chuckling again, Jia nodded. "That's right. She lost it years ago, became a danger to herself and others—well, she was always that, but now it was medically official. Xiu herself signed the papers to turn her over to the throne. But now…she's locked up in the same place. Maybe even in the same cell. Wouldn't that be nice?"
For a moment, as he saw the gleam of hatred and wicked delight in those violet eyes, Po felt queasy and started to take a step back. But then he remembered what all Xiu had done…and he could only grin right back at her with just as much satisfaction and vindication. Besides—he could also see the deep pain beneath those dark emotions, the eyes of a little girl who'd been hurt more than he could ever know by that evil woman.
Tai Lung looked almost as cockily amused—but also, oddly, a little sick. "Eh…sounds like a fine punishment to me. Although…if what she said to me was true…didn't she, somewhat, turn out as she did because your mother…well, abused her?"
Jia snorted and shook her head. "She'd like you to think that, to use as an excuse. But no. Qing never laid a paw on her. She didn't have to…all she had to do was use the right words, show Xiu what a failure she was, how she never lived up to Mother's perfectly high, perfectly impossible expectations, and that was enough to send Xiu spinning. She would have done anything for Qing, and that bitch couldn't care less unless her daughter was an exact copy of her."
She shook her head—not in regret, but in disgust. "Believe me, they deserve each other. I hope Xiu knows exactly where she is, and who she's with. I hope she knows it till the day she dies. After all she's done…well, I don't think karma could do any worse to her…"
Tigress gazed at her soberly for a few moments, and then returned the slow nod and fang-gleaming smile. "I couldn't agree more."
Suddenly feeling rather uncomfortable among all these predators and their cruel, vengeful intentions for Xiu, Po did take a few steps back this time. "Uh…well. Anyway…didn't ya say something about gettin' outta here sooner instead of later?"
Crane, who looked no more sanguine, nodded beneath his dou li. "Yes, let's." He embraced each of them in turn, paused as he started to turn away, then nudged Jia. "Hey…don't forget your gift."
Even as everyone was looking at the snow leopardess curiously, she chuckled, actually blushed, and then lowered her eyes as she began fishing in her belt pouch. "Oh yes, silly me. Wouldn't do at all to leave without giving this…ah, here we are!" In her slender paw, which she now extended toward Tai Lung, was a very large, and rather unnerving, spiked shoulder bracer of heavy iron, such a deep gray it was almost black.
The snow leopard peered down at this with puzzlement. "Uh…what's this for?"
Jia winked. "Whatever you want it to be for, handsome. But if you mean, what's it intended for…it's armor of course. Not that I think you need it or anything…it belonged to my father, from when he was an Imperial Guard." She paused significantly. "Which means it's just like the one your father would have had."
Tai Lung stared at her in shock for a few moments, then took it from her paw almost reverently. But after gazing down at the metal accouterment he held, the kung fu master actually smirked and looked up at her with one eyebrow lifted suggestively. "Well what can I say. It would make me look badass, at that."
"Almost anything could do that, big guy," Jia teased.
"I know what I think it'd make you look," Tigress purred suddenly. When Po turned and looked at her, he saw a very familiar seductive gleam in those ruby eyes. "Later, Tai Lung, when we're alone? I want to see you wearing that."
"…All right," her fiance said slowly.
Tai Lung's rumbling purr would have been audible on the other side of the Valley, Po was certain of it.
"O-kaaaaay. I think things are about t' get a little, uh, non-public, if ya know what I mean." He sidestepped away from the two cats, whose tails were, inevitably, twining together. "Have fun, play nice, an' make sure t' bring back plenty of kung fu artifacts."
"Sure thing." Jia swept forward up the steps, without warning, to plant a very firm, very affectionate, kiss on his white-furred cheek. Despite its location, he knew there was quite a strong feeling behind it that was more than he'd ever hoped for, and he instantly blushed so deeply he felt light-headed from the blood rush (to…various places). Or was that just because of the kiss?
While he was still struggling to process this, she turned to Tai Lung with a merry twinkle in her eyes. "See ya around, stud. Don't worry, Mei and I'll be sure to talk all about you in great detail…no way we could ever forget you. So don't get too complacent!" Tai Lung groaned audibly, squeezing his eyes shut. "And don't let Chuluun's training lapse either, hmm? He's gonna be amazing, if you play your cards right."
So he would. That was Vachir's son, thirteen or fourteen and already almost as tall as Tai Lung himself. He'd shown up in the Valley with his mother a week after the snow leopard returned from Qinghai, the formidable rhino matriarch noting they'd found the commander's grave—one of immense honor and proper tradition—and after spending over a month in mourning, she had remembered her man's promise. A chance encounter with the returning villagers of Qinghe had told the Mongolians where to go…as well as just what Vachir had been doing before he died.
To everyone's surprise (and Tai Lung's obvious relief), the Mongolians were so superstitious they didn't even bat an eye at Heian Chao or what he could do, with Odval only thanking the snow leopard for freeing Vachir to join Erlik-Khan, and then asking him to take care of her boy. Tai Lung had agreed at once—and though the young rhino was a little belligerent and rough around the edges as was to be expected, he was also intelligent, attentive, a quick study, and surprisingly unreserved in his admiration for his new feline teacher.
Tai Lung, of course, had begun training him at once in Dragon style, which he showed astonishing aptitude for. Perhaps someday Chuluun would be able to rebuild the Anvil of Heaven, bigger and better than ever. But regardless, he'd surely be a great asset for keeping the peace in the empire…and Tai Lung's acceptance of a new student at the palace boded well indeed for the future of kung fu…
Behind Jia's shoulder as she began to turn toward the moon bridge, Po suddenly saw a figure crossing from the other side—one that stood out because it was taller than most villagers, was not bearing baskets or any other way to carry supplies save a small knapsack of leather.
The woman…for she was definitely female…moved with a slow, limping gait, as if she were either injured or older in age, but she otherwise seemed in good health—in fact she was rather pleasingly plump. Her Hanfu, though cut in a different style from that of the Valley and colored in shades of violet, deep blue, and black, did not look that out of place among the riot of colors which always filled the marketplace, especially now that the stark white of the snow had melted away. What made her stand out was her species. She was a mountain cat.
Jia finished turning—and froze in place, mouth hanging open as she caught sight of the older woman. Her paw actually clutched at her vest, as if trying to keep her heart from beating right out of it. And Po knew he heard a soft whimper.
Past her, Mei Ling had finally pulled free of Crane and now stood between him, Tigress, and Tai Lung with a pleased, rather smug smile on her muzzle. When she caught Po looking at her, she winked and whispered. "I sent for her back before Tai even got back. I knew it'd take a while for her to get here from Kunlun Shan…why do you think I made us wait so long? And I chose today to leave because Zeng reported to me he'd seen her coming…"
Before the panda could compliment her on her sneaky planning, the elderly mountain cat finally reached the near side of the bridge and stopped only a few feet from Jia who had stumbled toward her, and Po had to fight the urge to sit down solidly on the stairway. Oh gods. I'm gonna cry, I know it! I'm just glad I got to see it. Jia needs this, so much…
For a few moments, there was silence save for the rising breeze and the sounds of chattering voices and rattling coins from the marketplace. Then Xu Mei looked up with paws clasped before her to gaze into her stepdaughter's face…her expression inscrutable, searching but otherwise seemingly emotionless.
"Wh-what are you doing here?" the snow leopardess got out at last.
"I came to see one daughter," Xu Mei said slowly. "…only to find two."
Slowly at first, then with more rushing intensity, the mountain cat's face crumpled, tears brimming over in her luminous eyes as sorrow, disbelief, and yes, love appeared in them. "I am…so sorry, Jia. I was…wrong about you. Mei Ling told me everything…I should never have doubted you, child, I should have trusted you. Please…" She swallowed hard. "If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, please come home…"
Without warning, Jia lunged forward and caught the old woman in a hug, squeezing her gently as she began to sob into the mountain cat's shoulder. But Po could still hear her choked-out words. "I am home."
~One year later~
It was the end of New Year's, the fifteenth day of the first month, the first full moon of the year. Chap Goh Meh. Everywhere Tai Lung looked, there were lanterns strewn from every eave, some of paper and some of wood, some with glass panes and others of jade, in every color imaginable and brightly lit like glittering stars and suns, painted with figures from folk tales or clever riddles giving messages of good fortune, family reunion, abundant harvest, prosperity, and love.
All the squares of the village were filled with throngs of people, celebrating with firecrackers and red lanterns upon poles, hoping to appease the God of Fire; contemplating his own control over fire chi, the snow leopard could only chuckle. There was music, singing, and dancing; storytelling and plays being performed; all manner of souvenirs and small trinkets available in the market stalls; festivities and puppets, dragon masks and twirling ribbons; and of course plenty of people feasting, especially on delicious tangyuan.
Everyone had so many reasons to honor the gods, the Emperor, and the New Year—Tai Lung's redemption, the capture of the Wu Sisters, the death of Heian Chao and the lifting of his pall of darkness from the empire, and of course the many happy unions that had filled the last year and were spreading into this one. But though the snow leopard couldn't agree more that now was a time for family, friends, and honoring loved ones, there was something very particular he had in mind, and someone specific he wanted to see…
At last, after wading through countless streams of pigs, geese, sheep, and bulls (but always excusing himself politely as he passed), nodding once to Fu Xiao as the magistrate made his way down the main street toward the center of the festival, and chuckling as he caught sight of Ning Guo with Mantis perched on his shoulder like another paper decoration, Tai Lung saw who he was looking for.
Rushing down a side street past Ping's noodle restaurant (which was of course absolutely packed), he finally caught hold of a large, black-furred shoulder. "Oi! You know, for a panda, you're a slippery customer to track down."
Po whirled about, somehow maintaining his balance with perfect poise and not dropping the enormous tray he carried, filled to the brim with tangyuan, bean buns, and steaming bowls of noodles. When he saw who had accosted him, he smiled…yet somehow still looked rather nervous. "Well whaddaya expect? Everyone an' his kid brother's out today. Do you really think I was gonna leave my dad in the lurch?"
"Of course not," the snow leopard said soothingly. "But no matter how much you try and distract me with your dim sum duties, I'm not going to let you weasel out of this one. You know they're coming back to the Valley today."
The panda actually looked like he was going to get sick, and Tai Lung had to quickly snatch the tray and set it down gently on the restaurant courtyard wall before he dropped it. "Yeah. Yeah, I do. That's what I'm worried about." He leaned against a shi lion, wiping his suddenly clammy brow.
Tai Lung would have laughed, if he hadn't known he'd looked exactly the same way on his wedding day. Actually, he fully intended to laugh anyway (Po had, then, as had Monkey and Mantis), but later, when the panda was least expecting it. "Big guy…breathe. Please. I do not want to be lugging your unconscious body around town till they show up or we get to the river, whichever comes first."
Unsurprisingly, Po gave him a flat, steady stare for that one—which, granted, had been a subtle reference to his weight he had hoped the panda wouldn't pick up on—but didn't comment. Instead he lapsed into a rather terrified, almost hyperventilating, recitation under his breath. "It's okay…it's okay…I'm the Dragon Warrior. I beat you…I beat the Wu Sisters…I beat Heian Chao. What's a little festival, right? Happens every year, nothing to it. I'm cool, I'm calm. Yeah. Totally cool. Just tell her how I feel. Just a few little words. That's all." He groaned and buried his face in one paw. "Who am I kiddin'?"
Smacking his forehead, the snow leopard sighed, shook his head, then strode over to the panda and hauled him upright. "All right, look. I know this is a first for you, a real big deal. And you're afraid of what might happen. Believe me, I know—every damn day from the start with Tigress, I was staring down rejection. But I will not let you back out of this, Po! So you don't know if she feels the same, or how she'll react. So what? You'll never know unless you tell her."
He reached into the pocket of his satchel and fished out what he was looking for—a Kam orange. "So I want you to march down to the river, write your name on this, and throw it out there so the god of love can bring it to Jia. You got that?" And he thrust the orange pleadingly at Po.
At that exact moment, Ping poked his head out of the courtyard. "Po? What are you doing out here, the lunch rush is just sta—" He spied the two of them, and more importantly, the lovers' fruit held between them like an intended promise. "Oh! Er…I'm sorry, I didn't see you there, Tai Lung…had no idea…" He coughed, looking extremely embarrassed. "Son, was there something you wanted to tell me?"
Gah! Of all the… "No need to worry, Mr. Ping. Just giving Po here a little encouraging pep talk, that's all." He smiled in what he hoped was a confident manner but was afraid came off as only weak. "Today's the big day, you know."
For a moment the goose kept looking at him suspiciously, but then his expression cleared and he began to laugh. "Oh, it's like that, is it? I should've known! Well then, go on then, get out of here!"
Finally Po, who had somehow managed to turn both as white as a sheet and a little green around the gills (which was quite an achievement as he didn't have any), found his voice. "But, Dad, the festival, and the customers, and—!"
Ping planted his wings on his hips and somehow managed to look more stern and unyielding than Tai Lung could ever have guessed possible. "Just because, if things work out as you hope, my boy, you won't be able to give me any grandchildren, doesn't mean you should throw in the towel before the dumpling's even cooked. I'm giving you the day off, so you run along now and get your offering ready." He paused. "Besides, you can always adopt."
"Not another word!" And suddenly the panda had been stripped of his apron and shoved down the alley along with Tai Lung, and then the goose was disappearing back into the noodle restaurant, carrying his son's tray.
Before Po could try and sneak back, or worse slip unnoticed into the crowds, the snow leopard latched onto the back of the panda's shirt and was hustling him away through the village toward the riverbank. As they went, he could hear the Dragon Warrior mumbling and protesting petulantly under his breath but he ignored him.
Amusingly, many others in the crowds who recognized them and were aware of what was going on were chuckling, smirking, and giggling as they passed. He knew he saw Po's porcine friends for certain, several of the palace messenger geese who worked for Zeng, and even some of the Jade Palace guards who were all in the know. There was no way Po would be allowed to lose this chance at love and happiness—or that any of them would ever let him forget it.
"C'mon, panda," he urged as he continued pushing his friend along. "Where's your sense of adventure?"
"But what if she doesn't love me? Or worse, she just laughs at me?"
"You'd better be right."
"If I'm not, you can—"
"What? Beat your tail again? Tell your bros about the time Yi tied ribbons on your ears?"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" Tai Lung growled. "Don't you dare—you know I still know how to nerve strike you!"
By this time, they'd passed the outskirts of the village and had finally reached the bank of the largest river in the Valley. Setting Po down in the grass, he fished out a brush and ink, then pushed those into the panda's paws as well. "There! Now do I have to write the characters for you too? I'd better not, or it ruins the whole blasted point."
Looking decidedly rebellious, but also starting to show the pride and confidence he knew Po possessed, the panda swiftly swiped the writing implements and started writing Jia's name on the rind of the orange. While he was doing so, Tai Lung heard a giggle behind him and whirled around. There stood little Yi—they were, it turned out, right behind Xiulan's seamstress shop—and she, too, was holding high an orange as big as her fists. "Kitty! I'm gonna write your name!"
Tai Lung groaned and, for a moment, covered his face with both paws. But in short order he was hurrying to the cow girl's side. "No no no, that's not what this festival's about! I've already got a girl, thank you…you just wait till you grow up, then you'll find a nice boy and—"
"Why can't she do it anyway?" an artful voice came from the alley mouth. "I always thought this holiday should be about declaring all kinds of love, for everyone, not just romance for the bachelors and maidens."
Turning, he knew who he'd see before he laid eyes on her—Wu Jia, standing poised and waiting, one hand on her hip and the other coyly waving her war fan in front of her muzzle. He had to smile at seeing her—not just because he found, oddly, that he'd missed her, but because he saw already how good just a year of traveling China had been for her—how much her reunion with and acceptance by Xu Mei had done for her.
While not gone yet…and he didn't know if it ever would be…a great deal of the pain, guilt, and anguish that had haunted her features had faded. Just as importantly, she seemed much more poised, confident, and relaxed now—interestingly, much more of a match for Po.
He was about to speak when Jia raised her other paw to her lips as she lowered her fan so as to make a shushing gesture. He paused…and then slowly he began to grin as he stepped aside with a sweep of one arm, as if to say 'He's all yours'.
"There," Po was saying as he finished marking his orange. "That oughta do it. Now, I just gotta throw it in the river and—" He'd just levered himself to his feet and was already turning toward the water when he spied Jia. Immediately he turned beet red and hurriedly tried to hide the orange behind his back as if it were something scandalous.
"Oh! OH! Hi, Jia…I…funny you bein' here an' all! I mean, I knew you were comin' back t' the Valley today, of course, but I thought you'd be up at the Palace first an' all. Bet you've got a lotta stories t' tell t'…everyone." He broke off his babbling to look hopefully down the alley. "Uh, where're Crane and Mei?"
"Oh, they went ahead to the palace," the snow leopardess said casually, grinning. "But I just had to go ahead and find you first."
"Oh…oh really?" Po stammered, tugging at his shirt collar uncertainly. He definitely appeared rather sweaty and flushed. Tai Lung, having scooped up Yi to hold her on his shoulders and keep her quiet, couldn't repress a broad grin of his own. "An'…an' why was that?"
"Well, there was something I just had to come and tell you." Jia paused, then looked expectant. "But it looks like there was something you wanted to tell me too?"
For a moment the panda actually looked blank, though whether he was feigning ignorance or had truly forgotten the orange wasn't clear. Then he gasped, blushed anew, and squirmed on one foot as he first held the fruit up, then hid it again. "What? This? Naw! This's just…uh, I was hungry. Yeah, didn't get t' eat all day, too busy helpin' out my dad, y'know. Wasn't for th' festival or anything, of course not…"
Even as Tai Lung fought the urge to smack his forehead again (less because of Po or Jia noticing and more because he was afraid Yi would slide off his back if he did), the snow leopardess sashayed slowly toward the panda. And the master of the Jade Palace couldn't help but notice that Po, in turn, was noticing every move she made. When she was only a few feet from him, she stopped, eyeing him up and down archly. "Well…that's too bad, big guy. Would've been really…sweet, if you had."
"It…it would?" He smiled, half-heartedly.
"Mm-hmm. Not that you needed it, anyway."
"Nope." Jia leaned in very close to the panda now. "Because whether you throw that orange or not…I already know what it says, and what it means. And that's good, because I was going to tell you the same thing."
"Well, of course, I can understand why you'd feel that way," Po said reasonably, even as his shoulders sank and his whole expression became downcast. "I'm just a big klutz, an' I need t' lose weight, an' grow up, an' grow a pair, an'—" He broke off, finally realizing what she'd actually said. "Wait—you were? You were? Really, truly?"
For answer, Jia leaped toward him without warning. The panda only had time for a brief flail as he caught her in both arms, and then as she planted a forceful, fervent kiss on his muzzle he fell back, wind milling, right into the river shallows.
After several long moments, the drenched snow leopardess was finally forced to come up for air, but she didn't move one inch off of Po's massive belly, which seemed to make a surprisingly comfortable perch for her. "Hmm, what does that tell you, handsome?" She paused, looking around as if just now noticing their surroundings. "Oh wow, look! This is just like how we met!"
Wet and dripping, the panda did indeed look as he had in Yunxian that day, save for the lack of a lily pad on his head. As the truth sank in, he winced and looked at her apologetically. "Oh yeah…about that day. Sorry I threw apples at ya an' stuff."
"No harm done, cutie. At least you didn't shove any in my mouth like you did Chun." Again she paused, and then a terribly wicked grin appeared on her muzzle. "I can tell you what you should shove in it, though…"
Tai Lung had been certain Po couldn't get any brighter, or any redder. He was wrong. In fact he wouldn't have been surprised if the water around the panda was now boiling and all the fish were swimming away to safer temperatures.
"What?" she said innocently. Then, as if suddenly realizing how her words could be interpreted, she gasped. "Oh my goodness, Dragon Warrior! You're much naughtier than I thought you were…I was talking about your food, silly." And she swatted his shoulder playfully.
Po stared at her open-mouthed for several more moments, jaw working soundlessly, then let out an explosive breath of air as he leaned weakly against a rock beside him. He looked so relieved he seemed on the verge of melting into the river and floating downstream. "Oh…oh thank the gods!"
Jia smiled winsomely at him. "Yeah…everyone's always raved about your cooking, I figure it's about time I get to sample it, huh? And if even half the stuff I saw on your father's menu was your doing, I know it'll be awesome." She snuggled in closer, making the panda freeze again. "A little candlelit dinner…just the two of us…nice and romantic…"
Despite still looking a little wary, Po managed a tiny smile. "Well…yeah, that sounds really nice, Jia. You know I'd do that for ya in a heartbeat. It's just…man, I was so sure you meant—"
"Oh, I did," the ex-assassin said casually. "That'll just come later, that's all. Gotta build up before you get to the good stuff."
Po would have fallen over in the river, if Jia hadn't caught him up in another kiss.
Tai Lung was still smirking at the scene when a little voice piped up again—filling him with horror when he realized he'd forgotten Yi was still there. "What was she talking about, kitty? What's he gonna give her?"
Hurriedly the snow leopard turned away and slipped back down the alley; with the way things were proceeding with Po and Jia, it was best to give them privacy in any case. "I'll tell you when you're older, dear. Or better yet, your mother will…"
Speaking of which, Tai Lung managed to find Xiulan outside the seamstress shop right when he exited into the street, so with her daughter safely passed off to the bovine, he was free to rush through town toward the moon bridge and the stairs. It wasn't that he wanted to flee the scene, or anything of that nature…it was just that now that he'd done his good deed for the day, there was something else he had to do. Someone else he had to see.
Prior to New Year's, he'd been incredibly busy traveling around the empire—if it wasn't going to Beijing to train with the emperor and his personal guard so as to teach them his signature style, it was a trip to Qinghai to spend part of the holiday with his family. Already, after such a short time with them, he loved them dearly and the feeling was mutual; the fact he had a brace of nieces and nephews, each one more of an adorable fluff ball than the last, and that each of them seemed as determined to bury him and wear him down as Yi was, had only made the vacation even more enjoyable.
But he'd also longed to be home again. Thanks to preparing the Jade Palace, as well as working with Po to help him find the nerve to finally tell Jia how he felt, the snow leopard hadn't really had any time to himself since he'd returned.
He was about to remedy that.
As he reached the tournament arena, instead of continuing up the rest of the stairway to the Jade Palace doors, he took the winding side ledge that led up toward the bunkhouse and dormitories, only to deviate again along an even more twisting, corkscrew path along the rocky side of the mountain. There, at last, his destination hove into view—perched atop a single jutting promontory set below the kwoon and overlooking the Peach Tree on its cliff, a small and cozy cottage had been built.
Secured by numerous supports, platforms, and even an elaborate pulley system that allowed supplies to be raised to the heights without having to be lugged up the narrow, almost vertical stairs leading to the front door, it had been based on designs Shifu had found in the scroll room which, he thought, Oogway had intended for his own domicile before building the Jade Palace instead—and, of course, constructed by Tai Lung and Monkey.
The house was durable and strong, the broad sweeping curve of its roofs keeping off rain and snow in equal measure, and there was even a small yard spreading out in front of it where a willow tree grew, leaning out at a sharp angle over the mountainside. He could foresee all manner of dangers when his little ones tried scaling that tree, but he'd be right there the whole time—nothing would ever happen to his children if he had to die first to prevent it. And there were, after all, fairly high walls surrounding the yard as well as gates which latched and locked securely.
Soon enough he had reached the stairs and, with practiced ease, scrambled up the wooden, rung-like steps on all fours. By the time he reached the front yard, she was already there waiting for him, as he'd known she would be—the sound of his approach would have been unmistakable. And she had two little bundles waiting for him as well.
Coming to a stop, the noonday sun shining on his shoulders, Tai Lung walked slowly and carefully to Tigress's side. As always, she looked gorgeous, radiant, perfect, but what made her the most beautiful and perfect of all was the love in her eyes when she looked up at him. It wasn't just that for so long he'd never thought he'd see it, that instead he'd only seen hatred and contempt…it was that he knew what a vibrant, amazing woman she was.
So to know a woman like that, with a heart like hers, could love him…and then to see the proof of that love in her eyes…well, it was like his wedding day all over again. It was like marrying her anew every time he looked in her eyes.
"Hey there," she said at last, breaking the silence.
"Hey yourself," he replied, chuckling.
"You know it."
"And how's Po?"
"Currently I'd imagine he's two steps away from passing out in delirious ecstasy. Or else mortal fear, I'm not sure which. But once he gets over that, I think he'll be just fine."
"Good. I had a feeling about Jia."
"Liar." He smiled as he said it, though.
"Okay, maybe I didn't at first. But you helped me see it. Like you've helped me see…a lot of things."
For a few minutes they remained in silence, lost in its companionable warmth, while he kept his arm wrapped around her and gazed down into the upturned faces of the cubs she held in her arms. Twins. A boy and a girl. The former had the tiger coloring and stripes of his mother, the latter the silvery, rosette-studded pelt of her father, but their eye colors were inverted. Absolutely adorable, wondrous, true miracles in every sense of the word he could think of.
They had so many aunts and uncles now, as well as an almost scarily doting grandfather…but it was Tai Lung himself who loved them most of all, him and Tigress. He loved them, not because they were simply a legacy to be passed on, but because now that he knew who he was, where he belonged, and what was truly important, these were things he, in turn, had to teach his children.
It was a different sort of lesson from the ones he'd first learned as a cub…but in this case, that was more than a good thing. It was as it should be. This time, he would do things right, and keep doing them right. Because he had not just a wife, children, friends, and family…he had the Valley and the entire empire to protect. They were his legacy, and he would not let them down. Not ever again. Not with Po at his side.
Gently tickling his daughter, then allowing his son to wrap a very strong paw around one finger before yawning himself back to sleep, Tai Lung at last looked up again into those ruby eyes. Their faces were very close, and he leaned in to give her a long, slow, but almost chaste kiss.
"Welcome home," Tigress whispered.
"It's good to be back."
(A/N: A few references—yes, even here at the end I was making them! "It's a fair cop", Chun's response to prison, was of course from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The bracer Jia gives Tai Lung is a reference to the one in his original character design. In a similar vein, Tai Lung and Tigress's little house was swiped from Art of KFP, where it was originally intended, just as I stated, as a home for Oogway—I just transplanted it to the Jade Mountain instead of a lakeshore. Mr. Ping catching Tai and Po in such a...suggestive position was my own bit of fun teasing the TaiPo shippers—thanks, Luna, for the inspiration! ;) Also, a lot of names this time around, most of them Tai's biological family. Their meanings are as follows: Yong=brave/bold, Jian=determined/resolute, Enlai=appreciation, De=virtue, Zhin=treasure, and Gang=hard, unbending. The family name, Qiao, means "handsome". I'd say Tai's real name is quite fitting!
So. As you might have noticed, I did leave some plot threads unresolved or at least open-ended: Vachir's son [whose name means "stone"], the adventures of Crane, Mei, and Jia, Chao's true fate, what will happen with Tai and his biological family [or for that matter, Po and his], where Po and Jia go from here. This was done for two reasons—one, to suggest that life goes on and things aren't always tidied up nice and neatly despite this being a story, and two, because I do intend to do a sequel. Not a real story of sorts, as it won't really have a plot but just a short series of vignettes about characters you never got to see much [or at all], resolving some of these points, showing off some of my OCs and their past history [like Chao and his fellow masters, Xiulan and Zhuang, Xuan and Chen, the Wu Clan and its offshoots], or just plain showing scenes I didn't write—like, for example, Tai and Tigress's wedding which will require a bit of research again, heh! I intend it to be a lot lighter, full of humor, character sketches, and fun. And no kung fu! If it does have to show up, I may just resort to Luna to write those parts for me, if she's willing. :P
Anyway, I won't write this for at least a month, possibly longer, since I intend to take things a lot easier from now on. I'll write the vignettes slowly over time, whenever I feel like it and have the opportunity, and won't post the "sequel" until it's actually done. But I will still do a FAQ if you want one, and there may be a few related surprises noted on my profile page as they come up. So...again, I thank each and every one of you for sticking with me this long, for being such wonderful, supportive readers, and for your comments—believe me, they helped more than you can ever know, and I don't just mean in keeping me from being discouraged. Some direct suggestions ended up in my story thanks to you guys, not just from my betas! Hope you enjoyed this, and you'll be hearing from me again in time...depending on how things go, perhaps sooner and in more unexpected ways than you think! ;) R/R!)