Sunlight streamed in in lazy beams from the eastern windows, which had been thrown open wide to allow as much light and air as possible into the homey, high-beamed kitchen of the Jade Palace. They brought with them the scent of cherry blossoms and lemons on the breeze, the sounds of chirping birds and rippling water, and a very welcome warmth after the long winter which had shrouded the mountain for so long—all the indications of the same spring which had heralded the departure of Crane, Mei Ling, and Wu Jia from the valley a month ago.
They washed across the ancient, scarred wooden table which held so many memories. Chortles and giggles from a fat-cheeked, big-eyed, fluffy-tailed, eager-to-please kitten who quite happily and heedlessly flailed about, accidentally sending his bowl flying to land spinning, unerringly, upside-down atop a bemused Oogway's head. Many an evening enduring the terrible, appalling, vile insults and raunchy language of a certain canine cook in order to obtain access to the best meals he had ever tasted in his life, though it had been like having teeth pulled to admit that.
Discovering Po in the act of what had to be, in retrospect, the funniest and most scarily accurate imitation of Shifu he'd ever seen, to the delight of (most of) the Furious Five—who had never been encouraged to relax, laugh, or enjoy themselves at any point in their training…a mistake the severity of which he was only now beginning to understand. Feasts and festivals, ghost stories swapped on shadowy nights, old students long gone whose faces would never fade from his mind.
And more recently, the scandalous discovery of Tai Lung and Tigress, ah, "swapping spit and playing tonsil hockey" as his daughter herself and Mantis put it, respectively, right on top of that table. (He'd made them both scrub it down with lye and soapstone from morning till night after that, just to ensure any possible contamination—of the eating surface or his mind—was well removed, before he let them make good their escape.)
As well as the much less disturbing but equally unexpected time he'd awoken in the middle of the night to a horrendous clatter, only to discover when he ran pell-mell to the kitchen the Dragon Warrior and his adopted son sitting on the floor—the panda wearing a cooking pot like a new type of Imperial hat, the noodles that had been inside adorning his shoulders and ears like a wig to complete the look, the ghostly-looking snow leopard covered from ears to waist in flour spilling from a broken bag. Both of them laughing until they cried. (He'd decided getting caught in the act was punishment enough for Tai Lung, judging by his mortified flush.)
Now the sunlight was also spilling across the red panda's own bewhiskered face as he sat, stiff and rigid as a tree trunk, on one stool, hands tucked into his sleeves while he fixed his unwavering gaze on the eyes of the snow leopard seated across from him. Neither set of orbs shifted; both remained unblinking, intense, filled with the same fiery passion and determination. An ear twitched; a throat cleared; a disdainful sniff disturbed the silence. Then at last, the feline facing him spoke: low, soft, and sibilant.
"I never thought this day would come. It took so long, and I came so very far, to get here."
Shifu kept his face an implacable mask; now, more than ever, he could not falter, he could not display emotion, for that way lay failure and ruin. "Indeed."
The snow leopard snorted disdainfully, arms crossed. "At last, after all this time, I will finally get what I want, what I have always dreamed of."
"So it would seem." The Grand Master lifted an eyebrow. "But I trust you are well aware you don't get something for nothing. There is always a price."
"That's what we're here to decide, isn't it?" A menacing, dark edge came to the silky voice. "Much is at stake here. It will be difficult to…strike the right balance."
Shifu's smile was wintry. "Yes, well, that rather goes with the territory for me." A bit ostentatiously, he lifted his Yin-Yang pendant to jostle it at the snow leopard.
"Funny. This isn't just a spiritual matter, you know. This is about the future, about doing what's right—getting justice, and making sure there are no mistakes this time." Vindication and self-confidence were equally in evidence in that lofty tone…soon turning to a certain sly smugness. "So…where is she? Did I…scare her off?"
Now, at last, he allowed resentment and determination to show as those familiar words were thrown back at him. Leaning forward and planting his hands on the table top, the red panda glared at the spotted feline. "This is between you and me."
Blazing eyes met blue, the former narrowed and contemptuous, the latter adamantine and proud. Hackles rose and rippled along that curved neck, making the spots seem to dance in the silvery-gray fur. "So, this is how it's going to be…?"
Oversized ears pricked, flared, and stood at attention. "This is how it must be," Shifu said firmly.
Both their breaths, harsh and stentorian, filled the silence. For a few moments more, their eyes and wills were locked on one another as the incongruous sound of children's laughter floated up from the village miles below. Then, without warning, a hardened, callused paw slammed down an inch shy of Shifu's own hand. "Six hundred yuan. That is my first, last, and final offer."
"What?" the panda exploded, rising to his feet so as to stand on his stool (which though he cringed to admit it really didn't add much to his height). "Are you mad?"
Now that paw was lifted to meticulously examine each unsheathed claw in perfect counterpoint to its owner's sharp tone. "What's the matter, Master Shifu? I thought, after all you did for him for forty years, not to mention what happened after the Dragon Warrior defeated him, you'd leap at the chance to do anything for Tai Lung."
Shifu let out a growl of his own as he spoke through gritted teeth. "For your information, Mrs. Qiao, I would indeed pay any price for my…your…son. Including that of my own blood, which I very nearly did shed for him. But this is not about him, it is about my daughter! You will of course be suitably compensated, nor would I expect a woman of your means to supply a sumptuous gift—this is a formality only, for I certainly do not need the money and we are both well aware our children love each other and will be happy together." His eyes flashed beneath his brows. "But that does not mean you can make such a ludicrous demand for a dowry!"
The old farmwife, Qiao Jian, blinked with exaggerated care and gave him an openly innocent look that would not have fooled even Po. "Oh really? And here I thought Master Tigress was the apple of your eye. I suppose the stories I've heard about your paternal neglect were true, hmm? Or could it be she really isn't good enough for my Gang after all?" A soft tsk beneath her breath accompanied drumming fingers on her arm. "That price of mine may just have to go up a few hundred…or a few thousand."
Slowly, very slowly, the implications of that statement—to his relationship with Tigress should she find out how 'little' she mattered to him and to his position in these negotiations—sank in. And then Shifu's jaw fell open…and his eye began to twitch violently.
In retrospect, it really should have been no surprise that it would come to this. One of the first things Tai Lung's mother had asked him, once the overwhelming nature of his revealing himself had sunk in, was how soon he would be married so as to provide her (more) grandchildren—and even if it hadn't been, the thought that the snow leopard would not immediately and proudly launch into a detailed description of the amazing, intense woman he had grown to love was beyond belief.
And once that tidbit had been passed on, Qiao Jian had at once demanded that he delay the ceremony until such time as she could make it to the Valley of Peace to attend it…and meet Tigress for herself to determine how suitable a match she truly was.
Needless to say, Tai Lung would not have heard of his mother not being there to give her blessing to the union. And just about everyone in the Jade Palace had been eager to make the snow leopardess's acquaintance, especially Po and Tigress herself. But Shifu had been understandably wary. Even aside from the fact he privately worried he would now lose his son to the cat's real family, and was at least mildly terrified at how Jian would likely react to the full tale of her boy's fall into darkness (and the red panda's undeniably large part in it…), there was the simple fact he expected the woman to be as stubborn, determined, and focused on perfection as her son had been. Add to this her parental knowledge of the guilt trip and her feminine proclivity for using emotional appeals to get what she wanted, and…
He wasn't disappointed. While Jian had of course traveled to Hubei with her three other children in tow—two brawny sons who were the spitting image of Tai Lung and a plump, matronly daughter who looked to have been a svelte beauty in her youth—no sooner had she been greeted at the Jade Palace doors than she had immediately left them behind so as to sweep the ex-convict into her embrace. In the process, she'd also seemingly been unaware of almost trampling Shifu in her haste, nearly knocking him off the porch so that Viper'd had to catch him with a swift coil of her tattooed body.
What was worse to the red panda's mind was that she spent an inordinate amount of time greeting Po, Tigress, Viper, and even Mantis and Monkey before she finally got around to noticing he was there. Not that he begrudged the Furious Five their status, or wasn't as grateful for the Dragon Warrior's critical role in helping Tai Lung redeem himself, or agree that Jian had a right to meet her future daughter-in-law. But he was the Grand Master of the Jade Palace here, not to mention the one who would be giving away his precious daughter to the snow leopard. Didn't he rate at least a bow?
Eventually the farmwife had given him precisely that (and, he had to admit grudgingly, with exactly the depth and angle he merited), as well as the proper honorific, but to his annoyance and reluctant respect he also realized she still regarded herself as his equal…and on some level, whether through her devotion to her livelihood or the sacrifice she had made for her son, he knew she was right to. That didn't make it any easier to swallow, however, especially once the details of the marriage proposal were addressed in earnest.
Because it was a foregone conclusion that Tai Lung and Tigress would wed (in fact both felines had threatened more than once to elope to Tibet and get a 'quickie' ceremony from some beatific Laughing Buddha monk if the traditional formalities were complicated or delayed any more than necessary), Shifu and Jian had swiftly come to an agreement that there would be no need for a go-between: they would negotiate the proposal themselves. Similarly, the fact that Oogway's ghost had given his seal of approval of the union seemed like unequivocal evidence that there were no omens in the heavens against this. (And since no one knew the hour and day of Tigress's birth, the marriage document couldn't be placed on the ancestral altar anyway.)
The only detail which could not be overlooked was consulting an astrologer to choose an auspicious date for the wedding—after the undeniable reality of the supernatural they'd all recently experienced, the last thing either the snow leopard or tiger wanted was to have their future (or that of their children) ruined by getting married on a day of ill fortune.
But once that had all been decided, matters had not been as simple as Shifu had hoped. For while he had quickly reassured Jian that, considering the state of her family's finances, he would waive the need for any gift to Tigress's family, the snow leopardess would not hear of it. And so had passed an almost painfully awkward hour or so during which the farmwife had presented him with one gift, token, and foodstuff after another that she had brought with her from Qinghai.
If it wasn't dumplings in cashew sauce, sweetmeats and sugar, or a wide variety of the local mushrooms, it was strong wool gloves and sturdy trousers, honey culled from her own bees, and plenty of pouches and packages of rang pi and san zi. Of course the Dragon and Phoenix bridal cakes were prominently present, and Jian had also brought a number of different teas ranging from green and apple to the highly appropriate peach blossom.
Promising to distribute the cakes to Po and the rest of the Five, Mr. Ping, and anyone else in the village who could be considered friends of the family (and privately glad he didn't have to endure the ridiculousness of being given congratulatory gifts by his own students—whatever gag gift Mantis or Monkey would have come up with made him cringe inwardly), Shifu at last breathed a sigh of relief.
But then, after Po had cooked on Shifu's behalf to make the reciprocative meal, had come their current dispute over the dowry.
"Yes, yes, of course," the red panda snapped irritably as he looked up from the scroll on which Jian had made her itemized list. "Food and other comestibles are an expected and traditional portion of the package. But a hundred bags of millet and corn each? Five hundred bags of rice? I am well aware of Tai Lung's incomparable appetite but just whom do you think will be fed here, a whole army?"
Jian shrugged noncommittally. "It's just not just him, it's also for me. As his only living parent—and one of advanced age, I might add—I am entitled to a significant portion of this dowry, particularly since he won't even be leaving the Valley or this very mountain, so half of this won't even be useful to him. But it is tradition…and for my farm, it is practical." She eyed him significantly. "In Qinghai, we can only grow wheat and certain hardy fruit trees. We will need plenty of stores if we are to survive the harsh winters there, and I'd rather not have to purchase them from my son-in-law when the yield is scarce."
"You've done just fine by yourself out there for decades," he retorted. "I hardly think you've lost the ability to get by just because you're about to gain another daughter and have back a son who won't even be living with you. Fifty bags of each should be sufficient."
The farmwife narrowed her eyes. "Are you implying, after all my years of hard labor, that I'm going to start being lazy this late in life? Besides, after slaving away for so long to make ends meet, I rather think it's only fair I get the chance to rest, relax, and enjoy my twilight years without fearing where the next meal will come from. Isn't that supposed to be the gods' reward to us? I've more than earned this chance, and do you really think Gang will wish me to suffer destitute? Four hundred bags of rice."
Shifu glared, not appreciating the 'tired old mother' guilt trip at all. "Kindly do not put words in my mouth, madam. I was, in fact, complimenting your tenacity and determination, something you and my son share in common. Seventy-five bags of corn and millet, a hundred and fifty rice."
"Why not, it's big enough for them," Jian muttered. Before he could do more than bristle fiercely, the snow leopardess sighed. "Thank you…but I am only asking my fair share and due. And in all honesty, my boys and I really do need this food. I know you will understand. One hundred, and three hundred."
It was the imploring look that did it—that and his memories of his long-ago days as a rice farmer's son. He knew what it felt like to go hungry when there was a poor crop. He knew what it was like to starve when your growing body needed nutrition…the elderly needed it just as much. And the Valley had so much to spare…
Closing his eyes and clasping his paws on the table, he finally nodded. "All right. One hundred and three hundred it is."
Glancing back to the list so as to avoid seeing her bright, moist eyes, Shifu continued scanning and ticking off items. "Chopsticks for a fast son, of course…dragon eyes and lotus seeds, good, good…warming bricks and a chamber pot, naturally…" He paused and shot her a skeptical look. "A gold chamber pot? Clay and stone aren't good enough for you, hmm?"
Jian smirked. "You'd put something that fragile in a house with two kung fu warriors and plenty of rambunctious future grandchildren?"
"Point." He marked a few notations on the parchment. "Shrimp and carp, eggs…plums, mangoes, and apricots…" Shifu raised an eyebrow. "A silk painting kit? That is a very elegant gift, Mrs. Qiao, but I didn't realize your talents ran in that direction."
The snow leopardess chuckled softly. "Not for me…for Master Tigress. Someone will have to see to the decorating of their new home, and I certainly can't see my Gang doing that, can you?" She shrugged. "Besides, I hear it is quite relaxing."
Shifu quirked the corner of his mouth. He couldn't deny his daughter had much need of soothing, genteel pastimes; the question was how to broach the subject to her, let alone persuade her to apply herself to them, without getting his head bitten off. Tigress had changed much since Po was chosen as the Dragon Warrior and she admitted her love for Tai Lung, but not that much. And she'll need instruction if she's to pull off that sort of artistry. I shall have to tap Crane, or Mei Ling, when they return to the Valley…
Once more he consulted the list. "Broccoli, chives, bamboo shoots, leeks, mung beans…all quite fair and essential. Salt—for preservation I presume, not as a luxury…yes, out there in the hinterlands it would be much harder to keep food from spoiling while you stretched it out over the winter months…" Choosing not to observe just how dear salt was, other than to wince briefly at the expense, he continued on. "Ginseng and rhinoceros horn for medicine…" Well at least she didn't ask for turtle plastron, that would have been far too disrespectful. "Iron, farming tools, Dragon and Phoenix bedding, Li Shi strings, a tea set…"
He paused yet again, then set the scroll down and posted both fists on his hips. "Gold, silver, turquoise, and jade. Jade. Tigress wears very little jewelry, so I presume this is for you?"
Jian crossed her arms and eyed him pointedly. "It's not like you don't have plenty to spare around these parts. At this point I think the Emperor would give you anything you wanted as a reward. Jade enhances beauty…and after a life of hard work, I happen to believe I deserve a few perks to make things lovelier."
Shifu grunted. "Which would explain the silk too, I imagine." He stabbed a finger down at the scroll. "But ten yards of it? Why in the name of the Jade Emperor would you need so much?"
The snow leopardess looked innocent, but he wasn't buying that for a second. "My daughter and I need dresses, of course."
"For what?" The Grand Master was genuinely mystified.
"Festivals, naturally," Jian said coolly, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world. "We have a very large number of them in Qinghai, you know. So many more than here in the Valley. We have to be prepared."
He slammed his fists down on the table and lurched to his feet atop his chair—which again, sadly, didn't really elevate him as much as he might wish. "Oh, for the love of—festivals? With as much silk as you're requesting, you could fit an entire Russian circus in there!"
The farmwife gave him a cold glare, and Shifu felt his heart sink into his feet. "It is not polite to discuss a lady's weight." He stared at her for a few moments…and then groaned, burying his face in his hands and flopping forward onto the table.
After a few moments, he finally forced himself to sit up again and gaze at her sullenly. "And just how do you expect to cover the expenses for this—and everything else you've asked for?"
Jian clasped her paws atop the table and regarded him candidly. "I believe fifteen thousand yuan should be enough."
"Fifteen thousand? Are you trying to bankrupt me?"
She blinked briefly. "I thought the Jade Palace's coffers were quite extensive. Was I mistaken?"
"No, they are quite ample. But…"
"Then what is the problem?" she inquired solicitously.
Shifu felt his eye begin to twitch yet again, more violently and wildly than it ever had in his life. "That…that is the most expensive, extravagant, and downright gouging offer I have ever heard! It would be the largest dowry ever asked for in this dynasty—perhaps any dynasty."
The snow leopardess's grin became smug. "Sounds perfect to me, then."
"You can't possibly expect me to pay that," he snapped harshly.
"Why not? As you pointed out, our children will be living here. It's not as if all these items, or the money, will even be leaving the palace at all. Most of it, anyway."
He glowered. "That is not the point! It…it is the principle of the thing…" His voice trailed off weakly as Jian met him, glare for glare, and even he realized how ridiculous and parsimonious his objections sounded.
For a very long moment he stared at her, their wills meeting and struggling, and his giving ground slowly but surely, while his eye continued to twitch and his paws clenched and unclenched on the scroll. At last he was the one to sigh, turn away, and lower his gaze. "Fine," he said, softly but still through gritted teeth. "Have it your way. Fifteen thousand it is, and you can have all the things on your list."
Jian smiled beatifically. "I knew you'd see things my way, Shifu." Magnanimously, she extended her aged paw across the table for him to shake.
As he accepted it to seal the deal, privately amazed at the strength it still possessed, the red panda smiled ruefully at knowing he'd been outwitted by a very astute and clever opponent, like none he'd ever faced before even in a kung fu arena. "You drive a very hard bargain, madam."
A twinkle of merriment and cockiness entered her blue eyes, but then her gaze softened along with her voice. "Of course. Nothing but the best for my son."
Shifu lifted his head again, locking his blue eyes on her from beneath his bushy brows. "That is something we can both agree on."
"Don't you mean something we all can agree on?" The sudden voice from the kitchen doorway made Shifu whirl about, clapping a paw to his chest—and there, as he'd expected, stood Tai Lung, leaning casually against the doorframe, one arm crossed loosely over his broad chest while the other encircled Tigress's shoulders, nestling her comfortably and protectively against his body. He wondered how long they'd been standing there, listening in…but from the very amused, mocking grins both cats wore, he suspected it was for far longer than he would have wished.
Finally finding his voice, the Grand Master retorted tartly, "I thought you'd finally seen the light when it came to your own importance in the scheme of things, my son. Are you telling me you still have not learned that lesson?"
The snow leopard tsked and flicked one ear, examining his claws as if for some invisible speck of dirt caught among them. "What did Oogway always say—'All of life is a lesson, and we are always both students and teachers'? Just add it to my account, I know I'll be studying that lesson for the rest of my life."
He paused, then grinned, winking. "But no, that's not what I meant. This dowry isn't just a tradition…it shows just how important both Tigress and I are to you, Father. Are you going to sit there and tell me, after all that's happened, that you're not going to give us everything we want, with interest?"
Shifu narrowed his eyes—despite the very astute point that after spoiling Tai Lung and pumping up his pride and sense of entitlement to ridiculous proportions, and neglecting and rejecting Tigress as a means of overcompensating, he owed his children far more than he could ever repay, somehow he didn't think lavishing gifts upon them was exactly the way to make amends. But by the same token…they were the most important things in his life now, as they always should have been, and it was about time he showed it.
"No," he grumbled at last. "You're quite right…the two of you are both worth more to me than all the riches in the palace."
"Good answer," Tigress purred archly as she grinned up at her fiance. "You may live."
Shifu groaned. "You're enjoying this far too much, you know."
"No matter what happened in the past, I did not do anything to deserve this," the red panda snapped.
Tai Lung yawned, then snickered. "Matter of opinion there, old man. I happen to see this as some very long-delayed karma catching up with you at last."
The Grand Master slumped lower in his chair in defeat. "I know where you sleep."
"So? Doesn't mean you can sneak up on me any better than you could when I was growing up."
Jian chuckled. "Very good, Gang. That's telling him."
Shifu glared at her, then buried his face in his paws again. "I wish I were dead. I should be dead. You should have let me die." He looked up accusingly at Tigress and Tai Lung. "This is why you really wouldn't allow it, isn't it? So you could have your last chance to get a nice, twisted bit of revenge on me?"
Tigress only smiled evilly at him, an expression which perfectly matched the one on Tai Lung…and, disturbingly, on Qiao Jian's face as well. Once more, Shifu fell forward on the table as feline laughter echoed and filled the kitchen. It's true what I have always heard: cats are mean.
Elbows propped on the windowsill beside the vase of orchids…which naturally enough reminded her of one given to her almost a year ago, by the very man who was making all this ceremony and preparation necessary…Tigress let out a huge sigh of frustration, impatience, and annoyance and turned away to stare about the room.
It wasn't that the view out the window was uninteresting, depressing, or dull; far from it! From where she sat, in fact, the striped feline could see from the edge of the village, over the moon bridges and the winding, silvery surface of the river, all the way across the Valley to the mountains which rose in sharp crags to the east. Laid out before her she could see farm fields, verdant forests, the vast garden-like park which rose onto the peaks' slopes, and above it all, the churning cascade which poured down in endless majesty, always shining day or night as it sent its misty spray high above the landscape. It was a breathtaking sight, to say the least.
But even the most wondrous of natural beauty could seem old and stale if it was all you had to look at, and had been doing so for the last several hours. And while she had learned to become more easygoing, forgiving, and open-minded since Po's coming to the Jade Palace, and having such a great and amazing love in her life also did much to mellow her, Tigress was not and would never be a very patient woman.
It didn't help that she felt the particular reason for her being sequestered away here was patently ridiculous, not to mention pointless and misogynistic. 'Here' being one of the most well-appointed chambers in the priciest inn in town, paid for naturally enough by Master Shifu. Despite his protests at the enormous dent made in the palace coffers by her dowry, the red panda had been most insistent on this point.
In the two months since he and Qiao Jian had reached their agreement, a whirlwind of activity had flown about the Jade Mountain and the village at its base—the erection of the wedding pavilion, the procuring and fashioning of gifts, the gathering of guests and food alike for the feast, and the obtaining of all the auspicious and symbolic items which would be needed for the ceremony. Word had been sent to Crane, Mei Ling, and Wu Jia so that the traveling masters could return in time for the wedding, while Monkey and Tai Lung had set at once to building the bridal bed. Po began planning the feast with a fanatic gleam in his eyes, an eager chortle, and briskly rubbed paws which, even as it endeared him to her all the more, made her wonder just how extravagant he intended to get.
And with surprisingly little coaxing from Tai Lung, Shen Xiulan had been persuaded to sew the wedding gown for Tigress as well as her entourage—at a discount price, of course. Despite the fact she knew this had to be meant as some small measure of apology for the way the cow woman had treated her in the past, the leader of the Furious Five was actually rather grateful that the seamstress had not attempted to waive the fee entirely, something which would have embarrassed them both.
However, that left only one final tradition to uphold on her end, the one which had resulted in her enforced stay here: that of the cockloft.
Since the felines, as yet, did not have a house of their own, and there was no such chamber even in the upper floors of the Jade Palace (it had, after all, been intended more for veneration, training, and the deposition of knowledge than for living in), the only choice was for Tigress to be housed somewhere in the village.
Even if that were not the case, Shifu would have demanded it for the simple reason he wished as much distance between her and the snow leopard as possible; while he wanted grandchildren, there would be plenty of time for that on the nuptial night, and he did not wish the auspices disturbed by his son's impatience to have yet another evening romp with his beloved. Besides, surely he could restrain himself for one night?
It wasn't that she had become a sex maniac, Tigress thought defensively as she stared gloomily around the admittedly sumptuous room with its braziers of incense, brightly-woven tapestries, ivory and teak silkscreen partitions for privacy, and lusciously soft bed complete with comforter and silk sheets. She simply hated being away from Tai Lung longer than necessary…and, she had to admit, even more galling was her inability to engage in any of her usual activities, especially training in the kwoon.
As if that wasn't bad enough, she'd now be forced to spend the night indulging in gossip, cooking, weaving, and other feminine pursuits! Even the presence of her dear friend Viper wouldn't mitigate it that much, since she'd be certain to try coercing her feline friend into indulging in makeup, flowers, and ribbons. Besides, she hadn't even arrived yet with their dinner, another reason for Tigress's annoyance and boredom…and if she was delayed because she was bringing along whom the feline thought…
With impeccable timing, there suddenly came a soft but brisk knock at the inn room door. Practically leaping out of her pelt, so on edge was she and eager to find a means to relieve her anxiety and boredom, Tigress rushed at once to unlock and open the door. She was already talking as she did so. "There you are! It's about time, what kept you—?"
Viper slithered at once inside, with a rather odd, furtive look behind her as if she were expecting to be followed. She was carrying a small, white, trapezoidal hamper by a wooden handle, dangling from her mouth and wafting off the most delectable aromas the feline had ever smelled—though she allowed her ravenous appetite and empty stomach might be affecting her judgment. "You wouldn't believe the line at Ping's, you'd think everyone would be saving up for the wedding feast tomorrow, but no!"
But Tigress had tuned her out, as well as the steaming food, because of what she had caught sight of behind her in the hallway—smiling (albeit a bit uncertainly), bearing her own dinner hampers as well as a basket containing, she supposed, whatever supplies and items Viper had deemed necessary for this 'sleepover', and looking a little travel-worn but otherwise as energetic and pleasant as ever, was Mei Ling.
Swiftly Tigress wiped the suspicion, distrust, and resentment from her face, immediately concealing it behind a mask of calm gentility. It wasn't that she disliked the mountain cat; any lingering animosity dating from when she had proven Tai Lung innocent of the attack on Po was by now long gone in favor of admiration and appreciation of Mei Ling's skills and knowledge. And everything the Li Dai graduate had done to help defend the Valley, stop the Wu Sisters, and protect Tai Lung had more than marked her as a heroine, ally, and fantastic warrior in the striped feline's book.
No, the real problem was that even now, almost a year after Mei Ling's flirtatious and inappropriate interactions with the snow leopard, Tigress was not altogether certain she could trust the mountain cat around her husband-to-be. She knew what Tai Lung had told her on the ledge below the palace, which Mei had later confirmed with some rightfully ashamed embarrassment, and what Crane had also attested to after a great deal of hemming, hawing, and flushing.
And she knew ever since Tai Lung's trial that the mountain cat had had her eyes set on the waterfowl, that their departure from the Valley was not only an exciting and enthusiastic way to add to their legends as brave kung fu warriors…but also a rather obvious and brazen disguise for a clandestine honeymoon.
Yet somehow she couldn't shake the feeling that Mei Ling might still have designs on her fellow master of the thousand scrolls. Loyal and honorable she might be, but the fair-weather way she'd flitted about China had to make Tigress wonder about her faithfulness. Not to mention the mischievous bent she shared with her half-sister Jia. She knew, objectively, that the mountain cat wanted to be with Crane and would never truly try to come between her and Tai Lung…but her heart was anything but objective. And now here she was, back in the Valley.
After several long, awkward moments of staring at each other in the silent room, Mei Ling quickly broke the tableau by turning to close and re-bolt the door behind her. Then, with a brightly cheerful smile, the mountain cat crossed over, unreservedly gave Tigress a hug despite her stiff posture, and sat down at the room's small table to begin unpacking the food. "It's good to see you again, Master Tigress. And as you can see, I've got a nice peace offering for you." She opened one of the white hampers, closing her eyes and smiling appreciatively at the fragrant steam wafting from within. "Mmm, and it's just as warm as when Ping first cooked it!"
Tigress shot Mei Ling a somewhat guilty and bemused look—she would make some comment about her feelings being that obvious, if she didn't know they really were and that Mei was hardly unintelligent or lacking in insight—and came to the table as well. "Since you must have picked that up several hours ago, that's rather impressive. Whose idea was that?"
"Ping's," Viper supplied as she slithered up to the last seat and began assisting Mei in removing dishware and cutlery from one of the other baskets they'd brought, then laying out the food. "I don't know how he came up with it, but these little boxes retain all the heat and keep the food ready for hours. So if his customers can't wait or the restaurant is too full, they can take their dinner home without losing any of the quality." The serpent smiled as she dexterously unwrapped the chopsticks. "Ping says it'll keep and keep. He's calling it 'take-out'."
The striped feline smirked and snorted. "It'll never catch on." Nevertheless, she was the first to dig in to the delicious meal.
For the next twenty minutes or so, no one said a word while they consumed their dinner—though Tigress supposed at least part of the others' silence was because they were so stunned by how fiercely and voraciously she was eating. Cheeks bulging with fist-sized dumplings, she chewed and swallowed as fast as she possibly could without choking, not only to fill her belly but to make room for more! Only when she had consumed over half her shrimp and won ton soup, and had moved on to her rice and noodles, did she slow down…and even then she still might have kept going if not for Viper's diffident cough and an incredulous squeak from Mei Ling's direction.
Looking up with a very defensive glare, she snapped, "What're you looking at? I'm hungry!"
"We can see that," the serpent noted, clearly trying very hard not to smirk.
The mountain cat didn't even bother hiding it, instead openly giggling. "Er…you've got something on your chin…"
Tigress crossed her eyes and peered downward; to her exasperation and resentment, she spied several noodles dangling from her lips and dripping soy sauce. Hurriedly she sliced them off with her claws, letting them fall back onto her plate. Gah! I am never going to live that one down, am I? At least I didn't look like Shifu that time though…
Swallowing the last mouthful, the striped feline continued eating at a much slower, more controlled pace. "So…how is everything? What's been going on while I've been held a prisoner here?" She quirked the corner of her mouth, even though she was only half-joking.
Viper blinked. "Oh come on, Tigress. I know what a workaholic you are, but it's only been one day."
She set down her chopsticks and folded her arms, regarding her old friend with a critical eye. "You've known me how many years now, and you can actually say that with a straight face?"
The serpent paused, then lidded her eyes. "Damn. You got me on that one."
Mei Ling looked a little confused. "I don't get it. You were cooped up much longer than this, that month and a half when you were recovering from what Xiu did to you."
Tigress couldn't help inwardly bristling at the memory, and her whiskers twitched as well. "That was different. I may not have liked it, but I knew I had to stay still and rest if I wanted to heal, and that was a very good reason to do so. This time it's just because of some ridiculous old tradition."
Turning to appeal to Viper, she added, a bit desperately, "I mean, surely I could sneak into the back gardens of the inn, go through the forms, get a little sparring in…"
But the serpent was already shaking her head, even if her expression was sympathetic. "Afraid not, even that's prohibited."
Tigress couldn't hold back her soft growl as her claws flexed on the table edge. "Screw the rules."
Viper smiled slightly. "Now why doesn't that surprise me…but, Tigress, this is for Tai Lung too. Don't you want to do everything right, for his sake?"
It was on the tip of her tongue to declare that the snow leopard cared no more for musty old traditions than she did, and would be quite happy to flout them if it meant making things more comfortable for the woman he loved. And for that matter, that he'd hardly approve of Tigress being unable to work on her kung fu training, nor would he want her to suffer something he wouldn't be able to stand himself.
But then she sighed, forced her claws to retract, and lowered her gaze to the table. For despite all this, she knew she couldn't deny that she shouldn't be setting examples to inspire Tai Lung to be more dismissive of authority—she should be encouraging him to fit into society better, and to respect traditions and elders (albeit, only when they earned it).
And she did want everything to be perfect…aside from all the heartache and trouble she'd caused him when he was courting her, like any woman she wanted her wedding day to be beautiful and a memory to treasure all her life. Many women in China didn't even get to enjoy their big day, because their marriages had been arranged for them and all they had to look forward to was a life of servitude and abuse while they existed solely to produce babies for their husbands and the empire.
Now, when she had what every woman wanted, a man she'd chosen for herself, a man who would not abuse her (and how amazing that she could say that, in what was utter honesty, about Tai Lung of all people!), a man who only worshiped the ground she walked on and wanted to give her a happy, blessed, normal life…now she was willing to possibly jeopardize that by displeasing the gods, all for the sake of a silly tradition?
Looking up at last, she threw her paws in the air. "Fine, have it your way, I stay." The leader of the Five grunted, then glared petulantly at Viper. "I hate it when you use Tai Lung against me."
A soft chuckle made her look at Mei Ling, who was now eyeing her with an artfully curled eyebrow. "I know why you just can't stand to be away from him for even a day, hon. But look at it this way: when you do see him again, he'll be quite…pent-up."
For that, Tigress had no answer except a furious blush. She rather thought that was none of Mei's business, and tracked a little too close for comfort to why she still wasn't sure she could trust her fellow feline…but she also had to admit Mei had a very good point.
When the laughter had died down, the mountain cat continued, "Seriously though, Master Tigress, why are you so bent out of shape? Okay, with Master Shifu as an example I can see why you never learned much patience." She stuck her tongue out. "But I think you're the only person in the Jade Palace who wouldn't take advantage of one day off! Even Tai Lung knows to take it easy once in a blue moon." She paused, then let a chiding tone enter her voice. "And doing so doesn't make you lazy, you know."
The bride-to-be held up both paws in surrender. "You're right, you're right. I really should learn to take it easy. But old habits die very hard." She sighed, unable to keep the yearning from her voice. "And I really do feel left out of the loop in here. What's been going on? What's everyone been doing? Is everything going to be ready on time?" I can't believe it, I sound like a gossiping courtesan!
Viper smiled. "Tigress…breathe. Most of the work was done months ago, you know that. Monkey and Tai Lung already finished the bed, they'll have Yi and the other children bless it tonight. So all the boys took the night off and came down here to the village to hang out and have some fun for a change." At the worried look Tigress shot her, the serpent chuckled. "Don't worry, Monkey learned his lesson—he's staying well away from any alcohol from now on."
"Good," the striped feline snorted. She wanted to ask whether Tai Lung had gone along to chaperone, but she didn't want to sound so desperate for news of her fiance…even though she was. So instead she said, "But that wasn't all I was worried about. Mantis has never been, shall we say, well-behaved…and somehow his time with Master Ning has made him even worse."
Mei Ling giggled. "I'll say!" When Tigress threw her an odd look, the mountain cat shrugged. "Well, while I was waiting for Viper to get back from Ping's, I, er, happened to sneak a peek on the boys' little get-together. They were at the Disarming Smile."
Tigress nodded. "I know the place. The best tavern in town, catering mostly to travelers, merchants, and their caravan guards. Very family-friendly too."
"Yeah. Well anyway…Monkey may have sworn off the hard liquor, but that didn't stop Mantis!" The mistress of the thousand scrolls covered her mouth with a paw to stifle her snickers. "At least I hope he was drunk, because if he was doing that all on his own, well…"
"What was he doing?" In spite of herself, Tigress couldn't restrain her burning curiosity; aside from providing her all the entertainment she could ask for, whatever Mei Ling was about to tell her would provide excellent fodder with which to mock and tease Mantis for years to come.
The mountain cat winked. "Singing," she supplied readily. "And dancing. With the caravan guards."
"He was not!"
Mei Ling held up one paw to swear an oath. "Feline's honor—I don't need to make things like this up, not when they're happening right in front of my muzzle! Besides, Monkey and Crane were there and saw the whole thing, too. Though I bet my bao bao wishes he hadn't."
Tigress shook her head in disbelief, even as she too began to laugh. "Oh no…I always thought alcohol was a curse from the gods…now I'm beginning to wonder if it wasn't a blessing instead."
Viper smirked knowingly. "Well, let me see…when I finally left Ping's with the food, and found Mei, what all did I see and hear now? You haven't truly heard a Beijing opera until it's been performed by a bass-voiced insect. And I had no idea he could kick that high! Of course he had some pretty good dancing partners too…picture, if you will, seven burly rhinos and bulls all mincing, twirling, and gyrating about in a lotus pattern while Mantis was in the middle, pirouetting and choreographing them all."
The striped feline almost choked on her tea—and then began to laugh harder than she ever remembered doing in her life. "Oh gods! I wish I hadn't missed this…and the others, what were they…?"
The Li Dai graduate chimed in again brightly. "Oh, Monkey was pretending he didn't see a thing, he was very engrossed in sitting on the floor, showing a bunch of the village children how to work a finger-puzzle. He was so distracted by Mantis, I'm surprised he didn't get his fingers stuck in there for good, though. And Crane…" Mei chuckled endearingly. "He was sitting all by himself in a corner booth, hiding under his hat. I think he somehow believed he could convince everyone he had no idea who Mantis was, had never met him, and wouldn't be caught dead with him anywhere."
It took a long time after that for the laughter to die down. When it finally did, and Tigress could breathe well enough to keep her dumplings going down the right pipe, she found her mood had improved considerably. Maybe this won't be so bad at all. If I can just keep them talking like this instead of subjecting me to 'feminine' pastimes…
Leaning forward on one elbow, the leader of the Furious Five smirked almost cruelly. "So what about Master Shifu? Has he recovered yet from that heart attack Jian almost gave him?"
Mei Ling snorted, crossing her arms over her chest as she leaned back in her chair. "I'll say he has. Not only is he busting his hinny getting everything for the wedding absolutely perfect, he's still insisting on cutting nobody any slack. Up at the crack of dawn, demanding every training exercise be done yesterday and flawlessly—he's even been bossing me around! I just got back, and I'm not even his student, and he's still got me toeing the line." She shook her head.
Tigress didn't know whether to be angry at the way her father was treating her friends, or strangely grateful to see him acting what was, for him, quite normal. She settled for wry bemusement, with a touch of faint glee at hearing Mei Ling was being subjected to this treatment too. The mountain cat, she thought, was just a little too big for her britches, having mastered the thousand scrolls; this might perhaps help shrink her head a tad. And be a bit of payback for those feigned assignations with Tai Lung.
"And is he still complaining about his empty cash strings?" she quipped at last, sardonically.
"Like you wouldn't believe," Viper replied fervently. "Everywhere he goes, now, he's become the stingiest skinflint in the empire! Always looking for the lowest prices and the best deals at the marketplace—"
"Well, he has always been rather frugal," Tigress tried to defend him, dubiously.
The serpent lidded her gaze. "Would you believe I caught him checking every single stall in town to find the cheapest price on eggrolls and leeks, and then when he found them he still tried to haggle for a lower one?"
The leader of the Five growled under her breath. "Now that's taking things too far. Jian didn't gouge him that badly, and for some people in the Valley they're living at subsistence level as it is! Take even one too many jiao from them, and…"
"That's nothing," Viper replied dismissively. "He doesn't even go out to eat anymore."
"Why?" Tigress narrowed her eyes. "Don't tell me he's gotten so bad he'd rather mooch off of Po to get free dinners."
"No," Mei Ling mumbled around the mouthful of shrimp she held between her chopsticks. She swallowed. "Though I bet he would if he thought he could get away with it. If Tai Lung didn't threaten to stuff him down the Field of Fiery Death if he even thought about taking advantage of the Dragon Warrior's generosity like that."
Even as the striped feline felt her face glow and tingle with pleasure (not at the threat of bodily harm to Shifu—all right, maybe a little—but at hearing her fiancé being such an ardent defender of his former enemy), the mountain cat continued. "It's because Viper here has forbidden him."
Puzzlement replaced righteous indignation. If Shifu was being so miserly, why would the serpent be preventing him from spending more? "Um…"
Her tattooed friend chuckled at the look on her face. "Let me explain why he's not allowed out till he learns how to behave himself. The one and only time he agreed to dine with me since Jian and her family came to the Valley was when we ate at Ping's last week. He got there ahead of me, of course—probably left two hours early, and I swear sometimes he never sleeps—so when I got to the table, there he was, presiding like a guardian dragon statue, tapping his foot and glowering like I'd been making him wait. I was right on time, I'll have you know." She sniffed. "Anyway, I get there, and there's this sack of tofu bamboo on the table. I had to ask him why it was there, and he pounced on it like he was just bursting to tell someone."
Sitting up stiff and straight on her stool, Viper adopted a pompous-looking, serious expression that was vintage Shifu. Even her voice, when she started imitating their master, was scarily accurate. "Thank you for asking, Viper. The price difference here between a bowl of vegetable stew with tofu and one without is three yuan. Now, if you divide twelve into five yuan, the cost of a sack of tofu in mild bamboo cubes, each cube costs four jiao and 1.7 fen. Five cubes per serving are more than sufficient. Therefore, if you bring your own tofu, that's a savings of two yuan, nine fen per bowl. If you require tofu, you may pay me so accordingly. Go ahead and round it up."
There was a long pause. Then, in a strangled voice she barely recognized as her own, Tigress exclaimed, "What the hell?"
That seemed to about sum it up, since neither Mei Ling nor Viper was able to find any response, only dissolving once more into peals of laughter. Finally, after their mirth had died down, Tigress sighed, shook her head, and placed her chopsticks on the napkin as if they were made of fragile glass. "That's it. As soon as the wedding is over, and Tai Lung and I are…ready to be in public again, Shifu and I will be having a very long, very stern talk."
Chuckling under her breath, the mountain cat murmured, "I'd pay to see that…"
"What was that?" the striped feline asked, a bit too sweetly.
"Nothing," Mei Ling answered quickly. "Just wondering, speaking of Tai Lung, how you and his family have been getting along."
Nice save. Still, she had to admit the subject of her fiance's family was one worth discussing, if for no other reason than the fact with her own biological family dead, this would be the first real chance she had for love, affection, and acceptance. And already, it had been bearing fruit… Swallowing against a lump in her throat, she shrugged noncommittally as she returned to idly chasing dumplings and lumps of tofu around her plate.
"What can I say? We've been getting along very well. His sister Zhin is…very sweet, much like you, Viper…though like you, I get the impression there's a core of iron in there somewhere. I suspect her husband isn't the only one haggling out some very lucrative deals in Naij Tal."
The serpent smirked over her cup of jasmine and peach blossom tea. "Sounds to me like it must run in the family."
Tigress chuckled. "As for his brothers…they're much tougher men than any I've known here in the Valley. Just simple farmers, and they both have very good hearts, but there's a…strength to them. Like Tai Lung's, yet different somehow." She made a face at contradicting herself. "I guess what I'm saying is, they're brave too, but not because of the number of battles they've fought in or how many scars they bear from defeating brigands and Huns.
"It's because they struggle with the land, every day, and by sheer force of will make it yield crops for them. Or that's how it seems, anyway. Enlai, the elder, is very philosophical too—I guess it comes from living so near Tibet. From what his wife tells me, when he isn't farming he often spends hours poring over Buddhist scriptures, and hours more debating them with her over a full pipe."
"And De?" Mei Ling's mouth curled into a suggestive smile, as if she already knew the answer. Which she did of course, how could anyone at the Palace, or in the Valley, not know?
"He's old enough to be my grandfather," she retorted—then closed her eyes and shaded her brow with one paw. "And…he's an incurable flirt. Since he's a widower and has been for almost fifteen years now, he seems to believe that puts him on the open market. And he's not above flaunting himself wherever and whenever he thinks he can get away with it."
Viper winked. "Don't pretend you weren't looking, or noticing, when he was working shirtless around the palace, helping Monkey with that new house you'll be living in. He may be over fifty, but gods can you tell he's Tai Lung's brother." Her gaze became distracted and distant, a dreamy sigh escaping her lips.
Tigress glared at her. "We really need to find you a man. As in, yesterday. Just because De wasn't wasting any time pursuing Mei Ling here, and me, and even Jia—"
The serpent grinned even more suggestively. "Oh, you mean like his nephews have been doing down in the village?"
She chose to ignore that. "You're just jealous they weren't noticing you." Viper pouted, grumbling, as Mei Ling laughed merrily in the background.
But then her disgruntled expression faded into one of compassion, tenderness, and gentleness. "And…Qiao Jian?"
The leader of the Furious Five hesitated, but then she smiled softly and gazed down at her folded paws on the table. "She is…quite something. Everything I could ever hope for in a mother. You wouldn't think it to look at her, but she is so strong…a very formidable woman. Determined, brave, won't take guff from anyone—especially not men who think they know better." Tigress chuckled and leaned back in her chair.
"But when she got me alone, she was so kind, so sweet…apparently once the shock of Tai Lung finding her had faded, she was determined to start matchmaking for him immediately. When she found out he already had a fiancée, she was pretty embarrassed and had to completely change her thinking. She's making up for lost time now, though. With both of us…"
Trailing off, she stayed silent for several minutes, remembering the look in Jian's eyes when Tigress had told her about the earthquake in Jiangxi, about Bao Gu and the sort of upbringing Shifu had given her. How the aged snow leopardess had taken her paws in a surprisingly strong grasp, gazed at her with tears in her luminous blue eyes, and then quietly told her all of that was a thing of the past.
That as far as she was concerned, Cai Yun was as much her daughter as Qiao Zhin, and that whenever she could, however often it could be accomplished, she would travel to the Valley of Peace or invite Tigress to Qinghai so they could spend precious time together. No more would she be without a mother's love. Never again would she have to feel unwanted, unnoticed, or rejected. She might not be a mistress of kung fu, Jian had noted, but that didn't stop her from admiring her daughter-in-law, or being extremely grateful to have her join the family. Her son, she said, had chosen well, and she was proud of him for it.
Looking up from her reverie, which unsurprisingly had left her rather misty-eyed, Tigress found her companions had given her her time and privacy to handle the emotional moment. And while a strong part of her bristled at being caught so vulnerable and longed to deny what they'd seen via the ready excuse of steam wafting up from her dinner, the rest of her simply accepted it for what it was. She had love, kindness, and family, and these were no bad things. They did not mean she had lost her edge and become soft…there was no reason she could not be a supernal, unmatched warrior, and still indulge in the tenderness of the heart which up until now had been so lacking in her life.
That it should be Tai Lung of all people who would open her up to this, and then indirectly enable her to experience it so much deeper, from such an unexpected source, was startling…but in the end, somehow fitting. He too had locked himself away from emotion and human affection for so long. It was only right they be re-introduced to it together—and would continue sharing in it in more vivid and wonderful ways in the days and years to come.
Coughing and sniffling, Tigress rubbed the back of her paw over her watery eyes, then smiled rather eagerly. Now that she had heard of everyone, and had in turn been queried and interrogated as she'd girded herself for, she could at last ask about the one person in the Valley besides Jian (and Viper) who was happiest and most excited for her and Tai Lung. "So…how is Po?"
Viper smiled winsomely, affection quite clear in both her eyes and voice. "How do you think he is? He's been working on your wedding feast since dawn this morning, from planning to preparation to cooking, and he hasn't even stopped to rest or anything. I had to actually remind him to go to the kwoon for his daily training regimen, and even then he wouldn't go until I made sure Ping was there to take over for him."
Tigress blinked, rather stunned and deeply touched. "What? He…he did all that, for me? I…I didn't think anything could make Po forget about kung fu…"
Mei Ling smirked over her carton of egg rolls as she leaned on one elbow, gesturing with a chop stick out the window, in the direction of the Jade Palace. "Normally I'd agree with you. But it sure seems to me like there's something else that can make the Dragon Warrior forget kung fu. Or should I say, someone."
She paused, wondering just what the mountain cat was referring to—and then, as she recalled a certain kiss on the palace steps before the three Li Dai graduates had departed the Valley, as well as a great deal of training, interaction, and conversing in the kwoon which had, in her opinion, become far too intimate, Tigress narrowed her eyes and growled softly. "You don't mean Jia, do you?"
Instantly the room went quiet and still, and a palpable blanket of cold disapproval seemed to settle over the table—her own toward this incipient pairing, and that of the others…especially Mei…toward her. After a few more moments of awkward silence, the mountain cat spoke, by the sound of it forcing her voice to be deliberately light but fooling no one. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. She got pretty close to Po before we left the Valley, and now that we're back she decided to renew acquaintances. Are you telling me you didn't even notice?" One eyebrow rose archly.
"Not helping," Viper muttered, glaring at her, before turning a firm gaze to Tigress. "Before you go off half-cocked, Tigress, perhaps I need to remind you of a few things."
"Such as?" the striped feline replied coolly, rather proud that she was succeeding in maintaining her temper as well as she was.
"Well for starters, Jia isn't an assassin anymore, or a villainess," the serpent retorted.
"In fact she never was," Mei Ling chimed in. "Xiu manipulated her, remember?"
Tigress frowned darkly. She knew what the mountain cat had told her, what Jia herself had corroborated, and what Po himself had also insisted was the truth—which he believed out of a combination of several heartfelt talks with the former Wu Sister, his own experiences with Xiu's wicked depravity, and what he felt was genuine regret, admiration, and affection on Jia's part for Bao and Li-Na. She did not deny such a thing had the ring of truth, it was exactly what the eldest Wu Sister would do and it was why she had argued for clemency in her letter to the emperor.
But acquiring a pardon for the snow leopardess was one thing; granting her a complete out from all her past misdeeds was something else. As Mei Ling herself had once said, Jia still had a mind and will of her own, she could still make choices. Even if Xiu was extremely coercive and was using blackmail and scare tactics, Jia still allowed herself to do unspeakable things. It seemed wrong to pretend they never happened, or that because Xiu made her do them that this made them forgivable. You can sweep the dirt out of sight and pretend it's gone, but it's still there under the rug.
None of this, of course, justified Jia sinking her clutches into poor, innocent Po. She supposed she should be grateful the spotted feline wasn't still fighting tooth and claw for Tai Lung…but the very fact she had moved on so relatively quickly made her suspicious—of Jia's motives, her intentions, and the depth and realism of her feelings. Po deserved better than someone who was using him for mere entertainment in the bedroom, someone who was rebounding with him. Po simply deserved better than a felon and former killer, and the fact Mei Ling, who had once dallied with Tai Lung while stringing Crane along at the same time, was vouching for her was not the best testimonial in her half-sister's favor.
Thrusting aside the traitorous but highly persuasive thought that she herself was about to marry an ex-murderer and rampaging beast, and that if she could believe he had truly changed and turned his life around then surely it would be even easier for someone like Jia to do so, Tigress growled and slapped her paws down flat on the table. "Look. I'm sure she means well—" A lie. "—and that her heart is in the right place, but just because Jia isn't darkness incarnate doesn't mean she's trustworthy. Not when it comes to romance."
Cutting off the exasperated protest from Mei Ling's direction, she skewered the mountain cat with a pointed look. "Tell me truthfully, Mei: exactly what kind of lover has Jia been in the past? Is she really that loyal…or more likely to be fickle and move on to the next muscular fellow who strikes her fancy?" The mistress of the thousand scrolls looked stricken, but remained silent, obviously unable to answer—either because she didn't know, or because she could not gainsay Tigress. Turning then to Viper, she continued.
"And I know what you'll say, that Jia isn't like her sisters, that after all she's been through she deserves to have a normal life and a chance to be happy. You're right—but what guarantee do we have that this is the right path to it, for her or for Po? How do you know she'll be good for him, that she won't hurt him?"
She trembled with the force of her passionate emotions; once, she would have been shocked to hear herself say such things, let alone coming to the defense of a fat, foolish panda whom she'd believed had no respect or honor for the ways of kung fu. But that seemed like another lifetime now, she had learned so much, about the Dragon Warrior and about herself.
And she knew above all else that a good-hearted, true hero like the panda needed someone who would love him, treasure him, and honor him. However much Jia might have changed, whatever reluctance and anguish there had been within her at having to perform such vile deeds under her sisters' directions, she could not believe the snow leopardess could be such a woman for Po. Not without more proof.
Meanwhile, though, Viper seemed unwilling to back down—which would surprise no one who knew her and looked beyond her sweet façade. "You may be right, Tigress. But can you think of any better way for us to find out, or for her to become the kind of person you want for Po, than this? How do you expect Jia to prove herself if you won't give her a chance? It's Tai Lung all over again, you know…and he did much worse things than she ever did. I know you care for Po, we all do. But the time comes when you have to let him go, let him grow up, and take risks on his own. And if you give Jia a chance, then I bet she'll surprise, and please, you."
"Maybe," Tigress replied dubiously. Viper had a point, it would be very unfair of her not to give Jia the benefit of the doubt so she could prove her wrong. But that didn't stop her from wanting to watch the snow leopardess like a hawk the whole time she was in the Valley. Except thanks to this ridiculous cockloft tradition, she couldn't—and after the wedding, she'd be quite happily secluded in the nuptial chamber…
As if the mountain cat had read her mind, Mei suddenly reached over and placed a paw on hers. "Don't worry. If it means that much to you, I'll keep an eye on her while we're here, make sure there's no funny business, and see that she's doing right by Po."
The leader of the Furious Five gazed down pointedly at the beige paw until she removed it. "Uh-huh. Like there was no funny business between you and Tai Lung. I'm sure I can trust you with something this important."
Viper gasped while Mei Ling looked deeply hurt—but also resentful. Yet Tigress didn't let her gaze waver. "Is that what this is all about? Gods, do you ever let a grudge go? Besides, I already said I was sorry, didn't I?"
"Actually, you didn't. But that isn't the point." Tigress crossed her arms and waited.
After a long moment, the mountain cat sighed. "Well, I am. You know I didn't mean anything by it, I was just trying to help."
"Your idea of help almost cost you Crane," she pointed out quietly.
Mei Ling winced. "Touché. But you've got to admit, you never would have taken the next step, spent time with Tai, and gotten to know him, if I hadn't made you jealous enough. I'm not saying I didn't make a mistake, or that I don't need better methods…but the important thing is, look at what a wonderful life you two are about to have because of all this. Master Oogway may have loved to go on about how the journey is what matters, but the destination is pretty crucial too." Tigress did have to admit she had her there.
Clasping her paws formally before her chest, the Li Dai graduate half-bowed in her chair, her expression and tone both contrite and apologetic. "I truly am sorry, Master Tigress—for hurting you, and also for making you view Jia in the same bad light as me. Please forgive me…and Jia. I promise nothing like it will ever happen again, and I'll make sure Jia doesn't make the same mistake. Po means a lot to me too. But maybe, if you think about it, you can find it in your heart to realize she won't ever hurt him. Not after what happened with his parents, and her part in it."
The striped feline sighed, stared down at the whorls and patterns in the wooden table, and then nodded slowly as she looked up again. "Apology accepted. And…I'm sorry too." Forgiveness might be no easier for her than it had been for Xiulan (or for that matter, Tai Lung), but she could tell that whatever else might be true, whatever the future held, Mei certainly wasn't after her groom-to-be.
Knowing that, however, meant she finally felt it was safe to ask the mountain cat about him, and with everyone else at the palace accounted for, she could also inquire without sounding desperate and pitifully besotted—she hoped. So after a few minutes, as Mei Ling unobtrusively wiped at her suddenly moist eyes and Viper began to stow away the dishes and utensils, Tigress sat up straight and looked from one woman to the other with mingled anticipation and amusement.
"So, when he isn't showing he's still my biggest fan by outdoing himself on the wedding feast, Po is keeping busy with Jia. But what about my spotted sweetheart? How's he handling the separation?"
Viper and Mei Ling paused, exchanging a long look that was at once fond, devilishly naughty, and oddly knowing, as if there was a secret they were both in on which she wasn't even aware of—and she wouldn't put it past either one of them to have that be exactly the case. But before she could pry the truth out of either of them, there suddenly came a very strange sound from outside the room.
It took Tigress several moments to place it, since she hardly had much experience with larceny, espionage, or even the disobedience of youth—such was her determination to win Shifu's praise and respect that breaking curfew by even one minute had been unconscionable to her, let alone sneaking out a window at night to visit the village without permission. Nevertheless, her hearing was excellent and the sound's direction as well as its nature—wood scraping, glass rattling, and curtains swishing—let her eventually deduce what it was. Someone was climbing in through the hall window. And as soon as that someone was inside and had begun to slip down the passage, she recognized his heavy tread. It was soon accompanied by a very familiar voice, hoarse and raspy with its soft pitch in the quiet evening shadows.
"Tigress? Where are you? Oh, come on…I know I'm not supposed to be here, love, but could you please give a man a clue? A hint? Anything? I've been going mad—again—without you…"
Instantly whirling about in shock, she skewered her companions with a disbelieving glare. "What? You told him where I was? After all that talk of doing things right, and following all the traditions…?"
Mei Ling looked innocent, shrugging easily. "What can we say? We like him a lot, and we care about you, too. We know how much this means to both of you, and Tai Lung is someone you just can't say no to—especially when he's like this…"
As the striped feline was still staring at them in dismay and growing resentment at their hypocrisy—but also couldn't help her heart beating faster at the thought of seeing her fiance again—something even more odd happened that startled her completely out of her anger and excitement. In the hallway, the snow leopard's footsteps grew closer and closer, as well as his anxious voice…but then, inexplicably, they bypassed the room, receding farther down the corridor. Frowning, Tigress listened to Tai Lung apparently exploring the inn rather than coming right to her chamber—no, his stride remained as purposeful as ever, he simply seemed to have a completely different destination.
She turned back to the others, opened her mouth—only to have it covered by Viper's coils. "Now, now, Tigress. We can't have you spoiling the surprise."
"What do you mean?" she hissed in a whisper when the serpent finally allowed her to speak.
Mei Ling answered for her again. "Well, how shall I put this…we like Tai Lung, and we know how much this means to you…but, we're still honor-bound to make sure he doesn't violate tradition. And Master Shifu knew he'd try to sneak down here, no matter what we did to try to stop him. So…"
"How did he know where I was?" the leader of the Five queried accusingly.
The serpent winked and smiled sidelong at her. "Well, we did 'accidentally' let slip we were bringing you dinner when we 'happened' to bump into him at Ping's…and I think Mei might have mentioned the name of the inn you were staying in just a bit too loudly, why she must have thought that old goose was hard-of-hearing…"
"You didn't!" Tigress clenched her fists, then paused again. Something still wasn't adding up. "Then how come he's not barging in…?"
Her answer came when Tai Lung's hoarse voice again came from the hallway, this time accompanied by a soft, diffident tap on the door—not the door of her room, but of one much farther down the passage, nowhere near her chamber in fact. "Love? Sorry it took me so long…had to wait till your dinner was through, Viper and Mei said they'd be going back out to drop off the leftovers. And you wouldn't believe how stringent Shifu was about keeping us apart—I swear, he gave more details to all the inn staff of what I look and sound like, so as to keep me out, than were ever drawn up on the Imperial writs for my arrest…"
From the other chamber, the sound of rustling clothing could be heard, soft footsteps, a murmuring mumble that definitely sounded feminine. In seconds, Tigress realized what was about to happen…it was night, the moon was on that side of the inn, so as soon as whoever was staying in that room opened the door, the light would be flooding her from behind, leaving her a featureless silhouette. All Tai Lung would see was shapely female curves…
A lock clicked, the door opened, along with a yawn that sounded feline in nature. "Yes? I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you. Did you say—?"
The floor creaked under the snow leopard's weight, and Tigress could clearly hear as he let out an explosive breath and a soft, pleasurable moan. Paws rubbing over cloth…warm wet flesh sliding together…a rumbling purr…he was kissing her!
She shot another fierce look at Viper, demanding answers…and this time she gave her one, tossed off with a nonchalance and absentness so clearly feigned it was laughable. "Oh dear, I'm so sorry. Did we give Tai Lung the wrong room number by mistake? It must have slipped our minds…"
Very slowly, even maliciously, Tigress began to grin.
Before she could say one word, there came another noise from the next room—the distinct sound of furred flesh meeting as someone was given a healthy slap, and then a woman's scream. "Cad! Rake!"
"Oh my—I am so terribly sorry, I thought you were—"
Something was thrown violently against the wall by the door, shattering into pieces that spilled across the hallway. "Why, you wicked, uncouth beast!"
Tai Lung sounded very panicked. "Now, I-I-I can explain…"
"Who do you think you are, barging in here as if you own the place and violating me so? How dare you—I …am a…married…woman!" Each of these last words was punctuated by more slaps, a few kicks, and what sounded like a solid punch as well.
The tirade went on for several minutes, with the snow leopard futilely trying to apologize but at best only able to get a few words in edgewise—when he wasn't simply crying "Ow!" after every blow, which now sounded as if they were being delivered by a tightly gripped shoe.
By the time Tai Lung had limped away from the other room and back to the hallway window, covering his head to judge by his muffled voice and surely nursing whatever shreds of his dignity he had remaining, all three women were fit to be tied and having to restrain themselves valiantly to stay quiet. Only when they heard the male's heavy form land with a thud on the cobbled street below and scramble away in the direction of the Jade Palace—with one last vituperation hurled after him along with that shoe—did they allow themselves to collapse in helpless waves of tearful laughter.
Finally, after she had recovered her breath, Tigress wiped her eyes and regarded Viper with awe at her audacity, and more than a little admiration. "Gods…I can not believe…that was the most evil thing I have ever seen! Absolutely terrible!"
"Coming from a feline, I take that as the highest compliment," the serpent replied smugly.
"Though he was kind of being sweet about it," Mei Ling pointed out wistfully.
"Oh, hush," Tigress said. "The way he was sneaking around, breaking traditions, and disobeying our master, he deserved it."
Viper smirked. "Oh, so when it's Tai Lung we're talking about, traditions apply, but not for you?" Tigress chose to ignore that.
"Well now that he's gone, and won't be coming back at least till he gets some ice put on that black eye of his—though if he knows what's good for him, he'll stay away till tomorrow," the mountain cat observed once their laughter had died again, "there's something I absolutely have to know."
Tigress eyed her askance, as that sounded like an invitation to far too much naughty implication for her liking. But then she caught herself—she was almost one hundred percent positive now that Mei cared only for Crane, no longer had designs on Tai Lung and never had. And if her first instincts were right after all…well, what better way to disarm the mountain cat and also show her the striped feline didn't even register her as a threat, or have anything to feel threatened about, than by indulging in this coy teasing?
Besides, it was still a damned sight better than Viper's slumber party notions.
"What's that?" she asked at last.
Leaning forward on her elbows, Mei eyed her winsomely. "How is tomorrow night going to work? You going to jump his bones first, or let him do the 'traditional' thing and take you in a manly fashion?"
Viper choked on the last dumpling, while the leader of the Five turned beet red…but then, slowly, she began to smile.
(A/N: First off...I am so, so, so sorry for how long this has taken. I really have no excuse since my life has hardly been that busy. I guess it's just been a combination of all the research I had to do, this being a character rather than plot-driven piece, not really having detailed plans in place as I did for "Different Lesson", and lack of inspiration/ideas. But I finally managed to get this written! On the downside, since it took me so long, I decided to go ahead and post it before having finished all the vignettes. So that means that once again you'll have to wait for the next segments; from now on, I'll update whenever, as I finish each vignette or set of vignettes. Not sure yet how many there will be...I know how many 'stories' I want to tell, but not how many chapters/vignettes they will be divided into. This one was going to be one and instead became three, big surprise there. :P
The only reference I make here that is likely unfamiliar to you is the bit where Shifu was forcing Viper to pay for tofu in order to save money, which is a shout-out to a similar scene with Vork of The Guild involving cheese slices. Also, for those paying close attention, that "insulting, raunchy canine cook" was of course a shout out to Lin from Marie Goos's "Blue Plate Special". I wish I could have included her more...who knows, maybe I can fit her in in more detail later. ;) And yes, I very much enjoyed the fakeout at the start, yanking your chain about just whom Shifu was confronting. I wouldn't be me if I didn't pull such things. ^_^ R/R!)