The rats were gone. Vikram, the scarred old elephant warrior who'd already been a respected officer when Akshatha was still a boy, had been on watch three nights ago when several of the rats returned. Vikram had never liked rats; something about their small, scurrying forms troubled him on a deep level. But he had gotten their report before letting them join their fellows in Rahas' tent, and a good thing, too. By morning, the tent was empty of all but the cobra's cushions, and there was not a rat to be found in the camp.
If Akshatha had been furious at the escape of his enemies into the all-too-defensible valley, he was livid at the report of Rahas' death. He had valued the cobra as much more than an assassin; he had always given Akshatha the benefit of his wisdom and clear-sighted appraisal of their circumstances. Rahas was one of the few people he had ever truly trusted and relied on. If he could get into that valley, he would leave the place a smoking ruin in reprisal for the cobra's death; but he had learned much from their association. Enough to know that Rahas would advise him to set aside revenge for the moment, before the pursuit of it robbed him of his ultimate goal. He had wasted enough time here. If his enemies didn't come out of cover to follow him, then he would deal with them when he ruled this land.
The jackal messengers Ushi had sent were waiting for him to give them a reply and send them back to the ox. The main force of his army had made good time heading north, a much easier matter without the troublesome rhinos interfering, and were poised to make their next river crossing before they headed for the mountain passes. He considered the rest of the message – Ushi had been in contact with his allies, and had learned of the Emperor's whereabouts. It seemed the old bird was on some sort of pilgrimage, and would be crossing their path very neatly. There had been messages from their enemies received in the capital, and forces were being sent to meet them. But it wouldn't matter. They had made good time on their northward march, and had arrived at the moment they had planned. With the Emperor outside of his capital and only defended by his bodyguard, however numerous, he was extremely vulnerable; far more so than he believed. And he likely hadn't received word yet that he was even in danger. They could delay the main body of their enemies and cut the pheasant off from help, if they moved quickly. They could delay their strike no longer.
Akshatha gave the messengers his reply, and sent the lean long-distance runners on their way. He would meet up with Ushi at a point further north. They would deal with the Emperor, then with whatever was left of his army. Akshatha knew fighting men. They would fall in line with a strong leader, rather than allow the country to descend into chaos and civil war as potential rulers jockeyed for the throne. With Ushi, one of their own, to rally them, he would have their support. Of course, Ushi's greatest advantage had always been his outsider status; here on his home ground, he could become a problem. Akshatha growled softly to himself, regretting more than ever the loss of Rahas. But he would see the signs, he thought, and could nip any potential disloyalty in the bud. Yes, very soon he would once again sit on the throne of his own kingdom, his new kingdom, one he had conquered by his own strength. Then he could see to his retaliation on all those who had troubled him in the past.
He gave the order, and his men began to retrace their path away from the deep gorge with its broken bridge, back toward the north. He was aware of the ever-present cranes passing overhead, but paid them no heed.
Despite Ping's insistence that he sleep, Tai Lung was awake by midmorning. Not because he was anywhere near rested enough, but because Po had come bounding into the room with an exclamation of "There you are, buddy! Good to see you awake!" Even though he had been blissfully asleep until that moment, Tai Lung had to smile. It was so good to see the panda; especially after the nightmares he'd had, it was good to see Po alive and in one piece, and as friendly and optimistic as ever. He sat up in bed, and noticed in passing that Mrs. Fong only belatedly snapped her shutters closed across the alley.
Po had brought him soup. Of course Po had brought him soup, it was what the panda did, ply him with food at every possible opportunity. If he allowed this to continue – and it was very likely he would – he would be fatter than the bear and completely unable to fight within the month. He ate it with a returning appetite that was going to be ravenous by the end of the day, he guessed, while Po looked for some spot in his room to sit down in. Tai Lung would have offered him room on the bed, but he was positive the sagging structure would never handle both of them. Finally, after wisely reconsidering upending a large soup pot, Po just plopped onto the floor.
The panda grinned at Tai Lung. "Guess who else has come to see you?" he asked.
Tai Lung glanced toward the doorway, and was baffled by what was, apparently, a shy rhino peering into the room. He didn't know rhinos could do shy. Apparently encouraged by his attention – or perhaps his puzzled expression – the young soldier came the rest of the way into the room. "Hey, Tai Lung. Glad to see you're doing better," he said.
Tai Lung found he was actually pleased to see the young man. "Good to see you, Anguo. How's the leg?"
Anguo glanced down at the bandage on his thigh. "Doing a lot better. It's healing up pretty fast; I hardly limp at all now. Po's been showing me some good fighting moves." He looked around the room, taking in the collection of memorabilia. "Po, that's an awesome painting of Master Crane!"
Po flashed him a proud grin. "Yeah, that's one of my favorites. Did I tell you where I got it?"
Tai Lung listened to the panda and rhino talk about kung fu, and Po's exploits, and Po's stuff, and ate his soup, and eventually his visitors noticed he was fading out on them and left him to sleep. Sometime after a lunch rush that he was completely oblivious to, Ping brought up yet more soup and relayed wishes for his recovery from a surprising number of people – as well as a truly delicious rice cake sent by the elderly Mrs. Ba. He dozed off again, and woke to the warm light of evening on the alley wall outside his window.
He lay on his back in bed, staring at the ceiling and feeling… not bad. Perhaps Ping was right, and Secret Ingredient Soup was a cure-all; at least it tasted better than Cheren's favorite tonic. What was the secret ingredient? He thought he'd ground or chopped everything Ping had on hand, and he couldn't remember seeing the goose slip anything unusual into the soup pot. He could hear the sound of voices and clinking bowls and utensils from downstairs, and felt guilty about not helping with dinner. Especially since so many people had asked about him. Who would have thought it? After all the terror and destruction he'd caused, at least some people were willing to… what? Give him another chance? Forgive him?
Take him back?
That thought weighed him down again. He wasn't back, he never would be back. This short stop in his old home was only a brief respite. All he wanted now was to stay. Not to be a great hero, the object of everyone's admiration. He'd be happy to stay here in Ping's noodle shop. At least, he thought he would. He glanced at the wooden figures lining the windowsill. No, the Valley of Peace didn't need him as its defender any more, if it ever had; it had a full complement of heroes here now.
It suddenly struck him how much time had actually passed. In Chorh-gom, despite his being intensely, painfully aware of every passing moment, there had still been a sense of unchanging, timeless stasis. He hadn't changed, he'd only grown more focused on his obsession, his sense of being wronged, his desire for revenge. He hadn't truly realized how the world outside was moving forward, how it was changing. He had been the center of his own world, and somehow he had assumed he was the center of everyone else's as well. He hadn't been. The memory of his actions, good and evil, had faded as life went on and other concerns, whether important events or those of daily life, had edged him aside, until he was almost something new, a stranger here where he was raised. Without the immediate threat of his madness dredging up old terrors, he could, at least tentatively, be accepted as exactly what he appeared to be – just one more inhabitant of the Valley going about his business.
But that was an illusion. He couldn't stay. Even if it were allowed, how could he live with memories that were still all too fresh in his experience? He had brooded on nothing else for half his life. And deep inside, he feared that what Vachir had said all too often was true, that he couldn't be trusted, that no matter what he intended he might still lose control, that some small thing might set him off. He couldn't afford to lose control, not with his strength and skills; that was what Shifu and Oogway had tried so hard to teach him, and that was exactly where he had failed.
That was where he had failed…
Had that been what Oogway had seen in him, and turned away from? He had thought that being the Dragon Warrior was merely a measure of mastery, that his ferocity and deadly skill in battle were all that were needed to achieve his goal, if only he could manage that little bit more, that final degree of effort… But look at Po. He was in no way what Tai Lung had tried to be, and yet, there was no way the snow leopard would deny that he most certainly was the Dragon Warrior. There was something else, something he had missed, something he had passed over or pushed aside in his focus on the fighting skills that brought him such admiration.
He tried to think back to those earlier days, tried to recapture the moments when he hadn't been practicing his fighting skills. Times when he had sat quietly by the Moon Pool, or under the peach tree, or in the Dragon Grotto, talking to Shifu or, more often, to Oogway. Talking, but not listening as much as he could have, not truly interested in the conversations that didn't center around fighting techniques or battle strategy, letting his mind wander to some way to turn the subject to his own interests, or feeling impatient and irritated with the tortoise's peaceful philosophizing, wanting action, wanting excitement…
What had he missed in those moments? He tried to remember, tried to let those words he had half-ignored resurface in his mind. He was startled to come back to the present to find the room had grown dark around him. He heard Ping talking downstairs, heard Po answering him, but couldn't catch the words. The goose was beginning to sound anxious, though, and he was just about to get up and make his way downstairs, find out what was wrong, when Po came up to the room, soup bowls in hand.
"What's bothering your father?" he asked, while they ate, although, thinking it over, he suspected he knew.
"We had a big meeting today, at the Jade Palace," Po said. "Decided what to do now that Crane's back. Akshatha's headed north again, he's not hanging around the end of the bridge anymore. The rest of his army crossed the Han above Xiangzhou. The Emperor's army is heading south to stop them. The Anvil's going to head out soon, to meet up with the rest of their men from the capitol." He paused for a moment, and finished his soup in one long slurp. "And we're – the Five and me – we're going to follow after the bad guys, maybe find a way to slow them down, or keep them from meeting up before the army gets to them. So that's why my dad's worried."
Tai Lung could feel the small, cold kernel of dread he'd tried to ignore for so long begin to grow larger. If the Anvil was leaving in a day or so – he was in no shape to travel yet. Vachir wouldn't slow down for him, he was sure, and he wouldn't leave him behind. Not alive, anyway. What orders had Crane brought back? He wanted to ask Po – but even more, he didn't want to ask at all.
"I think Mantis wants you to stay here," Po went on, oblivious to his tension, but going a long way toward relieving it nevertheless. "Shifu's not going, of course, so maybe the two of you can… I don't know… work things out… or whatever. While we're gone." He looked up at the snow leopard. "I wish you were coming with us, Tai. So you could help us fight these guys, show everyone what you're like now."
Tai Lung managed to smile. "I wish I were going too, Po." A thought struck him, and his smile widened. "Just make sure Tigress goes with you – I don't want to be stuck in the Valley with her!"
But when Po had gone, the knot of worry tightened again. He wanted to know, for certain, what had been decided about his future. He wanted the freedom to make that decision for himself. He wanted to stay in the Valley of Peace, but at the same time, he wanted to leave with the others, fight beside Po and end the threat Akshatha posed to China – and be acknowledged the hero Po wanted him to be. His thoughts would have kept him up all night, turning over and over in his head, but he was still exhausted and, eventually, sleep overtook him.
Sleep was the farthest thing from Shifu's mind. It was not that he wasn't exhausted; the last four days had left him feeling completely drained. But he knew sleep would be beyond him now. He had to find a way to bring his racing thoughts and tumultuous emotions under control. And so, after the strategy meeting had ended, he had had a few words with Tigress and then began the long hike up the mountain, to the one place he hoped could restore his equilibrium and composure.
He had thought this pain dealt with long ago, half a lifetime ago – half of Tai Lung's lifetime. For twenty years his son had been lost to him, and he had closed himself off from the world, and from his own heartbreak, and from those who cared for him, because he couldn't face the pain brought about by that betrayal and disillusionment. Yes, that was it – the illusion that Tai Lung had chased to his destruction had been, in the beginning, Shifu's own dream, first for himself, and then for his son. He had accepted his own failure, or he thought he had. He had dreamed he could be the Dragon Warrior, but when that was not to be, he had only modified the dream, not given it up completely – he would train the Dragon Warrior, and at least gain the reflected glory. And he had. But it had not been Tai Lung, who he had desired, oh so badly, to see receive that ultimate honor and recognition – his son, his student, his pride and joy. His pride…
His pride had caused this. He had encouraged Tai Lung to believe that he would be the Dragon Warrior, not that there was the possibility of it but that the thing would be his, beyond doubt. Somehow, beyond his own hopes, he had thought that, if the unthinkable should happen and Oogway should decide to withhold the Scroll, Tai Lung would continue to follow in his footsteps. He would take the disappointment with grace and accept, as Shifu had, the mantle of teacher, hoping in his turn to one day train that great one himself. That he would react with fury and violence had never occurred to Shifu. How could it? That was not the son he knew, whom he had raised with his own high ideals, whom he had trained in the virtues of kung fu. What other lessons had he inadvertently taught him, to lead to this?
He had closed himself off afterward, accepting that Tai Lung was lost to him – yet, Tai Lung still lived. Surely, some small part of him still whispered, while he lived there was hope that he could be reached, that he would come to his senses, that something could be done, that he could return. That was why, at the last, he had tried to reach out to him, to make his apologies. Tai Lung's rejection, his mad rage, had convinced Shifu that there was, indeed, no hope, and when Po had told him of Tai Lung's defeat, he had acknowledged to himself that it was the only possible end to the matter. His son was gone, had been gone for far longer than he had admitted to himself. It was for the best; it had been for the best all those years ago, if only he had seen it. He had at last been able to move forward from that terrible moment by the Moon Pool, and begin to seek his own peace.
And then that last, unexpected chance had come, with Tai Lung's unforeseen return, his unexpected change of heart… and he had nearly missed it. He had allowed his own pent-up anger, and pain, and yes, fear, to color his response. Later, when he had calmed, he had still held aloof. Even that conversation before the Hall of Heroes, when he had almost slipped and let his hopes sway him, he had managed to keep his distance. And that had nearly been the last time he spoke to his son. What if he had let that chance slip away forever?
It was Tai Lung who had diverted the cobra's strike; though Tigress and Po had been only a step or two behind him, it had been his son who had saved his life, and nearly lost his own. If Tai Lung had died, if he had lost the opportunity, set this one last time before him, to make things right… He had not left his son's side for more than a moment through the four days after the attack, paying no heed to the important matters he knew it was his duty to attend to, eating, distractedly, only when Po or Tigress pressed him to, sleeping only when he could no longer hold on to consciousness and awaking soon after to continue his vigil. He had watched anxiously as Mantis and the physicians had used every treatment and medicine they knew to counteract the venom, as Po patiently coaxed water or broth into the near-comatose snow leopard, as Tai Lung's own prodigious strength and will fought to keep body and spirit together; and at last, as his son's breathing finally evened out and his taut muscles relaxed, Shifu felt the unendurable tension easing and allowed himself to fall asleep, truly asleep, curled against Tai Lung's side, listening to the reassuring beat of his son's heart.
And in the morning, he had awakened to find himself leaning on Po, with an empty mat before him. And he knew Tai Lung so well, he knew what was being said as clearly as if it had been shouted at him. He had said, upon the leopard's first return, that this was no longer his home. He was no longer his master. The words had been true enough, then, when Tai Lung was still in the grip of his obsession, still acting against every virtue the Jade Palace represented. But despite his furious response at the time, he had, it seemed, taken the words to heart, and still believed them. He felt himself unworthy. He had gone, as soon as he was able; and he had turned Shifu towards Po, towards the true Dragon Warrior. Tai Lung accepted him in that role, accepted that the panda was the proper object of Shifu's attention and guidance – and that he was not.
That would have been the worst moment Shifu had faced in years, had it not been for Vachir's arrival soon after to consider their strategy. Because it was then, in a brief, private discussion, that he learned of the orders the rhino had received concerning Tai Lung.
His initial feeling had been a deep shock. Hadn't he, and Vachir, made it clear in their reports that Tai Lung had changed, that he no longer presented a danger to the people of the Valley or to anyone else? He had thought their recommendations, as the two most concerned, most responsible for the snow leopard, who knew him best, would go without question. He had been worried, of course, but had reassured himself that the matter would go smoothly, as he intended.
But it hadn't. Vachir had made it plain that he intended to take no action until the matter of Akshatha's invasion had been settled, but what then? He had pointed out that it was not the Emperor who had given the order, but what difference did it make? Vachir would surely not, when it came down to, defy an imperial general; and even if he did, what good would it do? The Emperor would certainly not allow this General Yuan to lose face; not to save a man who had already proved himself a danger and a hardened criminal.
He hadn't spoken of it to the others. How could he? Crane gave no indication he was aware of what his message contained. He could not distract Tigress with concerns over his state, not when she would soon have to lead the others into battle against a powerful enemy. And the rest of the Five… Monkey had obviously befriended Tai Lung, and Mantis had considered him a friend in their youth, and clearly still did. He had seen the distress Viper had felt when helping Mantis treat Tai Lung; she cared for his son, it was evident. And Po… Po believed in Tai Lung's innate goodness, wanted so much to help him prove himself and see him restored to his place in the Jade Palace. How could he tell Po that Tai Lung could not only never return, never become a hero again, but could not even hope to be returned to prison, where he would at least be alive and reasonably safe?
How could he even tell himself that, let himself believe that this was what would be, what had to be?
He had been preoccupied during the meeting, letting Tigress and Vachir decide on their plans, turning aside Crane's concern about his distraction, letting the others think, if they would, that he was simply exhausted after the past few days. And afterwards, looking for a place to be alone with his thoughts, somewhere he could search deep within himself and try to decide what was right, he had come here, to the Pool of Sacred Tears.
What was he to do now, he wondered, as he watched the broken reflections of clouds pass across the face of the water. The fragmented images slowly warmed from white to gold and orange, then faded, to red, then violet, and disappeared altogether into the deep indigo of night. The ripples of the pool showed the sparks of stars now, hiding and reappearing behind the flying clouds. A chilly wind made its way down from the peaks behind him. Slowly, light returned to the sky as the waning moon rose.
He had always tried to do what was right, what was proper. He had turned away from Tai Lung when the snow leopard had obviously wanted him to confront Oogway, because it was not right to question his master's decision. He had turned away from him even more, after, when Tai Lung had thrown aside all he had taught him, all virtue and honor, to try to take by force what was never his…
Shifu knew his duty, he knew what he should do, what was right, and proper. It was his duty to uphold and pass on the principles and virtues of the art that Oogway had taught him. It was his duty to protect the Valley of Peace, and defend the weak and the helpless. And it was his duty to respect and honor the Emperor, the Son of Heaven, the rightful ruler of China. He knew this, believed it with everything in his being. And he knew where his duty lay, what he should do. Even if it was not what he might want to do. Orders had been given; and he should accept them.
He considered the matter long into the night, while the moon rose high overhead. Finally, he straightened, his face set with determination. No. This was Tai Lung. This was his son. He could not turn away from him again.
He made his way down the mountain, back to the Jade Palace. The barracks were nearly silent, save for a faint echo of Po's snores down the hall. As he passed by, though, Mantis' door cracked open.
"Master Shifu?" the insect queried, obviously concerned. "Are you alright?"
Shifu gave a nod. He was, indeed, alright. "You will be leaving tomorrow?"
"The rhinos are heading out before noon. We're going to wait until the next morning. Give Crane time to scout ahead, and Tigress' arm one more day to rest."
"Good." Shifu kept his voice steady. "Will you go down to the village tomorrow and tell Tai Lung I want him to remain here, in the Valley? I doubt he's sufficiently recovered from his illness to go into battle."
Mantis looked at him quizzically; he sensed there was more going on here, but he knew Shifu's expression, and realized he would not get any further explanation. He gave Shifu a bow in acknowledgment. "Yeah, I thought he should stay, too. I'll tell him tomorrow."
"Thank you," Shifu replied. As Mantis' door closed, he continued to his own room. He would get a good night's sleep, he thought, and rest most of tomorrow. He would need to be at his best for what he planned to do.
The refugees had begun arriving days ago, a few over the pass by the mountain village, most by boats coming up the river to the portage. When his men had first brought him reports of their arrival, Vachir had worried about the disruption to the Valley, but the inhabitants had taken the matter in stride, finding food and housing for the newcomers. As he later learned, this was hardly the first time an invading army had sent people from the surrounding lands seeking shelter here. It was as well, though, the rhino thought, that he and his men were leaving; the resources of the Valley were strained enough with their presence. Better to leave the provisions to those who needed it, and go after those who had driven them out of their homes.
That, after all, was what the Anvil of Heaven was for. He felt, under his anger at the invader's depredations, a growing excitement at the thought of going into battle for such a worthy cause again. It had been a very, very long time.
"We've arranged to use the boats they brought up," Chuluun was saying over a cup of tea, as the sky began to lighten. "As soon as we're done I'll start the men moving toward the portage. Some of the boatmen will take us back downriver, save us days of marching. We'll come up right behind Ushi, should be able to outflank him and meet up with Deshiyn." He gave a snort of disgust and added, "And Yuan."
"Any word from the cranes where Akshatha went?" Vachir asked, after a long sip from his cup. The new supply of tea he had bought was excellent, and he was enjoying it immensely.
"More directly north. If he's meeting up with Ushi, it's going to be after they cross the mountains."
"Tigress and the others are going to try to slow them down." Vachir finished his tea and set his cup down. "If we can keep them from meeting up, take them on separately… all the better." They stood up. "Alright, start the men moving to the portage. I'll be there shortly."
Chuluun said quietly, "What are we doing about Tai Lung?"
Vachir waved him off. "Oh, leave him here. Shifu can worry about him for a while. But I don't think he's a threat here anymore."
Chuluun nodded. "Have to agree there. Nothing here he wants, is there? And he's still getting over his snakebite."
"Haven't heard he's killed anyone with his cooking," Vachir grinned. Chuluun chuckled in return. "But I'll go up there and tell him to stay put."
"Because he always does exactly what you tell him," Chuluun put in.
"He better," Vachir growled. "I don't want him anywhere near Yuan until we get this sorted out."
"And if it doesn't sort out?"
Vachir set his jaw stubbornly, but then sighed. "I'll do what I have to. But not without putting up the best fight I can."
"Still don't see the point, Vachir."
"I know what I'm aiming at. And I don't like anyone who doesn't know the Anvil's business second-guessing me." He turned back to look at his friend. "You know I always have the Anvil's best interest in mind, Chuluun."
"I know. Get going. I'll meet you at the portage. If you miss the boat, I'm taking the tea."
The Valley of Peace was still in the shadow of the surrounding mountains, but high clouds were bright with the reflected sunrise as Vachir made his way through the streets of the village. Farmers coming into town with produce were already setting up their carts in the town square. He continued on to the noodle shop. There were no customers yet, but from the arch he could see brisk activity in the kitchen.
Ping looked up and brightened as he came toward the counter, offering him a bowl of noodles; he shook his head at the offer as Tai Lung turned, regarding him warily. "Come over here," he said. "Need to talk to you." He saw the goose's smile falter as Tai Lung came out of the kitchen and followed him to a table in the far corner of the courtyard.
He took a seat, gesturing for the snow leopard to do the same. He looked the cat over. "Looks like you're doing better," he said, his voice carefully neutral.
Tai Lung's tension was obvious. "Why," he asked quietly, "do I feel that's not a good thing?"
Vachir pulled the message scroll out of his belt. "Got our orders from Chang'an," he said, pushing it across the table. Tai Lung regarded the object as if it might be another snake for a moment, then reluctantly unrolled it and read. It didn't take him long to find the relevant section. Vachir watched his face as shock faded into resignation.
"I see," he said tightly. "When… are you…?"
Tai Lung stared at him wordlessly.
"I already told you," he went on, "My plan is to settle with that tiger, and then get the Anvil back to Chorh-gom, or some other permanent post. And that includes you."
Somehow, the snow leopard's expression became even more bleak. "Do you really hate me that much?" he said softly.
Vachir pulled back, startled. "What? No!" Once again, he felt that unlikely twinge of sympathy for Tai Lung. He covered it with bluster. "Now see here!" He jabbed a finger at the leopard. "I decide what happens to you! Understand me? Not you! And not some damned stuffed shirt of a general hiding behind his desk in Chang'an! If I say I'm keeping you, I'm keeping you!" He waited for a response; none came. He'd yelled too much all these years, he thought, it didn't get through to the cat anymore. If it ever had. He lowered his voice. "Look, I've seen you these past few weeks, and the panda's right. You've changed a lot. You deserve better than this." He flicked a finger at the scroll. "I said as much in my report, but it looks like Yuan didn't get the message. So I'll have to take it up with him in person. I'll get this sorted out." He waited. Still nothing. Tai Lung stared at a spot on the tabletop, seeing nothing. This wasn't the purposeful, disdainful way the snow leopard used to exclude his jailors from his notice; now, he just wasn't there. This was no good. He had to give the cat something to hold onto, but not the high-blown fantasies Shifu or Po had spun him. That would do him no good – worse than no good.
"Look, Tai Lung," he finally said. "You've given me no trouble since we found you. We get ourselves settled somewhere, that keeps up, right? No fighting with the guards, no trying to escape?"
The snow leopard shook his head, then managed a quiet, "No."
"No trying to run back here to make noodles with the goose?"
Tai Lung looked up, somewhat puzzled by the humor in the last question. "Nooo…"
Vachir looked him right in the eyes. "Then there's no need to keep you in your full restraints, is there?"
For a minute, Tai Lung could do no more than blink at him in surprise. "You'd do that?" he finally managed.
Vachir gave him a wry look. "You're a problem to me, furball," he said. "You always have been a problem to me. If you're going to be less of a problem, it's in my best interest to encourage that. Yes, I'll do that."
Tai Lung's eyes had dropped back to the scroll, his brows furrowing again. "Did you tell Po about this?"
Vachir frowned. "Hell no, I didn't tell Po about this! How do you think he'd take it? I showed it to Shifu, and he's so closed-mouthed, I don't think he's even told himself yet. Don't worry about the panda. But now listen to me." Vachir pulled the paper out of his line of sight and rolled it up. "You listening? I want you out of Yuan's sight and reach until I get this settled. I'm leaving a few badly wounded here, a few of the men got nasty infections from those damn hyenas, and Ling took that axe wound…" he frowned, momentarily distracted at the thought of that injury; the man would likely lose an eye. He turned his mind back to the matter at hand. He reached over and gripped the snow leopard's arm above the bandaged wrist, caught his gaze and held it. "You're not recovered either. So you're staying here too." That took a second to sink in, then he felt the muscle twitch under his hand, saw a flash of resistance in the cat's eyes. "No arguments about it!" he warned. "I mean it! You stay here. Keep your head down, cause no trouble. I know it's hard, I know you want in on this fight. I don't blame you. But it can't happen. You stay here, and when this is over I'll come back for you. Understand me?"
Tai Lung frowned, not answering.
"Tai," he growled. He thumped a finger on the table in emphasis. "Stay. Right. Here. Understand?"
He watched the thoughts play out in the cat's subtle expressions. He wanted to go, and he wanted to stay; mostly, he didn't want to be told which to do. And he knew Vachir was right, and hated to admit it. Finally, he muttered, grudgingly, "Yes."
"Yes?" Vachir queried.
Tai Lung's mouth tightened to a line. "I'll stay here."
Vachir nodded. "One of these days, I'll get a proper 'yes, sir' out of you, and die of shock," he grumbled.
That got a faint smirk. "If I'd known it was that easy…"
Vachir reached across the table and cuffed the side of his head. Not very hard. "Watch yourself, kitty," he sighed with weary exasperation. He stood up, and tucked the message back in his belt. "Don't give Ping or Shifu any trouble, and I'll send word when I'm headed back." He started for the arch.
Tai Lung's question stopped him, its tone uncharacteristically anxious. "What if… you don't…?"
He gave a derisive snort, smiling a little smugly. "I always come back, furball. You couldn't take me out, you think anyone else could?" He passed through the arch; as he turned onto the road, he saw Ping heading toward the table, and Tai Lung trying to plaster a reassuring look on his face as he turned toward him.
After Vachir was gone, Tai Lung managed to hold himself together while Ping came over and fussed around him, wanting to be assured that everything was alright. He left the matter of his impending execution out of his explanation, telling the goose only that Vachir wanted him to stay in the Valley until he recovered from his snakebite. And the rhino hadn't really hit him, not hard, anyway, more of a tap, and only because he had gotten smart with him. Ping still looked dubious.
"Po's right," he finally said, heading back toward the kitchen, the snow leopard following. "That rhino isn't very nice to you."
"Well," Tai Lung pointed out, "not being very nice to me is sort of his job."
He held it together when Mantis showed up later that morning to relay almost the same message from Shifu – he wasn't recovered enough to fight and so should remain in the Valley when Po and the Five left. It was clear from their conversation, as Mantis walked around and around his wrist, first unwinding his bandage and then wrapping on a new one, that Shifu hadn't told him the real reason he wanted him to stay. He frowned. Was that the reason Shifu wanted him to stay? He remembered waking up with his father sleeping against him. Was there still some sort of relationship left between them, something he hadn't managed to kill off with his selfishness and arrogance?
"Tai?" Mantis queried. "You alright?" He prodded at the snow leopard's forearm. "Still hurting?"
Tai Lung flexed the arm, moving through a range of positions, causing the insect to grip his fur tightly and shout in protest. "No," he said, all innocence. "It's fine. You said something?"
"I hate you," Mantis mumbled, hopping to the table before the leopard flung him around again. "See you tomorrow before we go."
He held it together long enough to help Ping with lunch, losing himself in the process of preparing food for their customers. But when things wound down in the afternoon, his worries crowded in on him, and, saying he still felt a little sick, he retreated to Po's room to lie down.
He did feel sick, but not from any lingering effects of the cobra venom. He lay on Po's bed, staring up at the ceiling without really seeing. His life was over, he knew it; it had been forfeit the moment he'd turned on the people he was supposed to protect and tried to take the Dragon Scroll by force. Oogway's intervention had only delayed the inevitable. He'd been a fool to delude himself there might be any other outcome.
Po was trying to save him, of course. Shifu might be, as well. And Vachir… he had no idea what was in the rhino's head. He obviously wanted to keep him alive, but to what end? Not to prolong the misery of his already wasted life, apparently; he'd been genuinely shocked when Tai Lung had suggested that. And the offer he'd made… that had been a shock in return. Did he actually trust his prisoner now, when he'd always made it so very clear that he never could? Would he let up on him that much, truly? Why? Could he really trust the rhino, or was this merely some attempt to keep him calm and under control until… what? His execution? Until the moment he regained consciousness with the damned shell on his back again? He feared that might be the case, but wanted so badly to believe the rhino might simply be telling him the truth. Vachir had never lied to him before. He'd always been perfectly, horribly honest about his intentions. Unless this was one of those moments of false kindness writ large, to be snatched away just as he began to trust… He swallowed hard. That would indeed be the perfect punishment for his attack on the Anvil and the escape that had ruined their reputation, wouldn't it?
If he believed that, he should make a run for it. As soon as the Anvil and the Five were out of the Valley, he should disappear; he'd get a hell of a head start before they could even think of pursuing him. But did he believe it? Should he take the chance of trusting Vachir? If the rhino meant what he said, did it even matter? Would he be able to change anything? Would Shifu? Would Po? If he ran, he was admitting all their worst beliefs about him were true, wasn't he? If he stayed… he could at least claim a little dignity, couldn't he, even if it was only to face his own death bravely? He had insisted to Po that he wasn't a coward. Shifu had never raised him to be a coward. He had faced death in battle many times, without a second thought. But perhaps, that had been because he never really believed he could lose. Now, he knew, no matter what he did, he couldn't win.
The Anvil would be leaving the Valley now. Po and the Five would leave tomorrow. He would be left here, to brood over his situation and come to some decision, only to find, in the end, that his decisions meant nothing. Po, or Shifu, or Vachir, or the Emperor and his generals would determine his fate for him, and he would have no say in the matter. So what was the point of thinking about it? He could stay here for the next few weeks, or however long he had, until everyone came back and told him if he had a future or not. Why not? It took no effort on his part; it was what they all wanted him to do anyway. And if he was to die, he had no intention of rushing the matter.
But he did want to fight. The burned-out villages he'd seen, the flames on the hilltop above the Yangtze, the lost look of the refugees who'd found their way into the noodle shop, the string of dead rhinos they'd left on their march from Yunjiang to the Valley… he wanted so badly to stop those who had caused all this pain. Wasn't that what he had been trained for? Wasn't that what Po wanted him to be, the hero he had once been? Wasn't that, ultimately, why he had wanted to be the Dragon Warrior in the first place?
No, that had been for himself, for the glory, for the praise and admiration of those he would protect and save. But he would have protected and saved them. He wanted to save them now, and it would be the last chance to prove himself, to show that he wasn't entirely worthless, not entirely a monster…
He blinked, turned on his side, focusing on the line of wooden figures on the windowsill. How was it so easy for them, to be what they were supposed to be, what he was supposed to be? To do their duty, protect the weak and helpless, without allowing their egos to get in the way? Surely, they felt the same thrill, the same rush of warmth, and pride, when those they defended thanked and praised them? Didn't they need that, too? Yao and Monkey and Viper, how could they not let the gratitude and accolades go to their heads? Crane seemed to have more than his fair share of humility, and Tigress might be cold enough not to let it affect her… He grimaced. That was his fault, too, the lack of love Shifu had shown Tigress, the effect it had had on her. No wonder she hated him.
He frowned, remembering something. At least, he thought he remembered; hadn't she been there when he had been lost in the venom's hallucinations? She'd given him water, and tried to talk to him, hadn't she? It didn't seem like all the rest of his nightmares, that memory. And Vachir being there, laying that infuriatingly soothing hand on his head, that had really happened too, hadn't it? And he knew Shifu had been there, the whole time he thought, at least in his rare moments of awareness…
He had the feeling of having two outsized shadows, one the great and beloved hero, the other the terrifying and hated monster; and in the middle, a self he couldn't put a name or quality to. Who was he, really, without either image in front of him like a mask… or a shield? And was it possible that people might care about him, only him, not the image he projected?
Po did, he thought, staring at the carving of the panda. Po saw him as only himself. He felt a sense of queasiness come over him as he looked at the small wooden figure. Why? Was he afraid of what would happen to Po in the coming battle? But he knew Po could fight, the panda had fought him to a standstill when he was only barely beginning to train. He'd seen how good he'd become since then in the last few weeks. If Po could take only minor injuries during that time – less than he himself had sustained – he was in little danger. And yet, something roiled in his gut… He shifted his gaze to the next figure in line, that of Tigress. She would protect Po, he thought. She cared about him, likely more than she would admit. He remembered talking to her about protecting Po…
That was it, he thought. He was afraid Po would come up against the tiger. Though it had never actually come to a fight between them, he thought Akshatha might prove a match for any of them. He thought it likely Po could beat him, but the panda wouldn't emerge unscathed. And he'd never manage to defeat the tiger without killing him; none of them would. Could he do it? If he tried to talk to the tiger as he'd tried to talk to Tai Lung, as he'd said he'd tried to talk to the peacock, Shen… He caught his breath. The man who'd left those villagers to burn, for no reason that could possibly benefit him, would not stop to chat with Po about the morality of his actions, or ways he might try to improve his outlook on life.
He wanted to be there with Po, to make sure his friend was safe. He didn't want to have Po anywhere near if they decided to execute him. He wanted to prove to the panda, and to everyone, that he could be the hero he was once intended to be. He wanted to slip out of the Valley before anyone knew he had gone, disappear into a far land and a new life. He wanted to stay where he was and try to rebuild the life he should have had. With a groan, he rolled onto his back, flinging an arm across his face, trying to find some still point in the roiling torrent of conflicting thoughts and emotions that battered him this way and that. It was like being swept up in the flooding river again; there was nothing he could hold onto.
Po. He could hold onto Po. Po was his friend, he wanted to help him, wanted him to find himself again, to find the goodness he was supposed to have cast aside forever long ago. And Ping, he had accepted him, given him a place here in the Valley where he could show he no longer threatened anyone. Yao. Yao was still his friend, after all this time. Viper. Monkey. Anguo. Chuluun. Each accepted him, cared about him in their own way, he thought. Shifu? Yes. The other night in front of the Hall of Heroes; they knew each other too well, and more had been said there than their words. His father might not be willing, or perhaps not able, to accept him back, but he did still care.
Vachir was problematic. There was something going on in the rhino's head, that was certain. The problem was, he had no way of knowing what it might be. Vachir might not like or accept him, but he wanted him, for something, that was plain enough. Should he trust him? Years of experience said no. The last few weeks said yes – or at least, probably. He'd treated him well enough since their paths crossed again, accorded him a measure of trust and dignity, and he'd tried, in his own rough way, to help him when he was poisoned. How he'd dealt with his prisoner all those years was not, Tai Lung realized, the only side of the rhino's character. His men held the highest respect for him; and after fighting beside him to get here, Tai Lung found that, to a grudging degree, he felt some admiration for the man as well. Could they reach some degree of understanding? Had they already? To his surprise, he realized he would like that.
Yes, he thought, the rhino had seemed sincere in his offer this morning. He could hold onto that – and hope it would make a difference in his fate. He could hold onto the hope that there were still those around him who would try to save him.
He moved his arm, blinked up at Ping, and worked up something like a smile.
"If you're feeling better, you really should try to eat something," the goose continued, holding out the inevitable bowl. Tai Lung sat up on the sagging bed and took it.
"Ping," he said, "Thank you."
The goose looked pleased and a little self-conscious. "Oh, it's only a bowl of noodles."
"Not for the noodles… or, yes, for the noodles," the snow leopard fumbled with his feelings. "But also, for everything else. For letting me stay here, and help you." He looked down at the bowl in his hands. "For being a good friend."
"Oh, well," Ping said, rather awkwardly. "It's just, you know, Po said… and you just… and business has been so good since you came down here!" he abruptly finished, finding his way onto firmer ground. "But get some sleep, because we are going to be very busy tomorrow!"
Tai Lung smiled fondly at the goose. "I will."
He got some sleep, eventually, after several more hours of wrestling with his turbulent thoughts and emotions. He had decided only that he would not run, that he would face whatever came head on. Whether he would wait for it here, or go out to meet it, was still unresolved when sleep overtook him.
The next morning, he sat on the bed, leaning back on the wall, fiddling with Po's carving of Tigress as his mind trudged through the same rutted channels yet again. He moved the carving's articulated limbs into the positions of Tiger style, not at all surprised that the joints were capable of the motions. Po had been meticulous in his work.
Ready stance. Tigress standing before him on the Thread of Hope, trying to keep him out of the Valley. Claiming, or at least implying, that she was the Dragon Warrior, to goad him into an attack he had no time for but couldn't avoid. Well, he was here now, and under circumstances she would never have believed. He should stay here. Yao and Shifu wanted him to stay. Vachir had actually ordered him to stay, which put his hackles up but was still probably the wisest thing to do. It would keep him out of harm's way, at least for now; give Vachir and possibly Shifu, time to present their case for his continued existence to the Emperor or his representative. Po would do so, he knew. If Po stopped this invasion, the Emperor would surely want to reward him. Even if he didn't know what was at stake, Tai Lung was sure Po would speak up for him. If nothing else, he'd have a few more weeks of peace and quiet, of not being a prisoner or a fugitive. If that was all the time he had…
He moved the figure, into a strike position. He remembered Tigress, again on the bridge, fighting the enemies pressing in on them. She was an incredible fighter. She was almost his equal; of course she was, they'd had the same teacher, and her drive to learn had been as great as his own, though with different motivation. It had been exhilarating to fight beside her. He wanted that again, wanted to smash through the tiger's army with his friends – and, alright, his sister – beside him, to do what he had trained his entire life to do. Well, half his life; but it had always been his reason for existing, for taking another breath, to be the greatest kung fu master who had ever lived. He could prove it, now more than ever, save the entire Middle Kingdom from a threat that had penetrated to its very heart. He could show everyone what he truly was, his strength, his skill, his courage. He could make himself their hero.
He changed the carving's stance again, a low sweep. Tigress, he thought, wasn't worried about being hailed a hero when this was over. She would accept it, of course, with grace and calm, but she didn't need the adulation like he did. Shifu's second attempt at training the Dragon Warrior had been far more successful than his first. She lacked his sheer power, but had more control, a cooler head in battle. She wouldn't forget those around her, as he had forgotten those he went to save when he rushed up the hill to the burning village. She would have Po's back. She knew what Tai Lung feared could happen to the panda. She cared about Po, likely more than he did. She could protect him.
He heard voices in the courtyard below, moved the figurine into its original position, and replaced it on the sill among the others. He looked at the row of carvings, and realized he'd made up his mind. He headed down the stairs.
He heard Ping before he left the kitchen. "… wish you didn't have to go! You just got back!"
"It's okay, Dad," Po reassured him. "Everyone else is going with me."
"And if everyone else was jumping off a cliff…"
"Dad! I have to! It's kinda my duty, you know? Big invasion… saving China…?" Po prompted.
"Don't worry about me! I'll be fine. I'll be back before you know it."
"Well… if everyone's going with you…"
"Of course they are." Po brightened as he saw Tai Lung. "Tai, you're feeling better, right? Tell my dad I'll be okay."
Tai Lung hoped his smile was at least somewhat convincing. "I know you'll be alright, Po. But I'm not going with you."
Po frowned. "You're not?"
"I've been told in no uncertain terms to stay here," he said wryly.
Mantis looked at him sharply. "I didn't think I phrased it quite that strongly."
"Not you. Vachir." He saw that Mantis wasn't the only one looking at him questioningly. He tried to make his shrug seem nonchalant. "He's not really in the habit of explaining himself to me." And he wasn't about to explain the real reason, not to Po, and Ping, and Viper. He looked away from Tigress' disconcerting stare. "He probably figures I'd slow you down, and you'd miss all the fun." The stare wasn't wavering, or becoming any warmer. "And he didn't want to face Tigress if that happened," he added, with a sardonic glance at the woman.
Po looked so disappointed. But better that than upset, he thought. He didn't need to be distracted, with what he was going into. He'd find out soon enough. "Sorry you're not coming, buddy," the panda said, laying a hand on Tai Lung's shoulder. "We'll miss you. I really hoped this would be your chance… you know."
Tai Lung almost succeeded in keeping his voice steady. "Maybe the next time, Po." He'll be okay, he told himself. He'll make it back, and be just the same.
Po gave his shoulder another pat. "Okay. You take care of my dad while we're gone." He turned to the goose, and hugged him close. "Don't worry, Dad. We'll be back soon."
"You be careful, son." Ping hugged the panda tightly, wings stretched as far around him as they could go. "I love you, Po!"
"I love you, too, Dad." Po set him down, turned to the others. "Okay, guys, let's get going."
They started across the courtyard, all except Tigress. "I'll just be a minute," she said.
"We can wait…," Po started.
"No, go on. I'll catch up."
When the others had left, she turned back toward Tai Lung's exasperated look. "Oh, come on," the snow leopard said.
Tigress started to speak, hesitated. Her mouth compressed into a thin line.
"Shall I start for you?" he asked, irritated. "You don't' want to leave me in the Valley because you're afraid the moment you turn your back I'll do something awful."
"A bit dramatic," she said. "But yes, I am concerned."
"Don't worry," he said bitingly. "I'm sure Ping will keep me busy enough to stay out of trouble."
"Ping will," she repeated flatly, not at all convinced.
"What do you think is going to happen?" Tai Lung demanded. "You think I'm suddenly going to start tearing up the village because…" he tried to think of something suitably ridiculous, "… Ping needs a cabbage? Because someone complains there's a hair in their soup?"
She crossed her arms over her chest. "It didn't take much more than that before, did it?" she asked.
It took every ounce of control he had not to strike out at her and prove her point. He settled for words instead. "I don't believe this," he hissed. "There is an invading army on its way to kill the Emperor, and this is what you're worrying about?" His voice turned acerbic. "Don't let me distract you, mei mei. After all, you have work to do – if you're up to the job!" He let his frustration at staying behind creep into his tone. "Wouldn't want you to lead your friends right into disaster because you're wishing you were still here with me! Or wishing I was there to save you, when things turn serious!"
"Perhaps," she said, just as sharply, "what I'm worried about is that you'll be gone when we get back, and we'll have to waste our time looking for you. I'm surprised you haven't run off before now."
He dragged in a breath, eyes narrowing. "You think I'm –" he started. "Look here, girl, I am just as willing as you to take on that tiger! I'm the one took that cobra bite while you were still climbing the hill! Thanks to that, I get to stay here and recover instead of fighting, because Shifu thinks –"
"I didn't know you cared about what Shifu thinks."
He forced his clenched fists open at his sides, determined not to let her goad him into an outburst, or into going along with them. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction of explaining why he was staying, for fear of admitting to her – or himself – that it was out of fear for his life. He was determined to hold on to his decision. It was the right one, he knew it, but he so wanted…
"Just get out of here, Tigress," he sneered. "Your little friends are waiting for you to lead them right over the brink of disaster!"
She favored him with one last, disdainful look, shaking her head. "You're pathetic, Tai Lung," she said, then turned on her heel and left.
He glared after her. She was wrong. He wasn't a coward. He was as eager and able to fight as she was. He was only doing what he needed to right now, what he'd been assured was the best, the only course, until things could be straightened out, and then he'd show them what he could do, the true hero he could still be, if only that stupid, short-sighted, petty woman didn't manage to get them all killed with her oh-so-superior attitude. He felt, if not mollified, at least satisfyingly self-righteous.
Until the moment he turned and looked down into Ping's stricken face.
He caught up with them on the road leading out of the Valley. Mantis, on Monkey's shoulder, looked pleased. "Hey, Tai! You changed your mind?"
He fell in beside Po. Tigress shot a look over her shoulder. "I thought you were staying here."
He was still stinging from her earlier remarks, still doubting his own choices. "You… if I decide I'm going with you," he sputtered, "then I'm – !"
Po stopped, slapping a hand over his face. "Ahhh… My dad made you do this, didn't he?" he groaned.
Tai Lung rounded on him. "Panda, I make my own -!"
Po dropped his hand, obviously not convinced. "He gave you that look, didn't he?"
Tai Lung hunched his shoulders, staring straight ahead of him. "Yes," he finally grumbled.
At the crest of the hill, he paused, turning back. The village lay spread out below him, the people going about their daily business in the streets and on the waterways. Above them, directly across and almost level with where he stood, the Jade Palace sat serenely on its hill in the morning sunlight. No matter what happened after this, he thought, he would never see this place again.
"Tai?" Po said quietly. "You okay?"
He forced yet one more smile. "Sure. Let's go."