Light, warm and inviting as the summer day of which it was a part, spilled down through the bars of the small, latticed window to wash across the stone floor of the otherwise dismal, dimly-lit cell. It wasn't actually a cell, of course, merely an unused storeroom on a lower level of the temple, but it was the best that could be mustered under the circumstances.
After the room's sole occupant had single-handedly overcome all the guards, fail-safes, and cunning devices which had held him prisoner before, in the most advanced and impregnable fortress ever known, there seemed little point in quibbling over where he should now be held. If he could escape from Chorh-Gom, he could escape from anywhere. So why not hold him where an eye could be kept on him?
Besides, for all the gloomy interior, the dank and grimy floor, the moss-covered walls and cobwebbed ceilings, there was one thing this room lacked which any other in the Jade Palace—one more suited, perhaps, to closer scrutiny and greater security—was sure to possess. There were no carvings here, statuary or otherwise, of dragons.
No need to torment him with what he cannot attain. He's already undertaken more then enough of that all on his own to last several lifetimes.
Standing just out of range of the slanting sunbeams so that his diminutive form lay hidden in the shadows—though he didn't think for a moment his presence hadn't been marked the moment he stepped inside—Master Shifu forced himself to resist the habitual stroking of his long, drooping whiskers and instead clasped his slender hands at the small of his sloping back. He did not move, did not speak...only stared, in disbelief, suspicion, and infinite sorrow at the sight which lay before him.
In the exact center of the chamber, so that the rays of sun slanted across the stones in front of him but also did not touch more than his whiskers in passing, Tai Lung knelt just as if he were back in his solitary confinement, his arms even extended and bent at the wrists as if he still wore the colossal manacles which had chained him in place for so long. Nothing held him here; if he wished, he could attack Shifu now, or simply rise and dart past him through the open door.
But it was plain to see that he would not be going anywhere, had no inclination to. His massive shoulders were visibly slumped...his thick, bushy tail lay listlessly on the floor...his claws were sheathed, leaving his paws upturned in an incongruous image of supplication. And while his rosette-studded fur remained ragged from his battle with Po, blood and dirt and sweat matting it in clumps and snarls, and a certain dazed cast still hung over his features, much more seemed to be at work here than mere weariness or lingering shell shock.
This was not the student he had once trained, nor was it the implacable foe who, just yesterday, had nearly ended his life in the temple above. Shifu was not even certain who this was...and he wondered if Tai Lung himself knew. The expression on his face, for all its rigidity, flatness, and refusal to give any quarter even in displaying the inner workings of his heart and soul, was still easily readable to Shifu...but terribly complex and conflicted. Despair, confusion, denial, anguish, self-loathing, hatred, and above all, an utter helplessness, as if he had given up and lost all hope.
The Wuxi Finger Hold which had ended his reign of terror was indeed a devastating move, and in general the entire fight which had preceded it had been one long series of crushing, humiliating defeats. But instead of the fires of insane fury and a new resolve for revenge, as he had expected, the snow leopard seemed...resigned to his fate. Lost.
And Shifu knew exactly why.
It was for exactly the same reason that Tai Lung had been such a dangerous adversary and had seemed to hold such promise in the arts of kung fu. The warrior had been the best of his generation, had striven with such passion, dedication, and talent to become everything his master had promised him he could attain—indeed, his agonized words of slaving away and breaking his bones to please Shifu were the literal truth. No one had been his match or equal, save Shifu and Oogway. Even Tigress, years after the fact, had never been able to match his accomplishments, a fact she denied to this day and struggled mightily to keep secret.
His strength had seemed limitless, his ingenuity and creativity astounding, his loyalty unquestionable, and his abilities always growing by leaps and bounds. It was no wonder that so many, from the other students all the way down to the lowliest villager, had been so shocked when he was not chosen as the next Dragon Warrior. It had seemed to make no sense, a sign that the turtle was beginning even then to succumb to addled brains. And if Tai Lung had possessed a certain dark savagery in some of his attacks, why, that had not justified any distrust or...
No. Stop it. You went down that path of pride and blind arrogance long ago. And look where it got you. And him. Oogway was right—in trying to avoid a fate, you made it come true. He would never have become so power-hungry and unstable if you hadn't filled his head with delusions of grandeur. And if you had overruled your master and let Tai Lung be given the scroll, instead of shying away from the darkness he said he saw in your prized student, that darkness would never have had a chance to flourish.
The point was, Shifu sighed to himself as he continued gazing raptly at the cowed snow leopard, that it was Tai Lung's own pride and arrogance that had ruled his entire life. They were what drove him, controlled him (though he, too, believed he instead had the illusion of control over them), gave him strength...but in the end, were his downfall.
So. The great master of kung fu, the one who had believed without a shadow of a doubt that he was destined for greatness, had lost. The one who had always left a battle victorious, save for that fateful day when he had gone mad and attempted to steal the scroll...had now been defeated. Not just any defeat; a shameful, disgraceful defeat in his eyes, made a mockery and a laughingstock by entering into combat with a big, fat panda, and losing.
No longer could he hide behind an untarnished reputation. The strength and skills he had always believed in had not been enough. He had not passed the test, and everything he had been determined to claim as his own had been denied him—not by another, but by his own self-deceptions. So what could possibly be left for him now?
It was the only way, the red panda knew. In no other manner could the combat have been decided in Po's favor, and any other denouement would actually have resulted in Tai Lung's death. As he had told the new Dragon Warrior before (even if it had been during the embarrassing stint when he'd been trying to drive the panda away), the way to achieve victory, particularly in kung fu, was to use the opponent's strengths against him, turn them into weaknesses, while maximizing your own.
Aside from his great size, martial prowess, and the knowledge he had gleaned of rare and unusual combat forms, the snow leopard's strengths had always been his pride and confidence in himself, and later his unquenchable rage. But that rage had been turned against him, made to serve Po as, in his increasingly frantic and desperate attempts to seize the scroll, he had missed opportunities, fumbled, allowed emotion to trump logic, forgotten his knowledge of anatomy, focused himself only into a single-minded insanity that had made him look a fool. And once that was accomplished, Po had only had to use his own size and strength, and his...unique fighting style, to bring the debacle to an end.
And that defeat had crushed utterly Tai Lung's pride...leaving him with nothing.
But knowing this, knowing Tai Lung had to be stopped and this was the only way Po could do it, did not make Shifu have to like it. Because what he saw before him now was no longer a threat, could not wreak havoc or destroy the Valley of Peace. But it was also the most painful, heartbreaking sight he had ever seen.
This, he knew, was what a broken man looked like. And that man was one he had once loved. Still did, and probably always would. How could he take pleasure in seeing the snow leopard in such a state, regardless what it meant for the valley? How could he enjoy seeing that downcast face, or the fact the fire seemed to have left those lambent, golden eyes that had always drawn others in, ever since he'd been found as an orphaned cub on the temple doorstep...?
"Well?" The word, spoken with a harsh, vicious growl as startling for its suddenness as its pitch and gravelly nature, nearly caused Shifu to have a heart attack, or perhaps leap several feet off the floor. "Have you come to stare at your caged prize, Shifu? One last look before you send me back to Chorh-Gom? Or did you just come here to gloat?"
At last Tai Lung looked up, and though some of the fire had returned to his eyes, it was not at all the same—dredged up from some unknown depth, ignited to stave off the inevitable sense of loss and shame, but certain to burn out quickly and leave nothing behind. His jaw quivered; with barely restrained fury, with uncertainty, with a growl he couldn't vocalize.
"No, of course not. How could you think such a thing? You know me better than that." Shifu couldn't keep the rebuke, or the hurt, from his voice, and didn't bother trying.
"I thought I knew you, you mean." The tone was bitter, unforgiving, but not nearly as accusing as it could have been. The snow leopard averted his gaze, though he didn't seem to be staring at anything in particular...not at anything that could be seen. "I thought I knew...a lot of things."
Putting a weary hand to his forehead, the red panda fought the urge to sink down to the floor as well, or worse attempt to approach and offer comfort. The former would put him at a disadvantage should his old student become violent again, and the latter would be sure to guarantee said violence. "For what it's worth, I meant what I said yesterday. I truly am sorry, for having failed you so badly as a teacher..." And as so much more. "...and I wish there was some way I could set right the ills I have done to you, son."
Now, for the first time, Tai Lung seemed to recover the full force of his titanic rage. He still did not rise to his feet, but his fists clenched tightly, the muscles knotted beneath his barrel chest, and a flash of loathing exploded in his narrowed eyes.
"How dare you!" he hissed, a threatening growl rumbling in his throat. "How dare you call me that, after what you've done to me! I gave up everything for you, and you threw me away! I fought to become the best kung fu master in the valley, in the world! And that wasn't good enough for you! And now I've lost everything, wasted my life chasing after something that wasn't even real, and all you can do is say you're sorry...twenty years, Shifu. Twenty. Years."
His biceps knotted, making the spots in his fur dance and ripple almost hypnotically. "You don't deserve to call me your son. A father doesn't treat his son that way. So don't ever use that word again..."
Shuddering, Shifu closed his eyes and turned his face away—for what he saw in those lantern-like eyes was not just anger or resentment, it was pure, molten hatred...but also an undeniably genuine suffering. Behind his lids, memories flooded through the red panda's mind...a tiny, cloth-wrapped bundle scooped up from the grass, innocent eyes blinking open sleepily before small, black-padded fingers curled around Shifu's...an adorable cub, tottering to his paws and mimicking his father's movements in the training hall, only to turn and gaze up for approval, nuzzling affectionately under the panda's chin when he received it...an older cub, bravely acting to save the lives of numerous villagers after a sudden downdraft had snapped the Thread of Hope and sent it plunging down into a mountain ravine...an adolescent, coming to his chambers, face glowing with pride as he spoke rapidly of having bested Oogway at sparring for the first time...and nearly an adult, having grown into a colossal specimen of a warrior whose combat prowess and prodigious strength were already legendary in the valley, executing flawlessly every form and exercise in the training hall, then bowing deeply to his master.
In every memory, those eyes were the same...filled with love, respect, trust, and honor. How...how could he have fallen so far, so fast, and I failed to see it? How could that love have turned to such hatred? But then...there is a fine line between love and hate, they are two sides of the same coin.
Remembering the look in Tai Lung's eyes when he was crushing the red panda's throat, just before Oogway's staff broke, he shivered again.
Yet...it didn't stop him from yearning for what was lost. And something of the sentiment seemed to echo, if only briefly, in the snow leopard's eyes now. Slowly his fists lowered and relaxed, going limp. Unknitting his brows, Tai Lung stared at him with a helplessness very unlike him, as if he were floundering in one of the great mountain rivers and could not stay afloat. Regret, pain, loss...it was all there, written on the feline's features. The moment passed, and he turned away abruptly, giving a dismissive snort...but unless Shifu missed his guess, there were tears standing in his golden eyes.
"You're quite right," he said at last, his voice shaking. "I don't deserve to call you that anymore. But that doesn't mean my feelings for you have changed."
Glancing sharply at him, the snow leopard managed a low, barking laugh. "Oh, really? Is that why you're here? To come and kiss my wounds and make them all better?" His laugh became a growl. "It's a bit late for that, don't you think?"
In spite of himself, Shifu had to hold back an angry retort, take a few calming breaths, and count to ten before he trusted himself to speak. It would do no good rising to the bait, when Tai Lung so obviously wished to argue and place blame. That was not why he was here. He was here because he had lied to Po—not that he hadn't done that before, though hopefully this would be the last time. He was not completely at inner peace, would never be until he knew, once and for all, that he had done all he could for the student he had failed so miserably and that, whatever the outcome, Tai Lung would be at peace. The Wuxi Finger Hold had taken his will to fight. But now he needed a will to live in its place.
"No, Tai Lung. If there is anything I have learned in my long life, it is that it is never too late. That is why I am here. To help you."
Snorting, the snow leopard chuckled. "You mean you have learned something after all? I think you've done quite enough helping. As far as I'm concerned, you can walk out that door and never come back. I am nothing now, you understand? Everything I wanted, everything I believed in, has been stripped away from me. So why don't you just let me die already?" It was hard to tell whether the pain in his voice was due to his ignominious defeat, the worthlessness and self-loathing he felt, or having to admit such things aloud.
Something seemed to shrivel inside Shifu, but he would not allow himself to back down, not when he had come this far. Standing up straight, he said with as much authority as he could muster, "When you've finished whimpering like a cub, Tai Lung, perhaps you'd be interested in knowing that I had hoped to offer you a place here again."
Dead silence greeted this pronouncement. For the first time he could remember, the snow leopard was absolutely speechless. Once again a conflicted morass of emotions darted across his face—fury (at the insult, no doubt), puzzlement, disgust, and fleetingly (before being hurriedly squashed) a flicker of hope. Finally he seemed to settle on neutral skepticism. "Really? Would that be before or after Tigress rips me a new one?"
"It's no trick. The others already know. And while they're not exactly happy about it—" Understatement of the dynasty. "—I am the master here, and they will follow my wishes because they trust in my good judgment." Even if they should not. "You may not be exactly trustworthy yet, but you can be trusted not to lose control and go on a rampage again. Or didn't you notice that your rage is gone, Tai Lung?"
Which it was—he'd felt the absence as soon as he entered the cell, like having a suffocating dark blanket ripped away to let in the light of day. And with it had vanished the snow leopard's phenomenal chi as well, all drained away by his ultimate combat and more importantly what it had revealed.
An ugly look crossed the feline's face, but after flexing his claws in and out of their sheaths for several moments, he grunted and smacked his fists into the floor—wincing slightly in pain, Shifu was relieved to see, for the ability to feel pain proved his berserker rage was indeed gone. Slowly he sighed, seeming to deflate once more...becoming a rather lonely-looking, somewhat pathetic figure as his shoulders sank and his chin fell to his fuzzy chest.
"So it is. I suppose that's what happens when the thing you fought your whole life for, what you'd been denied and had hidden from you, turns out to be a lie."
"Or perhaps just a different truth than you expected. As Oogway always said, there are no—"
"Accidents, yes, I know. Spare me the platitudes, especially from that senile idiot. If these kernels of wisdom are all you have to offer me, then I don't see what the Jade Palace could possibly give me now." For a moment a sadistic grin crossed his muzzle, and an unconvincing note of sympathy entered his voice. "But then it seems I wouldn't have to worry about seeing him dodder about in his shell anymore, would I? So sorry to hear about your loss..."
Not pulling any punches, I see. But did you really expect otherwise? And when did he ever? Maintaining a stoic, unthreatening façade, the red panda sighed and shook his head. "Patience never was your strong suit, Tai Lung. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The simple fact of the matter is," he paused slightly. "I failed in your training. And as your battle with Po shows, there were one or two lessons you missed, too. If it's all the same to you, I thought I might rectify that little oversight. Of course you'd have to agree to certain guidelines while you're here—I'm sure you know which ones." Not killing your fellow students would be a delightful start. "But maybe, just maybe, you can learn the last and best lesson I can teach you."
He hated dangling the proposition before Tai Lung like that, since it smacked of manipulation (not to mention the treatment which had originally corrupted the snow leopard in the first place). But he had no choice, if there was any chance whatsoever of his son being redeemed.
And the suggestion seemed to have planted its seeds, since the fallen warrior could not disguise the naked hunger on his face. What those seeds might grow into remained to be seen. I only know it will not be a peach. "Quit speaking in riddles, Shifu! What do you mean?" A beat, then, "Not that I'm agreeing to anything. Do you really think I want to come back to a place I've outgrown in so many ways? Plus, I imagine it still smells terrible."
Haha! Got him! And the mockery was actually a very good sign, since it was the only time in the last twenty years he could recall seeing any flash of the snow leopard's former good humor returning. "That would be Monkey. I'll have a word with him. As for you...while you were not destined to be the Dragon Warrior, there may yet be something extraordinary you can do, and be. If you are willing to accept my help."
Again the flash of hope, this time lasting much longer before it dissolved into rejection and wrath. Fingers flexing spasmodically as if he longed to wrap them around the panda's neck, he snarled, "If this is another of your vaunted karst dreams, Shifu, so help me...and why should I listen to you, when you failed me so badly before? Isn't this just the way it started then, with your glorious promises puffing me up too far?"
"You'll never know if you don't try, will you?" He smiled impishly. "And we'll just have to wait and see what develops."
"But...what more can you teach me? You said yourself I was the strongest and most powerful student you've ever trained." In spite of himself, Tai Lung thrust out his chest proudly.
"So you were. But a true kung fu master also knows his weaknesses." Shifu stared intently into those golden orbs as he stressed the final word. This was the key point…everything hinged on how the snow leopard responded.
At first, matters seemed hopeless—Tai Lung only swelled as if he were a dragon about to belch a roaring inferno of flame, and his face turned a very dark red under the fur. But then, gradually, his ire subsided, and as a rather comical, querulous yowl escaped his muzzle, he looked at Shifu—and in his eyes was not anger, or at least not only anger, but genuine puzzlement. "I don't have any weaknesses."
Once, such a statement would have been screamed at the top of his lungs, flecked with a rabid froth, and backed up by a dizzying array of punches and kicks designed to pummel Shifu into submission, until he denied such a blatantly false accusation. But now...it was more of a tentative statement, and though Tai Lung would never dare say so aloud, the red panda could almost hear the unspoken follow-up: 'Do I?'
"That is why you failed, and so did I. Because we both believed that." But the manner of the snow leopard's reply had convinced him this was the right course...he had this one last chance to set things right, and if it took the final breath in his body he would not rest until Tai Lung finally had the power and glory he craved—this time, the right kind.
"I promise, this time will be different, however. By the time I'm through with you, you're going to have a whole new place here at the temple...something neither of us could ever have imagined." If I can just figure out what that is, and how to get him there. What else can the Great Wall be besides a wall?
Tai Lung tried to look scornful and disdainful, but somehow failed. "Well...then I shall think about it. But I can promise nothing."
"Naturally." Moving back toward the door, for the first time believing it was safe to turn his back on his former student, he called over his shoulder, "I shall have food brought to you, then."
Behind him he heard Tai Lung shift, followed by a massive thud as he flopped down on the pallet that had been provided for him—for all he knew, the first time the snow leopard had moved from his kneeling position since he'd been brought here from the crater in the town square. A low mutter came back: "Just so long as it's better than that sludge Vachir gave me."
Smirking, Shifu stepped into the corridor and closed the door behind him. But as he paused in the hallway, a thought struck him and he smiled wider than he had since Oogway's death. Two birds with one stone. I know just the fellow to ask... With his usual spry agility, he darted off for the kitchen.