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Tea at Midnight

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By the time the students left the Training Hall the moon was close to its zenith, and the heavy cloak of midnight rested heavy over the Valley of Peace. It had been an exhausting and gruelling first day for the new warriors that Tigress had brought to the Jade Palace. They were quiet as she led them to the barracks, too tired to converse. Looking at them Tigress was reminded of the labours of kung fu. All her years of training had desensitized her to just how difficult this martial art was.

Her friends wore this exhaustion on their dragging limbs and slow, stiff pace. Their weariness was nothing, though, compared to the excited gleam in their eyes and smiles on their faces. They were a far cry from being masters, but Tigress could sense their determination. They would be great warriors one day.

Once in the barracks they each stumbled into a room, mumbling half-hearted goodnights to each other before collapsing. Tigress went to her own room with full intentions to rest. There were countless long days ahead of them; she would need all her strength.

She sat on her narrow bed, wincing at the sharp pain that spindled between her neck and shoulder. Her raw and bloodied knuckles groaned when she forced them to rub at the problem area in a futile attempt to stop whatever knot was forming. Bruises, deep and violet, were taking shape beneath the fur on her shins and forearms. Her silk shirt was heavy with dried sweat. Exhaustion filled her limbs like boulders.

Unlike her friends, Tigress was used to such abuse. This was the way of kung fu: bloodied knuckles and broken bones; the way Master Shifu had forged it into her mind.

She smiled.

Yes, it was the way of kung fu, but now it was her way.

Tigress couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that she had actually been pleased after a training session. Energized.

Her body demanded sleep but her mind and spirit resisted. She replayed every sequence she had made, expanded them, envisioning the various combination of moves and attacks. How would the moves flow into each other? The momentum of a kick swinging into a sweeping punch, a quick spin, finished with a sharp elbow to the back of the head.

Curious to see how it would play out Tigress stood and, in muted versions of the moves, played it out as best she could in her small chamber. She was forced to stop when pain exploded through every fiber, sinew, and tendon.  Tigress rubbed her throbbing arms and grunted. Perhaps actually acting out the movements wasn’t the best idea.

Tigress knew she should get to sleep, but her mind nagged at her. She recalled a particular tea blend that Oogway had shown her that helped sooth the mind and body. If it meant a peaceful night without aches and pains, then it was well worth the effort to haul herself to the kitchen to make a batch.  

On nimble paws clunky with fatigue, Tigress skirted past the dimmed rooms of her friends, picking up speed once she was in the outer hallway. Uncontrolled thoughts took hold of her mind; spooling ideas together like silk thread in a tapestry. The endless possibility of techniques that could be created – that she could create – made her giddy.

One move in particular had captured her imagination, and it was an impressive one too. Worthy of its own name! It involved a running start leading into a summersault as a set up for a powerful kick. Overzealousness got the better of her. The hallway was just long enough, the doors to the kitchen perfectly spaced. She took a running start, bracing her knees and keeping her core tight in preparation for the jump.

The pace of her breath, the position of her feet, and the tautness in her aching muscles took hold of her senses.  Some deep part of her mind made note of the small breath of light flickering from within the room, but it went ignored.    

The doors snapped open, cracking against the walls they clung to. Tigress entered the scene with a tight roll, landing in perfect fighting stance. She hummed, pleased with herself. A soft laugh drew her attention to the far side of the room where a familiar tortoise watched her wryly.

“Master Oogway!” she gasped. Tigress rushed into a bow, her face and ears burning. 

“So you’ve caught me, hm? Good thing I’m just an old turtle making tea and not an intruder,” he mused, clutching his staff where a paper lantern hung from the tip. He took a few steps towards the table at the center of the room. Though her head was still lowered, Tigress could sense his inquisitive gaze. “That’s quite the move. Did you come up with it yourself?”

Oogway always had this manner of asking questions that implied he already knew the answer but, never wanting to be rude to a Master, Tigress lifted from her bow and nodded.

“Yes, there’s still a lot I need to figure out but” –despite herself she couldn’t withhold the wave of excitement that lifted and bubbled through her tone– “but I would like to show Master Shifu tomorrow. Maybe he could help me perfect it.” The tip of her tail swept along the floor as she anticipated the criticisms her Master would have for her. Her previous elation dimmed.

“Hm. Maybe,” was all the old Master said. He removed the lantern from his staff and placed it in the center of the table, the soft yellow light revealing a steaming pot of tea alongside two cups. He motioned for her to take a seat and Tigress complied. She eyed the two cups, suspicious. Had he been expecting her? She studied the tortoise across from her only to see his usual kind eyes gazing back.

Master Shifu had always said Oogway was the wisest soul in all of China. His perception could rival that of a soothsayer, and for all she knew maybe he had even been one at some point. No one, not even Shifu, knew the grand Master’s exact age, though it was no secret that he was ancient and world-traveled.

And here she was – a sweaty, grimy student about to have tea with him. Discretely, she tried to smooth out the wrinkles in her shirt, dismayed that they had already set in. Hopefully it was too dark for him to notice.   

“It’s nice to see you’re finally enjoying yourself.” Carefully he poured them each a serving of the burgundy liquid, the sharp scent of ginger and ginseng being carried by the steam that settled in the air. Tigress quietly took her cup, letting the heat seep into her aching paws.

“What do you mean?” She sipped her tea, eyes lowered. The soothing cinnamon and licorice undertones came to life and Tigress sighed contently despite the unease she felt from Oogway’s comment.

Oogway gave her a none-too-subtle look over the brim of his cup. Her ear twitched. He took another sip, slow and drawn out.

“It’s not that I haven’t been enjoying kung fu,” she blurted out. Anything to fill the carefully curated silence Oogway was forcing on her. “I’ve just been – well – it’s just that Shifu has high standards and it takes a lot of discipline and hard work to satisfy him.” She looked down into her tea only to see her reflection staring back. Grimacing, she swirled the cup to distort the image. “Today was the first time that I felt Shifu wasn’t annoyed with me or disappointed.” The truth in those words put a pang in her heart.

Impressing Shifu was like climbing a mountain with no peak. To him, you either failed or performed as expected. It was a harsh reality that Tigress had been managing up until this point, but the unjustness of it all was catching up to her. Her longing for Shifu’s praise mixed with the bristling frustration that was taking root in her mind.  

“I finally managed to make him proud, and all I had to do was invent a new form of kung fu.” The bitter humour of her words surprised Tigress. She bit her tongue, cursing her fatigued mind for letting her feelings slip out.

“I – I don’t mean any disrespect to him,” she quickly corrected. She glanced at Oogway but his expression was unreadable. “He’s a good teacher. I’m just tired; I don’t know what I’m saying.”

She took a sip of tea, wishing she had a shell to disappear into.

“Your anger is not misplaced, Tigress,” Oogway spoke, “but you must not let it overwhelm you.” His shaky hand reached across the table to briefly rest on her forearm. Tigress blinked, unsure how to response, but she was comforted by his gesture. He retracted his arm, a heavy sadness sinking into his eyes. “It’s not fair that you have to compete with his ghosts.”

She squeezed her cup, and for a moment she was back at Boa Gu orphanage, trying so hard to hold the small domino in her hand. Control it, Tigress, or it will break. Her grip relaxed, the dimly lit kitchen replacing the images of her memory. Guilt churned in her stomach.

“I owe Shifu so much – he’s been through a lot. I understand why he treats me the way he does but – ”

“But that doesn’t excuse it,” Oogway finished and Tigress got the distinct impression that the topic was put to rest. Oogway reclined in his chair, considering her. “You’re growing up now; you’re not the timid cub you were when you arrived all those years ago.” His voice with rhythmic; soft as silk but ebbed and flowed in a way that drew the ear. He took the still steaming pot and refilled their cups. Tigress hadn’t even noticed hers had been empty. “It’s about time you learned to do things your way; to become the mighty oak you were always meant to be.”

“Um, thank you,” Tigress started, trying to figure out how oak trees were connected in all this, “but I still have a lot to learn.” Familiar uncertainty wavered in the back of her mind. Doubt and fear pounded their way into her heart. “It feels strange, though,” she confessed. “I’ve barely managed to learn the basic breathing techniques, not to mention my blocks are sloppy, my timing is off – ” she took a breath, taking a drink to wash down her rambling voice. Maybe it was the tea, or just the dozy veil of midnight that made this scene feel unreal, but she had never been so relaxed with the tortoise before. Not that he had ever made her feel uncomfortable, but she had always kept in mind the differences in their rank. At the moment, though, it all seemed to fall away. “Maybe now things will be different between Shifu and I. Maybe he’ll – ”

Maybe he’ll what? Praise me? Respect me? Love me? What do I even want from him? What’s the point of doing all this?

 A thoughtful hum from Oogway made Tigress look up.

“And what about you?” he asked.

“Me?”

“Are you proud of yourself?”

Tigress bowed her head, hoping it came off as a gesture of modesty. “I am glad to have protected the valley,” was all she said. In reality she had been riding off the adrenalin of her victory all night. It was starting to wear off now and she felt a little silly for being so triumphant of one battle when she was sitting across from the creator of kung fu.

“There is nothing arrogant of being proud of your accomplishments. Just remember to keep your heart humble.” He touched a long claw to his chest. “A wise master understands that the more we learn, the less we know.” The tortoise laughed, seemingly to himself. “It’s a lesson even Shifu struggles to understand.”

Her eyes widened. “Really?”

“He may be your Master, but he is just as much of a student as you are. Have confidence. There is much you can teach him as well.”

Tigress didn’t understand what knowledge she could possibly offer anyone, let alone Master Shifu. She almost willed herself to ask for clarification, but found that Oogway had already risen from his chair with his staff in hand. He hooked the teapot’s handle onto the top of his staff where he had first hung the lantern. “It was lovely having tea with you.” He nodded at her. “Unfortunately I must be off to bed, as should you. It’s been a hard day and there will many more for you in the near future.”

Just the thought of the many long nights to come made Tigress feel heavy. The buzz of her mind had calmed and now her body longed to rest at last. Stiffly she stood and grasped the lantern from the table. The tea had eased most of the aches and pains but no medicine would make up for a lack of stretching.

She would stretch once she got to her room, she decided, before a massive yawn overtook her. She rubbed her eyes. OK maybe she’d stretch tomorrow morning instead. She joined Oogway at the door, the glow from the lantern stretching down the hallways and fluttering against paper walls. She bowed at him, careful not to let her whiskers drop in the flames. “It was an honor, Master.”

To her surprise he bowed back. “The honor is mine,” he insisted with a good natured smile, though he held her gaze. “Just remember, Tigress. As mighty as the oak tree is on its own, it still needs to be nurtured and guided by the sun. You will not always have the light you need, Tigress – you must make it yourself.”

Each word held a gravity that pulled at Tigress’ heart. Oogway’s metaphors were never clear, but the resonating sympathy in his voice made her pause. Although she couldn’t trace the logic of her thoughts, it seemed to her that this wasn’t his normal string of confusing advice, but rather, an apology.

Tigress’ head began to ache and she realized she had been staring into the flame of the lantern. She rubbed and blinked her eyes until the dim corridor came into focus, only to find she was alone. Master Oogway was gone. A single peach blossom rested on the floor where he had been standing.

Confusion and exhaustion lapped at her mind to the point where she could do nothing but release a quiet laugh. Had she expected anything different?    

She picked up the flower. The soft petals felt cool against her palm. Carefully she closed her fingers around the blossom and headed back to her room, much too tired to try and untangle the events of the past twenty minutes. As with everything Oogway said, she knew eventually it would come to pass.