Breath came rushing back to him. He coughed, heaving and winded. Lungs ached, screaming, agonized within shattered ribs. Every fiber burned. Torn muscles and tendons, broken bones, bleeding flesh.
The world was in a haze. Blurred lines and waving shapes, muffled sounds and incoherent voices.
He found the ground, his hands, his paws. Claws digging into the rubble of the street. Growling, Tai Lung spat blood from his teeth and pushed.
"Stay down, Tai Lung," the Dragon Warrior's voice swam through his ears.
Never. . . .
"How is he still alive?"
"There's no way he should have survived that."
"Finish him off, Po."
Yes. . . . Do it, Dragon Warrior. Finish me. . . .
"No, I. . . . I can't."
A low growl rumbled through his ears.
"If you won't do it, then I will."
Senses flared as he heard feet dash towards him. Ears lowered, teeth bared and snapped. He tried to growl, but could not find his voice. Claws gracelessly lashed out but fell to the ground, heavy under their own weight. Agony raced through his spine, but the attack never came.
"Tigress, no, please," the Dragon Warrior's voice continued.
Ears perked and pivoted, pinpointing the location. Summoning every last ounce of strength, claws dug into the dry packed earth and Tai Lung dragged himself forward. One claw. Then another. And another.
You robbed me . . . of my destiny. . . . I'll kill you . . . you damned, fat . . . panda!
"Why are you defending him, Po?" the tigress snarled. "He's a criminal and a killer! He would have destroyed the entire valley had we given him the chance! He deserves to die, Po!"
"No, Tigress. Just, just hear me out here, will ya? I think we should give him a chance."
"What? Are you insane?"
The monkey murmured, "Did he get hit in the head or something?"
The mantis, "I dunno'."
"What—No! Just listen to me, all of you, please!"
Again, the tigress growled. "Tai Lung's already had his chance, Po! He nearly killed you and Shifu with it!"
"Then give him a second chance! Look, I know how it sounds, but trust me on this. Please."
"Po, have you lost your—Look out!"
Claws outstretched, Tai Lung lashed for the Dragon Warrior. But his paw hit open air and a foot smashed it to the ground, immobilized. Teeth bore in threat, but he couldn't roar. Why couldn't he roar?
"Tigress, don't! Will you please just listen to me!"
"Look at him, Po! He's beaten and half dead and he's still trying to kill you! Do you really want to let a monster like that live?"
"Yes. I do."
Silence followed. A rumble coaxed through Tai Lung's throat but never made it out.
Bastard, he thought, huffing labored breaths from his bloodied nostrils. You don't get to decide my fate. . . . Only I do. . . . Kill me, Dragon Warrior. . . . Or I will kill you. . . .
Knuckles cracked as Tai Lung clenched his paw, fractured bones finally breaking under the strain. But he felt no pain. He felt nothing. Nothing but the pain of a knife in his pride.
The silence dragged on. The shapes of the Five were hazy and waved before and above him. He heard their voices but not their words. But he knew what they were saying, and he hated every second of it. They were deciding his fate. He, Tai Lung, the greatest Kung Fu Master to have ever walked the Earth, was forced to sit by as measly little pawns of that liar Shifu decided whether he was to live or die.
Damn them all, he thought.
His eyes were growing heavy. Paws were getting cold. The taste of iron stopped up the back of his throat, sickening.
Tai Lung wanted nothing more than to reach up and tear out their weak, scrawny, unworthy throats. Especially that damned panda! But the seconds passed like eternity, and he felt his strength, he felt the power of the universe, slowly slipping away. Angry red eyes softened and slowly began to close.
With the last bit of his strength and sense, he reached out, and heard—
"Master Shifu is going to have our hides for this. . . ."