Tigress lets Po talk her into a visit to the hot springs, whereupon cuddling occurs.
Tigress breathed in the forest, eyes closed in a moment of solemn appreciation. The endless bamboo forest crackled with growth. Thin rain pattered down her fur. Ahead, in the failing light of dusk, glimmered lantern light. The faint smell of fried rice teased her nose, and provoked an insubordinate grumble her stomach.
With a twitch of his ears, Po spun into Tigress’s path with excitement. "Hey, the Inn of the Divine Lotus! We should totally spend the night.”
She flashed him a look of cold steel. Water dripped off her cheek ruffs. “Why would we stop there? We never stop there."
"Yes, I know. We pass it every time we take this road. I've got a me-shaped divot in a clearing about three miles down the road."
They stood like statues in the drizzle and cold. She crossed her striped, powerful arms. He wiped the rain off his soft, fuzzy nose.
Po clutched the air in front of him in desperation. "Oh come on! You can blame me."
The feline cocked an eyebrow, her mouth loosening into a slight smile. "I was planning to." With a curl of her tail, she padded toward the inn.
~ ~ ~
Tigress, as always, kept in mind that the world was built for creatures weaker than her and opened the door without crushing it. Warm, dry air washed over her. A small fire crackled in the center of the floor, its tiles old, but clean.
Motion at the counter caught her attention. Black ears flicked, golden eyes watching as Tigress and Po entered. A matched set of leopards, each with a single flower in their head fur: one red, one blue.
"Greetings, travelers." The red-flower leopardess at the counter bowed.
"Oh man! Something smells amazing in here!"
"May we interest you in some food? Or perhaps a dip in the healing hot springs?" The blue-flower leopardess swept an identical bow.
The tiger studied them for a moment, decrypting their intentions. "We're just here for the--"
"Oh my gosh! Tigress, let's go in the hot springs. They have robes and everything!" Po rushed over to the rack of delicate garments and attempted putting it on, stretching fabric to breaking point around his plump frame. “It'll be awesomely relaxing!”
That sounds like a really stupid koan. "Po, we're here to rest, nothing else."
He clasped his paws in front of her. "Oh come on! Think how much better we'll rest if we soak up some of the healing power of the Mystical Hot Springs of the Divine Lotus."
"Your handsome companion is correct." Red Flower gave a demure smile.
"We will lead you to the spring, where you may rest your weary bones…" Blue Flower swept proud paws toward the back of the inn.
"…While we prepare your room." They finished in harmony.
"Oh wait, you think she and I are— That we—" Po stammered, cringing a look at Tigress.
With a silent prickle of annoyance, the striped feline nodded. "One room is fine."
Po sputtered in a most satisfactory way.
An orange paw placed three small coins on end, like dominos, on the counter.
"Awwww! Why can't we get one of the big rooms?"
"Because I'm in charge of the money.” She tied the simple cloth purse back to her belt. “That's a lesson we don't have to learn twice."
The pair of snow leopards ushered them out the back, across smoothed stones to a large pool divided by a bamboo wall. Out of sight of each other, the cats helped them undress, which Tigress tolerated as part of the process. She settled in against the wall, wincing at the heat. As the leopards left, she heard Po slosh into the spring behind her.
"Oh yeah, that's good…" The panda sighed, creaking the bamboo under his weariness. "I think I know how a noodle feels."
"Hmmm…" Tigress tried to allow herself to relax, in much the same way as Po sometimes tried not to talk.
This was one of those times. "Soooooo… Those ladies totally think we're…you know."
She closed her eyes, leaning against the bamboo wall. "We're what?"
"That we…might, uh, be, you know…in a relationship."
Striped arms crossed. "We are in a relationship."
He tapped two fingertips together. "I mean something more than friends."
A curt nod. "As do I."
With a sigh, he dropped his paws into the water. "I mean something romantic."
Her mouth twitched toward the threat of a smile. "As do I."
"Bu— I— You— Wha?" The water splashed, as he spun around. His voice bounced up an octave. "…You could've told me!"
"I let you hug me." Though the words came with ease, she stiffened in their wake. Without a thought, her dripping-wet arms hugged her body. "I also took a cannonball to the face for you. I thought my actions would make it clear how I felt."
"Using words would have worked." He babbled, baffled. "Or, you know, flirting once in a while!"
"One does not flirt with the Dragon Warrior." She rolled her eyes. "Besides, what more could you want?"
The panda blinked. "I don't know...” He got quieter. “Snuggles and stuff?"
"…Well, that's not going to happen."
"Okaaay…” Disappointment sunk his voice. “So if we're a couple, does that make this a date?"
"We're here together, on a specific day. Is that not a date?"
"You really have no idea how this works."
She thought for a moment. "No."
"Wow. I guess I'm just amazed I know something you don't."
"And this is what it must feel like to be Po."
"You don't think we should do anything…coupley?"
She sank a little lower in the water. "I don't see what the big deal is."
"You really didn't get a lot of hugs when you were a kid…"
A grumble graveled her throat. "I don't see what that has to do with anything."
"It has everything to do with everything! Openin' up about your feelings! Lettin' loose! Allowing someone to see past that terrifying stripy exterior to the fuzzy kitty inside."
"You are fuzzy enough for the both of us." Her arms crossed, even as her whiskers twitched toward a smirk before regaining their composure. "We're comrades, warriors…" And you're the only person I ever told about my teenage crush on Shifu. "I thought that was what you wanted."
"I'm allowed to want more than one thing. I want more than one thing all the time! Right now I want dumplings and soup. Both of which just happen to be served at this inn."
Tigress sunk to her nose in the bath. Breathing the steamy air, that alien sensation the rest of the Furious Five called relaxation soaked into her. Po had been right for once; the hot springs felt…nice. She watched the vapor dance off the surface of the water, spiraling toward the clearing dusk sky. Peace stole over her.
A knock on the bamboo wall. "Umm, Tigress?"
She blinked, water having condensed on her eyebrows. Night had fallen. Had she slept through something? Her fists clenched under the surface. "What is it, Po?"
"Nothing; I just thought I'd check on you." A faint munching noise. "Oou've en in ere over an our."
Her eyebrow crooked. "Late-night snack?"
He swallowed. "I didn't want to insult our hosts by not trying the house specials." He slurped something. "Speaking of soup, you might want to get out of there."
With muscles like overcooked noodles, the feline climbed out and, finding no clothes, wrapped a towel around herself. She poked her head around the corner, dripping. "Where are my—?"
"I had the cat ladies wash them." Po tapped two fingertips together. "You know, since we had to walk here in the mud. Hope that was okay. I didn't want to bother you."
Her eyes rolled. "No, it's fine. Let's just go get some rest."
They padded upstairs, and Po ushered her into the cozy room. He closed the door and looked her over. "Are you okay?"
Tigress glanced to either side, then shrugged. "I'm fine."
"'Cause you're doing that thing with your claws that usually means you're hurt." He pointed, settling down an empty bowl of soup.
She balled her fists at her sides, claws hidden. "My neck has a kink from sitting like that in the pool."
"I could take a look."
"It's really not a big deal."
"Then do it as a favor to me." He flashed her a cocky grin. "C'mon…"
"Fine…" Sitting, she tightened the towel around herself, followed by her tail. Her ears dipped as she allowed him close. "But only because you were right about this inn."
"Hey, I know where to find decent food." He sat behind her on the bed, those wide paws working over her shoulders.
At first, she just humored him; Po liked physical contact. Now that she thought about it, they'd been touching each other more and more. Not in any perverted way, but just paws on shoulders, even before she'd hugged him back in Gongmen City. As he continued, she felt knots of tension unravel, felt her body start to slack under his attentions.
As his thumbs rubbed little circles in the back of her neck, he whispered. "Lay down for me?"
With a dreamy moan, she complied.
Strong paws squeezed her upper thighs, slipping under the towel.
Shyness cut through the haze in her brain. Her tail curled over his hands. "Po, what are you doing?"
"I've gotta work your, uhh…back." The massage moved to safer regions, beginning to lift away. "Do you want me to stop?"
She forced her tail out of the way, sinking further into the soft bed, so much softer than back at the palace. "No…" Her paw ended up on his knee. "Keep going."
Somewhere around her shoulder blades, she decided getting a massage wasn't so bad. His steady hands worked their magic over her body, easing away tension she didn't know she held. Before she realized it, she slipped into the dark calm of sleep.
~ ~ ~
Some hours later, Tigress woke with dry fur. Stripes awash in starlight, she slunk out of bed and into her clothes. A noise drew her attention across the small room. There, sprawled and snoring, lay Po.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him, her mind wandered. She thought back to the back rub, and its strange new pleasure. What other feelings had she missed out on? Why could someone as untrained as Po evoke such a reaction? His touch…and touching him, felt good, and not just when she punched him—which he totally deserved. The moon shone on his fur, glowing with shameless softness.
The panda twitched awake, jade eyes opening in surprise. His breath stirred her neck fur as he glanced at the striped arms around him. "Tigress?"
"We're going to cuddle now." She spoke with the softest echo of a purr, glad darkness and fur hid her blush.
She reached to put a finger to his lips, pausing when she realized she was about to do one of the Single Finger Paralysis Techniques. How did normal people get through the day without paralyzing their loved ones? "Don't talk."
The panda watched her for a moment. His paw came to rest on her arm.
She waited for him to say something embarrassing, in which case he could make his bed outside from fragments of the wall she'd throw him through.
Instead, he squeezed her shoulder.
Rolling to her side to lie next to him, the feline lifted his arm over her. Warm, plush fur greeted her. The striped feline stiffened as his arms closed around her. The notion of someone wanting to touch her seemed foreign. She took comfort in the fact that nothing that soft could possibly be a threat. Frozen, her breath held until soft fur and gentle paws began to thaw her.
She wrapped him in her arms, for the first time regretting this particular gap in her training. “I...don’t know what I’m doing.”
Po froze, as if his mind had flashed through a thousand places he was wise enough not to mention. "IIIIIIIIIIIIII—ummm, uhhh, well, we don't have to go any further than you want." He gathered his sense enough to stroke her shoulder.
"No, I mean I literally don't know what I'm doing." While considering her next move, she noticed Po writhing as his joints cracked.
"Oww! Oww! Tigress—too hard!"
She eased up, ears flattening against her skull. "Apologies. I'm not used to cuddling."
"Yeah, and my bruised ribs can prove it."
Hesitation gripped her, but she overcame it. She double-checked that her claws were sheathed, so as not to turn him into a panda pin cushion. "How m… Where did you learn to cuddle anyway?"
"You don't have to learn it; you just have to feel it."
"That's easy for you to say.” Her muzzle nestled in his plush chest fur. “Everything you've ever tried comes easily."
"That's not true."
"Name one example."
Silence spread between them, then a soft rumbling. Alarm swept her mind as she noticed the vibration came from her own body, until a realization dawned: purring. Tigress blushed. She hadn't purred since she was a cub, just after she'd first come to the Jade Palace. Being unsure how she started purring, she had no idea how to stop…and felt certain Po felt it too.
The panda said nothing, but continued to hold her, stroking her sides.
"This is...nice." Her tail curled around him. "Can you teach me more?"
He kissed her on the forehead. "Anything you wanna know."
As night deepened, drawing sleep across her mind, Tigress nestled into Po's embrace, and, with slow tenderness, let her lips meet his.
Wrote this a while back, but it took time to get it just right. Slate and Ana are to blame, as they insisted on talking about how cute Tigress and Po are together! X)
Anyway, the steamy conclusion is coming in one week. Let me know what you think!