The next day was a beautiful sky. The thunderclouds from yesterday's rain were far off in the distance, clear to see, like great white mountains that had sprung up overnight.
Shen had gone out for a walk into the bamboo forest. And while his tone had implied that he would rather go alone, Ji found herself following him by air, anyway. He was hard to miss – a big white-and-red spot on the ground, surrounded by green and brown as he was. He was remarkably fast, for a bird on foot - especially with that long tail of his, dragging behind him.
If he was fully healed, Ji would have had no problem letting him go alone, but as it was, Shen still had broken ribs, and Ji was unsure of how well his wings would hold up outside of a sling. So she followed him, just to be on the safe side.
Damn, he was fast! Ji huffed and puffed as she flapped her wings harder to keep up with him. She had never been a fast flyer; Ji had never been able to master soaring and gliding on the winds, as most birds did. Try as she might, suffer her brothers' jeers and mockery as she often did, she could never manage flying without constantly pumping her wings like a crow. And even crows learned how to glide! It made making turns much harder than it should be, and she was far from graceful.
Shen came to the edge of a gorge, and Ji was finally able to slow down a little. She briefly wondered what he was going to do now, when he suddenly ran off the edge. Ji's heart stopped. Peacocks couldn't fly at all!
Shen then spread his wings and tail feathers wide like a folding fan, and as if by magic, the wind carried him safely across the impossibly wide gorge to the other side.
Ji's beak was gaping wide open at the sight. An instant later, jealousy starting eating her up inside. A peacock, a bird who wasn't supposed to be able to fly, had crossed a gorge far better and with more practiced ease than she ever could! Shen might be an adult, with clearly much more experience with gliding, but that just wasn't fair!
Sulkily, Ji continued to follow him.
She didn't go very far, as Shen soon stopped in a nearby clearing. In the middle, there were two blooming cherry trees – one tall, ancient and gnarled, one small, and almost still a sapling. Ji realized that she recognized this place – it was Xuewen Grove. Supposedly, the larger tree was where an old philosopher was buried, and his most dedicated student was buried beneath the smaller tree – this grove had been where the philosopher had held his lectures and passed on his teachings to his students. Ji couldn't remember their names, but it was an old, well-known story around this region.
Shen had apparently decided this was a good place to stop and rest. He lifted one of his wings – and threw a volley of knives into the trunk of the larger tree!
Okay, so maybe he wasn't stopping and resting.
Shen whirled and seemed to enact a deadly dance, casting knives from his wings like they were old feathers, flaring his train as he did so. Ji, having hidden behind a nearby boulder, was awed at the sight.
Once, in Ya Zhen, Ji had seen a public Kung Fu demonstration – it was beautiful sight, the fighters' strength and skill on full display: athletic acrobatics, feats of strength and running from rooftop to rooftop being presented as central acts. But the Kung Fu sparring she had seen then was nothing next to Shen's fighting style.
He accomplished every motion with a swift grace and a smooth ferocity that rivaled a blazing wildfire, rivaled even the wind itself. There was no brute force here, no swinging around poles or high kicks, no using elements of the surroundings – this was a pure force of nature. Shen merely worked around all the disadvantages of his environment, and conquered what was left. The look of fire in his crimson eyes and pure determination on his face were an awesome sight to behold as he danced around the clearing, flinging knives from his wings and picking up ones buried in the wood as he went along. In an instant, Shen flung a knife into every segment of a bamboo tree, and then felled it with one more. By the time he stopped still, panting with the effort, half the leaves on the cherry trees were gone, and the trunks were covered in gouges from the knives.
As Ji shook herself out of her daze, a sprout of worry came to her – he shouldn't be exerting himself this much with broken ribs! She feared he might reopen one of the wounds on his torso, or worse.
Shen turned his head sharply, as if he had caught something out of the corner of his eye.
“Come on out. I know you're there.” His voice was cold and harsh. A spark of fear entered her as she reluctantly stepped out from behind the boulder. How had he known?
Shen's eyes narrowed as she stepped into the light. “Why are you here?” he demanded.
“You're still healing from your wounds. Forgive me for being concerned.” Ji put on her usual face and an icy tone, but she felt trepidation deep inside. What if what she had just seen was supposed to be a secret? She doubted he would kill her at this point, but considering what he had done in the past, Shen was capable almost anything.
“Very well then. You're forgiven.” Oh. Well then. Ji would have snorted, if Shen's statement had been meant as remotely funny.
“What martial art is that? Is it the one you spoke of – the one you invented?”
Ji had always been curious about warriors and their fighting techniques. Whenever some wanderer had happened by the village or her family's cottage (which wasn't often), she had always pressed them for stories of far-off heroes she would never get to meet. Her brothers had never understood her interest in fighting – she was a girl, after all, and a cripple to boot. And while she had always argued on behalf of female warriors, she had always been forced to grudgingly accept, in her heart of hearts, that cripples really shouldn't be interested in sword fighters and Kung Fu masters. It could never be, after all – Ji had seen that for herself. But she could always wish.
Shen seemed to stiffen at this. “....Yes,” He finally answered. “I call it Yu Dun – the Feather Shield.”
“I invented it to be specialized for birds – we do not have the reach or power behind our punches as other animals do, because we have wings instead of arms. Our bodies are different enough from other beings that we are often at a serious disadvantage in a fight, so I developed Yu Dun, a martial art centered around the use of weapons and projectiles. I am the only one who knows it.”
“Huh. It's very different from Kung Fu.”
Shen arched an eyebrow. “And how would you know that?”
Ji shifted her feet. “I, uh, saw a demonstration once in Ya Zhen.” She cleared her throat. “Anyway, I'll just – let you get back to practicing. I'll be in the area, in case you have trouble with your injuries.” Ji turned, and made as if to fly away.
“Are you sure? You seemed to be having fun watching earlier,” Shen said in an amused drawl. Ji froze.
She just couldn't hide anything from him, could she? Ji rolled her eyes. “No, why would I? I'm a cripple, remember? I can't enjoy martial arts.” She spread her wings in preparation to take off -
“What does that have to do with it?” Shen said sharply.
Ji growled low in her throat. Was he honestly being this stupid? “I – can't,” she ground out. “I'm weak. Understanding martial arts is not an appropriate hobby for me.” Ji explained it carefully, slowly, as if to a child. She didn't know why he was continuing to ask about what was clearly a touchy subject, but he was starting to make her angry.
Shen narrowed his eyes further still, a calculating look on his face.
This would require a more....specialized attack. “Is that what your parents told you?”
“My brothers, actually,” Ji snapped, “not that it matters anyway. I can never learn how to fight,” she finished bitterly.
Gods, she frustrated and infuriated him to no end! Even knowing that her family hated her, she was still willing to believe every rotten little thing they shoved down her throat! How could she still trust their opinions of her, knowing that they didn't care? Shen was fuming inside, unable to fathom this stupid little bird's self-pity. He snorted in derision. “How tiresome. Have you ever even tried to prove them wrong?”
Ji whirled around. Ah, he'd finally touched a nerve. “What do you think I've spent my life doing?” she spat in his face. “I've tried to show them I can be stronger, and I can't. I tried to show them I could fly properly, and I can't. I tried to show them I could make up for my lame leg with other skills, and I can't. I've tried showing them I can be better and I can't. Hell, when they were gone, the first thing I did was go to the Jade Palace to try a last-ditch attempt to learn Kung Fu, and the Master there said. That. I. CAN'T.” Ji paused, breathing heavily. “I'm weak. I have no future – any dreams I have are impossible for me to accomplish. The very idea of a cripple trying to learn martial arts is laughable. I'm sick of trying to prove I'm more than what I seem, when I so very clearly am not.” Ji turned away, seeming sunken in, and smaller than before. “Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going fishing. I've wasted my time here as it is. Come find me if you need me.” She flapped her wings, rising clumsily into the air, and flew off.
The air was still and quiet, and Shen was left alone.
When he came back to the hut late that afternoon, Ji was sitting by the fire, poking at some stew she'd cooked in a little pot. She silently avoided his eyes, ignoring him as she stirred.
Shen sat down across from her, and she didn't dare look up. When the stew was done, she served them both without a word. Neither spoke that night, not even when dinner was over and they both went to bed.
The next morning, Ji made them another simple meal. The silence had become almost suffocating, and she was relieved when Shen finally broke it.
“Tell me, Milu Ji, do you hate your family? Do you despise them for abandoning you, for treating you like you were worthless, for calling their own blood a useless cripple?”
Ji was startled - and then, hesitantly, she nodded, clenching her fists. She hated them for what they had done to her. They had wronged her in ways she doubted they would – or could – comprehend. The bitterness ran too deep for her to forgive them now, no matter what her father might say or do to try and make it up to her.
“And now, presented with another opportunity to prove them wrong, to humiliate them and show them they were fools for treating you like this, you decide to give up and ignore it? To believe, without even trying, that you can never accomplish greatness?” Shen's voice was filled with contempt, and for once, Ji flinched at it. “Child, do you really believe that learning a true skill doesn't involve time and dedication? Because it does, even to those who have no physical weakness – and martial arts are not only the domain of those with natural talent. Even the greatest warriors, when they first started out, were flabby, weak, whiny and incompetent mounds of pulp, and they only progressed and grew strong because they were determined, because they wanted to be strong, more than anything else in the world.” Shen stood up. “If you won't keep trying for something you really want, no matter how hard it seems, then I'm afraid you are far more crippled than I first thought - in your will, and not just in your body.” He turned away to leave. “I've going back to the grove to train again. Stay here and pity yourself, if that is what you want.”
Shen left, and Ji was alone again.
All she could do was sit there, shaking. For a whole day, Ji had really believed that Shen understood her, that despite her faults and defects, he could accept her. They had both been shunned by their families, after all – they weren't so different, were they? But now Ji saw the difference. Shen was strong, and she was not. He could never understand.
Ji turned over his words in her mind. If you won't keep trying for something you really want, no matter how hard it seems. She snorted. She had already tried, hadn't she? She had tried, and been told she couldn't do it. Master Shifu himself had told her so. Ji just wasn't cut out for Kung Fu.
It's very different from Kung Fu, she remembered herself saying – she felt hope rising in her chest, and she quickly crushed it before it could become too big. Ji sighed. It was still a martial art.
Aside from being accepted by her family, if there had ever been anything Ji really wanted, it was to be a mighty warrior. When she was little, before she could truly comprehend her disadvantage, she would imagine herself one day fighting legions of foes, knocking them all to the ground like wooden dummies. Ji had fantasized about being praised for her skill, of proving herself stronger and more capable than her brothers. The young cormorant had imagined others one day whispering the name of Milu Ji in awe, of being unique and renowned. The day her dreams had come crashing down around her ears, and she had realized that it all could never be, had been the worst day of her life.
They only progressed and grew strong because they were determined, because they wanted to be strong, more than anything else in the world. Shen's words echoed in her mind, and Ji clenched her fists. She did want to be strong – more than anything else in existence! If she had ever been given the chance to be granted one wish, and one wish only, she would have wished for strength! The simple fact of the matter was that she wasn't strong, and could never be strong.
But Shen said that no true skill is ever gained without hard work, a small of part of herself said. Have you ever started something and kept trying, even though it seemed impossible?
No, Ji realized, she hadn't. Because every time she had tried something and failed before, her mother and brothers had mocked her, and told her she couldn't do it, that she was weak – why was she even trying? And she had always felt humiliated, and so she stopped trying. She couldn't master gliding and soaring after even a hundred tries. Stupid Ji – you clearly can't, so just stop! And she had stopped. Ji couldn't catch as many fish as her brothers, so she kept fishing day and night to try and match the fish that all four of them had brought back. Ji, you'll only hurt yourself – you can't do it, just come home and eat something. Don't try to do it again. And she had stopped. She had tried to follow in Zhu's footsteps, and become a scholar, and she had struggled with writing the more advanced words. Give up, Ji – you'll never have a use for it, anyway. And so she had stopped trying, every single time. Try it once – she clearly couldn't, so why bother? Try something else – rinse and repeat. She was a cripple – if she couldn't do it on the first time she couldn't do it at all. Ji clenched her fists even harder. Yet another thing for which she had her so-called family to thank.
And now she had a brand-new opportunity in front of her – Yu Dun, the Feather Shield. A new martial art, so special and unique that it was practiced by only one being, and for all she knew, she could have become its very first student. And she had dismissed it with little more than a thought, because she had preemptively believed that she couldn't, without even trying it once.
Ji took a deep, shaky breath, and stood up. Knowing she could very well fail, and that this attempt could end in yet another heartbreak for her, she opened the door and spread her wings, leaving for Xuewen Grove.
The flapping of wings drew Shen's attention, and he paused, drawing one of his knives out of a bamboo stump.
He hadn't intended to offer to teach her the art of Yu Dun, at first – he had no experience in teaching, after all, and staying with his new pupil would completely derail his plans of leaving as soon as he was well enough. But Shen had found himself so completely furious with her. The child reminded him too much of himself, and he couldn't stand her willingness to give up. The whole time they had been silent, he had wanted to scream at her, beat some sense into her – Shen had never been one to sit still and be sad, and he would never have tolerated the idea of sitting around and feeling sorry for himself; his pride would never have let him do such a thing. The thought of giving up on something one wanted seemed so spineless to him – Ji would have done so without a second thought, and that enraged him to no end. So he would delay his plans of sneaking back into Gongmen – for now.
And thus, he turned around to face Ji as she approached him. Shen held his head high, and said coldly, “Yes?”
Somewhat clumsily, Ji bowed, and said, “Master Shen, I have come to ask you if you will take me on as your student. Will you please teach me the art of the Feather Shield?”