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Tread softly

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Shen considered the interior of the White Cliffs Inn. It was deceptively simple and rough. The wood weavers had been masters, removing the tree bark and living leaves only where necessary.

The candle on Shen’s table flickered...wrongly. He slid away from the table, retrieving his blades from under his cloak.

“Your students are as quiet as a pregnant worax,” Shen said.


 

The shifting shadows by the inn’s doorway stilled at his words, then the door was pushed open with such abruptness that Shen immediately sprang to his feet –

But what he saw made him freeze. Instead of drawing his weapons at the sight of his old friend foe, Shen stood as though rooted in place, and stared.

(A mistake, to let emotions hinder his actions. Unacceptable. He should know better, after all those years.)

Zed strode into the inn at a slow, deliberate pace, crimson eyes sweeping the room before settling upon Shen’s stunned visage. He was unarmoured but in no way unarmed, for Shen knew just how many weapons the other ninja could conceal on his body. Zed’s pale, scarred face was bare, and he looked every bit as disastrously beautiful as the last time Shen had laid eyes upon him.

At his side was a tall, lean youth with long braided hair, who seemed little concerned with inconspicuousness as he carried upon his back a cloth-wrapped weapon almost as long as he was tall.

He was also glaring at Shen with open hostility, no doubt offended by the ‘pregnant worax’ comment, but Shen paid him little heed.

Zed came to a stop exactly ten paces from where Shen stood. The faint tap of his left foot against the wooden floor finally confirmed what Shen had suspected from the moment Zed entered the inn, but refused to believe until he had undoubtable proof.

Zed’s footsteps had always been silent as a cat’s, his movements possessing a deadly feline grace.

(Shen had said, once upon a time, that Zed’s temperament had all the capriciousness of an overly pampered cat, then ran away laughing as Zed threw a flurry of training shuriken at him.)

“You…” Shen began, but the word came out as a dry croak.

Zed’s eyebrows furrowed slightly in confusion, then his expression cleared and went oddly blank as he understood what was making Shen so uncharacteristically disturbed.

“You noticed,” he said.

“…How?” Shen forced the question out past the lump in his throat.

“I got impatient,” Zed said, with a brief attempt at a sardonic smile. “While hunting the Golden Demon.”

Shen drew in a sharp breath, his head reeling. “Impossible.”

“His escape, or my error?” Zed asked dryly. “I saw as much of Khada Jhin’s handiwork as you did. Do you really think I could be mistaken?”

Shen was silent.

“You know that we are the only two people who can get close enough to stop him,” Zed continued, then suddenly gave a short, bitter laugh. “Just look at what happened when I tried to do it alone.”

The youth by Zed’s side shifted uncomfortably. “I tried,” he said, his voice low and unhappy.

Zed turned to look at him, and for a moment his blood red gaze almost seemed to soften. “You did what you could,” he said. “I could’ve lost far more than a leg to that trap.”

Shen’s hands clenched into fists. “He cannot be allowed to live.”

Zed blinked. “…I do believe that’s my line,” he remarked, raising a slender eyebrow at Shen’s odd behaviour. “I expected to have to persuade you of how important it is that we see him dead.”

Shen barely heard him over the blood roaring in his ears. The icy shock of the discovery was already wearing off, giving way to an all-consuming blaze of fury unlike anything he had felt in years.

“Shen.”

The sound of his name, spoken in that achingly familiar voice, fell like a splash of cold water onto his tumultuous emotions.

Shen took a deep breath, and tried to regain equilibrium.

“Can I see it?” The question was out of his mouth before he could reconsider, and he silently cursed himself.

(Foolish, reckless, was this really how the Eye of Twilight ought to behave? He had been taught better. He should know better. Yet something about Zed never failed to throw him off-balance, even after so much time had passed…)

The seconds crawled by as Zed looked at him, saying nothing. Shen almost wished he could take back that request, but he knew what was said could not be unsaid.

“Master Zed,” the youth began, then stopped, uncertain, as Zed turned to him. The Master of Shadows inclined his head very slightly towards the counter at the other end of the room, clearly expecting to be obeyed.

“…As you wish,” the young ninja muttered, and stepped away to do as he was told, glancing surreptitiously back at them every few seconds.

Zed took a seat at the nearest table, and after a moment’s hesitation Shen joined him. Both of them knew that at such proximity either of them could easily lunge forward to slit the other’s throat, all within the blink of an eye, yet Zed seemed entirely unbothered by the prospect.

“Your student,” Shen began, grasping for conversation topics. “Takes after you a great deal.”

The corners of Zed’s lips twitched, and Shen quickly shifted his gaze before he could be caught staring.

“Kayn is talented, but still has much to learn,” Zed commented. “Especially the importance of following orders.”

“Quite an ironic sentiment, coming from you,” Shen said pointedly, but to his surprise Zed only shrugged.

“He is a valuable subordinate, that cannot be denied,” Zed went on. “I wouldn’t be here if he had listened when I told him to stay behind.”

Shen was saved from having to respond to that as Kayn returned with a pair of keys and a truly impressive scowl, the former of which he handed to Zed, and the latter he directed at Shen.

Zed took the keys and got to his feet, very briefly leaning against the table to push himself up. Without another word he headed towards the back of the inn, Kayn hovering cautiously at his elbow and Shen following close behind.

At the foot of the staircase Zed paused, and Kayn made an aborted gesture as though he wanted to help, but a red-eyed glare made him duck his head and hurriedly cross his arms around his chest.

Shen watched, throat dry, as Zed ascended the stairs unaided. There was a quiet dignity to his movements, each step deliberately calculated to make up for the imbalance of gait caused by the prosthetic.

A memory surfaced in Shen’s mind, distant yet hauntingly vivid. A scene of a calm summer’s day, when Zed’s carefree laughter echoed in the Kinkou temple as he ran up the stairs three at a time, Shen’s hair tie clutched in his hand like a prize.

A time when they were still young, innocent, and unbroken.

.

Zed unlocked the door to the room Kayn had booked, then turned and gave his student a very pointed stare.

“But – ” Kayn began, only to be cut off before he could say another word.

“I can handle myself.”

Kayn cast another distrusting glare at Shen, then reluctantly gave in. “If you say so.”

“And stay out of the walls,” Zed added as he pushed open the door. “Aptitude for the shadow arts is no excuse for you to ignore the basic rules of privacy.”

The young ninja stood in the corridor, glowering like a guardian lion statue, as Shen silently followed Zed into the room.

The place was small and barely furnished, with little more than a bed and a table inside. Zed locked the door behind him and tiredly ran a hand over his face.

He had no idea why he’d even agreed to this.

He had expected Shen’s anger, his hatred, or even his forced indifference, but nothing could have prepared him for such incomprehensible behaviour from the man whose father had died by his hand.

Zed walked over to the bed, sat down, and began removing his left shoe. He might as well get it all over with.

“Wait,” Shen called out, and Zed paused. His next words were spoken so softly that Zed almost thought he had misheard them.

“Can I?”

The question hung in the air between them, and this time Shen was certain that he had gone too far.

But then Zed released his hands and placed them on either side of him, tilting his head up as he looked expectantly at Shen, a silent challenge in his scarlet stare.

Shen swallowed, suddenly nervous, then steeled himself and stepped forward. He crouched down in front of where Zed sat at the edge of the bed, and reached towards Zed’s other shoe.

He paused after he had removed both shoes and socks. He could see the prosthetic foot, but not how much of the left leg was artificial and how much of it was still flesh.

Shen glanced up, then down, then up again.

Zed could not remember the last time he saw Shen so uncertain about anything.

“Go on, then,” he prompted as he leant further back, sounding braver than he felt. “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”

Shen wondered if it was a test, or a challenge. Zed’s eyes were dark and his expression unreadable, and it all felt so surreal that Shen began to wonder if he was in a dream.

That feeling intensified as he slowly, ever so slowly, lifted his hand to Zed’s hip.

But Zed only arched an eyebrow at him, seemingly unperturbed.

“I think you’ll find it easier with both hands,” he said, and Shen almost made a strangled sound. It could’ve been a laugh, or something worse, but he bit it back just in time.

Shen raised his other hand. It trembled, for just the tiniest bit, but he knew Zed saw it happen.

Zed sighed.

He pushed to his feet, so quickly that Shen almost failed to pull back in time. His face remained inscrutable as he wordlessly pulled off his pants, carelessly tossing them onto the floor, before resuming his seat on the edge of the bed.

Shen had frozen in place as Zed did so, and he might’ve looked like a deer caught in the headlights if his expression was less pained.

When a full minute had passed and Shen still had not moved or even said a word, Zed gave another sigh.

“Seriously, I don’t know what you want.”

This time, Shen actually did make a vaguely strangled noise.

But at least he was finally doing something.

Shen’s hand slowly rose from where it had fallen limply by his side, and his fingers ghosted over Zed’s prosthetic foot.

Zed was silent.

Still moving at that agonizing pace, Shen’s hand moved higher, and touched lightly upon the ankle.

Zed shifted slightly, but only to straighten the artificial limb in a silent grant of permission. He watched as Shen’s hand haltingly moved higher still, tracing the unnatural shape of the unnatural limb. He still did not know what to think.

Shen was doing a poor job of maintaining his impassive mask, yet Zed could not read him. He had never seen such an expression on Shen’s face.

He did not understand it. Nor did he understand why he could almost feel the brush of Shen’s fingers against his leg, when that leg was made of metal.

Yet the phantom touch lingered, calling to mind all the old, lost caresses he had sworn to leave in the past.

Zed found himself suddenly wishing he had never agreed to this… this mortifying spectacle. He shifted again, an unsettled feeling taking root in his chest just as Shen’s hand finally reached where metal and flesh met.

Shen’s fingers were warm.

Warm like they always had been.

The touch of skin against skin came as a shock after nothing but phantom sensations, and Zed swallowed hard as he willed his heartbeat to remain at a constant pace. A task that became increasingly difficult, with Shen’s hand resting against his thigh.

Zed opened his mouth to speak, scrambling for something – anything – that would break the spell, but the words died upon his lips when Shen’s expression crumpled in a way that completely bewildered him.

Shen’s eyes were tightly shut, as though by closing them he could either shut out the sight before his eyes, or hide what threatened to spill forth from within.

He let out a shuddering breath and suddenly bowed his head, pressing his forehead against the cold metal of Zed’s artificial knee.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice ragged with emotion. “I’m sorry.”

Zed pressed both hands against his own eyes, with so much pressure that white fire exploded behind his eyelids. He’d survived all of it – the explosion, the realisation of the truth, the recovery and rehabilitation – without breaking down. He wasn’t going to break now.

He wasn’t.

But the tears which spilled from behind his shaking hands betrayed him.