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to paint the laughing soil

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     Ionian courtship rituals typically took place during the spring, right as the last frost of winter began to melt away. Spring was a time of growth and rejuvination, of new beginnings and sustained companionships. Once Ionian men reached a certain age, it was expected that they would court a woman of their choosing. The men would form a rapport with the woman's parents and family, proving himself a worthy husband by virtue of strength, wisdom, and compassion. In turn, should she return the courtship, the woman would prove to her suitor's parents that she was a worthy wife. Often, gifts crafted by hand were exchanged on both sides. Both members of the courtship would demonstrate their commitment to each other and to their family, both future and existing.


     One of the easiest ways for a man to begin courtship was by approaching his beloved during the Spring Harvest. During this celebration, Ionians would give thanks to the First Lands and its magic for providing them with food and shelter during the winter, and share the bounties of their winter crops. People would indulge in rich stews made from winter greens and aromatic root vegetables and sit huddled close together, enjoying the company of each other. It was a large social event that marked the beginning of spring, and it was the perfect opportunity for a man to begin his courtship. 


     For the neophytes of the Kinkou, the Spring Harvest was largely taken as an opportunity to play. Despite all children raised in the monastery learning the values of patience, perspective, and balance, there was little that could be done to stop children from getting cabin-fevered during a long winter. Once the snow began to melt and people began to gather in pavilions and scenic grottos, the children became anxious to go outside and run around, expelling all their pent-up energy. Of course, they still observed the practices of giving thanks to the land and to each other. It was a holiday of gratitude and the welcoming of new growth, after all. 


     And sometimes welcoming new growth meant sprinting through the newly unfrosted forests while they played games and chased each other around, shouting gleefully and enjoying the fresh air. As strict as the Great Master Kusho normally was, even he was not militant enough to deny children a free day once the frost began to melt. 


     Shen didn't join them. He had outgrown the childhood games shared among the younger neophytes of the Kinkou- but even when he was their age, he would always hang back, distanced from their fun and games. Rather, Shen preferred to seek out hidden groves, little nooks of forest and stream formed in the forests surrounding the monastery, and meditate in the divine presence of a magic land awakening from its winter slumber. 


     His habit hadn't changed as the years passed. Now, being fourteen years old, it would be more appropriate for Shen to join the graduated members and elders of the Kinkou in their rituals and ceremonies of thanking the land, but he stayed clear of those. His attendance was not required, and while it would probably show a great deal of respect to attend, something about the ceremony made his heart ache. Perhaps it was the fact that many of the older acolytes were married and had their own families living in the Kinkou monastery; they would laugh and indulge in the season's harvests together. Shen would have to watch from a distance, unable to participate by virtue of having nobody to share such sentiments with. 


     And although he was approaching the age when most Ionian men would think about initiating courtship, it wasn't something Shen ever dedicated much thought to. Shen had no interest in pursuing a wife, and he had passively accepted that his spouse would likely be selected for him by the elders of the Kinkou. There was no purpose in Shen seeking out a courtship partner on his own time. 


     In all, Shen felt detached from the Spring Harvest. He felt detached from the celebrations of survival, gratitude, and family. After all, with whom would he give thanks? Though they lived, fought, and trained together, Shen felt miles away from the other acolytes his age. His heritage- the title that would one day be set upon his shoulders- alienated him. 


     So he did not partake in any of the celebrations this year, nor did he any other year. Shen disappeared into the woods to meditate. 


     The dying winter was still brutally cold, and Shen was chilled despite wearing three layers. A mask of tight-fitting fabric covered most of his face, stopping just beneath his eyes, and the hood of his jacket hung low over his forehead. Even so, the exposed strip of flesh between the two barriers stung as the cold wind hit it. His eyes watered, but Shen trudged onwards, seeking out a favored meditation spot of his- an outcropping of moss-covered rocks that sat adjacent to thin stream. 


     It didn't take him long to find his desired location. The overhang of the rock formation had provided him a small area of ground that was free of snow and frost, so Shen settled into a meditative position there. Spine straight, legs crossed, hands folded together. Shen closed his eyes and began to clear his mind- of the celebrations, of the cold, of courtships, of everything.


     As fate would have it, Shen's meditation did not go long without interruption. He could hear someone walking towards him- quiet, but not quiet enough to completely avoid crunching over the patches of lingering frost on the ground. Shen kept his eyes closed and his stance firm. He knew who had followed him here. 


     "Are you seriously meditating right now? Outside? You're gonna freeze to death!"


     The exclamation, equal parts concerned and exasperated, brought a smile to Shen's lips. He opened his eyes and found Zed standing a few paces away from him. "I'm not sure why you're worried about me freezing to death when you're the one who decided to go without anything to cover your head or hands." 


     Zed shrugged, although he did bury his bare hands deep in the pockets of his jacket. "I wasn't planning on staying out for long- came to come get you, actually. The feast is gonna start soon. You should be there." 


     Something inside Shen ached painfully at those words, but he kept his expression neutral and shook his head. "I'm usually not in attendance anyway."


     "Yeah, I've noticed," Zed replied, raising a brow and giving Shen a critical look. "You should be, though. If only for the food."


     Shen couldn't help but chuckle at that. "I'll be alright."


     "Have you eaten today?"


     "I'm not hungry." 


     Zed sighed deeply and scuffed his foot along the ground, shifting clumps of frozen earth. "Do you really plan on missing out on all the festivities for another year in a row?" He asked, in a tone Shen couldn't quite identify. 


     There was something odd about the question. Zed had never shown any care in what Shen chose to do during the Harvest before. "Since I've nobody to court and nobody to share the festival's sentiments with, I've no reason to attend," He explained with a shrug. It was just the way thing were. Shen closed his eyes again, fully expecting the conversation to end there so he could resume his meditations. 


     Only it didn't. Zed's footsteps approached once more, and Shen opened his eyes to see his friend's hand extended towards him. 


     "Dance with me."




     Zed huffed, his not extended hand coming to settle on his hip. "I'm not going to let you sit out here alone, in the cold, during a day of celebration. You might not have anyone to court, but that's no excuse for being a damn recluse." 


     Shen, thankful that his mask was concealing the flush spreading across his cheeks, took Zed's hand and allowed his friend to pull him to his feet. Once they were both standing, Zed slipped one arm around Shen's waist, establishing himself as the leader of the dance. Shen didn't mind. 


     Ionian courtship dances were simple and slow, relying on the combined grace and physical connection of two lovers. Shen had never personally participated in one, and he suspected Zed hadn't either, but he had observed these dances often enough to understand what he was meant to do. He clasped Zed's free hand in his, settling his other on Zed's shoulder, and they began to dance. 


     The first few movements were awkward, unsure as both boys tried to mimic choreography they had never actually learned. For all their speed and agility on the sparring mats, the two shinobi suddenly seemed to have two left feet each. But after the first handful of movements, they both settled into their roles and the tempo of the dance. 


     "The feast is probably starting any minute now," Shen pointed out as they moved through another rotation. "You should probably head back if you want to be there."


     Zed was silent for a moment as he raised their joined arms in the air, giving Shen room to spin once before being pulled flush to Zed's chest. His breath caught in his throat when he realized just how close he was to Zed. This close, Shen could see the light reflecting in his eyes. He could feel Zed's heartbeat. 


     "I'd rather be here with you," Zed said quietly. The cold air suddenly felt like lightning in Shen's lungs, his blood like fire in his veins. Zed's grip on Shen's gloved hand tightened, and he carefully returned the squeeze. 


     The moment passed when Zed abruptly stepped away. But instead of continuing the dance, Zed dropped to one knee and placed a kiss on the back of Shen's hand, as was common for men to do upon the initiation and completion of a courtship dance. The gesture was simultaneously heartwarming and cheesy, and Shen couldn't hold back a laugh. He pulled Zed up and squeezed his hand again. 


     "In that case, I'll go to the feast with you. You look like you'll freeze if we stay out here any longer," Shen pointed out. 


     Zed grinned, as if this had been his plan from the start. Perhaps it had been. "Fine with me. You need to eat anyway." He turned and, still holding onto Shen's hand, began to walk back towards the monastery with him. 


     As they walked, Shen kept replaying the moment when Zed drew him close and told him that he would rather stay out in the cold with Shen than participate in one of the few celebrations that the Kinkou observed. It had taken the ache of loneliness from Shen and replaced it with something new. Shen didn't have the language to describe it, but it seemed to move with the melting of the frost. 


     The day was just as brutally cold as before, but Shen no longer felt chilled. The dance he'd shared with Zed seemed to light a fire within him- and even when they dropped each other's hands as they approached the monastery, the warmth remained.