Author's Note: As promised, here is the second part of the Epilogue! And in time to celebrate the release of Kung Fu Panda 3, which is released in America today. But, please all my American and Chinese readers, do not give me any spoilers! Whilst I fully intend on going to see the movie, I'll have to wait. Dreamworks has decided to punish me by delaying the UK release until MARCH! :(
But I hope you enjoy this chapter just as well.
Warning: there are some dark themes present in this chapter.
Shen knew something was wrong when he started to lose track of time.
He did the exact same thing day in and day out. Eat, be checked by the doctors, do a few exercises to determine his progress, see Lianne, hobble around pathetically, eat, then sleep. Then the cycle would repeat the next day. The repetitiveness of his routine had him pacing in his mind as if he were a savage in a cage, beating at the bars, desperate to get out. He was beginning to forget if it had only been days or weeks or months or years, it was all blending together into one mass.
The rooms he stayed in, although some of the finest in the Palace, was his prison cell. Shen knew it for what it truly was. He could hear the voices in his head haunting him. They laughed as they replayed his defeat before his eyes, made him suffer the humiliation, taunted him over how he had so easily given in to imprisonment. They whispered that this was his death sentence. He was to die alone and forgotten, wasted away as the world remembered nothing of him but his final pitiful moments.
And he knew the reason as to why he was here. He glared down at his traitorous body hatefully. It infuriated him how he had been reduced to this state. A cripple and a wretch. It shamed him beyond words. On some nights, he fancied that this was a poison, an infection in his being that needed to be cut off, and then he would be whole again. It shamed him because every time he looked at his wasted body, he heard all those voices inside his head throughout his life repeating all their nasty oaths.
Lord Shen is given a frail and weak disposition… It was feared that Shen's abnormality would cause him to breed sickly young… Your valiant-freak-peacock… You crazy freak… The peacock misfit… You're insane… You are nothing, boy… You will be remembered for nothing… No son of mine would disgrace me as you have done… You're an old, heartless, monster… You arrogant, selfish, lying buzzard… You're a coward… At least I get some satisfaction knowing you're a little broken at the end of it…
That last one cut the deepest. Because he was broken. He was a wretched, broken, thing. And every day he spent in the hell of that knowledge, he knew that he was slowly suffocating from it. With every day that went past, a little bit more of him died with it, until he would no longer be anything at all.
He eyed the corner of the room, where a pitcher of wine beckoned him. He'd never really been a drinker, only indulging on occasion. But now, he could almost smell the alcohol from across the room, calling to him like a siren's song. He knew that many excuses for men drank themselves to death, and he had to admit that he was starting to see the appeal. In that wine, he knew that if he got himself drunk enough, he would forget his body's aches first, then he would forget who he was, then he might slip into unconsciousness and not have to put up with this tediousness. He wondered, if he did it enough times, could it take away some of the hurt? Could it end his suffering permanently?
The thought was so tempting, to end the agony. He couldn't even remember making his way over, but his good wing was already reaching for the pitcher. But as his feathers brushed its cooled side, he froze.
A memory surfaced from the bottom of the consciousness. A swan, Lord Chang, once a proud and powerful man, driven mad by grief. He drowned himself in drink, trying to be rid of his sorrows. He'd become a wreck, and Shen had despised him for that weakness. Despite the fact that Chang was now long dead and buried, Shen still felt bitter resentment at the man. He didn't want to be anything like him.
So he smashed the pitcher against the wall, determined to be rid of it permanently.
The doors burst open, the handmaid, Mei, looking about worriedly from the shattered pitcher, to a fuming Shen. The peacock glared at the goose, silently willing her to just spit out whatever was on her mind.
"It's time," she murmured. Shen cocked a feathery brow. "The egg is hatching…"
More time had passed then he'd thought, but not as much as he'd feared…
He hobbled along to the nest, following Mei at his own pace. Once again, he cursed his broken body for not keeping up, and then cursed whoever designed the Shan Palace for making it such a long trip. But finally, Mei held the door open for him, just as the doctors were filing out. They nodded to him as they passed, but he ignored them. He went in, and Mei closed the door behind him.
Lianne sat on her nest, her face practically glowing as she beamed. Such serene happiness filled her eyes, the likes of which he had never seen in her before. Such a calm spell lay over the room, he was almost loath to break it with a single noise. But then something did, a soft little gurgle, barely heard. Shen's eyes drifted down.
Held in Lianne's loving wings, was a tightly wrapped little bundle. The blankets obscured what was inside from view, but Shen saw it move slightly, the sound of tiny panting breaths coming from it. Slowly, Shen moved to stand beside Lianne, in the exact same spot he had when she'd been laying her egg. Lianne looked up at him, her proud, beaming smile growing wider. She didn't say a word, but turned back to the bundle in her arms, and pulled back the edge of the blanket so that Shen could see more clearly.
Shen couldn't distinguish many features on the chick, as he could only see its face. The fluffy feathers were still slightly moist from the inside of the egg. But he could see that its beak was a deep iron grey, but flat like Lianne's, the skin around its eyes matching in colour. It was such a little thing, he could hardly see any relevance to it. But Lianne smiled as if a piece of heaven had just been handed to her.
"He's beautiful…" she whispered quietly.
Shen looked at her sharply. "A son?"
She nodded, turning back down to look at her child, rocking him softly when he shifted. "I've been thinking of a name… Zian."
"Zian?" Shen echoed. The name sounded similar to 'lion', but the actual irony in the name wasn't lost on Shen. Traditionally, the name Zian meant 'self-peace' or 'inner-peace'. Was this Lianne's idea of a joke?
The look on her face told him she was serious. "In memory of Zhan. He was a good friend."
Shen nodded. His final moments with his former friend still haunted his mind sometimes. He knew he would miss him, and some part of him wondered if things could've ended differently between them. But this felt like a nice way to bring that part of his life to a close.
Zian opened his beak widely to yawn, but didn't wake. Lianne chuckled softly.
"Would you like to hold him?" she asked quietly, holding the babe out to him slightly.
Shen hesitated. He looked from the chick – a fragile, good, innocent, little thing – to Lianne. Such happiness radiated out of her, that it was almost infectious to him. It gave him a little bit of happiness to see that Lianne was brought such joy holding his child.
But as he cautiously held out his wings, he stared at them. Broken, imperfect, freakish. Usually, Shen revelled in his oddity, using it like armour so that no one could ever hurt him with it. But still those whispers from earlier plagued his mind. With every thought, it was a betrayal to Lianne. He realised then that he and Lianne could play house all they wanted, but the truth was clear to him. He was a failure to his new bride and son. A stain upon their lives. Unworthy.
Self-loathing threatened to swallow him in that moment, and he yanked his wings back from the pair as if burned. Lianne's eyes widened, surprised, hugging her son against her chest as she watched her husband carefully. But Shen couldn't bear to meet her gaze. Zian began to mewl, whimpering before crying out. Lianne broke her stare away from Shen as she turned back to her child, rocking him and murmuring to him softly.
Shen took that opportunity, and fled from the room.
The sun was shining. It was summer. The warmth of the day turned the gardens of the Shan Palace into a portrait of divine beauty. Colours exploded in every direction, the heavy fragrance of flowers drifting on the faint breeze that ruffled his feathers.
Shen heard laughter, and followed the noise as he meandered almost leisurely through the gardens. The noise came not far from the lake, and he peered from the shadow of a cherry blossom tree. Lianne stood in the gardens, surrounded by flowers, the sun shining off of her pristine feathers. She held Zian in her arms, the babe still wrapped up in blankets. But Shen could hear his son giggling sweetly as Lianne played with him, twirling them around, tickling him as she rubbed her face in his.
The sight was so… peaceful, so normal, that Shen couldn't help the small smile spread across his beak. Lianne looked so happy, as if nothing else in the world existed but her and her son in this wonderful moment. It was as if there was no ugliness, no impurity at all in the world. Shen was actually glad that that seemed to be behind them now.
The sky split apart, turning black as smoke heaved into the air, blocking out the sun and plunging the world into darkness. Shen spun, beak falling open in dismay as he suddenly saw the Shan Palace burst into flames. All of its beauty, its magnificence, was gone. The flames ate at it all, not discriminating in the slightest as it engulfed the entire palace in a dance of death. Amongst the flames, Shen could see figures, shadows, walking amongst them, urging the flames on. They turned towards the gardens, their hungry eyes baying for blood.
He heard a scream, and turned as Lianne clutched Zian close to her chest and fled. She ran as fast as she could, disappearing between the trees at the edges of the garden, escaping into the forest. The shadows howled with the thrill of the hunt, and dove after her. Heart pounding, Shen also ran after Lianne, determined to get to her before these mysterious figures could.
He ran through the trees, sprinting for all he was worth. He was a little surprised when the forest thinned and ended abruptly, and he could see the light of more flames ahead. Had Lianne gone there? But he could hear Zian crying, and so followed the sound.
He raced out of the trees, and found himself in a burning village. He hadn't known this was here. Snow now lay thickly over the ground, though melting as it came too close to the roaring fires that consumed each and every building. Shen strode through the village, looking for any sign of Lianne, surveying the carnage that had appeared in so little time. The smoke from the fires all around him lifted into the air to block out even the stars and moon, so that true darkness lay over this little corner of the world. Shen looked to the burning buildings all around him, slowly recognising where he was.
The pandas. They had to be behind this! They had come for revenge, were here to take away his family, to do unto him what he had done to them. But he wouldn't allow it! He refused to allow it.
He heard Lianne cry out in fear, coming from the woods beyond the village. Without a second thought, Shen raced after her, following into the maze of trees as he sought out his wife.
But then, he stumbled. Pain seared through his body, and he almost fell. One of his legs didn't want to work properly. Shen looked down in horror, as he was confronted with his crippled state. How would he be able to keep up with this? He heard a growl, and realised he had no choice. Limping, he carried on into the woods.
Daring not to call out to Lianne, for fear of drawing the attention of their pursuers, Shen looked for her. Panic made his heart skip every other beat, painfully, and the longer he went without any sign of her, the more hysterical he became.
A grunt, then panting. Shen snapped his beady eyes to his right, and saw Lianne running through the snow. She struggled to keep up a fast pace as she had to push her legs into the snow, and heft Zian's weight in her arms. Her eyes were wide with panic and fear, and she kept looking behind and all around her.
"Shen!" she called for him.
Shen hobbled towards her, desperate to make it to her. He needed to take the weight of Zian from her, so that she could have an easier time running. She might even be able to fly if she weren't holding onto the baby. But he wasn't fast enough, she always kept ahead of him, she didn't see him as she kept glancing behind her.
Before Shen could reach her, something snarled and leapt between them. Lianne screamed in fright, dodging the other way as a wolf face-planted the snow as it missed her. Shen looked down at the creature before him, aghast. So, the pandas were using his own soldiers against him? They must have had a real sense of irony to be so cruel. But the wolf was so intent on its prey that it completely ignored him, shaking itself as it bounced up and howled for its pack mates. More wolves appeared from the shadows, and they all ran after the swan.
Desperately, Lianne ran as she swerved amongst the trees, attempting to evade the wolves. Shen struggled to keep up with them, though he was amazed that he could keep up at all. He needed to draw the wolves attention, to get their focus off of Lianne.
One wolf leapt at her, tried to snap his jaws on Zian, but she lifted her baby out of harm's way, and swerved in a suddenly new direction, letting the wolves skid in the snow. It gave her a little head start, but they recovered quickly. Shen could hear a shrill scream slowly building in Lianne's throat as she attempted to fight her mounting panic. But even when she faltered, she didn't stop. Shen could feel his heart straining to keep up, his breathing ragged as he tried to hobble his broken body to nearly reach her –
A wolf barrelled into Lianne, wrapping its arms around her. It knocked her into the air, making her scream as it pulled her to the floor. Shen's beak fell open in a silent screech. Lianne struggled, but the wolf held her down. The others arrived a moment later. Lianne screamed when one of the wolves ripped Zian out of her arms and held the crying child in its grubby paws.
Shen wanted to help, but his body hurt too much, he couldn't get enough air in his lungs. Lianne continued to struggle, but the other wolves held her down, one pulled out a sword –
"Wait," came a voice.
Shen felt his breath freeze in his throat, his heart suddenly in the back of his mouth. He turned, ever so slowly, not wanting to believe what his ears had heard.
Shen himself stood there. Tall, perfect, whole, the Guan Dao glinting in his wings. It wasn't the pandas at all. Shen didn't recognise himself in this other him, and yet he did. The peacock's gaze was unflinching, unremorseful as he stared down at Lianne in disdain. The other-Shen approached the pinned female, looking into her face as he said in a quiet and deadly voice: "I'll handle this one."
Shen wanted to scream at himself. Couldn't he see that this was Lianne?! This was his wife! Why was he doing this?!
The wolves moved aside to give him room, though still kept Lianne pinned beneath their paws. Other-Shen looked into the eyes of the woman before him. She looked up at him with expected fear, a pleading look in her eyes.
"Shen," Lianne whispered, beak trembling as she begged. "Please…"
Other-Shen was silent, blinking burning red orbs at her unfeelingly. A look of grief filled her tears, her lip trembling, acting as if she had already lost something so dear to her heart; before she finally closed her eyes and awaited the inevitable. Other-Shen wasted no time. He drove his Guan Dao into Lianne's heart.
"No!" Shen screamed, but no one heard him. He felt as if his heart had just been destroyed.
Other-Shen quickly withdrew the blade, flecks of blood dripping from the point. Lianne gave a small gasp, before her last breath was drawn and her body went limp. Other-Shen stood here, watching the body, as if he expected it to do something. Her blood pooled out around her, tainting the pure white snow to black.
Shen felt everything inside of him break apart. He stared at the corpse of the woman he loved. Other-Shen turned and looked at him, and he stared into the face of this creature that he suddenly hated. He wanted to murder him, to watch him bleed slowly, to express this burning throb in his heart, to hurt him just as much. But Other-Shen watched him impassively, as if he were completely unfazed by everything around him. With a dismissive snort, he turned away, as if the real Shen were of no importance what so ever.
Other-Shen turned to his wolves, Shen only now hearing his son crying shrilly. As the baby screamed in despair for its mother, Other-Shen curled his beak in disgust.
"Take care of that," he hissed.
Shen watched in horror, as the wolves converged with drooling jaws on his infant son –
Shen bolted awake with a scream.
He fell out of the bed, hissing in pain as he landed on his bad leg. But that was nothing compared to the agonising ache he felt in his chest. He couldn't breathe properly, his lungs heaving for air. His eyes stung as he stared blankly at the dark room around him, his brain struggling to remember where he was. His chest physically hurt, his heart felt like it had been torn apart into a thousand different pieces. So many emotions swallowed him, until he was nothing more but a wreck.
The horrors that the nightmare had shown him swam through his mind, and he began to shake. His eyes stung, and for the first time since he was a small boy, he let the nightmare ravage his waking thoughts, and he cried. He put his head in his wings, and he openly wept.
He felt hollow, lost, a lonely soul unable to find his way in the sudden darkness around him. Wrapping his wings around himself, he slowly rocked himself back and forth, letting the sobs choke out of his mouth. His voice was hoarse, the cries more like coughs as he struggled to heave in enough air between each heartbroken cry. The image of Lianne's body, broken, dying, her eyes filled with pleading tears as the light left her eyes, his name on her last breath. That was what haunted him the most, the thought of watching her bleed out, to die in front of him, it was enough to send him verging onto the edge of madness.
That was perhaps the cruellest of tortures he had ever seen, to show himself killing the ones he loved most. How could this have happened? The thought of being the one to kill Lianne filled him with such a vile horror, it was enough to make him heave as vomit threatened to rise in his throat. What hope was there for him in this world if she wasn't in it? He couldn't bare losing her, he just couldn't!
But then, a vile little thought entered his mind. What if the dream had been trying to tell him something? What if this was some prophecy – perhaps someone was going to come and take away his family? Even in the dream, he'd been too weak to be able to help Lianne, couldn't protect her because his failing body wasn't what he needed it to be.
He couldn't let that happen. He had to stop it. He had to bring himself to full strength, but he couldn't wait for however long it took his body to heal. He needed it now, to protect those he loved.
It was perhaps the early hours of the morning, but he didn't care. He lit a few candles and began his exercises. The first one was that he had to stretch out his wing and lift it until he felt pain, hold it there, and slowly lower it. But Shen didn't have time. Bracing himself, he shoved his wings upwards into the air as far as he would have before the accident. He bit back a cry of pain, and his wing began to shake. He then let it fall down.
The next exercise was to move his leg. This was the one he was not looking forward to. Slowly, he put his leg down onto the ground. He then eased his weight onto it evenly. Without the crutch, without anything around him to hold onto, his weight went unaided onto his injured leg. It took every ounce of his willpower to keep himself standing, to not cry out in pain. He could feel the bones grinding together unnaturally, sending bolts of pain shooting down his leg and across his hips and up his spine. He panted, willing himself back under control.
He took a step forward. He nearly fell, but refused to surrender to gravity. He took another step, this one slightly easier, if a little stiffer. He took a third step, then a fourth. With his balance under control, he began to move his wings in motions of combat, at first circular and then spiralling. He imagined knives in his hands, twirling them as he sliced at invisible enemies in front of him. His right wing began to shake, but he gritted his beak and pushed through it. The limb was beginning to hurt and sag, but he refused to give in.
Losing himself into the rhythm of battle, Shen pushed himself through it all. Time flowed around him. When his feathers became drenched in sweat from the effort, when his limbs shook, when pain fogged his mind until it should have been all he could comprehend, he pushed past it, making himself unable to feel it. There was nothing that could break his concentration as he let his focus become centred completely on battle.
On a spur of the moment, he spun on his good leg, and kicked out with his left. There was a spike of pain in the joint as it extended fully, but he snarled through it. Using his train, he snapped it open and spun, but slipped on the transition when his left leg didn't want to work.
Shen roared, and pushed himself harder. His entire frame was shaking, tendrils of black were creeping into the sides of his vision, he could hear his heart pounding in his ears. His body was screaming in so many different areas, but he refused to listen. He had to do this. He couldn't give in! He had to get better – had to push himself to the limit!
He leapt into the air, wings and train extending to suspend him in flight for just a moment or two. It was the same move he'd done when fighting against Master Croc. But then, his right wing shook too badly and he couldn't keep his balance correct. He fell back towards the earth, but prepared himself to land lightly on his feet –
As he hit the ground, his left leg completely buckled beneath him. He fell in a heap on the floor, pain finally flooding through him in such a tidal wave that it broke his spell of focus and finally entered his consciousness. He screamed, writhing on the floor as he finally became aware of the agony that his shell now endured.
Through his haze, he was slightly aware that the doors to his rooms had opened, and there were people rushing in. Hands were on his body, picking him up, taking him back to the bed. In his delirium, Shen knew that he had to continue fighting, had to keep pushing himself. It was the only way!
He struggled, fought, clawed and kicked. He screamed as the pain drowned him, it was like torture, but he had to continue. In a desperate attempt to get out of the hands of his captors, he tried to twist and bend his body in a way they wouldn't expect.
But as he moved, he heard a horrid crunch of bone. Agony exploded through him. He didn't even have time to scream, as that pain was enough, and darkness completely swept over him.
When Shen awoke, he did not dare try to move. The pain was nothing like he remembered, but he was stiff and there was a constant ache throughout his body. He felt certain that if he tried to move, the agony would return with a vengeance.
He saw colour out of the corner of his eye, and saw that Lianne was sitting by his bed side. She wore a robe of the deepest blue, but Zian was not with her. She must have had a maid look after him whilst she was here. What disturbed Shen, was the look on Lianne's face. Her mask of indifference – which he hadn't seen in so long – was firmly in place. But her eyes were seething. It looked like she was about ready to either burst into tears or scream in rage.
"Is staying with me truly so horrible, Shen?" her voice was tight and deadly quiet, filled with such simmering fury that Shen felt his heart clench. "Do you have to try and kill yourself?"
"What?" He blinked in confusion. "I-I didn't…"
"I was awoken last night when the guards told me you had driven yourself into a frenzy," she told him. "They said it looked like you'd almost broken every bone in your body. When you went unconscious, the doctors didn't know if you would survive the night."
He saw the pain as she screwed her eyes shut. "Lianne…"
"Why, Shen?!" she hissed out in a whisper, opening her tear filled eyes to glare at him. "Why would you do this to me?"
"I had to," he murmured dejectedly, looking away from her. "I need my body to get better. I was trying to get it to move as it used to."
"The doctors have told you, over time you might –"
His patience snapped. "We might not have the time!"
"What are you talking about?" she asked.
"What if something happens?" He looked down at his body, tucked into the bed, and didn't bother to hide his disdain. "Like this, I can't fight back… I can't…"
Lianne's wing rested on his shoulder. "Shen, this is not the answer."
"You don't understand!" he bit out.
She withdrew her touch. "For the last few weeks, you've been distancing yourself. Please Shen, don't shut me out. I'm your wife, tell me."
"All my life, my enemies spitefully whispered that I was born damaged," he explained bitterly. "I took pride in the fact that I was above what they painted me to be. And now look at me. I'm a broken, ruined… cripple." Saying the word out loud brought another wave of loathing.
"Don't you dare!" he turned on her with a snarl. "Don't you dare pity me!"
"Shen, calm down–"
"No!" he shouted, but then faltered. "My body is… gone. There's nothing left of me. I can't even walk. It burns me with such hatred that I'm reduced to this!"
"So pushing yourself almost to death is the answer?"
"I had to try something…"
"No." Lianne shook her head. "The doctors tell me you've probably now done more damage to yourself. They don't know what the outcome will be this time."
He felt like that could break him. All of his efforts had been for nothing. "I… I couldn't lose you…"
"You're not going to lose me, Shen."
"Look at me." He let her see how destroyed he was in his eyes. "What is left of me? Anyone could pick me off now. I doubt you want a cripple for a husband. I shame you."
Lianne said nothing. She simply stood and walked away. Shen thought she would walk out of the room, prove to him how right he was. If she did, he thought he could die of a broken heart. But she didn't. Instead, she walked around the bottom of the bed to the other side. Shen watched her in confusion as she climbed in to the empty space beside him. Ever so gently, so as not to hurt his body, she pulled him into her wings. He was a little unsure, until she laid his head against her chest, and simply held him.
"I'm right here," she whispered to him soothingly. "I will never be ashamed of you. I love you. Nothing in this world is ever going to change that. I made my vow to you, no one else. I'll always love you, come what may..."
She kept repeating the same words over and over again with variations thrown in. Just soft murmurs that relaxed him as he listened. They were simple reassurances, as comforting as her arms around him. Shen basked in it, allowing his shattered heart to slowly put itself back together. It wasn't enough to heal him completely, but for now, he lost himself in her.
His melancholy mood did not improve throughout the next few days. He stayed in that bed, didn't move a muscle, and simply let the world happen around him. Doctors, meals, servants, even air, came and went. The only thing he really paid attention to was Lianne when she came to visit. She didn't say a word to him most times, just laid beside him and held him in her arms, or even just sleeping for a nap beside him as he did. But her eyes always watched him, always assessed.
On the fifth day however, something was different. She almost marched into the room, didn't say a word to him, but stripped back his blankets and began to pull him out of the bed.
"Lianne?!" Shen asked indignantly. It was the first word he'd spoken in days.
All she did was give him a look that brokered no arguments. Thankfully, he was wearing night-robes, so at least he was not indecent. She helped him out of the bed – despite the fact that she knew the doctors had said he wasn't allowed to attempt leaving the bed for at least a week. He hissed as his feet touched the floor, the muscles sore and already cramping with just this effort. Lianne watched him carefully, going slower but still managed to coax him out of the bed. She handed him his crutch, and he reluctantly put it under his arm.
He walked towards the door, having already guessed that she wanted to take him somewhere. He almost fell on the first step, his legs not wanting to support his weight at all. Lianne reached out and steadied him, hovering close to his shoulder to help him. Shrugging her off, he didn't want his shattered pride to fall any lower, and so attempted to at least limp on his own. Lianne respected his space, but stuck close by to offer help if he needed it.
They slowly made their way through the Palace, having to stop several times to allow Shen to catch his breath and recover his strength. Lianne was patient throughout, only offering a word or two of encouragement here and there. She led him onwards towards their destination which was a mystery to Shen.
But as they rounded one of the corners, he realised where they were headed: the nursery. He shot Lianne a glare. They were going to see Zian? Couldn't she have just brought the brat to him if that was the case? But he bit back his irritated retorts, and silently followed her.
Opening the door, Lianne swept in straight to the cradle in the middle of the room. Shen was a little surprised to see that there was no one in the room, not a nursemaid, or a guard or anything. Had the child been sleeping the entire time she'd been gone? Lianne had taken Zian's safety extremely seriously, but she had left him alone whilst she'd gone to get Shen? Shen didn't comment allowed, merely following slowly up to the crib. Lianne smiled at him before gesturing with her head to their son. Shen slowly looked down.
No longer wrapped completely in a bundle of blankets, only dressed in warm, tiny clothes, Shen was able to see Zian for the very first time. His beak dropped open, his whole body freezing. It was like looking at a portrait of a different time. Zian was almost the spitting image of his father. His fluffy baby-feathers were white, his feet having talons instead of being webbed. He had little feathers on the top of his head that might one day be a crest, and the skin around his eyes was the same colour as Shen's. There were a couple of differences between them, such as Zian's wings (although still tiny like all chicks) were slightly bigger. His beak wasn't hooked like Shen's, instead it was flat like his mother's.
Until this moment, Shen's mind hadn't really connected the fact that this was his son. But now, as he looked down upon that little face, saw that it wasn't just a bundle of blankets and feathers, but had features of its own… It all melted into place. He had a son.
As if sensing the gazes of his parents, Zian yawned, opening his beak widely as his little pink tongue curled. Frowning slightly, the little chick opened his eyes and stared up at them. Shen felt his breath leave him as he stared into those eyes. Ocean blue. Zian might look a lot like his father, but there was no mistaking that his eyes were exactly like his mother's.
"Hello, my baby," Lianne cooed softly, smiling. Zian's beak instantly opened the moment he saw his mother, and he chirped loudly for her. Lianne smiled and reached into the cradle, gently picking up her cygnet and holding him against her chest. Zian nuzzled himself closer to her.
Shen watched his wife and his son… it felt strange to have a family of his own. He'd never thought he would have something so… precious. He had once thought having children would be a chore, but looking at Zian, something that had been made by him and Lianne against all odds, he realised the truth. Zian was a precious little miracle.
"Do you want to hold him now?" Lianne's soft voice called his attention back to her.
Shen gulped, suddenly feeling that ice of unworthiness creep up his spine. Nothing had changed since the last time she'd asked. He was still a cripple, in fact probably more so now. His wife and son were so perfect, why should he stain them with his very presence? And yet... Lianne had made him walk all the way here. Despite his disability, he'd walked the entire journey where he had previously thought he might not walk again. If he could do that... perhaps there might be hope for this?
Lianne held his gaze evenly, and he found he couldn't do anything but nod. He shifted his crutch to his other arm. Cautiously, he held out his good wing, and Lianne carefully nestled Zian into his hold. Shen froze as soon as he felt the weight of the babe in his arms. He was afraid that he would make one wrong move and he would break him. The chick was so small, barely more then a week old, he easily fit in one wing. Shen gulped.
Zian looked up at his parents, blue eyes wide, looking around curiously, reflecting all the colours of the sky. He looked up at Shen and squeaked. Despite everything, despite the aches in his body, or the fact that he was still a cripple and more than likely would be for the rest of his life, despite all of that… Shen smiled.
Lianne kissed his cheek, and he turned to see her beaming proudly at him. They both looked down at their son and stayed together.
Five years passed.
Shen never once gave up on the notion of healing, of making himself better, to try and get back to what he used to be. Even if he knew the truth that that would never happen. His previous injuries, as well as the damage he'd done to himself, had taken their toll. With the help of the doctors, he'd managed to heal properly this time. Eventually he was able to move without the crutch, and even go at a normal speed. But he walked with a constant limp, and he would never be able to walk properly without the use of a cane.
Just like with his other equipment, Shen designed it himself. The cane was made from steel, melted, bent and shaped to his exact specifications. The head of the cane was made with an onyx stone. In the usual Shen fashion, the cane was not just what it appeared to be. Through a mechanism that was known only to Shen, the head could come away from the cane completely, and was a thin short-sword, in the same style as a katana.
Shen had eventually gotten both his other knives and his iron gauntlets back. At that time a year had passed and he'd shrugged off the crutch in favour of the cane. Lianne had presented them to him, each polished and cared for to perfection by the armoury. After being so long without them, he'd been overjoyed to have them back. Slipping the knives amongst his feathers, strapping the gauntlets onto his feet, it felt like the last piece of him had fallen back into place. He was one step closer to feeling completely whole again.
In the years since the doctors had said he'd been fully recovered, Shen had done his best to keep himself busy. Now that he could walk and move about freely, he trained himself to fight once more. But this time, he now had the burden of taking into account his body's limitations, where there had previously been none. His left leg would not fully support him, so therefore most of his weight had to go to the right. He couldn't move fast, so his technique had to become more defensive. His right wing was not as nimble, so he had to learn all of his sword-skills into his left, and get that as fluent as his right had been. His train was still a fundamental part of his fighting style, still using it to distract and confuse his opponents, as well as helping him to balance in place of his other leg. Eventually, after training for hours at various intervals of every day, he brought himself to a satisfactory standard.
He'd also been putting his genius to good use. Whenever Lianne and the province required it of him, he would fix its problems. His brilliance, tactical thinking, and his inventions helped to move the lives of all those in Shēnghuó to a brighter future. Though he was never celebrated for any of it, as he was still the little dirty secret kept to the confines of the palace grounds.
The one good thing about being a ghost to the rest of the world, was that he could play the part of it. Whenever Lianne had guests or any to come and meet with her, Shen would skulk in the shadows and watch everything that occurred. He sometimes played with the idea of assassinating a petty lord or two if they ever got too close. One thing Shen was not surprised about was the fact that he became extremely protective of his family. Not only did he not appreciate anyone coming near Lianne, but he guarded the secret of Zian's existence just as ferociously as Lianne. He quite liked scaring the life out of the servants if they showed any sign of squealing about the boy.
In this manner, life flowed onwards. Shen had come to reluctantly accept his new living situation. It was not what he wanted, and knew that it was a lifetime of imprisonment. But he had his family, and he was content. Though still sometimes, in the nights when he would awaken, Lianne asleep beside him, he would look out on the world, and wonder as to what happened beyond… what would happen if he one day just stepped back into it…
Lianne had once again taken on the mantle of a ruler, governing her father's province just as carefully as she had done with Gongmen City. She made sure the people were cared for, invested in the farms and in trade, keeping her promise to her father not to let her family legacy die. Hong helped her as best he could, though in his ageing years he grew less and less involved over time, spending more time spoiling his 'grandson'.
She was always, of course, aware of rumours that circulated the city, the nobles, and almost everywhere, about her 'secret' offspring. Lianne did her best to make sure that those rumours were kept to the minimum, though at the same time she made it no secret that she and Shen were husband and wife before his 'death', and all that it entailed. It was her plan so that if or when Zian did reveal himself in time, he would not have to prove his legitimacy. The only secret she guarded closer, was the secret of Shen, which she watched with a fierce vigil. Never once did she allow a single soul to learn of his existence.
But still, Lianne did worry for her son sometimes. She spent every moment she could with him, only ever really leaving him when she had to attend court. What worried her, was the thought that Zian might be lonely. Though she did her best to see that he was well cared for and had everything he would ever need, she knew he needed real friends. Encouraging him to play with Mei's grandchildren helped to abate her worries. But Mei's grandchildren were seven and eight, and she knew that he needed children his own age. But Zian didn't complain at all to her, and for that, Lianne adored him. No matter her doubts, she always loved her son more than life itself.
In those five years, Zian had grown into an inquisitive little peachick (or cygnet, depending on Lianne's fancy). Ever since he could talk, he was always asking questions, wanting to know the reason behind every little thing. He'd begun to show the beginnings of great intelligence, just like his father, as he poked holes in all of his teachers' nursery-rhymes. Shen had taken notice and quickly dismissed all the teachers in favour of taking Zian's education into his own hands. He was serious about tutoring his son properly, to make sure that his brilliance didn't go to waste. And Zian loved learning from his father, even if he wasn't the most patient teacher. One of the chick's favourite things to do was learn and experiment with new ideas and concepts, even if he didn't always understand them. But it gave father and son something to bond over, and it made Lianne beam with pride to think that her son might one day be a prodigy.
However, though Zian had his father's cunning mind, he had also inherited his mother's gentle heart. He wasn't so good at art, but he loved music. He loved exploring every inch of the gardens at his mother's side, pointing to things and asking about them. So gentle was he, that he could never even bring himself to harm the tiniest of insects or even uproot any flowers – much to his father's exasperation.
Zian lived in awe of his father, trotting around after him and listening to every word with his undivided attention. Though Shen did not appreciate it when Zian once thought it would be fun to sit on his father's train and be pulled around. It was safe to say that parenthood had not mellowed out Shen's temper at all. But Zian's day was always made joyous when his mother would be finished with her work and come to find him. They would play in the gardens, she would read to him in the library, she even taught him how to swim in the lake – though he preferred to sit on her back as she swam, like a normal cygnet. They would all eat together, and Lianne would sing him to sleep, tucked against her side, and wait until he was fast asleep before she would leave him to go to bed herself. Zian often said how he loved his mother more than the whole world.
And as his namesake would suggest, Zian grew to be the very image of peace. He never got angry. He had pulled tantrums as a toddler, but that was more crying then screaming rage. He got upset when he was scolded, but he never got angry. He hated violence, could never even lift a feather to hurt someone else, which annoyed his father to no end. But Zian was a happy little chick, even if he did sometimes look out his window onto the outside world, and yearn to be a part of it, to maybe meet children his own age.
On that fifth year, the small family stood in the royal gardens, ready to usher in the New Year. The night was clear, the stars glittered and the moon shone bright. Zian kept stepping his toes into the lake and squeezing his eyes shut as he wished to the moon. He'd been fascinated by his mother's stories and was desperate to see if they were true. Lianne laughed and told him that the moon wouldn't grant him flowers that glowed in the dark straight away.
This was to be Zian's first New Year's Eve, he'd been allowed to stay up late in order to watch the festivities of the city far below them. Needless to say that the chick was a boundless ball of excitement. He had been playing with Hong, but the old swan had gotten tired half an hour ago and had retired to bed. So now, Zian quickly flittered between his parents, racing about, asking a million questions.
Lianne had to smile as she watched her darling boy. He was beginning to look a little more like a peacock. He had a small bunch of feathers on the back of his head, much like a crest, which would rise up and down with his ever changing moods. Though he hadn't yet developed a train - that wouldn't start to sprout until puberty. But his wings were still larger than an average peacock's, developing proper primary feathers, much like Lianne's. She wondered if her cygnet would one day fly.
Shen was setting up fireworks in the gardens. He'd been working on making them for the past two weeks, ordering in the supplies he would need. Hong had at first severally disapproved, thinking that Shen was up to his old habits of working on Black Powder. Their argument had only ceased when Lianne had intervened, appeasing both by allowing Shen to make the fireworks, but not with as much of the supplies as he'd ordered.
It was difficult sometimes. She had to be the mediator. She loved Shen, and trusted him, and supported him in the new life he'd made here with her. But she also had to bear the responsibility of being his jailor, and to make sure that he would never be a threat to China again. It was a struggle sometimes, to maintain this little piece of happiness, and sometimes she felt her heart sink as she wondered how long such happiness could last…
"But father," Zian was asking quickly as Lianne returned to the present. "How does the fire make the firework turn into pretty lights?"
"Well, Zian," Shen said, not turning to look at the boy as he tried to focus, his patience starting to wane with both his questioning son and a stubborn rocket. "The powders in the rockets are at different mixtures with other minerals added to create a certain colour. When the fire makes them explode those colours are ignited."
Lianne knew the boy didn't understand half of the words Shen had used. Still, Zian's wide blue eyes looked up towards the heavens. "So the fire shoots it into the air?"
"But how do you stop it from going 'bang' down here on the ground?"
"By making the fire propel it upwards before that happens." Shen grunted as he tied a set of rockets together.
"How do you do that? How does it work?" Zian asked quickly.
Shen growled to himself. "By –"
"Zian," Lianne called to her son, snapping the boy's focus onto her. She smiled sweetly as she held up a box for him to see. "Come over here, I have something special for you."
"What is it? What is it!" He was practically jumping from foot to foot as he ran to his mother. Shen threw Lianne a grateful look as he finished his work.
"Moon cakes," she grinned as she opened the box for him to see the treats inside.
Zian's eyes grew huge, and he slowly picked one up, inspecting it from every angle. He watched as Lianne calmly picked one up and took a bite. Fascinated, Zian slowly took a bite of his own cake. His eyes widened at the taste, and Lianne chortled as he quickly stuffed the rest of the cake into his mouth before moving onto the next one.
"Mother, Grandfather Hong gave me a lesson today!" Zian proclaimed to Lianne between mouthfuls of cake.
"Oh, did he?" she asked. Shen grunted as he used his cane to pull himself back to his feet and walked towards them where they sat on a stone bench.
Zian nodded. "Yes. He taught me about harmony and focus. He said that harmony is how we need to be good on the inside, but focus is being good on the outside. That's how Kung Fu was made – by Master Oogway!"
"An old, pompous turtle." Shen rolled his eyes. Lianne threw him a glare to shut him up.
"Mother, what does 'harmony' mean?" Zian asked.
Lianne chuckled. Zian could act so grown up and yet still be so much like a child.
"It's about to start," Shen said.
The family watched in rapture as they all sat down on the stone bench. Even from that height on the mountain, they could still hear the festivities of the people down in the city behind them. Shen made sure that Zian was watching with his complete attention. Then, the older peacock brought his iron talons to his cane. With a flick of his ankle, he scraped the metal against metal, and let a shower of sparks fly onto the threads.
They immediately caught and zipped across the ground on their way to the rockets. The fireworks gave a loud shriek, and Zian ducked into his mother's wings in alarm. Propelled into the sky, the rockets flew away, and the family watched with bated breath. Each one exploded in a fountain of colour that turned the night to day for a brief flash. Greens, blues, reds, purples, golds, all colours of the rainbow sparkled through the air. Zian marvelled in open-jawed wonder at each of the wonderful colours.
Lianne smiled as she sat there with her family for a time, just watching the fireworks go. Shen had done a marvellous job, making as many fireworks as possible with what little she'd allowed him. Now she wished she'd given him more. But in that moment, she was happy. She leaned her head against Shen's neck, nuzzling him, hearing him rumble appreciatively. They watched the fireworks dance.
"Here's the best one," Shen whispered to her.
And then a set of fireworks exploded in sequence. Three rose vertically and then one bloomed in a huge circle until it all formed a peacock's head. Lianne grinned, and for a moment, she was transported back in time. And with that last finale, the fireworks died, and the sky became the black shroud of night once more.
Looking down, Lianne realised that Zian had fallen asleep in her wings. She nuzzled him gently, and was about to stand and put him to bed, when Shen stopped her. "Wait," he whispered. He then held his cane in the air as he looked over his shoulder.
Mei came rushing forward, almost out of nowhere, scooping Zian into her wings gently. At Lianne's confused expression, she only gave a sly wink, before hurrying off to put the prince to bed.
"Shen, what is going on?" Lianne quirked an eyebrow at him suspiciously.
"Am I not allowed to want a little private moment with my wife?" he asked with a smirk.
Lianne couldn't stop the smile that spread across her face in answer. He pulled her close, wrapping his wings around her and simply holding her in his arms. Slowly, he leaned in and kissed her. She savoured his tender touch, the soft kiss betrayed by the hungry passion in his hold. And she returned the affection with pride.
They only stopped when they had to pause for air, but even then, she still stayed in his arms. Their beaks brushed, necks curled, eyes conveying all the love they could share in their gazes.
"Will you love me, Shen?" she whispered. "Till the day I die?"
"No." he vowed, slowly leaning into her again. "Much longer than that, Lianne… much, much longer…"
A/N: and there we have it. The real end this time ;) I hope you guys like Zian, the name courtesy of my friend The Rainbow Devowerer who in fairness suggested the name last year.
In case any of you were wondering why I placed it five years into the future, that is because as of this year, it has been five years since Kung Fu Panda 2. Which means that I have brought us up to date with the current movie's release. So, if I enjoy KFP3 (which I know I will) and see opportunities, I have now given myself the option to carry on into KFP3 if I so desire to do so.
I hope you all have enjoyed the end of this wonderful journey with me, I know that I most certainly have. My love goes out to all you wonderful people who have supported me. May you find inner-peace in your roads to awesomeness *does Kung-Fu bow*