The Fellowship of The Helmet
"Well, now what?" asked Ling as Mulan galloped off home.
Yao shrugged. Chien Po, in his quiet voice spoke up. "The most practical thing to do would be to get out of these ridiculous costumes and start looking like men again…"
But none of them made a move to go and do such a thing as the emperor approached them. All three bowed as the sovereign came closer.
All three straightened up and glanced nervously at their feet. "You three have done a great service to the kingdom as well. I would invite you to a banquet in appreciation but as you can see," he gestured to the ruined palace. "My palace won't be ready to entertain guests for a few months at least. However, you three may clean up in the west wing of the Forbidden City. My servants will lead you there themselves. After cleaning up, you will find three horses waiting along with a monetary reward. Good day."
Three pairs of eyes widened in great surprise. They all knelt and kowtowed. "Thank you, your majesty!"
The emperor grinned and told them to get up. Summoning a eunuch, he left them. Yao saw him talking to Captain Shang as the eunuch led them to wash up. By the time the Gang of Three had gotten into more comfortable clothes, some servants had reported that the captain had gone off already.
"Hmmm…where do you think he went?"
Ling grinned. "Where else but Mulan's? Didn't you see his expression when she left?!"
Yao guffawed. "Never seen THAT on his face!"
Chien Po couldn't help but grin. "I've got a feeling we'll be invited to a wedding soon, no?"
"They better send us an invitation!"
"Again, now what?"
"Well, we'd better find a place to sleep for the night, then in the morning, head on home."
"HOME?!" Ling exclaimed. "In absolutely NO way, are we going back until we celebrate!"
"Meaning he wants to go and blow his money in an inn." Muttered Yao.
Chien Po was beginning to show signs of relenting at the pitiful expression Ling was giving him. Yao who also wanted to go and impress some people, joined in the pleading process.
"Aw, come on, Chien Po! Besides, we just might find a good restaurant where they make sweet and pungent shrimp…"
"THAT was the best meal I've had in months!"
Yao had no reply to that. He was too full of food to move or even speak. All he did was lie back into his chair and try to burp. Chien Po heaved a sigh of satisfaction as he gazed at the mountainous pile of empty plates that sat before them on the table. They had chosen an inn that also served as a restaurant. The inn part was upstairs. Ling, who hadn't eaten as much as he had drank, was now telling a stirring tale of how him and some other comrades had saved the emperor AND the entire middle kingdom to a couple of curious young ladies. Yao suddenly managed to let out a belch that managed to draw attention from the nearby tables.
Blushing a rare blush, Yao looked to the doorway. And in walked a very familiar captain alongside a not-so-familiar man that was maybe a few centimeters shorter than Captain Li. He, Shang's friend, had looks handsome enough to make every female in the inn sigh in appreciation. One could also see that the stranger had plenty of martial arts training, judging by his toned body.
"HEY, captain! Wanna join us?" yelled the short burly man. Thoroughly embarrassed but not too surprised, Shang and his friend made their way to the table and sat.
"Good evening, captain." Said Chien Po politely. "And to you as well, sir."
The stranger grinned. "Shang didn't exaggerate about your size." Chien Po's eyebrows rose in surprise at the comment. Shang eyed his friend with a weird look.
"Solid and strong. Being large easily benefits one in battle."
Being good-natured, Chien Po laughed. "A good save, sir."
Shang cleared his throat. "Chien Po, Yao, this is Captain Xin Soong, an old friend. From the eastern borders."
Yao sat up. "An honour to meet you, sir."
"Please! It's after hours! No more sir!"
"Fine. Xin Soong then."
He nodded. "Better. Back to what I was saying," he turned back to Shang. "WHY didn't you follow her if you like her so much?!"
There was no need to ask who was 'her'. Chien Po and Yao grinned. Shang groaned. "Xin Soong, can't you keep your big mouth shut for once?"
"And give you an excuse to try and break my jaw? No way!"
Ling swaggered over after being duly ignored by the group of young ladies who chose to swoon after Captain Shang and Xin Soong. "Captain Li? I thought you went after Mulan."
He promptly said as he plunked his behind into a chair. Another groan chose to fly its way out from Shang's mouth. Xin Soong was temporarily distracted by the amount of plates on the table.
"Just how much did you eat between the three of you?"
Ling and Yao grinned in Chien Po's direction. "As fond as I am of army gruel, it was most refreshing to taste gourmet food."
This drew laughter from all and a mild chuckle from Shang. Summoning a worker, Xin Soong ordered that the table be cleared and wine to be served. They did so and soon all five were drinking. Shang was rather distracted, to say the least. Xin Soong had never seen his old friend look so low and nervous before. Unless you counted that incident where Shang thought he had broken his father's sword.
"Shang, what is it that's stopping you from going after the girl?"
He didn't answer.
Ling decided to guess. "Fear of rejection, fear that the Fa's will hate him after he nearly killed their only daughter, fear of Mulan herself…" He grinned. "Am I getting any warmer?"
Captain Li shot him a glare that said if Ling didn't shut up soon, he wouldn't live to see his next birthday. Xin Soong laughed and whacked Shang on the back. "Shang, they say you were undaunted when those thousands of Huns showed up at the mountainside. They all say you were fearful of nothing, not even death itself. And here you are, afraid of a mere girl!"
That caught Shang's attention. "Mulan isn't any mere girl! She's…she's a heroine. The lady who saved China. The girl who defeated the Huns with a single cannon." He sighed. "I'm betting that she'll be getting marriage offers from every man in the country by tomorrow morning."
Yao raised an eyebrow and exchanged looks with Ling and Chien Po. They hadn't seen the captain look so…defeated.
"Perhaps the best thing to do, to allay those fears, to see if she will accept you and perhaps to cancel out the REST of the marriage offers, is to go and talk to her."
Four pairs of widened eyes stared at Chien Po as if he'd gone mad. He looked around then calmly took a sip of his wine.
Xin Soong found his voice first. "Your large friend makes good sense, Shang."
Ling, not to be outdone and not wanting to be replaced as the so-called love expert of the three, chipped in. "Yeah! After all, love is all about taking risks!"
Yao grinned. "Not too different from war, if you ask me."
Shang was greeted by four expectant looks as he looked up. He sighed and put his hand to his head as if in an attempt to find an excuse to counter Chien Po's words. He found none. "Fine. In the morning, I go and find Mulan."
Xin Soong grinned, almost evilly. "And to make sure you don't chicken out, I will go along with you."
Shang shot him a suspicious/incredulous look, complete with a solitary elevated eyebrow. "You? Will go along with me?"
"You will follow me to find a girl whom I'm not even sure will accept me as a friend?"
"You're willing to go along with me to try and find Mulan and possibly get dismissed because of abandoning your duties?"
Shang gave a wry smile. "Thanks."
Xin Soong grinned. "No problem. After all, there might be some eligible girls in her village AND because I saved the emperor's five-year-old grandson from drowning, I get more privileges than the average officer."
Shang rolled his eyes. What came next threw him off completely. "Can we come along?" asked Ling and Yao in unison.
It jolted the normally calm captain as he fought from choking on his wine. Finally, he sputtered out. "You two? Come along? With us? To see Mulan?"
"Uh, yes, yes, yes and…yes?"
Chien Po looked wryly at his two friends. "Ling, Yao. This is a most delicate matter. It'd probably be more easily taken care of by only Captain Xin Soong and Captain Shang themselves."
Xin Soong took a thoughtful gulp of his wine. "Actually, it would probably be better if all three came."
Shang stared at him. "WHAT?"
"I mean it. It would probably make you less nervous. And they could probably give more helpful suggestions." Xin Soong gave them a meaningful glance.
Chien Po smiled a little. "It would be nice to see Mulan again."
Shang, looking at Yao and Ling's grins, seeing how his own old friend was grinning, sighed. "If I said no, you'd still come along, wouldn't you?"
He received larger grins as a reply.
"Fine. But we leave EARLY tomorrow morning."
What else was there to do except…
True to his words, Shang was ready to leave an hour before the sun rose. The gang of three had heard 'Ping' mention that the village 'he' lived in was about a day's ride on horseback from the Imperial City. Xin Soong, after obtaining leave for a few days, arrived on an Imperial mare named Suei. A bag, containing a few personal items, hung from the saddle as the man dismounted.
"Everyone ready to go?"
Shang was checking the halter on his own white stallion. "Two of them are getting the horses. One is still trying to pry his own eyelids open."
"No need to guess who that one is."
Chien Po and Yao turned the corner with three grayish white horses in hand. Xin Soong whistled. "Imperial steeds as well?"
Chien Po replied modestly, "A gift from the emperor as a token of his appreciation."
Yao looked around impatiently as he loaded the horses with their stuff. "Is Ling up yet?"
"Do you see a lanky, dreamy eyed looking oaf here?"
"Point taken. I'll go wake him up."
Half an hour later found Ling wide awake.
Well, as wide-awake as anyone could be with a black eye.
"Next time, get Chien Po to wake me up. At least, he doesn't HIT me!" he'd complained while glaring at Yao who was looking rather proud of himself and his fist. Xin Soong mounted Suei with a sigh.
Maybe this wasn't such a good idea…
Shang was already on his stallion, anxious to get moving. "Well, let's go!"
And with that, five horses cantered off at a healthy pace to Mulan's village.
Along the way, Chien Po patiently tried to settle his stomach by munching on a pau he'd bought last night. Although a bit stale, Chien Po decided it would suffice for breakfast. Yao and Ling were trying to hit each other and so didn't bother about such trivial things as eating. Shang was busy rehearsing what he was going to do.
Ego didn't and couldn't matter now. He wasn't about to grovel for her love, that was true. But he wasn't about to barge in there, demanding for her hand in friendship, much less marriage. Shang let out a sigh. Xin Soong, who'd been whistling a tune, glanced at his friend and shook his head. Courting women shouldn't be so hard on men. Then again, it was usually their parents who decided on whom they married.
Xin Soong figured since General Li had passed away, Shang would reluctantly get married to please his mother. He still remembered that Shang had promised himself once, after seeing Xin Soong so miserable at the age of 15 about an arranged marriage, that he himself, Li Shang wouldn't get married. Ever!
Of course, even after Xin Soong got out of the marriage because of his army career, Shang still vowed never to get married. Who'd have thought he would meet the girl he wanted to marry in the army? Even Xin Soong was skeptical but he knew his friend wouldn't lie about such things. Shang never did joke about things like love and what not.
Deciding now wasn't the time to poke fun at his friend's moping, Xin Soong concentrated on trying to break up Yao and Ling's rough housing. "Hey, knock it off! You're gonna fall off those horses pretty soon!"
They didn't seem to listen but they did stop trying to pull each other's hair. Chien Po, who'd been at the back, rode up beside Shang. "Captain? You look…very disturbed. A chant may do you good."
At that, everyone cringed except for Xin Soong who looked puzzled. "No, no thank you, Chien Po."
Xin Soong suddenly had a thought and grinned. "Hey! Ling! Yao!"
The two turned their heads.
"I bet you a bag of silver I can beat the both of you in a race on horseback!"
Ling let out a haughty "Ha!"
"You're on, big mouth!"
Xin Soong rode Suei beside them. "The one who reaches that tall cherry blossom tree there wins. GO!"
Three horses sped off leaving both Shang and Chien Po coughing. "Xin Soong is very enthusiastic about the whole trip."
Shang smirked. "Give him a chance to meet a few girls and he'll be enthusiastic about licking your feet."
"How long have you known him?"
"All of my life. We grew up together and went through the academy together. After graduating, he went to the east while I remained here. During the war, there were a few letters between us. It was a surprise seeing him here. Told me he'd been transferred to the Imperial City under General Tong's orders. Probably because he couldn't stand that smart mouthed friend of mine."
Chien Po nodded. "It is clear you're almost as close as brothers."
Shang smiled wryly. "My own brother is young enough to pass for my son. He's only five."
"Then you will have to try and bring your brother up as the General would have." At the thought of his lost father, Shang bowed his head. Chien Po kept respectfully silent. He could see that the captain was in pain and wondered if he'd said the right thing.
"I'm sorry, captain."
"That's alright. I've been telling myself that for the past days now." He looked away, trying to gain control of his feelings. Their horses trotted on and when Shang looked up, he saw Xin Soong looking smug.
"Suei made them eat her dust," he said simply as he stroked the mare's mane. Chien Po looked in Ling and Yao's direction. They were scowling as they counted out some silver and poured it into the bag. With a grunt that almost sounded like a curse, Yao handed Xin Soong the bag. Taking it, he grinned. "I suggest we rest here. Their horses and Suei probably need a rest as well."
Shang looked at the sky. It was nearing afternoon. "One hour."
Chien Po dismounted and took up a yoga position under a shady tree. The rest also sat under the tree, while their horses grazed freely on the grass. Shang took a gulp of water from his water bag. Ling was lazily making circles in the grass with his finger while Yao tried to make Xin Soong give him some money back. ("The bet was a bag of silver." "You said who reached the tree! Suei didn't REACH the tree." "Yes, she did!")
Finally, Shang snapped, "Give it a rest, Yao. Xin Soong, give him at least a quarter of the silver. I've got a headache listening to the both of you."
Ling raised an eyebrow. "Someone's feeling touchy."
"Aw, he's just nervous about meeting Mulan," said Yao as he poured the silver Xin Soong had reluctantly given into his pocket.
"I am not."
Against his better judgment, Xin Soong grinned. "Yes, you are."
"I am not."
"Am…" Shang trailed off realizing how childish he sounded. "All right, all right, I am! You happy now?"
The sergeant smirked.
"I don't even have a valid excuse to go and see her, much less talk to her." He groaned. "I'm doomed."
Xin Soong laughed. "Hey, I'm sure Mulan would want to see you with or without an excuse!" He, as usual, whacked his buddy on the back, sending the captain into a coughing fit. After Shang stopped coughing, he fired his friend a glare. Xin Soong shrugged apologetically.
Chien Po opened his eyes, feeling it was too futile to try and meditate here. "It wouldn't be proper to just walk into the Fa's home and ask to see Mulan."
Shang nodded. "Exactly."
"That never stopped me!"
Everyone flashed Ling a look. Yao guffawed loudly. "Sure! Then, he'd get thrown out, face first into the dirt!" Ling scowled.
Xin Soong then had a flash of 'brilliance'. Getting up, he rummaged through Ling's bag that was hanging on his horse.
"HEY! That's mine!"
Ignoring him, Xin Soong took out a helmet with an "Ah-HAH!"
Walking back to the group, he tossed Ling's helmet to Shang. Catching it, Shang gave his friend a look that seemed to ask if Xin Soong had gone delirious. "A helmet?"
"MY helmet? Hello?"
"Okay, LING'S helmet. What about it?"
"Return. Her. Helmet."
They all grinned with the exception of Li Shang.
"But she left her helmet with her horse."
Everyone groaned. "Don't you get it? This is an excuse to go see her!" exclaimed an exasperated Ling.
"Even I knew that…Man, this guy's a lost cause for romance…" muttered Yao.
Shang shot him a glare then looked uncertainly at his friend. "This is going to make me look…look-"
"Desperate?" volunteered Yao.
"Pathetic?" said Ling.
This time, both Xin Soong and Shang gave them looks that could kill.
"That would be your best option, Captain Li." Said Chien Po with an admonishing look at his friends.
Sighing, Shang tossed the helmet back to Ling. "Keep it first. We better get going if we want to make it to her village by today."
Getting up, he went over to his stallion, leaving the rest still sitting on the ground. Xin Soong wore a triumphant smile that sat well on his face. Ling and Yao grinned while Chien Po sighed.
By nightfall, the five companions made it to a village. "Is this the place?"
"It should be. Either that or her village is farther down." Remarked Yao as he looked around. It was quiet except for some music and chatter from the small inn and tavern nearby. Ling, who wanted to go and have a drink in the tavern, pleaded with them to stop for the night.
"Let's just ask for directions in the morning!"
Xin Soong looked at Shang. It was his decision. "The road can easily mislead us at night."
Considering that for a while, Shang nodded. "We'll stop here for the night then. One more day's delay won't hurt." Leaving their horses at the stable, the five men walked in.
A pretty waitress came up to them. "Can I help you gentlemen?"
Ling, before anyone could stop him, flashed her a smile he thought to be charming. "Yeah. Give us some wine and rooms for the night."
The girl, who looked about 14, blushed a light red. "Um, please sit down. I'll have someone bring you some wine." She sped off.
Yao looked disgustedly at him. "You have no shame."
Sighing, they sat themselves down as a burly man brought over some wine. "Excuse me, could we speak to the owner of this inn?"
"You're talking to him."
"We need five rooms for tonight. Are there enough rooms?"
"Yes, yes, we do. After you've finished drinking, I will have my daughter show you to your rooms."
Ling grinned. "Of course." Shang fired him a warning glare as the innkeeper looked on rather suspiciously.
Once again, the five sat in their chairs and drank. There was lively music being played and the chatter of the men around them reminded them of the Imperial City. Shang had not much of an appetite and went to find someone to take him to his room. "Your name, sir?"
"Captain Li Shang."
The innkeeper then introduced his daughter-in-law, Wen Yung, a lady who seemed to be in her thirties. "Please show Captain Li to his room."
The lady bowed and beckoned for him to follow her. Once upstairs, it was quiet and after walking for some time past some closed doors, she stopped. "Your room, sir."
He nodded. "Thank you."
Wen Yung looked curiously at him. "If you don't mind, sir, you seem worried about something. Something even wine cannot erase for a few hours."
Shang shook his head with a wry smile. "You see much, Madam Wen. I am worried. What about I cannot say."
"Of course. But should it be a matter of the heart, you shouldn't have much to worry about. You seem like a nice man. I hope the young lady who you seek, sees the same."
"I'm not sure if she will. I doubt it very much."
"Does this young lady know you?"
He smirked. "I'm afraid so."
"Ah, then do not be so doubtful. For if she sees what I see, then you will find yourself happily married soon enough."
"Up here, dear."
A tall man that was probably in his thirties as well came up. Wen Yung's husband eyed him suspiciously. "What're you doing up here?"
"Just showing Captain Li, his room."
Shang bowed. The man seemed to relax at that. A captain had obviously been taught to respect men and women alike.
The man nodded. "It's not good for you to be standing so long, dear. Not when you're with child."
Shang looked surprised then smiled. "Congratulations, sir, Madam Wen."
Both smiled warmly. "Thank you. Now, good night, Captain Li."
"Good night." Shang watched Wen Yung beaming at her husband who held her in his arms as they walked off. It seemed to give him comfort. And with that, he walked into his room, feeling a little less nervous than before.
Shang got up early as he was used to doing. Climbing out of bed, he did his stretches and pulled on a loose shirt. (Y'know, the one he was wearing during first day of training?) After tying up his hair into the usual style, he put on his black shoes and quietly pushed open his door. Going downstairs, Shang realized that there were actually several men slumped across tables and lying on the floor, as a result of being drunk.
It came to no surprise that Ling had a cup in his hand and was slumped in his chair while Yao was on the floor, snoring. Rolling his eyes, he stepped outside. It had always been part of Shang's routine and go through some martial arts moves in the morning.
The air was fresh and the sun was half hidden behind some clouds. Breathing in deeply, he walked to a corner and slowly started sparring with an invisible partner. This seemed familiar and then, he saw himself punch Ping in the eye.
Stopping abruptly, he dropped to the ground and put a hand to his head. How on earth could he face the girl he hit and punished? How could he even think of asking her to marry him when he'd tortured her?
Shang groaned, unaware that someone had sat on the ground beside him.
"Are you punishing yourself again?" asked Xin Soong.
"How can I do this?"
"You love her." answered his friend in such a simple tone that Shang felt irritated.
"I know that. But…"
"I repeat, you love her. And that should be enough to make you ride straight to her home and ask her to marry you."
"Xin Soong, I hit her. I gave her a black eye in training. I, I hurt her. I almost killed her. Would you be willing to marry a person who almost ended your life?"
"Shang, I think you underestimate Fa Mulan's ability to understand."
"What do you mean I underestimate her?"
Xin Soong looked straight at him. "Do you think she didn't know that if she were revealed, she would be killed? She should understand that you had to make a decision between the law and her. Don't tell me you really wanted to kill her?"
Shang hesitated. At that, Xin Soong gave him an incredulous look.
"No. How could I? When she was kneeling in the snow like that?" Shang still remembered how she looked like a cherry blossom that just bloomed in winter. Pink against the cold, white snow. So delicate looking yet enduring. How could he destroy such a flower?
Xin Soong seemed to read his thoughts and grinned. "Chien Po told me he caught a glimpse of disappointment on her face when you, well, when you gave her that compliment."
You, you fight good.
"What was I thinking?"
Xin Soong grinned even wider. "You were never good with words anyway."
"You really think she'll even accept me?"
"I don't know but the only way to find out, as Chien Po said yesterday, is to go and find her."
Shang nodded. "Xin Soong, I really appreciate you coming with me."
Xin Soong grinned as he got up. Sticking out a hand to help Shang up, he said, "I'll make sure you remember that next time I need help."
Soon, everyone was awake and at breakfast. Shang had gone to ask where Fa Mulan lived and to pay for the lodgings. As he came and sat down, everyone looked at him expectantly.
"First, all four of you owe me money. So, pay up right now. I know you three have enough money."
"I was hoping he'd forget," muttered Ling to Yao as they handed him the money.
"Xin Soong, your share please." Shang stuck out his hand.
"What happened to you're-my-best-friend, I –appreciate-you and all that?"
"You stay, you pay."
Grumbling, Xin Soong pulled out his share.
"Mulan lives near here. Apparently this is the main part of her village but she lives on a small farm some miles away. We'll be there in 15 minutes if we leave soon."
Through a mouthful of dim sum, Xin Soong said lazily. "Mulan will still be there even if you go when you're aged fifty."
Ling smirked. "But will she still be available by then?"
"Aah!" said Xin Soong, Yao and Chien Po in perfect unison.
Shang was far from amused. "Fine. I'll go alone."
They all grinned. Ling took out the helmet and handed it to Shang. He looked at it, his face the picture of doubt. It was obvious and everyone groaned silently. With a tired sigh, Ling sat up, swallowed his mouthful and spoke. "You'll never know unless you ask."
Chien Po, as he picked up some dim sum with his chopsticks, also offered his comment. "Don't think so much. Just let your heart decide."
Yao downed some tea and said what Xin Soong had been saying all along. "If you love her, go find her."
Xin Soong looked at his friend. "We've been saying all this for the past days. Now are you just going to stand there?"
With a half smile and a nod, Shang spun on his heels and walked out the door. When they heard horse's hooves clatter on the stone path and out the inn's gate, all four breathed a sigh of relief. Xin Soong, with a grin, raised his cup of tea.
"To Shang. May he invite us to his wedding when he marries Fa Mulan!"
The gang of three raised their cups as well and together they toasted Shang and Mulan.
A/N: I admit, it's not nine people, and it's not about a ring. BUT it does emphasize on the friendship of five men. And it is a sort of quest. Not to destroy but to try and find the girl of Shang's dreams and return her helmet. Don't worry, nothing bad will happen. I'm just emphasizing on the spirit of friendship here. (Okay, I'm getting mushy…)