So What Happens Now?
Chapter One: Journey's Beginning
I don't expect my love affairs to last for long
never fool myself that my dreams will come true
being used to trouble I anticipate it
but all the same I hate it
so what happens now? another suitcase in another hall
so what happens now? take your picture off another wall
where am I going to? you'll get by, you always have before
where am I going to?
another suitcase in another hall - evita
"Um...You...You fight good."
"Oh. Thank you."
By the time it really registered with Shang that those words were possibly the worst attempt at a confession of love in the history of China-no, the world-it was too late. She was already riding off and not looking back. He went to follow-but slowly, unsure. He'd already made a fool of himself. Why make it worse? Was it right to make this decision?
He sighed a little as the Emperor cleared his throat next to him.
"The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all."
"You don't meet a girl like that every dynasty."
He turned and looked at her retreating shadow. Of course. Of course it was right. What had he been thinking. "Excuse me, sir...I...Mulan forgot her helmet. I should return it to her."
The Emperor raised an eyebrow, but smiled and nodded. "Go, my son...give her all that she left behind."
Mulan paused outside the gate to wrap the sword in linens to keep it protected (and to stop herself from being harmed). Strapping it to the horse, she looked at the road. It would be a long ride home, and from the sound of Mushu and Cri-Kee's snoring, it would be a quiet and lonely one.
She heard the roar of the crowd, and smiled a little. She had done what was best, and this comforted her. Although her reasons were still a little unclear, although she still held self doubt, she had made the right decision.
The heavy gate swung open, and a magnificent white horse stepped through. Li Shang.
She frowned. "Don't tell me. I fight good." She grumbled under her breath, although he didn't seem to notice. His face seemed to have lit up.
"Mulan! You, uh, forgot your helmet. Well. Your father's helmet. I thought you should have it back. You might need it again, or...something."
She smiled a little. "Thank you...again." She took it from his hands and placed it in the saddlebags. She looked back at the gates, the Imperial City, and made a soft noise in the back of her throat, something like a sigh.
"I suppose the adventure is over." Shang said lightly.
"For now. Truth be told, I'm worried about what my father will say." She avoided his eyes.
"I'm sure you'll have made him proud...You made me proud...and...yes." Shang commented eagerly, smiling at her. "I...urm...is it a long way home?"
She nodded. "At least two days. Four if I rest at night."
He tipped his head a little, thinking. "I...I wondered. It's dangerous, travelling here, especially for a woman-" Oh. Mistake. World of a mistake.
She raised her eyebrows as she remounted Khan. Her face looked a little like thunder. "I thought I fought 'good'?"
"Well, um, yes, you do, but...What I mean is, you look vulnerable-" The hole Shang was in got deeper, and deeper. In fact, she theorised that the deepness of the hole was in was directly proportional to the blush on his face. Which in itself was amusing-she was not used to seeing her cold, raging, composed commanding officer embarrassed.
"I have a sword. I have a helmet. I don't need anyone to look after me, Shang." Clipped tone. Sharp glare. It was really rather delicious, a sweet vengeance for early in her training when she had been rather...inept.
"But...I was just thinking...you...urm..." Was there anything he could do right? This had been so much easier before. When she was a man. At this point Shang realised that right now, even his mind had lost the ability of coherent speech. So this was why men did all those moronic things. They couldn't help it. Faulty thinking. This wasn't romance, it was a disease. An evil spirit had infiltrated, and now he was stuck with it.
"However, I wouldn't mind some company as I went...I mean...I'll be on my own." Mulan pushed her hair behind her ears. In the end she couldn't do it-he'd earned himself a seat of respect (and more, but that wasn't the point) and she didn't want to make him suffer all that much. "Of course, I appreciate that you'll have your own family to be returning to."
He looked away darkly. "No, no family. My sisters are married, and my mother died last winter. And of course, my father-"
She reached out and gently touched his arm. "I'm sorry." She whispered softly. "You never really had the chance to grie-"
"Thank you, but I'm alright...I'd be honoured to accompany you." He removed her hand from his arm, but smiled softly, painfully.
What was it with men and suppressing emotion? It was blatantly obvious that he was far from alright. Painfully obvious. But she decided to let it lie. This was neither time nor place. "I would appreciate that."
He smiled again, but this one looked genuine. She smiled back. "Follow me."
The horses began to go, going slowly side by hide. Horses usually had a tendency to race, but currently both of them seemed too tired to bother. "You know...it might be best to rest soon. It's late...dark. It's more dangerous at night."
She smiled wryly. "I'm sure we could beat them, working together. We do make a good team."
He looked down, blushing a little. "Ah, urm, yes. We do."
She frowned. Alright. She'd bite. "Are you alright, Shang? You seem...nervous."
"Me? I'm..I'm fine. I'm alright." She'd noticed that he was quietly insane. Marvellous. What was more attractive than acting oddly? "Urm...should I...maybe we should rest overnight, soon."
She raised her eyebrows, frowned a little. He seemed a little obsessed with resting. "Yes. There's a small clearing coming up...I've rested there before." Perhaps Shang was just uncomfortable, nervous. He had no need to be. It was just the two of them. Why was this man so calm in war, able to fight with thousands of huns, and yet act so nervous and insecure around one woman!
The horses trotted slowly, Mulan and Shang exchanged few words. They occasionally exchanged glances, but an awkwardness that had never been there before had seemed to arrive, like a third person in their relationship-was it a relationship? It wasn't a friendship. They had a kind of dynamic, that didn't feel close enough to be friendship, not like it was with Yao, Chien-Po, or Ling. It felt like a mutual respect, but that sounded clinical. There was an understanding there-both were similar, but at the same time very different. Relationship was a loose term, but it was the only one it felt like that fitted. In some ways it made her happy, that they shared something very complex and deep. In others it frustrated her, being unable to decode these odd feelings. There was obvious attraction-Shang was one of the most handsome men she'd ever seen (and even she admitted he was a "pretty boy" which, in her book, had to be a good thing)-but it wasn't just that.
She sighed a little. He looked at her with concern in his eyes. With a jerk she realised that she'd seen that look before. On the mountain, after she had saved his life. Before he always seemed to be harsh, cruel, devoid of emotion when anyone was harmed. But at that moment, after deciding to have respect for her, he had cared. There had been a warmth there. The warmth had been lost the moment he'd discovered who she really was. Although she had seen a shadow of it in his eyes when she had met him again, in the Imperial City. And later, when he decided to go with her plan. And, of course, when he told her she fought good.
If anything ever happened between them, she'd never, ever let him get over that.
"Are you alright?" He said it softly-Shang could speak softly? It seemed so odd, out of the roles she'd become so used to. A little crush was nothing when he was her commanding officer, in a position of authority, but now they were on something of an equal footing-it was even possible she was above him, as the true hero of China. Things were different.
"I'm alright. It's just a lot to take in. I've spent the last 6 weeks training, and now I'll be going home, to where I'll probably get married and have a family. I suppose it's an adventure, but it's of a different sort."
Shang nodded a little. "It will be odd without you." He said absently, softly, before seeming to catch himself. Mulan, hearing this, was about to say something about how he'd coped without her when he left her to the snow, but she bit her tongue-she wasn't in the mood to take issue about it right now. "I...yes. It will be od-getting married? Shouldn't you already be engaged, you must be-"
"17. And I went to the matchmaker...but it didn't go well. I'm not looking forward to going through that again." She sighed. "She doesn't like me after the mistakes I made..."
Both knew that she'd have to get married, for the honour and continuation of her family line. Shang frowned a little. "Why not find your own husband?" He said softly. "I can't see you as marrying for anything but your own reasons, never just because the matchmaker tells you to."
She smiled a little, privately sharing his opinion, or at least hoping it would be true. She liked the idea of finding her own husband, looking at him shyly for a second before responding. "That's not very traditional..."
"Nor are you." He smirked a little. "My mother and father married for love...I once met the man my mother was meant to marry."
"What was he like?" Mulan had usually only heard good things about arranged marriage, such as her parents. The majority of couples had worked well together, although she had heard the odd horror story.
"He was Chi Fu." Shang shuddered involuntarily.
"Chi Fu would've been your father?" Mulan's eyes widened as her mind attempted to form a Chi Fu-like Shang. It failed. Completely and utterly. And this comforted her. "That's awful..."
He nodded. "Imagine if you ended up with someone like Chi Fu..."
She shuddered. Violently. "There's no need to be cruel, Shang!"
He laughed a little. "I suppose, if you can't find anyo-"
"Oh, here's the clearing. Come on, let's set up camp." She climbed down from Khan and grabbed her bag. She began to put her tent up, realising that Shang had been speaking when she'd noticed the clearing. She looked up at him, who looked away at that moment. "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
He blushed a little. "It wasn't important...I was just saying if the worst comes to the worst then I-" His eyes met her's, and he realised that he'd do anything to help her, if the worst came to the worst. "I would go and make sure the man was good to you..."
She smiled a little. "Where's your tent?"
Shang's face changed completely. His eyes widened. "You must realise that I decided to come after you on a whim..." He rubbed the back of his neck and pulled an odd face. "So I don't have a tent. But I'll improvise."
About ten minutes of improvisation later, Shang came to the conclusion that he'd be sleeping under the stars, which in itself was rather a romantic idea, but he knew in reality he'd be cold. Very cold.
Mulan sighed. "Shang, the answer is very simple, if unorthodox. You and I share a tent."
He gasped, made a strangled noise in his throat. "We can't...no! That's...no!"
She placed her hands on her hips. "It's not like anything will happen. I trust you. Besides, the other option is that you lie out here and get sick or something."
"I won't get sick. There are blankets, and we can make a fire." He folded his arms defiantly.
She scowled. "If you do get sick, I'm not taking care of you."
"That won't be a problem, because I won't get sick."
She threw her hands in the air and shook her head. "Fine. Absolutely fine. You can start building the fire. I'll go and find us something to eat."
She left before he could speak, and he found himself simply doing as she asked. One thing he had learnt was that sometimes pride had to be shelved for the best. He's also learnt that Mulan's ideas were usually very good ones. However, sharing a tent didn't just violate half of the sacred unions and ideals of their culture, it also made him nervous, if he was brutally honest. He wasn't sure that he would be able to stop himself from doing something stupid, like smelling her hair. Which would only serve to scare her and ruin their whole dynamic. It was a world of a mistake.
Disclaimer: full disclaimer to be included at end Don't own, don't sue