She trekked up the mountain with Phillip to the place where Mulan had told her that they would meet. She didn't know anything about medicine. She'd read hundreds of books and not one of them could help her with Phillip or Mulan. He didn't appear to be badly injured, but it was enough that she could see him wince on occasion when he turned the wrong way or the hill got too steep. They were nearly there when she saw him do it out of the corner of her eye yet again. It made her nervous, being in the presence of someone who needed help but being unable to provide it. First thing she was going to do when she got back was ransack her library for a book on medicine or health so that this would never happen again-
She stopped dead in her tracks.
When she got back?
The thought chased her breath out of her lungs. When had she decided that she was going back? She couldn't be sure. She was certain that when she had left Mulan she was determined not to go back to that castle ever again. If he didn't want her then it was his loss. But it wasn't, not really, it was her loss as well. That ache that she felt, the sorrow, the indifference to everything around her, it came from not being with him. She could try to cover the feelings up, to swallow them down and pretend that she didn't notice them, but they would always be there. By casting her out he'd sentenced her to a lifetime of pain and misery. She had discovered a freedom with him that she'd never known before, she had discovered a part of herself she'd never known before, and this adventure paled in comparison to the person she was with him. Was she really going to let him make a decision that affected her life this much?! That made her this miserable? That made them both this miserable? He had to be suffering from it too. Whether he liked it or not she was his true love, and that meant he was feeling the same things that she was. He might be better at hiding them, but no doubt he was feeling them too. Could she really allow them both to suffer like this?
No! She wouldn't stand for it. Not anymore. She didn't know when she'd decided, but it didn't matter. She was going back, she was going home. She'd broken him down once before, he wouldn't hurt her, he wasn't capable of it, she would stay whether he was happy about it or not and maybe one day he'd find that she really was more important than his power. Maybe one day he'd see that she really could love him despite his past and present.
"Belle," suddenly she felt Phillips hand gently at her back. "Are you alright?" he asked, looking concerned.
Alright? She was wonderful, the best that she'd been for weeks! That empty place that she'd had since she had left was suddenly filling up. Yes, she'd freed a beast. Yes, she'd become a hero. But none of that mattered. It wouldn't matter unless it was her beast, unless someday she was his hero. If she could have she would have left that very moment, let her heart lead her back to him. But she couldn't, she had to finish this first, on her own terms. She was so close to the end! She would be on her way soon enough.
"Fine," she responded with a smile to Phillips inquiry. She took a deep whiff through her nose and smelled ash. For a moment she stared at Phillip, wondering if the magic hadn't lasted, if it was possible for him to turn back into the Yaoguai, then she remembered that Mulan had said something about building a fire to help her find her way. She picked up the pace again, she really was very close. "My, my friends over that ridge," she huffed pointing it out to him. As they rounded a group of trees she could see the light up ahead and Mulan sitting on a fallen log by it, looking at her book on the Yaoguai. "There she is," she muttered.
At her voice Mulan shut the book and managed to stand and walk over to the pair of them. She still limped but it appeared that the long rest had helped her. A wide smile spread over her face "Belle," she said reaching out for her shoulders in a friendly happy gesture. "You're alive!" she said, and for a moment her heart threatened to drop. Had she sent her to kill the Yaoguai really thinking that she wouldn't come back alive! She should have felt insulted, angry even, but instead she let the comment pass. It was no matter. She was alive, and nothing, not even a dark thought like that could bring her down from this high that she was feeling.
"I, uh, I did it," she said triumphantly "I defeated the Yaoguai," she looked across to Phillip there beside her, "with a little help." She didn't want to think of what would become of him if she hadn't recognized his writing, if he hadn't been smart enough to keep leaving the messages, believing that someone would figure it out eventually. There would be a woman out there always wondering, forever suffering, because he never came home. It would have been her fault and she wouldn't be able to live with herself knowing that she was the cause of a separation between two people truly in love. She was all too familiar with the feeling.
"Who are you?" Mulan asked the stranger, looking him up and down, confusion in her face over the sudden strange appearance of the young man.
"I was the Yaoguai," he informed her, with a hint of humorous mystery in his voice.
Mulan looked back to her, seeking answers of some kind, of course she wanted answers, hadn't she wanted them too?! But the excited flutter in her belly didn't want to explain it all, he could do that, she had somewhere to be, and she didn't want to waste anymore time. She wanted nothing more than curl up in her chair by the fire with a good book and the squeak of a spinning wheel in the distance.
"He was cursed," she explained, giving the most basic explanation she could, "so I helped him, now he's going to help you," she continued, knowing her voice sounded rushed. That was ok, she was in a rush.
But Mulan looked at her confused again. "Wait, you're not coming?" she asked, sounding genuinely upset at the prospect. Imagine, after all this time she'd finally managed to make another friend! And this one...she hadn't let this one down at all! It would never make up for how she'd failed Anna, nothing ever would, but it felt good to know that she could still make friends without costing them their lives. Friends were good and some day she might be able to seek the woman out again, she knew where to look now, but there was someone else that needed her attention far more at the moment. A different type of friend.
"I have another beast to face," and it wasn't going to be pretty, but it was the right thing to do, she knew that now. She exchanged her sword for the book, trading her brawn for her brains again, the life of a hero for the life of a caretaker. It was a fair trade in her mind. Besides, strength, physical strength wasn't going to help her where she was going, but her mind would. He'd loved her for who she was on the inside once before she just needed to remind him of that. Excitement raced through her as she looked up at the woman, feeling like her old self again. Maybe she'd even stop back at the library she'd worked at and retrieve her blue dress again. She was doing the brave thing, and hoping, that like before, bravery would follow. "Good-bye," she said finally to her friend.
"Good-bye, Belle," Mulan echoed. And with a final nod at Phillip she headed back up the road, back to where she came from.