So the theif was a hero now, at least in Ching's eyes it seemed. If her behavior afterwards and in the tent the following morning were any indication. If not to that extreme, it certainly had made her re-evaluate her opinions of him. The scale seemed tipped to the much more positive side. At the very least Mushu thought she'd be trusting him more.
…and at most he expected their wedding within the month.
Maybe he was being too critical of the boy. Hadn't he only been doing what Mushu was trying to do too, help Ching? Of course Mushu still thought if he'd had more time he could have got her out of the perdicament without him swooping in there. He'd taken his own time doing so as well. Though the more level-headed side of Mushu recalled that the boy had been having to fight off the other attackers.
The more prominent side of him though – that housed his bruised ego – was still not ready to be so understanding.
Though as Mushu watched he and Ching interact from his hiding places with Cri Kee-x, he thought perhaps he could try, for her sake. He s'posed he knew enough of second chances himself that he shouldn't be so quick to deny them, either.
His and Cri Kee-x latest traveling method – in Ching's bag – wasn't as bad as Mushu let on. He had been getting used to it, but he still felt it was worth bringing up the drop in comfort level to her from sitting on the back of Pahlin.
Ching had insisted on being the one to actually hold the reins and guide her horse, so she sat in front while Kuo took their old spot behind her. Mushu kept an eye on the boy's hands, just because he was sitting behind her that didn't mean he should be holding her waist any more than he had to.
"I have teeth, and I will use them,' he mumbled from the depths of the bag. Cri Kee-x chirped that he didn't think Kuo could hear him. "Even so," Mushu added.
The boy also seemed intent on learning more about Ching since he had shared so much about himself with her. Before the events of the previous night she hadn't shared much about why she was traveling to Kin Xia, and if they hadn't happened Mushu didn't think he would get much else out of her.
"So, after you get into town and do whatever it is you need, what do you plan to do then? Return home?" he asked her.
"Well, of course," she answered automativally, adding after a pause, " It's only afterwards I'm not so sure about."
"Oh?' he turned this one word into an inquiry, but as she had done before, she deflected with a question of her own.
"How about you? Once we reach town and part ways, what will you do?"
He waited for a minute, probably hoping that she'd answer his question first, but she didn't budge. "Well, that's pretty hard for me to figure. If I can't find work then I really don't know."
"Do you think you'd ever consider returning home?" she asked.
"Not a chance," he answered shaking his head even though he knew her eyes were staying straight ahead. "I mean, every now and then I've imagined what it might be like if I did go back, but every time I just don't think I could face it."
After a moment, he added, "Face my father, I mean."
"What about your mother and your sister, don't you think they miss you?" she actually turned her head slightly to look back at him. "How long have you been gone, exactly?"
Kuo seemed surprised that she remembered that he'd mentioned his mother and sister. "I hadn't really thought about that."
"Plus I'll bet having you home might counter any dissapointment your father might have, especially if you've been gone for so long." Ching continued.
"You don't know him," Kuo said. "I fear the longer I'm gone, the more Id have to hear about it if I did go back, so I just don't. That is if he'd even talk to me. But it's simply easier for me at this point."
"You shouldn't run from your problems, Kuo. If the army wasn't for you than you should have just gone home and told him. Sure he might be dissapointed, but I'm sure ultimately if you found something you were good at he'd be proud of you. It's impossible to make everyone happy."
Mushu had to risk being see by the boy to poke his head out of the bag and make sure he had heard Ching properly. Not only because this was the first time he could recall her calling Kuo by his name (and Mushu was resolving to use it in his head more as well) but he also had to feel a little proud hearing his own advice coming out of her mouth.
He caught her eye with his smug grin, and she tilted her head slightly in his direction, "Yeah, yeah, I know" she said reluctantly. Obviously she remembered where those words had come from.
"Come again?' Kuo asked. Ching turned back to him, she hadn't meant that to be so loud.
"Um, well, I was sort of…talking to myself. I just sort of came to a conclusion about my own situation. That's something I've been having to learn as well"
Kuo seemed interested again about possibly getting to hear more about her. "Oh really? So what will you do when you return home, then?"
Ching seemed to have walked right into that one, and from the corner of her eye she could see Mushu waiting for the same answer. She took a moment to think about it.
"Honestly, I don't know," she said to both of them. "I mean, I think I know what I'd like to do. I hadn't wanted to go on this trip, but now that I've gotten out and away from my home I'm finding it sort of freeing. I have not been out of my small village ina long time. Just once, to visit my maternal grandparents. But I was so young I barely remember that."
She snuck another glance down at Mushu and smiled. "I don't think that my decision will be met with anything very positive – at least from my parents, my father specifically – but my grandparents might be on my side. I really would like to travel, see this kingdom that my family has helped protect. They'd worry for me I know, but I just feel I am not ready to settle for being a wife whose sole purpose is to please her husband. Whoever that is, he'd get to see the world, and I would expected to never leave."
Looking back up at the road, she continued. "It may not be smart or safe some of the time, but it is what I feel I must do, and I may get married one day, but not when everyone says I should."
So she has it, thought Mushu. She's finally worked out what she wants. Now the question is, will she be brave enough to actually tell her parents all this?
"That all sounds good, but will you actually tell them all that?" Kuo asked Mushu's question for him. Mushu was a little weirded out that they'd been on the same wavelength, but he was glad he'd asked anyway.
Her confident expression faltered. "I sure hope so," she said a bit nervously.
It wasn't all that impressive, just a small pouch full only part of the way with some dried up plant bits. Nothing about it said that it was such a special rare item that they'd have to travel so far for. They paid for it all the same though.
To tell the truth to Mushu it seemed a bit of a gyp, sorta anti-climactic. But he knew though that the important thing was that they had it. The thing they had sought to help Mulan.
Kin Xia was a busy place, bigger than the little village they had come from – certainly one of the busiest places Ching had ever been – but not as big as the Imperial City.
They didn't stay long to look around though; Mushu figured though that Ching might return if she came back this way on those travels she was hoping to have.
Now that their journey was nearing completion though, Kuo's presence was no longer needed; he and Ching would have to part. Mushu waited impatiently inside the bag as they said their goodbyes on the outskirts of the town.
"You sure I can't convince you that I should come along on your return journey?" Kuo asked, as he had a couple times during their ride. "I could be useful."
"Thank you, but I can manage. I need to get back quicker than I came anyway," Ching said. "I do appreciate the offer, though" she added quickly.
Mushu watched them as they lingered, seeming like they were holding off actually parting. He was growing indignant. Cri Kee-x peeking out beside him though was quite enjoying watching the two stall for time.
"So…are you going to tell your parents you want to travel?" Kuo inquired blatantly.
"Are you going to go home and see your family?" Ching asked in a similar fashion.
They both laughed, but both were serious in asking.
"How about this, I promise to go home if you promise to tell your parents what you want. Then we can meet back here and we can travel together. That is if you be alright with me tagging along," Kuo said. "Also if they haven't killed us," he added jokingly.
Ching smiled, skipping over the joke, and then nodded. "That sounds good, and I think it might be nice to have some company. That is only if you keep up your half of the bargain, though."
They lingered a bit longer, but finally Kuo was turning back towards town and Ching was getting on the horse. As they rode away Mushu made a big show of leaping out of the bag and back onto his spot behind Ching on Pahlin. "I didn't think I'd actually miss this fly magnet's lumpy back so much." (This earned him a little bucking bronco imitation from Pahlin, but Mushu managed to stay on.
"Now don't you guys start that again," Ching reprimanded them. "I thought you two had gotten past this, and anyway we don't have time."
She was right, Mushu knew, but he still doubted that he'd ever really warm up to their equine transport.
"Was that alright though?" Ching asked Mushu after a moment, turning her head slightly so he knew she was addressing him. "My arranging to travel with Kuo?"
"Sure, I guess," he said. Why was she asking him? "I mean, I'm sure that since it's part of what you wanna do, that your ancestors will be fine with it. If that's what you're worried about. I might omit that part from when you tell your parents though; depending on you think they'd feel about you running around with a strange man."
"Well, I was actually wanting to know if it was alright with you personally," Ching clarified a bit awkwardly. "Since I didn't know if you'd want to come along too."
"Oh," Mushu said. He was touched that she'd want him to come with her, and he felt that odd frisson again, and made him recall that night with the stars and all the crickets. But his heart sank into his stomach as he realized…he didn't know what would become of him upon their return.
"I'd want to…I just don't think I'll be able to."
"How come?" she asked.
"Cause it's almost done, this mission, or whatever you wanna call it. Once we get back, I'll probably have to go back to the temple. Then once I'm back on my pedestal…who knows when I'll get to come out again."
Ching seemed to have forgotten about Mushu having to return to his duties, and he almost had too. Or rather, he'd been trying to forget about that particular part of them. That frozen sleep. Then when he awoke again, where would Mulan be? Where would Ching be?
"Well, maybe it's a good thing that you stay, then." She said. (look who was being optimistic) "If I leave, who will take care of my brother? I mean, I know my parent s will raise him well, and my grandparents for as long as they can, but it would really make me feel better about leaving if I knew that if they weren't around he'd still be alright. That I'd have a good friend watching him for me, a good guardian friend."
She smiled at him as he put his hands on her shoulder to look up at her face. It touched him even more that she trusted and believed in him so much. They had truly changed since the start of all this, and it just made him dread it ending even more. But he was able to answer her (amazingly) without choking up.
"And I will. You won't have to worry about that, I promise."
Indeed as Ching had predicted, the return journey was much quicker. It was also much more pleasant, with everyone getting along now (except Mushu and Pahlin) it actually made Mushu wonder if maybe things were going too well.
They even made it back home without any major stops. It was probably an understatement to say that all three were relieved to finally be back, even if Mushu still had this nagging feeling that this sense of security might be false. He tried to push it to the back of his mind. They were home now, and they had what they left for. Mulan would get better, and Ching would be more confident in her own life, everything coming ouut bright and shiny.
Even though he would have rather gone to see Mulan first, Mushu thought that Grandma Fa might want a report of sone kind, and maybe he could ask for a little more time with them, see Mulan and wish Ching good luck. Cri Kee-x followed along as well. When they got there though, the temple was still and quiet as usual. No shimmer of light nor spector appeared to greet them as they approached.
"Uh, hey!" Mushu called out unsurely. Still nothing happened. They walked around the head stones and looked up at the other guardian statues. "Yoo-hoo, anybody home?" he called again.
Cri Kee-x gave a few chirps, and went to a shadowy corner to find his gong, but returned with a confuzzled chirp that it wasn't where he'd left it.
"That's strange' said Mushu, taking another look around the temple. He hadn't expected a lot of attention for his return, but he hadn't expected no one to appear. Did they not care that he'd returned to save their famous descendant? He'd at least think Grandma Fa would pop up and say 'hey thanks, good job' or…something.
But…maybe his duty was still yet unfulfilled. Mushu might possibly have a bit more to do before anyone came out to congratulate him and/or send him back to his frozen state.
And as unnerving as this was, Mushu felt a little relieved about it too. This would give him more time with Mulan and Ching. If he had more to do to help them, that was more time to relive the good days.
Trying to focus on this last part, and not the creepiness of a silent temple, Mushu motioned for Cri Kee-x to follow him back into the house. Ching's mother might have the medicene made up all how it was supposed to be for Mulan, and he wanted to be there when she woke up.
Authors' Note: Ok, this time I mean it, we are CLOSE TO THE END. This IS the penultimate chapter!
I really want to thank you guys who have stuck by me, and kicked me in the butt when I kept getting distracted and spread myself too thin, we are almost there, and I really hope it'll be worth the wait.
Also I did promise that once it was all done is when I'd premire something special, which I shall. Let's hope that day comes soon!
I did check over my spelling/grammar, but I'm sure stuff slipped through, so give me a little bit of slack in that dept, if you please.