Doing a binge upload tonight! This story, Modus Operandi, Surprise, Bitches!, and Bloody Kisses will all be getting updated, and possibly others!
Sorry to say that this chapter is more of an interlude than anything, but important stuff does happen! By no means is it filler!
"Alba?" Mulan thought at the older woman. Somehow, it didn't feel right to talk out loud, and thinking her words came almost naturally. It was like a regular thought process, but with someone to aim it at.
"Yes, that's my name, so good of you to remember it," Alba snapped sarcastically. "We're on a time limit, girl. Speak your mind, I can't read it."
"I didn't actually expect you to come…"
"Have we not already had this discussion? I feel like we have." Alba must have been in a bit of a mood, because she was exceedingly sharp right now. "But perhaps death distorts things. I told you—darkness, meditation, call out my name, and once every seven days, I will be able to come to you."
"…Right. I'm sorry, it's been…rough, lately."
"Then tell me about it. It might help."
Mulan started haltingly, but she was eventually able to retell the story of her arrival at the palace, Shan Yu's challenge, rescuing her friends, and the deal she had made to save their lives. Then, with much reluctance, she shared her revelation about what she would have to submit to and how she didn't think she could handle it.
However bad Alba's mood had been, this softened her. "You've done well, girl. Not many could have done what you have. Your comrades—Yao, Ling, Chien Po, Li Shang—they will help you. You need allies, and they are the truest friends you will get in your situation."
"I know." Mulan hesitated. "But I can't-I can't let him-"
Alba looked exceedingly weary and sad. "I know, Mulan." It was the first time Alba had ever called her by her name. "I know better than you might expect. My father did not treat me as his daughter—not even as a child. I was little better than my mother to him when it came to usefulness, but he did like them young." Alba chuckled bitterly. "Such is the life of a woman in these times. Mulan, it will take all the strength you possess and then some, but you can survive this. It is yet another sad fact of life for the female gender, but there are things about this situation that you are not seeing clearly in your grief, and I believe that hearing them you may be heartened.
"Shan Yu, for all his cruelty and foulness, is a great man. Not a good man, but a great man. And he is enamored with you. This is-"
Mulan immediately protested. "What! What are you talking about? He raped me! He-he tried to kill me! He's put me in this position all so that he can make me suffer before he really does kill me! You must be out of your-"
"Mulan!" Alba snapped, shocking her out of her panic and disbelief with the harshness of her tone. Then her voice gentled. "Calm down. Take deep breaths. In, one, two, three, four; out, one, two, three, four. Now follow me."
Without truly understanding why she was following Alba's instructions and only knowing that she trusted her implicitly beyond reasoning, Mulan obeyed. Slowly and with many repetitions, the terror faded from her mind, though she still felt deeply shaken and sick to her stomach. Once she had finally calmed, Alba continued.
"As I was saying," Alba's voice was the gentlest it had ever been now, "Shan Yu, if you will not believe that he is enamored with you, at the very least values you. I would say that he values you above all else besides power at this time, though it is certain he does not realize the extent of it. Why else would he tolerate your disobedience, your flagrant disrespect for him and his word? Why else would he allow you injure his most trusted companions without punishment? Why else would he give you such an outrageous gift—giving a known enemy access to her allies who have similar ideals and motivations? You have taken his leniency for granted. Any other person in this entire world would be dead one hundred times over for the trouble you have caused. But instead, he's giving you things you didn't even know you could ask for."
Mulan stared at her incredulously, not comprehending what was being said. Then rage filled her. "Taking his leniency for granted?" she demanded hotly. "He's forcing me into this position! I'm not-I don't want to-" And here, tears flooded her eyes and dripped down her cheeks, unseen in the darkness of the room.
"You misunderstand me," Alba said. "I am not by any means saying that what he's done or will do is okay. It's not—I told you, Mulan, I know. But in your unique position of power, you absolutely must see things clearly, or the opportunities at your disposal will pass you by and vanish. You have a very enviable place in the khan's life, and if anyone were to be able to make changes for the better for China and for the world, you are the only one who can. Shan Yu has no interest in power beyond power itself.
"He knows how to get what he wants, but I have seen that Shan Yu does not always know exactly what that is. Even right now, he has no idea how important to him you are. I do not doubt that his intentions for you are far from love or affection, but I also do not doubt that that could change. Shan Yu, while exceptional, is a man like any other. You won't know this term, but I'll say it anyway—Shan Yu is not a sociopath. He is not beyond redemption, or at least a semblance of it, for all that you may think he is."
Mulan, despite hating what Alba was saying, forced herself to listen. Against all explanation, what the psychic was saying made sense, too much sense for Mulan to ignore it. She was starting to see what she meant—often she had wondered when Shan Yu was going to kill her, and just hours ago he had let her comrades become her companions, a guard of sorts. Initially, it seemed to be arrogance at its finest and most deadly, and maybe it still was, but with Alba's insistence, Mulan could see that yes, it really was a gift. Mulan wouldn't have known it without Alba's help, and she wondered if Shan Yu knew it. Surely if he had seen it as it was, he would have taken a different route.
But there was one thing she caught in Alba's words, and it sent a peculiar prickle through her. "You told me that to repay you, I had to save China," Mulan said quietly. She paused, afraid to say the words out loud in case she was right. She had never wanted to be wrong more in her life. "Saving China doesn't mean killing him, does it?"
Alba's eyes were the oldest, weariest eyes Mulan had ever seen. Never had Mulan seen anyone sadder or more helpless. "I can't answer that, but I think you already know."
Mulan nodded, her mind clouded and her heart heavy with dread. She did know the answer, and it was an answer she could have lived the rest of her life without knowing the question to.
"I don't think it's been an hour…but I don't think I can't talk anymore," Mulan said softly and honestly. "I need to think and be by myself for a little while. I'll…see you in seven days?"
Alba nodded. "Yes, child." And then she faded away without fanfare.
Mulan rolled over onto her stomach in bed, now fully present in the real world, and buried her face into the soft pillows beneath her. She breathed in sharply, taking in the muffled air, and then breathed out harshly. In, one, two, three, four—out, one, two, three, four. And she repeated this for a long time, trying to keep her brain blank and resting. It was a strangely successful technique and Mulan wondered why she had never heard of it before.
Eventually the air in the pillow was replaced with all that she had exhaled and her face was hot and sweaty from the steam of her breath. Only when she could not bear it for a second longer, her lungs tightening uselessly from the recycled breath, did she turn her face and breathe in fresh air. The sensation was refreshing, but even though she felt calm enough to think now, she no longer felt like doing so.
It was undoubtedly very late by now, and Mulan relaxed into the bed, this time with the intention of sleeping. She drifted in and out of consciousness for a while, not quite ready to let go of this overwhelming peacefulness in spite of all that she had been through. There was something cathartic about having talked about everything with Alba, even if in return she'd been given insights she would have preferred not to have.
Still, she couldn't have gone on properly without Alba's information, because now a very painful but necessary truth had been revealed.
Saving China meant letting Shan Yu live.
Note to all concerned readers: Shan Yu is not going to be redeemed, but dynamics will change.