Ping shot up in her tent. How had she been discovered? No one in the camp knew of her identity—or did they? She slipped into her tunic and stepped out of her tent, taking care not to wake the sleeping cricket in her shoe or Mushu in her helmet.
She shivered as her bare feet came in contact with the cold grass. Hours still remained until dawn. Quietly, she moved through the rows of tents, searching for the voice. Who had called her?
She had walked through nearly the entire camp before she heard another voice.
"Who's there?" Captain Shang. His dim form, still shirtless, loomed in the darkness. What was the captain standing guard at this time of the night… er, morning? Mulan paused, forcing her brain to think in Man Mode. She cleared her voice. At least she had learned something from her first encounters with the captain.
"Uh, just me, sir. Ping. I heard someone talking, but since there's no one, I'm going back to bed." She turned awkwardly, but could not move far.
"Wait." She skidded to a halt. "Are you always out this early in the morning?"
"Not usually, sir."
"See that you aren't." The captain stroked his chin with a brief grin. He knows how to smile? "Unless you're training, that is. We wouldn't want you to find some pretty girl around here."
"Yes…um, no sir. I mean, goodnight, sir." Mulan turned and scurried away as fast as she could, hoping she still looked man-like. Find some pretty girl? Is that what men talked about? She groaned inwardly. This was why she was glad not to have had brothers. Though they would have honored my father, she thought.
She slipped back into her tent and pillowed her head on her folded-up coat.
"Just where have you been?"
"Agh!" Mulan jumped at the sound of the dragon's voice behind her. "Don't scare me like that!"
"Scare you?" Mushu folded his arms. "Just who's scaring whom? I wake up and Ping's gone? What was I supposed to think?"
"Where did you go?"
"I heard someone calling me, and I had to see who it was."
"Calling Mulan? Not calling Ping?" The dragon leaped on to Mulan's shoulder.
"Yes! And I bumped into the Captain." Mulan yawned. "Now let me go back to sleep."
She ignored the rest of the dragon's chattering and promptly fell asleep.
"Mulan?" She tossed and turned on her narrow mat, trying to will the dreams away.
"You may look like a bride, but you will never bring your family honor!" The matchmaker's face, smeared with ink and makeup, haunted even her dreams. Mulan watched herself walk into her home, hardly able to meet her father's eyes.
In her father's eyes was pride turned to shame.
She would never bring her family honor. She would never marry, or bear her husband healthy sons. No man would want a girl who could not even please the matchmaker.
Mulan tossed and turned on her narrow bed.
She had never been the girl in her reflection. She realized that now. But neither was she the young boy, the laughingstock of the camp. Mulan was not the dumb boy who slapped a man as a greeting. She was not the one who danced with a beetle up her back. She was not the weakling who could not even fetch an arrow from a treetop.
But who was she?
The day began as it always did—Mushu winding up the cricket to wake her up, Mulan running into camp like every other day. Now, however, the men assembled quietly. The captain walked out of his tent.
"Soldiers," he shouted, "today we try something different."
Murmurs flooded through the group. Something different? The last time Captain Shang had announced something different, they had all ended up in the river.
"We are going to take a hike across the mountains."
"Ugh!" Groans on all sides. The captain stared them down, but he could not stop their complaining as they plodded up the road.
"Who does he think we are, cattle?" Ling complained.
"Ah, stop whining like a girl," Yao smirked. "Just look at Ping."
Mulan struggled to keep up with the rest of the men, ignoring their jeers and taunts. They were just… too… strong. She considered dropping the packs that made her shoulders sag, but then the captain would be after her. She staggered down the road, feeling like a drunken donkey, barely able to see the path in front of her.
"Come on, Mulan," Mushu cheered her on. "You got this.
"I'm sorry, Mushu. I can't." She collapsed on the ground, barely able to see.
"Aw, come on. You just gotta lift your head and…" Ping looked up, just as the captain reached down and picked up her pack. His look was one of utter reproach, of pain.
He wore the same look her father had.
"Now what are we gonna do?" The dragon's voice pierced Mulan's veil of consciousness. "If you aren't in the army, then you can't save your father. What are you gonna do when people discover this is where you've been? And what about my pedestal?"
"I don't know, Mushu." She walked slowly out of the camp, Khan's reins in her hand. "I just don't…" Her voice cut off as she looked up. The tree with the arrow stuck in it cast an eerie shadow over her face. She dropped the reins and ran towards the supply tent.
"Now what are you doing?" Mushu called out after her.
"Finding my center!" She whispered back. "That was the answer all along!"
"What do you mean, find your center?" The red dragon scurried after Mulan. "You're supposed to find your way home."
She emerged from the tent with the weights in her hand.
"Ah, now I get it. You're gonna get that arrow."
"Even if I have to stay up all night to get it."
"You giving up yet?" Mushu leaned back against a tent wall, his eyes heavy with drowsiness. "We could just go to your tent, you know. You can talk to the captain in the morning."
"He's not listening anymore. I've got to work my own way back into this army."
"You do just that. I'm going to sleep." Mulan tried one more time. She tied the weights around her wrists and leaped on to the tree. When she slammed back down on to the ground, she knew this just was not going to work. She tried to recall the captain's words to her mind.
"This represents discipline," he held up one weight, "and this represents strength. You need both to reach the arrow."
Discipline? Strength? Mulan lifted the weights to eye level. Strength? Where was a skinny girl like her supposed to find strength? Find strength in the discipline, a voice seemed to say inside her head. You can do this.
She looked up at the arrow, and back down at the weights. Wait a minute.
A determined expression crossed her face. She tied the weights together, wrapped them around the tree. I am going to get that arrow, if it takes me all night.
She used every ounce of discipline she had ever had. Into each searing pain in her arms, she placed the pain of rejection. She fought for each inch upward as she had fought to save her father's life. Into each drop of sweat, she poured the agony and despair of never measuring up to the mark.
And she reached the arrow.
This was Mulan.
She had found her center.
And she was going to win this war.
Author's Note: Not as sad as the last one, is it? All the extra scenes from this one (including the Ping-Shang fight) are going to go into another fanfic eventually…
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