Ni Ni Saves the Day
Disclaimer: I do not own Disney's Mulan, nor any of the characters and plotlines therein.
Author's Note: For those of you who don't know, Ni Ni is the Chinese word for grandmother. I hope you like this second story of mine. I guess I'm continuing in the same style as the first one, since I got positive feedback on "The Great Fa Mulan"—except for one review, which didn't actually tell me what I did wrong, so how I am supposed to improve my writing is beyond me. Like it or loathe it, please send feedback. Details and nitpicking welcome.
This story is dedicated to the memory of my grandma, an honorable warrior in her own right.
Chapter One: Pre-Party Panic
Lanterns in a multitude of colors bobbed up and down as China's citizens flocked to the Imperial City. Silk ribbons threaded in between the market stalls, and acrobats flipped back and forth in the streets. No, China hadn't escaped another Hun attack. It was New Year's, and the entire city was jubilant...
...save for one person.
"I can't believe that she's going dressed as a soldier!" grumbled Grandma. "We spent a week trying to pick out just the right fabric for her to wear, and she decides she has to be 'Ping' again! Humph. Those shoes were worth a fortune, too."
"Grandma," Fa Li reminded her, "Mulan will be staying here for three days. She'll have to wear the dress sometime." She looked disappointed. "Those shoes, though..."
"She complained they pinched her feet!" Grandma tut-tutted. "When I was her age, my feet were half the size of hers, and did anyone hear me complaining about it?"
Fa Li blinked. "You mean, you didn't complain about it? I could have sworn I've heard you say—"
"It was a rhetorical question," snapped Grandma, "and it doesn't have anything to do with Mulan's refusal to dress up for the occasion. How is she supposed to land that man if she doesn't primp every once in a while?"
There, Fa Li had to smile. "I think that if Captain Li were choosy about that, he wouldn't have come back to her after the war. She told me he'd only seen her in a dress once before, and the rest of the time, she had on her armor." A worried look crossed her face. "I think, though, that she should be learning more about running a household." All of a sudden, she sighed. "Now, Grandma, you've made me moody."
Fa Zhou, who until this moment had been walking ahead of them, stopped and moved closer. "None of us should be downcast this day," he said, with a fond smile as he thought about his only daughter. "Mulan will dine with the Emperor at his table. It is a great honor."
Grandma let out a screech. "She's actually eating with him? I thought she was just going to visit!"
Fa Zhou looked like he was trying not to laugh. "That, too."
"Fortune go with her," Grandma groaned. "She's got to make a good impression, and she's not even dressed for it!"
From her sash, she brought out a small cage with a cricket inside.
"Don't make me toss you out," she said to it. "There are too many wagons here that would roll right over you."
The cricket shrank back as it uttered a sound of protest.
Fa Li glanced at the cricket with a look of despair. "Grandma, wasn't that the cricket who made a mess of Mulan's Matchmaking day? How can you carry him around? He ruined everything!"
"Exactly!" said Grandma. "You can't get them luckier than this one!"
Fa Li looked confused.
With a grin, Grandma continued, "If he hadn't messed things up, she wouldn't have gone to war and met Li Shang!"
The captain knocked on the door where he knew she was staying. "Twenty minutes before the formal dinner. Just thought I'd let you know."
"Go away!" came a distressed voice from inside. "I'm not ready yet!"
Shang raised his eyebrows. "I thought you said you were going in your soldier's outfit!" he called to her. "In that case, you should be fine. Weren't you wearing it as you came in?"
There was a pause. "I changed my mind," said Mulan's voice. She didn't sound too happy about her decision. Shang heard her mumble something about insistent grandmothers.
The captain hesitated. On the one hand, he already felt uncomfortable enough around Fa Mulan, and his knowledge of women's clothing was slim. On the other hand, she was a friend in need, and he owed her much more than a few moments' embarrassment. He would put his awkwardness aside, for now.
"May I be of help with something?" Shang asked as nicely as possible.
There was a small sigh. The door opened a crack, and Mulan peeked out at him. "Are you alone?" she asked finally. When he nodded, she opened the door all the way. "Good. I really wouldn't want the guys to see this."
To a tailor, Mulan would have looked a fright. Her topknot was coming undone and a few locks rested on the first layer of her gown. The second layer, made of dark blue silk, was draped over one shoulder like a toga. Her grey and black sash was knotted at the ends. All of this Mulan was trying to remedy with hands covered by sleeves too long for her arms.
Shang thought she looked stunning.
He was about to compliment her, when a closer look at her expression reminded him that she would probably take it as sarcasm. Instead, he struck a forbidding pose and boomed out, "What's this, soldier? Unprepared for an inspection? I won't have it. Ten laps around the practice court!"
Mulan's grimace softened into a grin, and soon she was laughing along with him. "Thanks," she said appreciatively. "I could use a little humor. As well as about ten seamstresses."
Shang frowned. "Why didn't you ask the servants to dress you?"
Mulan blinked. "I can do that?"
"You are in the palace," Shang reminded her. "Besides, lots of wealthy women have their own maids. In here!" he called to the adjoining chamber, and the woman who had been busy fluffing the pillows scurried over to help Mulan fix her dress.
"Apologies, Miss," said the maid, looking put out. "That new cleaning lady doesn't know a dust cloth from drapes."
Mulan colored as the maid undid her hair and began to brush it anew. "I should have thought of this. I haven't exactly had a polished upbringing, you know."
"You sound like you're making an apology." Shang spread his hands. "Why would I care about that? I'm a soldier. Just because I come from a wealthy family doesn't mean that I don't sleep on the ground or refuse to get my hands dirty."
"No, I know that," said Mulan, remembering the intensive training in addition to the personal regimen Shang put himself through during their adventure. "It's just...I'm sure you're used to admiring all of the perfectly-attired noblewomen and dancing girls."
"Seeing them, yes. Admiring them, not necessarily," said Shang. "I wasn't allowed any familiarity with the high-born girls unless I wanted to be betrothed to them, and the dancers were a little too eager to get to know me." He winced, knowing that said beauties would be out in force tonight. At the same time, he hoped that Mulan would understand him well enough not to imagine that he would reciprocate. As far as he was concerned, he was taken, even if Mulan did not realize it yet.
His reverie broke when he realized that Mulan had asked him a question. To judge by the smirk on her face, he was supposed to be uncomfortable with it.
"Yes?" Shang prompted, hoping that she would forgive his inattention and repeat the question.
Instead, Mulan looked slightly crestfallen. "Oh," she said, and turned her head slightly to help her waiting maid.
Instantly, Shang knew that he had inadvertently answered her, and what's more, his answer had not been the one she'd hoped for. "No, wait—" he began.
"You don't have to retract your answer, Shang," said Mulan, cutting him off. "I understand...I just thought, having seen you before during our march, that you wouldn't...anyway, I shouldn't have said anything. You are a soldier, after all," she finished, repeating the words he had spoken.
"Actually—" but at that point, the maid pulled a silk screen in front of Mulan, looking pointedly at Shang, who realized, too late, that the maid was going to dress Mulan again beginning with her underclothes. He hastily backed out of the room, shut the door, and heaved a sigh on the other side. Clearing up the misunderstanding would have to wait.
"Now that is what a bride should look like!" said Grandma in satisfaction. Every inch of her granddaughter had been expertly draped in silk, powdered, or done up with ribbons. "Much better than the man-dress you were wearing so stubbornly, and now why the long face?" She peered up at Mulan's listless features. "Are you hungry? Dinner's in five minutes."
"I'm upset, even though I guess I have no right to be. He's not even my—"
"What could Shang have done wrong?" Grandma asked bluntly, hands on her hips. "He was in here for what, two minutes?"
"He didn't do anything," said Mulan. "We—we were talking about the elegant women of the court, he mentioned the dancing girls being too eager to get close to him, and I asked him if it was because of his previous romantic encounters with them. It was supposed to be a joke, but apparently he took it seriously. I...I didn't think he would actually answer." She put a hand to her forehead, then cursed as her hand came away covered in powder.
"Don't use your soldier words here!" hissed Grandma. She shook her head. "Mulan, you're a terrific granddaughter, but sometimes you have to know when to hold your tongue. And that doesn't just go for your swearing. Men like Shang are world-wise in more ways than one; I thought he might phrase things a little more delicately around you, but Mulan, what did you expect for an answer to a question like that?"
"It's just that he's been so honorable when I've known him—I've stayed with the men at taverns, and he never once asked for a woman's favors."
"Probably trying to set a good example for his men," Grandma supplied. A sudden thought, born of many years' experience with marital trials, made her ask, "Are you sure that's what he said?"
"How else am I to interpret 'yes'?" Mulan demanded. "Then he tried to change his answer, and said, 'No, wait,' but I know an honest word when I hear it."
Grandma was not so sure. "I think," she said, "that you have just experienced a minor miscommunication."
"Grandma, he said—"
"I'm sure he did." Grandma re-powdered Mulan's forehead and ushered her towards the door. "Come on, that's your escort's knock. You have two minutes." She handed Mulan her neck scarf. "You are capable of tying that, aren't you?"
"Good, because I think your maid is having a hard time of it. You should be ashamed of yourself," she said to the cleaning lady, who hurried out the door.
Mulan only shook her head.
"Cheer up, Mulan." Grandma grinned at her cheekily. "I'll talk to him, and see if I can't get a straight answer."
"What? No, Grandma, don't!"
But Grandma was already walking down the corridors, thinking of her granddaughter affectionately. Mulan was sweet in her feeble protests; it was almost like she really didn't want Grandma to fix things for her! Ah, well. Mulan knew her grandmother well enough to understand that Ni-Ni was the soul of discretion.
Shang looked around impatiently for the source of the voice. He had been asked to dine with the Emperor, and better yet, Mulan was waiting for him. He didn't have time to—wait a minute. Where was the voice coming from?
"Down here, good-looking!"
Shang turned behind him and looked down...and down...and down, until he was gazing bewilderedly at Mulan's grandmother. Despite the size and strength difference between them, Shang tended to feel like a fresh bone awaiting Little Brother whenever Grandma stared at him.
He quickly bowed to her. "Honorable—"
She waved her hand. "No time for formalities," she said. "I know you've got to go. Before you do, I've got a question for you."
"Uh...all right," he said awkwardly.
"And I want you to be honest."
"Completely and totally."
"No sugar-coating. Got it?"
Grandma folded her arms and eyed him squarely. "Do you want to marry Mulan?"
Shang was thunderstruck. Of all the times to ask him this...why did she need to know now? His shoulders sagged in defeat. He had promised to answer candidly. "I...yes, very much."
Thinking that things couldn't get more humiliating, he turned to leave.
A bony hand snagged his shirtsleeve. "Hold on. That was the warm-up question."
You have to be kidding, Shang groaned inwardly.
Carefully, Grandma glanced right and left, making sure there was no one in earshot. "Then," she demanded, "WHY did you tell her about your previous exploits with women?"
Shang gaped at her. It was obvious that this woman was stark raving mad. Mulan had crazy ideas; her grandmother was just plain crazy. As if placating an enraged tigress, he answered, "Madam, I am sure that you're mistaken. I have told Mulan nothing of the sort! Not that there would be much to tell, anyway," Shang mumbled, hoping that the old woman was partially deaf.
No sooner than he had uttered that than Grandma shrieked triumphantly. "I knew it! I just knew she hadn't understood you well!" Without further ado, she told Shang just what Mulan had thought he'd meant by his answer.
Shang quickly went from thunderstruck to horrified. "I have to explain myself!" He tried to rush back to her room, but a fierce tug on his cape sent him reeling backwards.
"Not now, you don't," said Grandma. "She's probably already left, and besides, if you just barge into her room like that, who knows what she'll think of you?"
To his dismay, Shang found himself facing the opposite way he had intended to go. What was it with these Fa women? They could make him change his plans before he knew what hit him.
"The Emperor is waiting, dear," said Grandma kindly. "You shouldn't keep His Majesty." With that, she stood on tiptoe and gave him a friendly push in the right direction. At least, Shang thought it was friendly. One never could be quite certain with Grandma.
"I can't believe this. Mulan? MULAN!" Fa Li's voice filtered through the door. "Are you decent?"
"More or less!" called Mulan, slipping on her shoes. "What's wrong?"
Her mother looked like she had a headache coming on. "Your grandmother decided to bring her lucky cricket."
"Don't act as if it's your fault," Fa Zhou comforted her. "You know how superstitious she is."
"Don't tell me," said Mulan flatly. "It's escaped again."
She marveled at how much her parents resembled each other when someone was trying their patience.
"It'll all right," said Mulan. "You should go and enjoy the festivals. I'll look for Cri-Kee, if I have time before dinner."
Almost as soon as she'd showed her parents out, there was a knock on the inner door. "May I come in, Miss?"
"Yes," Mulan called to the maid. She shook her head in sympathy. Her chambermaid was trying to clean the rest of Mulan's quarters as quickly as she could.
Mulan pressed her hands together and inclined her head. "Does this look all right? Please be honest."
"You look very charming," said the maid, pleased. "Did you tie your neck scarf yourself? I haven't seen a knot like that before."
Mulan shrugged. "I've never tied it on my own before. Frankly, I'm not very good at dressing up. My friends showed me this knot early on in the training. This is the first time I've tried it."
"It looks complicated," said the maid. "Let's see...it's a bit skewed this way. Here, let's straighten this and tighten that up a little..."
She pulled hard on the scarf.
Immediately, Mulan doubled over, choking and trying frantically to breathe. The maid bent down. "What's the matter?"
Mulan gestured frantically to the fabric, and the maid, understanding what had happened, tried frantically to loosen the slipknot. Several frantic seconds later, Mulan was free, albeit breathing raggedly.
Cautiously, the maid said, "Are you sure that they're your friends?"
Gasping, Mulan said hoarsely, "Should've...known. It was before...got...arrow..." She took deep breaths and tried to compose herself.
The maid bit her lip, looking worried. "Should I call for help?"
She was rewarded with a smile. "Nah. I'll...be...fine. Just...one more thing...gone wrong."
The maid assisted her to her feet, and Mulan lay back on her bed, still holding one end of the scarf. There was no avoiding it; she would be late.
Well, she thought wryly, at least I know how to tie a noose.
She hoped the Emperor would understand.
I hope this installment is up to snuff. Let me know what you think!