characters aren't mine. story is. sorry it's taken so long. i think i might be back on track.

~

Playing. Her hair falling out of the tight tail she kept it in, framing a face too delicate to be a soldier's. A face flushed and glowing and pink with the cold and laughter. So soft and female that he stood, just watching, wondering how the children chasing her around didn't themselves wonder at the absolute woman running around in men's clothes. Suspect somehow. But then he hadn't. 20/20 hindsight right. Amazed, only now, at not noticing the sweep of her eyebrows, the curve of her mouth, the strength, obstinance and vulnerable yearning mixing in her eyes. Her eyes. Clouded now and troubled, her frame weighted and still where it had just minutes before moved supple, lithe, light. Because she'd seen him.

"I've been looking everywhere for you," the anger inexplicably weaving its way into his voice.

Anger at her happiness, at the way she, after everything, can play with children and not have it feel wrong, unnatural. Angry at the feelings warring in his chest, the thoughts chasing each other around in his head, the way nothing sits right since he's seen her. Angry that he can do that to those eyes.

And he felt his mouth moving, lips parting again almost irrevocable, and anticipated the sarcastic scorn spilling over, hated himself for it, but needed to say it anyway.

Except then something slammed into his chest, white, cold, exploding and his tirade abruptly ended. Shang looked down, disbelief in stark relief against his beautiful face.

And watched another snowball burst just below the first one.

He looked up then, anger and incredulous hilarity battling behind his eyes. Mulan stood frozen, both hands snow-filled, waiting for him to react. Trying to swallow the hysterical, gut-wrenching laughter that bubbled in her throat. Giving in, ridiculously happy, as a snowball erupted against her arm.

They fought for hours, Shang laughing and light, Mulan finding the familiar, settled weight on her heart strangely absent. Covered in snow, they finally collapsed into it. The kids swept angel shapes into the white and Mulan and Shang helped with snowpeople, smoothing out rough edges, etching in corners or mouths and wings.

"What are you working on?"

Mulan knelt by the little boy studiously manipulating his own elusive snow creation. He looked up at her for half a second before focusing once more on the task at hand. Carving in scales with his mittened hands it was a while before he answered, concentrating on getting it perfect. She was content to watch. And to wait.

"It's a guardian. A dragon for my baba. To keep him company and keep him safe because my mama says he's with the ancestors now, but I don't know if he knows any of them. Or if they're nice."

Understanding dawned and the light forgetfulness of the morning slid away under Mulan's feet. She saw Shang's sudden stop, heard a little girl's whine at him to keep going, felt him try. Shifting she helped her small friend finish his tribute, kissed him softly on the crown of his ebony head and sent them all home.

"Shang..."

"You shouldn't have been here. Don't you realize how dangerous this is? If any of the villagers suspected..."

She looked away. Watched the children run back to their houses hair, laughter trailing behind them in the wind. Brushed the snow off her pants and waited for them to disappear before she quietly turned back to him.

"Actually, after my close call with decapitation I think I'm pretty aware of the dangers of the situation."

It was all back. He'd felt it leave him, let it leave him. But it was back, and his mouth lifted, inevitable, into a sneer. He laughed, an ugly sound wrenched from his throat and flung at her.

"I'm sorry, what is that? A sob story from the girl who wanted to be a man?"

Her eyes suddenly burned rage and something that looked a lot like hatred.

"This has never been about that. YOU'RE a man, Shang. There is nothing in you to recommend the sex."

Mulan watched his jaw clench. She saw anger in his eyes, but would not flinch, because really, fuck it.

"WHY then?" he yelled, suddenly. "Why do this?"

"To save my father's LIFE. To stop him from having to sacrifice himself so needlessly! He was an old man, Shang. He could not... he couldn't have survived. God, he couldn't even walk..."

"Did he ASK you to do this for him? Would he have accepted his daughter's life in place of his own?"

"Would any man ASK for the help he so desperately needed??!! Would YOU? As though to admit to feelings is some great crime. Sacrilege. Or dishonour!!"

"You had no RIGHT..."

"I had EVERY RIGHT!! It's MY LIFE!!"

"That's right. Your life. Only yours, you're accountable to NO ONE. Because you have no father, no mother worried out of her MIND because a daughter taken with madness decides to up and join the army one night."

Mulan stared at him, hating the words he threw at her, hating the images he invoked, the secret fears. Her eyes shone with tears and a fierce rejection.

"And did you do it for your father, Mulan? Is that really why you came here, why you've made such a spectacle of yourself? For your father, I suppose. For the honour of the Fa family. It had nothing at all to do with your proving yourself to the world, with the fact that Fa Mulan is a great woman, above all things domestic, far better than the hearth and home..."

"Stop it."

The words came out whispered, fearful. Shang found he couldn't do anything but stop at the pain they so thinly cloaked.

"I did what I thought was RIGHT. I didn't want to lose him. And, yes ... I was mad at him. ANGRY, because we meant so little held up against his PRIDE, his honour. My mother wept at night for him, and it meant NOTHING. He would still go. Well, I stopped it. I made it so that he couldn't.

"And if I've proved myself along the way, if maybe I was hoping I could do that all along, then FINE. So WHAT? I've waited long enough for the chance."

Mulan fought desperately the tears that pushed at her lashes. Shang fought desperately both the urge to envelope her in his arms and drink her sadness and a need to hurt her, to drive her away. His eyes always unreadable, he watched her continue.

"You don't think I TRIED before?" she breathed. "All that hearth and home bullshit, I've TRIED. I WENT to the goddamn matchmaker, subjected myself to the scrutiny of a harsh, ugly and unkind woman, to the humility of her inevitable rejection. How many times do I need to hear I'm worthless before I start believing it? I HAD to do this. I had to."

Shang stared. At the drops that coursed down her face. She wouldn't look away. She brushed the hair out of her face, her eyes challenged him.

"And I cannot apologize any more."

Her eyes left his as she reached for Kahn's neck and pulled herself onto his back. Shang stood in silence, lost and inept in the emotions that rolled across the landscape and along the ground where she had just a moment ago stood.

"Mu-.."

The name was almost past his lips before he even realized what he was saying. He tried to yell 'Ping' after her, but found somehow he couldn't. And by the time he got to his own horse, she was gone.