A soldier's life is not a particularly glamorous one, despite all of the ballads hailing soldiers as heroes. Bathing was sporadic, washing clothes rare, and the simple task of fetching clean socks seemed too difficult for most of the recruits at the Wu Zhong camp. Mulan couldn't truly pinpoint the last time she had felt clean, and be certain of telling the truth. The snow had helped the little matter of stench immensely, but then frostbite was a real concern. Few of the recruits had properly quilted stockings, and Captain Li kept a very tight watch on any fires that might have been started. Altogether a situation not to write home about.
The first thing Mulan had done when she had the time was take a proper bath. She soaked in the water so long that the heated water had become nearly ice cold, and her skin had shriveled into prunes. The bathwater that remained in the tub after China's hero emerged swirled with dirt, grime, sweat, and other things that it was better not to think about. Blood, probably. Mulan had seen a lot of blood during her masquerade as a soldier. Her shoulder-length hair hung limply until Fa Li took pity on her daughter, and combed magnolia oil through the jet-black locks so that they dried with a glossy shine.
Beneath the hard leather armor, soldiers wore coarse cotton clothing that was prone to chafing sensitive skin. That wasn't a problem for thick-skinned men, but for Mulan whose wardrobe consisted of mostly silk, it hurt. There wasn't a patch of skin that wasn't rough and calloused now, though it looked smooth enough. Thick, scented balm rubbed into damp skin will give that illusion, not to mention a light coating of a fragrant oil.
Familiar with the coarse cloth of her training clothes, Mulan settled into the old comfort of her light silk ruqun like a feline settling into an old, comfortable bed. For her first night home, she wore a light pink blouse with dark pink huling tucked into a white skirt with a nearly-magenta waist skirt. It was a great favorite, and had the added benefit of perfectly complementing the magnolia blossoms that decorated the inner courtyard.
It was odd to think things like that. In camp, the only thing anyone had been interested in was when the next meal was, when they might get some time off, and what new tortures Captain Li might invent. Nobody thought in terms of complements, or flowers. The most beautiful thing in camp had been Ling's occasional shiners, though that was beautiful only in light of how the other men treated it.
"What a beauty, Ling!"
Why it was considered beautiful had escaped Mulan for months, until she gained one of her own. Carrying such a badge of combat was honorable, and showed the world that you were tough. Losing teeth, on the other hand, just showed that you didn't know how to duck, or were clumsy enough to put your mouth in the way of your opponent's fist.
Fa Li's gentle voice carried through the whispering wind to catch at the ear of China's hero. Mulan turned her attention back to the task at hand, which was preparing for dinner. Grandmother had pointed out that Mulan was still not betrothed, and that there was an eligible young man coming to dinner tonight. For that, Mulan once more underwent the white face paint, pink eye color, and red lip markings. The makeup was toned down from full matchmaker regalia, but her face still felt heavy and stiff from the unfamiliar layers.
Her mother had tutted over the distressingly inadequate length of her hair. The perfect length to tie into a chonmage was less than perfect for just about any other hair style. Fa Li finally twisted the shoulder-length locks into a braid, and tucked a few fully bloomed magnolia blossoms to hide the shortened hair.
Surveying herself in the mirror, Mulan came to a conclusion. Actually, she came to several conclusions, all of which were colored by her time in the army.
First; she looked like a flower. From her pink ruqun to the flowers in her hair, she now resembled one large magnolia blossom. Not that there was anything inherently wrong with looking like a flower, in fact many girls strove for this. She just looked...well, like the last thing you would expect to find in an army camp. Maybe that was the idea.
Secondly, this was ridiculous. Mulan was the only girl in China with the training, imagination, and willpower to take out the Hun army, and she was wearing a...dress. A feminine, weak, pretty dress. What was the point of her masquerade if she was stuffed back into a woman's role?
At least she had escaped the newest fad that seemed to plague young girls. Someone had gotten the idea to bind their feet so that they could not walk properly. If that had started when Mulan was a younger girl, there would have been no way she could have joined the army. She would have been confined to tiny steps, and probably married to a bufflebrained man with pretty little bufflebrained children. Although, what was stopping that now? Dressed as she was, she would probably be married off to some man of good standing, but poor conversation.
Last, Shang was going to laugh. Even if no one else could see it, Mulan would know that her commanding officer thought that she was funny looking. After all, he would see Ping in a dress. What else could he think? Not only Ping in a dress, but Ping in a dress and made up like a porcelain doll. How mortifying!
Dinner was stressful. Mulan found it difficult to speak as freely as she was accustomed to, as Captain Li couldn't keep his eyes off of her. Far from the thinly veiled humor she had anticipated, there was something resembling...awe? No, she had to be misinterpreting that flash of interest that lit up his solemn eyes. And Grandmother wasn't really whispering to Baba and shooting looks at the captain, was she?
All in all, it was a very atypical family dinner in the Fa household. Fa Zhou spoke avidly with Captain Li while Mulan stared into her teacup and thanked her ancestors that the white face paint masked her blush. The outspoken young woman said hardly a handful of words throughout dinner, which brought more than a few odd looks from her dinner companions.
Once dinner was over, a traditional young woman would have invited the guest to another room, and poured tea while her father spoke with his friend. Traditional, however, no longer had a place in the Fa household. Mulan excused herself from the table, and went out to the stable.
Khan, at least, was always happy to see her. Mulan used her sleeve to wipe off the majority of her makeup, and bridled her stallion. Most young ladies would never think to ride astride in a ruqun, but then again, most young ladies would never think to ride at all. Mulan kitted up her skirt to free her legs, and mounted Khan without the aid of a saddle.
Five miles away, fireworks were being shot into the air in celebration of China's victory over the Huns. Two miles away, there was a raised hill with a perfect view of said fireworks. Mulan didn't consciously point Khan towards that perfect lookout, or perhaps he took that direction himself. In either case, that's where they wound up being.
Khan settled himself to the ground, and nickered to his girl to come join him. Mulan did so, curling into the warmth of her horse. The sky was perfectly dark, except for the bright flashes of color from the fireworks. They were beautiful. It was very...calming, yes, calming, to watch the sky light up with colored eruptions.
As she watched them, Mulan felt herself relaxing in ways she hadn't allowed herself to relax since, well, probably since before her disastrous visit to the matchmaker. The ancestors might not have been watching over her as she set the woman on fire and completely botched any chance she might once have had to make a good marriage and finally bring honor to her family, but they were watching her now.
It was on that hill, curled up next to Khan, that Mulan let herself relax into a deep, uncaring, dreamless slumber. The black stud nickered gently, and used his teeth to transfer his saddle blanket from his back to cover her. His girl needed to be taken care of, and he was just the horse to do it.
chonmage - topknot
huling – the differently colored hems
ruqun – traditional Chinese informal wear for women
Authoress' Corner – This was started after an April trip to Walt Disney World with my best friend. We stayed for the fireworks, and they were so beautiful, I wanted to watch them forever! Originally, I meant for this to be a lovely little Mulan and Shang piece, where Shang finds Mulan on the hill and they do some deep talking. But as I was writing it, it evolved into what you see above. And the bit with Khan? Well, just chalk that up to a love of the dynamic between a girl and her horse.