The doctor had informed Shang of something that caused the noble blood to freeze in his veins.
The Captain threw back the entrance to the tent and stepped inside. Ping, the soldier who had saved his life, lay wounded before him. A woman could never have displayed such bravery.
Shang would never have kept such respect for a woman.
As though aware of his superior officer's presence, Ping stirred. His eyes opened slowly and shifted to lie on the standing Captain. He smiled, and sat up to greet him, to show him that he was healing just fine, letting the blanket slip away from his chest to reveal a couple of bandaged mounds. Shang's eyes widened and his breath caught in his lungs.
Two, wrapped, beautiful lumps of flesh protruded from Ping's front, lumps that a man should not have as part of his anatomy, unless he was overweight or cancerous; Ping was neither.
"I can explain," Ping- no, not Ping- the woman pleaded in a sickly sweet soprano as she scrambled to cover herself. An anger bubbled up in Shang and he found his voice at last.
"Explain what?" he shouted furiously. His heart was beating like the thousand footsteps of soldiers raging into battle. The Captain sighed and pressed a hand to his eyes, weakening. "All this time, I… "
He looked up to see the woman watching him intently, guilt and hurt plastered on her face. It infuriated him. The way he had felt for Ping…
Shang lunged at her suddenly, and she braced herself for impact by tensing her shoulders and averting her face. He landed atop her trembling frame, holding her down with his full weight. She squeaked and squirmed beneath him, her breath coming in short, fearful, gasps. Forcing down the blanket she clutched to her chest, the Captain hastily enveloped one of her covered breasts with his hand, desperate to know whether or not she was real.
Despite the layers of cloth between them, he felt the former soldier shiver at his touch. Swallowing hard, Shang carefully moved his palm to hold her other breast, his free hand still wrapped in the woman's hair to keep her still. Slowly, he tightened his grasp and moved his fingers in circles. Mulan locked eyes with the top of his head and dared not to move or make a sound.
"All this time," the Captain started again in a calmer tone. His hands stopped their ministrations of her chest and she almost whimpered at the loss. "I thought something was wrong with me."
He looked up to her and Mulan's soul withered to see such confused and sad eyes.
"I would catch myself looking at you… I kept asking myself, why do I feel for this soldier the way I should feel for a woman?"
Shang's eyes flickered, and his expression fell.
"The day we were called to the front, I had this thought- 'Even if I could just be by his side, that would be nice. Then I wouldn't have anything more to wish for. I could die and be at peace.'"
Water brimmed and threatened to spill from her eyes. She had caused him such a pain that she never knew. Mulan brought a tender hand up to cup his cheek. He leaned into it, gratefully, and rested his forehead against hers, his body shaking with the effort of holding back tears as he came to terms with his sexuality. A thin sheen of perspiration formed around his hairline and Mulan lovingly wiped it away with her blanket while she held the quaking Captain.
She wanted to kiss him, to close the distance between them and press her mouth to his, to feel embraced in his radiating warmth. She wanted to fix this. Her fingertips tenderly brushed his lips and she felt his body slacken slightly.
Mulan was bold, but not bold enough to advance on her superior officer. Her hand fell listlessly to her side.
With his left hand still cradling the back of the woman's head, Shang's right hand came up to loosen the hair tie and allow her hair to fall in a thick, raven-black waterfall over her pale shoulders.
"Your hair," he murmured, fingering the short, frayed ends of black locks, evidently cut by a dull blade. "Your hair must've been beautiful."
"It'll grow back," the young woman whispered. She closed her eyes in bliss as the Captain's knuckles brushed her cheek, only focusing on controlling her breathing.
As they lay there, Shang's anger threatened to surge forth again, and his hand slid down from her cheek to her wound, his fingers pausing there, as if remembering his debt. He then continued further south, briefly placing his hand between her legs.
Mulan inhaled sharply and subtly shifted into his touch. Feeling her respond, Shang pressed his hand into her, cupping her womanhood in his palm.
This was his reality; the soldier he had wanted to marry but never could, the soldier he had wanted to bed but would be dishonored, was a woman.
Silence passed between them, and the Captain pulled away from the woman.
Mulan realized for the first time how cold the tent full of mountain air really was.
His eyes glistened as he spoke; "Why did you do it?"
Before the woman could answer, they were interrupted by the Emperor's advisor, who barged into the tent.
"So it's true!" he gasped in disbelief. Mulan looked to Shang for help, but he turned away and left her. If her heart wasn't suffocating yet, by that single act, it was absolutely asphyxiated now. The advisor, surprisingly strong for being such a scrawny man, grabbed Mulan by the upper arm and yanked her out of the tent, forcing her into the eyes of her comrades. The men who's respect she needed most.
"I knew something was wrong with you!" he shouted as he shook her hair and blanket from her. "A woman!"
On the last syllable, he threw the half-naked woman into the snow. Shang's heart fell into the pit of his stomach at the sight. He wanted so desperately to pick her up, to hold her tight and protect her, and forgive her, and kiss her and make her his. But he didn't dare. His honor would not allow him.
"Treacherous snake!" the Emperor's consul spat.
"My name is Mulan," she countered with dignity before turning to the Captain to answer his question, her hazel eyes dark with pleading for him to understand. "I did it to save my father."
"I didn't mean for it to go this far!"
"It was the only way!"
Shang averted his gaze as Chi-Fu spat in Mulan's face and kicked her before waltzing over to him. How he wanted to hurt him. But he clenched his fists instead.
"Please, believe me!" she panted.
Without a word, Shang drew Mulan's sword from its sheath on her horse. It kicked back and up and began braying wildly; Chi-Fu ordered the men to restrain it, and when they made gasps of protest as the Captain descended on the dishonored soldier, he smugly informed them of the law.
Captain Li Shang raised the blade above Fa Mulan's neck, who, with a look of defeat, lowered her head for death. This was it. He could get his revenge for the months of pain and suffering; he could reclaim the honor lost for his frustrating, impure thoughts.
He thought briefly of their first and last minutes together in the tent; of her eyes, her face, her hair, her neck, her chest, her body… her wound. And he could not bring himself to kill her.
The sword landed in the snow beside Mulan with a dull, metallic thud.
When she turned her eyes up to him for an explanation, he moved away from her and spoke, coldly, over his shoulder; "A life for a life; my debt is repaid."
He ordered the shoulders to move out. The tent was taken down and Mulan's clothes and things were thrown at her. Shang didn't look back once.
As the Captain rode away from the site, and his undying love for Mulan crept into his heart and soul, planting seeds of guilt and betrayal, he chided himself for thinking such things, reminding himself that he wasn't leaving behind Ping, the soldier who made his heart beat faster, but a strange woman who had broken his heart and torn him in two.