By the time the sun slipped toward the horizon and the clouds were alight with fire, Mulan had removed the screaming tea kettle from it's perch, although the food was still laid out on the table, growing colder by the moment.
Just hours ago, she had only feared some slip of the tongue over noodles or embarrassment on behalf of her dysfunctional family. She could not have foreseen anything as gruesome as what had come to pass.
For the first couple hours, Mulan sat at the table, her face buried in her hands. There was an ornately-decorate porcelain tray before her, reserved for special events or guests, covered with carefully prepared rice cakes, but she dared not touch them. She couldn't think of digesting anything. She had heard of delicate women with tiny waists suffering from complete lack of appetite, but she had never, before today, experienced anything of the sort. Her family, after witnessing the spectacle between her and Shang, had politely left the room without tasting a single morsel. And so, the meal went uneaten.
When they were alone, they had, at long last, discussed the events leading to Mulan's deception. Shang had circled the room uneasily, taking in everything she had to offer and rubbing the bridge of his nose to try to ease some of the tension building inside of him. He had listened intently and absorbed everything, and when she was through, told her, in a calm voice devoid of emotion, that what he wanted was to be alone. He needed to take a walk. To think. To clear his head. He promised he would come back.
The uncertainty of waiting for his return was more profound than any she had ever known. It was more stressful than waiting for the Matchmaker, and more fearsome than waiting for the Huns at the mountain pass.
As desperately as she wanted to see Shang again, there was a part of her that had become quiet and settled, and refused to seek him out. There was also no desire to cry. Mulan was stronger than that, and although she could not deny the feelings she had developed for the Captain over the last few months, she knew that his heart was never a possession of hers in the first place. She could not lose something she never had.
The sky darkened overhead as Mulan curled up in the protective cradle of the dragon statue in the garden, where she often sat to be comforted. Spring magnolia petals drifted listlessly in the wind, turning scarlet in the sun's last rays.
Since she had become Ping, every minute of her life had been consumed by a lurking paranoia that she may somehow betray her identity and be executed for it. At last, having revealed herself to her superior officer, and proving her worth to him, Mulan was content. Even if he never came back, even if he hated her to the depths of his very soul, she felt honorable.
The dancing blossom trees rustled in the fresh night air and new darkness invigorated Mulan's senses. Inside, the light in her parents' bedroom extinguished itself. Nearby, pond water lapped at the sleeping reeds and crickets chirped. From the back of the courtyard, near the gate, a man entered. Shang had kept his promise.
He approached Mulan where she sat, dark gaze fixated on the violet line of twilight. For a while, neither of them spoke. She brought herself upright, unwrapping her arms from around her bent knees, and sitting up straight. The noises her silks made seemed exceptionally loud in the silent garden. The man whose respect Mulan wanted to win most watched her movements with steady eyes, but perhaps it was painful for him to do so, for he quickly averted them.
"Mulan-" he began, just as she spoke: "I am truly sor-"
"Please. Don't be sorry."
"What?" Her heart, her spirits, and her soul, all swelled upward, as if lifted by a summer breeze.
"I understand," he continued, his voice low and wary. "I understand… why you lied about who you were… who you are. In a way, I believe it was actually quite brave."
He glanced up and flashed her a brief smile. The shadows of the night only served to enhance his strong, noble features, but left his emotions shrouded in mystery.
"Crazy, but brave."
"You do?" Mulan near-whispered, stepping off of her seat and moving towards him cautiously, the sound of fine fabric brushing against rough stone filling her ears. The shadows on his face were making her nervous, for she wanted nothing more than to read his expression and fully show him her true self.
"Yes," he said. A sigh escaped his parted lips and he ran a hand over his hair, which was neatly tucked back and tied with a leather ribbon. "I suppose I always knew you were… different from them. Less masculine, but more than determined enough to make up for it. And that's… "
He trailed off, and Mulan noticed the odd gleam in his eye.
"That's what made me want to have you."
A light wind blew between them then, carrying his words into the night, surely delivering them to some higher power that must have a need to know of the Captain's confession of sin. A noise unlike any she had ever elicited, a mix of a gasp and a quiet wail, escaped Mulan's throat, and she found herself unable to speak.
The Captain wanted her. No, not her; Ping. The Captain had wanted Ping, the soldier. Not Mulan, the woman.
"I've been walking for hours, asking myself, if you had told me from the start that you were a woman, and not a soldier, would I still have fallen in love with you? Or would I have turned you away, or exiled you, or had you beheaded for treason without a care?"
Shang moved in closer to Mulan, whose breath was now coming in shaky bursts. Tears brimmed and threatened to spill over; the young woman had unknowingly used up her reserves of resolve in the hours her love had been gone, and now the urge to cry was taking over. He brought his face up, the natural light of the full moon above them illuminating his features, so that his eyes were cast directly at her. She saw there, in his handsome face, not hatred, nor hurt, nor anger; but forgiveness. And Mulan sagged in his embrace as he finally closed the space between them and took her up in his arms, wrapping them around her tightly.
"I think I would have, Mulan," he breathed into her hair, kissing the top of her head. She cried into his chest and slinked her arms under his, clenching his shoulders with her delicate fingers. "I would have loved you no matter what."
She wanted to say something back, something just as beautiful and reassuring as what he'd said, but she was sobbing and smothering her cries with his body. Even if she hadn't been, there was no possible way words could have expressed the magnitude of her feelings. The hours of waiting that had been the most miserable of her life felt like a nightmare she had woken up from years ago.
When they separated, and Mulan was tired, drained of any and all grief or regret, relief washed over her like a tidal wave of serenity. She sniffled once or twice and reached for the Captain's hands, which enveloped her small palms warmly in their strength. He kissed her forehead and rested his own against it, sighing.
"I wish you had told me in the beginning. Or at least when we had gotten to know each other." They both chuckled. His hands gripped hers, and squeezed. Shang sighed again and planted kisses on Mulan's face and neck, muttering her name over and over as she lost herself in him.