Saying goodbye was hard.
Mulan had never done it before. Last time, she had just up and left, leaving nothing but a token of her love for them behind. She hadn't even left a note. She knew they would understand what had happened when they discovered the armor and horse missing. It had been necessary then. Her family would never have allowed her to go. Of course, they weren't too willing this time around, but no one could defy the emperor.
And so Mulan had discovered that saying goodbye was hard.
Her mother had been the worst. Both her father and grandma had understood, had remained stoic and calm, if only for her sake. Her mother had sobbed. It was heart wrenching to see.
But of course, she had had to go, and she had only had a minute to spare them, the people who had raised her. Her father had placed the comb in her hair. She left it there, not willing to take it out.
Silence had fallen over the party, and Mulan could feel the waves of tension rolling off the people behind her. They were anxious, nervous to be in her presence, escorting her as they were. It seemed ironic. Here she was, perfectly able to take care of herself, and she was protected by men who probably had less training than her-she knew they had less intensive training, unless theirs was also instructed by Shang.
Mulan knew why the emperor had sent them. As a woman, and a guest to his palace, she needed to be given a warm welcome, preferably by men armed to the teeth and riding impressively built white stallions. She just wondered why the emperor had chosen to take so many. It wasn't like she couldn't have made the journey alone (and she had before, when she had left the imperial palace), but more than that, she had a general with her! Did the emperor really think she would get into that much trouble?
On second thought, maybe she didn't want an answer to that.
Speaking of generals…
Shang had been cold towards her so far. She understood why of course. He was a general, and he had troops with him. Expressing any affection or favoritism towards anyone, especially Mulan, was bound to do more harm than good. Besides, a man and woman were not supposed to touch in any way before marriage, and though she and Shang had already broken that rule a few times, there was no need for anyone else to know that.
Mulan just hoped she got the chance to talk to him alone soon.
After an hour of riding, Shang had finally broken the icy silence and started asking Mulan questions about her health and so on. He didn't ask anything personal, and she didn't offer. Their conversation would have been very normal for two comrades who hadn't seen each other in a while, though it had only been about a month. The relationship that she and Shang presented to the outside world, and especially in front of soldiers, should be nothing but professional. After all, everything was an act for them. Mulan could do nothing that could give her a bad reputation. It would spread like wildfire.
Yes, Mulan would be under constant scrutiny for a while now. Hopefully, if she gained her comrade's trust, she would be able to loosen up, but she also knew that there would be those who would wait for her to fail until the day she died.
When dusk finally fell, they had made excellent time. They had covered almost a full day's ride in half the time, and Shang was pleased. There was a large clearing where they had decided to set up camp.
After the horses had been tended to, a fire built, and tents pitched, the entire company sat around the campfire in silence. Unsurprisingly, as soon as dinner had been finished, every person left, save Mulan and Shang.
After a few minutes of staring at each other over the fire, both grinning madly, Shang came to sit next to Mulan. Most likely the other soldiers would have better things to do than spy on their general and the savior of all China. Like sleep.
"Well they sure left in a hurry," Mulan said quietly. Of course, she knew why. This trip had been awkward at best so far, and the campfire had been no different.
"Don't worry about them. I'm sure they'll warm up to you eventually."
She shook her head, "It's possible, but unless I single-handedly save all of China again, and this time right in front of their noses, I highly doubt that I will be redeemed in their eyes."
Shang laughed a little, but both knew that the comment was too true to really be taken as a joke. Something changed in his eyes, and she saw sympathy practically pour out of him. "I'm sorry you have to endure it."
Mulan smiled at him and made a dismissive gesture, "It's not your fault Shang. I'm sure you've done everything in your power to make them treat me well. I thank you for that."
He smiled a little, but it didn't reach his eyes.
Speaking of which, his eyes, which had been cold and detached all day, were now warm and full of life. He looked happier than he had all day.
"Your hair is longer," he said suddenly.
She nodded. Her hair grew very fast, and it was already almost back to its original length. "Yes, I prefer it to be longer, but I should probably cut it now that I'm back in the army."
Shang shook his head. "No, keep it. It suits you."
She sighed, "Maybe, but if I'm going to be in the army, then I can't have hair in my face."
The general looked at her dubiously, "I'm sure there must be some way of tying it back so it can't get in your way."
She shrugged, "Probably."
Suddenly, Shang reached out towards her hair. She raised her eyebrows. It wasn't like they hadn't ever been this close before, but the mood had definitely not been…quite so intimate, and frankly, she didn't want any curious eyes peering at them through their tents. This would look highly suspicious. Rumors of their romantic relationship would start, and she really didn't need that.
"Shang…" She said in warning. He stopped immediately.
"What?" He asked, and then seemed to realize what he was doing. "Oh. Sorry, I was reaching for your pins."
She looked up, as if she could see the pins that she knew resided there. She took them out and handed them to Shang.
"Be careful with those. They're the only ones I brought with me. Can't be seeing the emperor without some semblance of feminine attire, you know."
He laughed, "Don't worry; I'm known to have pretty good hand-eye coordination."
She laughed a little. "Really now?"
He laughed too, "Oh yes, best in my squad."
She grinned, "Second best, you mean. I hear that young man Ping is quite something."
He grinned back, and for a moment all they could do was stare at each other before breaking out into a fit of quiet laughter.
After a minute or two, their episode passed, Shang still fingering the carved pins gently.
"There was a reason for this, you know."
She smiled at him. "And what might that be?"
He seemed to grow a little more serious, though the mirth stayed in his eyes.
"I thought you could use it to hold your hair back somehow. If you braided it, and held it back with your pins, you wouldn't have to cut it."
Another grin spread across her face, and she suddenly wished that she wasn't sitting in the middle of a camp full of very possible eavesdroppers and spies. Mulan very much wanted to hug him.
"Thank you, Shang."
He looked utterly surprised, and more than a little confused, "For what?"
She lowered her voice a little. Her next words were too private for others to hear, "For thinking of me."
He looked a little surprised but smiled nonetheless. "Of course."
If they had been anywhere else, Mulan knew they would be kissing right now.
This moment had to break. Otherwise neither of them would be able to control themselves. She could already see Shang cracking.
She sat up and away from him. "But I don't think I'll be able to wear them in battle. It would fall off too easily."
Shang looked surprised, "Really?"
Mulan almost laughed again, but instead said gently, "They do not expect the wearer to be doing martial arts when making these things. It is a fairly feminine token."
Shang blushed a little, from what she could only assume was sheepishness or embarrassment. "Oh, right."
"The braid is a nice idea though. I might try it."
The general nodded, apparently glad to be of some use. Suddenly he looked very uncomfortable.
Sensing the change in atmosphere, she glanced at Shang. His dark gaze had always been intense, but lately they had also contained the compassion and kindness that Mulan knew he always had. "Mulan, you do know that I can't behave normally to you in front of the other soldiers, right? You know why?"
She nodded vigorously, "Yes, of course. I must do the same. It would be wrong for us to be caught together. It would make all of the prejudices against me worsen, and you might also loose the respect of your soldiers. Neither would be very good for us."
Shang looked appeased, but a dark look crossed his face, "It is wrong to have to hide our relationship. There is nothing wrong with it."
Mulan sighed, "No, absolutely nothing." Shang visibly relaxed at this, which is why she couldn't resist tacking on the last bit. "Except for the fact that I am a very unconventional woman, and you a highly respected man, and our relationship has already crossed several traditional boundaries. Other than that though, we're golden."
He stared at her a moment before bursting out into laughter. "Is that all?"
She grinned at him, happy that she was able to lift the mood a little. It was hard being the comedian.
Speaking of which…
"Hey, where's Ling, Yao and Chien-Po? I would have thought they would escort me."
Shang sighed, "Oh they wanted to. In fact they begged the emperor to let them, but he refused. All of these men are hand-picked by the emperor for this task."
Mulan nodded, the seriousness of that statement weighing on her, "That is a great honor."
Shang nodded too. "Yes. Though I don't know why he chose so many."
"I was wondering the same," Mulan muttered, "I hope the boys didn't take it personally. Where are they now then?"
He bobbed his head in an acknowledging gesture. "Don't worry, they didn't. Those three will be back at camp soon after we get there."
Mulan perked up. She hadn't heard anything pertaining to what was going on. All she had were guesses. "So you know what's happening then?"
Shang looked very much like he wished he hadn't said anything. "I…suppose…"
Mulan wasn't about to let this opportunity slide. She needed to know what was going on. "Tell me!"
He looked at her apologetically, and before the words even came out of his mouth, she knew what he was going to say. "I can't Mulan. It's against orders. The emperor wanted to tell you himself."
She sighed, but was resigned to fate. She wasn't going to make Shang chose between her and his duty. She knew Shang would eventually choose to tell her, but she also knew that Shang would drive himself mad with guilt if he disobeyed a direct order.
And she wasn't going to let Shang get in trouble with the emperor. He only got his promotion a few months ago, and she was not going to let him risk it for her sake.
Shang suddenly stood. "I'm taking first watch," he declared, "Get some sleep. We've got a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Mulan winced. He was right. Not only were they almost a week away from the Imperial City, but they had to ride with their silent and extremely prejudice entourage.
She stood as well and walked over to her tent. Her pitching skills had improved somewhat since her first days in the Wu Zhong camp, and it was closer to Shang's, though a little ways out of the circle of tents. Now that they all knew she was female, she would have to be on guard, and if any offenders wanted to get near her, they would have to come in front of Shang's tent as well, not to mention the night watchman.
Unless it was the night watchman.
Mulan shivered at the thought. It didn't matter. She had a knife that she had taken to sleeping with at Wu Zhong in case something like this ever happened, and found that she never relaxed enough to go to sleep when she didn't have it with her.
As soon as she entered, Mulan shrugged off the top half of her robes and pulled on a night shirt. She did not light a candle. Her shadow would be far too revealing to anyone outside the tent to be comfortable or appropriate.
Mulan lay back on her sleeping mat, content for the moment. The latches on her tent were impossible to open from the outside without a knife, she had one under her pillow, and if worst came to worst, Shang was only a few yards away. That alone made her feel safer.
But it was very quiet.
She did not like quiet. It reminded her too much of the epitome of womanhood, which she would never be. She was not feminine enough.
Last time she had never been truly alone. Mushu had resided in her tent, or in her collar, and that little cricket. The guardian had kept up a constant stream of chatter in her ear and kept her spirits up. And her tent had never been quiet.
But Mushu wasn't here this time.
It wasn't that she had no need for a guardian. Ancestors knew she did now more than ever. She had simply told Mushu, under no uncertain circumstances, that this journey had to be undertaken as a solo mission.
He hadn't liked it, but he had agreed.
So Mulan was on her own.
And it was too quiet.
She was just about to go ask Shang if she could do a watch rotation when she heard a low whicker outside her tent. Khan had always had a very distinctive whinny. And he had impeccable timing.
It wasn't quite so quiet anymore.
Mulan rolled over and slept.
a/n-Two in one day! I'm proud of myself. Anyways, same song different verse. I like this version better than the original, blah blah blah...hope you enjoyed it, blah blah blah...
anyways, read and review!