Notes: I wanted to spread the Sleeping Warrior love, so I figured I ought to post this here as well! I posted it in two parts on Tumblr, but I put it all together here as a long one-shot.
This was written before the last couple of episodes aired, so it may be a bit AU in parts.
You told me 32 ways to make you smile
Did 31 within the first hour
(32 Ways to Make You Smile by Backseat Goodbye)
The first time Mulan smiles, Aurora is completely taken aback.
There's something about the warrior that makes the action almost shocking—something about the sharp planes of her face, the dark and focused eyes, the severe hairstyle and dress. But either in spite of or because of this (Aurora isn't sure which) the smile is absolutely, unequivocally beautiful— like the single wild flower in a desolate field. The smile is short and strained and given in the middle of a derelict nursery, of all places, but it is beautiful.
And it is then that Aurora decides she will make such an expression appears on her companion's face as often as possible. It's the least she can do, after all; compared to Mulan and Snow White (and even the woman's strange daughter) she is not much of a fighter. She had grown up near the woods, of course, so she is not helpless, but after twenty-eight years spent asleep (not to mention a land-ravaging curse), the land has changed to an unfamiliar and barren place. She's not much of a cook (especially when their ingredients are limited to plants, nuts, and the occasional non-poisonous berry) or fire-starter; not a particularly adept scout or survivalist. And maybe she's lost a bit of her charm and kindness with all that's happened to her since (finally) awakening.
But she figures if she can make Mulan smile, then perhaps she's doing something to help the woman who has so suddenly become her only friend (and greatest champion) in this new and unfamiliar world.
It's not exactly the easiest task she's undertaken, she comes to find.
Smile number two comes about nearly a week later. That's not surprising, seeing as things have been pure insanity since discovering the leader of Mulan's band of survivors had, in fact, been Queen Regina's mother (who, according to Snow White, made the 'Evil Queen' herself look almost innocent). So it's not the best of circumstances for drawing a smile forth, especially from the overly serious warrior.
Aurora tries, of course. She's just not successful. Not on purpose, at least.
Because the second smile that Aurora witnesses on Mulan's lips is when the normally graceful princess tips over (a very inconsiderately placed) coil of rope, and face plants onto the very hard, very unforgiving ground.
She misses the beginning of it (her face being quite firmly in the dirt), but at the sound of a snort of laughter, Aurora jerks her head upwards and catches the tail end; it's not exactly a smirk, but it's a bit more smug that she would have liked—there are no teeth, and it looks like Mulan is attempting to hold it in, but it's a smile, nevertheless.
Aurora isn't sure whether it's due to the smile itself, or the way Mulan (smile now banished) helps her up from the ground and (in a gesture seemingly surprising to the both of them) brushes a bit of dirt from the princess' face, but she finds that she doesn't so much mind the bit of humiliation, or the slight throb in her knees.
Mulan smiles for the third time when Aurora trips over a root.
The princess may or may not have done it on purpose.
"I think I require new attire," Aurora says, late one night as she presses her hands as close to the fire as she dares.
"I think you are right," Mulan says, a slight tilt to her lips that Aurora counts as smile number four. "We shall find you some trousers and a winter coat tomorrow."
Aurora's lips purse in distaste, but then Mulan unclasps her cloak and settles it around her shoulders, and (even though it's a bit too large, and doesn't at all match the color scheme she has going on) she forgets her ire.
Especially when the warrior adds (her smile now larger), "Perhaps we shall find something in purple."
They do find something in her color of choice—it's a large wool coat with a dye job so horrid that it nearly makes Aurora's eyes bleed. She tries it on though, and Mulan has to cover her smile with her hand, and hides what Aurora thinks might have otherwise been a laugh with a suspicious cough.
They end up buying her a nice brown fur with blue accents instead, along with a matching blue tunic and dark trousers. Aurora feels a bit like a man, and says so to Mulan. A new smile makes its way onto the warrior's face (teasing, maybe?) when she tells the princess that she looks quite dashing.
Aurora isn't sure whether she should be offended or not, but the slight blush the comment brings to her cheeks says that perhaps she doesn't mind so much.
Aurora thinks smile number ten is something of a big deal because it comes with an expression of feelings.
"We're friends, aren't we, Mulan?"
The dark-haired woman, so rarely caught off-guard, looks refreshingly taken aback. "I—yes. I suppose that would be an accurate descriptor."
Aurora smiles, and continues ahead, but she glances back when she delivers her next words, "I'm glad."
Mulan's smile is the softest expression she's seen on the woman's face, as of yet.
"So, what's your story?" Emma asks Mulan one night.
They've become an odd sort of friends themselves, but in a way that borders on a rivalry. It's funny, really, how they try to outdo each other; Mulan has the advantage, having grown up in this world, but Emma has a tendency of coming up with the craziest ideas that, to the surprise of everyone involved, actually work most of the time. Still, Aurora always bets on Mulan.
"My story?" The warrior repeats, her tone flat.
"Yeah? Did you like, do the whole disguising yourself as a guy thing? To keep your Pop from going to war, or whatever? And where the hell is Mushu? That little dude is awesome!"
Mulan looks so alarmed (and almost equally enraged) that Aurora puts a calming hand on her forearm.
"Emma," Snow groans.
"What?" The blonde does a double take. "Oh, shit. Sorry, Mulan. I…um… I was just wondering how much of the story was true. We told you our world has stories of all the characters—er—people of your world in my world, so…"
"You should think before you speak, Emma Swan!" Aurora's voice comes out uncharacteristically hard; after her admittedly unfortunate attempt at Snow's life, the princess had returned to her normal graceful countenance. Apparently though, the sort of hardness that comes from tragedy such as hers cannot be so easily masked.
Emma and Snow both raise their eyebrows, looking more like mother and daughter than ever, but Mulan's lips curl at the very corners.
"Uh… yeah. Probably. Sorry about that, Mulan?" The pitch of her voice rises at the end, as though questioning whether it is Mulan she should truly be apologizing to (and the way her eyes flicker over to Aurora only emphasizes this).
"It is fine," Mulan responds, and Aurora thinks, as their eyes meet, that the warrior looks rather pleased about the chastising.
"I think you should teach me how to wield a sword," Aurora declares, out of the blue.
Mulan grins and Aurora can't imagine why she hasn't done it before; her teeth are bright in contrast to the dark of her skin, and even though the princess had always found Mulan striking, for the first time, she cannot think of her as anything but breathtakingly beautiful.
The thought unsettles her, because it's not tainted with jealousy or even admiration (in the I-wish-I-had-those-features-too sense)—it's attraction, plain and simple, and Aurora doesn't know (in the slightest) what to do with that.
Using a sword is hard, Aurora finds.
There'd never been much of a need for her to learn such a skill; even while she was in the forest, because the fairies had always taken care of her, and castle life had not exactly exposed her to such things either. She regrets it now. Aurora's not a push-over by any means; it's simply that she has always been able to take care of herself with words and charm rather than swords and steel.
Emma makes it worse, because she'd decided to join the training, and the blonde has the sort of natural strength and athleticism that Aurora lacks. She swings her sword around with gracelessness, but power, and Mulan affords the woman a nod of satisfaction with each successfully completed move.
Aurora doesn't know why that bothers her so much.
"This is an abysmal failure," she admits at the end of one session. She drops her sword on the ground and relishes in the sound of it hitting the dirt (as though the inanimate object could feel the pain of the drop).
Emma gives her a sympathetic look, sheathing her sword in scabbard she (already) has in place on her back. But it is Mulan who responds, her tone as level as always.
"That is inaccurate. You have been improving, Princess."
Aurora is horrified to feel a slight stinging in her eyes, and takes a steadying breath to keep the tears at bay.
"I—I do not want to keep depending on you—or anyone—to protect me. That is all I've done my entire life, and—"
"Aurora." Mulan says her name with a smile (it's number 21) and it is surprisingly soft and understanding. "You are doing well. And until the time that you are able to protect yourself with this weapon and—" Mulan hesitates for a moment, but then continues, her words slightly rushed. "—And even after that point in time—I will always use my own steel to keep you safe. This is no burden for me. It is a privilege."
"Because I receive your friendship in return." Mulan picks up the discarded sword from the ground, and Aurora is stuck by the image of the powerful warrior kneeling at her feet, if only for that moment in time. "Shall we continue?"
She does gain proficiency with the sword. Emma still receives Mulan's brisk nods, but Aurora gets the woman's brief, but proud smiles.
It's not much a comparison, really.
"How does one share a son with another woman?" Aurora asks, because she's curious, and it's not as though she's used to having people denying her answers.
Emma nearly chokes on her soup
Mulan actually laughs and Aurora forgets what she had even asked, for a moment. (It takes Emma about that long to recover anyways, though).
"What you guys don't have—y'know—lesbians in this place?" Snow's eyes nearly pop out of her skull in surprise, and Emma seems to realize she's either misspoken or revealed far more than she intended to (Aurora's not sure which) and she backtracks quickly. "Not that that's what—I mean of course that's not— Regina and I aren't—"
Aurora cuts off her stumbling (it's something of an act of pity). "We do—" And she doesn't know why a slight flush threatens to appear on her too fair skin. "It's just—you made it sound as though Henry is your son by birth, and unless something is…ah… very different in your world…"
Mulan lets out another snort of laughter.
"No!" Emma is rather red herself, by now, and Snow is looking at her with all the alarmed suspicion a mother can deliver. "It's—Henry is my son, but Regina adopted him—and—it's just complicated. Not, like, Facebook complicated, or anything, but I—you know what? Let's not worry about it. This—this is great soup, Snow…."
Bewildered, Aurora exchanges a glance with Mulan; an amused smile (#41) is still on the woman's face, and at the meeting of their eyes, a raised eyebrow is added to the look.
This time, the princess is unable to keep the blush from creeping up her neck.
Even after all these weeks, Aurora still hates sleeping (is afraid of it, honestly) and thus she, without fail, volunteers to take the first shift, and always conveniently 'forgets' to wake Mulan once a quarter of the night has passed, and instead stays up, watching with glassy eyes.
But Mulan (who has never let sentimentality interfere with sound judgment) wakes each night, when the moon is still bright, and sits alongside the princess, her hand on her sword. The nights are not especially cold, but they sit close, and each night, Aurora grows more and more weary as time passes, until her head ends up on Mulan's shoulder, and her breathing turns regular and deep.
Sometimes, though, just before she drifts off, she can feel Mulan's smile when she turns, the expression pressing into her temple.
Aurora hasn't sung in more than twenty-eight years, even if it doesn't feel like that long. She hasn't particularly felt like singing since she was awakened, but after picking up on a successful lead for the first time in weeks, she's feeling a bit lighter as she searches for berries (in what must be the last beautiful meadow in all of the land) and the song tumbles out, almost without her notice.
She spins around (spilling a few precious berries in the process) to find Mulan watching her with a smile that is somehow heartbreaking. The dark eyes of the warrior, normally so closed to the world around her, are swimming with a collection of emotions so vast, that Aurora is not sure she can identify even a single one.
"Yes." She realizes belatedly that Mulan had not phrased it as a question. "You knew."
Mulan does not look away, but Aurora senses that she would very much like to. "Yes. Philip told me once."
It's the first time they've spoken about him since finding Emma and Snow, and Aurora feels an odd guilt gnawing at her. She'd become too skilled in pushing away the crushing loss to a place where it would not break her apart.
"You said that night that you know love when you see it."
Aurora nods, confused and unsettled about the direction of the conversation (if it could, indeed, be called one at all).
"You were wrong. You are wrong. I didn't love Philip." Mulan takes a breath. "Trust me now when I say this; I never loved Philip."
Nodding again, this time a bit more slowly, Aurora considers the woman carefully. "Why does it matter so much to you—that I believe that? It wouldn't—I would not hold such a thing against you, Mulan."
"I know. But—" And here, Mulan's face, normally so calm and unrevealing, distorts, as though she is having trouble with her words. "It seems…it seems important now—that you know he was always yours. That he was completely and unequivocally yours."
Something swells in Aurora's chest—she would like to think it's all due to the thought of Philip, but a part of her knows that Mulan's quiet intensity has something to do with it as well.
"Was," she says, wistfully. "I am still having difficulty, thinking of Philip as a 'was'. He—"
Aurora feels the familiar tightness of her throat, and this time, she cannot stop the tears from filling her eyes, nor prevent a few from spilling down her cheeks. Whenever she thinks about Philip for too long or too deeply, she feels like she will never breathe again—like the gasp of air that brings such relief will never come.
But Mulan takes a few steps closer, and lays two hands on her upper arms, more of a steadying gesture than an embrace, and Aurora sucks in a deep breath.
"I am sorry, my friend. If I could have done anything, I—"
"No." Aurora is still glassy eyed, but her tone is resolute. "Don't—I would do many things to have—to have Philip back. But that is not one of them." She takes another breath. "One of the last things Philip did for me was bring me you. And I—it is one of the things for which I am most grateful."
She is sure Mulan is not one for hugs, but it doesn't take much effort to fall forward, and tuck herself into the warrior's body, face burying into the crook of her neck. Mulan hesitates, (though not for as long as Aurora would have guessed she would) but wraps her arms around the princess—a solid and sure presence.
"I am glad you are with me, Mulan."
Aurora can feel the woman's swallow.
"As am I."
She holds out for a long while (a ridiculously long while, in her opinion), but it gets to the point that Aurora cannot will herself silent any longer. Emma is slouching by the fire, legs wide open, absolutely devouring a large chunk of rabbit and Aurora simple cannot take it for even another second more.
"Ugh. You are supposed to be a princess!"
"Um…" By some miracle, Emma swallows the masticated wad in her mouth before continuing. "Yeah, I guess. But not really."
"It is your birthright," Aurora asserts. "I realize you wish to go back to the world you left, but this is your true land. Surely you will return, after collecting your loved ones?"
Both Emma and Snow look distinctly uncomfortable. "It's—complicated," Emma states.
"That seems to be the case for many facets of your life," Mulan comments with a wry smile.
Aurora looks to Snow for help. "You know very well there are certain things she must learn! Manners, for one…"
"Hey!" Emma interjects.
"…But also the arts—music and craft—and our customs and politics! Even something as simple as dancing is…"
"Oh, I can dance." Emma raises an eyebrow, and looks rather pleased with herself. "Trust me. Never had any complaints in that department."
Aurora stands. "Then demonstrate."
The blond loses her cocky smirk. "Uh. Now?" She darts a glance at Snow. "I don't think… Wait, lemme guess… you guys dance, like, the waltz, or some shit."
"And how else would you dance?"
The raised eyebrow returns, accompanied by a cheeky grin. "Sweetie, I don't think you could handle it."
Snow lets out a little cough, while Mulan (Aurora is surprised to see) is now frowning at Emma—a pinch to her brow that is almost a glare.
"I'm sure I couldn't. Neither, I would assume, could your people."
"She has a point, honey," Snow comments.
Emma rolls her eyes. "So what do you suggest?"
Snow nods in agreement, Emma looks (quite frankly) alarmed, and Mulan stands and turns to leave, her hand on her sword— at which Aurora simply raises an eyebrow.
"And where do you think you're going, Mulan?"
The warrior practically gapes at her, and Aurora continues with a tone that is very much un-princess-like in its smugness. "I'll need a partner to demonstrate. And as Emma will be dancing with Snow…"
"I do not think…"
"Do not tell me a bit of dancing frightens a fearless warrior such as yourself."
Mulan's look is equally knowing and exasperated; the woman being well aware of what Aurora was attempting to do. It works though, especially when Emma chimes in.
"If I'm doing this, Dragon Girl, so are you."
"Fine." The curl of Mulan's lips is more of a snarl than anything.
Mulan, it turns out, is not a terrible dancer when she is allowed to lead.
Aurora is happy to allow the woman to take the role; she can show posture and footwork equally as well as the Follow, and in actuality, it better displays to Emma the traditional role she would be taking. Not that the strange blonde was having any of it, even with (all things considered) a very patient Snow as her partner.
"You're backleading, Emma," Aurora chimes, trying not to focus solely on the warmth of Mulan's (for once) un-gloved hand at the bottom of her shoulder blade.
"I do not think Queen Regina will be so receptive to such a thing."
Emma sputters, Snow's right eye twitches, and Aurora and Mulan share a smile; it's become a sort of twisted joke—talking about the Evil Queen as though she were Emma's lover (admittedly, Aurora is not sure how much of a joke it, in actuality, is). Emma and Snow never fail to react to the admittedly slightly ill-borne teasing.
"That's not—look, I just don't get this, okay? What's the point? It's not like this" (she gestures to the stiff positioning of she and her mother) "Is gonna get anything going, y'know?"
Everyone understands what Emma means, having gotten used to her strange way of speaking (and implying). But Aurora does not understand how she can mean it.
"You merely feel that way because you are dancing with your mother."
"Nah. I don't think so."
Aurora is mystified. She can feel Mulan's hip press into hers with every movement—sense the heat radiating off the woman, traveling into her skin and bones in a way that makes her want to shiver or press closer or never leave the embrace. Every weight transfer is agony, and she only resumes breathing when their bodies once again make contact.
When she dances with Mulan, every part of her is charged with an energy that desperately seeks an outlet. And it is thus incomprehensible to her that Emma should think that this form of dance would not 'get anything going'. Because it is taking everything in her to tamper down the surging want.
It is Mulan, however, who voices her thoughts, and though her words are directed at Emma, her gaze never leaves Aurora's. "Then you are not imagining it properly."
The look is intense and burning and does not contain a hint of a smile. Aurora doesn't particularly mind.
They're close—so close—to the location of what they believe to be a portal. Their knowledge of the location came to them through Queen Regina (or at least, the apparently slightly mellowed version of her that lives in Emma and Snow's world—Aurora's still not quite clear on how that works), so everyone's a little on edge, though all for different reasons.
"Okay, so Regina said…" Snow lets out a little snort of displeasure (as she always does) when Emma utters the Queen's name, but the blonde continues on, regardless. "Regina says that there's some nasty stuff in this area—beasts and whatnot— that she's can't control now."
"How convenient for her."
Emma ignores her mother's comment. "So let's just be careful, alright?"
They are, but that doesn't stop the ogre from practically stumbling on top of them (his fortune, their bad luck).
The funny thing about danger, at least for Aurora, is that it sends you into this hyper-aware state, where, when you're in the middle of it, you notice every detail that relates to your safety (the directions of smells, the slightest crunch of leaves, the smallest of nooks— even in darkness), but afterwards, when you've done all you can to deliver yourself (and perhaps those you care about) from danger, you can't quite remember all those details.
Aurora vaguely recalls splitting from Snow and Emma, running through the woods, pushing Mulan into a cave that was more of a crevice than anything, and pressing up against the warrior to drive them further into the rock. But once she's there, everything that isn't Mulan feels something like a blur.
"What are you doing?" Mulan hisses, struggling against her. "I must find a strategic position for an attack!"
"Mulan! Hush!" Aurora's lips are practically on the woman's ear, and as Mulan squirms, she can feel them occasionally brush against the skin there. This shouldn't be at the forefront of Aurora's mind, not now (maybe not ever), but it is.
"There is a time, Mulan, to attack. And there is a time to lie in wait. You should know by now, that strategy involves a combination of the two."
"You are being unreasonable!" And then the warrior finally finds the purchase to twist around and reverse their positions. Aurora has often been close to her companion—sharing a horse, falling asleep next to her, dancing—but this is something new, because Mulan is gripping her with an intensity that she can't help but respond to. And it's amazing how quickly the air around them changes—a strike of lightning that suddenly fully illuminates things once shadowy and implied.
"You are being…" The warrior's voice nearly cracks, or tremors, or catches. Aurora could not have said for sure whether the woman had been about to repeat her earlier statement, but if she had to have guessed, she would have said not. But what, exactly, she had thought Aurora was being is never said. There is only thick silence and heavy breathing (hard breathing that the princess wishes she could solely blame their sprint through the forest, but she cannot).
One of Mulan's hands—seemingly of its own free-will—moves up Aurora's arm—fingers trailing up her bicep, shoulder, stopping for a moment at her neck (cool leather pressing up against the pulse point that throbs in a rhythm too quick to be typical), before continuing on to trace along her jawline. The movement is slow, but purposeful, and Aurora has to grip at the wall pressing on her sides –rock cutting into her hand—to keep her suddenly unsteady legs from casting her off-balance.
The whisper breaks the spell, and Mulan jerks back as though physically pulled away. There is a moment of silence before the warrior speaks, her voice dreadfully leveled and brisk.
"Wait here. I will search the area."
"My job is to protect you, Princess. That is why I am here."
The moonlight illuminates the face of the dark-haired woman, glowing against her skin. Her lips curl upwards, but cruelly—coldly—a mockery of the expression. Aurora counts it as a smile though, because it hurts a little less that way.
Aurora remembers Mulan's 74th smile vividly, because it's the first one she feels against her lips.
"I never thought I would consider you a coward, Mulan."
They haven't spoken (not really) for the past few days, and Aurora misses more than Mulan's smiles. She misses the quiet, steadying presence of the woman, the brief touches that convey so much, and the words, so few in number, that transmit friendship and so much more, in a way Aurora would have before thought impossible.
When Mulan spins to face her, the ache for these things only deepens, because her eyes are closed off to the princess, as though they are once again strangers. There is, however, a furrow to her brow—a twist to her lips that is almost a scowl.
"What did you say to me?"
"You heard me." Aurora takes a step closer. "You're acting like a coward."
"Tread carefully, Your Highness. Do not mistake me for someone who will allow insults to their honor."
"Cowardice is running away from the things you are afraid of. Is that not what you are doing now?"
As if to prove a point, Mulan closes the gap between then, until they are breathing the same air, but without even a single point of contact between them.
"I do not run away. And I do not fear."
Aurora might have believed it, once upon a time, but not now. "Being afraid is not a weakness, Mulan. But letting it control your actions is."
The warrior's jaw clenches. "You know not what you speak of."
"Don't I? I may not possess the skill to kill an ogre or slay a dragon, but I know well how to fight for the things that truly matter. And I do not flee, even when those things are unexpected or incomprehensible or even unsettling." Aurora's jaw is strong, her stance rigid. "That is bravery, Mulan—just as significant as the sort found on the battlefield." Her words are delivered like punches—one after the other with solid clout. "Sometimes the things that frighten us most are those that come from within. But fear alone is no reason to hold back—it does not make something not worth pursuing—does not make it wrong." She loses a bit of her momentum, her shoulders dropping. "So often it is just the opposite."
Aurora skims her fingertips across the armored forearm of the woman across from her; Mulan surely can barely feel the action, but it cuts off her words as effectively as a blow to the face.
"This scares me as well. I didn't—" The princess lets out a short laugh. "Well, obviously this is the last thing I expected. But I don't think—that's not a good reason to ignore something that could be… perfect."
Mulan is silent for a long moment, her eyes focusing on the hand that Aurora has settled on her arm. "I—I am not sure."
"Don't you feel this as well?"
The dark-haired woman sighs. "Of course I do. But this—this could end poorly."
"Mulan." The name comes out as a whisper or a plea or a combination of both. Whichever, it works, and Mulan's eyes—impossibly dark—come up to meet hers. The warrior, for the first time since Aurora has known her, looks frightened. "You have to trust me."
"I do." That, at least, comes out with the same certainty Mulan employs in her movements in battle.
Aurora's hands come up to cup her face, and Mulan swallows heavily, but does not move away.
"Then let me kiss you."
"Aurora…" Mulan's throat bobs. "This is not something I—I do not do well with…emotions."
"I will show you."
Mulan pauses, but then nods, once, and then Aurora's lips are pressed against hers. She means for it to be brief—only a peck—but Mulan's lips—so unlike most every other aspect of the woman—are soft and warm and they draw her in. She pushes herself closer to the warrior, and Mulan grips (almost desperately) at the fabric at her hips. Their lips don't line up perfectly, but Mulan's bottom lip (fuller than she expected) is between both of Aurora's, and that makes it easy—when the temptation becomes too great—for her to nip at the skin there. Mulan lets out an uncharacteristic whimper, and Aurora swears she can feel the skin on the woman's face heat under her fingers.
"Please," Mulan says, once they separate, her voice breathy and small. "Please. You could—you could destroy me like this, Aurora. If you are not careful, you could—"
And Aurora wants to sob at the thought of being given something so well-guarded.
She presses her lips against Mulan's once again, and she can feel the smile.
"I don't expect to be able to replace him," Mulan whispers, her breath hot against Aurora's mouth.
Silence rings in the tent—the absence of sound a more conspicuous thing than any one noise could be. Aurora wonders whether it's possible to be torn apart by feeling two contrasting emotions at once. How can she possibly be full with overwhelming sadness and guilt, but also absolute contentment?
But she feels Mulan's breath hitch at her words, and she knows she's going to have to let one side go—only then will the other be able to fill her. It's not much of a choice—not when she thinks about it that way, and so her next words come easily.
"You're different, Mulan. But not less." She pulls back, her fingers trailing over the smooth, brown skin of Mulan's cheek. "You'll never be less."
For the first time, Aurora allows herself to see the love in Mulan's smile. It may have been there before, (in smile number 104? Or perhaps 97? 85?) but now she sees it—accepts it.
It looks rather like salvation.
By the time Aurora makes Mulan smile for the 142nd time, she's become rather adept at it. She knows precisely thirty-one basic ways to bring the expression about (from teasing their companions to complaining about clothing to kissing that particular spot just underneath her ear), and she employs them on a regular basis.
It's not until smile number 142 though, that she figures out the 32nd way, which is funny, because it turns out to be the simplest way of them all.
"I love you," she tells her, her own smile already in place as they lay in their tent, the wind howling outside.
Mulan's response is smile number 142. And really, it's less of a smile and more of an uncontrolled, full-fledged beaming with a touch of absolute shock. It's like the sun coming out after 365 days of gloomy clouds of rain. Smile number 142 transforms Mulan's entire face—and it makes Aurora's heart nearly burst open in her chest.
It's easily Aurora's favorite thus far.