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Could Have Been A Year

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Mulan likes the Merry Men. She’d expected them to be wary of a newcomer, cautious around her. But once they saw Robin clasp her hand they accepted her as one of their own. Later she learned that Robin had already related to his band how she had cut his son free of the shadow. But that first night it had been something of a balm to be accepted without question or recrimination. They liked her even more when she proved an able archer, and yet more when she was absolutely unable to hold her drink. There hadn’t been many opportunities to partake while she traveled with Aurora.

“Her skin is softer than the ripest peach,” Mulan slurred over a tankard of ale, encouraged by sympathetic faces. “Were she to command it, I would fall upon my sword.”

The next day she was treated to an overly sentimental and treacle-filled balled composed specially by Will and played to much good-natured guffawing. Commiserating over a woman cemented her place among them and thenceforth she felt as at home as she could without Aurora nearby.

*

Phillip comes to her several weeks later. A sentry carries word of his horse and she’s prepared to receive him when he rides into camp, followed overhead by a rustle of leaves.

“Mulan,” he says with a relieved grin, and clasps her shoulder. “I’ve come to bring you home.”

The Merry Men murmur and Mulan has to draw Phillip away, closer to the base of the tree she uses to string her hammock. For all that Robin considers Rumplestiltskin’s castle “his,” he at least has the good sense not to try to habitate in it. “Phillip, I have sworn my sword to Robin.”

“What of our friendship? Our bond? You are my sister in arms,” Phillip says, simple and earnest.

Mulan looks steadily into Phillip’s eyes. “And you are my brother. But I am no longer needed at your side. You and Aurora will have a family soon.”

“You’re part of our family,” says Phillip. “There is no one I would rather have watch over my child than you.”

“Please, Phillip,” says Mulan. Her voice is quietly desperate, her heart caught in a vise. “I am where I believe I’m needed most. Please do not ask me to return with you.”

“Aurora wants you to come back,” says Phillip stubbornly, entirely unaware how devastating his words are.

“Tell her I’m sorry. But this is where I belong now.” Mulan breathes deeply, hands curling into fists in an attempt to remain composed. “And tell her…I have asked my ancestors to bless your child.”

They can both tell that is not what Mulan meant to say at all, but Phillip nods, seeing her resolve. “If you’re truly happy here, then I am happy for you,” he says.

“I’m among friends. Good men,” says Mulan.

As Phillip prepares to leave, she can’t help herself. “If you ever have need of me, I will come,” she says.

“Of course,” says Phillip, grinning. “How could anyone say no to this handsome face?”

Mulan throws a rock at him, laughing.

*

Sometimes, late at night, when Mulan is floating in her hammock and there’s nothing but the sounds of the forest for miles around, a kind of wistful loneliness will steal over camp. Then Will, whose hammock is strung nearby, will call to Mulan and ask that she speak of Aurora. “When you speak of her, you become a poet,” Will explains.

So Mulan describes Aurora in all her fierce beauty: her hair like ripened apricots, the gentle curve of her mouth, the vivaciousness of her laugh. She recounts their adventures together when she can stand to remember; Will is particularly taken by the theft and return of Aurora’s heart.

“What would you have done if her heart had been lost?” Will asks one night, his disembodied voice floating through the leaves.

“I would have traveled to the realms of the dead and brought her back,” says Mulan without hesitation.

Will sighs and plucks a mournful tune on his lute. “If I can put this into song, we’re going to be filthy rich.”

*

Will is loudly singing the much-embellished “Ballad of Aurora” when its namesake arrives in camp a few weeks after Phillip. Mulan has to kick him to make him stop because the maiden fair in question is standing next to a horse looking determined.

“What are you doing here?” Mulan asks, rooted to the spot.

As one, the Merry Men swivel their heads to look at Aurora.

“You’re coming home with me.”

“With us,” says Phillip, puffing up behind her looking windblown and exhausted.

The heads swivel back to Mulan.

“I told you—”

“Yes, well, I convinced him to bring me to you because I don’t think he did a very good job of convincing you,” says Aurora. Phillip gives Mulan a sheepish look over Aurora’s shoulder.

Mulan notices how the Merry Men are hanging on every word, not least of all Will, who has actually taken out a bit of parchment to scribble down notes. “Let’s go for a walk,” she suggests brightly. When Phillip and Aurora agree and turn to leave, Mulan shoots a murderous glare at Will. He shrugs and points discreetly at Aurora while mouthing “Wow!”

Mulan vows to fill Will’s hammock with thorns that night.

*

Mulan takes Aurora on a circuit on foot just beyond the borders of camp. Phillip had elected to stay behind, reasoning that it was Aurora’s turn to try to convince Mulan.

“I don’t understand why you left,” says Aurora.

Mulan holds a branch aside for her so she can pass without getting snagged on it. “It was time for me to leave.”

“That makes no sense. I thought you were happy with us,” says Aurora.

“I was. I simply needed to…move on,” says Mulan, then winces at herself. She hasn’t had the chance to read or write much of late and it shows—not that eloquence was ever her forte.

“Move on!” Aurora exclaims, as though affronted by the notion. “We’re your family. You can’t move on from family.”

“I can. I have. That is all there is to say.” Mulan would march off to be on her own but she can hardly leave Aurora on her own in strange woods. So she waits, patiently, knowing the objection is coming.

“That is all—you haven’t said anything,” Aurora protests angrily. “You came back, said you were leaving, and then you were gone. That’s hardly fair, Mulan.”

“Not many things in this world are fair,” says Mulan, trying not to sound bitter. She made her choices and refuses to be petulant about them.

Aurora continues to splutter and argue but it’s only near the end, when her voice softens and begins to sound something like begging, that Mulan weakens. “You told Phillip if he ever had need, you would come. What if we do need you? You must know how much we need you. You’ve saved both our lives.”

“I’m doing good work with the Merry Men. We help people who need us,” says Mulan, not daring to look directly at Aurora. If “we” were ever “I” Mulan would be helpless to stop herself from obeying but fortunately Aurora doesn’t know that. She takes a deep breath and then allows herself just a moment of indulgence. “But if your need is truly great, I will return with you.” In her heart, she knows she has set herself up for rejection because Aurora would never put her personal needs above the hardships of others.

Aurora is true to herself; she draws herself up with dignity and says “Then I suppose you must remain here.”

The rest of their walk is silent, and Mulan does her best not to brand her memory with the sight of Aurora; today she is particularly lovely with her cheeks rosy from the brisk walk and hair fanned over a soft celadon cloak. Clinging to love will only prolong the pain.

*

Mulan spends several days alone after Aurora and Phillip leave. The men seem to understand, giving her a wide berth and not prying when she eventually does return to camp. Roland alone asks questions, toddling over to her and clambering into her lap. Perhaps saving him from a hideous shadow creature has caused him to take a shine to her. He is an inquisitive, affectionate child at any rate.

“Where did you go?” asks Roland. His little fingers trace the intricate detailing of her leather.

“Not far,” says Mulan, automatically shifting so that Roland is more secure sitting on her thigh. “I needed to be alone for a few days.”

“Why?”

“Roland,” Robin admonishes from across the fire.

“No, it’s all right,” says Mulan. She finds that explaining things to Roland is not as painful as speaking to someone her own age. “I was sad, and I didn’t want to make anyone else sad by being around them. I would prefer my friends to be happy, even when I am sad.”

“Maybe we could have made you happy,” says Roland.

“I think perhaps you could have,” Mulan agrees. She feels better about staying with the Merry Men, but in the back of her mind is the picture of her sitting like this with Aurora’s child, with the family she and Aurora will never have.

*

With a warrior’s singleminded concentration, Mulan pushes Aurora from her mind. She learns some of the subtler niceties of archery from Robin and in turn helps train him in unarmed hand-to-hand combat. Little John finds her a match in staves, though between his brute strength and boundless energy he has given her no small number of bumps and bruises. Will still asks about her feelings but infrequently, and only when they’re supine in their hammocks with the loneliness of the forest and the stars above their only audience. She teaches Roland the basics of swordfighting and tells him legends of her homeland. Life continues apace and the hurt fades into a background throb.

Until the day a messenger finds them and delivers a note in Aurora’s handwriting—the baby is due soon, and Mulan’s presence is requested.

“You should go,” says Robin, seeing the way the months fall away to reveal the fresh edge of Mulan’s sadness.

“I’m needed here,” says Mulan halfheartedly.

“Come,” says Robin. “Let’s get you provisioned.”

*

Mulan rides at a steady clip towards Aurora, wanting to make good time but simultaneously terrified of seeing both her and Phillip again. The seasons have turned twice and it is almost summer, the first few tendrils of real heat sneaking through at midday. Her memories of Aurora have grown slightly fuzzy around the edges, blunted by her relentless self-denial, like a blade that goes too long unsharpened.

She rides to exhaustion, hoping each night as she beds down to camp that she will be able to fall asleep quickly. It works less and less the closer she gets.

On the morning of her fifth day of travel she finds herself crossing into Phillip and Aurora’s territory. For a moment she hovers on the border, almost deciding to turn back towards Robin. But Aurora has called for her. She must go.

*

The palace is different—months of scrubbing and clearing and restoring has lent it some of its former glory. Before, Mulan would come in through one of the smaller side gates because it was easier to find Aurora that way—she was inevitably in the atrium tending to the plants. But now Mulan simply rides up to the main gate and walks through the entry corridor, which has been lined with rich tapestries and a soft blue carpet that must be hell to clean. Someone offers to take her sword, her cape, her saddlebags, and she frowns at the idea that she has become a stranger here in less than a year. She declines to rest or refresh herself and asks to be taken directly to Aurora’s quarters.

Where she once would give a cursory knock and enter, assured of her right to do so, now she waits as she is announced and Aurora grants her leave to enter. She walks in still dusty from the road, saddlebags over her shoulder. They are filled to bursting with gifts for the baby.

Aurora is in bed and Mulan has a bare second to register her, how beautiful she is and how large her stomach has gotten, before she sees Mulan and smiles like the sun breaking through the clouds. All of Mulan’s formal words of greeting flee from her and she is reduced to what she is, a lovesick fool. “I—Aurora—you—I received your letter,” says Mulan.

Aurora holds out her hands, fully expecting to be hugged, and Mulan obliges. She suddenly feels stiff and ungainly, bound up as she is in all her dirty armor. “I’m so glad you’re here,” says Aurora. “I was worried you’d miss the birth.”

Mulan is still at a loss for words, so she remains perched silently on the edge of Aurora’s bed, gloved hands lightly holding Aurora’s.

Then Phillip strides in, bellowing her name with glee. He crosses to her in three big strides and claps her on the back. Mulan can see how pleased he is that she has come, and how he looks almost foolishly happy at the imminent birth of his firstborn. Her resolve firms; she will deliver the gifts, many of them from the Merry Men, stay for a few days after the birth, and then leave with as little fuss as possible.

“Phillip, she’s tired, don’t just jump on her,” says Aurora.

“Of course dear,” says Phillip, but he winks at Mulan. “Come see me in the library when you’re done with whatever it is women do.”

Aurora rolls her eyes at him but he saunters out anyway. “He’s getting worse the closer the baby gets,” says Aurora. “You’d think he did all the work himself.”

“How soon?” asks Mulan, unable to stop staring at the curve of Aurora’s belly.

“Lianne, my midwife, thinks soon. A week at most. Oh Mulan.” Aurora tightens her hold on Mulan’s hands. “I really am glad you’re here. It makes me feel better.”

“I would never miss something as important as this,” says Mulan, even though she had fully intended to stay in camp and brood before she received Aurora’s letter. She finally unslings the saddlebags, letting them drop to the floor. “I bring gifts from Robin Hood and his Merry Men.”

“Mulan, you shouldn’t have,” says Aurora, but her eager smile gives away how pleased she is.

Mulan dutifully unloads the gifts: a small pile of toys and tributes, as well as a book of child’s poetry and some quality bowstrings for Phillip.

“What did you bring me?” Aurora asks after everything else has been sorted and cooed over.

“I didn’t—”

Aurora gives Mulan the kind of look she used to use when they traveled together, the one that suggests that Mulan should stop being stubborn. “Of course you did.”

Mulan, unable to deny Aurora anything, pulls a folded bundle of cloth from the back of her belt and hands it over without further denial. Aurora pulls it open, shaking it out to lie flat. “Oh Mulan,” she says, fingers tracing the intricate embroidery. The baby blanket is red and gold, soft to the touch. Mulan had wanted to make it silk but Robin had laughed and said that was fine only if she never wanted Aurora to use it, or if she didn’t mind it getting soiled. She’d spent most of the winter laboring over it with occasional help from Tuck and was going to send it by messenger.

“How long did this take?” asks Aurora, still lost in the minute details.

“Long enough,” says Mulan, watching how Aurora’s fingertips touch and linger.

“How—”

Mulan is ready for this question. “You spent so much time mending my things. I wanted to make something for you. And the baby,” she adds quietly. She almost reaches for Aurora’s hand, but instead flexes her fingers in a restrained sort of motion. “I should see Phillip.”

“No, sit with me for a bit longer,” says Aurora in a tone of good-natured wheedling.

“I will return,” says Mulan.

*

She keeps her word; after an hour of catching up with Phillip, she returns to Aurora’s bedside.

“Tell me all about your life with the Merry Men,” says Aurora.

Mulan describes life in Robin Hood’s camp: the brotherhood that took her in, the battles they fought, the people they helped. Robin is a good leader; Roland a charming mascot. Sewing is not the only new skill she has acquired. Mulan has flourished in many respects. She speaks until she notices Aurora nodding off, and then she slips away, pausing only long enough to ensure that Aurora is covered warmly. In her plush quarters, just down the hall from Phillip and Aurora’s bedroom, she does not fall asleep until nearly sunrise.

*

True to the midwife’s prediction, Aurora goes into labor two days later. Mulan and Phillip wait outside—or Mulan waits, sitting quietly and glad to be in comfortable breeches and a simple woven shirt instead of her armor, while Phillip paces. Periodically he stops and runs a hand over his sweaty face.

Half a day is gone and they are in the twilight hours of early morning when the midwife emerges, ashen, blood staining the front of her dress. Too much blood. “My lord…” She addresses Phillip but no more words come. Her eyes well with tears.

“No,” says Phillip. “NO.” He dashes into the room.

Mulan’s heart lurches into a full gallop, slamming so heard against her breastbone she is sure it will shatter her chest. She rises, walks into the room after Phillip with a bizarre kind of calm.

Phillip has collapsed at the side of the bed, weeping and begging incoherently. There Aurora lies: limp, pale, hair plastered to her forehead from her exertions. The midwife thought to cover her but Mulan knows underneath the sheets will be soaked red.

“Mulan please, help me,” Phillip moans. “Please help me. Please.”

Mulan can only stare at Aurora, who just yesterday had teased that were she to bear a girl, she might name her Mulan as well. She should have returned sooner, should have been with Aurora, should have been brave enough to speak what was in her heart. Should have should have should have—all gone. Lost, along with the child that had convinced her to leave in the first place. Her tongue is like a lead weight in her mouth but eventually she manages a word. “Phillip.” She summons the will to speak, drags the effort up out of the depths of her weary body because now she knows what she must do. “Phillip, we can find a way. You saved her once before. We can do it again.”

At first Phillip doesn’t hear her, caught up in his grief. Mulan refuses to acknowledge it. “Phillip,” she says again, louder. He looks at her with wild, despairing eyes. “There is always a way where true love is involved.”

She can see sanity return to him, anguish being replaced by a stony determination. “Yes,” he says. “We’ll leave at first light.”

*

This is what Mulan does best—it’s what she’s always done. She and Phillip ride out seeking a rumor, a way to bring Aurora back, and if being on the road with the leanest streak of hope to guide her is almost comfortingly familiar, she keeps it to herself. They ride and do not talk except to discuss whatever information they can glean on how to bring back one from the dead.

Until one night, when Mulan overhears Phillip draw a shuddering breath on his bedroll and knows he is weeping silently. She sits up on her side of the campfire.

“I’m sorry, I woke you,” says Phillip, hastily scrubbing a sleeve across his eyes.

“No, it’s all right,” says Mulan. “I was…” She was thinking of Aurora. A random memory this time: they’d camped one night next to a river and Mulan had taken off her armor and her boots so she could wade thigh-deep into the water. Her hand flashed, splashed, and up she came with a wriggling trout in her hand. Aurora had clapped in delight, but had also squealed when Mulan tossed the still very-much-alive fish at her.

“What if we can’t do this,” says Phillip, his voice near a whisper as if speaking too loudly will make it so. “Mulan, what if…”

“We can do this,” Mulan insists. “I did not criss-cross this forsaken land thrice over and revive you one after the other just to see you separated in the end.”

This draws a tired chuckle from Phillip. “No, my friend. We can hardly let your heroism go to waste.”

“Sleep. Tomorrow is another hard ride,” says Mulan. She rearranges herself on her bedroll, trying to find a comfortable position.

“You are the most faithful friend I’ve ever had,” says Philip. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Mulan doesn’t reply, instead clutching a small pouch to her chest. It contains a lock of Aurora’s hair, taken just before they left. For luck, she told herself. She cannot yet admit that it was so she would at least have something to remember Aurora by in case they failed.

*

Weeks of riding, journeying deeper into the muggy heat of midsummer. Weeks turn into a month, then two. They grow harder, almost gaunt, as they push themselves and their horses. Autumn makes cautious inroads and the heat begins to relent somewhat. The rumors become more coherent, more consistent across various sources. Mulan can feel that they are near what they seek. She does not know what she will do when they get there.

*

Mulan walks into the cave first, sword held ready. Inside, she and Phillip have been told there is a rift of sorts, a gateway to the underworld. Or a gateway to heaven. Or a gateway to unimaginable torments. No one has been able to give them a concrete story other than the rift goes somewhere. They are at the edge of the known world.

They walk for what seems like miles, Mulan in front because she’ll be damned if she’s brought Phillip all this way only to see him killed by an ambush. Phillip follows, also with his sword drawn.

Gradually Mulan becomes aware of another light source besides their torches. It reflects like light off of water but in sickly green hues. The cave ends in a shallow chamber, and near the back wall is a crack in the stone floor. The light is coming from the crack and Mulan slowly approaches it, peering over the edge.

“Mulan…” Phillip says, a warning note in his voice.

“This is it,” she says, knowing it in her gut to be true. She sets her torch on the ground.

“Mulan, you can’t go in there,” says Phillip.

“It’s what we’ve been looking for all this time,” says Mulan, still sizing up the crack.

Phillip has been reacting until now, following Mulan’s lead while he grieves inside. He keeps his seat on his horse out of habit, eats mechanically, sleeps because it is dark. For the first time he comes fully to life, making a decision of his own initiative. “I’m going. She was my wife.”

“No,” says Mulan, tugging at the clasps to her cape. It will only weigh her down. “You must stay safe, up here. If anything happens to you then bringing Aurora back will have been for nothing.”

Phillip stays her hand, eyes bright with anger. “She was my wife, Mulan. My true love. What makes you think you can succeed?”

Mulan feels how tightly his hand is gripping her arm and realizes that she cannot lie to him, not anymore. He’s figured it out for himself, or is near enough to the truth to make no difference. “For the same reason that you would,” says Mulan, doing Phillip the courtesy of looking him in the eye as she says it. To her surprise, the anger goes up like smoke.

“I know,” Phillip whispers. “I think I always knew. When you brought me back something was different and I—I didn’t want to say anything because I was just happy to be back and have my best friend and my wife with me.”

Mulan’s voice is a whisper as well. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I would never—”

“I know that too.” Philip’s grip slackens. “I appreciate why you left. You thought you were doing a thing for us, and I could never dishonor you for that.”

“Then let me do one more thing for you,” Mulan pleads. “Not just for Aurora. For you both.”

“She missed you, you know. While you were gone,” says Phillip.

“Please don’t say that to me,” says Mulan. “Just let me go.”

For a moment Mulan thinks that Phillip will, but then she sees his eyes dart towards the crack. It takes a heartbeat to figure out what she must do. Her fist swings, the pommel of her sword crunches, and she lays Phillip out flat on the cold ground. She jumps into the crack without a backwards glance.

*

She falls. For a heartbeat or an eternity, she falls. Falling through nothing is disconcerting; there’s no air rushing past her ears, no anything to tell her she’s in motion except the bottom dropping out of her stomach.

Then she’s not alone. Something is with her, a fathomless, overwhelmingly powerful presence.

“Fa Mulan,” says the presence—not so much out loud as reverberating within her, vibrating deep into her bones.

She takes a breath, or whatever passes for breathing in this airless place. “I have come on a mission of—”

“True love,” the presence rumbles.

“If you know that then you must know what I want.”

“She cannot be brought back.”

Mulan won’t let herself believe it. It’s simply another test to pass, a challenge to overcome. “Anything is possible when true love is involved.”

The presence seems amused by this. “This is a belief your kind persist in pursuing, but true love cannot undo a natural death. Magic must bow to nature in some respects.”

Something of the presence penetrates to Mulan’s heart of hearts, giving her a glimpse of the truth. Aurora is gone. Mulan is as empty as the nothingness around her. She sends up an apology to Phillip, hoping that wherever he is, he will forgive her.

“All is not lost,” says the presence, and Mulan climbs from the deep trenches of despair to the unsteady heights of renewed hope. “You are true of heart. Therefore another path is available to you.”

“I will do anything,” says Mulan.

*

The first time, she’d hesitated, watching Aurora tend to her garden, admiring her from afar. This time, even though she is half-disoriented from being plucked out of the ether and dropped with alarming suddenness into the past-become-now, she marches directly to Aurora.

Aurora gets as far as being happy to see her before Mulan halts half a pace in front of Aurora wearing the most deadly serious expression of her life. Aurora’s smile fades into concern. “Mulan, what’s wrong?” she asks.

“Aurora,” says Mulan, breathing her name out like a wish. Aurora can’t know that it has been months since Mulan saw her last, nearly a year since she left to join Robin and his Merry Men. She hastens to speak lest this turns out to be a dream, the words already rehearsed on night after lonely night in her hammock or on the road with Phillip. “We’ve been through many things together. And I’ve come to realize that you are the bravest, most beautiful, most honorable person I have ever met.”

Aurora looks to be on the brink of understanding and Mulan can feel her palms go sweaty inside her gloves. “I love you,” she says, unable to stop her voice from hitching on the last syllable. “And I know you are with child—”

Confusion from Aurora now, and it’s hardly fair of Mulan to be doing this with her knowledge of the timeline but she will not squander a second chance.

“—so I do not tell you this to try to influence you or sway your heart. But this was—this would have been my greatest regret, if I never told you.” There are other reasons. Mulan has almost seven months to find a way to ensure Aurora’s delivery goes smoothly. For now, it is enough to see Aurora, to touch her hand and speak the truth. The satisfaction lifting her shoulders tells her she has righted a great wrong.

“Your greatest regret—and you love—and how did you know I’m—” Aurora is visibly struggling to absorb everything. “What happened to you while you were gone?” she finally manages.

“Someday I will tell you the entire story. But for now…” Mulan touches Aurora’s cheek, fleetingly. “Just know that I love you. With no expectation or need. I love you.”

Aurora blinks madly. “Mulan, I…I don’t know what to say.”

“It’s a lot to take in, I know,” says Mulan. “I will leave you so you can think and regain your balance.”

“Wait, where are you going? You’re not leaving after something like that?” asks Aurora indignantly.

“No. I’m not going anywhere,” says Mulan. She smiles for the first time in a very long time.