She has had this dream before.
Well. It wasn’t this dream, with the halls dark in an entirely different way to the ones in her memory, with silence lingering like dust in corners, with voices she cannot make out calling her name, fragments she cannot catch.
She wakes up reaching out for something that isn’t there, fingers closing on darkness, breath cluttered and close. She reaches for a candle, for any kind of light, and her hand collides with a worn book, sending it crashing loudly to the floor.
“Belle?” Mulan asks, instantly alert, sleep abandoned. Soldier’s instincts in the way her fingers curl around Belle’s wrist.
“I’m fine,” Belle says, aware her heart is thumping, her hands are shaking. “It’s nothing.”
The young man comes to the village three days later; his Cantonese is serviceable but poor, his pronunciation clumsy, and while it has been some years since Fa Mulan’s triumphant retirement, the villagers are used to travellers searching for the legend that she has become. True, the travellers are normally from China, not from Europe, as the boy’s golden hair and salt-caked clothes label him, but they are used to directing them to the Fa family’s farm. They do not tell the people who have come so far that Fa Mulan will not see them, that she accomplished the impossible things that have already become history, great stories passed from tongue to tongue, and then she came home, and she did not drift again. Fa Mulan will teach them that herself soon enough.
He has travelled a long way, with a heavy message and a heavier heart, uncertain of his way, uncertain of his reception. He has travelled through lands he never even dreamed of, back when he was a child for longer than anyone else has ever been, back when normality was an endless enchantment. He is searching for the woman he barely remembers now; her eyes and smile are what he has left, and he has his final promise to his prince to keep him bound to his course.
The Fa farm prospers, and the stone wall around the lands is high, the iron gate locked against intruders or curious passers-by, hoping for a glimpse of a heroine that they have sung about, spoken about, and long imagined, but who wishes to be more than an exhibit of war, a symbol of things she never intended to represent. The young man is aware of eyes upon him, though he can’t see anyone, and although that would unnerve any casual visitor, it actually makes him feel at home.
And so he waits.
“I need to speak to Belle,” the boy says, fingers curled tight around the bars of the gate, “I won’t leave until I see her.”
Belle can see that Mulan will turn the young man away, but she is kinder, and in any case no one has ever come here looking for her. Mulan is something glorious to her people; Belle, even after years in China, remains an unknown piece of the puzzle, and even the villagers disregard her, expect her to remain something temporary.
What Belle did will not go down in history, and only partially because she never tells anyone. She only told Mulan in the end because the woman smiled, sheepish, and admitted eventually: you should probably meet my dragon.
“Mulan, let me talk to him,” she says, walking up behind her, laying a hand on her shoulder. Leaves it there until the hard line of Mulan’s back softens, and she steps back enough for Belle to unlock the gate, invite their visitor in.
Belle leads him up to the house; he stays silent, looking around him at the trees, the lake, the chickens that run free in the yard. His clothes are tough but stained, cut in a fashion she hasn’t seen in a long time, and she wonders what he’s doing here. No, not wonders. There is too much fear in her mind for it to be wonder.
Mulan hovers by the door, unobtrusive but angrily determined, and Belle puts a kettle of water over the fire for tea. They have few visitors here: distant members of Mulan’s family, some of her old army friends, messengers from the emperor, and few others. The visitors are never for Belle. She put her past far behind her, sliced every tie when she left. Sometimes she regrets it, and sometimes she doesn’t.
She invites her guest to lay down his pack, to take off his boots as is the custom here, to relax. His mouth twists in a smile she doesn’t understand, even as he thanks her in his mangled Cantonese, and her heart catches in her throat as she recognises the accent.
“Would you like some tea?” she asks in French, the language rusty and yet familiar in her mouth, unspoken as it has been for years.
“Thank you,” the boy replies, truly looking at her for the first time with sharply blue eyes, and his smile is softer, more real. She can see his teeth, the gap between the front two, and suddenly Belle can’t breathe.
“Chip?” she says.
When Belle left France, Chip was still a little boy who clutched at her and begged her not to leave in hours of tears. Now, years later, he is tall – taller than her – and lanky, thick-fingered and strong-armed. She can’t see much of the boy she once knew in him, but then she doesn’t know what he sees when he looks at her.
He is quiet while he sips at the tea, and Mulan has deigned to leave her post at the door, to kneel beside Belle and wait for the explanation. She knows little French; Belle taught her some when they first met, when they were trying to cram as much of each other’s worlds into their own as they could. They were both lying, of course, but that didn’t become obvious until late enough that it no longer mattered. Belle’s Cantonese wasn’t bad at all by the time she came to Mulan’s village, deep down searching for the woman she had read about in the books she had bought on her travels, and so it is in Cantonese that they have communicated.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you like,” Belle tells Chip, unable to think of him as anything else, even grown as he now is. Mulan’s face is a careful blank, though she is handling her teacup with more care than usual, fingertips lingering on the porcelain. For the first time, Belle wonders if Mulan believed her when she told her what happened before her father died and she fled France forever.
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay,” he admits, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. The movement is so vulnerable Belle reaches for his hand before she even thinks about it; Chip freezes, but he doesn’t pull away, and she squeezes tighter.
“Why have you come to find me, Chip?” she asks, aware her voice is quivering, just a little. Not true fear, because Belle faced down more things before she was twenty years old than most people face in a lifetime, but… something, in any case.
It’s a long, arduous journey between France and China; Belle knows because she made it, searching for the adventure she had so longed for as a child, and then put aside to be a possession in a no longer enchanted castle, and then took back again with both hands, running until she could not run anymore. It is not a journey to be made lightly, on a whim, and it would not have been easy to work out where she was in the first place. That question, at least, is not one she needs to ask; she wanted to take the mirror with her, but didn’t in the end, aware that it would make leaving impossible.
“You need to come ho- come back,” Chip stumbles, eyes on the table, the muscles in his hand tensing under her touch.
Mulan shifts imperceptibly nearer to Belle; she can understand that much, at least.
“I can’t,” Belle tells him, though she doesn’t let him go. “Why would I?”
Chip takes a slow, shaking breath, and then another; he is quiet for so long that Belle thinks that he isn’t going to reply, that this is a fruitless quest, a childish ploy, a trap. Instead, he meets her gaze with eyes that are startling with sadness, that seem to hold too much for someone who is still young; even younger than she was when she walked into a dungeon and promised away her freedom.
“The prince is dead,” he says, and even though she left him a long time ago, loved him in another life, Belle’s heart still cracks a little, for everything that he was and was not, for the way that he let her go every time she wanted to leave.
“I’m sorry,” she tells Chip, and means it, “but I can’t-”
He shakes his head. “You don’t understand,” he insists, “the prince is dead and he has left you everything.”
Mulan’s ancestors are not her own; Belle’s father is buried in the little village churchyard near her mother, and she doesn’t know where the rest of her family are. There must be something reassuring in having everyone so close, she thinks, even if Mulan describes it more as a burden. Belle is used to being watched by confused, suspicious eyes; has used them to form armour rather than to crumple underneath them.
Still, she’s content to sit here in the small temple, surrounded by another family’s history. Her own history is muddied, and she wonders if her prince, her once husband, now lies in a quiet stone vault with his own lineage. If that will afford him some kind of peace. In truth, she doesn’t know how to feel; when she said goodbye, she knew it would be for the last time. Belle had no real plans, just an urge to run and not to stop. When she did finally slow down, she was most of the way out of Europe, her skin burned from the sun, her feet blistered in her boots. She was tired and a little too thin and slept with a knife in her left hand because a young woman travelling alone often attracted the wrong kind of attention, but she was exhilarated besides.
Perhaps Belle was supposed to be contented with rescuing a magical castle and its prince from the evil enchantment over it, but it started to chafe, the gowns and the servants and the books in the library full of pictures of places she’d still never been; places she would still never go. The heroines of so many of those stories seemed contented to start homes, to stop exploring, to leave their pasts behind, but Belle was nineteen years old and had inadvertently become royalty and she still hadn’t managed to go more than a few miles from the village where she’d grown up.
The thought of going back is a relief and a curse.
Mulan makes her way up the path between the falling cherry blossoms, and in spite of her inner turmoil, Belle can’t stop the smile that crosses her lips. Sometimes she thinks that it wasn’t adventure that she was searching for, in her years of travelling: it was a kindred spirit. And somehow, against all the odds, she’s managed to find one.
“I’ve written to Shang,” Mulan says without preamble, sitting down on the step beside Belle. “He will come and watch over the farm, or send someone to do it, anyway.”
Belle nudges Mulan’s shoulder. “You’re asking the head of the emperor’s army to become a farmer?”
Mulan nudges back. “A French prince left you a castle,” she responds.
Belle shrugs, momentarily awkward, and then realises what Mulan is actually telling her. “I hadn’t even decided if-”
“Of course you’re going,” Mulan says, “and I’m coming with you.” She links their fingers, squeezes Belle’s hand.
“You don’t have to,” Belle assures her, though the thought of the long journey with only her guilt and this new Chip that she doesn’t know makes something inside her freeze.
Mulan smiles, soft, and presses a little closer. “I want to see where your stories come from,” she says. “And, well, I won a war but I’ve never left China.”
Belle leans her head on Mulan’s shoulder, their hair full of blossoms, and listens to the quiet of the home they have built together.
“Thank you,” she whispers, and wonders when she’ll see this again.
Belle travelled from village to village, stumbling through cities, with nothing but her clothes, a pack full of books, and an amount of money that she guarded carefully. She learned scraps of local languages from her books and from taverns, mime working where her native French and a handful of collected words couldn’t. Her books and her provincial life hadn’t prepared her for the sheer size of the world, overwhelming and beautiful and almost too much. She first came to China on board a fishing boat, having bribed the fishermen to let her aboard, her eyes filled with the delicate curls of their written language, ears filled with the intonations of their unfamiliar language.
Seven years later, her return journey is somewhat different. Shang not only came to take care of the Fa farm himself, but sent a few men to escort them to the coast.
“I can protect us,” Mulan told him, face turned up to his, the hardness in her expression that Belle so rarely saw.
“I know,” Shang replied, placating, while Belle hid and watched their argument. She knows that Shang was once engaged to Mulan, that they fought together in the war, and that there is still a closeness between them that Mulan values. Shang is politely distant, but he’s always treated Belle kindly and with respect, although she knows he’s realised that they live together in more than spinsterhood. Even if she didn’t see how highly he values Mulan, Belle would be grateful for that alone.
“Everyone knows who you are,” Shang told her, “and it might be best to have some extra pairs of hands with you.”
Mulan acquiesced with grace, and Belle didn’t step in to remind Shang that Mulan had trained as a soldier, she had travelled all the way to China alone before her twentieth birthday, and Chip made the journey only recently without mishap. She remembers the helplessness of friends in the face of perhaps never seeing you again.
It’s been quite some years since Belle needed to speak any French. She taught Mulan a little as Mulan taught her to use chopsticks, guiding Belle’s fingers until she could pick up a single grain of rice, while her mouth formed je t’aime until the sounds were right and the words blurred together.
Now she tries to teach Chip Cantonese and Mulan French, the three of them communicating in half-sentences and tangled syllables, hand gestures and smiles. Now that some of the worry has slid from his features, Belle can see the little boy she knew in his laughter, in his relaxed features when he sleeps. Sometimes, she imagines she can even see the little teacup that would hop up into her hands, bright-eyed and eager.
In the evenings, Chip tells her what has happened since she left, and Belle tells him about the things she discovered in her travels. Mulan has heard all her stories before, of course, though they were in a different language, and she watches Belle retell her tales with the soft expression that no one but Belle sees. It’s not the expression of a woman who is a legend in her country, but it is the expression of the woman who found Belle when she didn’t know that she was lost.
The ship they sail on is far nicer than the rickety fishing boat that first brought Belle over the sea, where she lay in a heap listening to a language she couldn’t speak and wondering if nausea or sinking would kill her first. It’s nicer than the one Chip travelled on too; she can tell from his expression.
Mulan learned how to sleep under any circumstances during her time in the army, and it’s one of the skills that has never left her, in much the same way that she can wake instantly, with none of the blurriness that accompanies Belle’s path to consciousness. Sometimes Belle envies her this talent; Mulan has seen more atrocities than Belle ever will, and yet she sleeps soundly and deeply every night. Belle is sometimes still haunted by locked doors and shelves full of books gathering dust, though she doesn’t remember those things as often when she is awake.
Tired of listening to the sea beneath the wooden boards of their makeshift cabin, Belle leaves Mulan sleeping to step out onto the deck, wrapping her cloak around her at the chill of the night winds.
Chip is already leaning against the side, eyes on the dark water, on the reflections of the stars.
“There’re supposed to be mermaids in these waters,” he tells Belle when she joins him. “I didn’t see any on the way here, either.”
Chip has told Belle about Lumiere and Babette’s children, about his mother’s still-abundant kitchens, about what became of his brothers and sisters. The one thing he hasn’t told her is what she truly wishes to know, what she never wants to hear.
“Was it sudden?” Belle asks, under cover of the dark, the quiet except for the creaking of the sails.
“No,” Chip replies, not looking at her. “No, it took a while.”
Belle swallows around a sudden lump in her throat, curls her nails into her palms.
“No one wrote to me,” she says quietly. “I… I would have come back.”
She catches Chip’s smile by the half-light of the nearest lantern, gone in an instant.
“He knew that,” he replies.
The journey to France is different to the one Belle made the first time around: it’s shorter, because she’s not flinging herself into every new opportunity that falls into her path, and she has company, and now there is a destination. She didn’t have a destination or even an intention of stopping, years ago. But when the time came for Belle to leave Mulan’s home and travel onwards, she found that she couldn’t. Or, well, she didn’t want to, and that part is the important one. The one that matters most, in the end.
“You’re nervous,” Mulan observes. She sounds more surprised than anything else; Belle supposes that they have both been living their lives as though nothing can ever scare them anymore.
“Weren’t you?” she says. “The first time you came home, I mean.”
“I was terrified,” Mulan allows, “but I had stolen my father’s sword and run off to join the army while pretending to be a boy. What did you do?”
Belle pretends to think about this for a moment. “Well, the most handsome man in my village wanted to marry me.”
Mulan raises an eyebrow. “And?”
“I got him killed,” Belle replies.
It was a long time ago and Belle really, really doesn’t think about Gaston anymore; he was a cruel brute who tried to break the world to fit it into his own perfect mould, and she would have suffocated if she’d been condemned to him. But the village never really forgave her; she thinks that, even some ten years later, they probably still believe in a murderous beast in a castle on the other side of the forest, despite evidence to the contrary. It takes a long time to break small town mentality.
“He was rude and cruel and manipulative and had never read a book in his life and nearly killed my father and the prince but… people don’t forget those things,” Belle admits at last, because there are still parts of her story that Mulan doesn’t know. It’s alright; she knows there are still pieces that Mulan hasn’t told her.
Mulan’s smile is a little rueful, and Belle reflects that Mulan is a living legend in her country, but her village still look at her like a failure who never did make a glorious marriage to better her family. Mulan pretends it doesn’t bother her and, for her part, Belle pretends not to understand the glances thrown at them when they have to go to market.
“It sounds like you did them a favour,” Mulan tells her at last.
Belle laughs. “I don’t think the time apart will have made them see it that way,” she says.
They don’t have to enter the village, though Belle knows that they will have to pass by it for the easiest route through to the forest. She doesn’t want to, and yet she’s drawn inexorably to it. Chip holds their horses, clearly impatient to be going home, but he waits while Belle takes Mulan’s hand and leads her to where they can look over the tidy tiled roofs, the cobbled streets.
It’s different to the village where Mulan grew up, but in many ways it looks similar.
“It looks exactly the same,” Belle remarks, something aching in her chest as she watches smoke spill from the chimney of the house that isn’t hers anymore.
“Did you think it wouldn’t?” Mulan asks carefully.
“I knew it would,” Belle replies, soft, and it takes her a long moment to tear her eyes away.
The castle is as Belle remembers from the day she left, the sight of it stealing the breath from her lungs. Mulan is silent beside her, eyes wide and lips parted silently.
“This is yours?” she asks, voice hushed.
“Apparently,” Belle replies, though her hands are shaking where she grips the reins.
“This… wasn’t what I was expecting,” Mulan admits eventually. She took Belle to a celebration at the emperor’s palace once; both of them giggling while folding each other’s kimonos, later on gasping at the fireworks painting the sky above the roof. The palace was stunning, but in a different way to Belle’s chateau.
Belle isn’t sure if the castle has grown bigger or smaller in her imagination, if she’s relieved or disappointed by the sight of it. Something inside her feels calmer, though; something she wasn’t even aware of until this moment.
“Hurry up,” Chip calls, already further down the path than they are, “they’ll be expecting us!”
“How?” Mulan asks, as they follow him.
Belle thinks of the mirror that she perhaps should have taken with her after all. “They have a way,” she says, and digs her heels into her horse’s sides.
Mrs Potts pulls Belle into a tight hug before she can take more than one step over the threshold; Belle falls into her arms without hesitation, clinging to her as hard as she can. She doesn’t know how long it is until they part; Mrs Potts cups Belle’s face in her hands, her eyes shining with tears.
“Look at you,” she whispers, and Belle wonders how different she must appear; her sun-darkened skin and older features, golden streaks of sunlight in her shorter hair. She doesn’t travel in man’s attire, as Mulan still does, but her dress is far from the fashionable cuts, even if the Chinese silk would be worth a fortune in France.
Belle gives Mrs Potts a watery smile, unable to articulate anything beyond another hug. “Oh,” she says when she finally can let go, “I almost forgot.”
Mulan steps forward from where she’s been watching the reunion in respectful silence. Belle can’t tell if she’s nervous; her gaze is steady, her spine straight, and while her French is still haphazard at best, she knows enough to scrape through an introduction. “I am-”
“We know who you are,” Mrs Potts replies, in accented but careful Cantonese, and pulls Mulan into a hug too. “Welcome to our home.”
Belle knows that she starts crying herself at this moment, while Chip, hovering somewhere behind his mother, gives her a wink and a grin.
Belle knows she should not have doubted them, not any of them, not for a moment.
The library is carefully maintained; not loved as it was when she lived here, but dust-free and organised. Belle is alone, this first time, as she unfolds the cloth she wrapped around the books she took from here years ago, returns them all to their rightful places. They are more battered and faded than their brethren, perhaps, but they’ve had adventures; oh, such adventures.
She was afraid of returning here, she knows, because she thought that if she came back she might never leave. Belle has always wanted her future uncertain, wanted options instead of guarantees, and coming home to France always seemed like a commitment that she wasn’t ready to make. But she’s realising, now that she’s here, surrounded by the friends who became her family, that visiting doesn’t mean staying. The castle is hers now to do as she wishes with, and she is sure that Cogsworth, Lumiere and Mrs Potts will be able to look after it better than she ever could.
There are graves, old and new, that she must visit. Mulan says that she is looking forward to meeting Belle’s ancestors, as Belle has met hers; Belle knows that her father would have loved her, knows that the prince would have liked her. Despite the language barrier on both sides, the castle’s inhabitants definitely approve of Mulan; they are friendly and raucous at meal times, the food lavish and exquisite and plentiful. It many ways it feels more like a holiday than a true return, and Belle is grateful for that.
She’s starting to realise that just because this was the beginning, it doesn’t mean that it has to be the end.
Belle startles when the door opens, a shaft of light from the hallway spilling into the half-dark library.
“I thought I’d find you here,” Mulan says softly, grin visible even through the gloom.
Mulan has always been the practical one, constantly moving, and Belle has always been the one having new books delivered to the farm, diligently learning the Chinese characters until she could decipher the stories and poems for herself. It’s their differences, as much as their similarities, that have kept them together; something Belle never expected to be grateful for, but she’s learned a lot about love since leaving this castle behind her.
“You like it here,” Mulan observes, joining Belle on one of the padded seats, where she once taught her prince, her beast, to read, a lifetime ago.
“I do,” Belle agrees, “but that doesn’t mean I want-”
“I know.” Mulan places her fingers against Belle’s lips to quiet her, takes her hand. “I’ve already written to Shang. I think he always wanted a chance to play at being something other than a soldier. We can stay as long as you need to.”
“I don’t know how long that will be,” Belle admits, finally.
“That’s alright.” Mulan squeezes her hand. “It’s nice to put a place to a story.”
Belle looks around her at the library that once held all of her hopes and dreams; she’s been to so many of the places on the pages now, and she wishes she could tell her past self that, assure her that things change but they don’t necessarily become worse.
“Sometimes I can hardly believe that that was me,” she admits, quiet.
“I can,” Mulan says, smile widening when Belle looks at her. “You’ve always seen things as they really are. Whether it’s a beast under a spell or… well,” her smile tilts, “you’re the only person in years who looks at me and doesn’t just see a legend.”
“Oh,” Belle manages, finally.
“Yes,” Mulan laughs, “oh,” and she leans closer in the darkening library.