The day begins as it means to go on, which is to say, fairly disastrously.
Mulan wakes to find Aurora already up, and it bothers her, though it should not. She is Aurora's protector; she feels still, though Aurora is no longer as in need of protection as she once was, that she should be watching out for her always. Still, it is not that which bothers her, or not that alone; it is the smell of burning, of coal and smoke and something far fouler, the white smoke drifting past that she initially mistook for early morning fog, for the natural haze of sleep she had yet to shake off.
"Aurora," she says, leaping up immediately, snatching her bedroll from the ground and using it to smother the flames. It will be little good after this, but she does not care. "What are you doing?"
Aurora blinks at her, eyes wide. "I am -" she begins, and shakes her head, glancing at the ruined bedroll, the now-barely smouldering coals. "I was cooking breakfast. I know I'm not the most skilled forager, but you could have simply said if you didn't want any."
"You were using willow branches," Mulan says, ignoring the hurt look on Aurora's face. It is more difficult than she would like it to be.
"Yes," Aurora says, clearly not understanding.
"Yes," Aurora says again.
"These woods are enchanted," Mulan says, relaxing a little now that the fire is out, the toxic fumes no longer wafting over them. "The willow trees … you should not approach them. And you must not burn them."
"I thought you would want a fire," Aurora says, frowning. Mulan feels bad for scolding her, but she cannot protect Aurora from dangers if Aurora does not know about them.
"I do," Mulan says. "I would. It was very thoughtful. But not in these woods."
"Very well," Aurora says, visibly steeling herself. It is one of the things Mulan most admires about her; her hidden strength, her ability to recover from the hardships she faces and keep moving forward. It's something she is not even certain Aurora knows about herself. "We will do without breakfast, then."
"Indeed," Mulan says. And then, in an effort to lighten the mood, "I am not in need of sustenance, anyhow. Without my bedroll, my pack will be much less effort to carry."
Aurora smiles at that, at least, and Mulan smiles back at her. As Aurora gingerly scatters the ashes from the fire, Mulan begins to pack up the camp, attaching Aurora's bedroll to her own things. Despite her joke, it will help relieve Aurora's burden, and it feels like the least she can do, after ruining Aurora's attempt at breakfast.
As they set off, Aurora glances at the bundle, but says nothing. Instead, she goes back to watching the trees warily, as if they are about to attack, while Mulan keeps her eyes on the road ahead of them. And, occasionally, on Aurora.
Or perhaps more than occasionally, for she entirely fails to spot the moss-covered gnoll until it is practically upon them.
"Don't move," she says to Aurora, who is thankfully right beside her, "and don't make a sound."
To her credit, Aurora stays completely still, mouth frozen open as if she were about to speak, her hair the only thing that moves in the slight breeze. The gnoll doesn't move, either, as if its being here was an accident, as if it hasn't yet seen them. Mulan prays she can keep that from happening entirely.
"What is it?" Aurora whispers.
"A gnoll," she whispers back. "It won't harm us if we don't startle it. Can you back away slowly?"
Aurora nods, and Mulan catches the motion in her peripheral vision. Good. They may escape this day unharmed yet.
And then, only a few steps into their retreat, Aurora's heel catches on a twig, and it snaps, impossibly loud in Mulan's ears. The sound can't have been as loud as it seemed to her, but it's enough to catch the attention of the gnoll, who turns, its gaze directed at Mulan and Aurora.
The gnoll crouches, a noxious cloud forming around it, and Mulan moves instinctively, reaching for Aurora. She barely gets her arms around her before the gas wafts over them, enveloping them in a green mist more putrid smelling even than the burning willow bark, making Mulan gag on it, clouding her senses, her awareness of everything except herself and Aurora.
And then the cloud disappears, falling away as quickly as it came over them, leaving no trace of the gnoll in its wake.
"What was that mist?" Aurora asks. Mulan can almost feel her confusion.
"I'm not sure," she says, still holding onto Aurora; though the danger has passed, she still feels wary, as if she needs to be on guard. Next to her, Aurora stiffens; she must feel it, too. "Self defence? Gnolls are usually sensitive to outsiders, perhaps we scared it."
Even so, she did not know they could do that; nothing in this wood is as she expected it to be.
Taking a breath, Mulan glances over at Aurora, and frowns. Though there is no other evidence of the cloud that consumed them only moments ago, there is a film where she and Aurora touch, clear and viscous, pulling them back together when she tries to move.
Aurora looks down at where Mulan is grasping one of her hands, and says, "Is that normal?"
No, Mulan doesn't think it is.
"I don't know," she says instead. It is more accurate, if not more truthful. She feels worried, though, as she did not when she first noticed it. "Part of the mist, perhaps." She can think of no better explanation.
It resists again when Mulan tries to pull away from Aurora, and she feels oddly exposed in that moment, as if it is echoing what is in her own heart, as if it has been put on display for all to see. Eventually the resistance snaps, and Mulan examines the residue on her hand as Aurora pulls her shawl more closely around her.
It is nothing, as far as she can tell, or at least nothing she has ever seen before. And then, as quickly as she noticed it, it is gone altogether, and she shudders. She glances over at Aurora; she, too, is bare where Mulan touched her.
"Is it dangerous?" Aurora asks, reaching out to take Mulan's hand in hers, looking it over. Mulan grows warmer at her touch, though she is certain she imagines the flush on Aurora's cheeks.
"I don't know," Mulan says again. She wishes she had more answers, that she could reassure Aurora, but she knows no more of this than Aurora does. Gnolls are notoriously secretive; there is little known about them at all, and Mulan's own knowledge of them is even less. "Do you feel all right?"
"I am fine," Aurora says. "I feel …"
"Strange?" Mulan asks. She is not sure why, only that she feels the same.
"Yes," Aurora says slowly. "Strange."
She is still holding Mulan's hand, and Mulan does not wish to pull away, but her more reasonable senses tell her that they should be moving on. She does so reluctantly, almost imagining that Aurora is equally reluctant to let her go.
"It may be these woods," she says, starting off again, Aurora keeping stride. "Perhaps they have more enchantments than I thought."
She does not see Aurora shiver beside her, but almost feels it instead. After what happened to her, Mulan is not surprised that Aurora is wary of magic; she feels the same trepidation.
"I only hope we do not encounter any more of them," Aurora says.
They do not, at least for a while. Though the willow trees still look ominous to Mulan's eyes, though she is constantly alert for other wandering creatures who may not welcome them, they encounter no resistance beyond the soft earth and chill wind. If Mulan were not so wary, it would be almost peaceful.
She feels the first pangs of hunger only moments before Aurora suggests they stop for lunch, and only then does she remember skipping breakfast. She is grateful to Aurora for the suggestion, and they walk only until they find a clearing big enough for them both to sit, choosing the damp ground over a pair of logs too perfectly placed to be entirely welcoming.
Though they are low on supplies, neither of them suggests hunting or foraging for food instead. Their supplies are for emergencies, for when no other food can be found - or, as now, for when there is no food available they can trust. Aurora passes Mulan a piece of flatbread and cured meat, and she smiles at her, grateful, already feeling ravenous.
"How long until we are out of these woods?" Aurora asks as they are finishing their meagre meal.
There is no accusation in her voice; she knows, as well as Mulan does, that there was no option but to pass through the wood unless they wanted to detour almost a month to travel around it. Almost Mulan wishes they had done so.
"Not long," Mulan says, and thinks, I hope. They are on the quickest path they could take, provided the wood does not shift and change around them; if it does, there is no telling how much further they must travel. "Tomorrow, perhaps, or the day after."
Aurora nods, already straightening. She looks as eager as Mulan feels to be moving already, to be done with this part of their journey. They move off quickly, Aurora keeping pace even burdened by her dress, and for the first time that day, Mulan begins to feel as if perhaps not everything is going to go wrong, after all.
And then Aurora trips on the jutting root of a large tree, and Mulan says, "Ouch!"
She bends down to rub at her foot, and then freezes, looking over at Aurora. Why should her foot hurt when -
"Oh," she says, and Aurora says, "Oh."
"I felt that," Mulan says slowly. "Why did I feel that?"
"Perhaps you tripped also?" Aurora suggests. She sounds unconvinced. Mulan feels unconvinced.
Her foot still throbs. Her mind races, thoughts clouded, trying to push through the panic and confusion. Keeping her gaze firmly on Aurora, she reaches down to her arm and pinches it, hard. Aurora yelps.
"What is happening?" Aurora asks, Mulan's confusion mirrored in her expression. Or perhaps is it Aurora's confusion Mulan is feeling. If this - whatever is happening to them - can transfer physical sensation, can it do the same for emotions? Thoughts?
Mulan looks down at her hands, remembers the residue of the gnoll's cloud that clung to her and Aurora both, and sighs. "The mist," she says. "I think it … I think it did this."
She doesn't explain what 'this' is. She isn't even certain she knows.
"It bound us together," Aurora says, and Mulan's heart skips a beat. She can feel an ache spread through her, a longing for something that should not even be happening. This is not hers to have. Aurora is not hers to have.
"Yes," she says. And then, reluctantly, "I believe it is only temporary."
Aurora frowns. "How do you know?"
She doesn't. But magic like this is powerful, and this was no deliberate spell; an accident, perhaps, a side effect of whatever makes the gnoll so sensitive to others. Clearly it has affected them also, but she cannot imagine there is any way it will last. She does not know whether to be disappointed or relieved.
Aurora's expression shows similar mixed feelings, and Mulan feels, not for the first time, that she must guard herself more closely, that she must keep her feelings to herself. Now, more than ever.
"Perhaps the effect is strongest while still in these woods," she says instead. She has no way of knowing whether it's true, but at least it provides a little hope. "The sooner we can leave, the sooner we will be ourselves again."
Aurora reaches for her, then, and the sensation is like no other Mulan has known; a strange doubling of the touch upon itself, as if she is feeling it from both sides. It lasts only for a second, and then fades, leaving only the feeling of Aurora's hand on her own. It is still enough to fog her mind.
"All right," Aurora says, looking more certain now, as if Mulan's touch gives her strength. "We continue on."
Aurora releases her, and this time, Mulan is certain she does not imagine the hesitation there. She only wishes it came from Aurora's feelings, and not from her own.
As they walk, Mulan can feel herself becoming more and more nervous. Only they are not her own feelings, she knows; what she can feel is Aurora's nerves, uncertainty creeping through her determination.
"It will be all right," Mulan says, glancing at Aurora, not slowing her pace. "We will find a way to end the spell."
"You sound so certain," Aurora says, and smiles at her. The ache in Mulan's chest, the one she usually tries so hard to ignore, grows insistent. "You always sound so certain."
"Do I feel certain?" she asks. It is almost a joke, but not quite.
Aurora studies her, moving closer, causing Mulan to falter a step. She should not have asked; it is only inviting trouble.
"Yes," Aurora says. "I believe you do."
Mulan does not ask what it is she feels certain of. "Then I must be right."
"And if you are not?"
Mulan does not know. She does not know much any more, only that she cannot say what she feels; that a part of her already wishes she is wrong.
Aurora ignores her silence, continuing on as if Mulan had answered her. "Perhaps you will simply have to stay with me forever."
And there's the ache, again, fiercer than ever. Mulan cannot imagine that Aurora cannot feel it, too, but if she does, she gives no outward sign. Mulan is grateful for that, at least.
"Perhaps," she says at last, because Aurora seems to require her to say something. It is far more honest than she would like to be, but at least it seems to satisfy Aurora.
After that, Mulan stays stubbornly silent, ignoring Aurora's occasional attempts to engage her. Instead, she keeps her gaze firmly on the path ahead, moving through the forest as quickly and as silently as she can.
Her increased vigilance, in the end, is good for more than ignoring her current predicament; it enables her to see the next danger before it is upon them. This time, she does not have to tell Aurora to stop, for she does so as soon as Mulan is aware of the danger.
For the first time she is willing to admit to herself, Mulan is thankful for their bond, if it keeps Aurora out of danger.
There are four of them; rats, she thinks, though several times the size of any she has seen before. They are distracted, feeding on something obviously freshly killed. Mulan cannot tell what it is, or was, though it was obviously large; a deer, perhaps, or a creature of comparable size. Far too large to have been felled by ordinary rats, though these are far from ordinary.
She strikes while they are distracted, killing one and wounding another before they can react. When they do, they advance on her as one, and if they did not have the exact features of rats, she would assume she had been mistaken, that these are wild dogs instead. But they do not snarl or bark as they attack her; instead, they emit a sound she thinks would be a squeak but for their size, instead a low grunt that makes fear flare up inside her.
Not her fear. Aurora's. She has faced far worse than this.
She takes down one of the rats before it can reach her, not dead but too badly wounded to fight. The other wounded rat reaches her first, obviously enraged, biting her on the arm. Mulan cries out and flings it off, its back hitting a nearby tree, hard enough to sound a loud crack. From the tree branch, she thinks, rather than the rat, which advances on her again.
She deals with the closer rat first, striking fast, chopping it nearly in half before using the flat of her blade to sweep the other rat away again. As it runs back, she holds her blade steady, away from her, moving it at the last second so that the rat rushes onto it, skewering itself.
In an ordinary forest, with ordinary rats, they would nearly make dinner. Now, she simply finishes off the final, wounded rat, cleans her blade, and turns away.
Aurora looks pained, clutching her arm, and Mulan rushes to her. "Are you hurt?"
"No," Aurora says, smiling, though she still looks to be in pain. "You are."
Right. The one that bit her - she had nearly forgotten.
"Here," Aurora says, wincing a little as she reaches down to tug at her dress, tearing off a strip of fabric. "Your wound looks bad, let me tend it."
Her touch send a shock of warmth down Mulan's spine, far more potent than whatever pain she can feel in her arm. Aurora smiles, as if she felt it, too, and Mulan can feel her cheeks heating in turn. Perhaps Aurora will mistake it for the shock of injury.
"You were very brave," Aurora says as she works, and Mulan cannot be sure if the admiration she feels is hers, for Aurora tending to her without fuss, or Aurora's, for Mulan's actions in battle. Perhaps it is both.
Mulan shrugs with her uninjured arm. "They were only rats."
"Extremely large rats," Aurora says. "I could not have fought them."
"It's not your job to fight," Mulan says. "I could not have dressed my wound."
She could have, of course; she has never met a soldier untrained in basic field medicine.
"Lying," Aurora says, but fondly, and Mulan smiles.
"Yes," she says. "But I could not have done it so well."
Aurora smiles back at her, meeting Mulan's gaze for longer than is strictly necessary. Mulan can feel fondness radiating from her - no. Not simply fondness.
Affection. Attraction. Love.
Not Aurora's feelings. They are her feelings, and if she is aware of them, then surely Aurora is, too.
She pulls back sharply, jostling her wounded arm as she does so, and Aurora's pained expression mirrors the sharp twinge she feels. Perhaps that will make Aurora forget what she felt before.
And then she risks a glance at Aurora, and knows that it has not. Aurora is staring at her, wonderingly, and Mulan cannot bear it; she turns away again.
"We should be going," she says. "We still need to find a place to camp tonight, and we can still put some distance behind us before it grows dark."
Aurora does not answer, but moves forward, touching Mulan's uninjured arm.
"Aurora," she says, more quietly. She wants to apologise, to ask her to forget this, but she cannot form the words.
And then Aurora moves closer, laying her other hand gingerly on Mulan's shoulder, and presses her lips lightly to Mulan's. At first, Mulan does not react; cannot react, for she is frozen by the gesture, her emotions and Aurora's tumbling around one another in her head until she no longer knows which is which. Then Aurora deepens the kiss, her lips parting, and only then does Mulan react, settling her hand on Aurora's waist, pulling her closer, kissing her back.
After an eternity, the kiss ends, and she takes one step back, then another. "I'm sorry," says, though she isn't entirely certain which part she is apologising for.
"For what?" Aurora asks, sounding amused, of all things. "It was I who kissed you."
Mulan does not feel amused. She feels -
Something Aurora is not feeling. She pinches herself.
Aurora looks confused, now. "Why did you -"
And then comprehension dawns on her face.
"The spell," Aurora says. "It is broken."
Aurora is right; there is no other explanation. What Mulan doesn't understand is how; they are still at least a day away from reaching the edge of the woods, and nothing has happened that might have caused the enchantment to wear off.
Except the kiss.
True love's kiss, her traitorous thoughts declare, and she is glad now, more than ever, that Aurora cannot share them.
Except that Aurora is moving towards her again, touching her, kissing her, and this time, Mulan does not hesitate before kissing her back. Her emotions are her own again, and so are Aurora's; if she does this now, it is because she chooses to.
"When -" she asks, after they break apart again. This time, she does not move away.
"When I knew you felt the same," Aurora says. "When I knew I felt the same."
Mulan is not certain she understands, but she does not care; she cannot help grinning at Aurora, as widely as Aurora is grinning back at her.
"We still need to get clear of the wood," Mulan says. "And make camp for this night."
"Yes," Aurora says.
"We have along way to go."
"There might be other dangers."
"We might be separated."
"We will not be," Aurora says. "Not ever."
Not ever. Mulan feels warm, from her forehead down to the soles of her feet.
"And Phillip?" she says. She cannot help asking; she owes him her fealty, even as she owes Aurora, and she cannot bear to have betrayed him.
"Will still need us to rescue him," Aurora says.
"Then," Aurora says, squeezing Mulan's hand, "another adventure, perhaps? I've grown rather fond of this one."
Mulan smiles. Despite everything, she cannot help agreeing.