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Bear It Out Even to the Edge

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Mulan has always known there are different types of bravery—she has better reason than most to know it. There is the bravery of standing before a swinging sword, and there is the bravery of standing by one’s convictions. And there are always consequences for bravery. She doesn’t regret that she finally was brave enough to tell Aurora the truth, but ancestors help her, it has made her life awkward.

It’s a balancing act, being around the woman she loves and that woman’s intended, who also happens to be one of Mulan’s closest comrades, but she would rather be here than, say, keeping up the appearance of being a man to avoid being executed. And though guilt is unavoidable every time she looks at Phillip or even hears his name, it’s all completely overridden by the way her heart blooms around Aurora.

Perhaps the relief of being allowed a second chance is masking the pain of telling Aurora “I love you” and not hearing it in return. All Mulan knows is that she can bear to see Aurora with Phillip because she knows that the alternative was so much worse. She would rather Aurora be alive and awkward around her than dead and lost forever.

*

Of course, Aurora is so awkward around Mulan now that even Phillip realizes something is amiss. “Are you two having a fight?” he asks Mulan one day while they’re sparring.

She sidesteps his overhand blow and slaps him a good one on the arm with the flat of her practice blade in one flowing movement. “That was sloppy. And no.”

“Are you sure?” asks Phillip, resetting his stance before thrusting with his sword.

Mulan parries it to the side. “Yes. Adjust your footwork.”

Phillip moves his feet into a stronger stance, allowing him to move more freely, and tries again. Mulan counters, closing in quickly with her blade to Phillip’s throat. “You are distracted today,” she says, watching his face for telltale signs of a lie.

Phillip swallows under the blunted wooden sword against his Adam’s apple. “Or you’re just a bloody demon on the battlefield.”

Mulan’s answering smile is torn between wolfish and wistful, twisting her mouth unpleasantly. “You’re distracted,” she says, and lowers her sword. “The baby.”

Phillip huffs and moves back, one hand pushing back his sweaty hair. “Of course I am. You tell me one of your ancestors came to you in a vision and said the birth would be difficult—that’s distracting. We have healers from every corner of the realm fighting over a solution and no solution. Distracted isn’t even the right word for it.”

“I am grateful you believed me,” says Mulan, pretending to examine her sword for damage.

“I can’t afford not to believe you, not in this matter,” says Phillip. He begins to pace the practice ring, feet kicking up sawdust. “Even if you were my worst enemy I wouldn’t take that chance. And you are my best friend.”

Mulan is well-practiced by now at burying the guilt those words stab into her. Courage means accepting consequences, and when she confessed all to Aurora she did so knowing she could lose everything. But honor means she cannot pursue a promised woman. She takes great pains to treat Aurora exactly as she did before, no more and no less. She does not allow herself to think about what would happen if Aurora felt the same.

"Again,” she says, and this time she lets Phillip win.

*

Though the castle is large, it’s impossible to avoid anyone for any length of time, especially since Mulan is often needed on official business. She has her head down after leaving a defense council in Phillip’s war room, mind full of patrol assignments and supply figures, when she literally runs into Aurora. Aurora has her head similarly down, buried in a book, and she startles badly when Mulan bumps her.

“Mulan,” says Aurora, one hand over her heart, the other automatically marking her place. The fright has brought a rosy flush to her cheeks, scattered several locks of hair across her face. Mulan can barely stand the sight of her.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“You’re always so quiet,” says Aurora.

“Phillip has asked me to wear a bell,” jokes Mulan. It’s his most common complaint about her, that she cat-foots through the palace far too quietly for comfort. She can see that Aurora is amused by the image, but where once she might have continued to banter about how ridiculous Mulan would look in a little belled collar, now she just stands silently with her hands holding her book in front of her. Mulan’s smile disappears. “Anyway, I have something I must do.”

“Of course,” says Aurora. But she doesn’t move aside.

Mulan stares at her and strains against her own body’s urge to reach out, to touch, to linger. It’s no more than a moment, but it stretches almost infinitely for Mulan, a vast yearning towards Aurora that she forces herself to squash with ruthless determination. She said she would not pressure Aurora, that she had no expectation, and she will keep her word.

Perhaps Aurora notices how rigidly Mulan is holding herself back; perhaps she simply wants to fill the silence between them. “Mulan,” she says softly.

Mulan makes a choked noise, half buried in her throat. “Good day, princess,” she says, and strides off looking as businesslike as possible and not at all as though she is running away.

*

The children of the palace regard Mulan as a curiosity. She is used to it; she has traveled farther than anyone they know and comes from a land so distant many of them have never heard of it. And of course she is Phillip’s closest advisor and confidant, which carries a certain cachet with the palace residents. At first she was reservedly polite with them and they were shy in turn. But when she saw two of the cook’s boys steal a toy from one of the washerwomen’s daughters, her retribution was swift, and thereafter the children lost their shyness and felt free to speak to her as they pleased. By now she knows what that small tug on the edge of her cloak means, and is accustomed to turning around to find a tiny, solemn human or three waiting behind her with a question.

Today she is coming from yet another meeting with Phillip’s medical advisors and her stomach is grumbling from missing a meal. Just outside the kitchens she feels the proprietary tug and indeed, two children have followed her downstairs. “Captain Mulan,” says Mathilde, the daughter of one of kitchen maids.

“Yes, Mathilde,” says Mulan patiently.

“Is it true you killed a wraith?” Mathilde asks.

“Yes,” says Mulan. “With the help of Princess Aurora, we destroyed the wraith that took Prince Phillip’s soul.”

“I told you,” say Mathilde’s friend, another daughter of a kitchen maid. Her mother is new in the palace and Mulan thinks her name is Geraldine. She does try to remember the children’s names but there are quite a few of them.

“Was it scary?” asks Geraldine.

“Captain Mulan doesn’t get scared,” says Mathilde.

“I have been scared many times,” says Mulan, remaining serious despite the amusing way both children’s mouths open. “But to be a warrior does not mean you lose all fear. It means you learn to confront your fear and overcome it. Then you may use it as you need to make you stronger in battle.”

“Okay,” says Mathilde, clearly not understanding it all but not wanting to let on. “May we see your sword?”

Mulan hears a tiny cough from around the corner, as though someone is restraining themselves from making a sound. “Perhaps another day,” she tells Mathilde with one eye cast down the corridor. “If you are good.”

“We will!” Mathilde promises, already grabbing Geraldine’s hand so they can scamper away.

As soon as the girls are gone, a slippered foot rounds the corner, followed by the rest of Aurora in a gown of white and dark azure. “You’re better with children than you used to be,” she notes.

Mulan cannot say this is because she spent long months looking after Roland, son of Robin Hood. Instead she just smiles blandly, as is her wont these days when faced with Aurora. “What brings you down to the kitchens, highness?” she asks.

“An absurd level of hunger,” Aurora admits. Her left hand rubs her belly absentmindedly, the slightest hint of thickening about the waist the only clue that she is with child. Mulan, who daily sees Aurora with the observant eye of one who loves her, can see the difference as bold as daylight.

“You should be resting. Let me have a servant bring you something.”

“Stop. I’m down here already. There’s no point in making someone drag themselves up to my chambers,” says Aurora, sounding more like the traveling companion of Mulan’s past than the princess of today. “And you know that my physician advised me to take exercise every day. Honestly Mulan, you and Phillip act like I’m going to break at any second.”

Mulan holds tightly to her counsel that once upon a time Aurora very well did break, and nearly took Mulan with her. “Of course. Enjoy your meal.” She sweeps her cloak around, preparing to leave so she can be hungry elsewhere.

“Didn’t you come down here to eat too?” Aurora asks pointedly.

“No, I was just…passing by,” says Mulan. Her stomach gurgles with impeccable timing, so loud that it nearly echoes down the stone corridor.

Aurora sighs. “Mulan, I know I’ve been…distant. But can we just, I don’t know, sit and eat a meal in peace? I want to do that with you again.”

Mulan’s face remains as neutral as ever. “I am yours to command, princess.”

Aurora looks as though she wants to stamp her foot. “And can you stop being so formal? After everything we’ve been through I deserve to be just Aurora with you.”

Mulan wants so badly to give in to the request. She wants to have dinner with Aurora and watch her smile and laugh. But then she will want to touch Aurora’s hand, and to caress her cheek, and to bury her nose in the crook of Aurora’s neck. Her greatest—her only concern is keeping Aurora alive, not with selfish pursuits. So she shakes her head softly. “You deserve much more than I can give you,” says Mulan. “Enjoy your meal.”

Mulan resolutely keeps her eyes on the end of the corridor as she marches away and so does not see Aurora on the verge of tears.

*

As Aurora’s due date approaches, Mulan grows ever more desperate to find a way to ensure her survival through the delivery. She can still remember supervising the servants who took Aurora’s body away in the other timeline—Phillip had been completely unable to face the problem so Mulan had sent him to pack for their quest. There had been so much blood, soaked through the sheets and into the mattress. Mulan, who has seen enough arterial spray on the battlefield to last a lifetime, could hardly believe that much blood came from Aurora’s body. The midwives had told her that sometimes women had difficult births because the baby was in the wrong position. They had tried to cut the baby free and failed.

The physicians they’ve consulted have mostly had the same answer—they too would attempt to cut the baby free in that situation. A few suggested herbs and tonics but that will not be enough, not nearly enough. Mulan is beginning to think more and more that the only solution lies in magic. After all, it saved Aurora once; why couldn’t it do so again?

“Phillip,” she says one day while they’re in the library sorting through medical texts from far-flung lands that are no help whatsoever. “Perhaps we should reconsider asking Aurora about getting a witch’s help.”

Phillip distractedly pages through a very dry-looking tome with tiny text. “You know she doesn’t trust witches.”

Indeed Aurora does not, not after everything they went through with Cora and the stories Emma and Snow told them about the Evil Queen (“Regina,” Emma had emphasized. “She’s…well, I think she’s getting better. Kind of.”) and Rumpelstiltskin.

“But perhaps it didn’t have to be a witch, just any magical being who could help,” says Mulan. “The rumors could be true.”

Phillip shrugs, continuing to read with a frown. Of the two of them, he is the better scholar, but barely. Aurora is better at this than both of them combined. “Feel free to bring it up with her. You know she’ll say no.”

Being told no has never stopped Mulan from trying anyway.

*

“No,” says Aurora.

“Please, princess, we both know not all magic is bad.”

“But there is no one who wields it who I trust.”

“It would just be to ensure the child’s health,” Mulan says, cajoling.

Aurora continues at her needlepoint, embroidering tiny flowers into the hem of a similarly tiny nightgown. Mulan remembers embroidering a rich piece of red cloth, head bent over a needle and costly golden thread by firelight. All in another time, one she hopes desperately to avert. “The midwives all say my child is fine. She is moving, exactly as she should.”

Mulan pauses. “She?”

Aurora peeks up, the hint of a genuine smile tugging at her mouth, the first of her smile that Mulan has seen in weeks. “I believe so.”

Mulan can’t help but flick her eyes down to Aurora’s stomach, where her pregnancy has only recently become obvious. She is smaller than other women who are six months with child but the midwives have been very reassuring that these things vary. “She,” Mulan repeats again, voice full of wonder. “What will you call her?”

“We haven’t decided yet,” says Aurora, hand gravitating instinctively to her little bump. Her smile grows teasing. “Mulan is a good girl’s name.”

Mulan twitches, contorts her mouth into the best approximation of a smile that she can manage. It’s not much. “I would be honored.”

Aurora seems to remember all at once why Mulan would take such a jest badly and her smile crumbles. She lays her needlepoint in her lap, hands trying to cross the distance between them. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“Please consider magic,” Mulan says softly, leaning away. “Phillip could not survive without you.”

“You act as though you’ve seen my fate,” says Aurora. Her hands are still caught mid-reach, waiting to touch. “Sometimes it scares me, Mulan. Tell me truly why you’re so concerned. Or did our travels together mean nothing to you?”

“You know they meant everything to me,” Mulan says. She grips the handle of her sword, just to have something to hold on to. “Please, princess. I have heard of a fairy who lives near the palace. I’m going to ask for her counsel with or without your permission.”

“Then go,” says Aurora haughtily. “Clearly you know better than me.” Her hands withdraw and resume their needlepoint.

So Mulan does, hating herself for always being the one to walk away in the name of duty.

*

Phillip wants to go with her to see the fairy but Mulan insists he stay at the castle. “If there is anything of substance to the rumors, I will return with her. If not, then you will save yourself a trip,” says Mulan. Phillip frets and tries to make her overpack and has the kitchens wrap up her favorite cheeses with good hardtack and the venison smoked the way she likes it.

“Return soon,” he says.

“Stop worrying,” she replies. “You sound worse than Aurora.”

Aurora has not come out to see Mulan off, as she would any other time. Phillip doesn’t miss Mulan’s preoccupied look up at the tower where the royal bedchamber is located. “I wish you’d stop fighting,” Phillip says with a sigh. “What is the point of winning peace in the kingdom if I don’t have peace in my household.”

Mulan scoffs at him. “And who won this peace?”

“Go see your fairy,” says Phillip, grinning.

Mulan allows herself one last glance up, then she mounts her horse smoothly and rides. Her mind is on the task at hand now, and not on the slight ripple of fabric at Aurora’s window.

*

The fairy of rumor is at least two days’ ride from the palace. The first night, Mulan scouts out a place to sleep, sees to her horse, and lies down thinking of hair like autumn leaves and eyes the blue of a placid lake in winter. She rises with the dawn and continues, ever mindful of the castle at her back.

Coming on midday she feels a tingle race over her skin and knows she’s close. There’s nothing quite like the feel of magic.

Abruptly forest turns to clearing, trees giving way to springy green moss with tiny flowers dotting the clearing in various shades of blue and purple. Mulan dismounts, a plea already forming on her lips. “Hello?” she calls out. “My name is Mulan. I’ve come for help.”

Silence greets her.

“Hello?” she tries again. “Please, I come on behalf of Princess Aurora. Her life is in danger. I need help.”

Still silence.

Mulan kneels on the moss, inhaling the earthy scent, feeling the low-level buzz in the air that screams magic. She closes her eyes, breathes in once to focus, breathes out to send her senses sprawling through the clearing. In that other place, that other time, she was told she could have another chance through her purity of heart. That is the key, she thinks, when appealing to magical beings. They have their own rules and quirks and she is happy to play along as long as she gets what she wants. She once rode to the world’s edge for Aurora. She can wait out a shy fairy.

Hours pass and still Mulan thinks only of Aurora. She thinks about what it means to love a woman who will not, cannot love her in return. She once tried to stop loving Aurora and it led to ruin.

Her legs have gone almost totally numb by the time she hears the faintest tinkle of noise. At first she mistakes it for a breeze, something rustling the surrounding branches. Then she hears it again: a distant shimmering, natural yet not of nature. Mulan opens her eyes and sees a glittering golden trail wending its way across the clearing. “Hello?” she whispers.

The trail comes close enough to resolve itself into a tiny being, a person in miniature save for her fluttering wings. “Why have you come here?” she asks. “No one comes here anymore.”

“My name is Mulan. I heard there was a fairy still in these lands,” says Mulan, “And I have desperate need of good magic.”

The fairy seems to brighten, though it’s hard to discern her features as she hovers about. “Whatever for? No magic comes without its price.”

“There is a princess nearby. She is with child. I want to make sure she survives the birth,” says Mulan.

“Why wouldn’t she?”

Mulan is always careful to avoid revealing that she has lived through Aurora’s pregnancy once, some survival instinct warning her that her meddling must remain a secret. “I have been dreaming. That the birth goes wrong and that both mother and child perish. I believe my ancestors sent these dreams to me.”

“These are normal fears for any parent.”

“Oh—I’m not—she’s not—it’s not my child. She is betrothed to Prince Phillip. I am simply their friend,” says Mulan in a hurry.

The fairy blinks, a ripple trembles through the air, and suddenly she is the size of a normal human and kneeling in a mirror of Mulan’s position. “A very good friend, to care this much,” she says, quite astutely.

“I love her,” says Mulan. “That she loves another matters not.”

The fairy clasps her hands over her heart and makes a tremulous face. “Oh my. Oh dear. Unrequited love. It’s been so long since anyone’s come to me with that.” Mulan blinks at her.

“My problem is not unrequited love,” says Mulan slowly.

The fairy exhales heavily. “Oh good. You’d think it would get around that you can’t magically make someone love you. People were always asking us for love potions. ‘Make the crofter’s daughter love me’, same old story.” She rolls her eyes in a distinctly un-fairylike fashion.

“So you do you have magic,” says Mulan. This is not proceeding how she thought it would at all.

The fairy draws herself up, the picture of indignation. “Of course I do. I am the fairy Mira. All my sisters were taken by the curse. I was in another land when it came and when I popped back into the Enchanted Forest I was alone. No one’s asked for my help in so long I was beginning to think I’d never get to use fairy dust again.”

“My apologies.” Mulan is sincere, bowing her head politely.

Mira’s good humor returns right away. “Come on, tell me all about it. I haven’t heard a good unrequited love story in ages.”

“Um,” says Mulan. Perhaps this is the fairy’s price, or perhaps she’s simply lonely. One way or another Mulan will coax a solution from her. So she launches into as condensed an explanation as possible of how she came to be in love with an unobtainable woman. As she says it all out loud she’s aware of how ridiculous it must sound—first finding Phillip, then Aurora, then losing Phillip, nearly losing Aurora, getting Phillip back, and on the verge of losing Aurora again. She has possibly spent more time and effort keeping the two of them safe and together than she has fighting the Huns.

At the end, the fairy sighs. “Okay. You’ve convinced me,” she says.

“I haven’t told you what I need,” says Mulan.

“You came all this way for Aurora, didn’t you?” Mira flaps her wings once to punctuate the question.

Mulan tries to keep from bursting with relief. “Then you will help?”

“Of course,” says the fairy. “True love is on the line. Lead on.”

*

The return journey is faster. The entire way back to the castle, the fairy badgers Mulan for details of her life and how she came to love Aurora and why she would stay without any hope of ever being loved back. “I cannot force her to love me, nor can I force myself to stop loving her,” Mulan says through gritted teeth while the fairy hovers over her shoulder. She has never met a fairy, but she is beginning to wonder if they are all this flighty.

“That,” the fairy pronounces, “Is a tragedy.”

Mulan is glad to return home and turn her onto the real problem at hand.

Phillip greets her in the courtyard, slapping her shoulder hard enough to send up a cloud of dust. “Success?” he asks.

Mira flitters out from behind Mulan’s head. “Aren’t you handsome!” she exclaims, and with that disconcerting pop she turns human-sized again. “I’m Mira, and I’m here to help.” She bustles off, marching into the castle proper without an invitation.

Phillip stares after her momentarily, then back at Mulan, his face begging for an explanation.

“She’s a fairy and she offered to help,” says Mulan with a shrug. “You tell her no.”

They have to hurry to catch up to Mira as she wanders through the castle, prodding at hangings and peering at suits of armor. She seems to be gravitating towards the arboretum, where Mulan knows Aurora likes to take her midday meal. Perhaps she has an innate fairy-sense about these kinds of things.

“How do you know we can trust her?” Phillip whispers.

“I don’t,” Mulan whispers back. “But she’s the best option I have found so far.”

“What if Aurora doesn’t—”

“Then I will find another solution.” Mulan’s tone, even dulled by whispering, brooks no argument. They’re nearly to the arboretum by now and Mulan breaks into a jog to make sure Mira doesn’t startle Aurora.

Aurora spots her first, eye long accustomed to seeking out the black and red swirl of motion that means Mulan has returned. “You’re back!” she says, face lighting up though Mulan was hardly gone three days. If it reminds Mulan of another time, another return to this very spot, she does not give it away.

“Princess, allow me to introduce the fairy Mira,” says Mulan, one gloved hand sweeping over their newcomer.

“I see what you mean,” Mira says out of the side of her mouth to Mulan, with a complete lack of subtlety. Mulan clenches her teeth at Mira, who ignores her completely to walk around Aurora as though inspecting her.

“Fairy?” Aurora echoes, returning Mira’s inspection with all the dignified haughtiness of her royal lineage and upbringing. Evidently she takes exception to being examined like an item at market.

“Mulan told me everything,” says Mira. “We’re going to get to the bottom of this problem.”

“What problem?” asks Aurora.

Mulan begins to hear warning bells but everything is moving too fast for her to get a word in edgewise.

“Mulan’s unrequited love of course,” says Mira, and continues on as though she hasn’t just nearly ruined three people’s lives.

*

Before Aurora or Phillip can quite recover from the fireworks Mira threw into their midst, Mulan has yanked her aside into an alcove. “What are you doing?” she hisses.

“Helping you,” says Mira, quite innocently.

“I brought you here to help Aurora.” Mulan gestures in Aurora’s general direction.

“But you’re the one who found me.” Mira seems genuinely confused, which is not helping to restrain Mulan’s temper in the least.

“You cannot tell Phillip I love Aurora. And Aurora needs not be reminded of it. I told her I would never pressure her.” Mulan’s hands go to her hair, pulling the skin taught at her temples.

“Well you might have mentioned that when you came to my clearing asking for my help,” says Mira.

Mulan’s words explode in a puff of air. “I did!

“Oh.” Mira’s eyes shift side to side and Mulan closes in on it like an arrow to a target.

“Tell me truly. Are you a real fairy? Do you have magic that can help Aurora?” Even human-sized, Mira is a delicate little thing and Mulan looms large with all the presence of a trained soldier.

“I am a fairy!” Mira insists. “Just, I was never very good at listening. I was in training.”

Mulan peels away, hand now massaging her head. “In training. What does that mean?”

Mira screws up her face, as though she might cry. “I have my wings but I was never confirmed by the Blue Fairy. It was sort of a probationary period. That’s why I was out of the realm when the curse struck. I was supposed to find someone whose wish I could grant that would make me worthy. I only have enough fairy dust for one wish.”

“Aurora’s life is at stake,” says Mulan, which is when Phillip rounds the corner looking extremely confused.

“Mulan, what’s going on?” he asks.

“Nothing. Mira is…” She flaps her hands a bit.

“Unrequited love? I thought Mira was going to help Aurora?” Phillip is frowning and she can see his mind is trying to fit puzzle pieces together.

“She is,” says Mulan. She bores into Mira with her hardest stare and Mira nods, the carefree fairy of before.

Now Aurora joins them, moving Phillip aside so she can stand imperiously in the alcove’s entrance with her hands on her hips. The three of them are cowed in her presence. “That’s up to me. Mira, come along. The two of you can go decide what’s best for me somewhere else.” She marches off with a for-once subdued Mira in tow, and in just a few seconds Phillip and Mulan are left staring at each other in awkward silence.

“Mulan,” he begins, hands twisting in front of his belt buckle. “What was that about your unrequited love?”

Mulan can’t even form words, can’t begin to speak to him about what she feels. They have saved each other’s lives, witnessed any number of physical indignities, trusted each other where no one else would—and still she cannot admit the truth to Phillip.

“I mean,” Phillip continues hastily. “I know we’re friends but surely you know I am—I mean, you are my sister. And I value your loyalty and service beyond all others. But I don’t feel that way—”

Mulan nearly guffaws out loud at Phillip’s assumption. “No!” she interrupts him. “That was not about you. I think of you the same way, Phillip. I mean, as my brother.”

He visibly sags with relief. “Oh good. That was shaping up to be the most awkward moment of my life.”

“Mine as well,” says Mulan.

Phillip brightens. “Then who is it? Perhaps I can help. I do have a certain amount of influence, after all.”

“It’s…no one. No one you need concern yourself with,” says Mulan, looking down at the floor lest her face give it away. She is hurting Phillip in her heart, every moment of every day, and here he is offering his help. She would confess all but for the fear, and she sneers at herself in the back of her mind that she is a coward, but she cannot be parted from Aurora until she knows Aurora is safe.