They were halfway through the valley when Mulan fell.
It was a week after Emma and Snow White had escaped back to Storybrooke, leaving their companions to the quest to rescue Phillip. The stories and the trail had brought Aurora and Mulan to a stretch of blasted wasteland known as Deaths Throat. A jagged ridge of rock marked the beginning of the valley, which dipped low and thin beyond its toothy entrance. The rumours claimed there was ancient place of power on the far end, an old temple where Death himself could be coaxed to toss dice for a mans soul. Those who'd told the tale neglected to mention the desperate people who called the wasteland home.
They'd encountered the first ragged patrol at dawn on their first day in the pass when they were rousted from a sound sleep by the sounds of approaching footsteps. Mulan had found a path through the thorns and the stones, but the pursuit had not ended. By midday she'd accounted for three of them, leaving the bodies to flee with Aurora ahead of the angry mob. The pursuit had not slackened since. Day and night, they rushed ahead of the men of the canyon, snatching rest in fits and starts where they could.
It didn't occur to Aurora that Mulan hadn't been sleeping until she was shaken awake just before dawn on the third day. Amidst all of the running and fighting, she hadn't had a moment to take a good look at her travelling companion. When their eyes met through Mulan's helmet, Aurora finally caught a glimpse. Mulan's skin was verging on ashen where it wasn't streaked with dirt and sweat. Her eyes had a glassy look about them, contrasted with the dark purple that had emerged underneath. Her grip was not as sure as Aurora had become accustomed to and she didn't speak, only grunted. Aurora began to protest, to demand her companion take her ease immediately, but one of the canyon folk chose that moment to tumble into the cave. They'd split, Mulan bringing her sword to bear on their attacker, Aurora scrambling to gather their things.
There was no more running ahead-when an attack came, Aurora stayed near and did what she could. She gathered their supplies, or put her back to Mulan's and watched for other assailants. Twice she'd been grabbed by an attacker and she'd been a surprise both to herself and them by managing to put up enough of a fight to keep them at bay. Though her confidence had been raised by those brief moments of victory, Aurora was still very aware that she was no warrior. That awareness came to a terrifying point a few hours after the most recent thug had been left to bleed on the rocky ground, when Aurora saw Mulan waver, then drop to one knee before pitching forward on the slate at their feet.
She didn't scream, didn't even call out Mulan's name as she caught up her skirts and rushed to the warriors side-though they were ahead of the mob again, she couldn't be sure how far. Crying out now would make them easier to find. Aurora dropped down next to Mulan, pushing her fingertips past the armor on the other woman's neck and seeking out her pulse. There was no time for relief at the thin throb underneath her fingers. Her own heart beating in her throat, Aurora looked around, frantically seeking somewhere after than the middle of the path to take her friend. It took several terrifying moments, but finally she spotted an outcropping that seemed to shade the mouth of a cave.
She couldn't help a whimper of fear at the way Mulan's head rocked back and forth on her neck when Aurora levered her to her feet. It was slow going as the princess used all of her remaining strength to shuffle and drag Mulan's sagging weight to the gap in the rocks. Shaking with the effort, she pushed the warrior in first, backing into the cave only once she was sure they would both fit.
Aurora's breathing echoed in the small gap, providing a harsh background for her thundering pulse. She wedged herself in the entrance to the cave, staring out at the path as she tried to get herself under control. The urge to panic was tempting as she trembled and gulped for breath, but a glance behind at Mulan's crumpled form was enough to break that impulse. If she panicked, there was no one to take care of either of them. Mulan had pushed herself half to death to protect Aurora-what good would that do if Aurora fell to pieces and got them both killed? She shivered again, feeling tears prick at the corners of her eyes. Out of habit she reached back into the cave and took Mulan's hand, seeking some small reassurance in the feel of her worn leather gloves.
"Please be alright," she murmured, squeezing gently. "I need you to be alright."
There was no response from the unconscious warrior.
Once she’d gotten them safely to the cave, it took Aurora far too long by her own estimation to gather her wits and continue taking care of the situation. Mulan would have ensured their safety more efficiently. She wouldn't have taken precious minutes clinging to Aurora's hand and forcing herself unsuccessfully not to cry. She would have settled her nerves, then made sure they were well protected and safe until they had recovered. The knowledge that she at least owed it to Mulan to try spurred Aurora out of her misery and into action.
Assured that the canyon beyond the cave mouth would be still and quiet for the time being, Aurora edged back into the cave, checking Mulan’s pulse again before gently removing her helmet. She set it aside, pursing her lips as she tried to decide between stripping the warrior of her armor to make her more comfortable or leaving her in to keep her protected. A glance at the chafing along Mulan’s neck and shoulders from the weight of her mantle was enough to convince Aurora that it needed to come off. She brushed her palm against Mulan’s face in apology before going to work, manipulating buckles and straps to ease the warrior free of her omnipresent armor.
It was rare enough to see Mulan out of at least some portion of her fighting gear, never mind as loose and vulnerable as she was now. Aurora was careful as could be as she took each piece off, setting it all aside in a neat pile. She hesitated at the leather pants and shirt that provided the base of Mulan’s protection, finally choosing to leave them be. After another quick look to the outside, Aurora shuffled both of them further back into the cave, taking the opportunity to assure Mulan’s comfort. She started by fixing the way the warrior was lying, setting their bag of supplies under Mulan’s head and ensuring she was resting against the softest part of the pack.
Using a bit of water and a rag, Aurora washed Mulan’s face and hands, glancing hopefully at her eyes every few seconds in case Mulan had roused. The warrior slept on through all of Aurora's gentle handling, not moving even when the cool cloth was dabbed over her forehead. When that had been set aside, Aurora chewed her lip, trying to decide what to do next. When nothing immediately came to mind, she exhaled a slow, shaky breath, then shuffled along the floor of the cave to lean her hip against Mulan's waist. She carefully took the other woman's hand again, pressing it between her own to impart some of her warmth.
"You really do need to wake up," she said, glancing over her shoulder again to be sure no one was sneaking up. All that she could see behind her was the mouth of the cave, the open wasteland and the far side of the canyon beyond. "I don't know what to do now. And you know I'm no good with a sword. Or...wilderness..." She trailed off, studying Mulan's face for signs that she was being heard. When the warrior made no movement, Aurora squeezed her hand gently and continued. "I'm sorry I can't help you more. I'm sorry you have to do so much to protect me. I am trying, I really am."
She looked down at their joined hands, struggling to quash the fear as it welled up. "We're so close to finding him again," she said, rubbing her fingertips against Mulan's wrist. "If you get up soon, I can't imagine it's very far." She watched her own fingers, pale against Mulan's skin, as she made little loops. "I promise that as soon as we're home, you can teach me how to wield a sword, or even a bow. That way I won't be defenceless." The promise seemed silly considering their current predicament, but it was something Aurora had considered for some time. She didn't expect to become as proficient as Mulan or even Snow White, but there were too many times along this journey where she'd felt frustrated and frightened and helpless due to her inability to defend herself. Flailing unpredictably was not a valid strategy.
Though she wetted the rag and began to daub at Mulan's face again, there was still no response. The warriors collapse had sent her into a sleep so deep it resembled the Curse. Aurora's hand clenched on Mulan's as she tried and failed to stop herself from imagining her friend trapped in that horrifying place. Mulan was so brave, so strong, but anyone alone in the fire for too long could break. She was suddenly overwhelmed with the need to be sure, in spite of there being no obvious marks that would suggest poisoning. Perhaps something had bitten Mulan, or some tiny weapon had slipped her guard. First she ran her fingertips up and down Mulan's arms, hesitating on the thin, pale lines of old scars. Next she leaned in close to Mulan's throat, studying every mark and finding none fresh. She checked the warriors feet and looked at the creases in her pants, but there was nothing to be found. Heart still skipping in her throat, Aurora wove her fingers through Mulan's, settling next to her once more and staring out at the desolate canyon. No sleeping curse, only total exhaustion from what Aurora had to assume was three sleepless days. Tears slid hot down her cheeks as she considered again what a burden she was.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- How they'd gotten so far ahead of the pack, Aurora had no idea-perhaps Mulan had killed a scout, far from his band of rogues. When night began to fall and there was still no sign of pursuit from the canyon beyond the cave, Aurora finally went about the motions of setting up a camp. She shuffled some debris closer to the entrance, then took off her cloak and wrapped it around Mulan. Aurora rummaged briefly in the pack, retrieving a handful of the dried fruit Mulan had prepared before they reached the canyon, then returned the bag to it's place under the warriors cheek. She sat with one hand locked resolutely in Mulan's, the other taking food from her skirt to her mouth one bite at a time as she stared out into the greying canyon. They would come, she knew. It was just a matter of when.
When the food was done, Aurora looked back once again at her still companion. The warrior’s chest rose and fell in slow breaths, her mouth hanging slightly open. Several tendrils of her hair had slipped from her bun, some stuck dry to the skin at the nape of her neck, others drifting across her ear. The hand that wasn’t interleaved with Aurora’s was curled against Mulan's own chest as though cradling something precious. That this softness had never been so apparent to Aurora was upsetting. How had she let herself forget that Mulan wasn't just a suit of armor? Why had it taken a total collapse for her to remember? She knew how driven Mulan could be, how singleminded. How many times had she tempered the soldier's pragmatism along their journey, after all? She reached out to lay her knuckles along Mulan's jaw, lips pursing in irritation at their mutual failings. "You are awful," she murmured, turning her hand around to run her fingertips up along Mulan's cheek until she was cupping her face with one hand. Leaning over, she peered at the warrior, looking for any response. "Wake up so you can defend yourself," she continued with an overdone air of command. The smile that began with her attempt at silliness faded as Mulan took a long breath, then utterly failed to rouse.
"Then I'll do it," she announced, letting her hand trail off of Mulan's face as she leaned back and looked around the cave. She hadn't initially been serious but now that the idea had sprung to mind, she realized it was exactly the thing to do. For tonight, she could sit vigil over Mulan the way the other woman had watched over her so many nights before. Her gaze wandered from the entrance to the heap of discarded armor on the cave floor. If she was going to properly guard them, she should look the part...it wasn't as though Mulan was using it...
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- How anyone could move in armor was the number one question Aurora was going to ask when Mulan finally came around. Every gesture and adjustment pinched something and if she wasn't careful she was sure she'd sit down wrong and squeeze the air directly out of her own lungs. Though Mulan certainly looked imposing in all of her gear, it was very apparent once the princess had squirmed into the armor that the warrior was a bit leaner than Aurora. Only by draping Mulan's cloak around herself was Aurora able to conceal all of the ways the armor didn't fit.
Still, there was something to be said for how strong it made her feel. There was no magic to it but the weight of the mantle on her shoulders made her feel huge and imposing. As long as she didn't try to move much, she supposed she was a menacing figure indeed. There was just one last piece needed to complete the image.
With some effort, she turned to look at Mulan's sword, propped against the wall next to the unconscious warrior. It was a scavenged blade, found after Snow White had disappeared with Mulan's actual weapon. Aurora frowned to herself, adding that to the long tally of slights she held herself responsible for. If the other woman hadn't been so duty-driven to bring back Aurora's heart, she might have retrieved her blade in the aftermath of the battle..."And if I hadn't been such a fool and been captured in the first place," she murmured aloud, "you wouldn't have needed to win my heart back."
There was a soft sound behind her and Aurora's heart leapt. Finally, Mulan was awake! The princess nearly fell as she tried to pivot around to see, planting her hand against the sword's grip to steady herself. Her eyes sparked with glee as she peered across the cave to see that her travelling companion hadn't budged at all, her eyes still firmly shut. Aurora's smile became a frown, hidden under the jaw protection of the helmet. She looked past Mulan, immediately finding the source of the noise at the entrance to the cave. Her heart crashed with panic at the sight of another person. They had been found.
He was young, barely past childhood-she could still see the boy he'd been in the roundness of his eyes and cheeks. His hair was thin, long and greasy with neglect and dirt. His skin was tanned, smudged over here and there with mud and sand. A loose tunic of coarse-looking fabric, most likely handed down from a much stockier person, hung over his chest and brushed the ground between his knees. On his feet, she could see sandals, just like the other men of the valley. The boy was crouched just inside of the cave entrance, one hand braced on the ground, the other hanging at his side.
He had no weapon at all and when she finally looked him in the face Aurora was surprised at what she saw. The boy's eyes gleamed with tears and his mouth hung slightly open. His lip trembled in an expression of miserable terror. She nearly turned to look behind her for the source of his fear when it dawned on her all at once that the canyon dwelling boy was frightened by her. She was a warrior in armor after all, one hand on a sword that he expected to lodge in his heart any moment now.
Fighting back the urge to look at Mulan, Aurora slowly closed her hand around the grip, holding onto the sword without turning it towards the boy. She watched him while he watched the blade, his hand flattening out as he prepared to run. The corners of her eyes prickled as she fought her nerves-she couldn't start crying, not a single tear, because that sort of weakness could turn this whole situation on it's ear. It took concentration to recall that tone of royal command, though she needed it now more than ever before.
"Do you want to live?" She felt a shiver run across her back-in spite of her attempts at control, her voice had nearly betrayed her fear. She was thankful for the helmet's guard covering the rapid rise of her eyebrows when he nodded. "You must tell them we went another way," she intoned as gravely as she could. This time she believed herself, bolstered by that previous success. The boy swallowed, looking away from Aurora and spotting Mulan in the half-dark.
She nearly fell over as she grabbed the sword and scrambled in between the boy and her sleeping friend. "No!" She barked, her pulse racing with fear and anger. "No! You tell them we went another way! Don't you even think about-" She jabbed at the cave entrance with the pointed end of the sword, getting her balance back in time to see the boy's heel disappearing past the rocks. She gasped for breath as the pressure of the sudden movement threatened to squeeze the wind out of her, stumbling to her knees next to Mulan. Now the tears overflowed, Aurora's shoulders shaking as she pulled the helmet off and fumbled with the ties that held the armor in place. "Mulan wake up please please you must wake up I think they're coming now oh please, please," she babbled, writhing her shoulders free and pushing the chest plate over her head. She discarded it to one side, glancing fearfully at the cave entrance and finding no one there.
Aurora took Mulan by the shoulders and shook her once, then pinched her arms. Peering into the other womans face for any sign of consciousness, she ran her fingers along the warriors jaw. "Mulan they are coming and I can't protect us," she sniffled, leaning her forehead against Mulan's and putting her palms against the other woman's cheeks. "Please, please, please wake up." Tears dripped from the princesses eyelashes to spatter on Mulan's face as Aurora bent forward and attempted a kiss, her last resort.
The first and second were hesitant pecks, tentative brushes leading to the third; she parted her lips and darted the tip of her tongue against Mulan's mouth. The tears flowed across both of their cheeks as Aurora clung to her friend, kissing her with all of the considerable hope and love she could muster. It must be that-what else could she feel for the woman who defended her in her weakness, forgave her faults, who had fought all the way to Cora herself to recapture Aurora's stolen heart? Mulan was more than a friend, more than a bodyguard or a porter. There was no other word Aurora knew that seemed adequate-this must be love. Would the love of a friend be true enough to wake Mulan?
The answer appeared to be a resounding yes. As Aurora moved one hand from Mulan's cheek to her shoulder, the unconscious woman came awake with a sudden gasp. The princess recoiled when Mulan flinched away, holding up her hands to show she was no threat. "I'm sorry," she said when Mulan fixed her with a hard, disbelieving stare. "I couldn't think of anything else and-"
"How long was I asleep?" Though it was the first thing Mulan said, it was clear another question had arisen and been set aside. "I...did we reach the end? What happened?" The warriors eyes darted around the cave, quickly assessing her surroundings. She avoided looking at Aurora, peering muzzily past her to the cave entrance instead.
"We...no, we didn't, we aren't there yet," Aurora answered, wrapping her arms around herself. She tried to catch Mulan's eye as the other woman's gaze slid past, but those drowsy eyes skipped away, fixating on the discarded armor instead. "We need to go," she added, as Mulan reached for the chest piece and yanked it over her head.
"Are they here?" Mulan finally looked at Aurora, her expression stern and unreadable. The princesses heart sank at the sight. Though it had worked, the kiss had clearly offended Mulan. Aurora bent to pick up the helmet, offering it to Mulan with both hands. Her expression was all apology when the warrior next met her eyes. Aurora's fear that Mulan was angry over her presumptive behaviour eased when Mulan's sharp frown softened. She took the helmet with one hand, the other catching Aurora's palm before she could pull away. The silence stretched for the space of a few breaths, then Mulan squeezed Aurora's hand gently.
"Thank you for taking care of me," Mulan said, her eyes darting down and away when Aurora stepped close. "You did well."
Aurora clasped her other hand over Mulan's. "I swear I will do better," she said, rubbing her thumb against Mulan's wrist. "If it ever happens again."
Mulan stared at their linked hands, watching Aurora's thumb. She took a deep breath, then looked up, studying Aurora's exhausted, concerned face. Aurora watched her struggle with the words, until finally Mulan squeezed her palm again and nodded once. "I know you will." Again those were clearly not the first words that Mulan had considered, but Aurora knew one day those words might come. She released Mulan's hand and took the helmet back, lifting it over the warriors head.
"Let's go," Aurora said with a small smile, bending to pick up the pack. "We're nearly there."