There were curses, and then there were CURSES. Mulan wasn't sure which spirit or ghost had conjured up the 'get everything you want' curse, but she was ready to pop it in the mouth. She thought of it every time Aurora grabbed for her hand in the middle of the night and every time the princess gave her a swift kiss on the cheek or-gods above and below-the corner of the mouth. Though it twisted her gut later with regret and shame, she could not bring herself to prevent Aurora from expressing her affection, any more than she could return it with anything but a small smile.
She didn't know what was going through the other woman's head, why she'd suddenly adopted this new expression of friendship, and she would rather face an entire platoon of the sunburned savages of the dead valley than ask her outright. Instead she suffered in silence, accepting the kisses and the touches, letting Aurora take shelter in her arms when night came.
The wanderers were more sparse now, and defending against them was easier. Those that lived this far down the valley were gibbering madmen and if they didn't run in terror at the sight of another person, they attacked with screaming, frothing fury. She put them down quickly and moved Aurora on, putting each howling lunatic out of her sight as soon as she could. She saw them in her nightmares regardless, always a second too late, always just as they pounced on her or Aurora.
Two days had passed since the last attack when they climbed a small mound of loose rock and found themselves facing a gap in the canyon edge. It was thin, just large enough for them to slip through sideways, one after the other. Beyond the passage was dim and cool, welcome respite from the relentless heat of the canyon. Mulan lead through the first few gaps, her sword pointed at the darkness ahead, until they finally stepped free of the tight confines of the entrance to a small cave.
It wasn't much, a few feet wide and irregularly shaped, but it gave them room to adjust their things. What tiny amount of light followed them into the depths stopped here-the passage at the far side of the room looked dark as pitch. Mulan tucked her scabbard along Aurora's back, leaving her sword free in her hand. She offered her helmet to the princess, who shook her head, staring at the cave walls with trepidation.
"Do you want to stay here while I go ahead?" Mulan asked, touching Aurora's wrist with one gloved hand to draw her attention.
"Do you think we're very far down?" Aurora answered, adjusting the way the pack sat on her back.
"We're under about six feet of rock," Mulan answered, stepping closer to Aurora and taking her hand. When Mulan gave a little tug, Aurora finally looked at her, her eyes wide in the dim light filtering in from the entrance.
"I'm coming with you," Aurora stated firmly. It wasn't quite The Royal Tone (as Mulan thought of it) but she recognized that Aurora would argue the point. "Do we need a torch?" She asked, a little quieter.
"I don't know. I have some wood," Mulan answered, giving Aurora's hand a gentle squeeze, then reaching for the branch protruding from the pack. Aurora lifted her skirt slightly, nodding to the already torn petticoat. Mulan carefully tore free a few strips, trying to keep to the damaged sections rather than ruining cloth that was still good. With the wood and the cloth she fashioned a torch, then handed it to Aurora and lit it The princess raised it overhead with one hand once it had caught, briefly lighting the whole room. Mulan waited until the initial flare had passed before asking, "Are you ready?"
Now Aurora paused. Mulan kept silent as she watched fear and worry cross the princesses open face before Aurora settled her own nerves, then leaned a few inches forward to kiss Mulan on the cheek. "I am," Aurora said, her hand tensing around Mulan's. "Lead the way."
It was slow, her senses working overtime to adapt to the chill and the dark. The only movement in the air was a faint breeze crossing their faces, emanating from the depths ahead of them. It smelled of cold stone and a hint of decay. The fire flickered at the tip of the torch, dipping low as they followed the constricted pathway. They were silent as the passage went on and on, barely changing course, getting ever thinner before it abruptly widened into another small chamber.
Still quiet, they caught their breath, using the torch to peer into the dusty corners of the room. It seemed undisturbed by human hands, without footprints or scrapes to indicate anyone had passed this way in some time. There was only one way forward, continuing the mostly straight line the previous passage had lead them on. It was thinner by far than the one they’d just left. Each of them took a turn pressing themselves into the passage, to see if there was any way to continue.
Mulan tried first, the tight confines pressing her armor into her chest. She could move, though she scraped against the walls as she went, and so she retreated to allow Aurora to test the passage. Though her garments were softer, Aurora herself was slightly larger, and she clearly had some difficulty at first. Mulan watched as she shifted and adjusted her shoulders, imagining the intense, brow-furrowed glare Aurora was fixing ahead of herself as she moved.
The first stone that plinked down onto her boot was dismissed as a trick of the light, but the second and third could not be ignored. Just as Aurora was starting to shuffle backwards to allow Mulan to go first, a shower of sand followed the rocks. Mulan lunged into the gap, one hand pushing Aurora further along. “It’s collapsing. Go. Go!” she barked, ignoring the grind of her armor against stone as she shoved the princess ahead. Aurora gasped, flailing the torch out to catch glimpses of the tunnel as she lurched into the dark. Sand and stones pelted down on her from above, only ceasing when she came abruptly free of the rock wall. She tumbled off of her feet, falling flat on the floor. The torch failed for a moment, pitching her into blackness, then sputtered back to weak life. Aurora braced her palms and pushed herself to her knees, reaching to the sides, then picking up the torch and turning back towards the tunnel.
She clung to the torch with both hands when there was no immediate reply. Her breathing was suddenly incredibly loud in the tiny cave. Aurora steadied herself on her knees, stretching the torch back the way she’d come. She didn’t want to look, in case the worst had come to pass, but she had no choice. “Mulan?” she asked again, wobbling as she started to stand.
The answer was a slow, shaky drawn breath, deep in the crack in the earth. Aurora paused, still bent over. She listened intently until it came again, then rushed to the gap. “Mulan!”
“Don’t.” Mulan’s voice was thready. Aurora had a horrible vision of her friend pressed between the rocks, unable to move, barely breathing in the tiny space. “Don’t come in.”
“Can you move?” Aurora cautiously extended the torch past the entrance to the gap, hoping to catch the shine of Mulan’s armor or a glimpse of her face. She heard metal scrape on rock, then a hint of something waving at her, just past the light.
“Aurora. Don’t come any further.” Now the words were rushed, followed by a gasp.
“I’m not. But you can see the light?” Aurora moved it up and down and side to side.
“Yes. Yes. Stay out, please.”
Aurora withdrew the torch by an inch, looking back at the stony floor. In the gap, she could hear Mulan breathing in short gulps, taking as much air as she could. She braced one hand on the side of the entrance, then leaned back towards her trapped friend. “Can you move?”
There was a pause as Mulan took in enough air to answer. “Maybe,” she responded. There was a clank, a scrape, then nothing. “Not...much…” she elaborated. The torch flickered, very slightly reflected in the metal of her armor.
“Rest,” Aurora said, her hand still pressed to the wall. She had never wanted magic more than in that moment, if only to spare Mulan the horrible pressure of the collapsed tunnel. “Do you want me to talk? Or be quiet?”
Another pause. “Talk. Please.”
Aurora chewed her lip for a moment. “You’re going to get out of there,” she stated firmly, leaning to extend the torch further into the gap again. “You’re very smart. And very brave. I know you can make it." She paused, waiting for a reply. All she heard was Mulan's short breathing. "You are my truest friend."
In the dark, Mulan shut her eyes and braced her hands on the walls of the tunnel. Slowly, carefully, she bent her knees, feeling some room open up around her chest. Breathing deep, she focused on Aurora’s voice, hearing the fear and the hope as she listed all of the things she admired about Mulan. It would have been far more flattering without the terror of a slow, crushing death looming large over her head. She pushed towards Aurora again, feeling the chestplate grind into the rock and press against her body.
The princesses voice was Mulan's anchor. The grit that occasionally dropped over her face kept her eyes mostly shut and her mouth closed. When she stopped, Aurora was still chatting along, plucking at mundane topics and old memories to find something to say. What she was saying didn't matter much to Mulan, just the comfort of another voice, a partner to reach towards was enough to move her along. She had travelled alone for so long before Aurora and Phillip that companionship of any stripe had been strange to adapt to. Now it was clear Aurora had no intention of letting Mulan turn solitary again. It was a warming thought, but an unwelcome one. Come journey's end, they would be parted, Aurora to Phillip and married life, Mulan to wherever her instincts and good intentions took her.
“Do you remember the wine?” Aurora asked the mouth of the tunnel, raising her voice just enough to be heard over the agonizingly slow scraping within.
“Wine?” Mulan paused, twisting her shoulders into a gap that afforded her room to catch her breath a little more. “Oh.” She tested the next part of the tunnel with her hand, finding it much thinner than she hoped it would be. “The wine from the camp?” She tried to concentrate on the memory and not the pain she was about to put herself in. Shoving against the rock, she began to force her way through.
“My mother always said soldiers needed a good drink. It kept them on their feet. I was trying to help.” Aurora listened to the clatter and scraping, holding the torch towards the gap with both hands. “Are you alright?”
“It was vinegar.” Mulan pushed with her legs, felt the breastplate compress her chest, then her forward motion ground to a stop. With a harsh grunt, she dug in a heel and pushed past the pinch.
“You drank the whole cup,” Aurora replied as the noise abated. She could see Mulan now, pressed between the rocks, moving inch by agonizingly slow inch.
Mulan paused, leaning her head against the wall directly before her and taking a few slow breaths. “Hmm,” she answered, lips thinning. She squeezed into another gap, losing her breath in the press, then gasping for another as she rose to her toes and wedged herself onwards.
Aurora watched her struggle, waiting until Mulan was resting again to speak. “Why?”
Reaching with one arm, pushing with the other, Mulan shoved herself through, catching a glimpse of the fire out of the corner of her eye. She was almost out, almost free. Closing her eyes, she took a moment to collect herself and think about the best answer for Aurora’s question. “Because you needed a distraction,” she admitted to the wall in front of her. “It made you feel better to care for someone, it gave you something to do other than think of Phillip. A little vinegar is no hardship.”
“You could have asked for something else.” Aurora's tone was chiding, even a little playful in spite of the situation.
Mulan huffed, then moved again, triggering a rush of sand along her head and down the back of her shirt. Her heart pounded as she slowed, eyes closed, mouth shut. The stream became a trickle, but it did not stop, picking up with every inch she moved. She was close to escape, she could feel it-just as close as the earth overhead was to shifting and burying her. This next push would have to be the last. No more resting, no more pauses, because a single extra second would leave her trapped. Taking a deep breath, she shifted her shoulders lower and prepared for the rush. “I would drink poison if you gave me the cup,” she said as she began to shove her way between the rocks again.
The gap spat stone and sand, driving Aurora away. Earth showered over Mulan’s barely visible shape. Aurora saw the her lunge, then stop suddenly, caught in place by the falling sand and the quirks of the collapsing earthen passage. “...rora,” Mulan choked out, trying to push further and only succeeding in locking herself more firmly in place..
“Mulan!” Aurora dropped the torch, rushing to the crack. Within, Mulan tried to order her away, but there was no breath to drive the words. She jerked and pushed against the rock, but she could not move herself. The world went dark, her eyes and mouth blocked with sand the moment before two strong, slim hands wound around hers. Awkwardly braced but considerably more mobile, Aurora pulled hard. With a creak Mulan’s armor bent on the rocks, collapsing just enough to let her through. Aurora dragged Mulan free of the sand-filled passage with a hard wrench. She spat dirt and kicked furiously until she was finally loose, collapsing on her back to take frantic gulps of stale air.
Nimble fingers pulled apart her armor, throwing it haphazardly around the tiny cave until Mulan was laid out in her leathers, running her hands over her limbs and body to catalogue her injuries. The scrapes were numerous, but they bothered her less than the bruised, tender places she prodded along her stomach and sides. A broken rib or an internal injury could spell a bad end to this quest. Her gentle probing revealed nothing so extreme.
Aurora brought her the water skin, giving her a few sips to clear the dirt from her teeth, then letting her take a long drink. “Easy, easy, it’s alright, you’re safe, you made it,” Aurora whispered, her terror cracking her voice as she took back the skin. “You made it.” Tears flowed down her cheeks, making tracks in the sand on her face. She rested a hand on Mulan’s neck, her thumb stroking along Mulan’s jaw reassuringly.
The flame guttered as Mulan’s breathing slowed to a calmer pace. She splashed a few drops of water on her face, wiping the sand from her eyes. She blinked up at Aurora as she took long, deep breaths through her nose. The princess was dishevelled and dirty, streaked with sand and tears, but there had never been a more beautiful sight. She managed a smile when Mulan studied her face, her expression turning shaky as the thin lines of tears turned to a chest-heaving sob. Aurora threw her arms around her friend, burying her face in one gritty shoulder and clinging with frantic strength. Mulan didn’t hesitate-she wrapped Aurora up in a fierce hug, holding her close and letting her cry. Some of Mulan’s tears slipped free as she rubbed the princesses back; she pressed her face into Aurora’s shoulder to keep them at bay.
“You’re okay,” Aurora murmured, running a hand firmly up Mulan’s back. “You’re okay.” She did not loosen her other arm, keeping Mulan tight to her as though expecting the tunnel to drag the warrior back. “I’m so sorry. I left you, I’m so sorry.”
Mulan squeezed her eyes closed, guilt and love warring across her heart. “I sent you through first,” she murmured, only prompting Aurora to hold tighter. “Aurora, I sent you first. It’s not your fault.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Aurora shook her head. “I can’t lose you.”
Mulan braced herself, though she knew it would be fruitless. Every time Aurora mentioned Phillip it wounded her all the same, another shallow cut to her honor and her loyalty to her dear friend. He would ever be between her and this fragile, frightening love that had blossomed for Aurora. What she wanted and what fate saw fit to bestow would always be separate-she knew it was true, but every reminder stung a little deeper.
Aurora drew back, only enough to look at Mulan’s face in the flickering shadows. “I can’t lose you, Mulan.” Aurora repeated. “I love you.” Mulan’s heart slammed in her chest in two great beats. Aurora’s eyes were dark and wide, her expression as open and honest as she always was. She told no lie, letting those words hang between them while she locked bare fingers through gloved hand and brought them to rest against her chest. “You have left your mark on my heart.”
The sound from Mulan’s throat was a soft groan. She moved without thinking, driven by a sudden flood of emotion to rise to meet the other woman, to run her palm along Aurora’s neck, then bring their lips together in clumsy passion. There was no resistance, only a moment of surprise before her gesture was returned in kind. For those pure moments there was no sand, no cave, no collapse. There was the softness of lips, the tension in their hands, the warmth that built between them. Mulan felt Aurora’s heart pounding in time with her own, each throb a fierce affirmation of this uncovered bond.
They stayed locked tight together as the first rush of passion ebbed. The kiss became gentler, softer, but no less enrapturing. Their breathing slowed to match the slip and press of their mouths, until they parted with a mutual sigh.
"We should go," Mulan finally murmured, smiling as Aurora's next kiss caught the corner of her mouth. "It isn't safe."
Aurora hummed. "Can you walk?"
"Yes. Got the bag?"
The armour was gathered, the water stowed. With caution, they found a the next exit, mercifully wider and firmer than the last. Linking hands, Aurora and Mulan walked into the darkness.
In the sand behind them, something stirred.