"I can't find my shoe," Ella moans, throwing scarves across her room. "I'm going to be late."
"You always lose your shoes," Aurora says into her pillow, trying very hard to go back to sleep. "Could you please be quieter about it?"
"Mrs. Tremaine is going to kill me if I'm late again." Aurora hears the sound of Ella flopping back onto her bed. "Aurora."
"I'm not helping you look for them." Aurora closes her eyes tightly. "I'm not –"
The sound of Ella's feet hitting the ground loudly is the only warning she has before Ella rips off her comforter. "Please? You always know where they are."
"Have you tried your closet?" Aurora reaches down to try to yank her sheets back up. "Let me go back to sleep."
"You should be up anyway, you're going to miss your first class." Ella pads out of the room. A moment later, Aurora hears her cry, "Found them!" and Aurora resists the urge to whack her head against her headboard.
"I suppose you want the notes from today," Belle says, longsuffering, when Aurora sits down across from her in the library.
"Yes, please," Aurora says. "Sorry."
"I'm used to it." Belle fixes Aurora with that I am very disappointed in you look that will do her well when she's a professor of some obscure, archaic subject at Harvard or Cambridge. "You really should stop skipping class."
Aurora drops her head into her hands. "Belle."
"I'm sorry, I'll stop." Belle slides a sheaf of photocopied papers towards her. "Study them."
"Thank you." Aurora tucks the notes away into her bag. "I just hate morning classes."
"I know," Belle says, patting her hand. "We all know."
Aurora pouts at her. "I'm not that predictable, am I?"
"Your sleeping habits are." Belle glances at her phone for the time and sighs. "I've got to run, but are you going to Arielle's birthday party on Friday?"
"I'll be there," Aurora says. "Are you going to stay the whole time or are you going to go sulk in the corner with a book?"
"I do not sulk," Belle says indignantly. "Look, I'll see you then, okay? Go to class."
Aurora waves her off and, instead of studying, leaves to go lurk down at the football stadium.
She's lucky, really, that in an Anaheim U sweatshirt and her hair pulled back from her face, she could pass for any one of the sorority girls who habitually hang out on the bleachers in the vague hope that one of the football players will notice them. It isn't that Aurora is embarrassed, per se – it's more that she doesn't want to answer any questions about what she's doing down there.
Down on the field, Fa Mulan is stretching, looking tiny and fragile next to the great hulking body of Hercules, but Aurora knows full well that Mulan is stronger than she looks. It's impossible to see the flex of wiry muscles and strength from up here, and that's probably the best since Aurora isn't sure she would be able to stay coherent if she had to watch that up close.
Someone sits down next to her, and Aurora starts, prepared to make a run for it. Meg flicks a strand of dark red hair from her face and smirks at Aurora. "Hey, Sleepyhead."
"Hi," Aurora says, edging away. "I'll just be –"
"Hang on, honey." Meg catches her wrist and squeezes gently. "Don't let me scare you away."
"I have class I should be going to," Aurora lies.
"No you don't." Meg releases her and leans back, kicking her feet up onto the seats in front of her. Today, she's wearing purple jeans so tight they seem painted on, and Aurora can see some of the guys on the field glancing up in their direction, including Hercules. "And don't worry, hon, I don't judge. I've slept with that hunk of brawn and no brains down there."
"Hercules isn't that stupid," Aurora says weakly.
"No," Meg agrees fondly. She eyes Aurora sharply. "He isn't who you're here for, is he?"
"No," Aurora says quickly. "No, of course not."
Meg relaxes. Her possessive streak is a mile wide and has ended in more than one fist-fight – well, with Meg throwing punches and the poor target of her rage attempting to fend her off with pom poms or textbooks or, memorably, a saucepan seized from Tiana's unsuspecting hands.
"So." Meg arches her eyebrows, smirking. "Who is it, then? Robbie? Shang? Tarzan?"
"God, no," Aurora says involuntarily, and she looks, reflexively, down to where Mulan is practicing passes with Ling.
"Oh, I see how it is," Meg drawls, and Aurora feels herself flush, hot and inevitable, and she grabs her bag and hightails it out of there.
If Aurora had to pinpoint the exact moment her Mulan thing became a full-fledged crush, she would have to admit it was when she got talked into going to football practice with Belle, who was only going to sulk and pretend that she didn't still like Robbie. Mulan had been fighting with the school's captain for weeks over being allowed to play on the team before he had finally gotten the approval from the school's president and told Mulan to suit up. The look of happiness on her face when she had streaked across the field in her first practice, dodging the other players with ease, had been nothing short of luminous.
And Aurora's stomach had lurched, and – she hasn't missed a practice yet.
It wouldn't be so bad if Mulan just weren't so nice, she think miserably as she ignores her lecturer in favor of doodling roses in the margins of her notebook. Every time they've hung out (always by virtue of their shared friend group rather than anything Aurora does), she's been very polite and friendly. The same way she is to everyone else.
After lecture, Aurora heads to a meeting with her advisor to discuss declaring her major, which she has officially put off to the last possible moment. She tucks her hands into her lap as Ms. Darling looks through her file, trying not to feel too nervous.
"Aurora," Ms. Darling says after a moment, looking up with a distinctly amused tilt to her lips. "I thought we had this discussion last year."
"We did," Aurora says. "A couple of times."
"And it's not that I don't understand," Ms. Darling says. "Declaring a major can be a very stressful experience for people. It's hard to take that step where you know you're really growing up. But if you keep putting it off, you won't be able to graduate on time."
Aurora fists her hand in the pocket of her sweatshirt. "I'm just – not really sure what it is I want to do."
"You've taken many of the pre-requisites for one of our business degrees," Ms. Darling points out. "Do you not want to do that?"
"I don't know," Aurora says miserably. "I'm really sorry, Ms. Darling."
Ms. Darling sighs. "I'll give you a week to decide, Aurora, but you have to declare then. All right?"
"Thank you," Aurora says, getting to her feet. "I'll decide this time, I promise."
Ms. Darling gives her a small smile and turns back to her computer as Aurora slips out of her office. She stands in the hall for a moment, torn, then turns on her heel and marches straight for Phillip's office.
"Good lord, Aurora, don't you ever knock?" Phillip asks when she walks in, pushing back from his desk.
"I know you don't have any appointments right now, I peeked at the scheduling book," Aurora says dismissively. "Besides, we've known each other since I was born." She throws herself onto the couch in his office and curls up onto her side. "Ugh."
"Do you want to talk about it?" he asks her.
"Not really," she says. "Can I just stay here for a bit?"
"Sure," he says softly. "I don't have any appointments for another hour."
"Thanks," she murmurs, and she closes her eyes to nap.
Phillip wakes her up with a kiss to the forehead, and he gives her a quick hug before he shoos her out of his office. "Call if you need to," he calls after her.
"Thank you so much," she calls, waving, and she hurries down the hall, past Aladdin who is looking decidedly shifty, and into the elevator.
It takes her a moment to realize that she's standing next to Mulan.
"Hey," Mulan says, leaning forward a little bit to get a look at Aurora's face. "Aurora, right? I'm Mulan."
"Um," Aurora says intelligently.
Mulan squints at her. "Are you all right? You look a little freaked out."
"Hi," Aurora squeaks. "I, um. Had a meeting with my advisor?"
"Oh, yeah," Mulan says. "That sucks." She elbows Aurora gently and smiles. "Every time I talk to my advisor, I feel like my ancestors are staring at me and willing me not to embarrass them."
"I'm sure they don't think that," Aurora says involuntarily. She turns red when Mulan looks at her and ducks her head. "I mean, you – you do a lot."
There is a brief, very awkward pause. "You know who I am?" Mulan asks, sounding surprised.
"Err," says Aurora, just as the elevator doors open. "See you later," she says, and she slips out before Mulan can stop her.
Ella is still at work when Aurora arrives back at their room, thankfully. She slings her bag to the floor before flopping onto her bed and groaning into her pillow.
Her phone rings, buzzing against her stomach through her sweatshirt. It takes a bit of wiggling to get it out without moving off her belly. "Hello?"
"Hi Aurora," says her mother. "Phillip called us –"
"Ugh," Aurora sighs, burying her face in her pillow. "That traitor."
"He's worried about you, sweetheart," her mother says reprovingly. "Don't be ungrateful."
"I don't want to talk about it," she says. "I'll figure it out."
"Honey," her mom starts, and Aurora does her best not to lose her temper. "We all just want the best for you."
"You want me to take over from you and Dad," she counters, leaning up on her elbows.
Her mother is silent for a moment. "Aurora," she says after a moment, "you have certain responsibilities –"
"No I don't," Aurora says. "Mom, this is the 21st century, I'm not inheriting a country."
"But you are inheriting our company," her mother says, voice turning hard and steely. "Now, I suppose that once we hand it over to you, you can do whatever you like with it, but I think you wouldn't want to see your family's legacy completely disappear thanks to you."
Aurora grits her teeth. "Phillip can take care of it –"
"Phillip will have his own company to run, and we haven't settled on a merger as of yet," her mother says. Her voice softens. "Aurora, I'm not saying you can't make your own decisions, you just need to think of the future."
"Thanks," Aurora says. "I have to go, Mom, I have homework."
"Okay, sweetie. Call if you need anything."
"Yeah," Aurora says dully, and she hangs up so she doesn't have to listen to her mother's overly-kind goodbyes.
She does her homework curled up in bed, using her economics textbook as a desk, and restrains herself from just writing obscenities all over it, since it isn't her teacher's fault that she hates everything about the class. Ella comes back around nine, looking exhausted, and collapses in bed without even changing clothes. Aurora charitably slips Ella's shoes off for her and sets them at the foot of the bed so she'll be able to find them in the morning, then shuts off the lights and goes out in the hall to continue studying – well, glaring at – her business ethics textbook.
The worst part of it all is that there are some things in business she doesn't hate. She likes marketing all right, and she's always been good at the interpersonal components, but that's not what her parents want from her. It's not what's expected.
When she was very small, she hadn't understood exactly what it meant to be the daughter of the president and vice-president of a multi-billion dollar company. When she was sixteen, they had sat her down and explained that they were giving the company to her on her twenty-fifth birthday and that she, with the help of Phillip and the guidance of their parents, was expected to uphold the family name.
It's a lot of pressure, and there are days when Aurora just stays in bed rather than going to class, unwilling to deal with the stress of studying subjects she hates. And she hates how selfish it is, how utterly narcissistic and useless it is to resent the life handed to her on a golden platter.
She scribbles out a miscalculation on her homework and redoes it in tight, neat digits. Someone down the hall starts playing loud techno, and she yells, "Quiet hours!" without looking up. The music goes down a moment later and Babette peeks out.
"Sorry, Aurora," she calls.
"It's okay," Aurora says, and she watches Babette slip back inside her room.
When Friday rolls around, Aurora doesn't feel particularly inclined to go to Arielle's birthday party, but she does have a present for her sitting on her desk and she doesn't have a good reason not to go. She makes a few noises about maybe staying in and Ella grabs her arm, eyes wide.
"No, you can't leave me," she says. "What if Charming is there?"
"Okay, we have got to find out his name," Aurora says. "This is getting ridiculous."
Ella goes red but doesn't let go of her arm. "Aurora, I can't talk to him alone."
"You've talked to him a hundred times," Aurora protests.
"And I always had someone with me, Aurora." Ella tugs at her arm. "And you promised you were coming."
"I guess I did." Aurora sighs and gently pries herself away. "Okay, okay."
"Thank you." Ella starts pulling at her hair again, trying to tame the curls around her face. "God, I bet it's going to be madness."
Aurora doesn't disagree.
They arrive at the party a little after nine to find the house Arielle shares with her sisters in full party mode, the music loud enough to hear from the end of the block. Ella gives Aurora an I told you so look before linking arms with her and dragging her inside the house.
It's like stepping underwater; the walls are painted a rich aquamarine and the lights are draped with scarves. Arielle is easily spotted by her bright red hair (whether or not the color is natural is a popular debate) and when she sees them, she waves energetically before bounding over.
"Hi, I'm so glad you're here!" she says brightly. She hugs them both, kissing their cheeks. "Isn't it exciting? I'm finally twenty-one!"
She gets distracted by someone else, and Aurora leans over to Ella to whisper, "It's not like she didn't already drink like a fish."
Ella giggles guiltily and swats at her. "Be nice."
There's a table against the wall stacked with gifts, and Aurora is adding hers to the pile when someone taps her on the shoulder. She turns to see Phillip, looking awkward and out of place, and she raises her eyebrows.
"Are you even allowed to be here?" she asks teasingly. "You're supposed to be guiding us to knowledge, not debauchery."
"I'm here to be sure you keep it to a dull roar. Besides, I'm assured all of you are of legal age." He raises his beer to his mouth and smiles. "How are you?"
"All right," she says. "You know."
"Yeah," he agrees. "Okay, let's get you a drink."
Ella vanishes off with her coworker Tiana, waving goodbye to them, and Aurora follows Phillip to the drinks, accepting a cup of cranberry juice and vodka from him before finding a couch to curl up on. He sits next to her and squeezes her knee gently.
"My mom called," he says, and Aurora sighs loudly. "Don't be like that, Aurora, you know how they are."
"I know," she says. "They're gossip queens, though."
"They are the best, aren't they?" Phillip pats her hand. "Honestly – I know you're Wendy's student, but I'd be glad to help you pick a major if you want. And – I promise I'll help you out, no matter how the merger goes."
Aurora blinks hard, eyes suddenly burning, and not from the pot smoke. "Thanks, Phillip," she whispers, and she leans into him as Arielle's oldest sister starts to sing loudly, the other sisters joining in one after the other. Arielle is the last to join in, throwing her hands in the air and smacking her boyfriend in the face. Phillip snorts.
"Poor Eric," Aurora says.
Phillip gets up a moment later. "I'm going to go get another drink. Do you want anything?"
"I'm fine," she says, and she settles back further in the couch as he vanishes into the crowd. She spots Ella dancing with Charming, looking flushed and happy, her hair falling out of its bun, and laughs into her cup.
"Hey," someone says in Aurora's ear. She twists around curiously and sees Mulan standing at her shoulder, smiling faintly. "Mind if I sit?"
"Um," Aurora says blankly. She scrambles to marshal her thoughts and manages to squeak out, "Sure?"
Mulan vaults the back of the couch with absurd grace and slides onto the cushion next to Aurora. "I'm glad to see you again. You ran off on me the other day."
"Yeah, I had –" Aurora bites her lip. "Something to do?"
"Sure, I get it." Mulan gently bumps her shoulder against Aurora's, and Aurora's brain kind of goes offline for a minutes. When she fades back in, Mulan is saying "—you study?"
"Sorry?" Aurora asks.
"What do you study?" Mulan repeats slowly. "I only know who you are because of Meg, I don't see you around."
"I'm –" Aurora hesitates. "I'm a business student."
"Ah, that explains it," Mulan says. "You must be studying all the time."
"Um," Aurora says. "Well, yes."
Mulan laughs. "Well, that's off the list of possibilities for me, then. I think I'm going to go into sports education or something."
"That'll be great," Aurora says, smiling. "You'll be great at that."
Mulan tilts her head. "You said something, last time – you know who I am?"
"Well, you – like, um." Aurora feels herself flushing, and she ducks her head, embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I swear I can be more articulate than this."
"It's all right," Mulan says. "What were you going to say?"
"I'm friends with Meg and Belle," Aurora says. "I know who's on the football team."
"Are you going to come to the games?" Mulan asks eagerly.
"I, um. I think football is kind of confusing," Aurora admits.
"Aw, well, you should let me teach you about it sometime." Mulan smiles, and for a moment, Aurora can't quite breathe.
"I'd like that," she says finally, and she smiles back.
Aurora spends rest of the weekend replaying the conversation with Mulan in her mind, remembering how astoundingly beautiful Mulan had looked in the dim light, and cursing the fact that Ella had freaked out about Charming and dragged Aurora out of the party before it was even midnight.
"I think he's royalty," Ella hisses when Aurora complains. "He's trying to be sneaky, but I think he's a Lord or something, Aurora!"
Aurora gently pours Ella into her bed and says, "Sleep it off, dear. And next time we are getting his name."
She doesn't see Mulan around for a few days, mostly because she's spending all her free time pouring over her course catalog and trying to decide what major sounds the most like her. She spends one full afternoon in Ms. Darling's office, the two of them talking through the different options, and she leaves no more sure than she had been when she entered.
Rain is coming down hard when she leaves the advising offices, and she grumbles under her breath while she pulls up the hood of her jacket. She had left her umbrella with Ella, who had a tendency to get sick if out in the rain too long; it's a shame, because it changes colors when it's wet, pink fading to blue, then back again when it's dry.
She's walking across the quad when she spots a small figure huddled under the statue of the school's founder. As she draws nearer, she realizes that she recognizes the dark swoop of hair and the green Anaheim U Football sweatpants.
"Mulan?" Aurora asks, hurrying over and crouching down next to her. She reaches out cautiously and presses her palm to Mulan's shoulder. "Mulan, it's me."
Mulan uncurls slowly, untucking her face from the crook of her arm. "Aurora?" she asks, voice hoarse and a little croaky. Her eyes are red and she looks miserable. "What –"
"What are you doing out here?" Aurora asks. "You're going to catch your death!"
"I don't – I don't want to go home," Mulan answers quietly. She sniffs and wipes her nose with the damp hem of her sleeve.
"Well, come back with me, then," Aurora says. "Come on, I can't leave you out here."
She manages to cajole Mulan into standing and then goads her into running, the two of them sprinting in and out of cover from the downpour until they're in Aurora's dorm.
Once inside her room, Aurora heads to the bathroom to change clothes and towel off. She grabs a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt that she thinks Mulan will fit into and brings that out. Mulan is perched on the very edge of Aurora's desk chair, dripping steadily onto the carpet. Aurora smiles and holds out the change of clothes.
"Here, why don't you hang your clothes to dry in the bathroom," she suggests, and she sits down on Ella's chair to towel off her hair while she waits for Mulan to come back.
Mulan returns a few minutes later, Aurora's sweatpants riding a little low on her hips. Aurora swallows and very carefully looks at Mulan's face. "Better?"
"Yeah, thanks," Mulan says. Aurora wordlessly holds out the towel and tries not to blush at the grateful smile Mulan gives her.
"Thanks for doing this," Mulan says, reclaiming her place on Aurora's chair. "I just – yeah. Thanks."
"It's no problem," Aurora says.
Mulan looks around Aurora's room curiously. "So this is your room, huh?"
"You want me to give you the grand tour?" Aurora asks. "You are currently sitting at my desk, where I usually cry over my economics homework –"
"Good," says Mulan.
"—and I'm sitting at Ella's desk, where she rarely ever sits since she's always working." Aurora waves vaguely toward the door to their room. "And you saw our bathroom and closet."
Mulan smiles at Aurora. "Plenty nice."
"Yeah, I guess it isn't bad." Aurora sits back in her seat. "Where do you live?"
"Off-campus housing," Mulan says. "I don't know if you know my roommates – Chin Po, Ling, and Yao?"
Aurora racks her brain. "Chin Po is on the football team, isn't he?"
"Yeah." Mulan sighs and drapes the towel over the back of the chair. "My parents hate that I live with them."
Aurora waits. Mulan is staring at the towel kind of fixedly and her hands are twitching on her thighs. Finally, Mulan bursts out, "I'm not the perfect girl they wanted to have."
Aurora scoots forward and bumps her foot against Mulan's. "Is that why you – don't want to go back?"
"I – yeah." Mulan sighs and slumps forward. "I had a fight with my parents. They don't understand, you see. Why would a girl like me throw away the chance to be a doctor or a lawyer or – anything else? Anything other than a football player."
"Have they ever seen you play?" Aurora asks.
"No," Mulan sighs. "I played in high school, too, but they thought it was just a phase. Now, they're telling me that no one wants a girl who plays football. But I don't know how to be anything else."
Aurora hesitates, then lays her hand on Mulan's knee. "If they could see you play, they'd change their minds," she says. "You're amazing."
Mulan looks up. "You've seen me?"
"I – I came to try-outs," Aurora says. "And practice. A few of them."
"A few?" Mulan asks.
"All of them," Aurora admits. "When I don't have class."
"You came – for me?" Mulan asks, startled. "You don't even know me that well."
"I know I like watching you," Aurora says, feeling herself blush. "I'm sorry, I know that's weird –"
"Don't apologize," Mulan says quickly, reaching out to tug on one of Aurora's curls. "I'm just surprised. Flattered, though. I have a fan."
Aurora is sure she's about to combust from embarrassment. "I, um. I'm going to come to the games. If you want to teach me still."
Mulan smiles and twirls Aurora's damp hair around her finger. "Yes. I'd like that."
Aurora bites her bottom lip, staring at Mulan and trying not to read too much into the fact that Mulan hasn't yet shoved her off. Still, she'll probably hit herself later if she doesn't ask. "I – maybe we could have dinner first."
Mulan's smile grows a little wider. "Are you asking me out?"
"Is that all right?" Aurora asks, looking down. "I just –"
Mulan reaches out and lifts her chin. "Hey," she says, and she's much closer now, close enough that Aurora can see the droplets of rain still clinging to her eyelashes. "This just never happens to me."
"Me neither," Aurora manages, voice a little more breathless than she's entirely comfortable with, and then Mulan kisses her, not moving her hand from Aurora's chin. Aurora gasps into Mulan's mouth and lets Mulan push her back into Ella's chair until Mulan is mostly straddling her lap.
"Okay," Mulan says quietly when she pulls back to breathe. "At least we know that works."
Aurora laughs and presses her face into the crook of Mulan's neck. "At least we have that."
"You're good at this whole comforting thing," Mulan says, running her fingers through Aurora's hair. "I feel a lot better."
"You get the special treatment," Aurora says. "Besides, I get it." She leans back so she can look at Mulan. "My parents – they want me to take over their company, but I just – I don't know if I'm cut out for business."
"What is it that you want?" Mulan asks.
"I want to help people, I guess," Aurora says after a minute. "And I don't know how to do that if I'm stuck with a company I didn't even work to get."
Mulan smiles and kisses Aurora's cheek. "You should talk to your advisor – maybe you can work out your own specialization in, I don't know, human resources or something. Maybe non-profits. They might let you do it if you can come up with a course load."
Aurora stares at her. "What?"
"That's how I'm doing my degree," Mulan says. "Technically I'm an education major, but I talked them into letting me call it sports education if I take a certain number of courses from the physical therapy and biology arena."
"I never even –" Aurora's mind is whirling, trying to think of all the ways she could build her degree out from what she has. "That's genius."
"Did I help?" Mulan asks. "Wow, that doesn't happen often."
Aurora kisses her, hard, and then gently pushes her off. "I have to go back and talk to my advisor," she says. "Thanks."
"Okay," Mulan says, waving. "Have fun!"
Of course, Aurora is soaked when she gets to Ms. Darling's office, but she catches her just before she's about to leave, and proposes her plan. Ms. Darling eyes her, then nods and says, "We'll mark you down as a straightforward business major, then. Email me your academic plan in one week and we'll go from there."
Aurora impulsively gives her a very damp hug. "Thank you so much, Ms. Darling," she says, and she skips down to Phillip's office. She bangs on the door, then opens it just in time to see Aladdin spring backwards from Phillip's chair like he's been shocked.
Phillip runs his hands through his hair nervously, his face flushed, and says, "Um."
"I'll – tell you later," Aurora says, trying very hard not to smirk. "Hi, Aladdin."
"Hi, Aurora," he says sheepishly, and she blows them a kiss before leaving the office, feeling like she could not have possibly had a better day.
"Okay," she says to Mulan, "I was wrong."
"Shh," Mulan says, tugging Aurora closer on her bed and reaching out with her foot to nudge the computer into a better position. "You're going to miss the next play."
Aurora giggles and reaches out blindly for the bag of take-out so she can pull out the last of the cookies. "Sorry."
Mulan kisses her temple absently as the football players on the screen start running. Aurora settles in to watch and listens to Mulan's quiet running commentary, trying not to get too distracted by the smell of Mulan's hair or the warm stretch of leg pressed up against her.
When the game switches to a commercial, Mulan turns to Aurora and asks, "What were you wrong about?"
"Oh, just – the other day, I thought I couldn't possibly have a better day." Aurora smiles. "I was wrong. This is better."
Mulan wrinkles her nose and smiles. "You're too sweet."
"You deserve it," Aurora says comfortably, and she curls up into Mulan to watch the rest of the game.