After all that had happened last year, Fa Mulan, only child of Fa Zhou of Jinbai, had never expected to be standing here, on the gleaming command deck of the Imperial cityship, head bowed and neck again bared by a man’s topknot. She was waiting for the Emperor to hold out to her the gleaming silver-etched sword of a smallship commander.
He did, and she received it with both hands. The gongs were rung, and there were cheers from the audience space below the command deck. If Mulan looked sideways, she could just catch a glimpse of Shang, the ceremonial red of his uniform picking him out of the shadows. He was smiling, a little, an anxious twist of his mouth. At least he was trying.
Smallship commanders were men. So therefore Fa Mulan was now, again, a man, in an empire desperate for soldiers after the destruction wrought by Shan Yu. This time she was going into glory, but her marriage had been dissolved. It felt worse than the first time.
She turned to face the crowd, already aware of the differences in her stance, in her face. Her body remembered how to be male. She held the sword up slowly, and the cheering increased. She looked at Shang, and smiled to see him clapping. Unenthusiastically, but still clapping.
She bowed to the Emperor again. “My service in your hands, your Majesty.”
The Emperor was smiling broadly. “As it should be, Fa Mulan. I am delighted to welcome you back to the army.”
“I am almost entirely delighted to return.” She couldn’t help her eyes turning to Shang again.
“Have heart, it will not be forever.”
“No.” Just a few years. She sighed, she thought inaudibly, and bowed a third time. “I will depart.”
“Do so,” the Emperor said solemnly. “My blessings.” And then he gave a wink and said, “You don’t have to be married to enjoy life, child. I hope you know that.”
Before a gaping Mulan could ask for clarification, he had turned and swept away, head raised at a regal angle.
Mulan made it less than ten steps down a gold-carpeted side corridor before there was a familiar smooth shape curling itself around her neck. Mushu must have been hiding in a pot plant or something. “Damn, girl,” Mushu breathed into her ear. “My little baby’s all grown up.”
“Not a girl right now, Mushu, remember? I’ve got certificates to prove it.”
“Yeah, and you’re enjoying it,” Mushu purred. “I can see your swagger.”
Mulan consciously pulled her stride in, curtailed the feeling of expansiveness that was beginning to settle under her skin. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You like being a man,” Mushu said, in much the same taunting tone that he’d once informed Mulan that she had a thing for Shang. “And being the smartest one in the army, you little nerd. It’s fine, don’t worry, on my planet we switch all the time.”
“On your planet, you’re all spacelizards!” Mulan said indignantly. “This isn’t easy for me!” Shang’s face swam to the forefront of her mind.
“Spacedragons. And yeah, yeah, sure, I know. But you’re still enjoying it.”
Mulan dismissed him with a snort and Mushu giggled against her neck.
Shang was waiting for her at the end of the corridor. Mulan’s stride hitched as she saw him, but she forced herself onwards. “Sorry,” she said when she arrived in front of him. It felt like all she’d been saying to him for months. “I know you were hoping this wouldn’t happen.”
“Right up until you took the sword,” Shang said, but he’s smiling a little. “The Emperor’s given me a pep talk, though.”
“I think he gave me one as well,” Mulan said. “It wasn’t entirely clear.”
“Oh, mine was.” Shang looked a little embarrassed. “Very clear.”
“Now kiss her,” Mushu muttered.
“Mushu, you think you’re being subtle, but you’re not.” Mulan put a hand up to her neck and wrapped it around Mushu’s thin, cool midsection. She pulled him away from her. He didn’t really struggle, except for tangling his claws briefly in her hair and tugging maliciously. “Could you leave now?” She dropped him on the ground. Gently.
“One shiny sword and she thinks she’s in charge,” Mushu said, but he was already scampering away. “Have fun, you crazy kids! And I mean fun, if you know what I mean.”
Mulan turned back to Shang, rolling her eyes, and bit her lip as her gaze met his. “I ship out tomorrow, “ he said.
“Me next week,” Mulan said. “So I guess you should come to my quarters.”
He didn’t kiss her, out in the open, because she was a man now. But his smile widened and sweetened, and Mulan reached out to stroke the fabric of his tunic, just over his heart, before she turned to lead the way to her new bachelor quarters. Shang followed without a word.