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a story, a tale

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Before

At the wedding, she stands tall, rings clasped tightly in the palm of her hand.  All too soon, now, she will have to surrender them to Phillip.  She’ll last until then. 

For her sake.

He is Mulan's almost-everything; her commander, her best friend, someone she would follow into death and back out of it again.  Her gave her purpose when she thought she would never have any again, and for him, she will surrender these rings.

Surrender is anathema to her very nature, but what she is doing here defies courage, bravery, strength.  It is instead about honor and trust, and a truly good soldier possesses all of these qualities in spades, highlighting each in turn.

As she gazes upon the princess, hair tied back from her face by a simple set of woven blossoms that accentuate the pale, dew-like green of her eyes, Mulan wonders to what extent honesty and truth make up a good soldier.

If they are core requirements, she has not been a very good soldier for a very long time; and she feels her eyes close as her hand extends, and Phillip gathers the rings and slides them onto Aurora’s fingers.

She doesn’t need to have her eyes open to see the light in the princess’ eyes, or the softness in her smile as Phillip leans forward to kiss his wife.  Why would she need to, when that very image haunts her every time she attempts sleep?

The castle explodes into applause, and Phillip clasps her shoulder, forcing her eyes open again.  He is able to feel joy in this moment; and as his first lieutenant, it falls to her to not only share in that joy, but to protect it.

No matter what the cost.



After

A whole life in a duffel bag, is what they think when she boards the bus.  

She’s used to the looks, even if she doesn’t acknowledge them.  It’s the scar that cuts across her face, underneath her aviators and not hidden behind her hair even when she wears it down.  It’s that, and the dog tags that jangle around her neck.  

She’s barely twenty eight years old.  She’s also a veteran.  The creak in her knees speaks for her past life, as does the way that she doesn’t feel comfortable staying put anywhere for too long.  Staying put means being a target.  A good soldier moves, always.

Boston wasn’t the worst of the cities she’s been in.  The facility there had needed a hand, for a short while, and she’d pitched in because her old CO was there getting a new leg fitted.  Courtesy of the government, of course.  Lose one limb and they sew on another.  The war continues.

The difference between a dishonorable discharge and an honorable one is in the esteem of fellow cave rats.  Anyone who’s been in one of the tunnel networks knows the look of a survivor and a fighter, and inside the facility she’d been greeted as a hero.  For all the lives she’s saved, though--and there have been many--it’s only the ones that she hasn’t that stay with her.  At that point, honor doesn’t mean much anymore, and being subjected to admiration from others just makes her burn with anger.  Even they don’t seem to get it.

She’s twenty eight, but she feels so much older than that sometimes, as if her whole existence has been nothing but an inexplicably uneven sum of lives she’s saved and lives that she couldn’t save.

A good soldier doesn’t think about these things, and that’s why she’s not a good soldier anymore.  Her leg shakes, as the bus starts moving, and she keeps her sunglasses on and her hand wrapped tight around her duffel's strap.

She's not a very good soldier anymore, but she might as well keep moving anyway.



Before

When the dark fairy comes, only hours after the wedding, they are caught off guard.

Mulan isn’t, of course.  Her hand is on her sword even when it’s not; a state of mind, Shang had called it, and he had been right.  He’d taught her everything he knew, before she lost him, and it is in his memory that her hand remains on her sword even when it’s not.

Phillip is first on his feet, reaching for his own blade, but Maleficent bats it out of his hands as if it is a feather.  It gently sways back down, landing in her palm, before turning into a mouse that she sends scurrying across the floor.

Mulan considers her options, as Phillip moves to stand in front of Aurora, who is at the nexus of this, of course.  The curse is not a secret; fairies have told Phillip everything there is to know, fluttering about his head as he’d been chosen for Aurora in the first place.  Her only hope, they’d declared him, in high-pitched girly voices, wings glimmering with silvery dust and dresses in colors so bright they weren’t natural.

“There are no spinning wheels here, Maleficent,” Phillip declares.  “You’ve lost.  Her parents burned all the spinning wheels in their kingdom years ago, and--”

“I’ve never so much as seen a needle,” Aurora says, getting to her own feet.  She puts a hand on Phillip’s arm until he stands aside, and Mulan feels herself swell with inexplicable emotion all over again.

The princess doesn’t fight in their way, but that hardly means she doesn’t fight.

Maleficent pauses, waving Aurora’s words off.  “Oh, that old legend.  My word, you people will believe anything, won’t you?  A spinning wheel.”  She laughs after a few seconds, and shakes her head.  “No--a friend helped me concoct that story, and while you were all fretting over needles, I merely had to watch and wait for this very day.”

Phillip and Aurora look at each other, and Phillip’s knights start a low murmuring; the ladies in waiting across the table clutch at their hearts and Mulan keeps her eye on the witch, who rarely travels alone, and when she does, there is more for them to fear.

“You see, darling,” Maleficent says, taking a few more steps into the dining hall and clapping her hands together twice; her horned soldiers march into the hallway, as does the unicorn that she has tamed.  “I cursed you when you were born and let Rumpelstiltskin weave his little tale, but you needn’t prick your finger.  No, you needn’t do much of anything except come of age.”

You lie,” Phillip snaps, reaching for one of the knives on the table and throwing it across the room.

It disappears in a puff of smoke, and Mulan regrips her sword and glances at the door.  Guarded, now.  They will have to fight to escape.  Aurora will have to stay behind her, no matter what the cost.  Phillip will want it that way.

Wonderful,” Maleficent exhales.  “So young, so in love.  So … doomed.”

“True love’s kiss--”

“Cannot be, if her true love is not there, now can it?” Maleficent crows, before reaching for the unicorn and stroking its mane, gently.  “And believe me, Phillip.  You will be nowhere near her when she succumbs to her little nap.”

Knights leap to their feet as if released from a spell.  Fighting commences, but Maleficent hardly moves; she just stares at Aurora, who stares back, hand on Phillip’s elbow and chin raised.

“What will it take for you to stop this?” she asks, so quietly that Mulan isn’t sure anyone other than the four of them can hear.  The fighting takes place almost distantly, as if Maleficent is warding them from it, though she surely is not.

It stops Maleficent in her tracks, her face freezing like crinkled parchment, old and ready to tear--but after a moment she just smiles, the sad smile of someone who truly has nothing to gain or lose anymore, and who is on a path that cannot be stopped.  The smile of someone that Mulan knows she is destined to slay, much as she had been destined to slay Shan Yu.

“It ends today, darling Aurora.  In a few moments, there will be nothing left to stop,” she says, before closing her eyes and turning the staff she carries with her over.  A purple diamond shines on the tip of it, and Mulan feels her face contort in instinctive horror as the staff is raised, gem poised above the stone floor, and quickly brought down.

Purple smoke rises from the shattered diamond on the floor and starts to envelop them all; it feels like molasses, forbidding any quick movement.  Aurora lifts the hem of her dress and gasps in surprise, her eyelids starting to drift shut in a way that seems unstoppable.

“What are you doing?” Phillip calls out, reaching for the smoke and stopping when his fingers connect with it, as if it is solid; as if it will encase them all.

Maleficent no longer answers, but instead plucks a hair off the unicorn’s mane and balances it on her finger, before mumbling something under her breath and looking directly at Phillip.

It is nothing but instinct that has her reaching for Phillip’s arm, letting go of her sword for the first time in years, and pulling on him so hard that he takes two or three steps backward and she ends up in front of him.

The last thing she sees is Phillip’s mouth, opening in horror as he catches Aurora; and then there is--



After

The bus breaks down when they’re an hour or so out of Augusta.  The entire road has been a narrow, diagonal path cut towards the coast, and they’re almost on it now.  She can smell the ocean; it’s a far cry off from the endless sand that she never thought she’d leave behind.

She’s been to every last desert hotbed she can imagine, but she hasn’t seen the ocean in years, not since she first left Chin for the kingdom and longer than she can remember.

Eyes closed, she waits for the bus to start moving again, and remembers what her therapists have all told her.  The flashes are trauma.  There is nothing wrong with her brain that they can see, but she’s witnessed enough horrors for a little part of her mind to have shut down.  Sometimes, she’ll retreat there, when she can’t handle everything else that’s going on.

It’s a whole lot of bullshit to simply indicate that she’s weak, and eventually she stopped going to therapy.  PTSD is nothing but a branding.  It doesn’t account for the flashes of memory that she can never quite hold on to, such as the sight of an old man in a tent of a design that she’s never seen, no matter how many tents she’s been in, both wounded and sleeping, in the last few years.  No, what accounts for those flashes is a buried, amateur bomb; one that wiped out her entire unit and most of her own life with it.  

The bus stays put, and her legs start to shake again.  After a few seconds, she presses to her feet and heads to the front, raising her sunglasses as she looks at the pudgy, sweating driver, cellphone jabbed into his cheek, right next to a ridiculous handlebar mustache.  

“Is there a problem?” she asks, low enough for no one else to hear.

He covers the mouthpiece and looks up at her with irritation on his face, but it fades as he spots the scar.  They say it makes her look dangerous.  She wouldn’t know; every time she sees it, she just sees not fast enough.  Mortar shell.  Entire unit gone.  Face carved up, life carved up.

“Just trying to get a truck out here, but we’re in the middle of goddamned nowhere--uh, beg pardon,” he says, wincing when her tags dance in the setting sun.  “I’m having real issues getting service, so--”

Middle of nowhere has a different meaning to her than it does to any other passenger of this bus, and after a second she leans towards the built-in GPS on his dashboard and says, “How accurate is this thing?”

“It’s never been wrong.”

“This … Storybrooke.  It’s only two miles east; I’ll head out.  You stay here and guard the--watch the bus.  I’ll catch a ride back with the tow truck,” she tells him.

He lowers the phone briefly, as if he’s going to try to protest, but she stares at him for a few more seconds and he just nods and looks away.  “Thank you, Miss--”

Lieutenant.  Lieutenant Chen.”



Before

Long before the wedding, there is a first meeting.

Phillip demands her presence in his chambers.  She finds him striding there in his underclothes, jabbing his dagger in the direction of his closet and complaining about how everything he owns makes him look pompous and unimpressive.

“I mean, why can’t I go and meet her in chainmail?  I’ve slain a dragon, for heaven's sake.  That should be something to make her take notice,” he says, looking at her in exasperation.  “Right?”

Mulan lowers her sword to the ground when it becomes apparent that nothing is threatening to kill her prince, and leans on the handle a little more wearily than technically befits any member of his personal guard.  “Your Highness?”

“I’m--” he starts saying, before sitting down on the end of his bed and lowering his head to his hands.  “I don’t know what to do.”

“About--the princess,” Mulan verifies, before frowning.  “I believe you are meant to ride to King Stefan’s palace and pay your respects and then... then her royal highness Princess Aurora will descend from a winding staircase to make your acquaintance, and then you will … dance.”

He chuckles softly, and she realizes she’s failed to hide her distaste for his cultural traditions--silly as they are--once more.  “Oh, is that all?”

Mulan hesitates for a moment, but then kneels before him; not as his subject, but rather as his confidante.  “Phillip, your love has been foretold since before your fifth year; what more do you need to know about what meeting her will be like?”

He looks at her tiredly, lines by his eyes crinkling, and sighs.  “Is it too much to ask that she just like me for me?”

“I’m sure she will.  You are... very likable,” Mulan admits, after a few seconds.

They both burst into laughter as soon as their eyes meet, and Phillip pushes himself off the bed again and marches towards his wardrobe, reaching inside for a black jacket with polished, golden buttons that will make the golden hue of his eyes stand out.  “This, then?”

“I believe it to be appropriately dignified.”

“Excellent.  All that remains, then, is finding you a dress--”

Her grip on her sword slips.  “What?”

He grins at her, before gently knuckling her in the shoulder.  “A joke, my friend.  You must find a way to lighten up, sometimes.  Though war is never far, it is not currently here, is it?”

She rolls her eyes at him, before bowing shortly and heading for the door again, but pauses when she’s holding the handle.  “Your Highness, one more thing--”

“Of course, Mulan.  Anything you need.”

“Next time your emergency concerns... a woman’s tastes--perhaps consult one of your mother’s handmaidens, and not the captain of your personal guard.”

His laughter follows her down the hall, and she wonders about this Princess Aurora; if the girl--for a girl is all she is, at sixteen years of age to Mulan’s twenty--is spending her afternoon similarly pacing the length of her private chambers, fretting over a love that she has no say in whatsoever.

A few days later, Mulan will abruptly realize that all love is involuntary, not to mention awful--but for now, she heads outside and walks the perimeter of the castle’s walls, and takes comfort in knowing that Phillip is safe enough to spend his time worrying over a girl.



After

The mechanic wipes his hands on a greasy rag, shifting the specks of dirt on his palm around more than sweeping them up, and points at the rear of the truck.  “Spare tire’s on its way, but won’t get in until tomorrow.”

She feels a muscle in her cheek throb.  “The tow truck needs... towing.”

“Got it in one,” the mechanic says, tucking the rag into his back pocket.  “Normally, the sheriff’s got a few cables that can make do in a pinch.  Not sure how that’d work with a bus like yours, but--”

“Where is the Sheriff’s Department?”

“On Main; just head back out and turn right, walk towards the clock tower.  You can’t miss it.”

She nods, because there’s no point in taking her annoyance out on the mechanic--he obviously can’t will a spare tire into existence--and heads back out of the garage.  The street she lands on is like something from a picture book; all the hedges are the same length, everyone’s driveways are swept, and children’s toys are carefully displayed in yards with no children in sight.  

A perfect coastal little ghost town.

Life doesn’t greet her until she does round onto Main Street--only main in name, as it’s exactly as small-town as everything else she’s seen so far of Storybrooke--and a woman with a baby in a stroller, pointing at some of the birds in trees that alternate with street lights, pauses when she walks up.  Maybe it’s the jeans that look like fatigues; but after a second, the baby--with its perfect blonde little ringlets--stretches up to her tags.

It’s almost endearing, the way that tiny fist arcs upwards and tries to grab.  It can’t, however, and after a second Mulan looks at the baby’s mother and says, “Sorry to bother you, ma’am, but can you tell me where the Sheriff’s Department is?”

“I’ll take you,” the woman says, immediately, before turning the stroller around.  Up ahead, a sign proclaiming Granny’s flickers with bright reds and dull blacks, and a man is carrying buckets full of roses out into the street.  “Are you hurt?  Were you--”

She looks at the woman--short black hair, as if she’s recently been in the service--sharply and says, “Why would you think that, ma’am?”

“Well,” the woman says, before laughing sheepishly.  “Sorry, that’s just--we don’t get a lot of visitors.  But you’re obviously not from here, and you need the sheriff, so--”

She’s used to answering questions when asked, but not by civilians.  These are also not really questions so much as they are observations.  The woman’s eyes are curious, but welcoming.  It’s unsettling in a way she can’t really explain, and after a second she just focuses on planting her feet evenly on the ground, before saying, “I’m traveling south on a bus.  It broke down two miles outside of Storybrooke, to the north-east of here.  I’m here to get help, but the only tow truck in town--”

“Ah,” the woman says, relaxing almost immediately.  “Chad will be able to help you, I’m sure.”

“Chad?” she asks, not even sure if she wants an answer.

“Sorry--I should be calling him Sheriff Corser now.  I just remember when he was--”  The woman shakes her head, before smiling a little sadly.  “He was the deputy until recently, but he’s the sheriff now.  He’s who you want.”

She doesn’t have time for this senseless small town gossip, and just nods, watching as the clock tower strikes one.  “Ma’am, if you could just point me to the building--”

The woman reaches for her arm with a deep frown and says, “Wait.  Did the clock just--”

Daaaaa--” the baby crows, also pointing at the clock tower.

“Yes.  It’s thirteen hundred hours, ma’am,” she says, without looking at her wrist watch.  Back when she’d been in the field, turning on the digital display on her watch would’ve been a sure-fire invitation to getting shot.  She’s learned to tell time in other ways; outside light, the emptiness in her stomach, whether or not her eyes stay open.  It’s definitely thirteen hundred hours, right now.

Daaaa--”

“Yes, Emma--the hands moved,” the woman says, softly and slightly dazed. Then, she shakes herself out of it and looks up again, a little sheepish.  “Sorry.  The clock’s been broken as long as I can remember; always frozen at five minutes to one, but I guess Mayor Drake finally sent someone to repair it.  Anyway, the Sheriff’s Department is right there--up the stairs and on the first floor.”

“I see,” she says. “Thank you for your time, Ma’am.”

“No problem; I hope you get your bus fixed,” the woman says, before tickling the baby under her chin and smiling at her.  “What do you say we go and get Daddy for lunch, hm?”

Daaa--” the baby says, as the thinnest hand on the clock ticks onward.



Before

They ride for a full day and a full night, and are then swept up by King Stefan’s palace guard.  Phillip looks down at his slightly threadbare riding boots and sweeps the ends of his cape over them, insignia still gleaming with gold and silver even if the rest of his shine has somewhat worn off.

If any of the soldiers judge him for how the Ogre Wars have ravaged his lands, it isn’t apparent from the stiff, expressionless way that they trot over the mountains and past the villages.  There, wary, hard-working folk stare at her shoulder pads and shin protectors, at the alien lettering that lines her own cape, and at the short pony-tail that she wears her hair in when accompanying the prince anywhere.  The last of her kind, she is, and her kind has never been seen in this land at all.  

She had been a curious enough find for Phillip when he’d come across her, shipwrecked on the rocks at the ends of his own kingdom--but here, she is on display in a way that even he is not.

His crown droops slightly on his head, fit for a man of his father’s stature but not his own, and he keeps having to shift it to keep it on.  Mud splashes up against Zhōng Chéng’s stirrups and she clucks her tongue softly to get him to keep time with Phillip’s own steed, a gray filly with the ridiculous name of Sunshine.

The reins slip in his palm as they start the winding, rocky path up to the towering white castle where his future bride awaits, and she suspects that he’s sweated clean through his gloves.  A silly reaction for a silly boy who will have to start acting like a man soon, she thinks, but reaches for the reins absently and hands them back to him anyway.

He brings his mount to an abrupt halt when the castle gates, an upturned horse-hoof in the distance, are visible, and stares at her so urgently that she, too, stops.  “What?”

“What I’ve told you, about Aurora and myself,” he says, soft enough that their entourage cannot hear.  It pauses a few feet ahead, none of the guardsmen talking, and Mulan finds herself respecting them in an almost unwilling way.

“Your destined love,” she says, tilting her head slightly when his eyes grow panicked.  “What about it?”

He runs a well-worn glove past his cheek and nudges Sunshine in closer until their thighs are almost touching. “It’s a lie.  A charade at best.”

Her eyebrow climbs of its own volition, before she can school her face to not care again.  “You will not love her?”

“No, I will, but--”  He sighs, after a few seconds, and says, “True love.  It comes once per generation.  South of here, there is a woman named Snow White who once was cursed by her stepmother, but her true love, a prince named James--he broke her curse with a kiss and married her.  They live on the edge of a lake, and I believe she is with child.  Eventually, we’ll all attend the royal birth--true love is that rare, you see.  All the kings and queens come together to celebrate it.”

Her eyes narrow, but Chin does not carry these superstitions about the truth of love--there is only love, or the absence of it.  After a few seconds, Phillip--stubbly and tired and muddy and almost common, in the shadows of the twisting facades and peaking towers they are now faced with--lowers his eyes.

“The wars depleted the kingdom’s coffers.  You know that better than most.  My father was desperate to provide for the people when the wars were over, and there seemed to be only one way to guarantee it.”

Mulan feels her mouth part slightly.  “You’re wedding her for her dowry.”

Phillip grimaces, but doesn’t deny it.  “There is a contract,” is all he says.  “It’s--there is magic in it.  Magic that secures our love; that makes it real.  But actual true love?  No; it isn’t that.”

One of the horses whinnies in protest, and Mulan looks back at the gate, squaring her back and running her knuckles along Zhōng Chéng’s flank until he calms.  “You believe I will judge you over this,” she says, before glancing back at Phillip, who is twisting the reins in his hands.

“I judge myself over it--how can you not?” he admits, shortly.

“What do you offer Aurora?”

He looks at her with some surprise, and tugs on his lip with his teeth briefly.  “I tell you this in the utmost of confidence--”

Phillip,” she says, just about managing to not roll her eyes at him.

He smiles sheepishly, but grimly looks up at the tower ahead and says, “On her eighteenth birthday, Aurora will succumb to a sleeping curse of her own.  This is prophecy.  It cannot be escaped.  She’ll touch a spinning wheel and fall prey to a curse that only true love can wake her from.  King Stefan refused to chance that it would strike twice in one generation, and so he enlisted the help of the fairies that blessed Aurora at birth to find a way to break the curse.  As my name is written into a particular spell, I shall be it.”

“Meaning that, in exchange for her money, you offer her life.”

After a second, Phillip smiles.  “You’re right.  That seems rather noble of me.”

“Don’t let it get to your head, Your Highness,” she tells him, before digging her heels into Zhōng Chéng’s flank and riding for the gate.

By the time they approach, Phillip’s eyes are sharp and his posture proud, muddy boots and all; and she feels his pride echoed inside of her own heart, following him into this new realm that they will vow to protect until the end of time.



After

What have you done?” a sharp, vaguely hysterical female voice demands from somewhere inside of the department.

She fights the impulse to kick the door down; this isn’t an apartment at the heart of Baghdad.  O’Neill isn’t right by her side, ready to roll a flashbang inside.  She doesn’t have infrared to switch on as the grenade goes off.  She doesn’t even have a handgun, let alone the M4 she slept with for endless nights.

A deep breath later, she just twists the doorknob and steps inside.  The creak of her leather jacket gives her up, and a woman with extravagantly done-up blond hair takes a step away from a tall, handsome young man whose hat is about to fall off his head.  Probably because he’s scrambling up from the desk, a star-shaped badge front and center on his belt.

The woman stares at her sharply and says, “Can we help you?”

She ignores her and looks at the man instead, hands clasped at her back on instinct.  “Are you all right?”

“Yes, we’re just--” the man says, lifting onto his feet and straightening his wide-brimmed hat.  “Welcome to Storybrooke, ma’am.  I assume you’re the lady--”

She tries not to sneer at him, but it happens instinctively, and his cheeks color before he lowers his eyes.

“What I meant to say is that Michael called in and said you were underway; you need a towing from the interstate?”

“Yes,” she says, and assesses the woman again.  She’s wearing a tailored black pantsuit with a deep, vividly purple ruffled blouse.  Somehow, the blouse doesn’t look dated; it just heightens the blue in her coolly assessing eyes, brightening them until they look almost as if they’re burning.  A gold ring with a green stone is prominently visible on the hand she sticks in her side.

“Right,” the sheriff says, before looking at the mayor again.  “Madam Mayor, I am happy to come to the hospital with you after this is done but I assure you I didn’t go near Jane Doe; I’ve been here all morning, trying to finish up the paperwork that Graham left behind--”

The Mayor’s face sets in a sour, displeased way, but she plasters on a false smile and says, “I apologize.  I overreacted, Sheriff Corser.”

“That’s all right.  It’s quite a shock, isn’t it?” he says, amiably enough, before lifting his hat briefly and rubbing at the back of his head.  “She’s been in that coma for as long as I can remember.”

“Quite the shock,” the mayor repeats. She tugs at the collar of her blouse, before taking a step away from the sheriff.  “Yes.  I suppose I’d better head to the hospital.  The girl has … no relatives, so I’m down as her emergency contact.”

“I wonder how much she remembers,” the sheriff says, absently, before shaking his head.  “I’ll join you as soon as I’m done giving the... Captain?”

It’s hard not to smile at the hopeful tone of his voice.  She inclines her head, faintly.  “First Lieutenant, actually.”

“Right,” he says, more slowly now. After a moment, he reaches behind him for a set of keys.  “Well.  I’ll see what I can do about getting Triple A out to the bus, and I’ll drive you back over myself after that.  Madam Mayor--”

The mayor just nods and looks at both of them probingly for another few seconds.  The slightest glimmer of recognition flashes over her face as their eyes meet, but it fades again just as quickly, and then the mayor sweeps past her, the window in the door rattling as she slams it shut on her way out.

The sheriff exhales loudly.  “My God.  That woman gets more strange with every passing day.”

She says nothing, and watches as he fumbles the keys before pocketing them and giving her another one of those sloppy, boyish smiles.

“Sorry.  You’re not catching me at my finest here.  It’s been a very weird day.  The clock tower--”

“Yes, I was told,” she says, rubbing her thumb into the palm of her hand.  “I don’t mean to rush you, sir, but there is a bus full of people--”

“Of course,” he says, and she watches as he seems to come back to himself a little more.  The next two minutes consist of him being efficient and with purpose, and when she follows him out to the patrol car, it’s with something that might almost be confidence that he can help them out.



He fiddles with the radio on the ride over, before finally just shutting the radio off with a sigh.  “Storybrooke’s a great town, but reception is terrible.  Phones, FM radio--it’s all just a crapshoot.  I’ve sometimes wondered if we’re stuck under some kind of dome or something, but--the government doesn’t actually do things like that, right?”

She watches the forest stretch around the car and lets the scent of wintergreens sit heavy in her chest.  It reminds her of--not home, but some other place dear to her.  It would be great if she could remember, and her hands start to shake in her lap before she actually registers his question.  “I’m sorry, what?”

“Well, you work for them,” the sheriff says, looking at her curiously.  “They’re not experimenting on Storybrooke, are they?”

She can’t decide if she finds him ridiculous or amusing, or maybe a combination. “I highly doubt that they are, Sheriff.”

He stays quiet for a few moments, breaking the silence to ask, “How long have you been back?”

It’s better than what she normally gets asked.  Where were you?  How many people have you killed?  Did you catch Bin Laden?  The answer is still problematic; it’s both too long, and not nearly long enough.

Some days, she’s not ‘back’  at all.

Her hands wring together and she finally gives the more straightforward answer, which is, “Five months.”

“When are you shipping out again?” he asks, thumb flicking at the siren on the car for a second; he murmurs an apology as they coast past the town limits.  An indistinct shadow passes over his face and he shudders visibly as they pass the town sign, but it's only for a moment.

“I’m not,” she says, short enough to discourage further questions.

He nods after a few moments, and says, “North, right?”

The car swerves onto the interstate at her own nod, and she smells the ocean and the woods and the man sitting next to her and wonders how any of it can feel familiar to her at all, given that she’s never been here.  It doesn’t take her memories to know that.  There wouldn’t have been a single reason for her to ever be anywhere near Storybrooke, Maine, let alone its slightly hapless sheriff.



She’s out the car before it fully stops and stares at the asphalt.  

Tire tracks are visible there, as are a few littered cigarette butts, but the bus itself--

The sheriff joins her, bending down to touch the tracks.  “Still warm.  They peeled out fast.”

Grass by the side of the road is flattened by footsteps, but there’s nothing discernible there, either, except a lumpy shape that she recognizes on account of it being her one constant, all these months.  A few strides, the laces in her boots coming undone, and she’s next to her bag, ripping it open and finding its contents intact.  

The gun on top of her clothes is the kind of thing she would’ve normally tried to hide--civilians panic at the sight of weaponry in a way she cannot understand, but has to respect--but now, she pulls it out and tucks it into the waistband of her jeans, right at the small of her back.

She straightens again after that, and stares at the sheriff in a way that makes him gulp.  “It was here.”

“I believe you,” he says, not even hesitating for a second.  “Thing is, though--it’s not here now.”

“Yes, no shit, Sheriff,” she bites out at him, and watches his soft brown puppy-like eyes widen in surprise, before he actually grins a little.

“Sorry.  Stating the obvious is about eighty percent of this job.  The rest is cats in trees.”

Somehow, his rational and calm response cuts through her mounting panic--the kind of thing that they have pills for, her first therapist told her--and makes her just stare at him with a set mouth, eyes unwavering.

“Where’s the nearest bus depot?” she asks.

He looks off into the distance and slowly says, “You know, I honestly couldn’t tell you.  I can find out for you, but I’ve got to get to the hospital and so I wouldn’t be able to give you a ride until tomorrow.”

“Fine,” she says, and stares at her duffel again.  Nearly out of clean clothes, even closer to being completely out of money.  Fort Bragg is going to be sending her a check as soon as she reports in with a new address, which means having a new address.  

The sun starts to set, and she realizes she’s close to being out of options; but no one survives a two year tour in those fucking cave tunnels if they don’t know how to squeeze out of really small spaces.  If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s in the man looking at her now, thumbs looped into his belt, with that overly polished star the proudest of all of his possessions.

“I’ll need somewhere to stay for the night.  Does Storybrooke have a hotel?” she asks, fighting a sigh.  

“It has something far better than that,” he says, relaxing his stance slightly and smiling at her in that same horrifically earnest way that makes her want to smile back, somehow.  “You’ll see.”



Before

Phillip’s castle has always seemed extravagant to her.  Perhaps not compared to the Emperor’s palace, but the Emperor ruled all of Chin and Phillip’s family rules merely a small portion of the land mass that makes up the kingdoms.  She is, however, forced to reassess the castle in her mind as they are ushered in past the first ornate, gold-leaf patterned doors, into a white marble room that the head of the palace guard describes as the entrance hall.  

It’s double the size of Phillip’s throne room, and all it houses is statues of the royal family, more gold-threaded arches, and ornate pillars that sweep up to a windowed roof.  The sun casts down bright enough through the stained glass for her to wince and look down at her feet, which is where her eyes should be regardless.  Here, only Phillip matters.  She will be behind her prince as he carves a path for himself in this new world; as he puffs up his chest and seems important enough to have audience with the people who effortlessly inhabit a palace this opulent.

They are guided on a thick red runner, and their muddied footprints are swept clean by near-invisible servants who flutter out from behind the pillars and follow their tracks.  It makes Mulan’s teeth tingle, as if she herself is a speck of dirt that must be disposed of somehow.  Her sword feels heavy on her shoulders, and the blades she keeps tucked into her boots sing with every step.  It’s all that makes her feel as if she belongs.

At the end of the foyer, two helmed guardsmen stand with halberds crossed in front of the next imposing set of double doors.  The halberds uncross as Phillip approaches, and they are ushered through into the throne room.  Thrones sit underneath the largest stained glass window she has ever seen; it depicts a rising sun, and the thrones themselves carry that same emblem, above the heads of their occupants.  

Phillip strides forward and takes a knee first; she herself lowers to the ground next to him, forehead almost touching strands of red, until a jovial and booming voice tells them both to rise.

“Family does not kneel,” the king announces, but even so, she waits for Phillip’s subtle hand gesture before getting to her feet.  The king rules this land, but he does not rule her.

“Your Majesty,” Phillip starts to say, his voice squeaking lightly on the last word, but the speech is memorized; Phillip’s advisor, an old member of his father’s council named Melchior, has instructed him in all the necessary protocol.  Protocol is all it is.  Mulan is fairly certain that Phillip could belch right now and still be wedded to the princess within the next two annum.  Too much rides on his presence in her life for anything trivial to undo the contract that binds them both.

She tunes out his words and scans the room.  A winding staircase builds up behind the thrones, cutting a path right above the glass image of the sun, and it is from there that the princess herself will descend, when the time has come.  Members of the kingdom’s elite--nobles, wealthy merchants, praised soldiers--stand in stiff rows to the sides of the carpets they are on.  The queen is unnaturally pale, and Mulan looks away from her quickly.  Her skin is almost translucent, and it must be disease.  Disease that has been warded off only by the promise of Phillip’s visit and her daughter’s subsequent safety.

She does not think of her grandfather, and instead looks to the king, whose face is lined with age and worry, but whose eyes sparkle with green, a bright fleck to stand out surrounded by his dark beard.  He looks the way that Phillip must, one day: commanding, full of right.

Phillip, for now, is wavering only a little, and his arms are growing muscle quickly now that Mulan has taken over his training.  One day, he will look like the king he was born to become--but for now, he must play the part of prince and savior.  Nothing more.

The door at the top of the staircase opens and Mulan allows herself one last look around; her body doesn’t move with her, of course.  A good soldier is nearly invisible; she herself has mastered stillness and the art of waiting in a way that Phillip perhaps never will.  All that moves is her eyes, and they follow the banister up to the very top, where a girl with light brown hair--a perfect cut between her mother’s blond and her father’s black--appears.  Her chin is pointed, her hair kept out of her face by a small, gem-encrusted band, and her dress is only faintly whiter than her skin is.  

Abruptly, the princess glances down.  It’s a clear a violation of protocol; she isn’t meant to do much of anything but stride down, dress off the floor with one hand and the other kept close to her side, according to Melchior’s recounting of how Phillip’s mother once met his father--but the princess glances down and studies Phillip covertly.

The sunlight hits her hair as she walks, sending it alight with flickers of red and blond, and Mulan forgets of protocol altogether.  Phillip drones on about his promises and his requests, but he might as well be speaking a dialect she hasn’t painstakingly mastered in the last two years, because all she sees is the princess--a vision swept up by the stained-glass sun behind her, her skin blooming with color and her eyes--

Her eyes.

Mulan successfully fights the urge to press a hand against her chest plate, but only barely; it’s as if she’s been wounded, and none must see the injury for what it is.  It will betray the weak points in her defenses; it will give her enemies a target, except a near fatal blow has somehow already landed, and it landed somewhere inside of her.  

She’s been stabbed, pierced, slugged in the face hard enough to lose at least one tooth and misalign her nose, and not once has it made her stop fighting, but this...

Phillip finally notices the princess, and stops talking, before reverently getting down on one knee again.

Mulan looks at the princess for one more second, and catches her smiling in a way that seems like a well-kept secret, as if there is something about all of this that Aurora knows and they do not--but one day, she’ll share it with them.

Her eyes are as green as the deepest recesses in the ocean Mulan crossed once her lands were gone, and as Mulan lowers to the ground once more, her heart racing as if she’s just gone ten rounds with the finest warriors in Shan Yu’s army, or three ogres at once, the best she can do is remind herself that she cannot actually drown in someone’s eyes.

Her body still shakes, however, as if it too is laughing at how little she knows.



After

The bed at Granny’s Bed and Breakfast is so soft she sleeps for maybe thirty minutes, at most.  Her back can’t handle comfort like this; it makes her feel like she’s drowning.  Not that she knows what drowning is like before the boat slams into the cliffs and she just manages to grasp onto a piece of driftwood, her lungs saturated and her armor dragging her down, down, down but she can imagine it’s like this; burrowing into quicksand.

A hot shower is more welcome, and when she’s changed into her last clean t-shirt and the same ratty pair of jeans she’s worn for the better part of the week, she feels almost like she should.  A girl on a trip.  Never mind the destination; the travel itself is what matters.  Sunglasses tucked into the v of her shirt, she heads down the stairs and sees Granny herself there.  

The woman has an eagle-eyedness about her, as if she’s been in a war or two herself.  It’s hard not to like her.

“Is there anywhere I can get breakfast around here, ma’am?” she asks.

Granny smiles; it’s a sharp little smile, one that reminds her of the looks Connors and O’Neill used to exchange when they tried to clean out Winters in a rigged game of cards again.  The wince, she fights successfully, and Granny doesn’t seem to notice.  Just says, “We run a diner.  Can’t miss it if you head to Main.”

“Of course,” she says, because everything’s on Main in this town in Maine.   “Thank you.”

The real world is so ridiculous compared to war, sometimes, that she can barely stop from laughing.  That’s also the PTSD, according to her second therapist.  Really, though, it’s just the fact that she sees things more clearly than anyone else seems to.  Shooting a guy who’s pointing a gun at you makes total sense; spending more than ten bucks on a dinner is what’s fucking crazy.



She doesn’t miss the diner, of course, because she never misses anything.   A little bell rings above her head as she pushes the door open; it’s so quaint that she struggles not to roll her eyes, but then just heads to the counter and studies the menu placed there.  A girl with streaks of bright red in her hair looks at her curiously at first, but quickly offers a broad, toothy smile.

“You’re our new visitor, aren’t you?”

She nods, glancing at the menu again.  Going under ten isn’t going to be a problem.  This place is priced like it’s not even in the States, or at the very least, stuck in a few decades ago.  It’s worth an eyebrow raise, but not a complaint, and so she tugs off her sunglasses again and says, “Can I get the full American, please?”

“Sure--if you’ll just sit down at a table that’ll be right out.  You want some coffee with that?” the waitress asks, in a way that feels like it might be flirtatious.  She has no way of knowing.  The men in the unit learned quickly not to flirt with her, and outside of that the only person she’d ever want looking at her like that never there isn’t really anything worth mentioning.

Not that she knows, anyway.

“Thanks,” she says, curling her fingers around her sunglasses again and turning around, heading for a booth.

Before she can even take a step, she feels like she’s been back-ended with a carbine in the middle of her gut.  Air escapes her in a soft whoosh and she stares.  Stares in a way that makes her feel ridiculous, but that also cannot be stopped.  She’s been held at gunpoint a few times and even that felt less compelling than the sensation that washes over her now.

Across from her, in the faint sunlight that’s starting to peek out above the buildings across the street, there’s a girl in a pair of stiffly ironed jeans and a soft, pink off-shoulder shirt.  Her hair is pulled up into a loose bun but some strands of it curl prettily around her face, and she smiles at her dining companions--Sheriff Chad and that woman from yesterday; irrationally, she suddenly hates both of them--and laughs.

The sound propels her forward, but before she can make a total ass out of herself by approaching a table full of complete strangers--a few minutes with that woman and a few hours with the sheriff don’t make them anything else--the sheriff spots her and perks up.  

“Oh, hey--Lieutenant Chen.  I was going to stop by after breakfast but if you’re here--”

He points at the free spot at the table and of course, it’s next to this new girl, who looks over at her curiously.  

Her stomach bottoms out completely when their eyes meet, and her heart treads thin, like it’s on its last legs.  She hasn’t felt like this since getting two bullets pinched out of her shoulder, biting down on the strap of someone’s rifle and waiting to just pass out from the pain.  Air is not her friend right now; it’s as if she’s back in a collapsing tunnel, diving away from the dust that’s nonetheless coating her lungs.

I know you, her mind screams at her, even scrambled as eggs as it is.

The girl frowns slightly, as if it’s mutual--this sensation of knowing--and then turns towards the sheriff and says, “Do we--do I know her?”

The sheriff blinks and carefully says, “I... well, I guess it’s possible, but I don’t know how you could unless--Lieutenant, have you ever been to town before?”

“No,” she says, her legs finally working again.  Without looking at the girl a second time, she sits down, and takes a deep breath before folding up her sunglasses and holding them tightly on her lap.  “And, please--stop calling me lieutenant.  I was discharged five months ago.  It’s--my name is--”

“Riley,” the girl says, next to her, softly.

She whips her head around so sharply that the girl jolts, and very carefully points at the tags dangling between her breasts.

It takes her a few seconds to crank it down again--it being that thing that kept her alive for most of the last two years--and then she just exhales with a soft, “Oh.  Yeah.”

“Well, Riley,” the sheriff says, leaning back in his seat and looking a lot more comfortable now than he did yesterday, wrapped into two crises.  “I’m Chad Corser, and this is Mary Margaret Blanchard--”

“We’ve met,” Mary Margaret says, in a way that seems kind and familiar and makes her want to cut this entire conversation off right quick, because kindness will not get her out of this strange little coastal hamlet and familiar isn’t something she needs--but before she can, Mary Margaret smiles at her.

She sucks some air between her teeth and says, “Yes, we have.  Thank you for your directions.”

Then, she turns back to the girl with the hauntingly familiar green eyes and waits.

The girl looks back, tugging slowly on the slipping collar on her baby-pink shirt, and says, “I’d introduce myself, if I could, but--”

“You don’t know your name,” Riley says, when it hits.  “You don’t--you don’t remember.”

Something about her immediate observation seems to relax the girl next to her, and she tilts her head barely an inch as she studies Riley in kind.  “You don’t seem to find it shocking that I can’t.”

It takes her a second, but Riley lifts her dog tags and says, “Six years ago.  If I hadn’t been found with these, I would have no idea about who I am.  I guess I still don’t, really, but--”

“But you have a name,” the girl says, before looking down at the table and sighing softly.  “The hospital had me down as Jane.  Doe, obviously.  I don’t really feel like a Jane, though.”

Riley bites her lip to not say that it doesn’t suit the girl; what the hell does she know?

“Well, what would you like to be called?” Sheriff Chad asks her.  It’s again a type of pragmatism that she doesn’t really expect him to exhibit, but the more she looks at him--and he definitely needs to shave, however much that wasn’t clear yesterday--the more she realizes that he’s got something.  Some sort of innate leadership qualities.

They also shimmer below the surface of Mary Margaret Blanchard, who looks at Jane and gently says, “I know this is probably terrifying, but--in a way, you get to be whoever you want to, now.  You’ll find out what you’re good at, sooner rather than later, and when you know, you can do anything.  We’ll help you in any way we can, of course.”

“But you don’t even know me,” the girl counters, and flinches.  “Or at least, I don’t know you--”

“No, we don’t know each other,” Mary Margaret says, leaning back as the waitress--Ruby, the tag on her shirt declares--fills up their mugs with some dark, rich-smelling coffee.  “But you’ll find that in Storybrooke, we tend to stick together.  Well, most of us, anyway.”

“When’s your maternity leave over?” Chad asks, almost as an aside, and Mary Margaret shudders.

“Next week.  Regina, of course, has already sent me four e-mails to let me know that my job is still full-time and if I can’t balance that with Emma, she won’t hesitate to start disciplinary proceedings against me--”

Chad chuckles and shakes his head.  “She’s as bad as the mayor.”

Mary Margaret makes a soft noise of agreement and looks at the girl again.  “So what would you like to be called, if not Jane?”

The girl says nothing, just adds some sugar to her coffee--seemingly on instinct--and then, very carefully, turns to her left.  “What do you think?”

Those eyes are weaponry in ways that no grenades she’s thrown, no bullets she’s dodged, and no missiles she’s launched ever could be; they remind her of the floor of the forest by the castle in the earliest of morning light, still shimmering with dew and so quiet and so peaceful, when it’s just the two of them it’s almost as if a certain eighteenth birthday will never come and her own history isn’t splattered with blood, like ink that has stained through every layer of her clothing, and--

“Dawn,” she says, because the flash stays with her just long enough for her to treat it as an actual recollection; an actual memory.

Jane--soon to be Jane no more--raises her eyebrows slightly, and Riley memorizes her as if she’s a map of enemy territory; a slight nose, a pretty bow in her lips, and eyes that smile with crinkling corners before everything else does.  

“I think that could work,” she says, turning back to the rest of the table.  “How old do you think I am?”

Chad pauses for a few moments. “Well, I’m twenty-two; almost twenty-three, and I’d say you’re a little younger than I am, but not too much.”

“If you’re a minor, this all becomes very complicated,” Mary Margaret says, a little hesitantly.  “I think we’ve all been assuming that you’re at least eighteen--”

“I am,” the girl--Dawn--says, with confidence, before wavering again and looking down at the table in confusion.  “I mean--I don’t know, but I feel very strongly that I am.  It’s an important birthday and I feel as though--”  She stops and frowns, and shakes her head.  “I don’t know.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Riley says, before any of the others can comment, sheepishly looking down at the gigantic plate of food that’s slid in front of her.  It’s not as if she isn’t still hungry, but--this is enough food to feed the sheriff and then some.  Her face heats up slowly, and she’s grateful for her complexion, which means that it probably won’t show.  

“You can come and live with me, for now,” Chad says, after a few seconds.  He sputters when all three of them look at him sharply, as if he’s trying something, and holds up his hands in apology.  “I didn’t mean--oh my God, I really didn’t mean anything by offering.  Graham’s place has a lot of spare rooms.  It’s too big for me anyway and--”

Mary Margaret laughs after a second and elbows him gently in the side.  “Chad, it’s fine; I know that you only have eyes for a certain girl--”

Stop,” he begs, and Riley finds herself smiling unwillingly; more when she catches sight of Dawn also hiding a small smile.  It grows when Chad glances over towards the bar and quickly reaches for his coffee and drinks some, and after a second, Riley chuckles softly before cutting up a strip of bacon.

“I trust you,” Dawn says, even if only to stop his mortification, and Riley digs her knife into the bacon a little harder without even knowing why.  “And it’s not as if I have many offers.  The mayor did say I could live with her, but--”

“But she’s creepy as hell?” Riley says, before she can stop herself.  She shoves some bacon into her mouth before she can say more.

Dawn laughs quietly. “Well, um.  Yes.”

“Good,” Chad says, gently bringing his palm down on the table.  “That’s settled, then.  We’ll move you in as soon as I’ve dropped Riley here off at the Augusta terminal--”

“Oh, no, that’s--” Riley starts to say, swallowing in a rush, and studiously examines her plate before adding, “Ladies first.  You should probably--go shopping, buy some clothes and … a toothbrush, and things like that.”

“Things like that,” Dawn repeats, glancing between her and Mary Margaret.  “Can you maybe tell me what it is I’d need?  I really can’t remember--”

“Oh, of course,” Riley says, fighting the urge to sigh at herself.  Give her something to shoot and she’s golden, but breakfast with normal human beings and she’s a complete disaster.  The boys would never let her live this down.  She dabs at her mouth with a napkin and says, “If the sheriff can drive us to a mall--”

“I’d hate to miss this, but David’s due in at work at eleven and I have to go get Emma before then--and I might as well return one of Regina’s many calls, while I’m at it,” Mary Margaret says, sounding very regretful; then, she smiles again and says, “Dawn--you’re welcome to keep those clothes.  It’ll be a few months before I’d be able to squeeze into them again anyway, so--”

“Oh,” Dawn says, swallowing thickly before saying, “Thank you.  Thank you so much.  I don’t know how I can ever repay you--”

“Don’t worry about it,” Mary Margaret says, before turning to Riley and adding, “Good luck with the rest of your trip.  I hope it works out.”

Riley nods, and silently goes back to her breakfast, shoveling the food back as quickly as she can so that they can head out.  She’s hardly the best fit for this kind of shopping trip, but Chad looks more out of his depth than she is, and that means they’re just going to have to make do, the three of them.

It’s only for another few hours, she reminds herself--and then wonders why that thought has her fork stalling on her plate, and her stomach twisting nervously all over again.



Before

Phillip’s had a few too many; she knows because he sort of sags into a chair next to her. “You’d think that with the kind of magical contract that the king and the queen had the fairies draw up, they’d have made it so that--”

The sentence ends in a hiccup, and Mulan looks at him sharply.  “Made it so that what?”

He thumps on his chest, twice.  “You know?”

Across the room, Princess Aurora is talking to her mother, throwing her head back in undignified and glorious laughter, before unexpectedly catching her eye.  The princess blushes when their gazes connect, and Mulan has to fight her own skin, ready to betray her in kind--as if there is anything illicit about looking at each other from halfway across a banquet hall.  

She wishes she had her sword with her, but instead just turns back to Phillip and says, blunt and sober, “She is lovely, Phillip.  In all the lands, I have rarely seen beauty like hers.”

“Well, yes.  I agree with you.  She’s beautiful,” Phil agrees, quietly; his eyebrows knit together as he concentrates on this not unimportant matter of Aurora’s worth.  “And bright, and funny.  Doesn’t care much for stories about battle, I don’t think, but I suppose I have you for that.  She’s truly not what I expected; both more and different somehow.  I just thought--”

“You thought that your love would be easy,” she finishes for him.  “Like a truth you cannot deny.”

“No,” he says, after a few seconds.  “I thought that it would hurt like hell, actually.  That I would look at her, and feel the terror of knowing that one day I might lose her.  To this bloody curse, or to anything else that threatens our kingdoms, but--”

Her heart plain stops for a few seconds; freezes in horror like a snow fox in the middle of a wasteland, feeling an arrow trained on its neck.  She freezes the way she had when Shang had leapt in front of a fiery arrow for her, taking the brunt of it onto his chest and then launching backwards with it, toppling over the edge of the cliff side.  She freezes the way she had when her grandfather had taken his last breath.

She looks at Aurora, and she freezes, because she’s never felt weaker in her life.

Phillip sighs, next to her, before visibly snapping out of it and laughing at himself.  “You know what?  She is lovely, and I will grow to feel love for her.  I will love her a little more each day, until the love we share is enough to stop any curse the wicked fairy godmother plans to cast on her.”

Phillip shines with renewed purpose as he gets to his feet again, cutting a path across the floor and offering his hand to his future wife, and his words echo hollowly in her chest, like the clang of two swords coming together.



After

She can tell something’s wrong just by the look on the sheriff’s face as they take the slowly tightening curve that gets them up to the town sign--a landmark she now has imprinted on her--and he doesn’t slow down.  Dawn’s in the back of the patrol car, looking around with obvious wonder at the landscape as it starts to streak by them.  It’s difficult to imagine never having seen a forest before, but glancing at Dawn through the side mirror, Riley considers that maybe--maybe, it’s just innocence, the way she seems to be sucking in the environment as if it’s all new to her.

Chad’s foot slams down on the brake hard enough for the pedal to impact heavily with the floor of the car, but nothing happens; he says, “Oh, shit--” and the car just coasts right along the road.

His hands tighten around the steering wheel as he tries to take them through, both feet off the pedals now, and Riley stares at the gearbox; shifting the gear into R right now might be their best bet, but the transmission might blow, the front tires may lock, and the entire car might tip over and into the embankment.  They’ll be lucky to escape with their heads attached to their necks.

“Is everyone wearing seatbelts--” Chad asks, a little more frantically now, as the tight curve past the sign looms.

“Yes,” Dawn says, voice small and eyes pinned on the road.  “Are you going to slow down?”

“No,” Chad says, and pulling on the wheel hard enough for Riley to feel her sides impact with the passenger door, blood bursting to the surface on her ribs and smattering her skin with bruises almost immediately.

The car heads off road, straight for the decorative town sign, and catches in high grass around it just enough for it to slow down some--but they’re still barreling ahead at a far too great speed, and the sign is substantial enough to crush the entire front of the car.

Riley looks at Chad, who looks back at her askance for a second, and reaches for the gearshift and pulls as hard as she can.



“Well,” Chad says, hat held in front of his body like he’s at a funeral.  “That’s going to set the mayor back a few grand.”

The smoke coming from the hood of the car is worrisome, but not to the point where Riley doesn’t shrug out of her coat in preparation of dipping under it.   “Where’s your jack?”

“Trunk,” Chad says, before handing his hat and Riley’s jacket to Dawn, who is staring at the wreck in a daze.  “You thinking that there’ll be something to fix down there?”

“I’m thinking someone cut your brakes,” Riley says, walking to the front of the car and tapping the hood with her fingers, hissing when it’s hot enough to burn.

Chad looks at her for a few seconds and disappears behind the opened trunk, before reappearing with a brand-new, never-used jack.  “That’s a big accusation.”

“This is a big accident,” she counters, and reaches for the jack.  “Just--stand back.  Call someone who can pick us up.  And give me your phone so I can take some pictures.”

Chad eyes her questioningly for a few seconds, but when she places the jack and starts winding it open without any hesitation, he just shakes his head.  “I’ll get under.  You shouldn’t have to.”

“I can handle it.”

“I know, but--this is a police matter, if you’re right, and you’re not the police,” he counters, and after a second she stops turning the crank and just gestures for him to duck under the car.

He’s there for only a few seconds, but she hears a muffled, “Shit” and carefully looks at Dawn, who is still holding a jacket and a hat and looking back questioningly.

“Why would someone cut my brakes?” Chad asks, as soon as he’s upright again, showing her the picture--a clean severing--on his phone.  “I’m the freaking sheriff.”

“Got any enemies?” Riley asks, after a second.  

Chad blanches, but after a second shakes his head.  “None.  And--this kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Storybrooke.  It’s the quietest town on the whole east coast.  Before you came to town--”

He stops talking, and looks at her sharply.

Interrogation training has her well prepared for Chad Corser siccing his watchful gaze on her, though, and she just rolls her eyes.  “I need your assistance to get out of this town, sheriff.  Try again.”

“Well, the only other thing that’s happened is that she woke up,” he says, after a few seconds, and they both look at Dawn, who is staring at the car with something akin to regret on her face.  Like she too is thinking it’s her fault.

That makes no more sense than his first theory, but something about it resonates all the same, and after a moment Riley sighs.  “We’re not going to figure it out standing here.  Do you have enough service to get us a ride or not?”

Chad checks his phone and curses softly, before pocketing it again.  “Like I said.  It’s like we’re under a dome, or something.”

Yeah.  It’s something all right.



The walk back to town is shaded, even if it only takes about fifteen minutes, and when she spots Dawn suppressing a third consecutive shiver, she takes off her jacket and holds it out just far enough for it to appear in Dawn’s periphery.

Dawn stumbles at the sight of it and then stops; to steady herself, she puts a hand on Riley’s shoulder and that hand just plain aches there.  It sends tremors through muscles that are normally completely under her control, and Riley wonders if Dawn can feel it.  If so, it’s a problem.  Whatever reaction this is, it’s incredibly inappropriate--the girl is barely eighteen, for fuck’s sake--and not something she wants to get tangled up in.

Still, she says, “You’re cold.  Take it.”

Dawn hesitates, but lets Riley put the jacket over her shoulders and curls up into it, her face glazing over briefly as she settles into the warmth and--well.  That jacket’s seen her through more than a few wild nights out with her unit, so she can only imagine what it smells like.

“Sorry.  It’s seen cleaner days,” she mumbles, as Dawn tentatively starts walking again.

The bright, keen look that Dawn directs at her in kind has her nearly tripping over her feet, but Dawn doesn’t  say anything else; just pops the collar and burrows into it, and they walk the rest of the way back to town silently.



Dawn’s examining her new bedroom and she’s drinking a glass of water in Chad’s kitchen; with a blush, Chad himself apologizes for all the wolf art.  “Not mine.  Guy who lived here before loved animals; I just haven’t gotten around to--”

“It’ll get a woman’s touch, soon,” Riley says, not even entirely kidding.

Chad sort of smirks at her, and drains his own glass of water, putting it down on the counter once it’s empty.  “We’ll figure out a way to get you to that depot.”

“You don’t seem very worried that someone’s trying to  kill you,” she notes.  Some soft humming filters down from upstairs and she and Chad both look up.  He lets himself smile, where she tries to fight it, but sobers again as he looks at her.

“Not sure it’s me they’re trying to kill,” he says, before leaning back against a stained wooden kitchen table and crossing his arms across his chest.  “Do you have any enemies?”

It’s not the kind of thing that would make normal people laugh, but she’s not ever going to be entirely normal again, and finally just shrugs.  “Hell if I know.”

He looks at her sharply for a few moments, before slowly saying, “You had some pretty good instincts, earlier.  The gear shift, I mean.  And checking those brake lines.”

She takes another sip of water and pours the rest down the sink.  “The service prepares you for just about anything.”

“Yeah, well.  Special forces would,” Chad says, shifting just enough to tuck his thumbs into his pockets.  When she stares at him, he smiles a little sheepishly.  “You’re kind of … really accomplished.  You know that?”

Her eyes narrow.  “You Googled me.”

“Would’ve done it to anyone who just wandered into town,” he says, and it’s not really an apology.  It’s him asserting his authority, and she finds herself responding to it by straightening on instinct.  

“I’m not really in the mood to discuss my record--

He shakes his head.  “Not where I was going.  Just--you’re impressive, you know?”

She struggles to not roll her eyes at him, in his quaint little kitchen in his quaint little town. “All I did was survive.  It’s not impressive to live.”

“Sometimes it is,” he says, and chews on his lip for a few seconds, before looking at her.  “What is it that you’re going to?  Down south, I mean.”

“It’s none of your business.”

“I don’t mean in detail--just, are you going somewhere, or are you just going?” he asks.

The idea that this snot-nosed boy sheriff sees through her so quickly makes her flare up, even if he’d never know it by looking at her; but after a few seconds she catches the kindness in his eyes, and just clenches her hands tight.  “Does it matter?”

“Well,” he says, and runs his hand along his slightly curly, hat-flattened hair.  “If you have places to be, I’m not going to try to talk you into sticking around.  But if you don’t--the Sheriff’s Department could use a good deputy, and you look like you could use...”

What?  A hand-out?” she asks him, more sharply than she means to.

He looks really surprised by her choice of words. “A purpose, is what I was going to say.”

The blasting retort she has at the ready glues itself to her throat, and she just stares at him until soft feet sound on the stairs.

“I think I’ve thought of the first thing I need,” Dawn says, a few seconds later, hand curved around the kitchen door’s frame and t-shirt already slipping off her shoulders again.

“What?” Riley and Chad ask in tandem, and after a second Dawn smiles faintly before glancing at the floor.

“A way to thank you both.  For everything you’ve done for me so far.”

Riley laughs sheepishly, despite herself. “Yeah, we did a real stellar job of taking you shopping.”

“We nearly killed you--” Chad adds.

Dawn just shakes her head and says, “No, forget about that.  What I mean is, you both made me feel … welcome.  And that’s a lot to ask, given that until this morning, or yesterday, neither of you knew me at all.”

“Pfft,” Chad says, waving her off.  “It’s--this place is huge.  I’ll like the company, however long you want to stay.  And, uh--actually.  If you stay as well--”

“You’re staying?” Dawn asks, taking another step into the room.

It’s just a question, but to Riley it feels like a tug at the very core of her; something that shackles her in place, no matter how much she thinks of all the places she should really be going to, and how it’s not right for someone like her to start building attachments or putting down roots anywhere.

Deep within, there is something that says, for you, always.  It will not be denied.

“For a while,” she says, in compromise, and watches as Dawn’s curious face smooths out into a radiant smile that makes her want to--

God.  She has no idea, but she has to look away from it and glances back at Chad, who half-smiles at her as well, as if he knew all along that she wouldn’t pass up an excuse to stick around.

“Second guest bedroom’s small,” he says, “but it’s yours if you want it.  For a while.”



Before

The journey back feels perilous, even if it isn’t.  

Mulan rides in behind the carriage that will take the princess across the border and out of the peaks and valleys that have been her home for most of her life; Phillip leads, trotting away with newly polished leathers and shined buckles, sunlight casting him at the very least as the bravest knight, if not the prince.

The royal guard accompanies them to the border, and there they pause; Aurora bids goodbye to one of her father’s most trusted lieutenants and kisses him softly, his cheeks ruddy and his whitened mustache twitching as he snaps his heels together and salutes her once more.  It’s her order, when they move again; Mulan stands by her steed and watches as Phillip does the same, until the dust kicked up by hooves galloping back towards the towering castle that was Aurora’s home starts to settle back on the ground.

Then, the princess turns to them, the hem of her lavender gown dragging in the mud and says, “I don’t want to ride in the carriage anymore.”

The carriageman turns to her in surprise, top hat tall and wide-brimmed, and says, “But--Your Highness, your father--”

“Is not here,” the princess finishes, taking a few not-at-all dainty steps through a puddle before standing in front of Phillip, who straightens a little and clears his throat.

“Your Highness--” he starts.

The princess rolls her eyes.  “Are you honestly planning on calling me that for the rest of our lives?”

Mulan has to hide her laughter in a cough; it’s an unacceptable loss of composure, and she snaps back to form when Aurora pins her down with a look and says, “And, for the record, I’ve had enough warriors follow my every move silently.  If you’re to be a presence in my life, I command you to be less--”

“Less... quiet?” Phillip suggests, after a second.

Mulan glares at him first and then tries to school her face back to neutral before addressing the princess.  Protocol demands that she bows, before she speaks, and so she does, even if it does make the princess sigh again.  “Whatever you would have me do, … Aurora--”

When she glances back up, the princess is looking at her like she’s just witnessed a particularly keen display of magic.  Mulan digs her teeth into her bottom lip, digs her toes into the steel tips of her boots, and waits.

Then, Aurora says, “I want to learn how to ride.”

“The prince is a fine horseman,” Mulan says.  “He will--”

“Not with all the baggage I’m carrying,” Phillip says, before looking at Zhōng Chéng and narrowing his eyes.  “Besides--it is my responsibility to keep both of you safe--”

Mulan huffs, crossing her arms across her chest, before glancing away when he looks at her with a raised eyebrow.  “Of course, Your Highness.”

“She only calls me that when I’ve offended her pride,” Phillip says, sounding like he’s trying not to laugh.  Aurora isn’t that restrained, however, and just covers her hand with her mouth, before her lips curve wide enough for the corners of her smile to still be visible, even with that attempted disguise.

Mulan wants to tell them both that they can make their own way back to the castle, but then Aurora asks, “Will you and your horse permit me to ride with you?”

Zhōng Chéng neighs softly, as if encouraging her to give the affirmative answer, and after a few more seconds of studying the muddied hem of Aurora’s delicate princess dress, Mulan swallows a soft sigh and just says, “Do everything I tell you to, or you may get hurt.”

“Really, that’s her way of saying she cares,” Phil intones, somewhere behind her.  

Her fists clench, as Aurora laughs softly again, but she cannot find it in her heart to deny it.  Somehow, even with barely a full conversation, the caring has started.  She knows it will not leave her; it simply isn’t how she works.



Aurora’s arms clasp around her side firmly, and the princess bounces like a sack of wheat behind her for a few hours.  She isn’t bad company at all.  The soap she uses is a pleasant, spiced scent that reminds Mulan of teas she used to drink as a child, but beneath that lies something more subtle that she can only think of as Aurora.  

The princess’ hair teems with it, and when they settle into a more even trot--if only so the carriage can keep up without incurring damage--strands of her long, curling mane keep settling around Mulan’s shoulders.  Her cape will be dusted with lines of brown that sometimes glow red.  She will smell Aurora everywhere she goes, even if she is nowhere near her.  It’s an unsettling thought that somehow also warms her from the inside out, until her gloves burn solidly on her hands.

“This is the furthest I have ever been away from home,” the princess says, quietly breaking what has been one of very few comfortable silences in Mulan’s recent life.  Phillip talks, constantly.  It helped her drive away the bad memories at first, and now she knows how to ignore him--but the silence she and Aurora have shared on this drive through the woodlands that surround Phillip’s castle has been something else entirely.  

It has felt pure and true, but if Aurora is breaking it, it is for her to assist in that effort.  Small talk is not her strong point, however, and so she lets the reins slacken and glances over her shoulder, to where the princess is visibly absorbing the scenery--letting it soak into her expression with every step Zhōng Chéng makes for them.

“The ride is not actually far,” she finally says.  “You will be able to return to your homelands regularly.”

When Aurora smiles faintly, she feels pleased; as if she’s passed a test that would have stymied her not too long ago.  All the time spent with Phillip, teaching him to fight as he’s been teaching her how to be, has clearly resulted in more knowledge than she thought she’d gained.

“What about you?” the princess then asks, still softly.  Phil, next to them, is softly humming a song and having a conversation with Sunshine, which is one of many eccentricities that Aurora will probably grow to love about him with time.  If she doesn’t already.

Just because he didn’t feel it at once doesn’t mean she didn’t, Mulan reminds herself.  It’s a sobering thought, and she says, “What about me, Your Highness?”

“Aurora,” she gets corrected.  She nods stiffly, as if to say that the message has been received, and then feels the princess resettle behind her.  “I meant--what of your homeland?  You do not hail from Phillip’s kingdom, do you?”

This is a girl who has never been told no in her life, Mulan thinks; her body stiffens without her permission, and she feels Aurora tense in kind.

“I apologize.  I’ve overstepped,” the princess says.

You can’t, Mulan wants to remind her.  You can’t, because I am yours.  Yours to command, and yours in a sense that I cannot be at all.  Yours to command is what I must be.

Before she can say that, though, the princess adds, “You’ll have to give me some time to adjust to your company.  I haven’t... met many people, in the last sixteen years.”

Mulan looks over her shoulder again, unable to mask her confusion, and says, “You’re a princess.  Surely you’ve entertained--”

“Audiences?” Aurora asks, before smiling and looking towards the fading ground in a distant way.  “Of course.  I’ve performed my duties, as I was meant to, but--I haven’t set foot outside of the palace since I was five.  And even then, I only managed to set foot outside of the palace because I escaped.”

Mulan stares straight ahead again and then carefully says, “Given that they know what will befall you, one day, the king and queen--”

“Being safe is not so different from being imprisoned, Mulan,” Aurora says.  “This is the freest I have ever been.”

It’s the sound of her name that does it; not with the right inflection, not with the right accent, but it sounds like nothing she’s ever heard before.  Mine, she thinks, and closes her eyes at the idea, even as Aurora’s arms tighten a little more and the princess shivers behind her.

“It’s a little daunting, is all,” the princess sighs behind her.  “It’s--”

“Chin is across the sea,” Mulan says, before she can think better of it.  

Aurora’s hands unfurl slowly, and with every detail she adds--of the fields full of swaying stalks of rice, of the Emperor’s Palace with its rooftops furling out like flights of birds, of the delicate crafts that were practiced in the village she grew up in--those hands splay across her stomach with greater confidence, the princess’ breath ghosting into her ear.



After

The mechanic confirms what they already know.

Dawn is shopping with Mary Margaret and the waitress that Chad has a thing for; the girl had smiled from behind a mug of tea--”No, I don’t think this is what I drink; what else is there?”--and then a mug of coffee when Riley had suggested that those two would be better suited for shopping than either she herself or Chad were.

It hadn’t occurred to her until Chad pinned a small star-shaped badge on the collar of her jacket that splitting up so that Dawn could go underwear shopping somewhere far away from her meant that she’d also be letting the girl out of her sight.  Or, maybe it had occurred to her, but the implications of that separation just hadn’t let themselves be felt.  Alpha Team left, Bravo Team right.  She’s barked it into walkies more often than she has wanted to; Bluetooth headsets and coms stations mounted on the back of armored trucks, disguised with netting and parked just around the corner from any sort of real threat.

Alpha Team is wandering down Main again and Chad reaches for his wallet.  “They’re fine,” he then says.

She looks at him sharply; he looks at her knowingly.

“Who in town has a criminal record?” she then asks, ignoring him completely.

“Well, there’s Leroy, but his is a B&E to steal some liquor so I think we can rule him out,” Chad says, pulling out a ten and shoving his wallet back into his pocket.  “That leaves--some people that Graham was investigating but doesn’t have anything on just yet.”

“And they are?” she asks, as they head over to the Diner and Chad opens the door for her.

“Gold, the guy who owns the Pawn Shop; he’s a nasty piece of work. Graham thought he was fleecing all of his tenants somehow, which would be the kind of thing that would need covering up if it was ever uncovered, if you know what I mean,” Chad says, closing the door behind them.  Granny is doing a crossword behind the counter and the only other two people in the diner are a blond woman and a guy in a tracksuit, who are too wrapped up in each other to even notice them.  “Then there’s Principal Mills--”

“Mary Margaret’s boss,” Riley says, running a hand past the menu on the counter and then wondering why.  The only thing she ever drinks is a double shot of espresso.  Eyeball heroin, as O’Neill used to call it.  

“Yeah.  She’s--I’m not wholly sure what her deal is, but she’s got her hands in more things than just education.  It’s just a little awkward to dig deeper because, um,” Chad says, and then rubs at his quickly reddening cheek.  “She was sort of--doing the sheriff.”

Riley grins despite herself and then reaches for his ten, handing it over to Granny.  “A bottle of milk for the baby, here, and I’ll have a double espresso.”

“A latte, please,” Chad corrects, slipping onto a stool and motioning to her.  “Anyway, and after that, there’s Mayor Drake.”

“Better known as the lady I found throttling you in the station the other day,” Riley says.

Chad makes a face before saying, “She’s a little high strung.  Not a bad mayor, though.  She’s been re-elected--”

He pauses, his face scrunching up in a way that looks almost painful, and but then his eyes glaze over completely as he stares at the jukebox on the other side of the room.

“She’s been re-elected...” Riley prompts him.

“Gosh,” he says, after a moment, before offering her a disarming shrug.  “It seems like she’s been the mayor as long as I can remember.  But Graham was looking into her--I think because Regina, that’s Principal Mills, said something about her once, but--”

“How long has Mayor Drake been the mayor?” Riley asks Granny, as she puts the shot down in front of her and hands back a palmful of change.

“Oh, that’s--” Grannay says, like the answer’s at the tip of her tongue, but then her face locks up in exactly the same way.  “Huh.  Well, I honestly can’t remember.  Don’t let Ruby know I said this, but my mind isn’t what it used to be.”

“Sure,” Riley says, and nudges the latte over to Chad.  “Well, the records will show, won’t they?”

“Absolutely,” Chad says, before slurping his first sip down quickly enough to end up with a beige milk-y mustache.  “We’ll head to the town hall as soon as we’re done here.”



There’s something really fucking weird about this town, and it's not just that its records only date back six years.  

“Fire,” the clerk says.  “A huge one.  Just--a blaze.  Nobody knows how it started, but it swallowed up the whole lower floor of the building, like it’d been a rocket blazing through.”

“A rocket,” Riley says, staring at him intently for a few moments.

The man sounds like he’s reading off a script.  If anyone comes in to ask about the records, talk about the rocket!  She’s seen enough indoctrination and has indoctrinated enough people to recognize a false memory for what it is, and that fire--if it ever took place--was definitely not an accident not the way that Phil getting singed by that dragon had been but they’d taken care of that together the way they’ll always take care of her together too and definitely not the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been followed up by an intense, well-documented arson investigation.

The kind that Chad would have records of at the Sheriff’s Department, if it had happened.

If this town was normal.

“Thank you for your time, sir,” she says, before kicking gently at Chad’s shins.  “Let’s go.  I have another idea.”



“Okay, but don’t you think it’s weird that none of these records exist?  You must’ve been sixteen years old when this all happened--it’s not like you were an infant, drooling in a crib somewhere.  How do you not remember half the town hall burning down?”

His frustration at not being able to answer questions boils over into something akin to shouting and he just snaps, “I don’t know, okay.  I just don’t know.”

“It’s not just you, Chad.  This entire goddamned town has a bad case of the forget-me-nots,” she tells him, and watches as he starts pacing back and forth in front of the wolf mural that lines the entire south wall of the kitchen.  The thing’s really kitschy, but with him pacing in front of it, it almost fits.

The front door opens and shuts quietly again, and then Dawn wanders in, covered in bags that she carefully deposits onto the kitchen counter.  “Hi,” she then says, glancing between them.

Chad’s bad mood lifts almost immediately, and he moves in closer.  “That’s one heck of a haul there.”

“Yeah, Mary Margaret insisted,” Dawn says, with a soft sigh.  “I’ve told her I’d babysit Emma once she goes back to work; it’s the very least I can do, and I’m really good with children--”

She stops talking abruptly, hand halfway into a bag full of groceries, and then stares at Riley in a way that seems almost panicked.

“No, that’s … it’s good, if you know that,” Riley says.

“But is it real?” Dawn asks, eyebrows pulling together until her incredibly pretty face just looks tortured.

Chad looks between them like they’re a particularly engaging table tennis match and then says, “Hey, it’s been a long few days for all of us.  Let’s leave the existential questions until after we’ve had some dinner.”

It takes Dawn a second, but then she relaxes again and produces one of those gut-punching little smiles, before producing a zucchini from the bag she’s searching around.  “Ruby gave me a recipe for a pasta.  I think I can manage it, with some supervision.”

“I don’t really do... cooking,” Riley says, after a second.  It sounds so ridiculous when she says it; like she’s just been injected with nutrients all these years.  The truth is, out there, it’s best to eat without thinking, shovel everything put in front of you down like it’s going to disappear any second now.  

She hasn’t re-learned to enjoy eating yet.  Her third therapist said that was advanced, and that she shouldn’t worry about it.

“It’s all right.  I’ve got you covered,” Chad says, before heading for the sink and washing his hands, as if he’s done this by himself a million times before and slotting another person into the routine really won’t make all that much of a difference.

“I’ll take your bags up,” Riley says, because there’s not knowing how to do something, and then there’s being functionally useless, and she’ll never be the latter.  Not if she can help it, anyway.

“Thanks,” Dawn says, brushing by her, and Riley’s mind once more shorts out completely.

All it takes is one lungful of Dawn, and she doesn’t have any idea who she is anymore.



She’s not asleep when the scream sounds, but even if she had been, she would’ve been out of bed and cocking the safety on her S&W back instantaneously.  Some habits can’t be unlearned, no matter what her therapists have told her.

Chad stumbles out of his own bedroom, groggy but willing to help, and Riley takes no chances; kicks down the door to Dawn’s bedroom with the heel of her right foot before realizing that it wasn’t locked, first of all, and it’s definitely a little broken now, second of all, and that she’s just scared the shit out of a Dawn who had been having a nightmare of some kind.

It’s not her most heroic rescue, and she lowers the gun when Dawn stares at it in shock, before glancing at Chad.

“Sorry, uh--” he says, staring up at the ceiling.

It’s only then that Riley realizes that all Dawn is wearing is a skimpy little spaghetti strap top and her underwear, and she spins on her heels so fast that it almost blurs her vision.  Then, she shoves at Chad and says, “For God’s sake, give her some privacy.”

He shuffles back into the hallway and then turns to look over his shoulder.  “A glass of warm milk normally helps.  With nightmares.”

“Thanks,” Riley says, more roughly than she means to, but what the hell does he know?  The worst dream he’s ever had was probably arriving at work ten minutes late or naked.  He doesn’t know the meaning of the word nightmare, but the clammy, claustrophobic look on Dawn’s face before she’d shot upright at the clanging of the door--yeah, that looks like what they feel like.

“I’m decent, now,” Dawn softly says, behind her.

Riley slowly turns again and thumbs the safety back, before placing the gun on the dresser by the door and taking a few tentative steps towards the bed.  Dawn still looks incredibly frazzled and is breathing fast enough for her pulse to just be a single fast loop; it’s the look of someone who’s just seen death, whether they know it or not.

“What was it?” Riley asks, wrapping her hands around the bed’s baseboard and studying Dawn as she would a soldier who’d just had to pull the trigger for the first time.  Not as a girl in shorts and a tank-top, with too-pale cheeks and wet eyes and other things that make her own heart spin out of control.  “The dream, I mean.”

“I was in a room,” Dawn says, swallowing past that first statement, and then staring helplessly at her own hands.  “It was--dark, and I couldn’t see where I was going, but then--out of nowhere, it was on fire.  Everywhere; there were no doors, just fire, and I couldn’t--”

get out because there is no entry or exit from here, just the heat steaming through the floor and the mirrors around her, absolutely everywhere around her she can only see herself the way she looked before but with this wound cutting her face apart, she just spins and spins and spins and the soles of her feet are on fire and she remembers her grandfather and the many things he taught her about control and takes a step towards the center of all that heat and then another and then another and eventually, she knows, she can bring down her sword on a weak point and

Dawn is crying when she comes to herself again; not loud, not hard, but crying with the kind of sadness of someone who has lost something so important that they cannot even bring themselves to recall what it is.

Riley’s feet carry her around the side of the bed before she can think about it and she reaches for Dawn’s arm, holds it gently and then sees a burn blossom on the skin inside of her wrist.  Like a tattoo; like a heartbeat of fire.  

“I couldn’t get out,” Dawn repeats, reaching for her hand and gripping it tight enough for Riley to really, really feel it, the way she’s felt so very little in the last few years.  It’s all wrong--the girl is eighteen, she herself is old and scarred and traumatized, which seems impossible to deny now--but it’s also the only good thing she’s felt in a very long time.

It takes one more look at Dawn’s eyes before she’s letting one knee, and then the next, settle onto the mattress; and it takes a few more quiet moments between them before she’s shifting, leaning back against the pillows and pulling Dawn down with her.

“It’s okay.  I’ve got you,” she then says, wondering why those words sound so familiar, and why they bring with them such an unbearable ache--until Dawn curls into her side and settles her face on a bulletholed shoulder, and everything about her that hurts is gone almost immediately.

“I’ve got you,” she says again, as Dawn softly shudders and then closes her eyes again.

“Always,” Dawn mumbles, after a lot of time and darkness.

It sounds like the truth, even if it might just be a dream.



Before

Aurora settles into life at the castle fast, carving out roles for herself in a manner that is almost baffling to Mulan, who has only ever known how to be one thing.

Aurora is many things.

Mulan is conscious of her desire for freedom, and instructs her personal guard to follow her from afar.  It seems unlikely that the wicked fairy will attempt any sort of coup at Phillip’s castle, when it is well-fortified and better armed than the largely decorative home that Aurora had lived in for the last sixteen years is.  

The princess has never been free, and so the illusion of freedom is what Mulan will gift her with.  

There isn’t much else she can give.

...

Their paths cross, but not often.

Her patrols take her across the kingdom, wide and far, and it is only as she departs and returns that she occasionally spots a pastel dress with twisted, braided brown hair in the distance.  Of all the hobbies that had suffocated her and done little to abate the loneliness before now, Phillip tells her that drawing is the one Aurora still favors, now.

“She’s pleased to have new subjects,” he tells her, which is the point at which Mulan realizes that the princess isn’t merely sketching the scenery, but is actually sketching them.

The thought unsettles her, even if she also denies the very notion that she could matter enough to the princess--after a singular ill-prepared horseriding lesson--to actually be the focal point of one of these drawings.  They are presumably of Phillip and her chambermaids, her personal guards, and the many children in the castle who flock around her.  

Phillip, too, grants her freedom where possible, and she uses some of it to become involved with the children’s lessons.  


Once, after three days of straight riding, Mulan saunters into the kitchen and finds the cook’s eldest with his tongue between his teeth, concentrating heavily on the apple in front of him, until he’s added a few last lines and the replica on the page is almost exact.

“Good work,” she says, putting a hand on his shoulder.  She may not talk to the people in the castle much, other than Phillip, but she respects them for what they do, and most admire her in kind.  The boy beams up at her, too-long hair curling into his eyes, and then says, “The princess showed me how.”

The apple drawing seems more significant after that, and Mulan forgets that she was in the kitchen to steal food altogether; instead heads up the stairs to tell Phillip of her findings.  Skirmishes near the southern border; nothing worrisome.  She’s taken care of it, but he’ll want to know regardless.

When she raps her knuckles on the door to his private chambers, it takes him a moment to call out, “Enter”, and she steps in hesitantly, only to freeze entirely when Aurora is smoothing out her dress with awkward movements and Phillip has moved to stand over at the window.

“I’ve interrupted,” she blurts out, lowering her head.  “I will return, Your Highness--”

“It isn’t what you think,” Aurora tells her, before she can finish.  “We weren’t--”

Phillip turns to look over his shoulder, first embarrassed and then amused, and then shakes his head.  “Mulan.  Not before the wedding.  You know that as well as I do.”

“We hardly know each other,” Aurora adds, face almost as red as the scales on the dragon she and Phillip vanquished a year prior.

“It is none of my concern,” she says, because outwardly, at least, she can pretend that she isn’t strangely relieved by this confirmation of their slow courtship.  It.... helps.  Even if she cannot say what it helps.

“We were debating the curse,” Phillip says, with a soft sigh.  “I must ensure that I carry out my obligations to the letter, or there will be no saving Aurora when her eighteenth birthday strikes.”

“Surely, providing you marry, and she avoids the spinning wheel that will bring about the curse, you will ameliorate any harm coming to her?” Mulan asks, glancing at Aurora only in passing.

“Yes, that is--” Phillip says, before lowering his forehead to the window in front of him and shaking his head.  “I must consult with these fairies.  We must--we must be sure, or this will all be for nought.”

True love for nought.  It seems impossible, but it is what they have, having ripped the princess from her life under the guise of protecting her.  They must make it mean something, if it isn’t meaningful in its own right.

Phillip occasionally desires her input on his plans, but this is not one of those times; instead, he turns away from the window and looks decided.  “I’ll head to the forest where they live.  The Enchanted Forest.  It’s in Snow White and James' kingdom; they’ll welcome me.”

“How long will you be gone?” Mulan asks, because the prince is stubborn in unpredictable ways.  He will not be swayed from his idea of right, even if right is also reckless and poorly thought-out.

“A week if I go alone.  A fortnight if you insist I travel with a sortie.”

She smiles faintly.  “If I insist, Your Highness?”

He smiles back and then turns to Aurora, before striding over to her in a few quick steps and kneeling in front of her.  “Let me do this.  I will prove that I was not a poor choice--that I can protect you, no matter what Maleficent throws in our path.”

Mulan has to look away as Aurora’s expression softens all at once, until she leans forward and kisses Phillip’s forehead.  “Be careful,” is all she says, and it’s not I love you but it’s already more than they had between them two moons ago, when Aurora first arrived in these lands.

The prince cups the princess’ right cheek and kisses her on the left, and then turns to his most trusted lieutenant and slaps her on the shoulder.  “I’ll depart immediately.  How are things down south?”

“Resolved,” she says, and he clasps her forearm tightly for a moment.

“I don’t know what I would do without you,” he then says, seriously.

In a way, he is as committed to her as he is to the princess, and Mulan lowers her eyes before clasping his arm in kind.  “Nor I you.”

“Keep her safe,” he then says, soft enough for Aurora not to be able to hear it.

It isn’t an instruction she needs, but as he feels compelled to give it, she says, “Always.”



After a week, a piece of parchment wrapped around a bird’s leg arrives from the kingdom far to the south.  Mulan recognizes Phil’s penmanship immediately, but the message is not for her to read, and so she rolls it back up and heads for the castle gardens, where Aurora is reading to the children on their afternoon off from lessons.

She does not interrupt those lessons, and instead watches as Aurora finishes her tale--concerning a wicked stepmother and two wicked step-siblings--and the children file out, joyous and laughing and naive.

Only then does she step forward from the shadow of the castle’s walls and clear her throat.

“I knew you were there,” Aurora says, without looking up from the book she read from.

“Impossible,” Mulan says, before adding a murmured, “Your Highness” that Aurora will scoff at but truly, she needs to remind herself of it sometimes.

“You’re silent in a very particular way, Mulan,” Aurora says, but the corners of her mouth are twitching in a way that suggests that she’s lying.

Mulan moves in front of her, ignoring whatever game the princess wishes to play, and hands her the scrap of parchment.  “From Prince Phillip.”

Aurora sobers and brings a hand up to shift the flowers in her hair, and Mulan stares at the tree behind her for lack of anything better to do; hands clasped behind her back, waiting for further instruction.  After a few seconds, Aurora sighs softly and then says, “Well.  You’ll want to read this as well.”

It isn’t in her nature to protest orders, however gently they’re phrased, and so she reaches for the parchment and scans it.  Phillip’s print is miniscule and precise, and the gist of his missive is clear: I have not found answers yet, and will not return until I do.

“Damn him,” she exhales, before she can stop herself.  The parchment crumbles in her hand, which is then covered by Aurora’s palm, stretching over half of her fist, touching skin and glove in equal measure.

“You’re upset,” Aurora says, rising to her feet.  The princess’ height always surprises Mulan; she’s so delicate that she should be small, but she isn’t.  She’s a whole person.  She’s so very whole.

“He knew before he left that he would not return in a week.  He tricked me, and he’s alone and he needs--”

It’s improper to voice her dissent like this, and so she chokes on the rest of the words until they sit hot in her lungs, but the fire in her eyes doesn’t die down quickly enough and Aurora catches it, rubbing her clenched fist and then offering her a slight, sympathetic smile.

“He does need you.  He needs you to ensure that when he’s found his answers, I will still be here for him to save.”

Mulan exhales in a hot puff of air, unable to hold it in longer, and then mutters, “I am a warrior.  You are perfectly safe here and we both know it.  There isn’t anything I can do for you.”

After a second, Aurora reaches for her face--and she jolts, because nobody does that, nobody ever touches her without her consent aside from Phillip but even he knows better than to touch her in a way that only her mother and her father and her grandfather ever touched her--and rubs soft, careful knuckles past her cheek.

“There is more to you than just fight, Mulan.”

“You don’t know that,” she protests, ducking away from that probing hand.  “You don’t know anything about me.”

Aurora steps back, after that, severing their mild connection altogether.  “You’re right,” she says, before tipping her chin up haughtily and adding, with no end of certainty, “But your rightness does not negate Phillip’s orders, and you will stay here and guard me.  With your life, meaning that you will be in my presence as and when I require it.”

Her teeth feel like they are being twisted out of her mouth altogether, she grits them that hard, but ultimately Mulan snaps her heels together and bows shortly.  “Of course, Your Highness.”

Aurora’s eyes are both wounded and angry, somehow, when they look at each other next, and Mulan curses Phillip’s very existence; one day of this task and she is already struggling to live up to his expectations of her.



After

Dawn’s bad dreams are nightly.  After two more nights of being woken up from something that barely qualifies as slumber and running into Chad--wrapped dorkily into an oversized old man housecoat--in the hallway, Riley decides to intervene and pulls a rocking chair from the den into Dawn’s bedroom.

“It might help,” she says, and after the third night, Dawn believes that her presence in the room alone is enough to ward off the worst of it.

Dawn doesn’t have to know that what really stops her from scaring herself wide awake is the hand that Riley places on her shoulder, holding it there until Dawn’s flesh heats up enough for her own skin to feel like it’s starting to bubble like melting plastic in a fireplace.



Mary Margaret comes by with baby Emma, who is precocious and happy until she’s not.  

“She gets the temper from her father,” Mary Margaret says, as Emma clenches both of her hands tightly around a silver rattle and then shakes it violently enough for Dawn’s eyebrows to contort in a hilarious way.  “Or, well, he doesn’t really have a temper either.  I don’t know where she gets it from.”

Baaahhh,” the baby says, pointing the rattle directly at Mary Margaret.

Riley smiles unwillingly.  It’s not a scene she knows how to be a part of, necessarily, but it’s fine to just be in the room and … supervise.

When Dawn reaches for Emma and tugs her out of the stroller and into what appears to be an instinctive--or practiced--single-arm sling hold, everyone present holds their breath for a few seconds as the baby’s entire face scrunches up.

Then, with a loud, “Daaa!” and a yank on Dawn’s long, curly-ended ponytail, she sticks the end of her rattle in her mouth and starts to doze off.

“You’re hired,” Mary Margaret says, sounding relieved in a way that makes Riley think that perhaps adorable, wonderful baby Emma is a complete pain in the ass even around her own parents.  “And I’ll pay you--”

“Nothing, until we’ve settled all those bills,” Dawn says, firmly.  Sometimes, words come out of her mouth with such force that Riley finds herself wondering about the girl’s background.  Upper East Side, maybe, though how the hell she would’ve ended up in Storybrooke after being born and raised in some Manhattan penthouse …

Wondering doesn’t get anyone anywhere, and instead what they have is Dawn in comfortable looking clothes; nothing overtly enticing like what Ruby wears--and Riley’s pretty sure she has Mary Margaret to thank for the lack of booty shorts--but also nothing too coy.  Dawn just looks... pretty, in her summer dresses and her knee-length white shorts and her interesting, detailed tops.  

Unwillingly, she glances down at her own jeans--clean, at last, but still cheap and worn--and then just sighs, because it’s not the kind of thing she needs to be dwelling on.  Not when she has only one mission here, and it’s finding out who’s responsible for their accident.

She tunes back into the conversation when Mary Margaret says, “Well, there is one thing that would make Chad happy, I think, but I’m not sure to what extent you can make it happen--”

“Ruby,” Dawn says, with a slightly mischievous grin.  “Yeah, I figured.  He can barely take a sip of coffee when she’s looking at him.”

Riley stares at the cooling tea on the table in front of her and very deliberately picks it up and takes a sip while staring directly at Dawn, because--she can.  That’s all.

“Yeah, it’s a long-harbored crush.  I think he’s had a thing for since...”  

That same hazy look that seems to catch everyone in this town by surprise when any period of time longer ago than last month gets mentioned washes over Mary Margaret, and Riley finds herself leaning forward.  “Try to pin it down.”

“Try to pin--” Mary Margaret repeats, her hand lifting to her chest and toying with the top button on her cardigan.  Her eyebrows draw together, her eyes squeeze shut, and then--sounding as disturbed by this as she should be--she admits, “I can’t... I can’t remember.”

“Okay, let’s something else, then.  When did you realize you were pregnant?” Riley asks, gently.

Mary Margaret’s eyes jolt back open in shock; she looks more or less like the startled wolf in the painting behind her.  “Well, obviously … nine months before--”

The room falls silent, aside from Emma’s huffy breathing, and Riley glances at Dawn, who is studying Mary Margaret closely.

After a few moments, Mary Margaret looks at the baby with such grief that Riley wants to get up and apologize, or maybe shoot something.  She doesn’t, however, and Mary Margaret reaches for her daughter and says, “How can I not remember--”

“It’s not you,” Dawn says, reaching for Mary Margaret’s shoulder and touching it gently.  “It’s--kind of a thing that happens to people in this town.  Nobody remembers anything.”

“But--that’s not normal, right?” Mary Margaret asks, looking between them and holding Emma close to her, as if they’ll try to take the baby away now that she can’t place how it was conceived.

“Well, no, it’s not.  Leaving me and Dawn aside, because we’re not exactly shining examples of memory ourselves,” Riley says, nearly tipping her tea all over herself when Dawn smiles at her in that private, knowing way she has, “I’d say that just about everyone else I’ve ever met has memories going back to when they were... four.  At least.”

Mary Margaret stares at her daughter and then says, “The clock tower.”

“What about it?”  Riley asks.

“It--it never moved,” Mary Margaret says, slowly, as if waking up from a long and very bizarre dream.  “It never moved at all--until you came to town.  And until you woke up.”

Dawn laughs a little tentatively, after a second.  “Okay, but what does that mean?  Do you think that--”

“Chad thinks there’s a dome,” Riley says, putting the tea back on the table and getting to her feet slowly.  “This town is disconnected from the outside world.  Hard to get out of and absolutely nothing comes in, except for me.”

“It can’t be a coincidence,” Mary Margaret says, softly rocking Emma back and forth.  “It’s too much, right?  You come to town and a girl that’s been in a coma for--well, for however long, and you’ve been in that coma for a long time--”

“You came to town and I woke up,” Dawn says, looking up at Riley with eyes as bright as fireworks.

“That’s not how comas work,” Riley says, unable to look away.  “They don’t--”

“What if it wasn’t a coma?  What if it was--” Mary Margaret starts to say, before her entire face slackens and she nearly drops the baby.  Dawn dives forward, quickly snagging the baby up , and Riley crouches in front of Mary Margaret and reaches for her shoulders.

“What if it was what?” she asks.

Mary Margaret looks confounded and like she needs some smelling salts, but then still says, “I was thinking about... sleeping curses.  Like what happens to Snow White after she eats the poisoned apple, or what happens to Sleeping Beauty--”

it’s what the king called her when she was but a babe; vocal when awake but lovely when asleep just like her mother and that’s an anecdote that Aurora shares with them over their last supper together when Phillip is brooding about his failed plans to guarantee her safety and she herself is brooding over how everything is going to change now that he is back and still the words get to her get to her deeply and meaningfully and she opens her eyes and looks and what she wants to say is

“The king speaks falsely.  You are always beautiful.”

The room spins and then all she sees is the ceiling, straight up ahead, flashing lights like the fireworks dancing in Dawn’s eyes, and it’s right there, what’s been missing all this time; it’s right--



Before

Her angers burns out of her when she starts shadowing the princess’ every move.

She doesn’t mean to let go of it; wants to let it fester in her heart, the way that the losses she’s left across an ocean have all this time, but she follows the princess around the castle and watches as everyone reveres her and everyone has a kind word for her, but nobody actually connects with her.

All Mulan herself has is Phillip, and it is enough; and perhaps the same would be true for Aurora, but the prince remains on his quest and has left them here with each other.

She must fulfill whatever role he would have played in Aurora’s life, the best she can, and after four days of silently obeying the princess’ every command, she gives in.

Surrender is not in her nature, but she finds that she must, and so when Aurora says, “You will dine with me tonight”, she swallows her pride--a burden, more than a gift--and bows shortly.

“It will be my pleasure, Your Highness.”

Aurora stops in her tracks and then looks at Mulan over her shoulder, coy and fierce all at once, before silently mouthing her own name.

It’s a sight Mulan will replay over and over again in her mind, standing outside of Aurora’s bedchambers and gripping her sword tightly enough for her palm to throb.



They change, after that.

Not much, but enough.  She stops walking behind Aurora and starts walking next to her as they traverse the castle, and Aurora stops addressing her with short orders and instead asks her for input on her various daily tasks.

It’s input she finds difficult to provide, but the memory of Phillip’s instructions always prompts her to at least try.

...

There something impish about the way Aurora smiles at her, always, as if there is a joke that she’s just incapable of seeing.  It wouldn’t be the first time.  She’s not known for her sense of humor; while everyone else was laughing about how her grandfather had been paranoid, how the Huns would never come over the mountains, she’d been sharpening her sword and forcing Shang to train with her.

They didn’t laugh at her grandfather much after the first arrows rained down.

After a moment, however, the princess sobers and says, “It must be nice, not having a destiny.”

“Perhaps,” Mulan says.  

Chin may not have dealt in long scrolls, signed in blood, but it dealt in fate all the same.  Fate rippled up and down her sword every time she lifted it.  Fate buried all she loved, once upon a time.

Aurora scoots in closer, abandoning her artwork for the time being, and then says, “I’m sorry, that my presence in Phillip’s life is depriving you of a chance to be out there, doing … heroic deeds with him.”

Mulan doesn’t bother responding, because there isn’t anything to be done about it.  This is her purpose now, and she has never gotten very far in fighting purpose.  Instead, she just looks at Aurora’s drawing, and then after a second, finds herself asking, “What is that?”

“A dragon,” Aurora says, plainly.  “I’ve grown tired of flowers and faces.”

“That’s--not what a dragon looks like,” Mulan adds, when the princess looks at her expectantly.  At that cautious look, for the first time in years, her armor feels like it doesn’t really belong to her.  It feels like it is slowly squeezing her chest until she can’t breathe.

“Really?  When Phillip described it to me, he said--”

Phil said,” she scoffs, before she can help herself; the way she has to suck in the rest of her disrespectful words makes her cheeks puff up, and then she looks away sharply.  “Your Highness, I apologize, I shouldn’t--”

Aurora laughs.  Laughs at her in a way that doesn’t feel the way it had when the villagers had laughed at her, brandishing a sword that was almost as tall as she was, storming up to the gate and demanding to go and help the soldiers.  Aurora laughs at her in a way that makes her feel lit up like a lantern, and she has no idea what to do about that.

Being weighed down by something is her natural state of being.  The idea of burdens being lifted is enough to make her start to frown.

“Did he lie about slaying that dragon?” Aurora asks, the corners of her mouth curving up in a way that Mulan doesn’t know how to not look at.

“He was... instrumental in the dragon’s defeat,” she says, after a moment.

“Tell me,” Aurora demands, and it is her job to cater to the princess. Everything she wants, Phil had written, not allowing her a single protest.  Everything she wants.  I’ll be back when we’ve found a solution to her plight.

“He--” Mulan starts, stopping when she realizes she is about to betray her commander’s trust in her, but she's unable to stop from talking more when Aurora’s hand lands warm on her knee, burning through the layers of leather covering it and squeezing, as if to tell her that there is more to life than Phillip’s trust.  She sighs, and closes her eyes.  “The dragon saw him first.  It went straight for him, and he dropped his sword and ran to the end of the path, screaming.  With dignity and courage, of course.”

“Of course,” Aurora echoes.

“His--diversion helped me ready my bow.  The arrow went into the dragon’s eye, and as it wailed and spun around, I drove my sword into its chest.  Then--”  She pauses, wondering if the gruesome truth is something Aurora will want to hear, and finally just says, “We finished the work.  Together.”

The hand on her leg tightens again, and it’s almost too much to bear, now.  “So--when he says he’s slain a dragon--”

“He has,” Mulan says, and slowly turns her head until she can look right at the princess.  “It matters to him.”

“But not to you,” Aurora says.  It’s a whisper, like the pinprick of a thought.

Mulan cannot look away again, even as she says, “The dragon was only slain after too many had lost their lives already.  There isn’t triumph in such a victory; merely the righting of a wrong.”

“More philosophy from across the sea,” Aurora murmurs, in a way that makes Mulan break out into a warm sweat, all over.  “I’d love to hear more.  About your lands.”

“Your Highness, if you wish for me to tell you more--”

“No, Mulan.  It’s not an order.  It’s--”  Aurora stops, and carefully says, “I ask as someone who would value your stories.  Someone who...”

Mulan stares into the fire and waits for Aurora to explain herself further, but she never does; eventually, she reaches for her drawing again--leaving Mulan’s thigh bare, cold, and deadened somehow--and stares at it with a soft sigh.  

“Very well, dragon slayer.  What does my subject actually look like?”

Dragons are easy to talk about, as it turns out--even for a girl who hasn’t known how to bend words to her will in a very long time now.



After

“I don’t know,” she says, for the tenth time in as many minutes.

The bag of peas on the back of her head is doing nothing, but every time she lowers it Dawn starts looking crazy worried, so she keeps it there.

“You said--” Mary Margaret says again.  She’s leaning back against her husband now; a solid, tall man named David with kind eyes, who coos over his daughter before announcing that if they think something sinister is happening in Storybrooke, they should come up with a plan of attack.

“I know what I said.  I know that I said the king speaks falsely, but I have no idea what king I meant or who I was even talking to,” she snaps, annoyed at how they won’t let it go.  Sure, she’s lying a little, but not about the part that matters.

“Okay, everyone, let’s calm down--yes, baby, let’s calm down,” David says, directing half of the statement at the occupants of the room and half of it at his daughter, tugging at the hem of his shirt.  “Why don’t we draw up a list of everything we’ve noticed that’s strange, and that will probably lead us to a place we can go to find answers.”

Chad heads into the kitchen and comes back with a notepad--the shopping list--and a blunted pencil, and sits down on the ottoman by the fire and says, “Wireless communication in this town is terrible.  Phones, the internet, anything--you have to be lucky to get it to work.  And it’s not because we’re surrounded by mountains.”

“Right,” David says, and looks at his wife.  “And you think the clock tower--”

“I think it’s suspicious that it just started working again.  I asked Leroy about it, thinking he might’ve had a work order from Mayor Drake, but he just sneered at me and told me that nobody hired him for anything anymore.”  Mary Margaret sighs, regretful, with a shake of her head.  “It must mean that the clock started moving on its own.”

“When I got here,” Riley adds, before looking at Dawn.  “Or when you woke up.”

“The mayor was pretty convinced that I’d done something to wake you,” Chad says, carefully.  “She kept asking if I’d been to see you; if I’d done it, whatever ‘it’ is.”

“A sleeping curse is broken by true love’s kiss,” Mary Margaret says.

They all stare at her until she sighs and points at Emma.

“I read fairy tales to her, okay?  There are some fairly common themes and true love is one of them.”

Chad looks at Dawn and laughs a little sheepishly.  “But--I don’t even know her.  I mean, I do now, but I didn’t when I--”  He blinks furiously and just looks back at his notepad.  “So what are we saying?  Dawn here is some fairy tale character and I’m the prince that’s supposed to wake her up?”

“That’s... a little crazy,” David says, tickling Emma under her chin until she giggles.  

“Yeah,” Riley agrees, before closing her eyes and thinking of the king to the best of her ability; but memories pass through her like bullets, and she cannot snatch those out of thin air, either.

“There is one more thing.  It may be strange, but it may not be,” Dawn says, after a few moments.  “I have night terrors.  They’re of being trapped in a room that’s dark; I can’t see anything, and I can’t really move.  I’m frozen in place, and then the room bursts into flames--”

Mary Margaret gasps, grappling blindly behind her for David’s hand.

It’s David who speaks.  “She’s had them as long as I’ve known her.  They burn, right?  The dreams actually--”

“Riley has been protecting me, but before she did--” Dawn says, and pulls up on the sleeve of her sweater, before showing a slight bandage.  “That was from when I tried to touch the walls--”

Never touch the walls,” Mary Margaret says, with such clarity that Riley looks at her more sharply.  “All you can do is be woken up.”

Dawn nods, after a few seconds, and Chad clears his throat.  “Guys, I hate to be saying the obvious here, but dreams can’t burn people.  That’s--just not a thing that happens.”

“Well,” David says, lifting the baby up higher and looking at them all gravely.  “If that’s a fact, then either we’re not people, or we have no idea what we’re dealing with.”



Dawn is silent to the point where Riley is sure she’s fallen asleep, until she turns onto her side and clicks on the lamp of her nightstand, pulling Riley out of the video game she’s playing.

“Are you all right?” Riley asks, glancing up.

“What do you make of this sleeping curse?” Dawn asks, in an unreadable voice.

Riley rubs at her temple with the stylus she’s holding and laughs a little.  “Not much.  I’ve seen a lot of weird, horrible shit over the last few years, but sleeping curses?”

“Yeah.  It sounds ridiculous,” Dawn says, kicking at the sheets again and then sliding up against the headboard, until she’s looking directly at Riley.  “It sounds ridiculous, but there’s a part of me that thinks--”

“Thinks?”

Dawn shakes her head in frustration.  “Not thinks.  It’s--deeper than that.  It’s--”

“It’s what?”

Dawn looks at her openly for a long few seconds and she closes Chad’s Nintendo without meaning to; just looks right back, finding it difficult to breathe or swallow or do anything else.

“It’s not just me, is it?” Dawn finally asks, sounding so uncertain that Riley feels like she’s back at that crevasse where they lost Winters.  Where she lost Winters, seeing the dawning horror in his eyes before he forced her to let go.  It’s how you always lose them, something tells her, only when she’s looking directly at Dawn and letting that question sift through the wreckage of her brain.

It’s too much, and she averts her eyes and says, “You should try to get some sleep.  I’m sure we’ll figure out what to do tomorrow, okay?”

The way that Dawn’s eyes darken is just as familiar as everything else about her, as if no matter what Riley does, she can’t ever do anything but ultimately let her down.



David swings by in the morning with the idea of talking to Mr. Gold.

“The guy knows a lot about everything,” he says, holding out coffee cups for her and Chad.

Chad takes his, and then says, “I’ve been called in to talk to the mayor, so you’re going to have to field this one without me.  Who knows, though.  She might let something slip that we can use?”

“Good thinking,” David says, and Chad looks both righteous and proud for a moment, before tugging on the brim of his stupid hat and heading out to the patrol car.  “Does Dawn want to come with us?”

“I don’t think that--” Riley starts to say.

“Yes, she does,” sounds behind her, and Dawn sort of elbows her aside, taking the coffee David had offered her.  “Thanks, David, that’s too kind of you.  Shall we?”

Dawn heads to David’s truck without waiting for a response and David makes a questioning face at Riley, who just looks at Dawn’s back and fights the urge to sigh.  Women, she finally mouths at him.

He looks torn between laughter and pointing out the obvious truth that would probably get him kneed in the groin right now, and finally just says, “Okay then.  I’ll drive.”



Mr. Gold is fixing a pocket watch behind the counter of his ramshackle mess of a store, and Riley strides in after David, who just heads right to the counter and then says, “We have a few questions that we hope you might be able to answer.”

“Oh?” Mr. Gold says, before peering at Riley and Dawn and then smiling in a way that seems strangely sinister, for some guy who’s just a pawn shop owner.  “My, if it isn’t--Jane Doe.  And--”

“Deputy Chen,” Riley says, tugging on the hem of her jacket until the star is visible.

“Of course,” Mr. Gold says, slowly--and then laughs.  “My.  What an unexpected pleasure.”

“I’m sorry?” Riley says.

“Nothing, just--”  Gold shakes his head and then looks back at David.  “What can I do for you, Mr. Nolan?”

Faced with actually having to voice his questions out loud, David hesitates for a few seconds and then somewhat sheepishly says, “We think there’s something wrong with the town.”

Wrong with the town,” Gold repeats, winding the hands on the watch and then gently placing it back on the counter.  “In what sense?”

“In all senses,” Riley says, glancing around the store and then finally pinning him with a look.  “I’m told you know about everything that goes on in this town, so maybe you can shed some light on the extreme amnesia that everyone here seems to be struggling with.”

Behind them, Dawn turns and starts wandering through the store, trailing her fingertips past birdcages and looking at her own reflection in sharply-shined swords that are mounted on the walls.  Riley watches her reflection recede in the glass of the counter before looking at Gold again.

“Is that my reputation?” Mr. Gold asks, with a sly little smile.  “Well.  Sorry to disappoint, but if it’s the town’s business you are interested in--”

The door behind them slams open and a woman curtly says, “Elias, we need to talk.”

Principal Mills.  What an unexpected pleasure to see you--”

The principal--a woman in her early thirties with short, carefully styled hair, a flattering and expensive-looking pinstriped suit and a thunderous facial expression--comes to a halt in the middle of the shop and looks as if she’s smelling something foul when she looks at David.  “You,” she then says, her lip curling.  “What are you doing here?”

“Asking Mr. Gold a few questions about some strange things that have been happening in the town,” David says, placidly.  “It’s nice to see you, too, Regina.  Mary Margaret and Emma are both fine, thank you for asking.”

The principal huffs and then looks at Gold.  “It happened again.  And you know that that idiot boy Corser won’t do anything about it.  He says it’s not vandalism unless I can prove that something is killing my apples, but they don’t just spontaneously die, now do they?”

“Not traditionally, no,” Mr. Gold says, before ducking down behind the counter and pulling a thin sachet out from underneath.  “New seeds.”

“I don’t want new seeds, I want whoever is responsible for killing my apple tree--”

“People don’t murder apples, dearie,” Mr. Gold says.  “But perhaps you’ll be able to use your connections to get the sheriff to put out a BOLO on these... criminals.”

The principal rolls her eyes.  “My connections.  Mallory just laughed at me when I told her and then told me to find a more enjoyable hobby, like horseback riding.  She knows damn well I am afraid of horses.  I don’t know why we socialize sometimes; honestly, I would do her job so much better than she would, but--”

“Perhaps you should run for office, next time,” David says, placidly.

“What is that supposed to mean?  ... did your wife put you up to saying that?  Is she trying to oust me?”

Riley pushes away from the counter after exchanging a look with David and heads towards the front of the shop, where Dawn is looking at a row of books lining an old, rickety bookcase with a deep frown on her face.

“The people in this town are insane,” she says, softly, and Dawn looks at her sharply before her expression smooths out again.  Her fingers rest on top of a particularly unwieldy tome, and Riley glances at it.

“It’s stuck,” Dawn says.

Riley reaches for the top of the book’s spine and yanks hard enough for her arm to feel the strain, but it’s only when Dawn’s own fingers join her at the book’s edges that the whole thing just seems to slide out of the shelf.

Dawn catches it and turns it until they can examine the front, and when they see what it’s called, Riley’s breath snags somewhere in the middle of her chest and all that comes out is a disbelieving wheeze.

“I think this is what we came for,” Dawn says, sounding disconnected from the suggestion; as if the words are in her mouth but not in her brain.  “Right?”

Riley forces herself to keep moving--it’s what soldiers do, anyway, any soldier worth their salt knows how to keep moving--and reaches for the hardcover copy of Once Upon a Time with one hand and some of the cash that Chad insisted she take with the other.

“I...” she starts to say, before shaking her head and heading towards the counter again, not even able to shake the eerie sensation of being guided to this very point by the sight of the principal wagging her finger in David’s face.



Before

More birds come their way.

Phillip has been joined on his quest by Snow White and Prince James; the former being described as incredibly pregnant and incredibly brave and the latter being described as not unlike Thomas, but older and more prepared for battle.

Snow White and James, of course, have their own battles to wage, but nonetheless rally to Phillip’s cause for a princess they’ve never met.  They will all be heroes, should they find an outcome that protects Aurora forevermore.

She will have been the princess’ nursemaid for years on end.  A footnote in her history, at best.

As the months pass, that becomes harder to accept.



Aurora finds her in the courtyard, battling three armed soldiers with merely a knife.  

The princess says nothing; just silently watches as she disposes of the first with a well-executed sweep of her legs, and the second with a fist placed on the back of a helmet, until the third one traps her, sword at her neck and her own knife dangling limply in her hand.

Do it, she thinks, even as she is aware of the practice sword's dulled edges.  Do it, because it’s better than being his stand-in for all the days that do not matter, but never the ones that do.

Practice sword or not, it cuts her throat before she manages to disarm the soldier and bring him to his knees, and she is breathing heavily, sweaty and muddy, by the time Aurora finally walks towards her.  The soldiers disappear silently, bowing at the princess on their way out, and she herself wearily sinks to one knee in front of the princess and awaits whatever chastisement is forthcoming.

You cannot protect me if you are dead is one of Phillip’s favorites.  She wonders if his future wife--

Bitterly, ever so bitterly, she lowers her eyes to the ground and tries to forget how she feels.  But she is, in every single way that matters, cut open--and when Aurora reaches for her forehead and gently brushes some hair off of it, she knows that this is what it feels like to die.

“You should teach me how to fight,” Aurora says, quietly.  “I think we’ll both enjoy it.”

She nods, because order or not, she cannot say no to the princess.  Not ever.



After supper, the princess bandages the cut on her neck.  

It is the closest they have been together; she can feel Aurora’s even breathing, in through the nose and then out again, as it catches on her skin.  They’re next to a candle and the princess looks aglow, more radiant than any of the suns revered in her kingdom.  She does her name justice, Mulan thinks, and then forbids herself from thinking more.

“You warriors and your wars,” Aurora says, tying off the ends of her bandage and then sitting down next to Mulan, close enough for Mulan to start sweating all over again.

“I have not been at war for a very long time now,” Mulan says, after a moment, and then glances back at the candle.  It’s the truth.  It’s a lie, also, for every day she fights a war.  A war between what she wants and what is right.  A war between what she owes and what she needs.

“My father once said that war is something that you can leave, but it never truly leaves you.”

Mulan smiles at the candle, not at Aurora, and says, “Your father is a very wise man.”

“He tries,” is all Aurora will concede, still embittered over her lost, locked-away childhood, but that bitterness is a privilege that only one who comfortably knows that her family remains alive and safe can nurture.  

It is not for Mulan to tell her of what it feels like to lose such privileges, though in thinking of them, and all the ways in which Aurora has yet to experience loss, she finds herself staring at the candle so intently that she doesn’t even realize that her eyes are watering until Aurora’s unblemished, soft fingertips brush underneath her eyes.

When they look at each other, the time for a mistake is at hand, and Mulan holds her breath; once a soldier in need of an order, always a soldier.

Aurora studies her face, fingertips trailing down to her jaw, and then looks down to her chest before finally pressing a palm against Mulan’s chest plate, where her heart thunders like Sunshine’s hooves, pounding the soil an unmentionable number of leagues away.

“What is it that you fight for, Mulan?” Aurora asks her.

You, the thud beneath Aurora’s palm promises.

“Phillip,” her mouth says, treacherously loyal to the last.  “I owe him everything.”

After a second, Aurora sighs--still nearly against her cheek--and says, “Yes.  We have that in common.”

“He is... a good man.  He will become a great man,” Mulan says.  The words are easy to think, easy to believe, but so hard to say in present company.  “And he will save you.”

Aurora smiles, but the candle doesn’t disguise the way her eyes do not smile with the rest of her.  “I know.”



The next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, she commits herself to teaching Aurora how to shoot a bow and arrow, but does not talk to her again; not of Chin, nor of anything else.



After

It’s easy to think of the whole thing as a load of crap when they’re just reading about Snow White’s curse, because everyone knows that story.  Mary Margaret frowns at the pictures of a long-haired girl in a blue dress singing to birds, but then keeps flipping through the book anyway, past stories of Cinderella and Jiminy Cricket and Rapunzel and Rumpelstiltskin.

Riley is almost at the point of excusing herself to go for a run--maybe right out of town, at the rate this investigation is going and her common sense is fleeing her altogther--when they land upon Sleeping Beauty.

The girl is Dawn, but Riley would let herself be talked out of that; after all, a pretty girl in a storybook can be just about anyone.  All it does is emphasize that Dawn is lovely, which is something she struggles not to think about every hour of every day as it is.

However, next to the girl is a woman in a dark purple robe, with her hair twisted up into horns, and Chad says, “Um--”

David flips to the next page, and that’s when the entire room freezes.

It’s a wedding.  Sleeping Beauty--her name is Aurora, the story reminds her--is clasping the hands of her prince, who looks like what Chad would look like if he wasn’t so afraid of fucking up all the time.  A reckless, self-assured version of Chad, who has searched all the lands for his true love and has finally found her is flanked by...

She gasps, when it hits her what she’s seeing, and then reaches for her own shoulders on instinct, but the protective padding that should be there isn’t there and neither is her sword and neither is her horse and neither is--

“Oh my God,” Mary Margaret says, faintly.  

“Fa Mulan,” Chad intones. “A warrior from the land of Chin; she disguised herself as a man to save her country from the wrath of an evil warlock named Shan Yu, who was ultimately vanquished but not before cursing the entire realm and everyone in it--”

“Mulan,” Dawn repeats.

Riley--no not Riley not Riley never Riley think of the dark room--feels her knees give way and sinks to the floor, clutching her head and shaking it.  She’s killed so many people so many people have died because of her and for her always for her and this is what her therapists warned her would happen, she would eventually suffer a complete nervous breakdown and she could harm herself but never Aurora oh if there was any justice at all in this world then Aurora would be or those around her but she can’t stop shaking and wondering where her sword is she would’ve never left without her sword and--

A hand touches her shoulder and she jerks backwards, until she’s pressed up against the TV unit and staring at all of these people in the room with her, knees pulled up to her chest.  Her nearest weapon is a candlestick holder, and she grabs it, holding it out like a dagger she might do a utility knife.

“What the hell are you people doing to me?” she then asks, unable to stop her voice from shaking.

It’s Chad who responds, by getting on his knees and raising his hands I’m not here to hurt you, I promise; do you understand what I am saying to you?  Do you--Melchior, we cannot leave her here!  She’s just a girl, she’s no older than I am; isn’t taking her back with us what father would want me to do, now that I rule the lands? and saying, “Easy, Riley.  We’re not doing anything.  That book--”

She has to close her eyes and then shakes her head.  “No.  It’s--I don’t know you.  You didn’t--”

“I look a lot like that Prince, and you look a lot like Mulan, which is actually the best Disney movie about princesses--not that I watch a lot of those but--”

“What Chad means to say is that it’s not just you,” Mary Margaret says, quietly.  “I could ignore Snow White, but I cannot ignore that birds flock to me, and that my husband looks like Prince Charming and that we had just had Emma at the moment that Maleficent--”

Maleficent,” Dawn gasps, and Riley’s eyes open at the anguished sob that follows it.  “What is that--what is--”

“Jesus Christ,” Chad says, before looking at the picture of himself and then at Dawn.  “You think this book--”

Mary Margaret flips another few pages and then looks at Emma, squeezing David’s hand so tight that he actually lets out a soft oof as her fingers close around his.  “It says that Maleficent cast a curse on Aurora’s 18th birthday, to ensure that she would never have her happy ending; it was so powerful a curse that its effects spread over all the lands, and separated Aurora from her true love.  Her true love is the only person who can break the curse.”

Riley wants to lower her forehead to her knees but can’t stop staring helplessly at Dawn, who is now staring at Chad, who is staring at Mary Margaret.

“You mean--me?” he then asks, jabbing a thumb at his own chest.

David rubs at his face and then says, “Okay--this is beyond insane, but so that we can just rule out that we’re dealing with … a real life version of a fairy tale here, can you two please kiss?”

It’s hard to decide who looks more put out by the request; Dawn looks conflicted and pale, where Chad grows red and then squeaks out a quiet, “Well, I mean, for the sake of the world--”

“If it helps, it’s not the first time, according to these drawings,” Mary Margaret says, sounding incredibly embarrassed.

Riley gets back up to her feet and heads to the kitchen without another word, because if this is going to fix all of their problems--well, they don’t need her in the room for it.



Before

A year passes, before Phil returns.  When he does, he is older, more stately, wisened and exhausted, but he does not return with a solution.

“Let me try,” Mulan pleads with him, as he washes his face and lets his scabbard sag to the ground next to him.

“There isn’t anything left to try, Mulan,” he says, sounding defeated.  “I would not have come back--”

Not once has she used violence against him; not once has she thought of him as anything other than a benefactor and a friend, but right now he stands in the way of something she must do, and so she pins him to the wall.

“I have never asked you for anything.  I ask you this,” she says, forearm against his throat.

His eyes study hers, and something in them shimmers with recognition, but he does not comment on it; he merely nods, and says, “Okay”, and this is why she will die a thousand deaths for him.



After

“Um, not that that wasn’t nice,” Chad says, “But I was kind of expecting something... bigger.”

Dawn says nothing, and Riley watches her from the safety of the kitchen, where her heart rate is stating to slow and she no longer feels like she’s meant to be in Chin it’s called Chin and one day she’ll go back there with Aurora and start over oh what a lovely dream it’s no wonder she refuses to sleep because waking up is horrible some other country, fighting some new war.

David joins her after a few moments and carefully asks, “Are you okay?”

She nods and finishes the rest of the glass of water she’s poured for herself, before looking at Dawn again and saying, “Maybe we can put this fairy tale crap behind us, now.”

“You’re right.  We’re better off just trying to find some other explanation for all the strange things that have been happening, lately.”

Emma sneezes and then starts crying in his arms, and it’s so disgustingly normal that Riley takes another deep breath and says, “I’m just going to pick up some burgers at the diner.  I’ll be right back.”

David nods and bounces Emma a few times, until her howling tapers down to a few sniffles, and Riley smiles at the baby and then slips out the back door.



She knows she’s being followed before she even hears Dawn’s footsteps behind her, but the step of her brand-new Converse on the pavement is an identifier like none other.  

Dawn walks like she’s gliding, shoving off as if ready to take flight.  It's the kind of thing Riley wishes she didn't know.

She halts in the middle of the street and says, “Hurry up, then”, at which point the pitter-patter of sneakers behind her picks up, until Dawn is next to her and looking at her face, studying it in the low sunlight that’s still overhead.

“You ran away just now,” she then says.

It’s the wrong kind of confrontational for Riley’s mood and she snaps, “I didn’t run away, I went to get dinner.”

“Yeah, if telling yourself that makes it easier--”

She stops again and turns to face Dawn, not even a little capable of hiding her anger now.  “What do you want, Dawn?  What do you want me to say?”

Dawn stares back at her stonily for a few moments, arrogant and self-sure, but then pulls a folded piece of paper from her pocket and sticks it out at her.  “I want you to look at this and tell me you don’t see it, since you apparently can’t admit that you feel it, just the same as I do.”

Riley wants to get the hell away from  her, but takes the sheet of paper anyway and sneers, “What’s this?  Some more fairy tale artwork?  Because--”

“It’s how you look at me.  And it’s how I look at you,” Dawn bites out at her, not even bothering to lower her voice anymore.  

They’re in the middle of a residential street in this fucked up ghost town, and she’s yelling at a teenager about a drawing in a book of fairy tales.  A drawing that has them on opposite sides of a dining table, with the prince laughing about something and pouring the princess more water, but the princess is only looking across the table at the warrior, who seems incredibly pained about the fact that she is staring right back at the princess.

The drawing cuts right through her, and she crumples it up in her hands and then shoves it back into Dawn’s.  “It’s just a drawing,” she says, but it doesn’t come out with any real force.

Her hand gets arrested before it can retreat, and pressed to Dawn’s chest, where her heart--

“And what is this, Riley?  A figment of my imagination?  Something else I’m dreaming about?  Am I still just asleep--is that what this is, according to you?”

Her hand rests on that heart, threatening to escape with how fast it’s beating, and she feels her own start to follow suit, long before she can even look at Dawn’s face--the way it’s full of tremors, nearly bursting with repressed feelings, and when Dawn’s eyes start to water she can feel her own start to burn.

“Shit, don’t cry,” she says, helpless and disarmed.  “I never meant to make you--”

“Then why are you doing this?” Dawn asks, before wiping angrily at her own eyes.  “You’re the only thing in this entire town that makes any sense to me and you just want to act like that’s some sort of accident or like it means nothing, and I am not going to let you.”

She grimaces, because she knows she’s going to start giving in, soon.  She’s not one for surrendering, but how can she not surrender to this?  The words that come out of her mouth are her last stand, and even that one is half-hearted.  “Jesus, Dawn, okay, fine--maybe it’s not nothing, maybe I feel it too, but--”

“You’re not a coward,” Dawn says, reaching for her shoulder and rubbing at the hidden bullet holes there, before balling her hand into a fist and punching, hard enough for Riley to take a grudging step back.  “So stop acting like one.”

It sounds like an order.  It is an order, and when that registers, Riley closes her eyes and follows it.



Before

The lands are vast, but without answers.  

She rides to the very ends of the world, vanquishes ogres and trolls and dragonlings and barely sleeps for the better part of eight moons, and then stares at the sky overhead and realizes that she is leagues from where she wants to be right now.

Aurora turns eighteen within a fortnight, and they may lose her forever at that time.

It’s her horse, her most trusted companion, that she utters the apology to; but some part of her knows that Aurora will hear it, wherever she is.



It’s only hours before the wedding; she knows because of the procession of people heading for the castle, swelling in numbers as she drives Zhōng Chéng faster and faster still.  Her horse needs rest.  She needs--

More time.

Neither of them have either, and so she urges him onward still, muttering to him in the forgotten tongues of Chin, a language of love that only they speak together.



She dismounts before Zhōng Chéng slows to a complete halt and takes the castle steps three at a time, rushing through the kitchen and further up the servants’ stairwell to the royal bedrooms, where Phillip will be frantically rehearsing his vows and where Aurora will be putting on a dress so extravagant that it will almost overshadow her beauty.

She is wet and cold and bedraggled,and more than that, she has failed; she hasn’t brought Aurora back anything that could save her.  Eight moons and nothing to show for it except more scars, a tired horse and a stomach so empty with hunger that she may faint in the middle of the ceremony.

When she falls to her knees as soon as Aurora’s bedroom door gives way, it’s at least in part because of her fatigue and her hunger, but the rest of it is in shame.

Her forehead touches the cold stones that line the whole castle and she rushes out a fast, “Your Highness; please forgive me.  I have done everything in my powers to find an antidote for the curse, but I have failed.  I have failed and I have returned because--”

“Because,” Aurora says, stepping away from her chambermaids and moving in closer, on bare feet and in a dressing gown.  “Because of what, Mulan?”

Because I couldn’t bear the idea of not hearing your voice one last time, the thud in her chest confesses.

“Because it would be unjust to not grant you an opportunity to punish me for my failures,” she says.

Aurora stays silent for a very long time, and then says, “Rise, Mulan.”

“Your Highness,” she says, the words broken in her throat like her spare blade, left behind in an ogre’s skull two kingdoms past.

When she gets up, Aurora is a vision as she has always been, and Mulan’s eyes burn with the sight of her.  She holds her breath, and then lets it go in a rush as Aurora’s hand goes flying and catches her clean in the cheek.

“You didn’t even say goodbye,” the princess says, an angry whisper, before turning away from her and heading back to the small stool she’s stood on as she’s getting dressed.

Mulan cups her cheek and wonders if this is to be her punishment: to know that in the last hours of Aurora’s waking life, the princess thought of her only in anger.



After

The second her lips touch Dawn’s, it’s as if her mind fractures.  

The half of it that’s Riley Chen fades into a distant background--one where she knows that she broke through the floor of the room with all the mirrors only to land in a combat zone, one where she knows that Riley Chen isn’t her name but the name of a female soldier in a bomb squad in Iraq who lost her life in the explosion that brought her to this land--and to the fore comes a part of it that is Fa Mulan.

A part that has been sealed away for six years; a part that reminds her this is Phillip’s wife, her royal highness Princess Aurora, whose lips you are currently pressing your own against, Fa Mulan; are these the actions of an honorable soldier?

She staggers backwards and cups a hand over her mouth and stares.

Staring back at her is Princess Aurora, looking equally flabbergasted, not only at what they were doing, but at what they are wearing and where they are standing.  It’s only a matter of time before the princess swoons, but Mulan is ready for it and swerves to her side, catching her as she goes.

“This--” Aurora says, fluttering her eyelashes rapidly, before turning her head sharply and looking directly at her.  “You,” she then says.  “I have been angry with you for--oh my God, what happened to your face?  What--”

Fingertips brush along her cheek and the scar there that feels very real, as do all the memories of the wars she’s fought; wars of Chin and wars of America, all bloody and unnecessary and with so many lives lost.  It hits her like an elbow in the gut, her two existences blending together; the only constant is Aurora, a north star for her to use as a reminder of who she really is.

“You saved Phil from that spell,” Aurora says, carefully.  “It--what did it do to you?”

“It’s a long story,” Mulan says, before gently lifting the princess to her feet again.  “It’s--”

“You just ran off, before, and you were going to do it again here, weren’t you,” Aurora says, clinging to her jacket sleeves tight enough for it to hurt a little.  The odd blend of Aurora’s expression but Dawn’s linguistic patterns is a lot to take in, and so Mulan just looks at their feet and asks, “What would you have me do, Aurora?  You are married to--”

“A wonderful man--a great guy, willing to sacrifice everything for me,” Aurora finishes, before squeezing her lips together and shaking her head softly.  “A great guy who... no more than a fortnight after you went off on your idiotic errand, found me crying over a drawing of you.  You have grown close, he said, and then slung an arm around my back and said, Mulan will return, I promise you.  And when you did, all you said was I’m sorry I failed you.”

Mulan watches her princess, whose eyes are stormy like the ocean in the midst of a tsunami, and then admits, “Aurora, I did fail you.”

“No, you big, stupid warrior, you saved me,” Aurora says, before pressing cold fingertips to Mulan’s lips and then offering a slight, watery smile.  “You saved all of us--and you could have saved us sooner, had you ever stopped being so foolishly noble.”

“I--” Mulan says, but words have never been her strong suit, and so she stands still as the princess takes a few more liberties, tucking strands of hair behind her ear and then cupping her chin softly.

“How could you not know how I felt about you?  Every last thing I drew--even that very poorly executed dragon--”

Mulan feels herself start to smile, in that uncontrollable and terrifying way that only Aurora has ever managed to make her smile, and then takes a deep breath.  “It was too much to hope for.  Twice in one generation.”

Aurora smiles back at her, and then gets up on the toes of her decidedly un-princess-like sneakers and kisses her with knowledge and confidence and love.  The true kind, the kind that soothes over all the losses and all the wasted years, and promises them both a forever.  

Mulan loses herself in it for a few moments, until a sharp whistle has her lifting her head and looking over Aurora’s shoulder, only to see Snow, James, baby Emma and Phillip striding towards them.

“Your Highness,” she says, already sinking down to the ground when Phillip jogs the rest of the way and then cuffs her in the side of the head.

“Don’t be ridiculous.  Just promise that you’ll never call me Chad again--”

Aurora laughs, and then reaches for Phillip and pulls him into a tight hug.  “Oh, I have missed you.  Or--well, I haven’t, but I wish I’d been able to, because then I truly would have, Phillip.”

“I know what you mean,” he responds, and presses a kiss to her forehead as Mulan warily gets back to her feet.  “And you--don’t look so ashamed.  I wish you had said something.  I never would have married her, obviously.”

“You were her best chance,” Mulan says, after a moment.  “I didn’t want to risk--”

“Well, we’ll talk about that later,” Phillip says, before glancing to the clock tower in the distance and narrowing his eyes.  “I have my eyes on a bigger prize than the princess here--no offense, Aurora.”

“None taken,” Aurora says, before leaning into Mulan’s side again; it’s unsettling, having her so close, but the kind of unsettling that Mulan suspects she’ll get used to very quickly, even if she doubts she’ll ever take it for granted.

“What do you say, Mulan?” Phillip asks.  “Up for a short but heroic journey?”

“What’s our quest?” she responds, even though the answer--for him--is always yes.

“Why, slaying another dragon, of course.  James here would like to assist, but I feel like you and I can do this with our eyes closed.  Right?”

After a few seconds, she smiles a secret smile; one that only Aurora can read without trying.  “Lead the way.”