"Be quiet!" the stranger hissed, his grip around Mulan's mouth getting tighter as she fought for release. Mulan wasn't sure why she complied to her captor's command, perhaps because of the familiar way his rough knuckles brushed against her skin, or the comforting, masculine scent gently assaulting her nose at his proximity.
Sensing that she had stopped fighting him, her captor loosened his grip and turned her around to face him. She gasped.
"Ping, what are you doing here so late at night? Aren't you aware of how close we are to the Mongolian border?" There was a strange zap that traveled up her arm when their skin made contact; Mulan had to believe that it was nothing but coincidence because their hands had touched plenty of times before without that interesting reaction, during training, sparring and…. making love .
"This can't possibly get any worse," she heard Mushu's half amused voice behind her ear.
"Please remember in the future that you're the one who said that," she told him quietly so Shang couldn't hear.
"Can you explain yourself?" Shang demanded. Mulan flinched under his penetrating glare.
"I...―" she sputtered, mustering her courage. Well, what are you doing here too, Shang? Regardless of her desire to question her captain, Mulan wasn't going to challenge Shang's authority. "I was just hungry." That wasn't a lie. She pulled items from her pocket that looked like fruits. "See―?"
If she hadn't been so overwhelmed with her own hormonal tide, she would've registered that the Prince of Wei and the mysterious princess had disappeared from view, swallowed by the dark landscape of the surrounding coppice.
After threatening Ping that he would face brutal retribution as the consequences of his action, Shang gruffly dismissed his brother-in-law and told the boy never to leave the encampment without gaining permission first.
Shang breathed out a disgruntled sigh upon entering his own tent. The letter from his father that Chi-Fu had delivered earlier still lay on his bed.
If it weren't for Ping jeopardizing his political espionage, he would've gotten a better idea of the identity of the mysterious woman who the Prince had met, or at least get a hint of the nature of their relationship.
No wonder Shao Wei had explicitly requested him not to chaperone him to his private spot in the woods that he claimed to be his 'bathing and toilet' spot which had now turned out to be a secret point of rendezvous. It all made sense.
Perhaps the woman he spied earlier with Shao Wei was a conniving Hun Princess and the Prince of Wei was the jackass who'd been complicit to her seduction―as his father often said, many mighty men had fallen helpless in the arms of a beautiful woman.
Shang sank into his bed as he contemplated his next move. He would definitely spy on the Prince again, and this time, he wouldn't let anything or anyone intervene with his mission.
The next day, Shang had invited his trainee for a hike to survey the new field for their training exercise. After the atrocious day Mulan had yesterday sparring with the Captain, she thought today was going to be a better day.
She was wrong. Very… wrong.
Perhaps it was the cold wind last night combined with another day of brutal training, Mulan woke up with an unpleasant soreness all over her limbs and she felt inexplicably nauseated. Dragging herself to get to the breakfast rush, she was welcomed by Ling’s and Chien-Po’s scrutinizing stares.
"Gods, you look like someone who was raised from the dead," Ling said in shock.
Mulan checked her countenance over the surface of her tea. The slight bruising around her eyes where Shang had hit her square during their sparring session had turned into nasty purple and black discoloration.
"I don't feel much different either," Mulan said, staring into the amber depths of her cup.
"Here, maybe breakfast will do you good," Ling suggested. "You skipped dinner last night. It's no wonder your stomach is upset." He offered her a plate of warm bean buns.
"Actually, I….―" Mulan opened her mouth to tell Ling about her encounter with the Prince of Wei but closed it quickly when she remembered who else she had met that night. She wasn't ready for her best friend to interrogate her about what other 'naughty' things she did with their Captain in the middle of the woods, alone.
"Thanks," Mulan said, pushing the bean bun into her throat without caring much about her womanly etiquette.
"Were you just about to tell me something?"
Before she could weave some cover story to cover her lies, the urge to throw up returned with a vengeance, propelling her into a nearby bush to empty the contents of her stomach.
She heard rapid footsteps as Ling followed right behind her.
"Ping! Are you okay?" Ling's concerned eyes scanned over her as he handed her another warm cup of tea. "I think you should tell Captain Li that you need to see a doctor."
"I'll be fine," she said, sighing gratefully when the warm liquid washed away the residue of the vomit that still burned her throat and abated the growing tide of nausea that pooled in her stomach. "Come on, let's go."
They quickly made a beeline towards the crowd of recruits, who began lining up into their training formation, and camouflaged themselves among the uniformly dressed soldiers. From the front, Mulan could hear Shang sternly barking out his orders.
"Don't rely on your weapon. Because there are times you will be out of arrows, or your bow will break, or you will be without your sword or any other form of armament. But your body can be the most lethal weapon of all. Use your fist, legs, even the skull of your head..."
Ling peered towards Chi-Fu and made a remark about the councillor's jagged array of teeth. "I can see someone who has tried to use teeth as his weapon." Mulan bit down her chuckle, she must admit Ling had an impeccable sense of humor.
"...―thus, it is crucial that we train our body to be the strongest weapon it can be," Shang said, gesturing to a pile of baskets that he had prepared for the drill.
First, they were told to carry a load of stones balanced on the staff across their shoulder. The journey was bearable until the trees that dominated the land became less, and the ground beneath them took on the appearance of an unfriendly, jagged body of rocky mountains. The heat became their mortal enemy as there was no undergrowth providing them with necessary shelter. Mulan's limbs were still aching from the archery and the swimming drill, but giving up was not an option. On top of that, she had a healing ankle that still throbbed painfully and a darkened eye as a result of Shang's lethal punch.
Her father would've been furious if he knew Shang had caused that.
Then, the second problem came. The terrain became unbelievably steep and rocky. Shang attached each of their waists with ropes and told the recruits to tether themselves in pairs to ensure each other's safety.
Her limbs were covered in cuts and bruises from the climb. And the heat didn't help either. As the fatigue and exhaustion took its toll, she began to lose her balance, dropping her pack and her staff with a thud.
"Ping, you okay?" Chien-Po's voice came from below her. The man wasn't in any better condition, supporting his own weight must've been a real burden right now.
"Ugh, not really," Mulan admitted, feeling her arms tremble from the load she bore.
"It's not a good idea to train on an empty stomach, and I told you to see a doctor," Ling admonished. Mulan had been giving her dinner to Yao as a form of apology from drowning him in her venture to catch a fish. "Your mind may be willing, but there is only so much that your body can bear."
Mulan chose to ignore Ling's patronizing lecture because ahead of them was a devious looking vertical cliff they had to tackle and down below was a gaping hundred meter drop into a ravine. The thought of falling didn't do her any good, she huffed to coax her courage and energy.
Just as Mulan began to push herself up, she began to see black spots swim across her vision and her thoughts began to feel hazy.
"Help," she managed to whisper as the edges of her vision began closing in. "Help me…―" And everything went black.
"Am I… am I alive?" Mulan asked, quickly rubbing her eyes to restore her vision. She saw the glimpse of her comrades looking down, but more importantly, Shang was there, looming over her with a worried expression cast over his eyes. "Or are we both dead?" she corrected, realizing there was no way the strict captain would ever carry such a soft expression.
"I heard you didn't eat dinner for the last couple of days in a row, and you skipped breakfast this morning." Shang's voice was restored to its stern quality. "Do you know how foolish that is? Our bodies are our weapons, Ping. Our best chance for survival is that we take care of it every chance we get. This cannot happen again!"
"I'm… I'm sorry Captain," she cowered under the towering captain. "It's just that…―"
"You better go freshen yourself up at the river," Shang interrupted. He didn't want to set the bad habit of allowing his recruits to earn his sympathy by throwing in random excuses. "Hurry, you are late for our next exercise."
Mulan dejectedly crawled away, her chest was burning with shame. She thought she would've been accustomed to Shang's imperious attitude and harshness ever since he married her, but that wasn't exactly the case.
From her peripheral vision, she saw Shang stand by the edge of the cliff with a bucket of water balanced on his head. Mulan could hear his instruction faintly across the distance. Something to do with balance and finding your center. Just to imagine how it felt like to stand where he was, made her stomach flip. She wet her face and gulped a generous amount of cold water, letting the coolness repel the dizziness and keep her nausea at bay.
But she didn't expect what came next. Shang readied his combat stance while a few men diligently picked up stones. On his command, the recruits began to throw the stones at him. Some looked like they were using the opportunity to take their vengeance for making them endure such a horrible hike. However, their magnificent Captain thwarted every single attack―spinning his staff skillfully to deflect them all. It was like watching an acrobatic demonstration.
"Now, who would like to try first or….shall I start picking volunteers?" His announcement was acknowledged by grim silence among them. In the best case―one would definitely suffer humiliation, and in the worst case―end up dead at the bottom of the ravine.
Even if she wouldn't score well in the actual drill, she could earn back Shang's favor by volunteering. Mulan steeled herself and took a calming breath before stepping forward to say, "I'll do it, Captain."
Shang gave her his spot, and Mulan tried hard not to imagine the deep crevasse that lurked just beyond the ground she stood on. Thankfully, balancing the bucket took all of her concentration and provided a real distraction not to think about her fear.
It took her a long while to stable the pail on her head, not to mention her top knot made the task more difficult than it already was. Unfortunately, her comrades weren't as patient to wait and already ensued aiming the rocks at her even when she clearly wasn't ready.
On one particular instance, Mulan saw one large rock coming right at her face and she ducked down to avoid. Her sudden movement resulted in the bucket flipping on her head, drenching her right to her toes. Even then, she didn't stop swinging her staff blindly from underneath.
By a little stroke of luck, even with the bucket still covering her field of vision, Mulan managed to dodge a few stones and send one flying right in Shang's direction. Thank goodness for his quick reflexes, that stone did no harm to him. When Mulan sheepishly peeked from underneath her bucket hat, the stone just rolled to the ground after bouncing off Chien-Po's shock-absorbent belly.
Shang mentally ran his palm over his face. He wondered whether he would ever see the warrior in the young Fa Ping.
Mulan really thought that the descent would be more bearable than her journey up. They set off, and things were fine at first. However halfway through, Shang ordered the men to pack double loads in both their packs. Now she could really feel the weight was pulling her down.
She tried to ignore the visceral pain shooting through her back where the staff rested and concentrated on the road in front of her. But eventually exhaustion overtook her senses and she started losing balance. She began to feel dizzy again, but this time her pride prevented her from asking for help.
Eventually, when the strain became too much, she fell right in her tracks, this time with her consciousness still intact. Unfortunately, Ling and Chien-Po were nowhere to be seen and obviously were focused too much on carrying their own load to notice she had hit the earth with a heavy thud, but someone else did.
Mulan noticed an imposing shadow of a figure looming over her. When she looked up, she was greeted with Shang's displeased countenance which clearly spelled out how disappointed he was. He mutely picked up her staff together with her packs before she could verbalize anything.
She breathed out an air of remorse from her chest, watching Shang mount her load on his shoulders and jog swiftly to join the rest. Slowly she struggled to her feet and willed herself to follow the rest. Her muscles still ached badly, but it was nothing compared to her bruised pride.
Mulan tried not to cry as she reclaimed the distance between her and the rest of the men. Not once, but twice―she had failed. She purposely lagged slightly behind, keeping herself unnoticed to avoid questioning stares from the rest as to why she was walking without her packs.
A few long, agonizing minutes passed as Shang led the recruits through the treacherous landscape. Everyone was silent with just the sounds of heavy footsteps and rapid breathing to accompany them.
Mulan tried to remain unseen, alas, her stomach seemed to rebel on her idea to remain incognito and threw up its almost non-existent content noisily. She didn't hear the panicked rush of footsteps so, when she felt Shang’s hand on her back, Mulan jumped, startled by his appearance, before groaning as her stomach heaved again. His hand was stroking her back in soothing repetitiveness. The sound of fabric rasping against the caress of his palm twined with the sound of her soft breathing was inexplicably calming.
"I think you are ill," Shang announced with his usual stoic tone but somewhere in his expression was worry while handing her a cup of water. Mulan frantically sipped it, fighting back the pit of exhaustion she felt prickling under her skin. Her armour was beginning to feel constrictive and uncomfortable next to her skin. She shifted restlessly. Her sleep was all messed up due to these long nights this last week and it was just like her to get sick when she was overexerted and tired.
"Ping, you are dismissed for the day. Have a rest and if you don't feel any better, please inform me or Chi-Fu."
Mulan nodded weakly, finding she had no energy to even argue when a few of her teammates began mimicking similar excuses in order to be relinquished from the training.
The training ended late in the evening.
She was reading inside the tent when suddenly she felt something alien stirred in her belly, rising the content of her stomach on the edge of her throat. And the musky odour of a bunch of sweaty men in the badly ventilated tent didn't help one bit. She swallowed back her nausea and focused on the scroll on her hand, but her stomach hated her for it. Without warning, a strong projectile launched from her throat with a vengeance, throwing the content of her dinner and whatever left from the lunch before. Thankfully she had anticipated that and moved away from the crowds.
She felt better after Chi-Fu gave her a portion of his medicinal herbal tea from his private stock, albeit begrudgingly. But even when her muscles begged for mercy and the blisters on her soles burned from too much walking, sleep didn't come easily to her.
Resolving not to disturb Ling and Chien-Po from their rest, she went out to get some air. She knew just the friend who she could pour out all her trouble to.
"Hi boy," Mulan said, stepping into the makeshift stable and patting his horse muzzle. "Are you sick of being cooped up in here? I'm sorry I haven't got a chance to take you out for a walk," she said regretfully. Shang's silent dismissal as he grabbed her packs still danced around her vision. It felt like a poisoned arrow was just pierced through her heart. Unwilling tears fell from her eyes, which she quickly wiped away.
The horse replied to her with a soft, understanding neigh, lowering his head as Mulan rubbed his mane affectionately. She must've sounded so tired and defeated to make Khan regard her with eyes full of sympathy.
"I miss home," she admitted. A vivid recollection of her father's aged face, her grandma's laughter, and Ping's innocent grin painted in her mind. It was such a contrast to the brutal drill, the mocking men and the sneering Emperor counsellor she had to face on a daily basis. But it was the thought of Shang's contemptuous countenance that reduced her to tears. She was desperate to earn his approval, his respect… his love ―because she knew he would never accept her as his equal.
….let alone as his perfect bride.
The thought made her heart ache even more.
Shao Wei lazily dragged himself out of his tent. He had been postponing the task of taking his horse for a walk. Alas, because everyone else was training in the nearby mountain the whole day, no one was available to offer him a reprieve.
He could've done this earlier in the day when the sun was still shining, and he could bask in the warmth, absorbing the beauty of the landscape rather than prowling in the cold, dark night with nothing to see.
Okay, yeah, he shouldn't procrastinate any longer. Pulling his cloak closer to block out the cold, late-autumn wind, he made his way into the stable. It was then he realized that he wasn't alone. Another two-legged figure was present inside the stable. The distinct pixie-cut build and slightly effeminate movements helped Shao Wei to identify the identity of his subject.
Shao Wei sank closer to the nearby wall to avoid being noticed and watched the interaction closely. He saw the black steed lean his face closer as though offering his master whatever silent consolation he could.
"I know I need to hang in there. Failing the training is not an option. It's the only way to prevent Baba from going to the battlefront and Ping from becoming an orphan." He heard her tell the beast.
It took a few seconds for Shao Wei to let the information coalesce in his mind and, after stitching all the facts together, finally the revelation struck him. Fa Ping was none other than Fa Mulan. A daughter with boundless love for her family who had decided to face the unknown to preserve her father's life and ensure her brother's future.
He'd seen the way her face had fallen when Shang sent her away that evening. For the first time, he'd seen her as more than just a shy, clueless and awkward man in disguise. He'd seen a daughter―who was wounded that her captain had flagged her as a failure and disappointed that she had let her family down again. Also, the fact that Shang was her husband, having him reject her in the regiment couldn't be anymore hurtful. It made Shao wonder what sort of damage had been done to her with this whole arrangement. It was hard to pinpoint whose indiscretions had brought on her predicament.
A few minutes later, Mulan and Khan veered away from the footpath along the river, galloping to her secret spot where no one came. (And she was thankful Mushu was sensible enough to leave her alone).
Mist enveloped the sky, making the moon looked beautiful in its flaws, perfectly round and casting a slight glow upon everything it touched. The spot was hidden behind trees, bathed in moonlight and the grass was so thick it cushioned every step. The smell of leaves and raw nature was making her feel better. The noise in the training encampment was distant and quickly drowned out by the sound of Khan's rhythmic pounding.
Mulan halted Khan when she saw the wide, green expanse stretch out in front of them, tranquil and inviting. Mulan inhaled deeply as she enjoyed the picturesque surrounding. She dismounted from Khan and guided him to the pasture.
"Here boy, you may eat as you please," she said, smiling as she removed Khan's reins. Khan neighed happily before ducking his head and gobbling up the fresh grass. It must've tasted better than his usual dry hay and dry oats he had every day.
Meanwhile, Mulan deposited herself near the lake, watching its calm surface mirror a nearly perfect image of the snowy mountain ridges that seemed to expand infinitely into the distance. She closed her eyes, letting the noise of small crickets ensconce her senses. This was her peaceful place, away from all the chaos of her life.
Why Shao Wei wanted to drink the water from the brook at this unholy hour was a mystery to Shang. But Shang, being the subservient soldier that he'd always been, didn't question the absurdity of Shao Wei's strange request. Besides, the letter from his father a couple of days ago had raised his suspicions about Shao Wei and his possible involvement in a serious treachery against the Emperor.
His speculation made perfect sense if anyone recalled that Shao Wei's father, Prince Wei Zhang, was the second in line to the throne after the Emperor. While Wei Zhang may be a little too old to plan a military coup, it wouldn't stop him from influencing and conspiring with his oldest son to do so.
At the entrance of the stable, Shang caught a glimpse of his white stallion. "Hi Qing, I know it's late… but I need your favor," Shang told the horse.
Qing merely nickered, the low rumble from his throat indicating he was happy to see Shang whatever the reason. Shang raked his hand through the horse's mane and smiled. "Sorry to trouble you. But this is the Prince's order."
Before long, Qing galloped into the woods heading towards the clearing where Shao Wei had told him to go.
That was when he saw a flash of movement of what appeared to be a person lounging beneath a tree. His first instinct was to hide and he carefully prowled closer to check whether it was a spy for the Hun's army. But as soon as the silhouette stood up, Shang dropped his stance. It looked like a boy, and he was certain no Huns' guerilla was that petite.
Something in his brain clicked: it was Fa Ping.
And the boy wasn't lounging, he was reading something on his lap. Because, a minute later the boy stood in his battle stance, throwing empty punches and kicks at the nearby tree.
He is reading a practice scroll, Shang thought.
As he moved closer to the young boy, he gave no indication that he had noticed his approach. Shang berated Ping's lack of vigilance and surveillance considering the Hun army could roam through the area and ambush at any given time. Worse still, they could kidnap him to be tortured for information.
Fa Ping. Shang shook his head as he cited the boy's name. Fa Ping came in for training; with his impertinence, and his smart-ass attitude; causing trouble just by breathing. But as the training days ticked by, Fa Ping was proving there was much more to him than his unseeming appearance. He might be smallish, lanky and have none of the muscle density expected of a soldier, but his perseverance and tenacity were indescribable.
In correlation to that, Shang remembered how similar Ping was to his wife, Mulan, who was the opposite polarity to the traditional expectation of a wife―rebellious and stubborn. Perhaps this had something to do with the Fa genes, and somewhere in his brain he incongruously hoped that the kid had something more in him than just clumsiness.
"I didn't know you had a secret hideout," he said, repressing the natural touch of steel in his voice and trying to be casual.
When the boy was close enough, Shang noticed his puffy eyes. Fa Ping had been crying. Even when he knew harshness was important to ingrain discipline, something deep inside him felt inexplicably tormented to know he was the cause of this pain.
"Please, just call me Brother Li outside training time. We are family after all."
Even from the dimmed light of the moon, Mulan could see his sincere smile, she felt her body relax.
Narrowing her eyes in concentration, she threw her right fist at the tree and then her left before Shang came around behind her and put his hands on her waist, causing her to pause as the air seemed to leave her in a whoosh.
"Keep your hips squared," he commented softly, turning her slightly and she nodded mutely as all of her focus went straight to the warmth spreading across her skin from where his hands were. "And keep your wrists straight so you don't jam them."
"Okay," she managed to get out and he lingered for a fraction of a second longer before dropping his hands and taking a step to the side. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw him flex his hands before balling them into fists at his sides.
She took his instruction and threw some more punches that landed more solidly, even though she doubted it would inflict any real damage to someone, it was enough to cause the corners of her mouth to flick upwards in satisfaction. This would definitely come in handy when the situation required it.
"Yes, like that," he remarked and she could hear the pride lacing his voice. Or was she imagining it? Nevermind. A little positivity wouldn't hurt.
Biting her lip to keep her smile from growing into an obnoxiously wide grin, she refocused on the cadence of her hits.
"What are you doing at this time night, Ping? Aren't you supposed to be resting?"
Mulan stayed quiet. She didn't want Shang's pity. His job here wasn't to look after his little, helpless brother-in-law. His job here was to hone and train her into a formidable weapon on the battlefield.
Sensing Ping wasn't going to speak to him, Shang prodded further. "Are you mad at me?"
"I…I'm sorry Brother Shang, I am just… a little homesick." There was half-truth in that.
"Is this your first time away from home?" he asked, taking the liberty to sit next to him and reclining there, loosening his sash and rolling his robe sleeves up.
"Yes, Si… I mean, Brother Shang. My mother just passed away a few months ago, and I've come here unprepared. I know I am still young, weak and unskillful, but I…―"
"I understand," he said gently. And there was again, a rare, genuine smile tugging at his lips. Mulan could feel her own lips reciprocating the notion.
"I remember your mother, she was wise, poised and beautiful. Just like your sister." He said the words with a matter-of-fact tone; one that you might use to state that blood was red and the sky was blue; but his earnest honestly sent a fluttery feeling rippling through her.
Mulan could feel the tip of her toes tingling with happiness. Shang thinks I am beautiful? But the voice of her rationale pushed back the sudden outburst of giddiness. For goodness sake, Mulan, he was just trying to be diplomatic, you are his brother-in-law after all.
Shang let out another rare smile, perfectly unaware that his unconscious grace and the power of his words just unleashed an onslaught of conflicting emotions inside Mulan's chest.
"Where the hell is she?!"
"Shhh….Calm down, Ling!" Chien-Po nearly slapped his meaty palm across Ling’s mouth to silence his furious tirade over their missing comrade. His venture to the toilet had been abandoned when he realized Mulan was missing. By the clean arrangement of her bed it was obvious she hadn't touched it, let alone slept on it, and it well past midnight.
"Chien-Po, the Huns may have kidnapped her!" That is plausible, right?
"But… but why?" Chien-Po didn't seem to understand Ling's logic. "Why would a pixie-cut soldier with a feminine stature be an item of interest to a Hun soldier anyway?"
Ling shrugged and threw his arms up in frustration. "Hell, I don't know! I just… I just…―"
"Look, we'll find her," Chien-Po resolved quickly, trying to calm his friend who was hyperventilating like a fish out of water. "Now please, just calm down… because someone may hear your…―"
"She is heading towards the clearing south of the forest," a voice stage whispered from a nearby tent entrance.
"Your Highness!" Both men fell on their knee.
"Don't worry. I've sent Captain Li to make sure she is fine," Shao Wei told them.
She ! Did he say 'she' ? Ling was about to point out the wrong gender the Prince had applied to Ping's name, but Chien-Po's question deflected his intention. "What are they doing this late at night?"
"Who knows," Shao Wei replied with a mischievous grin. Ling swore the Prince knew something they didn't―because there was a hint of sexual innuendo in the way he was smirking at them.
" Training perhaps?"
At the point of rendezvous Shao Wei had directed them to, Ling and Chien-Po exchanged a look as Captain Li and Ping gravitated towards each other. Accepting a man's offer for training may not be the most efficient method to 'lure and conquer' a man's heart, but it seemed to work like magic in Captain Li's case.
"So, this is what the Prince of Wei categorizes as training ?"
"Don't you think Mulan is a little bit more than charmed by our Captain?" Chien-Po prompted without shifting his eyes.
"I know," Ling replied, whispering. Even from the reasonable distance where they stood, Ling could easily tell how flustered Mulan was when Captain Li touched her arms to correct her stance. No wonder she hasn't learned anything yet!
"Alas, she is married," Chien-Po piped in.
The statement wiped all traces of amusement from Ling's face. "I dare not say this to her, but I fear the retribution of her jealous husband should he find out."
From years of their friendship, Ling had learned that Mulan was many things, but disloyal was not one of them. And Mulan had never come across as a temptress or seductress either. She would be the last person on earth that he could imagine capable of having an extramarital affair. Thus, her interaction with Captain Li was completely out of character. He felt like he was missing some vital information here.
"Do you think she'll be okay?" Chien-Po asked as he glanced in Mulan's direction, watching Shang easily dodge her uncoordinated punches.
"I don't think she will improve. Especially when she hasn't stopped staring at him like a beguile maiden looking at hot, bare-chested man."
"She is a maiden looking at hot, bare-chested man. And the bare-chested man is touching her."
"It's supposed to be a punch, not a touch. Besides, Mulan is no longer a maiden, she is married, remember?"
"But you wouldn't blush and smile when someone 'punched' you. Right?"
"No. No. Of course not."
But there was no denying the look in her eyes, Ling could immediately tell that it wasn't exactly a platonic look. There was quite a reasonable dose of genuine affection. Having a harmless crush on an incredibly attractive man was one thing, but falling madly in love with a man that was never going to look at her in the same way…
Well, that was just reckless.
"Ah, the beauty is finally waking up I see." Mulan squinted her eyes, directly towards the source of the voice while her hands tried to shield herself from the violent tickling that had disturbed her ever-so-short-slumber. "I believe you owe us a big explanation," Ling said, crossing his arms and giving her a chance to recollect her thoughts. "Consider me generous that I’m just tickling you when I am perfectly capable of pouring a bucket of cold water over you instead."
"What do you mean?" Mulan asked, rubbing her bleary eyes to restore her foggy vision.
Ling scoffed, feeling slightly betrayed that his best friend had chosen to keep a secret from him. "I believe you were spending the night with…―"
Suddenly, a familiar, unpleasant sensation stirred her stomach and Mulan raised her hand to stall her friend, dashing out of the tent in a hurry. She heard their rapid footfalls approaching as she retched and heaved convulsively.
"You seriously need to see a doctor," Ling pointed out, completely forgetting about the subject he had wanted to broach earlier.
"I have no time for that," Mulan replied, wiping her mouth with her sleeve ungracefully.
"Forget about the real battle. How can you train like this? And what if it gets worse?"
"It won't. I'll manage," Mulan dismissed Ling's rhetoric stubbornly.
But it was Chien-Po who suddenly interjected, a look of unease on his face. "Mulan…" he said, pulling her robe sleeve so she was only a few inches away from him. Mulan was about to rebuke him for calling her by her maiden name when he continued,"Have you… have you missed something this month?" he whispered gingerly.
"Missed something? Like what?" Mulan stared at her friend who chewed his lower lip anxiously. She really didn't like the fearful look on his face.
Chien-Po gestured vaguely to his lower abdomen parts. "You know…" he trailed off. "Su told me about this thing women have, and the early symptoms of…―"
"Oh dear ancestor," Ling cut him off and sucked in air sharply.
"Are you suggesting that she may be… pregnant?"