Mulan is used to strange lands. She knows Aurora has struggled with this one, with the cars and the jobs and the televisions and even the light switches. With the slang and the cellphones and the clothes. Mulan has always been a stranger, and here is no different.
Aurora does learn to like the light switches, and texts Mulan often, pictures of her son and her garden and her victory when she figures out how to use the coffee machine. Mulan learns to like the cars, grinding the metal in Emma’s yellow bug in the parking lot of the sheriff's station while Emma grips the handle on the passenger door and tells Mulan unconvincingly that she’s doing great. She pats the hood after, missing her horse like crazy, and Emma’s eyes crinkle when she smiles. “She’s taken me all the places I ever needed to go,” she says, her own hand resting gentle on the side mirror. Then she offers Mulan a badge and takes her to the shooting range to teach her about guns.
Mulan likes guns. She likes guns a lot.
Aurora likes to watch a specific story on the television. She tells Mulan it’s about princes and princesses and magic, just like her old world, and there’s a thin wisp of homesick in her tone that makes Mulan’s heart twist. So she goes over every Tuesday night after the afternoon shift with takeout from Granny’s and lets Aurora try to explain to her what TiVo is and sit on the couch and watch it with her. She thinks the fight scenes are stupid.
Phillip doesn’t join them. He’s out with the boys, Aurora says lightly the first week, and then he’s working late the second week, and then she doesn’t say anything until week six, when she pauses the show in the middle of a dramatic monolog and bursts into tears loud enough that it wakes baby Phillip in the next room before Mulan can do anything more than stand up straight and put her hand on her hip where her sword used to hang, like she could draw it and kill Aurora’s grief like a physical beast.
She goes into the hall and then lurks in the doorway of the nursery, awkward and unsure, while Aurora rocks her son and murmurs at him until he calms, cradled against her chest in the rocking chair. Mulan steps closer, and closer, and then lays a careful palm against the wisp of his hair. “He’s growing up well,” she offers.
“I love him so much,” Aurora says, like it’s a secret. When she kisses his forehead her nose bumps Mulan’s wrist.
She lays him back in the cradle and they creep out of the room on tiptoes. Settle on the couch and the show paused on the television while Aurora tells her, in little broken sentences, what it’s like to live in a house when half the belongings have been boxed up and carried away.
“My mom got me this,” Emma says, when Mulan is neatening her desk and packing up her shoulderbag late Tuesday afternoon. “If I brought it to Regina’s it would be become a thing, so…” she thrusts it at Mulan, staring fixedly over Mulan’s shoulder at the bulletin board on the wall. “You’re going to Aurora’s right?”
“Right,” Mulan agrees. She hesitates, feeling the weight of the wine in her hands. “You’re sure?”
Emma clears her throat, awkward. She waves a hand. “Please. Save me from listening to Regina’s litany on Mary Margaret’s taste.”
In the woods, they didn’t much have wine. Once in a while, gift or spoils from the town or the nobles. Mulan’s not sure how she feels about the stick-ups, but she’s been in somewhat of a distant state since she told Aurora goodbye. Drinking the vile alcohol Robin’s men brew up among the trees is the one thing that helps her sleep during nights where all her dreams are how it felt to cradle Aurora’s heart in her hands, keep it safe and deliver it back to her chest.
The wine Emma gave her is nicer than what she remembers, bitter but in a way that slides over her tongue and leaves it feeling cleaner than it was before. Aurora has wineglasses, in the top cabinet, her on her tiptoes and her shirt riding up to get them down while Mulan averts her eyes and busies herself with the corkscrew.
Aurora sighs at the burgers, then smiles at Mulan to lessen the blow. “I had fries yesterday. How about I cook for us? I’m better at a stove than I was at the firepit.”
“It would be difficult to be worse,” Mulan agrees, and grins when Aurora makes an offended noise.
Pasta and garlic bread fresh out of the oven and Aurora in a pink apron that says princess across the chest while she raises a wooden spoon wet with sauce from a can and threatens Mulan to a duel if she makes one comment about it, a housewarming gift from Mary Margaret. Sitting at the table with wine and a good meal and Aurora and by her sword if it isn’t everything Mulan’s ever ached for since Aurora touched her hand once in the morning a long time ago and Mulan knew she was doomed.
She buys Emma a bottle of whiskey as a thank you and Emma’s face does many complicated things before she asks, hesitant: “So you two…”
“No,” Mulan says, in a short clipped tone.
Emma shrugs, no skin off her nose. “You’d be good together, I think.”
Mulan thinks that those long days, hopeless days and endless travel and fighting, always fighting, desperate and clinging to hope--they were the best days of her life.
“It doesn’t matter,” she tells Emma. “She’s… happy. That’s enough.”
Emma shrugs again. “If you say so. Wanna ride shotgun? There’s pixies in the North Woods and the Merry Weirdos are out of their depth.”
“I am a Merry Weirdo,” Mulan reminds her.
Emma shoots a fingergun at her. “Not anymore, deputy. Snatched you right out of Robin’s hands.” She looks unduly pleased about it, one hand playing with a necklace that appeared after one Christmas and looks so expensive and classy it might as well be engraved with Regina’s name.
“I can’t be late,” Mulan groans, hand to the wound in her side. “I can’t be, I can’t be…” her vision starts to slide sideways.
Emma reaches over, dragging her upright by the collar, her foot heavier on the gas pedal, the car groaning under them. “Wake up,” she orders. “Fuck, fuck--” she takes a turn fast enough Mulan’s stomach flips, the car going on two wheels before it slams back down to the ground so hard Mulan cries out in pain.
“It’s Tuesday,” Mulan rasps. “Tuesday, I have to--”
Emma curses again, one hand white knuckled around the wheel and the other giving Mulan a shake. “Just stay awake. It’s going to be okay.”
“You’re true to your word,” Mulan says, many hours and needlepricks later. She’s got stitches and tubes and fluids running in and out of her, a bone deep pain that throbs when she breathes.
Emma is slumped by her bedside, blinking blearily as she wakes up. “What?” she asks stupidly. “Oh, right.” She stands with a groan, stretching and wincing as things crack and creak. “Those chairs are killer.”
“My condolences,” Mulan says dryly, lying on a bed unable to twitch a finger without lances of agony shooting through her.
Emma grins at her. “I’ll sneak you some fries,” she starts to offer, and then the door bursts open.
Aurora storms through, Phillip in a sling against her chest, grown up Phillip close on her heels. Emma makes a quick exit.
“You cursed fool,” Aurora snaps, rushing to her bedside and taking her by the hand.
“Curses are more your thing,” Mulan points out, then winces when Aurora glares. “Sorry,” she adds, meekly.
“Aurora,” Phillip interrupts, before Aurora can really build up some steam. “Maybe Mulan could use some coffee.” They look at each other, something complicated passing between them, a bond Mulan was never a part of. She looks away rather than to witness the intimacy of it.
“My friend,” Phillip says, when they’re alone. Then he stops, smiles ruefully. “I have not been one, have I? A friend.”
Mulan picks at the thread of the sheets. “Neither have I.”
“Guilt?” he asks, and Mulan’s wince has nothing to do with her pain.
He sits in the chair Emma left behind and looks down at his hands. “I was waiting,” he admits, “for you to admit your intentions. I had many words prepared… and then I got a phone call that you were dying.”
“Not dying,” Mulan protests, and then takes a deep breath. “You were wrong,” she says firmly. “I have no intentions.”
“Then you are a fool indeed.”
Mulan starts, surprised. She looks up to find him already looking straight at her. She remembers pledging herself to his cause, promising to follow him wherever it may lead. He is, still, her brother in every way that matters. He touches her elbow. “I wouldn’t ever wish sadness upon my best friend, nor the woman that was my wife.” He swallows. “Maybe, when you’re feeling better, we could--”
The door opens again, Aurora returning.
Mulan catches him by the forearm before he can withdraw. “There’s a bar,” she says, “Emma says the cocktails could knock twenty men off their feet.”
“Sounds like a challenge,” he says, smiling at her. A tension eases in Mulan’s spine. He pats her shoulder, standing and easing the baby out of Aurora’s sling to leave Aurora and Mulan alone.
Aurora comes closer to fuss about with Mulan’s pillows, until Mulan reaches up, the plastic monitoring device around her index finger, her grip reverent and careful on Aurora’s wrist. “I’m well,” she says. “There’s no need to be worried.”
Aurora’s eyes are wet when she scoffs. “No need, she says. Don’t worry about me, she says. A text saying she’ll be late when she’s really in surgery.”
“I didn’t want you to be concerned. You’re already--”
“You’re coming home with me,” Aurora says, cutting her off. “Don’t argue.”
Argue, Mulan thinks. Like there’s anything she’s ever wanted more than to be closer to Aurora.
Mulan sleeps in the nursery. Aurora had offered her own room, then the couch, but Mulan insisted. She likes hearing Phillip’s sleep sighs and his babbles and when he cries in the night she limps to her feet and soothes him. She learns how to make his bottle and test it on the inside of her wrist, how to change a diaper, which of his toys he likes best to chew on, how to swaddle him snug but not too snug.
She’s on the couch after a nightshift, watching cartoons with a furrow in her brow and Phillip on her chest, when she hears the click of Aurora’s phone. She turns to find it pointed at her, and an odd expression on Aurora’s face.
She makes dinner for Aurora, she helps Aurora with the laundry and the mopping and they watch television at night. Mulan learns there are many other programs than the one they watch on Tuesdays, and she even likes some of them. And one night, late when everything has gone quiet except for the soft static of the baby monitor and the odd car passing by, its headlights flashing through the crack in the curtains at the window, she finds herself stretched out on the couch with Aurora asleep on her chest.
She touches Aurora’s hair, the contrast of it against her callused fingers, Aurora’s warm breath against her neck, Aurora’s hand fisted gently in Mulan’s shirtsleeve. Aurora mumbles something, snuggling closer, and Mulan thinks about what Emma has said, what Phillip has said. What she thought about while Emma frantically drove her to the hospital and ordered her to live--what she wants most in the world.
She goes back to work. On Tuesday, she leaves earlier than usual. Emma waves her off, agreeing before Mulan can even finish the request. She buys flowers, having them rearranged four times before she finds them acceptable. She goes to the store and reads twenty wine labels before she gives up and has the stockgirl help her pick up something at a price that makes her wince.
And when she gets home, the florist’s clear wrapping crinkling in her fingers and her sweaty palm slipping on the bottle, still in her deputy’s jacket, Aurora is waiting. She’s in a dress, her hair piled up and curled and smelling of perfumes. There’s dinner waiting on the table.
Aurora smooths her dress, nervous. “I got a sitter,” she says. “I thought we could…” she trails off, fingers wringing.
Mulan thrusts the flowers forward. “I got these for you.”
Aurora accepts them. “Thank you,” she murmurs. “I’ll put these in water.”
“Under the sink,” Mulan says. Aurora blinks. “That’s where the vases are.”
“Oh, of course.”
Mulan follows her into the kitchen, setting the wine on the counter. Aurora is filling the vase, carefully sliding the flowers into it. Mulan steps so close that when Aurora turns around she sucks in a little breath. “Am I so obvious?” Mulan asks.
“It took me longer than it should have,” Aurora admits, setting the vase aside.
“I was going to change,” Mulan says. “I bought a dress yesterday.”
Aurora’s eyebrow raises. “A dress?”
Mulan shrugs. “I bought a suit also.”
Aurora reaches up, hesitates, and then slides her fingers through Mulan’s hair, finding the clip holding it back and releasing the clasp of it, sending her hair falling softly around her face. “I think it would suit you more.” She touches a lock of hair, skimming Mulan’s cheek as she tucks it behind Mulan’s ear. “I miss your armor, sometimes.”
“I do too.” Mulan lifts her hand, slow, looking at Aurora’s face for a sign that she should stop. She lays it atop Aurora’s chest. “I’ve touched your heart,” she says quietly. “I’ve carried it next to mine.”
Aurora smiles. “I knew you’d keep it safe,” she murmurs, and their first kiss is barely there, a brush of lips on lips, a single breath shared.
Their second kiss is harder, but only just. The small of Aurora’s back against the kitchen counter, their hips pressed together, Mulan’s hands cradling Aurora’s jaw. “We can--” Mulan starts, an offer to go slow, to court the way it would have been done in the old days. She can take Aurora on walks, to meals at restaurants, the big screen in town that shows classic films. Bring her flowers and chocolates every day and write letters misted with violets and lavender.
Aurora links their fingers. “I pick you,” she says softly. “Take me to our bedroom.”
Aurora laid out on the sheets, her lotion on the dresser, the diaper bag hanging from a hook on the door. Her fingers undoing the buttons of Mulan’s uniform shirt. “I like the uniform,” she says.
Mulan, absorbed in trailing her fingers up the soft skin of Aurora’s calf, pressed against her, on top of her, hums absent mindedly. “I’m the only one who wears it.”
“Good,” Aurora says, a thrum of possessiveness coloring her tone. She tugs the shirt off and away, Mulan contorting to help, and then the undershirt, tugged up over Mulan’s head and leaving her hair frizzy. Aurora giggles, smoothing it back down, and they kiss again, the hardest one yet, tongue and teeth and quickened breathing.
“Turn over,” Mulan requests, playing with the hem of Aurora’s dress. “So I can take this off.”
Aurora rolls over, onto her belly, and Mulan is careful with the clasp of her dress, parting it to expose the expanse of Aurora’s back. She sweeps Aurora’s hair off the back of her neck and kisses it, trailing kisses down her spine to the dimples in her lower back, the skirt of the dress flipped up so she can kiss on either side of Aurora’s ass through her underwear. “Can I?”
Aurora pillows her head on her arms, breathing fast. “Please--”
She’s hardly finished the word before Mulan is sliding them down her legs, pausing to trace Aurora’s delicate ankles, to kiss the insides of her knees, nuzzle up her thighs to make her shudder. “Have you thought about this?” she asks, her cheek pillowed on Aurora’s leg, crouched and hesitating.
“You talk too much,” Aurora says, and her tone has taken that imperial cast it had when they first met. Groomed to be a queen and rule a kingdom, and she reaches behind herself to touch Mulan’s cheek, her hair, the back of her head. Arches her body up and spreads her legs and Mulan flattens herself to the mattress, hands keeping Aurora’s thighs spread and her hips pinned down.
The first lick is slow, hesitant, careful. Aurora shudders, tensing up in Mulan’s grip before she exhales heavily with a moan, relaxing. “You taste good,” Mulan rasps, rough, and Aurora shudders again. Mulan kisses the center of her, wet and warm and heady, and then pulls Aurora’s entire body back two inches to bring her closer to Mulan’s mouth. Licks inside her, palm sliding under to brace on Aurora’s belly, her head bobbing. Sucks and suckles and takes little breaks to pant and catch her breath before diving back in. Speaks all of her devotion and her promises in flicks of her tongue and open mouthed kisses and then, when Aurora is gasping wetly and biting the pillow, the gentle curl of two fingers.
“Mulan,” Aurora gasps, just before her entire body clenches up and start to flutter, and it’s the sweetest thing Mulan has ever heard, in any world, in any language.