Shang walked into his and Mulan’s bedroom but stopped short, his mouth falling open,
“Mulan? What are you doing?”
Mulans eyes widened and she dropped the bandages she’d been using to bind her chest and scrambled to pull her robe up on her shoulders,
“I-I can explain!”
Shang blinked then slowly moved into the room and knelt down next to Mulan, taking both her hands in his, he smiled that soft, slight smile of his and shook his head,
“You don’t have to, just tell me what you need.”
Mulan’s eyes, already wide and stunned, filled with tears, “I- . . . I’m afraid to.”
Shang breathed out through his nose and gave her hands a squeeze, “I love you and I’m here for you no matter what, just tell me what you need.”
Mulan closed her eyes, twin tears leaked out and slid down her cheeks, reddened with shame,
“I need . . . I need to be Ping.”
Shang nodded slowly, leaning forward to kiss Ping on the forehead, “I thought that was it.”
Ping’s eyes snapped open and he bit his lip, “Do you hate me now?”
Shang laughed and used his tunic’s wide sleeve to wipe at Ping’s tears, “No, quite the opposite, I knew something wasn’t right and you were unhappy. I’m just glad you finally told me.” He paused and shrugged, "And I'm glad it wasn't me causing your unhappiness."
PIng looked down at his hand, still in Shang’s, “If you don’t want to stay, I would understand.”
Shang’s face hardened and his eyes narrowed, “I’m not going anywhere. Ever. I said I was here no matter what and I meant it,” Here his face softened, “Besides, I fell in love with who you are on the inside long before I knew anything about your outside.”
PIng’s eyebrow rose and he snorted, “I think I was meant to think that was touching but it sounded creepy.”
Shang rolled his eyes, “You know what I meant.”
“Yes, I do.”
They were quiet for a moment then Shang cleared his throat and pointed at the bandages, “Do you need help with that?”
Ping blinked and shifted, “If you don’t mind, yes.”
Ping leaned on the doorway while Shang spoke to Ping’s father, mother and grandmother. It was very quiet but then Fa Zhou was always soft-spoken even at his angriest he was a calm man with a powerful storm inside him so it was almost impossible to tell what was happening or how the new was being taken. Although he could distinctly hear Grandmother chuckling from behind the thin door.
The door opened, almost unbalancing Ping as Shang leaned out, he shifted and jerked his thumb toward the interior,
“They want to talk to you.”
Ping shifted, “I wasn’t this nervous when I was face-to-face with the Hun army.”
Shang smiled, “It’ll be fine, I’m here with you.”
He took Ping’s hand and led him in where his parents and grandmother were sitting around the table. Fa Zhou had a tea cup in his hands and was lightly blowing on the steaming drink before taking a slow, calculated sip while Fa Li had her hands folded in her lap with an expressionless face but it was Grandmother Fa that made Ping stop for a moment, the old woman’s face was creased in a wide, knowing grin, her thin arms engulfed in her sleeves and she sat with her head tilted back slightly, nodding every so often.
Fa Zhou looked up and set his cup down, he gestured to the far side of the table, “Sit.”
Ping quickly did with Shang settling next to him, “I-”
Fa Zhou held a hand up, “Before you speak, I have a few questions.”
PIng nodded, looking sideways at Shang nervously.
There was a pause then Fa Zhou tilted his chin back, “Are you unhappy?”
“In . . .In what way?” PIng asked, fighting the urge to fidget.
“In how you were. Before this.” Fa Zhou merely inclined his head toward Ping.
“Oh! Oh. I- . . . Yes.”
“Could have told you that!” Grandmother Fa laughed, earning a raised eyebrow from Fa Zhou and a sigh from Fa Li.
“Are you happy now?” Fa Zhou continued in a commanding voice.
“Yes.” PIng said immediately, sitting a bit straighter, his jaw set.
The corner of Fa Zhou’s mouth twitched in a slight smile, “And you intend to stay with Shang?”
“If . . . If he’ll keep me, yes.” Ping said a bit softer.
Shang sat up resolutely and took Ping’s hand, “I will. Do. That. Keep Ping, I mean.”
Fa Zhou nodded slowly and breathed out, “It is to be 'Ping' then?”
“Yes.” Ping said.
“I will not claim to understand this nor that I know better, you have always been a child that knows their own mind and to deny a mind freedom to be itself and know itself is like putting a cup over a candle, it’s brightness will be snuffed out and none will enjoy it’s warmth or light. And I know that I speak for the family when I say I would rather have a happy, living son then an unhappy daughter, and I am sure that kind of unhappiness might as well be death."
PIng’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth but Fa Zhou raised a hand,
“Now you know ours and Shang’s feelings on the matter but before we make any definitive answers or find the way forward, I require one thing of you.”
PIng swallowed and leaned slightly forward, “Yes?”
“You must go to the shrine and pray to the ancestors for guidance, convene with them on this matter. Once you have done so and have their counsel, we will decide what to do next.”
Ping nodded, “I will do that.”
They were quiet for a moment as Fa Zhou picked his tea cup back up and drank deeply now that his tea had cooled. Ping cleared his throat and looked around,
“So . . . you’re not mad at me?”
Grandmother Fa laughed out loud now, throwing her hands up, “‘Mad’? How can we be mad when you could see this coming from a mile off!”
“We aren’t nearly as surprised as you might think,” Fa Li smiled, “It is a lot to take in but then considering the kinds of things we’ve been through with you, this is the easiest to process.”
Shang smiled, “See? I told you it would be fine.”
Fa Zhou nodded, “I suggest spending the night in the shrine, in the morning we will discuss this further.”
Ping nodded and poured himself a cup of tea noting out of the corner of his eye that Fa Zhou and Grandmother Fa exchanged smiles and a wink.
The family were gathered at the foot of the hill below the shrine, it had never looked so far away or so imposing before, Ping swallowed and looked back at his family and Shang who gestured for Ping to go on already!
Ping squared his shoulders, set his jaw and started to march up to the shrine. Grandmother Fa leaned over to Shang and muttered behind her whizzend hand,
“Why is he walking like he has a stick up his ass?”
Shang shrugged, “I have no idea, he used to do that back in the army, not sure why.”
Ping communes with . . . something.
Well this fic just exploded! So happy that people enjoyed it and I hope I continue to meet expectations! Granted updates might not be this quick but I'll do my best!
Ping stepped into the shrine, carefully removing his shoes before padding across the cold stone floor, the shrine had an eerie calm about it with just the smallest of breezes passing between the stone tablets. Each tablet bore a name and a list of great things the ancestor had done for the Fa family.
“Short of saving China . . . “ Ping mumbled then cleared his throat when he thought perhaps the spirits might be listening.
He quickly lit a stick of incense and knelt before the polished stones, he kowtowed and breathed out slowly,
“Great Ancestors, I humbly come before you asking for guidance. I need to know if this path is the right one for my family . . . for Shang . . . and for myself. I need to know I’m not being foolish or selfish and that I do not dishonor my family’s name if I take these steps. Please impart your wisdom on me, help me so that I may honor our House.”
There was a slight breeze and the smell of sulfur then a soft chuckle filled the air, Ping blinked and sat up quickly only to yelp and fall over backward,
The gray dragon chuckled deep in its throat again and tilted its head to the side. The creatures ethereal coils were wound around the tablets, one paw delicately held an opium pipe between two talons while the other rested on a massive black pearl. The beasts mane flowed like a lions and it took a long slow pull on its pipe,
“You come seeking guidance?”
Ping swallowed and struggled to remember how to speak then nodded dumbly.
The dragon blew the smoke out its nostrils and its lips pulled back in a toothy smile,
“Then speak up, child. What is it you need to know?”
Ping cleared his throat and quickly got back on his knees and bowed, “Um . . . Dragon-”
“‘Great Stone Dragon’, thank you.” The dragon’s talons clicked on the pearl and it took another pull on the pipe.
“Right, um, oh Great Stone Dragon, I . . . i come seeking guidance-”
“I already knew that, sit up, I can’t understand you with your face pressed into the stone.” The dragon chuckled again, leaning back on its coils.
Ping blinked in confusion and sat back on his heels, “I guess . . . I guess I just want to make sure I’m choosing the right path.”
The dragon cocked its head, its mane shifting around its doglike ears, “You appear to have already made your decision, if your attire is to be any measure.”
“Well,” Ping looked down at his clothing and grimaced, “I suppose so.”
“And why is your happiness the last you ask after? Why is your family and Li Shang’s happiness more important than your own?” The dragon waved its paw and the pipe disappeared, it settled its chin on the paw holding the pearl and smiled still with lowered lids.
“I don’t want to dishonor my family or my husband!” Ping defended.
The dragon’s brow cocked and he glanced out the small window, “Do you feel you have dishonored them yet?”
“ . . . no.”
“More to the point, have you ever felt you dishonored them with your actions?”
“Well, I’ve done some things that were . . . questionable.”
“Impulsive you might be, but your heart was in the right place and you have remained true to yourself.” The dragon said softly, it’s barbels swaying slightly as it spoke, “Tell me, child, why were you so strong in your resolve when you were protecting your honorable father but not when it comes to protecting yourself?”
Ping shook his head, “That was different, I-”
The dragon snorted, a small jet of flame flickered out its nostrils, “A war of the mind is as powerful in some regards as a war of nations, there is no difference. Answer my question.”
Ping bit his lip and looked down at his hands, at the rough calluses from handling a weapon, the blunted, dirty nails and scraped knuckles, he looked back up slowly,
“I am just as afraid now as I was then.”
The dragon extended a claw and used it to tip Ping’s chin up, “You had an army behind you then and you do now. Your honorable father and mother love you, child, and your husband stands with you, no greater allies could you subscript. So tell me, what do you see in your future if you remain on this path of yours?”
Ping blinked rapidly and swallowed, “I don’t know . . . “
“Then let us look behind you and perhaps the way forward will clear,” The dragon moved away from the tablets to slide behind Ping, holding the pearl up, “Who were you?”
“Fa Mulan.” Ping whispered, staring at the pearl as it hovered.
“Yes, that was the name you had but who was Fa Mulan? What did she do? What moved her?” The dragon leaned to the side, “If your honorable father’s prayers are any measure Fa Mulan was a willful, determined person that pushed against the grain of what was expected of her, like a wild fruit tree. She didn’t listen when she thought there was falsehood and spoke her mind, she strove for her individuality and resisted a mold that she did not make for herself. Does that sound right?”
The pearl glowed and images of the past flitted across it, tears rolled down Ping’s face,
“Yes . . . “
The dragon nodded, “I do not appear to just anyone, child, I chose the venerable line of Fa to house my spirit and I choose who in that line hear my voice and see my visage. Your honorable father has never seen me nor heard me, it is his esteemed mother that I chose.”
Ping’s eyes widened as he wiped at his face, “Grandmother Fa?”
“The same,” The dragon chuckled, “I see so much of her in you and that is why you can see me now, child. I have chosen you to be the Guardian of the House of Fa, for the Great Stone Dragon is like a boulder in a stream, resolute and unyielding, it is strong and steadfast even as the billows of the wind and the rushing of the river crash against it, it does not move. This world will push and pull you in a thousand directions as you strive to continue on your life-path, but you must continue forward.”
Ping blinked, watching the pearl fall back into the dragon’s paw then it was tucked under the dragon's chin and it smiled at him,
“Is this . . . your blessing?” Ping asked cautiously.
“You are a strong person, Fa Ping, one day your stone tablet will hail of your great deeds and I shall sit in this shrine watching your children’s children bow to your spirit asking for guidance and consider myself at peace.”
PIng breathed in sharply as the dragon disappeared, he blinked around rapidly, then took deep gulping breaths as sobs wracked his body. He bowed and remained in that position for some time until he got his composure back then sat back and almost had another heart-attack.
“So, it went well then?” Mushu asked as he shucked an almond, smiling to himself.
“How long have you been there? And where have you been by the way?” Ping asked shifting to sit next to the small dragon.
“Hey, I can’t hang around all the time! I’m a busy dragon, got spirits to order about and offerings to eat!” Mushu slithered up onto Ping’s shoulder, “Besides, the big guy wanted to talk to you alone.”
“You mean the Great St-”
“Yeah, him,” Mushu munched on the almond thoughtfully, “Never seen him myself, thought he was a myth to be honest.”
“You can’t see it?” Ping’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Nope, and up until now everyone here thought it was that statue out there.” Mushu chuckled, “Funny how that works.”
“I don’t understand, none of my ancestors have seen the Great Stone Dragon?”
“I guess he has only appeared to women in the past?” Mushu hopped down onto Ping’s knee, "I don’t know since i spend most of my time being an incense thing.”
Ping sighed and looked outside, the sun had gone down it seemed, “So . . . that’s what a real dragon looks like, huh?”
Mushu scowled, “What are you talkin’ about? You’ve seen a ‘real dragon’ before! Me!”
“You know what I mean.” Ping rolled his eyes.
“I don’t know, I told you, I can’t see them.” Mushu snorted some smoke, “So you’re ‘Ping’ now?”
“Yep.” Ping nodded.
“Hope you give me credit for the name,” Mushu slid down to recline against Ping’s legs, his legs crossed and his hands tucked behind his head, “You know, when you tell this story to your kids and stuff.”
“I don’t know if I’ll have kids.” Ping admitted, looking up at the stars.
“Sure you will! Lots of little kids out there without family and you can bet pretty boy will want a big family!” Mushu snickered.
PIng grimaced, “And what about everyone else? And how will this affect my marriage? Is it still valid?”
Mushu sighed and sat up, putting his claws on Ping’s cheeks, “I don’t have the answers, I’m just a guardian or spirit guide or whatever, but I know it’ll be alright, we always work this stuff out, right? You and me, the dream team!”
Ping smiled a bit and nodded, “That makes me feel better.”
“Good, it should,” Mushu smiled and hopped down, glaring up at the ceiling, “Eh, quiet up there, no one was talking to you, he already spoke to the head dragon!”
Ping blinked, “Who are you-”
“Just some stuffy, bossy spirits who smell like ash and look even worse.” Mushu muttered, “C’mon, let’s go somewhere quieter.”
“Father wants me to stay in the shrine t-”
“You think you’re going to get any better advice then what two dragons can give from musty old ghosts?” Mushu tilted his head and pouted his lips.
Ping shrugged, “I . . . guess not?”
PIng glanced at the stones, “Are they . . . mad?”
“No more than usual, don’t mind them, they’re also just mad that you managed to save all of China and looked good doing it. They’re jealous.” Mushu shrugged, “Yanno what, here, you go on, I’ll stay here and get ‘em quiet.”
“Okay, good night.”
Mushu waved then his ears went back and he picked up a small gong that Ping hadn’t noticed before, “Y’all ‘bout to have ectoplasm comin’ out your ears!”
Ping hurried down the hill as the sound of the gong began ringing out of the shrine, he stopped at the foot of the hill and smiled fondly, shaking his head, his heart feeling lighter than it had in some time.
Ping gets closure in more ways then one and steps are taken forward.
I can't believe I used to be afraid of posting this fic, the influx of love from everyone has been so overwhelming that I can't help but have entire conversations and scenes set up in my head for this, I have notes and arcs and all sorts of things planned and I'm motivated to do it! Thank you all!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Ping tiptoed up to the house and to his and Shang’s room, carefully sliding the door back and setting his shoes inside then closing the door behind him. He breathed out slowly then blinked until his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he could make out the contents of the room.
It was pretty simple at the moment with their bed roll, a short desk, and a mid-sized cabinet where they kept their clothes. Shang had only come to stay for a short time before heading back to the capital but they had planned to move to stay in the Fa House as Shang had no family still living.
Speaking of Shang, Ping’s head turned to the bedroll and where the sound of what could easily be mistaken as a log-sawing competition was coming from, he smiled and shook his head, Shang was fast asleep on his back with Little Brother tucked in his armpit and both were snoring loudly, the dog’s legs kicking about every so often. Ping bit his lip to keep from laughing and carefully disrobed before slipping under the blanket with Shang who grunted and rolled over, letting go of the dog and wrapping his arm around PIng’s waist,
“Did the ancestors have answers for you?” Shang yawned, his eyes still closed.
“I think so.” Ping murmured, scooting back into Shang’s warmth.
“Good, good . . . “ He was quiet for a moment or two than sighed, “It does my heart good to know that things are alright between us.”
Ping blinked and rolled over, “So, you’re really alright with this? With me?”
Shang opened his eyes blearily, his long hair falling across one shoulder, “Yes, Ping, I am.”
“Then . . . you do see me as a man. Not just . . . a girl dressed like a man?”
Shang grunted and sat up more, propping himself up on his elbow, “You say you’re a man, then you’re a man.”
Ping smiled then nodded, “Okay, that makes me feel better.”
“Good.” Shang settled back down, pulling Ping closer and sighing, “I love you.”
“And I love you.” Ping murmured, closing his eyes.
Shang and Ping wandered into the living area come morning to find Ping’s father, mother and grandmother hard at work at . . . something. PIng’s eyebrows rose and looked about,
“What’re you all doing?”
Grandmother looked up and smiled, “Preparing for your funeral.”
Ping’s eyes widened in alarm, “My funeral?”
Zhou huffed and shook his head, he gestured to a small wooden figure he was working on, “A symbolic funeral, Ping, we are preparing an effigy to cremate symbolizing your old name and self.”
“And after the proper period of mourning, we will celebrate your birth as our son,” Li smiled and looked up from the small robes she was sewing for the effigy, “You will have a new birthdate and we will throw a party after the first month like we would with any birth.”
Ping blinked and stepped into the room fully, tears welling up in his eyes, “You-You would do all that for me?”
“Of course!” Grandmother chuckled, “Not every day we get to have a party!”
Shang leaned over to read the wooden plaque Grandmother was inscribing, “‘Fa Mulan, the brat saved China, top that’?”
Everyone looked at Grandmother Fa who merely nodded sagely and put the finishing touches on the plaque,
“Well she did, how many families can boast such things?”
“As for your marriage to Shang,” Zhou said, his calm voice somehow able to still cut through the air, silencing everyone, “I must consult with the lawyers, we may have to redo the ceremony.”
“Won’t this all get expensive?” Ping asked.
“Money is no object.” Zhou assured, going back to his carving.
Li poured Shang and Ping cups of tea as they set about getting breakfast and everyone sat in companionable silence for a bit until Ping finished his food, at which time Zhou stood and gestured to the door,
“Ping, I wish to speak to you.”
Ping quickly stood, “Yes, Baba.”
He followed Zhou out the backdoor and through the moon gate to the small pond where the koi fish swam about under the cherry tree, they stood for a moment or two then Zhou breathed in deeply,
“I owe you an apology that is too long in coming.”
Ping turned and frowned in confusion, “For what?”
“That night you ran away, when I rose my voice after you spoke your mind,” Fa Zhou closed his eyes then moved to the stone bench with Ping following to sit with him, “I did not do so out of anger but of fear.”
Several blossoms and petals fluttered around them like snow and Zhou slowly turned to face Ping more fully,
“I was afraid and you spoke my fears aloud, that I am not a young man anymore and I cannot wield a sword as I did many years ago. I knew in my heart of hearts that if I were to go to war, I would not be coming home. My fear was that if I should die, I would leave you, your mother and mine, alone with no one to protect them.”
“I would have-”
“Taken care of them, yes, I know that now.” Zhou held up a hand, “I know now that you would have kept everyone safe and comfortable in our home, should something happen to me, but I see that your strength and resilience is so much greater than I thought, you are stepping out into the world on an uncertain path and while I worry over your future, but I want you to know that you are not alone and we will help you on your way.”
Ping bit his lip, “ . . . Baba, I don’t know what to say.”
Zhou smiled and took Ping’s hand, “You need not say anything at all, my son, I felt that since you have shown us your heart so fully that I must also bear mine. I am proud of you, Ping.”
Ping smiled and blinked rapidly, “Thank you, Father.”
Shang’s brush rapidly swept across the parchment when Ping stepped into the room, knocking lightly on the doorjamb,
“Yes?” Shang looked up and set his brush down.
“What are you writing?”
“A request that I have to send out, I’m due back in the Imperial city soon to inspect troops and defenses but I’m trying to postpone it for a month or two for the funeral and birth celebrations.” Shang shrugged, “I felt that it was pretty important that I be here.”
Ping smiled and moved to sit next to Shang, folding his legs underneath himself, “Is that something you can do? Ask for time off I mean?”
Shang shrugged, “We’re at peace for the moment and I’m a General so I don’t see why they wouldn’t just let me. Besides, it’s for a good reason.”
Ping leaned his head on Shang’s shoulder, closing his eyes and feeling Shang’s rough fingers stroke over his cheek,
“How did I get so lucky to have a family like them and a husband like you?”
“I was about to ask the same thing.” Shang murmured, “You know, as a man you can truly join the army and become an officer.”
Ping’s eyes opened slightly, “Do you think I could?”
“I don’t see why not, you inspired an entire squadron into shape, defeated the Hun Army and saved-”
“Yes, I saved China, on a fluke,” Ping sat back and glanced at the parchment doubtfully, “That doesn’t mean I’d be a good leader or that I know anything about military strategy.”
Shang grimaced then he shook his head, his eyes hardening, “I know you are a leader, Ping, you can learn strategy and I know you could lead if given the chance.”
“Will soldiers respect me as their leader if they know who and what I am?” Ping asked quietly.
Shang shook his head again, picking up the scroll and rolling it up tightly, “You are Fa Ping, son of Fa Zhou, both of you are heroes in your own right and both are revered, recognized by the Emperor himself. If they do not respect your name then they do not belong in the army. You are a capable man and soldier, I fail to see any difference.”
“Shang, please don’t brush this off, it could be dangerous.” Ping said, a little desperate.
Shang frowned, “I just . . . I know you could be so much more before but the dictates of tradition didn't allow for such things but now as a man the doors will be wide open to you, no one will deny you that right! I don’t want you living your life without meeting your full potential.”
Ping smiled and put a hand on Shang’s, “One step at a time, please, I’m already overwhelmed with all that is happening.”
Shang smiled, “Alright, if that’s what you want then we will take our time. Besides, we have a funeral to prepare for.”
Ping chuckled, “Do you think that we’ll have to pretend I’m a ghost during the mourning period?”
Shang laughed, “Don’t say that too loudly or your grandmother might start doing just that!”
They both laughed until they had tears in their eyes then Ping leaned forward and kissed Shang, thrilling when the gesture was reciprocated then he yelped as Shang pulled Ping into his lap,
“I feel like I’m so much closer to you now that there’s no secrets between us, like I truly know you.” Shang murmured into Ping’s neck.
Ping reached up and ran his fingers over Shang’s hair at the back of his head where it was looser in the topknot, “I don’t like keeping things from you, it makes my heart hurt.”
“You were afraid of me knowing.” Shang stated softly, his face still tucked into Ping’s neck.
“Yes, I didn’t know what to expect.”
Shang snorted, “You couldn’t tell how smitten i was with you as Ping before?”
“I guess I’m just not intune to your version of flirting,” Ping smiled, “Unless you punching me in the face counts.”
“I was thinking more of when you landed a hit to me.” Shang tilted his head to the side, looking up.
Ping giggled and shook his head, “I just thought you were impressed I hadn’t died yet.”
“Maybe I just enjoyed you being so defiant and stubborn that even I couldn’t deter you.” Shang leaned back, clasping his hands at Ping’s hip, “That’s when I knew i was in love with you.”
Ping blinked, “And then when you found I was a woman?”
Shang shrugged, “I was confused but ultimately my feelings did not change. You are you no matter what name, face, or body you choose.”
“What if . . . what if I do choose to change my body?” Ping asked hesitantly.
“I am still in love.” Shang said firmly, “I will still be married to you and want my life to be with you.”
Ping smiled, “That makes me very happy.”
“Good.” Shang shifted and looked off to the side, “I wish you would come with me, I don’t like being that far away for any length of time.”
Ping shook his head, “Kinda think I need to be around for my own funeral and birth. Besides . . . are you ready to be seen with me?”
“Yes.” Shang said immediately, he reached up to cup Ping’s face in his hands, “I will never be ashamed of you and if anyone says a cross word over us, I would have their head.”
“Romantic yet violent, there’s the Shang I know.” Ping smiled and they kissed, pressing their foreheads together.
Traditionally, the parents would not hold a funeral for a child, but I felt that given the circumstances it seemed appropriate. And as we strive forward to get the more technical bits and family adjusting out of the way, we can get into more interesting things!
Ping gets some better advice, Shang makes some promises, and The Fa Family have a funeral.
CW: Some mention of sex, douching as form of birth control (nothing graphic, I promise, I kept it vague and didn't go into detail but it's in there and please don't do this, it doesn't actually work)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Mushu reclined on the shrine steps as Ping came closer, “Well hi there, come to get advice from a corporeal dragon or you wanna talk to Stony McGhosty?”
Ping shook his head and sat next to the small dragon, “No, I came to see you, actually.”
The dragon’s ears perked up and he slithered up eagerly, “Oh? Little ol’ me? What for? Need help saving the nation again? Love advice? Or do you need me to torch someone?” Mushu spat out a tiny fireball, smiling triumphantly.
“I thought you’d like an invitation to my funeral.”
Mushu tilted his head to the side, “Come again? Did you say ‘funeral’?”
“Mhm, we’re going to burn an effigy of Mulan and in a month’s time we’ll be having a party for my birth. I figured since all of this goes outside of tradition you’d like to be part of it,” Here Ping smirked and looked down at Mushu knowingly, “Considering how much you love going against what the ancestors would deem ‘acceptable’.”
Mushu rubbed his paws together and giggled, his barbels curling wickedly, “Oh do I ever! In fact, I’m gonna help!”
“Oh, that’s not-”
“No, no, say no more, I got this! After all, who helped you start on your path to manhood? Me! Only fitting that I carry through!” Mushu wagged a claw at Ping, “Now don’t you worry about a thing, your faithful guardian, Mushu, is on the case! Now where’s that bug?”
Before Ping could say anything, the dragon shot off into the tall grass and was gone, he grimaced and shrugged,
“Well . . . if he wants to help, I guess he can’t mess it up too much . . . maybe . . .”
“Why are you walking like that?” Shang said, watching Ping stride across the grounds in that exaggerated way he sometimes adopted.
Ping froze and cleared his throat, “I, uh, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Shang cocked an eyebrow, “And why do you lower your voice like that? It’s really, really obvious what you’re doing.”
PIng pulled a wry face, lowering his gaze, “Is it?”
“Incredibly,” Shang stood up from the front steps and walked over, “Have you ever seen me walk like that? Or any man for that matter?”
“Uh . . . no?”
“Exactly, look, if you want to walk like a man,” Shang stood up straight and moved to be abreast of Ping, “Walk like this, like you’ve got your feet on either side of a plank.”
Ping watched Shang march forward, paying attention to his foot placement with each step, he pursed his lips and crossed his arms,
Shang stopped and turned, shrugging, “I . . . well, it’s . . . comfortable?”
“But, why do you- . . . oh . . . oh !” Ping’s ears reddened slightly, “I didn’t think of that before.”
Shang chuckled, “Well . . . I’m not surprised, you don’t exactly have that to consider.”
Ping deflated slightly, rubbing the back of his neck, “Right . . . “
Shang frowned, he stood deep in thought then snapped his fingers, “Wait, hang on, I think I have an idea! Come with me.”
Ping followed Shang into their room and watched the taller man rifle through their clothes cabinet before producing a pair of socks, Ping was about to ask how that would solve anything but Shang smirked, folded the socks then pulled Ping’s trousers open. Ping yelped and was about to smack Shang’s hand away out of reflex but his husband put the rolled up socks into PIng’s small clothes then stepped back,
“There. Shift that around until it’s comfortable, that should help.”
Ping blinked, adjusting his clothes then Ping stared at himself as realization dawned on him, “Oh! That’s . . . actually really clever.”
Shang chuckled, “Thank you, I like to think I’m pretty quick.”
PIng walked back and forth in the room, adjusting his footing until it felt more natural with Shang looking on with a small smile.
“So, what about my voice? Can I do something about that?”
Shang shrugged, “Ping, you’re seventeen, your voice is fine.”
“What about when I’m older?” Ping stopped in front of Shang.
“Well, not every man has a deep voice. My voice isn’t even that deep.” Shang sighed, putting a hand on Ping’s shoulder, “If it means that much to you, I can look around the Imperial City and see if there are any physicians that can help?”
Ping’s face broke out in a hopeful smile, “Would you?”
“Absolutely,” Shang chuckled then grunted when Ping shot forward and hugged him tightly, “I don’t make any promises but I’ll do my best.”
Shang ran his fingers over Ping’s back and smiled, “You’re welcome. Now,” He shifted Ping back a bit, “What other weird things do you think men do that I should immediately disprove?”
The sun was starting to go down as the funeral pyre was situated with the tiny wooden figure dressed in burial robes placed atop it. Ping stood back with Shang just behind him, his hands situated on PIng’s shoulders while Li and Grandmother were on his left. Several people from the village and some of their cousins had come to watch, many dressed in the rough hemp for the occasion.
Zhou stood holding a torch in hand, he waited for the sun to sink just below the horizon then spoke,
“As the sun sets on the day, we commend the spirit of Fa Mulan to our ancestors, may she find peace in the afterlife and may we feel her earthly spirit, restful and free of malice. May Her courage live on in us all.”
He lit the pyre then limped to stand on Ping’s other side while they all watched it burn to cinders then they all dispersed quietly back to their homes. Ping stayed a while longer, lingering by the pile of ash as it smoldered, Shang moved to his side and took his hand,
“Are you alright?”
Ping nodded, “I am, it’s just . . . a lot to take in.”
“I can imagine. How do you feel?”
“ . . . oddly sad and . . . free .” Ping looked at Shang tearfully, “I feel like I’ve lost a good friend but I also feel like a boulder’s been lifted from my back . . . is this wrong?”
Shang shook his head and pulled Ping into a hug, “No, not at all, we mourn for Mulan because she was a good person and we loved her, but we needed to say goodbye to that name and identity so we can move forward. We don’t have to forget all she did for you and me.”
Ping breathed in deeply and nodded, stepping back, “Thank you.”
Shang kissed his forehead then gestured back to the house, “Dinner will be soon.”
“I just . . . “ Ping looked back at the smoldering coals, “I just need a moment.”
Shang nodded, rubbing Ping’s shoulder lightly, “Take as much time as you need.”
Ping waited until he was alone then shifted his tunic to let Mushu out, the red dragon shook himself and crawled down to the ground,
“Quite a display, huh?” He glanced over his shoulder at Ping.
“As far as funerals go, I suppose.” Ping shrugged, squatting down to poke a stick at the last few embers.
Mushu blinked then shuffled over, putting his hand on Ping’s knee,
“Are you okay? Like for real okay?” He asked softly.
Ping blinked rapidly, “I know the Great Stone Dragon gave its blessing and everyone seems alright with all of this but . . . what if . . . I mean, if it turns out . . . what do I do if . . . what if I’m wrong?”
Mushu shook his head, “We won’t know until we get there, will we? You said yourself, this feels right and pretty boy and old Fa Zhou seem to trust your heart, so maybe you should too.”
Ping bit his lips, a single tear trickled down his face, “I’m scared.”
Mushu hopped up onto Ping’s knee and put his small arm around Ping’s shoulder, “Sure you are, would be crazy if you didn’t have doubts but hey! You’re not alone, you got me!”
Ping snorted and wiped his face, “You’re right, I’m sorry.”
“Ah c’mon, don’t be sorry, you’re only human.” Mushu shrugged and hopped back down, “Go on before someone comes looking for ya.”
Ping stood up and went back to the house, glancing over his shoulder briefly to watch the last curl of smoke being carried off on a southern wind.
Shang and Ping laid back, breathing heavily and covered in sweat, Shang smirked,
“That was good.”
Ping nodded, sighing and shifting, “I have to go, um, take care of . . . “
Shang nodded, “Alright.”
PIng hurried off to the small wash closet off their bedroom while Shang rolled onto his stomach,
“I take it this is something we are going to have to consider dealing with as well, hm?”
Ping blushed, glancing around the doorway, “Yeah . . . so, can I ask you something?”
“As long as it doesn’t require me to move.” Shang murmured.
“Were you attracted to men before or . . . ?”
“Yes.” Shang shrugged, “I spent almost all of my life in or around army camps, lots of men there and a few women as well. I suppose I just didn’t think about it much, I like who I like.”
PIng blushed then quickly cleaned up and came back out, “You aren’t disappointed about me not wanting to have children are you?”
“No,” Shang shook his head and lifted the blanket to let Ping slide back under it, “I didn’t marry you under any pretext that you would bear me any children anyway.”
“Really?” Ping propped his chin up on his elbow and stared at Shang.
“Really, I knew you had dreams and ambitions of your own and as much as I want a large family, I knew that to achieve all that you would need your body to yourself.” Shang shrugged, “Reasons we’ve been so careful despite how many people prod me about why we hadn’t had children now. Honestly it’s a load off my mind that you are as you are, takes the pressure off of me and the constant barrage of ‘oh but who will look after your wife when you’re away’ and ‘think of your in-laws’ . . . it was tiring.”
PIng’s eyes widened, “People actually said those things?”
Shang nodded, his chin resting on his folded arms, “It didn’t matter how often I explained that you were your own person and that I respected what your ambition demanded of you, even that I knew you could take care of yourself and your reputation wasn’t enough. Or worse, they would assume there was something wrong with one of us. 'Married for a year and no children? How can this be?'. Whether they thought we'd angered our ancestors or that we weren't . . . capable.”
Ping grimaced, “I didn’t know . . . “
“Nor did you need to know,” Shang shook his head and rolled onto his side, he shrugged a shoulder and sighed, “It was hardly worth thinking about much and we knew what we wanted. Besides, now as my husband, no one will ask us why we haven’t birthed any children.”
“Won’t they know that I’m-”
“They don’t need to know any of those details.” Shang said firmly, “It wasn’t their business before and it isn’t now. We can adopt children, as many as we want, between my wealth and your inheritance or future earnings we can afford to fill this house with children.”
PIng smiled, “How about we try with one and go from there?”
Shang smiled too, “Alright, one to start with.”
They settled back in their bed and were just drifting when Shang cleared his throat,
“What if we adopt twins to begin with?”
“Shang . . . “
The big white stallion pawed the ground in slight impatience as Shang said his goodbyes, bowing respectfully to Zhou and Li and getting an improptu hug from Grandmother before turning to Ping,
“I won’t be gone for long, I promise.” Shang murmured, cupping Ping’s face in his hands while the smaller man held the General’s helm.
“I’ll still miss you terribly.” Ping admitted.
Shang smiled, kissing PIng gently, “I’ll keep my other promises while I’m in the city as well, don’t worry.”
Ping reached up to set the helmet on Shang’s head, “Be safe!”
Shang nodded and mounted his horse, “I will, keep the family safe, husband!”
PIng followed to the gate, waving until Shang’s horse passed over a hill and was gone from his sight. He bit his lip and almost jumped out of his skin when a hand fell on his shoulder, Ping looked up to see his father standing there,
“He will be fine, his standard-bearers are with him as is his normal entourage.”
“I know . . . I still-”
“Worry? Yes, that is the trademark of a good spouse.” Zhou chuckled, putting his arm around Ping’s shoulders, “Come, we have preparations to make for your one-month birthday celebration.”
What Shang does with the socks is referred to as 'packing' for transgender men, essentially putting a prosthetic of some kind (be it a pair of rolled up socks, which a lot of us use at first beginning transition, to silicone realistic models) in underwear to give the feel and look of a 'package' if you will.
Ping strives to prove himself a capable man to the villagers and bonds with his parents
A bit of family bonding and encouragement as they wait for Shang to return
Ping breathed in slowly then let it out, opening his eyes and clasping his hands at chest height, his legs folded with the bottoms of his feet pressed together as Ping meditated.
It wasn't easy what with Little Brother chasing something along the stream that kept yelping and squeaking. Ping tried to keep his concentration until Little Brother yelped and ran toward the house with his tail tucked between his legs, the distinct smell of singed fur following him. Mushu popped out of the grass, shaking a small fist toward the retreating dog,
“Get back here and bite my tail again, you onion breath!”
Ping couldn't help but laugh as the disgruntled dragon trudged up to his spot,
“What's so funny, huh? Your mongrel tried to eat me.”
“He was only playing.” ping chuckled then tried to go back to meditating but then his name was called and he sighed, “Guess I gotta get to work.”
“Work? Heroes don't work!” Mushu sat up incredulously.
“This one does, those seeds aren't going to sow themselves.” Ping shrugged.
“Hmph, well you go work, I got a dog to roast.” Mushu muttered.
Ping cocked an eyebrow, “Please don’t light my dog on fire . . . “
“Alright, how about a little bit?” Mushu held up his thumb and foreclaw a mere breath apart.
“No.” Ping shook his head then headed toward the front gate and out toward the field his father owned with Mushu muttering about how unfair everything was behind him.
Fa Zhou stood on the edge of the massive rice field, his hands clasped on the pommel of his cane when Ping sauntered up, the corner of Zhou’s mouth twitched in a smile as it was wont to do whenever Ping was around,
“Morning, work started already? I didn’t think I was that long.” Ping grimaced, there were already several men from the village handling the oxen- and man driven ploughs while women and the older children walked behind carefully planting the seeds.
Zhou nodded, “The earlier the better.”
Ping stripped down to his undershirt and kicked his sandals off. He was about to reach for a bag of seed but Zhou grabbed his arm and stopped him,
“What? I thought I was supposed to help.” PIng stared at his father quizzically.
Zhou nodded, “You are.”
He gestured with his cane to a man-driven plough on the edge of the field where one of the village men was waiting, leaning back and chewing a piece of grass. Ping blinked and his eyes widened,
“The men drive the plows or pull them and if you wish to go to the military then you must build strong muscles.” Zhou nodded shortly, “We won’t push you too hard, if you get tired, then signal the driver and he will stop and switch positions with you, but you must carry your weight as the future head of the Fa family and a protector of this village.”
PIng blinked then set his jaw and nodded, “Yes, Father.”
Zhou let go of Ping’s arm and the younger man turned determinedly toward end of the field, he slipped the straps onto his shoulders, buckling them across his chest and stepped into the water up to his ankles. The driver snorted and shook his head,
“This is a bad idea.”
Ping glared straight ahead then took a deep breath and surged forward, the plough didn’t move at first then it lurched suddenly behind him once the driver pushed his weight into the handles. Ping almost fell onto his hands and knees then righted himself and kept going, wrapping his slender fingers around the straps to put his shoulders into it as well. His feet dug into the soft mud but he kept pulling.
It didn’t take long before Ping’s face was streaked with sweat and his hair was falling out of the topknot. Tears welled up in his eyes and he was just about to give up when he felt something brush his back, he looked to his left and Zhou was standing in the water next to him, he’d put a towel on Ping’s shoulders,
“There is no shame in admitting defeat if one picks up where they left off another day.”
PIng blinked, “But-”
“The field is not going anywhere, Ping, and judging by how far you’ve gotten, I think you would have kept on until you finally collapsed.”
There was a beat of silence then Ping slipped out of the harness and put it in Zhou’s open hand, the elder Fa turned to the driver and nodded,
The man nodded and bowed to Zhou before leaving the field, Ping shifted and followed Zhou back up to the house, grabbing his tunic and sandals tiredly as they passed them. Zhou smiled,
“You did well, why the sour face?”
“I wanted to finish.”
“And you will, a mountain is not scaled in one day.” Zhou chuckled, “Your determination and fervor are as strong as ever, I see, as is your stubbornness.”
PIng’s ears reddened and he shrugged, “I want to do right by the people as well as you and myself.”
“They respect your accomplishments and they will come to respect you as the man, but it will take time for you to become worthy in their eyes as with any young man. It is a struggle we all face in our adolescence.” Zhou watched PIng close the gate behind them then they headed toward the house for supper.
“Even you?” Ping asked, glancing toward the door that lead to his father’s training room where his armor and Jian were housed.
“Yes, even me, PIng,” Zhou smiled, “And you are well on your way as it is. I am sure Shang will bring good news back from the capital for you, we will have your birthday celebration and then your life can truly begin as your true self.”
PIng stopped and bit his lip, “Baba?”
Zhou also stopped and turned, “Yes, my son?”
PIng shifted and licked his lips, “Do you . . . love me more as a boy?”
Zhou’s eyes widened and he shook his head slightly, “No, PIng, you were my child before and you are now, my love does not increase or decrease, it is constant.” He moved closer and pulled Ping into a gentle hug, being mindful that the young man was sore from work, “You were you before you revealed what that meant.”
Ping returned the hug and smiled, “Thank you.”
PIng finished plowing the field in a week, brushing off anyone who offered to take his place and by the end of it, his shoulders were sore, his feet were blistered and his whole body throbbed and ached but he smiled as he staggered back to the house at the end of each day, proud of himself for finishing at all.
Over the next two weeks, Ping helped with the remaining preparations for the rice fields, driving a plough with an oxen or pulling one a few times and building up the walls of each square so the water wouldn’t run out and the rice wouldn’t dry. By the end of it, he could feel his muscles, atrophied from being out of the military for a year, returning and building.
Now he stood staring longingly at the Jian as it rested on its place of honor near the cabinet with Zhou’s armor. Ping ran his fingers over the Yazi carved into the hilt then looked over where Shan Yu’s Flaming sword sat with the crest of the Emperor hanging above it. Ping knew that the Flaming sword was his by right of conquest but he had no desire to wield it, it was Zhou’s sword that called to him, but it had been stolen and returned to its rightful owner and he felt guilty for even thinking he could have it.
Li stood in the doorway then moved to stand next to Ping, “You’re up early, I thought for certain you would still be in bed recovering. I warned your father he was pushing too hard . . . “
Ping smiled, “No, Mama, I’m fine, I have too many thoughts to sleep. Why are you up?”
“I enjoy the sunrise with a fresh cup of tea this time of year,” Li smiled fondly, “My mother and I would always sit watching the sun come up over the garden before doing chores and preparing the morning meal.”
PIng blinked, “We never did that . . . “
Li laughed softly, “You never could get up early enough! Except when you were an infant, then you would wake long before the sun did!”
Pi laughed and then frowned, “Maybe I should make an effort to wake with you.”
Li shook her head and put a hand on Ping’s arm, “I do not expect it.”
“I know you don’t, which is why I want to.” Ping took her hand in his and sighed, “If I am to go back to the military there is no telling how much time I will have with you and Baba and Grandmother. I'd like to take full advantage of the time we do have.”
Li's face brightened and she took Ping's hand, “I have the pot on already, come.”
Ping followed her to the front of the house where a mat was laid out, Li brought two cups out then the teapot and carefully poured them both a cup. Ping bowed to his mother and took the cup in both hands while they sat on the mat and waited for the sun.
Ping finds out that not everyone is accepting and receives some very meaningful gifts.
TW for transphobia, misogyny and general bullying.
This was not easy to write, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless!
Ping shouldered his bag as he walked toward the market, grandmother sent him on an errand for the birthday party, just a ‘few small things’ she said. His sleeveless tunic and shorter pants made the summer heat marginally more bearable even if they were much too big, but he wouldn't complain too loudly when Li and Grandmother had been toiling to make alterations to some of Zhou's old clothes and any they could procure through trading Ping's old clothing to relatives.
Some.people waved or smiled but Ping noticed some people giving him funny looks or pulling their children closer. He narrowed his eyes and stood straighter, he was determined not to let this bother him,
I am the dragon. He thought over and over as he strode down the marketplaces main thoroughfare.
The shops he was looking to buy from were the farthest down and closest to the village well. He needed red dye, the rest was food and material he would have to order.
Ping stepped up to the counter where a well-dressed, elderly man and his son were measuring out powders for dye onto a delicate scale, they didn’t seem to see Ping at first so he cleared his throat until the son looked up,
“... can we help you?”
Ping nodded and unrolled the order, “I'd like a packet of red dye, please.’
The elder looked up and squinted, he set a few tiny brass weights on the counter and snorted,
“Very well. Fu, get the lady her dye.”
The boy snickered while Pings ears turned bright red and he wilted a bit,
“I-Im not a girl.” he said softly, twisting the strap of his bag in his fists.
“My eyesight isn’t that bad, I recognize Fa Mulan when I see her.” the vendor said scathingly.
At the sound of his dead and buried name, Pings back stiffened and he glared angrily at the man,
“Fa Mulan is dead. I'm Fa Ping.”
The man cackled and put his hand out to stop his son from handing over the paper envelope,
“Poor Fa Zhou couldn’t produce a son so he had to paint one! You tell your father I will do business with him, not his daughter .”
Ping slammed a fist on the counter, upsetting the scales and several jars of powders and startling the man and his son,
“I am not a girl, I am Fa Ping, son of Fa Zhou!” Ping shouted.
“You clumsy cow!” The son shouted back, gesturing to all the spilled powder, “You have any idea how much this will cost to replace!”
Ping grimaced and opened his mouth to apologize but the old man beat him to it,
“Bah! The Li boy must be both blind and stupid to have fallen for this wretch!”
And that tore it, Ping wasn’t sure what exactly happened next but he knew for a fact that he’d vaulted over the counter and was intercepted by the son. The rest was a blur of fists and yelling and then a horse riding up and before Ping knew what was happening, the village prefect was standing over him,
“Who started this brawl?”
Ping blinked as he was held back by two of the prefect’s men and fingers were immediately pointed at him.
“The penalty for public fighting is ten strokes, isn’t it, prefect?” The old man said quickly, “And a fine for my damaged goods? Hmmm?”
The prefect rolled his eyes and muttered something under his breath, “Get it over with, I’m busy enough as it is!”
PIng opened his mouth to protest then realized that he had started the fight and there would probably be no way to defend his actions, he slipped his arms out of the guards’ hold and stood ready for the beating that was coming to him.
The rod didn’t hurt as much as other things Ping has endured in the military and his pride was stung more than his back as he limped home with the fine and the packet, both he handed to Li who looked at him in surprise as Ping went back to his room,
“Oh, Ping, there was a message for you that-”
But Ping closed the door before she could finish and undid his tunic. He dropped the garment to the floor, hissing as he undid the bandages and raveled them up before setting them on the desk.
PIng laid face-down on the bed and sighed heavily, the raised welts on his back stung and throbbed.
“Feeling sorry for ourself, are we?”
Ping slowly looked up to see the Great Stone Dragon coiled next to the bed,
“I thought you had to stay in the shrine?”
“Pah! I go where you go, child, that is the way of bound spirits.” The Dragon chuckled and blew a long, coil of smoke from his pipe, “You look to have earned some stripes.”
Ping snorted, “ . . . I had a good reason.”
“I know you did,” The Dragon murmured, shifting the pearl to his paw, “I see all that happens in your life, even the unfortunate bits.”
“I shouldn’t have fought them.” PIng slowly sat up, curling his legs under himself and pulling the blanket around his shoulders.
“No, you shouldn’t have, but then a young dragon isn’t always careful with his claws,” The dragon nodded sagely, his barbels swaying slightly with his motion, he leaned forward, “But you stood up for yourself so I suppose I will refrain from putting any dishonor on the Fa name this time.”
Ping smiled slightly then shook his head, “Will I ever be seen as a man or am I doomed to have to keep proving myself?”
“As long as there are people who think they know what makes a man on this mortal plane, yes, you will have to keep proving you belong among them,” The Dragon sighed and put the pipe to his maw, his face softening slightly, “It is your fate, Fa Ping, but you know there are many who value you and your identity does not sway that value.”
PIng nodded, looking down at his hands, “I know . . . “
The Dragon shifted to coil around Ping a bit and sighed, rolling the pearl between his paws for a moment then his ears perked up and he turned to Ping,
“I’ll tell you what, you have come a long way in a short time so perhaps that has earned you some form of reward.”
Ping cocked an eyebrow, “Oh?”
“Yes. For your reward, I will tell you my name.” The Dragon shifted the pearl back under his chin and leaned forward until his mouth was quite near Ping’s ear so much that he could feel the Dragon’s breath, “And with my name comes great power, Fa Ping, use it wisely or not at all. I am not one to trifle with for petty favors, do you understand?”
PIng nodded, his eyes wide, “Yes.”
Ping blinked, looking a bit underwhelmed, “Your name is just ‘Stone Dragon’?”
Shi Long leaned back looking indignant, “What did you think it would be?”
“I . . . I don’t know.” Ping shrugged, “Not something so literal, maybe?”
Shi sniffed and folded his arms across his chest, “Need we discuss what your name means?”
Ping grimaced, “No.”
“Mhm, my name may be literal but the 'Great' part was well-earned, I assure you,” Shi took the pipe from his teeth and shook his mane, “As I was saying, now you know a Dragon’s name, it has great power so if you are in very deep trouble, you can use that name to invoke me.”
“Won’t you just show up like you did just now?”
“You summoned me.” Shi shook his head, “So yes?”
“I didn’t summon you,” Ping tilted his head in confusion.
“Yes, you did, you summoned me now like you did in the shrine,” Shi shrugged, “You just didn’t say it aloud.”
“Oh.” Ping stared at the dragon for a bit then scooted closer, “So, what can you do?”
Shi shrugged again as he smoked, “If the need is great enough, I will become corporeal for a short time and aid you, but be warned, my strength is linked to your strength and using this power drains us both. If you ask too much of me, we may end up in a state of deep, deathlike sleep.”
Ping nodded slowly, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
They were both quiet for a moment, Ping watched the smoke curl out from Shi’s pipe and maw then looked out the window,
Shi snaked forward a bit, his head tilting, “Yes?”
“Can you see the future?”
Shi made a chuffing sound and sighed, “Not so much see as I do sense the future. The past is much easier as there are many eyes who have seen it and minds that remember it, but the future is a mystery to even me. Why?”
“I just . . . I want to know,” Ping shifted, pulling the blanket tighter, “I want to know that everything will be alright and that I won’t make a fool of myself.”
Shi chuckled, his long body shifting as it curled tighter around Ping for a moment, “You are a great many things, Fa Ping, a fool is not among them. Take comfort in that I do not sense a darkness in your future, hardship and pain surely but there is great light beyond today.”
Then he was gone as before, Ping sighed then shifted as the door slid open and Shang stood in it,
“Your mother said I could find you here.”
Ping’s eyes widened and he scrambled to get up and hurried to hug Shang, “I didn’t know you’d be back today!”
Shang smiled, tilting Ping’s chin for a kiss, “I sent word.”
“I must have been out.” Ping mumbled.
Shang pulled Ping closer and shut the door, “I missed you.”
“I missed you t- Ah!” Ping pulled back as Shang pressed a bit too hard on his back which was still very tender.
Shang blinked, “What’s wro- what happened to your back?”
“I . . .started a fight in town and . . . the prefect had me caned.” Ping grimaced and rubbed his neck, “It wasn’t that bad.”
“You started a fight? Why?” Shang’s face showed a good deal of outrage and alarm, but it was hard to tell which was more prominent.
“Well . . . “
They sat on the bed while Ping explained what happened and Shang’s face grew more and more angry and dark as the story came to a close. He stood up,
“I’ll deal with this.”
“How? I took the caning and I’ll pay the fine and it’ll be done.”
“They were bullies,” Ping interjected, “Common bullies, Shang, and I let them get to me.”
Shang sighed and sat back down, “I don’t like thinking about people treating you that way.”
“And I’m not a fan of being treated that way either but . . . I suppose it is part of this whole change.” Ping scooted closer to Shang and put his head on the taller man’s shoulder, “It’ll be different with you here now, though, they’re much more afraid of General Li Shang than they are of Fa Ping, former hero of China.”
“You’re still a hero.” Shang said firmly, putting his arm gently around Ping, then his face broke out in a smile, “Oh! I’ve brought you some things!”
Ping watched him reach for his travel bag and rifle through it, “You didn’t have to get me anything.”
“I know.” Shang smirked, he first pulled a scroll out with the Imperial seal, “This is your conscript. The Emperor would like to see you after your one-month birthday celebration and he himself will acknowledge you and you’re to come back to serve in the army.”
Ping’s eyes widened, “You spoke to the Emperor?”
Shang smiled, leaning back, “He asked why you had not accompanied me and I explained the whole thing.”
“He took it well?”
“His Eminence has decided that as a true thank you to you, he would honor his promise of a favor and if you accept, then this will-”
“Yes, of course I accept!” Ping said quickly, holding the scroll in his fist, “When do we leave?”
Shang chuckled, “After your rebirth, Ping, after.”
Ping pursed his lips, “I don’t know if I can wait that long . . . “
“Patience is a trait of a good warrior, remember?” Shang teased.
“I don’t remember that ever being one of my traits.” Ping grumbled.
“Quiet, you,” Shang smiled, reaching into the bag, “And I have two more things for you.”
“Yes, this is a recipe for liangyao, a physician for the concubines told me that it would . . erm, stop you from being able to . . . “ Shang gestured vaguely, his ears reddening, “You know . . . “
Ping blinked in confusion, “ . . . there are a lot of things that I could fill that space in with.”
“When you . . . “ Shang cleared his throat, “When you bleed.”
“Oh, that ,” Ping rolled his eyes, “You’ve killed men and talking about me bleeding once a month makes you uncomfortable?”
“Anyway!” Shang said quickly, “That soup is supposed to stop it completely and he swears by it stopping you from being able to give birth within a few months.”
Ping stared at the recipe and nodded, “Thank you, I’m not sure if I want to know the conversation you had to have to get this.”
“It was incredibly uncomfortable, but I’d do anything for you.” Shang said softly.
Ping smiled and kissed his cheek, “You’re a good husband.”
Shang smiled then handed Ping a small parcel, “This was a little more difficult to get as I had to try and find someone to ask after it.”
PIng opened the package and inside was a polished, brass funnel with the stem at an angle instead of straight downward,
“What is this for?”
“The Imperial eunuchs use them to piss.” Shang said simply, “They were very interested in why I asked them about that sort of thing.”
Ping blinked at the funnel then his eyes widened, “Oh!”
“They did say it takes a bit of practice but you’ll figure it out, I’m sure.”
PIng smiled, taking Shang’s hand, “Thank you, this makes my day so much better!”
Shang kissed Ping’s forehead, “I’m glad I can help you on your journey. I might not understand it but I would rather die than not be part of it. And for the record, despite your temper, you’re a good husband too.”
Ping’s cheeks reddened and he leaned into Shang, feeling so much better than he had not an hour before.
Khan slowed to a trot as Ping rode closer to the neighboring village, ‘neighboring’ being the operative word when it took several hours to make it this far but then he had important business to take care of so Ping wouldn’t complain too loudly.
Ping dismounted and was about to start looking around when he heard his name being yelled by very familiar voices, Ping smiled and turned then yelped as he was bombarded and finally lifted off his feet as Ling, Yao, and Chien po hugged him,
“Happy to see me?”
“So you were serious then?” Ling asked once Chien po released his hold and the thin man could step back and brush himself off.
Ping nodded, “Yes.”
“Can’t say I’m surprised.” Ling shrugged, smiling smugly, “I even called it!”
“Ya did not,” Yao snapped, “Chien po was the one that said it!”
Ling and Yao started to argue loudly while Ping walked alongside Chien po, Ping cocked an eyebrow up at the massive man,
“What did you say?”
“I sensed your aura and that it was off.” Chien po smiled, still looking forward, “Although I did not know how right I was.”
“Hm,” Ping stepped over Ling once Yao knocked him flat before offering the taller man a hand-up, “You guys alright?”
“I’m fine.” Ling muttered and glared at Yao who was dusting off the front of his tunic.
“It’ll take more than beanpole here ta lay me out!” Yao chuckled, dodging a swing from Ling.
Chien po chuckled and waved his arm toward a large, very noisy house at the far end, “Welcome to my home.”
As they stepped up to the front step, a gaggle of twelve girls ran up, getting in line as a man even larger than Chien po and a very tiny woman stood at the end of the line. The man chuckled deeply, his ample belly shaking as he stroked his long mustaches,
“Welcome, Fa Ping, to our home! Chien po has told us much about you, it remained a great mystery to us why he has not brought you here yet!”
“You’re most gracious, sir.” Ping bowed at the waist respectfully.
“I am Chang Boqin and this is my wife, Liqui.”
Liqui smiled warmly and waved toward the girls, “We would introduce you to each of the girls but there are so many and they run about so much that you would never remember which was which! Say hello to our guest, girls.”
All twelve girls ranging from about thirteen to maybe four bowed as best they could with the little ones wobbling a bit and all spoke in unison,
“Welcome to our home, Fa Ping!”
Boqin chuckled then looked down with the tiniest of the girls tugged on one of his long robe sleeves,
“Father, can we say hello to Brother Ling and Brother Yao the other way now?”
The big man made a big show of considering the request, rubbing his chin with all the girls holding their breath then he lolled his head one way then the other and nodded,
“I suppose just this once, you-”
The girls squealed and ran up to Yao, Ling and Chien po, giggling loudly as they clambered about. By the end, Yao had a little girl on each arm and leg, Ling had a child on his shoulders, and Chien po had the rest either swarming around him or in his big arms while his parents giggled to each other.
Ping watched the whole event with a bemused smile on his face, he wasn’t really surprised that this was the kind of family the calm, perpetually-smiling Chien po came from and he was about to remark as much when a massive hand landed on his shoulder, the patriarch of the family was smiling down from his impressive height,
“Liqui has made you and the boys tea and refreshment at the back of the house, make yourself comfortable!”
Ping smiled, a little take aback at how much larger the man was this close-up, “Thank you, I will.”
“Girls! Chores!” Liqui clapped her hands and all the girls bemoaned their fate while following her toward the house, with her tittering away at them and straightening dresses and adjusting braids, “Chien po rose with the sun and did his already but you lazy things? Ah! If we work together it will be done in no time! Such complaining over a little washing!”
Chien po chuckled as the last of his sisters were ushered inside and his father went off toward the market where a crowd of men waited,
“It is a loud house, but it is full of smiles and laughter.” He said softly, folding his hands over his stomach, “Of course, part of why i had not yet invited you over, they can be overwhelming.”
“Why do you think we hang around here so much?” Ling asked, slinging an arm around Ping’s shoulders, “Sure, the kids get kinda heavy after a while but they always laugh at my jokes!”
“They aren’t that heavy.” Yao snorted and spat, “Yer just too skinny.”
“And you’re short.” Ling pointed out scathingly.
“Tea?” Chien po cut in and lead the way to the back of the house; a small, covered porch with a teapot and cups were arranged on a low table where Chien po’s mother had set several dishes of small cakes..They all sat and poured themselves some tea, Ling balanced his cup on the back of his hand, looking up at Ping curiously,
“So . . . can we talk about it or no?”
Yao scowled, “It isn’t that important, is it?”
“It’s okay,” Ping said quickly before they could get in another scuffle, “We can talk about it.”
Ling switched the cup to his other hand and took a slow drink, regarding Ping over the rim,
“So you’re ‘Ping’ now? Full time?”
“Yes.” Ping said, nodding slowly.
“And . . . you’re still married to General Good Looking?” Ling leaned back, taking another drink.
‘Yes, well, we might have to redo the ceremony since Fa Mulan is technically dead now.” Ping shrugged, “But Mother and Father want to cover the expenses so it shouldn’t be too much trouble.”
“Mhm . . . “ Ling cleared his throat, “So you couldn’t have picked a more apt name then huh?”
Yao snorted into his tea and coughed, “Eh! You promised you wouldn’t mention that!”
“What?” Ling gestured to Ping, “‘Flowerpot’? Are you serious? How could I not mention it?”
“It’s an insult, ya skinny weasel!” Yao snapped.
“Oh come on!” Ling rolled his eyes, “No worse than other things I’ve heard.”
“It’s really not that big a-” Ping started, holding his hands up and grimacing.
“Oh yeah? Like what?” Yao leaned forward.
Ling blinked and shrugged nervously, “Well . . . nevermind, I didn’t say anything.”
“That’s what I thought.” Yao sat back and drank his tea.
Chien po, who had been quietly sipping his tea and watching the exchange set his cup down lightly and plucked a small, round cake from a dish, brushing the few crumbs it dropped on his tunic onto the ground,
“I do not think we need trouble ourselves with what others think of us.” He said evenly, “They will say the foolish things they wish without thinking about anyone else’s well-being but their own.”
Ling and Yao both nodded solemnly while PIng sat in slight confusion then he frowned,
“I . . . I have heard the things they say.”
All three friends turned slowly to Ping, there was a brittle silence that fell on them then Yao leaned forward and poured Ping more tea,
Ling’s eyes narrowed and he put his elbows on the table, craning his head forward, “What things?”
“It-It doesn’t matter, I mean, Chien po said-”
Chien po held up a hand and finished his cake in one bite, “Disregard my statement for now.”
Ping blinked then looked at all of their faces in turn, he doubted very much that he could simply change the subject so he shrugged,
“Just . . . things . . . that there’s something wrong with me or . . . with Shang . . . or my parents . . . “ Ping rubbed the back of his neck and stared down at his tea, “That my marriage is unnatural . . . the I’m confused . . . or sick . . . or should be put away . . . “
Ping could almost feel the tension in the air and he definitely heard Yao’s knuckles cracking as he clenched his meaty fists and Ling was grinding his teeth, but it was the almost motionless calm of Chien po that made Ping uneasy, the man was massive and his strength legendary, one could only imagine what kind of destruction the usually gentle, quiet giant was capable of if the mood struck him.
No one spoke for a few moments until Chien po let out a slow, even breath and reached for another cake,
Yao and Ling looked at each other then both stood up, Ping blinked, “Where are you going?”
Neither answered as they turned and left, Ping moved to stand up but Chien po grabbed his arm,
“They’re just going to let off some steam, it’s fine.”
“We are all greatly angered by the things people say about you. I handle anger differently then they do.”
“But what are they going to do?” Ping asked, his eyes wide in alarm.
Chien po shrugged, “Anything that uses up the anger. Ling will probably run a bit and Yao might offer to chop wood or lug rocks for one of the farmers. They’ve always been like this.”
“Oh.” Ping picked a bean cake up and took a slow bite, “How do you handle anger?”
The big man took a slow breath in, held it, then let it out, “Like that.”
Ping frowned, “You just breathe?”
Chien po nodded, “I take in a breath and let all the negative feelings collect in it then I breathe it out of me. Anger is a useless emotion, it doesn’t solve anything and doesn’t make anyone feel better so I choose to not feel it as often as possible. Anything can be solved and resolved when approached calmly with a clear head.”
Ping blinked at his half-a-cake and furrowed his brow, “I . . . I suppose that does make sense.”
“It is not for everyone, some cannot control their anger and I assure you, my way took years to perfect and I am still learning. I assume that once, if ever, I have a wife and children of my own I will have to relearn my techniques and adapt them.”
Ping hummed in agreement and sat back, supporting himself on his hands, “What do you think of all this? Of me?”
Chien po took a moment and finished his tea, reaching for the pot delicately, “Why do you ask? Would my opinion sway you?”
“No, probably not.”
“My point exactly, but given that we are friends and our opinion of you matters to you on a personal level, I will tell you,” Chien po sat back, shifting his weight to get comfortable and his ever-present smile widened a bit, “We are fine with it, while Yao and Ling had many questions and still do, they see no difference. They defended you back then and they will now. As for myself, as I said, your aura was all wrong when we met but now it is perfect and you seem at peace. Stronger in some way but it fits.”
Ping breathed out in relief, “I’ll admit I was a little worried.”
“I do not blame you, next to your family and spouse, I do not imagine this was nearly as hard but to lose friendships over something out of our control seems silly to me. Our bond was made in war and uncertain times, I do not think even I would have the strength to break it.” Chien po chuckled and sipped his tea, “And I have a considerable amount of strength!”
Ping smiled, “I know, I’ve seen it.”
They talked about small things for a while then one of the girls scurried out with a fresh pot of tea, her eyes wide as she stared at Ping, she stepped forward shyly and glanced up at him,
Ping turned and smiled at the girl, “Yes?”
“Is it true that you were a girl before?”
Ping blinked and felt something bristle inside himself then he caught the anger that boiled up to the back of his throat, took a breath, and glanced at Chien po who’s eyebrow was raised at his sister and he was just setting his cup down and opening his mouth but Ping cut him off,
“Yes,” Ping said gently, “I was on the outside, but on the inside i knew i was a boy.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she smiled, hopping up to hug Ping, “I’m happy your outside and inside are in harmony now!”
Then she turned and ran back to the house with the empty pot in hand, Chien po sighed,
“I’m sorry, I tried to explain things to them, they knew your name from us talking before and-”
“No, it’s fine,” Ping shook his head, “I was angry for a moment but then . . . I realized that I might be speaking to someone like me without either of us knowing and she didn’t mean it to be rude.”
Chien po’s face softened and he nodded, “I am glad, you should feel comfortable and safe here, this house is home to all.”
Ping smiled, “This is a good place.”
Yao and Ling wouldn’t return for some time and neither would say where they had been but they seemed to be in much better spirits, Ling was making the sisters giggle and laugh with jokes and impressions and Yao came to sit with Chien po, Ping and Chien po’s parents, the short man grunted and accepted a cup of wine, he looked at Ping and cleared his throat,
“If anyone gives ya a hard time, ya tell us, got it?”
PIng grimaced, “I don’t ne-”
“I said ‘do ya got it?’.” Yao said more firmly.
Ping nodded, slowly, “Alright, I’ll let you know.”
“Good.” Yao drank his wine, muttering, “Savin’ China isn’t good enough for some people . . . no, gotta do everythin’ how they see it . . . ungrateful . . . “
“It is good to have good friends who have your best interest at heart!” Liqui smiled and patted Ping’s arm, “The boys have all been friends since they were very young, we knew that when they went off to war they would keep each other safe.”
“Although Chien po did not want to go,” Boqin said around the stem of the pipe he’d just lit, “He had his heart set on joining the Brothers at the monastery up the hill.”
“Really? You wanted to be a monk?” Ping asked, he was curious but then, it made perfect sense.
Chien po nodded and sighed, “That’s why I cut my hair. I was ready to go when the conscript for our household came and . . . well, I went in my father’s place. And, as fulfilling as the monastic life would be for me, I began to realize that I wanted to experience more of the world and perhaps by living among people, having a family, I could, in my own way, also spread peace and tranquility.”
Boqin chuckled, nodding his head sagely, “Chien po would have made a fine monk, but he will also make a fine husband and father, I think, he has patience for ages and a kind heart. And even so, if he chooses to pursue the life of a monk, I am not worried, I know that were anything to happen to me, Yao and Ling would not let the family go hungry or the farm go to ruin.”
“Right!” Ling said, looking up from a shadow play he was doing about a turtle and a fox for the little ones.
“Ya got nothin’ ta worry about.” Yao affirmed with a nod of his head.
Chien po beamed at his friends, “I do not foresee me donning the robes any time soon but perhaps some day.”
They chatted about the weather and planting, Boqin was vastly interested in Zhou’s rice and wheat fields and now Ping was to ask his father about perhaps trading or business partnership as Boqin raised pork and chickens. And as the night wore on, it was settled that Ping would be spending the night at the Chang house along with Ling and Yao.
Liqui pulled Ping aside while the girls were cleaning up supper and bringing out another jug of wine, she spoke in a hushed tone,
“Where would you be the most comfortable, Ping?”
Ping shifted, eyebrow rising, “How do you mean?”
“For sleeping. If you are not comfortable sleeping with the boys, we can shove them out onto the porch and you can have Chien po’s room.” She said.
“Oh, um, that’s not . . . that’s not necessary.” Ping said quietly, “But thank you.”
She nodded, patting PIng’s arm, “If you change your mind, let me know.”
He nodded and went back out while Ling was in the middle of an interesting anecdote about a koi fish the size of the Imperial barge and how he fished it out of a pond but it got away at the last second.
Ping undid his waist-belt then stopped, they were in Chien po’s room and everyone else had gone to bed, finally after another jug of wine, the four friends decided to call it a night as well. Ling, Yao and Chien po were already down to their short pants and laying out extra bedding, Chien po had volunteered to take the floor since his bed was massive enough for the other three to share it.
Ping tried to rationalize to himself that they had technically all seen him naked or nearly before and he had absolutely seen all of them naked, but still . . . he hesitated with his tunic open on the bandages he used to bind with, frozen in his own thoughts until he heard his name.
“Ping, ya alright?” Yao asked, sitting on the edge of Chien po’s bed.
“I’m . . . I’m fine.” Ping said a little shakily.
“If you want us to leave, we will.” Ling said gently, “There’s no pressure.”
Ping bit his lip and slowly turned around, pulling his shoulder-length hair out of the topknot and swallowing,
“I can’t sleep with these on . . . “ He explained softly, gesturing to his bandages.
“It doesn’t bother us.” Chien po said, sitting down on the floor bedding, “We respect you.”
Ping smiled a bit, “I’m lucky I have you three as my friends.”
“We feel the same.” Ling smiled and flopped back on the massive bed.
Ping slipped his tunic off and undid the bandages before moving to the bed, “I suppose I didn’t have much of a chest before that it hardly matters now.”
Yao chuckled, “No one would think twice if they saw ya, I mean, look at Chien po’s chest!”
Ling laughed, “He sure filled that dress out at the Emperor’s didn’t he?”
Chien po laid back after blowing out the candle, “You’re just jealous, I would have made the Emperor a happy man!”
They all laughed, settling into drowsy silence then Ling sat up a bit, propping himself up on his elbow,
“Hey, Ping, can I ask you something?”
“Hm?” Ping was already curled up under the blanket with one of Chien po’s pillows tucked under half his body.
“So Shang, he’s really okay with this, right?”
PIng opened one eye, “Yes, why?”
“I just wanted to make sure you were okay on that front,” Ling said softly, “You love each other and it would be a real shame if . . . if he . . . you know.”
Ping shifted and sighed, “Honestly, he’s taken things better than I thought possible and . . . he’s doing all he can to help me.”
“That’s good.” Yao mumbled, “Otherwise we’d have to kick Pretty Boy’s behind.”
“We’d show him, wouldn’t we, guys?” Ling said with a touch more confidence then Ping thought any of them should have.
“Yeah!” Yao agreed readily.
Chien po chuckled, “Good thing we don’t have to. I don’t like the General’s odds.”
Ping laughed and settled back into the pillows, “Thanks guys, you’re the best.”
“We know.” All three chorused and Ping made sure to smack at least two of them.
“Oh, my birthday celebration is in a week, I’d really like it if you all came, and your families.” Ping murmured after retrieving the pillow and settling back in.
“I know my family would love to come.” Chien po chuckled, “We will bring some food and wine, wouldn’t do for the Chang clan to come like a plague of locusts!”
“Yao and me will be there too.” Ling said.
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Yao agreed.
Funny story, my mum is a bit of an empath, sees auras and such, and before I transitioned/came out/stuff, she always talked about how my aura was a bit off, that it seemed like it belonged to someone else or I had a 'male spirit'. Turns out she was pretty spot on.
A celebration, a short trip and a grave decision.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The noise was so great that Ping was certain the next village over could hear them but then again, he hoped everyone in all of China could hear this.
The party was in full swing, Grandmother and Ping dyed eggs red and decorated the front courtyard while Li and some of Ping’s cousins cooked a gigantic meal. Everyone was wearing their best clothes and Ping had a new red robe. Jugs of wine were passed around and things felt like they were going pretty well. Shang leaned back against Ping,
“Are your friends here yet?”
“Not yet,” Ping scanned the crowd, “But they said they would be here so-”
As if on cue, there was a great booming laugh and in through the gates came the entire Chang clan, each of the girls carrying a dish or basket and Chien po, Yao and Ling were each carrying large jugs. Boqin greeted Zhou warming, both bowing low to each other,
“Ah! The Honorable Fa Zhou! Good to meet the face of such an illustrious name and history!”
“And it is good to meet friends of my son,” Zhou smiled, “He has spoken very highly about your family and I am most intrigued by the proposal of merging our resources.”
Boqin beamed and shook his great stomach with a resounding laugh, “Well! Perhaps we will discuss this in more detail later, my wife would not look kindly on me trying to do business as a party guest!”
After that they broke off into different areas with the girls running to play with the other children, Liqui talking animatedly with Li and Grandmother and Boqin sat smoking a pipe with Zhou and the elder men and women, all swapping stories and laughing. Yao, Ling and Chien po sat with Shang and Ping, Ling leaned over the low table as he peeled an egg,
“Quite a turnout! I’m not that surprised though, who wouldn’t want to go to a party for you?”
Ping blushed and shrugged, “Well, it’s mostly my family . . . “
“Even so,” Ling continued, popping half the egg in his mouth, “It’s gotta be a good feeling having all these people around who support you.”
Shang smiled, “We’re both very pleased.”
Yao chuckled, “So General now, huh?”
“Yes.” Shang cocked an eyebrow, leaning to the side, his head tilted back.
“Bet I can still beat ya.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Did I stutter?”
“Out back with this nonsense!” Grandmother said, appearing as if by magic among them as she came around with platters of meat and vegetables, “But let me know before you start, I could make a killing betting on this!”
Ping laughed and shook his head, “Na Ni, don’t let Mama and Baba hear you!”
Grandmother winked at Ping then bustled over to another table.
Ling snickered and drank some wine, “So, you are going back to the military then?”
Ping nodded and smiled around a mouthful of ginger soup, “Mhm.”
“And I’ll see to it that you’re made an officer straightaway.” Shang sat back down, picking up a tea cup.
“No.” Ping shook his head and set his bowl down.
“What? Why?” Shang blinked in confusion.
“Yeah, you’re more than qualified.” Ling said, narrowing his eyes.
“Yer the Hero of China!” Yao pointed out.
“Quiet and let him explain.” Chien po said softly before delicately plucking a sliver of meat from a plate with his chopsticks.
“Fa Mulan was the Hero of China, I’m Fa Ping,” Ping said simply, “I want to earn it on my own merits, I wasn’t an officer in the military before, I shouldn’t just get the position now because people think I should.”
Shang sighed, “I suppose that’s fair . . . “
“Ah, he’ll be fine,” Ling waved a hand dismissively, “He’ll be a General before you know it too.”
“I don’t know about that.” Ping said doubtfully, “Let’s just take it one step at a time.”
“Are any of you thinking of re-enlisting?” Shang asked.
“No.” All three said almost immediately, shaking their heads.
“I have my family’s masonry business to help run.” Ling shrugged.
“And my father needs me on the farm and to look after my siblings.” Chien po said over his cup’s rim.
“I don’t want to.” Yao shook his head.
“Fair enough,” Shang sounded a bit disappointed but he cleared his throat, “Well, I wish you luck in what you pursue.”
They all nodded and went back to eating.
There were fireworks and performers later as the night wore on, then everyone settled in for tea before returning to their homes. The Chang family were invited to stay, all the little girls were playing happily with Little Brother while the parents were back by the cherry tree talking. Shang wrapped his arms around Ping from behind as they watched the children playing,
“I cannot wait to have some of our own.” He murmured in Ping’s ear.
“I never would have thought you’d be so eager to have children.” Ping smiled.
Shang shrugged, “I’ve always wanted a house full of children, I see Boqin’s family with so many children and, I don't’ know, Ping . . . I get jealous.”
“Our time will come too,” Ping said gently, “We’re still young.”
“I know but it doesn’t make me less impatient.” Shang sighed, putting his head on Ping’s shoulder.
“Oh don’t pout, Shang, it’s unbecoming of a General to pout.” Ping teased.
“I’m not pouting!”
“Yes you are! You’re doing that face!” Ping laughed.
Shang stepped back and crossed his arms over his chest, “I’m not doing a face, this is just my face!”
“You’re pouting.” Grandmother said, suddenly on Ping’s other side, nearly startling him to death.
“How do you keep doing that?” Ping asked suspiciously, it reminded him of hos Shi Long would magically appear out of thin air.
“You are oblivious and I walk quietly.” Grandmother chuckled, “I think things are winding down for the night. And so am I,” She put a hand on Ping’s shoulder and smiled, “Happy birthday, grandson.”
“Thank you, Na Ni.” Ping accepted a kiss on the cheek before Grandmother went to her bedroom.
Shang took Ping’s hand and took a step back, “Shall we say good night as well?”
Ping nodded, “I think I’m ready.”
Ping sat on Khan’s back and stared with great uncertainty at the gate, Shang rode up next to him,
“Are you alright?”
“Well,” Ping shrugged, “I just don’t know.”
“I think you do.” Shang reached over and put a hand on Ping’s leg, “I think you want this badly and you’re letting what other people think get in your way. I believe in you, your family and friends believe in you.”
Ping blinked then looked back at the Imperial City’s gates, the huge imposing wooden gates stood over him with their carvings of great dragons. He swallowed then furrowed his brow and set his jaw,
I am the Dragon.
“Welcome, Fa Ping, your arrival was greatly anticipated,” The Emperor walked down the steps of the first dias under his throne, “I have been assured that you will take your place once more in the army’s ranks?”
“Yes, Your Eminence.” Fa Ping bowed and swallowed, his palms were sweating
“Excellent, I have arranged you to captain a squadron at our Western trade routes.”
Ping stood up straight and shook his head, “I am flattered, but with all due respect, Your Eminence, I think I should start back at the bottom and earn my place.”
The Emperor’s eyebrow arched and he steepled his fingers in front of his chest,
“And may I ask why when none would question your position?”
“They wouldn’t question it because you yourself would place me there, but I want to prove myself once more as a capable soldier and . . . I fear I still have much to learn about being a good leader before I would trust myself with other mens’ lives.”
The Emperor nodded his head slowly, “Wise words indeed, Fa Ping, very well, you will return to the training grounds once more with other recruits and I wish you success befitting your past accomplishments under your new name.”
“Thank you.” Ping bowed again as the Emperor turned to leave.
Shang nudged Ping, “We can go now. And you can breathe again.”
Ping blew out a long breath and shook his head as they headed to a door on the left,
“I don’t think my heart can take much more of this.”
“You did fine, I think you put too much pressure on yourself.” Shang smiled and took Ping’s hand.
“I just want to do right by-”
“By everyone.” Shang finished, eyebrow rising, “How about you work on doing right by yourself?”
Ping stopped and looked at Shang, “You know, if I had a grain of rice for every time people told me to think of myself before anyone else over these last months, I’d have enough to last an aeon. I am thinking of myself, that’s why I’m here. I’m not doing this for anyone but myself, I’m not doing it for my family or you or China, I’m doing it for me and that’s why I’m nervous. I want to proud of myself.”
Shang blinked and nodded, “That makes sense, I’m sorry, I just want you to be happy because everyone around you is proud of you and happy for you. I want you to share in it.”
Ping shrugged, “I do, your support is far from lost on me, believe me, Shang.”
His husband smiled and kissed Ping’s forehead, “Good. Now, we’ll send word back home to have all of your things packed and sent ahead of you. You can leave straight from here.”
Ping nodded and followed Shang to the end of the hallway, “Alright. So, what do we do now?”
Shang shrugged, “I can show you a few things, if you like. Have you ever spent a lot of time in the Imperial City?”
“I haven’t spent a lot of time anywhere.” Ping admitted.
Shang smiled, “Then come on, I’ll show you around!”
They spent the remainder of that day and the following three days wandering about the city and seeing the sights, visiting the temples and marketplaces. But on the last day before Ping was supposed to set out, Shang took him aside into a side street, Ping looked around in confusion as Shang’s face became darker and more serious,
“What is it?”
“I found something out.” Shang said softly.
“What’re you talking about?”
“I’ve been asking around the court for . . . . for something that was very hard to find and I admit I am very skeptical about it.”
Ping stepped back, eyeing Shang nervously, “Shang?”
“I wanted you to be safe no matter what and . . . as you are, if anything happened . . . “ Shang licked his lips, “You talked about changing your body, so I looked into it.”
Ping’s eyes widened and he looked around, “I did not think you would take that so seriously.”
“Surgeons do exist that would be willing to do it, for a price, but . . . it would extremely difficult and it would have to be done in secret.”
“You know that tradition dictates only performing surgery when absolutely necessary!” Ping looked over his shoulder.
“And my soul would be at unrest forever if anything didn’t follow me to the grave!” Ping’s voice rose a bit in a panic.
“I know!” Shang said quickly, putting his hands on Ping’s shoulders, “I know, I’ve thought of that and I thought perhaps if we credit those . . . parts to Fa Mulan as well, maybe that will even things out.”
Ping’s mouth hung open and his eyes stayed wide in shock, “If I do this, I could be cursed forever.”
Shang swallowed and nodded, “I am willing to share in that curse, if you are doomed to walk this plane after as an restless spirit, I will find a way to join you. I won’t let you be alone even in death.”
“I don’t know if I’m willing to risk this.” Ping murmured.
He thought of Shi Long and what this might mean, would the dragon’s spirit leave him? Would it be angered? Would he no longer have a place in the shrine with his ancestors? And more presently, what of the risk of being cut like that? How long would it take to recover? Would he recover at all? What if he died right then and there?
“I-I need to think about it.”
“We don’t have time. If we act now, I can postpone your deployment for another cycle for you to recover, we can say you fell ill unexpectedly. You haven’t spent much time in the city before and it would be believable, that's why I waited until now to bring it up.”
Ping’s breathing was shaky and he hugged himself tightly, “Give me a moment alone. Please.”
Shang nodded, “Whatever you choose, I’m with you.”
Ping turned and hurried down the side street and continued on as rain drops started to fall on the cobblestone streets.
Traditionally, if anything is 'left behind' when you're cremated after death your spirit is said to roam the earth, so surgeries are only performed when death would be the outcome otherwise. Even eunuchs are given back their 'parts' upon death and their ultimate release from service. So Ping's fear is pretty well justified.
A difficult decision and the fear that follows it.
This . . . was worse to write.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The rain began in earnest as Ping’s feet pounded against the stone streets, people were running about, heads bent under parasols, arms, baskets, anything to protect against the worsening downpour but Ping didn’t even bother as he pushed his way through the dwindling crowds until he seemed to be the only one about.
He continued to run despite his lungs burning and his legs aching, his hair fell around his face in tendrils that clung and stuck to his face and neck, his clothes were soaked and the bindings around his chest were loosening but he didn’t stop until he was at the top of a temple’s steps. Ping staggered inside, his breath coming out in misty puffs and he shivered, looking back at the pouring rain and then back to the temple’s interior, there was no one around, the wind having blown out many of the candles and incense sticks but he saw what he’d been looking for.
A massive bronze dragon, its mouth open in a silent roar as it clutched a massive pearl under its chin, the yin and yang emblazoned on its chest. Ping shivered and slowly approached, he fumbled about for a candle that was almost burned out and lit some incense, placing it in a holder at the foot of the dragon. He fell to his knees and pressed his forehead to the cold floor.
Ping opened his mouth then closed it as a great, gulping sob wracked his body, he tried again and again to get words out or even a coherent thought but all he could manage was to kneel there sobbing and shivering until he sat up and gathered enough breath for two words,
And for the first time, he saw Shi Long materialize, it was like watching a coil of smoke unfurl as it went upwards into the atmosphere, Shi Long’s massive coils rolled out like a scroll and the dragon materialized, pipe clutched between Shi’s jaws,
There was a long silence between them, Ping stared up at the dragon and he stared back, smoke slowly curling out of Shi’s mouth and nostrils then the dragon shifted forward a bit,
Ping blinked, “I don’t know.”
“It is amazing to me how often you claim to not know when you are already halfway to a decision,” Shi Long shook his massive head and slithered forward, his head resting on the floor so that he was eye-level with Ping, “Foolish child, I know you are already thinking of the possibility.”
“What do you want me to say, Fa Ping?”
“I just want you to tell me what to do!”
“I told you I sensed no great darkness in your future, I cannot give you anymore reassurances then that.” Shi shook his head again, his chin scraping on the stone, the pearl shifted to be next to him, “I know not what you will face nor what will await you in death. All I can say is that it is up to you. I cannot choose something like this for you, nor would I want to.”
“Afraid, I know,” Shi dropped his pipe and scooted ever closer until his nose was almost pressed to Ping’s chest, “Fear is normal, all things feel fear, even a Dragon must from time to time but you are a Dragon if ever one walked on two legs, Fa Ping. You must do what you see fit and as the old you perished and burned away, the new you becomes that much clearer and purer,”
Ping swallowed thickly, “How-How far can you sense?”
Shi frowned and sighed, “The farther forward I focus, the more difficult it is, it’s like trying to find your way home on a scent alone except you don’t know what scent to follow.”
Ping slumped, Shi nudged him and the young man leaned forward before collapsing into the dragon’s mane and bursting into a fresh wave of tears, hugging tightly onto Shi Long’s neck and the dragon let him. They stayed that way for some time, Shi Long eventually slid under Ping fully and coiled in a corner, breathing jets of heated air to dry Ping off and then they settled there. Shi Long’s massive blue eye rolled to look at Ping,
Ping nodded, “I should go through with it.”
“Shang is right, I’ll be safer and . . . “ Ping touched the bindings that had come undone and were frayed and now crumpled from being wet, “ . . . I hate binding.”
Shi chuckled, shaking his head and folding his paws over the pearl, turning to smirk at Ping,
“I suppose that is as good a reason as any.”
Ping licked his chapped lips and sighed, “Can you tell me what you sense in the immediate future?”
“Pain. Hardship. Fear-”
Ping groaned and covered his face with his hands but Shi used a claw to pull one of Ping’s hands away,
“But elation follows. I am unclear as to what causes all of these things nor the nature of them, be they physical or otherwise, but whatever it is, you will triumph.” Shi’s voice was soft and he pressed the side of his head to Ping’s side.
Ping hesitantly reached up and stroked Shi’s mane, “Shi?”
“Were you this close to Grandmother?”
“Yes. She would come to speak with me in the night when none were around. I think she trusted my assistance more than she should have however, my presence emboldened her and she became even more outspoken and daring! And she raised her son to be that way as well,” Shi chuckled, closing his eyes, “She was so proud of him when he returned home, certainly she was terrified at how grave his injuries were and many a night she spent with me and the Ancestors praying fervently for her son’s life, but she glowed with pride at how much he had achieved. The Fa family has strength rooted deep in the earth like a great tree.”
They were quiet for another stretch, Ping looked out at the rain as it continued to pour,
“ . . . Shi?”
“I am glad you are here.”
“As am I. You are strong, Fa Ping, but even the strong need a little help.” Shi chuckled, “Your husband will be looking for you and he will hope you have an answer to his proposal.”
Ping slid off of Shi’s coils and stood on the stone floor, he took a deep breath, “I have an answer.”
“I thought you would.” Shi moved forward, his claws clicking on the stone then he vanished once more.
Ping sat in the temple alone for a little while longer before he stood and made his way back to the entrance, standing in the doorway for a moment before taking a deep breath and hugging his clothes as tightly to himself as possible before hurrying into the sheets of rain.
Ping was incredibly grateful that they were staying in the Imperial palace, it was easy to find even through pouring rain, he stumbled up to his and Shang’s rooms, water puddling after him, no one had really stopped him or spoke to him but then they probably didn’t know who he was.
He pushed the door open and staggered in, Shang looked up with wide eyes and quickly got to his feet,
“Ping! You’re all wet!”
Ping cocked an eyebrow and shut the door behind him, “I’m as surprised as you are.”
Shang quickly pulled Ping toward their wash room, “And you’re freezing! How long were you in the rain?”
“As long as it took to get back here.” Ping mumbled, the cold and wet making him sleepy.
Shang helped Ping out of his soaked clothing and then wrapped a thick blanket around the smaller man, they went back to the very large lounge area where a brazier was smoldering away in the center, Shang sat down on a cushion and pulled Ping into his lap, rubbing the smaller man’s shoulders and back to get him warmed up.
“Where did you go?”
“I needed to think.” Ping murmured, putting his head on Shang’s shoulder.
Shang sighed, “Yes, but where were you?”
“One of the temples to pray.” Ping closed his eyes as warmth soaked into his body.
Shang nodded, “Ah, that makes sense.”
They sat in silence then Shang opened his robe and pulled Ping to his bare chest and closed it around them,
“Did you . . . did you come up with an answer?”
“I’ll do it.” Ping said softly, opening his eyes to slits and licking his lips, “I’ll go through with it and you can tell anyone that I got sick from being in the rain.”
Shang swallowed thickly, squeezing his eyes shut and pressing his cheek to Ping’s head,
“Part of me hoped you would refuse,” He whispered roughly, clearing his throat, “I . . . I know that I was the one that put the idea to you but . . . but if anything should happen to you . . . “
Ping looked up and leaned back, he reached up and used a corner of the blanket he was still wrapped in to wipe at Shang’s face, catching a few tears,
“It will be alright, I . . . “ Ping bit his lip, “I can feel it.”
Shang swallowed and nodded, “You’re-You’re right, I just . . . I just can’t lose you and all of this is so risky. What if it isn’t worth it and I’m wrong?”
Ping snorted and shook his head, “I’ve been asking myself that same question for months now.”
“If you are sure, I will send word.”
“I am sure.”
Shang nodded, “In the morning, we will go, don’t eat anything tonight or in the morning.”
Ping nodded, “Will you do me a favor?”
“Do not contact my parents or tell them what we are about to do.” Ping said seriously.
Shang opened his mouth then snapped it shut, “If that is what you want . . . “
“I don’t want them to be worried. We can tell them I fell ill and I’ll stay in the City to recover, tell them I’ll have the best doctors and anything else you can think of to keep them happy but do not tell them what really happened.”
Shang was silent for a moment nodded slowly but didn’t respond, he looked off to the side, the muscles in his jaw working and Ping could hear the General’s teeth grinding,
Shang closed his eyes.
Ping sat back, cocking his head, “Shang?”
Shang stood up after carefully shifting Ping off his lap and stood by a large window, staring out into the storm that was slowly building,
“Do you know the last time I was this afraid and anxious?” He whispered.
“No.” Ping moved to be kneeling, his brow creased with concern.
“I wasn’t afraid when Father went to the front. I wasn’t afraid when I stood against the Hun army. I wasn’t even afraid when I faced Shan Yu himself,” He turned around, his eyes full of tears and his face was doing its best to keep its composure, “The last time I was this afraid was when I thought I would lose you. When I saw blood on your armor and watched you slip almost away. Feeling helpless and alone and not knowing what to do then realizing there was nothing I could do.”
Ping slowly got to his feet, “ . . . Shang.”
“I know I told you about this offer and I want you to be happy, I want you to feel complete and live as your true self and I want all the world for you,” Shang swallowed and took a slow breath as he struggled to keep calm, “But . . . but, Ping, what if you slip away again and I can’t save you?”
Ping reached out and took Shang’s face in his hands, “I don’t know.”
Shang’s face crumbled and he pressed into Ping’s shoulder, his shoulders shaking as Ping held him. They stayed like that for a time then went to their bed, Shang slipped his robe off his shoulders and they curled around each other under the covers. Shang pressed his nose into Ping’s neck and hiccuped,
“I . . . I would follow you in death.”
Ping sat up suddenly, turning to stare open-mouthed at Shang, “You will do no such thing!”
Shang sat up, “I can’t live without you!”
“You’ll have to try!” Ping hissed, “Our family will need you!”
“I don’t care!” Shang shouted, making Ping jump back a bit.
Shang breathed heavily for a moment or two then blinked and moved to sit on the edge of the bed, Ping stared at Shang’s back then shook his head,
“Perhaps this isn’t a good idea.”
Shang covered his face with his hands and sighed, “No, I’m sorry, I’m being unfair and reactionary, that isn’t the right way to look at this.”
Ping pulled Shang back into bed and they laid in the dark, Shang shifted onto his back,
“This is . . . I’m not used to this much anxiety and uncertainty.”
“I know, you like having a plan and rules and for everything to fall into place neatly.” Ping said softly, scooting up to Shang.
“I need to think of this in a different way,” Shang said, pursing his lips, “I need to find a different angle before I lose my mind.”
“Well . . . why not think about it like . . . like a maneuver or whatever you officers do with soldiers? You’ve always had an easier time of breaking things down that way.” Ping suggested gently, reaching up to brush some of Shang’s long hair away.
Shang smiled slightly, turning to wrap his arms around Ping, “Excellent point, my love, I’ll try to think of it like that.”
Ping closed his eyes tiredly and snuggled into Shang, “Everything will be fine, Shang.”
He wished he could assure Shang more, tell him that he knew for certain things would work out and they would be fine but . . . he couldn’t tell Shang about Shi Long or anything about the dragon’s future sense, no telling how dangerous that kind of power could be nor what it would mean . . .
There are . . . a LOT of emotions when it comes to this kind of decision. It is terrifying and unsettling to step forward in one's transition even in today's world where we have advanced medicine and surgery. Everyone is different in how they approach these issues and how they and those around them cope with it is a very real, very painful reality.
The day of change has come and Ping is ready for at least that much.
Shang and Ping were quiet the next morning, the rain had finally abated to just a light shower, they were both sitting staring down at the table until Shang cleared his throat and got to his feet,
“As I’ll ever be, I imagine.” Ping nodded and stood.
They made their way down to the street and Shang led the way down a few streets until they came to a rather large building wedged in a cluster of small houses. They stepped in through the sliding door and were waved through a back door where a wizened old man and two older women were waiting.
“General Li, Master Fa,” The man and women bowed low, “An honor and privilege, to be sure.”
“You got the message I sent?” Shang asked quickly, glancing over his shoulder as the door closed.
“Yes, yes, we are aware of the situation and we can assure you our discretion and efficiency.” the doctor nodded a few times then waved the women away, “Prepare the room.”
Ping shifted nervously, looking around, “How long is this going to take?”
“Not long if all goes well,” the doctor nodded again, not looking at Ping, “We are very well-versed in these things, although we have not treated the spouse of a general, our clientele is generally prostitutes.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised,” Ping said softly, “Do you do surgery often?”
The three elderly people exchanged looks then bustled about without looking up again, the doctor cleared his throat,
“The gravity of these tasks is such that we do not speak openly about them. You understand, I am sure?”
Ping nodded, “I do.”
“We will begin then.”
Ping kissed Shang before he was ushered out of the room, then awkwardly disrobed, he was handed a lit pipe. He swallowed and took a slow pull at the pipe, the doctor told him to breathe deeply and count to six. Ping swayed then felt himself sliding into the dark embrace of unconsciousness.
I am . . the Dragon . . .
Wakefulness came slowly and with a slow, dull throb, Ping thought at first it was a drum being played in the distance but then he came to realize it was his own heartbeat pulsing loudly in his ears and head. He tried to open his eyes but they felt like there were stones weighing them down, in fact his whole body felt heavy and sluggish as if he were suspended in mud or porridge. Ping felt a presence nearby and he could vaguely hear muffled voices, he would have asked what was going on but his mouth was too dry to make sound at the moment.
“ . . . coming around . . . give him a . . . no, just calm down . . . “
“What . . . are you sure? . . . Ping?”
Ping shifted then gasped in pain, “Ah! Shang?”
He felt his hand being grabbed and someone leaning close, “I’m here, Ping, I’m here.”
Ping managed to pry his eyes open and slowly looked to his left where Shang was crouching anxiously at his side,
“How’d it go?”
“Fairly well, Master Fa,” The doctor said from his other side, “We were done faster than usual and the scarring will be minimal. You are quite lucky you are so young as the healing will be quick and your body will adapt faster.”
Ping blinked and tried to sit up only to hiss in pain, he pulled the blanket that covered him back and blinked, from his armpits to his hips was wrapped tightly in bandages with cloth packed under some spots, his eyes widened and he looked at Shang,
“I didn’t realize it would be so much.”
“What did you expect? We had a lot to work on and General Li was very specific of what we were to do.” The doctor leaned his head back, putting the cloth he’d been wiping his hands off with.
Ping looked at Shang in surprise, “What’d you tell-”
“We removed the breasts and the female organ,” The doctor cut in, his face very serious as he stepped closer, “It was very invasive and we do not discuss our techniques as they are taboo and if any of us were found out the consequences will be . . . unpleasant. We have already burned the organs as per General Li’s instructions with a prayer said to your past self.”
“Will that be good enough?” Ping asked, looking at all the bandages warily.
The doctor shrugged, “We have not been visited by any vengeful spirits yet so I imagine it is. Rest assured we take this very seriously and many steps to ensure your safety in this life and the next.”
Ping nodded slowly, “So, I can go?”
Here he chuckled, “You can try but I would suggest sleeping off the sedation we gave you and waiting to see what kind of pain you might be in. Once we know what to give you and how mobile you can be, then we will send you back to your rooms.”
“Thank you, might we be alone?” Shang asked, still holding Ping’s hand.
“Of course, take all the time you need.”
They watched the older man leave then looked at each other, Ping licked his lips and closed his eyes for a brief moment,
“So it’s over?”
“Yes.” Shang murmured, reaching up to brush some of Ping’s hair back.
It took several hours before Ping was awake and mobile enough to make it to the palace but even after that, it was a good deal of resting and bandage changing and being concerned over every little pain.
And the scars.
Ping sat as Shang unwound the bandages to change the dressings, as always the young General paused once the bandages were hanging loosely around PIng’s middle to just stare at the two diagonal, stitched lines that went from Ping’s armpit to his sternum. Ping carefully started to rub an ointment that smelled strongly of lemon and honey to the scars while Shang disposed of the old bandages and retrieved the fresh roll.
Ping looked up when Shang breathed out sharply, “You alright?”
“I’ve seen a lot of different war wounds and scars, but for some reason watching you do that makes me a little queasy.” Shang sat back down across from Ping, shifting the clean roll of bandages between his hands.
“Maybe it’s just because it is me and not someone else? You always react a little stronger to my pain then to others.” Ping pointed out as he put the lid back on the little tub of ointment, “It doesn’t hurt much to be honest.”
“And I know you would tell me otherwise.” Shang scooted closer on his knees and they started to rewrap Ping’s torso.
“Yup.” Ping grimaced as he held his arms up at shoulder height, it didn’t hurt, but it was a strain.
Shang looked up when Ping hissed softly in pain while putting his tunic back in order,
“I’m alright, I’m fine,” Ping grimaced and waved dismissively, “Just a twinge.”
Shang shifted and nodded, “Alright.”
They relaxed quietly for a moment or two then they looked at each other at the sound of hurried footsteps coming toward their door, Shang frowned and slowly stood, reaching the door as frantic knocking shook the sliding door. He quickly opened it on a herald looking nervous and breathing heavily,
“G-General Shang, Master Fa, your presence is urgently requested by the Emperor and the other Generals!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” Shang said, quickly slipping his shoes on and glancing over his shoulder at Ping who was carefully getting to his feet.
“I do not know, sir, I was only sent to get you.” The messenger shifted anxiously.
“Alright, we’re going, thank you.” Shang shut the door and hurried to help Ping, “Are you well enough?”
“I can walk, yes, so long as they don’t expect me to perform a dance or anything.” PIng tried to smile but the urgency of the message made his heart flutter uneasily. He said a silent prayer to Shi Long for strength as he and Shang rushed as best they could out the door.
Ping and Shang bowed to the Emperor and other Generals as they stepped into the room, Ping stood a bit away as he wasn’t a General and would rather just observe at the moment.
The Emperor steepled his fingers in front of his robes and nodded,
“You know General Liu from the Western Front and this is General Zhang and General Wei from the North. Our other military leaders are unfortunately too far for such an impromptu meeting and the four of you were already in the city.”
“General Li, welcome, we meet under grave tidings.” One of the older Generals said, nodding to Shang.
“Thank you,” Shang turned to the Emperor, glancing at the massive table-map, “What is going on?”
“It seems our old enemies are not content to fade away after their defeat last winter,” The Emperor moved around and waved a hand grandly at the map, “The Huns are back, more specifically, if our information is to be believed, an army twice that of Shan Yu’s is trying to make their way through our defenses.”
“Who is leading them?” Shang’s brow furrowed, “Do we know their numbers?”
“We are still unclear as to their numbers, it would seem that Shan Yu’s army was merely meant to clear a path,” General Zhang tucked his helmet under his arm, “But according to our scouts, the armies are led by the twin children of Shan Yu.”
Ping’s eyes widened and he swallowed, he saw Shang’s head turn minutely in his direction before snapping his attention back to the map,
“His children? Are they out for revenge?”
“I would assume so,” The Emperor closed his eyes for a breath then stepped closer, “His son, Ganbataar, and daughter, Jullian, are thus far moving erratically along the northern border. We believe they are searching for an undefended spot in the Wall.”
“They will not find one.” General Liu shook his head.
“It has been done before!” General Wei gestured to the map’s north edge where the Wall was diagrammed.
“They went over part of the wall,” General Zhang pointed out, “My scouts say that this time they have war machines!”
General Liu scoffed, “War Machines? Mongols? Not likely.”
“We have underestimated them in the past much to our detriment, General. Regardless, we must double the defenses of the Wall,” The Emperor cut in calmly but his eyes were hard and dark, “If they are indeed looking for weak points and blind spots, we must also! If they find a way through, or over, the Wall a second time, we must be prepared so they do not get any farther!”
The Generals nodded in agreement and Shang leaned over the map, “ . . . why are we assuming that they are trying to get past the Wall at all?”
They all turned to look at Shang, the Emperor leaned forward, spreading his long fingers on the map,
“What do you think, General Li?”
“Well, what if they are merely traveling along it?” Shang looked up and pointed to the waterways, “Mongols use water as much as roads, so would it not make sense that perhaps they are simply making their way to a port or waterway?”
There was a beat of silence as the Generals all looked at each other then to the Emperor, General Zhang cleared his throat,
“Li has a point, Your Eminence.”
“A very good point indeed.” The Emperor nodded slowly, “General Wei, I want you to send out runners to our men on the East Coast and our Navy, have them be prepared for a raid if the Mongols carry on past the water ways. General Zhang, take your troops and make sure that the riverways are well defended. General Li, you will begin training our reserves.”
The rest of the meeting was spent dictating missives, finalizing who was doing what and Shang constantly glancing uneasily at Ping. They were leaving the room when Shang pulled Ping to the side,
“You know what all this means, don’t you?”
“That we’re going to war again?” Ping grimaced.
“Yes, we are, Ping,” Shang licked his lips and looked over his shoulder, “Are you going to be well enough? If not, we will have to make excuses for-”
“I think I can handle it,” Ping interrupted, “I’m having the stitches out and the doctor said that I’m healing better than expected. Besides, we have no guarantee that Shan Yu’s children don’t know me and won’t come after me or my family. You said it yourself, they might be out for revenge.”
Shang nodded, “Good thinking, but you need to know that if you say you’ll fight, there is very little I can do to help you.”
Ping took Shang’s hand tightly, “I know and it will be alright, have faith in me.”
“I have an abundance of faith in you, Ping, it is everyone else I am wary of.” Shang mumbled, putting his other hand on Ping’s cheek, “I will pray to my father’s spirit every night to keep you safe.”
“And I’ll send you the Fa Family guardians.” Ping leaned up and pressed their foreheads together.
Shang licked his lips, his eyes closing, “At least I can rest easy knowing I’ll probably be in charge of training you.”
“We won’t be sharing a tent but . . . I am also very glad of that.” Ping smiled, “You worry so much, your hair will fall out!”
Shang chuckled, “Would you love me less were I bald?”
“Hm, I will get back to you on that.” Ping smiled and reached up to touch the hair at the back of Shang’s neck, it always seemed to fall down a bit from the topknot no matter what Shang did.
Shang mounted his horse, looking back at Ping on Khan, “Going to be hard breaking the news to the family.”
Ping sighed, “I know, luckily I had already discussed with them that I wanted to pursue the military so this might be a bit soon for them, but it was inevitable.”
Shang nodded as their horses fell in step, “So I have a question.”
“I have an answer, let’s see if they match.” Ping smirked.
Shang cocked an eyebrow, shaking his head, “Funny. Seriously though, will you be using Shan Yu’s sword or your father’s?”
Ping blinked and frowned, “I do not know . . . I would have to ask my father for permission to take the sword this time.”
“What about Shan Yu’s?”
“ . . . I don’t like it.”
“Why? Is the weight off? The grip too big?” Shang clicked his tongue when his horse got distracted by a passing fruit cart.
“No, no, it . . . “ PIng looked around and leaned closer, “Promise not to laugh?”
“Of course.” Shang cocked his head in concern.
“It fits perfectly in my hand, like it was made for me . . . “ Ping licked his lips, “And there feels like there’s some kind of presence around it.”
Shang blinked, “That is strange . . . You don’t think-”
“That the spirit of Shan Yu is haunting his sword that I used to seal his doom last year? Has crossed my mind a time or two.” Ping grimaced, wrinkling his nose.
“There might be some weight to that. Do you want to take it to a temple? Have it cleansed?”
“It would make me feel better before i try to wield it.” Ping nodded.
The prospect of going back to training, back to war, made Ping’s heart race and his soul soar with excitement, he was ready to prove himself as a man, as a soldier, and for the Fa name to be once again recognized for military excellence and this time, it was his authentic name and self that would be named upon reaching victory.
Ping tackles a lingering problem with some unexpected help.
Ping stepped slowly into the room where his father’s armor was kept, he slowly made his way across the wooden floor, glancing briefly at the sword-stand with Zhou’s jian resting on it before moving to the second rack where the Flaming sword of Shan Yu was held on two pegs with no scabbard or belt to speak of.
Ping tilted his head to the side uneasily, the sword seemed to radiate some kind of energy, the candlelight distorted along the wavy blade and the hum from a nearby cicada made the whole situation that much more eerie as he stared at the sword of a fallen warlord.
He took a slow breath and was about to touch it when he heard and felt hot breath on his neck, Ping turned around and blinked up at Shi Long, “What’s wrong?”
“I do not like this . . . you are vulnerable to such attacks and I fear that prolonged exposure to the sword may prove-”
Ping put his hands on his hips and cocked an eyebrow, “What do you propose we do then?”
Here Shi Long stopped and furrowed his brow, his barbels quivering ever so slightly then he nodded,
“I have an idea, but you will not like it nor am I fond of it.”
“As long as it helps get this sword cleansed so I can use it, I don’t see why I wouldn’t-”
“We’ll need Mushu.”
Ping frowned and blinked at Shi Long, “I beg your pardon?”
“As strange as it sounds, Mushu and I would be able to better protect you, Earth and Fire.” Shi tilted his head and leaned forward, “Granted, Mushu is not an Enlightened Dragon, he lacks a pearl, but he is technically a Guardian. An exiled one, but still, he-”
“Wait, what do you mean ‘exiled’?” Ping’s eyes widened.
Shi snorted, “Hubris is unbecoming of a dragon and is very dangerous. What? Did you think Dragons are normally the size of a house-cat?”
“I haven’t met many dragons to compare . . . “ Ping’s brow furrowed and he grimaced, “So . . . Mushu was exiled from what?”
“The spirit realm, he can speak to the spirits of departed humans but he cannot access beyond that. It is a complicated sentence and I was not here when it was done.” Shi shrugged a shoulder and leaned forward, “But as I said, it would be best to have both of us here for this.”
Ping rubbed the back of his neck and grimaced, “I don’t know, Mushu tends to mess things up further when he tries to help . . . “
Shi chuckled and tilted his head, “He is young and impulsive, but he is powerful when given direction and helpful when given a chance.”
Ping sighed heavily, “Okay, if you think it will help.”
“Go get him, he can’t hear or see me so . . . “ Shi gestured toward the door with his claws then coiled up with his pipe to wait.
Ping narrowed his eyes, “I’m beginning to think that you and Mushu might have a lot in common.”
Shi’s eyebrow rose but he didn’t deem to comment, instead taking a long pull on his pipe. Ping turned to the door and ran up to the shrine, he peered in and saw a small coiled bundle next to one of the stones,
“Mushu? Are you in here?”
The small red dragon uncurled and lifted a small eye-mask off his face, “Hey, I’m trying to get my beauty rest! What you want?””
“I need . . . your help.” Ping felt weird saying that but he had to admit, the surprised look on Mushu’s face was a bit sad.
“Really? Doing what?” Mushu tilted his head suspiciously.
“Look, Shi Long and I need your help with whatever dark spirit is in Shan Yu’s sword. Shi thinks that if we work together, we can maybe banish the spirit or at least make it so I can contain it, otherwise I'll need to take it to a temple.”
Mushu sat up on his haunches and leaned his head back, “And how can itty bitty ol me help with such a big problem?”
“I don’t know, Shi just wanted me to get you.” Ping shrugged.
Mushu breathed out then started out of the shrine, “Alright, let’s go see what His Smokiness wants.”
Ping and Mushu made their way down the hill and back to the house where Shi Long was dozing in a cloud of smoke, Mushu looked around and huffed,
“Eh, Stone Dragon, what you want? I was in the middle of a lovely dream involving saving China again .”
Shi chuckled, one large blue eye rolling to regard Mushu with a wry smile, “Not much has changed. Can you believe once he has reached maturity, he will be more powerful than I?”
Ping was about to say something about that when Shi uncoiled and put his nose right in front of Mushu, the small dragon shifted nervously and looked up at Ping,
“He is here, right?”
“Mushu, I release you from your exile.” Shi said calmly, his pearl glowing brightly for a brief moment then it dimmed.
Ping opened his mouth to comment after a minute or two of silence but then Mushu yelped and his body started to change and stretch. Ping leapt back next to Shi as Mushu became nearly as large as Shi, his ruby red body glistening in the flickering candlelight, large yellow eyes wide and rolling as his orange-red mane flowed behind rabbit-like ears and his antlers, he looked around then took a step back at seeing Shi, his tufted tail flicking about.
“Whoa . . . you are real!” Mushu shifted forward and blinked, his long barbels quivering on either side of his dog-nose.
Shi chuckled and nodded, leaning forward with his pearl tucked under his chin, “I am in fact very real. It is good to meet you, Mushu.”
“Huh,” Mushu looked around, “Alright, so where’s this big bad evil spirit that needs dealing with?”
PIng smiled as little tongues of flame flickered around Mushu’s long teeth and his eyes narrowed seriously, good to see that his size didn’t affect his attitudes. Ping stepped up to the display stand and gestured to the sword,
“Can you sense anything?”
Mushu cocked his head, his ears twitching as he carefully slithered forward and peered at the sword,
“Hoo boy, I can feel something but I dunno what it is, exactly . . . “ Mushu looked at Shi, “What do we do about this? Call it out?”
“We should be able to draw it out, but I sense there is more to this sword . . . “ Shi muttered, gripping his pearl and his lip curled up in a snarl.
Ping looked between the two dragons then cleared his throat, “Do you need me here or can I get some tea?”
Mushu snorted out a small plume of smoke and snaked his head around to look at Ping, “You gotta pick up the sword.”
“Because we’re dragons?” Mushu shook his mane and glanced at the sword.
“Okay, but if I get possessed, I expect you to do something before I embarrass myself.”
Ping took a deep breath and reached out for the sword, his hand hovered over the hilt for a brief moment as he stared at the waving Flame blade and how the light played on the subtle curve of the edge, almost like the sword was alive. He could feel the eyes of the dragons on his back as his fingers slid over the tightly bound hilt and carefully gripped the sword and lifted it off its stand, holding it before his face.
Ping turned around and looked at the two dragons who appeared to be holding their breath and staring intently at both the human and the sword he was holding then Mushu’s ears fluttered and he turned to Shi,
“Uh, is something supposed to-”
Ping blinked as the conversing dragons’ voices became muffled and he furrowed his brow as something at the back of his mind bloomed and coiled then, there was a voice,
You are not my master . . .
Ping frowned and held perfectly still, Depends on what that means.
A hissing laugh then it spoke again, It means you are not Shan Yu, you are NOT my master. Who are you?
I’m the one that defeated him, twice.
. . . twice? Ah, yes, now I remember.
Who are you? What are you?
I have no name nor form, I am the manifestation of vengeance and conquest! I am-
. . . more or less, yes, but I’m so much more!
Are you? Ping’s eyebrow cocked doubtfully and he realized that Shi and Mushu had stopped talking and were looking intently at him.
Yes! If you were my master, you would be stronger, faster, you would be able to decimate your foes!
That didn’t work out so well for Shan Yu, did it?
. . . well, no, I-
And I have two dragons on my side, why do I need a spirit hiding in a sword?
You’re not making a very good case for yourself, are you?
“Hey, uh, Ping, you got something you want to share with the class?” Mushu asked, leaning forward.
“Shh.” Shi hissed, he put his pipe between his teeth and smoked while looking intently at Ping.
My power is beyond anything you could imagine! I’m a powerful vengeance spirit imbued with dark powers!
And yet I defeated your master, twice like I said, and you’re gathering dust. Ping turned the sword in his hand slightly.
The sword spirit didn’t respond at first then there was a slight ripple in the air around the sword that slowly became like a dark cloud until it was a human shaped black cloud,
There? Happy? Now you can see my true for-
The spirit squealed as Mushu blew a jet of flame at it and the creature danced out of the way, hissing angrily. The red and grey dragons coiled about with Mushu blasting a deep blue flame at the spirit while Shi chanted something, holding his pearl in one hand as it glowed brightly and the whole room filled with a humming that made the room shake so much that Ping had to retreat to a support beam to lean on or risk falling while holding a sword which seemed like a very bad idea.
There was a shrieking sound and Ping looked at Shi who was drawing characters in the air with his pipe-smoke while Mushu kept the spirit busy with his flame breath. Ping watched wide eyed as suddenly the spirit stopped and dissolved down into a pile of black soot. Then the room was still and quiet.
PIng walked to the pile and stared at it as acrid smoke coiled up from it, the dragons moved forward as well and Shi snorted,
“Yǎnguǐ . . . Ping, get a container for this, preferably made of iron, seal it with pitch and bury it where no one will find it..” The gray dragon took a slow pull on his pipe and breathed out slowly, closing his eyes.
“Yǎnguǐ?” Ping asked, looking between the sword and the small pile of soot.
“Nightmare ghost, it would seem that Shan Yu might have booby trapped his sword. In life they were frauds and in death, they are darkness, perhaps the purpose was to get whoever took the sword to be drawn into some kind of deal or possession, luckily for you, we were here.”
“Was it the unrested spirit of Shan Yu?” Ping asked, glancing a little fearfully at the pile.
“It is possible, I was not willing to wait and ask.” Shi shook his head.
“What was happening there for a bit? You got quiet.” Mushu laid on the floor and his tail twitched curiously.
“It spoke to me, promised me power and whatnot,” Ping lifted the sword again, “Is it safe now?”
“I sense nothing off about the sword now, do you?” Mushu turned to Shi.
“No, I believe we have solved the little issue,” Shi sighed, “Although, if it is not safe, you need not worry, Mushu and I are both capable of helping.”
Mushu nodded eagerly, “And now that I’m my incredibly impressive, sensual self again, those Huns don’t stand a chance!”
“Oh no you don’t, we can’t just wander willy nilly about humans!” Shi hissed, waving his pipe away, his doglike ears flattening, “We need to go back to the ethereal plane and wait.”
“Wait? For what? There’s a war coming!” Mushu whined, shaking his coils.
“If I need you, I’ll call you.” Ping said as he set the sword in his belt and smiled, “And I take back every comment I made about you being a lizard.”
Mushu huffed and tilted his head up, pouting a bit, “About time! Glad you waited until I was a big, powerful fire breathing dragon to do your bidding before apologizing. I’m very sensitive you know!”
Ping smiled and walked up to pat Mushu’s shoulder sympathetically, “I’m sure you were gravely wounded.”
“I was.” Mushu muttered, “Guess I’ll see what’s going on in the spooky realms for a bit.”
“Ethereal realms, have some respect.” Shi cocked an eyebrow and turned, preparing to disappear again.
“I’ll have respect when it stops being full of stuffy old so-and-so’s.”
Ping watched both dragons disappear then he breathed out in relief and looked around, his eyes fell on the pile of soot again then nodded and began to rush about looking for a container.
“Do you have a moment?”
Ping looked up from packing to see his mother and grandmother standing in the doorway, he quickly stood up and nodded, “Of course, is everything alright?”
“Since this time we have time before you rush off to be a hero,” Grandmother Fa stepped forward and held out a little parcel of white cloth to Ping, “Here, I gave one similar to your father when he was conscripted, may it bring you luck and our ancestors’ blessing.”
Ping unwrapped the parcel and in it was a small oblong medallion of polished wood on a short leather thong with the Fa name engraved in it, it was painted red with a bit of gold filigree in the character. He smiled and tied it to the pommel of the Flame sword.
Li sighed and shook her head, “You and your father are so much alike, it is like looking into a portal to the past.”
Ping blinked, “Really?”
“Oh yes!” Grandmother Fa chuckled and nodded sagely, “Very much like him! Pigheaded, outspoken, and rash but with good intention!”
“That doesn’t sound like Baba at all.” Ping cocked an eyebrow.
“Perhaps not now that age and discipline has polished him up a bit,” Grandmother Fa smiled, “But as a young man, you would see a very different person.”
Ping smiled and shook his head, “That’s so difficult to picture.”
“Indeed, but believe us when we say it is true,” Li smiled and shook her head, “You are the spitting image of your father when he was your age.”
Ping’s ears reddened and he ducked his head self-consciously, “You think so?”
“We know so.” Grandmother Fa chuckled, “Come for dinner.”
“In a moment, I have one more thing I must do first.” Ping glanced at the small cylindrical container that held the ashes of the Yǎnguǐ.
“Of course, but don’t be too long, that husband of yours eats like a pregnant sow.” Grandmother Fa chuckled and turned to leave with Li holding her hand in front of her mouth to hide a smile.
Ping snorted and went to pick up the cylinder, it was made of bronze, not iron, but he hoped that wouldn’t be a problem if buried deep enough and he had just the place for it.
“Um, what are you doing?”
Ping looked up to see Shang blinking down at him in utter confusion,
“Burying a ghost’s ashes, why?” Ping wiped his dirty hands on his pants and straightened up, glancing about to make sure no one had seen him walk into the stable. He’d buried the cylinder in the far corner of Khan’s stall, no one would think to look there.
Shang held a finger up and opened his mouth then stopped and shook his head, “I am . . . not going to ask, food is ready so wash up and come inside, I suppose?”
Ping nodded and walked past Shang, “Right.”
“I see you have Shan Yu’s sword on you, did you figure out what was wrong?” Shang fell in step with Ping as the shorter man strode to a water barrel to wash his hands and face off in.
“We- I mean, I think so.”
“We? You have help?” Shang tilted his head curiously.
“Just . . . praying to the ancestors.” Ping said before wiping his face off, he didn’t like lying to Shang but wasn’t sure if giving up the secret of the two dragons was a good idea.
“Huh, glad they interceded, I assume you’ll be using that sword from now on?” Shang followed Ping back toward the house.
“Until I’ve earned the right to wield my father’s, yes.” Ping nodded, patting the Flame Sword’s hilt.
Shang smiled his little half-smile and nodded, “You will, you’re a great warrior, like your father.”
“I’m not so sure about that, but I hope to become so someday.” PIng smiled and pushed the door aside.
“Well, for what it’s worth, I think you’re a great warrior.” Shang kissed Ping’s forehead and stepped inside.
Ping smiled to himself and stepped inside, closing the door behind them as the smell of food wafted toward them making Shang’s stomach growl loudly.
Ping and Shang go to camp to begin preparations for the coming war.
It was quiet, which wouldn’t be so unnerving if it was just Shang being quiet, the stoic General was often unnaturally quiet and Ping had long since learned that he wasn’t being ignored, Shang just listened more than he spoke. This meant that Ping often did all the talking in conversations, which was fine, for the most part considering that he knew Shang was listening even when preoccupied.
This time they both were quiet, the hooves of their horses on cobblestone and wood roads the only sounds, Ping felt the weight of the sword at his hip and he was reminded once more that they were possibly going to war, a far bigger one than he’d fought before and worse still, he would be in the thick of the camps, training, and he’d be expected to bunk with the other men.
This might get messy . . .
“What’d you say?”
Ping blinked and looked at Shang, “Hm?”
“You were mumbling under your breath, I thought you were talking to me.” Shang shrugged a shoulder, his eyes still forward.
“Oh I didn’t realize I was talking out loud . . . “ Ping rubbed the back of his neck in embarrassment.
“It’s not like you to be so quiet.” Shang said glancing at Ping.
“I . . . well . . . I have some things to think about and some concerns but I’m fine.” Ping gave Shag a quick smile then looked back at the road ahead.
“I can imagine but rest assured that if anyone gives you trouble, they’ll answer to me.” Shang’s eyes narrowed slightly and his lips pursed.
Ping cocked an eyebrow, “I’ll keep that in mind.”
“I’m just sorry I can’t give you my undivided attention during training.” Shang grimaced.
“Oh you’ll be too busy yelling at the rookies and flexing your pectorals to be bothered with me.” Ping smiled slyly, looking sideways at Shang.
Shang blinked, “Flexing my- I don’t have the slightest clue what you’re talking about, husband.”
“Oh I think you do, husband.” Ping teased and spurred Khan ahead so that Shang and his entourage had to go into a gallop to catch up.
The camp came into view as they crested a hill, it was situated in a large, open valley surrounded on all sides by vast wilderness and bamboo forests with a massive inlet lake taking up one whole side of the camp.
Ping blinked as he took in all the activity, it certainly was much more organized than the first camp Shang had been in charge of, but then again, Shang wasn’t just an unproven Captain anymore so it would make sense he’d be training a better caliber of soldiers this time around.
Shang stopped next to Ping and breathed in, “Well, I need to make a meeting with my officers so unless I don’t see you later, be careful and good luck.”
Ping smiled reassuringly as he saw the little tightening around the eyes that Shang got when he was nervous,
“You’ll be great, I’m cheering for you.”
Shang’s tight-lipped mouth twitched ever so slightly on one side and he nodded, then turned and lead his men down to one side of the camp, leaving Ping alone briefly before he took a deep breath and headed into camp.
It was more or less what Ping expected, loud, smelly, and full of activity, but at least it meant he went mostly unnoticed as he unpacked his things and brought Khan to be picketed out with the other horses. He still had some time before anything was supposed to happen so Ping took that time to wander about the grounds curiously.
The barrack tents were larger this time, housing up to twelve soldiers and there had to be over fifty tents! Ping wandered by the armor and weapon tents, thinking he should maybe bring his own to store here and was just turning to go through with it when he heard a loud yell of pain.
Ping blinked and followed the yelps until he came upon a small brown tent with the character for ‘medicine’ on a wooden plaque over the door. He cocked his head to the side as a loud, drawn-out wail then a man limped out with one pant leg hiked up to his knee and bandages on his foot.
“Horrid witch!” The man muttered under his breath as he muscled past Ping.
Ping was about to say something when the tent’s flap opened and a tall, rotund young woman with a pipe trapped between her lips leaned out, her eyes narrowed after the man and she huffed,
“All that fuss over an ingrown toenail. Ancestor’s save us if this what we have to rely on for defense.”
Ping snickered behind his hand but immediately stopped when her gaze fell on him and her eyes narrowed further. She puffed on the pipe for a moment as she regarded Ping then a smile slid across her face,
“I heard the rumors but I’m quite glad to see they are mostly true, unless you aren’t Fa Ping in which case he has a doppleganger.”
Ping blinked in surprise and crossed his arms, “Have we met before?”
“Not formally, no, but I have seen you about court.”
“And what of these ‘rumors’, has word spread so quickly?”
“Word travels like leaves on a breeze, Master Fa, and these words happen to have your name to them. That and there isn’t a child in all of China who doesn’t know of your story. Well, the heroic bits anyway, your personal life not so much.” She shrugged and shifted her robe sleeves, “I scarcely believed it when I heard it but then, here we are.”
Ping hadn’t really given what people would have heard much thought, but he was shocked to hear that people still talked about him or, more likely, Mulan. This notion both upset and relieved him, because on the one hand, the pressure to be a hero and save the day was gone and he could start over . . . but on the other, the idea that Mulan’s story comes to an abrupt conclusion, never spanning beyond, was rather sad to him.
“Well, you know my name, may I know yours?”
The young woman stared at Ping in a calculating way as she smoked, finally removing the long, thin pipe stem from her mouth and breathing out a thin coil of tobacco smoke, “I am called Shi Chanying, you might know of my father? He is one of the Emperor’s Generals.”
“Oh, no I have not met him.”
“Hmph, no matter, he’s just usually the first person people mention when I tell them my name.” She shrugged a shoulder and cleared her throat, “If you have nothing that needs stitches or bandages, then I will get back to work.”
“Of course, I didn’t mean to keep you.” Ping grimaced, of course people would be busy and didn’t have time for idle chatter.
“You aren’t,” Chanying tilted her head to the side then smiled, “Perhaps you could help me? Some of these bundles are heavy.”
Ping nodded and followed her inside, eager to help if he could, “Just show me what you need.”
Chanying rolled and tied her sleeves back and fixed her pipe more firmly in her lips, “Those bundles need to be unpacked and sorted. I’d be all day at it if I was by myself, I asked three times for an assistant and it’s all promises, promises from the captains.”
Ping nodded sympathetically as he began to set rolls of bandages out for counting, “How did you come to be a doctor?”
“Privilege and money with some ambition and talent sprinkled in,” She muttered, “I was bored at court, tired of the frivolity of gossip and preparing tea. Healing is interesting to me and while medicine is not completely out of the female grasp, becoming well-established on my own has been a challenge, but I’m hoping to prove myself enough to be trusted at being a field medic.”
Ping sat back on his heels and stared at the rather . . . well, large young woman and cocked an eyebrow, “Have you ever seen a battle?”
Chanying pursed her lips as she set some plants up to dry, “I have seen the aftermath of them and I have helped dispose of bodies from raids these last weeks. Do not think that I take this job lightly or as some flight of fancy like a rich, spoiled dumpling with no brains to speak of. I thought through my desired position very thoroughly and I believe this is my calling. Now,” Here she adjusted her weight and huffed, “As for my size, sitting about a palace plucking at an instrument and painting scrolls does nothing to keep one fit so I am aware that I have some slimming down to do to be most effective at my work, so you can keep any remarks about that to yourself.”
Ping grimaced, “I didn’t mean-”
“You meant as much as anyone who doesn’t know me meant,” Chanying chuckled, “It is alright, Master Fa, I am well used to it, if anything it makes me more motivated to prove people wrong.”
Ping smiled, “Just ‘Ping’ is fine. That is a good attitude to have, and besides that, you’re a beautiful woman who is clearly intelligent and knows what she wants. Nothing wrong with that.”
“I’d ask if you’re speaking from experience but I think we both know the answer to that.” Chanying winked at Ping, “Speaking of, can I ask you something?”
“Yes, you may.”
“Have you had . . . “ Chanying shifted her pipe and grimaced, “How to put it delicately? Alterations ?”
Ping stopped examining a jar and cleared his throat, “I . . . have had some things done.”
“If it is not too out of place, would there be a time that I might see how they did it? Surgery is not a wildly done practice, even scrolls on it are kept tightly guarded. If it is not too much to ask.” Her eyes glittered slightly with curiosity.
Ping frowned, “That is a very personal thing to ask, I would have to think on it . . . “
“But of course, I mean no offense or to impose, Ping,” Chanying smiled excitedly nonetheless, “May I inquire to other aspects of your . . . whatever this is to be called?”
She gestured up and down Ping’s body and he realized she was asking after Ping himself and, though it was worded very poorly and she asked about extremely private things, he would not deny that he ached for someone to speak more openly with. His family and friends were supportive but it was not the same, even Shang. Ping also supposed since he’d never had any female friends in the past, he longed for someone who wanted what he wanted to talk to. In other words, he wanted to talk about men.
“I am not against answering questions, so long as I retain the right to keep quiet on certain . . . things.” Ping shrugged.
Chanying’s face lit up and she smiled brightly, “Oh! Thank you! I do not have the pleasure of meeting many people outside of the palace, it is a welcome change to make my own friends!”
PIng blinked as he lifted a heavy case off a stack to sort through, “You don’t get to choose your own friends?”
“No,” Chanying leaned over the lid of a small box and wrinkled her nose, “These will need to be replaced . . . I told them to be careful . . . Anyway, if I have friends, they are other ladies of the court and even then, generally ‘friendship’ in the court is laced with intrigue and other nonsense. Nothing more exhausting than sussing through conversations to see if I said anything or they said anything damning and the rumors and gossip . . . it’s enough to drive a person mad.”
Ping grimaced sympathetically, “It sounds awful.”
“Oh it is,” Chanying muttered and sat back with a small stack of paper and brush, “Not to mention that half the time you’re only introduced to people because they’re hoping you’ll get along with their daughter or niece or granddaughter so you’ll marry the brother or son or nephew or whatever he is.”
Chanying was quiet for a moment then sighed, “It must be so nice to get to fall in love with someone organically without parents breathing down your neck.”
Ping was standing at a shelf putting things away as Chanying pointed to them and he cleared his throat, “ . . . well, a lot of things might have gone awry if Shang wasn’t the kind of person he was. Any other man might have left me outright or kept me the way I was.”
“As I said, it must be nice.”
Ping turned around and regarded her but was almost shocked to see that she was looking at him with genuine, moone-eyed wonder and he had to take a moment to drop his defenses a bit.
“I . . . yes, it is very nice and we’re very happy.”
“Good, you should be,” Chanying smiled and put her brush aside, “This is so strange, being friendly with a man without ulterior motives, refreshing actual.”
Ping chuckled, “Well, for starters, I have no interest in women so that helps.”
She laughed quietly behind her hand and nodded, “Yes, I imagine that is a large factor. You’ll forgive me if I rely on you a bit here, conversation is so stagnant most times and you can forget it here in an army camp.”
“Of course!” Ping smiled.
“Wonderful! Well, I think I have things more than settled here, thank you for your help.”
Ping nodded and turned to leave in search of something else to do.
Ping was sweaty, breathless, and covered in aches, bruises, and he was pretty sure he’d sprained something as he flopped back on his bedroll. He was just going to close his eyes and fall asleep when he heard a hissing sound. Ping blinked and slowly rolled onto his side to see someone peeking at him under the edge of the tent, he squinted in the darkness and sat up,
“It’s me, Shang,” Shang whispered then he waved Ping over, “Come here.”
“What?” Ping whispered, looking over his shoulder and crawling over.
“I thought maybe you’d rather sleep in my tent.” Shang murmured, reaching under the tent to take Ping’s.
Ping glanced around, everyone else was already snoring so he scrambled under the tent and brushed himself off, “Sounds good to me, at least I’m used to just you snoring all night.”
Shang scowled, “I do not snore.”
“You sound like a flatulating ox.” PIng smirked as they stole back to Shang’s tent.
“Quiet, you.” Shang muttered and pulled the tent-flap open for Ping, giving his backside a light slap as the shorter man ducked inside.
“Watch it, I’m sore everywhere.” Ping muttered but he smiled.
“Everywhere?” Shang asked closing the flap behind him and grabbing onto Ping’s waist, tugging him closer.
PIng put his hands up on Shang’s chest, “Oh suddenly we’re back in our element and we think we can put our hands all over the troops, huh?”
“Not all the troops, just you.” Shang leaned forward and kissed Ping’s neck.
Ping shivered and closed his eyes, “I still think someone is enjoying officer status a bit much.”
“You can feel it through my clothes?” Shang leaned back and looked at Ping quizzically.
Ping rolled his eyes, “No, silly, I was talking in general.”
“Speaking of Generals,” Shang went back to kissing Ping’s neck, “We’re the only ones sharing this tent tonight.”
Ping closed his eyes and breathed out, “Shang, I’m actually really sore . . . “
Shang lifted Ping up, his hands grabbing onto the smaller man’s backside, “Just a little? I’ll do the work . . . “
Ping sighed, “Shang, no.”
Shang leaned away and put Ping down, “Alright, if you’re sure.”
“I am, I’m sorry, but it was a long day.” Ping grimaced and toed off his shoes.
Shang shrugged out of his shirt and sat down on the bed, “No, I’m sorry, now is not the appropriate time or place for this, it’s just that it’s been so long since we’ve . . . been together like that, what with the surgeries and recovery and now we’re at war . . . “
“Trust me, I’m as impatient as you but I’m too tired tonight.” Ping flopped back on the bed after wiggling out of his dirty clothes.
Shang settled next to him and kissed Ping’s forehead after brushing his hair aside, “We’ll have other times. Good night.”
They cuddled up under the blanket and were soon both snoring loudly.