Mulan sleeps that night with her back to the fore mast, her head tipped back so that every time she blinks her eyes awake she can see the stars. A whisper of sound next to her startles Mushu awake with a hiss and a hiccup of fire; Little Brother murmurs quietly to him and pinches out the ember spot on Mulan’s sleeve.
Mulan considers pretending to sleep, but Little Brother knows her better than that.
“All right?” she asks, quietly enough that he can ignore her, if he wishes.
He settles with his back to the mast, his shoulder bumped into hers and his cutlass across his lap, and Mulan waits. He opens his mouth to speak and his voice cracks. Mulan shifts, then, poking Mushu to get him to stop making faces, and looks down at Little Brother’s hand, crooked fingers running back and forth along the nicked edge. “He’s sleeping.” A hard swallow.
Eyes misting, Mulan hesitates before gently smoothing down his salty, flyaway hair. He stiffens but leans imperceptibly into the touch. She presses her palm into his shoulder and breathes in time with him, wishing that Little Brother needed her to explain the ways that the world could be damaging. Everything about the set of his jaw is entirely too old.
Mulan watches the horizon behind them with a mouthful of cotton, waiting to regret her decision to scuttle the pirates on a sandbar instead of killing them, but after days of strong winds and no signs of pursuit, even Xiao Tai stops glaring at her from his periphery.
She waits for Little Brother to ask for help without knowing at all what to do, only that she sleeps sitting upright on the deck with her arm around him, and they listen to the sound of Peter’s night terrors echoing from her surrendered cabin like a particularly brutal lullaby.
Sometimes she wakes up shaken with the force of Little Brother’s tears.
In the daylight, everything in his face begs her not to say anything.
“It was all supposed to get easier once I found him.”
Little Brother loses arrow after arrow with fouled shots at canny, circling seabirds, but they aren’t at war, and there’s no enemy to point him to instead, and Mulan can’t think of a thing to say.
“General Fa.” Yin speaks quietly and won’t make eye contact. “The men are not sleeping.” Mulan feels her own sleep-starved eyes aching in the bright sun, and thins her lips against an uncharacteristically sharp retort. Undeterred by her silence, Yin continues. “Something must be done.”
For all that Little Brother’s name stands out in bold, sure brushstrokes on his hand, Peter’s huge blue eyes and serious dark eyebrows unnerve her, the quick, flitting changes of expression on his face and how hard she has to work to keep from remembering the sound of his wailing, choking nightmares as he stands defiantly in the cabin, a green shenyi belted incorrectly around his too thin torso. “You don’t scare me.”
“Good.” All the same, she hangs in the doorway and tries to think herself quiet and unthreatening. “I promise you, no one here is trying to scare you.”
The sneer on his face is harsh and ugly and Mulan tries to remember that it isn’t for her. She feels lead-footed and inept, and is painfully aware of Little Brother, leaning his back against the wall just outside the door, biting down on the meat of his thumb to keep from making noise. Mushu leaves her shirtsleeve to wrap around him like a scarf, an uncharacteristically kind emotion in the gesture.
Meanwhile, Peter has begun shouting for her, for everyone, to go away. Mulan blinks at him and waits. That’s when she knows it will feel different, when it’s her soulmark, because in his lifetime Little Brother has been rejected far more harshly, and with far more finality, and he jerks like arrows are smashing into his ribs.
She waits for Peter to stop yelling, and leaves him standing there with his fists creaking around his pain. Little Brother peers around the doorway with one eye, and Mulan glances back just in time to see something in Peter’s face crack, just for a second, and then the boy wails and throws the door shut.
Outside the wind is howling with the approach of a storm. Mulan wraps her arms around Little Brother’s thin waist to keep him anchored to the deck as he screams his pain into the tempestuous sky and she thinks, selfishly, what if Elsa doesn’t want her?
The storm rages for long enough that Mulan loses track of night and day under the dark clouds, and she lashes herself to the rail and gives up the fight with her stomach. In a brief moment of clarity, she decides that the next time she hears a song about the glory of the sea, she’ll start a fight so epic they’ll sing songs about it, instead.
“Cabo Verde,” Stefano pronounces the unfamiliar words with more flourish than she’s used to, and greets the docksmen in a string of words she recognizes as some of the argot used in every port since they began sailing north.
Stefano melts into the crowded port the second he steps off the dock, but luckily Little Brother has gleaned enough of the language to remember the word medico, and they follow pointing vendors along sandy streets.
Peter is different on shore. Little Brother watches with wide eyes as he smiles for the first time at the antics of a street performer’s monkey, a bold, rakhish arc that even he seems startled by. Mulan buys three of the brightest fruits she sees, and every part of her mouth seems to spring to life at the crunch and sweetness. Peter has eaten his down to pips by the time she takes her second bite. Little Brother offers his and when their fingers brush, Peter doesn’t flinch.
She expects it, when Little Brother brings it up while Peter is with the elderly doctor, but it doesn’t make her any less nauseous.
“Mother would kill me,” she says shortly.
Mother is oceans away, and Little Brother’s spine is straight and his eyes so clear with purpose that Mulan feels brave just looking at him. That night Mulan volunteers for watch and sits atop a pylon on the dock. When the sun rises, a rucksack thumps onto the dock.
Mulan edges her toe down against the saltlocked rope and leans down to meet Smee’s bespectacled gaze. He seems about to speak, but balks at the last minute, pulling his glasses off and wiping at his sleep-crusted eyes to buy time.
Mulan’s frustration is an inert, silent thing, like a too-large mouthful of wine her body is fighting to spit out. At length, Smee unwraps the dirty linen around his left hand and holds his palm up for inspection. And it’s not that she really cares who his mark is, but she understands it’s a sign of trust, showing someone, so Mulan swallows her growing ire to lean down and look closely.
Only two lines, crossing in the middle. A bad mark, people back home would say. Smee sighs away the look of pity Mulan doesn’t work hard enough to hide, and rewraps his hand.
“You’ll - ” Mulan chokes and stops, closes her eyes against tears. So, so grateful. So, so angry.
“Like he’s me own son,” Smee answers gruffly, clearing his throat and looking away.
“You know where to find me.”
She can’t bring herself to give Little Brother her blessing, but she does give him enough coin to gain his footing.
It’s two days before she notices that Stefano never got back on the ship at Cabo Verde, and only because Yin brings it up while she watches a set of distant ships through the looking glass.
Over the course of the day, the shape of the sails come into focus, until Xiao Tai shouts out his recognition and the crew springs into action. Their ship is lighter and swifter, and soon the pirates shrink below the horizon again. Mulan protests, but Yin for once pulls rank and tells her to stick to land strategy.
It gets cold as they push north, no longer at leisure, and the one morning Mulan wakes up to a view of a distant shore that carves in and out like the teeth of a monster, and Yin points her to a whitecapped mountain and says, “Arendelle.”
Mulan’s stomach heaves once before she can force herself to stillness, Yin’s hand resting lightly on her shoulder. He squeezes comfortingly and Mulan breathes until she knows for sure she’s trembling from the cold.
Xiao Tai runs a flag up the mast as they edge closer, a white with a red dragon’s face stitched onto it. Mushu preens. “Thank you,” Mulan says as Xiao Tai lands lightly on the deck, but he only nods.
“Honored Fa,” he begins gravely, and Mulan frowns, trying to recall if he’d ever addressed her as such. “Little Hook asked me to remind you that you defeated Shan Yu, and he was much larger than Queen Elsa.”
Mulan laughs in spite of herself.
She sees Elsa from the deck, as the sailors are tying off the pylons, and she feels it, in the pit of her stomach, before Yin points her out, before anyone else, she looks at the woman sweeping imperiously towards the dock and she knows.
Only Mushu hears her quiet curse, and for once he doesn’t laugh.
When Yin shoves her lead-footed self off the ship, she stumbles, unable to take her eyes off of Elsa as the same recognition dawns on her, her body stiffening and stalling, her mouth dropping open.
There are other people in the world. There are other people looking at her right now.
Mulan sees none of them, hears none of them beyond the rushing of blood through her ears. She misses the first words her soulmark says.
“Elsa,” the woman says, her voice light and edged, “I’m Elsa.”
Mulan can only agree, of course you are, looking at the faint blush spreading across pale cheeks, at the wide-blown pupils dominating incredibly blue eyes. Her hands buzz with a need they’ve never encountered before, and she holds herself still against it, struggles for composure and manners. Elsa is so pale, and she trembles like a leaf, and Mulan knows better, she does. “I am Fa Mulan.”
It’s so hard to break eye contact with Elsa, but she has to or risk... something, Mulan doesn’t know what to do and isn’t altogether sure Elsa is even happy to see her, and there’s a little figure made out of snow that chirps at her cheerfully. Mulan can’t help but look back at Elsa, realizing the men really weren’t just talk, and Elsa seems to forget the situation for a moment, shrugging sheepishly with a little bit of a proud smile on her lips. She doesn’t look real, any more than the snowman - Olaf - looks real, but he is solid in her arms as Mulan obediently hugs him and so Elsa must be as well.
All of the color seems to have drained out of Elsa’s face, save for a flush creeping up her slim throat, and Mulan so expects her to faint that she springs forward to catch her even with Mushu’s claws digging into her shoulder at the sight of the other dragon.