The first daughter of King Agdar and Queen Idun is born in the middle of a snowstorm, with huge blue eyes, wisps of white hair, and cold fingertips, but all her parents can see are the thin, criss-crossing lines that span her tiny palm, meaningless chicken scratch where there should have been letters.
Idun cries when she sees them, rubbing restlessly over the marks. Her own fingers go blue with the cold that seems to seep from her beautiful child’s perfectly five-fingered little hand, but she can’t stop until Agdar, his face still and quiet, reaches out to cover her hand with his own. Idun looks at her name, there in her own graceful handwriting on his flesh, and shakes her head quietly. “My love, what do we do?” she murmurs quietly, so the midwife and servants don’t hear, propping her head tiredly against his shoulder.
Agdar, normally so sure and decisive, only closes his eyes and pulls them both tightly to him. Neither of them knows what to do with a child who doesn’t have a true love.
The three month old Princess Elsa of Arendelle is presented to the people of Arendelle in a traditional baptismal ceremony, already wearing perfectly miniature kidskin gloves. The peerage is hushed and leery; she is too beautiful to suspect, but her eyes are so quiet and solemn, and she doesn’t even flinch when the priest sprinkles the cold water on her brow.
Idun and Agdar hold her together, but are also holding each other.
Elsa’s nursemaid falls asleep on a blanket underneath the almond tree in the royal gardens, and by the time Elsa’s screaming cries penetrate her midsummer sleep, every rose in the garden is frozen into solid, glittering ice.
The nursemaid doesn’t stop shaking even as Agdar counts out a double handful of gold into her purse. They do not hire another one; Idun tends Elsa by herself, as she would have had her hand held the name of a common merchant or shepherd, rather than the crown prince of Arendelle. Agdar, unable to bear the lines of exhaustion on her face, shuts the door of their chambers and relieves her of her tiny, beloved burden as soon as his duties are over.
In public, together, he carries Elsa in his arms, his grave little heir, her gloved fingers fisted up in his shirtsleeves.
They very nearly won’t risk having another child, but the veins in Elsa’s thin wrists and throat are so stark and blue against her alabaster skin, and Idun bites all the skin off her lips rather than risk wondering aloud if her daughter’s lack of a true love is because she won’t live long enough to meet one.
Anna is born with Adgar’s red hair and a warm palm that Idun presses her lips to, over and over, murmuring the name written on it. She holds her breath when the door creaks open and Adgar appears, leading Elsa towards the bed. Idun watches Elsa’s still-unsteady steps through her tears.
At Agdar’s urging, and with his assistance, Elsa climbs up next to them and looks down into her sister’s hale little face with a crease between her brows. She stares, for a long time, until Anna hiccups and stirs, blinking her eyes open and peering blearily up at Elsa.
It is the first time they have ever seen Elsa smile.
Idun feels hope flutter up in her chest. After all, there are many kinds of love.
Idun doesn’t want to favor one child over the other, but Anna is so easy to love, all kisses and sweet laughter and wild imagination, and ever since the accident Elsa is closed like all of the palace doors and windows behind her, eyes wide and old like the days before Anna was born.
“We’re killing her, Agdar,” Idun ventures once, early on, listening to the wind howling outside their window and knowing her daughter’s sobs are drowning in it.
Adgar leans both hands against the mantlepiece and stares down into the fire. “We can’t lose them both,” he says finally, unable to look at her as he does. “We must keep Anna safe.”
Idun rubs his name on her palm and understands. For the good of Arendelle, and the promise in the name on Anna’s palm, her heart breaks.
Elsa knows to never ask about the black scratches on her hand.
Before she even knows about words, and true loves, she knows to zealously guard against anyone who might remove her gloves, and once her father teaches her to read, she reads her mother’s name in his hand, and his name in hers, and she waits until the entire castle is asleep before carefully peeling off the kidskin glove in the dim light of the banked fire and staring, aghast, at the meaningless lines there.
The fire freezes over and Elsa runs back to bed with tears in her eyes, yanking her glove back on so hard that her fingertips hurt.
She knows it’s because she’s a witch, and witches don’t get true loves.
Her father never says the word, but Elsa hears whispers on the wind, and remembers the look on the troll king’s mossy face when he took her hands. She remembers the way her father’s voice broke when he asked, “What do we do?” and she thinks, privately and often, that it perhaps would have been better if she had been left with the trolls.
That was what happened to witches in stories. They stayed in the dark forests, far from people, and killed any who came too close, because they needed to take their true love.
Elsa listened to Anna singing through the door and bit at her gloved fingers to stifle her sobs. We must keep Anna safe, her father had said. Elsa knew it was because she was a witch, and Anna had a true love to steal.
Conceal, don’t feel.
In the days after the funeral, Elsa wakes every night in a bedchamber full of ice, until she begins to fear sleep as much as she fears waking, and all she can do is throw herself miserably into the business of becoming the best successor to her father she can be.
She has regents, of course, and will until she comes of age, but she has been at the king’s elbow since she was old enough to stand there, and they are not surprised at her firm, decisive rule. The loss of King Agdar is scarcely noticed outside the realm. The economy prospers. The navy grows, though Elsa will never step foot upon a single ship.
Those few neighboring kingdoms who think to test Arendelle’s fortitude return whispering tales of the fierce, implacable teenaged queen whose hair shines like diamonds from the parapet.
Witch-queen she may be, and cursed, but Elsa will do her duty.
On coronation day, Elsa is most anxious about removing her glove, for the ceremony.
She knows the anxiety makes the ice worse, but she doesn’t have her father there to stare into her eyes and remind her, so she stays up all the night before, peeling off the glove and scooping up a makeshift orb, over and over in the mirror until she can almost do it without revealing her palm.
She can’t stop shaking.
She hides in her father’s - her - office, with the door closed and her coronation gown already cinched into place, rubbing her gloves together and listening to Anna’s cheerful singing on the wind. Panic making her mean, she thinks about sending a guard to shush her sister, and perhaps a regent to give a stern speech on appearances and family pride, but instead she only hugs herself with both arms and imagines a world where there is no such thing as true love.
For a few blessed moments, everything is okay.
Later, in the quiet of her ice fortress, Elsa will laugh at the realization that only a person with the luxury of a true love would be so foolish as to say it didn’t matter. If she had only said - if Anna had known what Elsa had done for the sake of her chance at true love - then she would not have agreed to marry Hans without even asking him to remove his glove, would not have accepted his blithe, too-quick, ‘Right, that’s my given name, but everyone calls me Hans,’ would not have labeled the first flush of attraction as a destiny born and written.
She will replay the look of shocked pity on Anna’s face at the sight of her meaningless palm over and over, perhaps for the rest of her life.
Her entire life has been one single, grave miscalculation: witches live alone in the forest because there’s no one in the human world who loves them.
And there are many kinds of love.
Anna loves her, with a surety and lack of guile that Elsa can’t even respond to some days, overwhelmed that Anna doesn’t need her to beg forgiveness, and Olaf loves her with a queer sort of enthusiastic understanding and devotion that Elsa needs as much as she needs air.
She and Kristoff - the real Kristoff, who is exactly the Kristoff she might have imagined for Anna had she thought to imagine him - even come to a kind of affection, bound together by their mutual adoration of Anna. (She certainly sees no point in disliking the man who was quite literally born with Anna written into his body.)
Most surprising, to her, is the way Arendelle loves her.
Elsa weeps openly when they cheer at her return, pressing her bare palms to her chest and leaning against the parapet, overwhelmed in a way that should have been frightening but instead felt only wondrous. Long live the Queen! the cheer ripples back through the crowd, and Elsa feels it through to her bones, and almost believes it possible.
A week before Anna comes of age, half the kindgom plunged into preparation for her birthday nuptials, a ship with four, oddly affixed sails appears in the fjord, bringing with it sailors with faces the likes of which Arendelle has never seen, and a cargo of exotic wares the like of which Arendelle has never seen.
Anna nearly eats her own tongue at the feel of the fabric in her hands, repeating the strange word - silk - over and over until it sounds meaningless again, begging Elsa to purchase it so that her wedding gown might be fashioned from it.
Elsa is about to remind Anna that her wedding gown was finished weeks ago, when she sees the markings on the elegantly scrolled trade proposal from the emperor she is given, and forgets to breathe.
She buys Anna all the silk she wants, and waits for a moment when she can speak to the head merchant alone.
They can barely understand each other, and have been relying on a jumpy interpreter whose eyes are sly and remind Elsa of Hans, but when Elsa turns her back to hide her actions, and peels the glove from her hand, his face opens up in understanding and he takes her hand in his own, tilting his head to regard it thoughtfully.
He smiles gently, and traces at the lines there. “Mulan,” he reads gravely. Then he frowns, as if reminded suddenly of something important.
Still with her hand held in his own, he tugs her over to the scroll and releases her to turn the wooden handles past several lines of characters. Elsa sees a picture of an old man - she assumes the emperor, for the grave look on his face and the attention the artist paid to the delicate embroidery in his robes - and several other people and places, until he reaches a small pictograph. He grins toothily, and taps the picture. “Fa Mulan,” he says proudly.
Elsa reaches with both hands to turn the painting rightside up. She shakes like a leaf and wishes Anna would stop fawning over the silk and come hold her upright. In one hand, the woman holds a long, curving sword. Her other hand is open, and written across it, in a hand unused to the shape of the letters, is Elsa’s name.
She does faint, after all.
By the time she begins to regain her bearings, there is a cup of floral, green-tinted tea being poured in front of her nose and Anna has invited the entire merchant vessel to her wedding.
Elsa is too overwhelmed, so she forgets to tell Anna to be circumspect, and she watches the rumor that she’s found her true love after all spread through the castle and kingdom, until she finds herself the still, slightly anxious eye in the center of a hurricane of joy.
“Aren’t you happy, Elsa?!” Anna blurts finally, standing up on a pedestal for her final wedding dress pinning. The seamstress’ compromise on the fabric was a closely tailored mantle of goldshot ivory. Anna glows in it, even while she’s trying to be angry.
Elsa sighs and dismisses the seamstress and her assistant for a moment. “Yes, Anna,” she admits quietly. “But... there’s a lot to think about.”
“Like what?” Anna scoffs. “She’s your true love!”
“Yes,” Elsa agrees quickly, gesturing for her sister to keep her voice down. “And she’s more than a year’s journey away, and a woman.” The last thing really isn’t much of a point; true love is true love, and Elsa is far from the first destined to be with one of the same sex.
That Elsa is the queen regnant changes things only slightly; after all, Anna is as much the blood of Arendelle as she, and Elsa had been planning to name her children as heirs from the moment she took the throne.
Anna steps down awkwardly and grips Elsa’s hands in both her own. “Elsa,” she murmurs, and Elsa has heard her name in that tone before. It’s how she knows she’s begun to cry.
“Oh, Anna,” she sighs, tilting her head back to keep her tears from staining the wedding dress. Unexpectedly, her anxiety bubbles all the way over into mirth, and she finds she cannot stop laughing. “I’m sorry I’ve ruined your wedding.”
Anna hugs her so quickly and so hard that all of the air is forced from Elsa’s lungs. “You didn’t ruin my wedding, Elsa. This is the only way you could possibly have made it even more wonderful.”
Elsa had never known that Anna felt guilty for finding true love, when she knew Elsa couldn’t.
After seeing Anna and Kristoff away on their honeymoon, the two of them bundled thick as thieves in Kristoff’s sleigh, Sven prancing so that the bells on his harness chime proudly, Elsa locks herself in her office and frets all night over the contents of a letter she never thought she would need to compose.
When the sun comes up, Olaf pads quietly into the room, a warm pastry balanced carefully on a tray, just outside the circle of his snowcloud. “Good morning, your majesty!” he chirps, and Elsa groans with both hands rubbing at her eyes, wondering silently at her life’s luck, to be surrounded by people who love her immeasurably but have no concept of an inside tone.
“Good morning, Olaf,” she says, knowing he wouldn’t understand if she shushed him.
“Here,” he pushes the tray onto a mostly empty corner of her desk. “You didn’t eat very much last night, you know. You’re supposed to eat.”
Elsa almost cries at his thoughtful concern, she’s so ragged, but instead she simply picks up the pastry and crams an exaggeratedly large bite into her mouth. Olaf lights up and wiggles a bit, humming happily. “I’m very glad you’re here, Olaf,” she tells him once she’s swallowed.
He grins and puffs up proudly. “I’m very glad you’re here, too, your majesty.”
She reaches down with her powers and gently lifts him onto the desk, so that she can stand and look him in the eye. “Do you know what happened, Olaf?”
He clasps his twig hands together in front of him and nods. “Do you think they have snow in China?”
Elsa laughs. “I’m certain they do. Look, there is a drawing of it here!” She unrolls the emperor’s scroll, and shows him the heavy-limbed tree, with the little birds scratching below it.
“Ohhhhhh, that’s nice,” Olaf breathes, leaning close. “At least there will be snow for us, when we get there.”
Elsa breathes out quickly, pained by his usual ability to cut right to the heart. “Olaf, we can’t go to China. I’m the Queen of Arendelle.”
Olaf frowns with his whole body. “But that’s where your true love is.”
Once the interpreter realizes what she’s saying, Elsa has to pay him double for his discretion, and then breathe the same air as him for three days while he goes between her and Yin, the merchant captain, who promises with kind eyes that he writes a fair hand and will be able to get the letter to Fa Mulan.
As she bids him farewell, he places a slim volume in her hands. “The Song of Fa Mulan,” he tells her slowly. “I will... return.” There is a dragon on the cover of the book. Elsa hugs it to her chest as watches the ship disappear over the horizon.
A year’s journey, in one direction.
Another year, to return.
Anna and Kristoff return from their honeymoon with flushed cheeks and a hundred new jokes they’re anxious to share with her, and Elsa laughs when she’s meant to. But she’s thinking about ships, and how they sometimes don’t come back.
She reads the Song of Fa Mulan a hundred times.
It is written in Chinese, but tucked between each page is a careful translation, and the pictures are beautiful.
It doesn’t occur to Elsa what a gift it is until she’s devoted the entire translated song to memory. By the first natural frost, she can read the whole original, and has begun, haltingly, to translate the emperor’s scroll.
“Tell me about her,” Anna requests on Christmas Eve.
Kristoff and Sven have fallen asleep in front of the fire in the great hall and Elsa is distracted, covering Arendelle in the gentlest of Christmas snows, enough to muffle the rooftops and glitter the morning sun, so she hums obligingly and drops her head onto Anna’s shoulder.
“She’s an only child,” she begins dreamily. “And when the Huns threatened China, the emperor called for one male from every family. Her father was old and ill, and for the sake of her family’s honor, she disguised herself as a boy, and went in his name...”
She knows something of what Mulan looks like, from the pictures, and she imagines the rest, waving her fingers idly as she spins the scenes from the song in delicate moving ice crystals.
Anna and Olaf listen to stories with the bated-breath enthusiasm of children. In the middle of the final battle scene at the palace, Anna has her hands over her eyes, fingers splayed as Elsa sends the icy dragon flying across the sky. “Elsa,” she breathes.
Elsa pauses, tiny ice Mulan frozen, armed with nothing but a fan, facing off against a barbarian the book’s illustrators gave demonic, pointed teeth and shoulders like mountains, and feels her breath catch in her throat as she realizes what Anna means. “I... I know, Anna,” she admits. “She’s amazing.”
“You’re amazing, Elsa,” Olaf reminds her sleepily.
Elsa likes the little dragon, the way she can make the ice flow and shimmer in some places and go sharp and opaque in others, the way his ears flop and the funny little whiskers that hang from his nose, so she keeps practicing on him.
The wind brings her:
Dragons aren’t real, Princess Anna. It's just a story.
You mean like the ice queen isn’t real, my lord?
On her birthday, Anna comes to her and asks, very cautiously, if becoming an aunt would be a welcome present. Elsa by now has learned to close her eyes and smile against things that make her want to scream, so instead of telling Anna she’s still too much a child to have children (and it's done, after all, isn't it, no use being hurtful), she wraps Anna up in her arms.
Arendelle is happy to stop staring wistfully at the horizon for their good news, and start singing songs and making gifts for the promise of a little heir presumptive. Elsa has to explain babies to Olaf three times before she can look into his agog face without giggling.
Elsa tells herself that with Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf loving so unflinchingly, a child can take one anxiety-ridden aunt that frets about socks and safety, and sometimes takes dinner alone in her office.
It becomes a chore, getting Anna to stay off her feet. Elsa and Kristoff take it in shifts. If it wasn’t so close to Christmas Elsa would be far more cross about her sister’s disregard for her health. As it is, she curls up happily against Anna’s headboard and uses the fire to make icy shadow puppets. Anna is close to sleeping when she finally manages to work up the courage to ask.
“How is true love different from other kinds of love?”
Anna shifts gracelessly, one eye cracking open. “Huh?”
Elsa chuckles soundlessly and shoves aside the lock of white hair that Anna can’t ever seem to make stay in a braid. “How is it different, with Kristoff?”
Anna shifts almost to her knees, quickly, and only with a look of censure from Elsa does she ease back down. “I don’t know, Elsa.” She looks down at her own palm, running her fingers along the letters of Kristoff’s name. “It’s like - my whole life I’ve dreamed about him, but now he has a face, and he talks, and sometimes I just can’t breathe when I look at him because he’s whole and real and I’m awake and he’s mine.”
“But, how do you know he’s different from any other lover? How is he different from Hans?”
Anna starts when Elsa says the name; it’s a verboten thing, between them, but Elsa has been steeling herself for this conversation for weeks now. “I can feel it. Here,” she touches her fingertips gently to Elsa’s heart. “When he’s near me it’s like every part of me wakes up and reaches for him.”
Elsa doesn’t tell her that she thinks that sounds unpleasant and terrifying.
If Elsa was anyone else, she’d have died of exposure long ago, the number of times she’s fallen asleep on the parapet, watching the horizon.
She is loud, and red, and wrinkly, with wisps of downy blond hair frizzing out in all directions and a nose much more suited to her father’s face. Elsa had no idea it was possible for something so ugly to be so beautiful.
Anna wants to name her after Elsa, but Elsa asks for Brynhilde, instead, for the only woman in their hall of ancestral portraits to pose in armor.
The first time Elsa feels brave enough to hold her, it takes some coaxing, her fingers tickling at chubby fingers and knuckles, before the tiny fist will open and let Elsa see the name in it.
She presses her lips to the tiny palm and catches her tears with her smile.
“Merry Christmas, Hilde,” she whispers, swaying back and forth carefully, like Anna showed her.
Olaf smacks into her legs the second she pulls the door open, and Elsa can barely hear his apologies as he scrambles down the hallway. “Anna?!” She balks at shouting in the nursery, but she has to nearly scream to hear herself.
Anna is collapsed on the settee with her fingers pressed hard into her face, pulling open eyes bloodshot with exhaustion. “She won’t stop crying,” she groans. “It's like she’s cursed or something, she won’t stop crying, I don’t know what to do. She's not hungry, she's not wet, she's just crying. I’ve tried everything, and Kristoff went -”
Elsa bends over the bassinet and scoops Hilde up. She wails into Elsa’s chest and the sound rattles all the way through her bones to her teeth; anxious and discomfited, she feels the tendril of magic escape, and only then realizes that in her haste to get to them, she’d forgotten to replace her gloves. And Hilde has gone silent.
Kristoff skids into the room with a sprig of mint clutched in his fist. “Grandpappy said maybe this for her stomach will -” He stares at Elsa, who stares back at him. She knows her eyes are wide with fear.
A tug on her scalp breaks the frozen stillness. She looks down into wide, blinking eyes as Hilde chomps contentedly on the end of her braid.
On the morning of her birthday, Elsa creeps into the nursery just before Hilde wakes and carries her to the ballroom. Anna finds them there, Hilde chortling happily on Elsa’s lap while Elsa directs the madcap movements of her ice dragon with gentle twitches of her fingers against her niece’s tummy.
“Elsa!” Anna yells, running through the door at full speed. Her feet hit an errant patch of ice and she’s so accustomed to slipping at this point that she doesn’t even break stride. “Elsa! There’s a ship on the horizon!”
Elsa’s control on her magic slips and the dragon shakes awake.
From the top of the keep, Elsa can see all four red sails. Her little dragon climbs up on her shoulder and wraps a frozen claw around the shell of her ear. She runs her fingers along the slick-smooth scales of his underbelly and tries to remember how to breathe.
“Is it China?!”
Elsa looks down at Olaf, trying ridiculously to scurry up her hastily created spiral stairs. “Yes!” she shouts back, grinning as he celebrates so quickly he falls over. She wraps both arms around her waist and reminds herself that she’s been waiting for this. “Yes.”
The skies are very clear and the ship is still a long ways away. Elsa stands on the keep and watches for hours. The cold wind against her cheeks is a balm and Elsa begins to wonder if it’s very important that she ever come down. The dragon curls up around her shoulders and falls asleep, purring softly.
A figure on the bow of the ship points a spyglass in her direction; with a hand gesture from him, a flag runs up the highest mast. Elsa makes herself focus enough to catch it in the wind, a red dragon’s face snapping at her. She blesses Yin’s thoughtfulness, to answer her question before even gaining port, and keeps repeating to herself, over and over, that this is what she wants.
Conceal, don’t feel.
“Oh, good. Will you help me get down? It’s very high up here.”
Olaf slips his fingers into hers and she looks down to meet his eyes. “Of course, Olaf. We’ll go down together.”
Anna meets her at the barbican, changed from her sleep clothes into clothes more appropriate for the season. Elsa spares a tight smile for the sight of Hilde in her winter outfit, the rabbit fur lining so thick she can barely bend her arms.
“You don’t have to come,” Elsa mutters. “It’s just going to be a letter.”
“Maybe I came to see Captain Yin,” she rebukes playfully. “Did you ever think of that? Not everything is about you, Elsa.”
(But what Elsa was really saying was thank you, and what Anna really said back was you’re welcome.)
As they step onto the docks, Elsa stops so abruptly that Olaf’s arm comes off. She barely notices as he pulls it out of her fingers, complaining. Her eyes are glued to the woman Yin is shoving off the ship onto the dock with a gleeful expression.
Not just a letter, then.
“Elsa, if you faint right now I swear I’ll kill you.”
Elsa means to open her mouth and say hello. What happens instead is, “You’re shorter than I thought you’d be.” Anna giggles, covering her mouth with her hand. Elsa closes her eyes and counts slowly, hoping she wasn’t understood. “Elsa,” she tries again, touching her fingertips to her breastbone. “I’m Elsa.”
“Yes,” the woman agrees, and Elsa knows what she means because even without seeing her hand Elsa can feel it, the way her body hums forward, skin pricking with preternatural awareness. “I am Fa Mulan.”
She tips forward, bowing slightly. Elsa dips her head in acknowledgement, and shoves her tongue against her front teeth, wondering what she’s supposed to do now. She doesn’t like being so unprepared and with nothing to fall back on, all she can do is stare helplessly down at Mulan, and all Mulan does in return is stare back.
Elsa wonders, in a part of her mind completely outside of the situation, if her pupils are as wide-blown as the ones she’s staring into.
“Hi! I’m Olaf, and I like warm hugs!”
Mulan blinks, breaking the gaze to look down at Olaf’s outstretched arms with her mouth hanging open. Her eyebrows creased, she takes one deep breath, begins to speak, and stops, huffing, bending slightly to peer more closely into Olaf’s eyes. “You are made out of snow.” Her voice is low and even, enough space between the words that Elsa suspects she’s working hard to restrain an accent.
“I am! Elsa made me!” Olaf waggles his arms, still waiting for a hug. Mulan glances at Elsa and her eyes get stuck again. Elsa shrugs helplessly, not certain she remembers how to move her arms.
Yin rescues her, coming forward with sparkling eyes and hands pressed together. “Your majesty,” he bows. “It is very nice to see you again.”
“Captain Yin.” She reaches out with both hands, relieved to have something other than Mulan’s sundark skin, her salt-stained cambric shirt and the way it pulls against muscular arms as she bends to hug Olaf. Elsa inhales sharply and forces herself to look into Yin’s eyes. “You learned English.”
He smiles and squeezes her fingers. “Yes. It is better to talk like this. I do not like Stefano.” (It takes Elsa a beat to remember that Stefano was the name of the translator, and by then Yin is speaking again.) “I bring you good news, as I... promised.”
Elsa laughs faintly as Yin breaks eye contact to glance at Mulan, leaving her with nowhere for her eyes to fix except back on Mulan’s face. “News. Yes, yes you...” Elsa has to stop and take a deep breath. “I’m sorry, I just -”
Mulan smiles. The expression starts on one side of her face and crawls to the other and Elsa’s heart is a hummingbird thrashing forward and she clenches her jaw and her fists. Mulan unfurls her palm and holds it out; if she speaks Elsa can’t hear it over the roaring of blood in her ears.
Finally, Anna steps in, reaching out and taking Mulan’s hand, turning it to look at the name there. “Elsa, she’s real,” she says. “It’s okay.”
Elsa lifts her hand and looks at the glove, not sure she trusts herself enough to remove it. She must, though, and so she reaches and peels slowly, counting. She works it down to her fingers, just enough to tip her palm out and show Mulan the mark. When Mulan reaches for her hand, reflexively, Elsa snaps the glove back up and stumbles backwards.
Unseated, the dragon squeaks indignantly, and Mulan takes a step back herself. “A dragon!” she blurts, and a red, familiarly shaped head snaps out from the loose neck of her shirt, twin plumes of smoke erupting from his nostrils.
“A dragon!” Anna points, and Hilde laughs, clapping and reaching.
“I need to sit down,” Elsa realizes quietly, two seconds before her body makes the decision for her.
About the linguistics:
I'm not 100% certain that Arendelle would be speaking English (matter of fact, I'm pretty sure they'd be speaking some form of Scandinavian dialect) but since the movie isn't true-to-time in several senses of the word, I'm taking a little bit of liberty and claiming that they're an English-speaking nation. This is mostly because there's a lot more material available to me about the transition between Chinese dialects and English than there are about Chinese to Scandinavian; additionally it was really hard for my brain to cope with the disparity of writing dialogue in English that wasn't really in English.
About the castle of Arendelle:
It's poorly designed in the movie and I'm giving it all the proper parts so it has a keep now, and a properly fortified barbican. Arendelle's a tiny nation and there are vikings in the world.
When Elsa opens her eyes, Mulan is still there, perched on the arm at the other end of the settee. Elsa covers her eyes with her hand and peeks through two fingers. “I fainted.”
Mulan nods, her chin propped on one hand.
“How did I get here?”
“I carried you.”
Elsa’s eyes stray to Mulan’s arms and she waits patiently for her brain to start working again. Mulan catches her and smirks, subtly flexing. Elsa scowls and kicks out with one foot, knocking Mulan’s arm away from her chin. “You’re intolerable.”
“I do not know what that means.”
“Yes, you do.” Elsa laughs and pushes herself upright, curling her legs up underneath her. She inhales slowly and makes herself meet Mulan’s eyes. “I can’t believe you came.”
Mulan tips her head to the side, frowning. “Are you not happy?”
Elsa looks at her, at the way she’s clenched together, one knee shaking up and down slightly, and she wonders who told her to try and be still, as if Elsa is an easily spooked pony. She realizes what Mulan asked a beat too late for her answer to sound anything but awkward. “It isn’t that. It’s... I never thought you’d leave China.” She wants Mulan to be closer, but doesn’t know how to articulate it, and can’t imagine moving herself without looking awkward. Elsa is keenly aware of every inch of her body, all the terrible angles and clumsy bits of it.
Mulan slides down from the arm of the settee to the cushion, the fractional gain enough for Elsa to smile gratefully at her. She blinks, eyes flaring, and Elsa wonders if something about the expression isn’t working. Her hand begins to reach out, and then stops.
“I won’t bite you,” Elsa grumbles, but she tucks both hands up against her rib cage, elbows in tight.
Mulan smiles briefly. “Your sister told me to be careful.” She pauses and shifts. “Yin told me to be careful, too. Also Olaf. Well, really, Olaf said you were a little shy, but I think that he also meant -”
Elsa isn’t aware of moving until Mulan abruptly stops talking and Elsa realizes her gloved fingertips are right against Mulan’s lips. She freezes in place and breathes tight against the spur of magic that wants to escape at the feel of Mulan’s breath on her fingers. “Um,” she says. Carefully she eases back and presses her shoulder blades into the furniture. “I thought you were a general?”
Mulan frowns, repeating the unfamiliar word. Elsa bites her lip and takes a chance, drawing the character from the Song in the air in delicate strokes of ice. She’s so worried that she’ll look stupid that when Mulan’s eyebrows shoot up she clenches her fist down on it immediately.
“You can read?”
“I... well, maybe. A little bit? I only have this -” Elsa stands abruptly and retrieves the Song from her desk. Mulan takes it from her and blushes, leafing through the pages while Elsa paces over to the window, tipping it open and pulling a cold wind onto her face. “Yin gave me a translation but I took it out a while ago. I’ve been working on the other scroll I have, the one the emperor sent, and there are a lot of words I don’t recognize but sometimes I can figure out the base character and sort of... um. Work it out.”
Mulan leans her chin on the back of the settee and blinks at her with an expression Elsa isn’t sure how to interpret. Nervous, she wrings her hands and steals glances out of the corner of her eyes.
“I do not understand everything you just said,” she says finally. “But I want to know if there is a book about you. Pictures, like this one.”
“I don’t think so.” Elsa feels herself blush. “Some tavern songs, I think. Kristoff could be making those up to terrorize me, but -” She realizes Mulan’s point, and smiles apologetically. “I’m sorry. You’re older than me, I think. And you... I mean, you weren’t very old. When you went to war.”
She wants to beg Mulan not to be mad at her, even though she isn’t altogether sure that Mulan is mad at her. She doesn’t know Mulan’s face, not like she knows Anna’s or even, to a less extent, Kristoff’s. She waits and tries to watch without committing to eye contact, as Mulan’s eyebrows cycle through a series of emotions before appearing to consciously smooth. “How old are you?” she asks tightly.
“I’m twenty-three.” Elsa draws the Chinese number in the frost on the window. She likes the numbers. The numbers make sense to her.
Mulan’s mouth shrugs down as her brow smooths. “Older than I imagined. Thank ancestors for that.”
Elsa huffs in mock-indignation. “You thought I was a child?”
Mulan laughs, tipping her head back and standing. “I can’t tell, with your face.” She gestures vaguely at Elsa. “But you are correct. I was fifteen when I failed the matchmaker, and I am fifteen again since.”
It takes Elsa a moment to puzzle out what she means, but she doesn’t fully understand. “What does that mean, ‘failed the matchmaker?’”
Mulan comes to lean against the windowsill, the wind catching and blowing at the ends of her hair, and Elsa can see her fighting the need to shiver. “In China, when you are fifteen, the matchmaker registers your name, and finds your match.” She tries to smile, but the expression flickers and fails. “She laughed at my mine.”
Elsa wants to tell Mulan that there are worse things than someone laughing at your soulmark, but her jaw closes up and makes her eyes burn with tears, and the only thing she can think to do is reach out and close the window, to stop Mulan shivering.
And then because Mulan is so close, and Elsa is so useless, she pretends that she needs to go and speak to Yin about trade agreements.
“Yin, what happens when you fail the matchmaker?”
“Wait for matchmaker to come back for you.”
“Until... three tens.”
“Yes. Then you are married to someone else who also fails.”
Elsa watches Mulan chasing Sven around the bailey from the window of her office, her wide-brimmed sailor’s hat flopping around in his teeth, and she smothers her grin with a fist against her lips.
She waits until Mulan victoriously plunks the slobbery hat back on her head, and then knocks it off with a snowball, lifting both hands innocently when Mulan glares up at her. She’s okay with the way Mulan’s laughter lights her up inside as long as it’s from very far away.
Mulan would have been twenty-nine when Yin delivered Elsa’s letter.
Elsa tries to imagine a life with a sword like that dangling over her head, and instead can only panic at the idea that Mulan is here for the rest of her life.
“What are you doing, Elsa?”
Elsa is grooming her ice dragon with gentle wisps of frost - he won’t leave Mulan’s actual dragon alone, and occasionally she finds him curled up in Hilde’s cradle, licking at various melted spots - and she uses that as an excuse to keep her voice mild and her back to Anna.
She knows what Anna means, and Anna knows that. She spent too many years keeping secrets from her, and it’s lost its effectiveness.
“What happens to people who don’t find their true loves?” she asks finally. “Do you know? I’ve never... asked anyone.” Her entire life, talking about true love was forbidden in the castle, first by her father’s edict, and then her own.
Anna sinks down next to her on the rug and touches her knee softly. “Why are you asking? You found her. She’s downstairs right now, trying to teach Kristoff this horrible game that looks like chess that I’m sure you’d be really good at if you would just talk to her.”
Elsa has finished grooming the dragon - she really should name him - but she still needs something to do with her hands, so she pets absently along his scales. “In China, if you don’t find your true love before your thirtieth birthday, you marry someone else.”
“People get married without true love all the time, Elsa.” She frowns. “Well, common people do. It’s different for us. We have a duty.”
“What if you -” Had died. The words, even so many years and so many apologies later, fizzle and die in her throat. “I would have had to get married. To a man. For Arendelle.”
Anna smiles and looks somehow much older than Elsa is accustomed to seeing. “That’s why we call these things destiny and don’t sit alone in our niece’s room fretting about them.” She heaves herself to her feet and swoops fearlessly down to grab Elsa’s hands, pulling. “Stop being an idiot.”
Stop being an idiot.
But she leaves an icy rose in Mulan’s room, and Mulan comes to find her before the points on the thorns soften and melt.
Sorry about the space between updates. Grad school kicked back in and I'm doing my best to juggle.
Plus if I'm being honest the last couple of weeks have been pretty difficult in a world-on-fire sort of way for me (yes, that was a Sarah McLachlan reference, thank you) and it's pretty hard to write Disney fan fiction when you feel like not doing that.
“You are afraid of me,” Mulan accuses, water dripping on the floor between her fingers, her shoulders hunching as she shrinks, looking small and sheepish. “I know I am...” She takes a steeling breath and Elsa can’t keep her eyes off of the veins and tendons in her throat. “I am a soldier. I fought in two wars. I have scars and I’m not... soft.” Her chin is trembling and Elsa feels her lungs go tight with shame.
“I’m not afraid of you,” she says quietly, holding onto her own braid with both hands. Ice is crackling up to her scalp, delicate, razor sharp feathers of it that she can hear in lieu of the pounding in her own heart. “I’m afraid of myself.” When Mulan meets her eyes, her hands flex and the ice races down her neck and scallops her clothing, freezes in deadly patterns on the wall behind her. “You should be afraid of me, too.”
Mulan shakes her head and lifts the rose, letting the stem slip through her fingers until she’s cupping the bloom in her palm, running her thumb across the razor sharp petals so gently they neither melt nor cut. “I am Fa Mulan.”
The quiet confidence and solemn half-smile makes Elsa shiver all the way down to the pit of her stomach and she turns away before it shows on her face. “Damn you,” she says quietly.
Mulan laughs and steps forward, slipping the rose into Elsa’s hair and touching her cold fingertips, briefly, to her chin. Elsa stares into her dark eyes and, paralyzed, feels herself tipping forward.
It is only after Mulan leaves, still chuckling, that Elsa’s brain catches up to the fact that she wanted Mulan to kiss her.
Elsa has always known, in an academic way, that Anna and Kristoff have a physical relationship, in much the same way she presumed that her parents had one. There’s evidence, after all. Contrary to childhood deflection, Hilde was not delivered by stork.
Elsa knows about attraction, but only insofar as it’s something other people feel.
She thinks perhaps everyone else in the world is insane, because that’s the only reason she can see for liking something that makes her feel completely nauseous and pricks hotly at her skin like the beginnings of a panic attack.
Attraction. How completely mortifying.
On the plus side, Admiral Dahl interrupts dinner that night to inform Elsa that there is a fleet of ships just outside of port, flying pirate colors and lining up their cannons. Anna whoops and Hilde takes advantage of the opportunity to fling the spoon she’d been playing with at Kristoff’s head. Even Elsa has to grin.
Mulan follows her up to the tower that affords the best view of the fjord, her face drawn in confusion and her hand loosely curled at her waist, as if seeking a sword. “I may be misunderstanding,” she ventures slowly, not at all winded as she keeps up with Elsa’s longer stride. “But your general did say you were under attack by pirates, yes?”
“We haven’t had pirates in ages,” Elsa enthuses (slightly winded by the stairs).
“Yes, but - ”
They reach the top of the tower and Elsa leans both hands on the edge, breathing deeply as the salty wind reaches her and fills her nose with the smell of gunpowder. Mulan sucks in a sharp breath and mutters a curse; Elsa will own that the formation is somewhat impressive and she lets Mulan linger in fear for a moment, beginning to smirk.
“Foreign ships,” she realizes in the silence, eying the odd angles of the sails and the unfamiliar colors. “Friends of yours?”
“I will surrender to them,” Mulan blurts, and Elsa blinks in surprise, gaping at her. “I did not mean to endanger your people. I will -” She begins to stumble down the stairs.
“You’ll do no such thing,” Elsa says, her eyes pinned to Mulan’s as she lifts her hand behind her, gathering her strength. “I won’t have you spoiling my fun.”
Elsa will never know the words for her powers.
Words exist, painfully, for human emotions, clumsily traded back and forth since the invention of language, an oscillating lexicon that expands and contracts as needed, but there’s never been anyone else to feel the way that Elsa does, never anyone to talk to about the way the ice exists in the air and reaches for her as she reaches for it. The wind and the water and how she breathes and is, and then becomes.
Elsa exhales herself down the curtain wall, the moisture in the air above the fjord lifting up to meet her like the beginning of a glorious piece of music, gathering up from a cacophony into a harmony, and high singing note, held for a breathless second before she spirals out in a fractalling wave of the purest cold.
The ships freeze in the water, and the water freezes against the ships, and she pulls up the tarred, wooden sides and over the ports and cannons, the sails snapping wildly in her winds until she overwhelms them.
Elsa laughs, high and loose in her throat, her arms outstretched and her fingers spread, everything inside of her cold and still and perfect.
Almost a full seven years after defeating Shan Yu, Mulan accepts a post on the Great Wall.
She gives many reasons for this: honor, duty to the aging emperor, setting an example for the troops who regard the Wall as a high and cold punishment. She tells Mushu that she just wants a break, and that the relative calm in the aftermath of Shan Yu’s invasion might give her that. I want time to think, she tells him, and threatens to kick him into Mongolia if he keeps complaining.
The truth is that Mulan doesn’t need any more time to think.
Mulan is tired of thinking.
All she thinks about is the future, and the only place that’s as bleak as her future is the top of a stone wall, surrounded by the whitecaps of the mountains and the windswept plains of a barbarous land.
Mulan doesn’t mind the cold because she can wear gloves all day, and not look at the marking scrawled across her palm, a single unbroken line that looks like a child was playing with an inked brush. She knows it says something - the shape is too deliberate, with dips and peaks that couldn’t be accidental - but she also knows that her chances of ever knowing what are diminishing every day.
Hope is exhausting, and Mulan wants to give up on it for a little while.
She’s been on the wall for a year when Shang comes to inspect her troops.
She’s not worried because she knows they’re the best she can muster; months of inaction on the wall have been turned into months of rigorous drills and training. Mulan pushes them hard and hopes a few will push back, protest her leadership, so she can fight them. Few of them do. The Song of Fa Mulan precedes her.
Mulan is uncomfortable without an adversary. When news of Shang’s arrival reaches her, she orders her second to ready the soldiers, and climbs up to the outer brim of the wall, perching on a battlement.
“Nei ho, Mulan.”
“Ho, Shang,” she sighs, dropping her chin, caught.
Shang sticks his legs through the gap next to her, dropping down on the wall easily and kicking his heels against the stone. Mulan inspects him out of the corner of her eye. “Your men are fit,” he informs her solemnly.
Shang coughs, discomfitted by her lack of pleasure in his compliment. “I may advise the emperor to send more recruits here. You’ve trained them better than the training camps.”
He means this to be a joke, but Mulan only nods. “I am at the emperor’s instruction.”
He is silent, for a long time. Almost long enough that Mulan forgets him.
“In two years I’ll be thirty.” Mulan inhales sharply, his meaning invading her lungs like a blast of cold wind. Shang, looking down at his hands, rubs his right thumb hard across his left palm, his soulmarked palm.
Mulan knows what it says; she was with him when he found out his match had been killed in the mountains by Shan Yu. He’d fallen to his knees in the sooty snow and cried the way a man was only permitted to cry once, the stiff, cold hand with his name written across it pressed to his forehead. It wasn’t something a person could witness and forget.
“If...” Shang’s voice falters and he shakes his head, his breathing ragged. Mulan wants to reach for him, to steady him, but knows the gesture would be misunderstood within the conversation. Shang’s social awkwardness has always been the best thing about him, to her way of thinking. But she doesn’t want to answer him, and perhaps if he can’t get the question out, then she won’t have to. “If you wanted me to, I would wait.”
There are things Mulan should say.
Seven years is a long time, she should tell him. Your debt was repaid long ago, is something else. She should find some way to admit to him that though she can discern nothing about her match from her mark, she’s spent almost half her life in close quarters with men and never once felt attracted to one. She could just say, No, thank you, sir.
Mulan doesn’t say any of those things.
She sighs, closes her eyes on the vast empty reaches of Mongolia, and nods.
She stays on the wall for five years, with the spectre of Shang’s proposal hanging over her.
A village forms around her barracks, small but not so small that it lacks a brothel. For her twenty-sixth birthday, as a joke, some of the men buy Mulan a bed and a companion. Mulan doesn’t laugh.
Hsui-mei has kind eyes and a woman’s name tickled across her palm, and she laughs delightedly at Mulan’s clumsy attempts to express her gratitude. Effortlessly sliding her sweaty, reed-thin limbs into a tangle with Mulan’s, she swoops down for a glowing kiss.
Mulan kisses back and realizes that kissing Shang will never, ever feel so good. A knot of cold dread forms in the pit of her stomach and stays there. She doesn’t go back to the brothel, but sometimes, sitting on the wall with the stars over her head, she aches to.
A promise is a promise, and Shang has already waited three years past his time. It would dishonor them both, to renege.
A month shy of her twenty-eighth year, Mulan goes home to bury her father.
Her mother greets her stoically, with a sniff and a weary glance over her body. Mulan feels some part of her collapse, as if she can make her muscles any smaller or her hands any daintier. Two years from an unmatched marriage, and a single glance from a grief-stricken old woman makes her feel like a child being primped for the matchmaker.
She remembers Shang crying in the snow, and some of her anger thaws.
Her arms are solid and she knows her mother is grateful for them as she shakes with the sorrow of losing her match.
After the funeral, Mulan goes alone to light a stick of incense for her father.
“I don’t want to marry Shang,” she murmurs to him softly. “Baba, please.”
As Mulan settles into the rhythm of her childhood home - old but new, a familiar place and a familiar body but unfamiliar to each other, ill-matched and unwieldy - a kind of resignation settles over her. She’s the last of the Fa family, and this is her home.
The house is huge and empty, and Mulan paces the edges of it restlessly.
In two years, she’ll have to leave it behind and live in the house of the Li family.
It’s never mentioned, but both occupants of the house are tense with it. Mother cries and moves things, from room to room, she fusses over a place in the outer wall that shows signs of crumbling. When some chickens are killed by a wild dog, she only sighs and shrugs both shoulders down. “Don’t need so many, with only two of us.”
Mulans knows that if she has two sons, maybe, she’ll be able to let her second son inherit it. Her stomach turns over and sours at the idea of even one son, one time in bed with Shang. But she loves her home, and can’t stand the idea of it moldering away, her ancestors weathering and disintegrating. So she might. Might try.
She writes a letter to Shang and hides her concerns amid all the usual generalities.
In hindsight she should have expected him to have a solution.
Her mother complains about ‘the boys,’ grumbling about the noise of the drills in the courtyard, the smell of them stumbling past her after they run, but Mulan catches her sneaking them extra pork buns.
She should scold her for coddling them, but truthfully the recruits Shang sent her are too young, too thin, and too unused to kindness. General Fa cannot sneak hardboiled eggs into the folds of their shenyi, or dab strong-smelling salve onto the developing calluses in their palms, or patch holes in their sleeves with quick, secret stitches, however much she might wish to.
The smallest of them can’t be older than twelve, though he lies himself fourteen with conviction, with huge mooncalf eyes in a lantern-like face, and Mulan wants to weep every time she watches him fumble with his gùn, the fingers of his left hand fighting for the strength to grip the bamboo. The rest of the boys call him Little Brother, and not one unkind word is spoken to him, not even when he fumbles with the laces of his too-big practice armor and it slides off his thin shoulders the first chance it gets.
One night, a noise in the courtyard draws her from sleep and she creeps out with a knife in hand to catch the intruder, only to see Little Brother hunched down on the steps with his ruined hand pressed to his chest, biting his other wrist to muffle sobs. Mulan watches her mother settle a blanket and then her arms around him, and presses her own useless mark to her lips, tears welling.
Time passes too quickly. The boys grow tall and strong, sleek and smiling with good cheer and health, and Mother Fa, as they call her, seems to grow taller herself, her shoulders lifted as though the burden of four ill-marked orphan soldier boys is lighter than the air itself.
Mulan smiles reflexively through it all, but when she is alone she feels her shoulders drop and her stomach collapse. Bone by bone, she tries to shrink herself down to fit the word ‘wife.’
Little Brother is the fastest runner, and even so, when he returns from their morning run to the river before the sun has even fully cleared the horizon Mulan frowns and jogs to meet him at the gate.
“Message at the docks,” he gasps, shoving a covered scroll in her direction as he leans over his own knees and coughs with exertion.
It isn’t a military message, or a letter from Shang, who uses the military’s couriers for even his personal correspondence, so Mulan takes her time easing the wax seals at the corners. As the rest of the boys pelt into the courtyard behind Little Brother, all of them equally red in the face, she thinks about giving a mild lecture about patience and how the mail is delivered every afternoon by someone whose duty it is to deliver the mail. With four sets of expectant eyes on her, she unrolls the first lines of the missive.
She takes two numb steps backwards and sinks down to sit on the ground, mouth agape.
“It’s true! You’re matched!” Deshi blurts, too eager to wait, his wide palms pressed together so hard his arms shake.
Mushu snatches the scroll from her and Mulan can’t see through the tears in her eyes to get it back. And then four sets of arms are wrapped around her, and five soldiers are crying with the joy of the impossible.
There are so many things that matter, so many ways this is going to hurt before it heals, but Mulan can’t make herself care over the songbird-beating of her own heart, all of her blood rushing around and singing the news to the rest of her body: we don’t have to be alone.
And of course she’s going - Mulan is caught by the need to flee, to run towards her mark with all the urgency of galloping down a mountain ridge ahead of an avalanche. She has to send for the merchant rather than go to him herself, as is proper, afraid that she would simply cut the ship’s ties and order him out to sea.
Mother makes tea; Little Brother runs back to the river with a message for Shang, sealed in bright red army wax.
Mother shrieks and drops a teapot when Captain Yin points gravely to the name on her palm and says aloud that the name is Elsa, and it belongs to a woman.
Mulan curls her fingers protectively over her palm and avoids eye contact with her mother, jaw tight with the guilt of not telling her the contents of the letter before Yin did. She knows her mother has never imagined anything other than a son-in-law and grandsons, never imagined anything but Shang once Shang was in place.
Mulan knows this because she was so very, very careful to make it seem so.
A mark is a mark, and aware of Little Brother eavesdropping breathlessly from the corridor, Mulan feels her shoulders ease in relief with Mother only sighs and mutters briefly over the hairline fracture in the teapot.
She isn’t at all surprised that Elsa is a woman, but she hangs on the fact that Elsa is a queen. The few times she’d allowed herself the luxury of hope, she’d imagined someone common, and quiet, with a reticent, careful smile that Mulan could spend her entire life trying to earn.
In the darkness of her room that night, Mulan says the name quietly, over and over, forcing the difficult sounds out of her teeth.
Mushu taps the syllables against her forehead: Elllll. Suh.
He himself never quite manages to say it right, but then, it isn’t his soulmate, and there’s a part of Mulan, a very realistic part that speaks with Shang’s baritone logic, that shares his unsubtle reluctance to go so far from what is known. What is even pronounceable.
Mulan’s heart skips beats at nothing more than the possibility of her, and she falls asleep with a kind of thin, grey notion that she’s too old to feel so alive, but also with her hand wrapped around the scroll underneath her pillow.
Restless, she wakes well before dawn and creeps out to the kitchen, stirring the coals until she produces enough heat to make tea. She tucks herself against her father’s favorite cherry tree and watches as the boys stumble sleepily out of the courtyard towards the river.
I’ve been staring at your name my entire life, but I never knew you existed, is how Elsa’s letter begins, and then apologizes. Mulan smiles and runs her fingers down the words. She knows it isn’t Elsa’s hand - Yin explained how he’d written for her - but she can feel Elsa in them just the same.
“We’re going, then.”
Mulan glances over at Mushu’s dejected, typically over-dramatic posture and nods, thinning her lips. “You don’t have to -” She stops and grins when he straightens and pulls a rucksack out from behind the tree and drops a floppy traveler’s hat down on his head.
“I know you weren’t about to leave me behind!” he grins toothily.
No, of course not.
Mulan doesn’t actually tell anyone that she’s going with Yin, but the next thing she knows, her bags are packed and even her ceremonial armor is carefully tucked into its fitted case. Mulan stands in her suddenly emptied room with her hands propped on her hips and panics.
She tugs the corners of her mouth up into a smile before she turns. Little Brother hovers in the door frame, a distinctly greenish cast to his skin. Mulan bites the inside of her mouth against a knee-jerk joke, and waits until his nerves settle and he squares his shoulders, adjusting the bag he has slung across his back.
It’s a little easier to think about going, when instead of herself, Mulan has to think about if Little Brother remembered to pack both sets of clothing, summer and winter, and if he’s likely to get seasick.
It’s a little easier to think about Elsa, too, when Little Brother touches her palm tentatively and whispers, “Do you think mine will still recognize me if we find him?”
Mulan looks at his beautiful, hopeful little face and presses his ruined palm to hers.
It is so much easier to believe in another person’s happy ending than her own.
She half expects Shang to ignore her. She doesn’t know where she got that idea, because when has Shang ever been the type to avoid a confrontation, but when his swift little red-sailed riverboat appears down the mountain, Mulan glares at it from the roof and mutters all of the words that she’s not allowed to say on the ground, for fear of her mother overhearing.
“Damn it, Ping.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
She expects the angry scowl, and the haunted, oblique eyebrows, and even the use of her snot-nosed, inept-teenager name. What she doesn’t expect is the sudden, roguish grin and the startlingly tight grip around her shoulders.
“This is the last thing in the world you should apologize for,” he murmurs gravely into her hair, and Mulan presses closer into his chest, a sob bubbling up her throat and turning into a laugh.
Shang stays for dinner, and calls Mulan’s mother his own, and the boys his men, and the tight, snapping band around her ribcage lets go, and there aren’t as many tears as she expects, when she and Mushu and Little Brother tramp onto the deck of Yin’s ship.
Deshi holds Mother up with a strong arm around her waist, his face a careful study in stoicism as he refuses to wave. Little Brother’s pockets are stuffed full of sweetbuns and preserved eggs and his smile is brighter and more fragile than Mulan has ever seen. She holds her breath but he doesn’t start crying until they’ve rounded the bend, and then it’s okay that she joins him.
Happy Talk Like A Pirate Day.
After all her concern for Little Brother, of course it’s Mulan who is so seasick she can barely move for two weeks.
By the time she manages to stand at the rail (and not bend over it with her stomach roiling), the mainland is a dark line between the sea and the sky, and on the other side, faint blue-green wisps of island flit like mirages.
“Those are the Nansha,” Little Brother nods out at the horizon. “They’re easier to see from the top of the mast. Maybe Xiao Tai will let you borrow his looking glass.”
Wary of moving her head too quickly, Mulan studies her young charge out of the corner of her eye. In two weeks, he’s shed his shenyi and begun acquiring a dark tan. His bare toes splay confidently on the boards. She cants her head up and eyes the main mast, a long, straight span of wood so familiar it makes her grin.
Little Brother grins back, miming the wristlock necessary to climb. “Xiao Tai says I’m the fastest climber he’s ever seen. I said that’s cause he’s never seen you climb.”
Every time she thinks about asking, her seasickness threatens to return. To distract herself, Mulan learns rigging, and knots, and starts teaching Little Brother how to shoot a recurve bow by tying a string to his arrows and pointing him towards the water.
He proves surprisingly adept, his injured hand able to lock in place around the bow and hold steady for hours. The sailors take to calling him Little Hook, for the shape of his hand, and for the first time Mulan sees the shadow of his deformity lift away. He scrambles over every inch of the ship without falter, his grin as wide as the crescent moon.
“Did you know most of the men are lost marks, like me?”
Mulan shifts her weight, testing the strength of the rope wrapped around her foot before she turns to face him. He’s crouched easily on the top of the mast, as relaxed as Mulan would be on the ground.
She hadn’t known, but it didn’t surprise her. Those without good marks tended to be pushed to the edges, and the daring, windswept freedom of the sea, months and years away from China, was about as far from center as possible.
Little Brother lets his words sit for a long time, a little bone knife whittling away at his fingernails. “Except Xiao Tai and the captain, of course.”
Mulan nods, of course, and only later when she looks at Yin’s mark does she realize what she’s agreeing about.
“Is she pretty?”
The question is blurted and artless and Mulan wants to snatch it back out of the air, but she’s been trying to ask what Elsa looks like for almost a month now, and she and Yin have been standing alone at the helm for hours, Yin steering idly with one hand and pointing out the important stars with the other.
Yin’s eyebrows lift, but he smiles knowingly before considering her question. “Thin,” he replies after a moment. “She is thin and pale, and her eyes are very large.”
Mulan squints and tries to decide if his tone is positive or negative.
Not that it matters what Elsa looks like, Mulan tells herself firmly. Marks always know.
Besides, she isn’t exactly a prize catch herself.
In Singapore, amid the flurry of trade and the sudden influx of exotic fruits (one of which smells so foul that Mulan for the first time ever asserts her imperial rank and forbids the sailors from bringing it below deck), a man with large eyes and a thin black mustache joins them. He looks Mulan up and down and laughs. “So you are the little queen’s mark.”
Mulan scowls at his tone and is seconds away from pitching him over the side into the impossibly clean waters of Singapore’s port when he sweeps his feathered hat off his head and bows deeply.
“I am Stefano. I am your translator.”
“What. An. Idiot.” Mulan stifles her laughter in her hand and shoves Mushu’s head back into her collar.
In the waters between Singapore and Yindu, Mulan learns how to say hello to Elsa, how to talk pleasantly about nothing, and how to ask her about the weather. Stefano thinks this is hilarious.
Mulan doesn’t want to ask too many questions about Elsa. She wants to learn her for herself, puzzle out all the pieces of her life, discover bit by bit why this woman, out of all possible women in the world, is the one she’s made for.
But she hears things.
Most of the crew has seen her, after all, and from the fairy tales they spin Mulan begins to wonder if she’s real. She says as much to Little Brother, who laughs.
“Honored Fa,” he chortles. “You have a dragon.”
She supposes he has a point.
They sail around the tip of Yindu without stopping. Mulan asks why - the hold is keening with trade goods, and they are close enough that she catches glimpses of buildings from the top of the mast - and the men go strangely silent.
“There’s a religion,” Stefano finally answers, speaking in slow English so Mulan can understand him and the sailors can ignore him. “Poor bastards believe that they’re supposed to refuse their soulmates.” He shivers and gestured over himself. Mulan squints at his gloved hand, wondering.
It’s not the first time she’s ever heard of someone refusing their mark. But there’s something especially chilling about the idea of a whole group of people doing it. She swallows her discomfort, not wanting to judge something she doesn’t understand. The men have no such qualms and speak loudly. She watches the pleasant-looking people through the looking glass, and wonders if their lives are like the one she would be living if she had stayed in China.
Their water supplies have dwindled to only the foulest rotgut alcohol by the time they reach Goa, and Mulan feels her nausea threatening at the choppy seas. Six of the sailors they began the journey with leave for another vessel, returning to China, and they hire on replacements. Mulan stares at their skin and faces as surreptitiously as she can.
She wonders, again, what Elsa looks like.
“Feizhou.” Yin joins her at the helm - he’s trusted her to pilot since she lashed herself to the wheel during a storm and by all accounts kept them from capsizing - and gestures out at the distant, approaching coast.
Mulan frowns, not overly fond of the name. Two of the sailors they hired in Goa are so dark they make the sunbaked Chinese sailors look wan, and she understands that they call the landmass Alkebulan. The word Stefano teaches her is Africa.
As they wend their way all the way around the continent, Mulan stops thinking of the new crew as at all different in appearance, and she can speak comfortably to all of them in English.
They’ve been chasing the rumors of pirates since Cape Town. Little Brother catches onto the romance of the tales and won’t let go, fashioning a sash out of a red shenyi with a tear in it and begging the sailors (some of whom, Mulan suspects, have first hand knowledge) for pirate tales. His English broadens, becomes a swaggery accented pidgin with scatterings of other languages, and he pesters Mulan until she agrees to resume combat training with him on the deck, adapting duandao techniques to the short, curved blade an indulgent sailor named Smee loses on purpose in a game of cards.
Still, she isn’t prepared to actually meet them.
Little Brother speaks first, after looking through the glass for almost a full minute.
“Oh,” he says quietly. Mulan watches as he works the disappointment off his face and his shoulders lift with purpose. He pulls his fishing bow from his back sheath and strings it calmly.
Mulan nods to Yin, and Xiao Tai adjusts the sails.
“Ready, Mushu?” she murmurs, one hand braced against the mast and the other clutching a rope. Mushu rumbles with anticipation, wrapped tightly around the sash of firepots across Mulan’s chest.
Mulan might have never seen anything like the women the pirates had tangled in their nets, but the pirates had certainly never seen anything like Mulan, soaring down on their ship raining bombs. They’re cowering by the time the rest of the crew boards.
Mulan tells Little Brother to supervise their surrender, which he does with a nocked arrow and an iron voice years older than he is, and she climbs over the side to make sure the women all managed to get free of the nets.
One with dark hair still has her tail impossibly tangled, and a fretting red-head tugging ineffectually with her bare hands, heedless of Mulan’s approach. “Here, let me,” she offers, wrapping her wrist in the net for stability and drawing her boot knife.
Their eyes are wide with fear but Mulan moves slowly and takes great pains to avoid nicking the... well, so it feels exactly like an ordinary fish’s tail and Mulan isn’t going to think too hard about it.
She is nearly finished when the red-head swims closer and tugs her left hand open with a squeak, shoving her own palm forward so quickly she bumps Mulan’s nose. Mulan looks as soon as her eyes stop watering and blinks in recognition. Their marks share the first letter of their names. She sounds out the name on the girl’s hand for her, slowly, and finishes cutting the net open to a chorus of it, the waters rolling as she swims in an excited circle.
The darker girl rolls her eyes in aggravation and swims closer to Mulan, looping her arm around Mulan’s neck and planting a kiss on her lips before Mulan can rally a defense. “Thank you, human,” she lilts gravely, and then pulls the younger one behind her, under the surface.
Mulan shakes off her shock before she sinks, and uses the net to climb back onto the pirate ship.
In the hold of the ship, they find a scrawny boy with hair the color of sand and a bruise purpling his eye, and when he reaches out to take a flask of water from Smee, Little Brother goes absolutely still, staring at his hand.
His name is Peter.
This was really difficult to write and I'm really sorry.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
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.
If there's enough interest, I might write Little Brother's story. I don't feel like I can leave him like this.
Everyone around her seems to think she needs an apology, for Elsa, but Mulan has never felt more grounded or necessary as she does when she has Elsa in her arms, because of course she needed to be this strong, so that she can cradle her soulmate without any effort.
The woman with red hair - Anna, she's Elsa’s sister, Mulan knows she should remember this - calls for assistance, but Mulan shakes her head and tightens her grip. Elsa’s head lolls against her collarbones, her eyelashes fluttering against Mulan’s bare skin so that she almost does drop her, after all.
“You just - you have to be careful,” Anna frets, and the way she moves Elsa’s hands away from Mulan’s chest makes her wonder, briefly, if Anna doesn’t mean that she’s afraid Mulan with drop the queen.
Anna wants to stay until Elsa wakes, but the bundle of blankets in her arms starts crying and once she’s gone, Olaf grins and squeezes Mulan’s hand. The little sticks that make up his fingers are pliable and almost warm.
“She’s shy,” he whispers to her conspiratorially. “But she’s not very hard to love.”
He’s not wrong. Elsa is bright and skittish and fleeting and awkward and stubborn and somehow the most wonderful creature Mulan has ever seen. Mulan loves her helplessly, a ship caught in a reckless and swift current, and she holds her breath and runs aground again and again on the rocks of Elsa’s fragile, tenuous grasp on social interaction.
She meets Kristoff, and discovers that the baby is Hilde, Elsa’s niece and heir, and this little soulbound family is so overwhelmingly warm and easy to interact with that Mulan finds herself thinking well, no wonder Elsa is hiding.
And Mulan knows how to be patient but Kristoff is terrible at wéiqí, and Anna refuses to even attempt to play. “Elsa would understand this,” she grouses, unpeeling a stone from Hilde’s hand and placing it back on the board. “She’s great at chess.”
She realizes what she’s said, and scrambles to apologize, but Mulan isn’t quite able to keep the stricken look off her face.
She is alone in her room, restlessly polishing her ceremonial armor - there are pocks in it where the salt air crept through the seals, and she’ll have to have it repaired - when the temperature dips, and she looks over at her dressing table in time to watch a thin band of white-cold air creep up and begin to twist around itself.
Her armor clatters to the floor and she crosses the distance blindly, watching as the frost collects into a single, achingly perfect rose. Mulan has never understood romance, but her heart thrashes in her chest and she feels as weak as she’s ever been and when she picks it up it doesn’t even feel cold.
When Elsa still flinches at the sight of her, Mulan clenches her jaw and assumes it’s the same reason her mother always flinched. Too big, too frightening, too like a man. It takes all of her courage to say something, but she looks up at Elsa’s response and watches as Elsa’s hands fidget with fear and the ice crackles the sound of her anxiety into the room.
I am Fa Mulan.
She watches as, like lightning, a flash of want passes through Elsa’s eyes. Suddenly she understands so much, and she wants to laugh at herself, at Elsa, at the world, and especially at the way Elsa trembles and tips forward to be kissed without even meaning to, because all this time she’s been thinking Elsa didn’t want her.
At dinner Elsa has a shy smile for her, and because Mulan is watching she sees the way her eyes flit down to her lips and then linger on her hands; Mulan feels her breath catch as a blush creeps across her pale cheeks because this means Elsa knows, now. Little spiderwebs of frost cover her cutlery when she lifts it, and Mulan feels like jumping out of her skin with happiness.
It seems only natural that the pirates would choose that moment to arrive in force. Mulan looks at their formation, their cannons all facing the castle, and feels shame burn at her face. She shouldn’t have let Yin talk her out of engaging them. Elsa and Arendelle are in danger, now, and it’s her fault. Mulan squares her shoulders and prepares to to the right thing.
The Elsa who stops her is a revelation.
Suddenly she understands all of the rumors, all of the things she’d dismissed as legend.
Elsa is tall and imposing and impossibly beautiful, all of the lines of her face sharp and proud and vengeful and Mulan can only gape as with a high, triumphant laugh all of Arendelle goes white and still. The freezing, breaking pirate fleet ceases to matter as all of Mulan’s focus centers on Elsa, who closes her palms and smirks at Mulan, an expression of canny, reckless lust that hits Mulan right in the pit of her stomach
Mulan’s knees actually give out, for the first time in her entire life, and she kneels on the cold flagstones. Elsa strides forward, limbs lax with confidence, and reaches down to cup Mulan’s jaw with both hands, pulling her up easily.
“I am the Snow Queen,” she says proudly, her breath a sharp puff of frost against Mulan’s lips.
And even though she’s come so close, she hesitates, and Mulan knows, and she breaks out of her slack-jawed paralysis to grin and circle Elsa’s waist with one arm, threading her free hand through frost-covered hair, thumb brushing into the hollow behind Elsa’s ear.
Elsa the Snow Queen shivers all the way to her toes, and Mulan can barely stop grinning in time to match the press of cold lips with her own. Ice crackles down her spine and against her eyelashes, but Mulan only presses closer and Elsa sinks down with a quiet groan, her slim fingers tightening against Mulan’s collar.