The legend of the phoenix comes down to this - a being that lives forever.
“Renewal,” Mulan’s father told her, back when she was a mere child attempting to fix her mistakes, valiantly trying to mend the wing of the guardian statue outside their home. “Rebirth. No matter how hot the flames, the phoenix always rises again, soaring into the heavens.”
Here is the other part of the legend that people tend to forget -
For the phoenix to live forever, she first needs to die.
After Mulan releases the Emperor from his restraints and they carefully descend the hideous structure Bori Khan set up, they make their return to the palace as quickly as possible. Mulan keeps a sharp eye out for any stray Rouran assassins en route.
It is not an assassin that catches her eye.
When she falters, the Emperor stops as well. He rears back when he sees Xian Lang’s unmoving form on the sand. “Is that Bori Khan’s witch?”
Mulan does not answer; only one part of that question is true. “Please,” she says instead. “She’s hurt.” She’s dead, she thinks, the pain of it as if it was her heart that the arrow pierced. When she goes to Xian Lang’s side and gently takes her hand, she can feel no pulse beneath the wrist.
Or can she? For - when she interlinks their fingers, squeezes tight, thinks to herself please, one more time -
Mulan is no witch, this much she knows. She cannot change her shape - well, not without the cloth bindings around her chest and the tight knots of her hair - and she cannot make men fall to her will with just a glance. She cannot wake the dead.
And yet, she hears, a voice like silk in her mind, unheard by the Emperor, only for her. Perhaps we are even more alike than you thought, Hua Mulan.
With an arrow through her chest, blood in her mouth, Xian Lang yet breathes. It is a faint thing, barely there, but there regardless.
“She is alive,” the Emperor says, and Mulan startles, realising he has dropped to a knee beside her. His gaze is like steel, and for a moment she fears he will kill Xian Lang himself.
But it is only a moment. It passes, then the Emperor gets back on his feet. “She cannot walk in this state. You will go to the palace and bid the soldiers come. Bring horses and the healers. Go.”
Mulan goes. She flies like the phoenix bears her, reaching the palace and finding Honghui and the other men having won their battle as well. On their word, together, the surviving soldiers ride out with the healers to bring the Emperor back to safety.
The healers get to work on Xian Lang right on the sand - her condition is too delicate for her to be moved, they tell Mulan. As it is, she might not survive the night.
“She will,” Mulan replies. She can imagine no other outcome.
Later, when she is brought before the Emperor once more to receive accolades and an offer to become an officer in his Guard, she looks him in the eye and tells her she accepts on two conditions.
Devotion to family. That hasn’t changed.
The second condition - that is not devotion, she knows. That is repaying a debt.
“You have my word that Xian Lang will be safe and cared for,” the Emperor declares. “Go to your family, Hua Mulan. When you return, she will be here.”
She trusts the Emperor, of course. And more than anything, she wants to see her family again - so Mulan saddles her horse and rides home. But even as she goes, she knows she will be returning. There is something waiting for her here, too.
The village welcomes her back as a hero, though she does not feel like one until her father embraces her and tells her he is proud to call her his daughter. Her sister tells her about her match, about the handsome man she is meant to marry, but Mulan knows that is no longer the path any of them expect her to tread.
“The Emperor has offered me a place in his Guard,” she tells them. “I return to the palace in a week’s time.”
Her mother cries, from joy and sorrow both. Her father does not, but she sees the shine in his eyes and feels his hand tremble when he grips her shoulder. “You will bring us great honour.”
“I will,” Mulan promises. This is her path to tread. She knows her place, now, and this is it.
Commander Tung and Honghui ride into the village on the very last day while she is packing her things. Honghui grins at her when she approaches them and informs her that they are her honour guard to accompany her back to the palace.
“Don’t talk nonsense,” Mulan chides him. Honghui feigns offense. “I would not lie to an officer of the Emperor’s Guard.”
Mulan doesn’t deign to give more than a snort in response. She sees a flicker of amusement on Commander Tung’s face before it settles back into neutral regard. “Less of the chit-chat, both of you. The Emperor awaits.”
“As does Xian Lang,” Honghui says, faux-casually, once they have gotten up to speed. Mulan grips the reins of her horse tighter, glancing across at him. “Is she well?”
He nods. “Recovering, the healers say. Faster than most. After all, she is a witch.”
“She is a warrior,” Mulan snaps, feeling nettled for reasons she cannot quite explain. Honghui laughs, shaking his head. “I did not say otherwise. Neither did the Emperor. Woe betide any man who speaks against her, my friend. His Majesty has declared that she is a friend of the kingdom, to be held in esteem as we are.”
Mulan swallows past the lump in her throat. “I would be dead if not for her.”
“And so would all of us,” Honghui says. “His Majesty understands that all too well.”
“Why did she do it?” Honghui asks her later, when they are bedding down in a valley for the night, before the next morning’s ride to the palace. The fire blazes in front of them, Commander Tung pacing a distance away, having taken first watch. Mulan looks into the darkness and finds that an answer does not come. “I don’t know.”
Honghui hums thoughtfully. “Perhaps the awakenings of a conscience, when she saw you risk life and limb for your emperor and your comrades.”
Mulan remembers raising her arms to catch Xian Lang as she fell, remembers the eagle in her arms turning into the greater weight of a woman. The look in her eyes as she died, looking up at Mulan as if she were the sun. She closes her eyes and tries to quell the ache in her chest. “Perhaps.”
She is given a warm welcome when she arrives at the palace, then sent to be fitted for new armour and presented with a new sword. By the time she has settled it in its sheath on her drawers and unpacked her things in her new rooms, night has fallen.
It is late, but she finds herself drawn to Xian Lang’s chambers anyway. She does not expect her to be awake, but when she knocks once against the wood, hesitant, she hears the faint voice come from within. “You may enter.”
The room is small and sparse, but comfortable, and Mulan notes that the door and windows lock from the inside. Xian Lang lies on the bed, unshackled, and Mulan feels a weight ease off her shoulders, glad that Honghui was speaking the truth. The Emperor has kept his promise.
“They told me you’d gone to be with your family,” Xian Lang says. Her voice barely rises above a whisper, a mere approximation of what it was before. Mulan’s eyes catch on the lack of colour in her cheeks, the slight tremor of her fingers. Witch or not, healing or not, an arrow through the heart is an arrow through the heart. Mulan keeps her voice steady when she responds. “I came back.”
Xian Lang laughs softly, eyes not quite focused. “To be an officer of the Emperor’s Guard.”
There is only a moment of hesitation before Mulan shakes her head. Loyal, brave and true - the oath that she swore, the values that bring her strength. She will not turn her back on them again. “And also for you.”
“Lies do not befit you, warrior woman,” she murmurs. Mulan glares at her. “I am not lying.”
Xian Lang doesn’t respond immediately, her breath steady and even, eyes closed. One hand drifts to her chest, covering the bandage that spans it. “A punctured heart that will never fully heal right,” she says. “Is that a witch’s price to pay for acceptance and for mercy?”
“It is a testament to great courage,” Mulan corrects. “That is what has earned you the Emperor’s favour. You are a hero of the kingdom, an equal to any man that dedicated his life on the battlefield against Bori Khan.”
Xian Lang laughs again. The sound is bizarrely lovely, if strained. “Courage,” she repeats, like it’s a joke, the punchline of which Mulan is not privy to. “Silly girl.” Mulan grits her teeth, but Xian Lang’s tone somehow edges less on condescension and more on amusement. “It is late. I need to rest, as do you. Leave me be. You may come again tomorrow.”
She says it like she knows Mulan will want to, and because she’s decided to be honest, Mulan doesn’t dispute the point.
She is given a day to settle in, and her second morning begins with meeting the other officers in the Guard. Mulan braces herself for suspicion and scorn, memories of the battle against the Rourans still fresh, and is surprised when she is given nothing but respect. She is there on the Emperor’s decree, and she is the warrior who has saved all of China. Apparently, that is enough.
It helps that Honghui, apparently, has similarly been recommended to the Guard by Commander Tung. More than anyone, he stands by her side as an equal. Mulan learns to know him as a friend, better than she ever did in the garrison or on the field.
“How is Xian Lang doing?” He asks when they’re patrolling one day, some weeks after she’s officially become an officer. Casual, like he’s asking about the weather. As if he doesn’t know there are hums of discontent and disapproval even within the palace at the Emperor’s decision to offer a witch succour, as if he doesn’t know some people still believe this is Bori Khan’s attempt at the long game. It makes Mulan angry when the whispers reach her ears. None of the gossipmongers know what it felt like to see Bori Khan’s arrow pierce her breast mid-flight. Xian Lang was willing to die for them, even more so than some of the men wearing His Majesty’s colours. That anyone has the audacity to level such accusations against her, in the face of the Emperor’s decree, makes Mulan’s blood boil in her veins.
“Well,” she says - terse, but true. Xian Lang’s body is stitching itself back together with an admirable tenacity; she will never be at peak condition ever again, but she will live. Even now she can walk without stumbling. Mulan knows she’s heard the whispers in the palace, the mistrust still directed at her by many. She laughs at it; she laughs at Mulan’s anger, as well. “I have had much worse said about me by far more powerful men,” she reminds Mulan when she brings it up one night. “Your anger is misplaced. But appreciated,” she adds, when she sees Mulan draw up in righteous indignation. Mulan thinks now of the smile on Xian Lang’s face when she said it, a real thing, a sweet thing, and finds herself smiling as well.
She catches an odd look on Honghui’s face and turns to him, not quick enough before he schools his expression back to his usual smirk. “What?”
“Nothing,” he says. He easily dodges Mulan’s light punch to his shoulder. “I’m glad to hear she is recovering.”
Mulan raises her eyebrows. “Are you?”
“I’ve never put much stock by witchcraft,” he replies. “But I do believe in fighting for my comrades and my country. Dying for them if I have to. She did both, which is enough to earn my respect. Whether she can turn into an eagle or not is her business.”
“She might not be able to,” Mulan says quietly. “Not any more. The healers don’t know what it might do to her heart.”
The look Honghui gives her is sympathetic, without a hint of pity; Mulan feels a deep liking for him in that moment. “I’m sorry to hear that. It must be terrible, to lose a part of who you are.” He gives her another sidelong glance as they round a corner of the wall. “Or have to hide it.”
Mulan thinks about Xian Lang telling her they were alike, back when Mulan still believed she was nothing more than a witch serving a coward. Xian Lang was right, only not the way she thought. “Yes,” she agrees. “It is a terrible thing indeed.”
She spends most of her free hours in Xian Lang’s room - she refuses to leave it, even after she is practically completely healed, and Mulan tries not to think about the reasons why that might be. Instead, it eventually falls to Mulan to bring Xian Lang her meals and keep her company. Their conversation flows freely, which Mulan is first surprised by, then grows used to, then learns to welcome - Xian Lang is an excellent storyteller with a seemingly never-ending well of interesting and amusing encounters to share. A bird can go anywhere it likes, it seems. She tells Mulan of faraway lands beyond the Silk Road, beyond the oceans, of men who speak different tongues and wear foreign fabrics. A whole world Mulan has never seen, and Xian Lang paints it for her with her words alone.
“What is it like to fly?” Mulan asks one night while helping Xian Lang change her last few bandages. Xian Lang chuckles - a familiar sound now, one that is often met with Mulan’s annoyance (and on occasion, her amusement). “Your village prays to a phoenix god. She guided you into battle. Don’t you know?”
“That’s different and you know it.”
“Hmm.” Mulan rolls her eyes at Xian Lang’s noncommital hum and readies her retort, but Xian Lang continues before she can shape it into words. “It was wonderful,” she says. “The wind under your wings, lifting you higher and higher - sometimes it felt like I could rise into the heavens and never return. There was no freedom like it. Imagine bringing your horse into a gallop, running faster and faster, until it feels like you could go on forever and never stop…”
Her voice gets softer, more wistful, and Mulan finds her own motions slowing as she imagines it. Her hand settles on Xian Lang’s good shoulder and she squeezes gently without really thinking about it. “I’m sorry you won’t be able to fly again.”
Xian Lang is quiet for a long time, and Mulan returns to her work, replacing her bandages. When she’s done wrapping them up and making sure they will stay in place, Xian Lang finally speaks again. “So am I,” she says, in a tone that Mulan has never heard from her before. “But I can walk, and I can breathe. That is more than I expected when I flew into the arrow’s path, so I am grateful for it. I am grateful that you chose to save me, although I must confess I still am lost as to how, or why.”
Mulan understands the confusion behind the how; she herself still has little idea. But the why? “You saved me.”
Xian Lang turns her head to meet her eyes, expression unreadable. “Our reasons were not the same, Hua Mulan.”
Mulan snorts. “And how would you know?”
“Your reasons are borne from courage,” says Xian Lang. “From nobility.”
“And yours are not?”
“You flatter me,” Xian Lang replies, an amused smile appearing on her face. “I am no soldier of the Imperial Army. Your virtues are not my own.”
“Then what are they?” Mulan asks with narrowed eyes. Xian Lang just smiles in response. “Perhaps one day you will understand.”
It’s not an answer, but Mulan has long given up on getting any of those from her. She thinks it ought to annoy her more than it actually does, but somehow she feels intrigued instead. Sometimes Xian Lang gives her a crooked grin and it feels like answer enough for her to keep coming back. Mulan tries not to wonder too hard about why that is. She eases Xian Lang back onto her pillows, making sure her bandages don’t slip, then perches on the side of her bed and rests her chin in her hand. “Tell me another story of yours. One about the Silk Road.”
“Whatever you wish," Xian Lang smiles. "I can deny you nothing."
Months pass, marked by peace and prosperity. The kingdom credits the Emperor; the Emperor credits his men. Mulan becomes just another officer of the Emperor’s Guard, no more or less interesting than her counterparts, and even Xian Lang becomes a part of the scenery, no longer the focal point of mistrustful gossip around the palace. Mulan settles into a routine she learns to love - patrolling in the day, mostly with Honghui; lunch with her comrades; dinner and evening tales with Xian Lang. Missives come from her village, from her family, and though she misses them and promises she will visit when she can, she knows this is her home now. The palace is where she belongs.
The other officers begin to feel comfortable teasing her like any of the others, though unlike with their fellow men it is far less about impugning her masculinity. Li’an pokes fun at her friendship with Honghui and it catches on with the rest. On one shift change, Xiong and Zhao ask them when they intend to wed; Mulan flushes and Honghui tells them to worry about their own marriage prospects instead, laughing all the while.
“Would you, though?” He asks musingly on yet another patrol. “Marry me, I mean?”
“No,” Mulan replies shortly, so quickly and firmly it startles even herself. She covers it up quickly, words dry as dust. “It’s remarkable you think anyone with some brains would want to marry you.”
Honghui takes her words in the good humour with which they’re meant, snorting with laughter. “That’s harsh, Mulan. Really harsh. But it’s okay, I was prepared for rejection.”
“Perhaps you’re not so stupid after all,” Mulan jokes back. She can feel heat in her cheeks, and she tries to ignore it. It’s true that she has no intention of ever promising herself to Honghui, but it’s not as if the thought never crossed her mind, those first few weeks back in the garrison. He’s handsome, not that she’ll ever tell him that, not to mention driven and talented. She was fond of him, somewhat, and really, she’s not sure when that affection turned into simple brotherhood and friendship, nothing more. Maybe that’s what happens when you fight a war together.
Lost in her thoughts, she almost doesn’t catch him smiling, small and secretive again. She’s pretty sick of people being in on jokes she doesn’t seem to get, and she might not be able to wheedle answers out of Xian Lang but with Honghui, she certainly will. “What’s that? Stop smiling like a fool. What’s so funny?”
His steps slow, and he regards her with solemn understanding, with sympathy. “I don’t think I’m stupid,” he agrees. “I’ve known for a while who your heart belongs to, and it obviously isn’t me.”
Mulan almost stutters to a stop right then and there but for her training and self-control. “I don’t know what you mean,” she mutters, keeping her pace steady and looking away, staring hard out at the horizon like she expects to see invaders from the North riding over the hills right that minute. She doesn’t need to look at Honghui to see him frown, anyway; she can hear it in his voice. “Come on, Mulan. I thought we promised to be honest.”
“I’m not lying,” she growls, feeling familiar fury and guilt rise up inside her. She takes a few deep breaths to keep it under control. “My heart belongs to no man.”
Honghui snorts. “I know,” he replies, slowly, in the same tone of voice he used to talk to the particularly stupid men back in the garrison. “Xian Lang isn’t a man.”
Mulan is fairly certain at this point that either Honghui has lost his mind or she has. “My heart cannot belong to a woman, you fool. That is not how these things work. Have you taken leave of your senses?”
“It’s not the common way,” Honghui says agreeably, like he is merely speaking of lunch and not tipping Mulan’s entire world end over end. “But it happens. One’s heart can belong to anyone, Mulan. You wouldn’t be the first to love a woman, and you won’t be the last.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snaps back. Bile is rising in her throat, something curling tight beneath her ribs, around her heart, making it hard to breathe. Memories of her countless nights in Xian Lang’s chambers flood over her, unbidden, bleeding into each other - and with them, the memory of their first meeting, the sword knocked from her hand; Xian Lang standing on a clifftop asking her to come with her, telling her they were the same; always and forever, the memory of Xian Lang fading away in her arms. Mulan remembers her eyes closing, letting her slip to the ground unmoving, having to walk away and defeat Bori Khan and honour her sacrifice. She stops in her tracks without realising, breath leaving her lungs entirely. She thinks of another world where no witchcraft nor magic brought Xian Lang back to life, and it hurts like she imagines an arrow through her heart would.
Honghui’s gaze is sharp, perceptive, impossibly kind, and she feels it like a knife in her belly. “Mulan,” he says quietly. “There is no shame in loving a woman like this. Nothing in our oath forbids it.”
“I don’t,” she answers. It’s the first lie she’s told since she pretended to be Hua Jun and it makes her sick, sick, sick. She throws up by the side of the wall and is remanded to the healers, given herbal concoctions to drink and told to remain in bed for at least a day.
For the first night in many, many months, she does not see Xian Lang before she sleeps. It feels terribly wrong, and she hates herself for it.
It takes her a week to gather the courage to return to her routine, to knock on Xian Lang’s door and enter her chambers once more. It disgusts her, that she saved all of China and yet could still be weak enough to fail in all her oaths. All for a woman - all for a witch.
But said witch is seated in her bed, smiling at Mulan, and suddenly it’s hard to breathe again. “I was informed that you were ill,” Xian Lang says, extending a hand. “I was worried. I am thankful you appear well again.”
“You were worried,” Mulan repeats numbly. Her tongue feels too big for her mouth, her words jumbled up. The only ones clear in her mind are Honghui’s, his insistence that these feelings of hers do not bring her shame and dishonour. After all, is she not any man’s equal? Even in this?
Xian Lang’s eyes narrow on her. She gets up, coming over to Mulan and tilting her chin up so their eyes meet. “Something is troubling you,” she murmurs. “What is it?”
Oh, Mulan thinks. They are so close, only a breath between them. Everything else seems to slip away leaving just the woman standing before her. Mulan suddenly understands just how similar they are. Loyal, brave, true.
“What was your reason?” Mulan asks, her voice clear and steady - because her words are honest, because there is no longer fear. She knows the paths she has to walk; the Emperor’s Guard was one, but this, too. “Why did you save my life?”
Xian Lang is silent, looking at her. Mulan doesn’t flinch. This time she will get her answer; this time she will not back down until she hears it. “If you are asking, I presume you already know it.”
“I want to hear it from you,” Mulan says. “You can manipulate the minds of men, you can change your shape. You can bring yourself back to life. A few words should not be your undoing.”
“I didn’t bring myself back to life,” Xian Lang says. “You did. You and your phoenix god.”
Mulan inclines her head, acquiescing. “Perhaps. And I did not do it because of my courage, or my honour. I did it for you.”
Xian Lang’s inhale is sharp, almost pained, a little broken. “I did it for my selfishness,” she says. It sounds like a confession. “We witches know nothing of the ideals your Imperial Army spouts. We only know our hearts, and who they belong to.”
“And who does your heart belong to?” Mulan asks softly, reaching up to lay a hand against Xian Lang’s cheek, feeling her go still, watching her pupils dilate. It makes Mulan shiver where she stands. How long has Xian Lang felt this way for her? How long has she felt the same way back and not known it?
“You are a devious creature, Hua Mulan,” Xian Lang says, in lieu of an answer. “You know I can deny you nothing.”
Mulan laughs, and it delights her to see the answering smile bloom across Xian Lang’s face. “Who does your heart belong to?” She repeats, just to feel the way Xian Lang draws her closer, touching their foreheads together. “You,” she whispers, fond and gentle and real. Her mouth is hot and sweet against Mulan’s, her soft sigh of pleasure just barely audible. Mulan has never felt so alive, nor so sure that this is where she is meant to be.
“My warrior,” Xian Lang murmurs against her lips, sounding wondrous. “I would take a thousand arrows through my heart to win your own.”
And Mulan thinks she would do the same - she would stand against the entire Rouran army alone for this woman, would let the ground run red with her own blood if it let her draw another breath. Of the past year she would change nothing. Not when it has given her this. Their love is the strongest thing she knows, forged in fire; and from fire, they rise above. In Xian Lang’s arms, she is reborn, and when Xian Lang pulls her into another yielding kiss, Mulan feels herself take flight.