know your place / mulan
He had always known.
Fa Ping was so unsure, eyes shifting, knees shaking, posture too stiff, as if trying far too hard to fit in.
Fa Ping was so weak, so scrawny, so angular and smooth.
Fa Ping was so bright-eyed and innocent, so pure, with a voice too high and no semblance of facial hair.
He had always known about Fa Ping, from the very first day.
So he tried to pull Fa Ping out of his regiment.
He hid it under a layered, spiky exterior, forcing shame and anguish into the young Fa, hoping that it would be enough.
It only motivated Fa Ping to backswing, to counter, to riposte.
When the arrow landed on the ground and the troops exploded into cheers, so caught up was he in the victory of the moment that he forgot that he needed to protect Fa Ping.
Fa Ping had never swum with the others, never stripped down, always bathed in private.
Shang knew it was because the Fa was very conscious.
Too conscious of the difference in body types.
Fa Ping did not seem interested in women, unlike the other soldiers. In fact, the Fa always appeared largely uncomfortable whenever the topic appeared.
This happened for a very simple reason:
Fa Ping was not interested in women.
And finally, Shang could avoid the topic no longer. It could be too dangerous, he knew.
It was a late night when he called Fa Ping to his tent, adopting that odd combined expression of stern yet fond that always seemed to rise whenever he talked with the Fa. The soldier came inquisitively, but with confidence. A confidence that Shang would have to shatter.
"Ping," Shang said.
"Captain," said Ping sharply, but Shang didn't miss how the Fa looked at him a little too brightly—with borderline adoration. He cleared his throat.
"Fa Ping," he repeated. "You know I'm not good with small talk, so I'll just get to the point."
Ping's face paled drastically. "Captain?" the Fa said uncertainly.
Shang took a moment to rehearse his lines in his head. Fa Ping had a good heart and Fa Ping had courage—but this was a crucial moment where he, Li Shang, son of the legendary line of generals, needed to be firm, and even cruel.
"I've been watching you," he said coolly, "and I know what you are."
Pure shock passed over Fa Ping's features, drowning out any secondary expression. Shang blazed on.
"You shouldn't be here. I should send you away," said Shang. "And that's if I decide not to have you executed for high treason."
And Fa Ping suddenly dropped face-down, voice rid of that artificial deepness. Shang's theory was only verified. "Sir, Captain—I just—please, I only—"
"I can guess," said Shang. "You wished to take the place of your father?"
Fa Ping nodded dumbly.
"That armor," said Shang, "is too big for you."
Fa Ping winced. Shang softened—just a little.
"It's alright," he said quietly. "I won't tell anyone else that you're underage. But this is war, Fa, and even if you're a good soldier, it's not safe for a young boy to be running around."
Fa Ping lifted his head and stared at Shang, wide-eyed.
"Underage?" Fa Ping repeated.
Had Shang sounded condescending? He hadn't meant to—not intentionally. Fa Ping was honestly one of his best shoulders. He was just so—fragile.
"Did you hear me, Private?" Shang said.
"Sir," said Fa Ping slowly.
"I hope to hear of your resignation tomorrow morning," said Shang, injecting a tinge of coldness in his voice. "Not because I think you are incompetent—but because your safety will be an issue. And the other recruits are coming along well enough."
"Wait, sir," said Ping, and Shang noticed that the boy looked more flabbergasted than delighted.
"Make it quick, Private," Shang said curtly.
Ping said nothing. And then something.
"I'll continue to fight, with all due respect, sir," he said, quietly—still recovering from shock—but firmly. "I vowed to protect this country and I will. My father would want the same."
It was the voice of a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy, and yet it held more passion and courage than any other voice Shang had heard.
"Truly you're beyond your years," Shang said with a wry laugh. "Are you certain?"
Ping faltered for a moment, but nodded.
"Then so be it," said Shang. "Don't assume that I'll go easy on you because of your youth."
A flash of a smirk passed Fa Ping's lips before it quickly dissipated. "I wouldn't dream of it, Captain."
Shang should've expected that Fa Ping wouldn't give up, wouldn't resign, wouldn't leave the unit. He'd only fight back even harder.
After all, he wouldn't be Fa Ping if he didn't.
(and Li Shang didn't actually know until much later)
(he felt very stupid when he did)