in the original myth mulan isn’t really a clumsy fish out of water. she’s strong and smart and the reason she goes to war is because she’s the most qualified person in her family to fight, regardless of gender.
so how about this: mulan’s a fighter. she knows exactly who she is, like in the original myth, she’s knows how to be the blossoming flower and the great stone dragon. she’s still mulan though, so she still doesn’t memorize the silly ways she’s supposed to be a good wife and has little patience for appearing graceful while pouring tea. she’s innovative and courageous and beautiful, but no one is under any illusions about what kind of wife she’ll be.
and the matchmaker is the matchmaker for the li family as well, for this great big part of china. and general li wants his son to be married before he goes off to war, wants his son to have a reason to fight to live, like a wife waiting for him. and the matchmaker reads the stars and the tea leaves and the astrology charts, and no matter what all the signs point to one thing: the honorable li shang is destined to marry the insolent, arrogant fa mulan.
the matchmaker isn’t going to let that happen, she refuses to be responsible for that disaster of a wedding. so she sends her most beautiful girls, the ones that are obedient and quiet and know their roles, the ones that are eager to marry into the li family.
and each of them are entertained and met and sent back. shang is many things, but smooth isn’t one of them, he has nothing to say to these quiet girls who smile at him, feels large and awkward around their polite smiles. so he and his father go to the matchmaker’s village, shang reluctantly and his father to demand she stops messing with them and provides a proper bride.
it’s on the day that mulan and the other girls are parading in the street. shang sees a girl - mulan - hurry into the end of the line, jumping over a bench and darting around a careening wagon to get there, and stifles a laugh.
then there’s no reason to laugh at all, because a group of huns have decided that this village is in their way, and attack.
everyone scatters, women hide, children hide, and most of the men do too. shang and his father join the fight with some of the other men who hadn’t hid, and these men are starved, clearly not with shan yu, so even though they’re outnumbered they’ll likely win.
shang sees a hun go to attack the girl he’d seen earlier, the girl for whatever reason hadn’t run and hid. the hun raises a sword above his head to strike her down, and shang is so sure he’s about to see this pretty girl lose her head.
but she doesn’t. instead she rolls out of the way, and pops up, headbutting him in the stomach. she takes his sword from his now-slack grip and plunges it into his chest. without hesitation or pause the girl joins the fight, swinging the sword expertly and cutting down every man who stands against her. soon they’re fighting back to back, and shang has never felt more in sync with another person. she cuts off the head of the last hun, and shang has never seen anyone more beautiful than this girl, dress ripped and make up smudged and covered in blood that isn’t hers.
“mulan,” one of the other girls says, peaking out of a store front, “is it over?”
the girl, mulan, looks out over the dozen dead men and says, grimly, “it’s barely begun.” she searches the crowd, finding and old man and yelling, “gather the bodies, we’ll burn that at dusk outside of the village. everyone else,” her eyes sweep across the gathered people, and shang is struck by the fact that this girl isn’t well liked. there’s anger and disapproval in many of the faces, but they’re listening. these people don’t like her. but they do trust her. “let’s clean this all up. these were bandits, not soldiers. there’s nothing more to fear.”
“what if there are more?” the other girl asks, arms wrapped around herself.
mulan raises her stolen sword and says, “then i will slice them to ribbons. this is our village, and this is our country. any who would try to take it from us - from me - will suffer the consequences.”
and it shouldn’t be comforting, hearing words of violence from this young girl, yet everyone around them relaxes, and gets moving, gather the bodies and tending the wounded.
“who are you?” his father asks, and someone who doesn’t know him might think he was angry, but shang can tell he’s impressed.
mulan turns to them and bows, “my apologies. i am fa mulan, daughter of fa zhou. thank you for helping us.” she stands, and shang meets her eyes for the first time.
he swallows, and blurts out, “you - you fight good.”
his father coughs to hide his laughter, but mulan’s eyes crinkle at the corners. “thank you. you do as well.”
and they just keep standing there smiling at each other until his father claps his hands and is like okay - they’ll have to report this to the emperor, no time to dawdle, have to go now.
so they take their leave, and shang thinks this is the last time he’ll see fa mulan.
except there’s still the draft, and this time mulan doesn’t take no for an answer, won’t hear of it. her father is injured and old and she is young and fit to fight. she will go in his place.
so she arrives at the camp, prepared to pretend and lie - except she goes to meet her commanding officer and it’s him, that boy who had fought with her. shang’s eyes widen, but they’re in front of too many people. he can see it on her face, her fear, and she hadn’t shown any fear when she was facing down over a dozen huns, but she does now. so he makes his choice and says nothing, pretends he buys her story.
she tracks him down that night and demands an explanation. he says this war is too important to kill good warriors, whatever gender they are. he swears to keep her secret. mulan is his best soldier from the beginning, and means to treat her like anyone else, but it’s impossible. she isn’t like anyone else, is strong and smarter and braver than them. they argue tactics, and she’s the only one who can give him a workout in hand to hand, and he doesn’t have trouble finding his words with her. he finds himself falling in love with her, but doesn’t say anything. she’s not here for love, she’s here for a war. he vows to say something if they survive this, but it’s unlikely that will happen.
they head to the front earlier. they get there in time to provide back up for his father and his army, and it’s a loss but not a slaughter. his father is too distracted to notice ping is the girl from the village. all he knows is this soldier had led the second wave of attacks, and it was thanks to her any of them were alive at all. they prevent half of the huns from getting through the pass, but that’s still an army heading for the imperial city. the general is injured, so mulan and shang lead the army after him.
they find him at the mountain, and just like before mulan uses the cannon to destroy the army. she knew it would spell their death, but it was worth it, for her people, for her country, for her family. this time it’s shang that won’t accept her death, that tries to drag her unconscious body to safety. only he fails, and mulan becomes buried under the snow.
they return to the city, and shang is besides himself - the woman he loves is dead, she saved them all and she’s gone, and he’ll never recover from this. only he can’t tell his father this, their friends. they think he mourns a friend, not the woman he wanted to make his wife.
except mulan survives, and sees the other huns as well. only she kills them there before they can get to the city, and decides this is for the best. fa ping dies honorably in battle, and fa mulan is free to return home to her family.
so general li decides that it’s time to go to that matchmaker again, and demand she stop playing games. the matchmaker confesses that she thought the bride was unsuitable, and the general demands she send her anyway.
so mulan has barely had the chance to settle back home when the matchmaker shows up at her door saying she’s sending her to see a potential husband, but not who. so mulan shows up all made up to li household and shang drags himself into the room, already resigned to a loveless marriage, when they see each other. “mulan?” he demands, and his father is all pleased because it’s the fighting girl from the village.
but then his son starts crying and they run to each other. shang picks her up in his arms and she clings to him, and shang is babbling about how he thought she was dead, and mulan is so overjoyed that she’s with shang, and shang wants her, that she kisses him without explaining.
except now shang’s father demands an explanation. so they give it to him, the whole story comes tumbling out, and he stares hard at her, and remembers her as ping, the brave soldier that had saved them all. he’s not upset - he ecstatic. he goes to the emperor and tells him everything, and the emperor officially offers mulan an officer position in the army. she accepts, as long as shang is by her side. shang seconds this, and they set in motion the plans for the wedding.
fa mulan and li shang get married and lead armies and live happily ever after, just like the stars intended.