"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day Hey, that rhymed."
And so it started again, with a chipper cutesy voice and a call to action.
Well, she had accomplished everything she had set out to do. She hadn't missed a single element. She had pushed herself to the limits of her mortal power, using more than a little quasi-immortal knowledge, and saved as many people as she could. Of course, she hadn't been able to save everyone. There was a war on, after all, and the harbor battle in the morning was poorly timed.
Hm. So this was what it felt like to be Zuko: eternally trying and eternally failing.
Unless, of course, you redefined success as trying your best. Then the only way to fail was to not try.
Was that surrender?
Was that making yourself your whole world?
Did Mai properly understand either concept?
Eh, who cares? Philosophy is boring.
Mai took a deep breath, found her better urges, and prepared to throw herself back into the endless cycle of trying to make things better. Maybe she'd trip over a way to save more people. Feeling the strength of purpose and energy of benevolence, she sat up in bed and opened her eyes.
And then she hissed against the blinding glare and threw her hands over her poor defenseless eyes and oh ashes why had she opened them in the first place? See, this was what mornings got you!
But what in the name of the First Fire was so bright? It was always dark in the palace's guest room when she woke up, the only light coming from a dimmed lamp. This was-
It was different.
Mai shifted a hand out of the way and tried to squint against the light. It was like charging out of a tunnel after spending an hour underground; a circle of brightness was blasting at her as if the daylight was annoyed at her for being away so long. Except this wasn't daylight; it was too tinted, too white.
Mai kept squinting and peered a little deeper.
No, it wasn't a circle of light, it seemed to be taller than it was wide. And- squint a little harder- it had arms? And a head? And an over-complicated arrangement of hair? And a flying scarf floating behind it?
It was a woman?
As the realization moved into Mai's brain and began putting its feet up on the mental furniture, the brightness stopped being a problem. It was still there, still flooding the room with a white light- moonlight, she realized- but it no longer seared her eyes. And so she could see the being that had woken her up by speaking Ty Lee's words.
It was a Water Tribe woman, no doubt about that. But instead of blue and furs, she was wearing moonbeams spun and given opaque form. She smiled and intoned, "I apologize for the deception with your friend's words. I thought it would be more comfortable to wake up to a familiar voice."
Mai acknowledged the apology with a nod. "You, um, aren't supposed to be here?"
The Moon Spirit- for it simply could not be anything else- narrowed her eyes in a subtle expression of Royal Displeasure that even Azula would have had to award points. "You presume to tell Me where I can and cannot go?"
Mai shook her head. "I- I just- Ty Lee is supposed to be there, and Azula is waiting, and- and- then stuff?"
The Moon Spirit's brow smoothed. "Ah, I see. You suffer from the habit of Time. I have forgotten what it is like to feel Time. It has been many eons since I Ascended those months ago."
Mai blinked. "Maybe I'm still just too used to time- or Time, if that's how we're doing it- but I don't think that sentence made any sense?"
"I said I do not feel Time. When I, the Princess Yue, became the Moon Spirit at the end of Winter, I began an existence that stretched across all Moments at once. I have been the moon for less than a year, but I have been the Moon forever. I shine down on your grave and the day of your birth with the same Light. Light does not know Time, and neither do I."
Mai couldn't help but point out, "Unless someone is born during the day. Or under a New Moon. Then you don't shine."
The Moon Spirit was silent for what was a Moment for Mai and probably Forever for her. Or possibly the other way around. "This kind of irreverence is how you got in Trouble."
The Moon Spirit took another one of those infinite Moments. "You and I need to talk. Come, let us walk."
Mai started to get out of bed-
The Moon Spirit waved a hand. "Time is merely the dance of the Moon and the Sun, and the beatings of a heart you do not have in your dreams."
Mai blinked. She was now on that rooftop patio at the Capital Temple, where the golden statues of the Sun Warrior and the Dragon glistened under the shining sun. She was fully dressed in the clothes she wore 'every day,' and her hair was done up in the ox-horn style. She could even feel the weight of her knives against her skin. "What-"
"Time is merely the dance of the Moon and the Sun, and the beatings of a heart you do not have in your dreams."
"Um, right." Mai sighed. "This is going to be one of those disconcerting, weird spiritual experiences, isn't it?"
The Moon Spirit actually smirked. "I am a spirit, and this is the first Time I've been able to do this kind of Thing since I became the Moon."
"Except you're not bound by time, so you've also done this an infinite amount of times."
"That is also True."
"Ugh." Mai massaged her own forehead. "What do I do to deserve this?"
"You sat on that Holy statue, insulted My presence and power, swore to kill the Water Tribe warriors who love Me, and dared Me to do something to stop you." The Moon Spirit, in all her regal glory, held up her hands and wiggled them. "Ta da!"
On the first Day of Black Sun, Mai had gotten bored, mouthed off to the moon right before the eclipse, and then carved 'MAI WAS HERE' in the golden Sun Warrior's palms. To be fair, if she knew the moon had actually been listening and had a sense of proportion like that of Azula's, she probably would have been more polite. (Probably. Mai offered no guarantees when it came to politeness.)
She dropped to her knees and kowtowed. "I'm sorry?"
The Moon Spirit walked forward, her glow growing brighter as she towered over Mai. "In My mortality I would have Forgiven such ill-considered words, even though I wore the title of Princess. However, the Moon Spirit cannot tolerate such disrespect. The Spirit of the Summer Star agreed, and felt shame on your behalf. It was by combining Our domains to form the whole of Time that We crafted the Punishment. He watches Us above. So you should apologize to Him, too."
Mai looked up at the sun. "Sorry?"
Did the sun just flicker? She had always suspected it was a cheeky little jerk.
The Moon Spirit reached out and placed a cool hand on top of Mai's head. "Your irreverent words do not mask the true regret you feel in your spirit. We Forgive You, Mai of the Fire Nation. You may rise."
Mai did so. Well, it was good to have that little matter cleared up-
"Now, We will discuss whether you wish to Return to your life, or if I shall extend the Protection of the endless cycle of the Days of Black Sun."
That was a few too many archaic phrasings and arbitrarily capitalized letters for Mai to understand what was being said. "Huh?"
The Moon waved a hand.
Mai looked down at herself.
Wow, she made ugly faces while she slept.
Somehow, she was standing in the forested campsite that she and Zuko had made together the 'night before.' Zuko's war balloon was right where they had eventually landed it, when they became too tired to keep flying. The campfire was a scorched remnant, and Mai and Zuko were both still asleep beside a cluster of trees.
Mai was in Zuko's arms, and she was smiling and cuddling in her sleep.
And Mai was also standing over herself, reflecting now how that smile was genuine and sloppy and completely uninhibited, not a well-crafted little glimpse of emotion at all. Ugly.
But also kind of beautiful.
Mai turned back to the Moon Spirit, who was basking in the dawn light in the center of the campsite. "So am I now doing that whole 'glowing in two places at once' thing, too? Because I don't feel like I'm glowing."
The Moon Spirit's lip might have twitched. "You insistence on shielding yourself with Wit reminds me of someone. Someone I loved."
"You have killed him several times."
"Oh. Not good."
"You did not Believe it would be permanent when you did it, so I am willing to Overlook it."
"Thanks. You know, I have no idea why everyone in the Fire Nation says you're a poor man's sun with weak light and no real purpose in the sky. I think you're okay."
"Your sentiment earns My gratitude, Mai of the Fire Nation."
Mai smirked. "So spirits do sarcasm, now?"
"We never stopped." The Moon Spirit lifted a hand, and a beam of soft white light extended to illuminate the sleeping couple on the ground. "Behold the result of your choices. You have finally won the love you craved. If you Choose, you can wake up there and continue to live that life as you see fit."
Mai looked down at them again. Zuko was just adorable when he was relaxed in sleep. "So what's the catch?"
"There are no Terms."
"So why make it a choice? Why wouldn't I want to choose that?"
"Because you would have to continue to live that life. My Punishment, as trying as it has been for you, is also a Boon. You enjoyed Freedom from consequences. Wake up there, in your prince's arms, and you will wake up as a Traitor to your Nation, as a Friend devoted to Zuko's vision, and as someone who has Chosen to Care about the World. The World, and its People. I offer you the Choice of burdening yourself with the new life upon which you have stumbled. And it will be a burden. I shine-"
"-on every moment I've ever spent in the bathroom. Yeah, I get it." Mai looked back at the couple. Seeing herself in Zuko's arms like this made it an easy choice. Here was everything she wanted-
Azula walked by with blood flowing out from a gash in her neck to stain her black armor.
Zuko walked by with a charred mess where his face should be.
Ty Lee walked by, head turning frantically from side to side as she called Mai's name.
Corporal Fan walked by, the metal prosthetic foot giving her no trouble, but the broken bones throughout her body turning her gate into an inhuman shambling.
Corporal Lee walked by, eating a sweetroll.
Claustrophobic Jiao walked by, holding a stack of letters and crying tears of relief.
Jiao walked by again, on Mai's other side, screaming for someone to let her out.
Soldiers of both sides poured out of the forest and filled the campsite with their traffic. Some were healthy and some were injured and some were clearly dead and some of them were there once and twice and a million times.
Everyone who had ever set foot in the Capital walked out of the forest and past Mai. None took notice of her. As ever, she passed through the river of lives without making so much as a ripple.
And all the people obscured her view completely of the Mai and Zuko sleeping cuddled against the trees.
"This is the fate I am allowing you to Choose," the Moon Spirit intoned. The flow of bodies passed around her, a white glow forming a shelter of empty space that circled her form. "You have accepted Responsibility for these People. It will be your burden until it is time to Choose again."
Mai stepped back, trying not to bump into anyone. Were they coming thicker now? More Zuko's and Azula's and Ty Lee's and Katara's and Avatars and Hakoda's and Toph's and the Water Tribe Guy With The Sword's and- "When will that be?"
"Every Moment of Time. The Choice is Infinite, Mai of the Fire Nation. Do you think you are the only one faced with this Choice?"
Mai let loose a single, sharp laugh (for as much as she had changed, she wasn't about to give a dull laugh). "And here I thought I was special."
And then she Chose.
Or simply chose.
Stupid spirits had to make a big deal out of everything.
There were no words, no bouncing on the bed, nothing to wake her up but the light of the sun and the awkward shifting of the man underneath her.
Mai woke up anyway.
Zuko opened his eyes, and immediately smiled at her. "Good morning."
Mai smiled back. "Is this real?"
He reached a hand over and brushed his fingers through the fringe of hair above her eyes. "It feels real to me."
It felt real to Mai, too, in a very unreal kind of way. She had done it. She was free. Maybe that dream about the Moon Spirit was just a dream, or maybe it really had happened in a dreamscape or the Spirit World or something else entirely. Either way-
-she was free.
She grabbed Zuko and pulled him into a kiss.
It was a greedy kiss, because for all that she had surrendered her world and her self, this was one thing she wanted to keep. She loved Zuko. She loved Zuko, and now that she had him for real, now that she had stopped him from leaving her and herself from throwing him away, she wasn't going to hide her feelings.
This was where she belonged.
When they finally pulled apart, Mai saw that Zuko's cheeks were almost as red as his scar. Still, his voice was steady as he said, "Sorry, but we should get going. We don't want to lose the Avatar's trail or miss our rendezvous with Uncle."
Mai nodded. "I suppose you're right. We'll just have to make time for ourselves when things aren't so urgent."
"Yeah." He stood up, and then helped her to her feet as well. "I just- thank you. I thought I might have to do this on my own, but with you- and Uncle- I-"
She reached out silenced him with a finger to his lips. "You don't have to thank me. I'm here because I care. Because I- I love you."
He raised his hands to cover her own, and gently moved her finger aside. "I love you, too."
And because he was Zuko, that's when he turned to start getting the war balloon ready.
Mai indulged in a chuckle. Even if he lived through an eternity of looping days, as she had, she was sure that some things about him would never change. But, happily, she didn't want those things to change.
Funny how that worked out.
Mai went over and joined him in the preparations. As she unlocked the balloon's control panel, she said, "So do you know what you're going to say to the Avatar and his friends? I can vouch for you, but after your- uh, history, you'll probably want to make a good new impression."
Zuko looked over at her from where he was unfurling the main balloon. "I was thinking the same thing. I guess I should try to tell them how much I can help them, but- I don't know. It's probably going to be very awkward."
"So we'll practice while we fly. Pretend I'm Katara or something, and talk to me like you will when you meet the real thing."
Zuko frowned. "Do you really think that will work? I mean, it's a good idea, but I've never been the best with words."
"And I wasn't very good at caring until recently." She stepped over to Zuko, and took his hands in her own. Their eyes met as the sun shined down on them, and Mai thought she maybe spotted a little silver streak in the sky that might have been an early moon rising.
She looked at the love of her life, and said, "But practice makes perfect. Trust me on that."
END OF DAYS