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Samsara: Mai's Long Day

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EPOCH 1

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai wordlessly groaned a futile defense against being woken with poetry. She pulled the sheets up over her shoulders and pressed her face into her pillow, preserving her sleepiness for a few seconds before it was washed away by a steady stream of information into her consciousness. These weren't her normal sheets (not black enough), nor were they her pillows (not lumpy enough). Also, Ty Lee's voice usually (usually!) wasn't the first thing Mai heard, and certainly not before the sun had risen. In fact, it was altogether darker than even the dead of night should have been, with the large windows at the far side of Mai's bedroom that let in the glow of the moon and the stars and the Royal Fire Palace's pretentious outdoor torches.

A steady stream of information going into the mind and a steady stream of conclusions coming back out were a major obstacle against falling back to sleep. Who could drift off with that much traffic?

The sudden bouncing at the far end of the mattress sealed the deal.

With another groan, Mai sat up and forced her eyes open.

Naturally, it was Ty Lee bouncing at Mai's feet, looking even more maniacally than she usually did with her hair not yet tied in its usual long braid. The only light source in the room was a small gas lamp near the door on its lowest setting, but even that minuscule glow was enough to reveal the blandly opulent features of a Royal Fire Two-Bed Guest Rooms. Judging from the size, it was a one of the set on the Royal Fire Palace's top floor, right near where the Royal Fire Family itself lived or holed up or infested or whatever word best applied.

For a brief moment, Mai was confused about why, if she had slept over, she wouldn't just have stayed with Zuko or Azula, but then Ty Lee bounced high enough off the mattress to smack her head on the ceiling. Such a display of stupidity reminded Mai of all the stupid things scheduled to happen today.

It was the Day of Black Sun.

The day a bunch of foreign barbarians were supposed to use a solar eclipse to attack the Capital itself (as if Firebenders were the only people capable of doing anything), to ravage the citizenry and pillage their homes, or maybe the other way around, whatever warmed their little barbarian hearts. It was a stupid plan put together by stupid people, and Mai didn't even care if her home was overrun and destroyed. Nothing exciting ever happened here, anyway.

Mai finally crawled out of her bed, trying to blink her eyes into a consistent state of openness. "It cannot be time to get up already. I feel like I'd just gotten to sleep."

Ty Lee, mercifully done with her bouncing, rubbed her head and glared up at the treacherous ceiling. "You got in pretty late last night. Were you with Zuko?"

Probably, but in her groggy state Mai had to think about it for a moment. When she remembered the previous night, she groaned again. "Yes, but not in a fun way. I waited up for Zuko to finish with that war meeting, and then he decided to have an existential crisis or something. I didn't understand even half of what he was talking about, but I listened supportively, and then lucked out when he fell asleep before I did." Mai enjoyed having Zuko as her boyfriend, especially the way he kissed her and held her and looked at her, but he sure was a mess. If only he could stop caring about everything and anything, he would probably be a less grumpy. If he could learn to find the suffering of others entertaining, he might even be able to find happiness in this world. "Hey, is the bathroom open?"

"Yup! I got up early so that I could finish in there before you needed it. I'm just such a nice person that way."

Mai snorted a baseless disagreement as she tried to make her way towards said bathroom. "What time is it, anyway?"

"The sun will rise in forty-seven minutes, so you better hurry if you want to be on time for Azula's briefing."

"The sun isn't even up yet? Ugh. Ancestors help me."

Forty-six minutes later, Mai and Ty Lee met up with the Fire Princess in the throne room. Normally, the Fire Lord would be sitting up on the dais, behind a wall of intimidating fire maintained by his own will (or flatulence) but today Ozai was absent, leaving Azula to turn the room into her very own Operations Center. And it wasn't even her birthday.

The princess herself was wearing her best armor and standing (or posing, more likely) in front of a tactical map that hung from an ornate stand carved to look like a dragon swallowing a gerbil-jay. (Or maybe it was a sky bison.) Azula turned at the sound of their footsteps and smiled. "Ah, girls, right on time."

And of course everyone here knew how much more pleasant a cracked jerk like Azula could be when appointments were on time. Mai dipped her head respectfully, but couldn't let her displeasure with the early hour go unnoticed. "Did we really need to do this at dawn? It's melodramatic, and the eclipse isn't for hours."

The briefest hint of a downward curve flicked across Azula's painted lips. "Of course. We know our enemies will time the invasion to take full advantage of the eclipse, but their other plans were made with the Earth King and his armies. We have to be ready for anything, and that means getting yourself out of bed at a decent hour." Azula turned back to the map and pointed to a bright red mark near the center of the Caldera. "Now, you and Ty Lee will take command of 'Operation: Springback' here in the Capital Temple. You will-"

Mai interrupted with a sigh. "We know, Azula. You've told us all this before."

Azula paused for a moment, and then turned around to look directly at Mai.

Out of the corner of her eye, Mai glimpsed Ty Lee stiffening beside her, and had to admit that maybe two complaints in a row was pushing the princess a bit too far. Azula tolerated a certain amount of insubordination, even outright disobedience at times, but there was always a price to pay eventually.

It looked like Mai's latest bill had come due.

Wee.

Azula turned back to the map and pointed to a fancifully detailed sun drawn in the corner. "Today is what is known as the Day of Black Sun. An eclipse of the sun will occur lasting eight minutes, during which all Firebenders will be unable to summon even the slightest flame."

Oh, ashes. Mai's complaint about redundant briefings was incurring the most redundant briefing of all time. A fitting punishment that would be recorded in legend, no doubt.

Azula continued, "This fact was discovered by the Avatar and his companions, something that the Fire Nation in turn learned during the infiltration of Ba Sing Se by a particularly daring and intelligent agent as well as her two subordinates."

Gee, thanks.

Azula pointed to the Fire Palace. "The Avatar intended to use the eclipse to strike into the heart of the Fire Nation itself and confront the Fire Lord at a vulnerable moment, a craven plan typical of a weak-willed Airbender."

Sure, a weak-willed Airbender who once stole the Mad King Bumi out from under Azula's nose! In Mai's experience, people with weak wills did not surf a metal coffin-prison out of a fortified city. Although, Mai admittedly did not get out much.

Azula clenched her fist. "He added to his cowardice by making a corrupt deal with the Earth King to use of Ba Sing Se's armies for the bulk of the invasion. The conquest of Ba Sing Se and the subsequent splintering of Earth Kingdom resistance makes the original plan unviable, but the escape of the Avatar's companions makes it likely that some form of attack will still occur today. Expert opinion that the Avatar may have survived Ba Sing Se increases the odds of significant military action."

Wait, what? The Avatar is alive? Expert opinion? Who would be an expert on dead Avatars?

Mai briefly wondered if Zuko knew this little factoid, given how the Avatar's supposed death was what had ended his banishment. Although, in this case, Zuko's ignorance was Mai's bliss. Zuko was stupid enough to go out and fight on the front-lines if he thought his prepubescent nemesis might be out there, and Mai certainly had no intention of risking her own life to keep the moron safe.

If Zuko wanted to die, Mai wasn't going to join him. She wasn't that turned on by him.

Back at the map, Azula was pointing to the marked positions of the planned defensive formations. "As such, we intend to meet any invasion forces and draw them into a trap. The regular divisions of the Home Guard have been left in their places at Capital Bay and the Heavenly Way..." Taking passive aggressiveness to a new height (which was admittedly better than if the princess had elected to display regular old aggressiveness, as that usually involved fire and people getting maimed), Azula went on to describe every single aspect of the plan, including the placement of individual squad deployments.

While Mai stifled yawns and daydreamed of new ways to abuse servants, Azula described how the invaders would be allowed to push up to the Capital and even the Royal Fire Palace itself, going on to reveal, "Their prize will be empty, however, as the Fire Lord has been preemptively evacuated to the tunnels underneath the Caldera. If possible, we will pin the rebel forces in place around and within the palace until the eclipse has passed. Then reinforcements will be deployed to sweep in and destroy the last of our enemies, once and for all!"

Azula pointed to the Capital Temple (while Mai struggled to keep her eyes open) and continued, "As the Earth King's original plan called out our temple as a possible fallback point, I'm stationing a company to ambush any rebels who enter and push them back out. You and Ty Lee will be taking command of those forces as part of 'Operation: Springback.' You will be my coiled spring, hiding within the temple."

Azula darted forward so that she was standing right in Mai's face, their noses almost touching. Mai nearly jumped out of her knives, and was definitely awake now.

Azula said, "You will attack only when rebel forces enter the grounds in significant number." She brought up a hand to tap Mai's chin. "You're clear on your mission, hm?"

Mai stepped back so that she could bow low at the waist. "I am, your highness. Thank you for explaining it to me." Azula loved it when Mai got formal for her. Submitting forms in triplicate could even bring a flush to Azula's royal cheeks. Hopefully, accepting the punishment politely would be enough to get back into the princess's good graces.

Azula smiled. "Excellent. Get to your places, then. The army will be distributing breakfast rations soon, and you wouldn't want to miss that. If anyone is looking for me, tell them that I'll be getting something to eat from the sumptuous buffet that the last of the staff prepared in the Royal Fire Dining Room before evacuating, leaving no other source of decent food."

Well, not all the way back in good graces, then.

Still, Mai didn't argue. She and Ty Lee bowed, left the room without rising or turning around (an acquired skill), and then made their way to the temple.

The streets were empty of the usual early morning traffic, now exclusively accommodating the last of the military forces that were hurrying into position. Even though they were wearing the same light uniforms as the Home Guard, Mai could spot the extra soldiers who had been brought in from the Fire Army by the extra stiff way they jogged to their destinations, eyes forward and not scanning for opportunities to bully or bribe.

Mai had to admit that she liked the city more when it was empty. As boring as it was, it also meant that Zuko's fangirl brigade was nowhere in sight, something that had been a source of amusement for all of five minutes before Mai realized that a crowd of screaming teenagers was most importantly a crowd. Let them lust for Zuko's body and scheme for Zuko's political power all they wanted (after all, he had no political power and Mai could hardly blame anyone for lusting after his body), but trapping her in the middle of a crowd was beyond the pale.

Last night, all the civilians had been evacuated, and were spending all day today in fortified underground bunkers. While waiting for Zuko to get out of his meeting, Mai had personally witnessed an old schoolmate trying to petition the palace for an exception on account of a crippling claustrophobia. It had been amusing to see the girl thrown out of the palace in tears like the weakling she had always been. Maybe she was still freaking out right now! Ha!

Yes, amusement at other people's suffering was definitely the best strategy for tolerating life in the Fire Nation.

Mai and Ty Lee passed through the arches of the temple's main gate, and they had barely taken their first few steps into the courtyard before a burly army guy came trotting over to them. "My Ladies, Colonel Lee reporting! I've successfully evacuated the Fire Sages, and my soldiers are stationed throughout the first floor of the main temple building. I have an elite force ready to spill out into the courtyard at a moment's notice, and my subordinates have been given a plan to rapidly deploy continuing waves as required. Naturally, we've saved some space for you two right with that first wave."

Mai acknowledged the man's hard work with a, "Whatever." She really couldn't care less what these boring military types did, so long as she got to fight some invaders before the day was out. That would be exciting, while boring military types were the opposite of exciting. "I hope they're ready to sit on their butts for a while, because we've got a long wait."

Colonel Lee nodded almost like 'exciting' for him meant vegetating on his butt for a full day. "Waiting around isn't anything new for a soldier, my lady. You can count on my troops."

"Thank you," Ty Lee chirped as Mai hurried away from the colonel and up the Glorious Path To Fiery Enlightenment (or 'the front stairs' as Mai thought of it) into the temple. "Wow, Mai, you could maybe be a little nicer. The guy's our co-worker."

"Oh, I'm feeling very nice. Can't you see?" Mai pointed at her own frown, and then shifted her fingers into the rudest gesture she could manage one-handed.

Ty Lee pouted and turned her head away. Ha, that's what she got for waking Mai up early.

Fortunately, they managed to take their positions just in time for the breakfast rations to be handed out- a box of rice and a small piece of Komodo sausage. Mai ate with as much complaining as she could muster while chewing, and then was left with nothing to do but sit around with Ty Lee a bunch of soldiers.

Naturally, she went exploring instead.

Depressingly, Mai did not discover anything that she hadn't already seen on her few visits to the temple on holidays, just the usual statues and murals and tiresome fire imagery. If that was all it took to be a Very Spiritual Place, then surely having both the Palace and the temple within two blocks of each other was redundant. After confirming her count of three hundred and fifty-seven dragon statues on the first floor alone, Mai decided to take a break outside in the courtyard.

She found Colonel Lee talking with a woman wearing the plumed hat of the runners tasked with carrying messages between all the groups assembled for today's activities. When Lee noticed Mai, he waved. "Ah, my lady! The invaders have landed at the harbor and our forces have engaged!"

"No kidding. Will they be here soon?"

Lee frowned. "Ah, no, my lady. There is some time before the eclipse, yet. The plan is to only let them into the city once it is about to happen, and it would be too suspicious if we didn't make them fight to gain the harbor gate. If anything changes, our runner here will update us."

"Private Fan, my lady!" The girl straightened, making a clanking sound against the ground, and bowed crisply. "It is an honor to meet you."

The clanking sound, of course, was more interesting than some nobody's honor. Mai looked down at the runner's feet, and saw that instead of a matched pair of boots, the left leg was a metal contraption made of springs and plates shaped vaguely like a foot.

Mai took a step back in revulsion. "What is that?"

Fan gave the slightest twitch. "A prosthetic, my lady. I was serving in the colonies, and my leg was crushed in an engagement with rebels. I was very fortunate that the Army gave me a replacement and transferred me to serve as a Caldera Guard."

Mai snorted. "So they made a cripple into a runner? Not very bright of your commanding officer."

"I- I assure you am I quite capable of fulfilling my duties, my lady."

"Whatever." Mai waved the matter away and turned to go back inside. "Let me know when the barbarians are at the gates, or however it goes."

She heard Colonel Lee saying something about an apology before she was out of earshot.

Mai decided to continue her explorations on the temple's upper floors. (She would have really loved to see the basements, which were rumored to contain secrets beyond mortal ken and/or proof of the rumors about the Royal Family's more salacious history, but those passages were all sealed with Firebending locks. Bigots.)

The second floor and above weren't usually open to visitors, since that was where the Fire Sages themselves lived and meditated, and humble temple-dwellers tended to get upset when other people saw their massive bedrooms with gilded mirrors and jeweled decorations and polished plates stacked with imported chocolates at the bedsides. However, after the first five decadent living quarters, the novelty wore off. Corrupt priesthoods were hardly unexpected, as it would be very odd if the priests alone in the capital insisted on an honest living.

So, instead, Mai went up to the roof.

The access was a locked door that Mai found pathetically easy to pick, and beyond was a pleasant little patio that would be invisible from the ground or the surrounding mansions. It was a fairly plain space, compared to the sages' bedrooms, unless one counted the intricate golden statues in the very center of the patio that depicted a twelve-foot dragon breathing the first fire into the waiting hands of an eight-foot naked Sun Warrior. (It was a boy.) It was a holy moment in Fire Nation history, and a summation of why the Fire Nation considered itself fit to rule the world: "You others learned to Bend by watching giant gerbils or ripping off the moon. We were given the knowledge by dragons, and dragons are awesome. So there. Neener-neener."

(Mai had a gift for paraphrasing.)

She climbed up onto the holy statue of the Sun Warrior and sat down in the hands that were waiting to receive the First Fire. Being a golden statue, it wasn't the most comfortable thing Mai had ever sat on, but she was willing to bet she was the first teenage girl to do this, and that wasn't boring.

While her backside made history, Mai looked up at the sky. The moon was visible, large and full, not very far from the sun.

Mai looked up at it. "You had to come and mess up my day, didn't you? Well, even with your stupid eclipse, we're going to win. The rebels are going to die, the Fire Nation is going to win, and I'm going to marry Zuko and help him rule the world. Or I'll help him stay sane while Azula rules the world in his name. Same difference. So what do you think about that?"

The moon said nothing in return.

Was the moon a Spirit? Supposedly, the sun was, although Mai had never been one for theology. She recalled something about a dragon, or maybe a Phoenix, or maybe a warrior (a male warrior, because for some reason it always was), or maybe a mix of all three, but the point was that the sun was a Spirit and wanted the Fire Nation to wipe out all those who opposed its grand destiny.

The moon got much less attention, but if it could block out the sun by moving in front of it, then surely it had to be alive, too, right? Or at least intelligent. But then, Ty Lee got in Mai's way a lot of the time, and Ty Lee was hardly intelligent.

Mai sat up and glared at the moon. "I'm going back downstairs to wait to kill some Water Tribe warriors. They worship you, right? Then if you're real, go ahead and try to stop me. Teach me a lesson I'll never forget."

Then Mai used one of her knives to carve 'MAI WAS HERE' across the Sun Warrior's holy hands, and headed back inside to get to take her station.

That ridiculous runner woman with the metal leg came by soon after to confirm that the rebels had broken through the gate at the end of the bay and were pushing steadily to the Caldera. She came by again fifteen minutes later to more helpfully inform that the eclipse was imminent and the Home Guard forces on the path up the volcano had made their planned 'retreat.'

Mai got into position beside Ty Lee, crouching like all the soldiers stationed in the front hall with her, and proceeded to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And get bored. Of course.

The sounds of fighting could be heard through the walls of the temple, the clangs of metal and the rumble of Earthbending and the grinding of war machinery, all the usual din. There were explosions and screams and cheers. It sounded quite fun, and was probably happening right down the street. Mai had to pull a knife and start twirling it just to stay sane.

Then it went quiet.

It stayed quiet.

Mai twirled her knife faster.

Ty Lee hummed tunelessly.

Mai considered stabbing Ty Lee.

The soldiers remained so still, they made no noise despite their leather and armor.

Then the quiet ended. The jingle of metal and the grinding of machinery came back. It seemed like it was right outside.

Ooh, this was the good part!

There was the sound of distant Firebending. A crash. More Firebending.

Any second now the good part would happen!

The soldiers all tensed.

Mai stood up.

The jingle and grinding faded as it moved away.

What! No! Good part?!

It grew quiet again.

Mai sighed and sat down.

So much for the good part.

She waited a little bit longer, just to be sure, and had almost given up what passed for hope in her heart when the thunder-like cracks of faraway explosions sounded. What was going on out there? Were the invaders changing their target? Where was that stupid runner with news? Did her leg get all rusty or something?

Another set of explosions echoed from what had to be quite a distance, so quiet were they. It was a poor omen for her chances of being able to stab anyone today.

That was the last of the noise.

Mai sighed again.

She spent the next two hours waiting there with Ty Lee and the soldiers. She had an urge to start an argument with the acrobat just for something to do, but held back simply out of the vague hope that a lost straggler from the invasion force might wander in. Instead, she and Ty Lee played cards, and refrained from cheating so that the game wouldn't be too easy.

Eventually, there was the sound of boots on the courtyard. Two boots, and not one boot and a glorified metal hobble-stick. Mai pulled a pair of razor discs from her sleeves and stood up, licking her lips.

But it was just a runner who jogged in through the front doors, a man this time, with both his legs, and he came to a startled halt when he saw Mai standing there. "Um, I come in peace?"

Mai rolled her eyes and sheathed her razors. "Well, what's going on? It's been hours since we heard anything!"

"Apologies, my lady, but your assigned runner got caught in the fighting."

Of course. "What an incompetent. Princess Azula will be hearing about her."

The runner's eyebrows drew together. "Private Fan is dead, my lady. Crushed by a stray boulder."

Oh? Mai felt herself smile. "So the rest of her body gets to join her foot? I guess that worked out." It would save having to get Azula to punish the girl, at least.

The runner's face lost all expression. "As you say, my lady. I have come to report that the fighting is over. The invaders have been captured and taken prisoner, but the Avatar and a small group escaped on the sky bison. As soon the prisoners are processed, the citizenry will be brought back to the city. I have orders for the various military divisions-"

"Yeah, fine," Mai said, already walking past the man. "Corporal Lee is in charge here. I'm going home."

She was out in the courtyard by the time Ty Lee caught up to her. "Mai, that was terrible!"

"I know! Stuck all day in that temple with nothing to do, and the invaders missed us completely!"

"No, I mean what you said about Private Fan. It wasn't respectful."

Oh. That. "Whatever." It honestly wasn't worth even the beginnings of an argument.

She and Ty Lee didn't speak again before they got to her parents' mansion and parted. Mother and Father weren't home of course, still pretending to have something like power half a world away in the city formerly known as Omashu. There were no servants around, either, thanks to evacuation, which meant Mai would have to get her own supper. Or maybe Azula would be in a good enough mood to share whatever the palace would be cooking up. The Avatar might not be captured, but getting so many of his allies this close to the return of Sozin's Comet had to be a win, right? Or maybe Zuko could sneak her something, and she could pout and demand rose petals on top, and he would remember that there were no servants around to do the work for him, and she could tease him about being lazy, and-

And first, Mai headed to her bedroom to change into something less wrinkled after spending all those hours crouching in the temple hall. She passed by her bed, heading for the closet-

-and saw a rolled note resting on one of the pillows at the foot of the bed.

Huh.

Who would have left that?

It was tied with a red ribbon, so it probably wasn't a threat of some kind, unless it was an usually chipper assassin. Could she have a secret admirer who broke into her house to leave an offer to turn Zuko in for a new model? Mai would enjoy telling Azula about that, if just to see how protective the princess was of her big brother.

She untied the ribbon and unfurled the note.

Zuko's brushwork stared back at her:

"Dear Mai, I'm sorry you have to find out this way, but I'm leaving."

What.

What?

What?!

"I cannot allow the Fire Nation to make the second great mistake of its history. I have come to believe that we never should have started this war, and I will not let the war finish with the death of another nation. I will confront my father, and if he does not abandon this path, then I will join the Avatar to restore peace and balance to the world. I hope you understand, but it is unlikely that I will ever know. If we do not meet again, I want you to know that I love you, and that you have been the source of my only real happiness here."

The note finished with, "Goodbye and good fortune. -Zuko"

That-

That-

That liar!

Love?! What did he know about love?! Who left behind someone they supposedly loved?! Who pretended around the person they supposedly loved to be home for good and interested in being a true Prince of the Fire Nation? Who wouldn't even so much as hint at treasonous thoughts around someone they loved?

No, Mai decided, Zuko didn't love her. That was his sense of drama, the same drama that had probably killed him by now if he really did confront his father about those kinds of thoughts. Maybe it was even an attempt to hurt Mai. If he was on the Avatar's side now, maybe he had come to hate her. He had used her for pleasure and left behind the assertion that he loved her so that she would be hurt. Maybe he was even saying it so that she wouldn't fight him the next time they met.

If so, and if he was actually alive, Zuko would be in for a rude surprise.

Because Mai didn't love him. Not even the slightest bit!

The sobs wracking her body were just from anger at how badly she had let herself be fooled. People cried out of anger, right? And the horrible hollow feeling she got whenever she thought of him dying at his father's hands was just disappointment that she wouldn't be able to get her own revenge. Because revenge was important for a healthy diet, or something.

Mai found herself reading the note over and over. She didn't know why. If Zuko was dead, what was point in keeping it? If he wasn't dead, what was the point in keeping it? Either way, it was nothing but a reminder of a horrible person who had used and abused Mai, and the smart thing would be to rip it up and move on with her life. Keeping it might even constitute treason.

But she couldn't make herself let go of the paper, even when she had to hold it far away to keep her tears and snot from falling on it.

When Mai finally found the strength to put it down (carefully, back on the pillow, for reasons she didn't want to bother examining), she stood up and ran out of the house, sprinting across the street to the Fire Palace. None of the regular guards were there, but all kinds of military people were bustling about. They all gave her strange looks as she ran past them, calling out for Azula.

Reality had become a blur. Mai's whole focus was on finding the princess, and her brain barely processed the halls and rooms of the palace as she shrieked Azula's name into each one. Some people- soldiers or pages or servants or whoever- asked Mai if she needed help, but they weren't Azula, so she ignored them. She had to find the princess. Had to find out about-

And then all of the sudden Azula was standing right in front of her.

The sudden appearance left Mai stunned for a moment, and in that silent gap Azula grabbed her by the hair and threw her to the ground, snarling, "Where is he?"

Mai started to say, "Wha-"

Azula's hands burst into azure flame and the heat was enough to make Mai flinch. "Where is my brother?! Don't you even think about-"

"What?!" And then Mai realized what was going on. "Zuko's alive?! He's- he's not- the Fire Lord didn't-"

Azula's flames winked out. She stood above Mai, just staring, and then snapped out, "Get her out of here."

"No, wait! Azula, don't-" But strong hands hand clamped around Mai's arms, and she had somehow forgotten how to fight and stab and kill, and she was forced to let herself be dragged out of the palace and thrown in the street.

By the time Mai picked herself up off the ground, the palace's gate had been closed and locked.

She threw herself against them, but the lock held. She scratched at them, but the stone just bloodied the tips of her fingers. She pulled some knives and tried to use them to scale the gate, but for some reason she couldn't muster the strength in her arms to pull herself up, and she realized it was because she was shaking with sobs again.

Stupid Zuko.

Why didn't he stay?

He couldn't really care about the rest of the world, could he?

Mai wailed and scrambled against the gate until she ran out of strength and drifted off right there in the street.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Oh, no.

Mai groaned and tried to smother herself with her pillow, although her new method of shoving her face down into the pillow rather than the other way around didn't seem to be as successful as the usual process. Meanwhile, the events of the previous day immediately came back to her: the disappointing invasion, the discovery of Zuko's betrayal and her horrible, uncharacteristic reaction. Her face burned at the thought that people had actually witnessed her running and shouting through the palace, and that she'd had a tantrum right there in the street like a tenant farmer. And Azula! If Mai didn't want to be punished, she'd have to kiss some major royal backside. (Far more than usual.) Maybe Azula would be too preoccupied with Zuko to care much about Mai's misbehavior.

Zuko.

He was alive.

Azula had implied it.

Well, that was something, at least.

Not that Mai cared about a jerk like him.

Then she felt something heavy bouncing at the far end of the mattress. It was distressingly familiar.

Mai opened her eyes. Ty Lee. Dressed in her usual circus pink. Loose hair flying. And bouncing.

Mai said, "Again?"

The mad bouncer shrugged. "I just started. But you got in pretty late last night. Were you with Zuko?"

Mai immediately wished she had a knife handy. "Lick ash! Is that supposed to be some kind of a joke?"

"N- owie!" Ty Lee's latest bounce was high enough that she smacked her head against the ceiling, and she turned her descent into a smaller rebound that landed her neatly on the floor. As she rubbed her head and stared up at the treacherous ceiling, she said, "No need to be rude. I saw you waiting for him to get out of the big meeting."

Waiting? Meeting? What was Ty Lee babbling about?

Mai got out of bed and looked around. She was in one of the two-bed guest rooms in the Fire Palace. Had Azula ordered her brought inside at some point in the night? That was unusually kind of the princess, which probably meant it was a lead-in to some kind of horrible torture. Or maybe Azula had already come up with a way to use Mai against Zuko, somehow, and needed her compliant.

"I got up early so that I could finish in there before you needed it," Ty Lee said, gesturing towards the bathroom. "I'm just such a nice person that way."

What? Didn't Ty Lee say that yesterday, too? As Mai examined the room around them, she realized that this was the exact same guest suite that they had stayed in the night before the invasion. On one of the vanities, she spotted a set of her clothes and a case filled with her knives, exactly where they had been yesterday morning. The clothes were even the same, although cleaned and folded. Her knives were all in their sheathes neatly and in order. Going over and examining them, Mai found that the two blades she had tried to use to scale the gates must have been sharpened, because the blades showed none of the damage that would have resulted from trying to carve handholds in solid stone.

Huh. Azula was going all out on the room service. Maybe Mai had been sentenced to death for the crime of being rowdy in the palace.

Thoughts of the gate reminded Mai of the injuries she had sustained on her fingers, but when she looked at them, the nails and skin were all perfectly healthy.

So, Azula had brought in a Waterbender healer while Mai was asleep?

Ty Lee broke into Mai's confusion with, "The sun will rise in forty-seven minutes, so you better hurry if you want to be on time for Azula's briefing."

Azula's briefing? Another one?

Well, better to go along with what she wanted. Mai grabbed her clothes and went into the bathroom to get ready.

Forty-six minutes later, Mai and Ty Lee met up with the Fire Princess in the throne room. The Fire Lord was once again not in attendance, leaving the room empty save for the princess herself. She was once again wearing her best armor and posing in front of the tactical map of yesterday's operations on its goofy-looking stand. Azula turned at the sound of their footsteps and smiled. "Ah, girls, right on time."

Mai fell into a full kowtow with her forehead pressed to the floor. "I apologize for my behavior last night. I must have been in shock, but I assure you that I am once again in control and will never act like that again. Thank you for dealing with me so mercifully. I truly don't deserve it, and your generosity does me honor." Hopefully, if Azula was planning some kind of punishment, an apology like that mollify her enough to show leniency, or at least offer Mai a last meal before the disemboweling.

Azula just said, "Behavior last night? Ew, no details, please. Well, you seem to be properly repentant, so we'll let it go for now, whatever you did."

Huh?

Mai looked up. Azula was staring back at her in clear confusion.

Was the princess losing her mind? (That is, more than usual?)

Or was Mai? Could all of that with Zuko have been a dream? But no, it was far too real, and really it did fit with Zuko's recent boneheaded behavior. Mai mentally kicked herself for not realizing that the betrayal was coming. Azula must just want to pretend it didn't happen, probably so that she wouldn't have to deal with her own similar failure to anticipate Zuko.

"Great," Mai said, standing up. "Glad that's settled."

Azula nodded and turned back to the map. "Now, you and Ty Lee will take command of 'Operation: Springback' here in the Capital Temple. You will-"

Mai burst out with, "Huh?"

Azula paused for a moment, and then turned around to look directly at Mai with a disapproving glare.

Wow, this was just-

-like-

-yesterday?

Azula turned back to the map and pointed to a fancifully detailed sun drawn in the corner. "Today is what is known as the Day of Black Sun. An eclipse of the sun will occur lasting eight minutes, during which all Firebenders will be unable to summon even the slightest flame."

Today is the Day of Black Sun?! Mai turned to glance at Ty Lee, but there was no confusion in those gray eyes, just concern.

Maybe it was a dream, after all?

Azula continued, "This fact was discovered by the Avatar and his companions, something that the Fire Nation in turn learned during the infiltration of Ba Sing Se by a particularly daring and intelligent agent as well as her two subordinates."

The wording was far too familiar. Maybe it was a prophetic dream?

Azula pointed to the Fire Palace. "The Avatar intended to use the eclipse to strike into the heart of the Fire Nation itself and confront the Fire Lord at a vulnerable moment, a craven plan typical of a weak-willed Airbender."

Next Azula would clench her fist-

Azula clenched her fist. "He added to his cowardice by making a corrupt deal with the Earth King to use of Ba Sing Se's armies for the bulk of the invasion. The conquest of Ba Sing Se and the subsequent splintering of Earth Kingdom resistance makes the original plan unviable, but the escape of the Avatar's companions makes it likely that some form of attack will still occur today. Expert opinion that the Avatar may have survived Ba Sing Se increases the odds of significant military action."

And he did survive. The reports from the battle confirmed it. Mai wondered, in a bit of a daze, if there was someone she could convince to make a bet with her.

Back at the map, Azula was pointing to the marked positions of the planned defensive formations. "As such, we intend to meet any invasion forces and draw them into a trap. The regular divisions of the Home Guard have been left in their places at Capital Bay and the Heavenly Way..." In excruciating detail, Azula went on to describe every single aspect of the plan, including the placement of individual squad deployments, just like she did yesterday. Mai hadn't paid very close attention, but it was possible that Azula's wording was identical.

It occurred to Mai that this might be a joke of some kind. Maybe this was her punishment, being forced to go through the motions of the worst day of her life. And Ty Lee was in on it? While Mai threw another questioning glance at her friend, Azula droned on with, "Their prize will be empty, however, as the Fire Lord has been preemptively evacuated to the tunnels underneath the Caldera. If possible, we will pin the rebel forces in place around and within the palace until the eclipse has passed. Then reinforcements will be deployed to sweep in and destroy the last of our enemies, once and for all!"

Azula pointed to the Capital Temple, but Mai couldn't take any more of this. She shut her eyes and began probing her own head for injuries. Maybe she gave herself a concussion last night, and now was hallucinating or something?

Mai opened her eyes when she realized that Azula wasn't talking anymore. "Oh, uh, sorry about that?"

Azula crossed her arms. "Am I boring you, Mai? Or are you too important to listen to this crucial briefing about your role in today's events?"

Today's events? "You're sure the invasion wasn't supposed to be yesterday?"

Azula blinked. "Yesterday? Of course not."

Ty Lee leaned into Mai's vision. "Are you feeling sick? You seemed a little confused when you woke up. Maybe you need to go back to bed?"

It was tempting, but Mai wouldn't be able to figure out what was going on if she just slept all day. So she stepped around Azula and pointed to the Capital Temple on the big fancy map. "I'm fine. See? The Earth King's original plan said that the temple was going to be a- what do you call it? A fallback point! Yeah. The invaders could hide in there while the Avatar goes after the Fire Lord. So we've got troop people hiding in there to 'springback' the invaders out again. That's why it's called 'Operation: Springback.' And Ty Lee and I are in charge of that. We need to make sure we don't attack until the bad guys actually enter the temple. So we should go do that, right?"

Azula blinked.

Ty Lee blinked.

Azula blinked again, and then lowered her arms to her sides. "Yes, you should. Grab yourself some Qi-enhancing tea from the kitchen before you go. You seem like you need it."

Mai happily took advantage of both the dismissal and the permission to hit up the Palace's kitchens (losing her mind was no reason to skip an important meal like breakfast, after all), and then she and Ty Lee were on their way to the temple.

Once again, the city was empty of everyone but the soldiers getting ready to fight a war.

Mai tried shaking her head until reality made sense, and was forced to stop when she got too dizzy to walk.

That was about when Ty Lee seemed to decide that enough was enough. "Mai, you do not seem okay. Maybe you should just go to one of the underground bunkers and hide. I can be in charge of the Operation Springback thingy. Probably."

"No, I'm fine." A thought occurred to Mai. "Do you know where Zuko is?"

Ty Lee blinked. "He should be getting ready in the palace. He's going to be guarding his dad, just like Azula. You didn't know that?"

"Ye- N- Whatever! Have you seen him this morning?"

Ty Lee shook her head. "Did- did Zuko give you something last night?"

Mai tried and failed to understand what she was being asked. "I don't think so?"

"You two didn't steal some of your parents' lily wine?"

"No."

"He didn't give you something to make your time together more fun? Something that you had to smoke or mix in a drink or snort up your nose?"

Mai successfully resisted the urge to smack her own forehead. "I'm not on anything. I'm just- just having an odd day."

"Okay." Ty Lee's eyes made it clear that it very much wasn't okay. "I'll just keep an eye on you, and if you start feeling sick or confused or something, you let me know and I'll make sure you won't have to fight if the invaders show up."

"Thanks. You're a doll." Mai turned and got on with the trip to the temple.

She and Ty Lee passed through the arches of the temple's main gate, and they had barely taken their first few steps into the courtyard before a burly army guy- a familiar looking burly army guy- came trotting over to them. "My Ladies-"

Before he could continue, Mai pointed her finger at him. "Colonel Lee reporting! That's what you were going to say!"

He smiled. "You're heard of me! I- I hadn't realized that I'd come to the attention of the nobility. Well, you can count on me, today! I've successfully evacuated the Fire Sages, and my soldiers are stationed throughout the first floor of the main temple building. I have an elite force ready to spill out into the courtyard at a moment's notice, and my subordinates have been given a plan to rapidly deploy continuing waves as required. Naturally, we've saved some space for you two right with that first wave."

Mai very carefully said, "I hope they're ready to sit on their butts for a while, because we've got a long wait." She distinctly remembered saying that yesterday, and Colonel Lee responded with-

He gave a professional nod. "Waiting around isn't anything new for a soldier, my lady. You can count on my troops."

Mai had to shut her eyes against the world for a moment. "I knew you were going to say that."

Lee was practically bouncing with pleasure. "I appreciate your trust in me, my lady. This will be a glorious day for all of us, no doubt!"

They left him at the steps leading into the temple's front entrance, and Ty Lee whispered, "How do you know that guy?"

Mai shook her head. "Today- today is the first time I've met him. The first time. Today."

"Ahh! You were trying to be nice! Wow, you must really be feeling sick. If you need to upchuck, don't do it on my shoes."

Mai tried to laugh, but it wasn't working, so she gave up the effort.

What was going on here?

She sat down with Ty Lee in the front hall with the first wave of their soldiers, and immediately pulled her knees up against her chest and shut her eyes. The idea of a prophetic dream was still on the table, but Mai was pretty sure she didn't have any magic powers. Nor were they supposed to run in her family. True, there was Aunt Zhi on Father's side, but she only claimed to have the gift of prophecy, and her last words being, "No, don't worry, it's perfectly safe to stand under-" were a pretty good bit of counter-evidence.

Had Mai become cursed? Was this like those stories about the prophetess who knew about all the bad things that were to come and couldn't do anything to stop them?

Could Mai stop them?

If she did, what would happen? Would the world end? Would Mai burst into flames?

She opened her eyes and leaned to whisper to Ty Lee. "A runner should be bringing news of the invaders landing on the beach right about now. Do me a favor and check to see if the runner is named Fan and has a metal leg?"

Ty Lee frowned, but said, "Sure. Anything for you."

When she got back, she was staring at Mai with clear accusation. "Okay, seriously, how did you know?"

Mai shut her eyes again and pressed her forehead against her curled knees. "I don't know. I lived this day already, somehow. It all happened exactly like this, all the way to me falling asleep last night, but then I woke up today and it's all happening again. I think I'm magic now."

Ty Lee was silent for a long moment. "Okay."

Mai opened her eyes and look at her friend. "Okay?"

"Okay." Ty Lee pointed at the door leading deeper into the temple. "Mai, for your own good, I'm pulling you off this mission. Go to one of the back rooms and lock the door until I come for you. Try to rest."

Mai sighed. "You think I'm crazy."

"I- I think you're not well right now."

"It's okay if you do think I'm going mad. I think it's a distinct possibility." Mai stood up and was going to comply with her friend's orders, but then she remembered something. "Then how do I know about Azula's briefing and Colonel Lee and Private Fan?"

Ty Lee shrugged. "That will be a good discussion to have once you're feeling better. I know I get facts all mixed up in my head sometimes, so maybe you just knew some of this stuff already and forgot that you knew it."

Mai considered that. "It's plausible, I guess. I never pay attention when people mention names I don't know, but I still could have heard and remembered some without realizing."

"Exactly! Now, go rest! We'll handle the nasty invaders for you."

"Thanks." Mai headed deeper into the temple, passing through hallways filled with soldiers. She found a room way in the back that would probably be safe, told the nearest soldier to guard the door, and then went inside and locked herself in.

Then Mai crawled out through one of the windows and climbed up to the roof. She carefully made were way around spires and flagpoles to the little porch with the golden statues of the dragon ready to upchuck into the Sun Warrior's hands. She climbed up the Sun Warrior's metal body, and checked the palms of those very hands.

They were smooth and unblemished.

There was no vandalism of any kind in evidence- like, just to name a random example, the characters for 'MAI WAS HERE' carved into the metal.

Huh.

Some other test was needed. Mai made her way across the rest of the temple's roof, and jumped down over the outer wall into the street. With the city empty and all the soldiers in hiding, she was alone under the sun.

There was one way to confirm just how prophetic she currently was, and that was to test her knowledge of the invasion itself. The most efficient way to conduct the test was to directly observe the battle.

Mai worked her way up out of the city, to the rim of the Caldera, to that isolated little spot she and Zuko liked, where there was a view clear to the ocean on one side and a perfect vantage point of the whole capital city on the other side.

She looked out over the battle, and found it almost right at her feet.

Battles, she had firmly believed up to this point, were not spectator sports. She hadn't witnessed many, just the siege of Omashu and then the attempt to shove a big drill up Ba Sing Se's rear wall, but those two had both been prolonged, visually confusing, and lacking in dramatic plot points. As a result, Mai had decided that battles were boring.

Well, boring for those not in the thick of them.

As she watched, an enemy army- a real one, with soldiers in uniforms (some blue and some green) and a new kind of caterpillar-like tank that she had never even heard of- was ascending the volcano, while the last of the faux Home Guard retreated into the city. The distinct uniforms made that much easy to follow. Enemy tanks and their guards were racing up the zig-zagging path, while quite a few of the foot soldiers were just running straight up the side. They looked very intent, at least from this distance, but that Mai supposed that was to be expected. People didn't go into battle unless they believed in their cause or were very, very bored.

Mai watched as that army spilled up over the side of the volcano into the city, and the light of the sun became dull and empty. She didn't glance up at the sun, because the sages had been very clear that anyone resting their eyes on the blasphemy that was the moon eclipsing the sun would be struck blind for second-hand heresy (and Azula later clarified that the damage to the eyes was because of blah blah blah science and stuff). The enemy seemed to have gotten the note about the Science And Stuff because they were all wearing some kind of eye shields. Why hadn't the Fire Nation thought of issuing such things to all its soldiers? Oh, right, they weren't supposed to know about the eclipse.

Mai continued to watch as the enemy army pushed straight down the main lanes towards the palace, a frantic forward motion that was a little scary even from this distance. A few token 'defenders' tried to stop the invaders, or at least made it look like they were trying to do so, and in several cases even had time to surrender when the futility became evident. In other cases, the invaders were too quick with their attacks, the defenders went were caught by thrown spears or flying boulders, or in one case a racing tank might not have even noticed the soldiers who wound up underneath the wheels.

It was not, altogether, a pleasant thing to witness.

Nevertheless, Mai watched as the blue and green army began circling the palace. No doubt Azula was getting reports of all of this and wiggling in delight. Mai was very glad to be missing that particular sight.

She watched and watched as that army waited and waited for a victory that wouldn't come. This time 'yesterday,' she had been in the temple, crouched beside Ty Lee, listening to the sounds of all this activity. She could remember the mechanical grinding that must be coming from those tanks. She remembered the cheers that must have come from the invaders who accepted the fake surrenders. She remembered the pregnant quiet that followed.

Then the sunlight began brightening again. Mai stepped into the shadow of a rock outcropping, because the only thing worse than having strange prophetic dreams was having strange prophetic dreams while sunburned.

Then she continued to watch as the squadron of war balloons, those small two-person crafts held aloft by a ridiculously fragile looking bag of hot air, rose up from beyond the far side of the volcano's rim. From this angle, it looked to Mai as if they were rising up from the palace itself. Then the massive airships ascended as well, the massive metal monstrosities that somehow used that hot air science to lift something the size of an armored building into the sky in what, if not a violation of the laws of science, was at least a terrible offense against common sense.

It was hard to tell from this distance, but the invading army seemed appropriately taken aback by this development.

Then Mai spotted something else moving through the air. It was faster than the war balloons, and seemed to be moving at any odd angle-

Ah, of course.

It was that stupid smelly sky bison.

It landed near the invaders, and then when it took off again- along with another little flying shape that Mai was pretty sure was the Avatar on his personal glider- the army began rushing back through the city lanes.

They were retreating.

That would account for the second set of noises Mai heard.

After this, there should be some crashes-

-one of the war balloons fell from the sky like a rock with the top half of its air-sack fluttering on the breeze.

Then there should be silence again-

-the invaders were only able to get halfway down the volcano before the airships caught up with them.

Next would be a waves of thunder-

-the airships dropped bombs on the invaders, but the Earthbenders were able to pull stone ceilings out of the side of the volcano and minimized casualties.

And finally there should come a quieter group of claps to finish things off-

-the airships continued on to the bay, where they dropped another set of bombs over what seemed to be whale-like metal boats beached on the cargo platform, destroying the things. The invaders stopped moving, after that.

The reports had said that most of the army had been taken prisoner, except for the Avatar and a few-

-the sky bison took off, moving maybe a little slower than it usually did. A single war balloon seemed to be following at a distance, but even with the sky bison lagging, the creature was still moving faster than the pursuit, and would probably soon lose it.

After that, the Home Guard- or rather, the army soldiers wearing Home Guard uniforms for the day- came out again and began taking prisoners.

It had all happened according to what Mai had experienced 'yesterday.'

This.

Was.

Freaky.

And also rather definitive. Ty Lee's theory had been that Mai was simply re-experiencing information she had absorbed but forgotten, but there was no way that Mai could have known the cadence of the battle in advance. Yes, there had been plans and such, and certain conclusions could be drawn from the way the battle had played out up to its finish, but Mai hadn't known about the metal fish-shaped boats until they were bombed. There was no distinct plan to have the airship drive on past the army and take out its transportation; that had to have been a decision made on the fly.

Mai was officially a soothsayer.

Wee.

And if everything she had already experienced once was happening again-

-everything-

-then maybe there was a chance to change the worst of it.

Mai threw herself into a run down into the caldera, mirroring the frantic surge of the invading army minutes ago. (Had it really been just minutes? Had the tide of an entire battle really turned in the eight minutes it took a fat and lazy moon to waddle in front of the sun?) She was half-skidding by the time she reached the city itself, and then tore down the streets she had known since childhood, traveling too fast even to see where she was going. Muscle memory alone guided her past the casualties still lying in the street, past the first few Fire Nation soldiers to emerge from their hiding places to secure the city.

She didn't stop running until she was home.

Even then, she didn't bother with niceties like the front door or the stairs. She pulled one of her more sturdy blades out with her right hand and then used her left to grab a low gutter in the front of the building and pull herself into an ascent. Her feet and free hand used the decorations on the wall to climb, and when there wasn't something to grab or step on, that sturdy blade was sunk into the wall and turned into a handhold. Her momentum burned out quickly, but not before she reached those large double windows that let her look out at the Fire Palace from her bed, and she flipped her body through them.

She landed in her bedroom, right on the divan that she and Zuko had occupied so contentedly 'yesterday.'

And from that position, Mai could easily see to her bed.

To her bed, and the rolled piece of paper waiting for her on the pillows at the foot.

Oh.

She was too late.

Again.

She could only stand on the divan, her lungs straining and her heart pounding from the race, and stare at the note. She knew what it said. Was there any point in actually reading it?

But what if it was different, this time? What if Zuko hadn't confronted his father and defected to the Avatar, but instead ran away to Ember Island or something, and the note revealed where he would be waiting? Then, if she read the note, and decided to forgive him for the torture he put her through in the previous version of this day, she could go to him and tell him what a jerk he was. And then he could say he was sorry, and she could decide if she would give him another chance.

(She would.)

Mai climbed over the divan and hopped down to the floor.

She walked over to her bed.

She picked up the note.

She unfurled it.

She read:

"Dear Mai, I'm sorry you have to find out this way, but I'm leaving.

"I cannot allow the Fire Nation to make the second great mistake of its history. I have come to believe that we never should have started this war, and now I will not let the war finish with the death of another nation. I will confront my father, and if he does not abandon this path, then I will join the Avatar to restore peace and balance to the world. I hope you understand, but I will probably never know. If we do not meet again, I want you to know that I love you, and that you have been the source of my only real happiness here.

"Goodbye and good fortune. -Zuko"

Why did it hurt so much, reading it a second time?

Why had it hurt at all? Mai wasn't the type to care about things. Yes, Zuko's company gave her pleasure, but she didn't do attachment. When Zuko had been banished, and she hadn't shed a tear. When her parents told her time and again to shut up if she knew what was good for her, she had simply closed her mouth and shown just how eloquent a pair of eyes could be. When she saw Tom-Tom repeatedly abandoned to wander through a mostly empty house to find his own amusements, she had hidden herself away where toddlers couldn't see.

Why did it hurt so much to lose Zuko now?

Mai let the note fall from her hands, and sat down on the floor of her room. She watched the sun set and the moon ascend over the palace. When Ty Lee dropped by, nearly crying with worry because Mai had disappeared from the temple, Mai had just shaken her head and ignored her friend. Mai watched the stars in the sky, and Ty Lee eventually left.

At some point, Mai drifted off to sleep.

At least this day was finally over.

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Oh, no. Not again.

Chapter Text

EPOCH 2

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Oh, no. Not again.

Mai sat up to find Ty Lee already having lifted one of her feet onto the far end of the mattress, no doubt in preparation for the daily (so to speak) act of bounce-based terrorism. Mai quickly crawled over and grabbed her friend by the shoulders. "Today is the Day of Black Sun, isn't it?"

Ty Lee nodded. "You must be excited. That's the fastest I've ever seen you wake up before noon."

Ashes.

Ashes.

Dragon-pooped, First Flame flickering ashes!

It wasn't prophetic dreams. It wasn't weird subconscious collating of information.

Mai was trapped in the Day of Black Sun.

Great. How had she gone and gotten herself cursed?

(She was also greatly disappointed that curses were real. What next? Auras, the Kemurikage, and Tonyan the Gift-Flinger?)

With a sigh, Mai let go of Ty Lee and got out of bed. She took a step towards her clothes-

-and then stopped. What was she doing? Was she really going to go through it all again? What would be the point? She should be finding a way to end this curse! The whole plan for the invasion would happen without her. She'd just be stuck somewhere all day while Zuko-

Zuko.

Hmmmmm.

Mai began to make plans. (This took a moment of thought, because she was so out of practice.) Just how much of this day she was stuck with, and how much of this day she could change? She felt a smile twist her lips as she used the skills that made her such a dangerous warrior: she identified a target, plotted an intercept, and set about cutting through the troubles of life with grace and efficiency. If the metaphorical cutting went well, she might not have to do any literal cutting. She turned to Ty Lee. "Forty-seven minutes to Azula's dawn briefing, right?" She didn't wait for a response before grabbing her clothes and ducking into the bathroom.

Exactly forty-six minutes later, Mai and Ty Lee arrived to hear Azula once again proclaim, "Ah, girls, right on time."

Instead of complaining about the early hour, the impoliteness of invading rebels, or the possibility that Azula's mental problems were the result of royal inbreeding, Mai just bowed her head and waited.

Seeming quite pleased to be alive on a day when resistance would be ruthlessly crushed beneath her heel, Azula turned to her big ol' map on its fancy stand and pointed to a bright red mark near the center of the Caldera. " Now, you and Ty Lee will take command of 'Operation: Springback' here in the Capital Temple. You will be my coiled spring, hiding within the temple, and attack only when rebel forces enter the grounds in significant number. The Earth King's original plan called out our temple as a possible fallback point, but if they try, they will once again find that I have cut off their every chance to survive. Are you clear on your mission?"
Mai bowed her head again. "Yes, princess."

"Excellent! Be sure to stop by the Royal Kitchens before you go, and get something to eat from the buffet. The rations being distributed to the soldiers are rather plain."

Well, the briefing had gone about as well as it could have, in Mai's opinion. She had even been invited to the buffet without having to seem dangerously unstable.

It was unfortunate that she was feeling too nervous to have anything more than a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Mai’s stomach continued to twist as she and Ty Lee started out to the temple, and she waited until the front gate came into view before she said, "Oops, I just realized I forgot my lucky razor disc. I need to go back home and get it."

Ty Lee frowned. "Since when do you have a lucky anything? I gave you lucky seashell years ago but you thr-"

"Since now. You head into the temple and get set up. The commanding officer is Corporal Lee, and he's very eager to impress today." Before any further objections could be aired, Mai turned and sprinted back down the lane towards her house. She once again eschewed the front doors and climbed up to her bedroom window, but this time, as she stood on the divan, she found the foot of her bed mercifully free of heart-breaking 'Dear Mai' letters.

Good. She was on time.

She hopped down off the divan, and crouched behind it. She had no intention of catching up to Ty Lee at all today, but that didn't mean she was giving up on the idea of springing an ambush. She just wasn't going to be ambushing any rebels.

Instead, she'd be ambushing a stupid ex-boyfriend. Or soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend. Or soon-to-be-ex-who-she-could-hopefully-convince-not-to-be-an-ex-boyfriend? Zuko technically still her boyfriend, on account not having left the note yet today, right? And if she stopped him here, and this was the last repetition, could his breaking up with her be said to happen?

Well, Mai had discovered a path to madness, if she ever wanted to take it: just think about how time worked in a cursed loop, and goodbye sanity.

Turning her away from that path for now, a little voice in the back of her head, near where most of her gorgeous shining hair was tied, asked why exactly she expected this to be the last time?

Simple, the front of Mai's mind answered. Once we stop Zuko from leaving, we'll get a Fire Sage to do a purification ritual, or whatever, and then time will go back to flowing normally with our boyfriend safely in place. No problem.

Oh, the back corner of Mai's mind replied. Well, if you have it all figured out, then by all means, go ahead and-

Footsteps sounded somewhere in the house.

Mai tensed.

The steps grew closer, grew louder.

They were right outside the room.

They were in the room.

Then Zuko said, "I'm sorry, Mai."

And she sprang up from behind the divan. "Sorry for what?"

Zuko startled, whipping his head around to stare at her with wide eyes. (Well, one wide eye and one permanently squinting eye.) "What are you- were you hiding behind- why were you- what?"

Mai snorted. "Eloquent as always. What are you sorry for?"

Zuko remained frozen for another moment, and then seemed to deflate. All tension left his body, and his gaze fell to the floor at the same pace as the rolled paper that he let fall from his hands. "I'm sorry for everything."

Well, that was a pretty good start. He had everything to be sorry for. "You're leaving."

He nodded. "I thought you'd be out getting ready for the invasion."

"I was. But I-" Knew what was going to happen? Had come home twice now to find a stupid note and was getting thoroughly sick of it? "-had a feeling about you."

Zuko shrugged. "Well, at least I can say goodbye in person."

"Then why bother with a note at all?" Mai stepped out from behind the divan, keeping her pace slow as she drifted to put herself between Zuko and the door. "I slept over in the palace. You could have caught me any time this morning."

Zuko finally looked up at her. "I couldn’t decide my course. I was already dressed for battle in my armor when I finally made my choice. Trying to catch you would have risked getting caught by Azula. And I thought you might stab me."

"Fair point. Well, you're caught, now. Is there anything you want to say?"

Zuko inhaled, and in doing so seemed to draw in strength once again. His back went straight and a little of that Royal Grace that Azula so effortlessly displayed came into his limbs. Mai had never seen him stand like that, and she had to stop herself being distracted by the sight as he said, "I have to stop him. My father. I can't let him destroy the world."

Meh. Of course he would lead with talking about boring politics. "Really? You're standing in my bedroom with a break-up letter, and you want to talk about destroying the world? What about me? Don't you have anything to say about- about us?"

Zuko scowled. "But this isn't about you! This is about the Fire Nation, about-"

"Junk I don't care about!" Mai crossed her arms over her chest. "Who cares if your father is going to destroy the Earth Kingdom? That means the Fire Nation wins, and we can stop worrying about anything but ourselves! Yeah, it's a shame people have to die or whatever, but that's what happens in a war. This will probably save Fire Nation lives."

Zuko blinked at her. "That- that isn't winning! Think about all those people who will be hurt- people who just want to work their farms or clean up their neighborhoods or- or- or just live. There's no honor in making them suffer! We'd be destroying our nation if we let it happen! I'd be destroying myself."

"Oh, Zuko." Mai put all of her effort into trying to smile, but she wasn't sure if it was working. Nevertheless, she kept trying, and peered out at Zuko from beneath her fringe of hair in that way that usually made him squirm. "Yes, we have to do hard things to win a war, and part of what I like about you is that you actually managed to get to adulthood and still feel things for other people. It's different. And cute. You can be sad about it if you need to. Good thing I know how to cheer you up." She stepped up to him, reaching out around his shoulders, and pulled him close.

Then she leaned forward and kissed him.

She put all of her strength, all of her heat, all of herself into that kiss, into showing Zuko was he would be throwing away if he continued with his ridiculous plan. She felt his arms slide up her sides, felt his strong but gentle hands clasp her body-

-and then he pulled her away. "I can't ignore this anymore," he said. His voice was quiet and his eyes were wet. "I'm sorry. But even if I stayed, I wouldn't be able to give you the love you deserve. It would die with the Earth Kingdom. With the Avatar."

What? Why would his love die with people other than her?

He stepped back and let go of her. "Goodbye, Mai."

He moved to walk around her-

-and Mai pulled a needle from her sleeve. If he wasn't going to stay by choice, then pinning him to the wall was certainly a solution. She'd apologize later, perhaps while wearing that shoulder-baring dress he liked so much-

But as she moved to throw, Zuko pivoted and threw himself towards the divan. Even as Mai was lining up her next shot, Zuko rolled behind the furniture, cutting him off from view.

How dare he expect her to attack him!

Just because she was going to do it didn't mean he should distrust her like that!

Mai moved to see around the divan, planning to nail Zuko to the floor if needed, but there was another blur of motion and then Zuko was dashing towards the window and jumping-

-Mai threw her needle and then a backup razor disc-

-Zuko went sailing out of the window head-first as her blades sank into the window frame right next to him-

-and then he was gone.

Mai stood there for a moment, unable to believe he was really that stupid (Why not, given everything else?), but then she heard the sound of Firebending, and rushed over to the window to find him landing safely in the street with the last flickers of flames dying in the air to mark his path. He ran towards the palace, but then skidded to a halt.

He turned and looked back up at her.

Mai met his gaze.

Then he turned and started running away from the palace, down a street that would take him away from the expected path of the invaders. He was lost to sight.

Come to think of it, there were echoes in the air that might have been the sounds of warfare down at the harbor. The invasion must have just started.

And Zuko was gone. Again. Sort of.

Mai's first instinct was to run after him. He had a head start, but she was quicker in a straight dash, so maybe if she guessed right about his path she could-

Wait.

Why bother?

Why not just try again tomorrow?

After all, there was no tomorrow today. Why would there be a tomorrow, tomorrow?

So Mai packed herself a lunch, went back up to that little isolated spot on the caldera's rim- the one with so many memories of Zuko- and spent the rest of the day watching the war. This time, she got there early enough to see the harbor gate fall to the invaders, and then she sarcastically cheered them on as they rushed to get into the city before the eclipse started. She even spotted what looked like the Avatar's Waterbender helping a wounded warrior hobble his way up the side of the volcano. Mai waved at them, but they didn't notice her.

The most amusing part was when the eclipse ended, and Azula's airships rose up, and the invaders all ran like little lemurs scattering before a komodo rhino. Sadly, it was fairly boring after that, nothing to see but prisoners being arrested and dragged away while the clean-up crews began wondering how to deal with the giant boulders left lying around by impolite Earthbender soldiers.

She started to drift off.

At one point, Mai might have heard something like Ty Lee calling her name. Ty Lee sounded very upset. Maybe she thought Mai had died during the invasion. That was kind of funny. Mai gave a little giggle as sleep began to fully overtake her, but before she lost consciousness, she mumbled, "See you tomorrow."


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai's eyes snapped open, and she got out of bed with a smile.

She knew exactly what to do.

Exchange some early morning banter with Ty Lee, politely breeze through Azula's redundant briefing, beg off going to the temple so that she could double back to her house, wait behind the divan for Zuko, spring up and point at him when he said-

"I'm sorry, Mai."

"You should be!" She didn't wait for him to get over his surprise before she continued, "This isn't the way! If destroying the Earth Kingdom is such a problem for you, then let's work on it! It's not going to happen today!" Something about her own phrasing amused her, and she let out a small laugh. "By that logic, it might not happen at all."

Zuko stared at her.

Mai shook her head and focused again on the problem at hand. "My point is that making yourself into a traitor and wanted criminal isn't going to accomplish anything! Stay here. With me. We can talk to Azula, or your father, and find some other way to win the war."

Zuko finally moved, slumping (again) and shaking his head. "How can you be smart enough to know I'd come here, and still believe that Azula or Father will listen to me? They don't want another way to win the war. That's why I have to leave. The Fire Nation is rotting from the very top, and only by siding with the Avatar can I start to heal everything. I plan to free my uncle, and-"

"That old gasbag?!"

"He should be Fire Lord! Not my father!"

Mai didn't quite know what to say to that. She wasn't very practiced at discussing whether or not the absolute ruler of her nation should be the absolute ruler of her nation. That was the kind of thing that could put Azula in a remarkably bad mood, and Mai had a talent for judging when to stop just short of that line.

That, at least, gave her an idea of how to respond. "Zuko, you're going to get yourself killed."

He didn't seem especially put out by the idea. "I have to live my life with honor, wherever it takes me."

"That's all it is with you." Mai began walking, this time angling to put herself close enough to both the door and the windows so that she'd have a clear angle no matter which he tried to escape through. "It's always about 'me.' Don't you think other people might care if you die?"

Zuko blinked. "Not many, no." Something must have occurred to him, because his eyes went wide, and then he looked at her with the true light of fire in his face. "But if you care that much, then come with me! We can free Uncle, and then help the Avatar save the Earth Kingdom."

Betray her nation?! Betray Azula?! Risk a prolonged, painful death, probably involving hot coals, and almost certainly involving one of those pointy, multi-pronged metal devices with terrifyingly mysterious purposes?!

Mai considered the point rationally. Considered the abstract idea of Zuko getting himself killed with his idiocy.

"No," she said.

Zuko closed his eyes and lowered his head.

Mai had to admit that she felt kind of rotten.

Then Zuko threw his arms out and sent a wave of flaming expending across her bedroom. She reflexively dodged behind the divan, pulling some of her throwing razors from her sleeves, and by the time she realized that she'd been tricked, Zuko was already out the window.

Ash.

Well, if he wanted to play dirty, then she could, too.


Zuko stepped into her bedroom, and came to an abrupt halt when he saw her.

-saw her lying on her bed, in that off-the-shoulder dress he liked so much, with the skirt much shortened since he had seen it last.

Mai brushed her loose hair from her eyes, smiled, and said, "Hello, lover."

Zuko stared.

He stared some more.

He put the rolled paper on the floor in the doorway, and then turned and ran.

Mai decided to be offended.


This time, Mai just sat at the foot of her bed (fully dressed), staring at the floor. She didn't care if he saw her. She was tired of this.

He stopped short again when he saw her, but this time, he came into the room. "Mai? What are you doing here?"

She didn't bother meeting his gaze. "Zuko, why aren't I enough? Haven't I tried? Don't I make you happy? What about the rest of the world makes it more important than me?"

He was silent for a long moment. Then he came over and sat on the bed next to her. He put his arm around her, and her every instinct was to lean against him and take comfort in his warmth, but she was also mad at him and so made herself resist.

He said, "I've seen the world, and it's not just this big thing that's somewhere else. It's everywhere. It's right here. It's every person out there who's living and working and trying to be happy. I- I don't think I can be happy until they are, too."

Mai snorted. "Then you'll never be happy."

She thought that was a witty point, but he nodded with no surprise or hesitation. "I know."

She shook her head. "I don't think I'm capable of self-sacrifice. Not for other people. Not even- I think- for you."

"But you-"

"Being a supportive girlfriend doesn't count. That was small stuff. You're talking about giving up your life if you have to." She turned and looked him straight in the eyes. "Do you really think I'm capable of giving everything up for someone else? Think about it. Tell me the truth."

His scarred gaze searched hers. Was he simply examining her face, looking at the mask she had turned herself into for some sign of the heart he wanted her to have? Or was he trying to look past the mask, through her dull eyes to the spirit energies within her body, tasting her shadows?

He leaned back. "I guess not."

He stood and walked away.

This time, Mai didn't try to stop him.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai sighed and sat up. She wasn't feeling up for another go at Zuko. What more could she say to him? It wasn't just that she had failed to convince him not to try to save the world; she was becoming convinced that she simply didn't have the skill, worldview, or wisdom to talk him down. She, herself, was inadequate to the task. She might have an infinite number of chances, but she had lost the struggle a long time ago.

Well, nothing said she couldn't take a break. Maybe there was something else she could look into?

And then it came to her. "Tell Azula that I'm sick." She grabbed her clothes and headed for the bathroom. "I'm going to see a healer. Give my regards to Colonel Lee and the rest."

Ty Lee's head tilted. "Who?"

Of course, the city's healers had been evacuated with the rest of the citizenry, but there were combat medics aplenty, and Mai was able to find a woman on her way to the harbor who was willing to give her a check-up.

Sadly, finding a female medic who believed in curses was a bit harder. "You say you're suffering from what? Uh, my lady?"

Mai resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "I'm reliving the same day over and over. Every day I wake up and it's the Day of Black Sun. I can tell you exactly how the battle will play out, minute by minute, to prove myself."

"Well, uh, I guess it can't hurt to have you write it all down."

So Mai did.

Several hours, multiple skirmishes, two armies, and one eclipse later, the same medic was scratching her hair. "It's the craziest thing, but I guess you're right. Do you, uh, know how you got cursed?"

Mai shrugged. "I'm a bit free with my blasphemies, but that hasn't been a problem up to now."

"Well, I can do a quick check-up, but you might be better off with a sage."

After a session of poking, prodding, and saying, "Ahhhh," more times than had to be strictly necessary, the healer brought Mai to temple, where the sages had just returned. They listened to her story with obvious disdain, showed a bit more interest when the medic vouched that something had given Mai some kind of prophetic insight, and then got positively giddy when they were given permission to do whatever tests they needed to determine the nature of the curse.

(Although, Mai limited the amount of poking, prodding, and "Ahhh"-ing that would be conducted. The sages were all men, after all.)

By the time Azula dropped by in a fume to ask if Mai knew anything about Zuko running away to marry the Avatar, it had been unquestionably established that the most revered Fire Sages in the Homeland were all nincompoops. They had no idea what kind of curse she might have, or how to undo it. They had never even heard of a curse that trapped a person in an endless loop of a single day.

"You're a hypochondriac and Zuko is a traitor," Azula snarled on the way back to the palace. "I can't rely on anyone!"

Mai thought about that. "And if I had come to you before he had left? Told you what he was planning?"

Azula's head turned slowly, and her gaze was entirely reptilian. "Then today would have played out very differently."

Huh. You don't say.


"Zuko's planning on running away and joining the Avatar."

Azula froze halfway through her turn to the big map on its fancy stand, her finger already extending to point to the temple. She blinked exactly once and then said, "What?"

Mai shrugged. "I thought you'd want to know that before you began your briefing."

Azula stared at her.

Ty Lee leaned forward. "Did I miss something? I don't even think Zuko is up yet. Or is this why you got in so late last night?"

Azula's eyes narrowed. "Zuko admitted a desire to commit treason, and you decided to sleep on it?"

Mai sighed. "Never mind. Bad joke."


"Zuko's planning on running away and joining the Avatar."

Azula froze in the middle of directing her Dai Li goons on where to hide, her finger already extending up to the cave-chamber's rafters. Of course, the princess couldn’t just set a trap for any invaders who managed to find their way to the secret bunker underneath the palace; she had to organize the trap for maximum drama.

Azula’s attention, however, was no longer on her trap. "What?"

Mai shrugged. "I was at the temple when I figured out some references he made during our last conversation. I just thought you'd want to know before he can get away."

Azula was still for only a moment longer. Then she snapped a hand signal to the Dai Li, nodded at Mai in a clear 'you better follow me if you know what's good for you and here's a hint: getting killed by me would not be good for you' signal, and stalked out of the chamber. The princess led the way up out of the underground bunker to emerge through the secret passage into the palace itself.

They caught Zuko just was he was emerging from his bedroom, the break-up note rolled and tied in his hand.

He dropped it when the first attack came.

At a motion from Azula, the Dai Li shot their weird rock-gloves at Zuko, pinning him to the nearest wall by his wrists and ankles in a move that reminded Mai uncomfortably of her own style. Why was Zuko so good at dodging her needles, but he got hit so easily by this?

She stood apart from the proceedings, allowing this to remain between the royal siblings (and their personal subcontractors). She watched as Zuko struggled and Azula stepped forward to pick up the dropped note. The princess unfurled and read it silently, then tossed it over her shoulder to Mai.

Mai didn't bother reading it. She already knew what it said, and didn't want to get mad all over again. Azula was already bringing more than her share of madness (both kinds!) to this situation already.

"So ungrateful," Azula hissed to Zuko. "After everything I've done for you, you're just going to throw this life away and embrace an existence of failure?"

Zuko turned his gaze to Mai, but she kept her face free of expression in a clear 'Who, me? I just work here!' statement. Zuko looked back to Azula. "You've done nothing for me that hasn't also benefitted yourself. I'm finally just doing what's right."

"Of course you are." Azula turned to Mai and smiled. "Thank you for reporting this to me. I'll be sure that my father knows you deserve all the credit. It's good to know that you understand your true loyalties."

Mai was starting to think that applying Azula's specific skills to the problem of Zuko might not have been the best choice. Certainly, that seemed to be the idea behind Zuko's heart-wrenching expression of hurt, and it was making a compelling argument.

Well, he had betrayed her first. At least now he wouldn't be running off to become a doomed fugitive.

He was still staring at her when the Royal Crimson Guard arrived and wrapped him in chains to be led away.

Mai took advantage of the following commotion (Azula made a grand pronouncement out of, "Bring him to my father. The Fire Lord will have the final say about his fate, and I need to get into position in case our invaders make it this far.") to slink away. She ducked into Zuko's bedroom and went over to the windows. This high up in the palace's tower, she could see the whole Caldera settlement. It was still and empty now, but the distant echoes of warfare had started. The invaders must have landed at the harbor.

Maybe she could just hide out here for the rest of the day. Certainly, no one would be using Zuko's bedroom for a while. It was some time before the rebels would crest the volcano's rim and put on a show, so she explored all that Zuko had left behind, at least in terms of physical possessions and not all those pesky emotional sensations that had her stomaching clenching.

Of course, Mai was already familiar with Zuko's room, but she soon turned up something new. An inked portrait of his mother, the Princess Ursa, had been propped up on a shelf at the foot of his bed. It was the first image of the woman that Mai had seen since her mysterious disappearance. The unspoken word was that speaking word of Princess Ursa would result in a lot more than just harsh words, both spoken and unspoken, and so the matter had been ignored for years by all and sundry. Mai herself had no personal feelings about Zuko and Azula's mother, nor much interaction with her beyond the time Mai upchucked after eating an ant-worm on a dare by Azula and Ursa had helped clean her up.

Zuko's picture contained much more grace and serenity than Mai remembered, but perhaps that was just because she usually saw Ursa only when caught between Zuko and Azula.

Still, the picture wasn't that interesting. Mai wound up dozing on Zuko's bed until she was startled awake by the sound of someone- perhaps a young boy- shouting from the lower floors of the palace. She sneaked over to close and lock the room's door, but made note that the palace had been infiltrated just before the true invasion was supposed to begin.

And, judging by the youth of the voice, perhaps it was the Avatar himself. And here Zuko was trying to run away to join the kid.

Except Zuko wasn't getting away this time.

When the fighting finally reached the Caldera, with the eclipse starting above everyone's heads, Mai found that she had a new perspective on the action. Previously, she had been behind the invader's push, watching from the volcano rim like a neutral observer. Now, the invaders were pushing towards her, and she had to admit it was a bit more intimidating from this angle.

Mai saw the Home Guard soldiers move to oppose the invaders, and either get cut down or quickly captured for their trouble. She was a lot closer to the action, this time, and didn't find it quite so amusing.

She thought she spotted one person- wearing the hat of one of the army's runners- jogging down a lane just east of the garden park where she, Ty Lee, and Azula had frequently played as children. The runner seemed to be on a good route that would circumvent the fighting, but on the complete other side of the park, one of the fighting Earthbenders pulled a large rock from the street and shot it at an attacking swordsman. The rock missed its target, but flew more than fast enough to cross the park.

And then the rock and the runner worked together to illustrate a rather extreme, fatal example of bad luck.

The runner was crushed with a suddenness that might have been funny, if Mai was in a mood to laugh.

It turned out that she wasn't.

In fact, she herself felt like she had a big rock on top of her.

So she simply watched as the rebels surrounded the palace to wait for a victory that wouldn't come.

Then the eclipse passed, the Avatar returned to his army on his (armored!) sky bison, and the whole group decided to take their toys and go home if the Fire Nation wasn't going to fight fairly.

Soon enough, Mai was alone again.

The sun was setting when Azula found her.

"Ah, here you are," the princess said as she stepped into the bedroom. "I would be disappointed that you didn't return to handle Operation Springback, but it turned out that the invaders bypassed the temple completely, and you've already done a great service to our nation today."

Mai would have expected more gloating, more honey, in Azula's voice, but the princess was being surprisingly monotone. Nor was there any smile, not even the hint of an evil smirk, on her face.

Mai felt the urge to vomit and hadn't even eaten any ant-worms. "What happened to Zuko?"

Azula blinked once. Twice. There was no expression on her face; it was like she was using at as a mask, just like Mai did. "Why, I had him brought to Father, of course! It's not like I could hide such an act of treason."

Mai stepped forward. "Where is Zuko now?"

Azula giggled without smiling, a high-pitched sound as sharp as broken glass. "Where do you think? The one thing Father will not tolerate is disobedience. That's why he scarred poor Zuzu! Father told him to get up and fight and Zuzu just cried!"

"Azula." Mai mentally counted every single blade strapped to her body. "Tell me what happened to Zuko. Now."

"Watch your tone." There was no strength in Azula's voice. "It's up to us, now. We need to be strong. We need to be united. Father's going to be giving us his full attention."

"Azula-"

"Zuzu is dead!" Azula's screech echoed off the walls. Her face finally had some expression on it, but whether it was born of anger or joy or fear was impossible to tell. "He's dead and it's just us, now! Behave, or I'll send you to join him!"

Oh.

Oh, no.

This-

Mai didn't mean to-

This wasn't-

Fine. So much for this idea. "I see. Thank you for telling me."

Azula let out a ragged breath and nodded. "Okay."

Mai nodded back. "Okay."

Then she threw a razor disc into Azula's throat.

She had aimed for flesh before- she had tried to throw blades at the faces of both the Avatar and his pet Waterbender back in Omashu- but had never actually hit it before. Perhaps it was the short range, this time, or perhaps Azula wasn't quite on her game.

Maybe- just maybe- Azula had known it was coming, and wanted it.

Or it could be that Mai just wanted this hit to land more than any other she had thrown before.

Whatever had led up to it, the princess was crumbled on the floor now in a growing pool of her own blood, and any last words she might have had were lost in all the bubbling.

Mai's stomach clenched. She'd seen blood and death before, but had never smelled it, nor seen it on a familiar face.

Her hands were shaking.

She'd killed.

Not that it counted, of course. Tomorrow, it would be the Day of Black Sun again, and Zuko and Azula would both be alive and well.

But Mai couldn't think of a better way to end this day.

She didn't have to wait long for the guards, and they played their part admirably, charging her with spears as soon as they saw the scene. One might have accused them of jumping to conclusions on entirely circumstantial evidence, but then, she was standing over the bloody body of their princess, while holding what could be called a threatening display of sharp objects.

Mai's shaking hands didn't make her last stand last very long, and within seconds she had another new experience: the feel of metal spearheads punching into her flesh and tearing her innards. There was no experience that could have prepared Mai for the feeling of having her life leak out through ragged holes in her torso. So this was what it felt like to be Zuko- to be Azula- to die-

Wait.

This wouldn't end the cycle of days, would it?


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Huh.

So even being killed wouldn't stop it.

A little part of her had expected that. After all, that would be too easy. Did the same go for death by her own hand?

That felt like too much work to explore, right now.

So she didn't move. Even when Ty Lee started bouncing on the far end of the bed, she remained lying underneath the covers. Even when Ty Lee crawled over and started shaking her, she let herself flop in her friend's grip, and fell back down to the mattress when released.

At some point, she began crying silently.

Ty Lee left. Then Ty Lee returned with Azula. More words and attempts to get her out of bed followed. More of her tears moistened the sheets.

Eventually, a guard was called to bundle her up in the bedding and cart her away. She was carried out of the palace, out into the daylight, and then into some underground space.

Eventually she was dumped on the floor of a large room filled with people, where the light was dim and the air was a humid funk. Somewhere nearby, a woman was screeching about how she couldn't stay here, that the ceiling was coming down on her, that she was being crushed by all the people, and she had to get out get out GET OUT.

Mai agreed, but remained on the floor, crying silently to herself.

There was no getting out of some prisons.

The day passed.


As did another.


And another.


And another.

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

Eventually, even complete despair becomes boring, and if there's anything Mai absolutely could not tolerate, it was boredom.

Chapter Text

EPOCH 3

Eventually, even complete despair becomes boring, and if there's anything Mai absolutely could not tolerate, it was boredom.

("Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed.")

But what was the alternative? The only experts within reach had no ideas for ending the curse. Convincing Zuko not to elope with the Avatar was just an exercise in frustration. And trying to get Azula to handle the problem for her-

That had proved disappointing.

(At the far end of the mattress, Ty Lee began her bouncing.)

Mai felt an absurd desire to talk to her parents about it all. Not that she expected them to have anything helpful to offer, not even a minimum of, "There, there," comfort, but she was running out of authority figures to foist the problem on and she had no desire to sit down with the Fire Lord and explain the situation.

(The ceiling went 'thunk' and Ty Lee said, "Owie!")

The sound of Ty Lee's skull impacting against a decidedly less-dense solid finally prompted Mai to throw off the bed covers and sit up. "That wasn't even funny the first time."

"What first time?" Ty Lee was still massaging her head.

"Never mind." Mai rubbed her eyes. "Hey, can I ask you a question?"

"Yes, the bathroom's open. I got up early so that I could finish in there before you needed it. I'm just such a nice person that way."

"No, something else. I suppose it's a matter of philosophy."

Ty Lee grinned, and hopped up onto the bed so that she was kneeling right in front of Mai. "I have been waiting my whole life for you to say those words to me."

"Swell." Mai took a moment to gather her thoughts and plot out an escape route in case this turned violent. "If you knew for a fact that none of your actions could ever have an effect on the world- if everything stayed the same no matter how drastically you tried to change things- what is there left for you to do? Besides be bored."

Ty Lee looked up at the ceiling as she thought about it. "When you say 'the world,' do you mean your external environment? Everything separate from the Self?"

Mai blinked. "Sure, let's go with that for now."

"Oh, well then that's easy!" Ty Lee looked back at Mai with a look in her eyes that made so many people over the years assume a chemical addiction of some kind was in play. "If you can't change anything besides the Self, then the Self has to become your whole universe."

"Um?"

"Forget about what can't be changed and focus on how you respond to it. Change yourself according to the world you want to live in. It's all just a matter of perspective, really. You define your world, so define it so it serves and fulfills you. It's like how I hated being part of a matched set with my family, and since I couldn't change having six identical sisters, I focused on my own uniqueness and embraced it."

"Huh." Stripped away of the more philosophical jargon, that was actually fairly coherent for a statement from Ty Lee. Moreover, it even made sense. Put simply If Mai couldn't get Tomorrow to come or get Zuko to really love her instead of running off to an Avatar, then she had no choice but to focus on herself. "Okay."

She could make herself a world with no Avatar in it.

"See, that wasn't so hard. What made you think of it? The last time I tried to talk about the nature of the universe with you before breakfast, you threw a hairbrush at me and wound up putting your clothes and knives on backwards."

Mai snorted as she climbed out of bed. "Let's take the easy route and say weird dreams."

"And what's the hard route?"

"Believing that I've stumbled across a unique problem in my perception of time."

"Ugh, time stuff. That always gives me a headache."

"Exactly."

Mai went ahead and dressed as usual, but elected to start exercising her ability to control her universe by forgoing any hair-styling. She let her tresses hang long and free down her back, a style that would be trouble in combat, but she wouldn't have to worry about it. After all, she knew exactly where each and every fight was going to happen today, and she could skip as many of them as she wanted. It was like school, only with dangerous combat instead of boring classes.

(Well, more dangerous combat.)

Mai made sure to give the appropriate responses to get Azula's quicker briefing, and the princess didn't comment on the new hairdo. Mai did have trouble not letting her eyes wander to Azula's smooth white throat, to the spot that had once hosted a razor disc, but thankfully neither of the other girls noticed.

After the briefing, she and Ty Lee hit the palace's breakfast buffet, and this time she really indulged, trying everything that looked interesting. After all, it wasn't like she'd have to worry about fighting on a full stomach.

(Sadly, Mai couldn't properly revel in casting aside worries about eating what she wanted without getting fat; her metabolism had always made her have to work to keep from looking sickly. She didn't personally have a problem with looking like she had one foot in the urn, but constantly getting asked what she was dying of got boring after the first few sarcastic responses. Maybe tomorrow she'd enjoy just having a cup of water without agonizing about losing what little fat she had managed to cultivate.)

On the way to the temple, Mai enjoyed the feel of the breeze in her unbound hair. She shook her head and whipped it around a bit as Ty Lee babbled something about the health effects of eating eggs.

When they arrived at the site of Operation Springback, Corporal Lee was of course there to meet them. "My Ladies, Colonel Lee reporting! I've successfully evacuated the Fire Sages, and my soldiers are stationed throughout the first floor of the main temple building. I have an elite force ready to spill out into the courtyard at a moment's notice, and my subordinates have been given a plan to rapidly deploy continuing waves as required. Naturally, we've saved some space for you two right with that first wave."

"Wonderful, darling," Mai said, giving her hair another shake and successfully suppressing laughter. "I’m oh so excited for the chance to fight some barbarians today. I've never been in a battle before, but everything I've read makes them sound thrilling! I'm eternally grateful that the princess gave me the chance to try that whole 'stabbing' thing. I bet it's fun. Is it fun, Corporal?"

Ty Lee was staring at her.

Corporal Lee's jaw worked like he was trying to do math in his head and kept coming up with Purple. "Um, some people- um, some find it fun? My lady?"

"Wonderful! We'll go inside and pick out our spots. Let us know when the Avatar comes knocking." Mai grabbed Ty Lee's arm and hurried her friend away while trying to keep from giggling. Making fun of people was better when the people in question didn't realize they were involved in the making of any fun.

Once they were inside the temple, Ty Lee said, "Are you feeling okay? Your sense of humor is usually more about laughing at gravestones."

Mai shook her hair again. "I'm trying something new. And anyway, we're not going to be attacked. This whole Springback thing is a waste of time."

As she and Ty Lee passed by the gatherings of soldiers discussing the quality of the breakfast rations, Mai wondered how she should spend her day. She had to focus on herself, as Ty Lee had advised. The only problem was that Mai had never really focused on herself beyond constructing her whole life and personality as an insult to the people around her. She supposed that she could teach herself to dance here in the temple, which was both lewd and a blasphemy, but offending a bunch of random soldiers didn't really appeal to her, and besides, Ty Lee might actually join in.

Then Mai realized she was surrounded by soldiers, and most of them weren't Firebenders. Spears were leaning against the temple walls in bundles, and quite a few scabbards were hanging from belts.

Hm.

If you can't define the world, define yourself in response to the world.

As for the response she wanted to make-

She walked up to one particular soldier, a thin guy who didn't seem to be any older than her. He was standing on the periphery of a large group, so subtly excluded that he probably didn't even realize it.

Mai tapped his shoulder and gave him her best Azula Stare. "Teach me how to fight with a spear."

He blinked at her. "M- my lady?"

"Exactly. I'm just an heiress in the middle of a war with no way to protect herself. Teach me how to use a spear in case barbarians try to drag me away to force me to dance with them." She shook her hair again, in case that helped.

The young soldier swallowed. "O- okay. Well, I- I guess we should start with how to hold a spear..."


He blinked at her. "My lady?"

"Exactly. I've already been taught the basics by the Royal Fire Academy for Girls. Just show me a few more tricks so I can properly defend myself when the barbarians try to drag me away to force me to eat their vegetarian food." She shook her hair again, in case that helped.

The young soldier swallowed. "O- okay. Well, I- I guess I could show you how to use the whole shaft of the spear to keep enemies from closing in on you..."


He blinked at her. "My lady?"

"Exactly." Mai took the spear from his grip, twirled it fast enough to blur the shaft into a brown smear in the air, brought it to a halt with a diagonal slice of the metal tip, shifted her grip, and then stabbed out into the empty air. "I've already had an advanced education in combat. I'm just looking for some pointers from a soldier who's seen some real combat against barbarians." She shook her hair again, because it probably looked kick-butt.

The young soldier grinned. "Wow. Okay! Well, my favorite trick is..."


Mai saw Ty Lee walk over, and spared a nod for her friend. That was all she could do for the moment, what with twirling two spears at once. Mai tightened her fists around each spear, bringing their spinning to a stop for the next phase of her demonstration. Fighting with two spears at once was tricky, as their length made it easy to knock them into each other, so she had to move them in a pattern that would keep the shafts out of each other's way, stabbing with one while swinging the other, using quick twirls as necessary to change directions, using blade and shaft and butt to hammer at a legion of imaginary enemies.

When they were all imaginary-dead (or at least imaginary-lying on the imaginary-ground and imaginary-moaning and imaginary-bleeding and imaginary-cursing their imaginary-fate), Mai brought her spears to a halt, propped them up on the floor, and bowed to her audience.

The soldiers all started applauding. Her young teacher (how had she gone this many iterations without learning his name?) accepted congratulations from his comrades for his instructional skills while Mai handed the spears back to their owners and went over to Ty Lee. "What's up?"

Ty Lee frowned. "Sorry, did I interrupt you?"

"Nah. Spears are getting boring. I'm done with that now."

"Um, since when did you learn how to do that? Private Li Quang did not just teach it to you today."

How did Ty Lee know- never mind. Mai would probably be better off without that knowledge. "Oh, you know me; I get bored easily and need something to occupy my hands."

"Right." Ty Lee gave a look that five parts skepticism and one part insane belief in auras. "You've been looking very red today."

"Thank you?"

"It's not- not important. Anyway, Private Fan said the invaders got past the harbor gate. We should probably get ready."

"Yeah, sure." That was the one problem with these lessons- the soldiers still thought they had to do their job and get into position for an Operation Springback that would never happen. It was a good waste of twenty minutes. Not that Mai was on a time budget, but waiting for rebels who wouldn't come was boring.

Unless-

As Mai kneeled down beside her friend just inside the temple's foyer, she whispered, "Hey, when this is over, I've always admired how your acrobatics let you dodge pretty much any kind of attack..."


"Hey, as long as we have time, I've always admired how your acrobatics give you so much flexibility..."


"Hey, while we wait, I've always admired how you can touch the back of your knees with your tongue..."


"Hey, while we wait, I've always admired how your Qi-blocking messes with Benders. The fear in their eyes is sweet. Do you think you could show me how you do it?"

Ty Lee frowned. "Nope."

Mai blinked. "No?"

"Well, probably not."

"If it's about speed and flexibility, I've actually been teaching myself acrobatics when I haven't been spending time with Zuko-"

"No, it's not that." Ty Lee gave Mai a look that started at her toes and ascended like the sun. "You're looking very red today."

Mai snorted. "Yeah, you said that already."

"I did?"

"Never mind."

"Well, what I'm getting at is that Qi-blocking isn't about memorizing pressure points. I mean, yes, it is, but it's also not. It is and isn't at the same time."

Mai sighed. "Is this about time?"

"Ew, no, time stuff gives me a headache. Qi-blocking needs a certain something. A- way to look at who you're fighting and really see them." Ty Lee brightened. "See what they're feeling. And how their energy is flowing! A hit to a pressure point can hurt, and even make an arm or leg or whatever too numb to move. But if the muscles are in the right state of motion and tightness and vibrancy, then when you hit the pressure point, you get something special. Bending won't work. Fear leaks into their aura. Have you seen how the Avatar's Waterbender looks at me? She's terrified of me! That's because of how I hit her. She felt what I did. Her brother is harder to hit, so I never tagged him as good."

Mai was almost sorry when Ty Lee stopped talking. She had really been getting into that explanation. "I never realized. I thought you just- you know, hit people. I thought-" She couldn't meet those big gray eyes. "I thought what I did was harder, because I do it from a distance and need to know how each of my blades flies through the air. But you know how to punch fear into people. That's- that's amazing."

Ty Lee reached out and raised Mai's chin, so that their eyes were meeting again. "It's not punching fear into people. It's slowly building cracks into their emotions by attacking where their bodies generate those emotions. But I'm glad you appreciate it."

"So, if I wanted to Qi-block like you, I'd have to think I see auras?"

Ty Lee giggled. "Well, it's not necessary, but it would help."

"Except," Mai said with a smirk, "auras aren't real."

Ty Lee's expression needed no words.

Mai indulged in a single dry laugh. "So, even if I can't fight like you, you can at least teach me where pressure points are, right?"

"Sure, if you want."


Learning hand-to-hand combat was harder than Mai expected. She had lost track of the days she had spent getting lessons from Ty Lee, discussing pressure points and the various kinds of fists. (Mai had always assumed that a fist was a fist, perhaps defined by the number of working fingers and knuckles the thrower had available, but no, there were as many ways to smack someone as there were to stab them.) Her existing fighting instincts seemed to work against what was needed to get a good solid hit in, and forming another set of instincts she could jump to when necessary was taking a lot of practice.

She decided to take a day off and indulge in an idea that had occurred to her a while ago. It involved escaping the temple without being seen, but she didn't even have to think to do that anymore.

It did take some work to set up what she had planned, as all worthwhile things did. First, she had to find a tea cart large enough for her to lounge on top. She broke into a dozen different mansions before investigating General Iroh’s sealed suite in the palace and finding three of them. Then she needed to find a square of wood light enough for her to lift over her head, and wound up prying someone's portrait of an honorable ancestor off the wall and using the back of the frame. Then she needed to paint her message on the sign, and get everything down to her house before the invaders stormed the capital.

On the way, one of the army runners passed by on some errand. The woman was making an odd sound as she ran, and Mai looked to see what was causing the metallic-

Oh.

It was Private Fan, the lady with the metal leg.

Fan slowed and stared at Mai as she pushed her tea cart down the street. "Um, do you need assistance, citizen? This area is supposed to be evacuated. Enemy military forces are on their way."

"No, I'm okay." The cart's wheels squeaked as Mai shifted its direction. "I'm on a special assignment for Princess Azula." Technically, that was true, even if the special assignment in question had more to do with the temple than teacarts.

"Oh. Well, uh, carry on, then!" Fan started jogging again, her metal leg clanking against the stone street.

Mai recalled, back in the iteration of her greatest failure, observing a runner getting hit by a boulder. There had been too much distance, looking down from the window in Zuko's bedroom, to tell who that runner was, but Mai recalled making a joke back on the first day about Fan's death, how both her missing leg and the rest of her body were crushed by separate boulders. On impulse, she called out, "Hey!"

Fan stopped and turned around.

Mai said, "Try to stay away from the park when the invaders get into the Caldera. We're expecting a lot of Earthbender activity near there, and even an empty street can wind up getting a sudden rain of poorly-aimed rocks."

Fan nodded and then jogged away.

Mai wondered if that would actually accomplish anything.

Oh, well. On with the plan!

She got her teacart and sign to parents' mansion house, hauled them up the front stairs, and then positioned them right behind the main doors. After that, it was a matter of working out angles and velocities while she waited.

The light outside eventually dimmed. The eclipse had arrived!

Give it a few minutes for the invaders to make their way to the palace-

-another few to let them line themselves up around the palace-

-maybe hold off for a few more moments so that the timing will be perfect-

-and then Mai ran up to the teacart, jumped up on top with all of her momentum intact, and rode the thing down the front steps of her house-

The teacart tipped over on the right and Mai hit her head on the corner of one of the stairs.


Give it a few minutes for the invaders to make their way to the palace-

-another few to let them line themselves up around the palace-

-maybe hold off for a few more moments so that the timing will be perfect-

-and then Mai ran up to the teacart, jumped up on top with all of her momentum intact, and rode the thing down the front steps of her house. She leaned to the left to offset the tipping and the cart landed with a jolt in the street, still coasting along.

Across the street, the assembled warriors and tanks of the invading army loomed. She saw people looking over at her, after the sound of the crash, and more than a few readied weapons.

Mai ignored them, grabbed the sides of the cart, and swung her body to the side. The cart twisted on its wheels, bleeding off a lot of its speed, and executed a more or less passable left turn. She was now no longer headed towards the invaders, riding parallel to their defensive line.

Mai then grabbed her painted sign and held it up as the cart slowly and squeakily passed by the staring rebels.

The sign read, 'The Avatar smells like bison poop.'

Squeak, squeak. Squeak, squeak.

No one reacted.

Squeak, squeak. Squeak, squeak.

A second later, Mai had drifted down another street, out of the sight of the invaders, just as the Avatar's sky bison swooped through the sky to land by the waiting army.

Before the Avatar could pass on the news that the entire Invasion effort had been pointless and they were all about to suffer a fate worse than death, Mai heard someone bark a single laugh.

She waited some more. There was talking, what sounded like a stirring speech in a voice that was trying hard not to crack, and then the noise of the invaders' retreat began.

What?

One laugh?

After she had gone through all that trouble?

It later turned out that Private Fan had been run over by a tank on a street near the temple.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

One.

Laugh.

Really, what kind of barbarians were these people?


Mai ducked under Ty Lee's punch and twisted so that she was facing upward. Her friend's arm was stretched out above her, and even as the muscles shifted to start retracting the limb, Mai reached up and tapped a spot near the elbow.

"Good!" Ty Lee pulled her arm back and gave it a shake. "I felt that in my bone! If it was real hit, I'd still be able to use the arm again in a few minutes, but that'd be a few minutes without being able to throw a punch from this side."

Mai almost smiled. "I could do something with that." She looked behind her, and noticed that quite a few of the soldiers stationed here in the temple were watching the sparring.

Ty Lee had noticed, too. She smiled that smile, the one that made all kinds of promises about long summer dates, winters spent huddled together, a lifetime of mutual respect and partnership, and most importantly a lot of groping in the very near future.

And so Mai was treated to the sight of a small army's morale rising in real-time.

Huh.

"Hey."

Ty Lee shifted her gaze back from the soldiers. "Hm?"

"Teach me how to flirt."

Ty Lee blinked. "You mean all this time you've never flirted with Zuko?"

Mai suppressed a frown. "Not well enough to keep him happy, apparently." Ty Lee was going to ask the obvious question, but Mai cut her off with a waved hand. "I was talking more about the type of flirting that gets most males to do whatever I tell them."

"Oh, that. That's easy..."


Lessons from an expert were certainly helpful, but Mai firmly believed that the most essential learning came from practice. Certainly, it was the only conclusion to draw from the fact that spending hours throwing broken mirror shards at her bedroom ceiling had eventually turned her into a certified Flying Daggers master.

She started with one of the soldiers in the temple who had been watching her and Ty Lee the 'other day.' She walked with an extra bit of sway on her hips, shook her loose hair, and leaned forward. "Hey there, baby."

The soldier blinked. "Do you need something, my lady?"

"Yes. Let's cut to the chase. I'm attractive, you've noticed, and I want you to teach me how to gut someone with a sword. Shall we?"

The soldier blinked again. "Um, perhaps you should talk to my commanding officer?"

What, really? Mai sighed. "Never mind, then." She went over and sat down by Ty Lee in the main foyer.

Ty Lee giggled. "That was better than Azula's first try."

"Gee, thanks."

"Don't ever cut to the chase."

"Metaphorically, or literally?"

"Oh, you."


Mai slowly licked the throwing knife she had been twirling. "This is my blade. How about you show me yours?"

This time, the soldier just gave a quick bow and all but ran away.

"You know," Ty Lee said, "the blatant approach isn't right for everyone. Maybe more subtlety would work for you?"


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai sat up in her bed. "It's absolutely imperative that you show me how to wear makeup in a way that won't terrify people!"

Ty Lee paused in the process of climbing on the bed for her bouncing, and then straightened and actually snapped a quick bow. "Mai, I'm honored that you've chosen to let me finally save you from yourself. I promise I will give this responsibility all due effort."

"Ha, ha."


No extra hip-swaying, just the hint of a smile on her lips (coming more from the makeup than any actual effort) and shy eyes. "Excuse me, sir."

The soldier looked at her, and she clasped her hands behind her back. "I've long been fascinated by swordfighting, and you look like you know your business." She lowered her eyes for just a moment, as if thoughts passed through her head that she didn't dare articulate. "Do you think you could show me- um, things?"

(She did indeed have thoughts passing through her head, but the reasons she wasn’t speaking them was because, "If you fall for this I will never respect you," would probably ruin the whole effect.)

"I would be pleased to show you whatever you want, my lady."

Yeah, Mai just bet he would. "Thank you so much!"

"Well, the idea behind this kind of sword, the dao, is that it has a single cutting edge, the curved one, and so the style for using it encourages chopping attacks..."

She gave him the full, worshipful attention of a pretty girl, which is really what every guy secretly wants (according to Ty Lee).


Mai gazed down the length of the sword, to where the tip curved up just beneath the soldier's chin, and let her expression fall into its natural blankness. "I win."

He swallowed very, very carefully. "Are you sure you've never done this before?"

"I guess I'm just a natural." She pulled the sword away, twirled it in her hand so that she held it in a reverse grip, and raised it so that he could take it back by the handle. "So how do I fight with two of these?"

The soldier frowned. "You don't want to learn that. Dual swords are just for showing off. No one seriously fights that way- er, no one fights well that way. The people who try just get hurt."

Mai thought of one particular swordsman who she knew who would probably object. "You don't say?"


Mai sat on the foot of her bed, in the exact spot where there would be a rolled up note waiting for her at the end of the day- where there was a rolled up note waiting for every day. She had long ago stopped reading it- them- whatever. The words were burned into her mind:

I cannot allow the Fire Nation to make the second great mistake of its history. I have come to believe that we never should have started this war, and I will not let the war finish with the death of another nation. I will confront my father, and if he does not abandon this path, then I will join the Avatar to restore peace and balance to the world. I hope you understand, but it is unlikely that I will ever know. If we do not meet again, I want you to know that I love you, and that you have been the source of my only real happiness here.

Goodbye and good fortune. -Zuko

She wasn't even sure why she was here. Yeah, it was supposedly to learn how to fight with two dao blades, because Zuko was someone who knew how to do that-

-had taught himself how to do that, he had told her, just like she had taught herself how to throw sharp things-

-but now that she was here, she remembered that he was so much more.

So much better, and show much worse.

He was leaving her to go to the Avatar.

She got up, and went over to her desk. She spread out a piece of paper, prepared her ink, tied her sleeve back, and took up her brush. With the same precision that usually reserved for putting sharp bits of metal where other people didn't want them to go, she wrote out a letter:

"Zuko,

"I don't care about the world.

"Goodbye and lick ash. -Mai"

Then she left it on the foot of her bed and went to go explore the city's empty mansions.


Mai hid in her closet, listening to Zuko's slow footsteps across her bedroom. They went silent, and Mai could just imagine Zuko picking up the note that had been left for him, could picturing him with confusing twisting his scarred features as he read out loud, "Zuko, I'm pregnant- WHAT?!"

She grinned.


"Zuko,

"I cannot hide it anymore. I'm madly in love with Ty Lee, and I've run away to marry her in the colonies." He was silent for a moment too long. "Mai always did weirdly tolerate her."

She had to cover her mouth to stifle the laughter.


"Zuko, your sister is behind you right now."

There was a cry, and then the glue Mai had spread out over that spot on the floor must have done its work, because there was a loud clump like a body slamming to the ground.


"Zuko, you idiot, the Day of Black Sun isn't until tomorrow."

Of course, there wasn't a handy calendar with which to confirm the date in the entire palace. Not anymore, at least.

Mai wasn't sure that the gag was worth the effort.


"Zuko, the Avatar died. He said you can have his scalp razor and the weird whistle that calls the bison."

The whistle wrapped in the letter didn't actually do anything, but Mai could hear Zuko trying it anyway. She wanted to laugh at how gullible he was, but instead she just sighed.


"Zuko, good luck with your Avatar. I packed you a lunch. Don't forget to wash behind your ears."

Even when he opened the lunch box to find the angry fire ferret, Mai had trouble mustering up any amusement. No matter what, he still always left.


By the time Zuko was being yanked off the ground by the rope trap Mai had set up and left to dangle in the center of her bedroom, the she was forced to admit that this was no longer funny.

If it had ever been.

It certainly had never made her feel better about his leaving.

Hurting other people could be amusing. Other people's pain, in general, could be amusing.

But it didn't make Mai hurt any less.

She might be defining a new reality for herself, but was it really any better?


This time, Mai was once again sitting on the foot of the bed instead of any prank notes. Zuko stopped short, as he always did when he found her, and walked over. "Mai?"

She looked up at him. "I wanted to find you, so I could ask you to show me how to fight with two swords. But you're leaving. And that's the most important thing to me right now."

Zuko sighed and sat down next to her. "I need to do this. I need to go help set the world right."

"I don't care." Mai closed her eyes and leaned again him. "I don't care about the world. I don’t care about the Avatar. I just care about you and me."

Zuko put an arm around her. "I know. That's why I have to leave."

"I'm sorry I'm not a sweet, flirty girl who can care about that kind of stuff."

"It's- I wish you did care, but I don't want you to be anyone other than who you are. Does that make any sense?"

She snorted. "Does it even matter?"

"I guess not." He stood up. "I have a little bit of time. Do you want a quick lesson? It can be something to remember me by, in case I- Something of me you can keep hold of, inside of you, no matter where I am."

Something of Zuko to keep inside.

Something that would survive the cycle of Days of Black Sun, even as he left her every day.

"Okay."


He nodded at her. "You obviously know what you're doing with dual weapons. But you don't know the exact techniques for a single cutting edge like these swords have. Don't be afraid to cross your arms for transitions like this..."


"Remember to counter-balance..."


"The reverse-grip requires a whole new technique..."


"So while the Avatar kept us afloat by spinning that stuff, I hung from his legs and deflected the spears they were throwing at us from the ground. The wide sweeps of the blade knocked the spears completely off course, so there was no danger of them getting to the Avatar."

Mai practiced some of those wide sweeps with Zuko's swords. "What is it about him?"

"Who?"

"The Avatar."

Zuko straightened from the demonstration he had been giving. "So what is what about him?"

"Why him?" Mai straightened and let the weight of the swords lower her arms. "If you really feel the need to save the world from your father, why go to the Avatar? Azula nearly took him down once already."

Zuko's gaze lost its focus on her. "He believes in the world. In the idea that the nations can unite. Despite the way I chased him, he wanted to be my friend. I don't know if he still does- not after the times I refused his hand, and helped Azula under Ba Sing Se- but I have to try. His friends probably hate me, but I think- despite everything- there's a chance. He has a good heart that way."

Mai considered that. "He's a sweet kid."

Zuko snorted. "I guess he is."

"Huh."


As Zuko watched, Mai danced across her bedroom. It wasn't real dancing, no; even she wasn't audacious enough to shame her bloodline by shaking her body in time to music, especially not in front of a guy who would be her boyfriend for the next seven and a half minutes. Nor was this a lead-in to seducing Zuko, because apparently she needed to be bald and want to hug the entire world to do that.

No, this was a dance of death.

Or simulated death with no chance of nicking anyone.

She swung Zuko's swords in sequence, air whistling around her like she wished her boyfriend would when she strutted past him, working those cutting edges like she worked her cutting remarks, stabbing the points out with the precision of clockwork.

Mai was all about managing time, now.

She finished by slicing her divan in half, because why not? Zuko made a surprised sound at that, but she turned and smirked at him to let him know that she hadn't all of the sudden been consumed in a blood-red cloud of all-consuming rage. "Pretty good for one lesson, huh?"

Zuko managed to find a smile for her somewhere in his junk pile. "If I didn't know better, I'd wonder if you'd been playing with my swords behind my back."

No, he was the one who was cheating on her with a desire to save the world. "Let that thought keep you warm at night when you're camping in the wilderness with Snow Barbarians."

He lost his cheer. "I'm still sorry I need to leave you."

She placed the swords together, slid them back in their single sheath, and tossed it back to Zuko. "Sorry is for actions you regret, not the things you keep doing to people."

He was silent as he took his leave, probably because he knew she was right, even if he didn't know how many times he had left her already.


The Avatar sank to his knees in the throne room, bowing before an empty dais. "No. No, no, NO!! Fire Lord Ozai, where are you?!"

That's when Mai stepped out from the hidden observation point on the side of the dais. Tracing the echoes to this room, to the Avatar himself, hadn’t been hard, and she needed a new hobby. "Will I do?"

The Avatar snapped to his feet and hefted his staff in front of him. "Where's the Fire Lord?"

"Oh, hanging around somewhere. Who cares?" Mai trotted down the stairs from the throne, enjoying the swishing of her hair-tails. For the first time in a long time, she was wearing her hair in its regular style, the ox-horn buns with the tails that framed her face and a fringe above her eyes.

He watched her with wary eyes. Smart of him. "I care."

"Don't I know it!" Mai hopped down from the last step. "That's why you're so important, isn't it? Because you care enough to be the one who saves the world, the one who assassinates the Fire Lord and brings the evil Fire Nation crashing down."

The Avatar blinked. "I don't want to assassinate anyone or bring anything down! I'm just trying to stop the Fire Lord from ordering anything else that will hurt people!"

"Huh." Mai let her sleeves fall down over her hands. "Good luck with that."

Then she threw a razor disc at his face.

The Avatar was still as quick as he was at Omashu, she had to give him that. He shifted his staff up, even as he made a little squealy sound, and intercepted the disk. It sank into the wood, but flew free when he swung the staff out in front of him.

Mai only realized he was Airbending at her when a breeze tugged at her hair and clothes, and before she could even think of dodging, a wind that somehow had the solid density of a good boot slammed into her gut.

Gah.

Okay, mental note: Airbending was invisible in a room that was dusted daily.

By the time she pushed herself back to her feet, the Avatar was gone.

Yeah, he better- guh- run.

Mai decided to stay on the floor and wait for her stomach to stop hurting.


The Avatar shifted his staff up, even as he made a little squealy sound, and intercepted the disk. It sank into the wood of the staff, but flew free when he swung the staff in an arc.

The dirt and dust Mai had collected from the halls of the underground bunker, where Azula and the Fire Lord were even now waiting for a shot at this kid, responded to the shifting air and made visible the arc of solid wind headed for her gut. She threw herself forward into a butterfly kick that carried her over the Airbending attack, and even as she landing she was unsheathing the dual swords she had pilfered from one of the Fire Army supply dumps.

His quickness extended to his feet. He danced along with her as she loosed a chain of attacks on him, dodging each slice and stab. Those he couldn't evade he deflected with his staff, and he even had the skill and presence of mind to only touch his staff to the flat of her blades, not trying to test the wood of his weapon against the steel of hers.

For a kid, he knew his stuff.

The whole time, he moved backward, giving ground until he judged himself close enough to the door to make a break for it. As soon as he turned and ran, Mai filled the air with blades, but he somehow dodged them all, leaving her behind in the dark and the dust.

No wonder Zuko had been chasing this kid for so long. He was a slippery one.


For a kid, the Avatar knew his stuff.

But Mai knew what he was planning. Even before the thought formed in his mind to make a break for the door, she sheathed one of the dao swords and filled the air with razor discs that flew on curved paths. They formed a little storm of deadly metal, and in the eye, Mai and the Avatar battled.

He renewed his attack, meeting her blades with his staff but taking moments here and there to let go with one hand and blast her with small tunnels of air. Each one hit like a fist and slowed Mai's ability to react until she left an opening long enough for the Avatar to spin-kick a cyclone into her face.

She didn't even notice him leave.

Sleepy time, now.


The razor discs formed a little storm of deadly metal, and in the eye, Mai and the Avatar battled.

She swung her dao swords in a double-attack that required his firm grip on the staff, and he certainly wasn't expecting it when she let go and threw a punch with her right hand that struck a certain spot in his left shoulder.

He cried out, "Yeowch!" Because, apparently, him being bald wasn’t the only way in which he was a little baby.

Mai smirked.

For the next thirty seconds, his left arm moved like an employee who had been roused to come into work on a weekend- that is to say twice as slow and three times as expensive- and she took full advantage with a series of palm strikes to his face, and then a rain of slashes from a razor she had been hiding up her sleeve.

She thought she had the fight won when he threw himself backwards in a spinning jump that sent dust and dirt swirling all around. Mai raised an arm to keep it out of her eyes.

But it wasn't an attack. It was an unfocused ploy to get away. The Avatar was running for the door again, so Mai threw both of her arms out and shot a series of bolts from her wrist-launchers to persuade him that the particular direction he had chosen might not be as not-deadly as he first thought. He stopped short, turned around, and jumped into the air, snapping out the glider wings from his staff and taking to the air.

He swirled around the ceiling of the throne room, building up speed for a swoop at the exit.

Mai, meanwhile, ran for a particular spot on one of the walls. She tore down the tapestry that hung there, revealing the spears she had placed there earlier. There were enough to waste with throwing, which was exactly what she did, sending pointed shaft after pointed shaft up.

This time, the Avatar didn't have a Blue Spirit to protect him.

One of the spears finally stuck a glider wing, and the Avatar dropped like a stone. Mai was already throwing razors to box him in before he could make a serious effort to dodge, and then came in at him with her last spear.

She twirled it and swiped with it and knocked the Avatar's staff out of his hand and then shoved the shaft against his forehead and then shifted it as he stumbled back and then stabbed with it and then the Avatar screamed in pain and she pulled back and stabbed again.

He died just as she did, that first time.

For all that he was the Bridge Between Worlds and the Culmination Of Ten Thousand Lives and The Fire Nation’s Deadliest Enemy and The Avatar, he died like a normal person.

That is, to say, full of very leaky holes.

She had killed the Avatar.

So much for him being a sweet kid.

If Mai couldn't be sweet, then she could spend her days destroying everything that was working against her-

-everything that was keeping her away from Zuko for an eternity.

She had made herself a world with no Avatar in it-

-for less than twenty-four hours.

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai laid in bed and thought about what she had done.

Chapter Text

EPOCH 4

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai laid in bed and thought about what she'd done. Not that she'd needed to go over her glorious and very cheating victory over the Avatar; that was a rather self-explanatory, in that the person who survived, won, and the person who didn't, didn't. She won, and a twelve-year old boy had bled out on the floor on her nation's throne room.

No, Mai thought about the things that had happened afterward- the discovery of her 'accomplishment' by a very surprised Azula, the subsequent subdued congratulations from said princess (and silent plotting over how to get back at Mai later), the defeat and capture of every single member of the invasion force (ranging from an older man wearing only a skirt made of grass to a boy even younger than the Avatar who claimed to be some kind of Earth Kingdom nobility), a rather jaunty celebratory parade around the capital, and finally a letter of commendation (sent by messenger hawk across the street) from the Fire Lord.

Nowhere in any of that had Zuko appeared.

Even with the Avatar dead and the resistance utterly crushed and the noise of the parade and all, he still ran off to save the world.

It was a hard thing for Mai to learn that the man she was attracted to was an optimist.

And, not to put too fine a point on it, she had defined a reality built on a foundation of new skills and new indulgences and new murders and she didn't feel any better. In fact, she was more keenly aware of what she was missing; the Avatar's bald head reminded her a little bit of her baby brother.

Tom-Tom was all the way on the other side of the world. She'd never see him again.

Not that she was really that fond of the little walking troublemaker.

But she'd never get a chance to hold him again.

That seemed unfair.

Also, the Avatar's death hadn't ended the cycle of Days of the Black Sun. Not that Mai had really been expecting it, but if anything could have reversed a curse, the death of the Bridge Between Worlds was the most likely cure. Now that it was ruled out, she could safely assume that this would never end. She was facing a complete eternity of repeating days, not that an eternity could ever be complete because by definition it didn't end. What was missing would forever be missing- Zuko, Tom-Tom, those candy-dipped strawberries they made in the Earth Kingdom...

Well, one part of that wasn't accurate: Mai couldn't safely assume that the Avatar's death was the last possible solution. She hadn't yet tried killing herself.

At the far end of the bed, Ty Lee bounced high enough to smack her head on the ceiling ("Owie!"), and Mai got up with a sigh. She thought about what to do today. Learn to cook? Murder Ty Lee's sisters? Learn to swim? Finally read Book Sixteen of 'The New Lady Rei Chronicles?' Find some creative way to kill herself so that any witnesses would be utterly horrified but Mai herself would find the situation darkly humorous as the life drained from her body?

Hm. Decisions, decisions.

Perhaps she'd shop around for a good death.

For future reference, of course.

She bathroomed, dressed (tying up her hair in the ox-horn buns once again), attended Azula's briefing, broke her fast, went to the temple, escaped the temple, and managed to get herself down the harbor just in time for the beginning of the invasion.

The whale-like underwater boats beached themselves on the dock and disgorged an army in blues and greens while Mai made sure she was ready. Deadly weapons displayed prominently so that any observer could easily identify her as a threat? Check. Red and black clothes that would properly label her as an evil Fire Nation conquered deserving of death? Check. Regular hair-style so that the Avatar's friends would recognize her as a party to the fall of Ba Sing Se and numerous incidents of aggravated assault? Check.

Okay. Let's try war.

She charged towards the nearest rampaging army, which just so happened to be wearing blue uniforms and giant helmets shaped like wolf heads. They looked like dancers for some kind of festival, not soldiers. Perhaps they were both, and designed their uniforms so that they could get right to the dancing after a victory. Certainly, that would be appropriately lewd of them, given that they were uncultured Snow Barbarians and all. Most of them were carrying spears, but she spotted one who was holding a straight jian sword with a blade so dark it was almost black.

Ooh, yes, that would be an excellent weapon to be stabbed by. And if she won, she'd get to keep it (for the rest of the day).

It wasn't until she was nearly upon the warrior that she realized it was one of the Avatar's companions- the Water Tribe boy who Ty Lee had the gross dreams about. He certainly recognized her, judging from the way he was grimacing as he readied that handsome sword of his for a good stab.

Mai plotted out a fun death, right down to her final words being, "My cute friend says hello."

She stood still, awaiting her opponent.

She looked into his blue eyes-

-and decided that it would be far too humiliating to be killed by someone wearing a giant wolf puppet on his head.

Mai sidestepped the thrusting dark blade, kicked the boy's feet out from under him, and reached around that stupid oversized helmet to stab him in the throat.

Great. Now that she had killed one of the Avatar's companions, she wasn't going to be satisfied until she got a complete set.

Oh, bother. At least this one had been pathetically easy to defeat.

And there was a whole day of war ahead of her in which to scout out further opportunities for life and death.


Sneaking up on the little blind Earthbender was hard considering the whole 'little blind Earthbender' thing.

Mai dodged another rock, and heard it impact uselessly against the harbor gate that was blocking off the path up to the Caldera city. "Seriously, how do you do that? There's no way a sonar scream could be of any use with all this noise."

The Blind Earthbender frowned. "Sonar scream? What's that?" Then she raised a wall of stone to block the incoming razor discs.

"You don't have a sonar scream?" Mai used the spear she had taken from a fallen Water Tribe warrior to vault over the stone wall and came down slashing away at the Earthbender with a knife in each hand. "That's what the street theater said you do- you scream so loud, humans ears can't hear it, and then the sound waves bounce back and hit your face or something and you interpreted that to know where everything is."

The Earthbender grinned as she used her hardened conciliar hat to deflect Mai's latest stab. She grabbed Mai's arms and yanked, saying, "That's awesome! What street theater?"

"Oh, some actors on Ember Island do parody scenes of the war. I think they're workshopping a play." Mai was dragged to the ground, where she proceeded to try to wrestle the Earthbender, yanking and punching and shoving and twisting. "(Ugh.) But it's not (ow) accurate, I guess."

"Not (errrr) quite. I see with my feet. They (don't touch me there!) sense vibrations in the earth."

"Ohhhhh. That makes (leggo leggo leggo) a lot more sense."

"Yeah."

"But aren't there a (take that!) lot of vibrations now, with all the stomping and exploding?"

"Eh, I've learned how (oof) to tune it all out."

"Nice."

"Yeah." Then the Earthbender finished the fight with a twist that made Mai's back give a much louder crack than had to be healthy.

It really hurt. And Mai found, to her further discomfort, that she now couldn't move.

The Earthbender patted her on the head. "You're all right, Gloomy. My name's Toph. If you survive and manage to ever walk again, look me up after my side wins the war."

Despite it all, Mai kind of liked Toph.

Even after the Earth Kingdom tank ran her paralyzed body over.


Mai's liking Toph did not, however, stop her from perching atop the harbor gate, rappelling down using a hastily-assembled harness and some of Ty Lee's acrobatic tricks, and shanking Toph from above like some kind of avenging spirit of the night.

That would just be silly.


Mai knew exactly where it was easiest to find the Waterbender. As the eclipse began overhead, the girl could always be found helping an injured Water Tribe man down the slope into the Caldera. So Mai waited, and then stepped into the Waterbender's path brandishing a pair of knives. "All alone and weighed down by a-"

She didn't get the finish the intimidating introduction before the Waterbender's arms snapped in to draw water from the pouches on her back and snapped out to throw an icicle. It was all done without even jostling the injured man.

Mai, not expecting resistance so quickly, took the icicle straight in the face.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai blinked.

Okay, that was kind of embarrassing.


This time, Mai just went ahead with a proper ambush. She set up a rock to hide behind, and leaped out as soon as the Waterbender walked past.

The injured Water Tribe man reacted first, heaving himself off the Waterbender's shoulders to tackle Mai in mid-air, her knives scraping uselessly against his armor. She wound up face down in the soil of her homeland.

Then something cold and sharp came down on the back of Mai's head.

Then it came down through her head.

It was chilly.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Okay, it should not be this hard.


Mai stepped out slowly, with her empty hands in the air, far ahead of the Waterbender's path. "Hey, truce! You've impressed me in our past encounters, and I want a chance to talk."

The Waterbender glared for a moment, and then eased the Water Tribe man to the ground and stepped forward unencumbered.

Okay. At least she hadn't attacked.

Mai and the Waterbender walked towards each other as equal paces. She idly considered which knife hidden up her sleeves she would use to betray this barbarian's trust. Really, it was the Waterbender's own fault for expecting an enemy to want to parlay in the middle of an invasion. Who did that? Fortunately, it wasn't hard to keep a blank face as she and Waterbender drew close.

Come on-

The betrayal in her gorgeous blue eyes would be delicious, and completely unlike any of Tom-Tom's features.

-from what Zuko had described-

Mai shifted so that a stiletto dropped into her palm, and then whipped it at the Waterbender's head.

-this girl-

But the Waterbender had already been moving, throwing a splash of water that passed over Mai's knife in midair, froze into another rather sharp icicle, and kept moving forward with the knife motionless inside. The icicle was aimed at Mai's head, turnabout apparently being fair play.

-was the gullible one.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Wow.

Zuko, as kept evidencing, was an idiot.


This time, when Mai stepped into view far ahead on the path, the Waterbender's eyes went wide and she seemed taken aback. And she didn't immediately try to resort to a deadly attack!

Perhaps she was surprised to see Mai wearing (as best as she could and with a few extra knots) one of Ty Lee's swimsuits.

But the Waterbender would also be able to see, in the regions where Mai wasn't wearing one of Ty Lee's swimsuits, so to speak, that Mai was completely unarmed. Ty Lee's choice of beachwear didn't leave any room for knives, razor discs, bolt-launchers, shanks, snacks, needles, an angry fire ferret, or even much of a pin.

"Truce!" Mai kept her hands up, something that took a concerted effort of will, giving what she was wearing (or wasn't). "I just want to talk."

The Waterbender exchanged glances with her injured older compatriot, and then eased him to the ground. She stalked forward, and Mai worried for a moment that Ty Lee's white swimsuit, and the bits of pale skin where there was no swimsuit, were both about to be ruined with bloodstains.

The Waterbender stopped when she was about two arm-lengths away. "Talk about what?"

Mai let out the breath she hadn't realized she was holding. "You, really. You've changed since we first met. Or, well, tried to kill each other back in Omashu. I really don't want to fight you now. I just want to know what happened. Was it Ba Sing Se?"

The Waterbender's eyes narrowed. "Well, your people sort of brought down the whole Earth Kingdom and practically killed my best friend! That's the kind of thing that sticks with someone."

Mai nodded. "I get that. And for what it's worth, I'd apologize for that, but I was barely involved."

"Hm." The Waterbender relaxed just a bit. "Sokka said you let him and the Earth King go free. Thanks for that, I guess. I'm Katara."

Katara.

Like the big knife? Mai suppressed a shudder. "No problem. If you don't mind my asking, how did the Avatar survive? Everyone seemed so sure he was gone, but now even my clueless boyfriend wasn't surprised to find him leading this thing."

Katara tensed again. "I brought him back to life."

There was no further explanation forthcoming.

Either this girl was the master of deadpan delivery, or Mai was right to be terrified of her. "Got it. Um, good job?"

Katara started stalking in a circle around Mai. "So who's your boyfriend?"

Mai arched an eyebrow. "You care?"

"I'm trying to figure you out. You acted like a bully at first, but you surrendered when you had a chance in Ba Sing Se, and now you're being nice for some reason. I'm kind of wondering if this is a trap. My brother would probably just want me to take you down now, but you're obviously serious about being unarmed. (Nice underwear, by the way.) I can't just ignore this."

"Fair point." Mai really wished she had a knife with her. Why hadn't she buried one on this spot earlier in the day? That would be something to remember for next time. "My boyfriend is Prince Zuko. You know, the Fire Lord's son? Chased you around? Scar on his face?"

Katara came to a stop in front of Mai again, and tilted her head to one side, and then the other. "I can see it. You seem like someone who Zuko would be involved with."

"Thanks?"

Katara's expression tightened. "It wasn't a compliment. You know why? Because Zuko is a faithless monster who will do anything to get what he wants!"

The fire in Katara's voice could have scorched Azula.

Mai took a reflexive step back. "Hey, truce! And watch who you're calling a-"

"A monster?!" Katara took two steps forward. "I trusted Zuko under Ba Sing Se. He took my sympathy and turned around to try to kill one of the most important people in my life! Did you know that about him?"

Mai blinked. That wasn't what Zuko had described. "I knew he fought, but he couldn't- you don't understand, Zuko can't lie! He's terrible at it-"

"Oh, he didn't lie," Katara laughed. It was a very sharp kind of laughter. "I'm sure he meant every word he said about his mother and not having a choice about chasing Aang! But that was the problem! He showed me that it's not just about watching out for liars. People can mean to be good one moment, and then turn around and so something awful while thinking that they're still good! Zuko will just go along with whoever is around him. Seeing that made me smart."

Oh.

That's why Katara- the Waterbender- was so deadly now.

She had been hurt.

Just like Mai. (Perhaps she should have been upset that Zuko had been out betraying other girls, but they weren't dating at the time, and it seemed a very strange thing to be possessive about.) She found herself nodding. "You were changed by everything. Your reality defined you. And you probably didn't even realize it."

Katara tilted her head again. "What are you talking about?"

Mai shook her head. "It's not important. I just- I guess I just needed to take a look in the mirror for a moment." She turned to go-

"I'm not letting you get away to warn Zuko or Azula or whoever about us."

Mai shrugged, and sat down on the ground. "Fine. I don't have anywhere to be. But you should hurry. Azula is expecting you, and once your friends run out of time on the eclipse, she has a fleet of airships ready to fly out and win this battle for her."

Katara took a step back. "But-"

"But we didn't know you were coming?" Mai leaned back and stretched out on the rocky ground. She had learned that she was now immune to sunburn, as the day reset before the pain could really set in, and not having to hide from the sky was still a novelty. "Then how did I know to wait for you here?"

Katara ran back to pick up her injured compatriot, and then they hobbled as fast as they could down into the city.

Interestingly, the invaders almost got away, just from that one little action.

True, most of them died when they failed to get their strange underwater-ships back into the bay before the bombs fell, but it was a very close thing. And it gave her an idea.

Mai's skin was bright red when she went to bed that night.


There was no need to meet Katara again. It was far easier to sneak a bomb out of the secret airship fleet and charm a technician into teaching her how to set a timer.

Then it was a simple matter of leaving the explosive device where Katara would find it a moment too late.

Boom.


Mai was waiting, once again, when Zuko showed up to hand-deliver her heartbreak.

There was always that pause when he first saw her, and then he always came over to join her. He apparently felt he could spare her a moment, at least, before giving everything else to the world at large.

The world was a very needy girlfriend.

"I understand why you're leaving me," Mai began.

He stiffened, and then hurried over to sit beside her and put his arms around her. "How did you-"

"You almost changed," she interrupted him. She knew everything he could say by now, and the truth was that, as a communicator, he was marginally better than a komodo rhino with a gag in its mouth. It had taken Katara to make Mai see what was really going on. "I said it back when we first had this conversation, that part of what I liked about you was that you didn't want people to get hurt if you could help it. You could feel what I didn't dare. I don't care about saving the world now, and honestly, I've never been all that big on conquering it, either. It's all the same to me."

Zuko shook his head. "But it's not the same! So many people are suffering-"

"I know, Zuko. Well, I know that's what you think. When you see bad things, you want to fix them. You'd jump into a fountain to save me from a flaming melon on my head."

"It was an apple."

Mai blinked. "Really? That's what you're focusing on?"

"Sorry! Go- go on."

"Thanks." She snorted. "Save me from an apple. Whatever. And you wanted to save whoever those soldiers were from whatever it was your father wanted to do with them. And despite everything, you couldn't change that about yourself. That's what had you so upset after that meeting the other day. Yesterday. Whenever. You tried to change and failed. That's why you're leaving. I get it now."

Zuko's arms tightened around her. "I can't believe this. I thought- I thought you'd never understand! You- you can come with me, and we can-"

"No."

He leaned back, letting go of her and trying to blink his way through his confusion. "What?"

"Zuko, you didn't let me finish. You might not have changed, but I have. I don't admire that heroic streak anymore. I've seen it nearly destroy you. I've seen it destroy the people you're going to try to join. It's probably going to really you destroy now. Whatever it was about me that liked a self-sacrificing hero, it's gone."

"But-"

Mai nodded. As she put it into words, it made more and more sense. Words were handy, that way. They were certainly better than emotions. Emotions were about as trustworthy as masked killers striking from the shadows- not very, even if you were the one paying their bills. "My reality changed me. And now, I'm trapped in it. You didn't break up with me because you don't love me; you did it because love isn't going to stop us from walking two completely different paths, to two wildly different places." She squeezed her eyes shut and groaned. "The paths aren't even in the same country, and one is paved and clean and the other is just loose dirt with animal droppings mixed in and-"

"Mai."

She stopped her rambling and turned to look at him. "Yes?"

"Are you- are you breaking up with me?"

She thought about it. "I suppose I am. Sorry for stealing your thunder."

Zuko stared at her. He looked into her eyes, and it seemed to Mai like they were breathing with the same timing.

Then he sniffed, stood up, and stumbled out of the room.

Well, he did have a date, after all.

A date with an Avatar.

Mai let her hands go limp, and the knife she was going to use to kill Zuko tumbled to the ground. She wouldn't be getting a complete set of murders of the Avatar's companions, after all.

She'd have to find another hobby.

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

Mai woke and immediately realized what she wanted to do. She was going to fly into the sun, or die trying, whichever happened first.

Chapter Text

EPOCH 5

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai woke and immediately realized what she wanted to do. She was going to fly into the sun, or die trying, whichever happened first.

Really, she just wanted to do something ambitious, because ambition meant work, work meant something that required thought, and as the ancient Fire Sages had posited, 'I think, therefore I'm probably still here, and if not, I would prefer it if you didn't disabuse me of that notion.'

She went through the morning routine as she considered how to go about accomplishing her goal. She had a schedule for the Avatar's sky bison, but knowing where the thing would be throughout the day and actually finding a way to get on top of it without immediately getting thrown off at the speed of a Katara Icicle Special were two very different matters.

Also, the sky bison smelled funny. That would make for a rather inglorious ascent.

The Avatar's glider-staff probably only worked with Airbending, and taking it from him would involve fighting him again. Been there, done that, gotten the blood-stains in her clothes already. Asking the Avatar for a ride might work, since he had to be nicer than Katara, but boys that age were usually finicky about touching teenage girls who weren't Ty Lee.

Then, as part of the long morning briefing (which always happened when Mai failed to pay visible attention), Azula said, "Reinforcements will be deployed to sweep in and destroy the last of our enemies, once and for all!"

Ah, yes, the airships.

Hm.

Airships. Come to think of it, they flew, didn't they? Mai still wasn't used to that being a thing that people could use machines to do, now. Also, the invaders had boats that went underwater. What was the world coming to? What next, something that could sail into volcanos, just to complete the elemental theme?

Or an airship that could actually touch the sun?

She continued on through the daily pattern, following Ty Lee to the temple. As ever, their arrival was quickly noticed by the usual burly army guy, who proceeded to inflict his presence on them with extreme prejudice. "My Ladies, Colonel Lee reporting! I've successfully evacuated the Fire Sages, and my soldiers are stationed throughout the first floor of the main temple building. I have an elite force ready to spill out into the courtyard at a moment's notice, and my subordinates have been given a plan to rapidly deploy continuing waves as required. Naturally, we've saved some space for you two right with that first wave."

"Excellent job, Colonel," Mai snarked. "You've already exceeded by expectations in every way. I have no doubts that with your oversight, this mission will be a complete success, and then the Fire Lord will reward us with gold and cream puffs."

"Thank you, my lady! I do enjoy a good cream puff." Colonel Lee practically glowed at the missed sarcasm. He never picked up on insincere praise, Mai had found. It was almost sad, in a way, but was it really? The man was happy. Ty Lee, who had a similar personality defect, was usually happy. It was Mai who had tripped face-first into a curse that had her reliving the worst day of her life, and might have even driven her a bit mad by now (but not all the way, because she hadn't killed Zuko 'yesterday.' She could take heart in that, albeit a dark, tarnished heart of steel).

The problem with reliving the same day for an eternity was that it was impossible to miss all the patterns.

What was it about Lee and Ty Lee that made happiness so easy? Aside from stupidity and having L-E-E in their names, of course. Hm, maybe that was the key? Mai could take some cycles to track down every single person named Lee in the Capital and poll their general contentment with life. Maybe she could even compose a report and surprise Azula with it during the normal briefing. "Yes, yes," she could say, "the Day of Black Sun is good and all, but have you realized that changing your name might fix your urge to terrorize people? No? Well, I have some graphs here..."

Mai shook the thought away. She had other pointless goals, for now. "Colonel, I'm curious about something. Are you familiar with the new airships that will be deployed today?"

"A bit, my lady. It was decided that the Army, not the Navy, would be the branch administering the new Glorious Sky Domination Group, and so there were seminars on the basic capabilities of the vehicles and the principles behind their function."

"Then what is the minimal crew for operating one of the small war balloons?"

"At minimum, my lady, a single Firebender should be able to make do for a while, although he'd run into trouble if he had to steer and tend the burner at the same time. Officially, a crew of two Firebenders is recommended, but the pilot being a Firebender is a redundant failsafe, unless they're looking for a 'hot hand' on the stick. Ha, ha, just my little joke there."

"Yes. It was hilarious." Mai watched Lee beam, even though she wasn't smiling and the tone of her voice had more in common with the surface of a glacier than actual human amusement. It was like the man subsisted on complimentary words, whatever tone they had been basted with.

As they continued on into the temple, Ty Lee bumped Mai's shoulder. "So you were distracted during Azula's briefing, and now you're letting random people think you're being nice to them. Someone must have gotten a good night's sleep. The first in your life, now that I think about it. But you did get in pretty late last night. Were you with Zuko?"

Mai snorted. That was the first time the question had come up in this context. "I can honestly say that what happened yesterday between me and Zuko was disappointing on multiple levels. I suppose I'm just tired of the effort it takes to be difficult. For now."

"Huh. I guess it had to happen eventually."

"Ha, ha."

Ty Lee settled in the foyer to have her army-issued breakfast, while Mai took her box of rice'n'sausage and went exploring. Or, rather, scavenging. The sages, as befit people who had nominally devoted their lives to the spirituality of fire (along with the communication of that spirituality to the people of the homeland and the political power and riches that came from distributing that spirituality to order like a boxed lunch) kept plenty of materials on hand related to fire. Specifically, there were large torches, sticky liquids that would burn at a selection of temperatures and durations, and powders that could be thrown into a good blaze to make it flare up impressively. All the stuff required to bring awe to the masses and maybe also liven up a good drinking session.

All things that would maybe keep a war balloon aloft for a day, maybe.

Mai pilfered as many of the items as she could stuff into army sacking and snuck out of the temple.

The airship fleet was being prepared outside of Capital City, outside the whole volcano, on the opposite side from the harbor. Really, it was lucky that the Avatar hadn't snuck up from the rear while his invaders made their push, or Azula's whole surprise would have been caught with its metaphorical pants around each and every airship's metaphorical knees. But then, that was probably why Azula had the airships all fully armed and staffed before they were brought over. A hundred Firebenders and a fleet worth of bomb-throwing cannons was an excellent deterrent to security leaks, once it stopped being the probable source of the security leaks.

By the time Mai had found her way to the where the fleet was splayed out on the grass, the eclipse was about to happen. Anchoring lines were being untied and the gunners were doing their pre-immolating stretches. Mai just walked into the commotion like she belonged there, because if there was one thing a soldier working near the Capital was trained to tolerate, it was a noble making no attempt to hide what they were doing. Being sneaky, with a hooded cloak and perhaps a mask, was much more likely to bring down trouble on the cloaked and perhaps-masked head.

She found herself a small war balloon on the periphery, one of the escort units. The pilot was already at the steering stick while the other Firebender was untying the anchoring line. She adjusted her walk, as she approached them, to that faux-shy little trot, and schooled her expression into something like that of a flustered schoolgirl. "Yoo-hoo! Sirs! I'm a special agent of Princess Azula, and I have a question for you."

The Firebenders looked over at her, looked her over, and decided not to overlook her. The pilot said, "Yes, my lady?"

Mai closed the distance and shifted her hips. "Is it okay to disable you, or would a quick death be more merciful?"

The pilot's well-considered answer was, "What?"

So Mai decided to answer for both men.

A minute later, she had a good blaze going in the war balloon's burner, the anchoring line had been cut quite short, and the Firebenders were pinned to the ground and left to watch her commit the world's first documented case of grand-theft-hot-air-balloon. (Mental note: Take a few cycles of days and commit every grand-theft crime available in the capital, including grand-theft-komodo-rhino and grand-theft-one-of-those-sweet-tanks.)

Experimentation proved that the amount of heat controlled the ascent, the fin controlled the direction, and the propeller at the back made the Go happen. Mai pointed her craft away from the rest of the fleet, and let herself be carried away.

As per her original goal, she pointed herself towards the sun. This took her on a different course than the rest of the fleet- which, it seemed, had begun engaging the Avatar on his wing-stick and Katara on the stupid bison. They people in those airship were learning what Mai had, that ticked off teenage Waterbenders did not fool around and oh look another hot air balloon was plummeting to its crew's death.

Besides the battle and the death, the course of Mai's airship gave her an angled view of the Caldera.

It looked like the toy model every child in the city had, with which they recreated (to varying degrees of success, depending on whether one owned the limited edition set of Crimson Guard toy soldiers) the Fire Lord's crowning. And there was the invading army, scurrying back towards the harbor like a particularly disorderly swarm of ants. There were the clean-up crews, getting started on clearing all the giant boulders from the lawns.

There was a particular boulder next to the park, under which would be a runner with a metal leg.

Mai briefly wondered what it would be like to just flip herself over the rail and fall down to the ground at fatal speed. Would it hurt, or would death come too quickly to feel anything?

She had already died in a number of, retrospectively, interesting ways. (Katara had to be responsible for roughly half of them.) Perhaps she should start a new hobby, of mapping out the process of dying? Try doing it slowly, try doing it quickly, try seeing if she could get people to applaud? She would just wake up again to find Ty Lee rhyming. Maybe she could even see if she could arrange her own death to hurt other people, to see if someone like, say, Ty Lee would cry over her or just shrug and move on.

Yes, Mai could learn some interesting things, killing herself over and over.

She leaned further over the railing.

She could learn, just like she learned yesterday that she couldn't bring herself to kill Zuko.

She leaned back from the railing.

Giving up on Zuko had hurt. That had been a self-inflicted death, in a way. Did she really want to keep doing that? Did she really want to learn anything such lessons had to offer? Did she really doubt who cared for her, and who didn't?

No, perhaps not, after all.

Really, just because she had an eternity didn't mean she had no limits. Rather, it might be a point of pride to maintain some boundaries, despite the infinite possibilities. She'd be able to think to herself that, yes, she'd had infinite opportunities to do something especially nasty, but she had resisted that temptation an infinite number of times. That was quite a winning streak.

Really, the concept counted even for people who weren't trapped in the same day. Every moment was the choice to do something hurtful or something benign, or perhaps even something good. And if every moment was infinitely small, then everyone who had refused to do the hurtful thing, whether to one's self or others, had made that choice an infinite number of times.

Great, now Mai was willfully doing philosophy without the encouragement of someone like Ty Lee. Well, that was one reprehensible boundary crossed already.

She watched the Avatar and his friends fly away on their bison, thankfully in another direction, and watched another war balloon give slow chase.

Hm, that was strange. She had noticed it before, but from up here, it looked like that balloon only had a single person inside.

She shielded her eyes and stared.

Ah.

It was Zuko.

So, yes, there was a single person inside, but only until the Avatar accepted his hand in marriage or whatever.

Bah.

Mai adjusted her course and kept flying towards the sun.

She flew out over the ocean, leaving the capital behind. It was the first time since this entire cursed cycling had begun that she had left the city and its surrounding area. Her breathing became a little easier, which was odd, because she had not become aware of an increase in difficulty at any point. Was breathing like those carnival games, where the operator flipped a switch to make the game harder if you looked like you might actually win?

She flew on, watching the ocean and the dolphin-bunnies that played in the waves. She watched the Isle of the Black Cliffs approach on the horizon. She watched the shimmer of the sunlight on the water. She watched the clouds float lazily by.

Sacred ash! It turned out that when you had no fear of falling to your death, flying was actually kind of boring.

Still, it was a new kind of boring. After living through the Day of Black Sun as many times as Mai had, novelty even in boredom was more than welcome.

Locking the steering stick into place, and content that the fire had a good blaze going thanks to those consistently-burning jellies from the temple, Mai sat down against the ship's side and let herself relax.

A few minutes later, she was dozing.

An undetermined amount of time later, she was falling from the sky and on fire.

WHAT?!

Mai's eyes snapped open, and she found that her 'good blaze' had become good enough to reach up and get the balloon itself in on the whole 'consistently burning' fun. Ironically, the hot air was escaping through the holes left by the hot fire, and the whole ship was plummeting.

Well, this would be an interesting way to die. And she hadn't even done it on purpose!

But she always had that choice, to live or to die, even if she wasn't the one arranging the choice.

And, really, how many other times would she go to the effort of arranging to survive being aboard a crashing war balloon?

She grinned. Flying wasn't boring anymore.

Okay, focus. Hitting the ocean wouldn't do much good because, as Katara had ably demonstrated several times before she switched to ice, water could be quite hard even in its liquid state. The Isle of the Black Cliffs was right there, and a glance revealed that someone must have recently been here shearing the local koala-sheep, because a big pile of fluffy white (and very smelly, no doubt) fuzz was piled at a spot up at the top of the cliffs.

Mai crawled back to the controls and shoved the lever that would make the propeller spin at its maximum speed. Then she let go right before the lever caught on fire.

There was nothing else to do but wait at the front of the craft, try not to burn to death, and wait for the right opportunity-

-the war balloon cleared the bay-

-it passed over the tops of the cliffs-

-it was falling rather fast now-

-Mai's eye for angles revealed that she would crash far short of the piled up fluff-

-do some math; angles and acceleration due to gravity and consistent horizontal motion slowed by wind resistance-

-Mai jumped off the front of the airship.

It continued to fall.

She went up very briefly, and then fell again, as physical objects are wont to do.

And then she crashed into the fluff, but it wasn't as fluffy as she had hoped, and so there was an unexpectedly hard stop at the end, the sound of a snap, and then her ankles decided that they were going to knock off early for the day and they'd see her tomorrow.

Mai groaned.

Broken bones were nothing new in this adventure, but they were never fun.

Lying in a pile of koala-sheep fluff (and yes, it smelled awful), Mai looked up at the sky.

A familiar face dipped into view, squinting at her.

"I know you," General Iroh said.

Mai nodded. "I was dating your nephew and gooning for your niece."

Iroh continued to squint. "You're not the cheerful one who liked to do flips."

"No. I'm the other one."

General Iroh frowned. "Are you okay? I saw the crash and came to help."

Mai sighed. "My ankles are broken, but I'm fine here. You can get on with whatever you were doing." And then, through the pain and the shock, she realized something. "Wait, what are you doing here? Aren't you supposed to be locked- oh, that's right, you escape. Wow, you made good time getting out here. Did you steal a war balloon, too?"

General Iroh didn't answer right away. "What are you doing out here? Were you trying to pursue me?"

Mai closed her eyes. "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

Her heard the distinct sound of wiry gray chin-hairs being stroked, a sound all too common in the Capital. "That sounds like an interesting challenge."

"Okay. Well, I've somehow been cursed so that I keep reliving the Day of Black Sun over and over. I tried to keep Zuko from running away to join the Avatar's crusade, and at best I failed and at worst I got Zuko killed. So I tried to just focus on myself and wound up becoming a super-warrior, and after killing the Avatar I went on to kill all his friends. I decided that Zuko counted as one of those friends, but I couldn't make myself hurt him purposefully. So, to avoid the temptation to just lie down and stop, I stole a war balloon to see how far I could get chasing the sun. The answer is exactly this far, because here I am with broken ankles. You can go ahead and leave me. I can't die. I'll just wake up back in the Capital at dawn."

Mai waited for the inevitable, skeptical questions. Or else the sound of a short man backing away from a crazy girl.

Except she could still hear General Iroh breathing, and there were no footsteps.

He wasn't leaving.

She opened her eyes again.

Iroh was standing above her, and she had never seen someone look at her with that kind of expression. No, wait, she actually had. It took her a moment to place, but that was the same look Ty Lee displayed whenever she and Mai had serious discussions about their families.

It was sympathy.

General Iroh said, "And do you think you're the first person to be trapped in the worst day of your life?"

What.

What?

What?!

It was some time before General Iroh provided any answers. He had to see to his nearby compatriots ("Just some old Pai Sho friends," was all he would say), help them settle their eelhounds ("Almost fast as a war balloon and twice as friendly," he laughed), and then set up a campfire over which he made some tea. ("Because everything is better with tea!")

The sun was well into its setting when Iroh finally handed her a cup of steaming jasmine and sat down with his own tea, right alongside her koala-sheep fuzz bed. "The day I- lost my son, I cursed every force that had allowed his death. Unfortunately, a few of them were listening, and made use of a rare punishment to teach me a lesson."

Mai held her tea. She knew about tea, or at least she thought she did, but she was having a problem remembering what she was supposed to do with it right now. It smelled good; maybe she was meant to dab it on her underarms? Well, she could ask about it after she cleared up another point: "You got out! You- it's possible to get out! How? How did you do it?"

Iroh sighed and sipped at his tea. Oh, so that's what it was for. "I wish I knew. You might have been joking when you said you went a little mad, but that was no joke for me, and it wasn't just a little."

Oh. That was simpler than she thought. "So I'll just go all the way mad. That can't take long."

"Perhaps not, my dear. But do you think I have no regrets about my escape?"

Mai didn't get it. "Why would you have regrets?

"I had an endless number of chances to save my son, and because I lost control of myself, I escaped the loop on one of the sequences where he- where I failed."

Oh. Mai got it. "But you still-" She was about to say that Iroh still escaped, and perhaps the loss of his son was worth it, but she made the mistake of looking him in the eyes, and the haunted expression immediately sucked the air out of her lungs. "N- never mind."

Iroh nodded slowly, and then sipped at his tea again. "In the end, the spirit who first cursed me, a Heron, came back and declared that I had suffered enough. It led me out of the loop, but I was hardly in a state to take control of myself again. I walked away from my army- from my life- and began a slow healing that did not complete until I went with the Heron into the Spirit World. Only when I returned did I feel fit to go home, and by then, my brother was secure in his rule as Fire Lord. At least I came back in time to see Zuko starting down the path I did when I was trapped in the loop."

Zuko- "I don't even know that the thing that cursed me is watching."

"Then going mad might not even be necessary, and I can assure you, my dear, that it would be quite unpleasant."

Mai sighed. "Call me 'my dear' again and I will gut you like a fish."

Iroh laughed. "As you wish. I meant no offense. I can see why Zuko likes you, even aside from your dangerous good looks."

Mai snorted. "If I thought you believed that, I'd bother being offended."

"You sell yourself short. So, tell me, what have you been doing with your time? If you're anything like me, you haven't chosen to tell anyone before now, but sharing our lives with others is how we relieve ourselves of the burden of the memories."

Mai put her tea down and leaned back on her smelly fluff. "Come on, you don't really care. You're in the middle of a great escape, right? Then get going."

"I do not see any reason to bother, and I really do care. My nephew must have seen worth in you, to have started a romance, and satisfying a doting old uncle's curiosity seems like an excellent way to spend an evening."

Mai blinked. "What do you mean, there's no reason to bother?"

"Well, this day is going to loop again, correct? Right now, you are the center of the universe, and until you are free, I will wake up every morning in a prison. I just won't be aware of it, as you are."

Huh. Mai had never really thought about it that way.

She had never considered anyone but herself as being involved in this whole mess.

Still, Mai was inclined to tell him to lick ash. She didn't need relief, and even if she did, forgoing it was a good way to go mad and maybe find freedom. But her broken ankles were swollen and painful, and she didn't really want to drink any tea. Talking would at least not be boring. "Well, the first time, I spent the day waiting around for a chance that never came to help fight off the invasion. When I came back to my house, I found a note on my bed..."

And so she went through everything. General Iroh listened, and drank tea, and kept the campfire going. The evening became the night, and the night became the early morning.

Mai was surprised how much she remembered. She had been convinced that she didn't care about most of it, but people didn't remember what they didn't care for. "...and so I chose not to die in a crash, and jumped down into this fluff. And then a short, smelly old man with strangely muscular arms came and bugged me and made tea at me."

Iroh chuckled. "And how fortunate for both of us that I did! Without tea, I think that tale would have dried you out long ago!"

Mai was just tired enough to laugh along with it. "I guess thanks are in order."

"You are quite welcome, my d- Mai." Iroh sobered. "And I think I owe it to you to say that you've done remarkably well at handling the situation."

Mai quirked an eyebrow. "Going on a murder spree was handling it well?" It was amazing, with this old man serving as a touchstone of sanity, how odd she now considered the notion of deciding to kill people for fun. "Handling it well was turning Zuko over to Azula?"

"I made my own share of mistakes. Some of them might chill your blood. And I did not resist the call of self-harm."

"Fair point." Mai sighed. "But I'm not out of this yet. If I ever am."

Iroh leaned forward. "Might I make a suggestion?"

"Well, it's not like I can stop you."

"Your friend Ty Lee spoke of focusing on yourself, rather than the world around you." Iroh looked up at the stars and smiled. "There is a certain wisdom to that, in some circumstances, but her view is limited by her youth. One's self can be a fragile thing, and it takes a lifetime to discover how to handle it with proper gentleness. If you seek a path to endurance, I think working to change or protect yourself can be counterproductive."

"So what's left?"

"The removal of the self, itself." Iroh chuckled. "I don't think that counts as a proper rhyme, but it has a nice ring to it, regardless. I failed to endure my own curse, but in doing so, I learned how to endure a life in which I am disrespected by most of my family. Even most of my nation! I have endured the- the absence of those who have passed beyond my reach. I have even endured Zuko's tantrums, and those are no small things!"

Mai couldn't help but smile. "Don't I know it. So what's your secret?"

Iroh leaned over and whispered, "The key to endurance is surrender."

"Surrender?" Mai groaned. "I already tried spending an eternity in bed. It got boring."

"No, not apathy. That is something else. I mean to surrender in that you let go of your Self. Let down your barriers against the world, so that the world and the self are the same thing. That is where true joy can be found. You don't get tired of yourself, do you? Then join with the world, and it will always bring you love."

Mai tried to understand that. She really did. She pushed the words into the metaphorical mechanics of her brain, and ended up with stripped gears. "I don't get it."

Iroh shifted, and peered over Mai's head. She turned, being careful of her throbbing ankles, and saw the stretch of the rest of the Isle of the Black Cliffs extending out towards the horizon.

And on that horizon was a line of orange sunlight.

Iroh said, "You will have time to think about it."

Mai closed her eyes one last time for the day. "I guess I will."

"Can I give you a hug? I think you could use one."

"Well, I guess I won't have to tolerate it for long."

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Embrace the day, huh? That sounded like as good a start to General Iroh's surrender as any.

Chapter Text

EPOCH 6

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day."

Embrace the day, huh? That sounded like as good a start to General Iroh's surrender as any. After all, fighting off Ty Lee's bizarre enthusiasm for life was one of the longest struggles of Mai's existence, and at best that war had reached a stalemate, so why not surrender and reallocate the national war budget towards infrastructure projects?

Ugh, hopefully this wouldn't be as boring as that metaphor.

But then, that was her choice, wasn't it?

When Mai felt the first bounce at the foot of her bed, she opened her eyes, sat up, got to her feet, and proceeded to make a launching motion with her legs that took advantage of the compression capabilities of the mattress to add extra force to her upward propulsion with the expectation that when the downward acceleration of gravity returned her to her starting position, the mattress's compression factor would be able to translate most of her momentum back into another upward motion.

In other words, Mai bounced.

She did it exactly in time with Ty Lee, so that they were able to hold each other's gaze as they went up and down.

Ty Lee seemed to have forgotten how her face worked for a while, staring blankly as her loose hair went up and down around her, but eventually she broke out into a grin. "Wow, someone's perky this morning. Did you have a good time with Zuko?"

Mai considered the question for the first time in an eon as she lazily executed a backflip. "I got to spend time with Zuko, even if he was upset. Spending time with him is a never a bad thing."

Ty Lee nodded. "That's the kind of thinking that might make marriage bearable." She put a little more oomph into the next bounce. Mai did the same-

-and then they both smacked their heads into the ceiling with simultaneous clunks.

Mai managed to hiss twenty-seven different swear words before she crashed down on the mattress, while Ty Lee limited herself to an, "Owie." But as soon as the blinding pain in her skull cleared, Mai actually felt like laughing. Instead of suppressing it, she surrendered to it.

That was definitely more fun than trying to kill Katara, even with the possible concussion. Especially with the possible concussion.

Ty Lee was laughing, too.

Forty-six minutes later, Ty Lee was still giggling about it, but Mai put on her 'I am very serious about this so don't execute me for treasonous levels of laziness' face. They walked into the throne room and found Azula posing in her armor beside the tactical map on its fancy carved stand that looked like a dragon barfing up an attempt to swallow a gerbil-jay.

Mai bowed low. "Good morning, Azula. You're looking very regal today." It was the most natural thing she could think to say.

The princess eyed her, perhaps wary of flattery as a cover for treason, or suspicious that someone Mai paying someone a compliment was some kind of a signal for the end of the world. Azula might have even been considering the worst case scenario of all- that Mai was making her into the target of a joke.

Whatever Azula thought, she must have decided that even a joke posed no (immediate) physical danger. "I'm pleased that you noticed. Now, you and Ty Lee will take command of 'Operation: Springback' here in the Capital Temple. You will be my coiled spring, hiding within the temple, and attack only when rebel forces enter the grounds in significant number. The Earth King's original plan called out our temple as a possible fallback point, but if they try, they will once again find that I have cut off their every chance to survive. Are you clear on your mission?"

Mai nodded. "I am. You've done an excellent job communicating the intent and making sure that we've been reminded of the details."

Beside her, Ty Lee bounced on the balls of her feet. "That's right! Your briefings are brief and informative, and barely any briefings are brief at all. That's kind of weird but shows what a great princess you are!"

Wow, way to lay it on thick. But then, Ty Lee's specialty was thickness, especially in the skull area.

No. Offensive thoughts weren't very surrender-like, were they? Offenses were the opposite of surrender. Bad Mai. Don't think to yourself about how stupid your best friend is.

Huh.

Ty Lee really was her best friend, wasn't she? Certainly, Ty Lee was the only she hadn't even tried to kill so far. That probably qualified.

Azula, for her part, was taking all the compliments entirely at face value, judging from her sharpness of her little smile and the blaze in her eyes. (Not a literal blaze, though, which usually indicated anger and an affinity for the color blue.) "Excellent! Be sure to stop by the Royal Kitchens before you go, and get something to eat from the buffet. The rations being distributed to the soldiers are rather plain."

It was as Mai was happily raiding the basket of sweetrolls that another good idea for Surrendering occurred to her. "Hey, let's take this with us."

Ty Lee paused in the middle of trying to drink a cup of jasmine tea and a cup of oolong tea at the same time. "Wow, you're really hungry."

"No, I- uh-" Mai's voice faltered, and she found that she was actually afraid to say the next part, afraid to reveal a desire to do something nice for someone else for no gain. That was the type of thing that could get you killed around here, or at least banished with half of your face stinging due to the lack of skin covering it. But Mai didn't have to worry about that kind of thing, did she? Not anymore. "Azula said the rations were plain. I thought the soldiers at the temple would like a sweetroll to go with them."

Ty Lee gaped. Then she started clapping and jumping up and down, in the process nearly giving her clothes a jasmine-and-oolong soaking. "I love it! You're in such a good mood today! Whatever Zuko is giving you, I need to try some!"

Mai smirked. "Watch your wording. I don't share my boyfriend. Not that way."

Ty Lee laughed as they absconded with the sweetrolls.

Mai was still smirking when they arrived at the temple courtyard, but she pushed it off her face as a burly army guy trotted over on cue.

"My Ladies, Colonel Lee reporting! I've successfully evacuated the Fire Sages, and my soldiers are stationed throughout the first floor of the main temple building. I have an elite force ready to spill out into the courtyard at a moment's notice, and my subordinates have been given a plan to rapidly deploy continuing waves as required. Naturally, we've saved some space for you two right with that first wave."

Mai nodded. "Well done, Colonel. Here, have a sweetroll."

"Ooh! Thank you, my lady."

The soldiers inside the temple were equally receptive to the idea of a breakfast treat. As Mai handed out the rolls, she made a point of asking each soldier his or her name. She doubted she'd remember them all, but working on learning them would make the repetitions a bit more interesting. Besides, she was well aware that not learning names was the best defense against connecting with people, and Surrender was all about lowering defenses, right?

She hoped this wouldn't end up hurting her.

But then, Zuko had already taken care of that. She had nothing to lose.

How liberating.

The new Unofficial Official Sweetroll Redistribution Program took up a good chunk of the morning, and Mai made sure to preserve one last roll in time to go back out to the courtyard and find Colonel Lee talking with their metal-legged runner. He waved when he saw her. "Ah, my lady! The invaders have landed at the harbor and our forces have engaged!"

Mai nodded. "Everything's going to plan, then. Is this the runner who brought the news?"

"Private Fan, my lady!" The girl straightened to attention with the usual clang of metal on stone. "It is an honor to meet you."

"Thanks. Here, would you like a sweetroll? I have an extra after sharing."

Private Fan smiled as she took it, but rather than biting into it, she tucked it into a pouch on her belt. "You have my gratitude, my lady. I probably won't get a chance to eat much as the invasion pushes inward. I'll save this for later."

"Good." As long as everyone was in a pleasant mood, Mai decided to risk satisfying something she'd been curious about. "I see that you wear a prosthetic. Doesn't that make it more difficult to do your duties?"

"No, my lady." Private Fan's face was clear of any expressions of offense, distaste, anger, or even carefully sculpted blankness. "I was serving in the colonies, and my leg was crushed in an engagement with rebels. I was very fortunate that the Army gave me a replacement and transferred me to serve as a Caldera Guard. I took walks through the city here to help me get used to the prosthetic, and I've learned all the streets and shortcuts. I volunteered to be a runner today to use that knowledge to help my homeland."

Huh. Apparently, there was more to service than just physical capability. For someone who had risen to the top based on a self-taught ability to put sharp metal where enemies didn't want it, that was news. "Well, good job. Be sure to let us know when the action is about to start."

Fan bowed, ran off, and then it was back to waiting.

Mai didn't go out on any excursions this time, instead finding enough to occupy her in the temple. The soldiers, their moods warmed by the free sweetrolls, were a bit more conversational than usual, and soon they were regaling Mai and Ty Lee with stories of exciting battles and particularly clueless commanding officers. Mai had to admit that some of the latter stories were actually kind of funny, and she would have lost track of time if not for the regular reports from Private Fan.

Mai noticed, each time, that the pouch with the sweetroll was still bulging.

Then came the boring part, where they all had to wait for a battle that wouldn't happen. The only thing worse than dreading something was dreading nothing, and sitting around while the sounds of fleeing invaders echoed through the temple walls was a whole lot of nothing. Mai listened carefully this time, to see if she could pick out the voices of Water Tribe Guy With The Black Sword, Toph, Katara, or the Avatar, but there was nothing.

How odd to actually know people on the other side of the war.

Then the other runner arrived, the one who wasn't Private Fan, with the news of the invasion being over and the invaders being captured and blah, blah, blah.

"Let's go," Mai said to Ty Lee. "I want to get home."

But as they walked, Ty Lee looked at the path they were taking, and had an unusually perceptive moment. "This isn't the way to your house."

Mai kept her face blank. "I'm taking the scenic route."

"We have a scenic route?"

"Sure, it goes by the park."

"But the park has walls around it."

"And those are some fantastically sexy walls."

Ty Lee laughed, but Mai couldn't enjoy it. She spotted a dark stain on the path ahead, as well as the cracks in the street around it where a large boulder must have landed.

And over by the park wall, something small had been left lying in shadow. Mai went over and picked it up.

It was a sweetroll with one bite taken out of it.

Well, that wouldn't do.

Mai had done something nice for perhaps the first time in her life, and she was not going to let it be incomplete.


"I'll be back," Mai said to Ty Lee just after news had arrived at the temple that the invaders had broken through the harbor gate and were making their way to the Caldera. "I have to go to the bathroom. I might be a while."

Ty Lee made a face. "That's what you get for eating so many sweetrolls."

In a way, it was true.

But Mai wasn't going to the bathroom.

She snuck out of the temple, silently and sneakily made her way down to the park, and picked out a large, lush, particularly shady tree in which to hide. One of the higher branches afforded a look over the wall, and Mai crouched in the shadows of the leaves as she watched the street.

When Private Fan came running up the road, Mai launched herself over the wall, came to a rolling landing in front of Fan, and held up a hand. "Stop!"

Private Fan skidded to a halt.

Behind Mai, a large boulder thudded to a landing that some might have labeled a close call, but she just thought of it as the natural result of being very good at eyeballing trajectories.

"Okay," she said. "You can go now. Enjoy your sweetroll."

Private Fan blinked. "You- how-"

But Mai was already leaving, heading back to the temple to once again play the part of someone who didn't have supernatural knowledge of the day's proceedings.

In retrospect, if she hadn't been so intent on making a dramatic exit, she might have been able to pick up some clues about where Private Fan was going to get run over by a tank.


"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day! Hey, that rhymed."

Mai groaned. There had been no evidence that Private Fan hadn't been able to enjoy her sweetroll before having her life ended by an Earth Kingdom war machine, and so no real reason why Mai had to go to the trouble to prevent it.

But it was Mai's first inclination, probably just because she was a perfectionist when it came to things she actually attempted. After all, she knew herself, and knew that she couldn't actually care about Fan.

But resisting that inclination was the opposite of Surrender, so that was that.

She needed information.


Mai should have realized the problem with her plan. Yes, she needed a way to observe Private Fan without actually tailing the woman all day. Of course, the rim of the Caldera offered many excellent spots for watching the city. It was natural, then, to head up there after saving Fan from the boulder to watch what happened next.

But she had forgotten that Katara would be coming down into the city at the same time.

Somehow, despite the odds against such a coincidental meeting, Mai wound up running into the Waterbender right at the edge where civilization met rocky volcano slope.

"You!" Katara tensed and summoned water from the pouches on her back.

Mai dropped to the ground, lying flat and raising her hands above her head. "I surrender!"

Please, please let this work. Having to save Private Fan while wearing one of Ty Lee's swimsuits would be the final indignity.

Katara moved-

-Mai tensed and waited for the feeling of ice poking into her skull-

-and water splashed across Mai's back before freezing and pinning her to the street.

Oh, good.

Katara eased her wounded warrior companion to the ground and stomped over. "What are you doing?"

Mai sighed. "Trying to save someone I know from getting killed. I'm going to miss it, now."

Katara laughed. "Like you Fire Nation monsters care about anyone."

"I'm trying something new."

"-That's not what I was expecting you to say."

Mai rolled her eyes. "What do you want to hear from me? That I do care about stuff? That I have a best friend I'm constantly cruel to because I'm a jerk? That I still really like my boyfriend even though he doesn't want anything to do with me anymore and I broke up with him because he doesn't want people to get hurt? That I started giving away sweetrolls because I didn't want to go crazy but it turns out to be a fun way to spend my mornings?"

Katara took a step back. "Um-"

"Ugh, just finish it already. We're just wasting time."

"Um-"

Mai lowered her head and pointed to where her back hair-bun was tied. "Go ahead, give me the icicle right here. Make it nice and cold."

"Um-"

"Seriously, we're wasting time, here. Hurry it up." Mai waited for the end to come, but it didn't. Instead, the ice on her back warmed and turned to water, soaking her briefly before the water then flew out of her clothes and into the air.

Mai looked up.

Katara was streaming the water back into the skin pouches with some intricate hand motions. "You should go. We're going to take down the Fire Lord. If you stay away from the fighting, you won't get hurt."

Mai blinked. "Why?"

Katara's lip twisted in what might have been the beginnings of a smile, or could have been a pained grimace. "You seem like you're having a bad day, and you let my brother and Toph go back in Ba Sing Se. This makes us even."

Katara went back to the injured Water Tribe man and helped him back into a standing position, leaning on her shoulders. They started making their way down the road-

"Wait," Mai said.

Katara turned and looked back.

Mai sighed. "It's a trap. The Fire Lord is hiding in an underground bunker maze that will keep your friends running around until the eclipse is over." She remembered what happened the last time she warned Katara of this, and continued, "Even if you start trying to pull your army out now, you won't get away before Azula's airships launch and drop bombs on your weird underwater boats. I don't know what to tell you to do, but maybe that information will help you."

Katara and her compatriot were staring.

Mai turned and ran. If she was lucky, she still might be able to see something about Fan.

In this case, she wasn't lucky, but she did learn something new.

Given enough time, an army of Earthbenders can work together to create a tunnel into the ground that will eventually let them flee far enough for most to escape into the countryside of the Capital Island.

Huh.


So it turned out that General Iroh made his escape during the Eclipse.


Mai walked into Iroh's funky-smelling cell an hour before the eclipse, tugging her sleeves back into place. Behind her, the passages of Capital Prison Tower echoed with the frustrated noises of the guard staff, all of whom apparantly shared a strong aversion to being pinned to walls with knives. What a strange coincidence.

From within a cage built into the far wall, Iroh looked up at her.

Mai said, "I'm reliving the same day over and over, just like you did at Ba Sing Se. We've spoken about it before, but right now I need some specific advice."

Iroh was silent for a long moment. "I see. And you are? You seem familiar-"

"Mai. I'm one of Azula's friends."

"T-"

"No, the other one. I'm also dating Zuko, or will be until I return home after all the action today and find the note he left me breaking it off so that he can join the Avatar."

"W-"

"This has nothing to do with Zuko. I kind of accidentally discovered that I have the chance to keep a lot of enemy invaders from being captured today when they fall into Azula's trap, and for some reason I'm considering it, but that means leaving them free to do whatever here in the Fire Nation and that's wrong, right?"

Iroh stroked his beard. "You are torn between loyalty to your people, and your basic decency as a person."

Mai couldn't stop herself anymore. She surrendered, dropping to her knees in front of the cage and leaning her forehead against the bars. "I don't get it! I don't have a basic decency! I don't even know how to borrow one! That's why I've never been able to stop Zuko from leaving. He cares about saving the world and wants to go save it, and I couldn't give an elephant-rat's fat backside about anyone but myself and the handful of people I tolerate!"

Iroh broke out into a smile that was as bright as the sun. "Zuko has come to his senses? And I missed it? Hn, truly, the world sometimes seems as if it has a sense of humor. And you love Zuko, eh?"

Mai leaned back from the bars and frowned. "Well, love is a strong word, and just because he's throwing it around-"

"Zuko has a good heart, even when he cannot hear it. That is the great tragedy of the Fire Nation: we are an honorable people, but this war had turned even the greatest of us against our natural, good instincts. I am especially sorry for your generation. You have inherited a poisoned legacy that has only become sharper and more deadly to everyone. And Zuko, especially, has been forced to grapple with this legacy in ways that have nearly destroyed him."

Mai shuddered. "Yeah, I don't mind how he looks, but to know that he was hurt like that- well, that's the part that turns my stomach. Not his scar."

Iroh smiled. "I think perhaps you resemble him more than you realized, in ways beyond the physical. Both of you have to find your way to true selves."

Mai deflated, allowing herself to fall and slump against the sticky stone wall. (Ew.) "So if I care so much, what am I supposed to do about it? I can't be a good little servant to opposite sides of a battle at the same time."

"No, you cannot. But I was intending to leave this prison today, and to help with my travel arrangements, some of my- hm, let's call them my friends, yes? I have friends nearby who might be able to help. If you could get word to me, and then I let them know of the opportunity to do some more good by helping the Avatar's invasion force-"

Mai nodded, and made herself stand up. (Her robes clung to the wall until she yanked them away, and she resolved to go home to change and burn this whole outfit. True, she could just wait for it to be restored 'tomorrow,' but burning it would be an extra reassurance.) "I think perhaps something could be arranged."

"Until tomorrow, then."

"Until tomorrow."


Something was arranged. Specifically, Mai sent a note at the earliest possible opportunity. Then it was just a matter of passing the warning on to Katara again.

Mai had to admit, she wasn't exactly thrilled how this part always consisted of getting her underwear frozen. "It's a trap," she explained from her mandatory position sprawled in the street. "The Fire Lord is hiding in an underground bunker maze that will keep your friends running around until the eclipse is over. Even if you try to pull your army out now, you won't get away before Azula's airships launch and drop bombs on your weird underwater boats. Have your Earthbenders work together to make a tunnel out of the volcano on the northern side, and some friends of General Iroh will be waiting to help everyone find shelter."

Katara, still supporting her wounded compatriot, narrowed her eyes. "That sounds pretty convenient."

Mai sighed. "Okay, you'll believe that I'm trying to save my friend, but not something this big. I supposed that's fair. Who's your wounded buddy there?"

The man nodded. "I am Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe. Katara is my daughter. The young man you apparantly helped in Ba Sing Se is my son."

Mai considered that. "How did you get hurt?"


When Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe assaulted one of the battlement towers bordering the Capital Harbor, he was not alone. Oh, he thought he was alone, climbing in through the ballista port in a sneaky bid to snip a little off the top of the long odds, but the truth was that he had backup.

Self-appointed backup, but Mai had a bad habit of appointing herself. Her mother would be scandalized.

And so Hakoda jumped in, started fighting the soldiers manning the tower, and when an unnoticed little coward dropped one of the explosive charges meant to be mounted on the ballista bolts, Mai was there to catch it.

Then she smashed an elbow into the soldiers face to drop him to the ground.

Hakoda whirled and waved a club at her in a vaguely threatening manner. "Who are you?"

Mai gave that flirty, shy smile Ty Lee had taught her, and was very careful not to drop the explosives. "Your new best friend."


It was a fairly neat job, if Mai was allowed to say so herself. Too bad, when the invading army retreated to the positions she had specified, that none of Iroh's friends were there to help. The earliest opportunity to send Iroh a note, it seemed, did not prove as early, or by extension as opportune, as desired.

And so Mai wound up watching as Azula's airship fleet scattered, the individual crafts chasing after the failed invaders who were retreating across the countryside, where they would do who-knows-what (but-I-can-imagine-a-lot-of-bad-things) to any Fire Nation citizens they encountered.

Just like the first time she tipped off Katara.


Mai sighed. "I can't get a note here early enough."

Iroh paced across his cell. The movement somehow made the place smell even worse. Apparantly, baths were not considered part of a prisoner's rights in the Fire Nation. Perhaps Mai would bring a perfumed cloth tomorrow.

"I suppose we will have to make a direct connection, then," Iroh eventually said. "I can give you the names of my friends, as well as a set of passcodes you'll have to include with your note."

"Passcodes?"

"For example, you should start each note with the phrase, 'I still cling to the old ways, and so can always find a friend.' Also, you will need to include a White Lotus Pai Sho tile-"

"Ah, cloak'n'dagger stuff." Mai snorted. "You boys and your games."

"Yes, but we have such fun with them," Iroh chuckled.


Mai wrote a set of strategic letters even before she hit the bathroom in the morning, all in accordance with Iroh's instructions. All, that is, aside from the troublesome little condition of including a certain piece from the most boring game ever devised by humanity.

"White Lotus pieces," Mai muttered, hurrying out of the bedroom.

Ty Lee called out, "What?"

But Mai was too busy to answer.


Ah, the Fire Palace had a game room! It took an inordinate number of tries to discover this, but in Mai's defense, it wasn't common to for entire rooms to be hidden by a coating of dust.

Okay, she had the letters and all the authentication.

Now how to get them distributed?


Flirting might also work, but Mai judged that this was a moment for the Azula Glare, and so imagined a puma-shark as she approached her destination and then did her best impression of the creature's glower.

The guard at the door swallowed audibly.

Ah, good old Azula Glare.

Mai stalked right up to the guard and looked down on him despite being a good three inches shorter then him. "Is this Civilian Bunker number three?"

"Uh, yes, my lady, but-"

"But you're not allowed to open it until you get word that it is safe to do so. Except I'm here on a special mission from Princess Azula, and I need a girl named Jiao to be released to my custody. So you're going to open the door, and I'm not going to tell the Princess that you got in my way. By happy coinidence, that will also mean that she won't tell the Fire Lord about your insubordination, so you might actually live to enjoy your dinner. I think that summarizes the situation nicely, don't you?"

The guard swallowed again.

Then he unlocked the door.

As soon as it was open, Mai was assaulted by the sound of a woman wailing and screeching to be let out. The woman in question was being held back by the interior guards, and in their collective hysterics, they had all apparantly missed that the door had in fact been opened.

So Mai said, "Hey."

They all quieted and stilled. Some of the other crowded civilians in the bunker looked over curiously.

Mai pointed at the woman- Jiao, her old classmate- and motioned. "We're leaving. Hurry it up."

There was a moment of situational inertia, and then the guards backed away, and Mai grabbed Jiao and started dragging her along. They were out of the bunker and traveling up the secret tunnel that would take them to the surface when Jiao finally spoke up. "I- I'm allowed to leave?"

Mai reached into her belt and pulled out a bound stack of letters with White Lotus tiles tied to them. "If you promise to deliver these, without reading them, then I will forget to return you to the bunker. You can seek shelter in the Capital Temple. There will be soldiers there. Tell them Lady Mai sent you, and they will take you in and protect you, but there won't be any warfare there. The invasion will bypass it completely."

Jiao didn't speak again until they passed through the secret door and into the sunlight. "Thank you."

"Don't worry about it. We're helping each other."


Okay, get up, bounce on the bed with Ty Lee, pilfer Pai Sho tiles, write letters, finally hit the bathroom, get dressed quickly, be briefly briefed by Azula, send Ty Lee to steal the sweetrolls, rescue Jiao and pass on the letters, meet up with Ty Lee to pass out the sweetrolls, sneak out to save Hakoda, run back to meet Katara, pass on the warning, get backed up by a grateful Hakoda...

Well, now that the enemy was all sorted out, it was time to get back to helping her own side of the war.

As she watched the progression of the battle, she spotted a stray boulder arc over the park, towards a figure that was running through the streets-

Private Fan.

Somehow, this had all started with trying to save the runner, and that still wasn't accomplished yet.

Mai had to admit that it was all very interesting, though.

This time, the invaders went underground, and weren't seen again.

So, they were either eaten by dragon spirits, or Iroh's friends had arranged for a more subtle escape.

Good enough. Mai had more work to do.


Mai shoved Private Fan out of the way just a moment before the Earthbender-made wall exploded and a segmented Earth tank plowed through. Fan stumbled backwards just far enough to avoid injury, while Mai didn't quite make it far enough and even a quick roll left her sacrificing part of her sleeve to the tank's wheels.

Ha!

Finally did it!

Then they were surrounded by two dozen soldiers in green and really dumb-looking hemisphere hats. "Surrender, Fire Nation dogs! Your Firebending has abandoned you!"

Mai glared at him. "Not everyone from the Fire Nation is a Firebender. I'm offended at your assumption."

Private Fan hissed, "I will not surrender when my homeland is at stake! For the Fire Lord!"

Oh, for Sozin's sake-

Two dozen against one turned out to be really terrible odds.


Two dozen against two- when one of those people was covered in knives- was a little better. Unfortunately, it didn't prove to be entirely compatible with convincing Katara not to put an icicle in Mai's head.


"...so you're the famed General who cracked the Outer Wall of the Impenetrable City," Mai finished. "I'm tired of figuring this all out on my own. Tell me what I can do."

Iroh smiled. "That is only fair, I think. And, happily, I have an answer. You're too focused on individual moments, but trying to turn aside a river is much easier at the source than at the foot of the highlands."

Mai sighed. "No metaphors, please. They're really just for entertainment purposes only."

"Ah, you and Zuko truly are well-suited. He does not understand much of what I advise, either."

She had to smile at that. "He misses you, though. I don't know if he realizes, but he does. He's been angry at himself for what he did at Ba Sing Se, and now that he's sorted his mind out- or gone crazy, depending who you ask- he wants to help the Avatar save the world, and then make you Fire Lord."

"What?!" Iroh snapped to his feet. "He said that?!"

"Not in this iteration, but yeah, he has."

Iroh turned to stare up through the top of the cage, to the open window just above the bars. "I miss him, too."

Mai considered that.


"Zuko,

"I know you're leaving. I know what you have to do.

"And I understand.

"Deal with your father, and follow the Avatar. But I think you should take the time to stop on the Isle of the Black Cliffs, at the top of the cliffs themselves, just before sunset. You will find something there that is very important to you.

"I'd advise you to stay safe, but I know you won't. I trust you'll survive anyway.

"See you later. -Mai"

She put the note on the pillow at the foot of her bed, right where Zuko would find it.


"General Iroh,

"I am Mai, one of Azula's friends. No, the other one. I'm reliving the same day over and over, just like you did at Ba Sing Se. We have been consulting on this matter.

"After your escape, I need you and your weird Pai Sho 'friends' to wait on the Isle of the Black Cliffs until sunset. I think you'll find it a rewarding little break."

She folded it carefully so that none of the words would be visible, put it in an envelope, and wrote instructions on it that it was to be delivered to General Iroh unopened. Then she placed it in one of the notes that claustrophobic Jiao would be delivering to Iroh's partners in treason.


Once Mai got Iroh to explain his stupid river metaphor, it turned out to be pretty good advice. Private Fan couldn't get killed in the fighting if there wasn't any fighting.

"New orders from Princess Azula," Mai told one of the Fire Army commanders pretending to be hapless Home Guard defenders. "Don't bother with attacking the invaders when they enter into the city. Pull back to the palace like you're making a last stand, and then 'discover' that your Firebending doesn't work and surrender."

The commander, to his credit, didn't ask if Mai was crazy. Instead, he put in more polite military-speak, saying, "I'm not clear on the purpose behind this change in strategy, given our mission parameters."

Mai kept her face blank. "It has to do with psychology. Princess Azula has been reading books again." Then she winked.

The commander gave a slow nod. "Books. I see."


It didn't turn out to be much of a war. Sure, there was plenty of fighting down by the harbor, but there was little Mai could do about that if she was going to set up the rest of her day and save Hakoda.

But once that was over, it was like that brief period, all those years ago, when Azula had been obsessed with arranging dominos into complicated standing arrangements, and then tipping one so that it bumped the next in line, and so on, so that all of them fell in a beautiful cascade. (That had lasted until the Fire Lord asked the about the usefulness of childish playthings.) Mai could watch over the city, and see conflict fade away. The Fire Nation forces fell back as the moon passed in front of the sun, while Katara hurried her allies into a retreat that became a disappearing act. Iroh escaped, Zuko escaped, and presumably they'd meet out beyond the Capital.

And once she got back to the temple-

"You missed the big moment," Ty Lee said as Mai walked back into the foyer.

"Yeah, well, sweetrolls apparantly are very bad for my stomach. Did I miss my chance to repel evil foreign invaders from my beloved homeland?"

"Nah, it just went quiet, and then Private Fan came by and said everyone escaped. I bet Azula is going to be really mad."

Mai thought of that her first experience with the Day of Black Sun, when she went back to the palace in terror that Zuko had gotten himself killed. Azula had not been in a mood that could, by any stretch of the imagination, be confused with 'good.' In fact, it could even be called murderous.

"More than just mad," was what Mai finally said. "Hey, can I tell you something in confidence?"

"I've never seen you not confident, even when you insist that there's no such thing as auras-"

"I mean I want you to keep a secret."

"Oh." Ty Lee grew serious. "I can do that."

Mai kept her voice low. "Zuko left to join the Avatar." She couldn't help but picture how Azula reacted, that time when Mai gave Zuko up, and the violence that had followed. Violence Mai had started. "Azula is not going to react well. I think- I think that if you have a way out of the Capital, you should use it. Go back to the circus. You know Azula isn't going to accept the blame for that if there's any other option. And you and I might end up being her only options."

Ty Lee was silent for a long moment. "What about you?"

Mai snorted. "I don't have anything to worry about. Let's just say I have the best protection imaginable."

"Ooh, are you going with Zuko?"

"What?" Mai blinked. "What good would that do?"

"Oh, I thought- if you know what's happening, that you're helping him." Ty Lee leaned forward and put her hands on Mai's shoulders. "Is that why you've been so nice today? You finally found a way to be happy?"

"No, I meant-"

But did it matter what Mai really meant?

Was Ty Lee really wrong?


It was hard, fitting in the theft of a war balloon with everything else.

But on this one point, Mai decided not to surrender.


Mai brought the war balloon down safely- both practice and not falling asleep while flying turned out to be equal components to a successful flight- on the Isle of the Black Cliffs, a short distance from where Zuko and Iroh were hugging. It seemed to be a very nice hug, which for Zuko was a major accomplishment, but Mai hardly considered herself an expert. Perhaps she could ask Ty Lee about the criteria, one of these days.

Now that Mai was here, she wasn't sure what she wanted to say.

She was spared having to figure it out when Iroh led Zuko over to her. "And this young lady has had a very busy day, too, from what I have heard."

Mai blinked. "I did? Or, you heard?"

"Indeed, my dear. My Pai Sho friends have been very informative about all the things you have been arranging. But you'll probably want to tell Zuko about them, yourself." He winked just a bit too broadly. "Now, I have business to attend to, business that will take me to the Earth Kingdom. Zuko, I have every confidence that you will succeed in your quest, and then we can meet again as we talked about."

Zuko nodded and said, "Yes, Uncle. And- and thank you. For forgiving me."

Iroh reached out and put his hands on Zuko's shoulders. "You have earned it. I am very proud of you, Zuko. And I know we will meet again soon."

"Uncle-"

The sun was well into setting when the goodbyes were finally finished, and then Iroh went to join the other White Lotus guys at their eelhounds. They continued on with their journey as Zuko finally turned to face her. "Mai."

"Zuko." She nodded.

"I- I just can't believe everything you've done. It's- it's amazing."

Mai shrugged. "Practice makes perfect."

His gaze turned questioning, but he must have decided to let it go. "I had no idea you felt like I did. You always seemed so- you- you didn't seem to care like I did. About the world. Or honor. Or anything, really."

Mai sighed. How was she going to explain this? At least, how could she explain it without twelve hours and Iroh's help to verify all the weirder elements?

But, really, there was a simple core to the answer that she could put into words: "You cared, and I care about you. That was the start, really. I can go into all the details when we have a few days to kill."

Zuko nodded. "I need to get going if I'm going to keep up with the Avatar. I saw the sky bison fly away once the rest of the invaders were safely hidden by Uncle Iroh's friends. I need to help them. I need to get the Avatar started on learning Firebending. We don't have much time until my father tries to destroy the Earth Kingdom, and we all need to be ready."

"I'm sure you'll do it. You accomplish anything you set your mind to, even if you do go about it in pretty inefficient ways, sometimes."

He smiled. "Maybe you can help me with that. You must be pretty efficient to do all that you've done today."

Help him? "Zuko, do you- I- I'm not coming with you."

He lost his smile instantly. "You aren't? But- why?"

Mai opened her mouth to answer-

-but didn't have one to give. Why shouldn't she come? When dawn came, she'd just wake up in the Capital again. What was keeping her from spending more time with Zuko?

"You know," she said, reaching out to put her arms around him, "maybe I will go with you. For efficiency's sake, of course."

"Of course."

This time, he didn't pull away.

This time, when they kissed, it wasn't a way of saying goodbye.

They took Zuko's war balloon, and sailed towards the moon.

This, truly, had been the best Day of Black Sun yet.

TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW

"Come on, Mai. It's time to embrace the day."

And so it started again, with a chipper cutesy voice and a call to action.

Chapter Text

Karma

"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-

This was-

-different.

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."

"Yes, ma'am."

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!"

Oh.

Right.

That.

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."

"Oh, good."

"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