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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.