It takes Maui until the night before Moana’s wedding to tell her how he feels.
In his defense, it has less to do with procrastination on his part and more with an acute awareness of Moana’s mortality. He’s so used to thinking of this hurricane of a girl as the strongest person he knows that he often forgets how very human she is — her entire life will be but a brief spark compared to the inexhaustible flame that is his own. He cannot tell her how he feels, cannot ask her to give everything to him, knowing he could never contribute as much. Maui is many things, he tells himself, but even he is not that selfish.
Of course, then Moana has to go and form an alliance with some jerk from a neighboring tribe discovered on their voyages, and Maui discovers that telling himself to back off in order to let her find someone capable of giving her forever is a lot easier said than done.
As she tells him of her engagement, Moana’s eyes meet his, two deep pools of brown turning his heart inside out. She smiles, and Maui’s resolve crumbles, because when it comes to Moana, he’s a lost cause. She does not love the boy from the neighboring tribe — how could she? She isn’t doing this for herself. It is for her people, their happiness at the cost of hers.
As he realizes this, a burst of love slams Maui in the chest, and for a second he is overwhelmed by how courageous, how brave, how selfless Moana is, even in a situation like this one. She is, after all, so painfully mortal. She’ll only really get one chance at love, and she’s ready to give it up for the love of her village.
Maui realizes this, and knows that this is it for him. For the rest of his life. There could never, possibly be someone he’ll love like this again, even with an endless supply of sunsets at his disposal.
And so he tells her how he feels, because yes, it turns out, he really is that selfish, and he cannot spend an eternity not knowing what it might be like to love her, on the off chance that she might feel the same way.
When she tells him so, tells him that she chooses him too, the words ink themselves onto Maui’s heart: unending and permanent, as much a part of him as she herself is.
Everything goes off smoother than expected: Maui is moved by her people’s ready acceptance and approval of their proposed union. The entire village shares in his and Moana’s own joy at their wedding, celebrating for three straight days and nights in the traditional ceremony of her people.
The adjustment to island life isn’t an easy one, but Maui loves Moana, and she loves him. It is enough.
They go on adventure after adventure together — the gods are always ready with a quest when they want one, but their voyages never keep them away from Motunui for too long. Moana knows her place, knows where she wants to be. She finds a balance between her duty and her calling, a happy middle that Maui is surprised to find still makes room for him. He never knew what home felt like until now; never considered the possibility that this feeling of belonging that had eluded him for so long, was not a place, but a person.
When he expresses this thought, Moana just laughs.
“You’re welcome,” she says before leaning in to kiss him, eyes glittering at him mischievously, and even though Maui knows she’s poking fun at him, alluding to his arrogance from the first time they ever met, he still finds way to show her how grateful he is every single day.
For a place he’d once viewed as a mundane village, life in Motunui ends up being pretty eventful. Although he can’t prove anything, he’s pretty sure that the sea monsters that show up every few years in between their quests are sent by the ocean to ensure he doesn’t grow bored, but hey — he isn’t complaining.
They have a daughter, and name her Tala after Moana’s grandmother. She is as mortal as her mother, and the gods honor him with a tattoo of her next to the one of Moana, right over his heart. Maui holds his daughter in his arms, smiling down at her through tears. He has never known what family is, but he thinks he could try.
The ocean stops sending Maui sea monsters after that. It knows that he wouldn’t leave Motunui for anything, not anymore.
The years begin to slide by, faster and faster. Tala grows from a baby into a teenager as headstrong as her mother was at her age, going so far as to form the same close relationship with the ocean. Moana teaches her daughter the duties she will someday inherit with joy and Maui watches, helps when he can. They are a family, painting a picture between them, overflowing the canvas with colors of love and adventure and new life. Before Maui knows it, the village is celebrating Chief Moana’s fortieth name day. Time never seemed to matter before then, but all of a sudden, he is real, a constant companion in their lives.
Time moves in, makes a home in Moana’s skin and hair, in the crinkles by her eyes, but even he cannot touch her smile. Ten, twenty, thirty years pass, and she still outshines every star in Maui’s sky. Change flickers on and on, moving so fast that sometimes it leaves Maui breathless. He considers lassoing the sun a few more times — anything to slow down the lines painted into Moana’s smile, the hitch added to her step. Tala marries the man of her choice from the village, a childhood friend. Maui does not fight his daughter’s marriage with the same gusto as he fought her mother’s — he sees how Tala looks at the young man she has chosen to wed, and it reminds him all too much of the way he himself looks at Moana. After that, acceptance of his daughter’s matrimony comes easily. Tala takes over the primary duties of Chief of Motunui, allowing Moana to step back into the role of a beloved advisor.
Time begins to consume everything. The years flash by, each feeling shorter than the last. Maui hold Moana’s hand as they try to paint the passing of time over with their laughter and love — it is the only thing about them that feels beyond the cruel reach of time and age.
Maui will not even consider it when Moana tells him to leave. He knows she doesn’t truly mean it — she hurts over their dwindling timeline as much as he does, even if she is better at hiding it. “I am too old for you,” Moana says. Maui laughs and pulls her closer, kisses her like he can impart his own immortality into Moana’s fragile human body, and reminds her that he is, after all, a few thousand years old. If they’re counting age differences, he’s definitely in the lead.
Moana, ever stubborn, ever beautiful, makes to protest again before Maui takes her hand in his, looking at her with barely disguised agony. “Please,” he says, “let’s not waste what we have.” His voice wavers on the last syllable and that is the final time Moana even suggests the idea of a clean break.
Maui watches Moana help their daughter lead her people, explore, navigating Tala and the village through every obstacle that comes their way with the kind of leadership that can only be learned, not taught. He makes her laugh, kisses her, loves her, and denies time a place in his heart. Every moment is worth it.
Moana does not age quickly. She is active, healthy, always ready to join him canoeing or fishing or adventuring. She stays young for years, but eventually, age catches up. It is the most basic fact of mortal life.
There comes the day where it's too hard for Moana to walk unassisted anymore. She still uses the oar he signed for her all those years ago — but now it's as a cane, propelling forward not a canoe but Moana herself.
Maui still teases her endlessly, intertwines her small hands with his large ones, combs her hair, and ignores the gray streaks which shoot through the black. He pretends to both of them that nothing is changing. He imagines they’ll go on another adventure once Moana regains some of her strength. He knows he is lying.
It breaks both of their hearts, but soon Moana can no longer dance with the ocean. The coolness of the water around her ankles now makes her weaker, each dance or outing with the waves stealing a little more of her precious life. Maui watches all this occur with increasing desperation. He remembers how to pray, and only ever asks for one thing: time, more time. The gods are silent. They know he knows their answer.
Maui carries Moana down to the shore each day to give her time to spend with the ocean — the sentient being seems to know she's running out of time as well as he does. It’s almost impressive how well, for something missing a face, the sea has managed to perfect the looks of pity it shoots Maui. It’s enough to make him want to walk away and spent some time alone in the forest beating a few coconut trees to a pulp, if not for the fact that these days, Moana’s steady breathing, however soft and ragged, seems to be the only thing keeping him tied to the earth.
The months creep by and her condition deteriorates. Neither him nor Tala say what they both know — that Moana will never get better, not this time.
In the end, there is nothing Maui can do. Sixty years is not enough, seventy years is not enough, an eternity would not be enough time with her.
Moana is buried at sea, her oar tucked in hand and Grandma Tala’s necklace tied around her neck. Tala, eyes filled with tears, kisses her mother’s forehead and whispers goodbye, leading the time honored burial ceremony. The villagers wrap her in the traditional red cloth and entrust her to Maui, their watchful eyes following them as he takes their canoe out to sea. The ocean halts their progress and rises out of the water, reaching out for the woman they have both always loved. Maui closes his eyes and holds his breath as the ocean claims her and feels nothing but numbness — this cannot be real. This cannot be happening. Any second now he will hear her laugh again, smell her hair, touch her skin. Any second now, she will come back to him.
He takes it upon himself to make sure both Tala and the village will be safe without her. Maui helps the village adjust to Moana’s absence, slays a few monsters in their area to ensure a lasting peace for generations, pulls up a couple new islands for them to explore in time. It is what Moana would have wanted. He goes around making sure everything is in order: he does not sleep, he does not eat, he does not stop moving for a second. At times he is not cannot even be sure that he is breathing. He is terrified that if he lets up this constant flow of motion, the grief will wrap its icy fingers around his neck and choke him. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do when he’s done securing her legacy: he does not think he can survive the memories and he has forever left to live with them.
The people of the village comment on his loyalty, and Maui can’t find the words to tell them that this is not responsibility, this is the culmination of decades of devotion, the product of years of adventure and laughter and trust. It is love that has led him here.
Weeks pass and soon Maui knows that he cannot stay here. He does not belong in Motunui if he is not at Moana’s side, does not even think he belongs in this world without her. Tala understands. She asks only that he try and visit often, and Maui promises his daughter he will oblige.
Maui leaves Moana’s canoe to Tala as a parting gift. It is not so much a sailing vessel anymore as much as a tangible reminder of every single one of his and Moana’s memories together: What feels like a million years ago, a girl with fire blazing in her eyes wallops Maui in the stomach with her oar and commands him to board her canoe, a demigod tears down every wall he’s ever built around his fragile heart and asks the most amazing woman he’s ever known to marry him, Moana sails the ocean (all she has her eyes on is the horizon. And all Maui can see is her).
Tala accepts the canoe without comment, but the other villagers old enough to remember him and Moana sailing the seas together urge him to keep the boat, to use it to remember her by. It takes more willpower than he knew he was capable of not to scream back that he doesn’t need some stupid piece of dead wood to remember her by, not when she exists in the salty spray of the sea, is wrapped into the very air he breathes, lies inked over his heart. Leaving the canoe behind is Maui’s way of asking Moana to forgive him for forcing her to spend the majority of her existence with someone who would never be able to give the same in return. He is letting life back into the ocean, giving the canoe a chance to spread that same kind of hope and love it inspired in him. His heart is dark, frozen, sealed shut, he cannot take the canoe and even attempt to honor Moana in his living death.
After all, where would he even go, when the only person he's ever been able to call home is now one with the sea?
Moana’s people have always believed in reincarnation, and they are right to do so. Maui does not meet her in her next life, nor the one after that. One hundred years pass, two hundred, and still he does not find her again.
Until one day, he does.
Her name is not Moana anymore. In this cycle, she is called Aulani, and she does not remember him. It does not matter. Maui would know her anywhere, in this life and any after that. Aulani gives him a crooked smile and Maui can feel the memories clawing their way out of the sealed parts of his heart. For the first time in three hundred years, he opens the floodgates, and lets them through.
He knows he will have to lose her again, knows that he after this, he might not even find her once more, knows that even if he does, what the pain of living this cycle over and over again with her will do to him.
Maui knows all this, and he does not care. It is not a question for him: regardless of the cost to himself, he chooses her anyway. Maui wipes the dust off his heart and prepares to have it broken all over again.
Moana, Aulani, and a million names and lives and faces after that: there is not a world in which he could meet her and not fall in love.