"How is she," Mai asks dully, like it isn't the question that it is.
"Good," Ty Lee returns immediately, and she's doing that ridiculous everything is wonderful smile that she always does, even as the whole fucked-up truth of the matter shines wet and unshed in the whites of her eyes. "She's doing good. Well, okay - she's okay. I mean, she says she's not, but you know Azula," and Ty Lee twists a finger in the strands of her hair and looks down at the ground through her lashes, like she's trying to charm herself into believing the lie, "always so overdramatic."
Her voice is soft and feathered at the ends. Mai frowns and it doesn't change her face at all.
"Yeah," she says, "I know Azula." That's the problem.
Ty Lee always asks her to come and Mai always makes up a reason why she can't, lies with a straight face that says I am lying, I am obviously lying and you know I am lying and Ty Lee just gives that sweet, watery smile and says things like, "Next time, then," as she twirls her way out of the room.
"Sure," Mai always tells her, and they both pretend that she means it.
It's only when she sees the bandage that she decides it's time - long past time, actually.
"What's that?" Mai asks, voice flat, and doesn't even point, just flicks her eyes in some random direction and Ty Lee takes the cue like a trained polar bear dog, turning her head so quickly that her braid whips around behind her, but doesn't even have time to ask, "What's what?" before Mai's pulled at the end of the long, white bandage wrapped around her wrist. It unravels easily, pooling on the ground at their feet before Ty Lee can catch it, revealing a deep, dark burn.
She tries to cover it with her small, white hands, but it doesn't even fit under her palm, splayed as it is across the skin of her arm. "It's not - " she starts, but Mai doesn't let her get farther.
"She did that, didn't she?"
"No," Ty Lee squeaks back, brow crumpling like she's insulted by the very idea, like there's no way - but Mai sees it in her face, sees the exhaustion bloom like a dried flower, in the way her eyes are suddenly wet and she's chewing at her lip like she doesn't know what else to do. "She didn't mean to." Her voice is so quiet that it's barely audible, breathing the words out into the air like a deep, dark secret. "It was an accident."
Mai nods, but she means to go with Ty Lee next time, because she does know Azula. And Azula never has accidents.
"You look awful," is the first thing she says.
Azula's smile is wide and burning and cynical in response. "Nice to see you, too, dear old friend." She's curled up on the floor, though, and she doesn't look Mai in the eye, and something is wrong. Even more wrong than it should be to visit a girl you've known since childhood in prison. Her mouth opens again, and Mai braces herself, almost sure she knows what's coming - the inevitable questions that Ty Lee wouldn't have been able to answer sufficiently, the How's Zuzu?'s and things of the like - Mai is ready for them, ready to give nothing away and show no weakness.
What she's not ready for is the way Azula stops, closes her mouth and appears to sink down into herself, huddled further into the far corner.
"Ty Lee," is all she says, after a moment, a whisper in a voice choked with disuse.
"I"m here." She comes out from behind Mai, cautiously at first, then springing forward like a Jack-in-the-box to kneel at Azula's side. "I'm here."
"How's your arm?" Azula doesn't look up from the floor when she speaks, and her whole countenance is edged with something that feels suspiciously like shame.
Ty Lee just leans in closer. "It's fine," she starts, but Azula huffs a disbelieving little laugh, and so she tries again. "I mean, it's healing. I had some help from Ka - from a waterbender and, and it'll be fine soon." Azula nods like she believes it, even though she probably doesn't, then lifts a hand to clutch at the sleeve of Ty Lee's shirt with dirty, unkempt fingernails, pulling her closer. Ty Lee lets herself be pulled. "It'll be fine," she repeats.
Azula doesn't actually say I'm sorry but it's so loud in the cramped little cell, that as Mai stands there watching, she almost thinks she can hear it.
There's a small, stained cot in the other corner, but Ty Lee falls asleep on the hard ground, half-balanced on her knees with her head tucked against Azula's chest. Mai stares at them for a while, unmoving but for a the flutter of her eyelashes against her cheeks every so often, and listens as the steady rhythm of soft, slow breathing takes over the room. She's not sure if Azula's awake or not, but after enough time has passed - maybe not much more than a few minutes, but it feels like a long time, more than long enough to forgive - she gathers her skirt and goes to sit on the dirty floor at Azula's other side.
"You smell," she says softly.
Azula's return smile is not half so false, nor so terrified this time, as she leans her head heavily on Mai's shoulder and strokes a hand through Ty Lee's hair.
By the next time they visit, the burn really has more or less healed completely.