They were tossed, together, because they were inseparable now, into a cell that was dark and dreary and other adjectives beginning ‘d’.
‘Dour,’ offered Mai, slumped comfortably against a concrete wall. ‘Dingy. Dreadful.’
Ty Lee looked at her. Her hands fell from the shutters, from which she was trying to cup sunlight, and her fingers began dancing around her each other, as if she was trying to weave together a thought.
‘I don’t think it’s dreadful.’
‘No,’ she said, looking at Mai. ‘I don’t.’
The side of Mai’s mouth quirked upwards.
‘I’ll think of something else.’
She listed six more d-adjectives: dull, dismal, disgusting, dank, dolorous, and ‘a dirge of a place’, which was technically not an adjective, but Mai began to hum out a rhythm with her fingers that followed the droplets that split from a leaking pipe in a dirge-dirge-dirge kind of sound, slow and bloated like an overlong funeral march, and it made Ty Lee laugh. Ty Lee laughed, and it wasn’t a precise little giggle, a chime of practised warning bells, but a little uglier than she would normally allow herself. She snorted.
Which was rather impressive, that Mai could make her laugh, because Ty Lee was dangling upside down doing hand and head stands against those dull, dismal, disgusting, dank, dolorous walls of their dirge of a cell, feeling blood rush and gush up to her head as she tried to count the exact number of times that she had lied to Azula in her lifetime, one dozen, two dozen, three. The numbers fuzzed up in her head but she was sure she was in the hundreds when she counted: you’re the most beautiful, smartest, most perfect girl in the world.
‘Your brain is going to fall out through your nose if you stay in that position too long,’ said Mai.
Ty Lee looked at her carefully.
‘Which is on you, really, but I would rather not have to clean up your leftover brain gunk off the floor and stuff it back up your nose.’
Ty Lee grinned. ‘That’s so gross, Mai.’
She looked surprised. ‘Yeah. I suppose it is.’
Ty Lee spun back down, still grinning, with a little bow. No brain gunk, then. Not so dreadful.
It meant having to think, though, which was a problem, because there had been no sentence, no trial, no judge or jury, they had simply been thrown, together, because they were inseparable now, into the darkest dungeon without a glimpse of light, and neither had any idea of how long it would stretch, whether it’d be days or weeks or forever or forever, whether this would be their grave, whether they’d cross over the rushing waters like some spirit tale and haunt this dour and dreary place as creepy ghosts. Mai had told her she always liked the idea of being a ghost, though, because you could rummage through someone’s library and flatten their cushions and rearrange someone’s shoe rack into non-alphabetical order (‘How do you alphabetise shoes?’ to which Mai had only given her this clever, knowing smile) and no one would ever know it was you, which was deeply satisfying. Ty Lee stopped being afraid of ghosts.
Ty Lee decided then and there that Mai was an unappreciated comedic genius, though Mai would say this was because all her blood was still stuck up in her head. She liked to imagine what colour the lights would be at her first show. Perhaps they’d be a brilliant, jarring orange. Or a gentle blue that made her think of being carried far away on the crest of a wave in a wooden canoe. Perhaps there would be no light at all, and Mai would perform a shadow puppet show as part of her act. Ty Lee had suggested this. Ty lee had also asked her what colour she would choose, if she had control.
‘Well, pink, of course,’ said Mai.
Her hands jumped to her mouth to cover the width of her smile. Then, she scooped Mai up into a little hug that lasted a half a second too long. Who could blame her? Mai was soft and warm and smelt lovely despite the dour dankness of their grubby little cell and Ty Lee had difficulty letting go.
Mai did not seem to mind. They had shared small touches before. So sometimes Ty Lee would nudge her shoulders, and Mai would rest her head on hers. Sometimes Ty Lee would reach for her fingertips, and Mai would let them touch, and linger. Once, Mai’s hand brushed the edge of Ty Lee’s hair, and Ty Lee had sat up and asked if she would like to braid it.
‘I… Are you sure? I don’t know the first thing about doing hair.’
‘Well, that’s part of the fun. We can laugh about it later.’
Mai’s fingers crumpled around each other as she held Ty Lee’s gaze.
‘Only if you want to, though,’ Ty Lee added.
A moment passed.
‘Okay,’ said Mai.
There was the slightest trace of a smile, and Ty Lee felt her heart beat a little too fast, really.
When she was eight years old, Azula had practically begged Ty Lee, as much as a Proper Little Princess could, to braid her hair. She brought her to an antique dresser with six dozen different brushes and mirrors that reached past the sky, and eight-year-old hands pulled tightly at her scalp as they tried to twist it into the correct place. It was a total mess, of course. Azula was biting back tears, as Ty Lee told her with practised delight: Oh it’s wonderful! It’s just perfect! Thank you, Azula, you’re simply the best, and then wore her braid lop-sided for the rest of the day without complaint.
Mai’s hands did not pull through her hair with force. Mai’s hands moved only with gentleness.
‘This is a total mess,’ she had told her, dryly.
She was leaning over a grubby puddle that had formed from the dirge-drip of the leaking pipe, in which she couldn’t see much, except a Ty Lee-shaped squiggle, and a Mai-shaped smudge behind her, hands resting faintly on her shoulders. She reached behind her head and felt through the web of tangles where once there was a waterfall of hair, and concluded from touch alone: Mai was correct.
‘Yeah, it is,’ she said, while trying to remember that she could breathe, actually, and her lungs wouldn’t be crushed if she said something that sung like the truth. ‘But I kind of love it, though?’
‘There’s no accounting for taste.’
They shared a look, and then: a smile. Mai’s hands still rested gently on her shoulders.
The question had almost been a whisper.
Mai hadn’t moved. Her eyes did not leave hers. There was something careful about it.
‘Why’d you do it?’
The scene flashed into her head again, four short-sharp taps, Azula flailing with her eyes wide in surprise that the pretty little acrobat had even thought of how to disobey. She placed her back against Mai’s. The implicit meaning: I trust you.
Ty Lee felt her voice soften up into something low and gentle.
‘Because it didn’t feel right not to.’
Half the truth.
Mai had looked at her for half a moment, before nodding gently. Her hands left her shoulders. The tension, too, should have left and yet her heart still felt like a collection of tightly strung threads that Azula would have plucked until it sounded like a broken harp, but Mai did not seem interested in that. Mai did not break things for fun.
Mai left her well alone, for example, when the remainder of the Kyoshi warriors were transferred to Boiling Rock and Ty Lee sprung into place with smiles and flustered apologies and enthusiastic demonstrations of exactly how to chi block your worst enemies all wrapped up in a whirlwind package that they first examined with a very sceptical eye.
‘You don’t have to please anyone any more,’ Mai had told her.
Ty Lee found it difficult to smile at that. It was true, in a sense. She didn’t have to please anyone any more but it was difficult to break a lifetime habit of people-pleasing through putting on handspring somersault displays to prove to a princess that she was capable, committed, and entertaining all in one fun-sized package.
She was genuinely sorry, too. Maybe they picked up on that. She hoped they picked up on that. Sometimes it was hard to tell between truth and lies when they all sounded the same behind a smile but she was being honest this time.
‘You’ll just have to wait and see,’ Mai had said of it. ‘I don’t think I’d feel very forgiving about getting poked and sent to prison.’ She looked back to her. ‘But then again, it’s you, so maybe they’d feel differently.’
Mai had apologised too. It involved a sweeping bow that still looked like the picture of noble grace in an oversized prison uniform.
‘I would have offered to teach them how to throw knives but the warden doesn’t particularly like it when his prisoners carry several sharp objects up their sleeves.’
‘Maybe you should pick up a new hobby instead,’ Ty Lee suggested.
Mai looked thoughtful. ‘I’ve always wanted to learn how to paint.’
‘Ooh! What sorts of things would you paint?’
She couldn’t imagine Mai painting delicate flowers, speckled birds, or landscapes of the far islands draped in the sun, as most painters tended to do.
‘Clowns. I was thinking about drawing a portrait series of clowns.’
She had told some days before that she had been thinking about the circus. If Ty Lee had run off to become a show-stopping acrobat, she had wondered what sort of role she would have taken on if she had been possessed by the desire, suddenly, to throw away all her worldly belongings and travel with her around the world.
‘I thought you hated the circus.’
A small twitch of the lips. ‘Prison isn’t that dreadful,’ she said, as Ty Lee raised her eyebrows in surprise. ‘I think I could manage the circus.’
She sat with her head rested on Ty Lee’s shoulder as she explained while she hadn’t quite captured her particular niche – although it was somewhere between sword-swallowing and sword-fighting – she had become fascinated by the idea of clowns in the meantime, and their garish face paint and hideous clothes, which should in theory be quite horrifying, and yet still evoked laughter. Her hands looped around Ty Lee’s as she spoke, close but never quite touching.
‘I think the line between comedy and horror is a thread, if it exists at all.’
Ty Lee nodded. It made perfect sense.
She thought of six year old Azula scrunching up her nose when she was angry. Stomping her feet because her brother had refused to pick her up for the third time that day, that his back was tired, please could she just bother someone else. She had watched as her mother had chided the princess, telling her proper young ladies didn’t stomp their feet when they didn’t get what they wanted. Azula, then, had turned to her new playmate, a little girl with pink baubles in her hair, and had smiled very prettily, telling her that she would carry her everywhere, of course, that is what the princess’s playmates do, as her hands stroked her hair.
Ty Lee had carried her all day. And then the next. The third day, they fell into a pond, which her brother thought was very funny, and Azula had responded by grabbing his arm and pulling him in.
A child was coughing up water, in the end.
After all that fuss, Azula proclaimed that she was tired of being carried around. She would walk on her own two feet, thank you very much.
Mai listened to every word carefully without smiling once.
‘It should have been a funny story,’ Ty Lee said in a small voice.
Mai opened her hands and carefully, gently, offered them to Ty Lee.
She took them. She held them.
‘You know she was trying to control you. Even then.’
Ty Lee nodded. She knew. She had known since the day she turned nine and found a girl with long, elegant hair in the Royal Gardens, who kept herself occupied in the pages of a rather cumbersome looking book, whose smile felt like a secret that no one else had seen yet. Ty Lee tried not to look in her direction, but there was something about the way the sunlight glanced off her hair, it was so shiny... Azula had, of course, caught her looking elsewhere, eyes drifting towards a girl she had called ‘a weepy little wallflower’, and had snorted, and told her: wouldn’t it be funny if she got acquainted with my brother.
Ty Lee hadn’t understood her. Wallflowers were always so pretty. But she had laughed, because Azula said it would be funny.
She had a terrible sense of humour. Mai grew to be someone beautiful and clever and wise that she was humbled to even know and the soft, hesitant touch of her hands never made her want to scream or cry or shrink into her own skin behind a practised smile.
Her touch made her feel bold. Her touch made her feel light, like she could float upwards, and somehow, be free.
‘I loved you more.’
‘Than Azula. I loved you more,’ said Ty Lee, whose hands were still cradled in Mai’s, still held with gentleness. ‘That’s why. I always loved you more. That’s the truth.’
Mai blinked. Then, a soft, wide smile broke on her face as she pulled Ty Lee's hands to her heart – stammering and stuttering like her own – and Ty Lee felt herself let go of a breath but instead of words coming out it sounded almost like laughter, relieved, joyous, as Mai brought her hands to her lips and gave them a gentle kiss.
‘You won't let go of me, will you?' Ty Lee asked.
Mai shook her head.
They wove their fingers together. Her first kiss was a soft one, a little uncertain of itself still, but still very much wanted on Mai's cheek. It felt like the beginning of a home.