“Azula said you needed help untangling your braid.”
Ty Lee gave a little start. She was in another of her incomprehensible stretches, with her legs split in opposite directions, her stomach resting on the floor and her arms stretched far out in front of her. She propped herself up on her elbows to look at Mai in the doorway, resting her chin on closed fists. Her lips pursed in a slight frown.
“She did?” Ty Lee tugged her long braid over one shoulder and glanced down at it. It looked as perfect as ever, smooth and sleek. She blinked back up at Mai. “That’s weird.”
Already, Mai was regretting this. “Never mind,” she said. “I—she was probably just trying to get rid of me. I’ll talk to you in the morning.” She turned to leave. It was a bad idea, anyways. They only got so much time a day to themselves, and it was the first time in a while that they’d all had separate rooms, especially ones as spacious as these. Ty Lee probably wanted that elusive quiet time to stretch and think alone.
“Oh,” said Ty Lee, and Mai stopped. “You don’t have to leave. You can—well, I might need help untangling my braid later. You should stick around until then.”
It was a flimsy excuse and they both knew it. Ty Lee didn’t need any help with her hair. It wasn’t the reason Mai had come in the first place. But it was a reason to stay nevertheless, and after a moment’s hesitation Mai took it. She leaned against the doorframe, her arms crossed, and watched Ty Lee slide up from her splits and cross her legs so she could talk to Mai properly.
“You can sit on the bed while I stretch, if you want,” she said. “I have a few more stretches to do but I should be done soon.”
Mai knew she should just go back to her room and resign herself to a night spent staring at the ceiling. “Okay,” she said.
Ty Lee’s bed was identical to the one in Mai’s room, tucked into one of corner of the room, with a spacious but hard mattress. It was neatly made, all the edges tucked in, the pillows fluffed, and Mai settled cautiously in the middle of it. Before Ba Sing Se, it had been a while since their little group had slept in real beds like these, and Mai had anticipated relief at finally having her own room, a real bed. But the wide, empty room and its cold, square bed reminded her too much of her old quarters in Omashu, and her brain had spun in circles around Azula’s plans to conquer the earth kingdom and she’d wound up staring up at ceiling as the night crept by. She woke up on a few stolen hours of sleep, her eyelids heavy and her throat dry. At least the Kyoshi warrior makeup, tacky as it was, covered the dark circles under her eyes.
From her perch on the bed, Mai watched Ty Lee stretch, twisting her arms and legs and torso into positions that seemed like they should be impossible. She wore the nightclothes they’d been presented with, loose and light green, and the fabric bunched softly around her arms when she lifted them, pooled around her curves. There was something mesmerizing in the way Ty Lee moved, even in her stretches, so smooth and precise and dance-like. Mai had never really been uncomfortable in her own body, but watching Ty Lee always made her feel kind of… clunky. Ty Lee moved with such fluidity and control that every movement seemed intricately planned. Her body always moved with her, just the way she wanted it to.
Mai found herself thinking of Ty Lee’s acrobatic career. She’d never gotten a chance to see Ty Lee perform at the circus, but she thought she might have liked to. She saw Ty Lee move in combat every day, and the way she moved was always beautiful, but Mai had this nagging feeling that it wasn’t really the way Ty Lee’s talents were meant to be used. Combat had become a regularity in their lives, and their trio excelled at it—Ty Lee alone could incapacitate someone with a backflip and a few flicks of her wrist. But Mai couldn’t help imagining her at the circus instead, twirling around a trapeze, flipping her way across a tightrope with the kind of assurance and grace only Ty Lee possessed. It would be like a dance, an art form, and people would pay to watch her and the impossible way she twirled and tumbled through the air. Ty Lee would probably like that, thought Mai, if her skills were used for dance instead of battle. If when she landed, poised and perfect, people clapped instead of collapsed. She craved attention in that sort of way.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Ty Lee. Mai had been watching her stretch as her mind wandered, following the curves of Ty Lee’s body and the concentration etched into her face. Ty Lee sat in a simple lotus position now, her eyes fixed on Mai. Judging by the slight quirk of her mouth, she’d been watching Mai stare at her for more than a few seconds.
Nothing, Mai was tempted to say. She was a good liar—maybe not as good as Azula, but she was good at keeping her voice and face and mannerisms impassive and emotionless. Ty Lee would see through it, though. And what reason did Mai have to lie to her, anyway?
Mai leaned back on her hands, met Ty Lee’s gaze. “I was thinking about how I never got to see you perform in the circus,” she said. “I would have liked to.”
Ty Lee’s face broke out in a grin. “Oh, I wish you had. You’ll have to come, one day, I think you’d like it. There was a lady who juggled knifes—though I’m sure you could do it better than she could.”
The wording of Ty Lee’s sentence caught Mai’s attention. “Are you—are you planning to go back to circus? After…?” she trailed off, and she could see in Ty Lee’s face that she recognized the unspoken questions. After the war was won? After Azula no longer had use for their little band? There was no way of knowing how long their current life would last, no way of knowing what came next.
“I don’t know,” Ty Lee said, her face dropping slightly. Mai watched as she twisted the end her long braid around and around her fingers, an absentminded nervous habit. “I guess I haven’t really thought about it. I just kind of assumed when Azula came to get me that it was a temporary thing, you know? That I’d just go back when it was all over. But now… I don’t know anymore. I can’t imagine what our lives will be like when the war ends—if it ends.” She glanced up at Mai. “What about you? What will you do… after?”
That was the real question, wasn’t it? What did the end of war hold in store for Mai? If the fire nation won, was it back to her gray life in the colonies? Would she fall back into the shadow of her father’s political career? Or would Azula still want the two of them by her side, whatever that may mean. There were no options for the end of the war that didn’t make something in Mai’s stomach clench painfully, no bright and shiny image of the future. She gripped the bedspread beneath her hard, willing her face to stay expressionless.
“I don’t know,” she said.
And if the Avatar and his little gang of misfits won, what then? Prison for them all? Mai honestly wasn’t sure what was the worst-case scenario.
“I can see you overthinking,” whispered Ty Lee, and Mai realized she was glaring a hole in the wall. She loosened her grip on Ty Lee’s bedspread with a sigh, looked down at her hands. Ty Lee stood from her lotus position and stretched her arms to the sky, arching her back, then snatched a hairbrush off her dresser before crawling onto the bed beside Mai. She bounced a little as she reached out, pulling both of Mai’s hands into hers.
“Whatever happens, we’ll find a way to make things work. I know it. We have a lot of valuable skills, you know.”
Mai felt the corner of her mouth twitch up and looked away. “Whatever.”
“I mean it!” said Ty Lee. “Wherever we end up, life will keep going, and we’ll find a way to go with it. I can see you overthinking it, Mai. You get yourself all emotionally chi-blocked. Just—everything will work out in the end; I know it will. And whatever happens—” her eyes were wide and earnest, and she held Mai’s hands tightly, “—you’ll have me. Okay? We’ll figure it out together.”
Mai freed one hand, lifted it to brush a strand of hair from Ty Lee’s face. Her touch was feather-soft, but there was something electric in the slight brush of her fingers on Ty Lee’s cheek.
“We could die, you know,” she murmured. “If the Avatar wins—even if we win, we could easily die in the crossfire.”
“I know,” said Ty Lee. “Believe me, I know. But if we die, we’re dead. There’s no point in worrying about it now—all it’ll do is cloud your aura.” She squeezed the hand of Mai’s that she was still holding, then dropped it and ducked away to reach across the bed. Slowly, Mai lowered her other hand from where it had rested on Ty Lee’s face.
Ty Lee retrieved her hairbrush from where she’d tossed it onto the bed and scooted back over to Mai. “Enough talk about the war, though. I need to take my hair down before bed. Do you want to, uh—” she held the brush out to Mai. “It might be tangled.”
Mai stared at the brush for a moment. The she took it from Ty Lee’s outstretched hand, placing it down on the bed beside her. “Turn around,” she said.
Beaming, Ty Lee complied.
Ty Lee sat very still and straight-backed, her hands folded in her lap. Mai took the end of her braid, contemplated its weight in her hand. Then she undid the ribbon that held the end of the braid in place and set it down on the bed beside her.
Ty Lee’s hair was not particularly tangled, but then again Mai hadn’t really expected it to be. Her hair was long and smooth and even and fell easily out of the braid as Mai unweaved the sections, brushing her fingers gently through to free the strands as they came undone. Mai worked slowly, partly because she didn’t want to get Ty Lee’s long hair tangled in itself by pulling the braid apart too fast, partly because her hair was so soft and pretty that Mai wanted to savour the moment. If Ty Lee noticed, she said nothing.
Finally, she reached the top of the braid and freed the rest of Ty Lee’s hair from it’s now-ponytail. Her hair slumped down, cascading down over her shoulders. Ty Lee gave a little sigh, lifting her hands to give it a shake through at the roots and shaking her hair into Mai’s face. Caught off guard, Mai spluttered and let out a surprised laugh.
“It’s up so tightly all the time that it almost hurts a little when I take it down,” Ty Lee explained, peering back over her shoulder. “Feels nice, though. Like the end of a long day.”
Mai smiled a little, her fingers toying with the hairbrush beside her. Ty Lee’s eyes followed the motion, then flicked back to Mai’s face. “You could—you could brush it,” she said, the statement poised somewhere between if you want to and I’d like you to.
“Yeah, I could.”
They stared each other down for a few seconds. Ty Lee chewed on the inside of her lip, and then said, “Okay.”
Unspoken agreement passed between them. Ty Lee turned back around. Mai picked up the hairbrush.
She started at the bottom, careful not to pull. When it was loose like this, Ty Lee’s dark hair was beautiful, tumbling in messy waves over her shoulders and down the full length of her back and past her hips. As Mai brushed with smooth, careful strokes, she could smell the sweet, warm fragrance of the Earth Kingdom soap the palace had provided them with. Mai followed the brush strokes with her fingers, smiling at the dampness still present in Ty Lee’s hair from being washed early in the morning. Ty Lee’s hair was thick and fine, much softer than Mai’s, and it felt like silk between her fingers.
As Mai worked, the silence settled around them, warm and comfortable. It was nice to be doing something ordinary with Ty Lee, instead of the usual way they passed their days, chasing Avatars and deceiving Earth Kingdom officials and executing insane plots to take over the world. Maybe if the world was a different place, if they’d been born into different families, this would be how Mai and Ty Lee spent their evenings. Mai would sharpen her knifes and watch Ty Lee stretch and help her undo her hair for the evening, wiping away the carefully constructed images both of them wore every day. Mai would probably read, and Ty Lee would probably sing, and they would fall asleep later than they meant to, happy and safe.
It was a dangerous sort of fantasy.
Mai finished brushing through the length of Ty Lee’s hair and shifted so she was sitting on her knees, giving her a better angle to brush through from the roots. It was satisfying, she had to admit, to be able to brush through the entire length of Ty Lee’s hair from the roots down in one stroke. As Mai brushed all the way through a second time, the hairbrush bristles grazing Ty Lee’s scalp, Ty Lee made a little sound in the back of her throat. Mai froze with the brush halfway through.
“What?” asked Ty Lee, feeling her stiffen. “Are you okay?”
“Uh,” said Mai, unsure of why her face was suddenly so hot. “Yeah.”
Ty Lee leaned back casually, putting one hand on Mai’s knee where it rested beside her hip. Mai pointedly did not look down at it.
Tentatively, Mai resumed brushing. A few more brushstrokes and Ty Lee made the noise again. It was soft, a sweet little hum in the back of her throat. A contented sound. She probably didn’t even realize she was making it, and Mai wasn’t about to point it out. If she knew, she’d probably stop, and for some reason Mai couldn’t bear the thought of that. Something about that little sound made Mai’s heart feel kind of fluttery, a distinctly un-Mai-like feeling that didn’t quite make sense to her.
She continued brushing through, roots down, and Ty Lee kept making quiet, musical hums. It was maybe the prettiest sound Mai had ever heard. If she was a little bolder, she thought, she’d abandon the hairbrush and rake her fingers through Ty Lee’s hair right at the roots, see what sort of contented sounds she made then. As it was, though, she brushed through Ty Lee’s hair as long as she could justify doing, until it fell in soft, perfectly uniform waves down her back and Mai could find no reason to keep going. She put the brush down beside her.
“There,” she said, a little remorsefully.
Ty Lee peeked back over her shoulder, her hand still on Mai’s knee. “Do you want to braid it?”
Mai frowned at her. “Did I not just unbraid it?”
“Well, yeah,” said Ty Lee. “But I don’t usually sleep with it down. It just gets tangled in everything, so I usually just do a low braid to keep it out of the way.” She paused. “I can do it, if you, uh. If you don’t want to.”
“No,” said Mai quickly. “I mean, I guess I can. I’m not as good at braiding as you are.”
“Oh, that’s okay! It doesn’t need to be perfect or anything. It’s just for sleeping.”
“Yeah,” said Mai. “Okay.” She took a breath. Then she retrieved the green ribbon she’d freed from Ty Lee’s hair earlier, let her hands hover uncertainly for a moment before starting braiding.
“Your hair is so long,” she said, after a few contemplative minutes, the words just kind of slipping out. Immediately, she cringed at herself. Words that obvious were better left unsaid.
“Yeah, I know,” said Ty Lee, clearly unaware that Mai was mentally punching herself. “I love having long hair, but it gets annoying sometimes. It’s so heavy.”
Mai hummed thoughtfully. “Maybe you should cut it short someday. For a change.”
Ty Lee’s shoulders stiffened, and Mai realized the implication of what she had just said. Hair was incredibly important in the Fire Nation, a symbol of wealth and honour. Hair like Ty Lee’s, so long and thick and luxurious, would be widely coveted, admired by any dignified citizen. To cut it all off like that would be… borderline rebellious. More so than fleeing your family to join the travelling circus, at any rate. It would feel like a statement against the Fire Nation. Blasphemy.
Mai knew she should cover up, say I didn’t mean it like that. She didn’t. She just kept braiding.
“I don’t think I could cut it too short,” said Ty Lee slowly. “I wouldn’t be able to tie it back, and then it would get in my face. It would be a whole lot lighter, though.”
Mai felt a twinge of something close to relief. Maybe Ty Lee hadn’t interpreted her statement as a call for rebellion after all.
“Maybe I’ll cut it someday,” Ty Lee continued, her tone still cautious. “Just not too short. Long enough to tie back, still.”
“Right,” said Mai. “Not too short.” It was like they were talking in code, but Mai didn’t fully speak the code, could only pick out a word here or there. She shut her mouth against saying anything further; they were walking a narrow precipice with this conversation.
Finally, she finished the braid, tied off the end. It didn’t look as tidy as the ones Ty Lee wore every day, but Mai still admired her handiwork. It wasn’t bad for someone who never braided. “There you go,” she said. “Done.”
Ty Lee bounced back around, so they were sitting facing each other once more. “Thank you!” She titled her head, contemplating. Then she smirked, mischief in her eyes. “You didn’t do my bangs, though.”
Mai raised her eyebrows, amused.
“What? You want to be thorough, don’t you?”
“If you say so.” She picked the brush up once more and reached out, cupping her hand gently under Ty Lee’s bangs to avoid scraping the bristles against her cheek. It took most of her concentration to focus on Ty Lee’s bangs, and not the intent way Ty Lee was staring at her face or the softness of Ty Lee’s cheek under her knuckles. Moments passed, silent and intense. She brushed the other side to perfection, running the brush down and down again, then threw it across the room with a sigh.
“There,” she said. “Good riddance.”
Ty Lee’s laugh was bubbly and infectious. Her bangs fell soft and fluffy by her cheeks, and Mai reached out to sweep her braid over her shoulder, letting her fingers linger by Ty Lee’s neck. The braid was longer and looser and more languid than the braids Ty Lee normally wore, but it suited her. Lovely was the word that came to mind.
“You’re perfect,” murmured Mai. Ty Lee grinned at her. “I mean, your hair,” she added quickly. She told herself the pink flush on Ty Lee’s cheekbones was only because it was so warm in here.
They’d been staring at each other for too long, Mai was sure of it. But Ty Lee’s eyes were big and warm and heather gray, and Mai couldn’t find it in herself to look away. Between them, the air was alive and electric, tingling across Mai’s skin. Mai thought about trying to form words, but there was nothing to say, nothing but Ty Lee’s eyes and hair and the flush on her cheekbones. The moment was elastic and unending, stretching on across the eons. If she died like this, thought Mai, she wouldn’t mind.
Ty Lee yawned. Mai blinked, feeling as though she’d just come up from having her head underwater.
“Sorry,” said Ty Lee, stifling another huge yawn. She rubbed her eyes, slumped forwards to drop her forehead onto Mai’s shoulder. “I’m just exhausted. I barely slept at all last night.”
Mai raised a cautious hand to pat the top of Ty Lee’s head. “Me neither.”
“Hm.” Ty Lee nuzzled her head into Mai’s neck. “’m sleepy.”
Mai sighed, allowed herself another moment to pat Ty Lee’s head and feel the warmth of Ty Lee’s forehead on her shoulder. Then she shifted, forcing Ty Lee to lift her head, and climbed off the bed. “Right,” she said. “I’ll just… I’ll let you go to sleep then. It’s late, anyways. We should be well rested for tomorrow.”
“Oh,” said Ty Lee, looking slightly lost where Mai had left her. “Yes. Um, goodnight… then.”
Mai was almost at the door when Ty Lee called, “Wait!” She turned. Ty Lee was chewing her lip, her head titled. “Will you—will you stay here? Just for tonight?”
Something in Mai’s stomach swooped, like she’d taken a step and found nothing but air beneath her. Ty Lee was leaning forwards, her lip chewed red, her bangs in her face, and Mai fought to keep her face impassive. These were the kind of feelings you didn’t show on your face, at any cost. Staying the night here would be a terrible idea. Probably a treasonous kind of idea.
“Fine,” she said, her voice sharp.
Ty Lee’s face fell, so slightly that someone that didn’t know the nuances of her expressions as well as Mai probably wouldn’t have noticed. “Oh,” she said. “You don’t have to. I understand if you’d sleep better in your own room.”
Mai clenched her fist, hating herself. Too far in the other direction. “No. I’ll stay.”
“Mai. It’s fine. I don’t want you to feel pressured to stay here or anything. I just… it’s kind of lonely here, and it was really nice to have you around this evening, and I thought you might want some company and—”
“Ty Lee.” She kneeled beside the bed, crossing her arms on the mattress. “I’ll stay.”
“Are you sure?” said Ty Lee. “Because—”
“I’m sure,” said Mai. She swallowed. “I want to.”
“Okay.” Ty Lee nodded slowly. “Okay! That’s great! It’ll be like a sleepover! C’mon!” She somersaulted to the top of the bed, pulling back the covers to crawl in and leaving plenty of space for Mai.
Mai sat down near the edge of the bed, leaving several feet of emptiness between her and Ty Lee. She lay down on her side, folding her hands under her cheek, and watched Ty Lee pull the covers up and then mirror her position, staring back at Mai.
“I never had any sleepovers as a kid,” Mai confessed.
“No?” said Ty Lee. “I guess I didn’t really either. My sisters were always having them, but I didn’t really have any friends before you and Azula.”
“No,” said Mai. “Me neither.”
They drifted into silence again, but from the furrow in Ty Lee’s brow, she was working up to saying something. Sure enough, after a minute she blurted out, “Do you think it’s right?”
Mai frowned. “What?”
“I—I don’t know. The Fire Nation? Azula? Like, are we doing the right thing? Do you think we’re on the right side of history?”
“The right side of history is subjective,” said Mai carefully.
“I guess… I just wonder sometimes.”
Ty Lee mouth pinched, hurt. Mai closed her eyes. “I just mean… you can’t. You can’t say stuff like that, Ty Lee.”
“But what if it’s true? Tomorrow we’re taking a city down from the inside. I just can’t help thinking… there are people who live here, aren’t there? What happens to them, when we control Ba Sing Se?”
“We’re here to help them. We’re here to share our wealth with the rest of the kingdoms. That’s what they’ve always taught us, isn’t it?”
“I know. I guess so. It just feels… weird. I want to succeed. I want Azula to succeed. There’s just some part of it that feels weird.”
“I know. But you can’t think like that.”
Ty Lee looked away, her expression perturbed. She stared up at the ceiling and Mai stared at her face and the minutes ticked by.
“Do you love her?” Mai asked, finally voicing the question that had been burning at the inside of her chest.
“Who?” Ty Lee frowned at her. “Azula?”
Mai said nothing, answered the question with the set of her eyes. The question asked about Ty Lee, about Azula, but in asking it, Mai felt like she was exposing herself. It was saying that she thought such a thing possible. It was saying that this was something she’d thought about before, enough for it to come to mind now. It was placing her cards, face-up and vulnerable, on the table. Already, she was regretting the question, but there was no turning back now.
“Azula is…” Ty Lee began slowly. “Azula is perfect. She’s beautiful. She’s probably the smartest person I know—the most talented, too. I’ve never seen anyone firebend like her. I’ve never seen anyone command a room like her. I—everything she does is just… perfect. There’s nobody else like Azula. She’s fearless.”
“So, yes,” said Mai, hollow. She was replaying interactions between Ty Lee and Azula in her mind, picturing the open admiration on Ty Lee’s face whenever Azula made a particularly bold claim, mapped out a new plan, defeated an enemy with a flick of her hand. Gosh, you’re so confident, she heard Ty Lee say. I really admire that about you.
“So, Azula is perfect,” said Ty Lee. “I think she could do just about anything. I also think she wouldn’t hesitate to destroy either of us if it worked to her advantage.” She paused, swallowed. “Maybe I would. In another life, maybe I would. But as much as I admire her, and like her, I always feel like I need to have one eye open around Azula. I always have this lingering feeling that she’d stab me in the back if she needed to. I just never feel truly… safe around her, you know?”
She spoke in low tones, aware as Mai was that it was dangerous to talk about Azula like this. If there was any danger of them being overheard, it would be Azula’s wrath on both of their heads. It was disturbing, really, that this was the dynamic of their group. They were lethal, but Azula didn’t run them on trust. Admiration, maybe, but admiration alone didn’t keep them at Azula’s side. Mai and Ty Lee looked at each other, aware of what neither of them dared say aloud—their trio was built on a brittle structure of fear and mistrust, and a bit of pressure in the right place could sent it all crumbling.
“What about me?” asked Mai in a voice just short of a whisper.
Ty Lee smiled, tender. “Do I love you?”
Yes, thought Mai. “Do you feel safe around me?” she said.
Ty Lee reached her hand out into the space between them, palm up. After a moment of wary glances between Ty Lee’s face and her outstretched hand, Mai took it. Her hand was warm and calloused, and she squeezed Mai’s tightly.
“Yes, I think I do,” said Ty Lee. “I think… this war is far from over, and I don’t know what kinds of things we’ll need to do to come out of it. It’s hard to really trust anyone, completely. But I think I trust you the most, Mai, out of anyone. I feel safest with you.”
Mai squeezed Ty Lee’s hand back, warmth spreading through her chest like a sip of hot tea on a cold day. “I don’t trust anyone,” she said. “But you come the closest.”
Ty Lee laughed quietly. “I’ll take it, I guess.” Then she sighed. “We should probably go to sleep soon. I think tomorrow’s going to be big… we might even get to go home, at the end of it.”
The warmth in Mai’s chest dissipated. The concept of home was as complicated for her as it was for Ty Lee, and she wasn’t really sure what it would mean to go back home to the Fire Nation. Whatever happened, though, tomorrow would change things. They had the Water Tribe girl in their custody, and it was only a matter of time before the Avatar appeared after her. Zuko was in the city too, apparently, and who could tell what his reappearance would bring?
“I don’t want to think about tomorrow,” said Mai.
“Better not to,” Ty Lee agreed. She climbed off the end of the bed, crossing the room to put out the light. “Better to sleep now and worry when we’re better rested.”
In the darkness, Ty Lee crawled back onto the bed, the mattress shifting and creaking under her as she felt her way around. Mai expected her to settle back where she’d been, with a significant chunk of space between them, but instead she felt the warmth of Ty Lee’s hand on her arm, the shift of the mattress as Ty Lee pulled herself closer. Instinctively, Mai lifted her arm, letting Ty Lee snuggle up against her and drop her head on Mai’s shoulder with a peaceful sigh. Mai let her arm hover for a moment, uncertain about what to do with, before resting it tentatively around Ty Lee’s waist.
“Is this okay?” asked Ty Lee, her fingers grazing Mai’s cheek.
Dangerous… thought Mai. “Yeah,” she said, her voice raw in the darkness.
“Good.” Ty Lee’s nose brushed against Mai’s neck. “You’re warm.”
Mai shivered. Ty Lee’s head was nestled into the crook of her neck, the top of her head resting against Mai’s cheek. She’d draped one arm across Mai’s waist and one leg across both of Mai’s, and Mai didn’t they’d ever been this close together, ever had this much of them touching. She felt charged, over-aware of Ty Lee’s body pressed against hers, the smell of her hair, the curve of her waist. She held Ty Lee close to her, barely breathing, afraid and afraid and alive.
They were creeping into forbidden territory, skirting the edges. But under the cover of blackness Mai couldn’t find in herself to push Ty Lee away. They were friends, she reminded herself. Friends finding solace in each other on a lonely night.
Mai had never had many friends, but she had the distinct feeling that most friends didn’t hold each other like this, like they were the only thing tethering each other to the earth.
Ty Lee shifted her head where it was buried in Mai’s shoulder with a quiet hum. So softly that Mai thought she’d imagined it, she pressed her lips to Mai’s collarbone, warm and lingering. Mai stopped breathing altogether, aware of nothing but her and Ty Lee in the darkness. She could hear her own heartbeat thrumming in her chest, the only sound in their dark sea of a bedroom.
She’d almost convinced herself that she’d imagined it when Ty Lee moved her head again, lifting it from Mai’s chest and titling her chin to press a second chaste kiss to Mai’s neck, under her jaw where the skin was softest. Mai’s breath hitched ever so slightly, her hand tightening on Ty Lee’s waist.
Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.
Something like this could only ever happen here, in stolen silence, under the blissful cover of night. They were still against each other, breath carefully even, the only movement the ghost-like touch of Ty Lee’s lips. If someone discovered them, somehow, they could pretend to be asleep in the space of a breath.
Ty Lee titled her chin a little higher, pressed a third lasting kiss beside Mai’s mouth.
So close. So far.
So cautious. So reckless.
Ty Lee sighed, the sound of it loud against the silence, the warmth of her breath prickling down the length of Mai’s neck. She dropped her head back onto Mai’s shoulder.
Something near Mai’s heart ached. Maybe it was her lungs; minutes had ticked by since the last time she’d breathed. She drew breath in, slowly as she could handle, utterly focused on keeping the edges of her breath smooth. The ache persisted.
She kissed the top of Ty Lee’s forehead, right where her hair began. Ty Lee hummed against her collarbone, and Mai felt the vibrations of it through her whole body, in the depths of her bones. She thought she might be crying, just a little.
It was just…
No one held her like this, like she was a lifeline. No one kissed her like this, like she was soft. She’d grown up in a household of be proper and hands to yourself, but here was Ty Lee, warm and heavy against her in a way that would make Mai’s mother faint from shame. She stared up at the ceiling and set her jaw and tried to pretend her cheeks were dry.
Ty Lee said nothing—it had been a lifetime since either of them had spoken—but surely, she could feel the slight hitches in Mai’s breath. She lifted her hand to cup Mai’s face, stroking her thumb slowly across Mai’s cheek, again and again. Mai could feel Ty Lee’s lips moving against her collarbone, forming words too quiet to hear. She closed her eyes and breathed and let Ty Lee brush away the dampness on her cheeks.
Eventually, Ty Lee’s thumb slowed to a stop, and Mai could tell by the slow, even breaths fanning across her neck that she had fallen asleep. She sighed and swallowed the last of her tears and leaned down to kiss the top of Ty Lee’s head again, wishing they had more than stolen moments in the dark.
They wouldn’t talk about it in the morning. They probably wouldn’t ever talk about it. The day to come would change things, and Mai knew their conversations would be very different from the quiet words they’d uttered behind the walls of Ba Sing Se.
But Mai was exhausted to the very bone, and she knew that her thoughts wouldn’t keep her awake here, with Ty Lee’s weight and warmth pressed against her. She tightened her grip a little and let her head fall against Ty Lee’s, allowing herself to drift off to sleep in their quiet embrace.