"Mai!" Ty Lee sounds startled, when she opens the door. As if she hadn't thought her knocks – persistent though they were – would be answered. "Are you okay?"
"Because really," she goes on, oblivious to Mai's answer, "you've got to snap out of it. I mean, I know you're sad—I know it's been hard, believe me, and I'm totally there for you. Like, one hundred and six percent. But it's been eight months, Mai, and you've got a baby to take care of now. A real human baby! A living thing!"
"And no offense, but you can't waste time obsessing over death, when you have a new life right here in your very own house. For one thing, it's morbid – I'm sorry, but that's the truth – and it's a terrible environment for a baby. Do you want to raise a son with a pitch-black aura? I don't think you do. What's more, if you spend every second grieving, and feeling guilty, and beating yourself up over this then where, I wonder, where in the world are you going to find any spare time to be there for that poor darling baby? For goodness' sake, Mai, didn't you tell us that you practically hated your own parents because they never had time for you? Is that the kind of mother you want to be?"
Mai lets out a sigh, knowing Ty Lee will plow through it. She thinks it must take immense focus, for her to speak as if trapped in a wind tunnel – as if she can't hear Mai, and Mai can barely hear her, and all she can do is keep the words spurting like water. She wonders how long Ty Lee practiced this speech.
"And I know—I know I've said this before, and I know you don't believe me, but what happened at the Boiling Rock wasn't your fault. You were smart to fear Azula more. She would've done something awful to you, if you'd tried to save him—she might even have killed you, and then you'd have given your life for him. And I'm sorry, but that's just crazy. Like, if he wanted you to die for him, he shouldn't have broken up with you, you know? He was a colossal jerk to you, and he kind of had it coming anyway – or at the very least, you had no obligation."
Ty Lee sucks in a deep breath. "Even so, I get that you were sad. It wasn't easy for me, either, watching it happen. But it just wasn't meant to be, right, things were supposed to happen that way, how they did, and I've made my peace with it and so should you. After all, if it weren't for that victory, we wouldn't be standing here right this very second. Our whole country might've lost the war. And I know, I know, it sucks turtleduck eggs that you had to be the one to sacrifice for it, but like I said, you have to move past it sometime.
"Besides, don't you think…isn't that what he would want?"
"Yes. Ty Lee, I know. I'm fine."
"Oh." Ty Lee blinks. She glances down at her forearm, quick like she hopes Mai won't notice, but it's then that Mai sees the ink jotted there in neat rows—notes, apparently. Flashcards. It's almost funny. "Okay."
At that, she hops into a handstand, and so ushers herself inside. Mai shuts the door behind her, grateful for a shred of quiet; it isn't often, that Ty Lee gets the pep talk bug, but when she does there's no stopping her. And Mai's circumstances make her a perfect target. Still, she supposes she should feel honored, that Ty Lee cares at all – it is kind of sweet, albeit tiring, so she musters the will to be welcoming. She goes to the bassinet, where the baby lies – half-sleeping, half-waking, tiny limbs fluttering under the blanket – and gathers him into her arms. Together, they settle on the sofa.
"Are you hungry?" Mai asks, trying to be friendly, as Ty Lee flips upright and bounces onto a chair. "Thirsty? I could have the servants make something."
"Um—sure!" Ty Lee answers, cheery as ever. "I wouldn't mind some tea." Mai nods and signals to a maid in the hallway, to bring their drinks and some milk for the baby. Ty Lee shifts a little in her seat. "I don't mean to be intrusive," she says. "And I don't mean to be annoying. I know you must be tired of me, lecturing you like this, but…we worry about you, all the time. Azula and I. She's…she's like, so worried. She said I should check on you."
A snort escapes before Mai can stop it, so absurd is the idea. "No, she didn't. Azula has everything she ever wanted. Why would she care about me?"
"Because you're friends!" Ty Lee's protest is too much, too strained. She's forcing it and Mai knows. "Okay, so maybe she didn't say that. But you shouldn't think she doesn't care. We both…we both care about you, Mai. We know how hard it's been." Her voice grows soft. "What I'm trying to say is, I wish you'd have let us help. Even if you're fine now, you—you were too young to be grieving for somebody. Way too young to be somebody's mom. And it just—the whole thing was—me and Azula, we felt so bad for you, dealing with everything, with all this stuff coming at once the way it did. We didn't want you to be alone."
The maid returns with a tea tray and a bottle, warm to the touch with milk. Mai takes it in one hand, the other stroking the baby's cheek—soft as snow and just as pale—to wake him. He mewls, stirs, and his little mouth finds the bottle. "Thank you for your concern, Ty Lee. And I know the good will of the Fire Lord – however false – is precious, so please do thank Azula too." A smile, faint and mellow, flickers on Mai's face. "But it's not needed. Like I said, I'm fine. I've been fine. The baby and I, we have each other now – and I'm not alone anymore."
Ty Lee thinks about that, for a bit. She blinks. And after a moment, she smiles back. "I'm glad."
So the visit goes. Over cups of tea, Mai and Ty Lee chat, for the first time in months; mostly it's Ty Lee who's talking, and Mai who's listening, but it doesn't matter. Mai doesn't have much to say. She's happy to sit on the sofa, feeding the baby, cradling him close to her. Watching him nurse the bottle, a kind of routine bliss – his head a dark, downy little buoy, bobbing faintly over a sea of blankets, and his suckling a gentle song. Music where Ty Lee's chatter is just noise. She's content with the smell of milk and powder, sweet in her nose.
So unlike boiling flesh.
Sure, she could tell Ty Lee the truth. But what would be the point of that? She could say, I still wake up some nights, drenched in sweat. In the visceral sickness of shame. With cotton in my mouth, and ice in my chest, and I still finger my knives in the dark—some nights, I still want to gouge out my eyes, to stop them seeing his in the mirror. She could say, I feel myself crumble, in those dreams. I feel him slip through my hands like seawater. I see cords fray and snap and again, he's nothing but smoke, a foul taste in my mouth.
She could tell her that, in the black pit of night, she sometimes goes back to that day. To the platform, to the moment when the cable car fell. Always, the nightmare begins in that instant, in the second when the world fell out from under him—when Mai's weakness defined her, and she did nothing. Merely stood and watched. And the car dove, cut loose, into the lake below; and there was a wave, a huge hot spray of scalding water, that rippled through them all. A great, deafening crash. Ty Lee's face was white as china, hands clasped to her stomach, as if she might be sick all over her shoes. Azula's grin was monstrous.
But that's not the worst of it. Worse than the dream is the waking, the bolting up in bed, howling like an animal—choking, gasping out the words I'm sorry, over and over until her throat bleeds. I love you, she finds herself sobbing on those nights, to the ghost that lives in her head. I love you so much it hurts, and I miss you and I need you and I was wrong. I was stupid. I'd face her a thousand times over, for you.
I'd do anything. Anything to have you back.
At first, she thought she'd lose her mind. Break under the weight of those dreams. But then she had the baby, and she doesn't say this but he saved her; she doesn't tell Ty Lee, because Ty Lee wouldn't understand, but Mai's grief drains away when she holds him. Her guilt fades, thunder from a dying storm. She still has nightmares, yes, and she still wakes up crying – but so much less now, with him curled in her bed. With his heart humming against her, warm like a little flame.
"So you've picked a name, right?" Ty Lee says, rather suddenly to Mai's ears. Lost in reverie, she hasn't been listening, and only now tunes back in. "I mean, he's a month old. He must have a name."
Mai looks up from the baby. She was never a smiler, but this one is painted on, brightly unflinching; it barely moves when she speaks. "Of course. I've named him after his father."
"Oh." Ty Lee pauses. Mai tilts her head, wondering why she looks uneasy. "Do you—are you sure that's a good idea?"
"It's a great idea. The only fitting thing, really." Cheerfully, she slides her hands under his arms, lifting him up out of her lap – holding him up so Ty Lee can see, still smiling. "Don't you think they look alike?"
She doesn't understand why Ty Lee leaves so soon. Things were going so nicely, for awhile, but suddenly Ty Lee's gone pale; her teacup hits the table with a clatter, and she's stumbling over goodbyes, and before Mai knows it the doors are banging shut behind her. A servant didn't even show her out. Honestly, Mai thinks, shaking her head, as she lays the baby in his cradle, some people can be so rude. If she had somewhere to be, she could've at least told me.
But she doesn't let it bother her. Instead, she laughs to herself, the sound like soft frothy bubbles in a sweet drink; she does that more often now, laughing, even if it is hard to stop sometimes. Even if the servants look at her strangely when she does. It doesn't matter to Mai, because the baby smiles when she smiles, and laughs when she laughs, and when she leans over the basket to kiss him – on the dark swathe burnt through his left eye, born of a candle and her steady hand – he reaches out for her. Because he loves her, no matter what she does.
"I love you too, Zuko," she whispers, into his scarred ear. "Always."