Shadow.

–-

"I'm not sure about this garden. It's too neat."

"Too neat? All the things you could have complained about, and you think it's too neat?"

"Well, yeah. It's smug."

"It's a garden."

"It's still smug."

Mai sighed, very nearly content.

"You know, you're hard work sometimes."

"I do my best."

They walked on, in the early evening light.

"So, is this actually what people in the Fire Nation do for fun? Walk in smug gardens reflecting on how well-off they are, or how well-off the people they are visiting are?"

"Sometimes. I've never really seen the appeal."

"So, why are we doing it?"

"Because we're avoiding your sister. She glares at me."

"Mai, you know you weren't exactly what you'd call polite."

"What's your point?"

"My point is you were hardly helping the mood."

"If anyone's allowed to, I am."

"Mai... does it still bother you? Really?"

"...Not really. But she doesn't know that."

"Good."

"Why? Worried?"

"About you? What do you think?"

"What do I think? I think-"

A wet thunk, and Sokka was slammed to the ground, propelled onto his back.

Mai was moving before he hit the ground, reaching for a knife she didn't have- she had stupidly agreed not to carry as many as she usually did, so there weren't any up her sleeves-

But her eyes had followed the path of the arrow, from Sokka's chest-

And that was as far as they got. He wasn't moving.

She was on her knees in moments, trying despairingly to remember how to look for a pulse. Fingers at the throat? She'd seen someone do that once.

Nothing.

Nothing.

Nothing.

No-

Wait.

Oh thank the Spirits.

Footsteps rushing from behind her.

She pulled out a knife and span, almost killing a distraught looking maid.

"Lady Mai, what is- is the Lord Sokka alright?"

"Listen to me. Go get the Fire Lady. Get her now, and make sure she has water. Why are you still here. GO."

The maid ran as though her life depended on it.

Mai resumed her pointless vigil, holding her breath between each ragged pulse, torturing herself with the feel of it, but not knowing would be so much worse.

The Fire Lady, her husband trailing behind, took far too long to arrive. She screamed and shouted but Mai wasn't listening. She only paid attention when the healing began. She took it as her cue that it was okay to fall apart now.

So she did. Quietly.

–-

He had been moved, the arrow having long been extracted, a process Mai wished she thought she would be able to forget. He was in bed now. He could almost be sleeping.

Someone was saying something. Something along the lines of Someone's going to have to stay with him, and I'll post guards, but you're right.

Mai rotated the bedside chair and sat pointedly in it, one leg crossed over the other.

She could kill someone with twelve different blades from this position without even getting up.

Bring it on.

She might have said that out loud, because his sister looked less panicked, and sort of smiled as she got up.

"I'll be back to check on him soon." Zuko had already walked out the door, but the Fire Lady dithered, one foot in the hallway.

"Thank you." And then she was gone.

"Whatever," Mai told the doorframe.

–-

She breathed into her knuckles, and tried to ignore the way it almost came out a choke.

"I knew this would happen. I told you, you're never careful. You idiot.

"I'm very angry at you, you know. If we had a couch, you would definitely be sleeping on it for a month. I'd make sure there were scorpions in it, too."

"You're lucky to be alive, you know that? You took an arrow to the lung. Most people die from that. But you're lucky, and you got people who patched you up, so now you aren't going to die. There's hardly even going to be a scar.

"I'm just saying you could show a little gratitude, that's all."

She paused, as something occurred to her.

"Why am I even talking to you? You can't hear me. Well, consider this a dry run.

"Oh Agni, what was I going to say? I can't even remember. That's depressing. Oh yes, I remember now- Sokka, you are so fucking stupid sometimes."

She put her forehead in her hands, and groaned in frustration.

"Oh, this is pathetic. I'm sitting here getting choked up, and you don't even have the decency to be dying. I'm getting emotional over you needing bed rest, for crying out loud. When did this happen? How did this become my life? I'm supposed to be stoic, unaffected. That's me.

"You never really bought that, though, did you? You're too... dogged. You dug and dug and somehow wormed your way into my life and then things like this happen. This is ridiculous. And stupid. But it's my life, and I let it get like that, so I guess it's my fault.

"You know what's strange and completely unacceptable, though? I'm fine with this. I can't think of a thing I'd change. And that's really fucked up, because you can't call our life idyllic, not by a long shot. It's not a fairy tale, it's several degrees of strange, it's dangerous, it's about as stable as a sandcastle in a flash flood, and if this were a fairy tale you'd wake up now, and I'd not notice for a few seconds, and then I'd say something really important sounding like I love you, but really that's just words, and..."

She trailed off, hopefully. Sokka's slow breathing was the only sound.

"So you see, it's not any kind of ideal, but at least it's mine. Ours. Whatever.

"And there's someone trying to creep up on this door. How nice."

When the door swung open, Mai held her breath. A black shape slipped in. Mai didn't move.

When the shape drew a short but serviceable blade, Mai took action.

She was feeling oddly drained, though, so she only pinned the would-be assassin to the wall by one ear.

After a few minutes, the man's screams subsided to pained whimpers. Mainly because Mai had explained exactly where any one of the forty-one other pointy objects she had on her person could potentially go.

His cooperation had aggravated her. She knew that everyone, Sokka included, knew how important it was that this assassin be alive and interrogated, but there was nothing more she wanted at this point than to tear this bastard apart.

Just half an excuse. Something she could twist into 'self-defence'. It would be her word against his, and she was quite certain he would be incapable of saying a thing.

But it seemed that she was altogether too good at non-verbal communication, even in near-pitch darkness, and the worm stayed quiet.

Presently, guards arrived, drawn to the screams, and enthusiastically dragged away the would-be murderer with much huffing and puffing.

It was about this point that Sokka woke up.

"Wha- what's- I've gone blind!"

Mai slammed the door on the guards, and rushed to the bedside.

"It's all dark! Is someone-" he grabbed in the dark, and their hands met "Mai? Is that you?"

"Genius," she breathed, covering up her palpable relief.

"Mai, I can't see! What am I going to do? I can't even earthbend!"

Mai rolled her eyes.

"Sokka, you can't see anything because it's the middle of the night. I haven't lit any lamps."

"Oh. Oh, oh that's okay then. Could you light one, please? Just in case?"

"Fine," she grumbled, and reluctantly moved away to light the lamp. Soon, a soft orange glow filled the bedroom. Sokka still looked pale, for him, but he was alive and moving and that was good enough for her right now.

"Um, Mai?" he said, trying to sit up, and gasping in pain, before noticing the bandages all over his chest. "Why am I bandaged up in bed? What happened?"

Mai blinked. He didn't remember? She hurried to her seat, and sat facing him.

His eyes focused on her face.

"You've been crying."

Mai snorted. "What did you expect? You'd been shot in the chest. You know me, assume the worst."

"You thought-" he shook his head, focusing on the matter at hand. "All I remember is us taking a walk through the palace grounds, and then something really, really hurt. I must have blacked out."

"You did, and it probably saved you from a second shot. Someone tried to kill you."

His eyes widened slightly. "Me? ...Really?"

"Yes."

"You're sure I didn't do something heroic? Like dive in front of an arrow meant for you or something?" He was rambling, but Mai couldn't help but smile.

"Sorry. They were definitely after you. It's to be expected, I suppose. Your little club has got you involved in the secessionists' issue so much, they've started putting two and two together."

"But-" he's straining, trying to figure everything out now, and this is one of the reasons he needs Mai, to tell him when he's being stupid.

"Sokka, you can worry about it tomorrow. You need to rest. No arguments."

Sokka smiled. "Yes Ma'am."

She leant forward, and their lips met, before getting better acquainted.

"Hmm- ah!"

Sokka winced, and Mai jerked upwards, eyes flicking open. She had placed a hand on his chest.

"Sorry."

"Not a problem," he said, with a wry smile. "Just keep that in mind for a little while, could you?"

She rolled her eyes. "I'll do my best."

The joking helped, but she knew it would be a while before she could fully put the sight of a black shaft lodged in Sokka's chest out of her mind.

–-

And we're done. This has burnt me out almost completely, taken every idea I have had in the past month and half-realised them, failed to express them properly, and in some cases made me rage-delete them. I never got the cactus juice scenario I was so looking forward to down right, or the one with the windmill where I got to make the sweet Don Quixote reference. It has been, with only a few exceptions, been a constant strain of agh I didn't edit that at all, agh that was such a piece of ass, agh I could have done that so much better. It has deprived me of sleep, and even made me feel the need to stop writing Mai and Sokka for a while, something I was fairly sure would never happen.

I wouldn't have missed it for a god-damn thing. Props to everyone who participated, and also mad props to Loopy777 look what you have done, I hope you're feeling pleased with yourself.