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it wouldn’t be that bright of me to say I had no choice

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Zuko wakes up in the dark in a small, cramped space.

< Zuko? > Lee says groggily.

< I'm here, > Zuko says. Their head aches. Everything feels bruised. He shifts, trying to figure out where they are, and curses as something sharp stabs into their thigh.

"Mother Sky!"

"No move," a ragged voice snaps.

"Mai Six Two Four?" Zuko says uncertainly.

"Who else?" she says witheringly.

Okay. Well, she doesn't sound happy.

"Hey, fuck you too," Lee says. Something wet drips onto their stomach and soaks through their shirt. Zuko frowns. Their head is swimming, and everything still hurts.

"What happened?" he says.

"Andalite bandit," Mai Six Two Four says shortly, and Zuko remembers the sister's friend smirking with their face and the floor falling away.

"Ah," he says. He gropes for their phone and finds it, then turns on the flashlight. It lights up brilliantly and illuminates the space. It's even smaller than he thought, and mostly filled up by Mai Six Two Four, who's wrapped around them.

And holding up the collapsed ceiling on her shoulders.

Oh, hell.

The wetness drips onto their stomach again, and Zuko looks down and hisses in horror. There's a piece of rebar jutting up from the broken-up floor between their legs and sticking through Mai Six Two Four's sluggishly-bleeding abdomen. The wound looks bad, covered in blue-green blood, and with the rebar stuck in it it isn't healing.

"You're bleeding!" he says.

"Mai Six Two Four noticed," she growls, audibly pained.

"Is that gonna kill you?" Lee asks warily, touching the rebar gingerly and wincing as Mai Six Two Four growls again.

"Mai Six Two Four not know," she grunts. Neither does Zuko. It's a lot of blood, and he doesn't know if any vital organs are damaged.

He feels sick, for obvious reasons.

"Mother Sky," he says again, throat tight.

"No worry about," Mai Six Two Four says. The collapsed ceiling makes a dangerous grinding noise above them, and they stiffen.

"Can you keep holding that?" Zuko says. Mai Six Two Four already looks exhausted, and the pain she's in is obvious in every line of her.

"Who else going to?" she says tersely.

"Good question," Lee says, looking at their phone. The battery's only half-charged and they only have one bar, but it's there. "Hey, how useless do you think calling somebody would be?"

"Very," Mai Six Two Four says. Lee pulls up Azula Eight Nine Five's number anyway and hits the call button, putting the phone to their ear.

"Hi, it's Ty Lee!" Azula Eight Nine Five's voice chirps. It's her voicemail. "Sorry I'm not here right now, leave a message and I'll get back to you super quick!"

"You'd better not be dead," Lee says tightly, then hangs up and looks at Mai Six Two Four again. "We're probably fucked."

"Probably," Mai Six Two Four agrees.

"I'm sorry," Zuko says.

"Why?" she says.

"He morphed my host," Zuko says. "It's my fault he was in there."

"That stupid," Mai Six Two Four says.

"It's true," Zuko says.

"You stupid," Mai Six Two Four says in exasperation. Zuko frowns at her. "Shut up. Figure out how get out of here."

"How far did we fall?" Zuko says.

"Far," Mai Six Two Four says.

"Like two stories far, or like sixty stories far?" Lee asks.

"Mai Six Two Four not know," Mai Six Two Four says.

"Great," Lee mutters. "Well, we didn't break anything, so it can't have been that far. I don't think, anyway."

"When human bones break?" Mai Six Two Four asks.

"I really wish I knew," Lee says with a sigh. The ceiling makes that noise again, and again they freeze. "Oh, I don't like the sound of that."

"Ceiling heavy," Mai Six Two Four says tersely. Her arms are just barely trembling. Zuko is feeling increasingly like they're running out of time. He looks around the space again, trying to figure out what to do, but no brilliant ideas are forthcoming. Hell, no stupid ideas are forthcoming.

They're going to die.

Dammit.

Dammit.

< I have a stupid idea, > Lee says.

< You do? > Zuko blinks. Lee looks at Mai Six Two Four.

< Think she can keep holding up the ceiling if we acquire her? > Lee asks.

< What?! >

< We don't have a stronger morph than a Hork-Bajir, > Lee says. < Definitely nothing that can hold up a ceiling. >

< That's not the part I'm upset about, Lee! > Zuko hisses.

< We're going to die otherwise, > Lee says.

< We don't know that! > Zuko says.

Then the ceiling creaks again, and something in it shifts and it drops a few inches. Mai Six Two Four grunts in pain, arms trembling harder as she bows under the weight.

Fuck.

"Mai Six Two Four," he says roughly.

"Figure. Something. Out," Mai Six Two Four growls.

"I'm trying!" Zuko says. She glares at him.

"If Zuko Five Three Three die, Mai Six Two Four not forgive," she says.

"Yeah, okay, but you have to survive yourself for that to actually be a threat," Lee says. Her glare darkens.

"Stupid," she says. The ceiling creaks again. The tremble in her arms is spreading. "Zuko—"

"We're working on it," Lee says. < We need to morph. Either her host, or something small enough to get out. >

< We're not leaving her! > Zuko says.

< Then it's the other option, > Lee says.

< We can't— >

"Zuko Five Three Three," Mai Six Two Four says, her voice rough. All of Zuko's attention immediately snaps to her. "Mai Six Two Four is—sorry."

"'Sorry'?" Zuko repeats in bemusement.

"Not strong enough," she says.

"You are," Zuko says, chest aching in the way only she's ever made it ache.

She's going to die. They're all going to.

Unless . . .

Zuko steels himself, then throws their arms around Mai Six Two Four's neck and squeezes her tight, eyes screwed shut.

"I'm sorry," he says, and then he acquires her host.

And then he starts to morph.

"Zuko Five Three Three?" she says. Their fingers lengthen into talons, and he digs them in against her back. Their clothes tear at the shoulders.

"Sorry," he says. "I'm so sorry."

He can't just let her and Lee die, and he can't abandon her here.

"What?" she says.

"No kill us yet," Zuko says, because while thoughtspeak may be easier than a Hork-Bajir's clumsy mouth, a Hork-Bajir's mouth is still more familiar. "Let us get you out."

Lee lets go of Mai Six Two Four and they reach down and yank the twisted rebar out of her stomach. She snarls in pain, staring at them in disbelief in the glaring light of their phone's flashlight.

"How," she says roughly.

"Long story," Zuko says humorlessly, then pushes the ceiling up and off her shoulders. It creaks dangerously, but it holds. Mai Six Two Four sags in relief, clutching her still-bleeding stomach.

"How?" she demands again.

"No can tell you," Zuko says.

They could, but . . .

But.

"Liar," Mai says, narrowing her eyes at them.

Well, she's not wrong.

"Can Mai Six Two Four dig out?" Zuko says. She takes her clawed hand away from her stomach. It's bloody, but not bleeding.

"Zuko Five Three Three's host can morph," she says. "Does Azula Eight Nine Five know?"

"No," Zuko says.

"You think she be in Ty Lee if she knew?" Lee snorts, which is . . . true, actually, and probably Azula Eight Nine Five is who'd be put in Lee if they were found out, assuming Ozai Three didn't kill her for not realizing what was going on in the first place.

Zuko . . . doesn't like that idea. Either the idea of Azula Eight Nine Five getting killed because of them, or the thought of her in Lee. They're both bad options.

Inevitable now, though. Mai Six Two Four's seen them morph. One of those things is happening.

< We can still get away! > Lee protests.

< We can get you away, > Zuko corrects. He'll starve without a Kandrona, after all.

< We'll figure something out! > Lee says. < You're always so damn defeatist. >

< It’s pragmatism, not defeatism, > Zuko says in exasperation. < And even if we hadn’t morphed they’d probably kill us for letting the Kandrona get blown up. They’re probably going to kill us all for that, actually. If we live. >

< Yeerks are idiots, > Lee says.

< Humans aren’t better, > Zuko grumbles.

< Did I say we were? >

“Is Zuko Five Three Three even listening?” Mai Six Two Four demands, which is when Zuko realizes she’s been talking.

“Talking to host,” he says. “Sorry.”

She looks at him and lets out an incredulous little laugh.

“Sorry,” she says in disgust. “Zuko Five Three Three is sorry.”

“Yes,” he says.

She growls at him. There’s nothing he can say.

“Can Mai dig out or not?” Lee asks impatiently.

“Mai Six Two Four not talking to you, host,” Mai Six Two Four snaps, and Zuko . . . blinks, slowly, and wonders how she can tell so easily.

But he wondered how she recognized him in Lee to begin with, too, he remembers.

“Mai going to get crushed,” Lee snaps back. Mai growls again.

“No fight,” Zuko says. “Mai Six Two Four. Please.”

Mai exhales roughly, glaring at them for a long moment, then turns her attention to the surrounding debris and starts inspecting it. Zuko assumes she’s trying to figure out if she can move any of it without killing them. Chances . . . might be slim.

He really hopes she can dig them out of here.

The other choice is leaving her here, and that . . . that’s not something he can do. At all.

That’s not something he’s going to do.

< We might be able to dig down from the top, you realize, > Lee points out dubiously.

< . . . maybe, then, > Zuko says. He doesn’t like the idea of putting the ceiling on Mai Six Two Four’s shoulders again, though.

Mai Six Two Four frowns at the nearest pile of broken concrete, then starts clawing at it. The ceiling creaks, but not as concerningly loudly as before. Zuko still feels concerned, though. The concrete shifts under Mai Six Two Four’s claws, grinding unpleasantly, and he winces. It’s definitely dangerous, but so is staying here. They can’t hold up the ceiling forever any more than Mai Six Two Four could’ve.

Mai Six Two Four is excruciatingly careful with her digging, which is definitely the right kind of careful to be, and as it is crumbling bits of concrete still keep falling from the ceiling. Lee is restless, and Zuko does his best to soothe his consciousness but it isn’t particularly effective. Well . . . no surprise, given the situation.

They’re doing all they can do, though, so it’s the best he's got.

Mother Sky, he hopes this works.

.

.

.

Ty Lee wakes up in so much pain. She’s gotten used to pain, with Azula in her head these past few months—Azula is merciless with both her, herself, and other people—but this is different. This is sharp and physical and intense.

She’s laying on her back, struggling to breathe. Most of the ceiling’s fallen in, and the floor’s in pieces. She can’t see Lee or the Hork-Bajir—Mai—anywhere. They fell really far, Ty Lee remembers vaguely, but she doesn’t remember much else.

The Kandrona’s been destroyed.

She remembers that.

She tries to figure out if she can move without making the pain worse. The answer is a resounding “no”.

“Ah,” she chokes, agony stabbing through her limbs and ribs and head, and she hears Azula hiss in her mind. She braces herself, but Azula grabs onto her as viciously as she always does and wrenches control away from her.

Ty Lee used to worry a lot about how much that probably hurt Lee, too, but somehow she doesn’t think Zuko is like that.

She just . . . hasn’t gotten that impression.

"Dammit," Azula hisses. She tries to move, even with Ty Lee’s memories to warn her otherwise. Generally speaking, Azula ignores Ty Lee’s memories, so Ty Lee’s not surprised.

It really hurts, though.

< Are you okay? > she asks reflexively, although technically it's her pain that Azula’s feeling. Azula ignores her and tries to move again, and curses viciously when fresh pain tears through them. Ty Lee's not sure Azula won't keep trying to move, pain or not, but it can't be good for her body to be trying.

Her arm's kind of . . . twisted. And her leg is . . . crooked, maybe.

That's definitely bad.

"Humans take too long to heal," Azula mutters roughly, their breathing still labored and voice cracking. Ty Lee doesn't think she's going to like finding out that broken bones take humans weeks to heal, but Azula's not paying enough attention to her to know it right now.

They can't move. So that’s . . . bad, definitely. Ty Lee wonders if she won’t be a good host anymore, after this. Azula definitely won’t want to be stuck in bed healing up. Maybe they’ll put someone else in her for a while.

Maybe they’ll just kill her.

Everything hurts so bad.

Azula doesn’t know what to do with a body that won’t listen to her, and Ty Lee can feel her frustration and anger bleeding out of her consciousness, but mostly what she’s feeling is the pain. It’s . . . a lot of pain.

It’s very hard to think past.

Ty Lee’s gotten pretty good at thinking past pain, and she wasn’t bad at it to start, but this is the worst that anything’s ever hurt in her life.

She almost says something to Azula, but that’s very rarely a good idea.

They lie there in pain, breathing labored and body useless, because they can’t do anything else. Ty Lee feels dull and distant and has a hard time staying alert. Maybe she shouldn’t bother, but . . .

It really does hurt.

She’s not sure what else to do. She feels like if she drifts away, she won’t come back, and it’s . . . terrifying, actually.

She wishes Lee were here, and then her consciousness cringes as she remembers, again—Lee. He was here too, but she still doesn’t see him anywhere. She hasn’t heard his voice, either. Did he and Zuko fall as far as she and Azula did? Or farther?

Is he dead?

Mai is probably fine, in a Hork-Bajir, but humans aren’t anything like Hork-Bajir. Maybe Lee’s dead. Maybe he’s as bad off as her, and the Yeerks will just kill him for it. Maybe she’ll never see him again, maybe it’s already too late, maybe—

< Shut up, > Azula snaps, her mental voice cracking like a whip.

Ty Lee tries to stop thinking about it, to clear her mind, but it’s not easy. She still feels dull and distant and like she could just drift away at any moment. Azula makes an irritated noise, then grabs onto her consciousness and squeezes. Ty Lee gasps in pain.

< Don’t you dare die, you useless creature, > Azula growls. < You don’t have my permission. >

Ty Lee almost laughs, but of course . . . of course Azula would think of it that way.

She wonders what would happen to Azula if she died. Probably something bad, if Azula doesn’t want her to.

She doesn’t want to die.

< Then don’t! > Azula snaps, and it really does . . . it almost sounds like an actual choice, when she says it.

Ty Lee doesn’t know how not to die, is the problem.

.

.

.

On the news, the EGS tower is half-collapsed and smoking, and Katara stares at it in disbelief and doesn’t know what to think. It was probably full of Controllers, if it really was where the Kandrona is, but it was also full of hosts, and if the Kandrona’s been destroyed . . .

“What happened?” Aang says, sounding horrified.

< Good question, > Sokka says, scratching behind his ear. It’s just the three of them, because Suki’s at gymnastics and Toph’s dealing with her parents and Lu Ten is in his meadow and Jet’s . . . Katara’s not sure where Jet is, actually. Maybe with his friends? She knows he hasn’t seen them lately.

They’re at Gran-Gran’s house, sitting in her living room, and they were just watching the news to see if anything suspicious was happening. This . . . this is a lot more than “suspicious”.

“Do you think they did it themselves?” Katara asks after quickly checking that Gran-Gran hasn’t come back from the barn.

< Why would they? > Sokka asks.

“I don’t know, just . . . who else could’ve done it?” Katara says. “Who else would’ve?”

< Literally any one of us, probably, given the opportunity, > Sokka says.

“We can’t sacrifice that many hosts,” Aang says tightly, his hands curling into fists against his thighs.

< Looks like somebody did. >

“We don’t know that,” Katara says.

< It had to be somebody who knew the Kandrona was there, > Sokka says. < No way this was an accident. >

“We already agreed we weren’t going to attack it!” Aang says.

“We know, Aang,” Katara says. “I don’t understand.”

< Well . . . not to be incredibly suspicious, but where’s Lu Ten? > Sokka asks.

“In his meadow,” Aang says. “He said he was going to read some more of the science books we brought him.”

< Okay, then it was Jet. >

“What?!” Katara demands. “How on earth do you figure that?!”

< Because it was definitely one of those two, > Sokka says matter-of-factly. < What, you think Ozai Three did it? >

“Jet wouldn’t!” Katara says hotly.

< Somebody did, though, > Sokka says. < And the options for that “somebody” are incredibly limited. >

“It could’ve been anyone!” Katara says. “Or an accident! We don’t know!”

“We should call the others,” Aang says, glancing worriedly at the TV again. “We need to do something about this.”

< Like what? > Sokka says, cocking his head.

“I don’t know,” Aang says. “But we at least need to talk about it.”

“Fine,” Katara says. “I’ll call Jet.”

“I’ll call Toph,” Aang says.

< I would call Suki, but . . . >

“I’ll call her too,” Aang says. “And we can meet Lu Ten in the meadow.”

< Yeah, that works. >

“Okay,” Katara says, then gets out her phone and calls Jet. It rings a few times, but he picks up before it goes to voicemail.

“Hey, Katara,” he says easily. “What’s up?”

“Something happened,” Katara says, because she doesn’t know where he is or who he’s with, and they avoid going into too much detail on the phone anyway. “We’re meeting in the meadow.”

“No problem,” Jet says. “Should I bring anything?”

“No,” she says. “Just get there as soon as you can, okay?”

“On it,” he says.

“Okay,” she says. “And—be careful, okay?”

“Of course,” he says. “See you in a few.”

“See you in a few,” Katara repeats, and ends the call. Aang’s already talked to Toph, and he’s just started leaving a message for Suki. She’s probably still at practice, Katara thinks, so she might be late. Toph could be too, of course—sometimes it’s harder for her to get away from her parents than others. Jet’ll be there quick, though. He always is.

They head to the meadow and find Lu Ten standing under a tree, looking up at the sky. Katara can’t really understand Andalite expressions, as much as she’d like to, but he seems . . . sad, maybe.

“Everything okay?” Aang asks.

< Yes, Prince Aang, > Lu Ten says, looking over to them. < Apologies. I was not expecting you. >

< Yeah, some shit went down, > Sokka says frankly, circling the tree to sniff around it. He does things like that more and more often these days. Katara’s not sure if he’s just letting the wolfdog’s instincts out a little more often or if he’s practicing seeming more like a wolfdog. It could easily be either. < Remember the EGS Tower? >

< The location of the Kandrona, yes, > Lu Ten says.

< Well, somebody blew it up. >

< What? > Lu Ten’s eyes widen, all four of them focusing intently on Sokka. Sokka scratches behind an ear.

< Yeah, we have no idea what happened, > he says.

“It was on the news,” Aang says. “At least the top couple of floors were destroyed. So . . . exactly where the Kandrona was, we’re pretty sure.”

< When? > Lu Ten says.

“About an hour ago,” Aang says. “Like Sokka said, we don’t know what happened. The news didn’t have any idea.”

< It cannot have been an accident, > Lu Ten says. < Something must have happened. >

“We don’t know that,” Katara says.

< Well, we’re kinda torn on the issue, > Sokka says. < So, you didn’t do it? >

< What? > Lu Ten says, cocking his head and sounding puzzled. < No. Prince Aang forbid us to go there. >

< Yeah, so my bet’s on Jet, personally, > Sokka says.

“You’re jumping to conclusions!” Katara snaps.

< Why would he do that? > Lu Ten says.

< For one thing, because he doesn’t listen to Aang like you do, > Sokka says matter-of-factly. < For another, because I’m pretty sure he’s crazy. >

“He is not!” Katara says.

“We don’t know what happened,” Aang says uncomfortably. “The Yeerks could’ve messed something up.”

< To the point they would destroy the Kandrona? > Lu Ten asks in bemusement. < How? >

“We don’t know,” Katara says. “Anything could’ve happened.”

< To the Kandrona? > Lu Ten repeats incredulously. < They would be likelier to crash Ozai Three’s Blade Ship! >

“Well, it wasn’t Jet!” Katara says defensively. “He wouldn’t do that!”

< Yes he would, because he’s crazy, > Sokka says.

“He is not!”

“We called the others,” Aang tells Lu Ten. “They’ll be here soon. Well, maybe not Suki. I left her a message, though.”

< Including Jet? > Lu Ten says.

“Of course including Jet!” Katara says.

< We do kinda need to talk to him, > Sokka says, glancing at Lu Ten. < It was him or you, pretty much. And you’re here, so . . . >

“We don’t even know where Jet is right now!” Katara says in exasperation.

< Yeah, that’s kinda my point? >

“He can tell us when he gets here,” Aang says. Katara glares at Sokka. She has no idea why he’s so convinced Jet would do something as crazy as blowing up a building full of Controllers, especially alone. They already decided not to go after the Kandrona because of the collateral damage. Why would he do something like that? How would he?

“He will,” she says stubbornly, folding her arms.

He will, obviously. And they’ll figure out what happened, and it won’t have been him. Obviously. She has no idea what the Yeerks might’ve done, accidental or not, but it had to have been them. Hell, they don’t even know if the Kandrona was actually still there! It could be anywhere right now!

< We should call Zuko and Lee, too, > Sokka says. < Maybe they’ll know what happened. >

“What, right now?” Aang asks, blinking at him in surprise.

< Okay, probably not, > Sokka says, cocking his head. < That might be suspicious, I don’t know if Yeerks keep track of each others’ call histories or anything. But tonight, maybe? >

“Like they’d even tell us the truth,” Katara mutters.

< I mean, they don’t really lie that often, so . . . >

“Are you kidding? They didn’t tell us they were a Controller!” she says.

< Yeah, well, we didn’t exactly ask them about it, did we? > Sokka shrugs. < I mean, I’m sure they would’ve lied, but still. Extenuating circumstances. >

“You know we can’t trust them, Sokka,” Katara says in frustration.

< I’m not trying to trust them, I’m trying to figure out who just murdered who knows how many Yeerks and hosts, > Sokka says. < Because that is, again, the action of a crazy person. >

“It wasn’t Jet!” Katara snaps.

< Are we admitting he’s crazy, then? >

“Sokka!”

“Guys, please!” Aang says, looking stressed. “We’ll figure it out, and we’ll do . . . something.”

< I am not certain of what we could do, Prince Aang, > Lu Ten says, shaking his head. < We can hardly undestroy a Kandrona. >

“We’ll figure it out,” Aang repeats. “Maybe it really wasn’t there.”

< That seems unlikely, after the Ellimist went to the trouble to show it to us, > Lu Ten says.

“Maybe that’s why he showed us?” Aang says uncertainly. “The Yeerks might’ve been planning to move it.”

< It was in the same place in the future, though, > Sokka says. < And we didn’t do anything to make them move it, right? >

“I don’t think so,” Aang says, frowning to himself. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“We might’ve,” Katara says. She doesn’t know what that would’ve been, but hell, maybe Zuko told them to move it. He might be high-ranking enough to do that, for all they know. He reports directly to Azula, so . . .

< Jet’s coming, > Sokka says, tilting his head to sniff the air before looking towards the trees, and Katara immediately feels defensive again. Sokka didn’t even say it as anything but a statement of fact, but she knows he’s suspicious of Jet, so she can’t help it.

“Good,” she says, folding her arms. “He’ll tell us where he was, then.”

< Or he’ll lie through his teeth, > Sokka says.

“Stop assuming!” Katara snaps.

“I guess he wasn’t very far,” Aang says, looking towards the trees too. “If he’s here already, I mean.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Katara says.

< He didn’t say it did, > Sokka says reasonably. Katara scowls at him. Jet appears out of the trees and lifts a hand in a lazy wave of greeting. She waves back; after a beat, Aang does too, and Jet makes his way across the meadow towards them, sticking his hands in his pockets as he walks.

“Well, I was careful,” he tells them. “What’s up?”

“The Kandrona’s been destroyed,” Aang says, and Jet blinks at him, tilting his head.

“I thought we weren’t doing that?” he says. He looks puzzled, and Katara feels validated.

“We didn’t,” Aang says.

< We didn’t, > Sokka says, eyeing Jet suspiciously.

“We don’t know what happened,” Katara says. “Someone blew up the EGS tower.”

“Like, on purpose?” Jet says.

“We don’t know,” Katara says. “The top floors were destroyed. Exactly where the Kandrona should’ve been. The Yeerks might’ve had some kind of accident with it.”

< Unlikely, > Lu Ten says. < A Kandrona is not explosive. >

“So definitely on purpose,” Jet says.

< Yes. >

< You got here quick, > Sokka says. Jet gives him another puzzled look, then shrugs.

“Yeah,” he says. “I was flying. Katara caught me right after.”

“All morning?” Aang asks.

“Well, an hour and fifty-nine minutes of it,” Jet says wryly.

“Mm,” Aang says. Sokka doesn’t look any less suspicious, but it’s not like none of them have ever done that before. Flying is one of the best things about morphing, and Jet hasn’t been subtle about loving it just as much as the rest of them.

Admittedly, Sokka never got a chance to.

Katara pushes that thought away and makes herself focus on the conversation before Sokka can start making wild accusations or something equally problematic. They don’t need to be having stupid fights just because he got another dumb idea in his stubborn head.

“Well, it’s going to be another hour and fifty-nine minutes. We need to check out the tower,” she says. Sokka makes a grumbly wolfish sound, but doesn’t say anything. “I think we should head over when Toph and Suki get here and do a fly-by.”

“You think we’d be able to see anything?” Aang says.

“I don’t know, but it’s better than sitting around waiting for the Yeerks to give the news a cover story, right?” Katara says.

< Valid, > Sokka allows. < Although we should probably keep an eye on the news anyway. Maybe they’ll catch something. >

“Somebody can watch on their phone and the rest of us can do the fly-by,” Aang says, pulling his own out and looking at the screen. It’s been a while since they saw the initial report, so Katara assumes he’s about to check for updates on the situation. She leans over to see the phone and Jet leans over too, looking curious and flicking the straw in his mouth from one side to the other. Aang opens up the local news app and, unsurprisingly, the explosion is being talked about live. Katara doubts anything more interesting is going on in town right now.

It seems like nobody knows anything, still, but the chances of anyone not a Controller getting anywhere near that building are pretty low, she’s sure. They don’t know exactly how many Controllers are in the local government and police, but they’re definitely there, and if they’re there, they’re probably in somebody important.

Honestly Katara has no idea why Azula and Zuko are in high school students, all things considered. It seems like a strange choice, especially if they’re actually important.

“I guess there’s still no news, really,” Aang says, frowning at his phone.

< Toph’s coming, > Sokka says. < Also she sounds grouchy. >

“Sounds?” Katara asks reflexively.

< She’s talking to herself, > Sokka says. < Sounds like her parents were being, you know, them again. >

“Ah,” Katara says.

“It should not be easier for the guy with Controllers for parents to get out here,” Jet says with a snort. Katara shoots him a worried glance, but if he’s upset, it’s not showing. Well . . . most of them make jokes about bad things. And she guesses if anyone can, it’s Jet.

“Ow!” Toph yells from the trees. Sokka gets to his feet.

< I’m gonna go get her, > he says, and bounds off. Katara stomps on the urge to follow him. Toph’s stubborn, and she wouldn’t appreciate the extra attention. Anyway, she probably just stepped on a sharp branch or something. Toph knows the woods around Lu Ten’s meadow as well as can be expected, but no one can expect a forest to stay exactly the same all the time.

Sokka comes back a minute later, Toph holding onto his collar and grumbling the whole way.

“What’s so important I had to come all the way out here in the middle of my homework?” she asks in annoyance as they approach.

< The Kandrona has been destroyed, > Lu Ten says.

“. . . okay, that’s kinda important.”

“Yeah.” Aang sticks his phone in his pocket, looking worried. “Someone blew up the top of the EGS Tower. We don’t know who.”

“Huh.” Toph tilts her head. “Weird.”

“We’re going to go check it out,” Katara says. “Do a flyover.”

“Ugh.” Toph makes a face. “Birds are the worst.”

“Birds are our best chance to get a good look at things,” Katara says.

“Yeah, it’s the ‘look’ part I’ve got a problem with,” Toph says dubiously. “What are we even trying to find out? Whoever did it’s got to be long gone.”

“There might be a clue there,” Aang says. “Or the Yeerks might know something.”

< If they do, whoever did it is surely already dead, > Lu Ten says.

“Maybe not,” Katara says. “And if there’s someone else out there trying to fight back . . .”

< Someone crazy enough to murder that many people? > Sokka asked skeptically.

“They might not have known,” Katara says. “We didn’t.”

< I mean, we figured it out. >

“Maybe some other Andalites actually escaped?” Aang says, still frowning.

< They would have done something before now, surely, > Lu Ten says, shaking his head. < They would have answered my call, if nothing else. >

“I guess,” Aang says with a sigh. “I just don’t know who else it could be.”

“It could still be an accident,” Katara says. “Maybe they messed something up.”

< A Kandrona is not explosive, > Lu Ten reminds her.

“It could’ve been security,” Jet says with a shrug, folding his arms. “Some kind of emergency self-destruct thing.”

< Yeerks do not do that, > Lu Ten says.

“What, none of them? Ever?” Jet says, giving him a doubtful look.

< Not to a Kandrona. >

“We’re still assuming it was still there,” Katara says. “Zuko could’ve ratted us out. This could be some kind of trick.”

“Good point,” Jet says.

“I really doubt Slimer wants to die that bad,” Toph snorts, scruffing Sokka’s fur. “So are we going now or are we waiting?”

“Now,” Aang decides. “We need to know what’s going on over there. We’ve already waited too long.”

“I’ll text Suki,” Katara says, pulling out her phone. “I’ll tell her to meet us at the barn when she can get away.”

< Tell her hi, > Sokka says, wagging his tail. < And that I miss her. And that she looks really pretty today. >

“Have you even seen her today?” Katara asks dryly.

< I don’t see how that’s relevant. >

Katara rolls her eyes, then texts Suki to meet them at the barn. She doesn’t text back, and checking the time, she’s almost definitely still at practice. Waiting for her is definitely going to take too long, Aang’s right. And this really might be a trick, so it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if they don’t all go together. Splitting up’s probably smartest.

“We should go separately,” she says. “In case there’s a trap.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Aang says with a nod. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Ugh, I hate recon missions,” Toph says, making a face. “Especially bird ones.”

< Well, you could take me for a walk around the block, > Sokka suggests. < If we’re going separately anyway, I mean. Like, if we can, you know . . . not be suspicious or whatever. I have no idea how suspicious rubbernecking would be in this situation. >

“Pretty suspicious, since I can’t see anything to rubberneck over,” Toph says dryly, passing a hand in front of her face.

“You guys can stay back a bit,” Aang says. “The rest of us’ll morph our birds of prey. Lu Ten and I’ll go from the north, and Katara and Jet can go from the south. And you two can stay on the ground and keep an ear on the news.”

“Oh, fine,” Toph says grudgingly. “But if something goes down, I call dibs on Ozai Three.”

“I really, really hope that doesn’t happen,” Aang says with a grimace.

“It’ll be fine, Aang,” Katara reassures him. “If it’s a trap, we’ll handle it.”

< I still seriously doubt Lee and Zuko gave us up, > Sokka says skeptically. < Like, that seems wildly against their best interests. >

“Well, maybe they just fucked up,” Jet says with a shrug. “Nobody’s perfect.”

< . . . okay, fair point. >

< Should I morph into my human or my northern harrier, Prince Aang? > Lu Ten asks.

“Human,” Aang decides. “We’ll get into town and then morph, it’ll give us more time to look around.”

< Very well, > Lu Ten says, and starts to morph. Katara looks to Jet; he looks back at her with an easy smile.

“Ready to roll, partner?” he asks.

“Ready,” Katara says firmly. They’ll figure out what happened, and they’ll do . . . something about it. She’s not sure what, but they’ll figure that out too.

And if it’s a trap, well, then the Yeerks will regret ever setting it.

.

.

.

Zuko Five Three Three’s host can morph.

Mai Six Two Four focuses on digging through the concrete without bringing the ceiling down on their collective heads. Her host is restless and worried, but she ignores him. He isn’t the one who has to dig or the one holding up the ceiling right now.

Zuko Five Three Three’s host can morph.

Mai Six Two Four exhales, and digs at the concrete and debris. It makes an unpleasant scraping noise under her claws.

Azula Eight Nine Five might be dead.

And Zuko Five Three Three’s host can morph.

Mai Six Two Four is very, very certain that that’s not something Azula Eight Nine Five knows. She’d be in it, if she knew, and Zuko Five Three Three said she didn't anyway. And Ozai Three . . .

No. Ozai Three definitely doesn’t know.

But Mai Six Two Four does.

Zuko Five Three Three is . . . so stupid, she thinks.

So stupid.

She exhales. She digs at the concrete and debris. Zuko Five Three Three’s phone lights up the space dimly, and her host continues to worry. He thinks he might never see his mate again. He’s not wrong, so Mai Six Two Four doesn’t argue. He’s not being distracting, anyway; he’s always been a reasonably quiet host.

“Any luck?” Zuko Five Three Three’s host asks. Mai Six Two Four pauses to glower back over her shoulder at him. “Just asking.”

“Mai Six Two Four being careful,” Mai Six Two Four says shortly. “Zuko Five Three Three’s host shut up.”

“Whatever,” he grumbles. Zuko Five Three Three lets him talk so much. He never let his last host do that.

Mai Six Two Four doesn’t know what she’s supposed to think about that.

“Sorry,” Zuko Five Three Three says.

“Stupid,” Mai Six Two Four mutters, then goes back to digging. She’s trying to dig upwards, but doing that without getting them crushed by something isn’t easy. Hork-Bajir aren’t natural diggers, either, no matter how useful their blades and claws are for it.

Zuko Five Three Three's host can morph.

Mai Six Two Four shakes the thought off. She digs. The ceiling creaks overhead.

Zuko Five Three Three’s host can morph.

And Azula Eight Nine Five doesn’t know.

Mai Six Two Four considers herself a clever Yeerk, but it doesn’t take a clever Yeerk to know that Zuko Five Three Three’s host shouldn’t be able to morph. Andalites don’t share their technology with other species. Andalites don’t share anything with other species, much less their greatest and most infamous weapon. There’s no way a host from a backwards planet like this one would possibly be able to morph, and no way Zuko Five Three Three wouldn’t have immediately reported the ability upon first infesting it either.

So Zuko Five Three Three’s host couldn’t morph, before.

So Zuko Five Three Three’s host somehow got the ability to morph while a host, and Zuko Five Three Three didn’t tell anyone about it.

Mai Six Two Four can’t resolve that fact. Zuko Five Three Three has always been loyal to a fault to the Empire. He’s never done anything that would make this make sense. Not in her experience of him, anyway, and she knew him for a long, long time before Azula Eight Nine Five requested him for this invasion. How much could he possibly have changed in the handful of months since then?

She doesn’t like the thought that he could’ve changed that much.

But he let her know his host can morph.

Mai Six Two Four doesn’t like the thought that Zuko Five Three Three could’ve changed so much in the time they’ve been apart, but . . .

But he let her know his host can morph.

Maybe he didn’t have a choice. Maybe his host doesn’t have a morph small enough or strong enough to escape this situation without her help. Maybe he’ll kill her as soon as she digs them out. Maybe he’s nothing like the Yeerk she knew, and this is the last thing she’ll ever do.

Maybe he’s different, and she doesn’t know him at all anymore.

Somehow, Mai Six Two Four feels, that’s the worst thought.

.

.

.

They all head downtown together, and Sokka pretends that Toph is walking him while the others hide in an alley to morph their birds of prey. They’ve done the dog-walking act before, so he’s not worried about anyone thinking it’s strange to see them together. Everyone who sees him on a regular basis thinks he belongs to Suki, of course, but Suki’s at practice right now and everyone knows that Toph runs off all the time.

He and Toph can only get so close to the tower, given all the police tape and the crowds around it, but it doesn't really matter; the others can get as close as they want. Police tape can't keep a falcon or an osprey away.

"This is so boring," Toph grumbles. They're a couple of streets over from the crowd, still close enough for Sokka to watch from a distance, and she’s listening to the latest news report on her phone. Sokka's half paying attention, but mostly watching the crowd. Said crowd isn't doing much but standing there, but so are they.

< I mean, most stakeouts are, > Sokka says.

"Yeah, so?" Toph retorts dubiously. "Doesn't mean it's any less annoying."

< Okay, fair, > Sokka says, scratching behind his ear with a hind leg. < But it could be worse, we could be the ones stuck at gymnastics practice. >

"At least that's doing something," Toph grumbles, winding the end of his leash around her fist restlessly.

< Hey, don't pull, > Sokka huffs. < What, are you trying to choke me? >

"Oh, sorry." Toph loosens her grip on the leash. Sokka scratches at his collar. He doesn't really mind wearing it, but occasionally it's kind of weird. Having to remind his friends not to yank at it is one of those occasions.

< It's cool, > he says. < Wanna try going around the back? Maybe we can get close enough to talk to the others. >

"Does it matter?" Toph says. "They'll be back soon enough."

< Yeah, I guess, > Sokka says. < It's something to do, though. >

"You know, fair enough," Toph says, resting her hand on his ruff with a crooked smirk. "Let's do it."

< You know Katara hates it when you say that in crowded public spaces. >

"Lead the way, Warrior," Toph says, smirk widening into a grin.

< No turning into an elephant downtown, okay? There's security cameras and witnesses and limited amounts of space. >

"Aw, you're no fun."

They walk around the circumference of the disaster, looking for gaps in the crowd or suspicious Yeerk-y behavior. At least, Sokka's looking for that; Toph is just concentrating on walking without running into anything or anyone. Sokka warns her about curbs and crosswalks, obviously, but he's mostly focused on the Yeerk-hunting. He hasn't seen any Controllers they know, at least, but most of the Controllers they know are either dead or have day jobs or really would not blend into this crowd.

Sokka looks up at the tower and sees a pair of familiar birds flying towards it.

Okay, cool. Plan's going to plan, then. Hopefully Jet just doesn't do anything crazy and things should be fine.

Toph’s phone rings. It's Suki’s ringtone, and Sokka reflexively perks up. Toph answers it.

"Yeah?" she says.

"What's going on?" Suki says from the other end of the line. "Nobody else answered their phones, I was about to call Lee."

"Long story," Toph says. "Hey, did you hear about the EGS Tower?"

"What?" Suki says. "What about it?"

"It blew up."

"What?!"

"I said it was a long story," Toph says with a shrug.

"Toph!"

"Just meet us at the barn, we'll explain there," Toph says.

"I'm at the barn," Suki says. "Katara texted me about it."

"Then we'll be there in a bit, probably," Toph says. Sokka glances up at the sky overhead, but doesn't see any particularly notable birds in it. Definitely not anyone they know, at least.

< Tell her not to worry, > he says.

"Warrior says not to worry," Toph says.

"That isn't going to make me not worry," Suki says.

"Hey, I'm just the messenger," Toph replies with another shrug. "We'll be there when we can be there. Just chill with the horses for a while. Muck out a stall or something, I don't know."

"I have no idea how to do that, Toph," Suki says dryly.

“You’ve got time, figure it out,” Toph says.

“Tell Warrior I’ll see him soon, okay?” Suki says with a sigh. “And be safe.”

“Sounds boring, but okay,” Toph says. “See you later.”

“Okay.”

< We really gotta work on your reassuring voice, > Sokka says as Toph hangs up.

“What reassuring voice?” she says.

< That was kinda my point, yeah. >

Toph snorts. Sokka peers up at the sky again, then resumes leading her down the sidewalk. There’s no sign of any of the others up there, but he didn’t really expect to see them again yet. There’s a lot of smoke in the sky, and they’d have to be pretty high up by now. He just hopes they can see okay, because otherwise this is all gonna be pointless.

Also, they might fly directly into a trap. So that’s definitely a concern too.

He wishes Suki were here. He always feels better about these things when she’s around.

He kinda wishes Lee and Zuko were here too, though, because they could definitely use some insider info right about now. Maybe the Kandrona really wasn’t here anymore, or maybe this really was an accident, or maybe there really are Andalites besides Lu Ten out there and fighting. They really have no idea.

He’s still pretty sure Jet’s crazy, but that could be unrelated.

Maybe.

Maybe.

He’d really prefer if Katara weren’t the one with him right now, honestly. It’s not like Aang and Lu Ten are that far away, but . . . yeah, Sokka really doesn’t trust Jet any farther than he can throw the guy, and he doesn’t have hands to be throwing anyone with. If he’s going to pull something that might put Katara at risk, Sokka’s going to bite his stupid smirking face off.

Assuming he’s anywhere near him when it happens, he means.

He really hopes this isn’t all about to go to shit.

.

.

.

Aang swoops over the smoking top of the EGS Tower, peregrine falcon eyes sharp but still struggling to see through the smoke. He doesn’t see any actual flames, but there must be some somewhere. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, right?

< I do not see any signs of the Kandrona, Prince Aang, > Lu Ten says, flying past him. < But it may’ve fallen through the floor, given all the damage. >

< Let’s do another pass, > Aang says, tucking his wings in and falling into a shallow dive. Lu Ten follows him. Katara and Jet are on the far side of the building in her osprey and his golden eagle and haven’t reported back yet, so he’s assuming they haven’t found anything either. There’s a lot of damage to the building and a lot of smoke to get through, so that’s not exactly a surprise.

Aang flies through one of the shattered windows, hoping very hard they’re not about to run into a bunch of Controllers. There’s no sign of anyone in the wreckage, though. He perches on a broken piece of rebar jutting out from the wall, and Lu Ten settles down beside him.

< Should we demorph, Prince Aang? > he asks. Aang wishes he wouldn’t call him that sometimes, but he thinks it comforts Lu Ten to use the term, so he hasn’t really mentioned that. It’s not hurting anything, anyway.

< Maybe, > he says, looking around the ruined room. It’s probably not safe to demorph, but birds aren’t exactly designed for indoor searching. < You first. I’ll keep watch. >

< Very well, > Lu Ten says, dipping his head in a nod before fluttering down to the floor and beginning to demorph. Aang watches the broken door and crushed security camera. Its light isn’t on, so he’s fairly sure it’s not recording, but he’s definitely not gonna be morphing in front of it either way.

< Security camera, > he says, nodding towards it. Lu Ten’s tail slashes through it, and it falls to the floor in pieces. Aang hops down to the floor too and starts to demorph as Lu Ten searches the room. Lu Ten comes up empty, and Aang comes up human.

< I see nothing here that a Yeerk would’ve left, > Lu Ten says, turning over some scattered books and papers with his tail blade.

“Yeah, me either,” Aang says. He’s trying to figure out if he should morph into something else. Definitely not his bison; he doesn’t trust the damaged floor with that much weight. Staying human is probably a bad idea too, though. “Let’s look around some more, see what else is on this floor.”

< The Kandrona would’ve been a few floors above us, > Lu Ten says, gesturing towards the ceiling. < According to the Ellimist’s vision, anyway. >

“Yeah.” Aang bites his lip and looks up. He can see into and even through the ceiling in a couple of places, and the light fixtures are hanging off it and sparking irregularly. He doesn’t see anything that looks like it might be a Kandrona, though.

Not that he's really an expert on Kandronas, admittedly.

He morphs into his wolf for lack of a better idea, then starts sniffing around. Lu Ten follows him out into the hall, tail blade at the ready. Aang can smell humans, but also definitely Hork-Bajir, so that's pretty damning. Not that the Ellimist's vision wasn't already.

No one's around at the moment, though, and he doesn't hear or smell anyone close, so he just keeps sniffing around. Lu Ten keeps following him. Aang isn't sure what he's looking for, honestly, but he feels like he'll know it when he sees it. Or smells it. Or . . . whichever.

< Are there any survivors? > Lu Ten asks as he picks his way across the debris-strewn floor on delicate hooves.

< I don’t know, > Aang says. < I’m not smelling anyone, at least. I don’t know how many people might’ve been up here, though. >

< Presumably not many, > Lu Ten says. < I doubt the Yeerks would’ve wanted to risk the Kandrona by letting in the whole invasion force at once. >

< Yeah, > Aang says. It wouldn’t have been hard to morph a Controller and sneak in here, he’s betting, and obviously they wouldn’t have let normal humans up here. It makes sense the Yeerks would limit the amount of people with access. < Mmm. I’m not sure what we should do if we find someone. >

< Question and execute them, > Lu Ten replies matter-of-factly, cocking his tail. Aang doesn’t like that idea, but . . . well, he’s not sure what else they could do. It’s not like they could capture or restrain them.

He doesn’t know what they’re doing here. What are they even going to find, anyway?

They pass the elevator, which obviously isn’t working, and Aang looks at the stairwell. They should go up, he guesses. Going down isn’t going to find them much, except maybe Controllers.

< Come on, > he says, and pads into the stairwell and up the steps. He still can’t smell or hear anyone immediately around, though both humans and Hork-Bajir have definitely been in here today. Not anyone he recognizes, though.

< There must be Controllers here somewhere, > Lu Ten says, running a hand along the rail. The stairs are in better condition than the floor was, so at least they don’t have to worry about them giving out on them.

Hopefully.

< Maybe Katara was right. Maybe the Kandrona really is gone, > Aang says.

< Perhaps, > Lu Ten says. < But I cannot imagine why the explosion happened, then. >

< The Yeerks might be covering their tracks? > Aang guesses. < Getting rid of the evidence. >

< Perhaps, > Lu Ten says again. They reach the landing and Aang pokes his head out into the hall, sniffing testingly. He doesn’t smell any fresh scent or hear anyone moving. He’s not sure if that means they should just keep going up. They’re probably not learning much from empty floors and broken light fixtures, though.

< Let’s keep going, > he says, and they head up the next flight of stairs.

.

.

.

Suki is alone in the barn, except for the incredible amount of animals stuffed into the place. They’re not great company, honestly. She’s too worried about the others.

Maybe she should quit gymnastics. Admittedly it hasn't really gotten in the way too many times, but . . . yeah, maybe she should quit.

She's just really not enjoying being here by herself while everyone else probably risks their lives.

Toph was not reassuring on the phone.

Suki gets up and starts pacing. It's not helpful, but it's something to do. She's supposed to wait here, so she'll wait here, and the others are supposed to meet her here, so they'll meet her here, and everything will be fine. Definitely. Everything will be perfectly okay. This time isn't going to be the time something goes wrong.

Something always seems to go wrong, though. Especially since, well . . . everything with Lee and Zuko. Or maybe it just feels worse when things go wrong now because Lee and Zuko got so close, and because . . .

Thinking about this is also not helpful.

Goddammit.

Suki inhales. Exhales. Calms herself down. Worrying isn't going to help anything. The others have gone on plenty of missions. They'll be fine.

They'll be fine.

God, she hopes they're fine.

She starts pacing again. Back and forth, back and forth. She keeps her breathing even, and herself calm. She checks her phone for the umpteenth time, but it provides exactly zero new information about either the EGS Tower or what's happening with the others.

She's so tempted to call Lee. Zuko. Whichever one of them would answer the phone. Maybe they'd know something.

She's pretty sure Katara wouldn't forgive her for trying that, though, and it might be a suicidal idea anyway.

Lee and Zuko are just . . .

Well. They don't really know what Lee and Zuko are, do they. That's part of the problem with Lee and Zuko.

Suki sighs, then drops into a chair. There's nothing to do here but obsess uselessly over bad things, and she hates it. She's used to being on the front lines with everyone and ready to fight, not sitting around alone with nothing to do.

She checks her phone again. It still doesn't provide any new information.

She resists the urge to call Lee and Zuko, again.

They're not going to help, she tells herself. They're probably busy recruiting hosts with Azula right now. They're probably at a Sharing meeting. They're probably—

"Katara?" a voice calls, and Suki nearly jumps out of her skin.

It's Sokka and Katara’s grandmother, who's standing at the door of the barn and looks surprised to see her here.

Uhhhh.

Whoops, Suki thinks.

"Sorry," she says, nearly stumbling over her words. "We were supposed to meet here but I accidentally got here really early, I think?"

"I see," Gran-Gran says.

"Sorry," Suki repeats awkwardly. She doesn’t really see Gran-Gran that often, and she's not sure how to talk to her.

"It's alright," Gran-Gran says. "I didn't realize you were spending time with Katara."

"Oh, well . . . kinda?" Suki says. "Um. I mean, not a ton of time . . ." They try not to be too obvious about how much time they all spend together, just in case. It seemed like a safe habit to get into.

“I see," Gran-Gran says again. She steps into the barn properly and Suki immediately feels nervous, even though there's no good reason to be. As far as they know, Gran-Gran’s not a Controller.

As far as they knew Lee wasn’t a Controller.

“Sorry,” Suki says.

“Is this about Sokka?” Gran-Gran asks.

“. . . kind of,” Suki says, because that’s technically true. Sort of. If you look at it a certain way, anyway.

Even if it weren’t, it’s as good an explanation as anything.

“Sokka cared about you very much,” Gran-Gran says, and Suki feels awful.

“I care about him too,” she says, voice feeling painfully tight.

“Where’s Warrior?” Gran-Gran asks, glancing around the barn. She’s obviously trying to change the subject. Or she’s obviously a Yeerk who’s gotten suspicious.

“Toph’s watching him,” Suki says. “I was at gymnastics practice and he doesn’t like being alone for very long.”

“Ah, yes,” Gran-Gran says. “I think I’ve seen her with him before. He’s a very intelligent dog.”

“I just kinda . . . found him,” Suki says lamely, because that’s the cover story she’s been going with, terrible though it is. “He was really well-trained. I guess somebody abandoned him.”

“That’s very sad,” Gran-Gran says. “Someone must’ve loved him a lot, to train him that well to begin with.”

“. . . yeah,” Suki says awkwardly. “I guess so.”

Gran-Gran goes over to the cages and starts checking on the animals. Suki still feels awful. Sokka’s not past tense. He’s not dead or gone; not a runaway or a victim.

She can’t tell Gran-Gran that, though.

They’ll maybe never be able to tell Gran-Gran that.

“Kanna?” another voice calls, and Gran-Gran looks away from the cages. Suki looks too, and Bato steps into the barn. He looks tired.

“Hello, Bato,” Gran-Gran says. “What are you doing here at this hour?”

“I got a call about an injured falcon,” Bato says. “He’s in my backseat. Can you give me a hand with him? You’re always better with the birds than I am.”

“Of course,” Gran-Gran says, stepping back from the cages.

“I can leave,” Suki says, though she really doesn’t want to. The others are expecting her to be here.

“You’re fine, dear,” Gran-Gran says kindly. “Stay as long as you like.”

“Okay,” Suki says, and still feels awful. At least Sokka isn’t here right now, though. She wouldn’t have wanted him to hear Gran-Gran say “cared” instead of “cares”. She’s not sure if she even did it on purpose or not, but . . .

Yeah. It’s better Sokka didn’t hear it, either way. And definitely better that Katara didn’t.

Gran-Gran leaves with Bato and Suki is alone in the barn again, at least for the moment. It won’t last, she assumes—where else are they going to bring that bird, after all?—but it’s happening all the same. She looks around, wishing she could do something; wishing the others would show up.

Just wishing.

The Andalites will have a way to help Sokka, she tells herself not for the first time. They’ll come, and there’ll be something they can do.

She doesn’t think about the fact that Lu Ten’s never said anything like that. Lu Ten doesn’t say a lot of things, after all.

The Andalites will help.

Of course they will.

She doesn’t think about the Yeerk homeworld, either.

.

.

.

Prince Aang leads the way, wolf morph sniffing for clues or danger or anything else of concern, and Lu Ten follows patiently in his footsteps, tail blade held ready to strike if needed. A wolf is plenty dangerous on its own, though.

< Do we keep going up? > Lu Ten asks.

< As long as we can, > Prince Aang says, and Lu Ten dips his head in a nod and keeps following him patiently.

He can be patient. His father taught him that much.

His father taught him many things.

He could’ve taught him so many more, if any of this had gone differently.

Lu Ten carefully picks his way through the debris on the stairs, step by step, and Prince Aang keeps leading the way.

They turn onto a new landing, and the steps ahead are covered in crumbled concrete and warped steel. They’re not impassable, but . . .

< I hear something, > Prince Aang says. Lu Ten cocks his tail blade. < No, not like that. I mean—I don’t think like that. >

< What is it, my prince? > Lu Ten asks doubtfully, not sure how it wouldn’t be like that.

< Just—scraping, > Prince Aang says. < A lot of scraping. >

< Where from? > Lu Ten looks around. Nothing appears to be moving or even in a position to be moved, at least not without some very intensive efforts on their parts.

< I’m not sure, > Prince Aang says. < Above, I think. >

< I suppose it would have to be, > Lu Ten says. They haven’t run into anything below, after all. < Should we investigate? >

< I guess, > Prince Aang says. < I mean . . . that’s why we’re here, right? >

< Yes, my prince, > Lu Ten says. Prince Aang shakes his head, then scratches abruptly behind his ear.

< I don’t know, > he says uncomfortably. < It’s a weird sound. >

< We will kill it, if we must, > Lu Ten says. They’ll most likely have to, he thinks. Who else would be here but Controllers, after all? Katara and Jet are most likely still outside, Toph and Sokka are very definitely still outside, and Suki isn’t here at all. He can’t think of anyone else who might be here that they wouldn’t want to kill.

< Mm, > Prince Aang says, and starts up the ruined stairs.

Lu Ten follows him, because of course he does. A proper warrior follows their prince. A proper warrior does as they must. A proper warrior—

< My son, > he remembers his father saying, once, and nothing else.

He shakes the memory off.

It’s not the time for memories. Memories are something he can worry about in his field, where it’s at least arguably safe and no one else is around to notice his distraction.

He’s so easily distracted, these days.

He never used to be.

Things were so much easier before.

Prince Aang accidentally kicks a piece of broken concrete with one of his back paws. Lu Ten pauses, and watches it tumble down the stairs. It goes a long way.

There’s no reason to notice that, but he notices it all the same.

< Oh, > Prince Aang says as they come face to face with a blocked doorway, the metal door buckled outwards and weighed down with much, much more broken concrete.

< It’s through there? > Lu Ten asks, craning both his neck and his eye stalks in an attempt to see through the cracks and having no luck.

< Yeah. > Prince Aang paces restlessly on the landing. The stairs above them are even more perilous than the last set, and Lu Ten isn’t sure if they’ll support their weight.

He supposes the scratching is what Prince Aang is concerned with, though.

< We cannot make it past, my prince, > he says.

< Maybe we can dig? > Prince Aang says uncertainly.

< Do you have a morph that can move all that? > Lu Ten asks, trying not to sound doubtful. He certainly doesn’t, but Prince Aang has been fighting longer than him, so maybe he does.

< No, > Prince Aang says, sounding upset. < I don’t even know if Toph’s elephant could move all that. >

< Not on a landing this small, certainly, > Lu Ten says.

< I can still hear the scratching, though, > Prince Aang says. < It’s definitely coming from in there. >

< Perhaps we can leave the building again and fly up to it, > Lu Ten says, admittedly a little skeptical about their chances. He doesn’t even know how many floors are left to the top of the tower, much less how open they may or may not be.

< I don’t know, > Prince Aang says. < Maybe. >

< Should we try? > Lu Ten says.

< I don’t know. > Prince Aang keeps pacing. < Katara? Jet? Can you hear us? >

< Aang? > Katara’s voice says, her thoughtspeak distant but still discernible. < What’s wrong? >

< We’re inside, > Prince Aang says. < We ran into a blocked door. >

< Blocked? >

< It has collapsed, > Lu Ten explains. < The concrete is crushing it. >

< There’s scraping on the other side, > Prince Aang says. < I think maybe somebody’s in there. >

< It must be a Controller, right? > Katara says.

< Right, > Jet agrees.

< Maybe, > Prince Aang says.

< Most likely, Prince Aang, > Lu Ten says. < We cannot expect the Yeerks would’ve allowed anyone but other Controllers this high up in the building. >

< I guess not, yeah, > Prince Aang murmurs. He keeps pacing restlessly. Lu Ten moves down the steps to make more room for him to do so.

< You should come back, Aang, > Katara says. < If you can’t get in there, it’s not going to do any good to stay. >

< Katara’s right. The building’s practically falling down, > Jet says. < You're gonna get killed. >

< But there’s someone in there, > Prince Aang says. < They’ve got a host, if nothing else. >

< We cannot help them, > Lu Ten says. < If they are lucky, they will not survive. >

< That’s not lucky, Lu Ten! > Prince Aang says hotly, his hackles raising. Lu Ten is startled enough to take a step back and nearly slips on the stairs. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Prince Aang do that before.

< Aang . . . > Katara says, her voice soft and regretful.

< Lu Ten knows what he’s talking about, Aang, > Jet says, so at least someone is speaking sense.

< Really? > Prince Aang says, clearly frustrated. < What if it was your parents, Jet? Or my grandpa? What if they’re not even a Controller at all? >

< We’ll look, okay? > Katara says. < Where are you? >

Prince Aang looks at the wall, then tells them the floor number. Lu Ten glances up the ruined stairs again, half-expecting Hork-Bajir shock troops to come barrelling down them, unlikely as that would be.

< We should leave, Prince Aang, > he says, a little more stiffly than he means to. < It is not safe here. >

< Not yet, > Prince Aang says.

< You’re practically on the top floor, Aang, > Katara says. < Everything up there’s in pieces. >

< I don’t care, > Prince Aang says, then stops pacing, his ears perking attentively. Lu Ten frowns.

< Do you hear something else? > he asks.

< It stopped, > Prince Aang says. < The scraping, I mean. >

< They’re probably dead, > Jet says.

< We don’t know that! > Prince Aang snaps.

< Aang, it’s not— > Katara starts, and then cuts herself off with a horrified gasp. < Oh! >

< What is it?! > Prince Aang says urgently, immediately tensing. Lu Ten cocks his tail blade again reflexively, but there’s nothing to strike.

< It’s Ty Lee, > Jet says.

< What? > Prince Aang says blankly.

< It’s Ty Lee, > Katara repeats, still sounding horrified. < She’s a couple floors above you. It looks like she fell. >

< I think she’s dead, > Jet says.

< I can’t tell, > Katara says.

< How can you not tell? > Prince Aang says.

< She’s not moving, > Katara says.

< I think her legs are broken, > Jet says. < And her arm, it looks like. >

< Oh no, > Prince Aang says.

< Aang, what do we do? > Katara says.

< If she is dead, so is Azula Eight Nine Five, > Lu Ten says.

< No one cares about that right now, Lu Ten! > Prince Aang says.

< I mean, we might care a little . . . > Jet says.

< Jet! >

< Look, Azula’s dangerous, > Jet says. < I’m just saying. >

< It still might be a trap, > Katara says. < I know they’d hurt a host to catch us. Azula might not even be in her anymore. >

< How close can you get? > Prince Aang asks.

< Very, > Jet says. < How close should we get, though? >

< Azula Eight Nine Five is very important to the invasion, > Lu Ten says. < If we can confirm her death . . . >

< Can we even tell if she’s still in Ty Lee? > Prince Aang says.

< Likely not, > Lu Ten admits.

< We could trick her, > Jet says.

< Trick her how? > Katara says.

< I could morph that guy, > Jet says. < He’s her partner, right? >

< You shouldn’t even have that morph! > Prince Aang says.

< Really, because it seems like it might be really useful right now, > Jet says.

< It’s too dangerous, > Katara says.

< What’s she gonna do, Dracon beam me with a broken arm? >

< . . . well . . . >

< It could still be a trap, and you’d be walking right into it, > Prince Aang says.

< Considering I can just jump off the building and morph on the way down whenever I feel like it I’m not really all that worried about a trap, > Jet says.

< They might see you turn into yourself, then, > Prince Aang says. < And then we’d all be in trouble. >

< If they saw me, > Jet says.

< It’s just too risky, Jet. We don’t know what they’re trying to do with all this, > Katara says, and Jet sighs.

< Alright, > he says. < If you’re sure, Katara. >

< It’s not worth risking your life when it might just be a trick, > she says. < Maybe that’s not even Ty Lee, maybe they kidnapped one of her sisters. >

< That’s a horrible thought, > Prince Aang says.

< Azula would do it, > Katara says.

< Yeah, sounds like her, > Jet agrees.

< Maybe, > Prince Aang says uncertainly. Lu Ten glances back down the stairs again, still half-expecting attacked from some direction or another. They’ve been here for a while, now.

< We should not linger here any longer, my prince, > he says. < We do not know when the Yeerks may send in more Controllers. >

< Lu Ten’s right, > Katara says. < You need to get out of there before you get cornered. >

< But what if there’s someone alive in here? > Prince Aang says.

< Then it is far past too late to save them from their fate, > Lu Ten says. < We can only do our best to help those that we can actually reach. >

< You don’t know that! > Prince Aang says.

< I do, my prince, > Lu Ten says.

Prince Aang is . . . he understands, he thinks, why the others chose Prince Aang to be their prince. It's been explained to him, and he's seen enough to draw his own conclusions. Humans need someone who'll stop them.

But Lu Ten doesn't need to be stopped.

Lu Ten needs . . .

He needs to do something.

He just isn't sure what that "something" is just yet.

.

.

.

Mai's stopped digging. Lee really wishes she'd get on with it. Hork-Bajir strength or not, the ceiling is fucking heavy.

< What's the hold-up? > he asks.

"Silence, host," Mai says.

". . . what is hold-up, though?" Zuko asks. Mai sighs in irritation.

"Ceiling going to fall," she says shortly, pointing at the top of the space she's dug out. It is, in fact, looking pretty precarious.

"Oh," Zuko says.

< Well, fuck, > Lee says. < What're we supposed to do about that? >

"Let Mai Six Two Four think," Mai retorts, clearly even more irritated. "And stop use thoughtspeak. It distracting."

"Sorry," Zuko says. Lee snorts. Thoughtspeak's a lot easier to talk with than a Hork-Bajir's mouth, as far as he's concerned. It might feel more natural to Zuko, but he's not Zuko and he didn't spend who knows how long steering one around.

"Idiot," Mai says.

These two do like each other, right?

"Can we help?" Zuko says. Mai shoots them a dubious look.

"From there?" she asks dryly. Lee is fairly sure that if Hork-Bajir could blush, Zuko would be. Then again, what does he know about Hork-Bajir biology; maybe they do blush.

It's actually kind of weird being a Hork-Bajir right now. Mostly Lee just knows how to kill one, not anything about being one.

Well, Zuko knows a hell of a lot more about it than him, obviously.

"Sorry," Zuko says again.

"Zuko Five Three Three talk too much," Mai says tersely, returning her attention to the unstable ceiling.

< She's a friendly one, > Lee snorts, though just to Zuko.

< She got impaled, the ceiling’s about to crush us, and she just found out we can morph, > Zuko answers.

< So? >

< So we're lucky she hasn't impaled us. >

< Yeah, okay, fair enough. >

Lee looks around their dimly illuminated little space, frowning to himself. There's other directions Mai could try to dig out, but he's not sure they have the time for that. He's not sure they have the time for this.

There's enough space now that Zuko could come out and morph too, help either hold up the ceiling or dig, but Lee doesn't really like that idea. It's just a little too vulnerable, and maybe something they should keep in their back pocket anyway. Besides, they can keep holding up the ceiling a little longer. They're strong enough.

And if they're going to die, he'd rather do it together.

Mai props up a damaged beam under the sagging ceiling, then goes back to digging. There's some kind of worrying creaking noises from above, but nothing collapses on her or them, so Lee figures they're still winning. They just need to keep this up for a bit more.

Hopefully just a bit, anyway.

The ceiling really is fucking heavy.

< We can hold it, > Zuko says.

< Yeah, > Lee agrees. They can. There's a lot they can do together, and this isn't even that hard. It hurts, kind of, but Lee's been hurt a lot fucking worse than this.

And if they die, again, at least they're doing it together.

< We're not dying, > Zuko says.

< That's actually really optimistic, coming from you, > Lee says. < Especially considering Mai knows we can morph now. >

< Don't worry about it, > Zuko says, which definitely means Lee should worry about it.

< Yeah, that's believable, > he says dryly.

< We'll get you out, > Zuko says. < Then we can worry about me. >

< You are seriously so hype to die from Kandrona starvation, aren't you, > Lee says in exasperation. < How does this keep coming up? >

< Look, I'm not trying to die, but there's a chance for you to get out, > Zuko says. < There's not a chance for me. >

< We could still kill Mai, > Lee says. < Nobody'd know. >

< We are not hurting Mai Six Two Four, > Zuko says. < I'd rather— >

< Die? >

< Yes. >

< You make absolutely no sense, > Lee says. < I'm not letting you die. We did that once. It was the worst thing that's ever happened to me. >

< We'll worry about it later, Lee. >

< We'll worry about it now, before you get us backed into a corner! > Lee says. < Or Dracon-beamed, or starved to death, or who knows what! >

< That's not happening, > Zuko says.

< We're only alive right now because Mai needs us to hold up the ceiling. >

< I know that. >

Zuko is so stupid.

< Hey! >

"Ah," Mai says, and the ceiling collapses on her head.

"Mai!" Zuko cries, and Lee barely catches him before he tries to throw their body at her and makes the same thing happen to them.

"Mai Six Two Four fine," Mai says, sounding annoyed. She straightens up, and the pieces of ceiling slide off her back. Light comes in through the shallow hole over her head, and she peers through it. "Hn."

"What is?" Zuko asks.

"Nothing," Mai says, coming back over to them and putting a clawed hand on one of the beams above them. "Move."

Zuko hesitates. Lee doesn't, and immediately shoves the ceiling up and rolls them out from underneath the beam. It collapses behind them and takes most of the ceiling with it, and they and Mai both cough in the rising dust.

"Mother Sky," Zuko says. Lee grabs their phone off the ground—gingerly, for obvious reasons.

"Come," Mai says. Lee thinks about killing her, which is a mistake because thinking about it gives Zuko enough time to stop him.

< Don't! > he says.

< Idiot, > Lee mutters. Mai crawls through the hole in the debris, and Zuko follows her out. Lee mutters a few more choice phrases in his mind, though definitely not for Mai to hear. Zuko won't let him kill her, but they might still need to fight her, and he doesn't want her too aware of them right now.

Mai stands up on the scattered piles of debris and looks around. The floor is trashed, and Lee doesn't even recognize it. It's probably not the one they started on, so he figures that makes sense.

"No Azula Eight Nine Five," Mai mutters. Lee doesn't feel reassured.

"We need find her," Zuko says, then starts to demorph.

< Zuko! > Lee hisses.

< It's fine, Lee, > Zuko says.

< It is not! >

"Hn," Mai says, looking back at them. She watches them demorph. If she's wearing an expression, it's not one Lee understands.

He really does not like her watching them like this.

"Maybe we can call her phone," Zuko says as their mouth turns human-shaped again, lifting their own phone to wake it up.

"Maybe," Mai says.

"Zuko, for fuck's sake," Lee says.

"Shut up, host," Mai says.

"You don't need to talk to him like that," Zuko says, frowning faintly at her.

"If he shut up, yes," Mai says.

"I mean it," Zuko says.

"Oh my god, can we please focus here?!" Lee demands, pulling up their contacts. "Azula and Ty Lee are somewhere in this mess!"

"Lee," Zuko says. Lee ignores him and calls Ty Lee's phone, and they all fall silent, listening for an accompanying ringtone.

Lee doesn't hear anything.

"How good are Hork-Bajir ears?" he asks.

"Mai Six Two Four hear nothing," Mai says.

"Fuck," Lee says. He cuts off the call before it goes to voicemail.

"What do we do?" Zuko says. Lee genuinely has no idea why he's asking Mai that, but in retrospect he guesses she outranks him. Or did outrank him?

He still doesn't think they should be asking her what to do.

"We get out," Mai says.

"But what about Azula Eight Nine Five?" Zuko says with another faint frown.

"And Ty Lee," Lee stresses.

"What about?" Mai says, looking back at them. "We no hear anything. Azula Eight Nine Five could be anywhere."

"We could morph something with better hearing," Zuko says. Mai just looks at them. He winces.

"Well, we could," Lee says, scowling at her defensively. "Or a better sense of smell."

"Then why you waste time?" Mai says in annoyance.

Lee does not like her.

"Good point," Zuko says, then hands her their phone and starts morphing their wolf. Lee is still annoyed. Actually, possibly more annoyed.

< Your girlfriend sucks, > he says.

< She's not my girlfriend, > Zuko says.

< Yes she is. >

< Wouldn't I know if she was? >

< Apparently not! >

"Hm," Mai says, tilting her head as she looks down at them. Lee shakes out their morphed muscles, refamiliarizing them with the wolf's body, and Zuko lifts their head and sniffs at the air.

< I smell blood, > he says.

< Mai's? >

< Yes, but . . . >

< Fuck. >

"Well?" Mai says.

< This way, > Zuko says, and starts carefully picking their way across the broken-up floor, sniffing at the scattered debris as they pass it. Lee is less patient, and barely holds himself back from making them run. It'd be stupid, though—way too fucking dangerous. And they've already fallen far enough for one day, thanks; he doesn't want a repeat of the experience.

They follow the scent of blood across the floor for as far as the floor goes, and then all they can smell is smoke and burning junk. Zuko paws at their nose and Lee growls. Mai looks down over the edge of the broken floor.

"Is fire," she says neutrally.

< No shit, Sherlock, > Lee grumbles.

"Shut up, host," she says again.

< I thought I could smell them, but . . . > Zuko trails off worriedly.

"Fire spreading," Mai says pointedly.

< Fuck, > Lee says.

"We leave now," Mai says, grabbing the back of their neck and dragging them away from the edge of the floor. Lee barely resists the urge to snap their teeth at her.

< They're here! > he says angrily.

"Mai Six Two Four not care," Mai says. Lee bristles.

< You're an asshole! > he snarls. Mai snorts.

< We have to try, Mai Six Two Four, > Zuko says.

"We already try," she says. "It no work. We stay here, we die too."

< You don't know that! > Lee snaps.

"Host's opinion no matter," Mai says.

< Fuck you! >

< Don't fight, > Zuko says. < Mai Six Two Four, we can find them. >

"We already try," Mai said. "They dead. Mai Six Two Four not going to die trying to find body."

< Then fucking leave! > Lee says angrily. < We can do it without you! >

"Then you die," Mai says.

< That's not . . . > Zuko trails off uncertainly. Lee bristles.

< Don't listen to her! > he says. < She doesn't know what she's talking about! >

"Is no time, Zuko Five Three Three," Mai stresses. "Fire coming. We need go."

< But Azula Eight Nine Five . . . >

"Azula Eight Nine Five already dead," Mai says sharply. "Mai Six Two Four not be stupid enough to die looking for her. Is Zuko Five Three Three?"

< It's not stupid! > Lee says hotly, and feels Zuko's mind change.

< Lee, > he says quietly. < I'm not going to get you killed. >

< Who the fuck said you were going to?! >

< We can't help them, > Zuko says, and steps towards Mai. Lee digs in their feet.

< You don't know that! > he says.

< Lee . . . >

< Don't be a Yeerk about this! > Lee says angrily. < We don't know they're dead! We can still find them! >

< We don't know that, either, > Zuko says. < The fire's coming. >

< Then get out of my head and I'll do it! > Lee snarls. Zuko startles, his mind flinching, but Lee isn't sorry. If Zuko's going to be stupid about this, he's willing to do it himself. They step in for each other when they need to. That's how it works.

< Lee, > Zuko says.

< I'm not leaving them! > Lee says. < You can't make me! >

Zuko is quiet. Lee bristles.

< I'll never forgive you if you try, > he says.

< Lee, > Zuko says again. < We need to go. >

< Then fucking go! > Lee says. < I don’t care! I’ll find them myself! >

“Is no time,” Mai says sharply, and grabs them off the ground. Lee yelps and struggles. Zuko . . . doesn’t.

Lee tries to bite Mai, but she’s got too tight a grip on them and Zuko isn’t helping. Mai starts running away from the spreading smoke, and Lee howls in fury, struggling harder.

A wolf might be able to rip a Hork-Bajir’s throat out, but they aren’t as strong as one. Mai keeps her grip on them and kicks open the door to the stairs.

“Stop be stupid, host,” she snaps as she heads down them. “And be quiet.”

< This isn’t your fucking business! > Lee yells, trying to bite her again.

< I don’t want to leave them either, > Zuko says, stopping him from trying for another bite. Lee might bite him, if he could. < Mai Six Two Four is right. If they were alive . . . >

< You don’t know! > Lee fumes. < Neither of you fucking knows! >

< They didn’t answer their phone, > Zuko says. < And the place is burning. >

< That’s why we should be looking for them, not why we should be leaving them! >

< Lee, they're gone, > Zuko says. < And we're getting you out of here before you go the same way. >

< Who gives a fuck?! > Lee hisses. He tries to struggle in Mai's grip, but Zuko doesn't let him. < Zuko! >

< I'm sorry, > Zuko says quietly.

< You goddamn asshole! > Lee says furiously. He tries harder to struggle. It barely works.

But he's good at getting around Zuko, and Zuko's bad at stopping him.

It's always been like that.

He sinks their teeth deep into Mai's bicep. She curses in Hork-Bajir and drops them, and they tumble down to the landing below.

< Lee! > Zuko says, and Lee shoves him back from their body. Zuko's mind grabs onto his, and for the first time Lee can remember, they grapple for control. < I'm trying to help you! >

< Then fucking stop! > Lee snarls. < We have to do something! >

< We're too late! > Zuko says, and Lee shoves his mind again. Zuko braces against it. Their body doesn't listen to either of them.

< We don't know that! > Lee thunders.

"What you doing?" Mai says sourly from the steps above, clutching her bleeding arm. Lee ignores her. Zuko pushes him down, and Lee drags him with him. “Zuko Five Three Three! Control host!”

That is definitely not happening right now.

They don’t fight like this. Lee doesn’t like it. But leaving—no, he’s not leaving. Not when they don’t know.

< We tried! > Zuko says. < What else are we supposed to do?! >

< Better! > Lee says. Zuko’s always too ready to lose. Always too resigned to the things he thinks are inevitable.

That’s one of the reasons Lee’s good for him, and usually Lee doesn’t care. Except when Zuko’s willing to die when he doesn’t have to. Except right now. What is he even thinking right now?!

Lee knows what he’s thinking, but that doesn’t mean he likes it.

< We need to get out of here, > Zuko says. < We can’t do them any good now. >

< I don’t care what you think, > Lee says. Zuko shakes their head, and Lee snaps their teeth.

They’re not dead. There’s no way they’re dead. Azula’s too smart, and Ty Lee’s too quick, and they’re both too—they’re just not dead.

They’d know.

Things would be different, if Ty Lee and Azula were dead.

< That's not how it works, > Zuko says quietly. Lee bares their teeth and growls. Mai glares at them.

“Control host!” she snaps again.

< We didn't see it, > Lee says. There’s smoke in the air and it’s getting harder to breathe, but he doesn’t care about any of that. He won't believe they're dead. Not without proof.

He won't.

< Lee, > Zuko says, and Lee feels him carefully pushing a thought away from their minds. He bristles reflexively and lunges after it, and it bursts open like a star.

He regrets following it immediately, because it's a memory of his mother. He recoils, stomach twisting sickly, and Zuko wraps her up and—and—

And disappears her.

< It's not the same, > Lee barely manages to get out. He can't even struggle when Mai grabs them off their feet again. Zuko wraps his mind around his, and Lee can't choose between clinging to him or shoving him away. It's not . . .

It's not.

It's not.

It's not the same.

< Lee, > Zuko starts, and Lee bristles, and the ceiling collapses again.

.

.

.

Azula’s host is dying. She hasn't been in a dying host before, but it's excruciatingly obvious all the same. The only reason they're not dead already is . . . well, fuck if she knows.

Azula's not going to die this easy.

That's all.

Her host is breathing raggedly, agony overtaking its senses almost completely. Azula has bigger concerns than a little pain right now.

Her phone is ringing. She can't even move to answer it. Her host is useless, though Azula knows better than to rely on a host for anything anyway. They're not to be trusted. And Azula doesn't trust anyone, much less her useless, useless host.

She would really like to be able to answer that phone right now, though.

Ring.

Ring.

Ring.

Azula could scream.

Her host makes a soft, pained noise. Azula ignores it as unimportant. She already knows her host is in pain. She doesn't need to listen to it whining about it.

The complete lack of anything she can possibly do besides lie here and try not to bleed out is maddening. She might as well not be in a host at all, for how little she can do.

There's something, Azula tells herself. There's always something. She's not stupid enough to die here.

Although the Visser might kill her for letting a damned Andalite blow up the Kandrona anyway.

Azula grits her teeth. Even that hurts to a ridiculous extent. Maybe her host's jaw is broken, she thinks absently.

Azula exhales and falls back from the pain receptors. Pain is a distraction she doesn't need right now. Not if she's getting out of this alive.

How the fuck did Zuko Five Three Three get his host acquired without noticing? How could he possibly be that stupid? How?!

She can't imagine how, but she just might murder him for it.

Assuming he's not dead already, she supposes. That's a possibility.

No one else ever calls her, is the thing.

She tries to move her arm. Her host chokes in pain and something in her arm grinds. Even pulled back from the pain receptors, Azula can feel it, and her muscles seize up and refuse to obey her. She really might scream, she thinks.

No. There's something to do. Some move to make. There always is.

She just needs to think of it. She can do that.

That's what she always does.

Her host whimpers. Azula ignores it again. It can move even less than she can and doesn't even have any relevant medical knowledge. It's worse than useless to her. If her life didn't currently depend on it surviving, she might just kill it herself.

Azula doesn't have any patience for uselessness.

The only damn thing it's even thinking about is Zuko's host, and those bizarre auras of color humans see around everything. Azula has yet to figure out the point of them, and she's certainly not wasting time trying to now.

She's never been in another species with such a strange sense of vision.

Azula inhales roughly and tries to move her arm again. It still doesn't respond correctly, and pain shoots up it and spikes through her host, who stifles a little cry. Azula grits her teeth and tries harder, and her host lets out another cry.

Useless, useless thing. This host and this body both, right now.

Azula is just . . . so angry.

She tries to move the other arm. It's in less pain, but still not responding properly. She can't even make a fist, much less grip anything.

There's probably no point in trying to get to the phone anyway. What, is Zuko Five Three Three going to come rescue her?

Not likely.

What can she do, is the question. What are her options, aside from lay here and die?

There's something. There's always something.

She's not going to die this stupidly.

She's not.

Her host is starting to drift. Azula tries to clench her fist again, and the jolt of pain snaps her host into . . . not alertness, but at least awareness.

"You don't have my permission to die, host," she hisses spitefully.

< You said that already, > her host murmurs, low and distant. Azula bares her teeth. She doesn't even bother looking at what it's thinking. It's not going to be anything that matters.

Useless creature. Useless.

Azula really could kill it.

.

.

.

Jet thinks this all went pretty well, honestly. The Kandrona got blown up, Azula and Zuko got blown up with it, and he got away clean. Sokka’s suspicious, but Sokka's always suspicious; he can't prove anything.

The others aren't ready to go this far yet, maybe, but that's fine. Jet's willing to take care of it in the meantime.

They can't just let the Yeerks do whatever they want.

And they already know there are casualties in war.

< Aang, you need to get out of there, > Katara says as she swoops by. Jet lets the wind lift his body and follows after her. Flying really is the best damn thing.

< I can't hear the scratching anymore, > Aang says.

< Then you definitely need to get out of there, > Katara says.

< They could still be alive, > Aang says.

< They could be Zhao, > Jet says.

< That doesn't mean we should leave them here! > Aang says.

< Did you hear that? > Lu Ten says.

< Hear what? > Katara asks.

< Something just collapsed above us, I think, > Aang says.

< Aang, please get out of there, > Katara says, banking right to avoid a heavy plume of smoke. Jet keeps following her lead. Might as well, for now. < It's not safe. >

< Someone’s in there, Katara! > Aang says.

< A Controller is in there, Prince Aang, > Lu Ten says. He really understands the best of everyone, Jet thinks; he’s just a little too convinced he needs to listen to Aang on every little thing. Well, he’s a military brat, so yeah, no real surprise there. Jet gets it.

< A Controller isn’t just a Yeerk! > Aang says in frustration.

< I mean, for all we know they’re a voluntary one, > Jet points out with a mental shrug.

< Aang, you can’t get to them, > Katara says. < There’s nothing we can do. We don’t know when more Controllers are going to show up, either. >

< You want us to leave someone to die, > Aang says tightly.

< No, > Katara says. < But there’s nothing we can do. >

Aang is silent. Katara banks around another plume of smoke and Jet keeps following her. He considers saying something, but it really doesn’t seem like Aang’s gonna be open to hearing anything he has to say. Lu Ten and Katara would understand, probably, but not Aang.

He’s kind of a problem that way, but he’s not a stupid kid either. He’ll learn.

There’s no choice but to learn.

< Aang, > Katara says pleadingly.

< I can’t just leave someone, Katara, > Aang says, his thoughtspeak very quiet. He might actually be about to get himself killed, which would be really damn inconvenient, especially if he takes Lu Ten with him. Lu Ten’s their best source of information about Yeerks, and on top of that, they’ve only got so many fighters as it is.

< You can’t stay! > Katara says in frustration. < Aang! >

< It’s wrong, > Aang says, and wow, he really thinks that, doesn’t he. Jet knows for a fact that this kid boiled a pool full of Yeerks in cold blood and has trampled plenty of Controllers, so the cognitive dissonance is clearly kicked into high gear right now.

Jet gets it—it happens—but it’s really not the time for it.

< It is way too late to save whoever’s in there, Aang, > he says.

It’s way too late to save a lot of people.

< Jet is correct, > Lu Ten says. < There is nothing we can do, Prince Aang. We cannot reach the other side of this blockage, and the Yeerks are certain to be coming. If we do not leave, we will be trapped. >

< Aang, please. Don’t get hurt over this, > Katara says. Aang is silent.

< You’re not just gonna get hurt. You’re gonna get yourself and Lu Ten killed, > Jet says. < What’s more important, one Controller or the entire damn war? >

Aang still doesn’t say anything. Jet lets the wind lift him higher. They’ve been flying around the building for way too long, and it’s a miracle they haven’t been shot down or spotted yet. They can’t keep this up much longer. There’s no way in hell the Yeerks are gonna miss random animals spying on their Kandrona, destroyed or not.

< Actually you’re probably gonna get us all killed, Katara and I are kind of sitting ducks right now, > Jet says conversationally.

< Katara? > Aang says, his thoughtspeak uneven.

< We’re fine, Aang, > Katara says. < Just come out. Please. >

< . . . >

< Aang. Please. >

< . . . we’re coming, > Aang says, very quietly. Katara sighs in relief. Thank fuck, Jet thinks, because he really did not want to run that rescue mission and Katara would have been impossible to convince to stay away.

He has no idea how these people have lived this long, sometimes.

Well, at least Aang’s actually leaving the damn building. That’s something. Jet can see people in rescue worker gear going in down on the ground floor, so yeah, it’s past time for them to get gone. Those are definitely all Controllers down there, and if they’re not, they will be by the end of the day. He is positive about that.

< We do kind of need to get out of here before we get Dracon-beamed for being suspicious or something, > he says to Katara, and she swoops away from the building.

< You’re right, > she says, which is gratifying to hear, at least, and Jet follows after her. Aang and Lu Ten will be out soon, and then they can get the hell out of here and move on to the next problem. Like, to an actual problem, because a bunch of Yeerks starving to death is definitely not a problem.

So yeah, the others still don’t really get it yet, but Jet can pick up the slack in the meantime.

Somebody has to.

.

.

.

The ceiling lands on their hands, and mercifully is not followed by the rest of the building. Mai Six Two Four curses and drops them, and Zuko just barely manages to get them to land on their feet. Lee might be hyperventilating a bit, and he has to keep him away from their lungs for the moment. Nothing about the situation is ideal, but again, at least the rest of the building didn’t come down.

Zuko shakes the dust and rubble out of their fur, then looks at Mai Six Two Four.

< Are you okay? > he asks reflexively. She gives him an unimpressed look at the question.

“Idiot,” she says.

< Idiot, > Lee says at the exact same moment, though he sounds like a wreck. Zuko wants to soothe his hurting mind, but isn’t sure he’d let him right now. Lee is sharp and full of grief, a fistful of razors and knives, and Zuko doesn’t know what would happen if he touched him.

He might as well try to touch Mai Six Two Four’s blades with soft human skin and expect not to get cut.

< I’m going to demorph, > Zuko says, and starts to. Mai Six Two Four looks impatient.

“We need keep moving,” she says.

“Sorry.” Zuko dusts the rest of the rubble off. Being a wolf right now just felt dangerous. Admittedly, being a human isn’t exactly safe, so . . .

He doesn’t know, really.

Maybe he’d just rather they die in Lee’s actual body, if they’re going to die.

< Shut up, > Lee mutters. Zuko still wants to reach out to him, but Lee is still all razors and knives.

< I’m sorry, > he repeats, though it’s not really a useful thing to say. Lee snorts, then curls up in their head and turns away from him. Zuko’s not sure if that helped or not.

“We’re done,” he says to Mai Six Two Four, who’s already starting down the stairs again. He follows her carefully, trying to keep their bare feet from getting cut on anything. It’s easier said than done, for obvious reasons.

“Mai Six Two Four not blind,” Mai Six Two Four says dubiously. Her bladed tail sweeps across the steps behind her, and Zuko’s . . . not sure how to take that, exactly. Maybe she’s trying to keep them from getting too close. Maybe she’s trying to clear away the rubble for them.

He wishes he knew.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Zuko says. Lee simmers restlessly, and their eyes feel hot. Zuko’s not sure if that’s his fault or not.

Mai Six Two Four ignores them. Zuko follows in the path she’s cleared, whether it was on purpose or not.

There’s so many things he wants to say to her before the end.

There’s so many things, but . . .

< I still think we should kill her, > Lee says, subdued but bitter.

< I can’t, > Zuko says, because it’s so much more than just not wanting to. Lee makes an irritated sound and folds their arms.

< Fucking liar, > he says.

It’s really not a lie, though.

< Fucking liar. >

Mai Six Two Four keeps ignoring them. Zuko still doesn’t know what to say to her. This is the last time he’s ever going to see her, one way or another.

At least, it’ll be better if this is the last time he ever sees her.

He doesn’t know what to say at all.

He doesn’t even know what to do.

< Just do something, Zuko, > Lee says. Mai Six Two Four keeps ignoring them, and keeps walking. Well . . . they’re not saying anything she can hear, so why wouldn’t she?

< We’re not killing her, > Zuko says.

< So you’re ready to starve to death again? Because that’s definitely what’s happening if we don’t kill her. >

< Yes, > Zuko says, steeling himself. He’s done it once. He can do it again. Or . . . he can morph, maybe. Acquire something or someone, and just . . . be that, instead.

He doesn’t want to be something else, just . . . it’s an option.

< You should morph me, > Lee says. < If you’re going to be stuck as anything, I mean. >

< I know, > Zuko says, because he probably will. He doesn’t know where they’ll go or what they’ll do after that, but if that means surviving, well . . . what else is he supposed to do?

Lee won’t be very happy if he dies on him again, he knows.

< It’d be smarter to be an animal, > he says. < Another wolfdog or something. >

< Yeah, no, > Lee says. < You’re staying with me. >

< I can stay with you as an animal, > Zuko says, though he does understand what Lee actually means by that. He just doesn’t know if it’s a good idea.

He’s got extremely limited time to think of a better one, though. And that’s assuming they even manage to get away at all.

“Zuko Five Three Three,” Mai Six Two Four says, and Zuko hears footsteps echoing up the stairwell from far below. He tenses. Lee bristles. Mai Six Two Four looks back over her shoulder at them.

Zuko really . . .

He’s going to miss her so much.

“Yes?” he says.

“Ozai Three will kill Zuko Five Three Three,” she says. She’s still holding their phone, Zuko realizes. He’d forgotten about it.

“I know,” he says, swallowing roughly. If Ozai Three does, hopefully he’ll at least let Lee live.

< We’re both gonna live, > Lee snaps. Zuko doesn’t really believe him, under the circumstances.

“Idiot,” Mai Six Two Four says again.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko says, because it’s the only thing he can think to say.

“Can Zuko Five Three Three’s host fly?” Mai Six Two Four says. The footsteps below sound closer, though still far away. Zuko still feels like they’re out of time.

“What?” he says, not understanding.

“Fly,” Mai Six Two Four repeats impatiently.

“Uh . . . yes,” Zuko says. “He can.”

“Then what is Zuko Five Three Three doing?” Mai Six Two Four says, stopping on the landing. Zuko stops behind her, still not understanding.

“Following you,” he says, because it really is that simple. Mai Six Two Four glowers at him in annoyance.

“Is Zuko Five Three Three’s host this stupid too?” she says. Zuko frowns.

“I don’t understand,” he says.

So stupid,” Mai Six Two Four says, and then she grabs the door on the landing and yanks it open. The floor beyond it is in much better shape than the ones upstairs, though there’s still debris everywhere. Zuko looks at it blankly.

He can still hear the footsteps echoing below.

< Is she seriously letting us go? > Lee says.

< No, > Zuko replies automatically, because she can’t be. Except . . .

Mai Six Two Four keeps glowering at them. Zuko keeps not understanding, because—

“Ozai Three will kill you,” he says.

“Not if Zuko Five Three Three not too stupid to get away,” Mai Six Two Four says evenly. Their chest hurts, suddenly and abruptly. Zuko clenches their fists.

“Mai Six Two Four,” he says, their voice coming out rough and pained.

The windows on this floor are shattered. It’d be no trouble at all to morph their red-tailed hawk and fly out one of them.

“Go,” Mai Six Two Four says, shoving their phone at them. Her claws nearly cut them, but only nearly.

Zuko swallows. It hurts.

He wishes he knew what to say.

< Are you listening to her or not?! > Lee says, and given the alternative . . .

< I’m listening, > Zuko says, and goes through the door. He wants to touch her one last time, but he doesn’t try to.

He wants to say something to her.

< Hurry up and morph! > Lee says, and Zuko rubs at their burning eyes, not sure how he feels at all. He could look back, but he doesn’t.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to, but they already heard the door close anyway.

Of course Mai Six Two Four would close the door.

They morph.