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8.5 or 9 your call
As the Agni Kai took place, three people hidden in shadows observed with great interest.
"Well, I've never seen Zuko do that." the shortest one commented as Zuko's fire turned white.
"Indeed. His skill has improved greatly since the last time I saw him." the tallest one, a woman, agreed.
"Any thoughts on who the victor will be?" the middle sized man asked.
"Nero has never failed a mission yet." the woman commented with a wave of her hand. "It seems such a waste of potential though."
"What?" the middle man asked.
"The boy has too much potential for it to be thrown away like this." the short man answered bitterly.
"You two don't know him very well then." the middle man chuckled "Right now this battle is what they both are living for."
Battle in the Tunnels
After Zuko had run off the others tried to catch up with him but lost sight of him as they reached the base. They tried to follow the tunnels he took but he left no indication of which ones he took. After going down numerous dead end tunnels Aang finally spoke.
"Uh guys I think we're lost."
"Lost! How can we be lost?!?" Sokka said somehow managing to both yell and whisper at the same time. "We've got Toph."
"For some reason I can't see that well down here." Toph said shrugging her shoulders. Katara knelt down and brushed her hand on the floor, revealing a wooden floor under the thin layer of dirt.
"Well that explains it." Katara muttered under her breath.
"Hey, you there!" a man yelled at them.
"Crap." Suki said as she rushed forward. She swept him in the air then axe-kicked him into the floor. More assassins stormed out of their rooms.
"Let's go." Sokka said drawing his sword and disarming an assassin who lunged forward with his own. The man tried to wrestle the blade out of Sokka's hand only to be thrown on the ground and impaled through his chest. As they moved through the tunnels more and more assassins poured in after them. "There's too many of them!" Sokka cried as he cut another one down. One of the assassins blasted fire at them, which Katara blocked with a wall of water. She then sent tentacles out which wrapped around the firebender. As Katara was about to finish him, a blonde waterbender freed him.
"Thank you Master Lian." the firebender said before resuming his attack. Lian also joined the attack as Aang moved in to help.
"You guys go ahead and find Zuko." Aang said deflecting a fire blast. "We'll handle these two."
Mai, Lu Ten, and Ursa II stalked quietly through the halls. Mai checked the launchers on her wrists again to be sure they were loaded. She didn't exactly trust that Nero would let them go free after what he went through to capture them, and that lady who'd given her equipment back was another mystery. She'd heard someone coming around the corner, and she turned to her children. "Your father taught you both how to launch fireballs right?" she asked quietly.
"Yes Mom." they replied in unison, showing they understood her meaning. They both took a stance and as the man rounded the corner they both launched the biggest fireball they could create. Fortunately for Sokka, it wasn't very dangerous.
"Why do people in your family always attack me on sight?" he asked slightly charred.
Aang and Katara battled fiercely with Lian and the firebender. They matched each other blow for blow. Lian was easily equal in skill with Katara. Katara attacked the firebender with a water whip and Lian did the same to Aang as he was busy also attacking the firebender, forcing Katara to defend him. Aang blasted Lian back with a powerful stream of air. While Lian was down Katara pierced the firebender's chest with two icicles. Lian got up as he went down, blood flowing from his chest.
"Surrender, you're out numbered." Aang warned pointing his staff at Lian, who was focusing on the bleeding firebender.
"Lian, help me." he breathed, reaching toward her.
Lian turned her gaze to Aang and Katara who were still in stance. "How convenient, I was running low on water. You know the phrase, blood is thicker than water?" she began with a smile. "Well it's true." With a flick of her wrist all the blood was drained out of the bleeding man and Lian was using it as weapon. She divided the blood into multiple tentacles that lashed out at them. Katara raised a water wall, but the blood tentacle easily penetrated it and stabbed for Katara's heart. Aang swung his staff and destroyed the tentacle before blasting Lian with another stream of air. After she was blasted away he grabbed Katara by the wrist and they ran.
"Where're we going?" Katara asked trying to pull free.
"We can't beat her down here." Aang said tightening his grip. "There's too little water, and not enough room for us to fight properly."
Black and White Agni Kai
Nero barely rolled out of the way of Zuko's white fire in time. He stood there slightly stunned, as Zuko launched another blast at him. Nero regained his senses and blasted his fire at Zuko while sidestepping the white fire. Zuko spun away from Nero's black fire and launched himself toward Nero using jet propulsion. Nero saw this and launched himself in the air and came down with a flaming axe-kick. Zuko caught Nero by his ankle and slammed him hard into the ground. As Zuko then blasted him in the chest, Nero swung his legs around and broke Zuko's stance. They both rolled to their feet and punched for each other's faces. The fists connected and knocked them both on the ground. Nero recovered faster and sent an arc of fire toward Zuko. Zuko rolled out of the way and launched fire from the soles of his feet. Nero blocked Zuko's blast by punching the ground causing a pillar of black fire to rise in front of him. Nero pushed the pillar toward Zuko, who severed it in half with a single arc of fire. Both of them stood straight, breathing heavily.
"Why did you murder my family?" Zuko asked through clenched teeth.
"It was part of the job." Nero replied with a blank expression on his face.
"That's the only reason you have for killing everyone I love?" Zuko yelled at the emotionless assassin.
"No, there was another reason." Nero began, "It was to make you stronger. You think you had it rough? The worst family problem you've ever had was your father and sister hating you. My family was taken from me when I was still weak, but it made me stronger than I ever could have become on my own. You need to be strong for the coming storm."
"What storm are you talking about?" Zuko asked while clenching his fist so tight his nails cut into his skin.
"If you want to find out you'll have to kill me." Nero said unleashing a charged firestorm at Zuko. Zuko countered with his own firestorm. The two fireblasts collided and battled for supremacy. They pushed against each other as both firebenders put everything they had into them. But Nero was still suffering form his battle with Aang and weakened faster than Zuko. Zuko's white fire consumed Nero's black fire once again and this time consumed Nero as well. Zuko fell to his knees as the blaze cleared revealing Nero somehow still standing, but severely burnt. Zuko stared in amazement as Nero limped his way over, dropping to his knees in front of Zuko. Nero raised his head and smiled as he fell to the ground. The door behind him opened.
Zuko thought he was going insane, he thought he heard Mai call his name.
"Father!" Zuko turned to see Lu Ten and Ursa II run into him, throwing their arms around him, with Mai standing with the others with tears in her eyes. Zuko struggled to stand but was too exhausted, prompting Mai to help support his weight.
"I love you guys," Zuko said so quietly that Mai barely heard it.
The three spectators watched the entire Agni Kai knowing only two results were possible. They weren't surprised when Nero went down.
"See I told you Nero never failed his mission." the woman in the shadows said solemnly to her companions, "Although for once I wished he had."
"You wish Nero had killed Zuko then?" the middle man asked.
"I wish both could've survived." the woman responded.
"We all know that was impossible." the short man said woefully, "Both were too stubborn to back down."
"We must remember that this was Nero's plan to begin with." the middle man said. "We had no right to try and stop him."
While they were talking a large number of assassins were coming into the arena.
"Looks like we have work to do." the short man said observing the assassins as they surrounded Team Avatar.
"About time, I was getting bored just watching," the middle man said.
"Iroh, Riku, be careful," the woman said.
"Always are, my lady," Riku said before they both charged at the arena.
Aang and the others braced themselves for a swift execution. The assassins all attacked in unison, launching fire, water, earth at them. Suddenly four walls of rock arose between them and the assassin's, blocking all the attacks. Everyone watched in confusion as multiple bolts of lightning shot into the crowd of assassins. Team Avatar watched in amazement as two figures leapt from the arena seats and landed next to them. Zuko couldn't believe his eyes as Iroh appeared before him.
"Hello Zuko." Iroh said in his usual friendly voice. The two embraced each other as the other man focused on maintaining his walls.
"I'd hate to interrupt this tearful reunion but I can't this up forever!" the earthbender said growing agitated. "You two, get us out of here while I maintain this wall," he said gesturing to Aang and Toph. Aang raised the floor beneath them to the roof while Toph made a tunnel up to the surface. Once they were tunneling through the ground the man stopped holding up the wall and walked over to Nero's body and closed his eyes. He started chuckling to himself and whispered "You never cease to surprise me Nero." He stood and turned to the group and introduced himself, "My name is Riku."
Once the group reached the surface, Aang blew on his bison whistle, summoning Appa. As people boarded the sky bison the Black Lotus Assassins began to pour out of numerous buildings around them, only Riku hadn't gotten on yet as he struggled to carry Nero's body.
"What are you doing?" Sokka cried while throwing his boomerang into the crowd of assassins.
"I'm not leaving him behind." Riku said as he loaded Nero on to the sky bison and climbed up. Appa took off as soon as Riku's feet left the ground. Appa quickly flew away from Ember Island, heading for the Fire Nation Capital.
"Why did you bring him?" Katara asked pointing at Nero.
"Because he didn't deserve to be left to those buzzard-wasps." Iroh said with obvious spite in his voice.
"But Uncle, he tried to kill all of us." Zuko said confused.
"No Zuko, Nero saved all of us." Iroh said crossing his arms. "If it weren't for him they would've sent someone who would've killed us all."
"But what about Ozai and Azula?" Aang asked remembering their first encounter.
"Nero did kill them yes, but that was out of necessity." Iroh continued. "He had to give you a reason to fight him."
"After he "killed" Iroh and myself the Black Lotus Assassins stopped paying attention to us allowing us to infiltrate their base." Riku added "At first we definitely thought he was out for blood, he did indeed damn near kill us both, but he stopped just short of killing strikes and took us to a hidden location. There he explained his plan."
"His plan?" Toph asked skeptically, "He had the whole thing planned?"
"Down to the final battle" Iroh said nodding his head. "His plan ultimately would lead to the destruction of The Black Lotus."
For the remainder of the flight Iroh and Riku explained Nero's plan. Starting with the first battle between Aang, and Zuko, from Nero's battle with all of them and the following chase, all the way to the final battle with Zuko that ended with his death.
"If that's the case than why did he kidnap us?" Mai said turning to look at the body of the man who'd both kidnapped and saved them.
"He had to give Zuko the final push that would lead to their fight." Riku explained, "He always surprised me when I trained him, even in death he had the last laugh."
Once they arrived at the capital the group held a private funeral for Nero, honoring the man who had given everything for almost nothing. As the cremation began Zuko looked up and saw a wolf watching in the distance. The wolf lifted it's head and howled to the sun, as if it was mourning.
Epilouge: Send in the Next One
Lian knelt before Lu Ming, who was absolutely furious that Nero had not only failed but the targets had the gall to steal his body, denying them the chance to properly honor their fallen comrade.
"Lian, Nero's assignment is now yours." Lu Ming said trying to retain his composure, "Avenge Nero in our name."
"Yes Lord Ming." Lian said standing, "They will know the wrath of the Black Lotus."
- This is definitely my longest chapter
- The final blasts of the Black and White Agni Kai were inspired by the beam fight between Gohan and Cell in Dragon Ball Z
For the collective works of the author, go here.