"I refuse to look stupid because of an assassin, a monk, and a woman with a gun!"
Slamming her fist on the table in front of her, Korra's outburst stunned the entire group of advisors she sat with. In the midst of her outburst, Han pleaded for calm.
"Honored Avatar, please. We have the situation well in hand. There's no need for this."
"Oh really? What about those spies that took information on the Grand Archive? What about the fact that the Fire Nation apparently considers this man a hero? What about the fact that in the past few months, we haven't caught him?"
Another advisor, a dark skinned man with a baldhead and mustache, stood up. "What can we do?"
"I'm done playing around. Find him. And then I will deal with him myself!"
"Honored Avatar," Han began, pleading for calm, "This man can wield all four elements. He is not to be underestimated!"
"I'm not going to hide in an office while he runs free foiling our plans!" Korra shouted. "This ends now! I'm going to find the 'Specialist', defeat him, and bring him before a United Republic judge to be tried and executed! End of discussion!"
"If that is your wish Honored Avatar," Han answered, "then I will make the preparations."
"Good," Korra answered, her teeth and fist clenched. "No one makes a fool of the Avatar and lives."
Walking away from the table as the group dispersed, Han went into his own office, where another call was on the line. Sitting at his desk, the face of a masked man appeared on his monitor.
"I have been keeping my eye on the targets like you have requested. Currently they're in the city of Garsai, apparently to meet with someone concerning the information they have on the Black Bull Bird."
"Oh? I thought we dealt with that problem."
"The man is dead, but his book of targets continues to endure. That said, all of our dealings with him were done via intermediaries that cannot be directly traced to us, save one. The Specialist himself, a contract I set up."
"You want something," Han noted. "What is it?"
"I would like to fight the Specialist myself, as a matter of honor between families. He shamed my father, and I wish to slay him to regain our honor."
"As much as I sympathize, we cannot. Someone has asked to take the Specialist on in one-on-one combat."
"And who is that?"
The man on the other end of the call said nothing, but merely nodded.
"Should the outcome of this duel not end in Korra's favor, then you will get your chance. But I doubt that he can defeat the Avatar, even now. The Avatar has powers beyond that of any normal bender, powers which will destroy this fugitive!"
"I understand," the Observer answered, the monitor going blank. Han was set to get up when another call came through.
"Inquisitor," began a female voice as the monitor showed the six members of the Youxia of Vaatu. "We have delivered the spirit vine cannon to Curive. There were no issues on the way."
"Excellent. The engineers will take over from here. I have a new mission for all of you in the meantime."
I keep having visions.
Yeah, doc. Can you keep in this room?
I feel like there's a million other worlds that I'm only seeing now at the end.
End? You still have a few years left before retirement.
It still feels like the end. And I'm looking at a million different possibilities. One where she and I stay together and we start a family. One where she meets a spiky-headed blonde guy before we do and she doesn't give me the time of day. One where she dies and I never really know her. I feel like I got the worst possible ending.
Coulda, woulda, shoulda. My mother would always tell me that when I felt I missed an opportunity at life. We can't change the past, we can't take the shot, we can't get the girl. What we can do as people is try to hold on to what little happiness we have, and then keep it close to us.
I feel like it's too late for that doc. Way too late.
"Grandmaster Nam-Ka, what news did you get?"
Shing sighed as he held the phone in his hand, the day's meetings over with; he finally had a chance to speak with the Northern Air Temple master about the information that they had recovered from Avatar Affairs. Unfortunately, it was not without cost.
"Mi Hee died?"
"Valiantly, heroically, but died all the same," Nam-Ka answered. "It is my regret that she did not return with the information she obtained."
There was little Shing could do but bow his head solemnly, an expression that Nam-Ka couldn't see on the other end of the telephone, but one that was necessary given the loss. After doing so, he asked, "What do we do now?"
"The two surviving members of the mission will be going to you. I believe that it is the best way for them to get some closure."
"I'm looking forward to meeting them."
The glum Shing stood in the hotel room, sighing over the phone. He didn't even bother looking up when Kushina walked through the door.
"Anyone interested in seeing some pro bending? I got tickets for tomorrow to see the Turtle Ducks against the Sun Dragons at the arena in town!" Shing said nothing in response though, still looking at his phone.
"I could go if you want."
"Tong," Kushina remarked, looking on at the man. A clear blush was forming on his face, but he did his best to hide it. "I mean, if you want me along. I haven't seen a pro bending match live since I was in middle school, so it'd be kinda cool."
"You wanted to go as a group, so if you don't want me along…"
"Tong," she answered, holding his hand. "You can come. The idea was for all three of us to go, and last time I checked, you're part of the group."
"So I get to come then, right?"
Turning around, Shing looked at both of them, smiling, while both nodded. "Yeah, you get to come."
"Cool. That's tomorrow, right? Someone's supposed to be coming tonight to meet us tonight."
"You're meeting someone?" Kushina asked. Tong nodded.
"Yeah, my contact from the Fire Nation. I got a message saying she wanted to meet me over something very important." When he mentioned 'she,' Shing was taken aback.
"You mean that lady from the Fire Nation?"
"Yeah, the really tall one," Tong answered, causing Shing to blush at his hazy, cactus juice obscured memories of the woman named Leena picking him up to calm him down. "Come on, we're supposed to meet at the town's outskirts."
"That's where the people I was supposed to meet are headed," Shing reasoned. "Maybe we can all head out to dinner afterwards." Kushina smiled at the invitation.
"Works for me. But if Air Nomads are coming, that means we need to pick a vegetarian place, right?"
Shing scoffed. "Man cannot live on salad alone."
"Well that's because most men usually eat meat."
Unlike the center of the city, the area where the meeting was to take place was a small rest stop of sorts, several miles from the main road. A closed fuel station and its adjacent storefront were the only buildings in the area, likely having been closed down when they were unable to compete with the stations and businesses on the main road towards Garsai. Therefore, three people could wait alongside a rented car without drawing an excessive amount of attention. As a consequence, it also made the wait incredibly boring with nothing for the trio to do but look over their phones and stare off for signs of life. The setting sun was still forceful enough to pound them with a barrage of heat, causing the sweat to drip steadily, while the small trees occasionally bristled with the wind.
"Did we have to do this out here?" Kushina asked.
"Where else are we going to hide a sky bison?" Shing answered. "It was the quickest way for them to get to us."
"Yeah, I guess." For his part, Tong didn't show any outward signs of discomfort or complaining, choosing to play a puzzle game on his phone and occasionally drink from a bottle of water. This routine continued for about half an hour when a loud whirring noise was heard.
"You said they were taking a sky bison, right?" Tong asked. Shing nodded.
"What about your contact?"
Before anyone could answer the question, a heavily armed helicopter lowered itself to the ground, and from the passenger compartment emerged a familiar face. One none of the trio was expecting to see.
In the hot sun, wearing a full green military uniform complete with a green cape, the dark skinned woman known as Korra stood before them, her expression smug and arrogant. However, any bodyguards, if the were there, remained in the helicopter, letting the Avatar face her opponents.
"So you three are the ones that have been causing me so much grief. It's nice to see you without your mask, Specialist. Or is it Tong? I'm honored to meet the Red Lotus' super soldier."
Instinctively, Kushina reached for her pistol, pointing it right at Korra. "What you are is dead!" However, the Avatar only smirked.
Kushina's body began to contort and rise into the air, as did Shing's. Neither could move as their bodies were held aloft.
"Dumb little girl. Did you really think a Shocker was going to be of any use against the power of blood bending?"
"PUT THEM DOWN NOW!" Tong yelled, fireballs forming in his hands. "OR I'LL RIP THE FLESH FROM YOUR BONES!"
"I'm not here for these idiots," Korra answered, causally allowing them to drop to the ground like garbage. "I'm here for you."
"You wanna fight?" Tong asked, getting into a fighting stance as the flame still hovered over his fists.
"The Avatar runs from no one, least of all a pathetic assassin such as yourself." Her tone remained haughty even as she stared down her opponent. "I think we're both tired of playing hide-and-seek with each other. So let's end it."
"Right now?" Tong asked. Korra answered by laughing in his face.
"No. Tomorrow. Here, at dawn. We're going to have a proper duel. Unlike you, the Avatar has a sense of honor."
"Honor? Is attacking cities with corrupted spirits honorable?"
As Korra went back into the helicopter, she remarked, "I don't know what you're talking about. Not that it's going to matter."
The helicopter flew off, Tong looking on at it, and the woman that served as the symbol of his enemy. Even if she wasn't the leader of White Lotus, she was still the lynchpin of their plans. For her to come out here to challenge him personally must have meant that he had become quite the thorn in her side. That thought made him smile.
Quickly however, he turned to his friends, lying on the ground, but otherwise just fine.
"W…what did she do to us?" Kushina asked, shaking her head.
"Blood bending," Tong answered as he helped her and Shing to their feet.
"So, what do we do now?" Shing asked. Tong was set to answer that when a car pulled up to the gas station. All three looked on at the red sports car and its passenger emerging, a woman in black figure hugging shorts and a red t-shirt.
"Did I miss something?"
"A duel? Really?"
After Tong, Shing and Kushina had settled themselves, they explained the situation to Leena. Even she was taken aback by how brazen the Avatar's challenge was.
"So she wants to fight you, one-on-one, presumably to the death, why?"
Tong nodded. "I've been a pretty nasty thorn in her side these past few months. Maybe she got sick of sending goons after me and decided to take care of it herself."
"Well it could be a trap you know," Leena reasoned. However, Tong shook his head.
"If it was a trap she wouldn't have come herself. She wouldn't have made such a massive spectacle of it."
Leena nodded. "Well, that's not why I'm here. You see…"
The conversation was interrupted by the sound of a sky bison yawning overhead, coming in for a landing. Two teens, a bald boy and a girl with her hair in twin buns, dismounted from the bison, wearing the tattoos of a master Air Bender. Shing recognized one of them immediately.
The pair exchanged a hug, even as the boy and the remainder of the group looked on. "What's with him?"
"Uh, everyone," Shing began, smirking slightly, "this is Tashi, my cousin. But I didn't realize you got your tattoos!" That statement, however, caused her to look sullen.
"Mi-Hee gave her life so we could get you're the information, and when we returned, Amit and I were given our tattoos. I feel like she paid for these with her life."
"Oh come on," Amit answered. "There's no need to be crying. Mi Hee died a hero. And we wouldn't have gotten caught if it…AHH! YOU!"
Amit quickly dropped into a fighting stance, looking directly at Leena, who just smirked at the teen Air Bender.
"Aren't you the idiot that nearly blew my cover in Ba Sing Se?"
"You! You're the reason that Mi Hee is dead!"
"What's going on?" Shing asked, getting in between the Air bender and the Fire Nation spy, both looking on at each other.
"You've got a lot to learn before you can challenge me kid. And it isn't very nice to blame people for the death of your friends."
"Oh yeah? This kid is going to give you a beating you won't…"
Putting his hands in front of both of them, Shing offered each a cold stare. "We're all on the same side here, like it or not. And I'm guessing you both wanted to tell us the same thing."
"Meaning that Mi Hee…"
"Was as valiant an Air Bender as any Grandmaster," Shing finished. "Now let's all calm down and discuss what you've found."
Nodding at Shing's call for reason, Leena began speaking. "Avatar Affairs has a massive amount of information on all their operations in one place. Not just their stuff either. Materials on every nation, people, projects, ancient secrets, all confined to one place to that they could access it and use it to further their plans."
"And they placed it in the South Pole," Amit added. "Because no one would survive long out there if they didn't know where to look."
"Then that's where we need to head next, right?" Shing asked. Tong however, was silent the entire time, looking out away from the city. This did not go unnoticed by the other members of the group.
"Are you OK?"
"I don't know," Tong answered. "The last time I fought Korra I didn't expect her to be so strong. She even has the Avatar state! I just…" He sighed, rubbing his hand in front of his face as the group looked on at him. Their argument was temporarily forgotten in the face of the upcoming duel.
Leena was the first to respond. "You don't think you can win?"
"I…I…I don't know."
"How about we go somewhere to take our minds of all this?" Kushina interrupted, looking on at the pounding sun. "Somewhere with air conditioning?"
"Where to?" Tashi asked.
"You guys like watching pro bending?"
With no base in the area, Korra and her bodyguards were forced to operate out of a mobile command structure, namely two massive tractor trailers with a conference room, mobile communication, sleeping facilities, and a second dedicated to holding the assault helicopter when not in use. The trailer deployed from a facility at least five hours away by land, and now rested outside Garsai away from the roads. Inside, Korra was speaking with her advisors over a videophone, her expression cross.
"I can defeat him, and I'll do tomorrow at dawn!" Korra announced. "Anything else can be discussed after!"
"Honored Avatar, please reconsider," a man asked, only for her to slam her fist on the table.
"Reconsider what? That I should run and hide? I'm going to win this fight, and tomorrow, Garsai's streets are going to run red with Tong's blood!"
The outburst caused everyone on the other end of the call to hang up, except Han, who looked through the monitor at Korra.
"I don't think anyone can stop you when you dedicate yourself to something."
"You're right about that," Korra answered.
"Well then, if you don't mind…just…be safe, please? When you get back, there's something very important I need to show you. And ask you."
Korra nodded. "Han, you know I'm going to win. I'll see you in a few days."
"Zayou?! Please, Zayou hasn't scored a single knockout the entire season so far!"
The sports bar in the middle of Garsai had three things that were helping the group to relax for the most part. Decent food, actual air conditioning, and televisions showing the pro bending match between the Moon Sabers and the Sun Dragons. It even had a parking lot where the valet was willing to harbor a sky bison; the bison content to sleep peacefully next to the vehicles and occasionally eat some vegetables gathered for it. While a rather nicely decorated outdoor patio was set up in the back, nearly everyone was present indoors for the IPBL match. The crowd was bustling over the playoff hunt as the Sun Dragons and Turtle Ducks were in an extremely tight race for contention.
A bit more noticeable among the large table in the dining area was that people were actually talking. Namely, Leena and Amit, after having had an opportunity to discuss the events in Ba Sing Se rationally, had stopped arguing over who's priority was first in the raid and began arguing over the effectiveness of the Sun Dragon's starting lineup. All the while, Tashi stood hesitantly, drinking a soda pop while watching the match.
"Is she still upset with me?" Tashi calmly asked Shing. Shing was set to open his mouth when Leena leaned over the comparatively diminutive Air Bender, hugging him to her noticeable chest.
"Mad? Nah, you kids are all right. Let's face it; you helped me escape by splitting them up. Honestly, if you guys weren't there, or I wasn't there, we would have gotten caught. Besides, come tomorrow Tong's gonna sock Korra the same way Zayou's gonna sock the Turtle Ducks!"
"You keep saying that," Amit answered. "But you've seen the guys they put in the Air Bending position! They'll score knockouts for sure!"
"Who, Don Fen?" Leena asked. "No way he gets anything done!"
The sound of an explosion on the television from the arena masked the arrival of several upset looking men going over to the table. Their leader, a scraggly man with a potbelly and unshaven face, stared at the woman who insulted Don Fen.
"Lady, no one talks bad about Don Fen in this bar and keeps all their teeth!"
"Is that so, little man?" Leena answered, standing up over the drunken fan. Neither of them noticed Shing gasping for air underneath.
"Yeah, it is!" the bar patron said, him and his friends all preparing for a fight. "People that don't think Don Fen is awesome aren't allowed in this bar!"
"Well Kwai was way better!" Leena answered. "What are you gonna do about it?"
"Throw you out on your face!" the drunkard answered. "Right boys?"
The grin on Leena's face spoke volumes as she turned over to Amit and Tashi. "Hey, kids. Wanna demonstrate some team pride?"
"I'm staying out of this one," Kushina answered. "Right Tong?" Turning around, she noticed the black haired Earth bender had stepped out.
Tong, who politely asked to be excused for some fresh air, mostly ignored the sound of bones creaking and people yelling from the bar. He now stood in the back, an outdoors patio filled with cherry blossoms that served as welcome color to the area. He never even noticed the drunks being thrown outside the bar.
"Tong? What are you doing out here?"
"I've been thinking. It's all very sudden, you know?" he said, looking on.
"The face of White Lotus challenges me to a duel at dawn. And I'm just…overwhelmed. I feel like I'm always one step from losing everything."
"Why? We've done pretty well for ourselves so far."
Tong shook his head. "I keep having these dreams…memories…something…about a guy. He was in love with a woman."
"Or every romantic mover ever," Kushina joked.
"It gets better," Tong shot back. "But he's dumb. He loses her. He loses her to someone else, and no matter what he wants to say or do, he can't ever win her back. He has to live with that hole in his heart for the rest of his life. Say that he wants her and her friend to be happy, even though he hates it. And he has to live with seeing everything he's ever taken joy in being taken from him until he's left a bitter shell."
"What are you trying to say?" she asked.
"That I won't let it happen to the person I'm protecting."
"You keep saying you want to protect me. Just me?"
"The world doesn't want me to be the Avatar. Even if we bring the entirety of White Lotus crashing down, I don't know if the world will ever see me as the Avatar. And I've made peace with that. I can't protect the world. But ever since we met, and it was one thing after another, I promised…I'd protect you. That I wouldn't end up like the man in those dreams. Broken and miserable."
"Then why me?" she asked.
Tong breathed heavily, trying to make the words come out. "Because…"
"There has to be a reason," Kushina answered. "A reason that you focused on me and not someone else."
"Well?" she asked, her tone increasingly annoyed. "Tell me."
"BECAUSE I LOVE YOU!"
The words came out of his mouth like a torrent of water as he grabbed her close. She didn't resist. "The world might fall into 10,000 years of darkness. It might reject me as the Avatar. But I feel like…if you're there, then I have something to fight for. Something I can't ever let them take away from me."
"There's your first problem," Kushina answered, looking annoyed at the man holding her.
"That you assume I'm someone's to take away."
Their lips leaned closer as she raised herself to him. What followed was passionate, filled with desire, but also a twinge of sadness and worry from Tong. Finally, the pair broke their kiss, looking into each other's eyes."
"You're going to fight Korra," Kushina stated, not a single hint of doubt present. "And you're going to win."
"If you're by me," Tong answered before pulling her into another kiss, "then I'll fight Korra's entire army and win."
Beneath the cherry blossoms in the back, the pair continued to kiss, the sadness and worry gone, replaced with a newfound hope for what he knew he had to do. They were so caught up in the moment that they were oblivious to the group looking on them.
"That is adorable!"
Turning around, the group all stared at the kissing couple, blushing as brightly as the cherry blossoms above them.
"Now you have to win!" Leena shouted. "You wanna look cool in front of the girl you kissed, right?"
Amit just chuckled, while Shing looked on, smiling.
"We got ourselves an interesting group. But let's face it Tong. We all have one thing in common."
"And that is?"
"We want to see Korra go down as much as you do!"
Everyone nodded in agreement, causing Tong to nod. Before he could say anything else, he found a drink in his hand from Amit, while Kushina found one in her hand from Tashi.
"What's this for?"
"A toast!" Shing answered. "It's good luck."
"Then I know just what to toast to," Tong answered, raising his glass.
"To the end of White Lotus, and the end of the false Avatar!" he shouted, to which the group enthusiastically raised their glasses.
"TO THE END OF WHITE LOTUS, AND THE END OF THE FALSE AVATAR!"
Dawn came, and by the abandoned lot Korra stood, her cape billowing in the wind as she waited for her opponent. Her men, or rather, men and women were unmasked and standing in a straight line behind their leader, the need for disguises cast aside in this duel. She looked on at the vehicles and sky bison that pulled up as the group emerged. From the first car came Tong, wearing a T-shirt, pants, and his gauntlet, looking on at his opponent. His friends came out behind him; in a line behind their fighter the same way Korra's subordinates were behind hers.
"I'm here Korra," Tong yelled, walking forward slowly towards the false Avatar. "Let's end this!" No fear was present in his voice, and no doubt was noticed on his face.
"Yeah, Avatar to assassin," Korra responded, getting into the fighting pose of a water bender, as Tong readied himself in his own fighting stance. "Let's end this game now." As he continued to walk forward, she taunted, "You can't win," only to see Tong charging forward, fists ready.
"Try and stop me!"