It wasn't the sort of bleeding, obvious, childlike affection that would drive everyone around him insane. And he certainty wasn't bragging about it to everyone. But as he looked on during the Sun Dragons/Turtle Ducks match, Shing definitely noticed Tong was…different. His demeanor was more relaxed. His snarky humor was more genuine rather than an attempt to hide some inner pain. And he was clearly enjoying himself alongside Kushina and the others.
This would have been great, but Shing couldn't help but wonder how it would help Tong embrace his role as the Avatar. He was happy to cheer with the rest of the crowd over the match, occasionally quipping about a player's performance. And his attitude made the whole group more relaxed, Amit and Tashi more than happy to snark at Leena over how the Turtle Ducks were taking a significant lead over the Sun Dragons between bites of popcorn.
So why was he worried that Tong was still missing the big picture? A powerful BOOM that followed a rather sublime play from the Ducks' fire bender, Kwok Jia, nicely accented his thoughts. That explosion sealed the round for the Turtle Ducks as both teams' players headed off to the sidelines for a rest.
With the players resting, the crowd's attention turned to the massive screens that hung in the center of the arena, showing various actors and celebrities at courtside to the crowd while the commentary team narrated, presumably to show off the IPBL's importance and popularity. Shing however, was surprised when the camera turned to Tong and Kushina.
And who can forget these two heroes? Blared over the loudspeaker. These two saved the Fire Nation from New Ozai terrorists and an army of dark spirits! I wish I had half the guts they had!
The crowd cheered for the pair as the camera continued to pan over them. Tong smiled, looking at Kushina, then the camera. "Should we?"
"You like the attention, don't you?"
Tong looked at Kushina and smiled, holding her close and kissing her on the cheek to which the crowd offered more cheers. "I like a lot of things about it."
Shing merely shook his head at the sight, but he was unsure of what would finally make Tong embrace his role. Or maybe he was overthinking it. He didn't know. His faces at the images weren't completely unnoticed however.
"You alright?" Leena asked, looking over at the stern Air Nomad.
"Huh? Oh, yeah. Sure. I'm fine," he remarked. "How come?"
"You look like you've got a lot on your mind. Wanna talk about it after the game?"
He didn't know what Leena's angle was, other than that the Fire Nation probably had a vested interest in White Lotus not taking over the world. What he did know is that it would be at least another day before they headed to the South Pole, so he had plenty of time to make Tong realize his destiny.
The vehicles moved quickly under the cover of darkness. Carrier trucks, artillery vehicles, mecha tanks, and other support vehicles all adorned the desert roads, moving as quickly as their engines would take them. They were one of many groups, all set to meet in one location.
Sand bender 1, this is Command. Request ETA to launch point.
From inside of the larger tractor-trailers, a group of officers sat down at a conference table, overhearing the message.
"Command, this is Sand Bender 1. Estimated ETA to launch point T-minus 39 hours. How are our counterparts doing?"
Sand bender's 2-5 are all on track to meet you. Once you are at rendezvous point, you are go for final operation.
"Understood Command," replied one of the officers, before clicking a button on a telephone and turning to address the other officers seated.
"You're all well aware of the sheer volume of air defenses in Ba Sing Se," he began. The job of our ground forces is simple. We're going to punch an opening in the wall and then move into the city and disable those defenses. Once they're out of the way, we'll have free range to attack strategic targets within the city and land additional forces via airdrop. Keep in mind that we are committing the majority of our forces to this offensive. If this fails, we will not get another shot at this for some time, if ever."
The officers all saluted, before returning to their individual planning. They all wore the heavy burden of what they were about to face.
It almost seemed like déjà vu, being at a bar hotel with the tall Fire Nation woman looking on at him. Unlike the last time, Shing saw fit not to down a bottle of cactus juice, instead discussing his concerns over a simple Earth Republic lager. At least Leena was more than willing to lend a friendly ear to his concerns, minding her own drink as Shing relayed his concerns.
"You see, I thought it would be a good idea to get them together," he began. "He's only had a crush on Kushina since we were kids. But I don't think he cares about being the Avatar. He cares about her…"
"Does he care about you?" Leena asked. "Are you worried that Tong being the Avatar is needed to validate you? You have your own hopes and dreams, right?"
"Well, yeah," Shing answered, "but I was told to make Tong realize his destiny by my master. I thought Kushina could help him realize that. But he seems more interested in his new girl than he does Avatar business. You know? I thought he'd see the big picture, and all he sees is us still."
"It's been a day!" Leena shot back. "Give it time. Focus on yourself for a change."
Shing sighed, looking on the smiling woman. "What do you mean by that?"
"A few things, cutie," Leena answered, taking another swig of her drink. "First is that he's probably focused on the immediate stuff right now, like going to the South Pole and getting proof of what White Lotus is up to. And we should all be too. I've looked over the coordinates. We're going to be traveling pretty far into the tundra."
"I'll pack a coat. What's the second?"
"Second is I think you need to think about what you want, before trying to save the world by yourself."
"So what's your stake in all of this?" Shing asked, looking on at his companion. She offered a laugh.
"Easy. Stop the bad guys from taking over the world, find who wanted to kill innocent people, and maybe have some fun along the way."
"So what's fun for you?"
After a day of resting, mostly consisting of Tong letting some injuries heal and the group being sure to pack warmly for their trek, the time for the flight had finally arrived. The group stood in front of their transport, a private jet that Tomorrow Technologies had loaned out to fly to the South Pole, where they would meet Leena's contact and then begin the long, arduous trek to the Grand Archive. And while Shing was more relaxed than he had been thanks to the Fire Nation woman's help, he still felt a bit of worry. He couldn't be sure if Tong would willingly take the title of Avatar, or if exposing White Lotus to the world and ending their schemes of global conquest would be an excuse to slip back into the shadows, leaving the world without an Avatar.
The world needed an Avatar, and well, he knew Tong would be a great one. He just had to make the idiot realize it.
"Ready to go?" Kushina asked the group. Tong of course, extended his arm to her.
She laughed, but then took the arm as both boarded the plane. Shing followed after, hoping that Leena was right about all this.
"Don't worry though, Southern Water Tribe members are pretty friendly," she announced to the group.
"Well the vacation's over for now," Amit noted. "Maybe when this is done I can take a real one to Ember Island."
"Only if you go during the spring months," Leena answered, boarding the plane. "Less tourists and the weather is just right."
Who's there?! I'm serious! I swear, I'm going to AAAAK!
Heheheh. You really are an idiot, my dear, sweet…
Because you need to die. You don't think I would have done it earlier if I had a reason? I always hated you.
You'll…pay for this.
No I won't. Now stand still, the knife won't work on its own.
Tong awoke from his brief rest inside the plane, the two by two bucket seats holding everyone as they tried to relax before reaching the South Pole. It was the dream again with the sounds but no visuals, but this was probably the last one. The story that they told, of a man who did everything to hide his inner pain, ends with him being killed by the woman he could never get over? That was the definition of tragic. He then looked to his shoulder and saw Kushina resting on it, her mouth slightly open, creating a rather cute image. At least he was sure now he wouldn't end up like that bitter man.
Unfortunately, the sight outside the window was nowhere near as cute. Six white jet fighters, three on each side with triangle shaped wings, flew alongside the chartered plane. The voice from the radio was loud enough to wake up everyone on board.
ATTENTION UNIDENTIFIED PLANE. YOU ARE VIOLATING SOUTHERN WATER TRIBE AIRSPACE. EITHER FOLLOW US TO A DESIGNATED LANDING AREA OR BE SHOT DOWN. THIS IS YOUR ONLY WARNING.
The awakening group looked on at the pursuing jet fighters wide eyed, all except Leena, who at the pilot seat, went to the nearby radio.
"Understood. We are ready to be escorted." The group all looked on at her before she merely announced, "I was expecting that."
"Nice people, huh?" Shing shot back.
"Maybe a bit…defensive," Leena responded over the intercom.
With the command received, the plane followed the jets to a runway by a small building. Half the jets landed first, soon taxiing themselves towards a large elevator that went underground. Given the force of the winds in the South Pole, it made perfect sense to keep the craft underground. The chartered jet followed soon after, landing on the runway. Leena, still unfazed by the incident, waited for the door to open before getting ready to step outside.
"See? No problem on all. Now let's go out to…"
The sound of multiple Shocker rifles being readied interrupted Leena's speech as six men in white camouflage aimed their weapons at the door. That was in addition to six water benders who had balls of water ready to strike as well. Everyone kept their hands raised until a man emerged from the group in front of the plane.
"The Fire Asp comes to visit me."
The man was wearing a blue and grey uniform, its thick padding designed to keep him warm and only exposing his face. His brown eyes darted through the group even as the wind ruffled his dark skin and black hair. Leena couldn't help but smile at the statement.
The man offered a laugh, ordering his men to stand down. "Come on over here! I got word you were coming two days ago! Bring your friends!"
"Everyone," Leena began. "This is Ulva. Southern Water Tribe Defense Force."
"Nice to meet you all," Ulva began. "I take the lot of you aren't Fire Nation agents, so what the briefing said was true. How about we all go inside and have some hot tea? We have a lot to plan for."
"Good tea," Tong noted. Tashi, who had been quiet most of the trip, nodded enthusiastically with that assessment. The dark grey liquid was poured into everyone's cups inside the rather small briefing room, seats surrounding a metal table with a computer monitor on top of it. Ulva didn't seem to mind the enclosed setting, taking a sip of his tea as he looked on at his guests.
"It's Masala Chai," Ulva responded. "The spices are served with milk and sugar. It's really good compared to the instant crap you usually get from the tea bags. And considering how it is outside, sorely needed. It's a shame the ingredients are so hard to get in this frost rat hole. It's why I only serve it when we have guests."
"See?" Leena assured the group with a smile, "Southern Water Tribe members are very nice."
"Wouldn't know," Tong replied nonchalantly. "Went to college in the Northern Water Tribe. Can't argue with this at least," he added, having another sip of the chai tea.
"I do want to apologize about our little welcoming committee by the way. The presence of Avatar Affairs troops under our noses has had our defense force on high alert. And when we found out they built a humongous fortress under our noses, well let's just say the brass are…antsy."
"So what kind of trip are we looking at?" Kushina asked.
"A long one, deep in the cold," Ulva answered. "The area that the coordinates pointed to is by the Spirit Portal, so we've been unable to get a good reading on the location."
"Spirit Portal?" Shing asked, to which Ulva nodded. He looked on at the group and then smiled. An idea formed in his head about the Spirit Portal, specifically, how to use it to finally push Tong over the edge of realizing his Avatar duties. He smiled, before returning to his tea.
"And as for the scout team we sent on foot, well, just look at the video."
The monitor sprang to life showing a group of men dressed like the white coat clad soldiers outside. What followed were sounds of chaos and panic as icicles and water hammered the soldiers, the sounds of Shocker fire and panicked calls doing nothing to halt the advance of the interlopers. A few dropped after a small object seemed to whiz by their head, but the footage was too blurred to make sense of it.
Kushina noticed it immediately, her thoughts immediately turning to the late Yudhisthir. "Did that look like what I think it did?"
"This was recorded two days ago," Ulva noted as the video kept playing. "Something out there is very concerned with keeping the area a secret, and anyone who goes to that area usually doesn't come back. I can spare a few of my men for this, but the majority need to guard the outpost, especially if Avatar Affairs is slipping in weapons and supplies behind our backs."
Amilt looked on their host, summarizing the situation.
"So we need to go to an area that your technology can't get a clear signal too, with almost no backup, probably to be assaulted by stealth commandos who are guarding the place and hiding in the snow? And that's before we actually infiltrate the building."
Ulva paused, sipping his tea, before replying "In so many words."
"Cool! When do we leave?"
The trip of the Earth Republic convoy continued without pause until everyone felt it. A loud shockwave rattled the convoy as lookouts noticed an immediate problem.
"One of the artillery vehicles got flipped!" It was obvious who was responsible for such an action.
"Benders! Get the scouts out immediately!"
A group of Ox mecha tanks raced towards the south of the convoy where vehicles were being flipped into the air and landing as dented metal. Unfortunately for the saboteurs, the force necessary to flip the tanks made them easily noticeable.
"I got em!" shouted one pilot.
Ten seconds later, a Shocker cannon annihilated the group of benders while the rest of the pilots started looking for any others. Despite how quickly the engagement was over, the issue was not overlooked inside the command truck. A grey haired man looked over the maps he was given, clutching his fist.
"We lost three vehicles to a random ambush and we've still got three hours before the rendezvous. Bad enough that we lost the spirit vine cannon when Garuiya got wiped out, but now they're trying to chip away at us before we can even launch the attack!"
"We need to slow down," one of the other officers, a brown haired man noted. "Send the mecha tanks ahead to sweep for benders and other ambush zones then move up." However, the commander shook his head.
"We're on a tight deadline as it is. Once Ba Sing Se notices the huge army at its doorstep, we're going to facing a lot more than a few errant Earth benders. We need to move faster. We'll move so fast by the time they realize we're there to ambush it'll be too late."
"I'll give the order."
With the order given, the entire convoy began moving as quickly as their engines would take them, speeding past the brief skirmish and the unusable vehicles.
The cold was bitter, but the group pressed forward relentlessly regardless. They weren't numerous, but they were at the very least, well dressed and well equipped. To Kushina's joy, the base was able to spare a Polar Warrior mecha tank to travel on the mission, the white camouflage-wearing unit walking through the snow along with the others while its pilot was able to relax in a heated cockpit. To the annoyance of the four soldiers Ulva had bought with him, Kushina had been quite insistent on piloting the machine herself, something Ulva only agreed to because of the extremely unusual situation and the fact that she wasn't a bender, but a trained pilot.
"But sir, I'm not a water bender."
"But you are a trained soldier within the Defense Force that knows how to handle a Shocker rifle," Ulva snapped back. "So suck it up." The sulking soldier, along with his comrades, zipped up their hoods and put wind masks over their face to protect from the cold. It would also help to hide their disgruntled looks.
Out in the frozen plains, the group couldn't help but notice how similar the surroundings all were.
"Just snow, snow, and more snow," Amit noted, only for Tashi to nudge him with an elbow.
"Of course there's snow. Be lucky we actually have a guide."
"Don't thank me just yet," Ulva responded. "We're coming up on the area our last scout team lost contact. No sign of them though."
"And that spirit portal energy is messing with the instruments," Kushina added. "We're not going to be able to spot them in advance at this rate."
"This isn't foreboding," Leena sulked, all the while keeping a small flame in her hand to stay warm. Tong however, was more optimistic.
"Hey, once we find the place, the rest should be easy. We can finally get to the bottom of what White Lotus is up to."
"Agreed. Let's keep moving."
While the group was fairly talkative, Shing elected to remain silent. He knew that he would only get one opportunity, if that to send Tong to the Spirit World via the portal. It was a long shot, but the Spirit World could provide Tong with the sort of realization of his responsibilities as the Avatar. All he had to do was make him take a little…detour, and ensure he came out the other end safe. But when?
Shing's thoughts about how to have his friend embrace his Avatar duties were interrupted by the entire group standing still. Tong grimaced, having put his foot down and turning to the group.
"We're not alone. Everyone be alert."
"For what?" one of the soldiers asked. A powerful force dragging him into the snow, kicking and screaming answered his question. Two of the other soldiers fired their weapons towards whatever grabbed him, but to no avail.
"We're surrounded!" Ulva shouted, readying a water ball. "Defensive positions!"
There wasn't even enough time to do that. From the snow emerged a dozen or so men clad in grey from head to toe, leaping into the air before using water bending to rain down icicles on the group. Tong reacted quickly, forming a barrier of earth to defend them as everyone ran for cover, returning fire. A few fireballs and Shocker rounds found their target on two of the assailants, dropping them to the ground. The remaining masked men soon descended back into the snow, hiding from the group.
"Where are they?"
Tong was soon answered by a dozen strong hands clasping around his arms and legs, all of them trying to drag him into the snow.
The windows of the palace showed Ba Sing Se's upper district in all of their glory. The people on the streets moved along their way, traffic moved as well as it could in a crowded city, and from his vantage point, everything seemed normal. No one could suspect that in 24 hours the Earth Republic hoped to make the city a warzone. Emperor Xing smiled at the sight. He hoped the deal he cut would keep it as peaceful as it currently looked.
"So for the second time in less than a hundred years, the barbarians are the gates of Ba Sing Se," he proclaimed. "I have signed our agreement. Are your forces ready, Avatar Korra?"
"They are ready, Regent Xing," Korra responded, smiling. "I'll lead them into battle myself. I promise that we'll wipe them all out once they enter the city."
"Good. My men don't know about the deal as of yet. I don't want to look weak in front of them unless I have no other choice."
"I understand completely. But you're going to need our help, or you wouldn't have signed your kingdom to be under our new nation."
"Yes, I know," Xing answered, sighing heavily. He then turned back to Korra, grinning.
"I must say, I didn't believe it was you at first. You look far…younger."
"Thank you," Korra responded, before showing off the massive diamond on her right ring finger, "but I'm engaged."