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Marching Ants

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Asami found it difficult to breathe. When the world receded, and the noise faded, all that was left were the labouring thuds of her heart in her chest, and the bleary faintness from too little air. At nights, the fog of pain would lift, and in the startling clarity of the dark, she could feel the loneliness, and fear, marching along her skin like an army of ants. It was after one particularly bad night--when the gaping emptiness, and clawing fear, had kept her awake, shaking with whimpers she did not recognise--that she caved. Anything was better than hurting so much she could not breathe. So, she crawled out of bed, tangled in her heavy limbs, and made plans to see the man who had tried to kill her. Her father. 

It wasn't so much the act of attempted murder that had almost killed her, but rather, the look in his eyes--the half-crazed, contemptuous flash which had replaced the indulgent gleam of happiness, and pride when he looked at her; which had stolen the tender, wistful ripple reserved for when she had done something that reminded him of her mother. She had sensed a part of her break loose, and float free--untethered by the loss of the man who had squeezed their sweaty palms together, trying not to crumble as they performed her mother's last rites.

An engineering, and financial genius, and I couldn't fix this, she had sensed him thinking.

Small, and shaken, she had wrapped her other arm around his leg, and buried her face there until she ceased to smell the rising incense. She had only begun to breathe again when her father had lifted her up, and carried her away; away from the glowing sticks which reminded her of the fire-bending that had stolen her mother from them. 

"Asami Sato to see Hiroshi Sato," she breathed out carefully. The prison guard raised an eyebrow, but refrained from commenting. She was grateful; she'd had enough pitying stares, and heard enough words of commiseration to last her in this lifetime, and the next. 

"I.D., please, Ms. Sato."

She lifted her card high enough for him to read--the Republic City markings glowing, and listened bleakly while the guard called for her father by his inmate number. The officer on the other side of the solid metal door, metal-bent* it open. As soon as she slipped through, he assumed a metal-bending stance, and with a gentle tug of his fingers, and a lean to the left, the door slid shut behind her. He was not as gifted as Police Chief Lin BeiFong, she mused. The Chief would probably have closed that with a twitch of two fingers--Asami's lips fluttered briefly at an amusing memory Korra had once shared, but she forced herself to focus. Being able to manipulate particles of metal was, in and of itself, quite the talent, chief or not. Some had done more damage with even the most rudimentary of abilities. Her thoughts veered back to the present, and all mirth left her. She knew only too well how they had misused that talent. 

She stepped further into the room, and stood still, waiting for someone to approach to her. An officer stepped forward, and she sucked upon the lipsticked curve of her bottom lip nervously, tasting wax. She tried not to watch as the mental-bender officer walked toward her, tried to ignore the way the black, and gold, metal of his uniform flashed beneath the artificial lights, but she couldn't. All she could hear were the agonising screams of a sleep-trapped Korra begging someone, anyone, to remove the metal poison Zaheer's followers had bent into--

Asami gasped when the guard touched her, flinching away from him. It had felt so real; been so real she could even feel Korra's body beneath hers, shaking as she tried to wake Korra from the nightmares.

When Asami caught the guards, and other prisoners, staring at her queerly, she glanced down. Realisation settled in clear, and uncomfortable. It had been her own sobs tremulously moving through her body. She wiped her tears away, capturing the last drops of moisture as a slender, white-haired man, wearing circular wire-rimmed glasses, emerged from a door fifty feet away. The guard beside him said something, and Asami saw him nod. His piercing eyes searched rapidly around the room, and Asami felt the ants make their way across her skin again. The metal-bender beside her led her across the room, and Asami pointed to a secluded corner, near a barred window set high above their heads. Noticing that the bars appeared to be made of platinum, Asami shuddered and turned away, searching for another free corner, but the visiting area was beginning to fill up.


She smiled in relief. His voice was still the same way she remembered it. Maybe some of the ants would leave her skin tonight after all. 

"Da--" she paused, cleared her throat, and began again. "Hiroshi-san."

His face contorted, sienna irises clouding over briefly before he bowed his head.

The movement had not been fast enough to hide the glimmer of tears covering his eyes. Her hands shook imperceptibly, and she pressed them together in an effort to hide the tremors. She wanted to reach out, and touch him, hold his hand the way he had held hers when they had both grieved for her mother; yet, all she could see was the man in a mecha-suit, committing the one act that would forever change the way she looked at him.

She sighed. Addressing her father by the title "san" would be hard--only the most traditional of families had held on to titles like those in Republic City, and her non-bending family had been anything but traditional.

For benders, manipulators of the elements, the old traditions had never necessarily applied--although, there were lingering stories of past gender inequality in the Water Tribes. A woman could be as strong a bender as a man, in fact, stronger than a man. Women ruled as queens without murmurs; some had aspired to, and attained, the position of Fire Lord in the most traditional nation of them all; and while the Earth Kingdom Queen had met a terrible end at the hands of Zaheer, it had certainly not been because of her gender. The queen had been a non-bender like Asami and her family, with a vast amount of power. Her non-bending nephew would even eventually take the throne, but in the urbanised Republic City, the rules for non-benders differed from those in places like the Earth Kingdom, or the Fire Nation. The turmoil of the Equalist movement had proved that. Wealth, and bending ruled. Had they not, would her father have become one of the many recurring nightmares she could not escape? Would this unrecognisable figure, staring at the floor, be the jagged piece of her family that kept her awake, and trapped beneath the wave of marching thoughts?

"Asami. Please. Tell me. How are you doing? How's the company faring," Hiroshi questioned earnestly as they took their seats at the table.

His handcuffs jingled, and she did her best to avoid staring at them. Perhaps they had left them on in fear of him trying to hurt her again.

"Okay. Everything is okay," she rasped. She knew her father could sense her reluctance to talk to him, but it would be a long time before she could begin to trust him again.

"I know I am probably the last person you want to talk to right now. You've been ignoring me for months, but you're here. In person. Something must be wrong. The dark circles around your eyes are so purple they look like bruises. Talk to me, Asami," he cajoled softly. "Are...are your friends all right? Is it that? Have they stopped talking to you because of me?"

Asami looked directly at her father. She'd never expected him to bring up Team Avatar. "My friends? They've never held anything against me. Unlike you," she hissed acerbically. 

Hiroshi jerked back, as if slapped. His shoulders slumped beneath the baggy pearl-grey suit, and Asami was suddenly conscious of how much weight he'd lost. The man who'd destroyed her life had been solid, big; a large, firm mass to cry against when her mother had died, and the nightmares would not leave her. She had teased him so many times about his round belly, threatening to hide his favourite noodles, and the occasional bottle of sake she sometimes caught him pouring into his glass.

Angry at herself for being so vulnerable, she swiped at the tears that she could feel travelling down her face yet again.

"I want you to know, Asami, that I would never hate you. I could never hate you. Even if you remained friends with all those benders. They've been there for you, while I could not, and I want you to know that...I am sorry." He stopped, the drone of the other prisoners' voices filling in the lull. "You're not sleeping, are you? Now, I'll wonder if some of those nightmares you have are of me try...trying..." he coughed carefully, struggling to finish his sentence, "trying to kill you." 

An uncertain quirk of her mouth was all she gave him. Letting him know her nightmares was too big of a step. She still didn't know whether, or not, she could trust him. Prejudices didn't disappear overnight. It wouldn't be such a far stretch to imagine him trying to rebirth the Equalists' movement through her. If his hatred of benders could drive him to take her life, what wouldn't he do?

"I'm no longer dating Mako." She regarded him cautiously, gauging his reactions. His face revealed nothing.

"Are you dealing well with the break-up?"

"It's been a while, Dad. I'm mostly over it."

"How about his brother?"

"Bolin? Bolin is Bolin." She couldn't think of another way to put it. Maybe this trip had been a bad idea. Social interactions had really begun to sap her energy these days. It was a miracle the company was surviving both her, and her father's existence. She struggled for a few more seconds, but made up her mind, and pressed on. "Future Industries is still holding up. I don't know for how long, though. Between you, and the sabotage from Varrick, it's been difficult getting everything to stabilise. A lot of our investors withdrew after the Equalist scandal."

Hiroshi nodded his head in understanding, and reached out to hold her hand. She pulled back so rapidly, her chair scraped against the floor. A few guards turned toward them, bodies tense. 

"Is everything all right, Ms. Sato?" The guard who had led her inside approached their table cautiously, his body primed to bend at a moment's notice. 

"Yes. I'm so sorry for the trouble. I thought there was a spider-rat." He looked at Asami, and her father before retreating a few steps. Unlike before, he stayed so close to the table she could practically hear his breathing.

Was breathing so easy for everyone these days? When had it become such an effort for her?

She turned back to her father, and let the thoughts go. He appeared slightly shaken, but following her lead, did not mention the incident. The pain in his eyes streaked through her chest, but she refused to acknowledge it.

"You've mentioned everyone...but I haven't heard you speak of the Avatar," Hiroshi mused.

"Korra?" She felt her body withdraw at the sound of her name escaping from her lips. "Korra has been gone for a while now. I'm sure you must have heard about the Red Lotus attack. President Reiko has been harping on, and on about 'the Avatar's hopeful, but slow recovery'."

Asami stood, gathering herself together. From her position, her father seemed weaker than she had thought. Breathing out slowly, she turned away, and allowed her shoulders to droop. What good could ever come of talking about all this with her father? There was surely still some part of him that was exultant at the knowledge of the Avatar's weakened state. She pursed her lips tightly as a different thought crossed her mind. Earlier, she'd called him 'Dad' after all.

Her fingers rose to tug at the collar of her jacket, the leather of the gloves she wore shielding her from its texture. She'd been wrong. The ants would march along her skin. All night long.