Chapter 1: Dovetail
"We built our home out on the slopes
Pompeii beneath, she lay above
How she haunted our home
How she haunted our home"
Six year old Asami Sato woke to the sound of spraying rain across her bedroom window on the eighth morning without her mother. She watched raindrops streak across the glass in the seconds before she fully awakened and remembered.
Her small hand slid over her stomach as she felt the familiar cold grip of nauseous grief creep over her.
Twisting in her sheets to face her bedroom door, the young girl wished with her entire being that her mother would appear just one more time, smiling while crossing the room and opening the curtains, filling the room with sunlight and the smell of coffee. Calling her “my little platypus cub” while she helped Asami dress, smoothing crisp fabric over small shoulders and pulling a comb through black tresses. Chase her over the smooth wooden floors of the Sato Estate to the small dining room just outside the main kitchen, the warm sound of the radio echoing and mixing with their laughs as they reached the small ("Sato-family sized!” her Dad called it when he unveiled it) table her Dad had built especially for their morning tradition. The smile of her father over his newspaper, telling them to hurry up and join him for breakfast before he went off to work, he had to stay at the factory late tonight.
The crack under the closed door remained dark, and the house remained silent.
Since the day after the funeral Asami had woken up an hour before the sun, sitting at her desk (a half-sized version of the one her father had in his office, as nothing else would do for her fourth birthday present, she had insisted) and reading, drawing, and thinking until Yuki, her nanny, came to wake her. She loved Yuki like a grandmother but her rough Earthbender hands, gruff voice, and penchant for not speaking unless absolutely necessary made Asami miss her mother even more. She also never did Asami’s hair quite right.
It was after two days of eating breakfast with Yuki at the table she had shared with her parents every morning since she could remember that Asami asked if it was okay if she ate her breakfast at her desk in her room.
“Unless Daddy is coming to eat with us too?”
“Your father left early this morning, Miss Sato. An emergency at the factory. He will be home later. Now, please eat.”
So she did.
The next day Yuki entered the room with the sun, placing a plate of toast spread thickly with passionfruit jam on top of some of the papers strewn across her small desk. A steaming cup of tea joined it shortly thereafter, leaving a light green crescent in the middle of the Satomobile braking system she had just finished tracing from her book, and then left the room wordlessly.
Asami cried when the door to her bedroom was shut again with a soft click.
She fed her toast to the birds that sat outside her window, watched the sun rise, and then got back to her books. She didn't drink her tea.
By the time the cold dread had gripped her stomach on the sixteenth day Asami woke without her mother she had already changed into oil-stained clothes, pulled her comb through her hair, and was grabbing papers off her desk and rolling them into a tube before slowly and silently slipping out of her room.
She crept through the estate, the occasional floorboard squeaking under her small booted feet, pausing only to run her hand over the painted-over scorch marks that had marked the hallway near the library, and to press her nose against the glass door of her mother’s sewing room. It had been shut since her father returned from the hospital to tell her that her mother wouldn’t be coming home.
Drawing in a deep breath against the glass pane, Asami tried to smell the fabric and the perfume her mother wore, hear the gentle humming of songs she never knew the name of that had filled the room just a couple weeks before. Nothing.
Asami swallowed the lump in her throat, rubbing the twin dots of condensation off the glass, and continued outside and around the house to her father’s workshop.
The plans were simple, she reasoned as she held a pencil between her teeth while she spread out the roughly drawn schematics on the work table and weighed them down with scrap metal blocks. She had been her father’s assistant many times in the same workshop, working on much more complex projects than a basic wood table. In fact her father had been introducing her to the Republic City elite as Future Industries next CEO for a year now, proudly clapping her on the shoulder as he told them how she knew how to disassemble a Satomobile engine before she knew the alphabet. Asami exhaled with a smile ghosting across her lips. It was true, even though she could tell from their acquaintance's eyes that none of them really believed him.
“Focus, Asami.” She whispered to herself as she brought her attention back to her papers.
She measured, marked, cut, planed, and tapped wooden pieces into place over the next few hours, stilling whenever she thought she heard someone approaching the workshop door.
“Don't be so silly. No one’s there.” Asami’s small voice echoed in the workshop.
It wasn’t even as if she was breaking any rules outright, she thought to herself. Her father hadn’t told her directly that she wasn’t to go into his workshop, or not to use his tools, or not to touch the wood scraps that were piled in the corner of the shed. Of course, he also hadn’t said much of anything to her over the past few days because of all the emergencies at his factories.
Besides, she thought as she was sanding the rough edges of the table, this is going to help. One he saw it, he wouldn’t be mad.
Small green eyes crinkled in concentration as she backed across the shop to survey the wooden structure. She tilted her head to the right, crossing her arms and tapping a small finger to her chin while she considered it.
She grabbed a few more tools and returned to work, the sun rising fully and the morning wearing away without Asami taking any notice. Birds chirped, the city below the Sato estate slowly came to life, and all Asami could see were load-bearing points, precise angles, wood grain, and puffs of sawdust floating to the floor as small lips blew air across joints.
She had been so careful all morning to listen for the sound of approaching feet that would warn her to clear up the tools and hide, but the excitement that filled her when she saw that she had in fact had created a perfectly level the table on her first try had completely distracted her listening for the crunching of heavy boots on the gravel path to the workshop and the desperate calling of her name.
Her mother had called it “occupational tunnel vision”, laughing lightly whenever she startled Asami with a gentle hand on her shoulder while she was drawing or reading, having called her name several times with no answer. “Oh dear. Five years old and you’re almost as bad as your father."
She was brushing the last of the sawdust onto the floor with a wide smile when the workshop door whipped wide open, framing her wide-eyed father in morning light. Asami dropped the sandpaper she was holding, freezing.
“Asami! What are you doing in here?! Everyone has been looking for you!” He was angrier than she had seen him be in a long time, rushing over to her, his clothes and face covered in oil and a wild look in his eyes, “What are you d-“
He paused as he got closer to Asami, noticing the tools littered around her and the small wooden dining table that she had shuffled behind slightly as he approached.
He ran his fingers over the seams of mismatching pieces of wood, the dovetail joinery of the table legs, and then turned the levelling instrument sitting on the tabletop to face him. His eyes fell down to Asami when he saw the bubble inside rest perfectly in the centre of the tool. A silence filled the space between them.
“It’s... for us, for breakfast - see?” Asami whispered while gesturing to what she had built, terrified, but sure that if he only understood that he wouldn’t be so mad. “...Sato-family sized."
They cried together on the workshop floor beside the two-person dining room table.
She received no punishment.
The next morning, a quiet knock startled Asami as she was pouring over a book about birds of flight at her desk. Not sure if she imagined it, she paused for a moment and heard nothing, so she lowered her eyes back to the illustration of a Turtle Duck wing.
“Asami,” She heard her dad call softly through the door, “would you like to join me for breakfast? I’ve made us some tea.”
Asami was already pulling off pyjamas and considering what she was going to wear by the time she remembered to answer, trying to keep the lump in her throat down, “Yes, please."
“I’ll be downstairs. Take your time.” Heavy boots went back down the hallway and continued down the stairs. Asami followed not long after.
She noticed the change immediately as her small feet crossed the threshold of the dining room. The table she had built sat where their old one had with breakfast for two laid out on top of it. The table was shining with a varnish Asami hadn’t had the time to apply. She swallowed her curiosity, scuffing the toe of her shoe on the floor where she had stopped.
“Come, sit,” her father said over his newspaper, gesturing with it to the chair that sat next to his, “I’ve got to go to the factory early today.” He folded it and placed it aside before he started pouring two cups of tea.
Her stomach, just moments ago fluttering with the excitement of seeing her table here in the dining room, lurched as she sat down. She bit her lip. “Okay Daddy."
He looked over at her as she accepted the tea, blowing on it and then pausing with a pang of heartache when she realized suddenly that this was the first real breakfast without her mom. She was glad that the radio wasn’t on and that the sun was still sleeping.
She was placing the cup down and reaching for a piece of toast when her father continued, “If you’re up for it, I think you should come along.”
She looked up, checking his eyes for a joking twinkle. He raised his eyebrows, sipping his own tea and turned his attention to unfolding his newspaper again.
“Finish up and we’ll go.”
They continued like that for years, long after Asami had lost count of what day it was that she was living without her mother.
Rising long before the sun, breakfasting at the table she had built, leaving the house together as the sun rose, and spending the day in the heat and noise of Future Industries warehouses and factories.
On the eve of the anniversaries of Asami's mother's death they worked through the night and slept through the day.
Chapter 2: Down, She Crosses Over
Asami, age 11.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"The sun still rises,
even through the rain."
11 year old Asami Sato sat next to her father on a cold, dark morning in November, scanning the Republic City Times for mentions of Future Industries, Cabbage Corp, and news on the Pro-bending league that had started up for the season the week before. Bringing her tea to her lips and shifting in her seat, green eyes flew over black ink in the warm electric light that filled the small dining room.
The house creaked with the first of the workers beginning to go about their morning duties. Asami startled when a far-off door slammed shut, but was quickly put at ease when she heard the familiar whistle of Sen, the old but still spry gardener, and through the window behind her she watched his now silent outline stalk across the gardens.
Her father was refilling her tea cup along with his when she was turning back to the table and picking up her paper once more. They shared a smile over the steam rising from their drinks, and then went back to reading their respective papers. Asami had been given her own copy of the Times each morning since she was 7, after several protests that no, she didn’t just want the silly comics section.
She vividly remembered skidding to a stop beside her seat at the table on the morning of her 7th birthday and seeing a fresh copy of the Republic City Times sitting across her plate, just like her father’s on his. It had been one of the best presents she had ever received. The wonders and horrors of the world safely delivered to her in a few folded pages every morning, entirely consumable in the time it took to drink three cups of tea? Couldn’t beat that, she thought. Besides, the information about the outside world she could gather firsthand was sparse, having only been allowed to travel to and from Future Industries property and on a rare occasion to downtown Republic City with an escort of at least 4 bodyguards all her life.
She didn’t blame her father for being careful with how often he exposed her to danger. She saw the reports of crime splashed across the front of the papers everyday. Sometimes it felt like the world was burning to the ground. But sometimes, when her eyes swept over the Culture section of the Times, full of stories about the small happenings of everyday people who lived in the city, she held in a sigh while she wondered if it was really all that bad out there.
Her father made a disapproving grunt to her right. Glancing over at him, she quickly flipped ahead to the page he was reading and skimmed the article that blared, “REPUBLIC CITY’S OWN CABBAGE CORP LANDS EARTH KINGDOM DEAL”. She scoffed. Cabbage Corp made products that were worth little more than the glass and steel they were made of, and the Earth Kingdom was going to have them build them an entire airship fleet?
“Disgrace to the industry,” her father muttered, speaking Asami’s thoughts, continuing after tossing back the last of his tea, “utter disgrace."
Asami snorted into her toast, remembering the day she assisted her father and a few of his mechanics in disassembling the full lineup of Cabbage Corp products for competitor research. It made Asami laugh so hard she cried, dropping the tools she was supposed to be handing to the men. She smiled at the memory and pulled a few errant strands of her wavy black hair behind her ear, feeling herself being drawn into a lengthy column about a new type of cargo ship that had been developed for journeys to and from the Fire Nation.
Her mind began to run wild with ways she might be able to apply some of those principles to Future Industries airships.
This had to be one of the reasons she didn’t have friends, she thought to herself as she realized how closely her nose was to the page and how fast her heart was beating. She loved more than anything else gears, oil, and that whole-body euphoria that flooded her when she finished a technical design. Like last Spring when she presented her father with the schematics for a new gasoline injector that she had worked on for weeks. His eyes had twinkled at her after long moments of reviewing the large blue sheets of paper scrawled with white pencil, “Brilliant, Asami. Brilliant.” She couldn’t imagine feeling more full.
Well, to be fair, it wasn’t that she didn’t have any friends. She was often invited to the birthday parties and other celebrations that were thrown by the children of her father’s colleagues and clients. She wasn’t awkward or unkind. Girls wanted to tell her their secrets, boys brought her gifts that their fathers had gotten on far-flung trips to the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, or even the Water Tribes. Asami always listened, always accepted the gifts graciously, but also always fell out of touch with each after a few short months of friendship.
(Even so, they would wave to her at future gatherings or on the street, whispering to their companions variations of, “That’s Asami Sato. She’s one of my friends. Total genius, fixed my Dad’s car when she came over for a sleepover.”)
It probably didn’t help that she never attended the school that most upper-class Republic City teens went to each day. There was no need as she had the best teachers and classrooms in the world at the warehouses and factories of Future Industries.
Real learning, her father had told her while they ran their hands over a newly forged Satomobile chassis, came from doing. She had to agree with him once she had looked through the shiny brochure that she had received in the mail from the Republic City Technical University last month. The topics she would spend 3 years studying, should she choose to accept the place they were holding for her, sounded like dead versions of what whirled, hissed, and scraped around her everyday at the factories.
But, on the days that her father had insisted they take some time off from work (his own voice sounding unconvinced about the whole idea) and Asami roamed the estate grounds on her own, doubt crept in at the edges of her mind. Sitting on the grass in the fenced-off gardens with her knees pulled up under her chin, closing her eyes and listening to the city bustle she would wonder. Would her mother be proud? Would she be concerned? Would she tell her not to worry?
With a cold ache in the pit of Asami's stomach she realized more and more as time went on without her mother, that she had no idea what she would have said.
What she did know was that when she pulled on her work jacket and leather gloves the next day as she left the estate, the sun creeping up the mountains behind her and her nostrils filling with the smell of grease and leather, that the cold feeling disappeared almost entirely.
Asami flattened the paper on the table in front of her, her breakfast having been cleared away, and balanced on her elbows to study the Pro-bending pages. They were full of tables of games lost, won, tied, and short columns detailing notable plays from the matches the night before. The part of her that had wished so fiercely to be a bender when she was a child had faded with time, replaced instead with the benign curiosity about what it would be like to bend an element, and a passion for the sport of Pro-bending. Her eyes paused on a photo of the firebender from the Lizard Rats, feeling the power of the flame rushing from his fist even through the blurry black and white photograph.
Her father shuffled his paper beside her louder than what was normal, and she ignored him. He made had made it abundantly clear that he didn’t approve of this new interest, and she knew that he would quiz her about market movements on the ride to the factory and even though she would know the answer to every question that he would still remark on the uselessness of keeping up with "that whole Pro-bending nonsense.”
She exhaled, anticipatorily annoyed, and turned the page.
The preteen reached for her third cup of tea, now cool enough to drink, as her eyes scanned over the last section of the Times where world news was usually printed. “OUR NEW AVATAR: KORRA” the first and largest article was titled, above a photo of a girl around her own age in Water Tribe garb, squatting in what looked like an earthbending form, arms outstretched, fists closed, and smirking to the right of the camera.
Asami, like everyone else, had heard many stories about the Southern Water Tribe girl who had already learned to bend three of the elements almost entirely on her own by the time she turned 4. But now she had a name.
“Korra.” Asami formed her lips around the word silently.
The whole idea of the Avatar had fascinated Asami since Yuki had told her fragments of the stories of Avatar Aang’s adventures over bath times and walks in the garden in the years since her mother passed. She got the whole story once she was able to get a hold of books that her father refused to stock her study with, and consumed them with relish in secret.
When the first whispers of the new incarnation of the Avatar had reached Republic City just before Asami was going to celebrate her 7th birthday, she heard the cooks discussing the news over dinner preparations while she was huddled in a cupboard under the sink playing Hide and Seek with Sen. She was struck deeply by the notion.
Myth, spirit, and hope incarnate in a girl a year younger than Asami. She wondered if Korra ever felt afraid of it.
She took in the young Avatar’s smirk again, and smiled. Probably not.
“Ready to go?” Asami realized she had been staring at the photo of Avatar Korra for the last minute, deep in thought. She hadn’t read the article yet, but her dad was already scraping his chair back from the table and stacking plates.
Asami folded the last section of the paper and stuffed it into her bag before following him out of the room, snapping the lights off behind her.
Thanks for all the kudos, subscriptions, and comments everyone! They really help me push forward with this story, so keep em coming ;)
Also, if anyone is interested, I am in need of a beta reader.
Chapter 3: Obligation of the Engineer
Asami, age 14.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
"We fell from a dying tree
We wait for it to leave
I wanna be, I wanna be"
“Asami!” Giro, the greying line manager of door manufacturing, yelled over the sound of whirring saws on freshly formed plates of steel, "Mr. Sato wants to see you!”
Asami looked up from her station at her boss, pulling grimy goggles off her face, leaving a ring of sweaty soot around each eye. She raised an eyebrow at him as she placed her tools down and shut off the power to her instruments.
“Don’t know what you did kid, but he looks pissed.” He spoke softly to Asami now that the ambient noise around them had lessened, looking at her with worried eyes as he slid on his worn leather gloves and reached for his welding mask. Giro, in the three weeks since she had been transferred to his line, had not spoken to Asami in a way that wasn’t poking fun or criticizing her playfully as they worked in tandem on the Satomobile production line. It must be serious, she thought.
Asami shrugged off her metalworking apron, gloves, and goggles, and took off at a light jog down the long passageways to her father's office.
She refastened the clip that held her hair back behind her left ear and rolled down the sleeves of her tunic as she was rounding the corners that led to the administrative wing of the Future Industries main factory. Throwing a quick smile at the receptionist, Vikoro, she continued to the end of the long carpeted hallway that was bordered with executive offices.
Asami paused to look at the reflection of herself in the window that covered the end of the corridor. A streak of grease had somehow found itself trailing across her nose and underneath her left eye, melding with the impression her goggles had left. She settled against trying to wipe it off, smoothed her clothes over her front, and paused as her eyes refocussed from her faint reflection on the window to the bustling tarmac outside flooded with the mid-afternoon sunlight.
Like most of the workers at Future Industries that she watched weave through crates and flatbed trucks below, Asami rarely seen the inside of Hiroshi Sato’s office. Even when she came came to meet him at the end of the work day, she often loitered around the end of the line of offices talking with Vikoro at the front desk until her father swept by, jangling his keys, signalling to her that it was time to make their exit.
She combed her memory for anything she might have done that was exceptionally good or bad in the last 48 hours that would warrant a sit-down with her dad, but came up with nothing.
The booming voice of the CFO of Future Industries escaped from underneath the doors to her right and the shuffling of papers and muffled voice of her father came through the doors to her left. No point in delaying the inevitable, Asami thought, trying an anxious smile at her reflection in the window before letting it fall quickly from her face.
She knocked on the large doors that separated her father’s office from the rest of the factory, heard an answering call, and opened the door.
The CEO's office was large, carpeted with a rich red colour that his study at the estate had been outfitted with as well, and was bordered with deeply stained dark wooden shelves that were lined with rows upon rows of aging book spines. The ornate chandelier that hung over the centre of the room was unneeded on sunny days such as this as more than enough sunlight was flooding through the towering window that sat behind her fathers desk and stretched to the ceiling.
Her father was leaning back in his chair with the receiver of the phone pressed to his ear, a frown crossing his face. He motioned to Asami at the chair across from him and then held up a finger. She sat and waited.
In the 7 years since he had started bringing Asami to Future Industries every day, her father had been forced slowly from his usual prowl along the production lines to the leather chair behind his expansive desk. Prematurely deepening wrinkles and flecks of grey in his hair reinforced Asami’s suspicions that the CEO wasn’t settling easily into the change.
“Of course, Mr. Chu.” Her father turned his chair away from Asami and faced his large window, leaning back. “I assure you they will be ready in time.” After a beat he barked a laugh, said goodbye, and swung around back to face his desk as he hung up.
He scribbled a quick note down on the pad of paper to his left before he asked distractedly, “So, Asami, how are the fuel filler doors coming along?” He was rearranging papers on his desk and sliding folders into neat piles.
Asami moved her eyes from her dad’s face, considering his question and what could be lying beneath it. “Um… Fine. They’re pretty straightforward, a couple of cuts and one join. The only thing I had trouble with to start was the odd angle of the hinge.” Her father made no move to reply, so she continued, “But Giro has been really helpful in helping me learn to gas weld properly. Or, well, mostly helpful.” She finished, chuckling.
He father laughed, the smile on his lips not quite reaching his eyes. “He’s a good man. I’m glad to hear that Asami."
An anxious thought crossed her mind. “I’d like to stay at this station for a while longer. I don’t think I’m ready to move on quite yet, if that’s what you’re wanting to discuss.” Asami blurted out, suddenly panicked at the prospect of being moved so quickly from the door manufacturing floor. For the last year her father had been cycling her through each stage of production of their vehicle lines. It had given her an excellent chance to intimately understand and appreciate all the moving pieces that came together to make Future Industries run, but it was almost as if her comfort at a station and liking of the people who worked near her were cues to her father that it was time for her to be transferred.
Her father cleared his throat and met her eyes. “No, no that’s not what I asked you in here for.” He steepled his fingers in front of his face, elbows on his desk.
Asami frowned in confusion. She waited for him to continue, crossing her legs and straightening her back.
“What do you think we’re doing here?” The words he chose sounded stilted and rehearsed, like he had chosen each one deliberately over the course of a few days.
“We make the future.” Asami answered immediately, quoting the tagline of Future Industries.
“I don’t mean as a company." He stopped, his eyes searching over her left shoulder for the right words. "I mean you and I,” he tried again.
Asami knew she probably looked as confused as she felt, because her father lowered his hands to rest on his desk and let out a short sigh of frustration. “Not... as father and daughter either, I mean as engineers.”
He had never called her an engineer directly. In passing, sure, he had said it a few times - but never this sincerely, never as a given fact that that’s what she was. It made her hands sweat as she felt a swell of pride and unease course through her veins. She remained silent, but met his eyes.
After a moment her father ducked behind his desk and brought a beige folder out of a drawer and flipped it open. “I’ve been reviewing your requests for materials in the Research and Development department.” He wet his thumb and began flipping through the sheets.
“Is it too much? I really tried to make sure that I was requesting only cheap materials. No platinum, only recycled steel-“ Asami rattled off, anxious that she had overstepped her bounds in her honorary role as a part of the research and development team on weekends and some evenings.
The CEO shook his head and looked up from the open folder, “I know you have, you’ve made extensive notes in your request forms. I’m not questioning your thoroughness in your paperwork or your rationale in selecting those particular materials Asami, but I am questioning why only... 35% of your projects seem to reach completion.” He set the folder back down and reclined back in his chair, sounding gently curious yet firm.
“It’s not like I don’t want to finish them.” Asami replied defensively. "New things come up... New technologies and ideas - new materials even.” In so many ways living at this time, and in the epicentre of the industrial boom was an intensely difficult thing to manage. It seemed like every other project she started became obsolete by the time she was halfway through.
He raised his eyebrows, glancing down at his papers before replying, "the… Emergency Lifts system? 'To help those in tall buildings get to the ground and out of harms way when there’s a fire or earthquake'? That’s been shelved because of outside technological advancement since you’ve started?”
Oh. Asami’s stomach dropped, remembering the prototype that sat unfinished in pieces on the floor of her workspace in the R&D wing. Honestly, she had totally forgotten about it in the wake of a new kind of platinum manufacturing that was going to make a couple of her car component designs viable. Asami remembered how interested her father had been when she had pitched him the idea over dinner at Kwong's Cuisine a few months back.
Her father turned in his chair and rose from it before making his way around his desk to sit in the chair on Asami’s left. It creaked as he shifted to cross his leg.
“Asami, do you think all this,” He motioned in front of them in the direction of the sprawling factory and warehouses that sat on the mouth of Yue Bay, “is for fun? That I’m bringing you here because I can’t find someone to watch you during the day?”
“No.” Asami heard her voice answer sullenly, her eyes dropping to the gold name plate that sat on the corner of her father’s desk. Hiroshi Sato, CEO.
Silence stretched out between them. She glanced at the side of his face quickly, feeling a twinge of unease.
A cloud shifted across the sun outside. A metallic boom echoed across the complex.
There was a meaningful intake of breath from her left. “Often, Asami, people think they are given their talents in life as gifts to them from the Spirits,” he began carefully, “but... really what those talents are are the means to achieve exactly what those people are destined for. To do what they were meant to do."
Asami felt her hands feel suddenly empty and exposed without her gloves covering them, her legs suddenly restless. She heard the gulls calling outside, the shout of men in the factory muffled by her father’s window panes. "Mistaking them for anything but that is one of the greatest errors one can make.”
“Do you understand?” His voice was almost at a whisper, and Asami thought bitterly that she might prefer his shouting.
No. “Yes.” Asami answered, feeling every bit the 14 year old that she was.
She knew her father was trying to catch her eye so she pointedly avoided his gaze.
He continued, “I’m not saying this because you’re my daughter. I’m saying this to you because I would say it to any bright engineer who crosses my door. I’m stressing it even more because you have a truly brilliant mind, and I believe that you have the ability within you to do more than I could ever even dream of.”
Tears pricked in her eyes, and she wasn’t quite sure why.
A light chuckle came from her father’s direction. “It is a blessing to be so intelligent.” She could hear a smile in his voice while her eyes traced the lines of his desk. He continued, sounding more serious, “But it is also a great responsibility. You are here to make the world a better place. To serve it. All this jumping around, picking up and dropping projects - that is a child’s luxur-”
“I am not a child.” Asami interrupted quietly, eyes snapping up to meet his and narrowing, repeating a phrase she often did when being ribbed by colleagues on her first days on a new station. They had always laughed, and she had always proven by day’s end that she could do her job better than any of them.
His eyes were soft and she almost felt she could read the unasked question in his eyes - “What are you then?"
Her mind raced. A Sato? A teenager? A rich girl? A disappointment? A non-bender? Her mothers daughter? Her father’s daughter? An inventor and engineer?
She said nothing.
Her father settled back into his chair and levelled an unseeing stare at the tops of the skyscrapers of Republic City and the mountains behind them.
Several long minutes passed before Hiroshi Sato’s voice and slapping palms on the wooden arms of his chair startled Asami, “Well, time to get back to work.” He straightened up from his chair and strode back behind his desk, fixing his daughter with a small smile. "We have a quota to meet."
Asami nodded, untangled her legs from under her chair, and exited the office as the CEO was picking up his phone and beginning to dial. The heavy door snapped shut behind her.
The young engineer let out a shallow breath as she turned to move down the long hallway that seemed suddenly too narrow. Knots that had lodged themselves in her young shoulders and neck ached. Cold gripped her stomach and her mouth felt dry.
Halfway down the corridor, as if a veil had fallen over her, Asami was suddenly 4 years old and presenting a drawing of a Platypus Bear cub to her mother. Her hand went to her right shoulder, remembering her mothers touch and her smile, the faint echo of, “Oh, Asami, it’s beautiful. Did you do this all by yourself?” Nostrils filled too briefly with the smell of perfume, summer, and clean fabric.
Asami’s breath caught in her throat while she frantically attempted to preserve every last detail of the memory in the deepest, safest part of her brain.
Her scrambling mind faltered, the peace of the memory dislodging clarity as her boots fell level with the front desk. Asami stopped. She felt herself redden slightly as the receptionist raised her eyebrows in silent question to Asami’s abrupt halt.
“Vikoro, can I leave a message for Mr. Sato?” Asami was grateful that the receptionist didn’t make any motion to ask about her odd behaviour or about why she needed to leave a message for her father when she had just left his office.
Vikoro reached for her memo pad and a pen, “Of course Miss Sato. What would you like it to read?” She looked up at Asami when she was ready to take the message.
“Just let him know that I won’t be needing a ride home tonight. I’ve got some things to do and I’m not quite sure when I’ll be finished.” Asami said, trying to keep her voice light.
Vikoro smiled as she wrote, and gave a nod to Asami. “Certainly, Miss Sato. I’ll ensure he gets this.”
“Asami.” Vikoro’s voice dropped in volume and formality, stopping Asami as she was moving to leave. “If you need anything... just let me know okay?” Her eyes were kind, searching, and Asami felt a strange mixture of resentment and gratitude. "I know a great noodle place nearby that doesn’t mind delivering to the factory.”
The young engineer gave her a small smile and nodded, turned on her heel, and continued back down the long corridors back to her station.
Asami slept under her R&D workshop desk for a week and a half, eating bowls of cold noodles over oil stained and crinkled schematics, waking at dawn and working until the early morning hours on the Emergency Lift prototype when she wasn't required on the line in door manufacturing.
Three weeks later the prototype had been approved by the director of R&D, her father, the largest shareholders, and was ready to be presented to Republic City civil engineers and real estate developers.
A month and a half later the press had been hailing the system as revolutionary in public safety and the first run of the systems sold like wildfire.
7 months later, just after Asami’s 15th birthday, a building burnt to the ground in south Republic City. The Future Industries Emergency Lift System was credited with saving 36 lives, including 5 children.
Thanks to everyone for all the awesome comments, bookmarks, and kudos everyone! They are always appreciated and really keep me going, so definitely keep them coming :)
Chapter 4: The Candle From Both Ends
Asami, age 17.
Hey everyone! I wanted to preface today's chapter with another huge thank you to all of you who have subscribed, commented, and left kudos on this story. I hope you all enjoy this next piece!
"Flying like a cannonball falling to the earth,
Heavy as a feather when you hit the dirt,
How am I the lucky one? I do not deserve,
To wait around forever when you were there first."
17 year old Asami Sato tore across the polished marble floors of the downtown headquarters of Future Industries toting 3 large postal tubes under her right arm and a full to bursting briefcase under her left. Fighting to control her breathing as she settled herself into one of the large leather chairs that sat outside the boardroom on the third floor, she began searching through her bag for the notecards she prepared in the backseat of the Satomobile that sped her to the skyscraper.
The young industrialist blew tendrils of raven black hair from where they stuck on her freshly-applied lipstick as she swore inwardly at the total ineptitude of her boss.
Just an hour earlier he had swung around the door frame that led to her small office during her lunch break to ask her if she wouldn’t mind, “popping over to HQ to tell the nice people what we’ve been up to”, not waiting for her to swallow the noodles hanging from her mouth before throwing a wink and a, “Thanks, doll!” over his shoulder.
She had tried to be understanding, she really had, reminding herself daily that he was new to the company and needed time to calibrate to his new position directing the behemoth that was the Research and Development Department at Future Industries. But as the third month of him at the helm had come and gone without any change, she had resigned herself to the fact that this was just how Hiro Sakinawa, the brilliant inventor but terrible manager, worked.
Green eyes darted across descriptions of technical components of Satomobiles, cranes, airships, and lifts they had been developing for the last month, each with colour coded budgets, production timelines, and revenue projections etched next to them.
Asami let out a breath as she glanced at the clock. It appeared that the departmental presentations to the board and executive branch of the company was running characteristically late.
She had felt very lucky that Mr. Sakinawa had asked her to accompany him to the last 3 panel meetings, if only because at the very least she knew what to expect, even though her role in those meetings had usually been a passive one handing out reports, and sometimes hurriedly whispering statistics and design considerations in his ear that he had forgotten to share.
After Asami had run through all of the cards twice, she set them down on the empty chair beside her and reached into the inside pocket of her briefcase to pull out a small silver disk.
It had been her mother’s mirror, and her mother’s before her, her father had told her as he pressed it into her hands on her 16th birthday.
“You'll be able to put it to better use than I can, I’m sure.” The CEO had chuckled as he raised his tea cup to his lips once he handed it over, watching Asami bend over the treasure in her hands in the cold morning light before work that day. When she had searched her mind later for the source of the familiarity that tugged at her, she recalled noticing the silver trinket sitting on the corner of her father’s bedside table for years.
It meant more to her than she could put into words, so she didn’t try.
Removing her gloves to trace the ornate shell-like form of the mirror with her fingers, Asami began to take in deep steadying breaths, closing her eyes, just as her Sifu Nahima had shown her. She felt calmer after her 8th breath, and felt the ground settle back below her feet by the 20th.
Asami opened her eyes when she heard the telltale murmurs and the shuffling of feet and furniture from the other side of the doors across from her. The panel was likely finished hearing a presentation and would be calling her in shortly. She clicked open the clasp of the mirror with a manicured nail and glanced at her reflection quickly.
An image of the painted faces of the Kyoshi Warriors from one of her childhood books floated across her mind’s eye as she checked her lipstick and eyeshadow for smudges. She smiled to herself and closed the mirror with a snap.
Asami was pulling her gloves back on when the large doors across from her flung open and the Director of Commercial Transportation swept from the room. He nodded his head at her in recognition before he continued down the hallway, looking like he felt that his presentation could have gone better. She winced inwardly in sympathy.
The round face of Yuto Kimura, CFO, poked out of the room. He looked only mildly surprised to see Asami gathering her things and rising from her chair. “Ah, Miss Sato! Is Mr. Sakinawa on his way?”
“Mr. Kimura.” She bowed her head slightly and then straightened. “Mr. Sakinawa was unable to make the meeting today. He sends his apologies.”
He raised his eyebrows in what Asami read as false surprise. “How unfortunate. Well then, come join us. We’re ready for you.”
Asami nodded, gripping her tubes and bag, and strode into the boardroom.
Asami pulled her Satomobile up the tree-lined drive that lead to 2 Ishi Way, home of the Li family, as the sun was setting over Yue Bay.
In the last 20 years the Li’s had completely changed the face of Republic City’s sports and recreation scene. Mr. Li (“Please, Asami, call me Bohai,” he always insisted), an avid sports enthusiast, had led the family business in building or acquiring nearly every sporting venue in the city, from the Pro-bending arena to the Kyoshi Racetrack to the many publicly accessible recreation centres that dotted the city.
The young engineer smiled as she spotted the large white house that sat on the top of the hill peek out from the green of the estate.
Mrs. Li (“Come now Asami, you’re making me nervous - just call me Meilin.”) was an incredibly talented sculpture artist with a green thumb of similar calibre which had resulted in some of the most unique landscaping features of any Asami had ever seen. There had been rumours over the last couple years that the Queen of the Earth Kingdom had heard of her talents and had begun routinely sending extravagant gifts to the Li household in attempts to convince her to move to the Inner Ring of Ba Sing Se to tend to her royal gardens.
As Asami caught a glimpse of a realistic and nearly life sized dolphin shark made of a blueish-green hedge that stretched across the front lawns of the house, small white flowers creating a beautiful lace-like pattern across it, she figured the rumours couldn’t be too far from the truth.
Before shutting off the engine of her Satomobile, Asami paused to appreciate how the setting sun had streaked the wisps of clouds that hung over the valley where Republic City sat with pinks and oranges that seemed otherworldly. A warm wind blew the smell of recently cut grass and the distant sea air through the cracked drivers side window.
It was at times like these that Asami wished she worked somewhere other than the metal and concrete boxes that she frequented each day.
She was climbing out of her vehicle when she heard the sound of quick footfalls on gravel, and had only just enough time to close the Satomobile door before she was met with a blur of green fabric, dark brown hair and was swallowed into a vicious hug.
Jia, the only Li daughter, stepped back from the hug after a few moments with a huge grin plastered across her face that closely matched the one on Asami’s.
“You’re late.” She said, looking the farthest thing from upset about it.
Asami laughed, stuffing her keys into her pocket. “I know, I’m sorry. I had to stop by the factory on the way here. It occurred to me over dinner that instead of designing a whole new system for dealing with excess condensation in one of the prototype engines I’m developing, I could just use a-“ Another hug swallowed the rest of her sentence.
“I missed you, you nerd.” Asami heard Jia say. Choosing to take it as a compliment, the young industrialist returned the embrace.
Unlike her father and brothers who were athletes and businessmen, Jia was a fierce student of literature and music, and was considered by Asami to be on par with (if not surpassing) many of the academics she knew who taught classes at the Republic City University. Asami had passed many late evenings over glasses of saké listening with rapt attention to Jia’s retellings of myths and legends she had never had the time to read. It was soothing, Asami had thought to herself as she listened on such evenings, to hear something completely new and nothing to do with circuits and steel.
The shorter girl had been away for the better part of the spring and early summer visiting extended family in the Earth Kingdom, and Asami had missed her intensely.
Jia pulled back from her second hug, and Asami noticed the effects the warmer climate had taken across her friend’s skin, darkening it to a tanned colour that contrasted prettily with the deep green of her eyes. Asami felt a twinge high in her stomach.
“Come in for a sec, I know my parents would kill me if I didn’t drag you in to say hello.” Jia grabbed Asami by the hand and dragged her up the front steps and into the house.
She, Jia, and 6/7ths of the rest of the Li family (Chen, the eldest Li son was at the Pro-bending match that was taking place that night) spent several hours at their scrubbed kitchen table, talking and laughing over several shared pots of tea. Though she had only known Jia for a few months, Asami felt as if she had known her and her family forever.
Warmth settled on her heart as the night wore on.
“So, Asami,” Meilin Li spoke after setting down her steaming cup of tea and smiled at her as the boys at the other end of the table continued their Pro-bending league arguments, “Is there a special fellow in your life these days?"
If she had a yuan for every time she had to field this question, Asami groaned inwardly, “No, no.” She answered, glaring at Jia who was smirking at her behind her mother’s back. “Not right now.”
“That’s very smart of you,” Meilin replied, her eyes flicking to her husband and second-oldest son Kang who were starting to arm wrestle while the two younger boys shouted at them, and raised her voice to compensate, “Jia has told me about how busy you are at your father’s company-"
There was a bang from the other side of the table, signalling that the arm wrestle had ended, and that Kang had been the winner.
Meilin rolled her eyes as her sons began to hoot and holler while Mr. Li loudly appealed for a rematch. “And even if you had more time Asami, I would really just avoid men altogether if you can manage it.” Asami snickered into her tea as the second round of arm wrestling began.
“Spirits, Asami, it’s getting late.” Jia said as she was standing to clear away empty cups, gesturing to the clock on the far wall of the kitchen.
Asami twisted in her chair to have a look, and then felt her heart squeeze with disappointment when she saw the short hand of the clock pointing to 11.
“Did you still want to go on that drive? Or… I know you have work tomorrow, so it’s no-“ Jia started.
“Are you kidding? You can’t keep a Sato from a drive.” Asami replied, elated that the evening with her friend hadn’t come to an end yet. She hopped up from the table, drawing her keys from her pocket and giving one-armed hugs to the seated Li family members one at a time.
Jia’s mother called after them as they paused at the front door. “Jia! Make sure you’re back by-“
“Seriously?” Jia shouted over her shoulder as she pulled on her shoes and grabbed her jacket that hung on a hook by the door. “Firstly, I’m 18 years old, and secondly, you forget who I’m with - Princess Responsible will obviously have me back by an extremely reasonable hour.” Asami heard muffled laughter come from the kitchen as she swatted her friend with her gloved hand.
The breezy, sweet-smelling summer night covered them as they made their way down the steps to Asami's parked Satomobile.
“New ride?” Jia asked distractedly glancing around the cabin once they had settled into the car.
“Oh, yeah,” Asami answered, realizing just how long Jia had been away, “I actually blew up my old one when I was testing out a ne-”
“You did what?!” Jia shrieked, turning fully in her seat to face Asami as she was guiding the Satomobile down the road, “What do you mean you blew it up?”
“It wasn’t on purpose! I was trying to see if I could create a transmission system that would automatically change gears for you while you drive.” Asami started, glancing at Jia who looked scandalized, “I installed it in my old car’s engine to test it out over a weekend because I was excited about it, and when I was taking it through it’s paces on the test track… It just heat up too much and… blew up.” She trailed off.
“You are insane.” Jia came out with after a moment of mulling over Asami’s story. “I’m assuming you didn’t blow off a limb and you’re concealing it from me right now with a mechanical version that you also invented while I was away?”
Asami let out a snort, “No, no I’m fine. My clothes barely caught on fire.”
“I’m kidding, I’m kidding.”
“Sometimes, I wonder why I’m your friend, Sato.” Asami grinned, steering the shining vehicle onto the main road.
They sped around Republic City and through the hills that separated the sea and the mountains for hours, laughter and talk filling the car. The moon had reached it’s highest point in the sky as Asami was guiding the Satomobile around a ridge that rose high above the north side of the glittering city.
She pulled over into an old turnout that served as a picnic area during the day for hikers and day trippers, and gave Jia a quick grin before turning off the engine and jumping out of the car.
Asami crawled onto the hood of the car and laid back, feeling the warmth of the metal beneath her as her eyes focussed on the stars that spread across the sky above her.
She heard the click of the passenger door. “‘Sami, it’s freezing.” She heard Jia’s voice groan to her right.
“Come on, let’s just sit for a few minutes.” Asami said, not taking her eyes from the stars, “And you call me a princess.”
She heart a short laugh from Jia and the slam of her door.
Asami pulled herself into a sitting position, patting the space beside her with a gloved hand when Jia reached the front of the car. Jia hoisted herself up, her eyes scanning the moonlight bathed landscape in front of them.
They sat for a moment, the silence of the country falling over them. Asami hugged her knees to her chest and worried briefly about what it must mean if she couldn’t remember the last time she had felt so happy.
“It’s beautiful out here.” She heard Jia say softly from her right.
Asami turned and noticed that she was being considered with deep green orbs. A half nauseous, half exhilarated feeling came over her as she wondered at how beautiful eyes could be, wishing her own were even half as enrapturing as her friend’s.
She felt a stir in her chest, and suddenly wanted to do something to capture the moment and preserve it forever. The glint of moonlight on the sea far below, the silence of the ridge, the openness of Jia's eyes.
A chill wind blew across them, and Asami forced down the wild urge.
“Well, I should get you home.” She hopped from the hood, feeling flushed and tired.
Jia joined her in the car a moment later, a taut smile crossing her face while the engine of the Satomobile roared to life.
The young engineer rolled out from under her old, partially destroyed Satomobile when she heard her father calling her name across the R&D mechanical workshop floor the next morning.
She had risen to her feet and was placing tools and an oil-soaked rag onto the hood of the car by the time the CEO reached her, his wide smile visible from under this thick moustache.
“Thinking of trying to revive the automatic transmission project?” Her father asked, gesturing towards the vehicle that was sitting on concrete blocks and dripping oil. He bent down to glance at what remained of the engine peeking out under the warped metal hood.
Asami laughed, “I was thinking of trying another crack at it.” She rubbed the back of her neck, “I think I have a better idea now about what went wrong last time anyway."
“Good, good.” He said after a moment of peering at her work, and then rose to his normal height. “Can you spare me a few minutes?”
"Of course." Asami answered, unzipping her heavily stained navy blue jumpsuit.
“I missed my morning stroll, perhaps we can walk and talk?” Asami couldn’t place the tone of his voice, but she nodded nonetheless. Her hands went slick with sweat beneath her heavy leather gloves.
“So,” he began as they walked through the workshop doors and into the cold concrete corridor that joined the R&D workshops to the rest of the factory complex, "I heard you made quite the impression at the panel the other day.”
Asami was shrugging off her jumpsuit, wrapping the arms around her middle and drawing it into a knot, “I just stepped in at the last moment for Mr. Sakinawa.” She waved her hand dismissively, “It was nothing.”
He raised his eyebrows over his shoulder at her as they continued down the echoing corridor that led to the powertrain manufacturing line. The sound of distant metallic clangs and grinding felt like home.
“Well, I heard it was more than nothing.” The CEO said. “The board and executives can be nothing if not difficult to contend with, and you managed to get 3 projects approved in one meeting.”
He pushed open the doors that led to the tarmac that spanned the distance in between the main factory and the warehouses of Future Industries. “I’d say that’s definitely more than nothing.”
They continued across the tarmac, bowing their heads in hello whenever passing workers said “Good morning Mr. Sato. Miss Sato.”
“Even Yuto was dazzled,” he continued, “spent nearly ten minutes in my office yesterday going on and on about how like your mother you’ve become.”
Asami bowed her head, taking the remark in. She had forgotten sometimes how many people who still worked at Future Industries had known her.
Her father cleared his throat, and Asami thought better of prodding for further information about how she was like her mother.
“Listen, I know that Sakinawa has been a less than ideal leader for the department.” He said in a quiet voice several moments later as they rounded the corner to the pavement that led between two warehouses.
He glanced at her, continuing with a voice that echoed strangely off the weathered, corrugated metal that formed the walls on either side of them. “You don’t have to say anything. Suffice it to say we’ve been keeping an eye on him and we know it’s time to look at changing direction.”
They emerged from between the two warehouses and strode out onto the docks. A strong sea breeze filled Asami’s lungs and whipped at her hair. Her father came to a stop and leaned heavily against the railing and gazed across Yue Bay. A pregnant pause stretched out as the young engineer joined him in leaning against the wood.
Asami realized how rarely she came down here, despite the docks being a 5 minute walk at the most from where she spent her days. As she watched seabirds swoop above calm waters that reflected the mountains behind the skyline of Republic City, she vowed to make it a habit.
“What would you say if I told you that we think that you are that direction?” He tilted his head in her direction, looking at her over his glasses closely.
Asami saw the edges of her vision go white. “Pardon?”
Her father laughed, clapping her on the shoulder.
“The reality is that we need you, Asami.”
The sea made itself known below them with a mighty slosh, splashing water droplets over Asami’s boots before retreating again.
“I don’t think I’m ready.” She started with a breathy voice that she barely recognized as hers, “It’s a huge amount of responsibility.” Not to mention less hours in the test workshops and more in meetings with people who held the purse strings and didn’t know a thing about engineering, Asami thought.
It also meant she would have to put in even more time in at headquarters and at the factory overall. It would mean very little time for herself, for time with Jia.
On the other hand, it was obvious to her that she could do a better job than Sakinawa, and with how important research and development was to the company, she appreciated that her father wasn’t being kind in offering her the position. She really was the best fit, and they both knew it.
She felt her chest contract painfully and let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding.
Her father rapped his knuckles on the wooden beam they were leant against. “Think it over, alright?”
Asami watched the waves swell beneath the docks below them, swirling litter and sea foam over sickly green-stained concrete. She nodded blankly, eyes fixed on a bird searching through the drifting grime.
“You’ll have until Monday morning.” She heard her father say neutrally.
He stood with her for another minute or two before patting her on the back and making his leave, shoes creaking across the wood boards and continuing with heavy footfalls on pavement in the direction of the factory.
Asami spun across heavily varnished floors ducking, jumping, and arching around rogue arms and legs stretching to strike her. The dark reds and greens of the attacker’s sparring uniforms flicked across her vision as she swept around them, sure-footed and strong.
It was at times like these that she felt like she knew what it might be like to bend an element. Jumping over a sweeping leg, redirecting a punch and rolling across the attacker’s back out of harms way - she loved this.
Asami saw an opening after she slid across the floor of the sparring ring and through green clad legs, springing up behind her attacker. Asami was moving to land a punch when she felt a heavy strike to her back which sent her sprawling.
Even through the thick padding of her outfit the hit shook her bones. She coughed on all fours, winded.
The well-worn voice of her self defence instructor cut through her grunt of pain and shuffling scramble to her feet. “That’s enough, that’s enough.”
Asami protested, speaking through gritted teeth, “Sifu Nahima, no I -“
“It’s enough for today, Asami,” His grey eyes met hers firmly, “You’ve done well.”
Asami gave a nod, bowed, and limped out of the sparring ring slowly. She was beginning to strip away her gear when she glanced at the retreating backs of her sparring partners and called after them, “Thanks Renshu and Huan!”
They waved as they pushed their way through the gym doors, their hands clutching places where Asami had landed particularly well-placed strikes throughout the session. She smiled inwardly, and began to help her aged instructor gather up their equipment and place them inside their proper crates, listening to him idly hum a tune she recalled but couldn’t place.
She dearly loved the short old man that was always clad with Air Acolyte garb and a smile, even though taking up twice weekly lessons with him had been a non-negoatiable condition to the shiny Satomobile keys her father had tossed her the year before (effectively swallowing about half of the little free time she had). Sifu Nahima was quick to laugh, slow to answer questions with anything but another question, and was more honest and kind than anyone Asami had ever met. The instructors that had taught her from age 8 seemed like they had been a waste of time in comparison, she had thought multiple times as she noted the leaps her training had taken since her father hired him.
Once the last of the gear was put away and the containers pushed to the side of the small gym that stood in the far southeast corner of the Future Industries complex, her master moved to sit in one of the folding metal chairs that lined the empty sparring ring.
She braced herself.
Please not today , she plead inwardly. She was exhausted, in pain, and not in the mood to take in wisdom in any shape or form.
Her stomach dropped as her Sifu invited her to sit beside him with a silent wave to the chair beside him.
“That was quite the final hit.” He was smiling at her, gesturing with his chin to the ring in front of them once she had taken a seat. “Can you tell me what happened there?”
Asami considered his question, staring at the place in the ring where she had been kicked. “I wasn’t quick enough.” She answered after a beat.
He let out a quick laugh, “Asami, I don’t think I’ve ever had a more agile student.” His eyes crinkled with a smile.
“Because,” Asami tried again slowly, reaching her mind back to what she felt in her body just minutes before, “sparring with two people is harder than sparring with one?” She finished lamely.
“A very astute observation.” He agreed gently, plucking lint from his robes. “Could you venture as guess as to why I brought in a second sparring partner for you to contend with today?”
“Because I beat Renshu too easily now?”
Sifu Nahima let out a laugh that echoed through the gym. “That’s certainly true, but it wasn’t the main reason I invited Huan along to our lesson today.”
When it was clear Asami had no intention of trying again, he cleared his throat and spoke, “The central reason I asked him to join us, and a likely reason for why you ended this session on the floor,” his eyes twinkled, “is because one of the great truths of the world is that it is an unfair place."
Asami stared at him. She couldn't ever recall her master ever uttering something that wasn’t fantastically calming and positive.
“It will throw more enemies against you than you think you can keep at bay,” he continued, his eyes meeting hers with such a deep sincerity that she had to turn away, “and will sometimes stack more than what you feel you can handle on your shoulders.”
Asami turned his words over in her mind, weighing them. Whatever she had wanted or expected him to say to her, it hadn’t been that. She moved to cradle her left shoulder in her right hand in an attempt to soothe the pain that traced from her lower back to the tops of both shoulders.
“However, it’s important to balance this with another great truth of the world.” Sifu Nahima spoke after a few moments, “That while the world is unfair, it never sends us anything that we cannot rise to meet.”
Asami reached to switch shoulders as she responded, “It definitely feels like it is right now.”
Her master let out another booming laugh, “I never said that those struggles come without pain.” He motioned for her to sit on the floor in front of where his chair was. She shuffled into place eagerly, never one to reject an offer of a chi release massage that occasionally followed a particularly hard class.
Sifu Nahima was no doubt a brilliant man and a learned scholar of fighting styles and philosophies that ranged over thousands of miles and was solidified with many decades of practice, but Asami couldn’t help but feel as if somehow he was mistaken. Or, perhaps, like in many domains of her life, she was an anomaly, and the world was in fact hurling at her far more than she could bear.
Her thoughts fell on her father’s offer, and then were pulled to Jia.
“When in doubt,” Sifu Nahima spoke, almost in answer to Asami’s swirling thoughts, “remember that sometimes it is prudent to appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak."
"To move swift as the wind and closely-formed as the wood," she felt a deep calm cover her as she felt his hands open a knot that ran through the middle of her back, "attack like the fire and be still as the mountain."
“And that we sometimes must lose,” Asami felt his hands move to the top of her head, finishing with a tap on the crown of her skull, “before we can truly triumph.”
On the night before she was due to give her father her answer, Asami's car was carrying herself and Jia through heavy fog that was creeping through the countryside.
Her friend had been regaling her with tales of her travels as they sped through the sleepy towns that were slowly but surely being swallowed into Republic City. A comfortable silence fell in the cabin after Jia finished relaying an enjoyable story about her cousins who lived on the outskirts of the Si Wong desert and their run-ins with the local sandbenders. Asami supposed that this was as good a time as any to tell Jia her news.
“Hey, I - um,” Asami began, anxiety rippling through her, “I wanted to tell you something.”
She felt Jia’s eyes on her immediately as she watched an ancient farmhouse swim into vision on the right hand side of the road, looking like a ghost.
“Oh?” Jia answered after a few seconds, a waver in her voice. She flexed her hands as they rested on her lap.
“Yeah, I wasn’t sure how to bring it up ,” Asami exhaled, turning the wheel slightly as a bend in the road materialized.
After a moment mulling over her words, she continued. “I’ve been offered a promotion.” Asami said, “for directing R&D.”
Something crossed behind Jia’s eyes, and she let out a quick breath after a beat. “Oh! Oh wow, that’s - Wow, Asami, that’s amazing.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to take it.” She said quickly, moving her right hand from the steering wheel to her hair, pushing it behind her shoulder. “It’s going to mean more responsibility, longer hours, less time in the workshops, and even more meetings with idiots.”
She had practiced that line many times in the ride over to pick Jia up (complete with a false laugh following it), opting to bury the thing she was most worried about in a list of things she was less worried about.
“I'm sure you'll do an amazing job.” Jia replied, her voice a half-octave higher than normal and hollow, speaking now into the passenger door window and tracing lines into the condensation that had formed there. The words were along the lines of the reply Asami had been hoping for, but the intonation of her friend’s voice made her insides writhe.
A considerably less comfortable silence settled on the two teenagers as Asami began to steer her Satomobile down roads that would take them back to Republic City, feeling dread settle low and hot in her gut as Jia remained silent. It was one of the many times that Asami cursed the fact that Jia was one of the very few people she was unable to read.
They rode like that for the rest of the way to the Li estate, dusty country roads turning to newly laid asphalt.
The car rumbled up the hill to the Li house and Jia shifted in her seat to undo the safety belt and bunch up her jacket in a tight ball. When they reached the front of the house Asami shifted the car into park and let the engine die, thinking briefly in the ensuing quiet that she heard the rumble of storm clouds in the distance.
Jia cleared her throat. “Listen, I get it. Things are going to change.”
Asami ventured a look at her friend. She was staring ahead, fiddling with her jacket in her hands and biting her lip.
“I said that I didn’t know if I was going to take it.” Asami said in a voice that sounded younger than she hoped it would, and she reached for Jia’s wrist.
“Yes you do.” Jia’s lips smiled while her eyes didn't, glancing down at where Asami grabbed her arm. “Of course you will. You’re brilliant, it would be ridiculous of you not to.”
“But, “ Asami started, her mouth moving before her mind could form words in time. She wanted to say something about poor timing, about her father, about how she has to do this, about the drawings piled on her desk that could save lives, about how much she cared about her, about how she wasn’t choosing work over her - but all she could do was stare and keep a hold of Jia’s wrist in a silent, irrational bid for her not to leave.
After a long moment, Jia spoke after the barest of sighs, “Hey, I’ll see you around, alright?”
Asami nodded and let her grip slacken. She felt Jia's arm slip from hers and the passenger door open, immediately clamping down on the tears that were threatening to fall as her friend shut the door behind her. Not here.
She watched Jia disappear up the steps and through her front door, never looking back, before she brought the engine back to life and began to steer the Satomobile back down the hill.
Asami woke up the next morning with the first flu she'd caught since she was 10 years old.
She scribbled two notes to be delivered to the Future Industries factory once she had resigned herself to the fact that she was too ill to go in. One to her boss and coworkers letting them know she would be working from home that day, and one for her father that read: When do I start?
Several months later Asami was standing over her cluttered desk in the early hours of the cold morning, shifting stacks of paper that littered it when she came across an envelope addressed to her from Jia Li.
She couldn’t recall seeing it before, and as she noticed the post date on the bottom right of the envelope her heart dropped. The letter had apparently arrived nearly 5 weeks ago, right in the thick of her transition to taking over the department.
A lump in her throat rose as she pulled back the golden seal on the back of the envelope and pulled out a small card with unsteady hands. She sat down in her leather chair, and read.
It was an invitation to a going away party that had come and gone three weeks prior.
Apparently, Asami read with watery eyes, Jia had been accepted into the World Literature program at the Royal College in Ba Sing Se and was leaving the day after the party indefinitely to pursue her studies.
Feeling a mix of happiness for her friend and a wrenching deep in her gut, Asami balanced the card carefully on the shelf where she now kept her mother’s mirror, and strode out of the room.
The next day, Asami Sato fired her mail handler and sent an official notice to the Future Industries board and executive branch stating that, effective immediately, she would no longer be working past 7pm or on Sundays.
Chapter 5: Drain the Whole Sea
Asami, age 18.
"So we dug ourselves a hole
And planted all our skin
Like a seed in the ground
To grow again
Where the fireweeds grow"
Even though she was embarking on her third round-trip voyage between the United Republic and the Fire Nation, Asami Sato was still viscerally taken aback by the sheer power of the storms that often threw the narrow sea into a raging tempest of rain, wind, and waves at night. The engineer glanced up from her desk strewn with documents stamped with the Future Industries logo and briefly watched the storm progress from the porthole window that let the light from the setting moon, filtered through spraying water, stream into her small cabin on the Kuruk.
Luckily, the ocean liner that was carrying her and a dozen other top company representatives to Harbour City was large enough that the thrashing storm outside resulted in only barely perceptible listing inside. Unluckily, that didn’t matter much to Asami, who was fast discovering her preference for air travel.
It wasn’t just the frequent flashes of lightening, booming of thunder, and constant low groaning of the ship’s steel hull that kept her awake. Recurring dreams of being pulled beneath the turbulent blue-green waters of such a storm had begun to follow her even when she wasn’t on one of the business trips to the Fire Nation. She would wake soaked in sweat and choking, terror quickly turning to frustration and embarrassment as she shook herself to remember that she had been travelling by ship since she was a small girl.
Of course this is happening now, Asami would groan to herself as she pushed sweat soaked hair from her temples, thinking bitterly about the excitement that she had felt when Yuto Kimura, CFO of Future Industries, had asked her to be a part of the delegation that visited the Fire Nation quarterly. This excitement was partly spurred by her love of (and knack for) persuading shareholders and clients to invest or buy more from her father's company, but privately, Asami was most excited by the time between those meetings where she was free to wander the industrial town that sat below Capital City. She didn’t know if it was the vibrancy and history of the area that captured her so completely, or if it was her Fire Nation ancestry bubbling to the surface, but Asami found that she lived for walking down winding streets filled with merchants and spending searing hot afternoons in the green parks that coursed through Harbour City.
Even her nightmares, despite how much they disturbed her, hadn’t quelled the excitement of constantly counting down the days to the next trip.
So, Asami resigned herself to seeking out the best doctors around for herbs to help her sleep, passing the overnight crossings working or reading, and trying to squeeze the most enjoyment possible out of each trip. The dark circles under her eyes and the disgusting herbal teas she choked down each night, she decided, was worth it.
Asami looked up from the financial ledgers that were spread in front of her when she heard a light knock on the metal door to her quarters. As she stood to answer it she caught a glimpse of the changed view from her window. The dark clouds were breaking, revealing navy blue skies above them and a deep orange sun peeking over the horizon. She pulled on her dressing gown while she crossed the floor, bare feet padding on the thin carpet, and pulled the door open to reveal a uniformed young man.
He bowed. “We will be docking shortly, Miss Sato.”
Asami thanked him, and after closing the door, jumped to change and repack her bags as her heart rose.
Minutes later, she pushed open the heavy doors that led out on to the main deck of the ship just in time to watch the historic Sea Wall gates pass on either side. She continued to the bow of the decking and leant on the railings, yawning widely.
Asami watched the docks swim into vision ahead of the ship, and saw that they were alive with work in the early morning sunlight, shouts and rumbling vehicles meeting her ears first as they approached the pier. The tugging tiredness of a night without sleep left her as soon as her nose filled with the smell of spices, sea, and industrial smoke that hung over Harbour City.
Harbour City was still very much an industrial place, serving corporations and conglomerates that had headquarters elsewhere, but it had been coming into its own over the last few decades. Asami had tried and failed many times to convince the other Future Industries delegates that she travelled with who spent their off time in the Capital City that even though Harbour City was a little grimier, noisier, and crowded, it had a burgeoning night life and food culture that far surpassed Republic City.
She rolled her eyes at the memory of their faces and worried remarks that she was more adventurous than perhaps she should be, given her “position". Asami flexed her gloved hands against the railings.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a sudden shudder travelling through the ship that told her they had arrived, and she took off towards her quarters to ensure that the crew sent her belongings to the correct hotel.
An hour and a half later, Asami was locking the door to her small hotel room behind her and emerging into the now fully awake city that was streaming with sunlight. The engineer strolled down the familiar streets that led to her favourite food market that opened out on to one of the largest green spaces in the city: Lord Zuko Park. Shaped like a donut around a temple and its grounds, the park was almost always bursting with activity in the daytime from everything to Pai Sho tournaments to martial arts group classes to street performers.
As she browsed the vendors in the market, contrasting smells of diverse ranges of cuisine from the Water Tribes to the Earth Kingdom mixing deliciously, she was very glad she had foregone the meagre breakfast offerings that were provided on the Kuruk. Asami settled on a steaming box of dumplings that were apparently popular on Kyoshi island, and wandered onto the paths that crisscrossed Lord Zuko Park in search of a suitable spot to sit and enjoy the first meal of the week she had in Harbour City.
Asami arranged herself on the grass underneath an expansive tree teeming with squirrel frogs, and began to eat. The first dumpling, full of a fragrant fish and leafy green vegetable mixture, cemented in Asami’s mind the desire since childhood that she had to visit the homeland of Avatar Kyoshi.
As she didn’t have a meeting to attend until the evening, Asami idled under the shade of the tree for long moments after she had finished her meal, her mind blank and content in the hot air that the late afternoon ushered in.
Lazily her eyes fell upon an old woman sitting at one of the many stone tables that had Pai Sho boards etched into them that were scattered around the park grounds. She was clad in dark red fabric that was draped beautifully in a way that reminded Asami of illustrations in one of her childhood books that had depicted the nobility of the Fire Nation in the days of Fire Lord Ozai and his father before him.
Asami thought remotely about how she had never considered how sweltering that clothing must have been.
The woman looked up at Asami, revealing dark grey hair framing an aged face that still held an air of elegance and poise, and a neck heavy with gold jewelry. Her eyes, amber and piercing even from a distance, reminded Asami of the eyes that stared back at her from her mother’s face in the photographs that dotted the Sato estate. The engineer turned away after what was longer than polite, and the woman went back to her game.
Noticing how high the sun was getting in the sky, Asami thought with a sigh that it would probably be a good time to head back to her room to prepare for the shareholders meeting.
She rose, and began the trek back to her room.
Asami started the next day in much the same way. Not long after the sun had risen she was on the prowl for breakfast in the bustling market and seeking out a place in the park to enjoy her meal (authentic Air Nomad Sweet Buns).
Soon after she had chosen her spot on one of the many benches that encircled the long lake that ran along the southern end of the park, Asami realized that the same old woman she had seen the day before was sitting at a Pai Sho table only a few paces behind her. The woman was dressed in the same antique Fire Nation robes, wore the same jewelry, and was still frowning down at one of the Pai Sho tables in the same manner she was the day before.
“Do you play?” Asami heard a brusque voice call, just as she was turning to continue eating her breakfast.
Asami glanced over her shoulder in the direction of the shout. It was the old woman, now staring at her over the table. Asami glanced from side to side to check that she wasn’t speaking to someone else before replying, “Sorry, play?”
“Pai Sho,” the woman gestured towards her board, “Do you play Pai Sho?”
“Yes. Well, sometimes.” Asami answered haltingly, “I play with my father sometimes.”
“Ah, yes.” The woman looked down to her board and moved a piece, “You look like you play."
Asami tipped her head in silent wondering as to what that possibly could have meant. She raised a bun to her mouth instead of asking.
“What are you doing here?” The woman asked, still looking at her Pai Sho pieces.
Asami raised an eyebrow, mouth still open and her breakfast hovering near her mouth. “Uh. Eating?”
“To the Capital.” The old woman clarified, waving a hand in frustration, “Your accent.”
“Oh, yeah I’m from Republic City.” Asami wondered why she was answering instead of backing away slowly from the woman. “I’m here on business.”
“Business.” The woman repeated. Then, suddenly, she slammed her hand on the board in triumph.
Asami took a bite of her food, still facing the woman.
“Want to play a game?” The woman asked, resetting her pieces on the board.
Asami swallowed, and thought quickly. She had the day free, had no plans, and yeah, she wouldn’t mind playing a game of Pai Sho. Even if the lady was on the eccentric side, it might be fun.
“Sure, why not?” She made her way around the bench and took the seat across from the woman at the stone table.
“I’m Asami.” Asami extended her hand over the table, “Asami Sato.”
“Call me Ima.” The woman took Asami’s hand firmly, and shook.
They went about setting up the board and beginning to play as the sun rode up the sky, Asami taking bites of her breakfast between moves. After a few years of not playing as regularly with her father she felt rather rusty.
“Do you live nearby?” Asami asked distractedly after many turns.
“In the temple.” Ima answered, pointing north where the temple that the park was centered around stood tall.
“You live in the temple? I didn’t know people lived there.” Asami answered with wide eyes.
“People don’t live there,” Ima spoke as she moved one of her White Jade tiles forward, “I live there.”
Asami fell silent in concentration as she took in what was happening on the board. This woman knew what she was doing. Her mind scratched at her memory for tactics she might have picked up for fending off such a balanced strategy.
She came up with nothing.
Her father always came at Asami with a somewhat unorganized fury of offensive moves, leaving openings that Asami was able to exploit. Ima though, she had built a strong but minimal defence and then moved forward relentlessly, never in reaction to Asami’s moves and unblinking when she lost tiles.
“You’re not bad.” Ima muttered as she was making what Asami knew was the conquering blow.
“You crushed me, Ima.” Asami laughed, pulling her hair back over her shoulders and fanning herself. The heat at this time of the day was immense, and as their Pai Sho table was sitting wide out in the open she felt as if she was being cooked alive.
“Another?” Ima was looking at Asami, her hands perched on the edge of her side of the table. Asami nodded firmly, shrugging off her light jacket and frowning as her head filled with possible strategies she could use to fend Ima off.
“I’m ready for you this time.” Asami muttered as she moved her first piece, a slight smile tugging at the corner of her lips.
By the time the clock tower on the south end of the park rang four times, Asami had won her first of the 8 games they had played.
“Aha! Very good Asami, very good.” Ima said, sipping from the paper cup that held ice-cold lychee juice that Asami had gone to fetch them before they begun their fifth game. “Now you’re starting to see that whoever said that the best defence is a good offence was kidding themselves.”
Asami laughed, and stretching her arms above her head she replied with a smile, “I’ve been taught well”. She marvelled briefly at how the heat of the day had completely disappeared from her mind, despite the glaring sun that was just now starting to dip below the western arm of the volcano.
“Why don’t we leave it here?” Ima said, starting to collect the Pai Sho tiles and dropping them noisily into a small box studded with jade stones she produced from her robes. “I’m expected back at the temple for the evening prayer, and I’m sure you have some business to attend to.”
Asami let out a hollow laugh, “Fortunately not. Tomorrow I’ll be in meetings from the crack of dawn right through to the evening though.” She began to gather her pieces.
“Will you be here the day after tomorrow?” Asami asked hopefully as Ima was beginning to rise from her seat, looking much shorter than Asami would have guessed. Her head barely came up to Asami’s armpit.
“I’m here every morning.” Ima answered as she picked up the cane that Asami hadn’t noticed was lying beneath the table.
“Interested in teaching me a few more lessons about Pai Sho?” Asami asked, raising her eyebrows and quickly adding, “I’ll bring breakfast.”
Ima’s mouth formed into a lopsided line that looked like it might be a smile, and said, “Nothing with nuts.”
She shuffled off, carrying her box of Pai Sho tiles in one hand and leaning on her cane heavily with the other. “I hate nuts.”
Asami collapsed on her bed twenty minutes later under the pretence of reviewing notes for the next day’s meeting marathon in comfort, but instead promptly fell into a dreamless sleep with her face pressed against projections for the next quarter.
The engineer woke in the dark many hours later, tearing off the papers that had stuck to her face while she slept and knocking over her bedside table lamp in an over-enthusiastic grab for her alarm clock.
In the yellow light that fell into her room from the streetlight outside her window, she saw the golden hands of the small alarm clock shining 3:06.
Asami groaned in a mixed rush of relief and frustration, and collapsed back into a heap on her bed, muttering curses under her breath as the adrenaline coursing through her veins made her skin crawl.
She never thought of herself as having much trouble with the few hours of time difference that the Fire Nation was to the United Republic. Many of her colleagues complained though, reaching for several cups of strong tea in the morning before beginning any serious conversation. They told her it was because she was young, but Asami had a feeling that it was because she was always so tired on those trips that drawing the line between confused circadian rhythms and overall exhaustion was difficult, if not impossible.
She pulled herself to a seated position after a minute, reached to pick up the lamp she had knocked to the floor, and switched on the light that immediately filled the room with a gentle glow and comforting electric buzz. Asami had chosen this particular hotel due to its proximity to both the park and the places that her business meetings usually were held, but she had come to love the quaint style of the place that the owner had told her mimicked her childhood home in the rural interior of the mainland. There was low, roughly hewn furniture made of light coloured wood, coarse woollen blankets and rugs that were now a faded red, and small golden items here and there about the room. Minimal, but warm.
Asami cast a quick glance at the wrinkled documents that she had used as a bedspread. Briefly she considered how lucky she had been that she woke when she did, but as the feeling of total wakefulness settled on her, she figured that she likely would have woken up with plenty of time before her first meeting anyways.
The small clock that sat on the table now read 3:13.
Figuring that there was no way she was going to get any more sleep, she got up, stretched, and meandered to her en-suite bathroom to ready herself for the day.
An hour later, a fully coiffed Asami Sato stepped onto the cobbled street that ran in front of her hotel.
She had 3 hours until her first meeting that took place only a few streets away at the famous Tamago, a Fire Nation jewel of a restaurant, so she considered her options to kill some time. Asami had never been awake so early in Harbour City but she figured there had to be at least a few places that served breakfasts to the dock workers that were probably making their way to work at that hour.
Her heeled boots echoed off the walls of the narrow street as she ambled down the road at a leisurely pace in the direction of the tea houses that lined the mouth of the Royal Plaza. The streetlights, she noticed, were still primarily oil lamps that shone an ethereal soft orange light. She wondered if she could somehow translate that kind of light into electric lightbulbs. It made the streets seem older somehow, more lived-in, and comforting in a way that Asami couldn’t quite put into words.
She went on in the semidarkness.
Turning onto Battlement Road, she grinned. The street that was by night the place to be in Harbour City with many dance halls and bars lining it was by day a bustling road full of restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. Apparently, Asami noticed, early morning hours such as these were a time when the two worlds mixed. Young men and women dressed up in clothes clearly meant for taking in the excellent night life of the city were weaving down the street and ducking into cafes who were also serving rugged-looking men obviously on their way to a day of work in the harbour.
Slightly overwhelmed by the unexpected choice she was met with at such an early hour, Asami let her feet carry her down the busy road and into small cafe that was serving large pots of tea and brightly coloured mochi. It was much less busy than some of the establishments that served heartier fare, and for a quiet morning drinking tea and watching the inhabitants of Harbour City pass by, it was perfect.
Asami chose an assortment of cakes, took the smiling owner up on her recommendation for a variety of tea she had never heard of, and set herself down at a small table that was nestled in the front window of the shop. She noticed on the table next to her a copy of a newspaper. Peering at it she was surprised to see that it was the previous day’s edition of the Republic City Times.
“The gentleman who brought that in just left so you’re more than welcome to have it if you’d like.” Asami hadn’t noticed the kindly owner of the cafe setting down a tray laden with her breakfast in front of her.
“Oh, thank you.” Asami beamed and grabbed the paper. The woman bowed, and left the table.
It had been several days since she had read the paper, and Asami missed the routine of it. She poured her tea, unfolded the paper in front of her, and read about the upcoming Pro-bending season as the first light of the day shone.
In was evening, and Asami was leaning over the long table where 12 of the most influential businessmen in the Fire Nation sat. It had been an arduous day of presentations to shareholders, pitches to executives who were shopping around for new contractors, and long conversations like the one she was currently engaging in with the CFO of Yamada Technologies.
“That’s simply not the case Mr. Yamada. We have taken more than enough care to ensure that our yields are above and beyond what other manufacturers ca-“
“Then why is it that Cabbage Corp can offer me the same product for two thirds of the price that you’re saying you can do? We’re a business, Miss Sato.” The man dressed in an immaculate pinstripe suit leant back in his chair and crossed his arms, a smirk playing across his face.
Asami took a breath in and imagined herself clad in her sparring gear, bare feet moving across cool, smooth floors. Her shoulders relaxed, the leather covering her hands creaked, and she straightened.
“I understand that, and that’s exactly why we do our utmost to design and build products that will perform how you need them to but also will last.” Shuffle forward, “Our extensive testing shows that our products last easily two times longer than Cabbage Corp products. In some cases, up to five times longer.” Right jab.
“I’ve inspected the ships from Cabbage Corp myself, Miss Sato. They seem to be in fine condition.” Blocked.
Asami fought to keep her hands away from her temples and her voice even. Circle the opponent.
“Did you happen to measure the thickness of their hulls?” Faked left hook.
"Have a team of metallurgists evaluate the makeup of the metal that forms the structural foundation of the ship?” Redirect incoming high kick.
"Test their electrical system for how it handles surges?” Spin and drop.
"The reason Cabbage Corp still exists at all, Mr. Yamada, is because they know how to cut corners in a way that isn’t noticeable right off the bat.” Sweeping kick to the legs.
“Listen, we’re here for the same reason.” Elbow drop.
"To ensure that we serve our clients in the best way we possibly can. Sacrificing quality workmanship for the sake of a cheaper up-front sticker price? That’s not only a poor economic bet for the long term, but it’s also not how Future Industries operates.” Freeze the strike a breath above the chest. “And I’m sure that’s also not what your grandfather envisioned for his company when he started it.”
Mr. Yamada was rubbing his chin and considering her. Back to starting position.
He nodded. Bow.
Asami’s inner eye refocussed back on the happenings in the boardroom. She glanced at the tall clock that stood at the back of the room. “Well gentlemen, I don’t want to overrun as you’re all busy people, but if you do have any questions for me please feel free to come and speak with me.”
The room rumbled with murmuring voices and scraping of chairs on wooden floors. Her colleague who sat at the opposite side of the table gave her a wink and a nod. She smiled.
Last to leave the room was Mr. Yamada who paused in the doorway to shake her hand, “I’ll be speaking with the board tomorrow. I can’t see how we can’t make some sort of arrangement for an order before next quarter.”
Asami swallowed the stunned feeling that filled her. Future Industries had been pursuing Yamada Technologies for several years and considered the company a perpetual tire-kicker.
She said with a voice that surprised even her with its confidence, “Future Industries looks forward to doing business with your company, Mr. Yamada.”
Asami refused the earnest invitations from her colleagues to join them for drinks after the last of the meetings wrapped up just past 10pm (“You do realize you just landed a huge new client right? Come and celebrate!”).
She told them with a chuckle that they were counting their komodo chickens before they hatched and that she didn’t want to jinx it, but inwardly she declined because her early start that morning had finally caught up with her. A dull ache had settled behind her eyes and she felt as if the floor beneath her was swaying slightly.
Asami parted ways with her colleagues as they made their way to the trolly that would take them up to the Capital and she turned down the road that led to her hotel.
15 minutes later, Asami fell into the bed in her hotel room and fell at once into a deep sleep.
The next day was shaping up to be by far the best Asami ever had on one of her business trips to Harbour City.
The weather was beautiful, Lord Zuko Park was uncharacteristically calm due to the draw of the Pheonix Festival that was taking place on the seafront, the dishes she had bought from the market were particularly delightful (Seaweed Noodle Soup, Spicy Octopus Fritters, and a pouch of Flaming Fire Flakes), and Ima had opened up somewhat and proven herself to be an extremely interesting woman.
They passed the majority of the morning playing Pai Sho in silence, only speaking to argue about the occasional rule, but soon after lunch Ima seemed to hit her stride. She told Asami long tales of her travels around the Fire Nation as a part of the Order of the White Lotus, of her children that were long since grown and who were travelling themselves, and (at Asami’s request and with reluctance from Ima) she shared several recipes for home made Flaming Fire Flakes. In return, Asami told Ima about her work at Future Industries, her love of Pro-bending and racing cars, and about the things she hoped to build in the future. She couldn’t remember the last time she had spoken about herself for so long without feeling guilty about it.
All too soon the sun began to dip, and Asami watched as a uniformed firebender strode down the winding paths of the park lighting the lamps as he went with casual flicks of his wrist.
“Shall we go for a stroll?” Ima asked Asami as they started to pack up the Pai Sho tiles and pile them into her jade box. “I usually walk the Grand Perimeter path before dinner."
“I’d love that.” Asami answered with a smile. “I haven’t actually had a walk around here at all this trip."
Ima let out a short laugh. “You’ve been too busy getting your butt kicked at Pai Sho, that’s why."
Asami gave Ima a playful glare, and stood from her chair. Joints popped while she stretched and cool air moved around her limbs.
“How much longer is your business keeping you in the city?” Ima started once they had started down the main path at an easy pace, Asami taking long slow strides and Ima shuffling.
Asami exhaled, doing a quick count in her head. “Two more days. Our ship leaves early in the morning on Friday. But the next couple days are pretty busy, so they’ll probably fly by.”
“That’s the way of things, isn’t it? I don’t want to scare you, but it only gets worse."
Asami laughed, “How is that not supposed to scare me?"
“You have so much life ahead of you Asami,” Ima chuckled. “You’ve got lots of time."
They walked on in comfortable silence, just taking in the cooling evening as it settled on the park. It seemed to be filling once more with young families taking in a stroll before dinner, couples making their way to the restaurant-packed streets to the north, and tired-looking businessmen making their way home, neckties loose and shirts wrinkled.
The two women rounded a grove of trees that opened out onto the lake that they had played their first game of Pai Sho beside, and Ima spoke suddenly. “Have you got any plans for when you get back to Republic City?”
Asami snorted, picturing the mountain of paperwork that was likely waiting for her on her desk. “No, I pretty much just try to keep things low-key. Work is killer, and in my free time I keep to myself.” Asami gestured vaguely, “I keep up with my self defence classes, with my own projects, and I try to make as many Pro-bending matches as I can.”
“What about friends?” Ima pressed. Asami felt a flare of anger rise up.
“What about them?” Asami retorted somewhat more forcefully than she had intended as an image of Jia's sad face flashed behind her eyes. The crunching of their feet on the fine gravel that covered the path rung in her ears.
Ima seemed not to notice, or at least not to care. “Everyone needs people they can rely on, people they can talk to.”
“I can take care of myself.” Asami stopped walking and rounded on Ima. “I don’t need anyone else.”
Ima laughed lightly, halting as well. “I’m not questioning that. I’m just saying you can’t go through life alone, that’s not how it works."
“Who are you to tell me anything about what I can and can’t do?” Asami’s voice was raising and cracking slightly, “I’ve known you for all of 3 days, you don’t know anything about me or what I need.”
“I don’t need to know who you are to tell you that there is no way to get away from everyone.” Ima was raising her voice as well, but with a great deal more control than Asami. “Maybe you’re too young to understa-"
“I am not too young for anything.” Asami said with a low voice bordering on a growl.
Ima’s eyes flared up with anger, but seemed to check herself. “Listen, Asami.” She took on a placating tone that made the younger woman’s blood boil. “I’m going to share something with you, and you can take it or leave it.”
Asami shifted her weight on to her right leg and crossed her arms. She noticed with annoyance that people were staring and giving her and Ima a wide berth from where they stood on path by the edge of the lake. There was nothing she wanted to do less than listen to some sort of sage advice that Ima clearly wanted to give, but she remained silent, her automatic respect for her elders overriding her anger.
“There’s a phrase in the northern islands of the Fire Nation, ‘sōgo saimu’. To them it means mutual indebtedness, or mutual insparkedness.” She started, “It means that every plant, every animal, every nation, and every person is indebted to everything else. It’s an adult knowledge to know this truth. If you really want to... get out of debt, to withdraw, or think it’s even possible, it means that you don’t want to be a part of life, that you don’t want to grow into an adult.”
“I have taken on more responsibility than you will ever understand.” Asami retorted. “I know more than anyone what indebtedness means.”
“Then why are you running away?”
Asami saw red. “I’m here aren’t I? I’m working, I’m building my father’s business, I’m making a difference in the world every single day. Hundreds of workers rely on me every day. Hundreds of thousands of people use things every day that only exist because of me.”
Ima sighed, “You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Asami deflated, confusion diffusing her anger slightly. “Then what are you talking about?” She threw her hands up, shifting her weight on to the other leg and let out a frustrated sigh, "Spirits, this is just ridiculous. I’m arguing with some old woman I’ve just met about my life like she knows anything about me.”
A cold laugh came from Ima’s lips. “Then by all means, go ahead and go back to your life.” She replied, “Spirits knows that I have less time to waste than you do.”
“Fine, I will.” Asami answered, but Ima had already turned away.
“Good.” Ima said over her shoulder as she was retreating, her bowed figure outlined in the lamplight and rising moonlight.
Asami spun and stalked away in a direct line across grass, gravel, and pavement to her hotel.
In her dreams that night, Asami drowned twice.
She couldn’t remember a time when she had been so utterly exhausted.
The next two days felt as if they were crashing over her in waves of technical presentations, forced laughter over expensive meals, and strangers pushing past her on the streets. In the rare quiet moments she had (walking to and from meetings and laying in bed waiting for her dreams to take her again) Asami was consumed with regret about how she had snapped at Ima. It felt like it had all fallen apart so fast.
It must be the lack of sleep, she thought to herself as she sat crumpled in the stairwell that led up to the boardroom where representatives from one of the largest farming cooperatives in the Fire Nation were waiting for her.
The world wobbled while she rose to her feet and climbed the last of the stairs.
“Definitely.” Asami nodded to herself, drawing in a long breath while tossing her hair and forcing a smile while she stepped over the threshold.
The little old man who worked at the herbal remedy shop she visited after her meeting couldn’t suggest anything for the dreams except the before bed tea mixture she had always bought from him.
“There’s no other herbs I can take at all?” Asami leant on the front counter of the shop heavily. “Nothing?"
The man looked apologetic, but shook his head no. “But, perhaps the dreams are important?”
She laughed thinly, “A glass half-full man. I respect that."
She paid him for the herbs and left.
That night, Asami found herself peering into the tall windows of the south side of the temple that sat in the midst of Lord Zuko Park. She was leaving the next morning, and she came to the conclusion that she wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she hadn’t at least tried to apologize to Ima for how she acted.
She pressed her face against the glass. It looked deserted.
Asami was just starting to wonder if Ima had been pulling her leg about living there when a flame suddenly burst up far to her right. She immediately jumped into a defensive fighting stance, heart pounding.
A small ball of fire was hovering at waist height, illuminating red robes and amber eyes searching the darkness where Asami stood.
It was Ima. The young woman’s mind flashed quickly with mild surprise that Ima was a bender.
“Asami?” She spoke, recognizing her. “What are you doing here?”
“Ima,” Asami bowed and Ima extinguished her flame, covering them in darkness again, “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to frighten you."
The older woman chuckled icily, “You didn’t frighten me.”
Asami blinked. “Listen, Ima, I wanted to apologize.”
Ima was already waving her off, “Asami, it’s fine. It wasn’t my place."
“No, please.” Asami approached where the old woman stood, her eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness. “I’m sorry for getting so angry, you were just trying to be nice and I-“
“I wasn’t trying to be nice.” Ima interrupted. “I was trying to be honest with you.”
“I know.” Asami spoke after a moment, weighing her words. “And I’m thankful for that.”
Ima regarded Asami closely.
“I really am.”
They stood there for a few moments, the hum of the city filling the space between them.
“You’re leaving tomorrow.” Ima observed, studying Asami’s face. The engineer nodded, her shoulders slumping.
“Come inside, I’ll make tea.” The older woman said suddenly, turning towards the large doors to the temple behind her that Asami noticed had been left slightly ajar. She followed Ima inside gratefully, not bothering to ask if it was indeed okay to impose on her this late, feeling lighter as she heard the heavy thud of the door close behind them.
Asami looked around in wonder as they walked through the temple. It was as if she had travelled back in time. Torches in golden brackets threw long shadows down wide corridors, candlelight reflected off highly shined floors and antique furniture, and the echoes of their footsteps were deadened by thick scarlet rugs and heavy, intricately woven tapestries. Asami had always appreciated the traditional aesthetic of the Fire Nation, and had seen many superb examples of its splendour in the Capital City, but this temple seemed and felt as if it had simply decided to stay in the age of the Fire Sages while the rest of the world carried on.
She followed Ima down several corridors before they crossed into what looked like a modestly sized and decorated house that was connected to the west side of the temple. It too still seemed to have fallen out of step with the passing of time of the world around it. Asami smiled, realizing how well Ima’s old fashioned clothing now perfectly matched her surroundings.
They entered a tiny kitchen that was packed with towers of pots and pans, hanging bunches of herbs and dried meats, and a large stove that took up the entire back wall of the room. It smelled of spices and smoke.
Asami hovered near the stove as Ima began to collect her tea pot and cups.
“Sit.” Ima gestured towards the heavy table in the corner. To its right a large window was cracked open slightly, letting cool air drift in from the heavily treed northern side of the temple.
Asami obeyed, sitting in the chair that faced where Ima was measuring tea leaves, and she twisted around to let her eyes travel over the photographs that were set on the shelf behind her. They were family photos full of faces of smiling children as they aged over time, from small children right up to fully-grown adults. Her eyes stopped on an image of a much younger Ima in the arms of a young man who were in what looked like traditional Fire Nation wedding outfits, beaming widely.
She turned away as a clinking noise told her Ima was on her way to the table with the tray laden with tea.
Once they had both arranged themselves in their seats with matching steaming cups clutched in their hands, Asami felt a twinge of anxiety settle low in her stomach. She fought the urge to mumble a long “ummm” or “sooo” (“It’s terrible negotiation language, Asami.” Her father had told her).
“You look tired.” Ima said suddenly after a long draw from her cup.
Asami laughed, “Thanks.” She knew she did, and the ever-lengthening amount of time she was having to spend covering up the dark circles under her eyes in the mornings only made clear how out of hand her sleep was getting.
“You do.” Ima pressed, gesturing to Asami’s face, “You’re too young to look that exhausted."
“I’ve been having trouble sleeping.” Asami started, not sure even while she was forming the words whether or not she wanted to share her recent struggles with Ima.
A ghost of the panic that filled her during her dreams while she was being pulled beneath the waves of seawater fell over her. She swayed slightly in her chair.
“Oh?” Ima took another sip from her tea. Asami felt a rush of warmth for the woman when she didn’t comment on her movement.
“It’s these stupid dreams I’m having.” Asami started, staring into her own cup with a furrowed her brow. “One dream really.”
Ima hummed into her tea, then swallowed. “Ah, I understand.” She nodded with an air of old remembering.
“You’ve had that before?” Asami looked up hopefully, searching the older woman’s face.
“Oh yes. A couple times before.” Ima nodded, glancing at the photographs behind Asami. “They’re bringers of wisdom."
Asami sighed, tracing the lip of her cup with her nail. “I doubt that. I think I’m just going to have to avoid boats or something.”
In truth, Asami had considered backing out of being a part of the quarterly delegation, even to the point of beginning to draft a letter to Mr. Kimura about her obligations in Republic City being compromised due to her involvement in the trips to the Fire Nation. She grimaced at the idea of a dream forcing her to do anything at all.
“Boats?” Ima asked neutrally. “I don’t know about that. In my experience, dreams that visit you many times are usually bringing messages that we aren’t able to hear in our waking life, so they come to us in our sleep. Mine came to me when I was in the midst of great change.”
Asami thought for a moment, and decided to take a leap.
“I dream that I’m drowning. There’s a storm, and I’m pulled under.” She took in a shaky breath. “It’s silly.”
“It’s not. The ocean is a powerful thing in reality as well as symbolically.” Ima shook her head and placed her cup on the table firmly. “What do you think it could mean?”
Asami lowered her eyes to her cup and considered the question. Mean? It was a dream, it means that I’m in deep sleep and my brain is turning the day’s events into long term memory, she thought. But why the same dream? She took a sip of the floral liquid from her cup.
“Come on Asami, you’re a bright girl.” Ima said with a chuckle.
“I’m not sure.” Asami shrugged, rubbing her forehead frustratedly, “I think… Well, they started when I came on my first trip to Harbour City.”
Ima raised her eyebrows. “Interesting.”
“Maybe it’s about my taking on more responsibility?” Asami tried, looking to the older woman with wide eyes.
Ima met her eyes, “I can’t help you here. It’s your dream, your messages."
Asami refocussed her gaze on her cup, and thought deeply. Her tea had gone cold by the time she spoke again, remembering the icy water surrounding her body and her frantic flailing.
“I don’t know if I’m doing the right things.” Asami spoke without thinking, feeling her face redden with embarrassment as she felt the words leave her mouth.
Ima’s eyes flashed. “Sounds like the right thing to be thinking at your age."
“But I have to know what I’m doing.” Asami started, her hands feeling clammy on the cold tea cup. “How else can I make the right decisions?"
Ima’s short laugh startled the engineer from her thoughts. “Asami, that’s what life is. No one knows what they’re doing, and anyone who says they know what they’re doing is trying to sell you something. We just do the best we can with what we know, and then we learn from our mistakes. By the time we know what we’re doing, we’re ready to pass on to the next life."
“That seems like a great system.” Asami snorted, draining the cold tea from her cup with one swallow.
“It’s not so bad. Keeps things interesting.” Ima was eyeing her from across the table, “and it’s a lot easier when you stop fighting it so hard.”
The topic of conversation shifted, and the two women continued their talk until the tea had long gone and they could hear birds outside chirp at the first of the clouds turning to pink in the light of the early dawn. Ima stood to clear away their empty cups when Asami said with a sigh that she needed to be on her way.
“So, is it right?” Asami asked, joining the older woman at the sink.
“Is what right?” Ima asked distractedly, emptying the dregs of tea into a small container.
“My dream, about what it could mean.”
“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t part of it.” Ima answered, rinsing out the teapot and leaving it to dry on the countertop.
Asami felt her heart drop. Only part of it? How long would this take?
Ima placed her hand over the younger woman's, drawing her from her spiralling thoughts. “Asami, try to have patience. Dreams like these take time to fully understand, and sometimes some of the teachings are from that process itself.”
Asami nodded, letting out a long breath.
Ima continued, her voice calm and reassuring, “I wouldn’t worry. Once you pay those dreams some attention I find they’re usually a little kinder while we try and figure things out.”
Before she could stop herself, she was crushing the older woman in a tight hug. “I’m so sorry about the other day, Ima. I wasted so much time.”
She felt a hand patting her back, and a muffled voice puff out through her hair, “Things happen exactly the way they’re supposed to.”
Asami pulled back, blinking tears out of her eyes.
Ima cracked a small smile after considering her for a long moment and then said, “You’ll be okay."
The next night Asami fell asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow on the Kuruk.
When she opened her eyes, she was staring at an impossibly blue sky while she drifted on her back like a small boat over the gently undulating waves of a calm sea.
Chapter 6: Flying Upside Down
Hey everybody! Thanks so much for being patient with me in getting this next chapter out to you all. It's a long one, so hopefully that makes up for the delay somewhat.
Before anything else I have to give massive thanks to the beta extraordinaire airamcg for the huge amount of help she was in penning this piece. Couldn't have done it without you girl!
Also I want to of course shower you lovely people for all the subscribes, kudos, bookmarks, and comments on the last chapter! You all rock, and I hope very much that you enjoy the next part of the story.
“All that happens now,
is not some glorious accident.”
- Flying Upside Down, Cold War Kids
Asami had never told anyone, but there was a moment at age sixteen when she had seriously considered taking up professional car racing.
Granted, it had been for a very brief moment.
It had been when the tires of her Satomobile skidded around a tight corner of the Future Industries test track one spring morning. The sun had been bright and warm on the leather of her racing outfit. The hair that had come loose from under her helmet whipped around her neck. The powerful, grinding engine thundered under her feet as she attempted to compensate for the over-rotation, twisting the steering wheel firmly and instinctually with her gloved hands.
The world had slowed down around her, and she felt a fire under her skin.
A breathless second later, her wheels had caught the road again, throwing the car out of the turn with explosive speed. She let out a yell of triumph that was immediately swallowed up by the roaring machine.
But it had just been a moment. And like her dream as a young child to become a world explorer, she buried this new dream deep in her mind and went back to work.
“Another crane design?” Asami muttered frustratedly over the reams of paper that were covering her office desk in the Future Industries’ Research and Development Department.
The fingers of her left hand absently knitted in her hair as she bent over the folder filled with many pages of equations, drawings, and detailed technical analyses. This new crane model proposal had been the fifth of its kind to cross her desk since her return from the Fire Nation two weeks before.
Strange, Asami thought as she stood up from her desk to flip through the rest of the design proposals in her inbox.
Crane. Airship exhaust component. Crane. Satomobile brake component. Crane. Crane.
She cursed as she dropped the files, recalling that she definitely had said at the opening of the quarter that their department’s 90-day goals were to be aligned with developing new, low volume engines that would lower the prices of their mass-market vehicles. It would be a longer development cycle, but Cabbage Corp was apparently already well on their way to undercutting the base Satomobile consumer model on price. Future Industries would have a hard time surviving if R&D didn’t immediately rise to meet their competition’s advances.
Asami felt the stiffness in her neck turn into a dull ache and she dropped into her chair.
She sighed and idly spun her chair around. She wished she had followed her father’s advice and had brought on a full-time assistant months ago. The prospect made sense in times like these ones, where she felt moments away from tearing her hair out. Yet whenever she found the time to sit down and sort through resumes, a small voice in her head tutted disapprovingly and Asami quickly found something else to do.
Her chair slowed to a stop at the exact spot where the evening sunlight reflecting off her mother's mirror hit her face, temporarily blinding her. It sat prominently on the shelf closest to her desk, occupying the space between a clock she brought back from Harbour City and a yellowing card stamped with the Li family crest.
The sound of squawking brought her attention to the window, where a flock of turtleducks were flying in formation through the strip of blue sky just visible above the factory. When they had gone, Asami reclined back into her chair and pondered the fact that there was a whole world out there that didn't care about who she was or that she was drowning in crane designs and resumes. She forgot that sometimes.
Asami snapped out of her reverie when a rapid knocking came from her door.
She glanced back at her clock. 5:11pm. She swore it was noon twenty minutes ago.
“Yes?” Asami answered with a controlled voice, revolving her chair to face the door and smoothing her slightly wrinkled blouse over her front. “Come in."
“Sato, hey.” The smiling face of Jinhai Mah, the head of the wireless telegraphy development unit, poked in. “A few of us are heading out for some drinks, you in?”
“Oh I’d love to, but I’m totally buried in prep work for the Satomobile test runs next week.” She ran her gloved fingers through her raven tresses and gestured at the mountain of paperwork that sat in her inbox. “Maybe I can catch up with you later?"
Jinhai smiled and nodded, pulling on his jacket. “No problem. We’ll be at Amaruq’s on 7th.”
“Sounds great.” Asami smiled, feeling a twinge of envy behind her ribs. Amaruq's was a new bar that specialized in Water Tribe drinks and light fare that opened a few months before in the industrial district. She hadn’t been able to find the time to go since she had gotten back from her trip, but she heard it was fantastic.
Asami picked up her pen and moved to lean back over her work. “Enjoy yourselves. You’ve all earned it after this past week.” She felt the words leave her mouth and noticed how the phrase made her sound like she was ten years older than almost everyone in the department, and not ten years younger like she actually was.
“We will!” Jinhai laughed, and left the room. The door shut behind him with a sharp snap, and Asami heard him calling down the hallway that 'the boss' wouldn’t be joining them.
She smiled to herself when she heard indistinct voices sounding disappointed. There was another slam, and then all was silent in the building aside for the ticking of the clock on the shelf and the creak of cooling pipes in the machine room across the hallway.
Asami’s smile faded as her eyes refocused on the papers in front of her, realizing that for at least a few more hours, her only company would be the shifting shadows that the window cast across her small office, the whisper of her gloved hands across many sheets of paper, and the growing ache in the small of her back.
She exhaled, and began to read.
Several hours later when her golden clock told her it was 7:30pm, Asami set down her things, packed up her bag, and left the room in a practiced sweep.
Heels clicking down the corridor to the now-dark Future Industries parking lot, Asami wondered if she should stop by Amaruq’s. When she recalled that a half-upgraded moped was waiting for her in her workshop at the estate, she decided against it.
“Could you pass the jam?”
Asami jumped, startled.
“What?” she asked, looking up at her father over the newspaper she was reading in the early morning light the next Monday.
“The jam please, Asami.” He inclined his chin in the direction of the half-empty glass jar on the far side of the table. As she was reaching for it, she saw out of the corner of her eye that he glanced down at her paper and tightened his jaw.
She quickly handed him the jar and muttered a half-hearted “sorry” before returning to the Times. Asami had been poring over the section that was previewing the Pro-bending league opener taking place that evening. She shifted it from her father’s view, and read on, munching on toast distractedly while her heart began to flutter again in excitement for what the next few days had in store.
Every three or four years, the opening night of the Pro-bending season aligned itself almost perfectly with the test run sessions for new Satomobile models. This was one of those glorious years, and for Asami it meant a week at the test track bookended by nights at the Pro-bending arena.
As her eyes skimmed over the table that listed the teams that were going to be facing off later that evening, she cast her memory back to their performances the years before in an attempt to predict the results. Surely the Golden Temple Tigerdillos were going to lose to the Platypus Bears, the Orchid Gardens Ostrich Horses were likely going to be demolished by the White Falls Wolfbats, and the Fire Ferrets seemed to be fairly evenly matched with the Red Sands Rabaroos. She furrowed her brows, trying to remember the lineups for the last two teams.
Her thoughts were interrupted by her father’s gruff voice. “Will you be able to get to the factory on your own this morning?”
Asami froze, wondering briefly if she hadn’t been careful enough in masking her annoyance about his never-ending silent objection to everything that took her attention from work. In all the years they had been going to the Future Industries complex each day, there were only a handful of times that Asami could recall where they hadn’t ridden in together, unless one of them were out of town. She raised a shaped eyebrow at him, though his eyes were still trained on his copy of the Times.
He took a sip of tea before continuing, “I have to do a few things here this morning.”
“Sure, no problem,” Asami replied in an even voice that she hoped didn’t let on her worry. She turned back to the Pro-bending schedule, but stared unseeingly through it.
Five minutes later, they parted ways in the hallway outside the dining room with a simple, “I don’t want you driving in that moped. Take the green Satomobile,” from her father.
The Pro-bending arena always glittered the brightest on the opening night of the league. Asami couldn’t figure out if it was just because of the thorough cleaning the building was subjected to during the off-season, or if it was because of the electricity in the air from the spectators that crowded around the main entrance hall waiting to be let into the arena for the first time in months.
More often than not, Asami would join the throngs of fans that entered the arena through the main doors. But as she was late due to the first day of test runs at the track, she quickly made her way over to the roped-off entrance for box seat ticket holders. She realised, as she was smiling at the familiar face who unlinked the rope and bowed her inside, that the racing gear she was still wearing smelled of oil and engine exhaust.
Asami drew in a deep breath as she walked through the entrance. It felt like it had been years since she had been back in this building, but at the same time, like she had been there just the other day.
Windows on the right hand side of the hallway opened up as she strode along, showing the dusky skyline of Republic City framed between glowing mountains and the calm waters of Yue Bay. It was something she appreciated the more she left town on business— the beauty of her hometown.
Asami heard heeled shoes making their way down the hallway towards her and she swerved to make way as she kept her eyes trained on a ferry cutting through the water towards Air Temple Island. The click of the approaching footsteps slowed.
She felt the colour drain from her face and her stomach freeze solid as she turned away from the windows. It was the voice of Meilin Li, one of the owners of the Pro-bending arena, and the mother of Jia Li.
“Asami Sato,” the older woman said. She was beaming at Asami, with dark green eyes that were identical to her daughter’s. Asami felt the ice in her stomach turn to heavy lead.
“Mrs. Li, it’s been far too long.” Asami made to bow, but was quickly pulled into a tight hug. She remembered how her work clothes smelled and winced inwardly.
“Meilin, Asami.” She pulled back and smiled. “You look beautiful as always. How are you? And your father?”
Asami let a small smile creep across her face, feeling the tension in her body start to uncoil. She missed the Li’s. “We’ve both been really great, thank you. Busy with work as always. And you? How is the family?"
In the years since Jia had left for Ba Sing Se, Asami had thought of her friend and her family often. The guilt that had bitten at her for many months about how things had been left with Jia had ebbed somewhat and had been replaced with an indistinct feeling of regret that was fading, surely, but more slowly than Asami would have liked.
“Oh, you know us, we’ve all been really busy as usual,” Meilin answered, waving and smiling quickly at a passerby before continuing, "From what I can tell from letters, Jia has been doing really well in Ba Sing Se."
“I’m really glad to hear that,” said Asami. She wanted to ask more about Jia, but thought better of it because of the sudden lump in her throat. Instead, she crossed her arms and felt the sudden urge to run. “Listen, Meilin, I wanted to apologize for not coming to the going away party for your daughter.”
“Hey.” Meilin’s smile softened, her eyes boring into Asami’s with a probing air. “She missed you, but she understood.”
Asami uncrossed her arms and felt her mind form the words, what did she understand? but decided to leave it unsaid. She smiled weakly instead, glancing around for anything she could use to change the subject.
The lights in the long hallway turned on and off, rescuing her. Meilin looked around, all of a sudden as excited as Asami had ever seen her sons about the start of Pro-bending match. “I should let you go get your seat! They’re about to start.”
Asami laughed, “Thanks Meilin. It was really good to see you. Hopefully we’ll run into each other more during the season."
She was pulled into another hug as the booming voice of the announcer rumbled through the floor.
“Hey, Asami,” Meilin called after Asami as they were parting ways. She seemed to hesitate, her eyes flashing like Jia’s sometimes did, but then finished in an upbeat tone. “Enjoy the game!"
Asami smiled and half bowed to the receding back of the Li matriarch before hurrying off to her own seat.
Ten minutes later, whipping fire, water, and earth emptied her mind.
“Don’t you have work to do or something?” Gan asked as he pulled a pair of keys off of a hook near the doors that led to the line of waiting Satomobiles the next day. The mechanic had met Asami on her first trip to the track when she was five, and had been a racing teacher and companion ever since.
“You’re still sore about our race last year?” Asami quipped as she approached him, beaming while turning her helmet in her hands.
Gan guffawed, tossing her the pair of keys in a wide arc. “You cheated!"
“I... used my surroundings,” Asami said as she caught the keys with a wink, remembering a particularly skillful maneuver that ended with his car lodged in a pile of discarded Satomobile wheels and hers crossing the finish line. “That’s not cheating."
She heard him let out another bark of a laugh before retreating back into the mechanical shop, dirty rag in his back pocket swinging.
Asami secured her helmet and pulled her racing gloves firmly over her hands as she strode across the tarmac towards a sleek, low-slung car that had been painted black with deep red stripes.
The conditions were near perfect, she noted as she climbed into the car. The sun was high in the cloudless sky, and the air was so clear that she could easily make out the contours of the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
She turned the engine on, and released the brakes.
This particular vehicle, codename S-454, was an experimental performance model that had been the flagship project for the Satomobile development unit over the past year. It was still some time away from manufacturing, mostly due to the fact that it reached high speeds so quickly that it was proving nightmarish to get road legal.
As Asami eased the vehicle out of the bay and began to accelerate down the straightaway, she could understand why. She was slammed back into her seat with such force that her lungs emptied sharply, her ears filling with the sound of the engine roaring, and her eyes taking in streaks of green and grey as the world turned to a blur around her.
If they end up getting this model into production, Asami thought as her eyes darted to the dials in front of her, I’m going to be first in line to buy one.
Nearing the end of the straightaway, she decelerated and turned the wheel with a heave, taking the Satomobile around the first bend of the track. The S-454 exploded out the end of the turn and into the next arc in the road, making Asami’s heart soar.
There was nothing to second guess in a race, she mused as she continued weaving through the course. It was pure trust. Trust in her car, trust in her hands moving fluidly across the controls, trust in the laws of gravity and motion. It was easy and utterly reliable in a way that nothing else was.
Even in the far future, when cars went a thousand times faster than hers, ran on electricity, and even flew— it would fundamentally be the same thing.
After what felt like mere moments, though she knew it was her 8th lap around the track, a green flag signalled for her to return the S-454 to the bay and her feet to the ground.
“How was it?” Gan was grinning at her as he sauntered up to gather the keys from Asami, wiping oil off his hands.
“It’s a crime this thing isn’t allowed on the roads yet,” Asami declared as she tossed him the keys and made her way to pick up the clipboard from the table in the garage. She grinned as she began to record her findings.
Minutes later, she was climbing into the next car and taking off again.
Early morning light fell in diffused beams across the empty hallways of the Sato estate as Asami made her way down to breakfast, yawning and rounding her shoulders in an attempt to rid herself of the persistent ache in her lower back.
It had been three of the longest weeks since she had taken the position of directing R&D, largely due to the implosion of the creativity and vision of her unit leaders. In addition to still more industrial crane design proposals, her inbox was overflowing with minor component upgrades that could hardly be labelled as “development” at all. Nevertheless, they kept her busy from the early morning until late in the evening to sort through them.
Even the new Pro-bending season, which was turning out to be a great one, had lost its ability to distract her from her responsibilities at work. Despite her efforts to be in her box seats for as many games as possible, especially the ones featuring her new favorite teams (the Ostrich Horses and the Fire Ferrets, after their spectacular performances in their league openers), she found herself struggling to keep her mind on the games. More than once she found herself staring at the scaffolds underneath the hexagonal arena instead of the match occurring on top of it, the structural beams reminding her of a component design or some other thing that she needed to finish reviewing back at the office.
She sighed as her boots moved through the vestibule that led to the kitchen and the dimly-lit dining room, wondering, as she often did now that she was in the higher ranks of Future Industries, if it was appropriate to bring up her work difficulties to her father.
Asami inhaled the familiar smell of tea and toasted bread, then frowned. The table was already set, complete with various spreads and two copies of the Republic City Times laid out. But her father's chair was empty. Normally, he was halfway through his paper and on his second cup of tea by the time she found her seat in the morning.
She peered at the clock as she sat down in her chair, wondering if she had perhaps come down earlier than usual, but did a double take when she caught a glimpse of the partially obscured headline of the paper. She unfurled it before pouring her tea and her eyes widened.
“AVATAR KORRA HAS LANDED IN REPUBLIC CITY” The headline read, covering nearly half the front page just with those words. The other half was splashed with a large photo of the teenaged Avatar standing behind a podium on what had to be somewhere downtown, looking very much the same as Asami had remembered her in her first appearance in the Times. The same wolf-tail, the same smirking expression, the same strong looking stance.
She poured herself some tea and read on.
Avatar Korra announced yesterday on the steps of City Hall to almost 5,000 United Republic citizens that she is indeed here to stay. When asked about how she intends to spend her time here, the teenaged bender replied, “I don’t exactly have a plan yet,” before going on to assure Republic City residents that she is strongly committed to protecting and furthering Avatar Aang’s vision for our city.
Still in training, our new Avatar will no doubt have her work cut out for her. But if her first 36 hours in our city are anything to go by, fighting Triple Threat Triad gang members and reportedly butting heads with Chief Beifong, our new Avatar will be an exciting addition to Republic City.
Asami turned the page eagerly with a smile and continued reading about the press conference, analyses of the changing landscape of Republic City politics due to the Avatar’s arrival, and first-person accounts of the fight in the Dragon Flats Borough between the Avatar and the Triple Threat Triad gang members. She drank in every detail, her laughter punctuating the blow by blow report of the police chase of the Avatar on her polar bear dog through Republic City, and rolling her eyes at comments from “concerned parents” about a not yet fully-realised Avatar roaming their city’s streets. Finally, a small piece at the bottom of the third page that covered the new arrival of Avatar Korra told her that the Southern Water Tribe girl would be living on Air Temple Island while she completed her training.
Asami lowered her paper in thought, picking up her tea and blowing on it gently.
She had assumed since childhood that Avatar Korra would be coming to Republic City eventually, as the United Republic was a large part of Aang’s legacy. But she felt a distinct oddness about the fact that her own world of Future Industries, perpetual traffic jams downtown, and nightly glittering of the Pro-bending arena over the bay was somehow now also one that included the Avatar. Asami took a sip of her tea and wondered if she would ever get to meet her.
Asami’s eyes refocused, suddenly falling on the clock that hung on the wall opposite her, the weak rays of sunshine falling across it revealing 5:45. There was still no sign of her father, and they were going to be late if they didn’t leave for the complex soon.
Right as she decided to abandon waiting any longer, she heard Sen’s whistles and footfalls echo through the open door. Standing up quickly and striding over to the open door, she felt a flash of fear. What if something terrible had happened to her father? What would she do?
“Sen!” she called, jogging in the direction of his trilling whistle.
“Morning, Asami!” He smiled, backing up around a corner he had just disappeared behind.
“Good morning.” She bowed, breathing deeply in an attempt to dispel the rising anxiety. "Have you, by any chance, seen my dad this morning? He didn’t show up for breakfast.”
“Actually, I did!” he said, bouncing on his toes and scratching his chin with a weathered hand. "Early this morning, I saw lights on in his workshop in the back. Let me go get him for you.”
Asami shook her head, exhaling heavily. “No, that’s fine, I’ll go. Thank you Sen.” She bowed again and wished him a good day.
Her breathing returning to normal, she quickly pulled on her jacket and made her way through the house and across the gardens that covered the grounds of the estate. As Asami approached the building in the back, she heard the telltale signs of clanging metal that told her Sen had seen correctly.
“Dad?” Asami called, heavily knocking on the main door. “Are you in there?"
She debated with herself about whether or not to just go in, remembering the strict rule to never enter the workshop without him after her solo woodworking venture twelve years ago. But the door cracked open not long after.
“Asami.” He was slightly wide eyed, patting down his hair with his free hand. “What are you doing here?"
“It’s almost 6,” Asami answered, raising an eyebrow and crossing her arms. He looked at her nonplussed. “A.M.? Work?"
“Spirits, I didn’t realize,” he said, sliding through the partially open door and pulling it closed behind him. “Time flies when you’re tinkering with relaxation oscillators from Earth Kingdom electronics.” He laughed, squinting in the early sunlight.
Asami snorted, and they walked across the gardens together back to the house.
“I wanted to ask you something,” Asami started tentatively as she watched her father exchange his timeworn work boots for highly-shined dress shoes several minutes later.
He looked at her with a sharp glance as he straightened, “What’s that?”
They made their way out the door and down to the cars parked on the pad, while Asami tried to phrase her thoughts diplomatically. “It seems like my units in R&D are starting to lose… inspiration.”
Her father unlocked the doors of their usual commuting Satomobile, his eyebrows raised. “What do you mean?”
“Since the start of the quarter, they’ve just been playing it really safe,” Asami said, clicking on her seatbelt. “Almost everything I’ve gotten from them have been minor designs and remodels. Nothing new, nothing bold. And they’ve completely ignored our 90 day goal priorities.”
The engine roared to life below them with a twist of the key in the ignition. “That’s very strange.” The CEO said, sounding intrigued. “And you’ve spoken to them about this, I presume?"
“Of course,” Asami answered, watching the lawns of the estate roll by her window. “They apologize and assure me they’ll take on board my feedback, but it just continues.”
They drove in silence for a moment, before Asami said in an unintentionally defeated voice, “I just don’t think I’m cut out for upper management, to be honest.”
Her father laughed abruptly in response. “Asami, don’t be ridiculous. You’re an extremely talented engineer and a natural leader.”
A small smile crossed Asami’s face, her hand moving to pinch the bridge of her nose, asking half-jokingly, “Tell that to my teams, would you?”
Her father smiled and cleared his throat. “I’ll see what I can do. My instinct says that there may be some office politics playing a part in this.”
“No,” Asami said, turning to him quickly. “I mean thanks for the offer, but I honestly feel like this is something I need to figure out on my own."
As the words left her mouth, a wild desire to skip work and go over to the test track to drive that S-454 again swelled in her chest.
The small fantasy shrivelled and died as a smile stretched across her father’s face, pride filling his voice as he said, “Of course you do.”
A few days later, Asami was knocking on the office door that sat across from her father’s. A rumbling call to enter sounded from the other side, prompting her to twist the doorknob and ease it open. She blinked.
Where her father’s office was dark and richly decorated, the office of the CFO of Future Industries was intensely bright and airy. It almost seemed as if she was stepping into a building in another part of the world whenever she visited Yuto Kimura’s office. Light woods, white walls, and many lamps made Asami’s head spin after spending so much time in the concrete and metal shadows of the rest of the factory.
Asami had heard him explaining at several cocktail parties about a house he had been invited to in the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se having such a design, and how he simply couldn’t bear not to have such a scheme where he spent most of his days. Asami thought that he was a good man, if not a little pompous on occasion. And really, the room did suit him.
“Asami!” Yuto Kimura looked up from his desk, beaming. “Come, sit.” He waved, beckoning her into his office and gesturing to one of the comfortable looking chairs that sat around a low table in the far corner of his office.
“Tea?” he asked as he rose from his chair and shuffled over to the door that Asami had just closed behind her.
“No, thank you,” Asami answered as she moved to sit at the table, smoothing her skirt over her knees.
“You don’t mind if I do?” Yuto tossed over his shoulder as he leaned out his door to shout for his assistant.
“Not at all,” Asami answered politely, even though the older man was already speaking with his assistant who had arrived spluttering, three seconds after he’d been called for.
“So,” he started, settling down in a chair across from hers, “before we get to whatever brought you here, I wanted to go over something that the executives and I had been discussing.”
Asami leant back and raised an eyebrow, caught slightly off guard. “Alright.”
“As you probably have noticed, we’ve been having some shuffling in the upper ranks this year. Our most recent change has been Deshi Fung announcing his retirement, leaving us with our executive assistant to the Chief Business Development Officer chair open.”
Asami hoped she didn’t look shocked.
Yuto cleared his throat before continuing, "Now, I know you’ve been a director for just over a year, but we've been really impressed with your performance in the Fire Nation and think you’d be even more valuable in that kind of role permanently.”
Executive assistant to the CBDO? Asami felt her mind spin the title slowly in her mind, much like how she inspected newly fabricated Satomobile parts for imperfections. It would be another step up the corporate ladder for sure, and would be priming her for the CBDO chair. But, it would also mean entirely stepping behind a desk and away from any front-line product development for the foreseeable future.
Asami shifted uncomfortably, making her chair squeak. It apparently was cheaper than it looked. “That’s very kind of you."
He let out what sounded like a false laugh, paired with a false smile. “It’s nothing to do with kindness. You’ve really impressed us.”
Yuto’s office door opened, revealing his trembling assistant arriving with his tea. “Think about it, would you? Ah, thank you Quon.”
He took the tea from him gingerly, and waited until the young man had closed his door with a click before continuing, “So what can I help you with?”
Asami sucked in a breath, trying to right herself after the unexpected news. “A couple things actually.” Yuto placed down his tea and crossed his arms.
“These,” she said, pulling a sizable stack of folders from her bag and dropping it with a heavy thud onto the table, “are the design proposals that I’ve gotten from my teams in the last month. Only one out of thirty are completely new designs, and the rest are either minor component improvements for Satomobiles and Airships, or industrial crane redesigns.”
Yuto leaned back into his chair and brought a finger to his chin. “I see."
Asami waited for him to speak for another moment before saying, “And I want to know why that is.”
She had practiced the line multiple times in her office that morning, trying to sound equal parts knowing and respectful, with just a dash of accusation. After all, if she had learned one thing at Future Industries in all these years, it was to always follow the money.
The CFO shifted in his seat, eyes searching hers. “Well listen, Asami, you know it’s been a tough quarter. We need to put hours into projects we know can get us through this rough patch, so I put out a few memos to the heads of the units."
“Without consulting with me first?” Asami widened her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “I’m supposed to be managing the department, Yuto. I can’t do my job unless I have all the information.”
“What information do you need?” Yuto was sighing and running his hand through his short hair roughly, not bothering to mask his exasperation.
Asami bristled at his actions, back straightening. “I’m not sure what you think I’m trying to do, but I need to know if things need to be changed in my own department and I need to be trusted to make those changes."
“You made it very clear in our last executive panel that you wouldn’t consider putting more than 50% of development yuans towards short-term improvements on our most profitable products.” Yuto’s voice hardened, his face reddening.
“I also made it very clear why that’s important,” Asami replied sharply. “If we don’t continue innovating then we won’t be able to compete in the future. We’ll be sacrificing the future of the company for short-term gains.”
He threw up his hands and made to leave his chair. “This is exactly what I’m talking about.”
“What?” Asami replied, genuinely taken aback. "I’m doing nothing but ensuring that I’m keeping the company’s best interests at heart. I don’t understand why you’r—”
Suddenly, it clicked. They weren’t promoting her. The executives were edging her out of R&D.
The shareholders weren’t happy, and they were scrambling to find someone to take the fall.
An overwhelming, sickly feeling was spreading rapidly outwards from Asami’s gut, reminding her vividly of how she felt when she had accidentally hydroplaned a Satomobile during a test drive when she was fifteen.
She felt herself slump slightly in her seat and wondered if her father knew.
“Consider the new position,” Yuto said stiffly after a long silence, eyes not meeting hers. “I’m sure we’ll be able to find someone qualified to take over R&D.”
Asami nodded numbly as she picked up her files, and left.
That evening Asami was sitting in her Satomobile outside the Pro-bending arena debating with herself whether or not to join the mass of people flooding into the building.
Her day hadn’t improved after she had left Yuto’s office. Hours of solitary, silent paperwork in her office had felt like the only thing she could handle and the absolute last thing she needed to do. Even exchanging her blazer for her racing jacket halfway through the day didn’t raise her spirits.
She thumbed the keys in her hands and glanced up into her own eyes in the rearview mirror. Perhaps it was the way the light from the streetlamp overhead was illuminating them, but Asami couldn’t help but notice how much they looked like her mother’s in that moment. She leaned forward in awe, pulling a hand out of her glove and raising it to touch the corner of her right eye gently.
Asami jumped when a group of whooping teenagers passed her window, one of them with a badly drawn Fire Ferret scrawled across the front of his white shirt, gesturing wildly with his arms in what she guessed was his version of an earthbending form. She let a small smile cross her face as she watched them make their way to the arena, their free laughter ringing.
The Fire Ferrets were going to be battling it out against the Platypus Bears that night, and nearly everyone was expecting an exciting match. She herself had been looking forward to it for several days, and had even put a sizeable bet down on a Fire Ferrets win against Gan.
Feeling a pull to follow the last-minute stragglers running to the arena, she smiled wider, clicked open her door, pocketed her keys, and jogged lightly to the shining building.
Luckily, there had been some sort of issue with the Fire Ferrets lineup, so by the time Asami had taken her seat in the empty private box, the teams were just trotting out from their dressing rooms.
“That’s not Hasook,” Asami mumbled as she shrugged off her jacket and placed it on the scarlet chair beside her, squinting down at the Fire Ferrets walking out onto the platform. She could hear Shiro Shinobi’s voice a couple boxes down and strained her hearing to catch what he was saying over the din of the crowd.
“Looks like the Fire Ferrets have ferreted out a last-minute replacement waterbender. Let’s see if she’s another diamond in the rough like the brothers from the school of hard knocks!” Asami heard his distinctive voice begin, keeping her eyes on the six benders walking towards each other on the platform below.
Let’s hope she is. Asami thought to herself, thinking that Gan was probably somewhere in the city, grinning at his radio.
The girl that stood normally where Hasook did was stretching out her shoulders and adjusting the uniform that seemed to be several sizes too big for her.
There was a whistle and the ringing of a bell, and before anyone else could move, the new waterbender on the Fire Ferrets team sent the waterbender from the Platypus Bears over the side of the ring with a loud splash. Asami cringed and began making a mental note to stop at the bank on the way to work the next day to pick up Gan’s winnings.
The captain of the Fire Ferrets, Mako, was gesturing furiously at the back of the platform to the new waterbender, clearly frustratedly explaining the rule she had just broken. Obviously this replacement, despite her confidence when she walked on to the platform, was incredibly inexperienced in Pro-bending.
Her opponents seemed to notice this fact as well, and began hammering the dark haired girl with attacks as soon as the next bell had rung.
Asami couldn’t help but be a little impressed with the sheer amount of hits the waterbender was taking from the three opposing benders. The combined ferocity of their attacks was palpable in the air from a distance, and though it was taking its toll, Asami knew that most pro-benders would have lost much more ground by this point under similar bombardment.
As the waterbender jumped far too forward with a jet of water issuing from her flying kick — giving the Fire Ferrets another penalty — Asami took notice of the way the waterbender placed her feet. It wasn’t translating well into the match, but Asami could tell that the girl had evidently had extensive training in some kind of martial arts.
The bell rung and was met with rumbling from the crowd. 1-0 Platypus Bears.
“Come on, Fire Ferrets!” Asami yelled out, words mixing with the mingled cheers and jeers coming from the crowd around her. She sat back in her seat, crossed her legs, and started running her fingers frustratedly through her hair.
Just one round. Just win one round and I’ll be happy.
When the next round started, Asami leaned forward to rest her chin on her crossed arms propped up on the banister in front of her. The salty, stale smell of the water below wafted up into her nostrils.
Shiro Shinobi’s voice echoed over the booming from the platform, “The Platypus Bears know a green player when they see one, and they are focusing the brunt of their bending on this poor girl.”
The smirk of Yuto Kimura floated across Asami’s mind’s eye and she felt her stomach lurch.
Of course they are, Asami thought bitterly, looking away from the platform and scanning the murmuring crowd.
It seemed like most of the crowd was either amused or offended by how the game was progressing. Only one or two people here and there had a look of concern on their face mirroring her own.
It’s a good strategy. Finding the weakest link and pummelling it into submission.
She blew an errant lock of hair from her vision, feeling a cold knot settle low in her stomach.
Is that what I am?
Then, there was a loud crack.
“Wait a minute! Did that waterbender just earthbend?” She heard Shiro Shinobi yell over the gasps from the crowd. Asami’s eyes flicked back towards the platform, and she raised her chin slightly from where it rested on her forearms.
She felt her mouth fall open with immediate understanding.
It’s the Avatar.
The Avatar, in a Pro-bending match, casually filling in as a waterbender for the Fire Ferrets? That couldn’t be. It was too bizarre.
Asami spied the girl’s now-sheepish smile underneath her mask, and it left no doubt. It was definitely Avatar Korra.
She was smaller than Asami thought she would be.
The officials seemed flabbergasted about what to do about this development and were congregated off to the side of the arena to debate on a ruling. One official in particular waved around his rulebook, gesturing so vehemently to emphasize his point that his cap shook off-center.
Asami's eyebrows came together in contemplation. She couldn’t think of a sound reason why the Avatar wouldn’t be allowed to take part in the match. It’d be totally unfair of the league to say that she couldn’t play just because of who she was.
Asami wondered if there were any heated conversations between the executives about what to do with her.
The referee interrupted her thoughts, materializing on his perch above the ring and announcing with a theatrical flair that the Avatar could continue the match if she bent only water. The disagreeing official, cap still askew, scowled and fumed behind him.
The crowd had mixed reactions to the decision— some booed and shook their fists, others clapped and cheered. Asami smiled and joined the applause for the Fire Ferrets when the match restarted, leaning further forward to the banister, sitting almost at the edge of her seat.
But the small victory was short lived.
“This girl may be the Avatar, but she’s no Pro-bender,” Asami heard Shiro Shinobi say into his microphone, “and the Platypus Bears are exploiting that weakness.”
The water, earth, and fire just kept coming.
Well what was I expecting?
She winced when an earth disk struck Avatar Korra particularly hard in the chest, and then gasped when a strong blast of water sent the girl straight off the edge of the platform.
Asami dropped her head into her hands, pressing her palms into her eyes. She heard more cracking of earth and whooshes of fire from the platform, but knew the brothers were unlikely to gain much ground by themselves.
Why Pro-bending? Asami thought to herself, somewhat exasperated at the fact that the bridge between the spirit and physical worlds was taking part in a sport that a fair portion of people thought was degrading to bending itself — and was terrible at it.
Shouldn’t she be off helping people? Or training?
Asami shook her head and thought half-heartedly about leaving the game early to beat the traffic as she looked back up at the match raging on.
The bending brothers’ defences were cracking. Even Mako, who had always been known to be calm under pressure, seemed to be striking out against the Platypus Bears emotionally, with more force and less finesse than was clever. She watched an earth disk collide hard with his left arm. Wincing, she pinched the bridge of her nose.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement on the pad where fallen benders could be raised back up to the platform. Asami straightened and quirked her eyebrow in interest, realizing that she was witnessing the Avatar engaging in a very heated conversation with an uncharacteristically angry-looking Councilman Tenzin.
What an unlikely star-studded evening this is turning out to be.
She had only met Councilman Tenzin once in person at a gala with her father, but she had always considered him a gentle man, and never as one that even had the ability to yell so fiercely at someone. His face was red and contorted with barely suppressed rage, his yellow and red robes twitching with sharp gestures. It was a powerful sight, but it didn’t seem to phase the Avatar at all. Asami could see even from halfway across the arena how heartily the she was yelling right back.
Asami’s face cracked into an amused smile as she watched their squabble progress, guessing that the young Avatar was probably receiving a well-deserved lecture. She couldn’t imagine that her spontaneous appearance in the Pro-bending match tonight was a sanctioned one.
The bell rang and a groan came from the Fire Ferret supporters around the arena. 2-0 to the Platypus Bears.
Asami rubbed her eyes again and leaned back in her chair. If she left now, she would have time to drop by the test track and take the S-454 out to stretch its legs before bed.
When the Avatar stalked back on to the platform a moment later looking determined, Asami figured she’d might as well stay.
The bell rang again and the power of the bending on the field kicked off, the Platypus Bears wasting no time in forcing Mako and his brother Bolin into one corner of the ring. The final assault on the Avatar was in full effect almost immediately, bursts pushing her back towards the edge of the platform and the Fire Ferrets out of the running for the championship tournament.
Asami sighed and picked up her jacket, sensing the end of the match closing in, and pictured the toothy grin that would no doubt be plastered on Gan’s face when she saw him next.
Avatar Korra wobbled on the edge of the platform, and Asami felt a strange wave of sadness come over her.
I guess even the most powerful person alive is sent things they can’t rise to meet.
But then the Avatar was suddenly fluid.
She was weaving, twisting, and turning around the Platypus Bears’ attacks like they had choreographed and practiced it for weeks beforehand. Asami was reminded strongly of her Sifu Nahima sparring as she watched the Avatar flowing through attacks with an ethereal grace.
Seconds later, Avatar Korra was far out of danger on the platform’s edge and was moving like a cork over water into the center of Zone 3.
“She’s still in the game folks, and she’s moving like an entirely different player!” Shiro Shinobi was shouting into his microphone, though with how quiet the arena had gotten, there was no need.
Asami shot up out of her seat and balled her hands into fists, eyes wide and mouth agape in disbelieving joy. The Platypus Bears attacks were becoming feebler by the second, and the noise in the arena was beginning to swell.
Shiro Shinobi was shouting into his microphone, “It looks like the Platypus Bears have no juice lef—”
“COME ON FIRE FERRETS!” Asami yelled madly, her vision filled with the spinning water around the Avatar as she leapt into the air.
The team was now in-sync, blasting fire, water, and earth at the utterly spent Platypus Bears.
Here it comes.
A final combination of well-placed attacks from the Fire Ferrets sent the Platypus Bears tumbling, one by one, over the edge of the platform and into the water below.
Asami screamed as the arena erupted around her, and for a moment she wished for nothing more than even one person to share the moment with.
“The Fire Ferrets come from way behind and steal the win! What an upset, folks! The rookies, Avatar in tow, have nabbed a place in the championship tournament.” Shiro Shinobi was shouting into his microphone as the scoreboard was lighting up with the final score.
Heart hammering with joy and still bouncing on her toes, Asami watched the younger of the bending brothers dance in the center of the platform before being joined by his older brother and the Avatar.
The Avatar. Asami began to clap hard, shaking her head, ears ringing. Not bad, not bad at all.
There was a quick knock and the sound of a door opening behind her.
“Miss Sato?” A uniformed man was sticking his head into the box, looking sheepish. “Phone call for you. It’s a Mr. Kimura?”
Asami’s heart dropped and her mouth soured instantly, hands frozen in mid-clap. Hesitating for only a moment, she nodded and moved to gather her things from the chair beside her.
As she followed the arena employee out of the crimson room, Asami cursed inwardly. The triumphant cheers coming from the arena were audible even in the outer corridors, the alternating chants of the Avatar’s name and of the Fire Ferrets echoing clearly down them.
Asami let her eyes wander to the tall windows that opened out onto Yue Bay, the city sparkling in the distance. She almost smiled as she thought about collecting her winnings the next day from Gan at the track, but the uniformed man stopped abruptly and motioned to the black telephone and a plush chair at the end of the hallway.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the receiver off the phone and smiling at him. After he had bowed and disappeared around the corner, she gripped the receiver tightly and took a deep breath. She could almost hear her Sifu’s gentle voice counting to ten.
“Yes?” Asami spoke evenly.
“Ah yes, Asami. I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” She heard the crackling voice of the Yuto and rolled her eyes. He called her at the Pro-bending arena. Of course he was interrupting something.
“I realised I didn’t say at our meeting this afternoon that we’ll be looking for your letter of acceptance of your promotion within the next few days.”
She heard him chuckle. “Though, I’m sure it’s not much of a difficult decision.”
“Excuse me?” Asami asked, hoping she sounded less incredulous than she felt.
“You’ll be much happier in your new position. Much less…” He trailed off, and she could imagine him rubbing his chin in thought. “Much less potential interference from the financial powers that be.”
It was a weakly veiled threat, and they both knew it.
“Thanks for your call Mr. Kimura,” Asami said sharply. She heard him mutter a ‘good evening Miss Sato’ as she was moving to hang the receiver back up, bringing it down more forcefully on the cradle than what was strictly necessary.
She slumped against the wall next to the phone and felt hundreds of miles away from the loud cheering still ringing through the arena.
An hour after the match, Asami was whipping around a hairpin turn of the Future Industries test track in the dark, the inside wheels of the S-454 just managing to stick to the road, as she cursed engineering, her father and his company, and Yuto Kimura through gritted teeth.
“Potential influence from the financial powers that be?” she growled to herself, peeling through an S bend smoothly, slamming her head back into the high back of the seat behind her.
The S-454 flew across the finishing line with a roar, echoing across the plateau for miles.
She cringed as she thought about what they must think of her. That they could just sideline her like this under the pretence of promoting her. That they must believe she wouldn’t realize what was going on. That perhaps, even after everything she had done for the company, they considered her as only the daughter of their CEO— and an inconvenient one at that.
She steered roughly around another deep bend in the road and wound the car onto the long straightaway, wheels screeching as she floored the accelerator.
Office politics, she thought bitterly, remembering her father’s words.
The clunk of the transmission shortshifting into a lower gear rang up through the leather seat. She zoomed around another corner, squinting through the partial darkness of the bend that wasn’t lit well by the floodlights of the track.
Asami knew that they didn’t understand how close Future Industries was to disaster, with dwindling budgets being allocated for her department, slowing their rate of innovation dramatically. Varrick Industries had become a huge concern as they were pouring their investments into Future Industries competitors. Even Cabbage Corp, who had been a joke to them for years, was now churning out products comparable to their own more and more often.
The tires of the Satomobile carried her across the finish line again.
She thought frustratedly about the fact that while her father had never had a great mind for the day to day running of his company, he had seemed even more distant from his business than he had ever been.
The CEO had stopped attending executive panels almost entirely, leaving Yuto to take up the slack, turning every single meeting into a profit-centric conversation that ended in yelling matches with engineers and people like him who held the purse strings. In less than a year, he had become a shadow of the highly-organized but kindly family friend she once knew in her childhood.
Asami took the Satomobile around the hairpin turn faster this time, testing its limits. Her leather gloves gripped the wheel tightly.
She understood that Future Industries was a company— a company with investors and powerful partners— but she also deeply believed in what her father had told her about their responsibility as engineers to build what the world needed, not just what people would readily buy. Also, she knew that it was innovation and vision that allowed Future Industries to become what it was today, and not obsession with making a profit.
Asami felt a slight rattling below her fingers as she shifted into a lower gear to take her around the S bend again, telling her that something had loosened in the gearbox. She was making a mental note to report it in her test run files when the thought stalled.
What if that would slow down production even more? she thought with dread. Asami had heard rumours over the last couple weeks that the legal team was getting close to getting the S-454 road legal. Surely a faulty gearbox would set their production dates back further.
Realization and disgust flooded her. What did she mean what if it would slow down production? If a car went to the public with an important part of the mechanics faulty after so few test runs, it would be putting their customers lives at risk — for yuans.
She rounded the last hard turn before the finish line at such a speed that the back wheels skidded freely across the road and she rose slightly off the seat from the force pulling her to the side of the car.
What am I supposed to do then?
The empty fuel tank light on the controls flooded her vision suddenly.
Asami slammed her foot on the brakes abruptly. The Satomobile, rubber wheels smoking, came to rest directly on top of the finish line of the test track. She wrestled off her safety straps and pulled off her helmet, breathing in the cold air of the brisk evening.
After climbing out of her car, she unzipped her jacket and tossed her helmet into the passenger seat, choking back a frustrated yell as she began to pace.
I can't leave. The words reverberated inside her head. They’ll kill the company.
She felt sick.
So I’ll stay. I’ll put in more hours. I’ll make their ridiculous quotas for the shareholders, and I’ll make sure we develop what we’ll need to survive and actually help people.
She paused, watching a flash of lightning fork its way between the mountains in the distance silently. Rumbling thunder met her where she stood not long after.
A cool breeze swept through Asami’s hair, and all at once it was as if she could feel every single mile between her and everyone else more strongly than she had in a long time. The minuteness of the echo of her footsteps and the steam from her breaths dissipating into nothing. The enormity of the storm, of the indifference of others, of the world mostly covered in sea.
Ima had called it loneliness, and said that “to be young is to be lonely, Asami”, but she knew there must be another, more appropriate word for it.
Memories of her six-year-old eyes watching rain streak across her window at four in the morning made her feel faint.
She leaned heavily against the door of the empty Satomobile, and slid down to sit on the asphalt. The hard road sent chills through her trousers and into her core, and the brightness of the floodlights shining down on her made her head throb.
She shut her eyes against it.
Tears welled as her mind whirled through images of the empty chair of her father, the real or imagined scowls of executives as they passed her in the corridors at the factory complex, the long days spent bent over meaningless designs, and Jinhai Mah nodding in understanding when she declined every single invitation to go to Amaruq’s on Friday evenings.
Without warning, Asami felt a tightness in her chest that was all too familiar. Panic flooded her, and for a moment she was sure she was somehow being pulled beneath cold, dark waves again. Her eyes snapped open, but only the sight of her cracked dry leather boots greeted her. No water.
“What do I do?” she breathed, bending her knees and balancing her head on them, hating her voice for how it faltered.
Make that note about the faulty gearbox? a small voice in Asami’s head suggested. Seizing the thought, she immediately shifted her legs under her to get up, but as if out of a tunnel, she heard Ima’s voice echoing in her memory. “Why are you running away?"
Asami stilled. Thunder boomed closer.
“I’m not,” Asami voiced into the night, sitting back against the Satomobile chassis and stretching her legs in front of her. Even to herself the words sounded full of doubt.
She watched the stormclouds, glowing with lightning, creep closer over the plateau.
Asami took in a breath as a particularly loud boom of thunder, now very near, reverberated through her body, and dislodged her memory of watching the Avatar that evening. How she took hit after hit from the Platypus Bears before suddenly, gracefully, beautifully flowing through and over them.
She probably never ran.
A drop of water struck Asami on the top of her head.
“Why are you running away?”
Rain fell in sheets over her and the S-454, and Asami felt like she was bending it around them.
Asami sent a letter to Yuto Kimura early the next day.
In it, she thanked him for thinking of her for the promotion, but informed him that, regretfully, she had to decline the offer.
She threw out the many responses he sent her throughout the day without opening them, along with every single proposal in her inbox. A memo went out from her office to her unit heads shortly afterwards. It read, effectively: Try again.
By lunchtime, Asami had picked out a resume at random from the pile that had been collecting dust in the corner, and called to hire the girl.
“When do I start?” the girl’s voice echoed fuzzily over the phone, sounding elated.
Asami smiled. “Are you free this afternoon?”
“Sato! Drinks?” Jinhai was pulling on his jacket and shouting to Asami over the sound of whirring machinery in the main workshop that evening.
Asami tipped up her welding helmet and shook her head automatically, shouting, “No, sorry, I can’t, I—”
She paused, eyes tracking Zhuo, her new assistant, walking past, carrying a stack of papers from her office and throwing them unceremoniously into the central incinerator.
“Actually...” She set down her tools and grinned. “I’d love to."
Fifteen minutes later, Asami was speeding towards Amaruq’s on her moped, hair flying, heart pumping, and the sun shining on her face.