Title: And This Is Where We Start
Pairing(s): Kataang, implied Tokka and Maiko
Warning(s): Innuendo, Violence, Language, Cruelty
Summary: AU. Kataang. Katara, a hybrid born a test subject, gets her first taste of freedom when she escapes after 15 years imprisoned. But she didn't count on Aang, a fellow escapee, popping into the picture and giving her life an unexpected twist.
A/N: Well! My second science-fiction type Kataang fic...I'm proud. I just want to clarify the term for "hybrid" first, as you'll see it a lot in this fic: a human, typically born into a science and research institution, that has altered DNA or "super-human" physical traits. And also...Although I originally didn't mean to, Maximum Ride (written by James Patterson) somehow wormed its way into my head. It's slightly based of his series, but the plot will be, I promise you, COMPLETELY different.
Remember that Katara has never been outside the Institute before this. She's not going to know everything. I also apologize for any inconsistency in Aang or Katara's character; if you find any glaring OOCness, please point it out so I can edit it. I think that's all...so please, enjoy the story!
She had escaped.
She had escaped.
She had escaped.
She had escaped.
It sounded so impossible, so foreign to her ears, that Katara almost stopped running because of it.
She'd been born and raised a test subject; treated like a freak of nature by the very people that had created her. She'd been spat upon and ridiculed and poked with needles and injected with chemicals until it made her squirm and cry out in pain.
And now, finally, it was all behind her.
Katara slowed to an evenly paced jog, gazing around at the littered street and smoggy air. However unpleasant it was to her eyes, it was the first time she'd ever been out of the Institute, or gotten a good breath of fresh air at that.
The Institute was, in the smallest sense of the word, her home. She had been born and raised there as one of the hybrids designed for only one purpose: war.
Three decades ago, a group of scientists under Lord Ozai's command had dedicated themselves to designing humans able to withstand any injury that would kill or fatally harm a normal human, as well as travel into enemy camps located in normally unreachable places. As far as Katara knew, the first successful experiments had only been engineered a decade and a half ago, herself being among them.
She'd grown up in a prison, fraternizing with other hybrids and being regularly tested on her Powers. Some of the others had developed unique mutations of their own, even stranger than the ones granted to them by the Institute. They, by far, suffered the worst fate.
Katara shuddered, remembering seeing so many of the 'special ones' dragged away to be tested and cut apart without mercy. So much of her childhood had been lived in fear; fear of someone catching her with her Power.
Her Power, her very own Power. It still startled her sometimes, even thinking of it. She'd been careful to suppress it, even when giving into the temptation of revealing her hidden strength was only a hair's breadth away.
Katara had been born into a group of hybrids designed especially for survival in underwater environments. They'd been forced to swim until they were at Olympic level, higher even; those who failed were quickly disposed of, as, at the Institute, those who could not serve their Purpose were deemed worthless.
Every so often, they would injure some of the hybrids to test their cellular regeneration and endurance. Katara had never feared death when faced with one of these tests, but there was one major drawback to her so-called invincibility: the pain in itself remained. In fact, she had found throughout the years that re-growing the damaged parts hurt far more than sustaining the injury.
Her body was not the ultimate weapon, far from it; they'd only designed the underwater-breathers with espionage and escaping dangerous situations in mind. Though if Katara had ever been dispatched to enemy territory, she would have joined the opposition if only to spite the people that had raised her with such indifference.
However, the Institute had provided her; through the food they gave them to maintain their strength and the constant checkups, with one crucial thing: the strength to escape.
And now, she was outside, in the world, in the city, as a free woman, a free person, and belonging completely to herself.
Katara inhaled deeply, enjoying each new breath. She could hardly believe that she was here, outside, free to choose what she wanted to do today or tomorrow or right now. It was a wonderful feeling, Katara decided, freedom. She was free of the Institute, of those horrible scientists that had tortured her so, of everything that had once depraved her of happiness completely and utterly—
"Hey, watch where you're going!" As she collided with another human form, Katara's hands jerked out reflexively to catch herself as she went tumbling to the ground. Taking breaths in deep gasps, she looked up to see a glowering young man standing over her, his shaggy hair falling across his face.
"I'm sorry," she said shakily, unsteadily rising to her feet. Katara cringed in the face of his menacing glare, all too reminiscent of the Institute's twisted researchers.
"You're gonna be when I'm through with you," he snarled, a malicious smirk flickering across his face. Reaching into the back pocket of his threadbare jeans, he withdrew a short, but obviously sharp, knife. Katara dimly wondered why no one bothered to help, and then quickly realized that, since she had collided with him, all other people once scurrying through the streets had vanished.
She redirected her focus on the young man as he advanced toward her, sneering, "Time to say goodnight, little girl."
As he lunged at her with the knife, Katara quickly ducked under his haphazard swing, silently cursing her lack of foresight at forgetting to bring anything but her fists as a weapon. She knew basic hand-to-hand combat, yes, but knives were so old-fashioned and hard to come by nowadays that no one had bothered to mention it (not that they would have cared if she'd gotten killed; Katara's hybrid type was easily mass-produced), and guns would have been a waste of time, as their bodies were designed, after all, to handle just that sort of fatal injury.
Unfortunately, she didn't think anyone—hybrid or no—could take a knife to the throat and walk away alive.
The man snarled as she evaded the knife's bladed edge, but darted at her once more. Katara crouched down, anticipating another swing. However, instead of coming at her with the dagger once again, he quickly pinned her to the hard asphalt ground, cracks weaving through the blacktop like a spider's web.
Her attacker's hot breath blew against her ear, and Katara shuddered, struggling to get away. She felt herself grow frantic with helplessness. There was no way to get out of this mess. Katara was going to die just as she had escaped her life-long prison and got the first blissful taste of freedom.
Closing her eyes, Katara prepared for the first stinging blow, still wondering how she had been so careless, and why the citizens of the City were so easily provoked.
Katara quickly decided that she'd never find out.
It seemed that one moment, she was grimly awaiting her death by this lunatic stranger; and the next his body was limp on top of her.
Katara blinked as her assailant was quickly dragged off and shoved against the wall of a run-down factory.
Still trying to grasp a hold on what had happened, Katara started as a distinctly male voice calmly asked, "You won't do that again, will you?" Her attacker let out a whimper in reply, and was dropped to the ground with a dull thud, followed by weak scuffling, and then rapid footsteps that quickly faded into silence.
Her first impulse was fear. Her aggressor could not have been that weak; in fact, he had held her down without a struggle and obviously had muscles. What if this new arrival came after her next?
Katara's next impulse was gratitude. The newcomer had saved her from almost certain death; she should be grateful.
Standing up, Katara cast her eyes about for her savior.
To her surprise, she found him to be a young boy, perhaps a few years juvenile to her. He was clothed in a threadbare yellow sweatshirt, and wore baggy red pants, the loose folds of fabric tucked into black and bulky combat boots. His hair was a messy black mop, and his cheeks were rosy red from the cold, in contrast with the solemnity of his facial expression.
He studied her seriously for a moment, before reaching out a hand to help her up. Katara hesitantly accepted, and rose up beside him with a slight sway. It had been a nerve-wracking and terrifying experience, even for her—although many experimental operations on hybrids proved fatal, Katara had somehow believed the threat of death to be less prominent in the outside world.
Now, she cursed her foolishness.
Examining the young boy before her curiously, Katara finally said, "I'm Katara. Thank you for saving me."
There was a long and awkward pause, but apparently one-sided, for her rescuer seemed comfortable with it and merely continued scrutinizing her carefully. At last, he replied, his voice much friendlier then she had imagined, "I'm Aang. Nice to meet you. You should be more careful out here." He loosely indicated the direction in which her assailant had run off. "The city's crawling with trash like him—some of them even worse."
Aang paused. "If you don't mind me asking, what did you do to make him so mad?"
Katara ducked her head, embarrassed, but quickly harnessed her mortification and replied coolly, "I ran into him. I wasn't looking where I was going, so…" she shrugged, suddenly feeling far more comfortable with Aang then she felt she should.
"He wasn't very nice about it," Katara admitted, laughing despite herself.
"I'll say," Aang agreed, giving her an amused smile.
"So…" Katara cleared her throat. "Where do you, err, come from?" It was common, now, that humans—although they could hardly be titled such anymore—were often hybrids, or victims of wayward government branches conducting their own freak experiments. Plastic surgery was capable of hiding the outermost abnormalities, but they had instructed more than once at the conduct classes at the Institute that you never knew just what you were dealing with.
Aang bit his lip. At last he admitted, "I'm an escapee, from—well, they called it the Institute." He gave an unconvincing laugh. "Lame name, huh? It's, um, well…" A sigh. "I'm a hybrid."
Katara stared at him, dumbfounded yet delighted. "So am I! So, what are you? I've heard of super-strengths and fire-walkers, oh, and underwater-breathers, of course, but what are you?"
To her surprise, Aang stared at her for a long moment before dropping his gaze to the ground. "You won't have heard of me."
"Try me," Katara found herself saying.
He looked at her for a long moment. "I won't tell you everything, but I was part of a special branch of the Institute. I'd rather not talk about the current state of my genes."
Suddenly ashamed, Katara nodded, face burning. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked."
"No." Aang shook his head. "You didn't know. For all you knew, I could have been just another hybrid. But as it is…" he hesitated, and to Katara's surprised, looked slightly guilty. "I don't know what would happen if anyone else found out. That's all."
Katara quickly nodded. "I understand. I never thought that it would be dangerous to tell anyone, that's all."
Aang's lips quirked into a smile. "So is this your first day outside the Institute or what?"
Gaping, Katara sputtered, "How did you know?"
He shrugged. "It wasn't that hard to tell. First you get in trouble with that guy, and now you don't even know how dangerous life as an escapee can be. It's pretty obvious, actually."
Katara's faced burned. Only now did she realize how unprepared she'd been, and how little the Institute had actually taught her about society. Sure, they'd learned the official statistics, and hybrid experiments, and the tolerances their body could handle, but nothing had been said about the ordinary dangers of everyday life as a hybrid.
Aang seemed to notice her discomfort, and quickly pointed out, "You didn't know. I didn't either, at first." An expression of troubled remembrance flickered across Aang's face like a dark shadow. "I'm just glad you didn't have to learn the hard way, like I did."
Katara sucked in her breath. "Right." She paused, uncertain. "I guess I'll be going now." Slowly, she turned and began to walk away.
"Wait!" Katara glanced back to see Aang staring out her, desperate hope written across his face. "Stay with me!"
It was a moment of blank disbelief; and then slow, slow elation. Suddenly, the doubts set in. What if Aang was a government agent? What if he was going to turn her in? It all depended on whether Katara could bring herself to trust him or not.
In a split-second, she had made her decision.
"It's not much," Aang explained as he yanked open a battered door to reveal a bare, if roomy, apartment. Grey sunlight filtered in through a window, tattered curtains revealing smog wafting up from the factories of the city. A rumpled sleeping bag lay in one corner, and a beaten up folding table occupied the space by the window. The only other objects in the room were the stacks of manga books, stacked in neat piles in the immediate right-hand corner of the room.
"It's…different," Katara commented carefully, brow furrowed. She'd seen pictures of houses and apartments before, true, but a photograph was different from actually being there. Somehow, it felt homier then she'd expected, although Katara was not quite sure how she could even identify the feeling, as the Institute had been anything but.
"You'll get used to it. It took me a while as well." Aang glanced around the apartment before beginning hesitantly, "I have a few blankets in the closet, until we can get you a sleeping bag. Heat was cut off about a year ago, so I don't really go into the kitchen or anything, but if you want privacy…" He gave her a weak smile. "Feel free to sleep in there."
"Um, there's a bathroom…isn't there?" Katara asked, cheeks on fire.
Aang laughed, and the uncomfortable feeling in the atmosphere disappeared. "Yep. They haven't taken away plumbing…yet," he added, almost as an afterthought. Only then did Katara realize that, out here, it truly was a possibility.
"The Institute must have a lot of funding, then," she realized. "They never ran out of anything."
Aang shrugged, and sat gracefully down on the ground, crossing his legs Indian style. "The Institutes part of the government. They have all the funding they need."
"The government doesn't seem to take very good care of its citizens, then," Katara commented, joining Aang on the floor.
He gazed at her. "It doesn't. After World War III ended, so-called 'research associations' started popping up everywhere. People were just kidnapped right off the streets and experimented on at first, but after they got a hold of embryos and the like, they could perform tests before the babies were even born." Aang sounded bitter. "The first successful born-hybrid experiment didn't come for another seven years, and it took another five before they could duplicate the procedure that many time and mass produce them. Then, when the invasion began, all of the military force they'd been building up over the years—hybrids, like us—were suddenly useful. The government started buying into private stashes and dispatching them to the front…it was chaos. All of the researching facilities were raking in the cash, and everyone else was panicking because of the war."
Pausing, Aang glanced at her. "You follow?"
Katara nodded, a lump worming its way into her throat. Finally, she was going to find out where she came from…how the whole thing started. Finally. "Go on," she managed, trying to keep the desperation to learn, to know, out of her voice.
For a moment he simply looked at her. Then, at last, Aang continued, "They didn't start sending anyone from the Institute until about ten years ago. Apparently, the private associations' numbers were wearing out. Now, hybrids are dispatched daily from just about anywhere—private or government owned—and don't come back. Ozai is advancing, they're running out of soldiers—pre-made or swept off the streets—and things are taking a turn for the worse. Right now, it's pretty amazing that even the Institute has as many resources as you say it does…and it's incredible luck that you're unit wasn't sent to the front before you escaped."
Katara gazed at him, troubled. "Really? Not many of the underwater-breathers in my…err…unit…were ever dispatched. Not that I know of."
Aang frowned and shifted uneasily. "Strange. It's possible that your unit was meant for espionage..." When Katara merely looked unsettled, he quickly amended, "It's just that underwater-breathers would have been useful for crossing the River undetected. That's all."
She nodded uncertainly. "Yeah. That makes sense." Katara felt her confidence grow. "They did teach us more about society and the City then they did the super-strengths and fire-walkers. I remember, from the times we met them, how they were so amazed at how much we knew about the outside world."
Aang nodded slowly. "Now I understand. They were training you. Making sure you could handle everything." He grinned, and Katara stared at him, surprised at his sudden change of expression. "Good thing you escaped when you did, or I may never have met you."
To her dismay, Katara found herself blushing. "I'm glad I did," she replied.
Aang smiled at her, simply gazing at her for a long moment, her heart beating faster and faster for a reason she couldn't name. At last, he rose from the floor. "I'll go out and try to find you a sleeping bag."
He left, and the door closed with a dull 'click.'
Katara thought about what she had learned. She now knew her past—not just her past, but the past of her entire race.
Katara was proud to say that Aang had told her more about what she was then the Institute had ever managed to cram into her brain.
But what was he?
Hope the last sentence fit alright...Toph and Sokka are gonne come in somewhere in the next few chappies, so be looking out for that. Please please please please please give me feedback--tell me what you think!