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 super human hybrid, gets her first taste of freedom when she escapes after 15 years imprisoned in a research institute. But she didn't count on Aang, a fellow escapee, popping into the picture and giving her life an unexpected twist.
A/N: Not much action in this chapter, but never fear--next chappie is violence and fighting galore! That being said...on with the show!
"It sure is quiet in here, without Aang."
Katara paused to hear her voice echo around the apartment, before adding softly, "I'm a bit lonely. I've never really been…alone before."
Subdued, she gazed at the floor and forced a laugh. "I must really be strange, huh? Talking to myself in here. There isn't anyone to hear me, is there? I wonder…what would it have been like if I hadn't been a hybrid? Would I have been—different?"
Katara waited for a moment, biting her lip. "Why do I expect an answer? Why do I expect anything to change? Why do I expect Aang to be some sort of wonderful awesome, amazing friend? Why did I—" she fought back the tears prickling at her eyes "—why did I leave everyone else behind?"
Because they wouldn't have done the same for you, the practical side of Katara's mind answered immediately. Because if you were going to escape, the only chance you had was alone.
Because, in the end, you didn't care about them anyway.
Because you still haven't forgotten what happened to Yue.
Drawing in a shuddering breath, Katara rebelled against the urge to scream. She hated the fact that the inner-voice deep inside her would speak up when she least expected, sowing the seeds of confusion in her mind. Her hands clenched as she bowed her head, tears prickling at the back of her eyes and desperately fighting the urge to simply break, right then and there.
Why now? Why now, of all times, bring up the white-haired hybrid that she'd grown up with? It had been the first escape attempt ever made, and one that completely and utterly failed: Yue had perished along with the group of underwater-breathers brave enough to accompany her.
And then there was Katara. Katara, the little girl with the naïve stare and the thumb always in her mouth. Katara, the annoying six-year old that practically worshipped the oldest among them, Yue. Katara, the hopeful-eyed hybrid that wouldn't gain her immense sense of courage until the opportunity was gone; Katara that chickened out at the last minute—
No. Katara refused to go on any longer. Remembering Yue was something she reserved for the anniversary of her friends death alone. Back at the Institute, there had been no time reserved for what the scientists referred to as such unnecessary things. Grieving was something she'd been forced to do within the safety of her mind, and if Katara hadn't chosen one specific date to commemorate Yue's death, it would have dominated her every thought and, after a time, consumed her.
Rising up restlessly, every second waiting for Aang to return seemed agonizing. After a moment of heated pacing, Katara stopped abruptly and sighed. It wouldn't do her any good to spend the afternoon simply striding around the room in circles.
No, it was time to explore the apartment.
Curiously, Katara hesitantly took a few steps toward the door that she guessed led to the bathroom, living room, and kitchen. Tentatively reaching forward, she grasped the cold metal doorknob tightly. Slowly, painstakingly, she opened the door.
Katara let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Somehow, she'd expected something more; something besides this empty hall, and the doors branching out from it. It was almost a relief to know that her irrational fear had been proved wrong.
Taking a few steps forward, Katara ran her eyes over the corridor briefly. The parallel walls were a simply faded white, peeling in some places. One door lay at the end of the hall, while the other two were positioned on the right hand side.
Throwing open the first door on her right, Katara discovered it to be a bathroom, with a linen closet and a half bath. Grimacing at the thought of bathing in ice-cold water, Katara moved on to the next room.
Another closet, it was stocked with a few wool blankets, threads splitting of the ends.
Katara moved on to the last door. She paused with her hand above the doorknob. What if this was Aang's room? What if she was trespassing?
What if, by entering this place, she was betraying his trust?
No. Despite her uncertainty, Katara refused to comply. I may not get another chance. How do I know that this room isn't some hiding place for dead bodies?
Well, Katara realized with a grimace, she really didn't, but somehow she hadn't gotten the impression that Aang was the murdering type.
Turning the knob, Katara stepped into the room and promptly felt like smacking herself on the forehead. It looked to have once been a living room/kitchen, by the lonesome faded chair in one corner and the stove, sink, beaten-up fridge, and dishwasher in the other.
Katara walked farther into the room, glancing around. A window above the cluttered sink filtered dirty sunlight, falling in patches onto the counter. The stove was occupied by a pot resting on the back burner and a frying pan—complete with splatters of pancake batter that hadn't been washed off—rested on the front. And held up by magnets on the refrigerator—
On the refrigerator were photos.
Katara sucked in her breath, and despite her desperate longing to leave it alone; to leave Aang's personal private life alone, her eyes were drawn to the pictures, as if being guided by some invisible puppet string.
Almost in a dream, Katara slowly glided over, the world spinning around her as she ran her fingers over the photographs, her hands resting on their faces.
Who's this? She asked herself numbly, subconsciously, as she stared at a pale face outlined by black bangs. A light green shirt covered scrawny shoulders, but her skinny build was countered by her friendly, if smug, smile. Katara moved swiftly, allowing no time for contemplation.
She moved to the next picture. A scowling boy, a scar stretching across his face, shoved Aang away desperately as a much younger version of the solemn boy she knew tried to stick a clown nose on his face, his mouth open in laughter. Katara gazed at the scarred stranger longer, and noticed a glimmer of affection in his eyes, the way she picture an elder sibling would look at a younger sister or brother.
It became routine for her. Next picture. A brown haired young man smiled wistfully at the camera, displaying a collection of colorful rocks in his hands.
Frowning as she came to the subsequent photograph, Katara stared at the tan face and ponytail tied at the back. What? She'd assumed that these were all of Aang's friends after he'd left the Institute—and, from the lack of the tattoos given to identify and make finding individuals easy, non-hybrid— but she could barely discern a striped black-and-white pattern on his lower shoulder, nearly blending in with the skin, but not quite. Oh my god, Katara thought distantly, There are more, there are more more more more more—
She stumbled away from the fridge, dizzy. Head in hands, Katara blinked frantically, trying to get a hold of herself. More escapees? Besides Aang and herself? Impossible, impossible, impossible—
No, Katara had seen it herself, the edge of that black-and-white tattoo, contrasting with his dark skin. With an air of urgency she'd never known before, Katara's eyes uncannily flickered back and forth from picture to picture, pinning down a piece of evidence one after the other—a scar that lingered, and could only be placed, by one of the Institute's special and precise surgical tools, marring the long-haired boy's left cheek; the look of sorrowful reminiscence in each of their eyes; a missed tattoo on the raven-haired girl's barely exposed shoulder; and there, there, in the background while Aang and scar-boy laughed, the very same girl lifting up a heavy, impossible chair that no mere human should have been able to—
It was settled. All of them. They were all hybrids.
There had been attempts. Before. Before her. Maybe even before Yue. The Institute had kept them quiet, hushed up—but all the same, they were there, behind the scenes; little faults and blemishes that nobody wanted to look at or even acknowledge.
Katara hazily realized that she was huddled on the ground, knees to her chest and clutching her head in her hands. It was so much of a shock. It shouldn't have been—she should have realized that if Aang and herself could get out, there were others, too—but it was, nevertheless.
Where were the other hybrids now? Recaptured and imprisoned—or, dare she say it, destroyed—by the Institute? Or, perhaps, simply living in a different section of the city, and no longer in touch with their oldest friend?
Katara was just beginning to realize that she should leave; get out of here before Aang found her, when it was already too late.
"What are you doing in here?" His voice was a mixture of anger, hurt, and above all, a chilling coldness as Katara spun around to face him, eyes wide.
"I—I—I—" she took a deep breath, trying to steady herself. "I wanted to see the apartment. I found the pictures—the photos—there are—there are—" Katara desperately attempted to sooth her agitated nerves. "There are others?" she said at last.
Aang's expression turned sad and distant, all traces of anger evaporating. "Why'd you have to find those, Katara?" he asked, without any real conviction.
"But—there are—there are—" she stammered, staring at him.
Aang sighed. "Yes, there are other escapees. Like you. Like me." He sat down on the ground. "I knew I'd have to explain it one day to you, but the first day you got here? Man, Katara, you work fast." Aang gave her a weak smile, to show he was joking, but it did nothing to help Katara's nervousness.
"I'll tell you. There were—are—other hybrids that escaped the Institute, that living hell," Aang began bitterly. "You here about hybrids with special mutations suffering horrible, twisted operations all the time, but for some reason—some higher-up that thought we'd be interesting to watch; to see how we developed, maybe—we were given our own small unit and placed together. Two of them are still around, living on the other side of the city—together, maybe, I dunno. They didn't want to be around anybody after…what happened." He swallowed. "One of them? The scarred boy? He's a traitor." Aang's expression darkened. "Two of them are living in North Side--maybe with each other, I don't know. As for the last?" There was a pause. "He's dead."
Flinching at his angry and sorrowful expression, Katara asked timidly, "Can you tell me about—the traitor?"
Aang nodded before launching right into his explanation. "Zuko was different—they said his mother came to them when she was pregnant; asked them to make him a hybrid—and so they did. His father—well, at first they didn't know him, and the researchers didn't care, y'know? But Zuko did. He wanted to know. He—the Institute—they did DNA tests. Zuko, as it turned out, was Ozai's son."
Katara paled. "Ozai's son? But how—"
"No." Aang waved his arms for her to stop. "I'll explain in a minute." He cleared his throat. "We were at the Institute, and one of a kind. Zuko was a fire-walker, true, but he could do other stuff. He could—" Aang's calm, if sad; expression flickered briefly before reverting to normal. "—control it. Sokka—" A smile that sent tingles up Katara's spine. I want him to talk about me, and smile like that. "Sokka was a failure, in the least sense of the word. He was supposed to be an underwater breather, but instead gained the ability to..." he wrinkled his nose, and Katara laughed despite herself. "It's hard to explain, but it was like once he saw a person or an object or anything like that, he could find it no matter what. It was..." Aang paused, searching for the right word. "Wierd. I guess it kinda went beyond the realm of science, in a way."
Aang coughed. "You follow?" Katara nodded, and he continued, "Toph was a super-strength, but blind. She had some sort of ultra-developed hearing, I guess…but it went beyond that. Toph could sense all the vibrations, even the ones made when you touch your pinky finger to the ground. Made up for her lack of sight pretty well. Haru was your average super-strength. I don't know how he got involved with us, err, special hybrids, but either way, he was there." Once again, Aang cleared his throat. "Me? I was supposed to be—" he winced. "The 'Ultimate Hybrid.' A combination of all hybrids. Except it ended up having a few mutations they didn't foresee."
Aang held up a finger. "One. They wanted an apathetic machine without a conscience." He smiled wryly. "They got me. Two." Aang added a second finger to the first. "I don't have the same physical endurance most, if not all, hybrids do. I was weak. The added and unfamiliar genes put such a strain on my body that my immune system was left unguarded. I must have spent a good third of my time at the Institute in bed, sick."
Aang dropped his hand, cocking his head at Katara's confused, yet somehow understanding, expression. "Third? There's a fourth group of mainstream hybrids that they kept secret. The fliers. Not wings, as you would expect, but their immensely strong leg muscles—combined with lightweight bones—allowed them to jump high. Higher, Katara, then you could ever imagine." Katara felt a chill trickle down her spine as his eyes grimly met hers. "There was a…mistake. Ever single flier was sent to the battlefront, by order of some war-crazy general. All of them died…with a sole exception. I am—"
"The last flier," Katara finished, eyes wide.
He nodded. "Yes. I'm the last one." After a brief pause, Aang continued, "I grew up with Toph, Sokka, and Zuko by my side. Zuko was the oldest—then Sokka—then me and Toph. We were all so happy…like a big family." Grim remembrance crept across Aang's face. "When Zuko was scarred during a test gone wrong, we decided to escape. It wasn't that hard. Toph kept watch for anyone that would try to stop us, Haru ripped through walls, when we needed him to, Sokka took all the blows when someone did find us, I got past the security system, wonder that it was—apparently, they hadn't panned for a flier and fire-walker combined—and Zuko scared everyone away."
Katara opened her mouth to comment, despite herself, Did any of you know a girl named Yue? But Aang objected, "Just let me finish, alright. Then questions."
Katara shut her mouth and nodded.
"Once we escaped," Aang continued, smiling slightly, "Everything changed. With our combined…talents, we were able to get an apartment building. We were all pretty young, but it seemed like paradise, living on our own with no one to order us around. Those were the golden years—they lasted about two, maybe three—and where those photographs come from," he added, loosely indicating the fridge.
Aang's face morphed into a mask of grief and resentment. "I don't know when, exactly, Zuko got in touch with his father. Either way, he betrayed us—delivered information to the Invaders, and eventually led some of their spies right to our doorstep. Smiling bitterly, Aang went on, "We kept fighting, on and on and on. But when Haru was killed…we lost control and simply slaughtered them all. Sometimes, I wonder if that makes us as bad as them," Aang added softly, closing his eyes briefly.
Opening them again, he continued, "It was pretty obvious that Zuko had betrayed us when he ran off after we won. It was horrible. Our 'little family' was so broken up over Haru's death and Zuko's betrayal…Sokka and Toph ran off to North Side, and left me here. Since then, it's been, I dunno, a year? Two?" Aang paused, a look of amused awe on his face replacing the harsh expression of only a moment before. "Wow…I'm thirteen now! And that means that Zuko eighteen….and Sokka just had his sixteenth birthday!"
Katara watched, amused, as Aang's eyes widened in genuine surprise. He shook his head, murmuring so that she had to strain to hear him, "It's been longer than I thought."
She nodded sympathetically, then hesitated. "Um...Aang?"
He looked up at her. "What?"
Katara fiddled with the zipper of her sleek white jumpsuit, now the fashion in research institutes and the City alike, making a note to purchase new clothes, similar to Aang's, as soon as possible. "Did you know a girl named Yue?"
Surprise flickered across Aang's face. After a moment, he answered quietly, "No. No, as a matter of fact, I didn't."
There was an awkward silence as Aang stared at the ground and Katara shifted nervously, winding a loose lock of hair around her finger.
To Katara's relief, however, the discomfited quiet was dispelled by a loud bang on the living room door. Aang scrambled up and immediately delved into the pocket of his sweatshirt, withdrawing a high-tech gun—Katara shivered as she realized that she hadn't had the slightest inkling it was there.
Turning to her, he swallowed, and seemed to make an effort to get a hold of himself. "Look, Katara, if I don't come back—"
"No!" Katara leapt up and glared at him. "I am coming with you, is that clear? I am not going to hide in a closet while you run off and get yourself killed, understand?"
Aang's mouth worked up and down soundlessly. At last, he said quietly, "All right, Katara. I trust you." With that, he began cautiously advancing down the hall that adjoined to the main room.
Katara followed him, oddly flushed. Pressing his back against the wall and sneaking a glance around the corner, Aang whispered to her, "I'm gonna answer that door." He pressed the gun into her hand, and Katara's eyes widened. "Shush," he admonished, putting his finger to her lips as she began to protest. "Don't use it unless they're going to attack you, okay? And…" Aang hesitated, and glanced at her guiltily. "You don't have to kill them. If you don't want to."
Katara nodded in reply, and said around the lump in her throat, "I'm ready."
Slowly, Aang ventured around the corner and traipsed to the door. His hand closed around the doorknob just as a last frustrated bang resounded against the door, and he winced.
Throwing open the door, Aang darted back, only to freeze. Katara stared at him, wondering frantically, What is it? What is it?
At last, she could take it no longer. Abandoning her position pressed against the wall, Katara sprinted into the room, and glared at the boy and girl occupying the doorway, only to realize with a jolt, I know them…
"Toph? Sokka?" Aang choked out. Katara noted with a stab of anger and pity that tears were running down his cheeks, burning clean streaks into the dirty skin. "Why are you here?"
Sokka stepped forward gravely, observing Aang carefully. Glancing at Katara, he drew back, surprised.
Toph joined him a few feet into the threshold as Katara tried to digest the mind-numbing information. But it wasn't over yet.
Jaw set hard, Toph's milky white eyes stared blankly ahead as she spoke.
"It's Ozai. He's found us."
A/N: Oh, just so you know--Toph doesn't mean literlly 'Ozai just showed up on our doorstep.' She means something along the lines of 'Ozai's agents have infiltrated the city and discovered our location, as well as attempting to shadow/capture/kill us.' Also, when Katara said that she was part of the first batch of hybrids, she's implying the she's an 'older model' more than anything else. Not first-first (that would be Yue). And as for Zuko's age compared to everyone else's--firewalkers came out a little before underwater-breathers. I'm sure there are more continuity errors, but that's all for now. Please, tell me what you thought!