Every time I sit down to work on "Before me lies..." I end up writing little snippets for this elaborate AU that'll probably amount to nothing.
This is rough idea in which there was no Deus ex Lion-Turtle and the war toiled on. I always imagine a sort of world wide Resistance movement that the Gaang and the Old Masters lead. What I've written takes place about nine years after the comet.
I have different little bits for each of the gaang (and a few old masters things) but my Zuko and Katara ones (no big surprise there) are the most coherent and I think I could create an actual story out of it. Here's the best beginning I have so far:
He lay down for what felt like the first time in days on a simple straw stuffed mattress among many such in narrow but long hallway. Some of the older members of the resistance had speculated that this had been a corridor in some kind of bureaucratic building in a lost Earth Kingdom nation. But now it was a ruin, deep underground, filled with spotted-mole-rats and those tired humans brave or stupid enough to fight against his father – even after the day the sky turned red and the twelve year old boy failed to defeat the maniacal dictator. Even after the Fire Princess lost her mind and the Fire Lord declared himself a god. Even after a waterbender dragged the half-conscious, half-electrocuted body of the banished Prince into hiding.
He groaned as he pulled a blanket up and wished she weren't across the desert, in another ruin, rallying and healing more troops. His eyelids ached but his brain raced and twisted and turned. He closed his eyes and tried to push away thoughts of maps and intel and casualties. He would have liked a blank mind – the sort ideal for falling asleep – but he could never seem to achieve that kind of peace so instead he thought of the early days, when they hid in the catacombs or basements of tea houses and the good sages and his uncle's spies would bring them news and food.
She would insist that he rest and he would tease that he would when she did and she would roll her eyes. Yes, he thought, those were the days. The days when they built the revolution. The days when he learned how to give rousing speeches in tight spaces and what it felt like to feel her pride from across a crowded room. The days when the people of the flame learned to fear and love her name – depending on their political persuasion. The days when their names were whispered together – always together, one after the other – by farmers and veterans and governors, having conversations about the rumors and rumbles that the government wasn't acknowledging. The days when she was next to him every moment, every breath. The days before they knew Aang had survived and Sokka, Suki, and Toph, and the rest. When they thought they were peace's last chance and were terrified but determined.
Someone coughed nearby, someone else snored. He wondered if she was sleeping, if she had eaten, if she was bleeding.
News came slowly, maddeningly so.
He shifted around, trying to settle into the mattress and get comfortable, scratched at his beard – itchy, unwashed and too long (like his hair) – and sighed perhaps a little too loudly for a room filled with unconscious people.
Despite himself he fell asleep a few minutes after that – exhaustion overtaking anxiousness.
One, maybe two hours later he was shaken awake.
"My Prince? Uh, General sir?"
He managed to get his good eye open to see one of his younger men watching him nervously.
"What is it Hong?"
"Sir, a message."
He sat up and rubbed his face, despite every natural, bodily part of him protesting and urging him to ignore the pesky young messenger and go back to bed forever.
"Ok. Give it here."
Hong obeyed and handed him a small piece of parchment. It looked like it was ripped off a larger document. The handwriting was familiar and rushed.
New development. Need you and your crew at the beetle base. Now.
He frowned at the length. Sokka usually tended to be overly detailed in his messages. This did not bode well.
"Who brought this?"
"Sir, a messenger arrived a few minutes ago."
"Where is he now?"
"Sir, with Colonel Gang."
"Ok. Wake up Jee," he handed back the note, "Show him this. Tell him to round up everybody. I want to be ready to go in a hour."
Hong ran off good and quick and Zuko stood up (only slightly light-headed) straightened his clothes, grabed his pack and swords, and went (just as quick as Hong but in the opposite direction) down the hallway. When he reached the small room that served as the Colonel's office and the head quarters for this particular base, he found the middle-aged man sitting slumped, half awake, in front of a desk covered in maps and piles of paper.
Gang looked about as drained as Zuko felt.
"General. This is Private Yuu," the Colonel gestured to a thin, bespectacled man standing next to his chair. The Private bowed in the Fire Nation style.
Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe members of the resistance tended to refer to him by his military rank, and Fire Nation members by his royal honorific. He didn't really care either way.
"How long ago was the message written?"
"Sire, a week ago."
"It was written in front of me Sire."
"You're one of Sokka's men?"
"No Sire, but I was one of the faster scouts at the beetle when he needed the notes sent out."
"Notes? As in plural?"
"I was not told directly Sire, although I overheard the General Bei Fong's name."
Toph was all the way up in mountain range near the Northern Air Temple. It must be something big for Sokka to request she travel all the way down to the bottom of the desert.
"Any idea why he didn't use hawks?"
He turned to Colonel Gang.
"Did you read it?"
"He wants us down there immediately. We're leaving within the hour."
Gang rubbed his beard in an unconscious sort of way.
"Anything you can warn me about for my sectors?"
"No. It was pretty basic. I'm sorry to leave so abruptly, without providing you with proper replacement reinforcements, but the tone of the message–"
Gang waved a dismissive hand.
"We'll be alright General. I must thank you for staying as long as you have. You've helped improve our defenses tremendously."
Gang stood and bowed.
"The leadership was all there," Zuko bowed back, "they simply needed a little more information on Fire Nation tactics."
"You're too modest."
"So are you."
Gang gave a weary smile.
"Good luck to you General."
"And to you Colonel."
He turned and left the office, yelling, "You're with me Private," as he did so, not bothering to look back and see if Yuu was following.
He found Jee looking over a map spread out on a small table a few rooms down from Gang's.
"We should be ready to leave at your specified time Sir, I'm just looking over possible routes."
Zuko looked with him.
"Private," Zuko looked up at the messenger, noticing for the first time that the man was at least five years older than himself, "Yuu is it?"
"Show Jee the route you took here. You get from place to place pretty quick?"
"Yes Sire, that is, I try to Sire."
"Well you got here from the beetle in a week, which is pretty damn fast, so I'd say you do a little more than try."
"I…" Yuu, who had up until this point been incredibly poised and professional, faltered in his speech, "Excuse me Sire?"
"Its "Sir" in my unit, Private, not "Sire""
Ok, so maybe he did have a few preferences when it came titles and his own soldiers.
"Oh." Yuu blinked. "Of course. I apologize. Sir."
"Good. What unit were you in before Yuu?"
"Sir, Major Kuro's, he's under-"
"Never mind. Doesn't matter. We move fast and efficiently in my unit. Just do what Jee tells you and you should be fine."
"You a bender?"
"Got a weapon specialty?"
"Sir, I'm good with a sword, better with a dagger."
"Ok. Good. Figure out the fastest way to get there with Jee."
Feeling they had things on control, he sat at a nearby stool and took a breath. The rest of the unit would be ready soon, and they would travel until daylight, rest for an hour or so, and then travel some more, and so on and so on. They knew the drill. They were a small elite group of thirty-five. He sometimes commanded larger groups – whole armies – but more often than not he needed subtlety and skill over sheer numbers. Toph, Hakoda, Bumi, Iroh, Pakku, Piandao, Suki, Katara, Jeong-Jeong, and Sokka had their own such groups.
He tapped his fingers against the desk until Jee gave him a look. He knew pacing wouldn't do him much good. He felt jittery. He didn't like waiting. So, having time and needing something to calm him he pulled out her latest letter and reread it for what felt like the millionth time.
Yes, I'm ok, and I'm still at the Badger-Mare and I think I will be for a while. You know who's responsible for that – so don't blame your frustrations on me.
There are two other Waterbending healers here and a few doctors and nurses, but not nearly enough for all the people that come and need help. It was such a mess when I got here – completely unorganized.
How is it going with Gang? Is there a still problem with the defense-patrols? They need to organize those better.
A new group of civilians were brought in last night. There were a few soldiers among but mostly it was women and children and a few old men. Their village was destroyed and their men taken. It's nothing we haven't seen before of course but... among the normal injuries, they were burned, specifically burned in an odd sort of way – not an accidental way, the sort we usually see, not an injury maintained in the battle. It was like they were just grabbing people by the arms and holding them for a few minutes – long enough to make a handprint on the skin on both arms – like a brand. And this group isn't the first I've seen this with. Two weeks ago a group of our guys found a young boy wandering in a field, dazed, a few miles away from a burning village. He had a hand print on both his arms as well and although we couldn't get much out of him he remembered that the soldier who'd done it to him had been hesitant, but his superior (well I can only guess that it was his superior, the boy just said "the bigger guy") yelled, "you have to or you'll get the same, you saw the notice." No one else survived from his village as far as we could tell.
What do you think it means? Are they threatening the troops with branding if they don't fight? I mean we've been hearing reports of low morale among the troops for years, but this is just… I don't even know. It's bizarre.
On a brighter note, Aang finally sent me a letter. It was cryptic as usual, but he ended it with, "I've almost got it Katara, I've found it. It got away because it moves but I found it. Soon I'll have the answers." So at least that's somewhat positive.
My group is getting bored, I think, of being here. None of them say so directly to me of course, but there's been a general crankiness about them and a week ago one of my earthbenders, Leung, got in a scuffle with one of my firebenders, Li-zhen. It was surprising because they're actually very close and I sort of suspected a romance between them. Maybe I was just projecting.
I miss you. I get cold at night here. I'll never understand that, how a place can be so hot during the day and then frigid at night. Last night I thought of that cave we stayed on Roku's Island. Do you remember? We were only there for a night. I had that awful cold and I couldn't stop coughing. You heated up some water and did your Iroh voice and we pretended it was tea. I was so worried that someone would hear me coughing and find us. You rubbed my back until I fell asleep.
Your letters are never uninteresting. I don't know why you say things like that. You're direct and informative in them, which is what a good letter needs. But even if they were boring, just seeing your handwriting is interesting to me. I stare at the lines and imagine you writing them, imagine your hand moving over the page, imagine the angry look you give the paper when your searching for what to write, imagine the foul little words you mutter under your breath, imagine the smirk you give me when I tell you not to use such bad language.
I hope you're eating enough. You're too thin. One day I'm going to take you down to the south pole and fill you up with sea prunes, and every other fatty salty thing I can get my hands on until you're as big as The Hippo.
The pages were creased from where he'd folded and unfolded it, over and over, since he'd received it a month ago. It was a rambling sort of letter, the kind she usually sent. The kind that made him breathe easier.
He hadn't been able to write her back just yet. The past month had been insane. Now that he had a moment, he scratched out a few lines.
S is moving me again. His note seemed urgent – don't want to say where until the situation is clearer. Finally got Gang's situation under control though, so feel confident they'll be fine in my absence. Will write longer letter when I reach new destination.
Miss you too. Madly.
As he finished the short note a thought occurred to him.
Yuu looked up from the map.
"We've mapped a good route sir. It should only take us-"
"That's good Private, but I-"
He cleared his throat.
"I, that is, Toph – The General – she was the only one you over heard about?"
"You don't know if there were any other requests sent out? To other Generals? To report to the Beetle?"
"None that I heard about sir."
"Sir," Jee was giving him another look – quizzical this time, "Is everything-"
"It's fine, fine, I was just trying to assess a bit more – no one else? Not Pakku or Bumi or uh, Katara?"
Jee rolled his eyes. Yuu thought about it.
"Well I don't know about the Generals Pakku or Bumi sir, but Lady er- General Katara was already there."
"What? She's at the beetle? Since when?"
He stood rapidly and Yuu blinked as Jee smothered a chuckle.
"I – yes sir. She got there a day or so before I left. She – actually-"
Yuu paused, seemed to make a decision and continued in a quieter voice.
"Right after General Sokka gave me his note as I was leaving she gave me another note for you. I'm sorry I didn't give it to you right away Sir, but she requested I do so," he glanced at Jee, "Discretely."
He held out a small rolled up piece of parchment.
Zuko snatched it away from Yuu with perhaps a little too much force. He was too obvious sometimes – it led to smirking second-in-commands and winking uncles – but being in a long-term semi (not very well kept) secret relationship could do that to a man.
He nearly ripped it open, but stopped himself.
"You didn't read it?"
"Of course not sir! I would never – that is – the Lady Katara was very clear – No. No sir I did not."
Yuu looked almost offended. Jee rolled up the maps, stuck them in his bag, and grabbed Yuu by the arm leading him out of the room.
"Come on Private, the Prince has his correspondence to attend to, lets make sure the troops are ready to move out."
If Yuu protested, Zuko didn't hear, he was too busy sitting down and untying the course string that held the letter closed. But, as soon as he got it open he stood up again – his body reacting too quick to her words. His head swam and he grabbed the table in front of him for support.
The paper looked as if I had been torn off a larger document (there was half a sentence in Sokka's handwriting at the top) and written hastily (her handwriting was messier than usual).
Get here quick. Need to talk. I'm pregnant.
He sprinted after Jee.