Farther Away

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender. Sadly enough.

Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers

AN: For Avatar_500 over on LJ. The prompt was #7: Neglect.

It's cold both outside and inside the ship. They're too far south for it to be anything but glacial. Iroh still sees his breath for several steps down the hallway when he walks in from the deck. This time of day, there are few crewmen about. Most are asleep, making use of the few hours of darkness available with the polar summer sneaking ever closer.

Truthfully, Iroh himself should be long ago in his bed. He's tired enough for it but far too restless. Perhaps he should've made use of the special tea he slipped his nephew earlier. Something meant to soothe the nerves of high-strung soldiers and scared, scarred boys. But he doubts even that would help him now. His head is too full of thoughts and plans.

Three years is a long time to chase phantoms, and no matter what Zuko might claim to the contrary, even he is starting to waver. Starting to think that perhaps this truly is an impossible task. Beginning to listen more and more to his uncle's words of peace. Of a life outside the Fire Nation. One where he isn't a prince and Iroh isn't a general. And maybe, just maybe, they can be more than master and student. Or even uncle and nephew.

He slips into Zuko's room unnoticed. The prince is a light sleeper at the best of times, but Iroh is no stranger to secrecy or stealth. A prerogative for a general and even more so for a father. The boy doesn't stir as Iroh glides up to his bed, and the lone burning candle barely even flickers as he bends down to collect the open book on Zuko's chest.

His blankets are kicked to the bottom. Tangled around his feet in such a way that he'll have trouble freeing himself in the morning. But Iroh's hands are soft and steady as he unwinds them from the boy's legs. Pulling the covers up to rest under his chin.

Zuko mumbles something then. Eyes opening slightly to peer at him. But they're glassy and unfocused, still half-asleep.

"It's just me," he tells his nephew. "Go back to sleep."

Zuko gives a tired nod and shuts his eyes. So biddable now as he isn't when fully aware.

But Iroh wouldn't have him any other way. And he contents himself with watching his nephew for just a moment. Sleeping boys aren't necessarily the most interesting thing to watch, but there is something to be said for the quietness. For the slow cadence of his breathing.

If his brother ever bothered to do this for either of his children, Iroh will eat his pai sho board. And do it with a smile, too.

However, his eyes narrow at the furrow to his nephew's brow and the sudden, sharp inhale.

"Sorry," Zuko murmurs in his sleep and curls in on himself. "I'm sorry… Father…"

As the boy quiets again, Iroh just sighs. Long and deep. And goes to blow out the candle.

Every Hopeful,