After Dark

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

Warnings: Speculation, Spoilers through Season Three

AN: For Avatar_500 over on LJ. The prompt was #23: Soothe.

The water is warm here and laps at his feet as he stands on the bank. The river is truthfully little more than a glorified stream, but it still dances to Pakku's touch as he fills the canteens. Piandao prowls on quiet feet around the campsite behind him, and Jeong Jeong blankets the cooking fires with a wave. Bumi's laughter fills the air, but everyone else is silent, solemn.

Tomorrow, they fight. Tomorrow, they move towards Ba Sing Se. Tomorrow, he'll be the leader. The master of his order. Tomorrow, he'll be strong. Determined.

But for tonight, Iroh is alone.

He stands on the small shore and digs the toe of his left boot into the sand like a child fighting the call for bed. He doesn't want to sleep. He doesn't want to dream.

He doesn't want to remember.

He has his freedom back. His life.

Iroh would trade it all for a tiny, rusted ship on a fruitless quest. For the sight of his nephew barking out orders. For meals passed pouring over maps. For just the sound of his voice.

But there are some nightmares without end. And Iroh tries and tries but can't wake up. Can't return to a world where he opens his eyes to see his nephew. Can't go back to how things were. Can't find what was lost and might never be found again.

The journey back to his tent is filled with quiet and a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. He passes Jeong Jeong and Piandao at their pai sho board, while Pakku makes tea and Bumi spikes the pot with alcohol. All of them glance at him. All of them nod. But no one says a single thing.

Iroh enters his tent but doesn't let his shoulders sag until the flap falls into place behind him. His boots land on the floor with two dull thuds, and he pulls on his sleep clothes absentmindedly. Afterward, he sits on his bedding and stares out at nothing.

His heart is heavy, and he's so very tired. Exhausted. Broken.

His wife is dead. His son is dead. Zuko is gone. Zuko is lost. Zuko is beyond his reach. His sight. His touch.

Zuko is gone and might never come back.

And tonight, just like every night since the worst of his life, Iroh puts his head into his hands and cries.

Ever Hopeful,