“Leaves from the vine, falling so slow...”
Every year, he visited the tree in Ba Sing Se. His uncle, and the cousin he'd never known, were buried there. He would carry on his uncle's tradition, no matter what others said. He had promised.
On this day, it didn't matter that he was the Fire Lord. On this day, everything, everything, was put on hold. He never told anyone where he was going. He didn't want their pity, or their sympathy. This duty, this pain, was his. On this day, he was not Fire Lord Zuko, he was Prince Zuko, General Iroh's errant nephew, lost without his uncle's guidance.
He prepared the tea as his uncle had taught him, borrowing the Jasmine Dragon's prized cups and tea pot. Zuko had never quite managed to make it as well as Iroh, despite his uncle's insistence that it was just as good. Iroh made tea. Zuko, he smiled to himself, Zuko made hot leaf juice. Nothing could compare to Uncle Iroh's tea.
“Like fragile, tiny shells, drifting in the foam...”
It had taken a few years, but Katara and Aang put together the pattern. They figured out that he left around the same time each year without telling anyone where he was going. They figured out that it was the same time of year that Uncle Iroh had always disappeared. And so, with Toph and Sokka, they had followed him to Ba Sing Se.
He was surprised when hands fell on his shoulders, and four tea cups were placed on the ground next to his.
“Why didn't you tell us?” Katara whispered as she hugged him, tears running down her face. “We loved him too, you know.”
They sang the song together, drank their tea in silence, and drifted away, to let Zuko be alone with his uncle.
“Little soldier boy, come marching home...”
Every year, they met at the Jasmine Dragon and shared a meal. No matter how far away they were, no matter what was going on, they always came. And though the day was sad, they laughed as they ate. Uncle Iroh would never have allowed sadness in his tea shop.
It was a surprise to all of them when Aang died. Simultaneously the oldest and the youngest, they had half expected him to live forever.
They buried him in secret under the tree in Ba Sing Se. They felt guilty, at first, and selfish for doing so. But those who wanted to pay their respects to the Avatar could visit the statue in Republic City. Aang was their friend, and they couldn't bear the thought of visiting Iroh without him, or of strangers tramping all over the ground around his grave, around their tree.
An extra place was set at their table in the Jasmine Dragon. An extra cup of tea made. A new portrait painted to join Iroh's at the base of the tree. It was harder to laugh now, as they ate, but they would, because Aang would not have wanted them to cry.
“Brave soldier boy, comes marching home.”
It was only the two of them now. Even with everything going on in Republic City, even with both of them halfway across the world, they came. There were three extra places at the table now, three extra cups of tea, and three extra portraits to join Iroh's. And still, they laughed as they ate.
As they left the tree, arm in arm, feeling the eyes of the spirits on their backs, Zuko realized they would soon have to tell their own children about the tradition. He would have to tell his own son that, no matter what custom dictated, he would be buried in secret under the tree in Ba Sing Se, along with the others.
He looked down at Katara. He hoped she would not be the one to sit in the Jasmine Dragon alone. It broke his heart to think of her being the last, alone at a table set for five. There would be no laughter that day. He hoped it would be him. It seemed appropriate, that he had started this tradition alone, and would end it alone.
But either way, it wouldn't be long now. Soon, they would all be under the tree in Ba Sing Se, and their reunion would be forever.