Zuko knew he could trace events exactly to where everything went wrong. It all started when he tried to avoid responsibility, when he thought he couldn't take the pressure and decided to use someone else as a crutch. In other words, it all went pear-shaped when he lacked confidence in himself.
But, well – just between you, me, and the fire-post, you understand – that's not really true.
Zuko actually had lots of self confidence. Oodles of it, even. It's actually what made several similarly self-confident girls (Toph and Mai, for example) like him so much. He was a boy who had the guts to brave a whole world while under disgrace, never giving up until accomplishing what neither of the two previous generations could accomplish: locating and capturing a twelve-year-old boy raised by flying monks. He even did it, too, twice: once at the North Pole, though Zuko lost him again, and halfway at Ba Sing Sae when he assisted Azula in bringing Aang down in his Avatar state. And one-and-a-half generally can be rounded up to two. Don't be so stingy, really.
But anyway, confidence was not what brought Zuko to this mess. It actually might have been his genes.
You see, Zuko had type A blood. He got this unfortunate trait, surprisingly, from his mother. She had A negative, while Zuko had A positive. He got the positive from his father, who had B positive, which of course caused lots of medical complications, making him "lucky to be born" as the Fire Lord reminisced. Regardless, as everyone knows, those with type A blood are generally cast as perfectionists, or at least rather driven individuals. Actually, I don't know if this is true or not, but in Zuko's case, he never could leave well enough alone. If something was going wrong, it was up to him to make it right; if something was going right – wait, that's not possible, it's actually wrong, and it's up to him to make it right. There are lots of examples in his past that attest to this; I don't think I need to point them out here. Just keep that in mind, when considering how this fiasco came to be.
It all started on a deceptively calm day, with the hot, dry weather befitting a Fire Nation summer, just a few days after the passing of Sozin's Comet. The Aang Gaang was present, along with Suki, Mai, and Uncle Iroh. It was the end of a long day of setting things right in the Fire Nation – one of a string of several – and Zuko thought he could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. It felt good at the time – but with hindsight and perfect vision and all that; one thing for sure, he knew now that he wouldn't be feeling that way again for a while.
"You've done a good job, Zuko, in determining who to trust among the administration. I'm happy that you didn't become fearful and just banish everyone like Azula, but could recognize true loyalty to country when you find it," Uncle Iroh praised him.
The resident professional complainer, Sokka, couldn't help but add, "Pity, that there weren't any in your Fire Council, Fire Lord Zuko." He paused scratched his head, and added as afterthought while inspecting his nails, "Sir."
"That's okay, you don't have to call me that," Zuko replied, trying to hold on to his humility during his sudden rise to power. Of course, if he could have seen into his very near future, he would have been grasping any vestiges of authority and respect from the Water Tribe warrior that he could get, but naturally he didn't know that. "I'm grateful that there are some still among the staff that I can rely on, even if they're not on the Council, and that there is at least one I can trust implicitly within the Fire Nation nobility." The last was directed with a warm smile at his patient, wise uncle, who was noticeably touched. "I'm looking forward to learning about my role with you at my side," he added.
This last bit is where Zuko later determined he had blown it. But I have to disagree.
"You are learning just fine as you go, Zuko. You are careful and have gained much patience, and have found several knowledgeable and conscientious teachers here in the Palace. And I have my tea shop in Ba Sing Sae to get back to," Iroh reminded him gently.
"But please Uncle – I'm not ready. I need you here, just for a little while. And I place all my faith in you, since I know you won't lead me wrong. See?" With his heartfelt plea, Zuko held out his insignia ring - the seal of the Fire Lord.
Well, that probably is a good example of not leaving well enough alone, or at least not taking a hint. But I don't think that gesture sealed the catastrophe. Not yet.
Former General Iroh, Dragon of the West, considered the seal with hooded eyes. "Just how long, Zuko do you mean by 'a little while'?" he asked finally.
Left hanging, Zuko spluttered, "Uh, I, uh, don't know. Maybe four or five years?"
See – that's what I'm talking about. Really, the kid is so honest. He could have left it at "I don't know." But instead he went and told his uncle that he'd probably have to wait for his tea shop for five years. I mean, of course Iroh would understand his unwillingness to assume the throne with insufficient guidance. I'm not sure what Zuko expected, but there are two things he should have learned over the course of his travels.
The first is not to assume the Avatar is down for the count, even if he lives 112 years or is electrocuted beyond human limits. Unless, of course, you actually find a new Avatar. Then it's a safe bet, but you still shouldn't assume the old one is done interfering with your or your world's destiny.
The second is not to underestimate the power of pi sho, the White Lotus or any of his uncle's other interests, including tea. In fact, later on Zuko would extend this lesson and wonder if perhaps neglecting the state (and smell) of his shoes was also secretly some important aspect of wisdom and good leadership, since it was a clear divide between his uncle and his maniac sister and father. After listening to the emphatic disagreement of his friends, advisors and those unfortunate enough to clean his rooms with shoe closets during that time period, he eventually discounted this theory.
With all that in mind, perhaps the results of Zuko's admission will be a little easier to understand.
"Very well, Zuko. I'll assist you for a little while, but I expect it to be rather less than four or five years," Iroh said mildly, accepting the ring.
"Thank you, Uncle," Zuko replied gratefully. If they both discovered he was ready in three and a half years, that was fine with him too.
"Then let us get started. Scribe, please record what I dictate," Iroh instructed the Fire Nation official.
Oh, there was a Fire Nation official in the room as well. I didn't mention him before because I didn't think you would be interested then.
"First, in order to strengthen the ties between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe which have become so strained lately, with the authority of this seal, I decree that a union shall be hereby declared between Fire Lord Zuko and Katara, last of the South Pole benders." Iroh intoned.
"Wait, what?" answered pretty much everyone else in the room. Yes, even the scribe. But he asked as he was writing it down, since that was his primary job there.
"But I already have Mai!" Zuko stated. It wasn't a vehement response; he was more shocked and unsure if he heard right than anything else. Yet.
"Yeah, and Katara has me!" Aang was pretty sure he had heard right, so his reply was a little more heated.
"But have either of you made any sort of binding promise?" Iroh asked sharply.
"No…" Both boys looked away shyly, blushing. Wimps.
"Then that's alright, then. Next!" Iroh turned businesslike towards the scribe, ready for the next proclamation.
"Objection!" Sokka interrupted, finger pointing. "I don't really care that much about what you do to Zuko, but you can't just marry off Katara! She's not even part of the Fire Nation! And she's my sister!" Naturally, the last point made little difference to his argument (except in his own opinion, where it mattered a lot), but at least he had the presence of mind to make one.
"Oh?" Iroh raised an eyebrow scornfully. Without breaking eye contact, he swept up a thick tome from the bench behind him. "It's clearly recorded in the section regarding the treatment of foreign personages visiting the Fire Nation; such persons place all their rights in the hands of the Fire Lord."
"That seems rather harsh," Suki observed.
"Oh, that's much nicer way to put it than I was thinking," Katara nearly snarled.
"Yes, well, we haven't had any foreign visitors other than war prisoners since this version was compiled, and there has been no time yet to modify them," Iroh explained.
"You seem to know it rather well," Mai noted evenly. She may have been beginning to wonder if perhaps Iroh had been hoping for such an opportunity to break up the Fire Lord and kunai wielder, and was not happy with such a prospect. At all.
"Well, there wasn't much other light reading available in the prisons," Iroh answered with a wry smile, hoping (fortunately correctly) that May would wait to extract revenge – ehem – remedy the situation until more was revealed. "Anyway, now that Aang is available, I also want to heal the rift between the Fire Nation and Air Nomads."
"Are you saying, you're putting me and the Avatar together?" Kunai tips glinted dangerously from under Mai's sleeve.
Iroh managed to control a nervous gulp from escaping. "Actually, I declare a union between the Avatar Aang and Azula, sister to the Fire Lord."
No one else in the room could suppress a small scream.
Elsewhere, I'm not sure where, Azula may have screamed too, but no one really knows.
"Speaking of Azula, where is she right now?" May asked coolly, now that she was free of any unwanted entanglement.
"I'm not actually sure. I probably should look into that," Zuko apologized rather dazedly. Poor boy.
Sighing contentedly, Iroh rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. "Now, to round things up, to ally ourselves with the Earth Nation…" he looked around the room.
"Ha! There's no one else for you to manipulate, old man!" Sokka crowed.
"On the contrary, with Katara joined with the Fire Lord, that would make you brothers. So I declare a union between Sokka, South Pole Water Tribe warrior and future brother-in-law to Fire Lord Zuko, and Toph Bei-Fong of the Earth Kingdom."
"WHAT?" shouted Sokka and Suki. But not Toph. She remained strangely quiet. That should have concerned the others, but they really were rather overwhelmed at the moment, so I suppose they can be forgiven.
"You've pretty much married off everyone in the room except me, May, and you!" shouted Suki.
"And me!" added the scribe. But no one listened to him.
"Well, I am a little worried about the Dai Li, so if you don't mind Lon Fang…" Iroh began.
"No, I think I'm fine, thank you, forget I said anything," Suki amended quickly.
"I think it's time this game was over, Iroh. What are you really doing here?" Aang demanded quietly.
Iroh sighed. "You're right, Aang." He turned to Zuko. "I just wanted to show you that you shouldn't doubt yourself. (And not to come between me and my tea shop dream, he may have added internally, but I can't prove it.) You know better than to rush into things and interfere when you shouldn't, and that you should never depend on others to make your decisions for you. Do not hand over your authority to anyone! It is your responsibility." He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and quietly commanded, "Strike all that took place from the official record."
"Actually, sir, I can't do that," the scribe responded.
"What do you mean?" Iroh asked sharply.
"You see, sir, decrees issued with the authority of the Fire Lord's seal can only be negated by a two-thirds majority rule of the Fire Council, not even by the Fire Lord himself," he explained.
"Then let's just gather them together and get them to vote this down!" Zuko yelled, already moving toward the doors.
Iroh pinched the bridge of his nose, hissing through his teeth. "You just dismissed them all this afternoon, Zuko."
"Then you can just appoint new ones, right? Just make us your Fire Council for five minutes, and then dismiss us and appoint real ones," Aang suggested.
"Actually, the process for installing new Fire Council members requires at least three months, and agreement between several other officials besides the Fire Lord. It's a much longer process than dismissing them," the scribe elaborated.
"And I don't suppose you could just change the rules as Fire Lord, right?" Katara asked, voice hollow. From hopelessness or suppressed rage was anybody's guess.
"No, that requires the Fire Council. I guess the laws weren't really written for a situation where you dismiss the whole Council in one go," the scribe opined cheerfully.
"Three months?" Sokka whispered.
"Why didn't you know this?" hissed Mai.
"I guess I didn't get that far in the book before I broke out?" tried Iroh.
"I want to abide by the rules," Zuko muttered, trying to muddle his way out of the mess. "It's only three months, right?"
"So you're okay with this situation for three months?" demanded Mai.
"What? No! I don't want to be with her!" Zuko shouted back, jabbing a finger towards his new fiancé.
Said fiancé promptly twisted the finger backwards. "What do you mean, you don't want to be with me?"
"Well, I don't! I love Mai!"
"You were supposed to say that, not imply that you can't stand her," Mai remonstrated, leaving the "stupid" at the end unsaid. After all, she was addressing the Fire Lord, and that scribe was listening. Maybe if she somehow eliminated him, all their problems would be solved…
"Argh, why can't I get anything right in my life?" Zuko moaned.
Well, maybe not.
"Guys, maybe if we all work together and make the best of it, we can hold out for nine months," Aang reasoned.
"That sure is brave, coming from you. I really respect you for that," Sokka offered, clapping a hand on the young Airbender's shoulder.
Said Airbender delivered a slap to his own forehead. "Oh no! I forgot about Azula and me! I was only thinking of Katara when I said that!"
"Everyone, I will try my best to fix this as soon as possible," Iroh promised.
"I sure hope so," Katara and Suki answered, stalking out. The boys right behind them were too busy biting their nails in concern. Toph and Mai just watched Iroh and the scribe walk off to do damage control before exiting themselves. While Toph silently strode after the others, Mai sat down on a railing overlooking the palace grounds.
"Pretty much everyone else is paired off. What am I going to do with myself now?" she wondered listlessly.
The Duke was trundling after a hoop on the grounds below. Hearing her voice, he looked up at the morose girl.
"Well, if you're lonely, I'm always available," he informed her.
"Oh brother," Mai muttered tonelessly, letting her head fall on her knees.