Zuko dreamed he was a prince who could control fire.
Zuko's alarm screeched and he jolted awake. The boy groaned and rolled over, kicking the tangle of sheets off his legs and slapping his hand down on the offending clock until it shut up. He got out of bed with a sigh, unhappy to leave the feelings of comfort behind, especially when he knew what was coming after.
Zuko wasn't a prince and he couldn't control fire.
The sleepy teen stumbled out of his room and into the hallway. He could hear his uncle moving around in the kitchen, but wasn't in any sort of mood to greet him, and so simply made his way to the bathroom.
Zuko caught a look of himself in the mirror and wished he hadn't. His hair had grown over the summer so that it was thick and messy, but it still couldn't cover the burn scar over the left side of his eye. He rubbed his good eye to clear it of sleep.
When he was little his mother had told him that the sleepies in his eyes in the morning were the left over sand from the Sandman, but of course, Zuko knew better now. He was careful to clean his bad eye, opening it as wide as he could even though it felt stiff and the rest of his burnt skin stretched in protest. He couldn't feel much of it anyway.
After showering, Zuko got out his uniform. Once upon a time he would get excited for the first day of school. When he'd lived with his father he had gone to Hijou Sozen Preparatory School where the uniform was a black blazer with a dark red tie and gold trim. He'd been excited every year that his father would have to buy a new one - it meant he was growing up into a man, which meant he would someday make his father proud. Zuko had stopped needing a new uniform almost two years ago, until he moved - now he had a new uniform he didn't want.
Zuko walked down the short hallway of his uncle's apartment, he carried his new school shoes in his hand. Zuko hated new shoes. Another thing he hated: short sleeve dress shirts. He had to wear one of those too. The uniform for his new school consisted of a white, short sleeve dress shirt, red-brown tie, cream wool vest and light grey pants. Zuko felt like Jesus might have worn this had he gone to a private school.
Zuko reached the end of the hallway and stood in the bright morning light streaming in through the apartment's balcony doors. Zuko's uncle was in the kitchen making tea – which Zuko had discovered over the summer to be a frequent occurrence. Iroh smiled when he saw his nephew.
"Good morning Zuko," He smiled warmly. Zuko didn't smile back, but that didn't dampen his uncle's spirit, it never did.
Zuko stalked past his uncle to the entry way to get his school bag. "I was thinking, since it's your first day of school, we could have breakfast together." Iroh said as he set a pot of fresh tea on the kitchen table.
"I don't want to be late," Zuko replied as he started to slip on his too-tight shoes.
"That's okay, I'll drive you." Iroh poured two cups of tea.
"Then you'll be late." Zuko didn't care if his uncle was late for work, but he didn't really want to eat with him either.
Iroh chuckled, "The nice thing about owning your own tea shop is you can show up as late as you want – I have faith my employees can open up without me."
Zuko sighed quietly and slipped off his shoes again. He could outright deny his uncle, but if there was one thing Zuko had learned it was that warring with family was never worth it. He put down his bag and went into the kitchen.
Zuko had never in his life wanted a cigarette more than he did those first few hours of school. Not with all of Azula's teasing, all Iroh's bad jokes about food, not with everything his father had put him through, nothing could beat this.
Iroh had dropped Zuko off and Zuko had just barely been able to convince him not to come in with him – he was already noticeable enough without a doting parental figure hanging over his shoulder. All the other students at the school had been together since forever – with the exception of the first years. All the other students had singled Zuko out as the new kid as soon as he entered the building. That was when the stares began.
They'd all looked, looked away, then looked again. Eyes flew to Zuko's scar, then the hands would come up to half cover mouths and the whispers would start. Zuko had known it was coming, but that didn't make it better.
White Lotus Private Academy was smaller than Zuko's old school - small even by private school standards. There were twenty-four people in Zuko's class, and that wasn't just his homeroom - that was his graduating class, twenty-four seniors including himself.
Zuko walked up the main stairwell to the third floor where the senior classroom was. A couple of girls in the hallway saw Zuko from his good side and checked him out, he turned his head and they quickly looked away. Everyone looked away.
Zuko found his homeroom and took a seat in the back of the class.
A girl wearing too much eye make- up and dark red lipstick sat down next to him. "I always sit in the back," she explained. She crossed her legs and took something out of the pocket of her skirt. "I'm June," she held out her fist, her nails were painted black. "This is Nyla." She opened her hand to reveal a mole – a living, breathing – rodent – mole. It sneezed.
Zuko moved a seat over faster than he had time to think it rude. What was wrong with people?
A girl up front laughed and whispered to her neighbor, "June's showing off her mole again."
This was a regular occurrence?
The homeroom teacher was a crusty looking old man, bald on the top of his head with long grey hair down the sides. He had a funny little beard and a long dangly moustache – like a Zen master. Which he may have thought he was given the seriousness in his tone. He quickly left to be replaced by their history teacher, a woman who wrote her name on the board as 'Kyoshi'.
Whoever had decided history would make a good first period was an idiot. Zuko spent the class struggling to stay awake and occasionally glancing over to June's desk, where her mole was skittering around. Luckily someone had taken the desk between them. Somehow Zuko had some mental image of the rodent flying at him – this seemed less likely with someone else blocking the way. The boy in question didn't seem to mind, in fact, he slept through the entire first class.
There was a break between first and second period. A boy from another class came to visit a girl sitting near the front. The sides of his head were shaved and the hair on top of his head was long and held back in a ponytail. You'd never see that at Sozen Prep.
Zuko was surprised again when a girl who looked similar to the boy came in. At Sozen Prep the girls had to keep their hair in ponytails, braids, or buns. This girl apparently hadn't been able to make up her mind and had a braid and a bun and these weird hair loopies going from her forehead to her bun. And the girl the two of them were talking to had white hair. Zuko looked away and unfortunately witnessed June kissing her mole.
What the hell.
Second period started out better. June put her mole away and the previously sleeping boy made an effort to look like he was paying attention. Zuko daydreamed out the window until the teacher came up behind him – apparently he was the kind of teacher who wandered.
"Zuko, right? I know the mysterious, distant look is all the rage with the girls these days – and I'm sure you need all the help you can get – but save it for some other class." Zuko decided right then that he hated his math teacher.
Third period their homeroom teacher, Pakku, came back to teach literature and announced that their class would be reading Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man followed by Walden. Zuko had read both last year and thought that he officially hated his new school.
Fourth period was chemistry, Zuko didn't even notice the teacher's burnt off eyebrows; the only thing in his head was the thought of cigarettes. He'd always prided himself on smoking two a day, one after school and one before bed, but he knew he wasn't going to make it.
The bell rang for lunch and Zuko bought the cheapest bread available from a funny old man with a green hat, then hurried up to the roof. He'd smoke one less tomorrow.
Zuko was excited at the thought of being away from all these crazy people. So he was a little disappointed, to find someone already in his spot.
It was the boy from his class, the one who'd been sleeping. He was standing against the roof ledge, looking relaxed and at home. He and Zuko seemed to have had the same idea, he was also smoking.
He glanced at Zuko, like he was checking to see if Zuko was going to snitch on him, then he casually plucked the cigarette from his lips and said through a mouthful of smoke. "Hey."
"Uh, hey," Zuko replied, uncertain. So far the only person to talk to him all day had been that nasty math teacher and a girl with a mole in her pocket.
"Want a smoke?"
Even more surprised, Zuko answered hastily. "I've got my own," He awkwardly held up his pack.
The boy grinned ruefully, "Sweet." He popped his cigarette back in his mouth and took a long drag. He half turned and waved Zuko over, "Come people-watch with me."
Zuko hadn't been treated so casually since… ever. When he'd lived with his father he'd been the politician's son – be polite to get in his Daddy's good grace or be polite so as to stay out of trouble. When he'd come to live with his uncle, people spoke to him politely in short sentences, always careful to avoid looking at the left side of his face. No one had ever waved him over to do anything – let alone do something as mundane as people-watching.
Zuko made up his mind; he could handle anyone so long as they didn't carry rodents in their pockets.
He went over and lit up a cigarette, holding it between his middle and ring finger. He saw the boy watching him, his eyes dark and a slight smile on his face. "What?" Zuko asked defensively.
The boy just grinned. "What's your name?"
Zuko scowled, "Its Zuko."
The boy's smile never faltered, he took another drag. "Hey Zuko. I'm Jet."