Zuko is sitting in his booster seat, hand running over his stuffed turtle-duck in a repetitive, soothing motion.
“Mom,” Azula whines from the seat next to him. “Why doesn’t Zuko have to go to school?”
“I already told you, my love.” Ursa says, unbuckling Azula’s seatbelt. “Zuko is going to the pediatrician today.”
“I want to go to the pediatrician!” Azula kicks her six year old legs, and Ursa lifts her out of the car.
“You’re going to school today.” Ursa says firmly, and Zuko watches them disappear into the school together. He rubs the soft synthetic fabric of turtle-duck on his cheek. That’s his favourite, but he’s not allowed to do it when dad is watching. Dad doesn’t like turtle-duck.
They arrive at the pediatrician. Zuko’s legs dangle from the chair, and he holds turtle-duck tighter, just in case. It smells like pine air-freshener and old rugs, Zuko thinks. His mother goes and checks in at the reception desk. Zuko is a patient eight-year-old, but after a few minutes in the chair he’s playing with the water cooler, listening to the air bubbles gurgle up with relish.
“Zuko,” Ursa says patiently. “Why don’t you look at the toys instead?” She looks pointedly at the pile of children’s toys heaped neatly in the corner. It is, after all, a pediatrician’s office.
Zuko sits on the rug and pulls turtle-duck slowly over it, pretending the rug is a lake.
Finally, Dr. Pathik emerges from his last appointment. He’s a tall, thin man with ochre skin and a white beard. He’s wearing a yellow linen shirt under his doctor’s coat.
They follow him into the office
“That’s a nice turtle-duck you’ve got there,” Dr. Pathik says, looking down at Zuko and grinning “What’s his name?”.
Zuko grins too, but averts his gaze to the floor.
“Turtle-duck.” He says, and Dr. Pathik laughs even though he wasn’t telling a joke.
It’s not like other checkups Zuko has had before. He’s usually wary of strangers, but Dr. Pathik is really nice! He measures Zuko and tells him he’s getting tall for his age and looks in his ears and hits his knees with little hammers to test his reflexes, but he also asks Zuko a lot of questions.
Some of them he looks to Ursa before answering, just to make sure it’s okay.
Then they play games and do puzzles, and Zuko likes that a lot. Then it’s time for the grown-ups to talk, and Zuko gets shooed back to the waiting room. He plays with the water dispenser some more, and then he gets to have a sucker. He picks red.
Zuko gets to Ba Sing Se University for registration early.
The idea was to beat the crowd.
No such luck, Iroh thinks as he stands in line with Zuko. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see his nephew fidgeting. Not that that’s anything new, but Iroh is pretty sure it’s more nerves than anything.
Finally, they reach the registration desk, and Iroh puts his hand lightly on Zuko’s back as he goes through the registration information.
“Your room number is 602; here’s the key.” The receptionist smiles as she hands it to him. “Your roommate’s name is Sokka Kahale. Have a nice day!”
Keeping his eyes fixed on the counter, Zuko takes the key and walks away without another word.
“Thank you. We hope you have a nice day, as well.” Iroh says, before trailing after his nephew.
“Zuko!” he says as he catches up. “Remember what we talked about.”
“We talk about a lot of things, Uncle.” Zuko says, walking briskly, carrying his backpack and dragging his suitcase behind him.
“When someone tells us to have a nice day, we….”
“Tell them to have a nice day too.” Zuko finishes flatly. “Sorry, uncle.”
“It’s not me you should be apologizing to,” Iroh says. “I know you didn’t mean to be rude, Zuko. But she doesn’t know that.”
“Do you need help unpacking?” Iroh asks.
“Well, if you need anything, I’m just a phone call away.” Iroh says, and embraces Zuko tightly.
“Bye.” Zuko says.
“I love you,” says Iroh.
“I love you too, uncle. Have a nice day.”
By the time Sokka gets to the University, registration is almost over. He kills the engine, hating to interrupt the crappy (but excellent) eighties music playing a little louder than it should be. Making sure the car is parked outside of campus to avoid parking fees, he walks quickly, trying to find the reception area.
It doesn’t take long to find, since there are signs posted all over campus with arrows reading REGISTRATION THIS WAY. The harried receptionist speeds through his papers and hands him his room key.
“Your room number is 602. Your roommate’s name is Zuko Liu- he should be here already. Have a nice day!” she smiles, glad to be almost finished her shift and the hell that is that first day.
“Yeah! You too!” Sokka finger guns as we walks away from registration.
He finds 602 with a little more trouble than he should (the rooms are numbered! And yet….), and unlocks the door. At first, he thinks there’s no one in there. The light is off, the September sun shines lazily through the window. Zuko is already unpacked, and is sitting in a compact ball on his bed. He’s wearing headphones, his fingers nimbly flicking at an elastic band stretched between his forefinger and thumb.
A large scar covers the left side of his face; the side that’s facing Sokka at the present.
“Hi! I’m Sokka, I’m your-”
Zuko jumps and turns his head with a start. He removes his headphones.
“Don’t do that!”
Sokka is surprised. It’s been maybe thirty seconds and his roommate is practically yelling at him.
So much for good first impressions.
“I…uh, I’m sorry. I’m Sokka, by the way. Your roommate.”
“Oh.” Says Zuko. “I’m sorry. I can’t see very well out of my left eye, so my peripheral vision and depth perception aren’t very good.” He gestures vaguely at the scar covering almost half of his face. “I also have partial hearing loss in my left ear. Please avoid approaching me from my left, or I might hit you. Anyway. I’m Zuko. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Ah,” says Sokka. He’s a little weirded out, but also intrigued. And he’s itching to ask how Zuko got that gnarly scar, but he knows better than to ask something that personal on the first day of their acquaintancehood. “It’s nice to meet you too.” He sticks out his hand, and Zuko ignores it.
Sokka lets it drop, and turns to his side of the room, taking it in. It’s identical to Zuko’s side: twin size bed, dresser, desk, chair, lamp. The walls are off-white, and the linoleum underfoot is green and white checks.
Sokka makes the bed, unpacks (throws everything on the floor) and then lays down, feet on the wall. He throws a glance over at Zuko, who has his headphones back on and is apparently enthralled in flicking and elastic band.
“So, uh, what are you majoring in?” He asks.
Zuko removes his headphones again.
“What’s your major?” Sokka repeats.
“Biology.” Zuko says.
“Cool.” Sokka replies. “I’m majoring in history.”
“What are you going to use that for?” Zuko asks bluntly.
“Nothing, really. I like war history a lot, and I need a bachelor’s degree before I can study law.” Sokka shrugs. “And then I can make that sweet dollar-dollar bill.”
“Oh. My dad is a lawyer.” Zuko says, and there’s something about his tone that tells Sokka not to press it.
“Why are you studying biology?” he asks instead.
“I want to be a vet.” Zuko says.
“Wow, that’s so cool!” Sokka says. “What’s your favourite animal?”
“Turtle-ducks-” And then Zuko is off, sounding like he’s swallowed a Wikipedia page. Sokka learns everything he never bothered to wonder about turtle-ducks. Their habitat, diet, mating habits, calls, nesting patterns, the way they raise their young, different variations of turtle-duck and where they’re found, et cetera, et cetera, et fucking cetera.
He’s not going to lie; it’s pretty interesting. And he guesses he found out how to make his roommate talk to him. The key to Zuko is turtle-ducks.