Madam Sun's was not the nicest massage parlor in town. It was located a few streets in from the docks, in that perfumed zone where it was close enough to the piers for the smell of rotting fish to underlay the background, but far enough that the ocean breeze couldn't blow said stench away. Bars bracketed either side, a testament to its proprietor's foresight. At this time of day, there weren't many customers apparent. The ones that were here would be inside.
Hakoda ran a hand down his face, and stepped through a door that was already open and ready for business.
"Ah," a woman said, looking up from where she was lounging. "You must be with Zuko. The blue's a giveaway; kid really likes his blue. The Madam's waiting for you."
He followed the woman through a fabric-draped doorway whose off-whites might once have been pinks, past an inner room where the midday employees cat-called him, and to a side office where an older woman sat waiting behind a desk. Her black hair was elaborately styled, held in place by a large phoenix pin whose gold paint was wearing away. Greened copper outlined its edges, in the same way silver haloed her hair.
"So good of you to come," she said, in a tone as flat and business-like as the accounting ledger in front of her. She shut it. "Take a seat."
He did, and waited. He didn't particularly care to speak first.
Neither did she.
"...Madam Sun, I presume."
"Chief Hakoda. Your boy owes me money."
"I find it extremely hard to believe that he owes you that much." He didn't bother taking the bill out; had left it back on the ship, in fact. Bato had still been laughing over it, last he saw.
"No one accused him of checking the prices." She took out a fresh sheet of paper and started tallying. "Two of my employees, for three hours." She glanced at the hourglass sitting on a corner of her desk. "Three and a half, make that. An unusual service surcharge. And then, of course, our discretionary fee."
The last number she scrawled in her perfectly perfunctory handwriting was several times an already ludicrous bill.
"Discretionary," Hakoda repeated.
The Madam's lips quirked. "You do want us to be discrete, I presume. What would our proud military think if they knew you spent your resupplying money on recreation?"
"Not much, I imagine," Hakoda said, "given I'm not paying."
"If you can't afford it," she said, lightly, "we could always pay you, instead."
He did not want to know what she meant. "What do you mean?"
She propped a cheek up against one palm. Her fingers were encrusted in rings, the gems too large and elaborate to be anything but cut glass. "Let's not flirt around it, love. That's a Fire brat you've got on your Water Tribe ship. Seems real eager to please you, too."
"What," Hakoda grit his teeth, "do you mean?"
"I mean," the Madam said, taping her numbers, "I'd at least pay him for it."
Hakoda took deep breaths, held himself perfectly still, and did not murder the owner in her own office. When he could see anything but red, he stood up. Calmly.
"I'm leaving. I'm taking Zuko with. Where is he?"
She kept leaning on her palm. Her finger kept tapping. Her eyes never left his face.
"So you do care. You'll forgive a lady for checking, Chief. Kid follows two of mine home just because they were nice to him; says the only money he has is yours; acts like having clothes of his own is a novelty. Mentions off-hand that one of your crewmen is called Leg-Breaker. Oh, and that he spends private time in your room every night."
"Honey, I've heard stranger euphemisms. A woman can have concerns."
"Your concerns are unfounded." And insulting. And moderately baffling. "Why do even you care?"
A smile quirked at her lips, and crinkled around her eyes. Gold eyes, he realized. Not gold like Zuko's; gold like he'd used to mean it, a dark amber that could pass for an Earth Kingdom brown, if someone didn't want to see the Fire.
"Same reason you do, probably: someone has to. Don't start judging which of us could do it better. I wouldn't have taken months to get him his own shirts."
Hakoda, fortunately, did not have to think of a response for that. The door behind them opened.
"Did you have another— Oh, are you Chief Hakoda?" The speaker was the woman from the seamstress' shop. Her shirt was unusually immodest, in retrospect. Or perhaps surprisingly modest, in context. "Wait. Sunny, are you extorting the Chief?"
"It's a slow day, Jia. Who wouldn't want to spend it in a small room with a big man, making some easy money?"
Hakoda flushed. The Madam laughed. It was a snorting sort of laugh, and not very attractive, and didn't care much that it wasn't.
He crossed his arms, aiming to look unamused in exact proportion to that laughter. "Are we done here?"
Her smile turned to something sharper. The bill she slid him contained a much more reasonable number; about what a seamstress would have cost, in fact. Plus tip.
The woman from the shop—Jia—rolled her eyes. She rummaged for a moment in one of the shelves along the Madam's walls, picking up a spool of thread which she wiggled at them in the same way another woman might have wagged her finger in a tsk-tsk. "Whenever you two are done talking dirty, we'll be out back. We've just got the one shirt left."
Once Hakoda's wallet had been divested of its virtue, the Madam led him to a courtyard behind the building. The space was cluttered with clotheslines, most in use. Between linens and things he'd rather not mention, he caught sight of Zuko, and several more of the Madam's employees. More than seemed necessary for the current activity.
"He really is sewing," Hakoda said.
"He's being a distraction," the Madam said. "That lot should be getting ready for the evening crowd, not fawning over lost milli-kittens. Get him out of here."
It would have been a domestic scene, if everyone had been properly clothed. It would have been a bit amusing even so, if Zuko didn't fit in so well.
Black hair. Pale skin. Gold eyes. Not all of the sex workers heckling him had all of those, but enough had one or more. After a hundred years of war, there was little wonder that Fire had left a few sparks in its path. Nor that Earth might try to snuff those flames, or at least scrape the coals off to corners they wouldn't be seen. Places they could never burn too brightly.
"Oh, and Chief?" the Madam said. "A word of advice: change his name. It's a little too princely for a sailor."
On an unrelated note, she held out her hand.
On an equally unrelated note, Hakoda paid her discretionary fee.
"Wow," Jia said. "That is the least straight thing I've ever seen. Well, one of the least straight things."
Seo-Yun, the other customer from the seamstress' shop, snorted. They'd already grabbed Zuko's work, and started undoing all of it.
At least it was still just pinned. Pinning things had been lesson one.
...Zuko was still working on that particular lesson. But now he knew how to do a slip stitch, and that lark-carp bones made for decent pins if you dabbed a bit of wax on one end, and when you turned a seam inside-out you always lost about a finger's width more fabric than you thought you would so keep that in mind, and to save ratty old shirts because the fabric could be used to make patches for other clothes, and if you made those patches into pretty shapes your shirts would look like Fancy Peoples' clothing.
(Zuko did not point out that coarse fabric like theirs—like his— would never fool actual Fancy People, no matter how elaborately it was shaped or sewn. Some of their patched clothes did look nice. From a distance.)
He'd also learned that hems were hard. He couldn't just lay the fabric on a bench and pin it straight all the way around, because human bodies were weird.
And that was why Zuko was standing still, one of his new shirts inside-out on him, while Seo-Yun adjusted the pins around its back edge.
"How am I supposed to do this alone?"
"It's easier with a friend," Seo-Yun said. "More fun, too."
"Most things around here are," another of the people who were spectating the sewing session said. And then most of them were giggling again. He didn't know why this was so entertaining, everytime anyone said anything they all laughed.
Zuko glared at the gigglers on principle as Seo-Yun finished. When they were done, he wiggled out of the shirt, careful not to stab himself this time. He was just sitting back down to sew when—
"We just bought you new shirts, Zuko," a voice said from behind him. Chief Hakoda's voice. "You could try wearing one of them."
"Oh, I like you," Jia said.
Zuko fumbled the shirt. And also his sling. Which he put on quick, he wasn't supposed to be out of it yet—
—but he really should have put the shirt on first—
—but there were still pins in it—
"This looks exactly like my last house call," one of the spectators commented fondly, to laughter.
Zuko gave up. It wasn't like he was doing anything wrong. Except for not being where he was supposed to be.
"Why didn't you wait at the shop?" Chief Hakoda asked.
That hadn't been his fault. Except that it had, since he'd been the one who'd chosen to leave. He could have stayed. Or gone back to the ship. Or waited until Jia and Seo-Yun left, and… and apologized to—
"That shopkeeper is a racist ass in want of a kicking," Seo-Yun said. "We couldn't leave the kid there alone, and you shouldn't have."
They were not helping. Zuko shot them a glare. "I didn't think it would take this long. I asked Madam Sun to send a note. Didn't she…?"
"She certainly did," the Chief said. "Are you done?"
"Yeah. I mean, no? But I can finish by myself, now." And why were people laughing at that—
"He did good, for his first time," Jia grinned.
A smile tugged at Seo-Yun's lips, too. "I'm satisfied."
The Chief was running a hand down his face. And Zuko was gathering up his clothes and leaving, which was the traditional way to exit this particular establishment.
"What were you talking about with Madam Sun?"
"Paying your ransom," Hakoda said, and completely failed to notice the way Zuko's eyes widened, or the way his shoulders ducked, or the very small smile that briefly touched his lips.
(It was a joke. He knew it was a joke. But—)
"You paid her? But I already paid Jia and Seo-Yun."
Madam Sun split the profits three ways: with her, herself, and her pension fund.
It was unclear whether the kid knew he'd been at a brothel. The crew prefered to make jokes rather than enlighten him, and Kustaa wasn't about to spoil their fun. Regardless, and unrelated, his sling came off the next day.
"Take it easy," Kustaa said, "or it goes right back on."
The boy rotated his shoulder, looking pleasantly surprised. "The massage really helped."
Matters remained unclear.
Kustaa graduated from falling exercises to combat basics. This continued to involve a lot of falling.
Zuko graduated from memorizing to diagnosing. This continued to involve his friends being optimally unhelpful.
"The splinter is out," he told Toklo, "and we disinfected it. Twice."
"But shouldn't you wrap it? Just to be safe?"
"I can't even see where it was."
"Wait, you're right. What if we disinfected the wrong spot? Maybe we should do it again—"
"Come back when you're dying," Zuko said.
"...And then these marks appeared," Panuk said. He coughed into his arm, his posture sagging.
"It almost looks like septapox, but I think the pattern is wrong." Which was a good thing, because a septapox outbreak on a ship would be the opposite of good. But was a bad thing, because a novel septapox-related illness might be even worse. Zuko frowned, comparing the marks across Panuk's skin with the illustration in Pests and Plagues .
"Boy." Kustaa eyed Panuk. "Faking a deadly disease isn't the smartest move."
Panuk stopped coughing. Straightened. Smirked. "Turns out if you stick a pentapus on your face—"
"Where did you get a pentapus?"
"Can you sprain your eyelid?" Toklo asked.
"What did you do."
"Either you're dying of mantis-measles," Zuko said, "or you're the one who stole Diseases of a Swamp Most Foul."
"But which one is it, doc?" Panuk asked, through the door Zuko had just closed.
"I think it's broken," Toklo said, "Is it broken?"
"Do you want it to be?"
"I have a better idea," Kustaa said.
"Why is Toklo's arm in a cast?" Hakoda asked. He'd been under the impression that the youngest crewmen—well, second youngest, now—had hit his elbow on a crate. Not shattered his arm from shoulder to wrist.
"I needed practice. He volunteered."
"I… see. How long is he going to be in it?"
"Until he stops volunteering."
Hakoda wisely left it at that.
"That sounds like rasbora-lizard rash," Zuko told Panuk, who grinned.
"It does," Kustaa said, and Panuk stopped grinning.
A well-poulticed Panuk sat next to a cast-armed Toklo.
"Did you volunteer for practice, too?" Panuk asked.
"I don't want to talk about it," Toklo said, for reasons unrelated to their fight.
There were more Fire Navy ships in the area than they'd accounted for. One of them caught the Akhlut alone.
Kustaa waited below deck with Zuko and a knife he still didn't know how to use. All he could do was fall, if it came to it.
It didn't, but not because of any action of Kustaa's.
Bandages. Burn salve. Debridements. Zuko had sufficient practice for this.
"What's for dinner?" Tuluk unwisely asked.
The boy went below deck. He came back with a supply box, the salted fish still packed together, and dropped it on the table in the kitchen loudly enough it woke two men in the crew room below. He went back to his vigil; he was doing it in Hakoda's room this time.
The healer's room smelled like his first week on the Wani.
Zuko had a medical text. He was sitting on the floor in front of the bird cages, staring at Seabreeze as she dragged her wing. As much as her cage allowed wing-dragging.
"It's not broken," the boy was mumbling, as he flipped pages. "A joint injury, maybe?"
Hakoda had been planning to talk to him about a change in names. Not a change, just… a name he could use in ports. A name to hide who he was.
'Zuko' was the only thing he'd kept from his old life. Hakoda had very little doubt that he'd take a new name, and never be that one again.
But it was Zuko sitting there, fussing over birds. Zuko who still came to his room to meditate every night, even though he tried not to show his flames anywhere else; heat for cooking and medicine and laundry, but not fire.
There would be something wrong in losing Zuko.
He'd paused too long; the boy looked up at him. Hakoda made himself smile, and kept walking.
Meal service resumed the next day, with just as little said on the subject as when it had stopped.
Kustaa started taking their practice more seriously. He became well acquainted with both the deck, and his Fire Nephew's loudly patient way of explaining the same concept over, and over, and over, until an old man got it.
(Kustaa had another nephew, back in his village. Loud, not the most respectful to his elders, always ready for a fight. The kind of puffed-up penguin-peacock who tried to protect the adults who should have been protecting him. A real brat.)
(Kustaa had another nephew. He wouldn't be so useless for this one.)
Spirits were higher again by the time they reached the next port. High enough for heckling.
"Can we really trust you to take Zuko out?" Toklo said.
"After last time…" Panuk agreed.
Hakoda stared the two younger crewmen down, unamused, but the two of them refused to be stared down.
"I'm not sure I trust you with my nephew," Kustaa said. "He's only got the one virtue, Chief."
"I'm not your—! And what virtue?" Zuko shouted. "What are you even talking about? We're just picking up the food supplies!"
"What I don't get is this," Ranalok put in. "Zuko didn't recognize them. But neither did the Chief. Sure you don't both need an escort?"
"I think an escort is the problem," Bato said.
Hakoda massaged his temples, and let the general laughter run its course.
"Wait," Zuko said, "you think I didn't know they were…? But I went to them all the time when I was Avatar hunting. Sex workers always know the local spirit rumors."
"You went to brothels," Bato repeated, "to gossip."
"To Avatar hunt. And what else would I do?"
"I don't know if this is better or worse," Ranalok said.
"It's better," Panuk said. "It's so much better. Did you even understand half the things they were saying to you?"
The kid scowled. "Of course I did. Everything except the proverbs."
"What. Wait. You mean innuendos?"
"Things that mean something besides what people are actually saying. Proverbs."
Cooking was just stirring things together and heating it. Tea was hot leaf juice. And innuendoes were sex worker proverbs.
Kustaa won custody rights, on this particular trip. Anyone could help carry supplies; only his second favorite apprentice could help comb the local apothecaries and herbalists for ingredients, some of which might be under names neither of them had heard of. The Earth Kingdom had as many terms for medicinal plants as it did kings.
The problem wasn't that Kustaa trusted him with half the list, and split off to his own side of the town for searching. The problem was that Zuko found the foxfern not in a shop, but growing between paving stones on the side of the road. Picking it led to following the road. Following the road led him out of the market, past the houses, to the edge of town. And at the edge of town, between one cart rolling by and the next, he was suddenly alone with the eyes watching him.
He didn't freeze; only idiots froze. He kept picking, and dropping the leaves into the pouch he'd made by holding out the front of his shirt, and shifted so his good eye was towards the feeling.
There was a man on an ostrich horse, stopped at the side of the road a few paces back. An Earth Kingdom soldier. Who was staring right at him, exactly as intently as it had felt.
A scout? A messenger? Passing through, or with a mission? Looking for someone?
(They crushed firebenders' hands, why hadn't he brought his swords, just because they weren't finished—)
Zuko dropped another leaf into his shirt-pouch, then stood, and started walking back into town. Calmly.
Maybe the man wasn't an earthbender. (He was built like an earthbender, and he didn't have any weapon on his belt.) Maybe he didn't recognize Zuko. (An ostrich horse could easily outpace someone on foot, and he was leaving plenty of room on the road for him to go around, but the guy kept the same distance behind him.) Zuko wasn't hurting anything— (Uncle hadn't been hurting anything, at those hot springs—)
Ranalok and Aake were at the edge of the market. It was perfectly appropriate to pick up pace when you saw your crewmates. He wasn't running.
"Easy, kid. What's got you spooked?" Ranalok said. Then: "Ah."
He and Aake looked towards the rider. The soldier looked back.
"Lunch with us?" Ranalok asked.
The soldier paused a moment. Then he flicked the reins, and rode on.
The soldier rode through the market. To the port. He tied his ostrich horse at the pier where a blue-sailed ship was docked. He was a messenger, under the command chain of General How, and familiar with anticipating which port the Southern Water Tribe's unassuming flagship would dock at next.
"Lieutenant Nergui!" the Chief hailed, a bag of supplies slung over his shoulder. Seemed he'd just gotten back.
"Chief Hakoda," Nergui said. "Would you care to explain why the dead Fire Prince is walking around port?"
Hakoda did not, but he'd have to anyway.
There was an ostrich horse tied to the end of their pier, one foot raised, head tucked under its wing in sleep.
Aake and Ranalok looked at it, then didn't look at him.
"Might want to head straight below deck, kid," Ranalok said. "There's probably a lot you could get done in the healer's room."
With the door closed, the older crewman didn't say.
Chief Hakoda's door was closed, too. But they weren't trying to whisper, and it wasn't Zuko's fault his good ear was on that side.
"...Surely General How can appreciate the advantage in having an heir to the Dragon Throne loyal to our cause," the Chief was saying.
He wasn't eavesdropping. He wasn't. So he kept walking, straight into the healer's room, and closed the door behind him.
"Something wrong?" Kustaa asked.
Nothing was. He'd just thought that Hakoda, maybe—
But this made more sense, anyway.
Since everyone was on the same page now, Zuko and the Earth Kingdom soldier included, Zuko didn't hide in the healer's room all day. He got the foxfern hanging up to dry, then he went out on deck to do his homework reading in the sun, and snuck a book on joint injuries to read when Kustaa wasn't watching. He kept a steady breath throughout, a small part of his mind keeping tonight's dinner simmering. A lot of people were eating in port, so he'd kept it simple.
"I didn't know the Water Tribe ate curry," the soldier said, later.
"We've expanded our diet," the Chief replied. He took a bite, and started coughing.
The soldier didn't. He ate spoonful after spoonful, stone-faced at the spiciness, and cast only one glance at Zuko.
The dearly departed Prince of the Fire Nation scowled at Lieutenant Nergui in a manner well in keeping with the reports of his temperament. How the Water Tribe's Chief had broken him to menial labor, Nergui did not know.
Hakoda hadn't broken him well, judging by the number of Tribesmen drinking copious amounts of water.
(He briefly entertained the thought that the food might be poisoned. But if it was, well, Nergui had already downed half a plate before he realized who'd cooked it. And it was… surprisingly decent. Not as spicy as they served in his hometown, but the underlying flavors were much the same.)
(Nergui was carefully avoiding the thought that 'the Fire Prince cooks like my older sister'.)
"Do you have any idea why so many ships are gathering?" the Chief asked, blithely unconcerned with their gold-eyed eavesdropper.
"We have theories. I'll discuss them with you after dinner."
"Isn't Aomori their northernmost port?" the Chief's second put in, and now the Prince was definitely listening. Even before the man turned to the boy and asked, "Do you know anything about it?"
"The port?" the prince asked, his voice raspier than Nergui had expected. "Or the ships?"
"Let's start with the ships," Bato replied, in that informal way that seemed so integral to Water Tribe society.
"They're for the northern invasion. Aren't they?"
That wasn't the right thing to say, Zuko realized, when everyone was looking at him. He straightened his shoulders, and met them stare for stare.
"You— How could you not know? There have been more and more ships coming north, I know you noticed, I've heard you talking about them. What else would they be doing?"
Hunting down a certain Water Tribe fleet, Hakoda didn't say. Or finally taking the northern route around the Earth Kingdom, and establishing an eastern fleet to chip at the territories that allowed the king in Ba Sing Se to feed his population and maintain some cohesion in the country at large, even as the Fire Nation colonies ate away at his western farmland and ocean access. There were more strategically valuable targets than invading a neutral nation that, to Hakoda's knowledge, had no material resources the Fire Nation wanted.
There'd been more strategic targets than the South Pole, as well.
"Are you guessing, or is this certain?" Hakoda asked.
The boy bristled further. "No one told me, but I'm not lying. Zhao's been pushing for an invasion of the north for years. And then he got promoted to admiral of the northern fleet. What else would he do? He wouldn't ever shut up about it at officer's parties, like anyone wanted to hear his stupid ice fishing jokes again—"
...Lieutenant Nergui could see why General Fong had been willing to risk an entire alliance over one banished sixteen-year-old. The prince didn't even seem to know how much he knew.
It was Zuko's normal meditation time. He'd thought the Earth Army soldier was spending the night in one of their spare beds in the healer's room. He wasn't trying to eavesdrop. He wasn't.
"He needs to be questioned, Chief Hakoda. Properly."
"I've had this discussion with General Fong already, Lieutenant, and I would appreciate your discretion—"
"You know I can't do that, sir."
Zuko went into the healer's room instead, but the man's things were already on one of the beds. So he just... didn't meditate. It was fine.
Lieutenant Nergui woke to a sunny late-winter morning on deck. He stood, scratching under his nightshirt, watching the prince of the Fire Nation glare at a bird.
The bird was one of the Water Tribe's giant message carriers. He'd never gotten used to the sheer size of the things. This one was dragging around its right wing, in a manner almost as dramatic as the way the prince was glowering at it.
"Roast messenger for breakfast?" he dryly commented to a young man leaning against the rail, also watching this show.
"Not unless you're volunteering," the young man just as dryly returned, before offering a hand. "Panuk."
"Nergui." He clasped the young man's arm, and shook in the Water Tribe style.
"I don't know what's wrong with her!" the prince exploded, only semi-metaphorically. There were more sparks than Nergui was comfortable with. From the kid's mouth.
"Didn't know they could do that, did you?" Panuk smirked. "Don't worry; only the bad firebenders can."
"Nothing's broken, and the joint has full mobility, and there doesn't seem to be any one place that hurts her more than the others, and she's not acting strange otherwise, and she can still fly—" the prince continued to rant.
Nergui looked at the bird. At the smirking crewman. At the prince. "Have you been giving her extra food?"
"She's injured," the firebender snapped.
"She's faking," Nergui said.
"And there's the proper diagnosis," another crewman said. Lieutenant Nergui recognized the ship's healer, from unfortunate past necessity. "Stop sneaking her fish, brat. Even if she's injured."
The healer closed the book he was reading. "Sometimes patients fake injuries to get medicine. That's why there's a lock on the healer's room; to keep the coca-poppy from becoming a temptation. You think that bird has more self control? Stop rewarding her behavior."
The bird briefly settled her 'injured' wing back against her side. Preened under it. When the prince looked back her way, she promptly returned to the act.
"And while we're on the subject: you're making the dog fat."
"I am not!"
"Seal Jerky." Panuk leaned down, and patted his legs. "Here boy. Want to play fetch?"
Nergui had never quite gotten over how many limbs the Water Tribe's dog had. It came crawling down from its sunning spot half-way up the mast, its approach heralded by the carapace-on-wood clacking of an unnecessary number of legs. He couldn't imagine hearing that moving over the ship sides in the middle of the night. Give Nergui an honest, quiet Earth Kingdom spider-hound any day, thanks.
"Fetch," Panuk repeated. "Fetch!"
The isopup rolled over and tried to curl up, but couldn't quite make it around the curve of its own belly. It whined.
The healer tucked his book under one arm, and stood. "While we've got you, Lieutenant, there's something you might be interested in."
Nergui didn't miss the way the healer glanced to the prince as he spoke. Or the way the prince stiffened, and looked away.
Kustaa led the way back below deck, and Nergui followed. So did the isopup's sounds of continued distress.
"Fetch! You can do it, you little tubby-tank, touch your toes—"
"Leave him alone, Panuk—"
The Water Tribe healer had scavenged a Fire Nation medical text off one of their ship's kills.
And convinced the prince of said nation to help him turn one of its most important recipes into something readable, and useable.
"What's this thing called?" Nergui asked, holding the construct of glass-encased liquid up to the porthole's light.
The healer's lips quirked, and it almost looked like he was going to say something else for a moment. Then he replied, "A thermometer. Measures heat; they're making them in Omashu. I'll give you the names of the researchers. Don't know how many you'll be able to get, but a little military sponsorship goes a long way for a college's research budget."
The healer raised an eyebrow, rather than repeating himself.
"Omashu surrendered," Nergui said.
"Ah. I'll give you the names anyway; might be a wise investment to get them out before the Fire Nation realizes what their work could mean. You can't make the salve without either one of these or a firebending assistant. That kid kept the temperature within a range of five degrees for an hour and a half, and turned around and did it again for every batch—"
"Aren't degrees time in the Fire Nation?" Whatever 'degrees' actually were. Give him a sand clock anyday; a man should be able to see the thing he was counting.
"And they're apparently temperature now, in the Earth Kingdom." The healer tapped the little markings etched into the glass. "You might want to have a talk with the researchers about that, if you get them out of Omashu; we don't need the world to be a more confusing place. Point is, too hot, too cold, or too inconsistent and the salve isn't much better than what we can already make. It's the temperature control that makes the difference. Hang on; I'll get paper from the Chief's room, and write down those names for you."
The healer left. Nergui continued to turn the thermometer over in his hands. Strange that a little thing like this could potentially change so much.
And then there was a gaze burning into his back.
"Your Highness," Nergui said, turning around.
The boy was glaring at him from the doorway. Not a boy for much longer; he was short by Earth Kingdom standards, but already taller than the Dragon of the West. Baby fat still rounded the edges of his face, but there was a lankiness to him that spoke of a growth spurt in progress. The tiger-shark was losing its baby stripes.
"Don't call me that. I'm not a prince anymore."
He'd been banished, but he'd not been removed from the line of succession. And now he was declared dead, which made it likely Ozai wouldn't bother correcting that oversight. It was a risky game that Chief Hakoda was playing.
Tiger-sharks kittens could be contained, too. They still mauled their fair share of zookeepers given half a chance, and there was always a choice to be made in the end: release them, or put them down?
He set the thermometer down on a table. Wouldn't want to risk breaking it. He kept his gaze on the boy, and waited for him to speak.
The prince crossed his arms. Which would, Nergui noted, slow down his bending by just the barest pinch of sand.
"How much trouble are they in? The Water Tribe," he clarified, when Nergui still didn't speak. "For hiding me. They faked my death, I didn't know he was going to— And. They lied to you about it, I know they did. ...Didn't they?"
Nergui wondered how much information he could get, just by letting the boy run his mouth. He wouldn't be a boy much longer, but he was certainly one now.
"The Chief won't give you up," Nergui said.
"I know that." Somehow the boy managed to scowl more. That scar of his really did help, for certain things. "But are they in trouble? Is it going to hurt your alliance if I stay with them?"
"And if it will?"
"I could… not. Stay with them."
"Are you offering to give yourself up, Prince Zuko?"
"I'm not a prince!""
He was certainly a kid trying to act the part. Nergui allowed himself the smallest of eyebrow raises. "Do you know the kind of trouble it would cause if I walked off with you without Chief Hakoda's consent?"
The boy's good eye widened.
"Try to think things through more, kid."
"I'm not a kid," he said, with as much grumbly persistence as his not-a-prince claims.
The healer returned then. He paused in the doorway a moment, looking between Nergui and the prince, his expression unreadable. "Doing something stupid?" he asked, to the room at large.
"No," the boy promptly answered.
The healer's lips quirked again under his beard. He handed a sheet of paper to Nergui: a list of names, as promised. Nergui added it to another paper, one with a deceptively simple recipe, and turned his gaze back on the boy. He'd leaned against the table.
"You're okay with this? It's a Fire Nation military secret."
"It's not a secret, you were just too stupid to figure it out for a hundred years." With that endearing commentary, his glare slipped momentarily down to the thermometer by his hand, then back up to Nergui. His expression became something more neutral. "...You're going to give it to the civilian doctors, too? Right?"
...Not unless there were enough of these thermometers to go around. Lieutenant Nergui looked into a pair of gold eyes that weren't scowling at him, and mentally prioritized extracting those researchers from Omashu, even though it wasn't his call to make.
"We'll get it out to them as fast as we can," he replied, with wartime honesty.
The boy nodded tightly.
"You done now?" the healer asked, to the boy. "My favorite apprentice doesn't consort with foriegn nationals behind my back."
The prince took this opportunity to remind Nergui of the spark spitting thing. "It can't consort, it's a piece of glass!"
"Then why so jealous, nephew?"
"You're not my uncle!"
Lieutenant Nergui tucked the names and recipe away in his bag, and went to bid goodbye to the Chief.
Hakoda led the way back on deck. He liked the Lieutenant—he was a practical man, in the employ of another practical man, which was a blessing to find in the Earth Army's sprawling half-nepotistic hierarchy even before factoring in multiple generals at the top, with multiple kings above them. But in current circumstances, he'd be glad to be back out at sea, where it would take a man of the Earth Army significantly more effort to step foot on his ship.
Too late to change the boy's name now. Not that it would have helped.
"Stop teasing him!" said boy was shouting, as they emerged into the sunlight. "It's not his fault he can't curl up—"
"Yeah, it's yours," Panuk said, and poked Zuko in the side.
The boy startled. And made a… sound. It took Hakoda a very long time to place said sound, in the context of this particular teenager.
Panuk was quicker. "Wait, are you ticklish?"
"No. No! Don't, I hate you, I hate all of you—"
He made the mistake of backing up into Aake, who had become their resident expert in pinning (ex-)princely arms. The crew advanced as he kicked. Panuk had gotten in that first accidental poke; Bato took the honor of the first intentional.
It was the first time anyone on the Akhlut had heard the boy laugh.
Which was, of course, only an incentive for the rest of the men.
Surprisingly, Toklo stayed where he was, studiously repairing one of their nets.
"Not joining in?" Hakoda asked.
"I don't want a real cast," their formerly youngest crewman sagely replied, and continued watching from safety.
The scene looked exactly like what it was: a single boy inflicting incidental bruises on his crewmates, who had thoroughly earned it. Hakoda left them to it. Would have left them to it.
"No wait, stop, help!"
Which may have been the first time Zuko had ever asked for that.
"You know, Bato is pretty ticklish, too." Hakoda pointed down at his own feet, and wiggled his toes inside his shoes.
"Fire Nation sympathizer!" his second accused, as the crew turned on him.
The kid bumped into Lieutenant Nergui's bag as he stomped towards a safer spot, flopping down like he was trying to bruise the deck next to the young man repairing the nets.
The boy wasn't a prince. Or a kid. Didn't have an uncle, and wasn't giving away state secrets just because it might save civilians that his own countrymen had hurt. He was not ticklish. He hated them all.
"I think General How may see the unique benefits of this situation, Chief Hakoda," the lieutenant said, and took his leave.
"Nephew. Where's my favorite apprentice?"
On a road far from town, long after a certain ship had sailed, Lieutenant Nergui found an involuntary stowaway in his bag.