I do not own Avatar. But if Nick wants to hire me, I'm there!

"Uncle, where are you taking me?" Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation wanted desperately to take the itchy blindfold off, but his Uncle Iroh held his arms behind his back with a vice-like grip as he steered him through the town's busy streets. Passersby in the busy Earth Nation town glanced at the odd Fire Nation duo stumbling through the street and gave them a wide berth

"Calm yourself, Zuko," the old general rumbled. "We're almost there."

"Uncle, this had better be good. We got word that the Avatar—"

"The Avatar can wait, Prince Zuko. And this is much more important. Now watch your step." Iroh gently lead the teenage boy up a short flight of stairs to the grand porch of an even grander building. Two guards, both women in dark green armour, opened the double doors for the pair. Iroh noted that they each bore a gold signet indicating that they were trained Earthbenders. Very impressive, he thought as he pushed his nephew through the door.

"Uncle, I don't like being unawares like this. The Avatar could be anywhere at anytime." Zuko said through clenched teeth.

"Can't you stop thinking about the Avatar for just one moment of your young life?" Iroh huffed, irritated.

Zuko turned his head to one side. He was actually thinking about the answer. "No." He decided. "Now where are we? And what's that odd smell?"

Iroh smirked. He untied the cloth around the young man's eyes and whipped it off. "Ta-dah!" He presented with a flourish.

Zuko rubbed the spots from his eyes and looked around. They were standing in a wide front foyer twice the size of his spacious cabin on the ship. The floors were richly laid with dark cherry wood, waxed to a high polish. Large porcelain vases filled with exotic flowers stood in all four corners of the room. Sandalwood incense burned on a little altar near the door.

"Where have you brought me?" He asked.

Iroh beamed. "Happy birthday, Prince Zuko!" He grabbed the inner door handles and threw the huge doors open.

Sunlight filled the large open area beyond the doorway, a courtyard with a central flagstone square open to the blue sky. A little babbling fountain sat at its centre. Large satin sitting cushions were strewn haphazardly around. Looking up, Zuko could see the building was huge, with five floors ringing the central courtyard. Each ring was lined with intricately carved doors leading to other rooms and apartments. Archways lead to gardens behind the building, and Zuko could see these were masterfully kept, as was everything else in this beautiful palace.

He looked around. Dozens of richly dressed girls and young women moved about the main floor, coyly fanning themselves as they quietly spoke to each other. Young men, some of them dressed as lavishly as the women, lounged about on the cushions or on benches, lazily grooming themselves. There were other people here too: men from all over the world stood talking to some of the women, drinking tea and sake, or just gazing around, as if in search of something. They were young and old, handsome and ugly, but all of them looked well off, wearing military dress uniforms or fine silk robes.

If this were a surprise party, no one seemed to care the guest of honour had just arrived. The prince got a few curious glances, but the newcomers were left alone.

Zuko scowled at his uncle. He didn't enjoy celebrating his birthday. All it meant to him was another year he had not caught the Avatar. Another year as a dishonoured, banished prince.

Iroh ignored his nephew's glower and proceeded ahead of the teen. An older woman in a richly embroidered gold robe detached herself from a small group of women and gracefully rushed up to meet him.

"Iroh, it's good to see you again! Welcome back!" The woman leaned down, her long robe sleeves trailing on the ground, and pecked the Dragon of the West on each cheek. "I thought you'd be back much sooner."

"My apologies, Mai, but I have been very busy. Please, meet my nephew, Zuko."

Zuko noted with interest that his uncle had left out his royal honorific. Perhaps there was a security reason for it? He was instantly put on edge. As he bowed to the glittering gold woman, he took note of the number of guards in the room, discreetly tucked away in little niches in the wall like statues. They were all giving him suspicious sidelong glances.

"My, what a handsome young man," the woman purred, looking him up and down. Zuko snorted to himself and scowled, turning his face purposely to show the woman the horrible scar. She did not flinch.

"Today is his seventeenth birthday, and I want to give him something special." Iroh heartily patted his nephew's armoured back, a knowing look in his eye.

Zuko cocked his one eyebrow at the old man. There was only one thing he had ever asked for these past two plus years, and it was not something that could be bought.

The woman, Mai, looked thoughtfully at the young man, one hand propping her chin up while the other held her elbow. She measured him as though she were eyeballing him for a new suit, making hmming and hahing sounds. "I think I have just the thing. Please, have some refreshment and make yourselves comfortable." The gold woman glided away.

"Uncle, I don't need any birthday gifts. I need to get back to the ship and—"

"…And track down the Avatar so you can regain your honour, blah, blah, blah." Iroh finished for him, waving his hand dismissively. He snatched two tiny cups of sake from a passing servant's tray and shoved one into Zuko's hands. He toasted the prince and downed the thimbleful of steaming liquid in one gulp. The old general grasped his young nephew's shoulder and faced him.

"Zuko, you are becoming a man. A very strong, and very...uh, determined man. But you must have balance in your life." A genuine look of concern crossed his face. "As your guardian, I have a duty to protect and provide for you. And as my nephew, you have a duty to entertain an old man like me and put up with it!" He smiled mischievously, his cheeks a touch red from the alcohol.

Zuko had never seen his uncle quite so fiercely happy, and frankly, it made him nervous. He sipped the warm sake furtively. The liquid burned the Fire Prince's throat and warmed his belly, which was telling him increasingly that something wasn't right. His uncle fidgeted with his armour. He suddenly looked tense, but he brightened as Mai came gliding back across the courtyard.

The gold woman had three young ladies in tow. They looked like living dolls, their lips painted red, their lashes heavy with mascara, their silken skin faintly shimmering in the sun. They moved with graceful, tiny footsteps, and did not look into the men's eyes.

Wait a minute, Zuko's brain began to work. Lavish building, rich looking men, bevies of beautiful girls, funny smells…

Zuko suddenly realized where he was.

"YOU BROUGHT ME TO A BROTHEL?" He shouted at his uncle.

The din in the room died. The three girls look startled. Iroh tried to hide his reddening face in his wide sleeve.

"We prefer to call it a bordello," Mai said crisply, her smile not quite reaching her eyes. The ambient noise and conversations resumed. "This is an exclusive establishment for ladies and gentlemen of the upper classes. We're perfectly legal and legitimate. We train our ladies to please our customers with song, dance, refreshment and… whatever else they may require."

Zuko seethed, feeling the heat in at the tips of his ears. He yanked his uncle to one side. "Uncle, have you lost your mind?" He hissed. "This is no place for me! I'm a member of the royal family! Think of the scandal!"

"Really, do you think it stopped me?" Iroh asked, glancing at Mai.

Zuko shuddered. He did NOT want to think about his uncle doing… doing… aw crud, too late.

"Please gentlemen, let me introduce my ladies to you," Mai announced pleasantly. She presented the first, a girl in red robes with a bamboo print embroidered along the hem. Her straight licorice black hair flowed down her back, cascades of ebony framing a porcelain white face. "This is Kamani of the Fire Nation. She has been with us for three years, and is skilled with the mandolin."

Zuko raised an incredulous eyebrow. The girl didn't look much older than 16, but the pasty white make up could have made her look either younger or older. Kamani drew her fan away and looked briefly into his face, bowing lowly. He caught the briefest hint of fear in her eyes as they flickered over the scarred left side of his face. Her pursed red lips thinned as she dipped. He did not return the pleasantry and frowned at her deeply. She scuttled back.

If Madame Mai noticed his displeasure, she did not show it. She continued the introductions.

"This is Alana of the Earth Kingdom," the second girl stepped forward. She wore an emerald green one-piece linen dress that flared to the ground from her hips. Her long flaring sleeves dangled to the floor, her wrists jangling with gold bangles. She went through the same motions as Kamani, but this time, Zuko could see she was curious rather than afraid of him. She stepped back. "Alana is an excellent singer, and is very good at giving massages."

"Not a bad idea for my stressed-out nephew," Iroh commented. He had somehow managed to filch another tiny cup of sake, which he was relishing more slowly. Zuko suffered his uncle's colourful commentary and let the woman finish her presentation.

"And this," the third girl stepped boldly forward, "is Arujata of the Earth Kingdom. She had been with us for… what is it, five years now?"

The girl nodded once. She was almost as tall as Zuko, and looked like she could have taken him in a fight. Her silver-grey robe was slit up to her waist on both sides, and she wore tight matching leggings beneath. Her musculature showed through the thin material, and the Firebender was impressed, if not a little intimidated, by her warrior's physique. Regardless of her heft, Arujata managed to bow gracefully, and when she bobbed back up, she winked at him roguishly.

Zuko nearly blushed at this, mostly out of embarrassment. He felt oddly... inadequate next to Arujata.

"Oh, what lovely young ladies," Iroh said, clapping his hand together. He grabbed the sake cup out of Zuko's hands and downed what was left. "Zuko, choose your birthday gift."

"Wh-What?" Zuko spluttered.

"Any one of them. All three of them, if that's what you want. I don't mind splurging on my favourite nephew." Iroh grinned.

Zuko lost his temper. "I will NOT bed a whore!" He shouted.

The three girls gasped, in shame, in shock, and in indignation respectively. Out of the corner of his eye, Prince Zuko could see the guards shifting restlessly, coming to life out of their wall niches. Madame Mai glared daggers at the young Firebender and hastily shooed the girls away while simultaneously gesturing at the guards to hold their position. She faced the old general haughtily.

"Iroh, the only reason your nephew hasn't been escorted from the premises is because I enjoy your company. Please ask him to keep a civil tongue in my place of business," she said sharply without looking at Zuko. "I will see if any of my other ladies would care to be with you this afternoon, hmm?"

It was a threat to the old general, pure and simple. Iroh winced as she fluttered away. He whirled on his nephew.

"Are you happy now? You've humiliated me in front of Mai!"

"And you've humiliated me in front of the world!" Zuko shouted back. "Thanks so much for the birthday gift, uncle, but I'm heading back to the ship now."

The Fire Nation prince stalked toward the double doors. How could his uncle bring him to a place like this? What did he think he was going to accomplish? No woman would make a man out of him. Not until his honour had been restored, in any case, and there was only one way to do that.

"Zuko!" Iroh called angrily at his nephew's back. The prince turned to tell off the old man.

He stopped dead in his tracks.

It was that particular shade of blue that had caught his eye. Over his uncle's broad shoulders, Zuko could see the delicate profile of a young woman in sky blue silk, her auburn hair pinned up in an elaborate bun. She was quite young, maybe no older than 15, standing just off to the side of the courtyard, her face obscured by the shadows of an overhanging plant.

Zuko's stomach fluttered. Katara…?

And as though she felt him watching her, she slowly turned to gaze back at him with sparkling blue eyes.

It wasn't Katara, just someone who looked remarkably like her.

Zuko shook himself. Was he so love-struck that he was entirely blind? How could he have been so stupid to think the Water Tribe girl would be in a place like this?

Maybe because you'd really like her to be, his brain suggested darkly. And though he was disgusted with himself, he could not tear his gaze from the Waterbender's doppelganger.

He felt someone sidle up to him. "I see the young man has found something he likes," Madame Mai's voice came oily over his shoulder. "That's Sienna of the Northern Water Tribe. She only arrived here a few months ago, but she is a very sweet girl."

Zuko's mouth was dry. His heart ached in a way it hadn't for weeks. He thought the pain had finally released him, finally let him rest, but now it burned and soared and throbbed in agony all at once, pounding as though uttering her name using daggers for emphasis with each lub-dub. Ka-ta-ra. Ka-ta-ra. Ka-ta-ra.

Iroh appeared at his elbow. He sighted along his nephew's stare and confirmed his deepest suspicions with a mental hmm. The old general clasped Zuko's elbow reassuringly.

Mai must have beckoned her over, because the girl was gliding toward them. Zuko watched helplessly as she elegantly crossed the court, her hair catching the golden sun so it made Zuko's amber eyes sparkle. She held his gaze steadily, not once looking away, until she stood within arms reach.

"Sienna, this is Zuko," Mai introduced her. "Today is his seventeenth birthday."

The girl smiled and dipped in a gentle curtsy. "Happy birthday, Zuko." She sang mellifluously.

The prince stared at the girl wordlessly, his thoughts churning wildly.

She had the look. She had the eyes.

She was smiling. She was willing.

She could be his.

And suddenly Zuko found himself standing at the edge of a gaping void. To take that one step would mean he'd lose... a great many things.

A strangled sound left his chest like vapour on the wind.

"Uncle…?" Zuko breathed slowly, uncertainly.

"It's all right, Zuko." Iroh said comfortingly. "It's all right."


And here's where you all get to hate me! I'm leaving the ending open to your ideas and what you truly believe should happen.

Here's the deal: review my story and tell me what happens next. If and when I get 100 reviews, I will post the results and the winning outcome(s). All suggestions are welcome!

I do, however, have a few rules:

1. Sienna is not Katara in disguise.
2. Unless I get 100 per cent requests for porn, I am not going to write a sex scene.
3. I'll accept just about any idea, but don't be surprised if it shows up in one of my later stories (I'm now accepting requests and challenges!)

You've all been great for my poor, battered ego. Thanks for reading!

Update on Bent: the story is taking longer to write than I thought. There's a lot I need to say to set up for future stories, but rest assured you shall see the first chapter soon.

Best wishes to ya! - Vicki So of the Earth Kingdom.