A/N: This is a continuation of the story 'The Gift', by Vicki So. Before any of you ask, this is done with her permission (insistence actually). It is basically the story that I sketched out in response to her challenge at the end of 'The Gift', which is recorded in her reviews. I would also like to thank Vicki for being kind enough to beta read this for me. Now with that said, neither of us own Avatar: The Last Airbender.
The story thus far…
"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.
"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.
"YOU BROUGHT ME TO A BROTHEL?" He shouted at his uncle.
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.
The girl smiled and dipped in a gentle curtsy. "Happy birthday, Zuko." She sang mellifluously.
A strangled sound left his chest like vapor on the wind.
"Uncle…?" Zuko breathed slowly, uncertainly.
"It's all right, Zuko." Iroh said comfortingly. "It's all right."
A/N: This is the gist of what happens in 'The Gift'. Excerpts are taken directly from that story, with due credit going to Vicki So. I highly recommend you read the complete story before continuing. Therefore, with not further ado…
The Prince's Gift
An Avatar: The Last Airbender Fanfiction
Zuko's breath wasn't coming easily. He looked down into the eyes of the girl, Sienna, and for the first time in his life he was unsure of himself. All he could see was Katara, curtsying before him saying 'Happy Birthday, Zuko.'
Zuko was roused from his reverie by the sudden realization that he was moving (more like being herded) toward a room on one of the upper levels. He didn't even remember walking up the stairs.
"Uncle, I…" Zuko started.
"Don't worry, nephew. You'll be fine. I've arranged for you to stay the night here. I'll be by to collect you in the morning." Iroh was saying with a rosy-cheeked chuckle.
"But uncle, I…" Zuko started again. My god, I sound like I'm whining.
"I know, Zuko. Trust me, you need this." Iroh was saying.
Zuko watched Sienna step through one of the doors. He then attempted to do something he had never done in his life; he tried to run. 'Tried' being the operative word as he turned to find his uncle's hand over his chest as he was pushed bodily into the room. His uncle could be deceptively strong.
Zuko lost his footing on the carpet and tumbled backwards onto something soft. Oh please, don't let me be lying on top of her…
Zuko turned around and to his relief he found himself lying on a mound of silk cushions that dominated the center of the room. All around him were the sweet smells of exotic oils and flowers.
The room was luxurious even by royal standards with tapestries adorning the walls, and elegant furniture. He scanned his surroundings like a trapped animal until his eyes fell on the predator, Sienna.
"Welcome, Zuko. Would you like me to help you out of your armor?" Sienna asked sweetly.
"Uh… no. I'm sorry, but I really must be getting back to my ship," Zuko said as he scrambled to his feet and headed for the door. He wasn't overly surprised to find it locked.
"I'm afraid you can't. Your uncle left instructions for the door to be locked. We're both here until morning." Sienna said walking over to a cabinet. "Would you like something to drink?"
"Do you normally have to lock your clients into the rooms?" Zuko said bitterly.
"Sometimes." Sienna said smiling. "You'd be surprised. There are a lot of young men who need encouragement. You're not the first young man to be politely abducted by a well-meaning uncle or father."
"I'm sorry, I have no intention of sleeping with you." Zuko said flatly. She looked just like Katara, but he wasn't about to do something so dishonorable, no matter how much he wanted to. Zuko let his anger at his uncle stifle any other thought.
"Then don't." Sienna said simply.
Zuko looked at her. Confusion must have been apparent on his face as she giggled. "Just because we're here to please men, doesn't necessarily mean that we sleep with them."
"You do though." Zuko accused.
"Sometimes." Sienna admitted sadly. "Girls from the water tribes have been having a hard time with the war going on."
"You must hate the fire nation then." Zuko said looking at her downcast features. Katara must hate me too.
"Yes." Sienna conceded. "But just because I hate what a nation is doing, doesn't mean I hate its people. Most people in the fire nation lead lives much like everyone else's. They aren't responsible for what the Fire Lord decides to do."
"Even the soldiers?" Zuko asked looking down at his armor.
"Soldiers just do what they're told. Some are evil, some aren't. In this profession, I've learned that one the hard way." Sienna said as she sat down and wrapped her arms around her knees.
Zuko looked down at her and he felt somehow responsible for her situation. It was HIS nation that was waging the war. Zuko didn't know what compelled him, but he wanted to know more. He wanted to know if Katara might have a similar story. He wanted to know if it might be possible for Katara not to hate him.
"Please, tell me." Zuko said humbly.
Sienna looked up at him, and looked like she might refuse, but then she nodded. "Most of the fire nation soldiers that come here won't even look at the water tribe girls. Most will just dismiss us as not worth their attention, but some won't even look at us. I think some of them feel guilty about the war. I've only ever had one client who was from the fire nation. Shortly after I got here, he came in and noticed me. He went with one of the other girls the first night, but the next day he returned and specifically asked for me. I brought him here, and he gave me money. Then he just looked me in the eyes and said 'I'm sorry', before he left."
Zuko couldn't help but feel proud of this unknown countryman. At least there was one man other than himself in the fire nation that knew the meaning of honor. There was a great deal that Zuko didn't agree with in the war. He'd seen some of his own people sent off to die by uncaring generals that saw them as nothing more than gambits.
A quiet sob brought Zuko's attention back to Sienna. She quickly dried her eyes and turned away. "I wish all the men who came here were like him. Unfortunately, we do what we can to survive in this world."
Zuko felt like he was going to be sick. "None of that will be necessary with me." Zuko said firmly.
Sienna turned back to him and smiled. "I thought that might be the case. Still you might want to take the armor off. I doesn't look like it's that comfortable."
Zuko had to agree. He nodded and turned his back to her. Her hands moved over the straps that held his armor to his chest. Soon he had removed the cumbersome armor and Sienna carried it over to an armor stand.
"So what else is there to do here?" Zuko said looking around for a place to sit. "Other than the obvious, of course."
Sienna actually chuckled a bit as she went back to the cabinet. "Well, we have food and drink, and we also have music. We could dance if you like. I'm told that I'm an excellent dancer."
"I don't know how to dance." Zuko said dismissively.
"I could always teach you." Sienna offered.
Zuko looked at her a moment. It wouldn't be like sleeping with her, but still he didn't trust himself. She looked FAR too much like Katara for him to be able to be that close.
"Maybe later. I think I will have something to drink though." Zuko said warmly. She was definitely pleasant to look at, and if he could pass a night with her without anything happening, it would still be quite an enjoyable stay.
"So is there something you'd like to talk about?" Sienna asked as she brought a couple of drinks back for herself and Zuko. Zuko sipped the chilled wine and sat down on one of the cushions beside Sienna.
"Do you get a lot of men who want to talk?" Zuko asked curiously.
"Yes, a lot. I have one client who comes in every week. I really do love him. He's old enough to be my grandfather and probably hasn't entertained any thoughts about a young woman in years. He comes and we eat dinner together, because he says I remind him of his daughter. All we ever do is talk. I could probably recite his entire family history from memory." Sienna said laughing.
Zuko found himself laughing along with her. It was something that he seldom did these past couple of years.
"So… Who's the lucky girl?" Sienna asked.
The spray of wine hit the far wall. "Girl?" Zuko asked with the look of a man who had just been told his fly was open.
"Yes, girl. You know, female, much like myself. Usually young men who don't wish to 'partake' have a special someone that they're waiting for. So who is she? I told you about me, so it's only fair." Sienna said as she leaned over the cushions toward Zuko.
Much like you… if you only knew. "She doesn't know me." Zuko said evasively after a moment.
"Oh? You don't strike me as the shy type." Sienna said sweetly.
"It's… complicated." Zuko said slowly. He looked at Sienna. What could it hurt? Here he was so far away from home that no one would ever know. He had never had a confidant; his uncle had been the only person he had ever opened up to. Here was a chance to tell someone who looked just like Katara everything he'd been feeling.
His long silence had apparently given Sienna the wrong impression. "I understand if you don't want to talk about it."
"No. It's not that." Zuko said hurriedly. "It's just that, I don't find it easy to talk to people."
"Then we don't have to talk." Sienna said laying her head against Zuko's shoulder. "I know sometimes it's hard to put into words what you want to express."
Zuko felt like there was a weight on his chest. He had carried the burden for so long now that he had grown to the point he didn't notice it. Now with someone willing to listen, it was tearing him apart to keep it bottled up. He felt ready to explode, like he often did with his uncle, only this time there was no reason and no one to be angry with.
"I would like to talk about it Sienna. It's just difficult for me. If you're willing to listen I'll try to stammer through it though." Zuko said looking down at her.
Sienna nodded knowingly as Zuko continued. "She's a water tribe girl and her name is Katara. We're enemies. At first I just saw her as another enemy to the fire nation, someone who stood between me and regaining my honor. Everything was fine until I captured her during one of my missions. I tried to offer her the necklace she lost in exchange for… something I wanted. She's the only woman who has ever defied me. When I went to put it around her neck, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful she was."
Zuko stopped and glanced at Sienna who was stifling a giggle. His anger momentarily flared. "What's so funny?"
"Is she northern tribe, or southern tribe?" Sienna asked, trying to keep from laughing.
"Southern tribe, but what does that have to do with anything?" Zuko asked angrily.
"She probably doesn't realize it then, some of the southern tribes have gotten away from that tradition." Sienna said smiling.
"What tradition?" Zuko said as his anger began to die and suspicion began to take its place.
"In the northern water tribe, necklaces are given as a sign of a man's intention to marry. He places it around the neck of the woman whom he wishes to become his wife." Sienna said finally before letting go and starting to laugh.
"You mean I proposed to Katara?" Zuko asked incredulously.
"And neither of you realized it." Sienna said trying to squint back the tears as she laughed.
Suddenly, Zuko couldn't help himself as he began to laugh as well. He had proposed to Katara; the irony was almost too much to bear.
"So how does a water tribe girl say 'yes'?" Zuko asked after their laughter died down a bit.
"Well, as long as she doesn't give the necklace back she hasn't said 'no'. Usually, she gives some sort of token back to her lover that he then wears or carries into battle from there on out." Sienna said smiling.
Little chance of THAT ever happening, Zuko thought sourly. Still, the thought of having gone through something like that with Katara was fascinating. He wondered what she would do if and when she ever reached the north pole and found out. The thought made him smile.
"So what do your parents say about this girl?" Sienna asked.
"My father doesn't know. I'd hate to think what he'd do to me if he found out. It was he, after all, who put this scar on my face. I don't know what my mother would think." Zuko said sadly. "I'm afraid I'll never get to tell Katara how I feel. We're from two different worlds."
Zuko talked to Sienna for hours. He avoided any sort of topic that might lead to his father, or the Avatar. Mostly he talked about Katara. Zuko felt lighter than he ever had in his life, and he wished that the girl actually was Katara so that he could share this experience with her.
Zuko looked into his empty wine glass as they started to grow tired and the conversation wound down. "Sienna, can I ask something of you?"
"Certainly, Zuko." Sienna said sleepily.
"I know you're not Katara, but you look just like her. Could I hold you tonight while I sleep so I can pretend for one night that she doesn't hate me? I'll understand if you…" Zuko was cut off by Sienna's hand over his lips. She moved her hand to his cheek and then kissed the other one just below his scar.
Sienna gently pushed Zuko onto the cushions before snuggling into him with her back to his chest. Zuko hesitantly went to put his arm around her, and she took him by the wrist and gently moved into his embrace. Zuko could smell her hair as he held her tightly, and it smelled like jasmine. For a moment he imagined what Katara's hair must smell like.
These were the thoughts of the young fire prince as sleep finally claimed him.
The next day, Zuko woke before Sienna. He donned his armor and checked the door. The door was unlocked, and a servant was waiting outside. "Is my uncle here yet?"
"Yes young master, he ahem never left last night. He's waiting downstairs now." The servant replied.
Zuko tried not to think about the ramifications of… Aw crap, not again.
Zuko shook himself and turned to the servant. "Tell him I'll be down shortly. This was his idea, so he can wait. In the meantime, bring me paper, ink, and wax."
Zuko turned back around and waited impatiently while he looked at Sienna's sleeping form. He must have lost track of time, because it seemed like the servant had returned in an instant. "Good, go get my uncle and bring him here."
Zuko took the paper and quickly scribbled out several letters. It was dangerous for him to tell her the truth about everything, but after last night he felt he could trust her and he wanted her to know the truth. He then gently folded the papers and held the wax in his hands. It melted under his gaze and he drew out his signet ring and placed a stamp on each letter. He was just finishing when a knock came at the door.
Zuko opened the door and stepped into the hall for a moment. Madame Mai was there with Iroh and the two of them were walking arm in arm. Zuko grimaced in disgust.
"So nephew, are you…" Iroh started.
"Shut up uncle." Zuko grated as he snatched his uncle's pouch. From the feel of the weight, it would be more than enough.
Zuko was turning to go back into the room when the door opened and a sleepy Sienna looked out at him.
"Zuko?" She said rubbing her eyes.
Zuko had not wanted to wake her. It would have made this easier. After last night he felt like he was leaving a piece of himself behind. He felt like he was leaving her.
Zuko assumed his stance of command as he would on his ship. It was the only way he was going to be able to do this. "I must return to my ship." Zuko said stiffly. "Thank you for your hospitality."
Zuko gave her the sealed letters, and his uncle's pouch. He then leaned in and embraced the girl. "Take these letters, and the money. There is a letter in here for you as well. It will explain what you need to do." Zuko said softly. Zuko stepped away and gave her his deepest and most respectful bow.
Zuko turned back so that he wouldn't have to look at Sienna again, and then strode purposefully past his uncle. "Come uncle, back to the ship."