The sun was setting over the city of Ba Sing Se. Azula wrapped her cloak around herself and shivered a little; her breath made puffs of white in the frosty air. She didn't go back inside, however. Quietly, she brushed away some of the light dusting of snow beneath her and sat down, gazing up at the darkening sky.
She and Ty Lee had spent the day moving into the home the Earth King had provided for them. It was a tiny little two-room house, more like a hut than anything else. It was situated close to the inner wall of the Lower Ring. As tiny as it was, Azula had to admit that it had a couple of nice features. One was the fact that it was only a ten-minute walk from the little bakery and teahouse where she was evidently now employed. The other was the roof. It was quite flat, and had a trap door and a small flight of steps leading up to it from the main living area. Since they were close to the inner wall of the outer ring of the city, they were higher up than the rest of the Lower Ring, and had a fairly decent view of the city from their roof.
It had been three days since Zuko had presented her with this choice. She supposed that she was starting to get used to the idea of it all. Yesterday had been spent mostly with various and sundry doctors and healers and waterbenders, who had examined her thoroughly. Katara had come and taken a look at Azula's arthritic wrists and ankles. She had performed some strange waterbending ritual, one the former princess had never seen before, Much of the pain had been eased. Even a healer as powerful as Katara wasn't able to completely heal her, though. The waterbender had left her with a supply of liniment to rub on them when they ached.
Some of the doctors had assessed her mental health, too. Azula smirked a bit as she remembered that process. They had asked her many questions, and she'd had to fight to repress the urge to give them outlandish answers for her own amusement. In the end, after many grueling hours of assessment, they had come to a decision. Her physical health would be watched over by two capable Earth Kingdom physicians. Her mental well-being would be monitored on a monthly basis by another Earth Kingdom doctor. All final decisions in the treatment of any mental illness, however, would be left in the hands of the Avatar, who had expressed an interest in being involved.
Azula considered this quietly, stretching out her legs. Aang was...a bit of a puzzle to her, she had to admit. She wasn't sure anymore what she thought of him. At first, he had been just another enemy of her Fire Nation, an opponent to be destroyed. Then he had been the object of some hatred, since it had been his hand that had ripped away her firebending – a thing that had been very precious to her. But now, she wasn't quite certain of him. She didn't trust him, exactly, but...he had helped her. He had. If he hadn't explained her visions to her and taken her with him into the Spirit World, Azula doubted she would ever have regained much of her true sanity. And she never would have let her mother get near her...never would have rested in her arms and been comforted by her. Azula's eyes softened.
She guessed she owed Aang a lot for that, even if it didn't quite erase his debt.
With a quiet sigh, Azula looked down at the paper in her hands. It contained the final conditions of her exile here in Ba Sing Se – the guidelines she would have to abide by, probably for the rest of her life. She'd given them a cursory glance earlier, in between scouring a filthy floor and an hour-long trip to the market to find a small table for their house, but she hadn't really considered them properly yet. In the fading evening light, the former firebender began to read.
Azula, daughter of Fire Lord Ozai and Lady Ursa of the Fire Nation,
At the request of the Fire Lord, and at the good pleasure of Kuei, the King of the Earth Kingdom, you have been permitted to spend your exile in the city of Ba Sing Se. Welcome to our fine city! The following is a list of guidelines that you will be expected to follow during your stay, to ensure that your time here is comfortable. Please note that any failure to comply will be met with the appropriate consequences, of which you have already been apprised.
By the terms of your exile, you are not permitted to leave the Lower Circle of Ba Sing Se. Rest assured, however, that there are many markets, clothing shops, and other such places in the Outer Circle, and your daily living needs can be fully met here.
A job has been arranged for you at the Good Fortune Tea Shop and Bakery, run by local businessman Zheng Chow. Mister Chow will be your employer until such a time as you are given another place of employment. He will present weekly evaluations of your job performance to King Kuei, which will be discussed with you at your quarterly meetings with the king. You will be expected to provide for your own physical needs out of your wages.
A house has been procured for you in the Lower Circle, near your place of employment. It is in a neighborhood with a low crime rate, and should serve you well during your stay in it. You will be provided with a sum of money to furnish it initially. Any further furnishings or renovations must be financed by you out of your job earnings.
The Earth King is aware that your physical health and mental health are weak. You have been provided with doctors who will care for your needs in this area.
Your identity is a subject of a sensitive nature for many citizens of the great city of Ba Sing Se. Therefore, you have been provided with a new identity. (Please see the attached brochure which will inform you of the details of this identity.) You will answer to the name of Aza from now on, and will not reveal your true identity to anyone. Please note that any failure to comply with this condition would be considered a major violation of the terms of your exile.
Additional concessions and arrangements have been made for your companion, Lady Ty Lee, fourth daughter of Lord Chiao Ming of the Fire Nation. She is permitted to live with you, so long as the following conditions are met:
i. That she procures her own place of employment;
ii. That she leads a life free of any criminal activity, and;
iii. That she does not cause you to violate any of the other terms of your exile.
You will be informed of any changes in the conditions and requirements of your exile. Should you need to contact the people in charge of your exile for any reason, simply hang a garment over the sill of the window of your house that faces the main street, and you will be contacted shortly thereafter by a plainclothes agent of the Dai Li.
Thank you for your compliance in these matters. We hope that you enjoy your stay in the great City of Ba Sing Se.
The Bureau of Immigration and Corrections
(PS. Please ensure that these papers are thoroughly destroyed once you have committed them to memory. They contain information of a highly sensitive nature.)
Azula folded up the papers in silence. She had already familiarized herself with the writeup that detailed her new identity. She was (supposedly) a young woman recently exiled from the Fire Nation, owing to the political difficulties of her father. Azula smirked a little. That story was fairly close to the truth, really. Now she would have to learn to answer to her new name. Aza. Aza. Aza...
Footsteps approached from behind, and Ty Lee knelt down beside her. "Hey," she said softly. "I made tea. I thought you might be cold up here." She pressed a steaming cup into Azula's hands and slid her arm around her. Her body felt warm, and so did the tea. Azula smiled a bit and sipped at the hot liquid, sighing as it warmed her to the core. It felt good. Ty Lee looked up at the peach-colored horizon, now streaked with wispy golden clouds."It's beautiful, isn't it?"
"If you ignore everything beneath the sky, yes." Azula gave her a sidelong glance. "Well – everything except you, of course."
Ty Lee chuckled and leaned into her, pressing a warm kiss to the side of her neck. "Flattery will get you everywhere, 'Zula," she murmured. "Do you have any more nice things to say about me? I might get very affectionate." Azula shivered as the little acrobat's teeth nipped lightly at her ear.
"My name is Aza now." The former princess tapped a finger against the papers in her hands. "You can't call me by my real name anymore, Ty – not even in private. You know that."
"I know. I'm sorry. I just forgot." A crestfallen Ty Lee started to turn away.
"Hey." Azula caught at the arm that was about to leave her shoulders. "I didn't say you could let go, young lady." The little acrobat hesitated, looking back at her. Azula smirked. Leaning in, she kissed Ty Lee tenderly on the lips, sliding her own arm around the gymnast's waist. She felt Ty Lee relax and lean against her. With a soft sigh of satisfaction, the former princess took another sip of her tea and rested her head against the brown one on her shoulder. The two girls watched the shifting colors of the sky in mutual silence.
"You're starting your new job tomorrow, right?" Ty Lee asked after a while.
"Yes. No one has informed me of what exactly I'm going to be doing. But I'm sure that Businessman Chow will have a three-page letter and thirty-seven brochures detailing everything that's expected of me." Azula rolled her eyes. "Gods, but these Earth Kingdom people are pedantic." Ty Lee looked at her quizzically. "Um...scholarly? Wordy? You know – all the paperwork."
"Oh." The little acrobat nodded her understanding. "Yeah, I guess they do kinda seem to like their forms and things. We'll get used to it, I'm sure."
Azula frowned. "I suppose," she muttered.
Ty Lee smiled warmly and nuzzled Azula's neck. "Don't worry. You'll do just fine, baby," she said softly. "You're brave and really smart. You'll be the crown princess of that bakery place in no time flat, you'll see. You've already got everything you'll need."
Quietly, Azula sipped from her steaming cup and looked up at the horizon. Despite her uneasiness about the coming days, she was content. The warmth of her drink felt good, as did the warmth of the little acrobat's body cuddled up beside her. She squeezed Ty Lee's waist and smiled. "I think you're right, Ty," she said quietly. "I do have everything I need."