By the twelfth day of the border negotiations, Katara's barely holding on to her temper. She looks all right in public, she thinks: calm, collected, patient, helpful. The Avatar's wife.
But every time someone objects to the movement of a border ten feet to one side or the other, her anger and frustration build until she feels like she's going to burst.
There are evening events, of course, after each round of talks, and she and Aang dress appropriately, and dance appropriately; afterwards, she goes to bed too tired to do anything but sleep or fight, and she has to keep reminding herself that she's not mad at Aang.
She knows she's not the only one who's letting it get to her; Aang has brief flashes of goofiness, when he juggles in the negotiation room or starts to swirl her around in one of their fast dances. Every time it happens Zuko coughs, just once, behind his sleeve, and Aang sits up straight and pays attention again.
Katara sits next to Mai at dinner; they barely talk, both focused on the food. (And, Katara thinks, on not killing the foreign ministers and running from the room.) As the days wear on, she can feel Mai drawing up further inside herself, growing stiller and quieter, until the only time she moves during their sessions is to discreetly poke Zuko when he seems to be falling asleep.
She wishes they could take a break, have just a couple of hours to themselves, but there's no time and she knows it wouldn't reflect well on their negotiation skills. She is going to sit here and listen attentively and wait for her turn to make her persuasive arguments. That's all she's going to do.
They sign the treaty on the seventeeth day, and it's almost over; she grits her teeth through the speeches and the grand dinner and the post-signing dances and doesn't even whisper her frustration to Aang. Zuko and Mai's dancing has been getting more crisp and perfect as the days go on, like they can't remember what fun felt like; she feels sorry for them, but it's all she can do to smile politely at everyone when they whirl past each other.
Finally, finally they get to go off to their temporary quarters in the diplomatic wing and get some sleep. They're almost done. They can leave in the morning, go do something they're all better at.
They snuggle up in bed, cuddling the way they haven't really had energy for this last week. But she wants to leave tomorrow morning, so she drags her eyes open and shakes Aang awake.
"Wha?" he says. "'s it important?"
"Listen," she says, "I think we both need some vacation time. I want to go yell at someone and break something and throw things around and not be the Avatar's wife in public for a week. But, sweetheart, I don't want to yell at you."
Aang hugs her briefly, his arm around her shoulder tightening for a moment. "Spa day?" he suggests sleepily.
"Shit, you're right, I need a spa day," Katara flops over and spreads out on her back. "I need a spa week. A mud bath and a hot rock massage."
"Shhhh!" Aang rolls over and pounces on her, giggling, "there could be spies anywhere! Save it for next week!"
She's spent the last two weeks biting her tongue in public; the last thing she wants to do is give that up in bed. But he's right, of course, and she takes a deep breath and lets it out: calm, cool, patient, polite. This is still public. The negotiations are important. She cares about this project. She's the Avatar's wife. "Where're you going to go?" she asks.
"I want to fly up somewhere above the clouds," he says, "where there's nobody around who needs me to be formal."
"Hmm. You know, I hear the Firelord is planning to take some vacation time, too," she says, threading her arms around him. "He needs to have some fun. And I hear he likes the mountains."
"Is that so?" Aang says. "I hear that Mai's going down the coast to Kyoshi Island" - he attempts a conspiratorial expression and fails miserably, his eyebrows waggling - "if you want to ride along to Yu Dao with her."
She thinks about being on a ship again - the waves rolling underfoot, the salt spray, water spreading out to the horizon in every direction. Appa could get her there faster, but she wants to spend time travelling, and Aang wants to fly.
"I'd like that," she says.
"Me too," he says, and kisses her on the forehead until she giggles and bats him away. "Let's do something physical next - meet you at the grand highway project in two weeks?"
"Spirits, that sounds good," she sighs. "Much better for us." She pats his shoulder sleepily until he arranges himself into a body pillow to her satisfaction. "See you in two weeks, grand highway."
Aang is already gone when she wakes up the next morning. When she looks out the window, the Firelord's standard isn't flying over the next wing. She thinks of them flying somewhere together - up to a dry camp in the Kolau Mountains, probably, somewhere you can only get to by air, somewhere that no-one can bother them.
She packs simply - she's going to see Toph, and her formal court robes would just get in the way. She pretends she's still plain Katara of the Water Tribe: simple sarashi and tunics, her old bag for bending water, her hair tied back in loops.
When she walks up to the deck of the Firelord's ship, she's already feeling calmer, more comfortable, feeling the post-war politics disappearing behind her. The crew unmoor the ship at almost the same moment she steps onto the deck, and they're heading towards the open water before she sets her bag down.
Mai is waiting for her at the prow of the ship, completely still and contained, staring out at the horizon. "You're late," she says, as they cut out of the port.
"I know," Katara says, feeling satisfaction instead of anger. She's happy to be standing here, with Mai, to be doing the same things they always do, to have left everything behind on shore. "In a hurry to get to Ty Lee?"
"Her exuberance would be tolerable," Mai says, cool and measured, and Katara grins into the wind and spray on her face.
"Tolerable, huh?" she says.
"On this occasion," Mai says, and, with her back to the naval officers, she smiles at Katara for a moment, wild and happy.
She turns down the offer of an escort from the port outside Yu Dao. "I'll be fine," she snaps, frustrated, when soldiers keep attaching themselves to her bags or standing guard beside her.
"She really will," Mai drawls behind her, amusement at their antics dripping from her voice. "Haven't you heard the stories?" The port attendants hesitate, but still seem determined, and Mai's tone sharpens: "That can be an order."
"Thanks," Katara says, when they're standing alone on the wharf. "Have a good time sparring on Kyoshi."
"You too," Mai says. "Enjoy getting - muddy."
Mai's disdain is entirely artificial; Katara can see the smile crinkling the corners of her eyes, and she turns away before she dissolves into undignified fits of laughter on the wharf.
She walks up the road to Toph's Academy alone, sweating through her tunic in the mid-day sun, feeling the dust rise up and settle on her feet and calves. By the time she's on the final incline, she feels like she doesn't even need to go see Toph - she's already wearing half the Earth Kingdom, and it's hot here, and of course Toph would choose a cliff without any shade, and she is too tired and exasperated for any of this.
Toph meets her at the last bend. "Felt you coming," she says. "You stomped all the way up the mountain."
"I hate everything," Katara says.
"Bad week, huh?" Toph asks, throwing a dirty arm over her shoulders and walking her up the stairs to the private house on the tip of the mountain.
"You would not believe the things I had to sit through," Katara says as they reach the cool building, flinging her bag across the room and thumping down onto the floor.
"Don't tell me all about it," Toph says, holding up a hand. "Not in here. Want to blow stuff up? The practice yard outside has a waterfall and a rock caldera with an awesome amount of dirt."
"Mud wrestling! You know what I like," Katara says, untying her belt and sliding her kimono off her shoulders, leaving it behind in a puddle on the floor. "Come on."
"Yeah, yeah, bossy britches," Toph says, tossing a rock into the air consideringly. "You better run and find your water out there, 'cause I've already got what I need right here." The scattered dust on the floor rises into a stinging whirlwind that coats Katara in dirt and prickles her skin.
"Shit!" Katara shouts, laughing and breaking for the door. Toph's made some improvements since she last visited; the rock disappears suddenly on the other side of the door, transformed into a spiraling slide down into the caldera. She only hesitates for a moment; Toph built it, so it's going to be perfect. She flings herself onto the slide just ahead of Toph's pernicious dust storm, whooping as she flies down into the spring at the bottom of the caldera.
Toph's still standing at the top of the slide, smirking and tossing her rock from hand to hand. "Looks like I got you all dirty already."
"Come down here and say that!" Katara shouts back. She grabs Toph's rock with a single water whip and then whips her feet out from under her, pulling her onto the slide and down the caldera.
"Ugh," Toph says when she lands in the stream. "Listen, this is the closest I'm going to get to a bath all week." She lifts herself back into the dirt lining the caldera with a rock elevator and plants her feet firmly on the bedrock.
"Not if I have anything to say about it," Katara says, determined, and shoots a series of water darts at Toph.
There are already boulders in the way. "Somebody's getting predictable," Toph taunts.
"Oh, please," Katara shoots back, drenching Toph with the redirected waterfall.
Toph sputters at her through the water dripping off her hair. "Yeah? Well, I thought of something great the other day," she says, and the rock under the stream buckles under Katara's feet, spinning her up out of the water and smack into the mud at the side of the stream.
"Oh, sorry, did I get you dirty?" she shouts, laughing as Katara slips sideways in the mud, unable to get up.
"I'll show you dirty," Katara shouts back, swamping Toph's secure position on the rock, freezing her feet in ice and yanking back until Toph slips down into the mud.
"Ooof," Toph exhales, rolling over onto Katara. "Nice one."
"You too," Katara says, grabbing Toph's shoulders with muddy hands and leaning forward to kiss her. Toph shuts up for a minute, pinning her down and leaning into the kiss.
"Ohhhhh, you meant mud wrestling," Toph says when she pulls back, mock scandalized, though she's already found the tucked end of Katara's sarashi and is tugging it out from under the bindings. She starts to unwind it, pulling Katara forward and leaning back until Katara rolls over between her legs. Toph squirms back into the mud, shifting until Katara's hipbone slides right between her legs. Toph gasps and grabs Katara's shoulders. "Right there," she orders. "Come on, Water Tribe, show me the magic of the tides."
Katara slips down in the mud, muffling her laughter into the side of Toph's neck, making her shriek and squirm away from the tickling puffs of air. "I missed you," Katara says, when she has her breath back. "You would've ruined those state dinners just perfectly."
"I'm still missing you," Toph says, yanking Katara back up into place. "Waterbenders. Can't get a firm footing anywhere."
"Earthbenders," Katara says, rolling her eyes, "so demanding." But she leans forward obediently, grinding her hip into Toph, feeling the grit rasp against her skin.
Toph pushes back into her, wraps her arms around Katara's shoulders and her legs around her waist. "Yeaaaahh," she says, biting down on Katara's shoulder, "just like that."
Katara presses down against Toph, her hands slipping in the mud around her shoulders and tangling in her tunic when she tries to open it over Toph's breasts to mouth at her nipples. The mud gets in her teeth, the way it always does; she spits it out over Toph's shoulder, knowing that Toph won't care.
Toph sets a driving rhythm, muscling Katara into place when she slips, demanding the exact perfect pressure and just the right force, and Katara falls into pace with her, gasping when Toph's hands tighten on her shoulders and watching with delight when Toph lets go and flops back into the mud.
"Well," Toph says, completely straight-faced. "That was a great visit, thanks for coming."
Katara giggles and rolls off Toph, her arm pinned into the mud by Toph's heavy shoulders. "It is so good to see you," she says, completely sincere.
"Hey," Toph says, "you too." And then she turns over, rests her cheek on Katara's shoulder, and starts to snore.
Katara thinks about poking her until she wakes up, but the caldera really is a beautiful place to lie back and relax; there's a shimmering rainbow in the waterfall, as if Toph organized it just to please her. And it's such a relief to not have to care at all what anyone thinks of her, to be able to shout and throw things and roll in the mud until her hair is snarled, to feel the bruise Toph left on her shoulder pressed against the dirt.
It was just what she needed, she thinks, and dangles her feet in the stream and watches the rainbow shift in the water and doesn't think about politics at all: just Toph's skin against hers, the prickle of the drying mud, what they'll have for dinner. She hopes Aang is having a similarly pleasant afternoon, up in his mountains with Zuko.
The rainbow vanishes when the sun starts to disappear behind one of the western mountains, though, and the drying mud is starting to get distractingly itchy just where she can't scratch it, and the weight of Toph against her arm is putting her hand to sleep.
"Hey," she says, pushing Toph's shoulder, and then "hey!" again.
Toph always smacks her lips when she wakes up, just like a bearded cat, and scrubs the sleep out of her eyes; Katara watches her, glad that she can know her friends this well, share these moments with them.
"Oh, shit," Toph says, fuzzily, "I fell asleep? Sorry."
"No problem," Katara says, and she means it.
Toph sits up abruptly, still yawning. "Listen," she says, "I broke a channel for the spring up into the baths last month; go sit down and let me bring you something to drink."
Katara follows Toph's vague gesture towards the house, stopping at the end of the slide. "Uh, Toph? I think you forgot stairs."
"What?" Toph says, puzzled, and then she starts to laugh. "Whoops." A stone disk appears beside her, and Toph stands up to bow her onto it. "Your ride, milady."
Katara steps up onto the solid stone and lets Toph lift her back up to the door. "Thanks!" she shouts back down, and then pops her head back out the door. "Is your tea from the Jasmine Dragon?"
"Of course!" Toph calls up, "the old man keeps me supplied. Whadaya want?"
"Bring me something exciting," Katara says, as she strips her gritty clothes off and tosses them in the corner.
Toph comes in to find her after she's sluiced herself off and is leaning back in the hot bath. "Oooh, somebody's naked in my bath," she says, setting down a tray of tea and tidbits by Katara's hand and moving to sit down.
Katara smacks her feet before Toph can slide them into the bath. "Go rinse off first."
"You think I'm going to get in the tub with you?" Toph asks over her shoulder as she scrubs the dirt off her back.
"Oh, come on, you know you're going to get into the tub with me," Katara says, letting her body go limp until she's floating in the warm water.
"You might be right about that," Toph says, slipping into the bath between Katara's knees and sliding her feet through the water until they touch the stone floor of the tub. She sits back on a ledge on her side of the tub, both feet planted firmly on the floor. She picks up one of Katara's feet and finds the points of tension with her strong thumbs.
"Wow, you really did have a bad week," she says, digging a knuckle into the pressure point between the bones of Katara's foot.
"Bad two weeks," Katara sighs. "Three weeks? The fourth negotiation session on the borders of the United Republic."
"Don't - " Toph starts, and Katara waves a hand at her lazily.
"I'm not going to talk about the details. But Aang was so pent up by the end of it I thought he was going to start doing cartwheels on the negotiation table."
"Did he go off with Sokka?" Toph asks, transferring her attention to Katara's other foot.
"No, Zuko. He's going to go fly around a mountain until Zuko pulls him back down to earth."
"Through cuddles," Toph says fondly, sliding her hands up to Katara's ankle. "The big softie."
"You know it," Katara says. "When did he last come out here?"
"He and Mai were here three or four months ago, on their tour of the region." She grins smugly at Katara. "He said I was scandalous."
"Mmm, I hear you're good at that," Katara says, hooking a foot behind Toph to draw her in closer. "Breaking all the rules."
Toph laughs and strokes slowly up Katara's inner thighs. "These rules?" she asks, her fingers darting in to tease the crease where Katara's thighs meet her sex.
"Exactly what I was thinking," Katara says, leaning back and spreading her legs across Toph's shoulders. She closes her eyes, and all she can feel is the water on her back, the air on her face, and Toph's strong arms holding her up.