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Not Goodbye

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It felt indescribably strange to be splitting up now, after everything they’d been through. Katara had always thought that their little group would face this final trial, at least, together. But Azula needed to be taken down, and Zuko needed her help to do it. There was no question that going with him was the right choice.

That didn’t make the actual parting any easier.

Suki seemed surprised that she was the one Katara hugged first, but quickly relaxed into it, squeezing her back tightly.

“Good luck,” Suki said. “Be careful.”

“You, too.” Katara pulled back. She tilted her head toward Toph and Sokka with a wry smile. “Keep these two out of trouble.”

“I’ll try,” Suki said, before turning to embrace Zuko, who, rubbing his arm where Toph had punched it, seemed just as caught off-guard as she had been moments ago.

Katara hugged Toph harder than she maybe ever had. Toph made a little “oof” sound but didn’t complain other than that, just returned it, which meant a lot, coming from her. Her advice was simple: “Don’t die.”

It was enough to startle a tense laugh out of Katara. “Not planning on it,” she said, and released Toph, who stepped back, as unruffled as ever.

Zuko and Sokka were shaking hands, like men or something. Then Sokka gripped Zuko’s elbow with sudden severity. “You better not let anything happen to her.”

Zuko met Sokka’s gaze with equal gravity. “I’ll protect her with my life,” he said.

Apparently satisfied with that promise, Sokka released him. Katara wasn’t sure she was even meant to overhear this exchange, but all the same, it made her well up with gratitude for Zuko’s friendship, along with a mixture of guilt and dread. The tide of emotion only swelled as Zuko stepped aside, and Sokka turned to face her.

“Azula’s crafty,” he said, as though Katara had never met her before. “Don’t let your guard down around her, not even for a second.”

Katara swallowed hard and realized her heart was pounding. The reality of what they were about to do was starting to wash over her. “I know,” she said.

“And don’t listen to a word she says. She’ll only try to manipulate you.”

“I know.”

“And make sure you always know where all your closest water sources are—”

“Sokka, I know.”

Sokka’s mouth snapped shut, and he hesitated a moment like he wasn’t sure what to do with himself. Then he opened his arms. Katara gladly stepped into them.

Her brother was taller than he had been a year ago, broader and stronger than before they started this adventure that had changed their lives — and the world — forever. But he was still the same big brother who pissed her off on a near-daily basis, who used to comfort her when she woke up from bad nightmares. Still the same Sokka.

For once, she was determined not to cry. Just as she was determined not to entertain the possibility of what would happen (what it would mean for her ) if Aang failed today, she refused to think of this as goodbye. This wasn’t the end. She would see her brother tomorrow, just as she had practically every day of her entire life.

“You’re not allowed to do any stupid stunts, okay?” she said against his warm shoulder.

“No promises,” he said, a little regretfully.

She sighed, blinking rapidly. There was no time for tears. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.” Suddenly it seemed they didn’t say those precious words enough. Sokka kissed her head. It was the first time he’d done that in… longer than she could remember. “Go kick some crazy Fire Princess butt.”

Katara could only muster a weak smile at that before feeling her expression drop. “Listen, Sokka…” She grabbed his arm. “Make sure Aang gets home safe.”

Even if he hadn’t already known how much Aang meant to her, one look at her face would have given her away. He put a hand on her shoulder and nodded, just as gravely serious as he had been with Zuko. He didn’t say anything; there was nothing left to say.

Zuko caught her eyes. “We’d better get going.”

“Us, too,” Suki said gently.

Katara couldn’t resist the urge to reach out and fidget with the strap of Sokka’s scabbard, smoothing out nonexistent imperfections in the leather, straightening it pointlessly across his chest. Then she took a deep breath, and forced herself to drop her hands and step back, towards Appa.

“Today, destiny is our friend. I know it.”

The rock-solid certainty in Iroh’s voice steadied her, centered her. They would win this fight, and there was no force in the world strong enough to shake her resolve. From Appa’s back, she looked across at her brother, her friends, her family.

Tomorrow. She would see them all — and Aang — tomorrow.

“Yip yip,” Zuko said, sharing a look with Katara over his shoulder; and with his usual rumble, Appa took flight.