Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to any characters from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

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A Marriage of Convenience, Chapter Twenty-Five: New Life

Katara stood in a daze, moving woodenly where she was told to go, repeating the words she was told to say. She hid from the pain lurking inside her, ready to rip her apart in slow, vicious strips. She tried to focus on the sights around her, a dazzling array of colors. The red robes of Fire Nation nobility filled the ceremonial plaza, like a great roiling sea of blood. The white robes of the sages released silken whispers of sadness as they filed past her on the dais. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the golden glint of the funeral pyre, winking at her in the obscenely cheerful sunlight, but she turned her gaze away.

The Great Sage stepped forward, his red robes circling around him, and finished the ceremony. "Princess Ursa, you were beloved by the people of the Fire Nation. Wife of Fire Lord Ozai. Mother to Fire Lord Zuko and Princess Azula, now passed. We lay you to rest."

Katara reached out to grasp Zuko's hand, warm and strong at her side. She looked up at his face, awash in sadness, as he watched the fire sages step forward and engulf the sarcophagus in a blaze of flame. He'd had so little time with his mother, and now she was gone.

"She loved you so much," Katara whispered. Zuko met her gaze and tried to smile, but tears ran down his cheeks.

"She gave me life," he said hoarsely. "Not once, but twice."

Katara's hand tightened on his as she remembered the terrifying image of Zuko's lifeless eyes. Yesterday's tragic events would haunt her forever. She had been lost in darkness, her spirit spinning loose, when a golden thread appeared before her. She followed it, moving faster and faster until suddenly she was back in her body, heart pounding, gasping for breath. Zuko's head lay on the ground next to hers, and just as her eyes blinked open, his slid shut. She had turned weakly to her side, trying to shake him awake, calling his name, when Ursa knelt next to him.

"It is not his time yet," his mother said calmly. She looked at Katara and smiled kindly. "Tell him that I loved him more than anything else in this world," she said, laying her hands gently on his chest. Katara had watched in amazement as she seemed to glow, her spirit strong and clear, until suddenly the glow faded and Zuko jerked awake with a gasp even as his mother slumped to the floor.

Katara sighed now and leaned against his shoulder. If not for Ursa's sacrifice, she would be a widow today, and her baby would never know its father. She cradled her free hand protectively over her belly. Zuko noticed the gesture and brought his other hand over hers. This time his smile actually reached his eyes, and he leaned down to give her a lingering kiss, royal protocol be damned.

"Have I told you I loved you?" he whispered.

"Only about a hundred times this morning. But I wouldn't mind hearing it again."

He pressed his forehead against hers. "I love you. I love you. I love you. I waited too long to tell you, and then I almost lost you. I'll tell you every day."

"How about every hour?"

"Every minute. I love you, Katara."

"I love you too, Zuko. Forever."

As they both turned back to the ceremony, the flames from Ursa's pyre reached up into the bright afternoon sky, crackling loudly. Katara looked out across the sea of people in the ceremonial plaza. Here she had fought and killed Azula. Here she had saved Zuko's life. Here they had married. And here, in the shadow of death, they had found love. They had come through so much together in the past year, had overcome so many obstacles, and her faith had wavered at times. But now she knew their love was deep, and true, and would sustain them through whatever challenges lay ahead.

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One year later

"We're going to be late!" Zuko called from the bathroom in their quarters. She could hear the splashing as he tried to finish washing up quickly.

Katara smiled but didn't get up. She leaned back in the rocking chair they had moved over from the old nursery, pushing off the floor in a slow and steady rhythm. Her son nursed greedily at her breast and she relaxed, her milk flowing steadily as he suckled with enthusiasm. Like father, like son, she thought with a low chuckle. She pushed a lock of curly brown hair off the baby's forehead, laughing as the child followed her moving fingers with his deep blue eyes, then reached up a chubby fist to try and grab them.

"What's so funny?" Zuko asked from the other room.

"Little Kayan here is trying to catch my fingers."

"Oh?" Zuko came out of the bathroom, cradling a baby girl with a thick shock of black hair sticking straight up on the top of her head. "What do you think about that, Ursa?" he crooned, and their daughter looked up at him with an adoring golden gaze. "Is your brother bothering Momma?"

Ursa burped and then proceeded to suck determinedly on her fist. Zuko smoothed her formal white dress and then handed her to a waiting servant. He walked over to Katara with a smile. "He'll nurse all day if you don't cut him off, and then we'll miss the ceremony completely."

Katara gently extricated her breast and handed Kayan to Zuko to burp. "Better get a cloth – you don't want him spitting up on your robes again," she warned.

Zuko waved a hand casually in acknowledgement and carried the baby over to the changing table. Katara refastened her gown and then took a rare free moment to enjoy the sight of her husband. His hair was pulled up in a formal topknot with the golden diadem in a look she thought was unbearably sexy. Although they'd been together constantly, the fatigue of parenthood had taken its toll and they hadn't lain together since the twins were born over two months ago. Looking at Zuko now, she decided that would change tonight. He looked so regal, so intimidating in his red Fire Lord robes, yet the sight of him bouncing Ursa gently in his arms and making ridiculous baby talk warmed her heart.

They had chosen today, the anniversary of his mother's death, to officially declare their children as royal heirs. Katara hoped that creating a good memory would replace some of the sadness that still lingered in the palace. Perhaps it was her imagination, but she often felt that Ursa's spirit was watching over them, guiding them still. Since she had become a mother, she found herself speaking to Ursa, and her own mother Kya, occasionally in her mind. Thank you for these blessings, she thought. Thank you for my family.

Zuko turned back to her, their son in his arms, and Katara rose and collected their daughter from the servant. Together they left their chambers for the ceremonial plaza. Today was the official start of their children's lives as Fire Nation royalty. She and Zuko stepped onto the dais, the sun warming them as they held Kayan and Ursa for the roaring crowd to see. Katara looked up at Zuko, and when he met her gaze, they both smiled with excitement.

It was a new beginning, for all of them.

THE END

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Author's Note: Wow! I can't believe I actually finished it! And everything worked out, more or less! I want to thank my generous reviewers for your kind words of encouragement along the way. You really kept me motivated!

The fanfiction bug definitely bit me, and I'm already excited about my next story. This time I plan to write for the Japanese anime Darker than BLACK. If you've never seen it, it's darker than ATLA, more violent, but really good. I think I like it because the main character, Hei, reminds me a lot of Zuko. Set in a futuristic Tokyo, he's a sort of secret agent with supernatural powers. Everybody assumes he's a ruthless assassin, but you can see glimpses of a tender heart underneath. So what is he, really – monster or savior? Does he even know? Sexy police Chief Misaki Kirihara won't rest until she discovers the truth! Season one is available in reruns on the Funimation channel or through instant streaming from Netflix, and there are only 25 episodes in season one, so check it out! An extra episode (#26) even revolves around a fanfiction author, it's pretty hilarious. Maybe you can finish watching it by the time I post my first chapter!