AN: Whoo, ok, product of a boring morning, about three-four straight hours of writing, and a Halloween challenge on livejournal. I have to say, I'm rather proud of this, and I hope everyone enjoys it too. Happy Halloween!
Disclaimer: Nope, I own nothing…
It didn't make any sense that she appeared in his gardens, in his home, because ghosts weren't supposed to haunt places they'd never been. It was a standard, unquestionable rule of the spirit world. Ghosts followed their friends and stayed closest to the places they felt the safest, no questions asked. And yet in death, it seemed she broke the accepted codes as she had in life. Zuko knew he shouldn't have been surprised the first time he saw her hovering, pale and translucent by the royal pond, and yet he was. If she should remain on earth, why wasn't she watching over her brother, or the Avatar, or even moaning and rattling chains down in the dungeons where Azula was being held, like any self-respecting, angry spirit should be? Why was she appearing night after night by his pond on his land? If she chose to haunt him, why didn't she chase after Mai, or slam doors or misplace important documents? In death, Katara was just as a much a mystery as she had been in life.
Zuko knew Katara showing up every night really shouldn't have bothered him. She wasn't disturbing anything around the palace; she wasn't even sending him the normal cryptic threats or warnings like most spirits did. She, (was it right to even call the spirit 'she' anymore Zuko wondered) remained by his pond at night, sometimes strolling around the bank, or crouched, peering into the deep water, or standing in the middle of the pond, head thrown back, gazing up at the sky as she hovered a breath above the still water's surface. When his son played there during the day, the spirit never appeared. Zuko only saw the faint shimmer of Katara at night, when he slipped silently from his large bed to check on his son, and then walk around the garden, enjoying the cool breeze that sighed and whispered 'peace' through the leaves of the trees.
The spirit never spoke to him, when she saw him; she simply smiled, or sometimes waved, beckoning to him to join her. Zuko ignored her and avoided the pond as much as he could. Dwelling and conversing with the dead had driven saner men crazy, and Zuko knew she was gone; nothing could change that. Out of sight, out of mind, and the spirit could do him no harm. The only problem with the theory was that no matter where he was in the garden, the soft glow of the supernatural being reached him. Still, Zuko tried not to think about her, the spirit, the hallucination, whatever it was that took the form of his former enemy. As long as she didn't interrupt his quiet strolling and reveries he would not interrupt whatever it was she was doing in his home. On some nights, he even found the presence comforting, the feeling of not being alone was welcome, and sometimes he felt as though Katara were protecting him from his worries, for a sense of calm would filter through the garden when Zuko felt too overwhelmed to sleep.
Sometimes, Zuko didn't even make it to the gardens, simply remained on the steps and watched the silvery glow move about the pond. On those nights, his mind always strayed back to darker days. Days of war and pain and fear. Days when Zuko sometimes wished he had never been born, wished he had never lived to see the thousands of broken spirits the war had created, the masses that were killed in the name of bettering the world, his uncle dying. And yet, sometimes there were bright days amid the days that never should have dawned. The day he learned his mother was still alive, the day he turned against his sister and knew for once in his life, he had made the right decision. The day his son was born. Those had been the happy days that had helped him make it through the war. Helped him survive to become Fire Lord and bring peace to the whole world.
Sometimes when Zuko walked, his mind strayed to the Avatar. Did Aang know that his best friend was still on earth? What would he do if he found that Katara was haunting the Fire Lord instead of him? Zuko had more than once decided that if he called the Avatar, surely Aang would be able to convince Katara to return to the spirit world where she belonged, and she would stop disturbing Zuko's thoughts. More than once, had Zuko written out a message and gone to the falconry to send for Aang, but again and again, something stopped him from sending his fastest falcon to the Avatar. Sometimes he told himself that the spirit would grow bored eventually and stop haunting his gardens, other times he told himself it would hurt Aang too much to see Katara again, and sometimes he found other, more urgent things that needed his attention before he could deal with the floating apparition. Whatever the reasons he created, Zuko never did manage to send for Aang, and after a while, he stopped trying all together.
One night, when the moon didn't rise, Zuko found himself moving toward the pond. He didn't try to stop himself, didn't try to turn onto another path. He reached the pond and stared across the depths toward Katara, who was hovering above the waters edge. She didn't look surprised to see him, if anything; it was if she had been expecting him. With unearthly grace, she moved across the water toward him, floating like the Painted Lady his mother had told him stories of. She stopped a few feet from him and smiled, soft face breaking into one of those breath-taking smiles that Zuko recognized from life. He didn't smile back.
The two didn't speak for a while, Zuko wearily considering Katara as the spirit took him in as well. Katara wasn't much changed from life. Her face was still gentle and kind, bright eyes innocent and yet so strong, hair pulled back into the braid she wore before she had reached the Fire Nation. The only difference from her true form was the absence of her necklace.
"You don't belong here," Zuko finally told the spirit softly. Katara cocked her head at him. "You and I both know that."
"Your son has grown." Katara replied in way of an answer. Her voice was faint, as if coming from a far distance. But it was her voice and Zuko sighed.
"You've seen him?"
"Once or twice. Only when he comes out to play at dusk. He will be a strong warrior." She smiled again; reaching out lay a hand on Zuko's shoulder. He stepped back. He had no illusions about this spirit. Katara was gone, and he could no longer touch her. Katara withdrew her hand.
"He takes after his mother."
"How is she?"
"Fine. She's expecting."
"Two children. You're getting quite old."
"You haven't aged, how would you know?"
"I haven't seen her."
"She doesn't like the garden. She doesn't like much."
The spirit frowned.
"Are you not happy?"
Zuko avoided the pond for the next few weeks on his nighttime strolls. Katara still waved and smiled, but she did not try to speak to him again. Zuko was glad; the spirits shouldn't try to contact the living. They were dead, and no matter how much they or some people tried to deny it, they could not return to their former lives. That didn't keep Zuko from watching her though. Sometimes the spirit would water bend, wiping the water through the air before she returned it to the pond with a soft splash. Sometimes she stared longingly at the sky and the stars. Zuko wondered if she wished to reach the spirit world and did not know how too. If that was he case, he should really call for the Avatar. He did not.
The next time he went to the pond, Katara greeted him from a branch in the tall tree. She sat, legs swinging and humming to herself as Zuko approached.
"There you are, Fire Lord." Her eyes crinkled into a smile. "You've come to see me again."
"Return to the spirit world, you know this is not your home."
"My home is the sea."
"Your home is another world. You are deluding yourself."
"Maybe it is you who are creating delusions. How is your son?"
"His birthday was last week."
"I know you do."
"How is she?"
"I have not seen her much. I have many things to deal with recently."
"She is expecting."
"Her baby is not due for another month."
The Spirit was quiet, as she looked him over and then with a distant sigh. "Your face."
"It is not right for a father to have a face that scares his children, no more than it is right for a King to have a face that scares his kingdom." Zuko sighed as he moved to sit under the tree.
"It never scared me."
"You were different."
"You are different now too."
"I am." Silence. "Why have you lost your necklace?"
"Things change with death."
"No, but ideals."
"Are you waiting for something Katara?"
"I cannot say."
"Don't you know?"
"Are you happy?"
"I am happy."
Zuko's second child, a daughter was born before he spoke to Katara again. She was beautiful, jet black hair and golden eyes. Everything a little princess should look like. Zuko knew he should be happy, and he was. He had always wanted a daughter, ever since, well, ever since. Mai wanted a traditional Fire Nation name, and though it wasn't what he had envisioned, Zuko let her name their child after his mother. It was a beautiful name, and Zuko had no problem with it, it just wasn't what he had wanted.
A frown on ghostly features. "You should not look so sad after your child has been born."
"I am not sad."
"I find it funny you believe you can fool me." Came the sarcastic retort.
"You should not find anything funny. Your dead."
"Why are you not happy with your daughter?"
"I am. She's lovely, everything I wanted."
"What does your son think of her?"
"He loves her, he's happy to have a little sister."
A smile quirked the spirit's lips. "That will make it easier on you."
"You were not this gloomy when your son was born."
"Why do you keep calling him mine?
"He is yours."
"That's not what I meant."
Katara stood from her crouched position where she had been watching the baby turtle ducks sleep.
"Zuko," she said simply. She reached out to touch his face, but Zuko backed away.
The hand fell to her side, and Katara looked at him sadly.
"Are you happy?'
Zuko did not reply.
Zuko locked himself in his office for days on end. He spent time with his advisors and in meetings as often as he could, and only returned to his family at night. Mai didn't seem to care, they rarely spoke as it was, and she seemed happiest when it was just she and her daughter. His son, though. Zuko knew his child missed him, but he couldn't bring himself to go to him. Little Hakoda would have to understand.
"I've missed you."
"I've been busy."
"Even for your son." Katara gave him a disapproving look.
"I can't help it."
"You can, but you don't."
"Katara, I'm trying."
"To do what? Destroy your family?" She was as calm as ever, and Zuko grew annoyed.
"No, to move on."
"It's been three years."
"You think it's that simple?"
"Three years is a long time."
"So why aren't you gone yet?" Zuko suddenly roared. "If it's been such a long time, why haven't you left me? Why haven't you moved on?" The anger was rising in him and he let it come, embracing it as it rushed over his body. "You're dead Katara! What is it that you want me to do? You can't come back and yet you're here every night! You're dead, gone, can't you just leave me alone now?"
He needed Katara to yell back, get angry as she would in life, to fight back kicking and screaming and tell him that there was a way to bring her back. Something that he had over looked, they had overlooked, that death wasn't permanent. But she didn't, she just watched him sadly, biting her lip as he yelled and then she asked the question she always asked.
"Are you happy?"
"No!" Zuko roared. "I'm anything but happy! How can you just stand there ask me that Katara?" He slammed his fist against the tree and fought back the tears that were threatening to rise.
"Zuko…" She whispered, and that was all it took. He lost it, sinking to the ground as sobs wracked his body. How could Katara have died? They had promised, promised each other it was forever. He had given his heart to her; he had given her everything.
"I tried to forget," He growled. "I had a healer heal my scar, I married Mai, I devoted my time to the Fire Nation, anything to keep from thinking about you."
Katara knelt next to him. "I know."
"So why I can't I forget you? Why did you have to die in the first place?"
Drops of moonlight spilled from Katara's eyes and down her cheeks as she wept with him.
"I never meant to leave you. I never planned on dying."
Zuko reached out, searching for her hand. He felt his fingers brush through something cool, but no matter how many times he tried to grasp her hand, he could not.
"We were almost home." He croaked. "If you had held on two days, you would have made it to land, you would have lived."
"I know," Katara whispered.
"We would be a family."
"You have a family now." Katara whispered. "As much as you miss me, you can't forget about Hakoda or Mai or Ursa. They are the ones who need you now."
"But what if I need you?"
Katara was fighting back her tears, trying to stay calm. "I'll always be here, Zuko. If you realize that, then you can move on and love those who need you."
"How can I love the ones I need to, if I see you every night? I'll only ever think of you."
"If I left, you would be able to concentrate on the living and become happy?"
"How can I be happy if I know that I'll never be with you again?"
"That's not true. I'm in you, and I'm in Hakoda. As long as you two are alive, I'll always be here."
"Katara, I don't want to lose you again."
"You can only ever lose a person once, Zuko, and I'm already lost. Please, Zuko, live, be happy." She begged.
Zuko looked up at her through his tears. Her features were filled with a terrible sadness, but with love and affection too.
"If you moved on, and I managed to live and be happier, would you be happy?"
"You wouldn't be angry that I loved someone else?"
Zuko rose and took a shaky breath as he leaned against the tree for support. Katara smiled at him through her tears.
"Stay strong, I know you can." She told him as she reached out to touch his cheek.
The next day, Zuko sent a falcon to Aang.