"You are my wife. My feet shall run because of you. My feet dance because of you. My eyes see because of you. My mind thinks because of you. And I shall love because of you." The traditional marital vows of the Water Tribe echoed through the icy halls of the Southern Palace, and Katara swallowed hard against her tears as she gazed at the figures clasping hands beneath an altar adorned panda lilies intricately carved from the ice. Katara had worked with them alongside Pakku earlier that morning; had lovingly curved each of the petals with a flick of her wrists, her heart in her throat as she recalled the rare white and black blossom clutched in Aang's hand. How many years ago had that been? Over two decades, at least. And yet the memory of Aang's hopeful face tilted up towards hers, his gray eyes bright and mischievous and somehow older than his tender years, was still fresh, still raw, still sent a spike of pain through her heart.
Katara swallowed hard and refocused her attention to the couple beneath the canopy, reaching a hand out to Suki when she heard her sister-in-law sniffle beside her. Hakoda looked so handsome, aglow with happiness as he clasped the hands of his young bride, his mouth stretched in a smile identical to Sokka's. How was it possible that the boy… man… was old enough to wed? Hadn't it just been his parents saying their vows, Suki's face flushed and bright with excitement, Sokka's glowing with pride? Katara didn't feel any older than she had in those days, and yet, there stood her nephew, two years older than Zuko had been on her wedding day.
The thought of Zuko made Katara's heart ache in that old familiar way, and she bit her lip when her gaze slid over to where her son stood as witness to the union of his cousin. He was eighteen now, eighteen and so much like Zuko that it made Katara hurt. He had the same facial expressions as his father, the same shy, awkward sort of presence that made her want to smile and draw him into a hug. He was older than she had been, when she'd wed. Older than she'd been when she'd been divorced, when she'd birthed him in the dim light of the birthing huts, Suki's hands keeping her steady as Gran-Gran had overseen the birth. How was that possible?
"You are my husband. My feet shall run because of you. My feet dance because of you. My eyes see because of you. My mind thinks because of you. And I shall love because of you." The melodic, lilting voice of the pretty little thing that Hakoda was taking to wife, barely past her sixteenth birthday, drew Katara's attention away from her son and back to the ceremony. The girl was impossibly dark, even by Water Tribe standards, her eyes the color of the sea after a storm, her hair black as coal. But she was lovely, as lovely as Yue had been when Sokka had first laid eyes on the young princess. Miki and Hakoda made a pretty pair, and even Gran-Gran had said that they made a good match. Katara agreed; the girl was less assertive than she would have liked, as meek as any woman from Northern, but her gentleness seemed to tame Hakoda's wild spirit.
Pakku smiled at the young couple, and Katara was suddenly struck by how old her grandfather must have felt in that moment- he had presided over the marriage of his grandson, and now that of his great-grandson, yet his memory was still fresh with the youthful face of the woman he had loved in his youth. The woman who now sat beside Katara, her hands wrinkled and gnarled with arthritis, her face creased with age. "She is yours," Pakku said, the traditional close to the ceremony, and Hakoda leaned forward with a grin to pull his new bride against him for a kiss.
Katara caught her son wistfully watching the pair, and knew he was thinking of Nukka, still holed up in the Earth Kingdom, too busy mastering Earth Bending to even make it home for Hakoda's wedding. Pakak never talked to her about the young Avatar; he was as secretive as his father had been in many respects, but Nukka's letters indicated their growing attachment. Katara wouldn't be surprised if it was her son standing beneath the altar in the not so distant future, Nukka's bright smile igniting a spark of joy in her child's eyes. La, let it be so. Prayerfully, the Spirits would grant her child happiness. They had seen fit to give her enough misery for a hundred lifetimes; perhaps they would see fit to spare her son the same fate. Perhaps they would agree that she had suffered enough for the both of them.
Katara sighed, her lips curving into a ghost of a smile as her nephew and his young wife laughed and waved to their cheering friends and family, their arms wrapped tightly around one another. Weddings were supposed to be a joyful event, a celebration that two lonely souls had found their life mates. Yet it seemed that for all in attendance, weddings were a bittersweet reminder of better days, of unrequited love. They were a mirror that revealed the guest's unfulfilled desires and memories of loves past.
As Katara stared at the young couple, their faces glowing with happiness, eyes alight with hope of a bright future, she couldn't help but to remember pale hands trembling as they held a crudely fashioned goblet, golden eyes molten in the fire's glow, chapped lips pressing to hers, warm and gentle and sweet with the heady taste of wine. But that was long ago, twenty years past, in another lifetime. The days of wedding finery and jade eggs hidden in the sheets were over for her now. She'd had her time, her brief, blissful moments of happiness. It was the new generation's turn now. It would do her no good to dwell on the past, to remember calloused hands ghosting over flushed skin, fingers laced and bodies twined so that it was impossible to determine where one ended and the other began.
So she pushed aside her memories and focused on her nephew, pasted on a smile to mask the familiar, dull ache in her heart, and laughed along with her tribe to keep her tears at bay.