He could remember when it was just the two of them.
A time of peace, love and joy.
A time when life was simple.
Before the lemur had come along and chattered constantly in his ears and stole his food. Before the brother and sister would add weight to his back and complain about his flight speed even when every muscle in his body begged for rest as they lounged from his labour. Before the blind girl and the burnt prince whom never really seemed to allow him the briefest of words. These times were not those that he would dream of when he slumbered peacefully through the night.
Instead, he thought of the monks who would only extend their hands in kindness and understanding. They were never cruel, never forced him beyond his limit and allowed him to do and eat as he pleased. He remembered the other sky bison calf's who would dance and play through the skies, crooning happily, oblivious to the horrors that the next few years would bring. He would often play with his boy and grew large and strong by his side. He watched the boy grow from a tiny child to an experienced air-bending master and did his best to be worthy of such a partner.
He enjoyed the company of all the air Nomads, but the company of his boy was always that of which he craved. The boy understood him. The boy loved him and cared for him like a sibling. He loved the boy like no other. He swore that he would protect Aang, no matter what it took. Nothing would ever come between them. Not the Earth that threatened to engulf him from all sides as he strolled through a cave to follow the boy, not the blistering heat and threatening words of other humans when they had been separated and he would definitely never allow death to part the boy from this world. He would gladly exchange his life for his boys. Somehow, he knew the boy would do the same.
He could remember days before the time when his legs ached from exhaustion and his fur was matted with earth and sweat. He could remember the days when he could glide through the skies as he wanted, not having to fear flying fireballs and wickedly sharp harpoons. When the sound of screams was still foreign, instead the laughter of his partner the most familiar sound that rang through the air. When humans lived in harmony and joy rather then fear and betrayal. When his boy was not always receiving ugly scars and shedding tears from nightmares that plagued him through the night. Before the weight of the world rested on his young, inexperienced shoulders. When people did not place all their problems on a 12-year-old child and did nothing to help themselves.
He remembered a time when life made sense.
But he knew that nothing, not even fate itself, would ever come between him and his boy.
Many years had passed and people came and left. The lemur had died a few months ago from old age (They weren't known for their particularly long life spans). He had grieved his companions death, but also noticed that his boy no longer came to him for comfort, but instead he found his boy being held long into the night by the waterbender. While he felt horrible for such emotion, especially in a time of mourning, he felt the tiniest spark of jealousy, something he immediately attempted to rid himself of. The monks would be ashamed.
The people whom he had met through their travels came and left as they wished. Being the Avatar's sky bison, he never again had to worry about being mistreated or going hungry. He was given his every possible whim and lived a life of pampering and luxury. Aang came to visit him every day and they would often go for a flight, just the two of them. These were the moments that he treasured the most. He could close his eyes and allow the air the brush through his fur, easing away all the pains and worries, glorying in the skies and company.
But then, the shouts would bring his boy back to reality and he would leave him once more, going back to the sister that had stayed with them. Each time she arrived, his boy would apologise with that truthful glint in his eyes and Appa was left alone.
The visits became shorter and fewer in between.
His boy celebrated the birth of his son, Tenzin, with him, but this was short lived. The waterbender and the baby took up much of his boys time. It was times like this, he felt the most alone. He loved his boy and rejoiced every time he came out to visit, but he could not help but feel the gaping void that refused to fill with simple visits once a day. He began to feel bitterness towards the waterbender and the child. But he did not act upon these feelings. How could he destroy something that brought such joy to his boy?
Simply, he could not. No matter the sadness that filled him, he could never find it in himself to harm Aang. He simply loved him too much.
He could feel it. It came on slowly at first, a dull ache in his limbs. It progressed quickly.
He found himself only being able to fly shorter and shorter distances, a sign that he had noticed in the lemur in his later years. His joints began to creak and pain would throb through them, particularly when the weather was not favorable. His eyesight became dimmer, it took longer for him to notice the presence of his boy when he arrived in the courtyard for their daily visit and his appetite began to grow weaker and weaker. Soon, he found himself unable to fly at all.
He lay in the dirt, defeated and pathetic.
What would his boy think of him now?
Appa grunted in pleasure. His boy was seeing him more often. Instead of the repulsed reaction he had expected when his boy found his used partner laying in the dirt, it seemed as if he never left his side now. He still had to remain in the courtyard outside the house but the Avatar was always there to provide him warmth and comfort whenever he wanted. Although his boy seemed troubled, he couldn't help but treasure the fact that he was spending more time with him now then he had in years.
No longer was his calf and mate of higher priority. No longer did he leave when his town needed the Avatar's help to make the simplest of decisions. No, unless it was an emergency, his boy stayed at his side.
Appa sighed. As his boy hummed tunelessly at his side, he fell into a restful sleep.
That night, he dreamed of the temples, of the now rarely heard laughter of his boy and dreamed of the life he used to have.
"Katara, I'm not just going to leave him out there alone! There's nothing that anyone can do or say that's going to stop me!"
Tenzin stared at his father. He was fifteen years old and knew that his father was not a person that was often easily angered. Trained by the air nomads to remain calm and collected in every type of situation, raising his voice was something Avatar Aang simply did not do. Only once had he seen his father react in anger, when a particularily violent earthbender had used himself for ransom at the tender age of six. Aang had apologised to him again and again for the terrible memory he had caused and while the boy forgave his father, somehow he never could erase the image that the Avatar State used in a moment of pure fury had caused.
Somewhere deep inside him, no matter how irrational it was, Tenzin felt a shiver of fear for himself and his mother. Something in his Father's voice... Was not his Father.
"Aang, be rational." Katara said slowly, still blocking the door to the courtyard. "Appa will probably last through the night, he has healers with him every minute and they insist that he won't be in any pain." Her blue eyes sank to the floor and although she tried to hide it, they were growing moist. "Besides, they say that it's not going to be how you want to remember him. It's not a memory you will want to have. Especially your last memory with Appa."
For a split second, Tenzin almost thought that his mother had won the fight. There was the slightest hesitation, barely a sliver of a second, before the fury returned in his normally kind peaceful eyes.
"If I was dying, Katara, I doubt Appa would leave me alone because that wasn't how he wanted to remember me." Aang snapped coldly and Tenzin did not miss his mother's flinch at his rarely used tone. "I'm going to see Appa and I'm going to stay with him until... Until he gets better."
"Aang, please. You've lost a lot of weight and I can tell you're getting sick." Tenzin and Aang could both hear her trying to keep from crying, but she kept her tears back fiercely, attempting to reason with her husband. "I'll stay outside with Appa and watch him. He wouldn't want you to suffer like this! He wouldn't want you hurting yourself! These kingdoms need their Avatar to be healthy and well. They need to be able to look at you and know everything will be alright, no matter what the odds! You can't do that if you're sick!"
"Katara, you haven't even gone to really visit him in the last two years!" Aang snarled in response, "Heck, ever since Ozai was defeated, you've barely given him the light of day! I never said anything, but I saw how you guys changed towards him. He wasn't useful anymore and so, he wasn't as important! I was the only one who even seemed to care about what happened to him! Just because you don't see what the big deal is I-" He cut himself off, turning away from his son and wife, forcing himself to take a few deep, calming breaths. Tenzin glanced at Katara, still unsure of how he should react in a situation like this, and noticed that she was stone still and watching Aang's shaking shoulders. She took a small breath before squaring her shoulders.
"I never said Appa wasn't important to us, Aang." She reasoned calmly. "I disagree with this but... I'm not going to try and stop you if you're going to spend the night with him. That wasn't my intention. I just wanted what's best for you, Aang. It's not like you need my permission or som-"
"That's right Katara, I wasn't asking for permission." Aang replied queitly, "Because I was going whether you granted it or not."
With a swift step and a slight breeze, Aang was gone.
Aang forced himself to swallow the lump in his throat as he approached the giant bison. His nerves were shattered, his emotions unbalanced and his hands shaking with such ferocity that he couldn't still them. Trying to keep everything normal, he reached out and stroked the long, white fur, once so long and plush now thinner and almost bald in places.
"Hey buddy." He said calmly and Appa turned his partially cloudy eyes to his. He gave a happy grunt and reached out with his long tongue, stroking it up the entire side of his body. Aang chuckled, collapsing onto Appa's forehead and tracing the arrow there. Appa crooned comfortably, relaxing his muscles and allowing Aang to clamber on top of his head.
The Avatar stood on the bison's back, his eyes and hands memorising every part of the bison he could sense. The long wide tail, the once muscular half dozen legs, the now dulled horns and the sound of his slow, steady heartbeat. He stroked Appa idly, closing his eyes and allowing the silent night air to envelop them. The summer night began to cool and Aang noticed the bison beginning to shiver, although he seemed to be trying to hide it. Aang quickly lit a few lamps around the courtyard and set up a few makeshift fire pits, sending a pleasant warmth from their gentle glow. He smiled as Appa sighed in contentment, the warmth surrounding them both and merely enjoying each others company.
Aang sat in front of his friend, touching the Appa's face and he began to sing.
"Leaves from the vine
Falling so slow
Like fragile, and tiny shells
Drifting in the foam."
Appa's grunt rumbled through his chest and Aang chuckled.
"Sorry buddy, it's a song Iroh taught me long ago. It was the only thing I could think of." Appa shook his head and breathed deeply. Aang continued humming the soft tune, his voice carrying softly through the now warm air and long into the night.
Appa's eyes drifted shut, not really concerned about the words of the song. He was just happy to hear his boys voice, it soothed his aches and set his mind at ease. Appa briefly wondered if Aang truly had any real idea what he meant to him. Not for the first time, the bison cursed his inability to speak his mind to the boy. More then once, he had wanted nothing more then to comfort him, to tell him that no matter what trials his life as the Avatar brought him through, he would always be there to help, the carry some of the burdens the world placed on him.
Aang ended the song and watched Appa's even breaths. Although he lay very still, Aang knew his friend was not asleep.
"Hey, buddy." Aang chirped quietly, his eyes taking an odd look. Appa slowly opened his deep brown eyes, attempting to focus on his Airbender's face. "You know how much I love you, right?"
The bison grunted an affirmative, pulling himself forward to be closer to him. Aang's hand buried deep into the fur, burying his face in it in an attempt to hide the tears that were gathering in the corner of he eyes, tears that he knew he wouldn't be able to hold back.
"We've known each other for so long, longer then I've know anyone... You're my best friend. I know I haven't been a very good friend to you lately, and I'm sorry for that. I really wish I could have sp-" He cleared his throat, trying to rid himself of the lump that was now quite successfully blocking his speech. "Spent more time together. But you know, we had a lot of good times, huh? A lot of bad times too, but we always managed to get through it together, no matter what the odds. You and I, we're quite the team."
His hands moved rhythmically, stroking the bison's hair as he drifted off once more. "I know there is nothing I could say that would express what I'm really feeling right now, Appa, but I want you to know how much I love you buddy. I just want you to know that no one will ever be able to replace you... I'll never forget you. I cou-... I could have never survived this long without you there with me. Without you, I'm nothing."
The Avatar went silent for a moment, trying to convince himself that the breaths were becoming further in between and that the heartbeat was beginning to slow even more. Appa was fine... He was going to make it through this like he always did...
"Really Appa, I'm nothing... Without you, I would have just been some kid with no one there to keep him going. I could always trust you to be someone who would be there for me and... And I h-hope that you feel the same way buddy. I want you to know that you're so, so important to me... Appa... I love you buddy."
There was no more holding them back. His tears began to fall, hot and thick, into Appa's white fur, soaking it in. The bison didn't care, though. He wished he could repeat those words to him, but his eyes were so very heavy... Would Aang minded if he closed them, just for a moment? Surely not... Just for a moment...
For the very last time, the great sky bison's eyes shut.
Appa drew his last breath.
"I love you buddy..."
Aang continued to cry asthe steady rythm became no more. Never again would he hear the heartbeat of this mighty creature.
His eyes blurily opened, trying to focus on the morning that surrounded him. It seemed so familiar, the hues of natural browns, tans and greens, something he had not seen in quite a long time. The sky reigned with a deep cloudless blue with the sun warming his body just right. He was quite comfortable, he really didn't want to move...
"Hey buddy, you still sleepin'?"
Appa's eyes opened once more, this time focusing on the young monk before him. An impossibly long grin on his face, a pair of wide, innocent gray eyes and that laugh... It had been so long since he had heard that laugh. So carefree, so innocent and so joyous.
He stood, extending out his tongue and swiping the entire side of the boys body, much to his amusement.
Hopping on top of his head, he held on to the fur and hung himself upside down to look the bison in the eye, the smile still firmly set.
"What do you say we go for a flight today? It's beautiful out and really, what the monks don't know won't hurt them!"
Appa gave a grunt as an affirmative and took off into the skies, forever into the wide blue yonder.
Just him and his boy.