Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at http://archiveofourown.org/works/144915.

Rating:
General Audiences
Archive Warning:
No Archive Warnings Apply
Category:
Gen
Fandom:
Avatar (2009)
Character:
Jake Sully, Neytiri (Avatar), Grace Augustine, Trudy Chacon
Additional Tags:
Original Character(s), Canon Character of Color, Canon Disabled Character
Collections:
Yuletide 2010
Stats:
Published: 2010-12-26 Words: 20323

The Spiral of Lives

Summary

The last thought he has before everything goes black is, Shit. An AU of the movie, wherein the Avatar Program never existed. [Warning: some in-character ableism.]

Notes

Warnings for ableism - it's all in-character and requested by the prompt, I hope (please let me know if anything jumps out at you that doesn't seem to fit in that category). Some of the things in here that don't appear in the movie are B-canon from the Survival Guide, and some of them are just me enjoying myself. I hope this is something like what you wanted, xenakis; I saw the prompt, and couldn't resist! Also, edited to add: the title comes from the translated lyrics to a weaving song that I found on the Avatar Wiki (james-camerons-avatar.wikia.com); the wiki was an invaluable resource while I was writing this.

The last thought he has before everything goes black is, Shit.

*

The thanator trampled him but good, and landed one foot right on his spine; mangled half his lumbar vertebrae and crushed the other half. The doctor does her best to dress it up pretty, but Jake interrupts her halfway through, and tells her to give it to him straight.

"How straight?" she says, after a moment.

"I'm a Marine," he says.

Her lips curl up a little, rueful, and she pauses for a second and then sits down on the edge of his bed. "All right," she says. "A three-ton alien used your back for a footrest. It fucked you up good. Bad news is you probably won't walk again. You might get a little sensation back, depending on how well some of the nerves heal, and maybe one day you'll wiggle your toes; but that's about it."

He swallows. "Is there good news?"

Her expression turns considering. "Odds are your dick still works."

He lets out a snort, involuntary, and tries to ignore the way his eyes are watering.

"Listen," she says, a little more gently. "It might feel like the end of the world, but it's not. It's not going to be easy, either; but if you liked easy, I'm guessing you wouldn't be a Marine."

*

Dr. Mazouzi - that's her name - is right; it's not the end of the world. Not being able to walk anymore in and of itself is not actually the issue. It's the adjustment that's total shit. He's not sure how he manages it, but he keeps letting himself forget what's happened, catching himself thinking Where did I leave that - oh, I'll just get up and grab it, and every time it's like he's back in that bed, waking up and realizing all over again.

Correspondingly, he is also a total shit for weeks. They aren't whipping up a transport just to send him home; it'll be a while before they dump him back on Earth with a shitty pension and a slap on the back. Dr. Mazouzi drags him back in for PT and keeps asking him whether he wants any adjustments made to the chair; truthfully, it's not quite the right size and something about it is making his back hurt, but it all feels like part and parcel of his new constant low-level misery, so he answers her in grunts and is as unhelpful as possible.

He expects her to try to snap him out of it, to give him some kind of stupid pep talk or something; but she doesn't. "If you were depressed," she tells him, "I'd make you go see somebody. But this isn't my first rodeo, Sully; I know depression. You're just pissed and you've got nobody to take it out on except yourself. That's not the same thing."

The next time he's in for PT, two days later, she asks him about the chair again.

"I don't think the back's quite right for me," he says, grudgingly, and she smiles.

*

During the weeks that he's being a shit, he avoids the mess hall like the plague. Whatever adjustment he's achieved isn't going to bear up under curious or pitying stares. But Dr. Mazouzi fixes the chair, and makes him do drills, and teaches him new ways to hit people; and by the time he rolls back into Hell's Kitchen for the first time in months, he feels enough like himself again that the eyes on him don't bother him.

Nukrit and Abrams and Chung still sit together, apparently, and Nukrit's just getting up to get seconds when he comes in. "Hey, Marine," she says, holding out a fist until he bumps it. "Don't take my seat."

"I brought my own chair," Jake says, dry, and then pauses - it's not much, maybe, but he's pretty sure that's the first joke he's ever made about the wheelchair. Dr. Mazouzi will be so proud.

Half Nukrit's mouth pulls up into a grin, and she ruffles his hair as she passes; he's let it grow out of its usual cut a little.

None of them are really Marines, in a technical sense. The RDA runs all operations on Pandora, and it's not actually its own country yet, even if it has the budget of one. But it hires almost all ex-military for its SecOps forces, and they divide themselves by branch without even really trying to. Jake's US, Nukrit's Royal Thai Marine Corps, Abrams is Royal Marines, and Chung is PLA Corps; but when it comes to the mess hall, they're all just Marines, and those damn Army guys better not try to sit at their table.

He's kind of expecting Chung and Abrams to dance around the elephant he's sitting in, but they take their cue from Nukrit and keep it casual; Chung compliments him on the way his wheels handle, and Abrams, who took a Na'vi arrow to her leg and still has trouble with it sometimes, commiserates with him about the shit ramp by the rear launch bay, which is so stupidly steep Jake can't navigate it without help. Everything is going great - until a voice comes on over the loudspeaker and announces a shift change for patrol. They all get up at once with hurried goodbyes and dump their trays, and Jake is left sitting at an empty table wishing the loudspeaker meant it was time to roll his eyes and suit up.

***

Grace stares at her computer, and tries really hard not to punch anything. It almost works, too; she slams a fist onto the surface of her desk instead of going and finding Colonel Quaritch's face.

This is the third fucking time this week he's refused to grant her request for field time outside the outpost. She wouldn't even have to ask, except nobody leaves Hell's Gate without a military escort, after that goddamn massacre at the school - fucking stupid, Grace thinks, when it was the grunts with guns who caused that mess. Mess, jesus; that's not the word for it. Bullet holes in her chalkboard, Silwanin's body toppled like a fallen tree, Neytiri screaming. Worst fucking day of Grace's life, and Grace has had enough shit days for that to mean something.

She pinches the bridge of her nose with her fingers, and she's swung around in her chair, trying to figure out where she put her cigarettes, when the door swishes open. "Yeah, what?" she says, figuring it's bound to be Norm. Hardly anybody else comes in the lab anymore.

"Uh, hi?"

It's not Norm.

She lights up and swivels her chair around, and finds herself eye-level with the guy. A Marine; it's obvious just by looking at him, even though he's not even in a SecOps uniform. A Marine, in a wheelchair.

It rings a bell, somewhere in her head. She remembers vague murmurs going around the mess, a few months back - recon gone bad, a Marine run over by a thanator, and nobody sure whether he was going to make it, or how bad it was going to be if he did. She hadn't been paying much attention at the time. "Yeah, hi," she says. "What do you want?"

The Marine's face darkens a little. "Just - looking around," he says.

Wasting time, Grace interprets, now that they can't use me to shoot stuff anymore. "Well, look around someplace else," she says, "I'm busy."

The Marine's eyebrows go up. "Busy being pissed?" he says.

He saw her punch the desk. Of course he did. She takes a deep drag from the cigarette, and then blows it out, and tries to think calm thoughts. "If your idiot CO would let me do my goddamn job," she says, "then maybe I'd have something more pressing to accomplish than sitting around raising my own blood pressure."

That's when Norm comes in, eyes alight as the door slides open for him. "Hey, Grace-"

She shakes her head. "No go, Norm," she says, and then nods toward him. "Norm Spellman; I'm Grace Augustine."

"Jake Sully," the Marine says.

"Oh - hey," Norm says, blinking. "Anyway. Sucks rocks about the field time, Grace, but check this out: I've been cross-referencing those stories you recorded from Mo'at, and I found something-"

"Mo'at?" the Marine - Sully - interrupts.

Grace is half out of her chair, and she's already chucked her cigarette so she can take the display pad Norm is holding with both hands; she pauses to give Sully a look that will hopefully impress upon him how little she wants him involved in this. "The tsahik of the Omatikaya clan of the Na'vi," she says. "Not that any of that means anything to you."

"The Na'vi?" Sully says, because he apparently can't take a hint.

"Yeah - the reason you dumbasses keep coming back with arrows in you?" Grace snaps. "Nine feet tall, blue all over?"

"They've got a name?" Sully says, and for about five seconds, Grace wants nothing more than to hit him in the face.

But Norm cuts in before she can tear Sully apart, nodding. "Oh, yeah," he says dryly. "Names, clan affiliations, language, culture - the whole nine yards." His voice turns wistful. "Amazing stuff. As complex as any civilization we know of, including our own; not that that means shit to Quaritch."

"Tell me about them," Sully says.

Grace shares a look with Norm.

"Look, I've still got a while before they get around to shipping me home," Sully says, "and they won't let me fight jack shit while I'm in this chair. I'm no good to them anymore."

"You're no good to me either," Grace says, harsh, but then she sighs, and thinks it over. It can't hurt; new linguistics samples are a lost cause since the school, and even Grace's botany work has slowed to a crawl since Quaritch cut them off. And, hell, it might even help - maybe a soldier's perspective will give them the angle they need to convince Quaritch to let them out, even if the guy is permanently grounded. "Okay, fine, we'll fill you in, gun jockey; but if you can't keep up, I'm not telling you twice."

"Yes, ma'am," Sully says.

*

Turns out she was lying about Sully being no good, even if she didn't know it at the time. His grasp of phonetics is shit, but he remembers the words even if he can't say them right, and soon he can transcribe her recordings almost as fast as Norm can. Norm's great at the abstracts of Na'vi, at pinning down obscure syntactic transformations and handling word-for-word translations; but Sully's better at actually understanding it, picking up the gist of a paragraph even when he only knows one word out of every three. He can't analyze anything in a larger context, because he doesn't have a larger context, isn't working from a background in anthropology or linguistics. But sometimes you need somebody to ask the dumb questions.

More importantly, he breaks Quaritch's embargo. Grace has no fucking idea how; maybe he tells Quaritch their research will make it easier to shoot stuff, even though they're pretty much limited to xenobotany now. It doesn't matter, really - what matters is that they get out.

The rules are still the same. Quaritch assigns a pilot to fly them into the forest in a tilt-rotor with nice shiny guns on the front, and a grunt to babysit. But they load up on masks and strap Sully's chair in - not his usual, but an all-terrain model with thicker tires that his doctor says will handle uneven ground better. The pilot takes off with a whoop, and then they're out over the forest for the first time in months.

***

Neytiri hears the Sky People coming long before she can see them, and for a moment, her gut is struck with cold; but the sound is that of one machine alone, and it is the whirring hum of a flyer, not the rumble of a tree-killer.

A single flyer - it has been months since Doctorgrace has come into the forest, but that is still the most likely explanation. Neytiri guides Seze down to a thick branch, and considers. Despite all that has come before, she has missed Doctorgrace. Since the school, Father has forbidden the clan seeking her out, though the things that happened there cannot be blamed on Doctorgrace, and Neytiri has thought of her often.

She will watch them, she decides. The presence of Sky People demands wariness, Neytiri has learned her lesson there. But her fondness for Doctorgrace is not gone. She is not of the People, but she has suffered with Neytiri, they have wept and bled together; she is as close to clan as a Sky Person can ever come.

*

The flyer that lands in the clearing is close to graceful. Nothing can change the ugliness of its blocky lines, or its relentless noisiness. But it banks with ease, and for once, Neytiri thinks, its motions almost deserve to be called "flight".

It is not just Doctorgrace; Normspellman, whom Neytiri has seen only once before, is there, too. Tall, for a human - he might well come all the way up to Neytiri's elbow. They are both wearing the breath-masks the Sky People need to withstand normal air.

There are two other men, also. One, Neytiri ignores; she has seen him before, and he walks loud as a child and shoots at shadows.

The other cannot seem to stand. He waits, glare off his breath-mask hiding his expression briefly, while the others unstrap some kind of chair with wheels from the flyer. Normspellman moves as though to lift him in, but he slaps Normspellman's hands away and moves himself. He must use his hands to position his legs, and when he is done, he darts a look at Doctorgrace as though daring her to say anything.

Doctorgrace, Neytiri remembers, always takes dares.

"About done, Marine?" she snaps, voice familiarly fuzzy through the breath-mask.

The right thing to say, somehow; the defensive set to the shoulders of the man in the chair melts away, and he deliberately leans and needlessly adjusts one foot. "Working on it," he says.

Doctorgrace rolls her eyes. "Nothing complicated today, all right, Norm?" she says. "We just need fresh samples. Sully: be careful where you roll, and don't shoot anything."

"What, I can't even wing Norm a little?" the man in the chair says; Normspellman snorts, and punches him lightly on the shoulder.

"And you," Doctorgrace continues, shaking a warning finger in the face of the other man, "you stay with the ship. One idiot with a gun's enough."

"What about me?" says the pilot, flicking dark hair off her shoulders. "You're not going to make me sit here and babysit Wainfleet, are you?"

"Look, don't touch," Doctorgrace tells her, "and if you see something you think might be interesting, tell Norm."

*

These four are careful, for Sky People; not surprising, Neytiri thinks, since they answer to Doctorgrace. It is not the pilot's fault she stumbles onto the nantang.

Neytiri leaves Seze behind on a branch, telling her through the bond that she must be silent, and is hurrying through the canopy over the pilot's head when it happens. The nantang, she sees immediately, is sick - they do not come out in the day by choice.

It darts out from the brush, snarling and gnashing its teeth, and then crouches low, the intent to spring clear in its eyes. For one of the People, it would pose perhaps some small difficulty, since the teeth of a sick nantang must be avoided with particular care; but it comes up almost to the Sky pilot's chest, like a palulukan next to one of the People, and the pilot freezes.

She is strung tight, but she stays calm, like a hunter. "Norm," she says - loudly, but she does not yell, and her voice is even-toned, without a high pitch that might provoke.

"Yeah, what?" Normspellman says, absent, and then peers over a nearby root and goes still. "Uh, Grace?"

The pilot starts to take a slow step back, and the volume of the nantang's snarl increases; she stops and eases her foot back down onto the moss, but it does not help. The nantang is beyond reasoning, beyond being reassured - it is tired and it hurts and the light is fierce, and it cannot bear its illness any longer.

Doctorgrace calls back to Normspellman at the same moment Neytiri draws her knife and swings down from the tree. She leans low and catches the pilot around the waist, pulling her up and away easily, and when the nantang springs, she swings a knee around and strikes it in the ribs.

She cannot fight well while she is carrying the pilot, even though the woman is smart and does not thrash or scream; so she climbs a nearby root and leaps over the nantang, back toward the clearing where the flyer lies. She is expecting it to follow her - even sick as it is, she has caught its attention, and nantangs do not often change their targets.

But as she runs toward the flyer, ignoring the startled shout of the one called Wainfleet, she does not hear the sound of the nantang's feet behind her, and when she looks over her shoulder, it has sprung at the man in the wheeled chair.

He looked up at the pilot's call, and when Normspellman shouted, but from where he is, he could not see the nantang before it scaled the root and began its leap; still, he is quick, and he yanks at one wheel and turns himself smoothly, firing one of the loud Sky weapons at it. It screams and strikes him full-on, knocking the chair on its back and tumbling him several feet away before it skids past, and it is bleeding when it rises.

The chair spins and falls, and it is between the man and the nantang when it stops. The nantang stalks toward him, and when it steps on one wheel, the metal creaks and warps.

Neytiri sets the pilot down and turns, sprinting across the clearing until she can tackle the nantang from the side. She sees the Sky man bring his weapon up again, and waits for the burst of pain even as she wrestles the nantang; but even before Doctorgrace screams at him, he turns the weapon away, and does not shoot.

"Forgive me, little brother," she tells the nantang, and slides her knife as gently as she can into its throat - where the blood flows, so it will die quickly. It keens for a moment and then stills, and she lowers it carefully to the ground. "May your spirit run with our Mother," she prays for it, and then rises.

The man is still on the ground, and she walks to him. His chair will no longer roll, she can see that just by looking at it, and she bends to touch him, and then stops. He fought; he is not an infant. She Sees him. "May I lift you?" she says, the Sky words coming with difficulty to her tongue.

"... Sure thing," he says. It makes no sense, but it sounds affirmative, so she lifts him with one hand on his back and the other gentle under his legs, and carries him to the flyer.

"Neytiri," Doctorgrace says, relief loose in her voice, and then, in the Speech, "I See you, Neytiri Mo'at's-daughter."

Neytiri sets the man down inside the bay of the flyer, and turns; the look on Doctorgrace's face beneath her breath-mask says that she half-expects Neytiri not to answer, and Neytiri's gut twinges unexpectedly. "I See you, Doctorgrace Anna's-daughter," she says, gentle, and means it.

***

Jake stares up at the nine-foot blue chick. He'd wonder whether his mask's sprung a leak, except Grace is talking to her, so she's not a hallucination - plus she picked Trudy up like a kid's doll. She picked him up like a kid's doll. At least she asked first.

He caught glimpses of the Na'vi sometimes, back when he still did patrols; a flicker of blue between the leaves, or a single huge golden eye staring down from the branches; and he heard stories sometimes, from other soldiers whose teams ran across them out in the open. But even Abrams barely saw a thing before the arrow was four inches deep in her thigh; and he's never seen one, outside of Grace's pictures, 'til now.

His chair's fucked - all-terrain apparently isn't tough enough to stand up to a half-ton six-legged lizard-wolf. He'll have to ask Dr. Mazouzi to make sure the next one's made out of duranium or something. He's grateful, though, for all the fall recovery drills she made him do whenever he finished PT early; when he first got the chair, he'd have freaked if he'd been knocked over in it, but this time, when it counted, it didn't faze him at all.

Good thing, too, or he might have shot the Na'vi chick without even meaning to - she'd been so goddamn fast, tackling that thing from the side like that. He's never heard Grace cry out that way before. She's talking to the Na'vi chick now, a quick patter of Na'vi Jake can just about follow the edges of if he tries. The recordings, he can play over as many times as he wants, but this is speeding past him and he can't rewind it.

"Jesus," Trudy murmurs from beside him, "good thing she came along." She's sitting next to him in the bay; the Na'vi chick set her down a few feet from the Samson. She looks calm, and when Jake glances at her, she flashes him a quick grin through the facemask of the exo-pack, like her arms aren't shaking. Coming down off the adrenaline - well, she's a pilot, Jake thinks, she's probably used to it.

Grace says something with a hint of strain in it, and Jake catches the word for "before"; the Na'vi leans down a little to touch her shoulder gently with one massive blue hand. "Enough," she says in Na'vi, and then turns toward the Samson. "Who are these?" she asks, and this is in English.

"You remember Norm," Grace says, and the Na'vi nods. "This is Neytiri, Mo'at's daughter," Grace tells Jake and Trudy; it doesn't mean much to Trudy, probably, but Jake's been listening to Mo'at tell him stories for weeks.

"Jake Sully," he volunteers. Neytiri looks at him curiously, clearly still waiting, and he can't think what for until Grace widens her eyes meaningfully. "Oh - uh, Daniel's son," he adds.

"Trudy Chacon," Trudy says, "Lucia's daughter."

Neytiri nods to them, and then looks at Grace and smiles.

*

Trudy lifts the Samson up with a whirr of rotors, and Jake can't help but lean over just a little, far enough to watch Neytiri's gaze follow the tilt-rotor up.

Grace leans back against the bay wall with a relieved sigh, and when Jake glances at her, he's startled to see that she's actually grinning. "You aren't going to believe this, Norm," she shouts over the sound of the rotors, and laughs.

***

Fuck Norm; Grace can't believe it. At worst, she'd been torturing herself imagining Neytiri shooting her on sight for walking on Omatikaya land again; at best, she'd thought maybe Neytiri would be willing to have a civil conversation with her.

She can argue herself in circles about the school. At its heart, she knows it wasn't wholly a bad idea - if nothing else, nobody in the upper echelons of RDA was ever going to give a shit about the Na'vi if they couldn't speak English. And the kids loved it. They liked the books all right, but Na'vi tradition was oral, and they'd been transfixed for hours by her recordings. She had days' worth, maybe weeks' worth, every epic she could get her hands on in both the original language and the best English translation anybody could manage: a manaschi reciting the first twenty hours of Manas; a full performance of Sundjata; the Kalevala; Gilgamesh; the Darangan; almost a quarter of the verses of King Gesar; and she'd taped herself reading the Odyssey until she went hoarse. It had been some of the best days of her life, and near the end, when she thought they might let her into Hometree any moment, she might as well have been walking on a cloud.

But in hindsight, if she hadn't done it, Silwanin and the others might still be alive.

She pushed last time, pushed hard - Hometree had been her grail, the one thing she needed to turn her program from a dinky little adjunct that looked good in the company newsletter into something that people back on Earth might actually give a shit about. She's not going to do that again. If they let her into their homes, their spaces, it'll be because they decide they want her there, not because she elbows her way in. She has a second chance; she's not going to let anybody fuck it up. Not Quaritch, not anybody; not even herself.

When they get back, she yells for somebody to hurry up and bring Sully a new chair, and makes a mental note to get Trudy to pilot for them as often as possible. They're getting back out into that forest if she has to shove her field requests down Quaritch's throat.

Which reminds her. "How'd you get Quaritch to let us go, anyway?" she demands.

Sully's gaze cuts sideways, evasive; he opens his mouth to offer something that will obviously not be the truth, and then he looks up at the bay stairs and lets out a rueful breath, scratching a hand through his hair. "Hey, Nukrit," he says.

"Somebody order a chair to go?" says the uniformed woman coming down the stairs, and, sure enough, she's got a folded-up wheelchair under one arm.

"Grace Augustine, Malai Nukrit," Sully introduces them, with an air of resignation. "Nukrit's a unit head; she's responsible for turning patrol reports in to Quaritch."

Grace narrows her eyes. "Is she," she says.

"I am," Nukrit confirms pleasantly, unfolding the chair. "It's possible I owe Sully some favors. It's also possible that Quaritch signs just about any sheet I put in front of him without really looking at it. Even one that might requisition a Samson, a pilot, and a SecOps escort for a field mission into the forest."

"How about that," Grace says.

It's completely underhanded, and if Quaritch happens to look at any of the transport records or order logs, they're totally fucked. But as much as he loves being in charge of all the guns, Grace knows he hates the bureaucracy - they're an NGO, it's even worse than the military. So the odds that he'll check up are vanishingly small. Sully's meathead friend can probably sneak them permission 'til doomsday, and Quaritch won't notice a thing unless he wants whoever their SecOps escort will be and can't find them. If she needed any more proof that what she does means jack shit to him, Grace thinks, she's got it now.

*

Neytiri gave her a location to meet at the next time, one of the big trees by the river with great arching roots like a mangrove; Grace can't give Trudy coordinates, but she knows it by sight, and it's a beautiful day to fly along the river anyway. If Grace didn't know better, she'd pop her exo-pack off in a second. It's warm, the way it always is at this latitude, with a pleasant breeze and the sun sparkling off the water. Well, not the Sun sun, Grace reminds herself; Alpha Centauri A, with the bulk of Polyphemus hanging faded in the daytime sky, two other moons visible in their orbits. She's been here so long it doesn't even look strange to her; she thinks about Earth's empty sky, only one small moon, and shakes her head a little.

Now that Grace knows how the orders are getting signed, she's made sure Trudy's requested by name, and Sully picks their designated SecOps babysitter from his Marine buddies, people he swears up and down won't shoot anything unless Grace tells them to, so they can't get stuck with that ass Wainfleet. Today, their escort is a black woman with a faint British accent who introduced herself as Abrams; she holds her gun with easy confidence, but she treats it like a tool, not a catch-all first response.

They're a bit early, so there's a brief wait before Neytiri comes soaring down on Seze. Grace remembers Seze with mild wariness; Neytiri was so proud the day she bonded her that she'd brought her to the school, and she'd banged around the clearing and left a hole in the schoolroom roof and a bruise the size of Grace's palm on Grace's ribs.

Neytiri says nothing, only smooths a hand down Seze's neck - but she's told the ikran something through tsaheylu, Grace can tell, because Seze chirrups and lowers her head until she can look Grace in the eye.

Seze could take Neytiri's head off easily, which means Grace's torso would barely be a mouthful to her; but she tips her head down and lets Grace stroke her carefully.

"She's not going to eat my face, is she?" Grace asks Neytiri, in the casual register of Na'vi.

Neytiri grins. "No, don't be silly; the breath-mask would stick in her teeth."

Abrams's face is shuttered, and she's got her gun up; but she's not doing anything stupid with it, and Sully is muttering rapidly in her ear as Trudy unbuckles his chair for him.

"God, they have pet banshees," Trudy says, when the chair is out and unfolded and Sully's climbing in. "Of course they do." Her voice is faintly wistful.

"That one looks bigger than usual," Abrams says, "even for a dragon alien."

"It's an ikran - a mountain banshee," Grace explains. "The forest banshees are a little smaller."

Neytiri swings down off Seze's neck, slinging her queue free of the bond at the same time, and nods her head toward the trees. "We must go further," she says in English. "Your flyer cannot come where we will travel."

"Where?" Grace asks, in Na'vi.

"Yarina'ut Rinteyan's-son will meet us in the forest," Neytiri replies in kind. "He's my mother's apprentice in Eywa's will - I've asked, and he says he'll talk to your memory machine."

***

"Yarina'ut Rinteyan'itan," Neytiri says, and then something else too complicated for Jake to catch. To be fair, he's a little busy; Abrams still looks a little tense, and Jake curses himself for not thinking through what it would mean to make her their escort. She'd never have shot Neytiri, but she's definitely on edge, and Jake can sees her eyes flicking over every time a leaf so much as flutters. Her leg - the one that got shot - is spasming a little; Jake can see a muscle jumping under her uniform pants.

It's beautiful, the banshee; Jake's never seen one of them up close and outside a picture, either. Grace explained to him how it works, with the bond and everything, but it's still odd to see the way Neytiri's thick queue slotted into the banshee's, like a plug in an outlet. Life at Hell's Gate is banal in a lot of ways, mess hall meals and a too-small bunk; it takes shit like this to remind him he's on another planet.

He looks at Neytiri's banshee, wings and claws and legs, and a faint spark of an idea comes to him.

There's another round of introductions - "Molly Abrams, Martha's daughter," Abrams says when it's her turn, without even needing a prompt. Grace explains that they're off to meet a second guest and then busts out the recorder, eyes alight, and Jake can't help shaking his head.

"What?" Trudy says.

"We're going to be here forever," Jake says. "We're meeting up with the tsahik-in-training - the guy who knows all the stories - and she's got a recorder with fresh batteries; we might as well get ready to sleep in the Samson."

"But, Mommy, I'm not tired yet," Trudy says, and pushes off from where she is leaning on the side of the tilt-rotor. "Come on, Sully, let's go."

Neytiri looks down at him and pauses. "The trees by the river have high roots," she says, and, yeah, Jake wasn't really looking forward to trying to roll out of this little clearing. "I did not think. May I carry you again?"

"Yeah, okay," Jake says. "You'll put me down if I tell you to, no matter what?"

She blinks those huge golden eyes, and kneels down next to his chair, so she's only six feet tall instead of nine feet tall. "I See you, Jakesully," she says. "I will do as you say in this."

"Great," Jake says.

*

That little spark of an idea fans readily into a fire while they walk, and when Neytiri - asking first - sets him down carefully by the tree where Yarina'ut is supposed to meet them, Jake says, "So, hey, where can I get one of those things?" and he's only about a quarter kidding. He wouldn't, like, ride it around the base or anything; but clearly his wheelchair, even the new badass model Dr. Mazouzi got as a replacement for the one that got crunched, isn't quite going to cut it if he keeps coming out here. No reason to make Neytiri carry him if there's another way to do it.

Neytiri stares at him. "You cannot," she says.

"Why not?" he says. Hers - Seze - liked him fine; yeah, okay, she's a little big, she nearly knocked his chair over just by nudging him affectionately, but the forest banshees might fit him about right.

"You cannot make the bond," she says, like he's an idiot.

"Well, okay, so it'll be harder to fly," Jake says, annoyed. "I can handle it."

"No," she repeats. "It will not let you - it will kill you first."

"What, can't you tame them without that thing?"

Neytiri glances at the thick queue that is trailing over her shoulder, and then down at him, and cocks her head. "It has never been tried without tsaheylu," she says.

"Then I'm going to try it," Jake says. It's been the story of his life, since that thanator thing ran him down. He can do anything; he just has to figure out a new way to do it. Just, this time he's got to work around the lack of an organic method of plugging his brain into a banshee's, instead of the lack of moving legs.

Piece of cake, he thinks, and smiles.

"Okay, but don't you think you're getting a little ahead of yourself?" Trudy says, flopping down next to him between the roots of the tree. "You've got to catch one first, Marine."

"Yeah," Jake says, "I do - and you're going to help me."

***

Honestly, Trudy's glad to. If Sully can pull this off, she thinks, she's next in line. And she's not going to try for a forest banshee, either.

"You cannot hurt Ikranay," Neytiri says, like the word for the species is a name; and her tail lashes. "She is the youngest sister, the laugher in the forest. If you harm her-"

"We won't," Sully promises. "That's not the plan."

What the plan turns out to be is meat. A lot of it, so raw it's practically still bloody. Sully's pal Abrams is friends with some of the staff that work the waste processors; when SecOps kills stuff near Hell's Gate, they're where it goes. She gets them to save a few bigger animals aside and then help load the Samson up.

Yarina'ut shows up, just the way Neytiri said he would, and Grace goes into raptures. They keep dropping Grace and Norm off to extract more stories - oral histories, Trudy corrects herself, because she's gotten the lecture from Grace like six times, and now it's practically a reflex - from him, and once the eggheads are all set, Neytiri climbs into the bay, huge limbs a little awkward in the cramped space, and directs Trudy to a clearing that she promises is near a forest banshee nest. They unload the meat, and leave.

The fourth time they pull the same routine, Sully gets out of the tilt-rotor, with a little help from Abrams getting his chair into place. "This time," he says, "we'll see if they come when we're still here."

"It will be some time before they arrive," Neytiri predicts, and turns to Trudy. "You are a flyer, Trudychacon. Fly with me."

Neytiri's banshee is huge, but Trudy's legs are just long enough for her to fit her heels where Neytiri tells her to put them, on the bony lip of the weird air-inlets below the banshee's wing-joints. She squeezes forward against the banshee's neck, and Neytiri slides on close behind her, crouched like she's about to spring, and slips her brain-tentacles wherever it is they need to go.

And there's a sentence Trudy was never expecting to think. You can't make shit like this up.

Seze makes a noise like a creaking door and leaps up, forty-foot wings snapping out all at once with a crack like a sail, and four hard flaps later, they're up over the tops of the trees.

It's nothing like a tilt-rotor, it's so much better - it's so much better it's almost worse, because after this she's going to have to go back to sitting in a chair palming a throttle. Trudy can feel what the banshee's going to do a split second before she does it, so clearly she almost feels like she knows how to fly herself, and in ten minutes her shoulders are straining like they'd grow wings if only they could. She can't feel the wind on her face, thanks to the stupid exo-pack, but it's tugging at her hair and her clothes, skimming over the bare backs of her hands, and she whoops into it like a kid on a rollercoaster.

Neytiri shrieks, too; for sheer joy, Trudy can tell, like she just can't hold it in anymore. For a while there, Trudy didn't think much about the Na'vi one way or another, except the times she's had to repaint the Samson's shell to cover up the arrow scratches. She regrets it now - to think, she could have been doing this for years.

*

They curve over toward the Hallelujahs; down in the forest, Trudy had only a general idea where they were, but she recognizes everything from up here. They don't fly all the way out, but when Neytiri guides Seze down onto a rocky outcropping, Trudy's pretty sure she can see the shadows of drifting mountains in the distance. She's forgotten the actual explanation, something about natural electromagnetism and so much of that mineral that Quaritch would mine the shit out of them if they didn't fuck all the instruments to hell. But she'll never forget the first time she took a tilt-rotor out there, and came face-to-face with a waterfall in the middle of the sky.

Neytiri's looking at them, too, Trudy sees; and when she notices that Trudy's looking at her, she makes a pointing gesture with one hand. "That is where our ikrans live," she says. "We must travel there to bond with them, when we are old enough and strong enough. But there are places where it is not so - the clan of Ikran, by the sea, lives among the nests on the cliffs, and they bond with their ikrans as soon as they can stand unaided."

"The clan of Ikran?" Trudy says.

"Ngusongwi," Neytiri says; the clan name, Trudy freely assumes. "Ikran is their animal. Ikran is the middle sister, clever, who climbs on the rocks."

"And your clan?" Trudy says. Grace told her the name, but she's completely forgotten it.

"Omatikaya," Neytiri says, and something about the hint of a smile at the corners of her mouth makes Trudy think she knows Trudy forgot. "Our creature is Toruk." She gazes out around them. The outcropping she chose is on the side of a mountain that wouldn't look impressive at all next to some of the ones floating in the Hallelujahs; but it's one of the closest mountains to the forest, and it rises out of the wide valley of trees like a volcano out of the ocean. "Ah - there."

She kneels down to point, this time, leaning low so that Trudy can squint along her arm. There is a blotch of red-orange - tiny with distance, but it would probably be at least three times the size of Seze if it were right next to them. "Toruk," Trudy guesses.

Neytiri nods once. "The eldest sister," she says. "Bold and strong, who fears nothing. You do not anger Toruk." She pauses, eyes following the toruk in the distance as it wheels. "We have stories - Doctorgrace's small machine knows some of them - about those who have become riders of Toruk."

"You mean people ride those things?" Trudy says. Like the mountain banshees aren't huge enough already, Christ.

"A few," Neytiri says. "It is difficult - toruks are not easy creatures to bond. Even the ikrans sometimes kill young hunters who come to bond with them. There have been only five riders of Toruk since the time of First Songs, when Eywa sang herself awake and made life. Everyone knows their stories."

"Yeah, I bet they do," Trudy says.

***

Neytiri knew she had chosen correctly the moment Seze lifted them out of the trees; Trudychacon was indeed a flyer, and felt not even a moment's fear, though she had never ridden an ikran before. Half the hunters of Hometree cannot boast as much.

When Seze is rested and they lift off again, Trudychacon leans forward against Seze's neck and lifts her arms out to the sides, and Neytiri cannot help but laugh. The Sky People are called by that name because they came from the sky; but Trudychacon, Neytiri thinks, should be called a Sky Person because that is where she belongs.

The trees by the river are big and old, and Seze can fly between their branches with relative ease, but Neytiri does not want to startle any ikranay that may have come to Jakesully. So she lands Seze fairly far from the nest where the ikranays live, and they are walking through the forest toward the place where Doctorgrace and Yarina'ut should be when the atokirina' comes.

She pauses, and drops a hand to Trudychacon's shoulder to keep her from barging on forward. Seeds of the Great Trees are not a common sight. "Look," she says, hushed.

"What is it?" Trudychacon asks.

"A pure spirit," Neytiri explains softly. "One who has died, and now is a messenger of Eywa's will. When the People die, they are buried with one of these, so that their spirit can be guided to Eywa by one who already knows the way."

The atokirina' drifts lower in a spiraling path, and Neytiri feels what is coming like a strike to the gut, a moment before the atokirina' swerves close and lands on her arm. Her tail twitches involuntarily at the light, tickling touch.

"It's so cute," Trudychacon says - not a description Neytiri would have chosen to apply to an atokirina', and yet not entirely inaccurate - and then, "And look, there's some more."

Trudychacon speaks the truth: Neytiri looks up, and there are dozens swaying down through the branches. She can feel them alight on her hair, her wrists, her shoulders, even the end of her tail, and she closes her eyes and makes herself breathe. One atokirina' is a funeral, ten are a sign; this is something else entirely.

"Neytiri Mo'at's-daughter," Yarina'ut murmurs, and Neytiri opens her eyes again to see him on the other side of the clearing, Doctorgrace perched on a root beside him with her small memory machine still in one hand and her mouth open. "This isn't for me to interpret - this is something your mother should know."

"Yes," Neytiri agrees, very quietly, and as though her voice is a signal, the seeds lift away again in a cloud like an intangible breeze is carrying them.

***

Grace clicks her recorder off and tries to get her jaw rehinged. Holy shit. She's recorded mythohistory from Mo'at about things like this, Na'vi touched by the seeds of the Great Trees who went on to win wars and save lives and defeat invasions from across the ocean; she never thought in a million years that it would happen right the fuck in front of her. God, she wishes she had a cigarette. And could somehow smoke it with the exo-pack on.

Neytiri looks up at the last atokirina' drifting away through the trees with wide eyes, and then swallows, tail curling. "We will see what the tsahik determines," she says, and then starts across the clearing. Very like Neytiri, Grace thinks, to act like nothing incredible has happened; but Yarina'ut keeps a respectful distance when she nears him.

Trudy explains where Sully and Abrams are, and Neytiri guides them through the forest; they're careful, and when they peer ahead into the trees, it's to see Sully tossing a heavy haunch of meat at an ikranay. The ikranay hops away at the motion, screeching uncertainly, but the lure of the food is too much, and after another moment, it darts its head close enough to Sully to catch the meat in its teeth.

"Who's a good dragon alien," Abrams croons mockingly, and Sully slaps out at her thigh and grins.

*

It's kind of become a habit for them all to come back to the lab after they land at Hell's Gate; there's a chair in the lab that's Trudy's, now, and a spot on the desk that Grace grudgingly keeps clear for the guns Sully's pals usually want to set down.

Sully's flushed with accomplishment, laughing and tapping rhythmlessly at the arms of his wheelchair. Grace thinks about the way he looked the first day he barged into the lab, and has to work to make sure nobody sees her smile. He's nuts, trying to tame an ikranay by hand - but they're all a little nuts. Trudy's starry-eyed over her first time flying Seze like she wasn't a couple thousand feet in the air with nothing but her exo-pack to keep her breathing, and Norm's just about doing a jig over the twenty-eight new hours of recordings they've got to work with.

Abrams is listening to Trudy relate the things Neytiri told her - sounds like there's something in there about archetypal animal representations that Grace should really get her to repeat - with a hesitant look of interest. There's a story in there, Grace figures, about the leg she favors ever so slightly when she walks and the way her eyes tightened the first time she saw Neytiri; but Pandora's still pulling her in. Pandora's pulled them all in, one way or another. High gravity, Grace thinks, for such a small moon, and lets out a chuckle at her own shitty joke while she lights her cigarette.

***

"Where did this sign come to you?" Mother asks, thoughtful, after a moment.

"In the forest," Neytiri says, and decides it is time to be fully truthful. "As we were meeting Doctorgrace."

Mother gives her a taut look, and Father glares, his tail lashing angrily. But Yarina'ut does not flinch from her side; he has been a good friend to her, ever since the day he first showed aptitude and was chosen to learn from Mother, and he is proving it today.

"You know it's been forbidden to seek out the Sky People," Father snaps.

"I did not seek her," Neytiri says. "I happened across her; and then she sought me."

Father snorts. "Don't play with me, Neytiri."

"Not all the Sky People shoot without thinking and dig wounds in the ground," Neytiri says loudly.

"She killed your sister!" Father cries. "How can you forgive her so easily?"

"I was there, Father," Neytiri shouts. She should not be yelling, some part of her thinks; but her patience is worn thin. "Doctorgrace wasn't the one who shot her - Doctorgrace was shot herself, trying to save her." She laughs, and it comes out sounding scornful. "The Sky People shoot each other as readily as they shoot us; we shouldn't take it to heart."

Father snarls, but before he can say anything, Mother steps forward. "Eywa approves," she declares.

"What?" Father says, startled out of his anger.

"The seeds of the Great Tree touched Neytiri," Mother reminds him, "while she was with the Sky People. None of us know the Sky People as well as Neytiri, and even she can't know them as well as they know themselves - just as Doctorgrace can only try to know us as well as we do." Her voice turns softer, sadder. "I remember Doctorgrace; I talked to her for many hours. I would be glad to see her again."

"Mo'at-" Father says.

"Tsahik," Mother corrects, hard as stone. "Eywa seeks to help us, Eytukan. She has touched Neytiri - Neytiri, out of all Omatikaya, who speaks readily to the Sky People. I will not ignore our Mother's advice."

*

Mother knows the will of Eywa, so Father does not argue, though Neytiri can tell he would like to. Neytiri describes to Mother all the things that have happened: how she saved them from the nantang, how she and Yarina'ut have met with them five times now, how Jakesully Daniel's-son is taming an ikranay even though he cannot use tsaheylu, how she flew Seze with Trudychacon Lucia's-daughter.

"Tell them," Mother says, "the next time you meet: they may come to Hometree, and the Omatikaya here will speak to them."

***

Abrams is out on a patrol rotation the next time they go, so she lets Nukrit pass their escort duties off to Chung; when they come back and Jake tells her what Neytiri said, she makes a face, and then laughs. "Oh, yeah, of course," she says, "the second I'm not there."

Grace makes him prep, along with Norm. "You're going to have to introduce yourselves," she tells them, "say nice things about their generosity, be polite. There's no getting around it - if you can speak enough Na'vi to understand things you overhear, they need to know, and they need to hear it from you. Yes, even you," she adds, when Jake grimaces. "This is important shit, gun jockey. Don't fuck it up."

Jake does okay when he's got the words written out in front of him; the transcription system Grace uses is almost as familiar to him as regular English lettering by now. Not perfect, obviously, because about a third of the consonants totally elude him and he can't handle glottal stops to save his life, but at least he can sort of tell what he's supposed to be saying. He's so much better at listening, picking out the words he knows and cobbling the rest together out of thin air and wild guesses. Couldn't they just give him a multiple-choice quiz instead?

Norm, of course, is great at it. His memory is ridiculous, and even if Grace grumps relentlessly about how stiff he sounds, at least he can pronounce the fucking words.

Jake gripes about it to Nukrit while they're sparring, and she just laughs at him. "You'll pick it up one way or another," she huffs as he leans forward to get her in a wrist lock. He doesn't reply; just yanks her elbow in and throws her to the mat. She taps out, and he rolls back to let her shake her wrist out. "Well," she continues from the floor, "that or they'll kill you for accidentally insulting them one too many times."

"Thanks," Jake says. "That helps."

*

Trudy lands in a clearing a little ways out from Hometree, on Neytiri's instructions. Neytiri says it's because she doesn't want the Samson to freak out the hunters' banshees that live in the branches, but Jake suspects she might also be worried about some of the Omatikaya shooting them in the face while they're trying to land.

They come down easy, and Trudy shuts the Samson down and hops out, and then pauses. "Is she going to be okay?" she says, stroking a hand over the cockpit door like it's a pet she doesn't want to leave behind.

"I will tell Seze to guard it with her life," Neytiri assures her, flipping her queue up to Seze's neural whip for a brief bond to pass the instructions along.

Jake's gotten Banshee - that's what he calls her; nobody ever mistook him for a poet - to take hunks of meat right from his hand, but he hasn't tried climbing on her yet, so Neytiri still has to carry him, his chair folded up under one big blue arm. It's not ideal, but she's graceful enough that the ride is pretty smooth.

He doesn't need Neytiri to point it out, when they get to Hometree. Most of the trees on Pandora are big, bigger than anything you'd have seen on Earth even back when trees grew wild; but Hometree is fucking enormous. There's a wide clear space around it - not cut or paved that way, or anything, just the kind of open earth you get when hundreds of people walk around on it on a regular basis. The roots arch out and down like the tree's standing on its tiptoes, and they make the base of the trunk into a natural domed shelter that's got to be at least a hundred yards across.

And there are hundreds of Na'vi waiting, thousands of impassive yellow eyes trained on them. Jake wonders for the first time just how large the Omatikaya clan is, how many other clans there are. Hell's Gate sits in one little valley on one tiny corner of a continent; Jake's seen the maps, the oceans that stretch out to the north and south of them, the land masses they haven't even set foot on yet. RDA's press releases call the sentient native population minimal, abrupt and clinical in their description to cover up the fact that nobody in the company actually knows how many Na'vi live on Pandora. Jake makes a mental note to ask Neytiri sometime.

He doesn't let himself flush as Neytiri carries him through the silent crowd, Trudy and Grace and Norm and Abrams all following at her heels, and his chair still tucked close under her elbow.

There's a ring of space left clear, and Jake recognizes Mo'at instantly from Grace's photos; the man sitting next to her must be Eytukan. Neytiri sets Jake's chair down, and Abrams unfolds it. Grace is saying something to them in perfect Na'vi, but Jake's concentrating too hard on not hyperventilating to work out what it is.

And then Grace steps back, punches him in the shoulder, and says, "You're up, Marine."

*

Jake stumbles through the Na'vi words as best he can, throat dry as dust, and when he finally grinds to a halt somewhere around the end of the speech, there is total and utter silence. "... That was about what I was supposed to say, right?" he mutters to Grace.

"I am being both completely accurate and generously vague," Grace says, "when I say fuck no."

Jake winces, making a face, and his ears are burning like they haven't since he was in about the sixth grade. But Yarina'ut, sitting to Mo'at's left, saves him: his impassive expression cracks into a smile, and then he laughs. "That was a very unkind thing to say about all of our fathers, Jakesully," he says in slightly stilted English - still way better than Jake's Na'vi, Jake thinks sheepishly - and Neytiri, looming over Jake's shoulders, lets out a highly indelicate snort.

***

Tsu'tey grimaces at the Sky man's haphazard attempt at a speech, and when Neytiri tells him the man is a warrior among his people, it is difficult not to laugh aloud. He eyes the Sky man's atrophied legs, and cannot help but make a face. "This is a warrior?" he says. "This one, who must be carried like a child?"

"So he has said," Neytiri says, voice suddenly flat. "You may challenge him and find out for yourself, if you wish."

Tsu'tey does not answer, letting the reflexive wrinkling of his nose speak for him. The Sky People already look like children; even when they have working legs, they have the appearance of feeble fighters at best. This Jakesully is only half of that. How he can dare call himself a warrior baffles Tsu'tey. His legs show he cannot walk; the way he mangles the Speech shows he cannot talk. What else is left?

Tsu'tey knows nearly as much of the Sky language as Neytiri, though it has been longer since he used it; he learned from Doctorgrace at the school, too, as many of the young hunters of Hometree once did. He was not there the day Silwanin was murdered, but he has not spoken a word of Sky tongue since.

So he listens to the tall Sky man make his own speech - stiff, perhaps, but not blatantly insulting; and he does not go forward, as the others do, to greet Doctorgrace. He leans back against one of the many roots of Hometree, and watches.

***

"The mother loom," Neytiri says, stroking a hand along the frame. It is tall even to her; to the Sky People, she thinks, peering up from behind their breath-masks, it must look enormous. It is tied to the roots of Hometree at the top, and stretches down to the ground. All work has paused for the Sky People's coming, but someone is halfway through a great weaving, the loom shuttle pinned in place by the warp threads. Sha'otseyni, Neytiri guesses; she is one of the finest weavers in Hometree, and it has the look of her work.

She repeats the loom's true title in the Speech, and Doctorgrace tips her head curiously.

"The wisdom of Eywa?" Doctorgrace repeats in Sky tongue.

"Eywa is the first weaver," Neytiri explains. It is hard to remember what the Sky People do and do not know; they build their flyers and tree-killers with undeniable expertise, and yet they are ignorant of things every child of the People knows. "In the time of First Songs - the music and the weaving are the same thing. You sing as you work, a weaving song; if your beat is poor, your voice unsteady, your cloth will be weak and uneven. Eywa sang when she woke, and wove all the things that are. When she began, there was nothing, so she used the claps of her hands for warp and the sound of her voice for weft." A poor summary of the tale, but Neytiri cannot recite it; that is not her place.

Doctorgrace has whipped out her memory machine anyway, and Neytiri sees the small red eye that means it is awake and listening. "Tell me more about the loom," she says.

***

Jake listens to Neytiri and Grace talk, but there's not a lot for him to say. Grace and Norm have taught him a lot about the Na'vi, but nowhere near everything they know, and he doesn't have the context to do anything more than listen and infer. Norm's wandered off to talk to Mo'at, who's smiling graciously at his formal register; Trudy's gazing up at the arching trunk base overhead like she's working out a plan for climbing up Hometree and hang-gliding off the top; and Abrams is looking around uncertainly. Which, to be fair, there are still quite a few Na'vi simply staring at them, even though a few are crowded around Grace and Norm and most of the rest have gone back to whatever they were doing before.

He exchanges a quick glance with Trudy, and Trudy's opened her mouth to make some kind of crack that will hopefully get Abrams to smile when there's a shout from outside. "Away!" someone cries in Na'vi, and there is the sound of a foot stamping the ground, and a mountain banshee's unhappy screech.

"What the bloody hell," Abrams says, whirling, and Jake spins and wheels as fast as his arms can go toward the clearing outside.

And, sure enough, it's Banshee, looking tiny next to the mountain version that a glaring Na'vi woman is kindly restraining from killing her. Banshee seems entirely unaware that she would be outmatched even if she weren't outnumbered by at least two thousand to one, and screams back in the mountain banshee's face, flapping her wings and puffing up her chest.

"Hey, girl," Jake says, and Banshee swings her head around and creels demandingly.

"I think she's a bit cross that we missed our lunch date," Abrams says, laughing, and Jake realizes with a start that it's true: it's about an hour after the time they'd usually be at the clearing with a pile of dead things for her.

"You have meat?" he says in his awkward Na'vi to the woman, who's still gripping her banshee's wing-joint and staring at Banshee with skeptical eyes.

"Meat?" she repeats; Jake can't tell whether she's double-checking because he mangled the pronunciation, or she's just shocked that he'd ask for it so baldly.

"Yes," he says, in case it's the first.

Turns out she just got back from a hunt, and she has three-quarters of a wild direhorse in saddlebags strapped to her banshee's back; she pulls about half of it out, and tosses it over.

"Thank you," he says in Na'vi, and he means it way more than he ever thought he could when somebody's just dumped part of a still-bloody alien horse in his lap.

They introduce themselves while Banshee gulps the meat down. When it's the Na'vi woman's turn, she says, "Aymirnat Rinteyan'ite."

Something in Jake's brain pings, a moment before Yarina'ut steps out of Hometree, grinning, and says, "What have you done now, Jakesully?"

*

Grace is in heaven, standing in the middle of Hometree with a recorder in her hand; so she won't care that they're wandering off. Yarina'ut and his sister round up a banshee saddle - it was made just for practice by a Na'vi kid, so it's smaller than usual, small enough to fit Banshee okay. Yarina'ut takes about half an hour to sew some leg-straps on with a bone needle. "Aymirnat does not sew," he tells Jake with a laugh, fingers so quick the needle is flashing in the sun like somebody signaling Morse code.

"Doesn't want to get stuck doing the girly work?" Jake says, eyeing Aymirnat. He didn't notice it before, but her hands are still streaked with direhorse blood, from dressing the thing wherever she killed it.

Yarina'ut gives him a funny look. "It is not her skill," he says. "She chooses to leave the task to those of us who can accomplish it without impaling our fingers."

"Oh," Jake says. "Right."

The last eight times he flew out to feed Banshee, he pulled a blanket from the Samson and threw it over her back, vague memories of Tom's horseback-riding lessons coming back to him; she settled to it much faster than he remembers the horses doing. But, of course, her head is about three times the size of an Earth horse's - little wonder if she's got more brains both literally and metaphorically. Well, that, Jake thinks, or she's more controlled by her belly. She'd probably let him throw rocks at her head if she could eat while he was doing it.

Either way, she's calm and still gnawing on a direhorse haunch, and doesn't startle at all when Aymirnat chucks the saddle over her shoulders.

"May I lift you?" Yarina'ut asks, and when Jake nods, he slides his huge blue hands under Jake's arms and pulls.

The saddle loops forward over Banshee's shoulders, draping down toward the bony air-inlets where the Na'vi usually put their feet. Not a feasible choice for Jake; so instead, the straps Yarina'ut sewed are lined up on the draping saddle-front, to tie him. Banshee shifts a little nervously when Yarina'ut walks over to her, but she lets him set Jake down at the base of her neck, and Jake ties the knots so that one good yank will undo each one, so he can get out in a hurry by himself if he needs to.

Banshee shifts again, but Jake figures he probably doesn't feel much heavier than the blanket to her, and after a second, she hunkers down and rips another mouthful of direhorse off.

Her neural whips are like built-in reins, so Jake goes ahead and grabs them. Banshee swallows her hunk of meat and then shakes her head a little; but the straps hold fine, and, even better, that must mean she can feel his grip.

He should put in the time, train her carefully - and he will, he promises himself. But right now, what he wants more than anything is some kind of assurance that this is going to work; that Banshee will fly with him, that he can stay on her back.

No test like a field test, he thinks, and yanks on her whips.

She rears back and shakes her head again, more determinedly, and Yarina'ut takes half a step forward, like he's going to hold her down; but before he can get any closer, she lets out a cry, and springs up.

She didn't get a running start, so she has to flap, hard and awkward, to lift herself up. The motion's not unlike a bucking bronco, and Jake wonders dizzily whether she'll ever take him up again if he hurls on her this time. He clenches his eyes shut and holds on tight through the rocking, and then he feels her curve sharp to the left and glide, creeling again, and he opens his eyes.

***

Sully's a stubborn bastard, and mad to boot; but Molly can't help grinning when he lets out a whoop as Banshee swings wide over their heads.

She didn't care much either way when she first got sent here. Plenty of the soldiers on the transport she'd shipped out in had been practically pissing themselves over it, getting sent to some hostile alien world like something out of one of their hologames; but a posting was a posting. They were still working for RDA, still shooting the same guns and sleeping in the same bunks. The only real difference was the exo-pack, and Molly kept one on her all the time, until she wouldn't have known how to balance herself without that little extra weight on her hip.

And then she got shot in the leg. Not even by a bullet - by a fucking arrow. She remembers it as sharply as if it had been yesterday: the light filtering down through the leaves, the shaft sticking out of her thigh; how sickening it had been, feeling her muscles scream and clench around the bone head of it, and how powerfully she had wanted to yank it out. Chung had had to hold her back, had pressed her down, and she had lain on the ground and stared up at the leaves and hated the whole goddamn moon.

She had given some thought, involuntarily, to what had been on the other side of that arrow, during all the long days in the med wing. But then they'd finally let her back on duty, and she'd stopped wondering; done her PT and gone on patrol with her gun maybe a little higher than she used to carry it.

And then Sully had gotten himself tangled up with Doctor Augustine, and Nukrit had cheerfully enabled him, and here she is. She still thinks about it - she can't help it. It could have been Neytiri; or Yarina'ut, or his hunter sister. It could have been any of them.

The difference is that now it doesn't matter. If she knew it had been Neytiri, nothing would change - it's not like Molly would kill her, now. Hell, if she knew it had been any one of them, Aymirnat or Neytiri's father or the Na'vi kid who's standing at her shoulder right now jumping and cheering for Sully, it still wouldn't matter.

The wound's finally closed, Molly thinks, and then laughs at herself for being so dramatic.

*

She stands for as long as she can, watching Sully fly Banshee around the clearing; but soon enough her thigh gives a warning twinge, which means she'd better sit down or she's going to fall down before too much longer.

So she finds a spot where she can lean back against one of Hometree's roots, and sets down her gun. If anybody had told her three months ago that she'd walk out into the forests of Pandora and willingly set her gun down, she'd have laughed herself sick; but nobody's paying her much attention, and she needs both hands to massage the worst of the tightness out of her leg.

Trudy swings down next to her after about five minutes, just as she's pressing her fingers into one of the more painful spots. "So," she says, "your waste-processor pals looking to get rid of any more dead stuff?"

Molly winces and chuckles at the same time. "You're going to hurt the Samson's feelings, flygirl," she says.

"Maya knows I don't mean it," Trudy says, breezy. Molly didn't know she'd given the tilt-rotor a name, but when she thinks about it, it's a very Trudy thing to do. "Neytiri's never taken you up, has she?"

Molly shakes her head, and Trudy grins, quick flash of teeth behind her exo-pack like sun on the water.

"Well," she says, "when I've got a toruk, I will. Then you'll see. Next best thing to having wings yourself."

Molly's about to reply when there's a screeching honk and a thump, and Sully lets out a shout. "Yeah, well, you might want to let Sully work out the kinks, first."

***

Grace is getting so much she's almost pissed at herself. She'd recorded the kids chatting for days, gotten hours and hours out of Yarina'ut and Mo'at, and she's still hardly scratched the surface; but how was she supposed to find out she didn't know these things when there was no way for her to know she didn't know them?

It's probably for the best that she and Neytiri get interrupted by Sully's lovely little crash-landing, because she forgot to recharge her recorder and the battery gauge is flashing at her balefully.

Fortunately, he didn't hurt anything except a little undergrowth; Banshee landed on her feet, and Sully's still upright in his straps, clutching Banshee's neck and grinning like the fucking idiot he is.

Banshee makes a grumpy noise and shakes her wings out before folding them up primly against her sides. Sully slaps her neck and tugs a little on one neural whip, and she grudgingly tips her head around and takes a few steps toward them.

Grace is half expecting her to snap at them, but she seems almost entirely uninterested - evidently the work it would take to devour them and spit out their bones is enough that she'd rather wait for Sully to drop another ready meal in her lap. What they really need, Grace thinks absently, is a proper xenobiology team, somebody who could design some ikranay-sized intelligence tests. Fucking Quaritch.

"Now this is an all-terrain vehicle," Sully says with a lopsided smile.

Granted, the steering is a little haphazard; Banshee tries to shake Sully's hands off just as often as she heeds the vague guidance of his taps to her neck or tugs on her neural whips. But she can climb the roots and cross the clearing back to Hometree, which means Sully can, too, and Neytiri doesn't have to do a thing.

***

They go back, again and again; not always to Hometree, since Grace is still a botanist, too. Banshee comes at the sound of the tilt-rotor, if she's close enough to hear it and also hungry - Jake's going to have to work on that one. But she does come, and they keep the saddle with the leg-straps tucked up in the back of Trudy's Samson, just in case.

She's come today, and she's waiting - patiently, even - at the edge of the clearing when the Samson lands. Norm's collecting samples, and Yarina'ut is there, to answer even more of Grace's neverending list of questions. His sister is, too; Jake's a little surprised to see her, but she goes right over to Abrams and starts chatting away.

Neytiri's come, too, picking her way through the trees with Yarina'ut and Aymirnat, and she helps him fasten the saddle onto Banshee's back. It's an easy routine for them, by now; she's teaching him to keep his balance when he's on Banshee, so he can still shoot straight when he's on her back.

"Could you ask her where she nests - where I should go, when I want to find her?" he asks.

She eyes him gravely. That's her Sky-People-just-don't-get-it face; Jake knows it well. "I dare not," she says. "There are some animals any hunter may bond with, and set loose again just as easily - the pa'lis of the forest are like this. But the ikrans are not. They bond with a single hunter in all their life, and once an ikran has been bonded, no other may form tsaheylu. I do not know what would happen if I tried when I am already bonded to Seze."

Jake pauses in the middle of stroking a hand down the outer curve of Banshee's wing. "It must seem pretty weird to you, huh?" he says. "That we can't - that we don't have those things."

"It is - bizarre," Neytiri confesses, nose wrinkling a little. "I have thought it since the moment I saw Doctorgrace. How can you ever know a person, without the bond to show you their mind? How can you bear to be so alone?"

Jake looks at the queue, the way it curves at the nape of her neck as she turns her head to look down at him, and considers it; he looks at Grace, who's broken off from her recording to scold Norm for contaminating a botany sample, and Trudy sitting in the Samson's bay with Abrams, Yarina'ut between them gesturing wildly with his long blue arms while he waits for Grace. He thinks about Dr. Mazouzi, tipping his chair to the floor and demonstrating how to work it back up, over and over and over again, just because he needed to know. "We aren't alone," he says. "We just do it differently." He almost laughs; the metaphor is obvious even to him. To Neytiri, it's like they're all in wheelchairs, and insisting they know how to dance - on the surface, it can sound impossible, but only when you've never seen it done.

***

Malai tucks the report pad under her arm, and waits. Papers are easier to lose, but Quaritch hates peering down at the flat glowing screens of the pads, which means he doesn't even try to read them. Besides, lost papers might come off as kind of disingenuous, no matter how excellent Malai has gotten at keeping a straight face. Leaving a nice clear trail, not hiding anything, will either keep anybody from looking too close, or else expose Quaritch for the inattentive ass he is.

Malai's not Doctor Augustine; she doesn't hate the colonel personally. He's not her kind of guy, maybe, but neither are plenty of other people. Some things just can't be helped. But any CO, even one trapped in this non-military private-sector limbo, who doesn't notice shit like this? Inattentive. And anybody who's commanding soldiers in semi-hostile territory and lets themselves get inattentive? An ass. QED.

Bureaucracy's boring, sure. Malai's the one who's got to write the fucking reports; she knows. But you can't ignore the paperwork just because you don't like it. She's glad to help Sully out, but if they weren't the people they were, they could use this little gap to do all kinds of nasty shit, and Quaritch wouldn't know a thing about it. Not the way you want to run your base, even if you're doing it for an NGO.

Quaritch is rumbling at Selfridge about something, using the holotable and gesturing sharply at the map it's displaying. Not Malai's business; but if he's going to make her wait this long, he's blatantly risking her listening in. Probably, she thinks wryly, he just doesn't give a shit. She's been delivering his reports like clockwork for six years, and she'd bet a year's pay he doesn't even know her name.

"It's the biggest deposit we've found yet, outside the Hallelujahs," Selfridge is saying, throwing his hands in the air. "Whatever it is you want to do with Hometree, Colonel, you have a giant fucking green light, trust me."

Malai tips the report pad loose of her elbow and pretends to consult it; but in reality her ears are straining. Hometree - that's what Sully was freaking out about the last time they sparred. They were going to get to go, Augustine and the whole team, and Sully was going to have to make a speech before he'd be welcome. Because that was the biggest settlement there was of the local Na'vi.

"I'm thinking tear gas to clear them out and then a few thousand pounds of high explosives to clean up," Quaritch warns.

"Green light," Selfridge enunciates. "I mean, it'll take some time to get the machines freed up; we're still closing out some of the pit mines. But you go ahead and do your thing - plan the op, is that what you guys say?"

"Close enough," Quaritch says. He's not grinning, but there's a self-satisfied crook in the corner of his mouth.

There's a pause, and Malai hops up the last two steps. "Reports, sir," she says loudly, and holds the pad out while Quaritch grunts and scribbles in the corner with the tablet pen.

*

She's not quite sure what she's going to do about it. She goes to the mess with her head still full; Chung's on patrol, and Sully and Abrams are probably in the lab, but their pilot is there, head tipped back with her laughter, so Malai ignores all the unofficial rules of Hell's Kitchen and slides into a seat at the Air Force table.

"... You lost, Marine?" a thin black man across the table says, skeptical; but Trudy waves him quiet.

"Oh, she's all right, Ted, back off," she says, and leans close. "What's up, Nukrit?"

Malai hesitates, but only for a moment. Trudy's Sully's friend, Malai's seen her name on every one of Doctor Augustine's requests since the first one she snuck through. She can be trusted; she'll tell whoever ought to be told, and keep quiet otherwise.

"I was turning in the week's reports," Malai begins.

***

When the Sky People next come to Hometree, Neytiri is gladder for it than she ever thought she would be. She has fought with Father many times in her life, with both her words and the strength of her arms; but it has been tense and sour recently. These fights are so much more important than most, and he simply will not listen.

He thinks it best to cause the Sky People irritations - to plague them with troubles, strike at their digging places once every few days, and by this, drive them away. But Neytiri has seen what lengths some Sky People consider reasonable, at the school, and he has not; he does not know.

She is leaning against the roots of Hometree, fists so tight on her thighs that her knuckles are sky-pale; and then she hears the sound of the flying machine, and lets out a sigh.

Jakesully's ikranay seems to have shifted her nesting, and Neytiri sees her in the forest near Hometree nearly every day when she hunts with Seze. She drops from an upper branch of Hometree, now, and when the flyer lands at the far edge of the clearing - this, at least, Father will allow - she charges like a palulukan, and greets the craft with an affectionate slam of her bony head into the side paneling.

"Hey, girl," Jakesully says, laughing, and starts wrestling her saddle free of the straps that hold it in the flyer's bay. "Neytiri, give me a hand?"

She has learned, by now, that this hand he requests is metaphorical; still, the image his phrasing brings to mind is a peculiar one, and Neytiri shakes her head a little and grins. It is a relief to smile, after this morning.

"I am glad to see you, Jakesully," she tells him, leaning down over him and into the bay to lift the saddle up.

He glances up at her, seeming almost startled to hear it, and then smiles behind the breath-mask, wide and slow. "Good to see you, too," he says. Neytiri sees, incongruously, that his ears are just a little bit pink. He shakes his head, as though at himself, and taps a little at his thin legs. "So what's wrong?"

Neytiri pulls the saddle free and stands up, eyes wide, but Jakesully is not fooled.

"C'mon," he says, "you're glad to see us? Must've had a bad morning, to be looking forward to more of me crashing around making an ass of myself and Grace asking you to repeat everything five times."

"I said you, Jakesully," she points out, and then sighs. "But if you must know, it has not been an ideal day."

She begins explaining to him as best she can in Sky language; she forgets herself as she goes on, waving her arms and raising her voice, and by the time she is winding to a close, all of them are looking at her. Even Yarina'ut, who has come up unexpectedly behind her, and his sister.

"You're right," Mollyabrams says immediately, in her fluid accent, when Neytiri is done. "That's not going to make the pit mining stop, not by a long shot."

"Well, maybe," Trudychacon says, but she looks troubled, not at all like she believes herself.

"That's going to get them all killed," Doctorgrace snaps, harsh, "and you know it," and Trudychacon flinches a little. "Quaritch has been running SecOps almost as long as I've been here, and that asshole is not going to back off just because he's losing soldiers at a trickle - that's not how what passes for his brain works-"

"Well, he's not going to do it if they ask nice, either," Jakesully says.

There is a pause, long and breathless; they look at each other, and Trudychacon shifts unhappily. They know something, Neytiri thinks, and if she can only get them to tell her, to choose outright to help the People - no trickery, Neytiri thinks, just ask.

"You want us to succeed?" she says. "Then help. Tell us something we can use."

The Sky People share glances through the front panels of their breath-masks, uncertain; and then Trudychacon steps forward. "Look, whatever raids you make on the pit mines won't do a thing. The biggest deposit they've ever found is right here, right where we're standing. They're going to come, and they're going to blow this place apart; and they don't give a good goddamn whether you're still in here when they do."

"Trudy," Jakesully hisses, looking torn, and Trudychacon glares at him.

"Look," she says, "if we're going to help them, then let's help them, not just dick around." She glances around the inside of Hometree, and then squints up at Neytiri, eyes dark and honest behind the panes of her breath-mask. "And I get it, I know the Omatikaya are - are great warriors, great hunters; but there just aren't enough of you to hold them off. You have to run."

"That is not our way," Neytiri tells her.

Trudychacon throws her hands up in the air. "Okay, fine. Then you need to get more people," she says.

Neytiri pauses, and thinks. Out of all the Sky People, she believes these five will not lead her astray. Doctorgrace taught her to speak one of the Sky tongues, and screamed for her sister like clan when she fell; Normspellman bows to her mother as though he truly Sees her. Jakesully tamed an ikranay with his own two hands, and shoots from its back like an Omatikaya hunter; Aymirnat is teaching Mollyabrams to make her own bow; and Trudychacon flies like a rider of Toruk. If Trudychacon tells her the Omatikaya will not be enough, it is likely to be true. The clans have not been united in many years, but it can be done. She looks back at Hometree, at where she knows the totem skull hangs inside, and decides. The tales of the riders of Toruk are not the only old stories all the People know. "There is a way," she says.

***

She won't say more out in the open, clearly still working on whatever her plan is; but she finishes fastening the saddle, and then bends down to lift Jake, and he takes the opportunity to say, "Sorry."

She glances at him, pausing.

"It's not that I didn't want Trudy to tell you," he says. "It's just-" Hard to articulate, is what it is, he thinks ruefully. Chung is SecOps, and Abrams, and Nukrit; Jake's eaten lunch for nearly a year with the people Quaritch is going to send to blow this place up, and they don't deserve to die any more than the Na'vi do.

But her huge yellow eyes soften, and her hands are gentle as they span his ribcage. "I understand," she says, and then, more quietly, "I See you, Jakesully."

Grace has talked to him about Seeing so many times - in the translations, she always writes it with a capital, and she's tried to explain what it means and always failed. He only ever had the vaguest possible idea; but now, right this second, he thinks maybe he gets it, and he sets his hand - God, it looks so small suddenly - against Neytiri's wide blue cheek. "I See you, Neytiri Mo'at'ite," he murmurs back to her, and she grins, bright as the sun, and sets him on Banshee's back.

***

"Sun'eytan," Neytiri says, when they're tucked into a back corner of Hometree, Banshee nestled down and gnawing contentedly on the remains of a nantang. Grace wishes she had her computer - she knows she's heard references to this before - and her hand twitches toward her recorder, but she manages to keep it still. This is a conference of war, not one of her sessions. "He was a great weaver, in our ancestors' time," she continues, and Grace could just fucking cry. Oral mythohistory about an epic weaver hero; this is the best thing she's ever heard in her life. There are times, sitting back in Hell's Gate in her cramped little lab, where she wonders why she even stays in this job - but when she's out here, she always remembers.

"I cannot tell you the story," Neytiri continues, "for I do not have the skill, and there is not time now. But he could weave anything he chose - they say he was barely more than a child when he wove the blazing cloak that the olo'eyktan Muyatkiri wore when she led the Omatikaya to war, and he did it with the light of the sun. And when the need arose, when the invaders came to our shores from the northern seas, he wove the People also; with his words, he wove their minds into a single purpose, many threads into a great tapestry. He united the great clans of the east, and together they fought and turned their enemies back."

"Of course," Grace says aloud, because she can see it, now, how Neytiri will fit it all together, and it's damn good. "The atokirina'."

Neytiri nods. "I will bring my mother to you," she tells Trudy, "and you will tell her what you told me. If she will relate the will of Eywa, I will take it to the clans of the east, and they will fight with us."

***

At first, Layktuani doesn't know what's happened. She hears the horns, that great low tone that rumbles through all of Deeprock, and hurries through the caves, feet slapping against the smooth stone. Reyto'a is waiting for her by the mouth of the cave, joint-claws as easy on the cliff-face as if he's not hanging a thousand feet above the ocean, and Layktuani swings out onto the cliff and loops her knees over his shoulders.

Tsu'aysawit is only a few feet behind her, and when Layktuani guides Reyto'a down for a landing on the clifftop, she hears the thump of Tsu'aysawit's Manori coming down at almost the same moment her own feet touch the ground.

She does not recognize the People standing before her personally, but by the look of them, she would guess they are from one of the forest clans - So'ihana, perhaps, or Omatikaya. And by her headdress and the honors around her neck, the older woman is a tsahik.

Layktuani meets her eyes, as courtesy demands.

"I am Mo'at Seyndari's-daughter," the older woman says, "tsahik of the Omatikaya of Hometree, and I've come to relate to you the will of Eywa, as it's been shown to my daughter."

"Layktuani Do'irtara's-daughter," Layktuani replies, "olo'eyktan of the Ngusongwi of Deeprock. I'm listening."

*

Layktuani's strength was never signs; there's a reason she is olo'eyktan, and Tsu'aysawit is tsahik. So she watches Tsu'aysawit as Mo'at relates what has passed, and she knows it must be significant because Tsu'aysawit's eyes go wide.

They weren't the only ones who heard the great horns of Deeprock blown, and soon enough a crowd has gathered around them, a respectful distance back; so when Neytiri Mo'at's-daughter begins to speak, loud over the wind, they are not the only ones who hear.

***

Neytiri's strength is not eloquent speech - if it had been, she might have been her mother's apprentice, instead of a warrior. But what she needs now is not some kind of obscuring trickery, she reasons; what she needs is the truth. And telling the truth is something she has always been good at.

"You've seen the ships of the Sky People," she shouts; the wind on the cliffs of Deeprock is strong. "Their flying machines have passed over you. But they've chosen our lands for their-" clan of Ikran, she reminds herself, "-perch, and we are told they'll come soon to cast us out, and claim all the forest for their own. This, we say, is a matter for all the People. They won't stop with the forest; if they take our lands, they'll soon come for yours."

"And who has told you this?" someone cries - not the olo'eyktan or the tsahik, but someone further off in the crowd. "Surely the atokirina' couldn't tell you all that."

Neytiri could snap; but instead she laughs. "No," she agrees, "they couldn't. The Sky People themselves told us these things. Some of them have come to learn from us, not to wound our Mother, and they have turned against their own people to warn us of what's to come."

A murmur ripples through the crowd, and the olo'eyktan takes a step forward. "If some of the Sky People themselves have warned you," she says, "then the danger must be very great indeed, and your cause very just."

Neytiri tips her head gratefully.

Layktuani turns to the gathered crowd, hair whipping over her shoulders and queue a thick line down her back, and raises her fist. "What say you, Ngusongwi?" she cries. "Shall we answer the call of Hometree?"

There is a great roaring cry of agreement, and it does not come only from the People; thousands of ikrans line the cliffs, and they creel in unison like one many-throated voice. "Thank you, middle sister," Neytiri murmurs, and grins into the wind.

*

The Ngusongwi are a middling clan - larger than the Omatikaya, true, much stronger in numbers, but Neytiri's sights are set yet higher. "We will meet you in two weeks' time," says the olo'eyktan, clasping Neytiri's forearm, and then they fly for the eastern plains.

The Tsalateynu are almost twenty-five thousand strong, the largest clan on all the eastern plains; they are the clan of Pa'litam, what Doctorgrace would call the great direhorse of the plain. Neytiri cannot speak to all of them at once, because they do not travel so. But the Linani ta Tsalateynu, the closest clan-group, is also the largest, and where they go, Neytiri is sure, the rest of the Tsalateynu will follow.

Neytiri rides the forest pa'lis at home; but the pa'litams are at least half again as large, and she would almost certainly think twice before trying to seat herself on one.

The Linani are on the move, when Neytiri and Mother catch up to them, and it makes Neytiri's breath catch in her throat, to soar on Seze's back over an ocean of galloping pa'litams, the drumming thunder of their hooves shaking the very air. This is such a sight as legends are made of.

They slow and circle, preparing to make camp, and Neytiri drops into the middle of them like Toruk from the sky. The olo'eyktan has bones in rings around his wrists and loops in his ears, and his pa'litam does not even startle when she lands.

It's easier to make her voice carry, here where the air is still over the plain, and she tells them the same thing she told the Ngusongwi at Deeprock, when Mother has related the story of the atokirina'.

This olo'eyktan and tsahik seem to care less than the first that half of this comes straight from the Sky People; they eye her closely, unbending. "You are of the clan of Toruk," the tsahik says, "aren't you?"

"Yes," Neytiri says.

He sits back on his pa'litam like the answer pleases him. "Then surely a pa'litam will pose you no difficulty," he says, and nods to the olo'eyktan. There are tiny smirks curled up in the corner of both of their mouths, like boys playing a trick on an older sister.

Neytiri swings down off Seze's back, passing one last impression of reassurance along the bond before she pulls her queue away; and the olo'eyktan slides from his pa'litam as easily as though he's stepping off a stone.

Pa'litams are like ikrans, to the People of the plains, so Neytiri doesn't even make a motion toward her queue. She thinks of Jakesully and Banshee, and holds out her hand to the olo'eyktan's pa'litam. It edges back a little, but she holds still, and it settles after a moment, and lets her rub her hand along its nose. She smoothes her other hand over its shoulders - so much higher than she's used to, but not impossibly so. "Tell my brother to be gentle with me, Mother," she whispers to the grass under her feet, and then she tightens her hands on the pa'litam's neck and  leaps.

It's ungraceful, and she has to scrabble for a moment to keep herself seated; but she does not fall, and, more importantly, the pa'litam does not throw her off.

The olo'eyktan grins, and then throws his head back and laughs outright, and steps forward to slap her knee. "Well done, daughter of the Omatikaya," he says. "The pa'litams do not suffer the unworthy to ride."

***

Trudy swings down out of the Samson, and doesn't know what she's expecting. For somebody to turn around and point and shriek, "Traitor!" For somebody to know.

But nobody does. She waits, and waits; but when the day comes that everybody's throwing shuttered glances around the mess and keeping one hand on their guns, it's not because of anything she did.

"A skirmish," Abrams tells her when she sits down, "at one of the pit mines." They kind of have their own table, now; Sully and Abrams and Chung and Nukrit, and occasionally Trudy can convince Ted to come over, too. "They killed at least two dozen miners, and eight of the SecOps patrol are still in the med wing."

"I saw the footage from Digger 16," Nukrit volunteers quietly. "Selfridge and Quaritch were looking at it this morning." She glances at Jake. "I could probably get a copy to Doctor Augustine."

Trudy's not on patrol, so she can afford to slip away and head down to the lab that afternoon.

They watch it on Grace's laptop, in a silent semi-circle.

"Nukrit says it's mostly static after this," Grace says, voice rough, after one of the warriors drags Neytiri's bleeding father back under the trees and the screen suddenly goes gray. She hits a key, and the black-and-white pattern goes still.

It's Abrams who speaks, but she says exactly what Trudy is thinking: "Quaritch is not going to be happy about this."

"He's not," Nukrit says, rubbing tiredly at her forehead. "He's pissed. Remember that whole blowing-up-Hometree op he's working on?"

Grace sits up sharply and twists her chair around. "Oh, fuck," she says.

"Yeah, that's right," Nukrit says, nodding. "He's moving it up."

"Moving it up?" Norm says. "Moving it up how?"

"He's not going to do it whenever he was planning to do it," Nukrit says. "He's doing it in three days."

*

Their usual trickery is out; Quaritch isn't going to sign shit while he's busy planning an assault with SecOps, and they're in a pretty big hurry.

"Well, fuck it," Grace says. "If this blows up in our faces, they're not going to let us back in here anyway, and if it doesn't, then they're not going to be the ones calling the shots, so it's not going to matter."

So they just tromp down to the hangar in a mob. They walk like they know what they're doing and what they're doing is not stealing a tilt-rotor so they can go warn the Na'vi about Quaritch's change in plans, and it works pretty well; they make it all the way down.

Trudy begins to head toward the good old Samson, and then stops, and scans the hanger. "Fuck it," she decides; it's the phrase of the day, apparently. "If we're busting out of here, we're going to do it in style."

"In style?" Sully says, speeding along the concrete behind her, and then he must follow her gaze to the side, where the huge, gun-heavy Dragon sits. Quaritch's huge, gun-heavy Dragon. "Oh. In style."

She looks back and down over her shoulder, and grins at him. "As long as we're doing something crazy," she says, and holds out her fist.

He taps it with his knuckles, and grins back. "Oorah," he says.

"Okay," Trudy says, "everybody wait here. I'm going to need Ted for this."

***

Neytiri leads Seze into a long slow spiral down to Hometree with a single quick thought - it is not even words, only a vague sort of picture. Mother dives alongside on Yu'atan, so close the ikrans' wingtips nearly brush, and she and Mother share a quick grin before they plunge beneath the leaves.

It was wise that they did, Neytiri thinks later, because there are no smiles to be seen when they land outside Hometree.

Tsu'tey is closest, and he strides up while Seze is still folding her wings. "What is it?" she says. "What's happened?"

He regards her with solemn eyes, one hand absently patting Seze's neck. "Eytukan," he says, and it's like an arrow to the chest, so sudden and sharp she can't breathe. "While you were gone, he led us in an attack against one of the digging machines," and she knows how this is going to end even before he says, "and was killed." Tsu'tey pauses, and Neytiri sees suddenly that his free hand is not free at all. "He bade me tell you, and pass this to you," he says, and hands her her father's ceremonial bow. "Olo'eyktan," he adds, and dips his head.

*

They bury her father that afternoon; Mother lays the atokirina' that will guide his spirit in the crook of his elbow, and screams her grief, as is her right.

Neytiri clenches her hand around his bow, and does not weep. Another time; but now, she is full of a sudden, tense purpose, and she will not let that go to waste.

Several thousand of the Linani ta Tsalateynu followed them back to Hometree, the rest carrying their message to the other clan-groups of the Tsalateynu, and the next morning, the Ngusongwi come, all eight thousand warriors, with so many wings to carry them that they block out the sun.

That is also the day the Sky People come.

At first, Neytiri thinks the attack has come early, because the sound is not like Trudychacon's usual flyer - it is deeper, louder, and, when it comes fully into view, larger. But it is still only one ship, so she does not call for the Ngusongwi to attack it.

And, sure enough, when it lands and the ramp at the back lowers to the ground, Doctorgrace steps out, with Jakesully wheeling along beside. "Neytiri," Doctorgrace says, relieved, and then she takes in the crowd, the camps in the forest surrounding Hometree, and her eyebrows rise.

"What is this?" Neytiri says, stepping forward to touch the side of the flyer.

"It's Quaritch's," Trudychacon says, with a beautifully casual motion of her shoulders. "We're borrowing it. And Dragons take two pilots, I can't fly it by myself, so," and she makes a beckoning motion back into the belly of the flyer. "We brought Ted. Tendaji, Furaha's son, meet Neytiri, Mo'at's daughter."

They have brought Yuhuachung, also, whom Neytiri has only met once; and Mollyabrams. "Nukrit's still back at the base," Jakesully says. "She'll tell us anything she can find out, as long as she can get her hands on a radio."

They explain why they are there, and Neytiri thinks some small part of her is almost expecting it - the warriors are here, the branches of Hometree creaking with the weight of Ngusongwi ikrans and more Tsalateynu streaming in every day, and she still feels strange inside, honed, like she is waiting for something. It is only right that the battle should come to her soon.

She will not risk Hometree. The flyer's machines are full of maps and charts, and Trudy shows her where Hometree is, where the Sky People's complex lies, and all the land in between. The river Ala'yun is there, and the wide valley it carved out of the forest in the past, before it settled to its current slow pace. There, Neytiri decides, they will face the Sky People. It is on the most direct route to Hometree - no doubt Colonelquaritch will travel that way. Neytiri has never met him, but Doctorgrace paints him as a man of straight lines.

Malainukrit, whom Neytiri hopes one day to meet as something more than a voice traveling through the machines, gives them updated numbers, explains what they will face. The Sky technology is frightening, but their overall numbers are small compared to the tens of thousands of People who now fill the land around Hometree.

Neytiri is olo'eyktan now; she meets with Layktuani and Tsu'aysawit of the Ngusongwi, Saktaney and Kir'taran of the Tsalateynu, and together they work out how things must go. All the weaving stops so that dyes can be gathered, for the paints they must have to go to war, and the children of Hometree help Trudychacon paint the great flyer with Omatikaya colors.

And then they travel to the valley, and wait.

***

Jake's never spent so much time on Banshee at once before; it's kind of startling how much of a difference it makes. He feels every small change in her balance, every shift of her weight, and it all adds up, until he thinks he might as well have brain tentacles, he knows so well what she's going to do next. He sits differently, too, and he thinks Dr. Mazouzi would love it - without the chair back to hold him, he's got to use his own back and stomach muscles to keep his posture right, and it's like he's doing PT all the time.

Neytiri's assigned him to fly with one of the wings of banshees from Hometree, and the morning of the battle, he nudges Banshee's neck until she flaps reluctantly up to a branch. It's weird, looking out over the wide, still river in the morning light, and knowing it'll all be chaos in another couple hours; he wishes he could take the exo-pack off, and really soak it all in.

"You are afraid," someone says, contemptuous, and the tone means Jake knows who it is before he even turns his head.

Tsu'tey is one of the best warriors, and he's been serving as Neytiri's right hand since this whole thing started; but he's got some kind of hate-on for Jake, damned if Jake knows why.

"No," Jake says anyway, "not afraid. Too stupid for that - I always have been." He looks out over the river. "I'm just - not great at waiting. It feels weird."

Tsu'tey sniffs, and strokes his banshee's wing. "As you say," he says, obviously meaning the opposite; but then he pauses. "I will guard your life carefully, Jakesully; you need have no worries there."

"I told you," Jake says, "I'm not afraid. But, uh, why?"

"Because I do not like you," Tsu'tey says frankly. "Therefore, it would be a great shame to me for you to die under my command."

"Man, you are so crazy," Jake says, but he's laughing when he does.

*

When Jake hears the hum of rotors, he looks up, and automatically tallies what he sees. They've brought out the Valkyries, both shuttles at once - but those don't have much in the way of weaponry, they're probably just carrying a lot of guys in AMPsuits. Same goes for the Samsons; there's plenty of them, but aside from a couple missiles and their door guns, they don't have particular firepower. It's the Scorpions they're really going to have to watch out for.

Neytiri is somewhere out front, where Jake can't see, but she must yell, because the shout is passed back, until Tsu'tey throws a fist in the air and shrieks, and the whole wing joins in. Jake's voice sounds faint and feeble through the exo-pack, but he figures it's the thought that counts.

Somewhere behind him, he hears the deep rumble of Trudy and Ted starting up the Dragon, and he can't help but grin. Quaritch is going to blow a gasket when he sees his own ship facing him down, lined with Omatikaya war-paint.

"Up!" Tsu'tey shouts in Na'vi, and the whole wing takes off in a flurry, Banshee pounding up into the wide blue sky.

***

Trudy pulls up carefully on the yoke, and the Dragon comes up off the bank, so easy and sweet Trudy would probably kiss it if Ted weren't right there.

The Dragon assault ship is - was - the pride and joy of Hell's Gate; there are two more under construction, but parts are still coming in with every new transport. This is the first one finished, and Quaritch has been using it for his flagship ever since. Or he did, until she stole it out from under him. Serves him right, Trudy thinks; he didn't appreciate it properly anyway.

"Okay, Ted," she says, "let's go show them what this baby can do."

"I can't believe I let you talk me into this," Ted says, and takes hold of the throttle.

*

The first five minutes go great. Quaritch wasn't expecting this reception at all; Trudy can tell by the way the ends of the line of Samsons start to curl back suddenly before new orders come over the radio and they get back into formation. The Dragon has everything Trudy could ever possibly have wanted - automatic targeting and gorgeously intuitive controls, and more missiles than you could shake a stick at. They've got a team of Na'vi who showed an aptitude working the rotary guns, and they take down eight Samsons with nine missiles, the miss only because of a lucky bit of maneuvering on the part of one of the Samsons.

But soon enough Quaritch gets his act together, and the Valkyries drop low. He was expecting to hold the AMPsuits in reserve, according to Nukrit - he'd gas the place, blow it up, and then send them in to mop up after.

Trudy can see the suits dropping from the shuttles' bellies; but there's a double line of Samsons and Scorpions in front of them, so she can't take them down right away. They'll just have to hope that the Na'vi and their direhorses can handle it.

***

Saktaney hurls himself from Aktaran's back, and slams the wide point of his spear into the machine's arm. He can see how the man inside tries to swing the arm over to tear him off, but with the spear where it is, the shoulder joint cannot bend; the arm grinds and sticks, and cannot reach him.

The other arm comes around behind him, and Saktaney digs his fingers into one of the joins of the clear pane and flattens himself down against the machine - not a comfortable pose, he is not a Ngusongwi who clings easy to a cliff with only fingers and toes, but the arm's wild swing misses him.

He shoves his spear's handle down, and the blade cuts upward through some machine-thread. Not by design, but it was evidently an important piece, for the arm suddenly drops and swings limply. He pulls the spear free and swings it back around toward the pane, and it cracks beneath the blade like river ice in spring.

Aktaran does not stand idle, below him; Saktaney thought to him of weaknesses before he jumped, of joints, and Aktaran shrieks and bucks, and brings his four front hooves and two-thirds of his weight down on the machine-man's knee. The suddenness pushes the knee backwards, metal grinding and popping, and Saktaney turns to shield his eyes from the sparks that fly. The machine-man wobbles, and Saktaney leaps quickly to the shoulder over the broken knee, dodging the strikes of the arm that remains, and leans out as far as he can.

Sure enough, the arm swings back toward him, and the shift in weight is enough to topple the machine-man to the ground. Saktaney brings the spear down on the cracked pane again, just in case, and the man inside is too busy scrabbling for a breath-mask to try to rise before Aktaran staves the broken knee in sideways.

One, Saktaney thinks, climbing back onto Aktaran, and bids Aktaran charge further into the forest. He must have a good count to offer Neytiri of the Omatikaya, when this is all over.

***

At Tsu'tey's gesture, they swarm the nearest Samson; Jake tries to keep an eye out for other ships that might be firing at them, but there's just too many nearby, and in too many directions for him to bother thinking about dodging. He'll worry about getting shot after they take out the Samson.

The woman at the door gun is quick, and she kills two of them before they close in, limp ikrans spiraling down toward the river with their grieving riders still clutching their necks and screaming. Jake guides Banshee in close, and drops her down to catch her joint-claws over the bay door; she might only be a forest banshee, but she's still heavy enough and strong enough for her claws to dimple the metal over the door, and her body swings in and checks the woman back so hard that she hits the guy manning the other door gun, and they both slide out the other bay door and tumble down into the river. Banshee twists and lands in the bay, claws shrieking against the metal, and at about the same moment that two Omatikaya banshees outside yank the rotors off, she breaks the pilot's neck with a jerk of her jaws.

"God, you are so badass," Jake tells her, and then the Samson, rotorless, tips down, and they have to dart out the door before they fall with it.

They come up against a Scorpion next, and for a second, Jake thinks they're all fucked, banshees tumbling to either side of him and a missile whistling past his ear like a bat out of hell. But he's got his gun, and he takes a second to thank Neytiri for the shooting lessons before he takes aim and drops the guy at the closer rotary gun.

He brings Banshee down on the platform, and swings the gun around, shooting the other rotary gunner before he tips the gun down as far as it will go and stipples a line of holes through the Scorpion's plating. Somebody inside screams, and Jake whips the gun around, turning Banshee with a yank. Tsu'tey and his banshee are diving at the cockpit, and Jake sees one of the front arrays swivel, a missile thunking up into place to be fired.

He pulls the trigger again, concentrating his fire about where the pilot ought to be sitting, and there's a gurgling yell a second before Tsu'tey's banshee forces a foot through the cockpit windshield and yanks the pilot out.

The Scorpion is now pilotless, but unlike the Samson, its rotors are still turning; Tsu'tey's banshee has time to curl its feet around the rim of the windshield and sling the Scorpion sideways into the Samson next to it, and send them both down to a fiery crash on the riverbank.

"You saved me, Jakesully," Tsu'tey shouts, not sounding terribly pleased about it.

"Yeah, you're welcome," Jake yells, and turns Banshee toward the next tilt-rotor.

***

Molly doesn't have a banshee or a direhorse, but she doesn't need one, for most of this. Aymirnat probably would have agreed to fly her up even if Neytiri hadn't approved their little side mission.

The Valkyries are swarmed, their few rotary guns firing valiantly out at the great sea of banshees that are working their way forward; so it's not hard for Aymirnat to come up under the belly, where no one is looking. There's another wave of AMPsuits waiting, soldiers hurrying to strap in, and Aymirnat comes up to the still-open drop bay and keeps her banshee steady long enough for Molly to climb off.

If Trudy ever gets that toruk, Molly is definitely going to take her up on that offer of a ride.

She yanks herself up into the bay, and starts moving around hurriedly, forcing herself to look tense, and soon enough somebody yells at her to "Get in your AMP, soldier!"

She rides the little lift up to the suit-seat obediently, and climbs in. There's not time for the full run of function checks you're supposed to do before you fight in an AMPsuit, so she just double-checks that the arms and legs respond to her motions, and then waits for the drop-hook to lower her out of the bay.

She drops to the riverbank with a thud she can feel radiating up through her feet, and immediately yanks her suit-knife free and swings it into the knee of the AMPsuit that dropped alongside her. There's a shower of blue light, and when it clears, the other AMP has fallen to one knee; she points the GAU-90 at the torso, and just about cuts it in half.

"God, I love these things," she murmurs, and heads into the forest, GAU at the ready.

***

Seze swoops and glides; Neytiri can feel the way she wants to twitch away from the explosions around them, but through the bond, Neytiri calms her, and she flies true.

It is tempting to veer aside, to take a moment to yank a flyer down before it can kill another ikran, or fire another missile at the pa'lis and pa'litams below. But they do not fly only for themselves, and they must be fast.

So they weave through the lines of flyers, past the ikrans who fight to tear them from the sky, and in toward the great machines, the shuttles. Neytiri watches as Seze dives close, and, sure enough, one shuttle is tipping, a faint yaw to its angles that becomes more pronounced with each moment that passes.

The upper left gun platform, that is their goal; it lies exactly where Trudychacon said it would be, when she made the great flyer display a picture for them.

Neytiri tells Seze through the bond to drop a little lower, picturing the trajectory she thinks they should take, and Seze creels and obediently swings near the opposite gun platform, catching the gunner in her claws and dropping him as she wheels back. There are platforms at the far end of the great shuttle, but Neytiri doubts the gunners there will turn to see what has happened, which means there is no one to stop them now.

A moment after Seze lands on the hull near the left platform, the hatch drops inward, and Neytiri gets her first look at Malainukrit. Small, as all Sky People are, but quick; she barely hesitates a moment, even though this must be the first time she has come so close to an ikran, and she lets Neytiri haul her up and position her on Seze's neck. "Hold on," Neytiri says. "I would hate to drop you, after the service you have done us."

"And I'd hate to be dropped," Malainukrit shouts back, and wraps her arms as far around Seze's neck as they will go.

Seze launches herself from the shuttle's broad back with a powerful kick of her legs, and a few strong flaps later, they are high in the sky again; high enough to clear the smoke, and high enough to see the shuttle they have just escaped careen into the side of the other shuttle in a great bloom of fire. Neytiri hurls her fists in the air and screams the victory to the breeze, and somewhere below the sound of her own voice, she can hear Malainukrit shout, "Fuck yeah!"

She makes a mental note to ask Doctorgrace what it means later.

***

Grace is in the middle of wheeling one of the Dragon's rotary guns around when she sees the blast of fire off to the side. Her platform is closed, so she doesn't have to wear an exo-pack, though she's got one next to her just in case; so when she lets out a deep, satisfied sigh, it leaves with a curl of smoke from the cigarette clamped in the corner of her mouth.

"Hot damn," she says, "who'd have thought we could actually pull this shit off?", and she looses another barrage of bullets at the nearest Scorpion, just for the hell of it.

*

It's all pretty much over after that. The Valkyries take whatever AMPsuits haven't launched, plus any smaller tilt-rotors unlucky enough to be close by, with them when they go down, and they land in a blazing wreck of twisted metal at the edge of the river, one Valkyrie's busted rotor coming off with a creak and tumbling into the water. They probably land on a few AMPsuits, too - and a few pa'lis and their riders, Grace reminds herself with a grimace. There are going to be a lot of funerals coming up.

But Hell's Gate, at least in its present form, is finished; this kind of damage to company property is going to present RDA with a giant fucking bill, and the trustees are going to want answers. The mining's probably going to go on hold indefinitely. Hell, she might even be able to get that xenobiology team she wants. There was a guy who applied, back in the day, before she got her budget finalized and had to cut her team down: Max Patel, she thinks. She should look him up.

***

Jake stands at the gate of the base, and pats Banshee's neck when she shifts uneasily. She doesn't like the fences around Hell's Gate; he knows that even without brain tentacles.

It's not really intentional, but they're standing like some kind of reverse honor guard, him and Grace's team, and Abrams and Trudy and all, and the Na'vi, watching in a silent crowd as what's left the upper echelons of RDA limps onto the transport that's come to take them back to Earth. Grace is the one helping Neytiri set terms for a continued human presence on Pandora, and she's been drunk with power for like a week; right now, she's in the base, and probably grinning around her cigarette every time she sees another SecOps uniform disappear into the transport's bay.

The departing staff are mostly not looking up, hurrying to the transport with their eyes on the ground. To be fair, the Tsalateynu are lined up like statues on their giant direhorses, and the Ngusongwi and some of the Omatikaya are circling overhead on their banshees like vultures from hell.

The last little clump of RDA staff scurries up the ramp, and the bay closes with the wheeze of airlocks activating; there isn't a cheer, precisely, but a small murmur of sound, like everybody was holding their breath and then sighed with relief at once.

"Gosh; looking good, Marine," somebody says, and Jake turns and glances down through the facemask of the exo-pack to see none other than Dr. Mazouzi peering up at him from the ground.

"Oh, it's you," Jake says.

She shrugs. "Hey, birds got to fly, thanators got to trample. Dr. Augustine wants me to stay on, just in case anybody else walks right in front of a alien a hundred times their weight."

"I forgot to tell you how much I love your bedside manner," Jake says, laughing, and slaps Banshee's neck with the flat of his hand.

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