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Between Worlds

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*Disclaimer: I do not own Pandora and I make no profit from writing fanfiction based on the "Avatar" film.


Katherine Hart was one of the few select humans allowed on Pandora, after the events that led the Na'vi and humans to war. She originally came to Pandora to work with Grace Augustine but when she arrived, she learned that Grace passed away, most of the human colony and militia were driven out and the Avatar program was all but dead. Norm Spellman filled her in on the details and he vouched for her and a few select members of her team to the Na'vi, allowing her to stay on Pandora to conduct her studies.

Her team had brought four avatars and drivers with them. Unfortunately, one of the drivers never woke up from cryogenics. Something went wrong with his capsule during the trip and he suffocated in his sleep. If the death of Sebastian Thomas wasn't bad enough, the avatar he was meant to drive also suffered abnormalities during the journey. It never reached full maturity and unlike the other avatars waiting in their incubation tanks, Sebastian's was stunted. Rather than the average nine-foot plus stature it was meant to achieve, the avatar had only matured to seven feet tall.

Katherine had been on Pandora for three days, so far. The remaining team had only moved the avatars from the ship this morning before fueling up and leaving to return to Earth. She stood with Doctor Roy Jacobs in the avatar room, debating with him over what should be done with Sebastian's stunted avatar.

"He looks fully mature," she said thoughtfully as she walked the length of the incubation tank. " He has adult features and his queue is completely grown. He just hasn't reached full Na'vi height. "

Dr. Jacobs nodded. " True, but without a DNA match for a driver, this avatar is useless. We can't do anything with it and it costs resources to keep it under life support. We should pull the plug and dispose of it. "

Katherine sighed. Her colleague was right, she knew. It was a terrible shame to let the avatar die, though. Perhaps it wasn't sentient but it was still a life form. She placed her palm flat on the glass of the incubation tank and stared regretfully at the alien features of the engineered Na'vi. She'd grown used to their feline-like characteristics and she found them rather beautiful. Sebastian was an attractive man with piercing gray eyes and blond hair. His avatar inherited his sculpted bone structure. If Sebastian had been born a native of Pandora instead of Earth, this was how she imagined he might have looked.

"I know it sounds bad," soothed Dr. Jacobs, "but he won't feel anything. You know these avatars are completely un-sentient on their own. "

"Still, it's a shame," she answered. " Our exploration possibilities are so limited as it is, without losing one of the avatars. "

"The Na'vi have strict rules concerning our work anyhow. "The middle-aged doctor shrugged. "We missed out on a lot by arriving late, but you're lucky Grace recommended you. "

Katherine smirked. She was very much aware of how fortunate she was to have this opportunity. She and Norm were the youngest members of the science team.

"I wish I could have had the chance to work with her," Katherine murmured.

Norm Spellman came in through the security doors at that moment. His avatar was lying on one of the examination tables, waiting for his next drive. " Looking good," he said as he glanced down at his avatar. " I wasn't sure they'd get him patched up enough. " He pulled the hospital gown aside carefully; shooting an uncomfortable glance Katherine's way as he tried to ensure he wouldn't accidentally flash her with his avatar as he looked it over.

She chuckled and dutifully turned her back, understanding that his discomfort stemmed from the fact that this was his other body. While not a driver herself, she understood that he spent half of his time in the avatar body and he probably considered it no different from dropping his pants in front of her.

"They did a good job," Norm said in a relieved tone after checking the gunshot injuries the doctors had patched up. " I'll take a test run after lunch. " He covered the avatar back up and turned to face Katherine and Dr. Jacobs. His eyes settled on the stunted avatar in the tank and he frowned, his mild features curious.

"So what happened to this one? Too much time in Earth gravity to grow to his full size? "

"We're not sure," answered Dr. Jacobs. " Sebastian Thomas didn't have any siblings, much less a twin brother. We won't have the luck your team had with Jake Sully. Where is Max Patel, by the way? We could use his input about this. "

Norm glanced at the digital clock on the wall. " He should be getting back from his rounds any minute. You guys haven't spoken with him about this yet? "

"We only got the avatars transported from the ship today," answered Katherine. " We haven't seen Max yet. "

"Well maybe you should wait for him to have a look at this guy before you do anything," suggested Norm as he studied the floating avatar. He looked around at the other three they'd brought with them. " The rest of them look normal. Maybe this one just needs more incubation time. "

Katherine felt oddly relieved by the suggestion. She looked at the almost human-sized avatar in the tank and watched his ears and fingers twitch gently. It was only reflexive but still, she wasn't in a rush to put him down.

"Huh. I think I see what the problem is. "

Katherine sipped her cup of coffee and approached Max, who was bent over a microscope on the counter. "What is it? "

"The DNA mixture isn't balanced right," obliged Max. "Here, see for yourself. They put a little too much human in there. "

When he stepped aside, she looked through the microscope at the sample. "That's a costly mistake. I thought that they had it perfected by now. "

"Well, it's too late to do anything about it," Max sighed. "I guess Dr. Jacobs is right. This one is essentially useless and we're better off cutting the life support. "

Katherine pulled back from the microscope and rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Are you certain he won't feel it? "

Max gave her a sympathetic look. "The avatars don't have any capacity for individual thoughts or feelings. They're blank slates. Don't worry though; it's standard procedure to sedate them when situations lead to this sort of thing. We have no evidence that its necessary but I like to keep things humane, just in case. "

The door opened and Norm's avatar walked in, wearing an exopack specifically designed for Na'vi usage. Katherine stared up at him, a little shocked by how tall he was. Seeing the avatars stretched out on the table or floating in the tanks didn't really give one the proper perspective of how much bigger they were than human beings. Norm's avatar body was clad in brown cargo pants and a black t-shirt. Adding an oddly humorous touch to the outfit was a baseball cap specifically tailored to fit over his head. His long braid dangled over one shoulder as he approached.

"So, what did you find out? " Norm asked. Large amber eyes shifted between the two other scientists and the stunted avatar in the tank.

"They got the mixture wrong when they made it," answered Max. "We can't use it without a driver anyway but I wanted to see what made his growth stop. "

Norm ran his tongue over his teeth in thought and Katherine caught sight of his sharp canines before he spoke again. "That's weird. There hasn't been a mistake like that in avatar production for a long time. Where did Dr. Jacobs go, anyway? "

"He's going over the brain scans," answered Katherine. "Evidently our friend has a decent brain. Too bad that won't help him. "

When both men gave her thoughtful looks, she tried to reassure them. "You don't have to worry about me getting in the way. I'm here to do botany work, not put my nose into Avatar politics. "

Norm smiled at her. "Why not? It never stopped Grace. "He sighed and rubbed his arm, wincing. "They should have linked you to an avatar too. It would have made your job a lot more simple. "

"I was supposed to assist Dr. Augustine. "Katherine's eyes drifted to the doomed avatar. "If we knew the situation here earlier, I probably would have gotten one myself. We've just got to work with what we have. "She smirked up at him. "So I guess that means I'll need to rely on you bringing some samples back, since you can move more freely around this moon. "

Norm grimaced. "So you want me to be your go-to guy until the Omaticaya lift restrictions on you, right? "

"Looks like it," she replied without apology. Noticing that the expression of discomfort hadn't faded from his blue, striped features she gestured at the examination table. "Maybe you should sit down. "

He nodded and turned to walk to the gurney. His tail swung around as he moved and Katherine jumped as it snaked up underneath her lab coat from behind. "Hey! "

Norm turned his head to look at her and she could have sworn he blushed. His cheeks darkened interestingly and he snatched his tail and pressed his lips together. "Excuse me," he apologized, "I'm a little out of synch, since I had to wait a couple of weeks for them to patch up my avatar. "

"It's fine," she said dryly. She combed her chestnut colored hair out of her eyes and shooed him toward the gurney. "Have they looked at you since you linked? "

Norm sank carefully down onto the examination table and shook his head. "I was going to get a checkup after talking to you guys. I'm okay, it's just a little stiffness. "His breath fogged the transparent visor of the mask over his face.

"Don't push yourself," Max advised seriously. "That body took some pretty serious hits in the fight, Norm. "

"I've got it," insisted the anthropologist stubbornly. He twisted gingerly in his seat, working his tightened torso to loosen it up.

Max nodded. "If you say so. Well, we shouldn't put this off. Would you get ready to power down the incubator while I get the sedative? "

"I can do that," agreed Norm. He shot a faintly regretful look at the avatar they were about to euthanize and he stood up.

Katherine moved out of his way as Norm walked to the control panel and began pushing buttons. She couldn't contain a sigh as she looked into the tank. She stared at the avatar with ambiguous hazel eyes and silently apologized to it, even though it wouldn't have understood her even if it could have heard her. Max approached with a syringe full of yellow liquid and he opened up the umbilical cap to prepare for injection.

Katherine wondered how the avatar would react when the medication was distributed. She guessed it wouldn't do anything but she'd never witnessed a cut-off before and she mentally braced herself. He couldn't feel anything. She had to remember that. She knew Max and Norm well enough to respect their experience and knowledge of the avatars. She watched Sebastian Thomas' avatar quietly as Max started to push the needle into the umbilical reservoir. She frowned severely when she thought she saw him turn his head.

"Wait," Katherine demanded, holding a hand out palm-up to Max.

He paused and looked at her with puzzled, dark eyes. "What's the problem? "

"I just. . . thought I saw something," she answered, staring intensely at the avatar. "Movement. Not just reflexive motion, either. "

Norm and Max exchanged a quiet look between the two of them before the latter answered her. "Katherine, maybe you should leave the room while we do this. You know avatars can't function without drivers. "

"I know that," she argued, "but I still saw something. "

"Your mind's playing tricks on you," insisted Norm. "Look, you're just getting yourself worked up. "

She was about to open her mouth to argue with him when the door slid open and Dr. Jacobs hurried in, holding up a flat-screen holographic.

"Don't cut the cord yet," he insisted breathlessly, "there is a lot more going on with this avatar than we thought! "

Max pulled the needle out of the access point and stared at the older scientist. "What's up? "

"Look at these brain scans," announced Dr. Jacobs as he thrust the image screen at Max. "They aren't dark, as they should be. We've got activity as if the avatar is linked to its driver. "

Max, Katherine and Norm gathered around as Jacobs flicked through the scans one at a time. Sure enough, the images were lit up in several places, indicating activity that only a live brain would have had.

"Whoa, that can't be right," breathed Norm, looking from the image to the avatar he'd just been ready to cut off from life support. "The only parts that should be lit up are the ones that control vital organs! It. . . kind of looks like he's dreaming. "

It didn't escape Katherine's notice that Norm referred to the avatar as a "he" instead of an "it". She could see the doubt and uncertainty in his eyes. She looked at the undersized avatar and moved closer to the tank, watching him intensely. Her eyes widened when she saw movement under his eyelids. Norm was right; he was showing signs of REM sleep.

"Unbelievable," Max muttered as he came up beside her and evidently noticed it too. "They must have screwed up more than just the DNA mix. This guy isn't an empty shell, he's alive. "

They studied him for several days before finally coming to an alternate decision, after he continued showing signs of increased awareness. Shutting down the incubation tank was out of the question, since the being inside of it was for all intents and purposes alive. The problem was they had no way of knowing if he was as mature as he was going to get. Removing him from the tank might kill him. Leaving him in there in a state of sentience could do the same thing. The tanks were designed to work like a mother's womb, nurturing the avatars from an embryonic stage to maturity. The umbilical cord provided nutrients, oxygen, carbon dioxide, hydrogen dioxide and xenon. The liquid inside the tanks balanced out the gravitational force to allow proper growth. Premature removal was risky at best, but if the avatar's lungs were mature, it could drown in the tank if left in for too long.

"I think we should take him out," Norm suggested. "I can put him back in fast if he starts crashing. "

"But your injuries are still healing," reminded Jacobs.

"He's not full-grown," argued Norm. "And Na'vi aren't as heavy as you might think. I should be able to handle it. "

The scientists looked at one another, inwardly debating the situation.

"We've got to do something soon," Max pointed out with a glance at the avatar. He froze. "Uh. . . he's looking at us. "

The others turned to follow his gaze and Norm jumped a little. "Maybe it's just another reflex. "

"I don't think so," countered Katherine as she stood up. The avatar's amber gaze followed her as she approached. There was confusion and panic in those eyes. The pupils were dilating tellingly and the avatar pressed his hands against the glass and began to move about restlessly.

"We have to get this open and let him out," Katherine stated with certainty. She might not have Norm and Max's experience but she could tell the male inside the tank wouldn't last long without breath. "Hurry! He's going to drown! "

Norm and Max moved quickly. While the former started turning the seal lock on the tank, the latter began entering codes to activate the draining process. Norm shook his head and snarled.

"We can't wait for it to drain! You guys make sure there aren't any wires on the floor while I get this thing open! "

Katherine and Jacobs scrambled to check the equipment while Max helped Norm with the seal as best he could. With a grunts and growls of effort, the two of them got the tank open and a flood of clear liquid came out to spill over the floor. Realizing that the avatar they were trying to rescue would need a Pandora atmosphere to breath in, Katherine ran to the exopack storage and pulled out one of the Na'vi breathers. To her surprise, the avatar seemed to be breathing the oxygen just fine after coughing up a bit of water. The men seemed just as baffled as she was and Norm groaned a little as he lifted the soaked, naked avatar and carried him over to one of the gurneys.

Max immediately went to the supply cabinets for towels and a hospital gown while Roy started checking the patient's vitals. The avatar struggled, hissing and spitting with animal fear as Norm fought to hold him down. Between snarls and coughs, he strained against the taller avatar's hold on him. Norm tried speaking to him in both English and Na'vi, trying to assure him that nobody was going to hurt him. Katherine approached as Max dried the liquid from the avatar's body and she added her own soft reassurances to Norm's.

"Can you understand us? It's all right. We're only trying to help you. "

Her adrenaline was pumping from the intensity of the moment and she took a hasty step back as the avatar snapped his teeth at Dr. Jacobs when he pressed the stethoscope on his chest. His dark, damp hair was loose, but for the queue dangling over the side of the gurney. The wet strands clung to his face as he bucked against his captor and Norm cursed in effort to keep him down.

"He might be undersized," grunted Norm, "but he's strong. We're going to have to put him out. "

Dr. Jacobs left off trying to check the heartbeat and went for the medication supplies while Katherine, Norm and Max tried to calm the avatar down and keep him restrained. He worked with practiced efficiency as he measured out the ideal dosage based on approximate weight and height before returning to administer the shot.

"Easy," Katherine soothed as her associate injected the struggling avatar in the thigh for lack of better options. The patient snarled through clenched teeth and panted. His eyes met hers and his struggles began to lessen. She wasn't foolish enough to think he was settling down because of her words. His eyes became unfocused and his lids grew heavy. She stroked his hair and kept murmuring to him as he drifted out of consciousness.

"Are they always so strong when they first wake up? " Katherine asked in shaken surprise when he lay still.

"Well, not exactly," Norm answered between pants. He sat down on the gurney beside the patient's and pulled his hat off, running his fingers through the loosened strands of hair pulled free from his braid in the struggle. "But you've got to remember, we have to synch to our avatar bodies and get used to them when we first wake up. This guy isn't some driver. . . he's using his own body. "

"His Heartbeat and lungs both sound good," announced Dr. Jacobs. "It's a little fast, but after the fight he just put up that's no surprise. Blood pressure is normal, body temperature is a little low but that's to be expected after stasis. He seems to have good muscle tone. Everything's proportioned right, he's just two or three feet too short. "

Max scratched his head. "But he's breathing Earth based gases. Katherine, can you hand that mask over? I want to test something while he's out. "

"You're going to expose him to Pandora air? " She wasn't thrilled with the idea and it showed in her tone.

"We've got to start studying him," Max said. "I'm only going to turn it on long enough to see how his body reacts. This kind of thing has never happened before and the more we understand about him, the better we can take care of him. "

She couldn't refute that logic, so she passed the mask over to him and watched as he placed it over the avatar's face and turned it on. The patient's breath hitched and she tensed, but Max held up a placating hand and reminded her that it took more than a couple of breaths to do harm. The avatar's breathing evened out and Norm's eyebrows went up.

"So he can breathe in both atmospheres? "

"Something tells me someone did a little playing around when they started growing this avatar," Max said with a frown. "There are too many alterations for it all to be just a coincidence. What's the name of the scientist that was assigned to growing him? "

"Dr. Collins," answered Katherine after thinking for a moment. "Bishop Collins. He left on the transport ship back to Earth this morning, after we finished moving the avatars into the bio lab. "

"I'm going to try and pull up his research files," Max said with a frown. "We should get some staff ready and have the other drivers link to theirs for tests, too. I don't know all of the people on the Earth team and none of our people were there when these guys were made. When our shorty here wakes up, I want to do more testing on him. . . if we can get him to cooperate. For now just get some blood, saliva and hair samples from him while he's out. "He took the mask off of the unconscious avatar and the breath caught again as the being re-adjusted to the chemical balance in the air.

"I don't know how cooperative he's going to be," Norm said doubtfully as Max prepared to leave the avatar room. "He was pretty feral. He might operate on an animal level of intelligence at best. "

"He woke up for the first time inside of a tank, surrounded by strangers," argued Katherine. "I don't know about you but I'd be pretty damned spooked in that situation, myself. "

"His brain scans looked healthy," Max reminded them. "If this is the first time he's ever been awake then his mind is in an infant stage. With any luck, he'll start adjusting and learning fast. We'll probably have to teach him how to walk and talk, among other things. "

"Other things? " Norm repeated with an uncomfortable grimace.

"Instincts are going to help but someone's going to have to show this guy where to go to the bathroom, how to eat, how to clean himself up. . . that sort of thing. "Max glanced at the patient before continuing: "Like I said, I need to know what was done when this guy was made. "

Norm sighed. "Great. "

Katherine checked in on the "faulty" avatar often while she was helping the small team work with the new drivers and their avatars. She was anxious to get outside the compound and start collecting samples for research. According to Dr. Augustine's files, it was estimated that only half of the plant life on Pandora had been analyzed and studied before Grace passed away. She couldn't leave the compound yet however, and the avatar drivers needed some time to get used to their pseudo Na'vi bodies before they could be of use. The colony had a handful of choppers for air transport but they were grounded now, until a meeting could be conducted with the Omaticaya Na'vi in the region.

Jake Sully led the clan with his mate, Neytiri. Katherine and her colleagues who were allowed to stay were filled in on that, too. She didn't completely understand how the Na'vi managed to transfer his consciousness completely into his avatar but she suspected she'd learn more about it later. As she understood it, he would be coming to meet the new people on the base by the end of the week. Until then, restrictions were heavy.

Beginning to feel stir crazy, she decided to take a walk outside and visit the garden and activity areas. She was just walking past the examination room where they were keeping the sentient avatar when she saw him moving out the corner of her eye. She stopped and looked in through the reinforced glass window, watching him stir. One of her fellow lab staff members was walking by and she caught her by the arm.

"Go and tell Dr. Patel or Dr. Jacobs," Katherine instructed, "the patient is waking up. We'll probably need people in here in case his restraints don't hold, too. "

Unfortunately, they were forced to sedate him again. This time they avoided putting him completely down, so that further tests could be run. They gave him enough medication to keep him docile and Dr. Jacobs began to examine his reflexes while Katherine spoke softly to the avatar to ease his anxiety. Two orderlies stood by in case further restraint was needed. Max was still busy looking through the data banks but he called the examination room to see how it was going.

"I found some hidden files," explained Max. "I'm working on decrypting them now. I don't know what this Collins guy was up to but it wasn't protocol. Just keep trying to communicate with the avatar and run what tests you can. "

"Can do," Katherine promised. She heard a threatening hiss behind her and she turned to see the patient glaring up at Jacobs with his ears laid back. Even under the influence of the sedative, he wasn't cooperative. "I'd better get back to work," Katherine told Max. "I'll let you know if we find anything significant. "

"Katherine, I need you over here," Roy called. "Damn! "He yanked his hand away as his patient's teeth snapped at it again.

Katherine hurried over to the table and resumed talking to the avatar. She doubted that he could understand a word she said but he seemed to calm down a little.

"Looks like you've got a way with him," commented Roy as the patient gazed up at her and listened to her voice.

"I can't imagine why," she answered, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. "Shh, it's okay," she finished, addressing patient.

Dr. Jacobs shrugged. "He's a mass of basic instincts right now. Having a pretty female cooing over him probably helps. "

Katherine looked up with a frown. "I don't suppose you've noticed I'm the wrong species? "

"I wouldn't be so sure. "Roy grinned. "The Na'vi are a lot like us when it comes to the basics and he isn't exactly a typical avatar. Besides, I don't think he knows the difference between a Na'vi woman and a human, right now. "

"I could have done without that observation," she grumbled. The avatar strained again and she turned her attention back to him. "Easy now. You only have to put up with this for a little while longer. You're okay. "

He settled again, swallowing and breathing heavily. Roy finished checking the reflexes and he hesitated as he looked at the instrument tray. "I think we should rule out drawing more blood for now. It would be safer for everyone to do it while he's unconscious or when we can make him understand it's for his own good. "

"That's probably a smart choice," she agreed dryly, noticing that one of the patient's wrist restraints was already ripped from his earlier struggles.

Sebastian's avatar was more cooperative the next day—at least with Katherine. She started by offering him food and attempting to show him how to use a spoon in the morning. She didn't know how he would react to her taking a bite of his food so she demonstrated how to use the spoon without actually putting it in her mouth.

"There, now you try it," she encouraged, gently taking his right hand and guiding him to grip the spoon handle.

He narrowed his eyes suspiciously at her.

"Go ahead," she told him.

He sniffed at the food and frowned. It then occurred to her that avoiding taking a bite might not have been the way to go. Maybe he thought she was trying to poison him.

"Here," she sighed, trying to take the spoon from him. She moved too fast and he recoiled away from her. "It's okay," she murmured, smiling gently. "Trust me, you could probably twist my head off in two seconds flat. I'm not a threat to you. "

She didn't know why she kept bothering trying to explain to him, other than the faint suspicion that he might understand her words on some level. He was definitely more lucid this morning. She coaxed with her hands, urging him to give her the bowl. He slowly handed it over and she spooned up a bite of the oatmeal and put it into her mouth. She chewed and swallowed it, making "Mmm" noises to ensure him that it was tasty. She considered getting a fresh spoon for him but that might just convince him she had some nefarious reason for refusing to share eating utensils. Instead, she wiped the spoon off with one of the napkins before offering the bowl to him again.

"Now, will you try it? "

He took the bowl from her awkwardly and he mimicked her earlier action, scooping up a mouthful of the food. He watched her as he brought the spoon to his lips and slipped it into his mouth. His face immediately took on a sour expression and he gave her an accusing look. Katherine impulsively began to ask him what was wrong but she got her answer when he spit the oatmeal out and grimaced like a sullen child, laying his ears back flat against his head.

"No, don't spit it. . . oh, here. "Thankful that she's had the foresight to bring a napkin, she wiped at his chin and lips to clean away the dribbling oatmeal. "I guess that means you aren't an oatmeal lover. "

He allowed her to finish wiping his face and he kept looking at her with that insulted, disgusted expression on his face. Katherine sighed but she felt a grin trying to surface and she ducked her head to hide it as she reached for the cup of water she'd left on the tray. She offered it to him and helped him bring it to his lips, watching his throat work as he swallowed thirstily.

"Better? " She asked when he finished drinking his fill and sighed. Apparently it was, because the scowl had faded from his lips and he looked at the bowl before handing it back to her.

The door opened and Norm came in. He was in his avatar body again and he was wearing a pair of jogging pants and a muscle shirt. He yawned and avoided coming closer for the moment, looking between Katherine and the patient.

"No more restraints, huh? "

"As long as he behaves," she agreed. "They're monitoring him and if he starts having a conniption again, they'll have to restrain and sedate him. "

"Has he tried to walk yet? "Norm took a careful step closer and his tail swished.

The patient saw the movement and he stared, looking Norm up and down curiously. He slowly reached down and under the sheets covering him to the waist, drawing his own tail out and holding it up. He also reached for the long braid hanging from the base of his skull and he gave Norm a curious look, his ears moving forward slightly with interest.

"Yeah, that's right," Norm said with a little nod. He held up his tail and presented it to the smaller avatar. "I'm like you. Well, kind of. "

To Katherine, he whispered: "I thought it was worth a try to see if he'd get along better with me in my avatar form. He was out of it yesterday but it looks like he's starting to figure things out, now. "

"That's sensible. He hasn't gotten out of the bed, but he's only been awake for a little while," answered Katherine. She gestured at the forgotten bowl of oatmeal. "I tried to feed him but he spit it back out. "She noticed that Norm was carrying a piece of native fruit from the gardens outside and she looked at it curiously. She hadn't had a look at the food trees outside yet but she knew they weren't edible to humans without first being processed.

"Here," Norm offered, handing the fruit to her rather than the patient. "He likes you so you try giving this to him. He might stomach it better than oatmeal. "

The fruit fit in one of Norm's larger Na'vi hands but Katherine had to take it in both of hers. It was roughly the size of a cantaloupe and its skin was purple and bumpy. It gave a little when she squeezed it and she offered it to the patient.

"How is he supposed to get his mouth around that? " she asked.

"The skin's pretty soft," Norm assured her. "He'll probably drip some, though. "

The smaller avatar examined the fruit in his hands for a moment before slowly raising it to his lips. His tawny gaze slid to Katherine in a way that suggested he might decide to spit it out directly on her, if it turned out to be a disappointment like the oatmeal. Katherine scooted her chair back as a precaution and smiled at him as he bit down. Some of the juice dribbled over the skin and down his neck but he evidently liked the fruit. He began to eat with a sharp appetite and Katherine exchanged a grin with Norm.

"I was going to eat that myself but I can pick another one. "Norm explained.

"Have you heard anything from Max about the files he found? "Katherine impulsively dabbed the juice from the patient's face as he ate and he glanced at her sidelong without pausing in his meal.

"As a matter of fact, yes. He wants to talk to us in an hour. It sounds like whatever he found is a big deal. "

She gazed at Norm thoughtfully, wondering what had been done to the unusual avatar munching on the fruit beside her. "Do you think it's good news or bad news? "

Norm sighed and brushed back a few loose wisps of black hair from his forehead. "By the sound of his voice, I don't think it's good news. "He looked at his shorter counterpart on the bed and gave a brief nod. "Maybe we should name him. "

Katherine nodded with agreement and when Norm just stared at her expectantly, she raised an eyebrow. "What? You want me to name him? I'm the botanist here. I don't even know what I'm doing nursing this guy. . . this isn't my specialty. "

"Nobody forced you to look after him. "Norm's mouth twitched.

She sighed. No, nobody ordered her to take care of the avatar. Her fascination with the Na'vi people and her compassion for him were responsible for her volunteering. She shrugged and considered the patient. He was just finishing up with the piece of fruit and he began licking the juice off his fingers.

"Well, his driver's name was Sebastian. If things hadn't gone sour that's what we would be calling him anyway, right? "

"Yeah, I guess. It's not very creative but it will do. "

She smirked and dabbed at Sebastian's face again with the napkin. "I happen to like the name and he was a decent guy. "

It was then that she noticed the avatar was staring at her with a puzzled look on his face. She paused in her action and considered the expression carefully. "Sebastian? Is that name okay with you? "

His lips parted and his brows furrowed. To Katherine, it appeared as though he was trying to recall something. Norm evidently got the same impression because he spoke her growing suspicion out loud.

"Do you recognize that name? "

He lowered his eyes and frowned uncertainly. Katherine couldn't be sure whether he was considering the question or whether he simply couldn't comprehend it. She felt like they were onto something but she couldn't imagine what. Maybe his driver did somehow link with him before his death but if so, what could have been accomplished? Linking with an immature avatar was like slipping into a coma, from what she understood.

"Sebastian Thomas didn't die by accident. "

Everyone stared at Max as he handed out small holographic screens with his report uploaded into them.

"You're sure about this? " Ramona Adams stared at the lit up text on the screen she held and a frown creased her brows.

"I double and triple checked," answered Max, his gaze sweeping the small team of scientists. "Someone tampered with his cryogenic capsule while he was in stasis and I'm betting it was Dr. Collins. If you skip to the next page, you'll see a summary of things I found in his files. He was using the avatar program to try and create a life form that could adapt to either atmosphere. From what I've dug up so far, he was trying to find a way to permanently lock a driver's conscience into an avatar. "

Norm's eyes flickered and unfocused. "Like what the Na'vi and Eywa did for Jake. "He looked at Katherine, who returned his look and guessed he was thinking of the avatar's behavior when they she named him earlier. "They tried to do the same thing for Grace but she was too weak. "

"But we don't have the technology or the means to do something like that," Ramona pointed out. "Unless Dr. Collins got his hands on a sample from the Tree of Souls before taking the trip here. "

"He couldn't have," Norm said with a shake of his head. "We were the first outsiders ever allowed there and we sure as hell didn't send any samples back to Earth. Even if he did get a sample, he couldn't have done anything with it. He must have figured out a way with the link capsule. "

Max looked between Katherine and Norm and he scratched the beard growth on his jaw. "What's going on, you two? Did something happen with the avatar this morning? "

"We thought he should have a name," explained Katherine readily. "And I thought it made sense to name him after the pilot intended to operate him. When I called him 'Sebastian' he acted a little strange. "

"Strange how? " pressed Dr. Jacobs.

"Like he recognized the name," answered Norm.

Max wore an expression that warred between trepidation and disbelief. "Are you sure about this? "

"We both saw it," confirmed Norm. "He didn't say anything but he acted sort of like a pet hearing its own name. I don't think he understood anything else we said but he knew 'Sebastian' when he heard it. "

"Then Dr. Collin might have pulled it off," Max uttered. He sighed. "If he did, then it was the transference that killed Thomas' human body. Collins might have put him back in his cryo capsule and sabotaged it to cover up what he tried to do. Maybe he didn't think it worked. "

"What if Sebastian and Dr. Collins were in on something with Selfridge and Quaritch? " hypothesized Norm. "They tried to use Jake to get an advantage. Maybe they had something like that planned for this guy, too. Collins obviously put some extra work into this avatar to make it more adaptable, right? "

"I don't think the avatar driver would have been in on it," argued Katherine. Roy nodded in agreement with her as she went on. "I knew Sebastian and so did Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Adams. Granted, we weren't best buddies with him but it was obvious he admired the Na'vi culture and he couldn't wait to learn more about them. "

"Which could indicate a mission just like the one Jake had, before his change of heart," Norm countered.

"I really don't think that's likely in this driver's case," Roy insisted.

"I've got to agree with both of them," Ramona added. "I didn't get a chance to get to know him that well before we deployed, but he seemed like a nice guy. Really cute, too. "

"I don't think his looks are what's important here," Max grumbled. "You've admitted you didn't get to know him all that well. I think we need to keep a close eye on his avatar. There's got to be a reason Dr. Collins tried something so risky and I don't think it was to bring peace and love to the Na'vi. After everything that's happened here, we've got to be extra careful. The Omaticaya tolerate us but one slip up could change their minds. "

"There might be one way," suggested Dr. Jacobs slowly. "Avatars can form a link with each other and the native life on this moon, can't they? Couldn't one of our drivers use that to read his mind? "

"It's not an exact science," Norm sighed. "Trying to force your way into someone's mind like that would take major willpower. Sharing communication isn't the same thing. "

"But you could link to him and see what you find," suggested Max. "Maybe you can pick up on something. "

Norm looked dubious at the thought. "I've only ever formed a bond with a pa'li, Max. I could try Tsahaylu with this guy but I'm not sure what would happen. "

"The drivers we know and trust are with the Omaticaya right now, helping them with the new Hometree. The three newcomer pilots we have here don't have the experience. You're the only one, Norm. "

"I knew you were going to say something like that," complained Norm.

"I'm just asking you to link with him for a few minutes," Max argued.

Norm sighed. "All right, I'll try it. We should give him a couple of days to get used to me first, though. "

-To be continued


Pa'li = Direhorse; a six-legged, native equine animal similar to an earth horse.

Tsahaylu = The neural bond that Na'vi can establish between one another and certain native animals, through use of the fibers hidden in their queue.

Chapter Text

They focused on helping Sebastian learn basic things like personal hygiene, walking and eating. He was mistrustful and sometimes aggressive with most of the staff, so Katherine and Norm ended up doing a lot of it. The first time he tried to walk upright, Sebastian stumbled and fell. Luckily, Norm was with him in his avatar body and he was able to help him catch his balance before he hit the floor. Katherine did most of the feeding, taking advice from Norm on the best combinations of native foodstuffs to suit Na'vi taste and requirements. Sebastian was able to stomach human foods but he seemed to prefer Na'vi cuisine.

Katherine had trouble getting him to agree to settle down and go to sleep, the first night after naming him. He'd managed to take a few shaky steps and he stubbornly kept trying to improve. She chastised him patiently and brushed the long, unbound locks of hair out of his face when he stumbled and barely caught his balance against the wall.

"That's enough," Katherine insisted, keeping her tone firm without being harsh. She looked up into his eyes and willed him to understand what she was trying to communicate. "You need rest, Sebastian. Please, come with me to your bed and lie down."

She felt her face grow warm as her own choice of words made her thankful that Ramona wasn't around to hear them. She took his hands in hers and walked backwards toward the examination bed, whispering softly to him and smiling encouragingly. He took slow, uncertain steps and followed her, his glittering eyes switching between her face and his own feet. It only took a few steps to get to the bed and she reached up and put a hand on his shoulder, urging him to sit down on the edge. She hastily averted her gaze as the back of his hospital gown parted enough to expose his backside, though logically she knew he didn't yet have the capacity to feel bashful about it.

"There you go," she soothed as he sank down on the cushioned surface.

She took his queue in hand and pulled it aside for him as she pushed gently against his chest to guide him to lie down. He resisted at first and she pleaded softly with him until he relaxed and complied. She found herself again marveling at how similar the avatar's exotic facial features were to his deceased pilot's human ones. She absently let the lengthy, braided length of his queue slide through her hand as she pulled the sheets up over him with her other hand. Just as the braid slipped past her palm, she felt something curl around her fingers.

Katherine looked down to see that the tendrils of Sebastian's queue had stretched out from the bottom of his braid and wrapped around her fingers. She was a little startled but not alarmed. Guessing that it was a reflexive response, she grasped end of the braid and gently tugged. The tendrils didn't let go and Sebastian was staring up at her with sleepy golden eyes.

"Sebastian," she said hesitantly, disliking the idea of trying to forcibly pull the seemingly delicate tendrils away, "I need my hand back, please." Her hesitancy wasn't due to distaste rather than concern over harming the caressing protrusions. She had read that they were sensitive and she didn't want to inadvertently hurt him.

It took a moment for the relentless hold to let up. The filaments retreated, allowing her to pull her hand free. Sebastian looked a bit too innocent to her and Katherine experienced a quiet moment of suspicion. She pushed the feeling aside, deciding that the teasing comments she'd gotten from her colleagues concerning the avatar's attachment to her was to blame for it. Knowing that he wouldn't be able to answer her if she offered a bedtime snack and a drink, she straightened up and started to go toward the door.

Katherine heard the sound of cloth rustling behind her and she stopped, sighing. "No. Stay in bed."

She turned around to see Sebastian in the process of pulling the sheets aside. His attempt to follow her was unreasonably endearing. The unpleasant realization that she might have to sedate him to keep him in the room and in bed made her frown. Her sister—were she alive—would have accused her of mothering him like a stray kitten. Katherine possibly would have agreed with her if it weren't for the fact that Sebastian's male grace and attractive features blew away any motherly instinct she might have harbored.

Katherine quickly went back to the bedside and pushed on his shoulders before he could swing his legs over the side and try to get up. He growled softly but his ears stayed in the neutral position, indicating that the sound wasn't aggressive so much as frustrated.

"Come on," she pleaded as she got him lying down again with painful effort. Their faces were only a few inches apart. "Don't do this to me, okay? Just...let me bring you something to eat so that I can get some rest too."

~God knows I won't get any work done after wrestling with you! You might be a small fry compared to the other avatars and Na'vi but you're still a head and a half taller than I am...not to mention four times stronger.~

Katherine ended up half-sprawled on top of him, with her lab coat twisted around her waist and one pant-leg partially hiked up her calf. She armored herself against instinctive reactions to the contact and stared hard into his eyes.

"I mean it, pal. Settle your blue butt down."

She was panting softly from the effort of trying to overpower him with her puny human body and she could have sworn she saw his mouth twitch with what could have passed for amusement. Whether he understood some of her words or the tone of her voice got through to him, she couldn't guess. Whatever the cause, he abruptly stopped resisting her and Katherine nearly sprawled flush against him as a result.

She cleared her throat and pulled her head back just before their lips would have touched. Trying to retain her dignity, she eased off of his long limbs and stood up, pulling her clothes back into place.

"Good." She nodded. "Now just relax and stay here. You don't really deserve a snack after that stunt but I don't want you to get hungry during the night."

This time, she didn't turn her back on him. She walked backwards towards the door, making placatory motions with her hands to discourage him from getting up again. She felt foolish, telling him to stay over and over again like a dog. His left ear twitched and his tail swished sinuously over the side of the bed as he watched her. By the expression on his face, he found her behavior puzzling. At least it seemed to be enough to distract him from trying to get out of bed again.

Just as her back pressed against the door and she prepared to turn around to enter the unlocking code, the door slid open and Katherine very nearly stumbled backwards through it. She cursed and caught herself on the threshold, twisting around to find Ramona standing in the darkened hallway.

"Chuck wagon, incoming," announced the zoologist cheerfully. "Max said your new friend needs a little extra to eat right now and I figured you might have your hands full." She assessed the situation with interested brown eyes. "It looks like he was right. That avatar really does have a thing for you."

Katherine looked at the tray Ramona was carrying. On it was a small bowl filled with some kind of round nuts and a cluster of small fruits that resembled grapes, but for the thick skin on them. A cup of water sat next to the bowl. "Thanks. He should be fine with you giving it to him. The guys are wrong...he only puts up with me because I'm female."

"Oh?" Ramona looked at the avatar with interest. "Hmm, he really does look a lot like Sebastian, if you don't count his coloring and hair length. Nice."

"Just feed him, okay?"

Ramona smirked and started walking into the room. Katherine started to take her exit but she heard a soft, warning hiss. She turned around and stared at Sebastian. His ears were only partially laid back and he wasn't fully baring his teeth at the zoologist but clearly, the assessment that any female could easily approach him wasn't entirely accurate.

"He only puts up with you because you're female, huh?" Ramona took a cautious, slow step back toward the door. "What am I then, a rock?"

Katherine couldn't decide whether she should be pleased or dismayed by the discovery that she was wrong about her gender being the only factor. She looked at Sebastian's mistrustful expression and wary amber eyes. Ramona was the only other female he had come into contact with since waking, so either there was something about her voice or stance he didn't like or the others were right after all.

"I'll feed him then," sighed the botanist.

Ramona leaned in close to Katherine before going and she whispered in her ear. "By the way, I spiked his fruit with a little sedative. Don't feed him the two pieces on the top if you don't want to dose him."

Katherine's mouth twisted with guilt, but she nodded. Sebastian needed his rest and she would never make it out the door if he kept insisting on coming after her.

Over the next couple of days, Sebastian got the hang of walking, feeding himself and using the bathroom without needing a chaperone. They altered a pair of drawstring sweat pants for him so that he could have something other than oversized or undersized hospital gowns to wear and Max set people to work on tailoring more clothes for him. Katherine brushed his loose hair every day and smoothed out any flyaway strands on his queue. Norm instructed him on how to brush his teeth, which resulted in quite a mess the first time when the avatar squeezed the whole tube of paste out onto the bathroom floor.

Sebastian's cooperation with staff members he'd gotten familiar with increased a bit, but Katherine and Norm were still the only ones he showed real trust in. They began to walk with him through the research building, careful to keep him away from equipment and speak to him regularly. Deciding that Sebastian trusted him enough not to chew his face off if he tried to link with him, Norm prepared to give it a try. He interrupted Katherine's lab work to ask her to be there, in case Sebastian needed calming down.

"Hey, Sebastian."

Norm's smile was obviously intended to be reassuring as he walked into the avatar's examination room with Katherine but she could see the hidden anxiety behind it. It seemed that Sebastian picked up on it as well, because his ears swiveled back subtly and he examined the other male.

Katherine decided to put forth her own effort to keep the situation calm. "Norm wants to try something, Sebastian. It might help you understand things better."

His yellow eyes regarded her with incomprehension but his ears perked up a little as she approached. His expression softened a bit and he allowed her to take his hands and guide him to the bed.

"You need to be relaxed for this," Katherine told him. "Please sit down, okay?"

Sebastian obeyed her request and she glanced over her shoulder at the tall, five-fingered Na'vi male who approached. Norm was the only person who didn't question the way she spoke to Sebastian in full sentences. The others thought it was a waste of time and advised her to focus on her tone rather than her words. Like her, Norm was beginning to think Sebastian could understand some of the words they spoke to him. He also seemed to be taking a liking to the mute, stunted avatar, but she couldn't be certain.

"Okay," Norm said after taking a deep breath. He sat down beside Sebastian on the bed. "We're going to try to form tsahaylu. It's a bond and it might let us communicate better. Do you understand?"

Sebastian looked from Norm to Katherine, his eyes sweeping her up and down before settling back dubiously on Norm. His brows furrowed as if in confusion and he scooted a little closer to the end of the bed, where Katherine's chair was.

Norm's gaze flicked between the two of them and he looked down with a grin. "I get the feeling he'd rather you do it."

"Too bad," Katherine muttered, hoping she wasn't blushing. "I don't have a queue."

Norm reached around for his braid and held it up, letting the tendrils emerge from the tip. He gave Sebastian a nod and held it toward him. "Hold yours up to mine," he encouraged. "It's okay."

Sebastian picked up the trailing end of his own braid and slowly lifted it, staring at Norm with visible trepidation. Katherine added her soft encouragement and reached out to pat the shorter avatar on the knee soothingly. It seemed to mellow him a little and he didn't recoil when Norm carefully took the end of his queue from him to join it with his. The swaying tendrils entwined instinctively together and both avatars' pupils dilated quickly.

Sebastian flinched and frowned, gasping. Norm's mouth fell open and he blurted that it was the weirdest thing he'd ever felt. Before Katherine could even begin to assess whether it appeared to be working or not, Sebastian began to pull away from Norm. He groaned in a very human way and clutched at his head before glaring blindly into space. His lips curved back from his teeth and he snarled as if in pain. Norm had a look of strained discomfort on his face and he began to mutter, even as he reached out to take the smaller male's wrist in an effort to steady him.

"Just a little while longer," Norm grunted. "Damn...a wild direhorse is easier to handle than this!"

"You don't sense any human thoughts at all?"

Norm hesitated and Sebastian began to writhe, falling back on the bed and emitting sounds of both animal and human pain.

"There's...something in there," Norm confirmed. Beads of perspiration formed on his cyan-striped forehead. "It's hard to reach, though. Shit, he's starting to panic."

Sebastian began tugging at his queue, trying to yank it away from Norm's. Norm couldn't seem to figure out how to let go with his tendrils and he yelled a curse of pain as the male he was linked to heedlessly tugged.

"Okay, okay! Whoa...ouch...stop pulling! I'm trying to let go! Just...aah...just relax! We'll both do it on the count of three, all right?"

Any capacity to comprehend language evidently deserted Sebastian and he struggled harder. He began to yell in agony at the top of his lungs and he kicked at poor Norm. The taller male's yells quickly joined him and Katherine fumbled for the sedative intervention she had carried in her lab coat as a precaution. She caught a glimpse of a couple of staff members in the hallway running for the door, probably alerted by the loud howls of pain.

Katherine didn't have time to be gentle about it. She stabbed the injection into Sebastian's bicep and administered the dosage quickly. Norm was in a half-crouched position on the bed, holding onto the base of his queue while leaning towards his linked companion. His teeth were clenched and he looked like someone was crushing his skull. He uttered a couple of words in Na'vi that Katherine wasn't familiar with, followed by a few in English that she knew quite well. The door slid open and there was a flurry of motion as the two men from the hallway charged in.

"Easy," Katherine shouted—addressing the lab techs as much as Sebastian. They caught hold of his limbs and tried to restrain him while Norm fought to keep the shorter avatar from damaging both of their queues.

Norm's exopack slipped partway off his face in his struggles and he started to gasp and cough. Katherine tore her attention away from Sebastian and secured the mask back into place over her colleague's face, as worried for him as she was for their patient.

Sebastian's struggles weakened as the drugs began to work and his cries died down. He lost consciousness within moments and Norm was finally able to ease their braids apart. The anthropologist winced in pain as he examined the filaments in the tip of his braid and pulled away from Sebastian. The filaments were drooping as if exhausted by the whole affair and Norm took deep, shaken breaths.

"If Max wants someone to do that again, he can grow his own avatar and do it himself."

Almost an hour later, Norm was back in his human body again, having decided after the incident with Sebastian that he'd had enough for one day as an avatar. He and Katherine were in a small, sealed conference room with Max, Roy and Ramona. He kept rubbing the back of his head as if in remembered pain and Max frowned at him.

"So what happened?"

Norm gave him a dirty look. "He tried to pull my medulla oblongata out through the back of my skull, that's what happened. At least, that's what it felt like to me."

Max winced a little. "Sorry about that. Did you pick up on anything while you were linked?"

Norm nodded and massaged his temples. "Yeah, a need for a leash. That guy is seriously messed up."

"You said you sensed something behind all the wild instincts though," reminded Katherine hopefully.

"And trying to dig for it made him go crazy," answered Norm. "Look, if he's got higher thought functions in his mind it's going to take someone with more experience than I've got to tap into them. If you want to try this again, you might have to try and recruit one of the real Na'vi."

Max pressed his lips together and nodded, accepting the verdict stoically. "I don't think we'll have any luck convincing one of the People to link with a faulty 'dreamwalker'. Other than you and Jake, they only tolerate avatars for mutual benefits."

"Maybe we could ask Sully, then," suggested Dr. Jacobs. "He's one of them now and he trusts us, doesn't he?"

"Yeah, Jake's had plenty of experience with tsahaylu," said Norm a little grudgingly. "As the TorukMakto, he's probably be your best bet if you want to use that method to punch through all the crap in Sebastian's mind."

"I'm not familiar with that term," puzzled Roy.

"It means the guy tamed a leonopteryx," supplied Ramona, familiar with some Na'vi words and most discovered animal species of Pandora, "unless I've got 'makto' mixed up with another word?"

"No, you got it right," Norm said. He smirked ruefully. "Jake's the only one in several generations to ride one of those things. That's how he rallied the clans and brought them together to kick most of the RDA off of Pandora."

Roy's gray-specked brows shot up. "He rides one of those creatures? That, I didn't know. I'd like to hear more details about the Hell's Gate takeover."

"He doesn't ride it anymore," Norm explained. "He set it loose after the fight but he can call it back if he needs it."

"Save the history lesson for later," Max insisted. "Jake is going to need to know about all this mess anyway so I think it's a good idea to ask for his help when he come with our active duty avatars. They're due tomorrow."

"I'm looking forward to meeting this guy," Ramona said with a grin.

"He's mated," Norm reminded her. "That's the same as marriage, only a lot more sacred to these people."

She shrugged. "I just want to see what he looks like."

"Worry about that later," Max said. "I found a little more data from Collin's files and I think I know what might have stunted the avatar's growth. Dr. Collins set the time on his own cryogenic chamber to go off before arrival on Pandora. He planned to check on the avatar's growth and then set his capsule's time again so that he could wake up before the rest of the crew and finish the process.

"If Dr. Collins had waited for the incubation period to finish before he transferred Sebastian's consciousness into his avatar, I think it would have been full grown. Sebastian's original body probably wouldn't have survived the process anyhow and I think Collins started losing his nerve. He got scared he would get caught and it made him sloppy. The transference disrupted the incubation process and put the avatar in stasis. Sebastian went into a coma in his new body and his old one died."

"But why did he wake up after arriving here, then?" Katherine frowned. "Do you think it's just a coincidence?"

"My guess is the magnetic force on this moon has something to do with it," answered Max. "You might have noticed that avatars don't start having reflexive reactions until they're on Pandora. Arriving here must have triggered his brain and woken him up. It's lucky for him, too."

Katherine nodded. Yes, Sebastian came close to being killed a second time. Now the poor guy could be stuck in a feral state of mind for the rest of his life and even if he improved and got his memory back, he'd have to adjust to permanent residency in his avatar. She admitted to herself that a part of the reason she was so concerned about putting the avatar to sleep was because it reminded her of him.

"I guess this means we can only wait."

The next afternoon, Katherine contented herself with collecting fresh samples of plants from within the perimeters outdoors while she waited for the leaders of the Omaticaya to arrive. Some of the other members of the science staff showed her around outside the lab building and she got her first glimpse of the avatar housing and gardens. She wasn't surprised to see the three avatars from her original crew up and about, exercising their borrowed bodies and playing sports. Lee and Joyce waved at her when they saw her and she returned their wave with a smile. She had to admit, it did look like fun to run around in an enhanced, nine-foot tall body. Sometimes she envied them—particularly because they could go outdoors without requiring exopacks.

She moved through the garden, collecting small samples from each plant as she went. She took samples of the grass and the wild plants growing near the fence as well and when she was finished, she put the samples away and prepared to go back inside. She spotted Norm approaching as she left the cultivation yard. He evidently got over his scare with Sebastian yesterday, because he was in his avatar body. He appeared to be watching the skyline and Katherine turned and looked up with a frown. She didn't see anything but now she could hear the faint sound of rotary blades in the distance.

Katherine walked towards Norm as he approached and he nearly tripped over her, so intent on watching the sky that he didn't see her until the last minute. He stumbled and hastily righted the shades covering his eyes, mumbling a reflexive apology to her even though it was basically her fault they collided.

"Sorry Norm," Katherine apologized in return, a little embarrassed that she had come close to running face-first into his crotch. She really needed to pay more attention to where she was going when there were avatars or Na'vi around. Head-butting the males in the balls wasn't good diplomacy.

He looked down at her and grinned when he saw one of the sample containers in her hand. "Let me guess; you found something new and you were engrossed in it."

She nodded and glanced down at the sample. "It's one of the wild ones. I recognize it from Grace's catalogue but there weren't any samples of it stocked in the lab and I want to study it a little more."

Norm lifted his shades and bent over a little to examine the piece of leaf she had collected. "Bellicum pennatum," he identified. "The Na'vi call it 'eyaye'."

"These are the ferns they use for adornments, right?" She queried, remembering what she had read about them in the catalog.

"Yeah. They're really common, so it's not a surprise you didn't have any preserved specimens in the botany lab. Who knows though, maybe you'll find a special use for them."

She nodded in agreement. "Are the avatar work teams on their way here?" She couldn't think of any other reason she would be hearing the aircraft approaching.

"That's right. We got word from Jake this morning that they were on their way. The Na'vi escorts are going to be landing here in the avatar compound so that their mounts don't get spooked by all the activity and noise in the hangar." He smirked. "You're going to see a Banshee for the first time. Just don't look them in the eye and try not to freak out."

"I don't 'freak out'," assured Katherine.

"There's a first time for everything."

The conversation was interrupted when a transmission came through the communication unit strapped around Norm's neck. The voice was masculine and the sound of the wind buffeting the transmission piece could be heard. "Norm, do you copy?"

Norm reached up and pressed the button on the front of the device. "Yeah, I copy you Jake."

"Our ETA is about five minutes," responded the other male. There was a pause before he spoke again. "Oh, and Ni'nat is with us."

Norm's face lit up for a second. "Oh. Well, the avatar bungalow is ready for your people. We'll see you on the ground, Jake."

The male voice on the other end sounded a little amused, to Katherine's ears. "See you soon."

Jake looked down at the compound as they flew overhead and he gave a nod to his mate. Taking the hint, Neytiri whooped to their fellow hunters and the four of them descended together, coming in for a landing in the grassy area where Norm and an unfamiliar human female waited. Jake murmured to his ikran as he landed between Neytiri and E'quath. The animal tucked his wings in and settled down as Jake dismounted and patted it. Beside him, Neytiri crooned sweetly to her new ikran and he took a moment to admire the sound. She was always so loving and gentle with her bonded mounts.

"Norm," greeted Jake with a smile. He reached out and placed a hand on the anthropologist's shoulder. "Kaltxi. Good to see you."

"Kaltxi, Jake. Good to see you too." Norm returned the gesture and though he might still harbor some jealousy over the People's acceptance of Jake, he returned the smile.

Jake swept his eyes over Norm and the human woman. She was an attractive female, with chestnut hair coiled into a professional bun on her head, hazel eyes and graceful curves. Jake wondered for a moment if the two of them had something going when the woman looked up at the banshees warily and edged behind Norm's towering form as if instinctively seeking protection.

"I thought you weren't going to freak out," Norm told the woman softly, putting a hand briefly on her small shoulder.

"I'm not," she defended softly, her eyes darting between the beast and their riders. "I'm just...respecting what they could do if I piss them off."

Jake warmed up to the newcomer a bit, finding her attitude somewhat reminiscent of Grace. "You're the new botanist?"

"Katherine Hart," she introduced, shooting a faintly annoyed look up at Norm for not doing the courtesy of introductions himself.

Jake almost laughed. Norm wasn't paying attention to any of them right now, except for Ni'nat. The female hunter was likewise gazing back at Norm and her expression softened a bit. So much for the theory that Norm was involved with Grace's protégé. He still had a crush on the Omaticaya's best singer and it seemed that she was at least curious about him.

Norm remembered his manners. "Katherine, this is Neytiri; daughter of Eytucan and Mo'at. She'll be the next Tsahik of the Omaticaya clan." He placed his hand over his chest in greeting to Neytiri, smiling a little at her. She returned the gesture with warmth, reciprocating his smile of respect before acknowledging Katherine. She inclined her head politely and her lovely face returned to a neutral expression.

"This is E'quath," Norm introduced next, repeating the traditional gesture of greeting to the tall hunter beside Neytiri. "He's the most skillful tracker."

The stern-faced warrior responded to the greeting in kind and nodded at Katherine. Norm moved on to the last hunter, pausing as he met her eyes. Jake thought he saw his throat move as if swallowing before he spoke.

"And this is Ni'nat." Norm's voice softened a little when he spoke her name and his greeting was slightly more empathetic toward her. "She's...the best singer."

Ni'nat's shapely lips curved into subtle smile and she reciprocated his greeting before nodding to the human. A breeze stirred the waist-length mass of tight braids falling down her back, making the beads woven into her hair chime musically together.

Jake glanced sidelong at his mate and he noticed that Neytiri's lips were slightly pressed together. He guessed that she knew about Norm's attraction to Ni'nat as well and he wondered if she disapproved—until her gaze met his and her eyes smiled at him. He grinned and curved his tail toward hers, caressing it briefly.

"I'm looking forward to learning more about the People, their ways and the forest," Katherine said respectfully, addressing them all but looking up at Neytiri and Jake as she spoke. "Grace Augustine was an inspiration to me and I would like to carry on her work."

"Her place will not be easily filled," Neytiri announced in English, but she looked at the botanist with new respect in her amber gaze.

"I know," answered Katherine. "I only hope to keep her work alive."

They allowed their ikran to fly away and find a place to sleep for the night, but the flying beasts wouldn't go far from their bonded hunters and could easily be called back when needed. E'quath and Ni'nat stayed behind at the avatar compound while Jake and Neytiri went with Norm and Katherine to have council with Max and the rest of the science team. Katherine entered the lab building first, thoughtfully retrieving exopacks for the visiting Na'vi and Norm, so that they could breath the filtered atmosphere inside.

"Did Max talk to you about the situation here?" Norm asked softly as they made their way through the building together.

Jake's mood darkened a bit and he shared a grim look with Neytiri. "He said there was a faulty avatar brought in the last ISV and he told me we needed to talk about it, but that's as far as it went. What's going on?" He looked at the human woman walking ahead of them and kept his voice low as he spoke.

"Don't worry about her," Norm assured them with a nod Katherine's way. "She knows all about it and remember, Grace recommended her for this job."

With this reassurance, Neytiri chose to ask questions of her own in Na'vi. "Is this uniltirantokx a threat, Normspellman?"

"We are not sure yet," answered Norm in the same language. "It moves without a dreamwalker guiding it."

Jake stopped walking and stared at him. "No driver?"

Norm and Neytiri stopped as well and the anthropologist gathered his thoughts before answering. "Something happened during the journey here," he spoke in English, due to the Na'vi language lacking some words necessary for the explanation. "The doctor responsible for creating the avatar linked its pilot to it before it was time for it to be 'born'."

"Why the hell would he do that?"

"So he wouldn't get caught," replied Norm. "We didn't know what happened until after Dr. Collins left, but Max cracked some of his research logs and found out he was trying to create an avatar that could tolerate the atmosphere of both this world and Earth's. He used several experimental gene splicing processes that—"

"Hold it," Jake interrupted. He pointed at himself with a thumb and smirked wryly. "Skxawng here, remember? Keep it simple or its just gibberish to me."

Norm made an exasperated sound in the back of his throat. "Just wait until we get to the conference room. Max can dumb it down better than I can."

Difficult to offend, Jake only grinned wider.

Having it explained to him in full by Max helped, but Jake was still mightily confused. Neytiri was likewise confused but the two of them understood the part about permanently transferring a human conscience into an avatar body.

"So this doctor managed to do the same thing for this avatar's driver that the Na'vi and Eywa did for me," reasoned Jake.

"In the simplest terms, yeah," Norm said.

"How did they do this, without Eywa's help?" demanded Neytiri doubtfully.

"Science," answered Max. "Just as they learned to clone Na'vi bodies as avatars. The difference here is that more advanced methods were used to enhance the avatar. Its mind was made to house a spirit indefinitely, but the tradeoff is the death of the original body."

Neytiri absorbed this and she looked into Jake's eyes with visible dread. "Like passing through the eye of Eywa. They could come and they could bring war to us again, in forms that are not so weakened by our land."

"No," Jake growled, his brows drawing down fiercely. He took her hands in his and held her gaze. "They have nowhere to land, now. The base is controlled by the pxan pongu—the worthy people...not the Tawtute."

He lowered his voice and said the next completely in Na'vi. "They have succeeded with only one dreamwalker body. Max says this dreamwalker is flawed and has the mind of a child or animal. Without Eywa's blessing, they will never succeed and we will turn all Sky People away from now on to be sure of that."

The anxiety began to fade from Neytiri's eyes. "I want to see it."

Jake gave her a tiny, brief smile and looked to the others. "Take us to it."

"You're kidding me," Jake muttered to Norm as he stared through the glass at the avatar. The being was studying a puzzle set before him by Katherine—which answered the question of why she hadn't attended the meeting. "That shrimp?"

"A lot of smaller shrimps came close to taking over this world," Norm reminded him. "We told you his growth was stunted in the process but he still has the strength of a full-grown avatar and he's getting more cognitive every day."

Jake quietly berated himself, knowing from experience that it was a mistake to underestimate someone for a seeming handicap. The avatar in the room was still at least a head taller than the humans. "So what's the plan to figure out if this guy 'Sebastian' is really in there? If he can't talk you can't interrogate him about his involvement."

"We worked out a solution for that," Max interjected. "At least, we hope so."

"And what's the solution?" Jake kept staring through the glass, measuring the being interacting with Dr. Heart more carefully.

"Finding out what's on his mind," answered Dr. Jacobs.

Jake took his attention off the avatar and frowned at the graying scientist, on the verge of reminding him that the kid couldn't speak—at least, from what they'd told him.

"I established Tsahaylu with him," Norm provided.

Jake felt his eyebrows shoot up as he looked at the anthropologist. "Hope you two are happy together," he said. He tried to keep a straight face but his lips twitched and he hastily cleared his throat to hide a laugh.

"Jakesully," Neytiri hissed in a remonstrative tone. She pinched him on the arm and he jumped a little. "You know better."

Jake rubbed the sore spot and his ears drooped, but he couldn't hide his smirk completely and his contrite expression was spoiled, he knew.

"Thank you," Norm said to Neytiri, rolling his eyes at Jake. "This is important, Jake. Tsahaylu might be the only way to find out what's going on in there."

Jake took a breath and pushed his amusement down. "All right. What did you get from him?"

"Just primal feelings, mostly, but there was something behind all that and I couldn't reach it."

Before Jake could comment, Max cut in. "That's why we need you to try it, Jake."

Jake's smirk dropped entirely. "What?"

It was Norm's turn to smirk and he did so with succulence that was almost obnoxious. "You're the TorukMakto. You're the one the Omaticaya chose and you're the one most likely to make a strong enough connection to reach this guy. You've got a responsibility, ole'eyktan."

Jake pressed his lips together and he glanced at his mate. Neytiri was gazing at him expectantly and he clenched his jaw with the realization that he was outnumbered here. He wracked his brain for an argument and he was about to fall back on the excuse that they probably didn't want an ex jar-head doing such delicate work, but Neytiri apparently sensed that he was backpedaling and she demonstrated how quickly she could be angered.

She frowned at him and pulled her ears back flat, baring her teeth in a hiss. There was no teasing in that hiss—not this time. "Jake, you do it for the People," she demanded as she slapped his naked chest with her palms, none-to-gently. "You are being ignorant like a child again. You are my mate, not the uniltirantokx's. Tsahaylu will not change that!"

Jake's ears pulled back flat against his head under the assault. Max was politely averting his face but he was covering his mouth with one hand and his shoulders shook suspiciously. Jake didn't have time to check on how much Norm and Dr. Jacobs were enjoying the scene, because his mate cupped his face in her hands and forced him to look at her. As quickly as her rage surfaced, it passed and Neytiri's voice was softly insistent when it spoke again.

"You know Tsahaylu is not only for mates."

Jake felt like an asshole and as was typical of him, he started to laugh at himself. "If I don't then bonding with Last Shadow and my other companions was a big mistake."

Neytiri gave him one of those smiles that she reserved only for him. "Skxawng. You will do it?"

Jake sighed but his smile didn't fade. "I guess if I say 'no' you'll kick me to the couch."

Neytiri's expression altered into confusion. "Kick you? cowsh?"

Jake cleared his throat. There were still a lot of human terms and euphemisms to teach her. "I'll explain it later."

"So you'll try it?" pressed Max.

Jake placed a hand on Neytiri's right arm and nodded. He looked through the glass at the avatar and he took a steadying breath. "Let's do it."

-To be continued

Chapter Text

Jake approached the subject of his reluctant bonding slowly and he gave him a smile when the avatar looked up at him. Norm followed him in and Sebastian seemed to be comforted by his and Kathleen's presence.

"Hey," Jake greeted, seating himself gingerly on the side of the bed. "I hear you've been having a rough time."

Sebastian stared at him and his ears flicked forward and back. Katherine took the puzzle away and stroked Sebastian's hair, murmuring softly to him. Jake watched the way Sebastian's eyes swept over Katherine's form and he resisted the urge to smirk. Under-grown or not, the guy's hormones seemed to be working fine. He reached for his queue and Sebastian immediately started to get up, wanting nothing to do with it.

"Damn Norm, what did you do to him?" Jake muttered as Katherine grabbed Sebastian's arm and pleaded with him to be still. Norm came around on the other side to help the botanist and he shook his head with a grimace.

"He just went crazy when I linked to him. I didn't try to do anything except find out what was going on in his mind."

"Sebastian, it's okay," Katherine soothed, half-embracing him in her efforts to keep him on the bed. "You need to let us help you."

Jake studied the avatar with a frown and he came to a decision. "He's not going to hold still for this. I hate to do it but..."

There was no help for it. Norm was doing a decent job of holding him down but Sebastian's panic was only growing worse. For lack of better options, Jake grabbed the end of Sebastian's queue and brought it to his own. The tendrils quickly entwined and Jake suffered a moment of severe disorientation as the other male's emotions and thoughts surged through him. It was utter chaos and Jake hissed instinctively as he fought against the foreign emotions.

He couldn't do anything while the other male was in this state of mind. Jake gathered his strength and looked into Sebastian's eyes, setting his jaw. He deliberately sent his thoughts through the link and he wasn't gentle about it.

"Be still!" Jake roared.

Sebastian was stunned by the command, shocked to stillness as Jake's thoughts overpowered him. His struggles ceased and he lay there panting, staring at Jake in dazed confusion.

"That's it," Jake said in a gentler voice. "You're all right. Just take it easy."

Norm and Katherine eased their hold on Sebastian and watched silently, both of them ready to grab him again if he started to struggle. Katherine combed her fingers through Sebastian's hair and looked between him and Jake with inquisitive interest.

Jake phased out everyone else in the room and focused his concentration on the male he was linked with. His features tensed with effort as he tried to sort through the tangle of feral emotions coming from Sebastian.

"Easy," Jake said when the smaller male tried to recoil again.

He sent another wave of comforting feelings through the link and Sebastian's eyes grew heavy lidded as they washed over him like a drug. Jake pushed through the baser emotions, armoring himself against them to avoid getting overpowered. He got a sense of human feelings as he navigated through the mess and he focused on them, drawing closer.

"I think I've found him," Jake said aloud, narrowing his eyes with concentration. He felt Neytiri's presence approach him from behind and one of her hands settled on his shoulder and stroked it. Jake grimaced as the human awareness he'd found tried to retreat.

"Hey, come back here," muttered Jake, mentally netting it and drawing it closer. He sensed confusion and wariness.

~Sebastian Thomas,~ Jake thought, calling out to the presence. There was hesitation and he felt encouraged. ~That's right. You can do this.~

~Where am I?~

Jake paused, a bit surprised by the coherency of the thought. ~You're at Hell's Gate on Pandora. Can you remember anything?~

There was some hesitation before the presence answered.

~I remember boarding the ISV and getting into my cryogenic chamber. I remember Dr. Collins waking me up and telling me we needed to run some tests with my avatar. After I got into the link capsule everything went blank.~

Jake sighed. ~Did Dr. Collins tell you why he wanted to run tests?~

~He said he needed to check motor control, because he was worried the avatar wasn't growing right. Hey, who are you?~

~I'm a friend,~ Jake assured him. ~Corporal Jake Sully. I'm not in the Marines anymore, though. Look, there's been an accident and I need you to tell me everything you can remember about what you were told to do on Pandora and any information about your avatar that might be significant.~

~What kind of accident?~

In hindsight, Jake realized he shouldn't have said anything about the accident until after he got the information he needed. There was no help for it now and he sent soothing vibes through the link, doing his best to keep Sebastian calm.

~There was a problem with your avatar. We're trying to help you but we need to know any information you can give us about the creation of your avatar and what you were supposed to do when you got here. Can you do that?~

More confusion came through the link.

~I...don't know much about the avatar creation process. They took DNA samples from me for the embryo and that's about as much as I was involved in it. I'm trained in diplomacy and I was supposed to work on Na'vi and Human relations and learn about the natives.~

~You didn't have any special combat or intelligence training?~ Jake persisted.

~Nothing extensive. I guess I'm pretty average when it comes to skills and I got lucky when I applied for the program.~

Jake frowned, wondering why they would pick a diplomat for an experimental avatar project. If they were after an advantage over the Na'vi then logic should have dictated they would choose someone with special training. Maybe their only goal was to see if they could pull off the permanent transfer and Sebastian was just "lucky" enough to draw the shortest straw.

~They didn't talk to you about anything different they were doing to your avatar?~

~No, it was just a normal avatar...wasn't it?~

~Not exactly. This might be hard to hear but when Dr. Collins linked you to your avatar, he made it permanent. He didn't just set up a normal link; he transferred your consciousness directly into the avatar. Your original body died in the process and you're in the med lab now. I need you to come out of it. The scientists here can explain things better to you and they can help you, if you'll let them.~

~I'm dead? Is that why I haven't been able to wake up?~

~No, you're not dead. You're in your avatar body but your mind has been...trapped, I guess.~

Sebastian hesitated.

~How did this happen?~

~I'm not sure,~ Jake answered truthfully, ~But the people here are working to find out.~

~How do I wake up? I don't know what to do.~

~I'm going to help you. You and I are linked through a Na'vi bond right now. I'm going to try to help you punch through all of these baser thoughts that are clogging up the works but you've got to do your part, too. It might take more than one try but I promise you, I'll keep doing it until you're fully awake.~

~Okay.~ Sebastian's consciousness paused and a throb of curiosity came through the link. ~Hey Jake, why are you helping me out? What does a marine have to do with the Avatar program and how are you linking to me like this?~

Jake wasn't prepared for the questions and he struggled to think of how to explain things. He laughed a little in his thoughts before answering. ~It's kind of a long story. If you want to know the truth, I didn't make this link just to help you at first. We needed to know if you had special orders and if you knew what Dr. Collins planned when he transferred your consciousness. I can tell you more later. Right now, we've got to try to get you out of here.~

The response seemed to satisfy Sebastian. ~All right. Tell me what to do.~

Jake hesitated, wondering how to explain something he wasn't sure about himself. He had an idea that he could guide the other man's consciousness forward but it was hard to give a visual on what they were about to do.

~Just follow me. We're going to push past all of this other junk so you can start feeling more like yourself again.~

Neytiri watched her mate's face undergo a series of expressions as he silently communicated with Sebastian. His amber eyes were blank and dilated and his upper lip curled into a snarl of effort. Perspiration began to bead his handsome face and Neytiri whispered encouragement to him, hoping she hadn't put him in danger by insisting on this course of action. The only reason she had pushed him to do this was because she knew how strong his heart and mind were. Every time they shared Tsahaylu, the ecstasy she experienced was immediate and overpowering.

The others watched quietly, sharing her tension as they waited for a sign that Jake's efforts were doing some good. The minutes ticked by and Jake growled low in his throat. Neytiri rubbed his shoulders and laid her cheek against his back, doing her best to add her strength to his.

"Come on," Jake said breathlessly, apparently speaking to Sebastian. "That's it. Keep it up."

Sebastian's lips parted and a grunt escaped his mouth. Katherine placed a hand over one of his and gazed at him hopefully. He blinked and his eyes darted from one person to the next, the pupils shrinking back to normal size. Jake pulled away and released his queue, putting his head in his hands as if it pained him. He panted softly and raised his head again, nodding at Norm.

"That's all I can do right now," Jake said. "It's not finished but I'm too worn out to keep going."

Katherine looked from Jake to Sebastian and when the latter's eyes met hers, she spoke to him. "Sebastian? Can you understand me?"

Sebastian nodded slowly, his gaze sweeping over her and then going to Norm and Max. He opened his mouth as if to speak but nothing came out. He frowned and worked his lips, appearing to struggle.

"You can't speak?" Max guessed.

Sebastian pressed his lips together and shook his head, frowning in frustration.

"Give it some time," Jake suggested as he laid a hand over one of Neytiri's on his shoulder. "We're only about halfway there. I'll come back again in a few days and we'll try it again. We'll keep doing it for as long as we need to."

Sebastian looked at him with a grateful expression on his face and his mouth worked again. Guessing that he was trying to thank him, Jake smiled and shook his head.

"Don't worry about it. I'd hate to be in your situation and I'm not about to just leave you stuck like that." Jake smirked. "Besides, my mate is who you should be thanking. I wasn't going to link with you until she bullied me into it." He winked over his shoulder at Neytiri, who was trying hard not to smile.

Sebastian looked down at his hands and he raised one of them before his eyes, turning it and flexing the fingers.

"Do you want a mirror?" offered Katherine.

He lowered his gaze in consideration before nodding. Max obligingly went to the supply cabinet and searched through it. He found a small mirror in the personal hygiene kit stored there for patient use and he brought it to Sebastian.

"Here you go. Don't be too surprised by the similarity between your avatar's face and your human one. It's normal."

Sebastian nodded and held the mirror up to look at his reflection. He reached up and touched his face, tracing the pattern of darker stripes marking his cyan skin. He ran his fingers over his cheekbones and nose, looking conflicted between amazement and fear.

"It's going to take some getting used to," Norm advised, "but you'll adjust eventually. You're stronger than you used to be and you can go outside without an exopack."

Sebastian frowned and lowered the mirror. He looked up at Norm and tried to speak. He made a frustrated little growl when nothing came out.

"Here," Katherine said, digging a small note pad and a pen out of her lab coat pocket. "See if you can write it down."

He took the objects from her and fumbled a bit with the pen, unused to the size of his Na'vi hands. He scrawled a message down awkwardly and showed it to her. She frowned in concentration as she examined his handwriting and she read the note aloud.

"Where is my human body?"

Norm and Max exchanged a grim look before Max answered the question. "I'm sorry, Sebastian. We've already cremated your old body. There was nothing we could do to revive it."

Sebastian shut his eyes and nodded.

They left Sebastian alone with Katherine and returned to the conference room to talk about the situation in private.

"So Jake, did you find anything while you were linked to him?" Norm asked.

Jake shook his head. "Nah, he only joined the program to work on relations with the Na'vi. The poor bastard had no idea they were going to do this to him."

"Are you sure about that?" Max asked. "He could have been lying to you."

"Trust me," answered Jake. "His confusion was real. He's just a guy that got caught up in something he didn't know about. They did this to him without his consent."

"I didn't think he was the kind of young man who would plot sabotage," Roy said with a nod of satisfaction.

"Then he can be trusted?" Neytiri inquired warily.

Jake took one of her hands in his and nodded, looking into her eyes. "Yes. All he wanted to do was help. We can trust him, like the others."

She cast a glance at Dr. Jacobs and then spoke to Jake in Na'vi. "These others? Can they be trusted?"

Jake considered the question. He didn't get any bad feelings from the new people and he trusted the people who had chosen them to stay. Still, some reassurance would be nice. He looked at Norm and spoke in Na'vi, guessing that Dr. Jacobs and Dr. Adams weren't fluent in the native tongue.

"You trust these new people?"

Norm nodded without hesitation and Jake looked at his mate again. "What do you think?"

She looked from Ramona to Roy slowly, measuring them with her eyes. "I trust your judgment, my Jake. If you and Normspellman believe they are worthy, then they may venture out of these walls like the others."

Jake nodded and turned to address the two new scientists. "Your restrictions will be lifted, until you give us a reason not to trust you. Respect the forest and don't take more than what you need and we'll get along fine."

His expression became stern as he continued. "You'll end up on the business end of an arrow if you cross the line. It's nothing personal, understand?"

Dr. Jacobs swallowed and both he and Ramona nodded. "You make your point very clearly."

They chose to accept the hospitality offered to them and stay the night in the avatar bunker, rather than risk traveling at night. E'quath and Ni'nat were both outside gathering fruits and vegetables to have for dinner when Jake and Neytiri chose one of the bunks inside to sleep in. Taking advantage of the temporary privacy, Neytiri rested one thigh across her mate's and brushed her lips against the ear closest to her. It twitched and she smiled when she felt goosebumps rise on his skin.

"Ni'nat is ready for a mate," she murmured. She ran her fingers through the small braids falling over his shoulder and she pressed a kiss against his chest.

Jake looked at her with a faintly confused expression on his face, one strong hand settling on her hip with possessive familiarity. "That was kind of random. I'm more interested in you, right now." He demonstrated his point by caressing her smooth skin with his fingertips and glancing at her small, firm breasts, barely concealed beneath her ornamental necklace.

Neytiri's body reacted to his touch and glance, her nipples tightening as a sweet ache grew in her loins. She smiled at him again, remembering a human word he had taught her. Her Jake was very "sexy" and Neytiri knew other females shared her opinion and envied her, despite his five fingers and heavier build.

"When she decides which ones she is interested in, it will be our duty to choose a male for her," Neytiri reminded him.

Jake's hand slowly moved up and down her thigh in a sensual glide. "Has she shown interest in any yet?" He turned his head and moved it closer to hers to caress her throat with his lips.

"She has shown signs of interest in one. He is not one of the Omaticaya though."

Jake pretended not to know whom she was talking about. "A male from another clan, then?"

"You know what male I am speaking of," Neytiri insisted, her tail swishing. "Stop playing."

Jake chuckled and he suddenly put an arm around her and rolled, pinning her beneath him. She put up a half-hearted struggle and nipped at his chest with her teeth as he gazed down at her.

"This is playing," Jake informed her as he hampered her limbs with his own.

He lowered his mouth to her chest and pushed her necklace aside with his nose. Neytiri purred as his lips closed around her right nipple and tugged on it, sending tingling pleasure through her body. She could feel him hardening against her through the scant covering of his loincloth. The desire to mate with him grew stronger as his warm, moist tongue stroked her taut nipple.

"Jake," Neytiri said breathlessly, "I am trying to decide something!"

"Then let me make it easier for you," He murmured against her skin. He began to fondle her other breast with one hand as he resumed suckling her nipple.

"Th-that is not what I am trying to decide," she told him, even as her back arched and her body pleaded for more. "I think you should speak to Normspellman."

Jake stopped and raised his head from her breast to look at her. "What do you want me to say? I've noticed the way he looks at her too but I don't want to give him false hope."

"He is the only male she has shown any interest in," she replied, pushing down her urge to demand that Jake continue what he was doing. "Na'vi females become aggressive when our bodies' needs go unanswered, my Jake."

He smiled at that and rubbed his stiffened desire against her thigh. "Yeah, I figured that out after I came back from speaking with the horse clans last week."

"Jake, do not tease," Neytiri warned with a growl. She was on the verge of ripping his loincloth off and grabbing his erection to demand satisfaction.

He laughed. "But it always gets such good results." He lowered his head and brought his mouth to hers, brushing his tongue over her lips enticingly.

"You must...convince Normspellman to...complete his hunter trials," she gasped, undulating against him restlessly. "Jake...ahh, Jake!"

His mouth covered hers and he kissed her deeply, making the powerful carnal urges even stronger. His tongue thrust against hers and a low, masculine purr of arousal resonated in his throat. He broke the kiss after a few moments and pulled back, breathing heavily as he gazed down at her.

"You want him to become one of the People?" He smiled at her and she sensed the relief in it.

Neytiri nodded. "He must, if he and Ni'nat are destined to be mates."

He tilted his head in consideration and the feathers woven into his braids tickled her skin as some of the tresses brushed against her chest. "Mo'at would need to help him pass through the eye of Eywa. Living two lives would make it hard for him to be a good mate for her."

"Yes," agreed Neytiri. "We have time. I do not think I'm wrong but we can observe Ni'nat for a while longer to be certain of this."

Jake again gave her one of those smiles that made her heart leap in her chest. "I've been waiting a long time to hear you say he's ready, Neytiri. Becoming Omaticaya is all he's dreamed of since he came here."

She returned his smile. She liked Norm, as did most of her people. He had fought at their sides fearlessly to save them, though he was not a warrior by nature. He had shed blood for them and though his human body didn't suffer the wounds, it felt them as if it had taken the bullets also. He expressed a love for their world and way of life that nobody could deny. Of all the humans in the colony, Normspellman was the most worthy to join the clan.

"Then you will teach him to be a hunter?"

Jake nodded. "Absolutely."

Satisfied with his answer and growing increasingly restless with the need to mate, she decided it was time to inform Jake of the other subject on her mind. "Jake, it is time."

His ignorance was obvious as he blinked down at her. "Time for what?"

Neytiri smiled and took one of his hands, guiding it down to her stomach just beneath the navel. "Time for you to sire a baby. My body is ready for it. Your seed will grow within me, if we use this time to mate enough."

He stared blankly for a moment before a smile slowly grew on his lips. He suddenly rolled off of her and stood up beside the bunk, offering her a hand. "Then we'd better get started. The others will be coming back soon and if we want this done right, we need privacy."

Neytiri eagerly took his hand and allowed him to help her up. Their mouths sought each other's out in a passionate kiss and he wrapped his arms around her and lifted her a bit. Neytiri whimpered into his mouth, desperately wanting him.

"Let's go," Jake said breathlessly when their lips finally parted.

She nodded and took his hand. Together, they bounded out the door and sprinted through the grass. They spotted E'quath heading toward the building they had just exited and Neytiri raised a hand to him. He raised a hand back and a brief smile flitted over his lips as he guessed why they were in such a hurry.

Jake stopped and called out for his ikran and Neytiri did the same. The couple's tails entwined as they stood together and waited for their mounts to come to their call.

Norm squatted down beside the fruit tree and pierced the base of it with the scanner's needle. He really didn't have to take more scans of the cultivated native plants in the compound but this gave him an excuse to be near the avatar bunkers. If he was lucky, he might catch a glimpse of Ni'nat before bedtime. He kept glancing sidelong at the open entrance to the bunkers and he wondered if she was already asleep in there. He reached up with one hand and adjusted the exopack mask over his face, wishing he had thought to come out here before ending his link to his avatar body.

"What is that you are doing, Normspellman?"

Norm practically threw the scanner up in the air, he was so startled by the unexpected Na'vi voice behind him. He twisted around and looked up at the beautiful female, swallowing to work some moisture into his mouth. Ni'nat moved very quickly and silently. If he were prey he knew he'd be dead now.

"I'm just scanning the internal core," he tried to explain. "It uh...helps us understand the plants."

She squatted smoothly beside him, her queue and long hair swaying with the motion. She looked at the device he was holding with curious golden eyes. "You need this to understand the trees?" Her lips quirked with amusement.

"Well, to understand how they work," he answered. His heart was hammering against his ribcage and he had to struggle not to stare at her alien, stunning features.

The iridescent pattern of spots on her face and neck seemed to glow a little brighter as she looked at him. "You are strange." She smiled, flashing white teeth and sharp canines. "I could teach you to understand the trees, much better than that thing can."

Norm glanced down at the device and he felt extremely self-conscious as she leaned in closer to him to look at the screen. He again wished he had stayed in his avatar body, feeling small, inferior and utterly unworthy as her breath stirred the hair at the nape of his neck.

"I would like to learn," he responded in Na'vi. Her face was close and her lips were parted. He had never been good with women but if Ni'nat were human, he might have tried to close the distance for a kiss.

"You should visit Hometree," she offered, tilting her head. "I would take you into the forest and teach you."

Norm hadn't visited the new Hometree yet and her offer made excitement course through him. "That would make me happy."

She smiled at him again and rose to her feet. He followed her and stood uncomfortably, all too aware that his head only reached her navel.

"It is time for me to rest," Ni'nat said softly. "You should rest too."

He scratched the back of his head. "Yeah, probably. Good night, Ni'nat." He gave her a respectful nod.

"Sleep well, Normspellman." She held his gaze for a moment longer before turning away and walking toward the bunkers.

Norm watched her go and he admired the sway of her hips and the swish of her tail, amongst other things. The roundness of her near-naked bottom trapped his gaze and he was horrified to feel a boner forming in his trousers.

"What the hell am I thinking?" Norm muttered under his breath, but he couldn't stop staring as she moved with lazy grace, slowly increasing the distance between them. He felt his face go hot when she glanced over her shoulder at him and if he didn't know any better, he would have sworn she was deliberately giving him a display. He was surprised that the clear visor on his mask wasn't fogging up and he hastily made his way toward the lab building, hoping that Ni'nat hadn't noticed the way his pants were tented at the crotch.

They chose a spot in the forest just outside the gates of the compound, so that they could return quickly if anything tried to attack them. They removed their weapon harnesses and let their ikrans fly away after they dismounted. Neytiri came into Jake's arms as soon as their harnesses touched the forest floor. His fingers combed through her hair, which she was wearing loose around her shoulders. His mouth was hot and insistent against hers as he kissed her and his swollen arousal pressed against her pelvis. Neytiri rubbed against him enticingly and sucked on his tongue, enjoying the way it thrust and curled inside of her mouth. She reached up and tangled her fingers into his braids, brushing her palms against the stubble of growth on either side of his mohawk.

"Will you let it grow out again, Jake?" She queried, breaking the kiss.

"Do you want me to?"

She nodded. Many of the males in the clan wore their hair this way but she missed Jake's full head of hair and he'd only shaved the sides for symbolism, when they went to war against the Sky People. She let the braids sift through her fingers before dropping her hands to his chest. She ran her palms over the surface, feeling hard muscle beneath smooth skin. Jake's lips caressed her neck and his hands moved down her back with slow sensuality. He curved his fingers and brushed the back of them against her skin, steadily sliding them down over her buttocks. He kissed his way to her mouth again and plundered her lips, groaning deeply.

Neytiri slipped her hands lower, quickly losing patience as her body demanded that she satisfy the call of nature. She moved her hands around behind when they reached his hips and she gripped the base of his tail. It flexed in her hand as she stroked it suggestively and Jake thrust his arousal against her in response, breaking the kiss to growl her name. He cupped her bottom and lifted her, carrying her toward the base of a huge tautral tree. Neytiri wrapped her legs around his waist and embraced him around the neck, returning his kisses with growing fervency.

Neytiri gasped in delight when he pressed her against the trunk of the tree and ground his straining erection against her between their loincloths. She grasped hold of his queue with one hand, while reaching behind to take hold of her own with the other. He rocked steadily against her and held her up as she put the ends of their braids together and established tsahaylu. Sensations flooded both of them as the connection was made and Neytiri tossed her head back and cried out, her female core reacting to the ecstasy of feeling his strength and emotions flowing into her.

"Jake," she panted, pressing her forehead against his and shutting her eyes. "My Jake...oe neu nga!"

"You'll have me," he promised huskily.

He supported her bottom with one hand while lifting her necklace off with the other. He dropped the article on the ground before cupping her breasts one at a time and fondling them. The caress of his hand on her nipples made her climax harder and she hissed, wriggling her hips as the throbbing, rhythmic pleasure consumed her. When she opened her eyes again, he was smiling in satisfaction.

"You're going to have a lot more of those before the night's over, if I can help it," he announced. He sucked in a sharp breath and trembled a bit in response to feeling her orgasm himself.

Neytiri was more than ready for him. She reached down to unfasten his loincloth, her fingers moving with quiet desperation. Jake continued to massage her breasts and kiss her throat as she worked to rid him of the skimpy clothing article. She gave a frustrated growl when the ties wouldn't come loose and in her lust, she simply snapped them open. Jake murmured in surprise but he was too distracted by his own lust and pleasure to protest more than that.

The loincloth fell to the ground and Neytiri caressed her mate's flexing bottom, loving the feel of the muscles moving beneath her hand. His hand stopped fondling her breasts and slid down to burrow under her loincloth. Neytiri was wet with need when his fingers pressed against her entrance and Jake growled with sexual aggression in response to her body's willingness. He stroked her with the pads of his fingers before easing two of them inside. Neytiri whimpered and angled her pelvis as best she could in her position. The invading fingers thrust back and forth in a steady rhythm within her and Jake's teeth gently nipped at her throat, his breath hot against her skin.

Neytiri clenched her teeth on a moan as a second orgasm approached. She crossed her ankles at the small of his back and dug her nails into his bottom, panting his name. Jake groaned into her hair as she peaked again and clenched rhythmically around his pumping fingers. He kissed her hard, his chest moving rapidly with his breath. She could feel his naked erection throb against her thigh and he grunted and panted shallowly.

"Too much more of that and I'm going to have a misfire," Jake groaned when her spasms eased up.

He pulled his head away to look at her and his fingers retreated from inside of her. He brought them to his lips and licked at them, tasting her with obvious enthusiasm. Neytiri was just catching her breath when he claimed her lips again. She could taste herself on his tongue and she felt his delight pulse through their link. Neytiri's lust flared again and she growled into his mouth and grabbed the base of his tail.

"Now Jake," she demanded, licking and nipping at his lips. She tugged on his tail aggressively and brought her other hand around to grasp his thick, stiffened shaft. "Now!"

Jake tugged clumsily at her loincloth, his eagerness hampering his coordination. Having no more patience to wait, Neytiri let go of his tail and brought her hand around to pull her loincloth aside and expose herself. Jake forgot about trying to remove the garment and he pushed forward with her urgings. Neytiri guided the head of his sex to her moist entrance and she gasped as it penetrated.

"Damn, that feels good," Jake groaned as he sank deeply into her. "Neytiri, you're going to kill me."

She laughed breathlessly and squeezed his tail again, scratching the underside of it. Jake's lips parted on a groan and he shuddered against her as she stimulated the erogenous spot. He began to pump with sharp, desperate motions, grunting with effort. She felt his wild pleasure through the link and she kept scratching the spot, moaning his name louder and louder as his hardness moved forward and back inside of her. All Na'vi males had the sensitive place on the underside of their tails and Na'vi females were quick to share the information with each other. Neytiri hadn't really believed that stimulating it would drive a male crazy as she'd been told, until she began experimenting on her mate.

"Aahh, shit," Jake growled, bucking harder into her. He began to growl steadily and his body trembled all over as her tight heat milked him and her hands teased him. "N-Neytiri...oh Eywa...nìtam!"

"No," she refused in an unsteady growl, "It is not enough, Jake."

The pleasure was so intense she thought she might black out from it soon. She looked at his handsome, strained features and watched his lips pull back from his clenched teeth. He hissed and snarled, his breath shuddering between his teeth as her attentions drove him to the breaking point. He was taking her so hard now that pain was mingling with the pleasure, but it only made her enjoy it more. She ran her tongue over his snarling lips and scratched his tail more rapidly. Jake's ragged cries probably attracted the attention of forest creatures for miles and Neytiri imagined people at the fort could probably hear them too. She didn't care. Few animals dared to come close to the walls of the human colony because they were wary of the scent and buildings. She and Jake were unlikely to be attacked.

Jake buried his face against her neck and hair as his climax approached. With a powerful shove, he drove his tightening flesh deep inside of her and held it there. His hoarse groans filled her ears as he bucked inside of her and filled her with the warmth of his seed. The feel of it and the sensation of his pleasure made her body follow him into orgasm. He moaned loudly in response to feeling both climaxes simultaneously.

Neytiri finally stopped playing with his tail and she cupped his face as he pulled his head off her shoulder. She kissed his gasping mouth tenderly, sated for the time being. He returned her kiss and rocked his pelvis from side to side, shifting his softening member inside of her in a way that was soothingly pleasurable. She loved the feel of it and she quickly began to feel restless again. She remained gentle with him, stroking his hair and kissing him lightly as he recovered.

When his heart was pounding at a less frantic rhythm beneath her palm and his breathing was even and steady, Neytiri chose to initiate further mating. She sent her desire through the link they shared and she caressed his bottom with her fingertips. Jake's breath caught and he grinned at her, his softened organ firming up inside of her.

"More already?" He purred.

"More," she agreed, smiling back at him. "I hunger for you, Jake."

He laughed breathlessly. "You're not going to be able to ride in the morning."

"Then you will just have to carry me on your ikran."

She slipped her fingers beneath his tail and began to slowly stroke the area back and forth. His eyes fluttered shut and he murmured her name, hardening completely within her. He adjusted his hold on her and pulled away from the tree, carrying her a couple of feet before sinking down on the grass. A cluster of great Torukspxam mushrooms glowed serenely nearby, casting the mated pair in soft luminescence. Jake eased her onto her back and he began to thrust, slowly and gently. Neytiri allowed it for a while, enjoying his weight on top of her. When she grew restless, she bunched her muscles and rolled, getting him onto his back before he could react to the swift move.

Jake stared up at her with heavy-lidded eyes and placed his hands on her hips, not fighting her. She began to rock with sinuous motions, taking him in and out of her body as she braced her hands on his chest for balance. Her tail swayed in the air and her breath came harder and faster. Jake's hands slid up from her hips, caressing her sides and stomach before cupping her breasts. She sighed and licked her lips as his thumbs brushed back and forth over her nipples, making them tighten. His eyes drifted shut again and he tilted his head back, groaning her name.

She undulated steadily on him for several minutes before her pleasure reached another crescendo. Jake gasped when she came and the pulsing heat around him made him follow suit. Neytiri lowered her upper body onto his and rested on his chest as they enjoyed the afterglow. Her body continued to insist on more and they mated five more times before they were too exhausted to do it again. Neytiri's loincloth ended up somewhere in the bushes and Jake's still lay broken on the ground. They fell asleep on the forest floor, naked and entwined together.

"Shit, I'm going to end up giving everyone an eye-full," Jake muttered the next morning as he tried to tie the broken straps of his loincloth.

"I cannot find mine," Neytiri announced after putting her necklace on. She looked around with wide eyes, trying to remember which direction Jake tossed it after they mated the third time. Jake looked up from his task and his eyes dropped to her naked parts immediately.

"Um." He swelled quickly underneath his loincloth and the bit of strap he was holding between his fingers pulled away because of the material pushing outwards. His garment fluttered to the ground and he swore softly and bent to retrieve it. "I think I threw it near that Awail plant over there."

Neytiri gave his nude erection a blatantly admiring look that made him harden even further. "Hey, don't do that," Jake chastised, grinning crookedly at her. "We'll never make it back to Hometree if I get my hands on you again."

She chuckled and turned away as he covered himself again and resumed trying to fasten the loincloth. She finally located her own garment and she put it on before going to her mate and helping him secure his.

"This should hold for long enough," she said in satisfaction when they got the straps knotted together. She looked up at him through lowered lashes and smiled. "I am sorry for breaking it, Jake."

He gave her a swift kiss. "Don't be. Knowing you wanted me bad enough to tear it off like that makes me feel pretty good."

"Looks like you're all set to go." Norm walked with Jake toward the waiting Na'vi and their ikrans.

Jake nodded. "Yeah, and you're coming with us."

Norm stopped in his tracks and stared at him. "What?"

"You spend more time in your avatar body than you do in your human one," Jake said, gazing at him levelly. "It's time for you to finish the tests and become one of the People."

Norm looked down the length of his body and he caught hold of his trailing braid absently. "Are you serious, Jake?"

Jake smirked. "I wouldn't have said it if I weren't. You're past due for it. If there's anything you want to bring with, you'd better grab it now before we leave."

Norm stared at him suspiciously and Jake laughed and clapped him on the back. "Move it, Norm. We can't wait all day. I mean, unless you don't want to join the clan..."

Norm was off and running before Jake could finish the sentence. "Be right back," he shouted over his shoulder.

"So you're going with them, Normy?" Ramona asked as she and Katherine walked with him to the avatar compound.

He adjusted his backpack and nodded. "I'm bringing my transmitter with me, so you guys can contact me if you need anything when I'm linked to my avatar."

"It's going to be weird," Ramona said. "You're literally going to be in two places at once."

He smirked a little. "Never thought of it that way." He glanced at Katherine. "How is Sebastian doing?"

"Not bad, under the circumstances," she answered. "He's been assigned his own sleeping quarters and I'm going to show him around the rest of the colony later today."

"Good. I'll still help out with him when I can."

"Oh wow, so those are what ikrans look like in the flesh," Ramona said as they approached the yard outside the avatar bunker. Jake and the others were waiting by the beasts, speaking softly to each other. "What I wouldn't give for a blood sample."

"You better not suggest that," Norm warned seriously. "I know you've got good intentions but the Na'vi wouldn't be keen on you poking their bonded mounts."

Ramona shrugged and sighed. "Don't worry, I know when to keep my mouth shut."

She belied that comment a moment later as her gaze swept over Jake and E'quath. "Hmm, those loincloths sure don't hide much." Her eyes fixated on Jake and she openly admired him. "Damn, he's hot."

Katherine elbowed her and Ramona grunted and rubbed her side. "What? I can't look?"

"Just don't let his mate see you eye-humping him," cautioned Katherine. "I understand Na'vi women can be aggressively possessive of their mates."

Ramona looked up at Norm for confirmation and he nodded. "Neytiri isn't someone you want to mess with and she's definitely territorial when it comes to Jake."

"Oh well," Ramona said lightly. "I guess I'd better not get any closer then because I don't know if I can stop staring at him. Now bend over so I can hug you without face-planting in your crotch, Norm."

He snorted and obeyed, shaking his head at her antics. "It's not like my human body isn't staying here," he reminded her as she squeezed him tightly and he patted her back.

"I know, but I'll miss your cute avatar butt." She grinned up at him as he straightened and when he continued walking, she couldn't resist.

Norm felt a small hand pat him on the right butt-cheek and he whirled to stare at the outrageous zoologist with wide yellow eyes. "You've really got to get a boyfriend, Ramona."

She had the grace to look a little contrite. "Sorry Norm. It was literally right there in my face. It's nothing personal."

Katherine linked her arm in Ramona's and began to drag her away. "Come on, Peppy Le Pew. No man is safe around you. Bye Norm, have a safe journey."

Norm shook his head again and kept walking. Jake spotted him coming and he waved in greeting. Norm picked up the pace a little, his excitement mounting at the thought of what lay ahead. His eyes went to Ni'nat's graceful form and he quickly pulled his shades down over his eyes, hoping to mask the infatuation in his eyes.

"All set?" Jake questioned as Norm approached.

Norm nodded. "I've got everything I need for at least a month."

"Good. Let's get going, then." Jake nimbly pulled himself onto his ikran's back and the others did the same. Norm automatically started to approach Jake's mount, assuming he'd be riding with him.

"You're with Ni'nat," Jake corrected him with a nod in the singer's direction. "I get kind of reckless sometimes and I don't want you falling off. She'll take care of you."

Norm stopped and turned to regard Ni'nat, swallowing. "Oh. All right."

He walked over to her mount and looked up at her, his mind going blank as he tried to think of something to say. She held onto one of the ikran's antennas with one hand and offered her other hand down to him. Norm slipped his hand into hers and she smiled at him as she helped him to mount up behind her. She guided his arm around her waist and he knew he was going to end up revealing his attraction to her before this journey finished.

"Hold onto me tightly, Normspellman," suggested Ni'nat. "I will try to fly level for you."

He nodded mutely and put his other arm around her, embracing her securely. The Na'vi took to the air and Ni'nat's hair whipped in Norm's face as they ascended. It smelled like fruit to him and Norm inhaled deeply, fighting the urge to nuzzle her neck. His eyes widened behind his shades when his traitorous body started to react to the feel of her slender curves against him. Norm self-consciously scooted his bottom back a little, trying to avoid pressing the bulge in his pants against her and giving himself away.

Jake and Neytiri were in the lead and the couple smiled conspiringly at each other. It had been Jake's idea to have Norm ride with Ni'nat and using his daredevil techniques as an excuse turned out perfect. They flew over forests, hills and mountains, calling out to each other now and then. Neytiri looked over at her mate and she noticed that the knot they had tied to hold his loincloth was starting to come loose. A mischievous streak hit her and she grinned at him.

Jake saw the grin and he recognized the playful look in her eye.

"What are you up to?" he muttered between his teeth as he flashed a smile at her.

A moment later, Neytiri hooted and her ikran obeyed her silent command. She banked away from Jake and flew in a loop, soaring over his head. He looked at her with his mouth hanging open and as she began to come down on his other side, she reached out with lightning speed and snatched his loincloth right off of him.

"Neytiri," Jake yelled, letting go of one antenna to cover his groin with his hand. "What the hell?"

She hooted with laughter and leveled out. Ni'nat joined her laughter immediately and Norm chuckled too when he got over the initial shock of seeing Jake's naked ass. Even E'quath laughed, though his was more restrained.

"You bring that back now," Jake thundered, his face burning with embarrassment.

Neytiri pressed her lips together in an insincere attempt to control her smile. She intended to bring the loincloth back to her mate but she didn't have as great a hold on it as she thought and the wind tore it out of her grasp. Her lips rounded as she looked over her shoulder and watched it flutter away.

Jake stared as his only clothing article was blown away with no hope of retrieval. He glared at his mate, who was now giving him the most sheepish look he'd ever seen on her face.

"I did not mean for that to happen, my Jake," Neytiri called out in apology.

"Outstanding," he hissed. He was going to return home buck-naked. He could just imagine the rumors already. He gave Neytiri a stern look. "You're going to get it when we get home."

She bit her lip but he could tell by her smile that she wasn't intimidated in the least. The others were making a greater effort to contain their mirth, respecting their chieftain enough to resist humiliating him further.

Oh yes, Neytiri was going to get it, all right. Jake thought of the many ways he could make use of his bola to subdue the little minx.

-To be continued

Chapter Text

When they stopped midway to Hometree for a resting break, Norm came up with the idea of fashioning a makeshift loincloth for poor Jake from the leaf of a Tsyorina tree. He found one that was ideal in length and width and he plucked it and rinsed it off thoroughly in a clear stream with Ni'nat's help. She scrubbed it with her hands while he held it in the water and as they worked together, she chuckled softly.

"What?" Norm asked, smiling sidelong at her.

"The look on our olo'eyktan's face when his mate took his loincloth," she confessed, shaking her head. "I thought that I was a bold woman."

Norm tried not to wonder just how bold Ni'nat was and he joined her soft laughter. "She really caught him off guard. Here, I think that's good enough." He eased the leaf out of the water and shook it off, drying it as best he could. "If he's lucky, this should hold up for Jake long enough to make it to Hometree. Thank you for helping, Ni'nat."

She inclined her head gracefully and touched her fingers to her forehead. Norm took the leaf back to where Jake and the others were and he found the former marine standing behind a bush, grumbling crossly. Biting back a smirk, the anthropologist approached and offered the large piece of foliage to his friend.

"Here. It's flexible and strong enough that you should be able to use it as a pseudo loincloth until we reach Hometree."

Jake took the leaf with a dubious frown. "So I have a choice of making a leaf diaper for myself or flying in naked. That's just great." He shot a resentful look Neytiri's way and she bowed her head, but not before she grinned visibly.

Norm shrugged. "It's your choice."

Jake sighed and held up the leaf, turning it thoughtfully to decide the best way to proceed. "Thanks, Norm. It's better than nothing."

Jake refused to go closer than the outskirts of Hometree when they arrived. He scratched his hip as the others continued going and Neytiri stayed behind to try and coax him. She dismounted her ikran and approached his, gazing up at him with a little smile on her plump lips.

"You are being too modest," Neytiri insisted. "Our people are not concerned with nudity, the way the Sky People are. Come, Jake."

"I'm not budging until I've got a loincloth," he huffed, wincing at the itch around his pelvis and bottom. "You got me into this, so you'll have to get me out of it."

She gave him a challenging look and narrowed her eyes.

"Please?" Jake added, smiling.

Neytiri laughed, her gaze growing warm on him. "You asked nicely, so I will do it." She reached out and stroked his leg before turning to go back to her ikran.

Jake breathed a sigh of relief. He'd gotten used to the Na'vi way of wearing practically nothing but he drew the line at showing off his junk to everyone. He watched his mate hop onto her ikran and he smirked as she took to the sky and flew toward Hometree, nestled in the valley below. He guessed that part of her increased boldness and somewhat inappropriate humor was connected to the surge of hormones going through her body.

He hadn't changed his mind about making creative use of his bola on her and Jake grimaced down at his crotch as his body reacted to thoughts of playing with his ideas. The leaf began to tear from the pressure and he chuckled, amused that Neytiri could make him spring a hard-on powerful enough to do such a thing.

"You are certain of this, Son?"

Jake smiled at Mo'at, warmed by her latest habit of referring to him as her son. He nodded. "I'm certain. I'm leaving the ultimate decision up to you, though. You are Tsahìk. If you agree that Eywa wills it, then you can choose to send him through the eye...when he is ready."

She nodded, visibly pleased by his respect for her wisdom. "I will observe him. Normspellman has a good heart but it takes strength of will to pass through the eye of Eywa. I would not wish for him to perish."

"Neither would I, Mother," Jake answered. She had chastised him days ago and insisted that he treat her as his mother, now that he had proven himself and was mated to her daughter.

A soft, subtle smile curved the older Na'vi's lips and she laid a hand on his left shoulder. "Go now, and make my grandchild."

Jake flushed, taken off-guard by just how aware she was with what was going on within her clan. "Tslolam," he murmured, averting his eyes and clearing his throat. "Pänutìng, Mother."

Her smile grew and he heard her low, husky chuckle. "See to it that you keep your promise."

"Do you need help, Normspellman?"

Norm dangled precariously over the hammock from the tree limb and he shook his head, determined to get into it without aid. It didn't help that his instincts were urging him to impress the stunning Na'vi woman who lay comfortably on her side in the hammock across from his.

"Thank you," he told her graciously, "I can do this."

Ni'nat's amber gaze followed him as he eased himself into the hammock. The ground never looked so far away, even though this new Hometree wasn't as tall as the old one and he had soared much higher in the air on the back of an ikran. Norm steadied himself, wobbling a little as he held the edges of the hammock and reclined carefully. He glanced over at Ni'nat and his heart skipped a beat when he saw her quiet smile of pride. He didn't dare convince himself that getting into a hammock was enough to truly impress a woman like her, though.

Ni'nat began to sing softly, her voice carrying over to Norm's ears. He sighed and smiled, shutting his eyes as he listened her song of praise to Eywa, the sky and the forest. He could listen to that voice indefinitely and never grow tired of it. It was a short, sweet song and when she finished, he spoke to her.

"You sing that every night?" He guessed.

"Yes. Does it bother you?"

He opened his eyes to look at her and shook his head. "No way. It's beautiful." He suddenly wished he hadn't said it so passionately and he squirmed a little.

"You like our music?"

"Very much," he admitted softly. He wished he had a decent singing voice but even so, he didn't think it was proper for outsiders to join in on the clan songs.

"Then I will sing for you more often, Normspellman." She held his gaze with her own as she smiled promisingly.

Something more than the usual attraction he felt for her pushed its way to the surface and he stared at her. "I would like that. Ni'nat, can you call me Norm, from now on? Of course, you don't have to." He was getting flustered and he hoped he wasn't offending her by requesting that she stop blending his first name with his last.

Her ears twitched a little in a display of puzzlement but she nodded. "I will try to remember, Normsp...Norm."

He found her stumble endearing and he nearly tried to reach out a hand to her. "Thank you."

"Sleep well, Norm." She covered her mouth on a yawn and pulled the fibrous edge of the hammock over her body.

"Sleep well, Ni'nat," he replied, following her example. He lay awake for a long time after that, alternating between watching her slumbering features and the stars shining down through the canopy.

Jake growled as he struggled to pin his squirming mate down. He had successfully bound her ankles together but restraining her wrists together was proving a more difficult challenge. Their loincloths and weapon harnesses lay in the grass a few feet away. They had chosen a spot near a brook not far from Hometree to mate and the local flora provided plenty of glowing light for them to see one another with.

He had three welts rising on his right arm from her nails raking him and she had bitten his ear hard enough to leave marks. In contrast to her aggressive, angry struggles, she licked at his wounded ear gently when his face came close to hers. Jake's eyes went blank with pleasure as her tongue delicately brushed against the sensitive ear and he nearly loosened his hold on her wrists.

"Don't think you're going to sucker me in with that," he murmured, shivering in delight.

He felt her lips smile and he sensed another surge of resistance coming. He was right. He tightened his hold on her as her muscles tensed and he grinned down at her as she hissed in frustration beneath him. Her tail whipped restlessly in the grass and she pretended to snap her teeth at him when he tried to kiss her.

"Fierce," he murmured in appreciation. "I'd better tame you fast."

"You cannot tame," she snarled, her ears laying flat against her head.

She was convincing enough to give Jake pause. It was supposed to be a game after all and he wasn't about to really force her. She brushed her thigh against his groin a moment later, silently assuring him that she was merely playing along.

"We'll see about that," he challenged.

With great effort, he held her wrists together over her head while reaching for the second bola lying in the grass. She bucked beneath him and struggled against his hold as he quickly wrapped the sturdy material of the bola around her wrists. Her breasts heaved with exertion and she growled at him once he had her wrists secured.

"There," Jake panted in satisfaction, letting his gaze rove over his "captive". He grinned sensually at her, sensing the heat of lust behind her heavy-lidded gaze as she stared up at him. "Now I've just got to figure out how to finish paying you back."

She wriggled and it was obvious that the motion was intended to entice rather than break his hold. He inhaled deeply as his groin twitched with need in response to the teasing action and he decided it was time to punish her in a most delightful way. Jake abruptly released her wrists and squatted over her, grabbing her legs beneath the knees and bending them back, pushing her knees toward her chest.

"Jake!" Neytiri cried, taken off-guard by the move.

He ignored her protest and held her in position, exposing her for his intentions. He dragged her queue over to his quickly and allowed it to attach, sealing the bond. She gasped and shuddered and he groaned softly, even as he smirked. This would be the first time he had ever attempted to pleasure her this way and he wanted to know exactly how it felt to her. He lowered his head to her revealed loins and took a moment to admire the sight of the petal-like folds of flesh that framed her entrance. He took a deep breath and hoped to hell Na'vi women received as much enjoyment from what he was about to do as human women.

Neytiri went stock-still as he began to lick and kiss with attentive, loving fervency. Jake felt a moment of uncertainty until her bound hands clenched and her breath caught. Her pleasure surged through the link and he smiled.

"Oh...m-my Jake?"

He sent reassuring feelings through the link, rather than interrupt his task with words. He kept his hold on her knees firm to keep her positioned and he moved his tongue experimentally, flicking, swirling and pressing with it as he strove to please her. He knew when he found the best technique because her pleasure washed over him and her back arched. He relentlessly tongued her most sensitive spot and he reveled in the shared pleasure of it as Neytiri writhed, hissed and moaned. When her thighs trembled and her climax came, Jake delved into her moist heat with his tongue and tasted her arousal.

He groaned heavily and waited for her tremors to fade before stopping. He eased her legs back down and admired the dazed euphoria on her lovely features.

"I'll do that again for you whenever you want," he promised huskily, his chest rising and falling rapidly. He felt like he was about to burst with need for her.

Neytiri was still stunned and gasping from the experience, staring up at him with amazed yellow eyes. Jake smiled at her and took advantage of her distraction. He flipped her over onto her stomach and lifted her by the hips, positioning her backside into the air. She propped herself on her elbows and turned her head to hiss over her shoulder at him, baring her teeth.

If it weren't for Tsahaylu and the way her tail was curved to the left invitingly, Jake would have stopped. Her desire to feel him inside of her came through clearly and he knelt behind her, settling his knees on either side of hers. He stroked her back, appreciating the graceful arc as he positioned himself and eased into her waiting heat. He sank in slowly and clenched his teeth as she pushed backwards against him. She might be the one tied up right now but he was just as helpless as her desires fed through their bond. Jake's lips pulled back from his teeth as he gripped her hips and gave her what she wanted.

"Neytiri," he groaned as he began to thrust.

Her deep purr of satisfaction rewarded him and he rolled his hips smoothly and firmly, biting his lower lip. She let loose a sharp, short cry of triumph and matched his motions, her tail winding around his waist. Jake gasped and tilted his head back. Sex as a human was never this intense. The gratification shared between himself and his mate was consuming and sometimes it was almost more than he could bear. He pushed in deep and rotated his hips as he cupped Neytiri's perk breasts. Her guttural responsive call pushed his arousal further and he began to pump harder and faster.

"There's no other woman like you," Jake panted with certainty, quickly losing control of his carnal instincts.

"Jake," Neytiri whined, "Harder!"

He obliged her, guiding her hips with his hands as he propelled himself forward and back. He bowed over her and caught the delicate tip of one of her ears in his teeth, taking care not to allow his passion to drive him to bite too hard. He nibbled teasingly at it, panting heavily. Neytiri practically yowled as her orgasm struck and her hands clawed at the moss. Jake's eyes rolled in pleasure and he joined her with a hoarse shout. He couldn't help but collapse on her and he kissed her shoulder and neck when he finished giving her his seed.

"Here, let me get these off you," Jake said when he recovered enough to regain his senses.

He'd satisfied his desire to "get back" at her, though she hardly behaved as though subdued. He eased out of her and helped her roll onto her back, kissing her tenderly as he worked the bola free from her wrists. She kissed him back and cooperated with him, sliding her hands out of the binds as soon as they were loose enough. He helped her to sit up and he freed her ankles next. Scooting so that his back was resting against a tree, he put his arms around her and pulled her partway into his lap. He nuzzled her neck as she tilted it and her hand reached up to stroke his braids.

"Do you forgive me now, my Jake?"

Laughter rose in his throat and he held her tighter. "That depends. Are you going to pull a stunt like that again?"

Neytiri smirked and turned her head to look at him. "No."

It was a fib and he knew it. They were still linked and he could sense the teasing insincerity in her response. He ran his fingertips over her ribs and made her squirm. It was one of her few ticklish zones and he chuckled, feeling it as well.

"I guess I'll have to tie you up more often, then."

"But you will kiss me that way when you do it?" She looked at him almost shyly.

Jake pretended ignorance. "What way?"

Her eyes narrowed. "You know what way, Jake." She pinched his thigh and made him wince.

He kissed the bridge of her nose before pressing his forehead against hers. "Like I said before: anytime you want."

She sighed happily and relaxed in his arms. "I see you."

"I see you," he responded readily, with feeling.

The statement never made complete sense to him until the day she looked into his eyes and spoke it. It was more than saying: "I love you". It was love and faith and trust, all tied together. Neytiri often left bite marks, scratches and bruises in the wake of their mating but her love was more honest and pure than anything he'd ever felt before.

Max couldn't appreciate the beautiful hues of the dawn sky as he stood over the symbolic grave of Trudy Chacón. Norm stood with him, looking exhausted but diligent in upholding the tradition they had formed in honoring her memory. Max lifted the native purple flower he held and stared down at the dog tags he'd procured from the lost pilot's personal belongings. It hung on a cross planted in the compound yard, one of many such crosses.

"We miss you, Trudy," Max murmured.

He let go of the flower and let it spiral down to the earth over the empty grave. There had been nothing to retrieve. Jake found the twisted pile of shrapnel that had once been Trudy's gunship and anything that might have been left of her must have been reduced to ash in the explosion.

Norm bowed his head and stood silently beside Max. The two of them paid their respects to their fallen comrade in companionable silence. When they finished with that, they moved onto Grace's grave and did the same for her. It was depressing, thinking of the loss of the feisty young pilot and the snarky, brilliant botanist.

"We're lucky we didn't lose you too," Max finally said to Norm when they finished and started back toward the lab. He looked at the anthropologist with faint worry on his light brown features. "Norm, make sure you eat enough when you aren't linked, okay? We don't need more casualties."

"I'm all right," Norm assured him. He covered his mouth on a yawn. "I just stayed awake too long, last night."

"Maybe you should take a day off," suggested Max. "You're used to sleeping on beds and you're having to adjust to a different lifestyle when you're linked to your avatar."

"I'll be fine," insisted Norm. "My body sleeps when I'm linked to my avatar, so I should get plenty of rest when I suit up. I'll make sure to eat before I go."

"As long as you take care of yourself." Max sighed. "I've been digging further into Collin's records. There are a lot of locked files that I'm still trying to decode. I don't know how long he's been working on permanent avatar transfer but it looks like we could be dealing with a lot more newcomers like Sebastian. Next time, they might not be lab rats."

Norm pressed his lips together and kept his eyes focused straight ahead. "Jake has made it clear that no more RDA staff are welcome on Pandora. Just deny them access from now on and touch bases with him when they try to come."

"You know we will," Max said. "But if they come armed, we might not be able to hold them off."

The transports generally carried staff and cargo because it was too expensive to store vehicles and weaponry on them for the trip. That didn't mean they wouldn't eventually start doing it. Hell's Gate hadn't received signals from Earth since the Na'vi war and attempts to reach the RDA proved futile. It came as no surprise to Max, considering that the first ship containing Selfridge and the others most likely transmitted a warning to headquarters on Earth.

"If you get any incoming signals at all, tell Jake right away," Norm said. "He'll have a horde of Na'vi guarding this place in no time."

Max looked at him sidelong and fought a smile. "Your faith in him has gone up a lot."

Norm shrugged. "After that fight, I didn't really have a choice. He might be clueless when it comes to science but he knows what he's doing in a battle."

Max nodded. "I just hope that's enough, if Earth forces start sending in more people than we can handle."

The dawn was more welcome for some than others. A lone human female pressed her dirty, bruised hand against the rigid bark of a tree and bowed her head. Dark hair fell over her eyes as she caught her breath. The flaking remnants of war paint flecked her cheeks and nose. She reached for her canteen and held her breath as she lifted her breathing mask for a drink. She had been out of rations for two days now and she had found only two species of nuts and berries that she could safely digest. The water was drinkable but it provided no nourishment.

"Goddamn, this sucks."

She looked at the compass on her wrist again before studying her surroundings. Navigating the thick jungles of Pandora on foot was a nightmare in the making. She couldn't count how many times she narrowly avoided getting eaten alive by the native animals. She spent the third morning of her unintended "vacation" squatting behind a bush, shitting her brains out from eating a piece of Pandora fruit that didn't agree with her. Between cursing, farting and pointing her gun at every sound that reached her ears she was amazed she didn't attract every hostile animal in the forest.

She pushed away from the tree with flagging strength and stumbled on, wondering why she even bothered. Hell's Gate was still so far away and she had no idea of how the battle ended. She could be returning just to get arrested and executed as a traitor. She had no idea how to find the Omaticaya and even if she could, she had no way of knowing whether they would slit her throat and be done with it or help her.

She impulsively reached up to click the button on the device around her neck. "Sorry guys," she said hoarsely, "Looks like I'm screwed. I hope you made it through okay."

She remembered that the transmitter was broken and she barked a laugh, shaking her head. Even if Max, Jake and Norm were still alive, they'd never get her message. She knew she was becoming delirious and she wondered if it was from lack of sleep or from eating native food.

She heard a growl behind her and she swore, drawing her Wasp Revolver and turning. The sound came from a viper wolf and it had a small pack following it. Hating to waste ammo but knowing how the natives felt about killing animals unless it was necessary, she fired into the air several times. The wolves retreated with yelps of fear and she took a deep breath before replacing the weapon.

"Yeah, run away puppies. I don't have time to play with you this morning."

Her smug satisfaction was cut off when she heard the sound of Na'vi voices hollering from somewhere deeper in the jungle.

"Oh, shit. That's just perfect."

If she weren't so malnourished and high on toxins from the few native plants she'd sampled, she might have stopped to think that asking for help would be a good idea. Instead, she charged through the underbrush and searched for somewhere to hide as the sound of hoof beats from direhorses closed the distance.

She wasn't fast enough to outrun them and opening fire on them was out of the question. She dove into some bushes and hunkered down, hoping they would pass her by. Within moments, she saw the six-legged beasts run past her hiding spot and heard the Na'vi voices shouting out to one another. She waited silently for them to pass and when she thought the coast was clear, she struggled to her feet.

She found herself surrounded by Omaticaya warriors on every side.

"That's a neat trick," she muttered as they drew their arrows on her. She had no choice but to hold her hands up. "Guess I'm going with you guys...or you're going to kill me."

The apparent leader of the hunting party dismounted his beast and approached her. He looked her up and down before picking up the weapons from the ground. "Understand me, Sky Person?"

"Yeah," she answered. "I understand you." She felt ridiculous, standing there in torn cargo pants and a ripped, burned tank top, trying to communicate with someone twice her height.

"You trespass," said the Na'vi male, baring his teeth. "We kill trespassers."

"Sure you do," she muttered. She was screwed now. There was only thing left she could think of to say that might save her hide. "I'm a friend of Jake Sully. Know who I'm talking about?"

By the expression on his face, he did know. He glanced around at his fellow hunters and spouted a string of words that she couldn't understand. He turned back to her and stared into her eyes.

"We take you to him. If you lie, you dead."

Jake caressed Neytiri's neck and shoulder with his lips, interested in waking her up for an early morning romp in the forest before the clan got too active. She sighed in her sleep and cuddled against his spooning warmth instinctively. The hammock rocked gently with their motions and Jake cast a silent look around to see how many clan members were sleeping close by. When his eyes met an elder female's he stopped his courtship. She was in the hammock directly across from theirs and she gave the couple a smiling, knowing look.

~Do these women just know when one of them is in heat?~

Regardless of his modesty, Jake was determined to make good on his promise to Mo'at and give Neytiri the baby she obviously wanted. He just needed his mate to rouse and go into the privacy of the forest with him.

"Neytiri," Jake murmured, trying to be subtle.

Her scent wafted into his nostrils and he immediately hardened. Now he knew how male animals in rut felt. Eywa knew, they mated plenty of times last night and she could easily be fertilized by now, but he couldn't curb his desire for her. Even before her body gave her the signals, they ran off together to mate frequently.

"Neytiri," he whispered more insistently. He stroked her toned belly and grazed a hand over her thigh, gently bumping his arousal against her backside through the cover of his loincloth.

Her amber eyes fluttered open and she turned her head sleepily to look at him. "Good morning, my Jake."

"Morning," he greeted, smiling. He wanted so badly to kiss those parted succulent lips but the presence of onlookers stayed his actions. "I thought we could bathe in the spring before breakfast."

She chuckled, her voice slightly hoarse with the effect of morning sleepiness. She pressed back against him, rubbing her bottom against his jutting arousal. "Only bathing?"

Jake pushed suggestively against her, with enough force to make their hammock swing. "What do you think?"

Neytiri reached up and caressed his jaw. "I think I want you."

A carnal growl of need rumbled in his chest and he cupped her face with one hand to tilt it for a better angle. Her lips met his with reciprocal desire and their tails intertwined as they kissed. He barely remembered that they weren't alone in the tree and it took great effort for him to break the kiss and pull away.

Neytiri was already one step ahead of him. She rose to her knees nimbly and grasped the overhead branch, swinging her lithe body up onto it. She looked down at him and beaconed.

"Come," Neytiri demanded with fire in her amber gaze. "Quickly, Jake."

A couple of hours later, Jake and Neytiri were making their way back to Hometree. Neytiri was moving a bit gingerly but when Jake offered to carry her, she refused and shot a smile at him. They were just making their way into the populated area at the base of the trunk when a hunting party came in, hooting and shouting. E'quath was the leader of this party and he asked around for Jake.

Jake's plans for the day were to take Norm out for a hunting lesson in the forest, but those plans were immediately stomped on when E'quath and his warriors rode up to him and presented a familiar human female for his inspection.

"We found her in the eastern territory," explained the hunter in a combination of Na'vi and broken English as he lowered the weakened female to the ground. "She spoke your name, Olo'eyktan. Do you know this woman?"

Jake stared with wide eyes as the dark-haired female stumbled towards him.

"Hey Jake," she said hoarsely, "Looking good."

"Trudy?" Jake could hardly believe his eyes. He hardly noticed Norm approaching with Ni'nat behind him. "What the hell...we thought you died!"

"Yeah," she coughed. "I thought I was toast too. I ejected and ended up unconscious in a tree for at least a day. That was fun. A little help, here?" She started swaying on her feet.

Jake caught her up in his arms and lifted her easily. He was grinning ecstatically, thrilled to see the feisty pilot alive. She smirked up at him from behind her mask and she slapped his chest weakly.

"Sorry if I didn't help you guys pull it off."

"No," Jake told her, swallowing a lump in his throat. "You did. We won, Trudy. You helped. Holy shit, we've got to get you some medical help."

Neytiri gazed down at the woman in concern, knowing enough about her to understand she wasn't a threat. "She is very weak."

"What's going on?" Norm said as he came up behind Jake.

"It's Trudy," explained Jake. He impulsively hugged Trudy close, laughing softly.

Norm stared at the woman Jake was holding. "Trudy? Here, give her to me so I can take a look at her."

Jake handed her over to the anthropologist and Norm hugged her close, overpowered by the same ecstatic impulse as Jake.

"Guys, this is real sweet," Trudy muttered, "but I'm about to puke."

"Oh, sorry," Norm muttered. He eased her carefully onto the ground and looked up at Jake. "She needs Mo'at. Probably a doctor, too. She can't eat what we've got here, Jake."

Jake nodded and Neytiri immediately took off to find her mother.

"We'll contact the base," Jake assured. "I'll tell them to send transport and medics for Trudy."

"Hey guys," Trudy coughed.

Norm and Jake both knelt down beside her. Jake rubbed her arm soothingly as she looked up at them.

"Max is okay, right?"

Norm smiled. "Max is fine. He's going to have a conniption when he sees you."

She chuckled raggedly and squeezed Norm's hand with her small, tanned one. "You look different."

Norm appeared startled. "How?"

"I dunno," she said, shaking her head weakly. "Have you changed your hair?"

-To be continued

Chapter Text

They laid Trudy on a pallet inside one of the hollow chambers of the trunk of Hometree and Mo'at worked diligently over her, compelled as much by compassion as the knowledge that the human had fought with Jake and the others to save the People. Skilled, aging hands cleaned open wounds and smoothed salves over the burns here and there. Mo'at murmured soothingly to her patient when Trudy groaned or tensed.

When Trudy's body relaxed and her eyes closed in rest, Mo'at rose to her feet and approached Jake, Norm and Neytiri.

"I have seen to her wounds," Mo'at informed softly, glancing over her shoulder at the small woman lying on the pallet. "But she requires nourishment. I cannot purify our food for her."

Jake nodded. "Thank you, Mother. I'm going to call for someone to come and get her right away."

"I've got my transmitter on," Norm said. "I can make the call."

"Good. You take care of that while I check on Trudy." Jake took Neytiri's hand and she followed him over to the pallet. He knelt beside Trudy and looked her over, still amazed that she had lasted as long as she did in the wilds.

"Hey Trudy," Jake called softly, "you awake?"

"I am now," she groused, opening her eyes. She smirked up at him, though. "So that was mother-in-law, Jake? She's pretty cool."

"Cool?" Neytiri repeated with a frown.

"It's a compliment," Jake assured her with a smile. "And yeah, she is cool. So Trudy, how did you manage to survive out there for three weeks? What the hell did you live on?"

"I stored some dry rations in the gunship before we set out," she sighed. "I had a bad feeling I might need them, whether we won or not. Face it Jake, Na'vi don't have food processors to make local snacks human-friendly."

"Smart girl," he complimented sincerely. He would never have thought of something like that and if they had lost, Trudy wouldn't have been able to go back to the base.

She shrugged gingerly. "It was just an afterthought. Didn't think I'd live through it to worry about eating. I tried to make it last and eating native fruit to stretch out the supply was a big mistake. You don't wanna be around one of us after a meal of Pandora me."

Jake laughed softly and Neytiri smiled. "You tried it anyway?"

"Yeah, I figured there had to be something I could eat without getting the shits. Lucky for me I finally found some nuts and berries I could eat but they make me a little high. It was a choice between going hungry or being stoned and I'm still buzzing."

"You seem pretty sober to me," Jake observed.

"High tolerance," Trudy excused. "Plus, I'm hurting like hell. The pain's kind of sobering. It's not as bad as it was before though, thanks to her." She nodded in Mo'at's direction.

Jake laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "Norm's sending word to the base. They'll come get you and you can get some edible food in your stomach. You're one tough chick, Trudy."

She grinned. "Quit it, you'll make me blush." She looked up at Norm as he approached and a dawning expression came over her face. "Holy shit, Norm...I don't think I can tell the difference between your avatar body and your human one anymore."

Norm hunkered down and gave her a concerned look, taking note of the dilated pupils. "You're half-delirious, that's why. What kind of Pandora food did you eat?"

"I dunno man," she grunted. "Something that looked like a big purple and yellow yam and some nuts and berries."

"That first one sounds like a banana fruit," he said thoughtfully. "It's toxic to humans and usually causes food poisoning symptoms."

"Well, it definitely gave me the runs," she snorted.

"What did the berries and nuts look like?"

"The berries were these big purple things growing on a bush with pink and blue leaves. I found the nuts on the ground. They were kind of like macadamia nuts but they were easier to crack."

Norm brushed a stray lock of dark hair away from his forehead and chuckled. "Plush berries and fallow nuts, most likely. No wonder. If you had just eaten one or the other you would probably be okay, but together they can cause euphoria or delirium. You might as well have eaten shrooms, Trudy. I'm amazed you're as coherent as you are."

"Awesome. Just crank up the music and I'll stare at my hand for a while."

Jake blurted a laugh and shook his head. "Okay, now I can tell you're stoned. Try to get some rest, Trudy. They'll be here to get you in a few hours."

Later that afternoon, Norm was checking his bow for faults when Ni'nat approached him. He looked up from his seat on the earthen floor of the Hometree den and his heart predictably skipped a beat at the sight of her.

"That woman they found in the forest," Ni'nat said in Na'vi, "You held if she was precious to you. I thought you had no mate, Normspellman."

Norm was totally unprepared for the comment. The huntress said it as an accusation and her features were tense. For a moment, he just blinked stupidly at her, but she looked as though she was about to turn away so he responded quickly.

"Trudy? We aren't mated. She's only a friend...a lertu. She fought with us against the Sky People." He hadn't even realized Ni'nat was watching when they brought Trudy in.

The answer pacified her somewhat but she was still oddly tense. "And you have no mate?"

He shook his head and his heart beat even faster at the possibilities of why she was so concerned. "No. I have no mate."

Her stance relaxed and she favored him with a pleased smile. "Hunt well, Norm," she said to him, holding him in her gaze for a moment before turning and walking away.

He might not be good at interacting with women but he knew Na'vi body language. While she always moved gracefully, she was now emphasizing the sway of her hips and his eyes helplessly devoured her retreating form. This was the second time she seemed to put on a display for him. Norm took a deep breath when she passed through the entrance of the den and he looked down at his khaki pants, frowning at the visible evidence of the female's affect on his body.

"Trudy's alive!"

Sebastian jumped as Max ran past him and Katherine, shouting the announcement at the top of his lungs. He had no idea who Trudy was or what her relationship was with the doctor but his display of excitement suggested she was dear to him. Max didn't pause and his lab coat whipped out behind him as he charged down the corridor, hollering the proclamation over and over again. A few military personnel hollered with exuberance and some of the lab staff also blurted surprised, joyful exclamations.

Sebastian looked at Katherine questioningly and she spread her hands and shrugged with ignorance. "She must have been here before we arrived. It sounds like she went missing in action."

Sebastian nodded. He wanted to speak but the ability hadn't returned to him yet. If he could talk, he would be trying to get to know Katherine better. That was what he had planned to do when they arrived on Pandora, at least. He found her attractive, smart and easy-going. Working his way into her affections was a goal of his but now he doubted things would ever progress beyond friendship. He looked down at his cyan, turquoise-striped hands and he sighed. The height difference wasn't too terribly drastic; he'd seen tiny women dating towering hulks before. The biological differences were another matter.

"Sebastian, are you okay?"

He looked at her and forced a little smile as he lied with a nod of his head. He shouldn't even be considering any ideas of putting the moves on her. He still didn't know everything about his new body and it hadn't escaped his notice that the scent of females—particularly Katherine—affected him in ways they never had before. There was something primal in him now and he feared that if he overstepped himself, he might do something to harm her.

"Okay guys, let's lift her up."

Max directed the efforts of the medic team he'd brought with him and they carefully lifted Trudy's gurney and followed him out of the Hometree den. The Na'vi watched curiously but retained a respectful distance as their human allies carried their injured comrade to the Samson chopper. Norm and Jake walked along with Max, who paused to give his gratitude to Mo'at.

"Thank you for caring for her, Tsahik," he said respectfully.

Mo'at responded with an elegant nod of her head. "She must be very resourceful, to have survived our wilds for as long as she did."

Max smiled and looked at Trudy, who was waving a weak goodbye to Jake and Norm as the medics carried her onto the ship. "Thank goodness for that."

"We should have known she was too stubborn to die," Jake smirked. "Take good care of her Max."

"We will," promised the doctor. "Norm can keep you updated on her status."

Norm nodded in agreement. "I guess I'll see you guys tonight, if you're still up when I get back."

"I probably will be," sighed Max. "I've still got data to try and crack." Plus, he knew he'd be watching over Trudy like a hawk. Somehow, he and the pilot developed an ironclad friendship in their time working together.

"Take care of yourselves guys," Max said when the rotaries started up and the crew hollered for him. "I've got to go."

"See you in a few days," Jake said. "I've still got some work to do with Sebastian."

Max nodded and turned, hurrying for the aircraft. He boarded and the crew shut the cargo doors. Max went to Trudy's side and reached up for one of the support handholds as the Sampson lifted off the ground. She gave him a tired grin and he returned it, his vision blurring as his emotions rose to the surface.

"You're not gonna cry now, are you?" Trudy gave him an exasperated look, but her grin remained.

Max hastily wiped his eyes. "I'm just...happy to see you."

Jake had a much easier time training Norm than Neytiri had with him. Having already learned Na'vi cultural practices, language and how to ride a direhorse, all Jake had to do was teach him to refine his combat and hunting skills. Once he achieved satisfactory results, he would take him to procure his own ikran and complete his right of passage. Mo'at would give the ceremonial speech and then, Norm would have to prepare to pass through the eye of Eywa and leave his human body behind forever. That part actually scared Jake a little. Attempting to make the transition carried substantial risks to Norm's life.

He spent his nights mating frantically with Neytiri and his days teaching Norm the ways of the hunter. They started early in the mornings, riding a pair of direhorses away from the Omaticaya sanctuary and into the wilds. They spent the day tracking and hunting. Norm ran out of breath quickly trying to keep up with his companion and Jake was more forgiving than Neytiri had been when teaching him. He allowed Norm rest breaks when he thought he needed them and he encouraged him, admitting that he hadn't faired much better when he first started learning.

"Your body will get used to it after a while," Jake assured him during one of the meal breaks. "You're going to start noticing you can run faster, for longer distances without getting worn out. It'll take a couple of weeks but it's going to start getting easier."

"Let's hope so," Norm panted as he reached up for an overhanging leaf and turned his face up. He drank thirstily from the rainwater that had gathered in the cupped leaf and Jake nodded in approval.

The anthropologist carried a waterskin on him but he only used it when he couldn't find water sources in the wild. Norm was taking his training very seriously—just as Jake knew he would. He never carried rations with him. Instead, he broke his fast with whatever the forest would provide him with. He hadn't yet made a kill but his botanical knowledge enabled him to scavenge plant foods. At first, Jake felt bad about eating kills he'd made in front of Norm but when he tried to share, Norm refused and insisted that he had to learn to provide for himself, before sharing someone else's kill.

"I won't take what I can't give back," explained Norm, and Jake smiled.

It was going to take some work to improve Norm's aim with a bow. While he exceeded when it came to culture, spirituality and plant knowledge, his body was at odds with him when it came to archery and athletics. Knowing how stubbornly the man could dig in when he had his heart set on something, Jake pushed him relentlessly—though he didn't smack him when he failed the way Neytiri sometimes had with Jake.

On the third day of teaching him, Jake considered another problem. Norm was still outfitted in his human style garb. Jake didn't press him over it but the hiking boots Norm always wore presented an issue that could hamper his progress.

"You need to start going barefoot," Jake said when they took a noon rest break.

Norm looked up from the small handbook on Na'vi physiology he was reading, appearing confused by the comment. "Why?"

"Because sooner or later you'll be wearing traditional Na'vi garb," Jake reminded him, "and I don't know about you but I think you'd look pretty stupid wearing a pair of hiking boots with a loincloth."

"I won't be wearing the boots when I start wearing the loincloth," argued the anthropologist.

"And your feet are going to suffer for it," Jake insisted. "Better get it over with and start toughening them up now. It's not going to be fun but at least you'll get it out of the way."

"I hadn't thought of that," Norm admitted with a sigh. He replaced his book in his pocket and began to unlace his boots. "I guess I'll just carry them for the rest of the day."

"Try tying the laces together," suggested Jake. "You can sling them over your arm and they won't get in the way too much. Ball up your socks and stuff them in there." Military training had taught him a few tricks.

Norm took his advice. "Trudy's up and about now," he said as he removed the boots and followed Jake's suggestion. "I talked to her last night and she's almost as good as new. She said to say hi to the Jarhead for her."

Jake grinned. "Tell her the Jarhead sends his regards, when you go back tonight."

Norm smiled a little. "So you and Neytiri...are there any plans for kids in the future?"

"As a matter of fact, we're trying now," Jake answered.

He had the fresh scratches to prove it, too. Last night, she had been particularly aggressive with him when he and Norm returned late. Jake smirked at the memory. He loved their tender, unhurried couplings but there was definitely something to be said about the aggressive couplings, too. If only she wouldn't play with that damned spot at the base of his tale so much. It made him feel like he was in heat too and it was more than he could bear, at times.

"That's great, Jake." Norm smiled. "I'll keep my fingers crossed for you."

Jake glanced down at his hands and it occurred to him that he might not be the most ideal candidate for siring a Na'vi child. He flexed his fingers and frowned.

"What's wrong?"

Jake looked at Norm and he hesitated a moment before answering. "I just hope our kids come out with four fingers. Hell, I hope I can even get Neytiri pregnant. I'm not a full-blood Na'vi."

"I don't think you should worry about that," Norm said. "Your human DNA is only a small percentage compared to the Na'vi DNA. Any kids you have aren't likely to be born with five fingers and even if they are, the clan will accept them just like they accepted you. As far as fertility goes, if they can grow avatar embryos in a Petri dish you can have children with Neytiri."

Jake's eyebrows went up. "Hey, does this mean humans and Na'vi could interbreed?"

"Not without scientific intervention," answered Norm. "You're different because you've got more Na'vi in you than human. A pureblood human and a pureblood Na'vi probably couldn't successfully breed because there are too many physiological differences. Incubation in a tank isn't the same thing as regular pregnancy. Besides, a human woman trying to give birth to a half-Na'vi baby would probably need a c-section to live through it. Put a newborn human next to a newborn Na'vi and you'll see what I mean."

Jake winced. "Ouch."

Norm smirked at him. "Let me guess; you haven't learned anything about Na'vi births."

Jake shrugged. "They'd be pretty much be like human births, right?"

"With one significant difference. You're supposed to link with her when the time comes. Neytiri isn't going to be the only one having labor pains."

Jake stared at him. "You're kidding."

Norm shook his head. "No, I'm not. Neytiri never told you about this?"

Jake's eyebrows went up and he exhaled slowly, shaking his head. "No, she left that part out."

"Maybe she just took it for granted that you'd know," Norm suggested with a shrug. "Even I can admit you're more like a Na'vi now than a human. Plus, when Na'vi females are ready to breed they don't think of much else."

Jake snorted. "Tell me about it. Not that I'm complaining, though." He scratched his chin and a nagging suspicion rose in his mind. "Maybe she just thought I'd chicken out if she told me."

"Are you going to chicken out?" Norm pressed. "I feel obliged to warn you Jake, if you don't link with her when she gives birth it's going to be seen as an unforgivable act of irresponsibility and cowardice. The father is supposed to share his strength with the mother, to help the birth along. He feels her pain. Childbirth isn't just the woman's burden amongst the Na'vi. The People believe that both parents should share the effort."

Jake absorbed this and he felt a moment of panic. Norm was watching him closely, with an expression that clearly said he didn't think Jake was up to the task. Jake pressed his lips together and shoved aside his anxiety. He already intended to be at Neytiri's side through the whole thing and he couldn't deny that it was only fair for him to do more than hold her hand and tell her to push.

"I've heard human women joke about how if men were the ones having the babies, the whole species would have gone extinct a long time ago." Jake smiled crookedly. "Guess I'm going to find out if they're right about that."

Norm smiled in surprised approval. "Maybe you aren't as dumb as I thought."

Jake laughed. "I'm going to take that as a compliment."

"Better start practicing your Lamaze, Jake."

"Shut up."

Jake was right about his feet suffering. Norm was faintly glad to get a day off when Jake flew to Hell's Gate to have another link session with Sebastian and help him recover more. He had blisters on the heels and soles of his feet and he had to dig out a thorn that got lodged in the left one. He took it stoically and mixed a batch of healing salve with herbs he gathered himself, blending them with mucilage from a pxorna tree for consistency. He was sitting on a rock in the den as he spread the salve over the soles of his feet when a familiar scent reached his nostrils.

He looked up to see Ni'nat approaching him from the fire pit. He smiled at her and gave a nod of polite greeting as he wiped his hands off and reached for the bandaging wraps from his personal first aid kit.

"May I sit with you?"

Norm scooted a bit to make room for her. "Please." He watched her from the corner of his eye as he began to wrap his feet one at a time to keep dirt away from the healing salve and his blisters.

"What has happened to your feet, Norm?" She tilted her head and frowned as she examined the sole of the foot he was bandaging.

"I am not used to going barefoot," he answered in Na'vi. "I stopped using footwear, to adjust to it."

She reached out and gently touched two fingers to his toes, brushing over them gently. The contact was brief and light but it made tingles race through Norman's body. The concern on Ni'nat's face prompted him to reassure her.

"It doesn't hurt much."

It was a lie, of course. It hurt like hell.

She looked into his eyes. "Can you walk?"

"Sure," he assured her. "Just...not very fast right now."

"I promised you I would teach you to understand the trees better," she said with a smile. "I came to ask if you would like to come with me, but if walking pains you—"

"I'd love to do that," Norm said quickly, smiling with delight. "I'll crawl if I have to." He winced at the second statement and wondered why he couldn't play it a little cooler.

Ni'nat's soft, musical laughter made him feel better. "You really like trees."

~I really like you. The trees aren't what I'm interested in right now.~

Aloud, Norm said something different. "Trees are important. We couldn't live without them."

She sobered and nodded her agreement. "This is true. When you are finished dressing your wounds, I will show you how to listen to the trees."

"So, what do I do?" Norm admired her in the dappled noon light coming down through the canopy. They had stopped next to a tall Ramut tree—called a "Puffball tree" by humans because of the large seed globes that grew at the ends of the branches.

Ni'nat stepped close to the trunk, moving in that suspicious way that would normally signify something Norm didn't dare hope for. She placed her palms against the trunk and leaned in to rest her head against the tree.

"Press your ear to it and listen," she instructed, shutting her eyes. She looked as though she heard something. "You must listen well to hear it."

Norm had never heard of anything like this, but he knew there were a lot of things he had yet to learn. He did as she said and pressed his ear to the tree trunk, listening intently. He couldn't hear anything. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind, trying harder. After a few moments, he grew frustrated and wondered what he was doing wrong. He opened his eyes and prepared to ask the huntress a question and he went still.

Ni'nat still had her ear pressed to the tree and her face was close to his. She was watching him and a grin steadily grew on her lips. Norm finally realized what was going on and he straightened up.

"You're teasing me," he guessed.

She covered her mouth with her hand and chuckled. "I did not think you would do it. You know so much about plant life, Norm." Her shoulders shook delicately with laughter.

He shook his head and laughed with her. "I should have known. You planned this the day I was scanning that tree?"

She shrugged, her eyes smiling with mischief. "I wanted to see if I could fool one who knows so much already."

Norm shook his head modestly. "I don't know everything." He glanced sidelong at the tree and smirked. "Obviously."

He heard a strange huffing sound then and it only took a second to recognize it. Norm shot an alarmed look up into the branches of the puffball tree and he saw one of the seed globes expanding and trembling. Knowing what it meant, he reacted by sheer instinct and dove at Ni'nat, yelling a warning as he pulled her to the ground with him and rolled to protect her from the impact.

The seed globe burst overhead and the hundreds of seeds stored inside exploded out in every direction like small projectiles. Norm winced as his back and legs were peppered with the seeds but his clothing insulated him from suffering more than a sting from it. He waited until the shower of seeds ended before lifting up a little to check Ni'nat for injuries.

"Are you okay?" He asked her softly.

She stared up at him and nodded. "None of them struck me, thanks to you." She frowned and reached up to touch his left ear, where one of the seeds had hit him and left a welt.

It stung a little bit but Norm hardly felt the superficial injury. His body was lying flush against hers and he could feel every slender, feminine curve against him. He couldn't move; he could only stare down at her. Her fingers stroked the sore spot on his ear and he felt like he had electricity zipping through his body.

"You were faster than I was," Ni'nat murmured, smiling at him with faint surprise. "I am not usually so easily distracted, Normspellman."

Distracted? He could relate to that. His groin was tightening warningly and he knew he should get off of her before he poked her through his khakis, but he just couldn't move. Norm silently rattled off prayers to every deity he'd ever heard of as his breath quickened and his heart thundered in his chest. "Uh...I'm just very familiar with the native plant life," he said haltingly.

Somehow, he convinced his body to move and he eased off of her and got to his feet. He offered her his hand and he thought he saw a flash of disappointment in her eyes before she took it and allowed him to help her to her feet.

"Who would be faster in a test of capturing prey?" Ni'nat questioned as she straightened her necklace. Her eyes suggested she wasn't talking about animals and Norm swallowed.

"Definitely you," he insisted. "I don't have your hunting skills."

She smiled at him. "Not yet, but soon you may. I enjoyed this moment, Norm. We should speak again soon."

She began to walk back toward Hometree, again leaving him staring at her backside. Norm groaned and put his face in his hands when she was out of sight. His frustrations were growing with each day.

Jake barely got the chance to dismount from his ikran before his mate sprinted nimbly over the thick branch to him. Neytiri's hands were sliding over his chest with greedy appreciation and he almost lost his balance as she pressed up against him. She must have been waiting for him in the ikran nest area of Hometree and if it was possible, the cloying fragrance of her pheromones seemed even stronger than yesterday.

"Whoa, you're going to knock me off the tree," Jake laughed. Her mouth covered his before he could say anything else and he put his arms around her, responding to her kiss immediately. He inhaled her scent and his breath quickened with arousal.

"Mmph...wait a minute," Jake begged, breaking the kiss and pulling his face away from hers. "I need to ask you something, Neytiri."

"Ask later," she murmured before trying to kiss him again.

Jake held her back with effort. God, it was so hard to resist her but he needed to clear the air. He'd tried to ask her the night before but her sensuality and eagerness overpowered him before he could get the question out and by the time her needs were satisfied, he passed out with exhaustion. He didn't want to wake her this morning so he left and made a promise to himself that he would ask as soon as he returned home.

Neytiri made a frustrated growl that was very much like the one she gave when her mother informed her it would be her responsibility to teach Jake the ways of the People.

"This is important," Jake insisted in a soft voice, cupping her face and gazing into her eyes. "Please. I need to say this and then I swear I'll ravish you until you can't move."

She flashed a smile in response to his latter comment and she sighed. "What is it, Jake?"

"Why didn't you tell me about the birthing link?"

She lowered her gaze, but not before he saw the glimpse of shame in her eyes. "I...was going to."

"Before or after I got you pregnant?" He smirked and he caressed her face as she grimaced. Her ears were drooping and any annoyance he felt dissolved. "Look at me."

Neytiri complied, raising mortified eyes to meet his. Jake stroked her hair with one hand and caressed her face with the other. "I'm not going to shy away. Mated for life, remember?" He smiled at her, putting all of his warmth behind it. "I think I know why you hesitated to tell me about it and I want you to know, you've got nothing to worry about. I'm up for the challenge and I'm going to be right there with you, sharing it all."

Neytiri's ears slowly came back up and her gaze softened on him. "I apologize, my Jake. I was afraid of how you would react. I should not have doubted."

"I used to be human," he excused. "You had an excuse to worry about it."

"Who spoke to you about the birthing bond?"

"Norm," admitted Jake. "The subject came up by accident and he explained everything to me. I don't want you to worry, okay?"

A tiny smile curved her lips and she turned her head to kiss his palm. "I am not worried anymore."

"So we're good now?" Jake pressed his forehead against hers and she put her arms around his neck and nodded.

"Great. Then let's see about that ravishing you wanted." He put his arms around her waist and lifted her, kissing her deeply before she could respond.

"There is an empty hollow up here," Neytiri gasped between kisses. "Deep enough for privacy."

Jake was already painfully aroused. "Take me there."

"Hey Jake," Max greeted over the transmitter. "Is everything okay?"

"I just wanted to see if you've dug up anymore information about the project that Sebastian was part of," answered the deeper voice. The transmission crackled a little but the signal remained steady.

Max pressed his lips together and nodded. "Hold on a minute Jake." He got up and locked the door to his lab to make sure the conversation remained private. While he trusted everyone presently on the base, he didn't want rumors to start.

"Okay," he said into the transmitter box sitting on his desk, "I did find out a few more things. For one, the original files have vanished. Someone on the other side wiped Collin's data clean but I made backup copies as soon as we figured out something wasn't right."

"Good thinking," answered Jake. "Has the RDA tried to reach you guys at all?"

"No. I considered sending an inquiry about Sebastian's condition but I thought it would be wiser not to confirm Collins' procedure a success. I'm glad I did that because Jake, it looks like they've got plans to put several other people through the same process...military operatives, in fact. They're already on one of the motherships destined for Pandora and I'm willing to bet more specialized avatars are being produced on Earth as we speak. This means whoever's behind this has been planning to send a force of special operatives in with Sebastian's abilities. He was disposable. The intention was to test it on him first before going through with it on the special operatives."

There was silence on the other end of the transmission for a moment. "It takes at least five years to make the trip from Earth to Pandora. How did they do all of this so fast?"

"The Avatar project has been an on-going thing, Jake," Max explained. "They've been continually improving it and the motherships are constantly in transit, back and forth. The RDA landed on Pandora decades ago and they've had plenty of time to test new methods. There's no telling how long this specialized avatar plan has been in the works, unless Collins had the information stored in his files. I still have decrypting to do before I've gone through all of them."

"Shit," Jake sighed. "I'm going to leave the science to people like you and Norm. When is the next mothership scheduled to arrive in orbit?"

"It should reach us in about a year, give or take a few months."

"A year." The tone of Jake's voice suggested that he was picking through the risks and possibilities. "Max, even if you're expecting people you can trust on one of those ships, I want you to put the word out that Hell's Gate is shut to all transport. Not a single Valkyrie shuttle has permission to land. I'm sorry for anybody that wants to go back to Earth and I was going to give a little slack for travelers you know but we can't take the risk."

"I understand that, Jake," Max assured him, "This base is already on total lockdown. You don't have to worry about any shuttles landing here with our consent, but I think I should warn you that some of those ISV's en route are packing heavy gear and vehicles. We can turn them away but if they try to come in and take over by force, we might not have enough manpower to hold them off. We'll send word to you the minute we get any signals of course, but I don't know what kind of firepower we could be dealing with."

"Then you keep those scanners running at maximum," Jake said. "We'll all double our vigilance. If they come for a fight, they'll get one."

Jake wasn't responding to her touch and kisses as well as he usually did. His body was certainly ready for her but his mind was far away. Neytiri forced aside her body's insistent urges and pulled away to look him in the eyes.

"What is it, Jake? You have not been yourself tonight."

Jake gazed at her with troubled features and he parted his lips. He shook his head and sighed a moment later before dragging his queue over his shoulder. Resting his back against the stalk of the giant mushroom they sat beneath, he put an arm around her and urged her closer.

"Showing you is easier than telling," he murmured in Na'vi.

Neytiri scooted closer to him and joined her queue with his. While she sensed the undercurrent of his mating urges, the purpose of this tsahaylu was for information; not pleasure. She closed her eyes and rested her head on his shoulder as the information came through the link, providing her with a better understanding of the situation than mere words could have.

When she understood the situation, she lifted her head from his shoulder and caressed his jaw. She could feel his fear, anger and frustration. She felt these things too but her Jake was usually so confident and inspiring. Now his expression was grim and there was no sign of the smiles that were usually easy-going or fierce and compelling. It was Neytiri's turn to be reassuring.

"Jake, if they come again, we will be ready for them. We will fight them off as before and we will do it again and again if we have to." She kissed his frowning lips, brushing her mouth back and forth over them before finishing her speech in a whisper. "We will send word to the other great clans. We have time and I will not live in fear."

He looked at her and she felt a momentary flash of uncertainty from him, before that fierceness she loved so much swelled up and overpowered it. The frown slowly curved into a smile and he nodded.

Neytiri smiled back and nuzzled his cheek. Both of his arms went around her and he turned his head to meet her lips. Now his desire was building again, pulsing through the link they shared and feeding hers. Her breath quickened as he gave her one of those avid kisses that always made her gasp and the bond immediately stimulated her senses. She rose up to shift her position and straddle his thighs, losing herself quickly in the erotic exchange of feelings.

They had time to hunt, laugh, play and mate. She had meant what she said; she wasn't going to allow the impending threat of more Sky People to rule over her. Jake's increasing enthusiasm as she reached down to unfasten his loincloth proved that he shared her feelings, now that she had inspired him.

-To be continued

Chapter Text

When Jake saw the condition of Norm's feet the next morning, he called off the day's hunt. "Give it a couple of days to heal," he said firmly when the stubborn anthropologist tried to argue with him. "You'll be useless if you make it worse and I don't want to be stuck having to carry your ass all the way back to Hometree."

Norm gave up the argument, grudgingly admitting that Jake was right. No matter how eager he was to complete his right of passage, his enthusiasm couldn't heal broken skin. He concentrated on taking care of his wounded feet instead and he made sure the bandages were kept clean. By that afternoon, he could walk without limping so much and he put his cap on and walked into the forest surrounding Hometree, intending to harvest his dinner from the local plants and trees. He didn't get far into the forest before he heard singing and he paused, his ears twitching as he listened.

"Ni'nat," he whispered to himself, smiling a little.

She was singing the weaving song, somewhere up ahead amongst the trees. He approached as quietly as possible and when he came within sight of her, he paused. He had no hope of getting closer without her sensing him—at least, not yet. He didn't want to interrupt her song, so he moved behind the trunk of a tree to stay out of sight and he sat down on the grass, resting his back against the tree. He turned his body a little and leaned to the side to peer around the girth of the trunk, admiring her as she worked over something she was tailoring. She was seated comfortably on a large mushroom, using it as a stool as she constructed her task.

Norm tugged his cap a little lower to shade his eyes from the glare of sunlight that slanted in from the canopy overhead and he faced forward again. He leaned his head back against the tree and shut his eyes, listening contentedly to the song. It was midway through the verses and he would regret when it finished. Her voice was like a harp, sweetly melodic and resonant. Norm sighed, imagining what it would be like to hear that voice murmur loving endearments to him each night.

A shadow fell over him and Norm looked up to see Jake standing there with a smirk on his face. "I followed you to ask you a few things, but I can see you're busy." He peered around the tree before looking at him again. "Talking to her might be the way to go here, Norm. Hiding behind a tree isn't going to get you anywhere."

Norm shot a wary look over his shoulder before shushing Jake. "I just don't want to interrupt her," he said in a low, warning tone. "Keep it down!"

"And you call me a moron," Jake snorted. "Odds are, she already knows you're here. Ni'nat is a good hunter."

"Okay, I've got it," Norm muttered. "Now be quiet!"

Ni'nat's song ended and Norm froze. His ears perked up to listen for any sign that she was approaching. He heard a soft rustle and then silence, but for the sound of birds and animals in the forest. Jake looked into the little clearing and grinned crookedly before shooting Norm one last glance and walking away. Norm sat there for a moment and debated over what he should do. He was tense, knowing that he wasn't observant enough yet to hear her if she approached. He expected to feel her poke him on the arm or speak to him out of nowhere at any moment and he braced himself for it.

The minutes ticked by and nothing happened. Norm finally decided to investigate, feeling unreasonably worried that something might have happened to her. He stood up and walked into the area she had been in.

"Ni'nat?" He called softly.

She was gone. It was like she had vanished. He looked at the ground near the toadstools where she had been sitting, attempting to spot signs of her passing. He was still inexperienced with tracking and while he could detect a very faint trail around the mushrooms, he could see no further evidence of where she might have gone.

A sudden burst of movement from the thick bushes ahead of him prompted Norm to reach for his knife. He had time to see a blur of cyan skin, dark braids and yellow eyes before he was knocked on his back. His hunting knife flew out of his hand and his cap landed a couple of feet away. The wind was knocked out of him and Norm stared up at Ni'nat with stunned, wide eyes, wondering what he did to deserve the attack. Maybe she was offended that he had watched her without speaking up.

Norm opened his mouth to blurt an apology but Ni'nat lowered her forehead to his and spoke before he could get the words past his lips.

"You are easy prey, Norm." She smiled sharply. While the expression was playful, there was something feral about it, too. "I was faster, this time."

"But I was just trying to protect you from the Ramut tree seeds before," Norm objected.

She laughed softly. "And I am testing your instincts. You need improvement."

He wasn't offended by the observation. While her actions seemed playful on the surface, it made sense for her to test how he was progressing. His quick mind pointed out other possible reasons for her behavior as he noticed the way her tail swayed behind her back. Her hands were clamped over his wrists, holding them down on either side of his head.

"I'll try harder," he promised breathlessly. He squirmed a little and expression told him she felt the evidence of what the contact was doing to him.

Ni'nat released his wrists and she sat comfortably on top of him, dragging her hands over the material of the muscle shirt that he wore under his army jacket. She grasped the shirt and boldly tugged it out of his pants, pulling it up to expose his chest and stomach.

"Uh, Ni'nat," Norm faltered. All of his knowledge concerning the aggression of some Na'vi females when they sought mates didn't prepare him for experiencing it first-hand.

She deftly scooted down and lowered her face to his stomach. She inhaled deeply as she moved up his chest to his neck. She straightened up again and gazed down at him with heavy-lidded eyes. Her fingers toyed with the metal identification tags around his neck.

"You wear too many clothes." She settled more comfortably on top of him, purring a little as she pressed firmly against his crotch. She reached for something tied to her weapon harness and Norm stared as she presented a newly tailored loincloth to him.

"I made it for you," Ni'nat explained. "You do not have one, yet?"

"No," admitted Norm. "You...made this for me?" In truth, he had been putting off wearing a loincloth even though he knew and accepted that he would have to eventually. Receiving one as a gift from Ni'nat put it into a whole new perspective. He traced the tribal symbols etched into the finely treated, pliant leather and his lust was temporarily forgotten. So, this was what she had been tailoring when he came upon her. She must have been finishing the last details.

Ni'nat nodded in confirmation and gave him a faintly wary, shy smile. "You like?" She asked in English.

"Very much," he answered.

"Then you will wear it?" She asked him in her native language.

Norm met her eyes and nodded. "I am honored," he replied in Na'vi. He didn't care how uncomfortable it might feel. Ni'nat made it with her own hands and he'd get used to wearing it, eventually.

The happy expression she gave him seemed genuine and he thought he detected a hint of relief in it as well. Na'vi women were so complex in their quicksilver moods but that was part of what fascinated him so much. Ni'nat stood up and offered him a hand. Disappointed by the loss of intimate contact, Norm took her hand and struggled to his aching feet, holding the garment she'd made for him to his chest. He inclined his head thankfully to her and straightened up his shirt. He noticed her eyeing his ID tags again and he allowed her to lift them in her fingers to study them.

Impulse took hold of Norm. He didn't think he had anything to give her that she would be interested in, but she seemed to like his tags well enough. It was a poor gift compared to the carefully handcrafted piece of Na'vi clothing but until he could learn how to make something nice for her in return, it was better than nothing.

"Do you like these?" Norm asked her.

"They catch the light," she replied with a little smile. "They are unusual."

He un-fastened the chain and held it out to her. "I want you to have them, then."

She blinked at him and slowly took the dangling tags from his hand.

"I know they aren't anything special," Norm said self-consciously.

She smiled at him. "That is not true, Normspellman." She touched the tags. "I will wear them with pride."

He helped her fasten the chain around her neck and he stepped back to admire the way the tags rested over her traditional necklace. Norm felt giddy. He stared at her and worked up his courage. If she was scouting for a potential mate, she needed to know how he felt.

"Ni'nat, I..." He faltered. How many months had he been infatuated with her now? He had to act on it sometime, even if he only confessed his admiration for her.

Ni'nat waited patiently and tilted her head curiously.

"Thank you, for this," Norm finally said, indicating the loincloth. He sighed inwardly, angry with himself for failing to take the initiative.

"You are welcome," she said with a smile. "And thank you for the necklace. I will see you at the fire pit tonight, Norm." She touched her forehead in a farewell gesture before leaving him again.

Norm stood there staring at the garment in his hands and he traced the symbols again, recognizing most of them. He saw one near the bottom that caught his attention and he peered at it curiously. When he realized it was a symbol for her name, his lips parted and his eyes went blank. Na'vi didn't make it a habit to "sign" their craftsmanship. They required no prideful recognition of their handiwork, but it wasn't uncommon for mates to wear one another's marks to subtly proclaim whom they belonged with.

Either Ni'nat was playing a cruel game with him, or she was marking her territory. Since Norm found it impossible to believe she would stoop to the former, that left only one conclusion. He looked around to make sure there were no signs of anyone within earshot and he grinned broadly.


His exuberance faded a moment later and he forced himself to calm down. It was still too early to claim victory. Most likely, he wasn't the only suitor she was considering and he couldn't imagine any unmated male being crazy enough to turn her down. If she couldn't decide which one she liked the most out of her selection, it would fall on the clan leaders to do so for her.

~But Jake is Ole'eyktan now and Neytiri's mother is Tsahik. That might give me an edge.~

While he'd hate to "win" through favoritism, he admitted to himself that the thought of Ni'nat with another man drove him crazy. He had an even greater reason to push himself to complete his trials, now.

Jake looked Norm up and down as the anthropologist joined him at the base of the Hometree two mornings later for further training. Norm kept his expression as casual as possible but he felt awkward and self-conscious as he closed the distance and walked past people. The expression of mild surprise on Jake's face didn't help and Norm wondered if he had somehow managed to put his new loincloth on wrong. He wanted to dash back inside, get his pants out of his backpack and yank them on to cover himself. He resisted the urge and stopped before Jake.

"I'm ready."

Jake nodded. "So did you make that or did someone give it to you?" His eyes glanced at the garment briefly and meaningfully.

"It was a gift," Norm answered, but he suspected by the masked slyness in Jake's gaze that he already knew that.

"Mm-hmm. From who?"

"What difference does it make?" Norm almost reached behind to try and adjust the loincloth in the back, uncomfortable with the way the material connecting to the underside laid right between his buttocks.

"Good morning, Ole'eyktan. Good morning, Norm."

Both males turned to see Ni'nat approaching in the early dawn light, moving with easy grace over the forest floor. Jake inclined his head in greeting and smiled. Norm smiled wider, not realizing how much his features lit up at the sight of her.

"Good morning, Ni'nat."

She stopped before them and gave Jake a respectful gesture, pressing her hand against her heart. Her eyes moved to Norm and he felt like they were caressing him from head to toe. He felt very self-conscious but he disciplined himself and kept his stance relaxed.

"You wear the garment I made for you," Ni'nat said with soft approval. "I think it fits well. How does it feel?"

"It's very comfortable," Norm lied. Actually, all he was aware of at that moment was Ni'nat and her smile.

That smile became amused and Norm felt himself flush with the realization that he didn't fool her.

"Good," she said. "That pleases me. I wish you both good hunting, today."

Norm saw Jake's eyes flick to the ID tags hanging around Ni'nat's throat before she walked away. The warrior glanced at him sidelong and his mouth curved into a little smirk, but Jake was blessedly silent about it.

Norm's relief to get out of public sight was short-lived. They found a hot trail before noon and Norm thought he would go mad trying to ignore the wedgie his loincloth was giving him. Jake seemed to guess why he kept lagging behind, despite Norm's attempts to be discreet about it when he tugged on his garment.

"You'll get used to it," Jake told him. "It might take a few days but you'll hardly notice it anymore."

Norm took it stoically. At least the garment offered decent support; which came as a mild surprise to him. He imagined a jockstrap wouldn't feel much different.

They tracked their prey for over a mile before they caught up with it. It was a hexapede—or in the Na'vi tongue, a yerik. The creature was roughly Pandora's equivalent to a deer, sporting a blue hide and delicate white stripes. Instead of a rack of horns, it had fan structure surrounding its head.

Jake gave a nod to Norm, silently inviting him to take the initiative. Norm sited his arrow and loosed it, but it missed by an inch and the creature was alerted. Jake quickly drew and shot with his bow, hitting it cleanly in the heart before it could bound away.

They quickly closed in on the kill. The yerik wasn't instantly killed by the shot and Jake immediately knelt beside it and thanked it for the nourishment its body would provide to the clan. He drove his hunting knife into its heart swiftly, ending its fading life.

"It's all right," Jake assured him when he heard Norm sigh. "You barely missed it this time and you're picking up on it fast. Hell, you're picking up on it faster than I did."

Norm gave him a doubtful look. "You're trying to tell me a marine did worse than a scientist?"

Jake shrugged before returning his attention to the task of pulling his arrow out of the kill. "Yeah, I was a trained killer but automatic guns and close combat aren't the same as shooting a bow. It takes more finesse. Neytiri smacked me on the back of the head the first time I picked up a bow and drew it. She said I handled it like I was trying to snap it in half."

Norm smirked. He could easily see that. "By the sounds of it, you earned a lot of head slaps while she was teaching you."

Jake paused and smiled, his eyes distant as he remembered. "I did. She never did it hard enough to hurt but it kept me focused on what she was saying. The second time I practiced..." He trailed off into laughter and he had to sober himself up before continuing. "She said I was acting like a frail old man."

Jake imitated her voice and accent...poorly. "'Stronger, Jhake. Arm is too limp!'" He shook his head and the beads woven into his braids knocked together as he chuckled. "Damn, she was hard to satisfy."

Norm smiled in response to Jake's nostalgic humor. The warrior's eyes always softened when he talked about his mate and the affection in his smiles and laughter was hard to miss. "So what did she say when you finally got it right?"

Jake shook his head and began to bind the hooves of his kill for easier lifting. "She didn't say anything." He finished binding the creature's ankles together and he took the front legs, while Norm took the back ones. Together, they lifted the kill and they began to carry it between them back to where they came from.

"Then how did you know you did it right?" Norm asked.

Jake looked over his shoulder at him and he smiled. "She looked at me."

"That's it? Just a look?"

Jake nodded and parted his lips to say something, but his expression changed and his ears swiveled back. His eyes shifted this way and that and his body began to tense as his nostrils flared.

"Norm, drop the kill and get up that tree over there," Jake ordered in a low voice, nodding in the direction of a wide trunk with vines winding up and around it.

Norm looked around with alarm. "Why, what are you picking up?" The only thing he noticed was how quiet the wildlife surrounding them had become. His skin prickled.

"Just trust me," Jake grunted as he dropped his end of the carcass. "Get up the tree, fast."

It was then that Norm heard a guttural growl from somewhere behind the thick brush, a few yards away from them. He had heard it once before...the first time he'd ever ventured into the Pandora jungles with Grace Augustine and Jake Sully. He didn't argue with his companion any further. He let go of the hexapede and sprinted for the tree trunk, understanding why Jake chose it as the first safety option. It connected overhead to several other trees of its size through intertwining branches and vines. They could travel through the canopy overhead to put distance between themselves and the savage creature that was coming.

Jake followed behind him and waited for him to get a secure hold and start climbing. He urged him to move faster and Norm complied, his heart pounding as he heard a huge body crash through the underbrush. There was a roar from below and he glanced down to see a hulking thanator leap into the area where he and Jake had just been.

"Go!" Jake shouted beneath him.

Norm increased his efforts and scrambled further up the tree. The vines were solid and they provided a good hold for hands and feet. In the back of his mind, Norm knew with certainty that he never could have done this in his human body. They reached the first mass of branches and Jake urged him onto the thickest one to the left. Norm stepped onto it and moved over to make room for his companion as he looked over the side of the wide branch.

The thanator beneath them was sniffing the kill they had abandoned. The dark-skinned jungle predator was roughly eighteen feet long and seven feet in tall at the shoulder. Its body was similar in form to the great cats from Earth, but it had two sets of front legs and a dragon-like head. It began to eat the hexapede with a veracious appetite and Norm grimaced when he heard the crunch of bones. It wouldn't take long for the huge beast to finish the meal.

"So much for dinner," Jake panted as he stepped onto the branch and looked down. "It looks like fish or plants tonight, unless we catch some more game."

The thanator finished wolfing down its meal and it licked is chops and sniffed the air, growling.

"Uh, Jake..."

The beast looked up at them and it snarled, pulling its lip flaps back to expose dagger-like, blood-covered fangs. The thanator approached the trunk of the tree and placed one huge claw on it. It glared up at them with feral yellow eyes and began to dig its front claws into the trunk, tearing away chunks of vine and bark in the process as it pulled itself to its hind legs.

"Can they climb?" Norm asked. He knew they were terribly hard to kill and could jump long distances, but his knowledge of the creatures beyond that was spotty at best.

The thanator bunched its muscles and hugged the base of the tree with its forelegs, while scrabbling for footholds with its hind claws. Perhaps it wasn't by nature a tree-dweller but it shared the Earth feline's ability to climb, even if it lacked grace.

"Shit, looks like it," Jake yelled. "Go!"

Norm needed no further urging. He took off at a run over the branch, hopping over vines and leaves with Jake close at his heels. The branch shook as the thanator pulled its ponderous weight onto it and Jake caught Norm's arm as he nearly toppled.

"Keep going," shouted Jake.

Norm could hear the claws scraping for purchase behind them and the weight of the beast made the tree limb groan and bow. He reached the end of the limb and bunched his leg muscles to leap onto the outstretched limb of the next tree, hardly thinking about it. The sound of cracking wood reached his ears as his feet touched down on the opposite limb and it only got louder.

Norm paused and turned to check on Jake. To his horror, the tree limb he had just jumped from was breaking and falling. Jake leaped and it looked as if he might make it, except that one of the thanator's front paws swiped out at him and batted him forcibly. Norm hollered the other male's name as Jake flew backwards into the trunk of a tree to the right. The force of his collision was audible and Norm saw his eyes go wide and blank.

The thanator fell to the ground with the broken limb and Jake tumbled down after it, oddly limp. Something was very wrong. Norm knew that Jake would have used the thick vegetation to slow his fall if he had his wits. Either he was too stunned from the blow or he had lost consciousness.

"Goddamn it," Norm panted, looking down for the best falling route.

He had never tried the fall-breaking maneuver before, though he was sure Jake intended to start him practicing on it soon. He saw the thanator shake its great head to clear it and he winced when he heard Jake hit the ground several feet away from the beast. There was no time.

Norm did some quick calculations in his head and prayed they were accurate as he leaped off of the tree limb and aimed for one of the large fern leaves below. He caught it and he grunted at the impact before sliding down the length of it and pushing away. He successfully landed on an octoshroom and the stalk bent as he struck, aiming him towards a set of vines that were hanging down from the overhead canopy. He barely caught them in his arms and he slid the rest of the way down on them, landing a couple of feet away from his fallen companion.

Norm stumbled over to Jake, having no time to feel pride for pulling off the trick. Jake lay on his back gasping, with his legs askew and one forearm resting on his torso. His eyes were blank with pain and blood trickled from his mouth.

"Jake," Norm said urgently, casting a look at the recovering thanator, "can you move?"

"It's...m-my back," answered the other male with a groan. He looked up at Norm with pain-furrowed brows, then over at the thanator. He pressed his lips together grimly. "Get...out of here."

Norm shook his head, terror and loyalty warring within him. "I can't do that, Jake."

The thanator fixated on them and it growled low in its throat and began to advance, hunkering down into a stalking pose as it drew closer. Norm looked around desperately and his eyes settled on a familiar, small species of tree several yards to the right. It wasn't a tall tree but its long, flexible branches grew outwards for an impressive length, arching down toward the forest floor. The barbs on those branches were as long as a human male's forearm and they easily came off when embedded in flesh; like a bee's stinger. Grace had told him that those barbs were strong and sharp enough to pierce even the thick hide of a titanotheris.

Norm got to his feet and ran toward the tree, glancing over his shoulder in the hopes that the thanator would be attracted to his movement and follow him. There was no such luck. The beast was focused on the easier, helpless prey. Jake looked at Norm and nodded painfully, showing no fear as the predator came to finish him off. He seemed to think that Norm was obeying his command to run away.

Norm skidded to a halt, drew his bow and fit an arrow. His hands were shaking a bit but the life or death situation his friend was in didn't allow for hesitation. He took aim and fired. He quickly drew another arrow and shot it as well, aiming only to hit the large target for distraction, rather than a kill. The initial projectile struck the thanator in the shoulder, piercing it shallowly. The beast roared and turned its attention to Norm just as the second arrow whizzed over its head.

"Hey," Norm shouted, waving his arms with his bow still clutched tightly in one hand.

The thanator lowered its head and glared at him menacingly, snarling. Some instinct that he didn't even know he possessed made Norm bare his teeth challengingly. "Come on!" He yelled.

The creature took the bait. It leaped right over Jake's prone form and bounded toward Norm, roaring angrily.

"Oh crap," Norm muttered, his aggression fading into alarm.

He turned and ran as fast as his blue-striped feet could carry him, heading for the spiderthorn tree. He had a good head start and he reached his goal before the thanator could close the distance between them. The need for caution forced him to take a moment to find a good place to grab one of the branches. He hooked his arm under one of the longer tree limbs and he ran with it, pulling it with him and bending it. The limb gave at first and Norm didn't stop pulling until he had to dig his heels into the ground to keep from being catapulted right at the thanator.

Norm waited, snarling as he held the branch back with substantial effort. "Come on," he grunted, "just a little...closer!"

He waited until the angry eyes were boring down at him and the sour breath reached his nostrils. Norm abruptly released the thorny branch and fell backwards, scrambling away hastily as it swung like a whip and struck the thanator in the face. The animal's lip flaps were pulled back when it got hit and one of the thorns buried itself into the vulnerable soft tissue of its gum. Several more barbs dug into its neck and shoulders and the thanator stumbled away in shock and pain. It pawed at the barbs, snarling and growling.

Norm scurried around to the other side of the tree and circled behind the thrashing creature warily, mindful of the swishing tail. The thanator fell on its side as the thorn toxins entered its bloodstream and began to paralyze it. When Norm was sure that it couldn't come after he or Jake anymore, he ran back to his companion's side and knelt beside him. Jake was still conscious and he saw the entire thing.

"You're the...only guy I know...who could kill a fucking thanator...with a tree," Jake gasped, a tiny smile quirking his mouth despite his obvious suffering.

"Don't try to move," Norm said in concern, looking the prone warrior up and down. "And try not to talk too much, Jake. I'm going to get you some help."

"Mo'at," Jake coughed. "Get her."

"No," refused Norm. "I'll get word to her and Neytiri but not leaving you here helpless like this. I'm calling Hell's Gate for air transport and a medical team. You don't need to be jostled around."

Norm reached up and activated the transmitter he wore around his neck. He had kept it on him in case anyone at the base needed to reach him or Jake but he hadn't foreseen something like this happening.

"This is Norm Spellman, does anybody copy? This is Norm Spellman, I have a situation here, over!"

"We read you, Dr. Spellman," came an unfamiliar female voice. "What is your situation?"

"Corporal Sully is badly injured," answered Norm with relief, "we need air transport and a medical team to come and get us at our coordinates, stat."

Norm looked around, trying to gather his bearings so that he could give them a location. The area was unfamiliar to him and he grimaced and looked to his stricken companion. "Jake, can you tell me where we are? I need you to try and give me some general coordinates so they can find us."

Jake opened his eyes and looked around as best he could. "Winding Path zone," he said haltingly, "about...five clicks...north by north-west of Hometree."

Faintly amazed that Jake could remain so calm and coherent in his situation, Norm repeated the information to the woman on the other end of the transmission. "Make it fast," he pressed grimly when he finished. "I'll try to find a way to signal the pilot when they get close."

"Roger that. We'll get on it right away, Doctor."

Norm ended the transmission but he kept the communication device on to listen for the rescue operatives. He checked Jake's pupils and his concerns grew as he saw the first signs of shock. "Just try to relax, Jake. They're coming to take care of you."

The thanator lying a few yards away growled and now the sound was more pitiful than menacing. Jake's ears twitched when he heard the sound and he struggled to look at the beast. "It's...still alive?"

"The tree's toxins haven't finished it off yet," confirmed Norm with a glance at the weakening creature. "Its size is slowing the process down. Don't worry about that, Jake. You need to be still and try to rest."

Jake gave a bare shake of his head with effort. "You...finish it off. It's your kill, Norm. Send it to Eywa with the...hunter's blessing."

Norm hesitated and Jake must have read the revenge in his eyes because he gave him an intense, feverish look. "It's suffering, tsmukan. It...wasn't anything personal."

Norm stared at him. Jake had just called him "brother" in Na'vi. He was more dug into the Na'vi ways than Norm suspected. He also realized that somehow, the two of them really had become friends...perhaps even best friends. What's more, Jake was right. It wasn't the way of the People to let a kill suffer, whether it attacked unprovoked or not. The thanator had acted on natural instinct, not malice.

"Okay Jake. I'll take care of it. Just hang in there."

Norm got to his feet and cast one more worried look at his companion before drawing his hunting knife from his sheath and approaching the dying thanator. Now that he listened to its shuddering breath and pain-filled snarls, he did feel pity for it. Regret filled him and he wished he and Jake hadn't been in the wrong place at the wrong time when they tracked their quarry. The glazed yellow eyes glared balefully at him as he circled around the huge body.

Norm realized that there was still enough fight left in the thanator to make it unwise to try and get in close. If he was going to end this without losing a limb, he had to rely on archery. He replaced his knife in the sheath and prepared his bow, fitting one of the sharpest arrows he could find in his quiver. He stared into the suffering animal's eyes and aimed for the one on the left.

"Thank you for this, brother," Norm said in Na'vi. "As your journey ends, your spirit will return to Eywa, but your body will remain here to nourish the Na'vi people."

In truth, Norm didn't even know if thanator meat was edible by Na'vi standards and there was no way for him to transport parts of his kill back to Hometree for the use of the clan. The animal would nourish the creatures of the forest, however. He took a steadying breath and looked at Jake, who was watching him silently. Norm gave him a nod and drew the arrow back, focusing all of his concentration on aiming for the thanator's eye. He whispered a prayer to Eywa without thinking, asking her to guide his arrow to send the creature back to her without further suffering.

Norm hesitated for two seconds and then loosed the arrow. It whistled through the humid air and struck deep, driving through the thanator's eye and into its brain. The beast twitched reflexively and lay blessedly still after a moment, killed almost instantly by the shot. Norm slowly lowered his bow and exhaled. It was done. Now he had other things to concern him.

Norm half-expected a "take care of Neytiri" speech from his companion when he returned to his side, but Jake wasn't the sort of man to give up easily. All he asked for was that Norm get word to her for him. Norm promised he would and he kept his ears perked for the sound of an approaching aircraft.

"Neytiri?" E'quath called when the huntress suddenly called out and changed course. He and Ni'nat exchanged a look as they banked to follow her.

"Sister, what are you doing?" Ni'nat hollered when her ikran was close enough for the other female to hear her.

"Jake," Neytiri shouted back over the wind, "Something is wrong!"

Mo'at had explained to her that the bond shared by a mated pair was deep. Mo'at had felt it when Eytucan lay dying near their original Hometree, after the Sky People opened fire upon it. Her cry of rage and grief had been as much for her lost mate as her lost home. Neytiri didn't fully comprehend the depth of a mated bond until she felt the devastating certainty in her spirit that something terrible had happened to her mate. It was like a blow to her heart and her senses cried out, guiding her towards his direction.

E'quath flew slower due to the burden of the kill strapped to his ikran's back but he pushed the beast to keep up with the two females as they headed north. Neytiri spared a glance over her shoulder to be sure he wasn't falling behind before facing forward again and pressing her lips together grimly. She had no way of knowing what had happened. All that she knew was that Jake was in distress and he was somewhere in the direction she was now heading.

"What the hell happened to you guys back there?" Trudy's voice asked over the transmission from the cockpit once they lifted off.

Norm pressed his transmitter and shook his head. "I'll explain when we get to Hell's Gate and they see to him. It's complicated."

Jake was securely strapped down to the gurney and Max had already given him a dosage of sedative and pain suppressant specifically designed for avatar and Na'vi physiology. The bearded doctor hovered over his patient, looking just as worried as Norm felt. The Samson cleared the foliage and began to head back toward Hell's Gate. Trudy was pushing for speed as much as she could without causing added turbulence. The medic team worked tirelessly over the patient, keeping a constant vigil on his vital signs and the IV drip they had attached to him.

"Norm, I need to know what happened," Max pressed.

Understanding the need for it, Norm explained the event to the other man. Max's dark brows shot up when he finished. "You took down a thanator? With...a tree?"

Apparently, Trudy had been listening in from the cockpit and her chuckle came through the transmission. "Leave it to a tree-hugger. Way to go, Norm. You're one bad-ass hippie."

Norm had no reply to that but amazingly; he thought he saw Jake's lips twitch as if in amusement.

"A back injury could be bad," Max said, leaning close to Norm to keep his voice from carrying. "Dr. Jacobs is trained in Na'vi physiology however. Hopefully he can surgically correct the problem."

"How often has he opened up a Na'vi?" Norm muttered back as quietly as he could.

Max looked uncomfortable. "He's had a lot of practice on avatar cadavers that didn't make it through the linking process."

Norm sighed and pressed his lips together. "I shouldn't have asked."

"Guys," Trudy's voice called out over the transmission, "We've got a trio of banshee riders coming up behind us. Norm, do they look familiar to you?"

Norm pulled the lever down to open the cargo door on his side and he grunted with effort as he yanked it open. He cast a look at Jake to be sure the buffeting wind wasn't bothering him but the other male seemed to be passed out. He stuck his head out and his queue whipped in the wind as he looked behind them and saw the approaching Na'vi.

"It's okay," Norm shouted, a little relieved when he recognized the color patterns on the ikran pursuing the craft, "It's Neytiri and her hunting party."

Neytiri pushed Tukru for speed and when she saw the Na'vi symbol painted on the side of the chopper, she held her hand up to her companions to indicate that allies piloted it. E'quath and Ni'nat put their bows away on her command and they flanked the chopper. She recognized Norm leaning out the side of the craft, waving and shouting to her. She felt a definite sense of Jake inside and she flew her new ikran closer. Norm held out a hand to her and she took it, deftly hopping off of her mount and into the Samson with his help. Now that his bond rider was no longer guiding him, Tukru banked away from the noisy aircraft.

Neytiri immediately looked at her injured mate when she steadied herself and she cried out and went to his side, ignoring the masked humans around her. Norm came up beside her and put a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"We were attacked by a thanator while hunting," Norm explained in Na'vi. "Jake was injured while watching out for me. He briefly explained the entire thing and when he finished, he touched a hand to his forehead and looked down. "Forgive me."

Neytiri looked at the anthropologist and she saw the concern in his eyes. She knew that if it weren't for his loyalty, her mate would no longer be alive. "I forgive nothing," she said, "because there is nothing to forgive."

Returning her attention to Jake, she stroked his clammy face and brushed her thumbs over his eyelashes. "Jake? My Jake?"

He opened his eyes and there was only a thin band of yellow around the pupils. "Ney...tiri?"

She pushed down strong emotions and forced a smile. "I see you."

"I...see you," he answered in a slurred voice. She had to bend closer to hear him as he put a hand over the one she was caressing his face with. "Neytiri, Norm is ready. He...killed the thanator...all on his own. He's ready to be a sky hunter."

"We will teach him," she promised. Her voice was thick with unshed tears. She could tell he was in pain and she didn't know how badly injured he was. "Jake, rest now. I will send for Mother."

He gave her one of those maddeningly confident smirks before his eyes drifted shut. Neytiri waited until his hand slid limp from hers before she pressed a kiss on his forehead and took a deep breath. Adjusting her balance, she moved toward the open door and peered out at E'quath, who was flying alongside the chopper now.

Neytiri cried out to him with a series of avian calls and whistles, indicating her wishes. He raised a hand to her in respectful acquiescence before shouting a call to the female who was flying on the other side of the aircraft. Together, he and Ni'nat flew away in a different direction to retrieve and escort the clan's Tsahik back to Hell's Gate.

"Jake, can you hear us?"

Jake groaned, feeling like he was in the middle of a flashback. He opened his eyes and found himself looking at Max from an odd angle. The brown-skinned doctor was wearing an exopack mask over his face. "Why are you squatted on the floor?"

Max smiled a little. "You're on your stomach, Jake. We just ran you through some ex-rays and you're in the avatar medical branch. Listen to me, okay? Don't try to move—"

Jake impulsively tried to rise from the table and he felt and abrupt smack on the back of his head. His ears pulled back against his head and he instinctively stopped trying to get up as his mate's voice came to his ears.

"You lay still!"

"Max, tell her she shouldn't hit sick people," Jake grunted.

"I'm not getting into this," countered the doctor. He moved aside to make room for Neytiri and gave her a respectful nod.

Neytiri's ethereal, worried face came into Jake's view and he gave her a faltering smile. "I think you scared Max."

Neytiri cast a look over her shoulder at the man in question and her lips curved. "He cares for you, so he has no reason to fear."

"Jake, can you feel this?"

Jake frowned at the interruption and it occurred to him that he couldn't move his legs. "No. I didn't feel a damned thing. What did you do?" He struggled to look at Max but the doctor was out of his range of sight, speaking with an older man who Jake recognized as Dr. Jacobs.

"We poked your feet," answered Max.

"What the hell's going on?" Demanded Jake, attempting to rise again.

"No, Jake!" Neytiri firmly pressed his shoulders back down and gave him a tortured look. "You be still."

"Jake," Norm's voice intervened from somewhere to the right, "Your spine got injured when that thanator threw you against the tree. Dr. Jacobs thinks he can take the pressure off your spine and correct the problem with surgery."

"Broken?" Jake asked, feeling a flood of terror wash over him.

"No," answered the voice of Dr. Jacobs, "Na'vi bones are hard to break, but one of your vertebrae was forced out of place and it's pressing on your spinal cord. I'm confident that I can manually reset the damaged segment if you'll allow it."

"Will I feel my legs again?" Jake tried to speak in a calm tone of voice, but he heard the fear in his own question. He didn't want to go back to being a paraplegic.

"We won't know that until after we relieve the pressure on your spine," answered Dr. Jacobs.

Jake felt utterly defeated and he lay bonelessly on the examination bed. "That's what they told me before."

Jake heard a familiar female voice speak up. "What is involved in this thing you wish to do?"

"We'll have to make an incision—" began Max.

"You want to cut him open?" Neytiri snarled threateningly and Jake reached out and patted her hand, trying to calm her.

"Shhh, it's okay," He murmured.

"Calmly, Daughter," soothed the familiar voice. Jake managed to turn his head enough to see Mo'at standing beside Dr. Jacobs and he felt relieved by her presence.

Neytiri settled down at her mother's tone and she took Jake's closest hand and held it in hers.

"When will you try this thing you want to do?" Mo'at asked the two human doctors.

"As soon as possible," responded Max. "We want him on the operating table by morning."

"And you have methods to ensure he does not feel what you are doing?" Persisted Mo'at.

"Of course," answered Dr. Jacobs. "We've perfected medication for Na'vi. Your people aren't that dissimilar from ours, when it comes to that. Jake won't feel a thing."

Mo'at was silent for a moment and Jake thought her eyes flicked to Norm, who was standing to the left of him. "I trust that you have methods to heal Jakesully's injury," she said to the doctors after some thought, "but I do not trust your dream potion. I will administer one of my own, to ensure that he does not wake until you have finished."

"Madame, with all due respect—" began Dr. Jacobs.

"Don't argue with her," warned Norm. "She knows what she's doing and you don't have any idea whether Jake will have an allergic reaction to your anesthesia or not."

Mo'at reinforced Norm's words by staring into Dr. Jacobs' eyes until he looked away uncomfortably. "I will proved the dream potion for my son."

Neither Jacobs nor Max offered further arguments. Mo'at seemed to be satisfied with that and she looked over at Jake and met his eyes. Her expression softened and the luminescent spots dotting her features dimmed.

"I will go now to collect what I need," Mo'at said. "Leave my daughter and her mate alone. She has something to share with him, I think."

After everyone filed out of the room, Jake felt Neytiri's hand pick up his queue. He grunted and tried to pull away.

"No, I don't want you to feel this," he groaned.

She paused and looked at him with shiny, loving eyes before pressing two fingers against his lips. "Shh, Jake. I can share your pain. There is something I must share with you, too."

He had no strength to fight her and he gasped as she lined up the tip of her queue with his and made the connection. He felt her fear for him, her passionate love and the pain she experienced from the link.

"Neytiri," he panted, "D-don't. You don't have to do this."

"Oh, my Jake," she murmured huskily. Her hands settling on his shoulders and he felt warm tears fall onto his back. "I am with you. Feel me."

He felt like crying too. He was trying hard to cope with the knowledge that he could be crippled once again, but subjecting Neytiri to his pain and feeling her tears was unbearable. He was about to ask her once more to break the link, but then he felt something that made his ears perk up. There was a tiny presence in there, along with Neytiri's. His mouth parted in wonder and he looked at her, blinking.

"Is that what I think it is?"

Neytiri squatted down to smile at him, her tears slowly dripping down her face. "Our child, Jake. We made a child together. You see? You cannot give up. Our son or daughter needs a strong-willed father."

Jake took a deep, painful breath and reached out with effort to caress her face. "We did it?"

She laid a hand over the one touching her face and nodded. "You are a very cooperative mate."

Despite his pain, he laughed. It made the pain worse but he pushed it aside. He wasn't sure how he'd really feel about being a father, until now. He was initially in it for Neytiri's sake and because it was what was expected of him. Now that he felt the faint, tiny life form he had created with his mate, his sense of determination rose.

"This won't beat me."

-To be continued

Chapter Text

"Drink," Mo'at instructed as she held the cup to her adopted son's lips. Jake awkwardly lifted up on his elbows with Neytiri's help and he obediently swallowed the potent brew. He grimaced at the taste but he drank all of it without complaint.

"This will put me down?" Jake asked when the cup was empty and Mo'at took it away from him.

"You will sleep deeply, as if in a coma," Mo'at answered him. She stroked his hair with maternal affection as he laid his head back down on the pillow. "You will not wake for a full day, Jakesully. You will feel no pain and you may dream while you are away."

"Thank you, Mother," Jake answered, trying to relax. The pain made it difficult and Neytiri continually rubbed his shoulder. She had hardly moved from her place beside his bed since they got there and he turned his head to look at her. "You should go out and have something to eat from the gardens."

"I will, after you have fallen asleep," she insisted. She lowered her mouth to his and kissed him softly.

Jake reached out and stroked her hair. "You could at least sit down in the chair. It's sized for Na'vi, you know."

She glanced over her shoulder at the chair in the corner and shrugged, remaining on her knees where she was. "Human sitting places aren't comfortable. I will stay here."

Jake sighed and looked at Mo'at, grunting as the simple motion caused him pain. "Your daughter is a very stubborn woman, you know that?"

Mo'at smiled at him, her eyes going to Neytiri. "She gets that from her father. I will ensure my daughter eats, Jakesully."

He smiled, feeling sleepy already. Mo'at left the room to give him and Neytiri some privacy and Jake looked at his mate again, admiring her beautiful, worried features. He could tell that she was trying to be brave for him but her ears continued to droop as she held his hand and stroked his hair. He wished his fear hadn't fed through so much when they linked and he blamed himself for making her so anxious.

"Hey," he whispered as his eyes grew heavy-lidded. "It's nothing I haven't done before. I'll find a way to manage, if they can't fix it."

In truth, he would have to relinquish his chieftain status if he ended up crippled and he wasn't even sure he could continue living with the Omaticaya. He knew they wouldn't shun him or throw him out, but what good could he be to the clan if he couldn't hunt or gather? He would only be a burden, and not just to his wife and mother-in-law.

Neytiri nodded at him but he could see that his bravado wasn't convincing her. She knew what it would mean if the olo'eyktan became crippled. All that Jake could do now was be strong for her and prey to Eywa that they could correct the damage to his spine. His thoughts became scattered as Mo'at's potent mixture worked on him and he began to fall asleep. When his eyes drifted shut and didn't open again, he felt Neytiri's soft lips brush against his before consciousness faded completely.

"I can't stress enough how important it is that you give it everything you've got," Norm told Dr. Jacobs as he walked with him and the surgical team to retrieve Jake from his room. "Jake needs the use of his legs."

"No pressure," sighed Roy. "Don't worry, Dr. Spellman. I'm aware of what life as a paraplegic would mean for any Na'vi, let alone a leader. I'm treating this as a life or death situation and you have my word that I'll put forth my very best effort. I have every reason to believe that resetting the vertebrae that's pushing on his spinal cord will correct the problem, but you need to accept that there's a chance that the injury is too severe for it to work."

"I know," answered Norm grimly. He felt a little better knowing that Max would be assisting with the operation. Not that he didn't trust Dr. Jacobs, but Max was Jake's friend and he had greater incentive than Roy did to help him.

Norm waited outside as Jacobs and his two assistants wheeled the gurney into Jake's room to collect him. He peered in and the sight of Neytiri's mother gently urging her to let go of her mate's hand made Norm's heart clench.

"It's going to be okay, Neytiri," Norm assured her. "You trust Max, right?"

Ears drooping, she nodded and allowed her mother to coax her away from Jake's side so that the doctors could transfer him to the gurney. It was unusual to see the strong-willed, brave huntress so vulnerable. Norm rubbed tired eyes and decided that soon, he would go to the avatar bunker and end his link for a much-needed shower and nap.

Sebastian could speak in small, simple sentences now. It took effort but he was more or less coherent. He heard the news that Jake Sully was undergoing surgery for a back injury and he wanted to do something to help. After all, if it weren't for him, Sebastian would still be trapped in a feral state of mind. He went outside to the gardens and picked a selection of the native fruits and nuts cultivated there, guessing that Jake would have friends and family members there with him. He collected enough fruit to squeeze for juice and he gathered enough nuts and berries to put a few snack servings together.

He crossed paths with Trudy as he was headed back inside to make use of the kitchen in the lab building. She was running the obstacle course and she stopped to greet him when she saw him.

"Hey there, avatar who wasn't." She walked over to him, breathing a little heavily behind her exopack mask from her exercise. She looked at all of the food he was carrying and her eyebrows went up. "Damn, a little hungry there, Sebastian?"

He smiled in amusement and shook his head. He didn't know the pilot very well yet but he liked her so far. "It isn't...for me. It's for S-Sully's fam-ily."

She sobered, glancing at the lab building. "Yeah, I'll bet they could use a little pick-me-up about now. You're a sweet kid."

He shrugged. "I twenty-seven," he reminded her. "Why does everyone call me kid?"

Trudy patted him on the arm. "Sorry man. It's not that you look like a kid. I think we're all just used to Na'vi and avatars towering over us at nine-feet plus. I'm still a dwarf compared to you."

Sebastian chuckled. Most people were taller than Trudy but few were foolish enough to believe her size made her delicate. From what he had heard, she could kick ass with the best of them.

"Want to come with?" He offered.

Trudy considered it and nodded. "Sure. I'd like to check up on the jarhead anyway."

Together, they went into the lab building. Sebastian opened the door and walked through, bracing himself for the uncomfortable adjustment to the different atmosphere.

"Pretty cool that you can go anywhere you want without having to worry about an exopack," Trudy commented. She had nearly reminded him to grab a Na'vi exopack from the storage unit outside the entrance but then she remembered he suffered no breathing restrictions.

"Yeah," Sebastian coughed. "Cool." The door shut behind them and he took a moment to get used to the oxygenated air.

He saw Katherine down the hall and he impulsively called out to her. "Kath!"

Unfortunately, he couldn't speak her full name yet but she assured him that half a name was better than nothing. She even said she liked the shortened version, so he stopped worrying about trying to pronounce it in full.

She smiled and approached, her gaze flitting over him as she closed the distance. He thought he saw warmth in her gaze and possibly a hint of admiration—which made him feel great. He had intended to trim his hair short—barring the queue, of course. Katherine told him she liked the length of his loose hair so he changed his mind and left it long for her. He was embarrassed to admit to himself that he loved it when she brushed his hair for him, even though he suspected she didn't fully see him as a man when she did it.

Katherine greeted Trudy politely before settling her eyes on Sebastian's produce. "Where are you going with all that fruit?"

"Breakfast," he explained slowly, "For Jake's family."

She smiled at him. "That's a really sweet gesture, Sebastian. I'm sure they'll appreciate it."

"So have they wheeled Jake in for surgery yet?" Trudy asked.

"Yes, from what I've heard," answered Katherine. She sighed. "Poor guy. I hope they succeed."

"Yeah," Trudy agreed with a frown. "It's gotta suck to get use of his legs back just to lose it again. I'm going to go to the surgical wing and check on how it's going. See you guys around."

They watched her go and then Katherine returned her attention to Sebastian. "Would you like some help with that?" She pointed at the produce in his basket. "I don't know much about Na'vi food preparation but you can just tell me what to do."

He smiled at her and nodded gratefully.

Norm was in his human body again and he stood at the window of the operation room with an exopack mask on. Standing with him was Ramona, Ni'nat and E'quath.

"What's up guys," Trudy greeted as she approached. She looked into the operating room, where they had Jake lying on his stomach as they worked on his spine. "How is it looking?"

Norm shook his head, his eyes on the patient lying in the room. "It's too early to tell. They just opened him up a few minutes ago."

"Poor baby," Ramona sighed.

"Just remember the 'poor baby' has a mate," reminded Norm with a sidelong smirk at her.

"It's kind of hard to forget, with you constantly throwing it in my face," countered the zoologist dryly. She looked up at the tall warrior standing beside Norm and she smiled crookedly at him. "How you doing?"

"Normspellman, is this woman trying to entice me?" E'quath murmured in Na'vi.

"Probably," sighed Norm in the same language. "She is harmless, though. Her flirting is mostly for play."

"Hey, I understood some of that," Ramona announced in offended tones. "So what if I have a weakness for Na'vi men?"

"She had better not display her 'weakness' on you, Norm," Ni'nat said seriously.

Norm flushed a little, charmed by the possessive warning in the singer's tone. "I'm fairly safe from her while I'm in this body," he assured her, glancing down at his human form.

Actually, that wasn't entirely true but Ramona seemed to have better control over her impulses around human males. Something about the Na'vi men blew away her inhibitions and Norm wondered if she had ever fooled around with any of the avatar operators while they were linked. He suspected that the only reason she didn't flirt with Sebastian was out of respect for Katherine. The botanist might deny it if anyone asked her but it was pretty obvious to most people that she had a thing for Sebastian and vice-versa.

Sebastian knocked on the threshold of the door to announce himself and he waited for the older Na'vi woman in the room to nod in greeting before walking in with Katherine. The botanist carried a tray with a selection of nuts and berries piled onto a leaf, while Sebastian carried a tray with a pitcher of freshly squeezed juice and four cups.

"Are you hungry?" offered Sebastian in halting Na'vi.

Neytiri was lying on Jake's bed and she lifted her head and exchanged a glance with her mother before nodding. "Thank you."

The older woman regarded Sebastian curiously as he placed the tray on the bedside table and Katherine followed suit with her tray. "You are the one who is trapped in your Dreamwalker body?"

"Yes," he answered self-consciously. Her scrutiny made him uncomfortable but he didn't want to offend her, so he kept it to himself. It was only natural for Na'vi to be curious about him.

She studied him thoughtfully, her intelligent eyes taking in his black button-up shirt, grey jeans and black hiking boots. She walked around behind him and he nearly jumped when she picked up his tail briefly before lifting his queue to examine it.

"Your mind is still shackled," she said, coming around to stand before him once more.

Sebastian realized then that this woman was a spiritual leader amongst her people and he gave her a respectful nod. "J-Jake helped me get this far."

"And you pay your respects by feeding his family." She nodded approvingly and her features softened. "You are honorable. I am sure Jakesully will continue helping you, when he recovers."

Sebastian inclined his head and hoped it didn't seem like he was offering the food as incentive for Jake to keep working with him. "He should...c-concentrate on getting well," he murmured.

"My daughter and I will see to that," assured the woman with a little smile. She looked over her shoulder at Neytiri. "Eat, daughter. That child you carry needs nourishment and your mate would not want you making yourself ill."

"Congratulations," Katherine said awkwardly, "I mean, about the baby."

Neytiri instinctively touched a hand to her lower abdomen and she nodded. "We are pleased." With the reminder of her condition, she scooted over and began to eat the food they had brought.

"We'll leave you alone, now," Katherine said with a meaningful look Sebastian's way.

He nodded, understanding that the two Na'vi women probably wanted some privacy with their meal. He and Katherine left the room together and Neytiri's mother graciously thanked them once again.

Norm went to take a power nap after checking on the progress of Jake's surgery. He was nearly asleep when there was a knock on the door of his sleeping quarters. He grumbled under his breath and pulled the sheets aside, practically rolling out of the bunk. He grabbed the robe hanging on the side of the bunk, though boxer shorts weren't exactly immodest. If he could have slept in his avatar body, he would have. His human body felt strange to him these days.

"Ni'nat," Norm said with surprise when he opened the door and looked up at the huntress. She was wearing an exopack so that she could breath in the human area.

"Trudychacón said I could find you here," she informed him with a little smile. "Am I disturbing you?"

"Never," he said with blatant honesty. He could sleep later. "Please, come in."

She had to duck to avoid hitting her head on the top of the threshold and Norm shut the door behind her and locked it. He realized that he didn't have anywhere for her to sit, other than his bunk. Fortunately, it was a large enough bunk for two people to rest side-by-side, so at least the Na'vi woman could recline on it with relative comfort if she wished.

"Would you like to sit down?" He gestured at the bunk. "It's comfortable enough."

"Will you sit with me?" She smiled at him.

It took him a moment to push the words past his lips. "If you want me to."

"I do." She seated herself on the bunk a bit gingerly, as if concerned whether it would hold her weight. She relaxed when the sturdy bedding didn't protest and she patted the spot beside her invitingly.

Norm's mouth felt dry and he wondered again why a woman like her was even remotely interested in a geek like him, much less a "Dreamwalker". He was thankful for his good fortune and he sat down beside her, once again aware of how small he was in comparison to her.

"Do you think they can help our olo'eyktan, Norm?"

"I'm sure they'll do their best," answered Norm. "If he were human and took a blow like that, he'd either be dead or crippled for life. His Na'vi bones are much more resilient and we hope that by moving the injured part of his spine back into place, the pressure on his spinal cord will be relieved and he'll feel his legs again."

She looked a bit confused and Norm cursed himself. He had tried to put it in layman's terms but Ni'nat's English wasn't perfect. Even a simple explanation was understandably confusing to one who had never been exposed to human medical practices.

"If they heal the injured bone," she said carefully, "that should end the numbness in his legs?"

He smiled, relieved that she figured it out. "That's exactly right."

"I'm not clever," she sighed, smirking at him as if guessing why he was so relieved.

"Don't say that," countered Norm. "You are clever. You fooled me that day with the tree and I'm not usually gullible."

Ni'nat tilted her head. "Gull-ibal?"

"It means easily tricked."

She laughed softly, her eyes shining with amusement. "I did fool you. That surprised me." She stroked his face with her fingertips and her expression sobered as she traced the dark circles under his eyes. "You need rest."

"I can rest later." Her simple touch ignited fires within him and he wished he had thought to shave. Ni'nat didn't seem to mind the stubble, though. She didn't even seem to mind him being in his human body, which Norm found heartening.

"You rest now," she insisted. She placed her hands on his shoulders and pushed him down onto his back despite his surprised protest. "You will sicken without sleep."

She yawned behind her mask a moment after saying it, briefly displaying her sharp canines and pink tongue. Norm smirked up at her. "You could use some rest too."

She smiled slyly at him. "Yes, I could. Move over, please."

His mouth dropped open. "W-wouldn't you be more comfortable in the avatar bunker?"

"Would you rather I go there?"

He shook his head rapidly. "No, it isn't that! It's just...that exopack doesn't look very comfortable to sleep in."

"It does not bother me," she assured him. "I would rather sleep beside you."

He was incredibly flattered by that and he scooted back until he was pressed against the wall to make plenty of room for her. She stretched out gracefully beside him and her feet hung over the end of the bunk. It was on the tip of Norm's tongue to tell her his avatar body was in the Na'vi quarters but he didn't want to give her any reason to leave his bed, now. She'd be sleeping next to an empty shell if she lay down beside his avatar now, anyway.

Her long, elegant hand took one of his and Norm swallowed as she placed it on her hip. He instinctively caressed the nearly bare, smooth skin and he stared into her eyes, wishing there wasn't a barrier of thick plastic covering her face. She released his hand and rested hers on his waist. He noticed she was still wearing his ID tags around her neck and he felt like grinning idiotically. Sighing with content, he continued to stroke her hip and he shut his eyes.


He opened his eyes again and looked at her. "Hmm?"

"Will you try to pass through the eye of Eywa when you join the Omaticaya?" She spoke as if she already knew he would pass his trial and become a true hunter.


She bit her lip and searched his eyes. "Will you miss your human body?"

He thought about it for a moment. He had lived his entire life as a human up until the Avatar program, after all. "Maybe a little, at first. I know I'll be happier as a Na'vi though."

Ni'nat smiled at him. He swore she looked somewhat relieved. "Good I would want you happy." She rubbed his back slowly and plucked at the robe. "You should take this thing off."

Norm didn't even think to question her. Hell, his boxer shorts covered up more than the loincloth he wore as an avatar. He fumbled with the ties and shifted to pull the robe off. Bunching it up carelessly, he dropped it on the corner of the bed and lay back down on his side, tucking his bottom arm beneath his pillow. Ni'nat scooted closer and suddenly they were laying against one another, skin on skin. Norm shut his eyes and breathed in deeply as his senses were overwhelmed by the scent and feel of her. It wasn't as consuming in his human form as it was in his avatar form, but he still began to harden at the feel of her silken skin and curves against his body.

Ni'nat stroked his hair and urged his head closer, until his cheek was resting between her breasts. Norm bit back a groan. If he were in his other body right now, he suspected he would lose control. Perhaps she knew that human sexuality wasn't as raw as Na'vi sexuality was, or perhaps she was only testing his self-control. Her fingertips skimmed over his naked back in a sensual glide. It felt fantastic and he reciprocated, hardly noticing the size difference between them any longer.

She rubbed his back until he fell into an exhausted sleep and once his breathing was deep and even, she paused and reached for her exopack mask. She took a deep breath and held it while she lifted the visor, long enough to place a soft kiss on his parted lips. Smiling, she pulled the mask down again and sought her own rest.

"Wow, this is weird." Jake looked around in confusion. The last thing he remembered was feeling Neytiri kiss him. At first, he thought he was awake and the operation was so successful that the pain was gone and his legs were perfectly fine. It occurred to him that it wasn't possible for everything to be fine and dandy as if nothing had happened.

He was standing in his hospital room alone. He saw a tray with a plate-sized leaf resting on it and the remnants of food. Guessing that Neytiri and Mo'at must have taken time to gather something to eat from the gardens, he felt relief—even as he felt confusion. Was he dreaming? Having a vision? Hallucinating? Dead?

He walked out the door and down the hall. A human woman in a lab coat with an exopack on headed straight for him as if she didn't see him.

"Slow down," Jake cautioned as he tried to move out of the way. She passed right through him. He began to panic a little. "Just take it easy," he advised himself. "Mo'at wouldn't have given you something that would ease you right into the next life. You're not a ghost, Jake."

He walked absently down the hallways, trying to work things out in his head and stay calm. He found himself in the avatar surgical wing and he almost passed by the operating room where they were working on him. He spotted himself lying on the table out the corner of his eye and he came to a halt, staring through the window. He was lying on his stomach with a suction tube down his throat in case he started vomiting during the surgery. Dr. Jacobs and Max were working over him and there were two assistant staff members in the room with them. A shiny sterile adhesive square was spread out over Jake's lower back.

Knowing it was probably a mistake but curious to see what exactly they were doing to him, he took a deep breath and walked right through the observation window. It was a strange experience, being non-corporeal. He walked up behind Max, easily able to peer over the doctor's dark head to see what they were doing.

He wished he hadn't looked.

It wasn't a big incision—only about two inches long just beneath the middle of his back. They had it pulled open though and Jake felt nauseous as Dr. Jacobs inserted some kind of grasping instrument to grip the dislocated vertebrae. Jake hastily looked away when he saw the bone shift. It was ironic; he had no compunctions about shooting, stabbing or slicing an enemy and he could skin and gut a kill without flinching. Seeing his own spine was too much for him, though.

"You really don't have any luck with those thanators, marine."

Jake yelped aloud with surprise and whirled around to see Dr. Augustine standing only a foot away from him, in her avatar form. She gave him that dry, familiar grin of hers that he missed so much and he swallowed hard.


"Who else? I think that fall rattled your brain, Sully." Her eyes were warm on him despite her sarcasm.

He smiled at her. "Are you real?"

"As real as you are."

He frowned uncertainly and glanced over his shoulder at his unconscious body. Grace chuckled softly and laid a hand on his shoulder. It felt warm and real. "Relax, kid. You're real and you're still alive."

"Then how come I can see you?"

"My guess is Mo'at's potion heightened your spiritual vision. The Na'vi have all kinds of methods to induce a dream state."

He considered the information. "So do you have a direct line to Eywa?"

"In a manner of speaking," she answered. She looked at his body in the operating room and she sighed. "I saw the whole thing happen, you know. That's the thing about the afterlife; you can only watch when the living get hurt."

"It isn't your fault," he protested. "And to tell you the truth, I think you were acting through Norm. If it weren't for you working with him, he wouldn't have known enough about that tree to use it against the thanator, and if it weren't for him I'd be dead now."

She smiled with matronly pride. "He's a good kid, Norm. A little too enthusiastic sometimes but at least I know he listened to the things I said to him."

"Hey, I'm a good kid too," Jake protested with a grin.

"You're a trouble-maker," Grace shot back, "but a good-hearted one," she finished with a smile.

"Speaking of kids," Jake said, feeling the need to boast, "Neytiri and I are expecting one now."

Grace looked openly surprised and she smirked. "That's some fast work you did there, marine. Most Na'vi females aren't ready to have their first baby until at least a year after mating." She sighed, "but it would make sense for some of them to start early now, after all the people they lost."

Jake nodded. "There are plenty of young couples expecting, now. I guess nature corrects the balance on its own."

Grace looked at him thoughtfully. "Coming from you, that was almost profound."

He smirked. "I can rub two brain cells together once in a while."

"Just don't hurt yourself, marine."

"Now you're just being mean." He was smiling, though. Grace's insults were nothing more than fond teasing.

Jake sighed and looked at his body. "Grace, do you have any idea what's going to happen to me?" Maybe it was silly but it kind of felt like she was playing the role of his guardian angel.

She shook her head regretfully. "If I did, I'd tell you. I want you to promise me that you'll stay strong, no matter what happens. I know you've got it in you, Sully."

"I'll give it my best shot," he promised softly. "So, are you going to keep me company while they work on me?"

"You bet," she agreed. "I'm proud of both you and Norm. Tell him that when you go back, would you?"

"It's a promise," Jake granted, "but I don't know if he'll believe me when I say I talked to you. He'll probably think I was just dreaming or something."

"Probably," she smirked. "But he can take it or leave it."

"Daughter, wake up."

Neytiri opened bleary eyes and looked up at her mother's face hovering over her. She didn't find the bed particularly comfortable but Jake's scent lingered on it and she found it comforting.

"They are bringing Jakesully back and they will need to lay him on this bedding."

Neytiri felt torn between excitement and trepidation as she rose and got out of her mate's hospital bed. She was relieved that the surgery was finished. The humans had been tending his injury for half the day and she was beginning to worry that something went wrong. It was a relief to hear that they were finished but there was still the matter of finding out whether their efforts succeeded in giving his legs their feeling back.

Mo'at circled around the bed and put her arms around her comfortingly as the staff wheeled Jake into the room and transferred him to the bed. The back of his hospital gown was open and Neytiri peered anxiously at his skin. She saw a fine cut over his spine, partway to his mid-back. It was sutured skillfully and she guessed that the scar would be hard to notice over time. She had expected them to cut him open from shoulders to tail. The mark of his surgery looked superficial.

"What can you tell us about his condition?" Mo'at questioned as soon as Max approached.

"The operation was a success," Max said, "but let's not get too excited yet. We repaired the damage but we won't know if he's got feeling back in his legs until he wakes up and sometimes it isn't immediate. We'll have to be patient."

He considered Neytiri and he rightly guessed that she wasn't going to leave Jake's side for anything other than food and bathroom breaks. "See if we can get a spare gurney in here so she'll have something to sleep on," he said to one of the nurses.

"I do not require a bed," Neytiri informed him.

"Some blankets and a pillow, then," Max insisted with a smile. "You don't want to sleep on the cold floor and there isn't enough room in Jake's bed for both of you. Mo'at, you're welcome to sleep in here too if you like but the avatar cabin is all set up for you and your companions."

"I will sleep in the cabin," Mo'at said.

Sebastian brought more food to Neytiri early that evening, for which she was grateful. It wasn't that she didn't want to eat...she was just so deep in thought and worried about her mate that it completely slipped her mind to gather or hunt her own meal. She thanked him with a little smile and when he inquired about Jake's condition, she explained as best as she could with her limited understanding of human medicine. He left her alone after that and she ate without truly tasting any of it. Her eyes kept straying to Jake as she finished her meal, half-expecting to see him waking up, even though she knew her mother's potion would keep him out until the next day.

When she finished eating, she kissed Jake on the shoulder and whispered that she wouldn't be gone for long. She picked up the tray Sebastian had brought to her and she carried it out of the room, asking a passing staff member where she was supposed to put it. He graciously offered to put it away for her and she thanked him, silently noting the admiring look he gave her. Many of the humans seemed to find her people beautiful. She found them fascinating as well but Jake was the only one she had ever held an attraction for, and he was Na'vi now.

She returned to the room and her feet practically dragged with exhaustion. She glanced at her mate with a sigh and decided to try and get some rest. There was no point in staying up when she knew he wouldn't rouse at least until morning. She ran her fingers through his braids and stroked his queue before kissing him softly on the lips.

"I will see you in the morning, my Jake. Sleep well."

At first, Jake couldn't get his eyes to focus and he saw two of everything. He groaned softly and he caught sight of a shapely, slender leg and he leaned over as much as he could to look down at the owner. Neytiri was asleep on the floor, lying on a pallet of blankets. She had her hands folded and tucked under her cheek. It took a moment for her to come completely into focus and Jake murmured her name softly. She stirred and sat up with a yawn.

"Hey," Jake said to her. His voice broke and he cleared his throat. It was raw from the tube they'd put down it during surgery.

"Jake?" Neytiri looked up at him with parted lips and she quickly rose to her knees and cupped his face. "Are you in pain?"

"I'm not sure yet," he said truthfully. "I'm still pretty groggy. That was some potent stuff your mother gave me."

"Be still," she said as she rose to her feet, "I will fetch a toktor to see to you."

"Wait," Jake grunted, but she was already out the door. "I've got to pee," he finished with a sigh. Not that he relished the thought of being handled by people so that he could take a leak, but it was either that or wet himself. He let his head fall back to the pillow and he tried to wiggle his toes. He couldn't feel anything and Jake shut his eyes and pressed his lips together.

Moments later, Neytiri came back in with Dr. Jacobs following behind her. "How are you feeling, Jake?" asked Roy. "Any nausea or pain?"

"My back aches," answered Jake, "but I guess that's normal. Doc, I still can't feel my legs."

"Hmm," Dr. Jacobs muttered. "Can you feel this?"

Jake shook his head. "Nothing. What did you do?"

"I ran my pen over the sole of your foot. What about your tail, can you move that at all?"

Jake concentrated hard and grimaced with effort. He felt a little heartened when he felt his tail respond sluggishly to his command. It felt if it had fallen asleep and was just waking back up again. "I can move it a little."

"So I see," replied the doctor. "It's a good sign, Jake. Your tail was as unresponsive as your legs yesterday, so it stands to reason that if you can move it now your legs are likely to follow. You have some inflammation around the injury and it's going to take a couple of days to go down. Once it does, we should see more results so just try to be patient. I'm going to put you on medication to reduce the inflammation and help it go faster."

Jake's body went limp with relief. He hadn't dared hope that they would be any more successful this time than the doctors who tried to repair the damage to his spine as a human. He wasn't quite out of hot water yet but at least now he knew there was a chance. Neytiri was smiling softly, her eyes reflecting the hope he felt.

"Thanks, Doc. Let's hope you're right about this. Uh, I hate to ask but I've got to go."

"Jake, you can't leave. You're in recovery."

Jake laughed and shook his head. "That wasn't the kind of 'going' I had in mind."

Dr. Jacobs looked faintly embarrassed for the misunderstanding. "Ah, that. I'll get some nursing staff in here with a bed pan to help you."

"Females?" Neytiri asked in a warning tone, her expression darkening as her ears pulled back.

"Uh, no," the doctor assured her hastily. "I'll only send males. One of the avatar operators works on our staff in this section of the building and I'll have him fetched to make it easier. Just hold it for a few minutes longer, Jake."

"I don't have much of a choice," answered the warrior dryly.

When the doctor left the room, Jake cast a grin at Neytiri. He was in much better spirits now despite his aching bladder. "What do you think female nurses are going to do, take advantage of me?"

"I see the way the women here look at you," she said without apology. "I would not trust them touching you intimately, Jake."

"Intimately?" He had to fight laughter. "I can think of sexier things to do than help a guy pee, but if it bothers you—"

"It does." She pressed her lips together.

Jake struggled onto his elbows and he leaned toward her to kiss her on the lips. "I love it when you get territorial."

"Then you will be 'loving it' a lot, while we are here," she murmured. "The human females don't know what to do with their eyes. Na'vi women know better than to openly admire another's mate."

Jake blurted a laugh. "Ah, those brazen human girls. I've been tainted by their eyes."

She flicked his ear, making him wince. "You laugh, but I don't think it is funny."

He lay back down again, too weak to stay propped up. "I guess I take it as a compliment when I catch another man eye-humping you. I know you'd tear their throat out if they tried anything so I feel secure."

She frowned and lowered her gaze. "Then you think I don't trust you, Jake?"

"I know you trust me," he answered readily. "I know its the women you don't trust and you know what? I don't mind."

She bit her lip and smiled at him, becoming playful again. "I guard what is mine."

"If I weren't in this situation right now I'd ask for a demonstration," Jake said, only half-joking. There he was, paralyzed in the legs and fresh out of surgery, yet she still managed to turn him on.

Neytiri's hand slowly slipped down his side, careful not to touch the sutured area on his back. Jake faintly felt it curl around his tail at the base and even though the appendage was half-numb, he still felt the tingles when she scratched the underside.

"Hey, none of that," he chastised, trying to wriggle. "They're gonna be coming in to help me pee and the last thing I need is a hard-on."

Neytiri chuckled and took pity on him. "As soon as you are recovered enough, then."

"You bet." He only hoped Dr. Jacobs' diagnosis was right and he really would make a full recovery, eventually. If he didn't start regaining control of his legs within a week, he was going to have to start thinking about who would take over his leadership role in the clan.

-To be continued


Olo'eyktan Clan leader, or chieftain

toktor = Doctor

Chapter Text

Norm woke up to find himself alone in his bunk. He checked his watch to see how long he had been asleep and he grumbled in annoyance. He hadn't meant to sleep for a full eight hours, but he supposed he needed the rest. He was a little disappointed that Ni'nat was gone but he knew he would find her somewhere on the compound if he searched. For now, he needed to eat something, shower and get back into his avatar body. He took care of his immediate needs first and he dressed in his usual khaki pants and t-shirt combo before heading to the linking room. Ni'nat was waiting outside, peering into the room through the window with curiosity.

"Hi," Norm said as he approached her. He was suddenly nervous. "I hope you didn't have any trouble getting out of my room."

"I watched how you used the door," she explained with a little smile of greeting. "It was easier to understand than I thought."

He nodded and looked into the room. Two of the drivers were coming out of their linking capsules and another was just going in. "So I guess you figured out this is where I go to get into my uniltìrantokx."

"I asked Maxpatel to show me," she explained, glancing through the window again. "I was curious. Norm, is this dangerous for you?"

He considered fibbing a little and telling her that it wasn't, but if he wanted his relationship with this woman to go further, he knew he needed to stay in the habit of being truthful with her. "It can be, if the link is interrupted or something happens to my dreamwalker body while I'm linked to it. I feel what my other body feels, even if my human body doesn't get injured. If the link is interrupted while it's in progress, I could have...I guess mind sickness is the best way to describe it. We call it mental trauma."

"And how bad could that be?"

He hesitated. "We've had a couple of drivers slip into a catatonic state and die. Their minds left them."

Ni'nat's expression froze behind the breathing mask. "That is a great risk, Norm."

He took her hands in his, barely noticing the size difference. "It's okay. There's almost no chance of a deliberate link interruption now and even if the base loses power for some reason, we've got backup reserves and they'll send warning to me before the power goes out completely."

She looked dubious. "You are certain?"

He nodded. "Yes. Please, don't worry. If I do everything right, someday soon I won't have to worry about linking anymore. It's just until I pass my trial and permanently become one with my avatar body, if Eywa wills it."

She didn't seem completely soothed by the news and Norm understood why when she spoke a moment later. "Passing through the eye of Eywa carries its own risks."

"I know. I'm prepared to take them. If I hesitate, she may not see me as worthy."

Ni'nat smiled. "Then I will have faith in you and help you succeed in your hunter's trial."

His confidence increased with her promise and he looked up at her with a smile of his own. "I'll see you in a little while, Ni'nat."

He released her hands and walked through the door. Glancing over his shoulder as he stopped by his linking capsule and powered it up, he saw her watching through the glass. He gave her a little nod before climbing in and informing the lab techs that he was ready to go.

Mo'at and Neytiri were outside getting some fresh air and gathering produce for a meal when Norm and Ni'nat went to Jake's room to check up on him.

"Hey Jake. I see they've let you lay on your side." Norm was in his avatar body when he walked in. Ni'nat followed in behind him and she smiled respectfully at Jake.

Jake turned his head and looked up at Norm. "Damn good thing, too," he remarked. "Lying in the same position for hours is a bitch."

"I can't say I blame you for being in a bad mood," Norm said sympathetically. "Have you been able to move anything yet?"

"I can move my tail a little better now," answered Jake. "This morning all I could do was flick it a little."

"Let me have a look."

Jake felt a breeze up his backside as Norm lifted the sheets covering him and he grimaced, hoping Ni'nat had her head turned. Not that his loincloth covered much of his ass anyhow but he was getting a little tired of outright flashing everyone.

"Okay, try to move your tail now," Norm instructed.

Jake swished his tail with effort, grunting a little as he strained to curve it. "How's that?"

"Good," Norm approved. "So you can feel your tail better now than this morning?"

Jake nodded. "Yeah. It's still numb at the tip but I can feel it from the base down to about halfway. They told me I might be able to move my legs when the swelling goes down. What do you think, Norm?"

"I think you'd better listen to what they say," Norm answered sincerely. "Modern medicine isn't my primary field. Max would never steer you wrong and Roy's a good doctor."

"But do you think there's a chance?" Jake craned his neck to look at him. "I just want your opinion."

Norm looked a little uncomfortable and Ni'nat excused herself, sensing a delicate moment. "Jake, I don't know what to think yet," Norm told him sincerely. "Like I said, Max and Roy know more about this than I do. I'd like to tell you I think you'll be walking again when the inflammation goes down but I don't know how bad your spinal cord was damaged. I don't want to make assumptions, okay?"

Jake grumbled and laid his head back down. "I guess I can't expect more."

Norm sighed. "You're too impatient. I'm going to have to tell them to keep an eye on you because I've got a feeling as soon as you feel your legs again, you'll be doing something stupid like trying to get up and run."

Jake blurted a laugh, remembering the first day he'd tried out his new avatar body and poor Norm had to chase after him through the garden. "I promise I won't do that, this time. Back then I was feeling my legs for the first time in years and my avatar body was completely healthy. I know I can't get up and run laps as soon as I get a tingle in my feet."

"Yeah, you say that now but I'm not sure I trust you to keep your head." Norm circled around to the side of the bed and looked down at Jake with a serious, stern expression. "You can't just get up and walk out of here if you get your legs back, Jake. You're going to have to take it easy and go through therapy. Push it too far and you'll cause damage they can't fix, understand?"

"What are you, my dad?" Jake grunted and propped himself up on his elbow.

"I'm your friend." Norm shrugged. "And the Omaticaya have lost enough leaders this year. Give yourself time to heal. Neytiri and Mo'at can take up the slack while you're out of commission but you won't do the clan any good if you rush this."

"All right, let's compromise," reasoned Jake. "You keep improving your hunting and survival skills and you claim your ikran. If you do that, I'll resist the urge to go jogging as soon as I get some feeling back in my legs. Deal?"

"I was going to do all that anyway," Norm pointed out.

Jake smirked. "You see? It's a win-win situation."

Norm shook his head but he grinned faintly. "You've got a weird sense of logic, Jake."

"Norm, we are going to hunt before it gets too dark," Ni'nat explained when the anthropologist stepped back out of Jake's room.

"Our olo'eyktan needs meat to keep up his strength," added E'quath. "Join us, tsmukan."

"Yes," agreed Ni'nat with a smile. "You need to keep improving your skills and we would enjoy your company."

Norm smiled. "I would be honored. I'll just get my weapons."

Jake called out to E'quath from his hospital room, evidently having heard some of the conversation. While Norm went to get his hunting gear from the avatar cabin, E'quath and Ni'nat went into Jake's room to see what he wanted.

"You two need to take over where I left off," Jake told them. "Teach him to shoot straight and show him how to make his own banshee catcher. He needs to start training for his final trial. When you think he's strong and agile enough, you take him up mountain path for his Iknimaya. Something tells me I won't recover before his time comes."

"You have our word, Olo'eyktan," Ni'nat promised. She and E'quath both inclined their heads and made a traditional gesture of respect before leaving the room.

They found another trunk of Sebastian's personal belongings in the civilian storage area and they delivered it to his personal quarters. Katherine was there with him, helping him sort out everything and decide what he was going to keep. Of course, all of his clothes were useless to him now so he had decided to donate them for other residents. His shaving gear was equally useless, since Na'vi males didn't grow facial hair. Katherine solicitously alphabetized his book collection for him while he sorted out the rest of the items in the trunk.

Sebastian found a case with his pair of old glasses inside and he opened it up. He picked up the lenses and held them up to his eyes curiously. He blinked. "I was...blind."

Katherine turned around from her task of sorting the books on his shelf and she smirked at the sight of his amber eyes blinking behind the lenses. "I take it you don't have need them any more?"

He shook his head and held them out to her for her inspection. She took them and tried them on experimentally. He thought she looked cute in the oval-framed glasses. "This isn't so bad," she announced. "You weren't 'blind', Sebastian."

"Close enough," he said with a little grin.

She took the glasses off and folded them, handing them back to him. "I didn't even realize you wore glasses. I never saw you wear them when we were going through orientation."

"Con...contacts," he explained wryly.

"I see. Well, you probably won't find anyone with the same prescription in need of glasses. Do you want to just toss them?"

He considered the glasses thoughtfully and his throat tightened a little. He had always hated wearing them but now, they were a link to his past that he couldn't bear to get rid of. He shook his head and placed them back into the case, which he then put on the small reading desk in the corner of the room. Katherine watched him with sympathetic eyes, probably guessing why he refused to be rid of them.

"Why don't we go on a picnic?" She suggested, out of the blue.

He looked up from the desk at her with a surprised frown. "Picnic?"

"Don't tell me you don't know what a picnic is," she chuckled. "You make something from the native gardens and I'll make something for me from the kitchen. There's an indoor garden in the recreation building and we could have a nice, quiet dinner together there." She paused and grimaced. "You think it's corny, don't you?"

He shook his head. "No, of course not!" The words came out smoothly in his sincerity. Granted, a picnic wasn't something he would have thought of doing for fun but a little rest and relaxation did sound appealing. "It sounds nice."

She tilted her head and smiled at him. "I've been meaning to ask about your accent. Were you originally from Britain?"

He nodded. "I'm...afraid so."

"I like your accent. I think you're the only Brit I've ever met."

The compliment softened the ache in his heart and he returned her smile.

The hunting party brought back a hexapede that Ni'nat took down and as they roasted the meat for dinner, Norm began to construct his banshee catcher. E'quath and Ni'nat advised him as he worked on it but to their mutually expressed surprise, he picked up on it quickly.

"You have made one before?" E'quath asked suspiciously as Norm's long fingers deftly worked the materials gathered from the razor palm tree.

Norm shook his head and measured out another length of sinew string for use with the bone needle. "I've read up on how they're made," he explained. "And I've watched Na'vi make them before." He held up the foot-long section he had completed so far and frowned. "How does it look?"

Ni'nat approached and sat down beside him on the log, studying his handiwork with a critical eye. "The stitching on the right is too loose. You are otherwise doing a fine job."

He nodded and immediately began working on tightening the stitching. "Got it. Thanks."

She smiled. Norm really sank his teeth into his work. If the children in the clan focused on their lessons the way he did, they would probably be ready for Iknimaya before the in-between years spanning childhood to adulthood. She watched his deft fingers work over the special bola and she admired their sensitivity. Clever hands made for good craftsmen. From what she had heard from other females, clever hands also made for excellent mating partners. Ni'nat knew that the iridescent pattern of spots on her face and throat were beginning to glow. She wondered how much stronger her urges were going to get when her body went into heat for the first time.

"Ni'nat," E'quath said patiently, "Normspellman will ask if he needs more help. Help me cook this meat, sister."

Ni'nat was faintly embarrassed for getting so engrossed in watching Norm work. She nodded at E'quath, who was practically like a blood sibling to her. The two of them went to Grace's school together and took their hunter trials together. E'quath's tracking skills were unrivaled and his strength and hunting expertise had many women eyeing him as a potential mate, but he had never mastered the art of cooking meat evenly.

"You are moon-eyed," he grumbled under his breath when she approached and began assisting him in roasting the meat over the fire. "What is it you see in him that makes you so distracted?"

Ni'nat's first instinct was to get defensive and she scowled at her old friend. "More than I see in most other available men."

"You are insulted," guessed E'quath. He glanced over his shoulder at Norm, who was so busy crafting his banshee catcher that he hadn't noticed their quiet conversation. "I respect Normspellman. I respect you. I only want you to have the best mate, when it is time for you to choose...and you have your pick of almost any unmated male in the clan."

"I will have the best mate," she insisted. "For me."

E'quath glanced at Norm once more and he shrugged, not bothering to argue further with her. She knew he was of the mind that she should seek the strongest partner but like many other Omaticaya, his ideals of strength were rather simple. She wanted more than brute strength in a mate, but Ni'nat understood that cultural expectations ran deep. There was no point in trying to explain it to him and she was free to choose the mate that best suited her, regardless of anyone's opinion.

She examined the meat on the spit and she turned it carefully to ensure it cooked through evenly. Out the corner of her eye, she watched Norm and she caught herself smiling a little at the expression of acute concentration on his features. Physically, he didn't have a face that would turn heads. It was sweet..."cute", by human terms. His kind smile—when he gave it—lit up his features in a way that made her want to nuzzle him.

"Even I can do better," E'quath griped softly, ushering her aside.

Ni'nat looked at the skewered flesh roasting over the fire and she bit her lip when she realized she had burned the underside a bit. E'quath shook his head at her and gave her a rare, sidelong smirk of amusement.

"Go and help your intended mate. You are useless to me now."

Ni'nat gave him a sour look, but she couldn't hold it for long. Maybe he didn't understand her choice but she knew E'quath would support it.

Jake had to swallow his pride as two days passed without much improvement to his condition. He regained nearly all sensation and movement in his tail, but his legs were still dead to all feeling and response. Norm and the others stayed and took it upon themselves to supply meat. Sebastian and Katherine continued to bring fresh native produce. Jake begged Neytiri to get out more and go hunting with the others but she stubbornly stayed by his side, refusing to leave except to bathe and rid her body of wastes.

He finally convinced her to go on a hunt with the others on the afternoon of the second day and he chuckled when Max asked him if she should be doing such a thing in her condition. The doctor was exercising Jake's legs to keep the muscles pliable and slow deterioration.

"Try to stop her, I dare you," Jake said as lightly as he could. "It's normal for Na'vi women to keep active when they're pregnant, unless something goes wrong or they're too close to their due date. I can't tell you how many times I've joined a hunting party with at least one pregnant huntress."

Jake sighed and glanced at the television, which was rigged to show re-runs of old Earth shows. He hadn't taken much interest in watching the programs, which faintly surprised him. "Actually, do me a favor and don't say anything to her," he revised, losing his humorous tone. "No offense to you guys but this place is smothering her. I want Neytiri to get out and do the things she likes. She doesn't need to be cooped up in here with me twenty-four-seven."

Max shrugged and lowered Jake's right leg to move onto the left one. "Well, you know Na'vi lifestyles better than I do," he sighed as he raised Jake's calf. "If you think she's safe to hunt, I can't argue with you. Where is Mo'at?"

"She's found a quiet spot outside the base to meditate," Jake explained. "She goes there twice a day for an hour or so to commune with Eywa and pray."

"How is your back feeling?"

"A little tight around the place where you guys operated, but it's okay. When can I lie on my back?"

"Give it a few more days," cautioned Max. "The inflammation is going down but it isn't gone and I want to make sure that position won't put too much pressure on it and dislodge the damaged vertebra again. You haven't felt any improvement other than in your tail?"

"Nothing yet," Jake grunted as he propped himself up on his elbows and reached for the remote. The remote was designed with large buttons, presumably for Na-vi sized fingers to comfortably operate. Jake flipped through the recorded broadcasts without any real interest and sighed. He knew Max was bending his calf up and down but he couldn't feel a damned thing.

"Try to keep your spirits up, Jake." Max sounded quietly sympathetic. "I can only imagine what a crushing blow it must be for you to be in this situation, but you managed before and we aren't throwing in the towel yet."

Jake snorted. "Don't lose any sleep, Max. I'm holding my own and I'm not going to fall into the pity pot."

"Good." Max finished helping him through his exercises and he looked at the thickening growth of hair on Jake's skull where he'd previously shaved it. Na'vi hair grew quickly and before long, Jake's mohawk would be more of a messy shag. "Do you want me to get someone in here to shave that for you again?"

"No thanks," answered Jake. He shot a grin over his shoulder at the doctor. "Neytiri wants me to grow it out again."

Max smiled. "Anything for the wife, huh? I guess I can't fault you for that."

Three more days passed and in the evening, Ni'nat brought a fresh meal of meat and fruit with a broad smile on her face. Neytiri followed and she was smiling as well, though her expression was more reserved. Jake watched them curiously.

"What are you so happy about?"

"This meat was provided by Norm's arrow," answered Ni'nat proudly. "It was a good, clean kill."

Jake grinned, sharing her pride. He nearly asked where Norm was now because he wanted to congratulate him, but he reminded himself that nobody wanted to leave drying blood on their body after skinning and cleaning a kill for food and parts. Norm was probably bathing.

"How is his progress otherwise?" Jake adjusted his bed, raising the top so that he could eat in a sitting position. Dr. Jacobs finally approved him lying on his back yesterday and it made it much easier for Jake to communicate with his friends, clan-mates and family.

"Very well," Ni'nat informed sincerely. "E'quath thinks so too. He could be ready for Iknimaya in only a few days, olo'eyktan."

Jake considered this thoughtfully. "He's finished his banshee catcher?" He accepted the leaf plate of food his mate handed to him with a murmur of thanks and a brief smile at her.

"Yes, he has. I will begin practice with him in the morning." Ni'nat chewed her lower lip. "I hope the ikran doll we have made will be enough to help him prepare."

"Doubt it," Jake said with a dry chuckle as he picked up a hunk of meat. "But Norm is resourceful. He'll find his own way to get through the trial. Just don't expect it to be typical."

Ni'nat lowered her eyes and smiled softly. "No, I would not expect common methods from him."

Jake shot a quick look at Neytiri, who returned his glance with a faint little smirk. It seemed that Norm's training wasn't the only thing progressing. If his guess was right, it would be time to approach Ni'nat with the question of which males she would accept as a mate. So far, only one held her interest.

"I will leave you to your meal," Ni'nat said, excusing herself politely. "Eat well." She left an additional plate for when Mo'at returned from her evening meditation and she left the room, leaving Jake and Neytiri alone to eat.

They enjoyed their meal in companionable silence. After they set their plates aside, Neytiri stood at the foot of Jake's bed and rubbed his feet—as had become her habit since his accident. He watched her slender, strong fingers moving over his feet in a circular motion and he sighed, wishing he could grant her wish and respond to it.

"Neytiri, you don't have to do that every night," Jake murmured.

"The toktor says it helps the blood flow," she argued softly, her thick lashes hiding her amber gaze as she lowered her eyes. "He said it may help bring feeling back. Let me do what I can, my Jake."

He wasn't going to argue with her. He was hanging on by a thread as it was and Neytiri's hopeful determination was both comforting and painful to him. He kept his mouth shut and he watched the way her multiple braids fell over her shoulders as she worked on his feet. The scent that had been driving him so mad over the past couple of weeks had finally died down, now that nature's urges had been answered. It didn't make him want her any less but at least now, he could be around her and still think.

Much as he hated to do it, Jake began to make plans for relinquishing his position within the clan. He listened to the sound of the beads in his mate's hair clinking together and he mentally reviewed replacement candidates. He narrowed the list down to three when something distracted him and made his eyes go blank.

"N-Neytiri," Jake said cautiously, hardly daring to believe he had felt what he thought he felt, "would you do that again?"

She looked at him with veiled hope in her eyes. "Do what again, Jake?"

"Whatever you did just a second ago, right before I said something."

She kept her gaze focused on his face and she squeezed his big toe between her fingers. "This?"

He felt it. It was a very faint tingle but the sensation was there. "I think I felt something," he breathed, trying to quell the excited hope that rose within him.

Neytiri massaged the toe and gazed at him with wide, anticipating eyes. "Do you feel this?"

"I...I'm not sure...ouch, hey!"

She lowered her mouth to his toe and bit it, nipping at the usually sensitive pad of it with her lower canine. Jake felt the distant sting and his toe twitched in response. Neytiri lifted her head and gasped in delight when she saw the movement.

"Jake," she enthused, "I think you are healing!"

"Norm, I need to talk to you."

Norm looked up from the remaining meat that he was preparing to salt and dry. "Is something wrong?"

Beside him, E'quath and Ni'nat also paused to regard the human curiously.

"I just need your input on something," Max said evasively. His dark eyes held a secret message in them. Something about his stance and the look on his face warned Norm that this wasn't just a common social call.

"We can finish this for you," offered Ni'nat.

Norm looked at her and hesitated, loathe to leave his job to someone else. She gave him an encouraging smile and E'quath nodded with dignified agreement.

"I'll come back to help finish as soon as I've spoken with Max," promised Norm. He walked away with his associate and once they were far enough away not to be overhear, he muttered; "what's the problem?"

"I've got good news and bad news," Max replied in an equally restrained voice. "The good news is that Jake's getting some feeling back in his toes."

Norm stopped. "That's great! Can he move them?"

Max nodded. "Yes. Now he's complaining that he's got 'pins and needles' in his toes and the ball of his feet, but he's clearly just covering up his enthusiasm. I slipped him a little something to help him sleep. I haven't forgotten his reaction, the first time he woke up in his avatar body and figured out he could use his legs."

Norm chuckled. "I warned him not to get ahead of himself. So, what's the bad news?"

Max sighed. "The bad news is that we've gotten a transmission straight from Earth. Something went wrong with the Superluminal Communications back there and this is the first time they've managed to send a direct message to us. They got Selfridge's report about what happened when we sent him and the others away and now they are convinced the base is under hostile takeover from the Na'vi."

"But that's crazy," Norm snapped, "Did you tell them what's really going on?"

"Of course I did," answered Max, "but Selfridge's account of the wildlife rising up against the RDA has them convinced he went crazy during his time here. They think we're answering under threat, Norm. They're going to send instructions to all forces rotating this way to take back the base. They mentioned a 'secret weapon' and I'm sure you can guess what that might be."

Norm pressed his lips together. "The permanent avatar transference. They aren't even going to wait for conformation that it was successful with Sebastian, are they? They're going to send those specialized agents in with the enhanced avatar bodies."

"That's the impression I got." Max had a barely concealed expression of dread on his features. "We've got time but I can't say for sure how much, Norm. I think we all need to start planning for another major incursion. They wouldn't listen to me when I told them to order their transports home. Like I said, they thought I was either acting under threat or brainwashed. I don't think reasoning with them is going to work."

Norm heaved a heavy sigh. All he wanted was for the Na'vi and this moon to be left alone but it seemed like that wasn't going to happen. "You haven't told Jake about this yet, have you?"

"No. I wasn't sure I should."

"Don't." Norm looked in the direction of the research and medical lab. "He's already expecting trouble to come eventually and with his injuries and a baby on the way...I don't think he needs the stress."

"Well, we shouldn't keep it from him indefinitely," Max pointed out with a frown.

"I know. I'll tell him but I don't want him worrying about it right now, when he's trying to recover. There's nothing any of us can do about it until they get here anyhow, so it can wait."

"I agree," Max sighed.

"Norm is not in any of the human buildings," Ni'nat informed. "Has he been back here yet?"

E'quath looked up from the bunk he was lying on inside the cabin. "No, sister. I have not seen him since he went to speak with Maxpatel."

She frowned and looked outside through the gate. "It will darken soon. I will keep searching for him."

"I can come with, if you want."

Ni'nat shook her head. "If I fail to track him myself, I may come back for your help. Surely he is not in danger."

"Norm's missing?" The question came from one of the avatars in the back of the cabin. She got out of her bunk and approached with a frown of concern. "How long as he been gone?"

Ni'nat recognized Joyce as the woman approached her. The other five avatars in the cabin were already in their dream state...their drivers having abandoned them for the evening. Joyce must have been about to return to her human body when she overheard the conversation.

"Almost two hours now," answered Ni'nat. "I found Maxpatel and asked him, but he has not seen Norm for an hour or longer. Do you know where he might have gone?"

Joyce thought about it and shrugged. "Sometimes when he's got a lot on his mind, Norm likes to go to the hill outside the western side of the compound to watch the sunset. He says it clears his mind. You might check there. If you can't find him, come and let me know and I'll try contacting him through his transmitter."

"You cannot do that now?" E'quath asked.

"I could, but if Norm's just gone out for a little quiet time I don't want to disturb him. I don't think we need to jump to conclusions, just yet."

"If he wishes to be alone, I should not bother him." Ni'nat bit her lower lip in worry, wanting to respect his privacy but fearful that he could be in trouble.

"I don't think Norm would mind you checking up on him," Joyce observed with a crooked little smile. "Just see if he's where I think he is and we can go from there."

"I will look for him," agreed Ni'nat. She didn't mind the Dreamwalker's observation that Norm wouldn't be offended by her presence. In fact, she found it heartening that his affection for her wasn't only in her head. She took her bow and quiver just in case and she left the cabin to search for him.

Joyce was right; Norm was standing at the top of the hill outside the compound, watching the setting sun. Ni'nat stopped her approach when she noticed the tense set of his shoulders. Something was wrong and she assumed it was a combination of concern for Jake and anxiety over his approaching hunter's test. She watched him silently for a moment before taking a step towards him. She deliberately made noise and when he didn't react, she knew he was very distracted, indeed. She argued with herself over whether she should approach him or leave him be. Norm looked up at the sky and drew a deep breath.

"Why won't you just leave them ALONE?"

Ni'nat was so startled by the unexpected outburst that she jumped and hissed softly, her ears pulling back against her skull. There was such passion, anger and frustration in that shout that it made her skin tingle with warning. Norm was usually so level-headed and gentle but now, she could feel the rage radiating from him like poisonous fumes. She didn't understand his shout. She knew instinctively that he wasn't addressing her but she could see nobody else around.

"Norm? Who are you yelling at?"

He froze for a second and then partially turned to look at her with surprised yellow eyes. His expression was faintly bashful. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't know you were there."

"I should have announced myself," Ni'nat said graciously. Her expression of concern didn't fade as she approached him hesitantly. "Who were you speaking to, Norm? Leave who alone?"

He sighed and lowered his head, turning away from her again to face the horizon. "I was yelling at the Sky People," he answered in the Na'vi tongue. "I know they can't hear me and even if they could, they probably would not listen. I just...want them to leave the People and this world alone."

He lifted his head again and his tension increased. "I...I wish we never came here! I wish we never found Pandora."

Ni'nat felt her heart plummet to her toes and she closed the distance between them. She rested her hands on his bare shoulders, kneading at them to ease the tension. "I don't wish that. Why would you say such a thing, Normspellman?"

"Because if we never came here, the Hometree would have never been killed. Many Na'vi would still be alive. The forests they cleared would still be standing. My people have done great harm to Pandora and I'm ashamed."

Ni'nat felt his remorse and pain acutely, almost as if they were linked through Tsahaylu. She urged him to turn and face her and when he did, she gazed steadily into his pensive eyes.

"You are not one of those who did all of this," she said firmly. "The Tawtute who came here with you are sick with greed but you and the others who remain are not. You are not one of them any longer, Norm. You will soon be one of the People and if you had not come, I never would have met you. I am glad you chose to stay."

He rested his hands on her waist almost hesitantly and he rewarded her with a subtle, sad little smile. "I'll never be the best hunter, or the best tracker, or the best warrior. You know that, don't you?"

Ni'nat smiled and his candid honesty made her feel warm inside. She reached up to stroke his hair, brushing aside a wayward lock that fell over his right eye. "The other females can have the fiercest hunters. I choose the most clever one."

Norm stared at her and his expression softened. His lips parted and his eyes became oddly intense. He visibly swallowed and he ran his fingers through the long strands of her multiple braids. His breath quickened and Ni'nat recognized the desire on his face, having seen it on the faces of many males before.

"I've got to kiss you now," Norm announced.

Ni'nat was sufficiently taken off-guard by the statement, having never heard of a male warning someone before a kiss. She didn't have the opportunity to be amused by his warning because he cupped the back of her head and lowered his mouth to hers in the next instant. His lips were soft in contrast to the pressure and feeling he put into the gesture. It lasted for a few seconds before he pulled away and looked at her somewhat warily.

It wasn't enough...not for Ni'nat. Kissing him while he was asleep and feeling his lips animated against hers while he was awake were completely different things. She put her hands on his shoulders and pulled him close for another one. She knew he was trying to be what the humans called a "gentleman" but as far as she was concerned, they had both shown enough restraint and it was time for a mutual reward.

What she didn't expect was for this quiet, intellectual man to be such a good kisser. The second time their lips met, Norm embraced her fully and she experienced a sensation not unlike taking a sudden dive on her ikran. His confidence immediately soared in an obvious way and his mouth moved against hers with increasingly intense passion. She had shared stolen kisses here and there with males she found interesting, of course. Norm's kiss put those others to shame and she didn't know if it was because humans put more importance in kissing or if it was just another of Norm's hidden talents.

She felt increasing tension in her pelvis and she ran her nails over his chest, purring in the back of her throat. His tongue gently sought entry to her mouth and she accepted the silent request, parting her lips for him. It delved in and she instinctively caressed it with her own, pressing more firmly against his body. Her tail wound around his left thigh and he grunted softly as she rocked her pelvis against his, pushing against the increasingly obvious bulge in his loincloth. The feel of it pressing into her lower abdomen drove her mating urges to greater heights and she rubbed against him suggestively, wanting nothing more than to give into her body's needs. She didn't care that he wasn't yet initiated into the clan; to her, he was already one of the People.

Norm pulled away with visible difficulty and he was breathing as heavily as she was. "I'd better stop," he panted, his burning gaze sweeping her with masculine aggression. "I'm not used to this sort of thing in a Na'vi body and I can't risk disrespecting you."

"No disrespect in answering nature," Ni'nat insisted in stumbling English. The urge to pounce on him and have her way was strong and her tail unwound from his thigh to lash behind her in sexual frustration. She pulled him close again and licked his throat, emitting a soft, low growl as she tasted his skin and felt his pulse beating strongly against her tongue.

She felt him tremble and his responsive purr ignited her lust further. "Ni'nat," he pleaded breathlessly, "I'm serious...I don't know if I can hold back if we keep this up. The clan would never approve." He gently disengaged her and looked into her eyes. "You're worth waiting for. Let me finish my trials and complete my passage into this body, so that I can be worthy of you."

She practically mewled with need but she nodded and backed off. As frustrating as it was, Norm's stubborn refusal to mate with her prematurely made her respect for him grow even more. Other males would have likely taken the opportunity and accepted her invitation, whether they had passed their hunter's trials or not.

"You must work faster, Norm." She smiled seductively at him and allowed herself the brief pleasure of running her hands over his chest. "I can wait but my patience has limits."

She deliberately left it at that, leaving the possibility open that she might seek her satisfaction elsewhere—even though she was positive now that Norm was the only male for her. By the half-desperate look on his face he understood the implication and she almost lost her nerve and reassured him that she would wait for him. A little extra incentive might give him the boost to finish sooner, however, so she strangled her shame and left him wondering.

"We should return to the base," Norm said in a strained voice. "It's getting dark."

They chose to seek their rest on the second floor of the cabin for a bit of privacy. E'quath slept on one of the first floor bunkers, a few feet away from the now-inactive avatars. Norm squirmed a little under the sheet as he lay down on the bunk. Ni'nat looked down at him a little sadly and he felt concerned. "What's the matter?" He whispered.

"I know that when you close your eyes, you will not be here anymore."

Norm was touched and he reached out for her hand. "Well, not right here but I'll still be close by and I'll be back in this body by morning." He almost invited her to come to his personal quarters and sleep with him again but he didn't think he could bear further frustration.

Ni'nat took his hand and threaded her graceful fingers with his. "Then I will see you in the morning, my Norm."

His heart skipped a beat in response to being called "Her Norm". He gently squeezed her hand and sighed, smiling helplessly as he admired her beauty.

He deliberately forced his eyes to remain on her face as her necklace slipped, exposing her breasts. Na'vi women weren't modest and the ornamental necklaces and halters they typically wore weren't designed to hide their endowments. Few of them were endowed more heavily than a B cup by human standards but Ni'nat's perfect, firm breasts were fuller than most other Na'vi females.

Norm berated himself foully in his head for being so hung-up on a pair of nice boobs. The culture he came from was much more focused on that part of the female body than the Na'vi culture and it embarrassed him that he hadn't shaken the fascination yet.

"Norm, are you blushing?"

He cursed himself silently and averted his eyes. "No."

"I think you are." He saw Ni'nat's white-toothed grin and he groaned softly, knowing she had figured out what made the blue flush spread over his cheeks. She looked down at the swell of her breasts. "You like them?"

Norm wanted to put a paper bag over his head. Her innocent question made him feel about two feet tall. "Y-yes," he answered, knowing it was pointless to fib. "But I like the rest of you, too. Please, don't think I only appreciate that...area." He was babbling but it was true. He loved her ass and her hips and her long legs and her shapely, soft lips. He loved her voice and her hair and her playful nature.

He loved her.

Norm's mouth fell open and his eyes widened as the realization struck him like a thunderbolt. Ni'nat's amused expression faded into worry as she noticed the change in his expression.

"Norm, I have nothing that other women don't have." She let go of his hand and got out of bed, crouching at his bunk to stroke his face. "You look strange."

He swallowed and met her eyes. "Other women have the same parts," he said slowly, "but they aren't put together as well as you are. I'm sorry...I just have to be honest. I...I also have to tell you that there's much more to my feelings than your physical body, Ni'nat. I didn't fully know it until now, but...I...that is—"

Shit. He was stumbling again. His last steady relationship ended in misery when Anna left him because she felt he was more devoted to his science than her. He swore he'd never fall for anyone again or even try to court the opposite sex, but Ni'nat changed all that without any apparent effort. This was different. His career couldn't get in the way now because it was all about the Na'vi people and Pandora.

"Norm, you can tell me when you are ready," Ni'nat whispered, breaking into his thoughts. She smiled at him and lowered her forehead to his. "You are better with females than you think."

Norm blinked. "Is there a sign somewhere advertising everything I'm thinking?"

She laughed softly, understanding his meaning well enough. "You have an honest face. Easy to read." She kissed him softly on the bridge of the nose. "I like it."

"I need a better poker face."

She looked confused. "'Poker face'? You are considering piercing your nose? I wish you would not do that."

Norm blurted a laugh before he could contain it and he shook his head. "It's just an expression. It means to hide one's thoughts from others."

"Oh." She took one of his hands and slowly guided it to her right breast. "I prefer the honesty." She took his other hand and did the same before lowering her mouth to his for a kiss.

Norm's breath caught and he impulsively fondled the silken flesh offered to him. He returned her kiss helplessly and a nasty thought occurred to him. Was he the only man she'd ever allowed to touch her this way? Breasts being less taboo in Na'vi society even as sex was considered more meaningful, he faced the unpleasant reality that some other male might have done this very same thing before him. Her breath shivered against his lips as he brushed his thumbs over her nipples in gentle circles and he couldn't bear not knowing.

"Is this something you allow often?" He winced as soon as the words left his mouth.

~Idiot! Why don't you just call her a tramp, while you're at it!~

To his vast relief, she didn't take offense. She smiled softly at him and shook her head, her long tresses falling over her shoulders and caressing his fondling hands. "You are the only one who has earned the right, my Norm."

The admission made him ridiculously happy and he discovered possessive feelings he didn't even know he was capable of having. Her nipples tightened to hardness under his attentions and he began kissing her lavishly, wanting nothing more than to pull her onto the bunk with him and claim her once and for all. She was making delightful little purrs and whimpers of pleasure as he stimulated her and he was sure he would soon make a mess in his loincloth if he kept going.

"Norm," Ni'nat murmured against his lips, "your touch pleases feels very good."

"Oh, damn," he gasped. He couldn't stop now...not when she expressed her enjoyment in what he was doing with such sweet candor. She straddled him and she began to rub against him between the thin layers of their garments. "Ni'nat...god, you're so beautiful."

"Are you sure you wish to wait?" Her breath was coming faster and heavier and there was a flush of passion spreading over her high cheekbones.

"I have to," he said through clenched teeth. "I don't want to but it's the right thing to do. You don't know how hard it is for me to hold back." He spoke in a mixture of English and Na'vi, his mind failing to tell the two languages apart as he throbbed against her female heat.

Her fingers began to stroke his knuckles encouragingly and her eyes fluttered shut. A low moan escaped her parted lips and he swore he could feel a hint of dampness against his arousal as she undulated on top of him.

"Shh," Norm warned her in an unsteady whisper as her vocalizations of pleasure grew louder. "E'quath will hear you."

In contrast to his warning, he tenderly squeezed her nipples to increase her pleasure before resuming his loving fondling. Her breath caught and her thighs tensed on either side of his. With a little shock, Norm realized something.

~Is...she about to...?~

Ni'nat answered his mental question with a hard kiss and an explosion of breath into his mouth. Her lithe body tensed and she trembled, whimpering softly into the kiss. Norm was overwhelmed with a feeling of mingled pride, appreciation and fondness. He stroked her breasts until her tension faded and when she scooted down and laid her head on his chest, he ran his fingers through her soft braids.

He was sure she couldn't be comfortable, with his erection poking her rudely in the abdomen. She didn't complain, however. She rubbed her cheek against his chest affectionately and she sighed with pleasured content.

"I would like to make you feel that way, Norm," she said after catching her breath for a moment.

There was nothing in the world Norm wanted more at that moment than to encourage her to do just that. The thought of her hands or mouth on him down there made his arousal twitch with need and he groaned audibly. He had thought it was hard to control himself when they were kissing on the hill earlier but now he was treated to sheer torture. He was going to have to call it a night if he didn't want to break his vow to respect her.

"I would love that," he said with all sincerity, "but not now. I can't handle it, Ni'nat."

She lifted her head and practically pouted at him, but she respected his wishes and didn't try to touch him below the waist. He gave her a strained smile and stroked her hair again. "When I join the clan and if you choose me, things will change. Right now, I think I need a cold shower."

She lifted one elegant brow and her lips quirked. "Does that truly help?"

"Usually," he grumbled, "but I'm not so sure it will work, this time. I probably won't get any sleep tonight."

She chuckled and gave him a brief kiss on the mouth. "I did not intend to cause you pain. Dream of me, my Norm."

"Believe me, I will." He meant it sincerely. He'd be lucky if the typical method of relieving a hard-on did the trick, even in his human body. Norm couldn't remember ever wanting a woman as much as he wanted Ni'nat.

She seemed to sense how fine his thread of control was stretching and she climbed off of him with a little frown of regret. "I will see you in the morning, Norm." She stroked his face once more before returning to her own bunk and lying down.

Norm reached across the distance for her hand and she accepted with a smile. The last thing he felt before he closed his eyes and ended the link with his avatar body was her hand squeezing his.

"Jake, I need to talk to you for a minute, if it's okay."

Jake looked at Norm with furrowed brows, noting the tense expression on his face behind the breathing mask he wore. "Go ahead," he offered.

Norm cast an uncomfortable glance at Mo'at and Neytiri. "Forgive me," he said in their language, "but may we have a moment of privacy?"

The two women looked faintly suspicious but Mo'at graciously gestured for her daughter and the two of them left the room. Norm sighed when they were gone and Jake tilted his head curiously. "What's the problem?"

"I need to know what I'm up against," Norm blurted once the door was shut.

Jake stared at him. "You mean with the ikran bonding?"

"No, I mean with Ni'nat."

A slow grin curved Jake's mouth. "Uh-huh. What do you want to know?"

Norm pressed his lips together in irritation and Jake noticed that his hair was still damp as if he'd recently showered. "I want to know what kind of competition I'm up against. A woman like her has to have plenty of options."

"Yeah, I guess she does have plenty of options," Jake agreed casually, trying to control his amusement. "What do you want me to do about it?"

"I just...I just need to know how far up on the ladder I am," explained Norm. "What do you think my chances are that she'll choose me?"

Jake shrugged. "That's kind of hard to say, Norm. Like you said, she's got plenty of men panting after her." He studied his friend thoughtfully and it dawned on him that Norm probably had a very good reason for his sudden burst of desperation. "Hey, you two haven't—"

"No!" Norm interrupted, flushing. "But...we almost did."


"Twice." Norm shut his eyes and sighed. "I wouldn't have gotten that far with her if she wasn't really considering me, would I?"

"How far are we talking, here?" Jake's brows shot up.

"Far enough," Norm gritted out, obviously losing patience. "Look, I just want to know if she's shown a serious interest in any other men."

Jake began to feel sorry for him. "Damn, you really want her, don't you?"

When Norm merely gave him an exasperated look as if to say he was being a moron, Jake chuckled and held his hands up defensively. "Okay look, I'll talk to Neytiri about it. She would know better than me and Ni'nat would probably feel more comfortable speaking with her about it. You know the rules, Norm. We can't force anyone in the clan to mate with someone they don't want...all we can do is choose for them when they can't decide between interests."

"I know." Norm sighed. "How are your legs doing? Are you getting more feeling in them?"

"Just my feet, so far." Jake bit his bottom lip in concentration and flexed his toes with effort. "The pins and needles are spreading to the soles of my feet now. I owe you one, Norm."

"Thank me when you can walk again. See you tomorrow, Jake."

Jake watched him go to the door and he was reminded that he really did owe him. "Hey Norm?"

The anthropologist stopped and turned curiously.

Jake tried to think of the best way to word it without breaking the rules. "If Ni'nat does have a lot of mating interests, I'd say you've got a good head start on them."

Norm visibly brightened. "You're not just saying that?"

Jake shook his head. "No. I can tell this is important to you and I'm not playing around. Just don't let it distract you, okay? You finish what you started and we'll move on from there. Oh and didn't hear it from me, got it?"

"Got it." Norm relaxed. "Thanks, Jake."

Jake smirked. "Goodnight, Norm."

-To be continued


uniltìrantokx = avatar, or dreamwalker body

Olo'eyktan = Clan leader, or chieftain

Tsmukan = Brother

Iknimaya = Final rite of passage in which a Na'vi must capture and bond with his/her first ikran.

Toktor = Doctor

Tsahaylu = The connection Na'vi can make with each other, certain animals and trees through use of the neural fibers protected by the queue (braid) they grow from birth.

Tawtute = Sky People; the term Na'vi commonly use for humans—particularly greedy, destructive ones.

Chapter Text

As he promised, Jake spoke with Neytiri about Ni'nat on Norm's behalf the very next day. "I think we both know where this is going to end up but it's better to be safe than sorry. Will you talk to her and find out for sure where she stands on the whole Norm issue?"

"You think it is that important now?"

Jake nodded. "According to her and E'quath, he's picking up even faster. He's got every reason in the world now to finish and I know how fast Norm can get things done when he's determined. I think we'd better be ready to approve their union fast, and not just because Norm's doing so well improving his skills."

Neytiri eyed him suspiciously. "What are you saying, Jake?"

He briefly lifted his brows and looked away. "I'm saying I don't know if those two are going to make it to Norm's rebirth ceremony before they take matters into their own hands."

"Did she say something to you?"

"No, but Norm did." Jake braced himself and he wasn't disappointed.

"Jake, has he taken advantage of her mating urges?" Neytiri's expression hardened and her eyes flashed.

"You mean like I did with you?" He winked at her. "No, he's got more self-control than me."

"You did not—"

"You were promised to Tsu'tey, remember?" Jake cut in, holding her gaze. "We both knew that. Sometimes what the heart wants clouds noble intentions."

Neytiri lowered her gaze at the reminder of the deceased warrior whom she would have mated with, if not for her meeting and falling in love with Jake. "You are not a skxawng at all, my Jake. I never should have called you one."

He smirked at her. "I've got my moments but I know I can be pretty moronic sometimes."

She laughed and leaned over to press her face against his. "A wise moron," she whispered fondly.

"That's an oxymoron," Jake muttered as he put his arms around her waist.

Neytiri pulled back to look at him with an open expression of confusion on her lovely features. "Another human slang I don't know."

"Sorry," he apologized. "It just means a contradiction."

She shook her head and gave him a rueful look. "I wonder when I will ever understand your terms."

He smiled toothily at her. "You haven't said a broken English sentence in a while now. I'll have you cussing like a sailor in no time."

Her lips quirked. That term, she was familiar with. "Mother will be so pleased. Jackass."

Jake burst into laughter. "What did I do to deserve that?"

She tilted her head, looking absurdly ignorant. "I thought that word was used as a term of affection."

"No, you didn't," Jake countered, onto her little game. He caught her around the waist and pulled her onto the bed and into his lap, ignoring her shrill protest. "You don't fool me."

"Jake, your back—"

"My back is feeling fine now. I've got other body parts that could use some attention, though." He shifted her in his lap so that she could feel specifically which body part he had in mind.

Neytiri pressed her lips together and glanced down. "That part of you proves it is healthy, each day." She raised her eyes to his and grinned softly. "I thought that you wanted me to speak with Ni'nat, Jake."

He sighed. "Yeah, I know. Business before pleasure. I guess I've got to let you go." He nuzzled her neck and placed a hand over her lower abdomen. It would be several weeks before her body began to show visible signs of her condition. Still, he had become fond of laying his palm over the area that housed their growing offspring.

"Just do something for me when you come back," he murmured, nuzzling her hair and breathing in her scent.

"What is that?" She asked softly, closing her eyes in pleasure as his lips brushed against her ear.

"Lock the door and cover up the window so we can have a little privacy. You said you wanted to play when I felt better, so..."

She smiled at him and traced his sculpted features with her fingertips. "We will see."

Jake grinned as she climbed off of him and walked to the door. He admired the swish of her tail and her firm little bottom. He knew that "We'll see" meant "absolutely" and he relaxed against the propped-up bed, anticipating delightful activities that he had sorely missed during his recovery. He looked down the length of his body and wiggled his toes. It was easier for him now and he wondered how long it would take him to regain feeling in his legs.

"Ni'nat, I must speak with you alone for a moment."

The singer recognized the authoritative tone in Neytiri's voice and she immediately stopped treating the hide she was preparing. E'quath politely minded his own business, focusing his attention on crafting new arrows. Norm was presently helping out in the lab, before the day's training exercises were to begin.

Ni'nat walked alongside her clan sister, away from the avatar cabin and into the native gardens. "Is something the matter, sister?"

Neytiri stopped and swiveled her ears as she looked around to be sure they were alone. "Nothing to worry about," she assured her, "unless you are undecided."

Ni'nat wasn't about to pretend ignorance. "Then you have noticed."

Neytiri nodded. "Many have. I came to ask you this, before he completes his Iknimaya. Do you have other mating interests besides Normspellman to consider?"

Ni'nat lowered her gaze and blushed in a way that would have had Norm flabbergasted. "There were before, but as I have come to know him better I have lost interest in them."

"You are certain? Once you are mated before Eywa, you cannot change your mind." Neytiri gazed up at the taller woman steadily and it occurred to Ni'nat how much she had grown spiritually during the Time of Sorrow. She would make a great Tsahik, when Mo'at passed the title down to her.

Ni'nat nodded without hesitation. "I am certain. He is the only one I see myself with, if he'll have me."

Neytiri smiled. "I don't think you have to worry about Normspellman refusing any invitation you give him, sister." She reached out and patted Ni'nat on the arm. "When the time comes, you have our support. Jake and I both think you have made a good choice."

"Thank you, Neytiri." Ni'nat pressed her hand over her heart in a sincere gesture of gratitude. "This approval means much to me. What is it like, being with a male?"

Neytiri smiled, un-offended by the question. "It can be many things. Sometimes your passion will make it hard to breathe. Other times, it can be tender and unhurried. All of it is wonderful."

Ni'nat sighed, allowing her imagination to paint wonderful images in her mind. "Patience is hard to practice, now."

"I understand," Neytiri soothed. "When you know he is the one you want, thoughts of being with him distract from everything else. You must resist temptation, until he is accepted as one of the People."

Ni'nat nodded, smiling a little painfully. "Even if I forget myself, Norm will not. stubborn."

"Honorable," Neytiri corrected with a chuckle. "And that is a good thing, sister."

Jake was in Tsahaylu with Sebastian when Neytiri returned to his hospital room. Sebastian was seated in the chair beside Jake's bed and their queues were linked together. She waited in respectful silence while her mate worked with the other male to break down the remaining barriers crippling his mind. Jake's expression was strained but determined and he spoke aloud to Sebastian in calming tones as he worked, encouraging him. Neytiri smiled. She was proud of him for putting the needs of others before his own, even when he had such difficulties to overcome.

It was because of this selfless devotion that he made such a fine clan leader. She knew in her heart that her father and Tsu'tey would have approved of his leadership. His charisma and bravery quickly won the hearts of her people—even the ones who would have shunned him, before.

After several minutes, Jake ended the link and caught his breath. He smiled at Sebastian, who appeared to be somewhat disoriented. "I think we're finally finished. How are you feeling, Sebastian?"

"I feel," answered the smaller male slowly, "almost like myself again." He took a steadying breath and smiled at Jake like he was a hero from a storybook. "I can't thank you enough for this, Corporal Sully."

"There's no need to," Jake insisted. "I'm happy to help. If you think we need to work on it a little more just tell me."

Sebastian shook his head. "No, I'm back now. The only thing I need to work on now is getting used to life in a Na'vi body. You have my eternal gratitude."

Jake shrugged, looking a little embarrassed by the praise. "Just take it easy and try to move on. You might even start liking your new body, once you get used to it."

Sebastian looked down at his hands and slowly flexed his fingers. "I suppose you're right. The increased strength is what concerns me the most. You have no idea how many things I've broken, entirely on accident."

Jake laughed. "You might be surprised. I found out that one of the rules for medical staff when a driver first wakes up in an avatar body is to avoid trying to physically restrain them, unless they don't have a choice. If the new avatar gets out of line, they either get one of the other avatars to take care of it or they rely on tranquilizers. I guess a few people got hurt when the program was new."

Sebastian smirked and nodded in understanding. "I vaguely recall Dr. Spelling holding me down when I first woke up. The rest of the staff kept their distance." He glanced at the watch on his wrist and got out of the chair. "Well, I'll give you some privacy and put a meal together for you and your family. Best of luck with your legs, Jake."

"You don't have to do that," argued Jake.

"It's the least I can do." Sebastian gave Neytiri a respectful nod and left without further comment, not giving Jake the chance to protest further.

Neytiri shut the door behind him and locked it. Mo'at would be finished with her meditations soon but Neytiri knew her mother would understand when she found the door locked. She approached her mate with a little smile and she walked around to the left side of the bed. Neytiri lowered her head to give him a kiss and he responded with eager passion, startling her a little.

"So, how did the talk go?" Jake murmured when he broke the kiss. His fingers glided teasingly over her shoulders and arms, making the skin tingle.

"I think it went very well," she answered, shivering a little in response to his touch. "She has chosen Norm as her only mating interest. He has nothing to worry about, as long as he passes his Iknimaya."

"That's what I thought," Jake said in a pleased tone. "Too bad I can't tell him that so he'll stop worrying, but maybe believing he's got competition will give him incentive. Come here."

Neytiri resisted a grin as he cupped the back of her head and drew her head down for another kiss. His tongue stroked hers cajolingly and her pulse quickened. She placed her hands on his chest and sorely wished the hospital gown wasn't concealing his body. She had never told him how much she loved his chest, but she suspected he knew already, due to how often she found excuses to touch it. His heartbeat drummed strongly beneath her palms, picking up rhythm as the kiss deepened. Now that she was pregnant, her body's urges weren't consuming but she was by no means immune from sexual desire.

"Don't you have something for me?" Jake murmured huskily against her lips. His hands slid around behind her to cup her bottom.

"Maybe." Neytiri was worried about putting weight on him, in truth. As much as she wanted him, she didn't want to accidentally damage his healing back. "Jake, are you sure you are well enough for this?" She bit her lip when she glanced down and saw the tent forming in the sheets over his genitals. The sight of his obvious arousal made her excitement grow and she shut her eyes, fighting the urge to pounce him.

"I'm positive," he answered. His lips moved over her throat and placed soft, urgent little kisses there.

Still suffering misgivings but too aroused to ignore her body's urgings, Neytiri gently disengaged from him and took one of the sheets she had folded up and placed on the visitor's couch. She went to the door and unlocked it so that she could open it a crack. She cleverly draped the top of the sheet over the top of the door and shut it so that it would hold the sheet in place. Twisting the lock again, she turned to face her mate and she smiled. She would need to be gentle with him but she trusted him when he said he was recovered enough to mate.

"Hey guys, where are you going with the food trays?"

Sebastian and Katherine turned to greet Ramona as the zoologist approached. "It's for Sully and his family," answered Sebastian.

Ramona blinked at him. "That's the first time I've heard you speak an unbroken sentence, kiddo. Are the holes all patched up, now?"

Sebastian nodded and smiled. "Yes. Jake finished the job a little while ago. I'm more or less healed."

"Well, all right! It's great to see you back to your old self to speak. I missed that sexy accent of yours."

Sebastian chuckled modestly and shrugged. "Am I really the only Brit on this base?"

"I think there might be one other guy in the army," answered Ramona. "Maybe you two can get together and have some tea and scones."

"And the cultural stereotypes begin," Sebastian sighed. He continued walking and the women fell into step with him.

"Aw, you can make fun of us Americans if you want," offered Ramona.

"Yes, feel free to make fun of the way we spell 'color' and pronounce words like 'bastard'," agreed Katherine with a smile.

Sebastian grinned at her, appreciating the way her eyes lit up with amusement. It was on the tip of his tongue to say he'd never make fun of Katherine but he didn't want to make his infatuation with her too obvious. He caught sight of Ramona's sly smirk and he winced inwardly. At least one person knew how he felt about Kath.

"So Sebastian," Ramona said conversationally as they walked down the hallway, "what would a British street gang call itself, 'The Bloodies'? Ahh! Don't poke me, Katherine!"

"Stop picking on him and I won't poke you." Katherine almost spilled her tray and she righted it quickly.

He laughed softly. "We have soccer hooligans. I think they'd give your street gangs a run for their money."

"What did you do for a living, before you joined the Avatar program?" Katherine asked, changing the subject gracefully.

"I was a hmmker," he muttered.

Katherine frowned. "A what?"

He cleared his throat. "I was a hacker. A computer hacker."

"A hacker?" Both women said in unison, staring at him.

"What?" He replied defensively. "The pay was good!"

Ramona snickered. "Wow, you're such a nerd."

"You're the one wearing a lab coat," Sebastian reminded her. "You're as much a science geek as I am."

"Touché," Ramona conceded with a grin. "So what made you decide to leave the hacking business behind?"

"I began reading up on Pandora and the Na'vi and I became engrossed in it," he answered honestly. "It fascinated me, so I took some language and diplomacy courses and took a chance putting in my application for the Avatar program. I could hardly believe it when I got the phone call to go in for orientation training." He sighed. He had been so excited but he couldn't have anticipated their true motives for choosing him. He had wanted to make a difference...wanted to do something special. They had just used him. They weren't interested in his skills at all.

"Sebastian," Katherine said softly, "regardless of what they did to you, there's still a lot of good you could do here. I know it's hard to adjust but try to think of this as an opportunity. You can go anywhere on this moon, without the inconvenience of needing an exopack. You know the language and the culture. You could help maintain good relations between the natives and us."

Sebastian thought about it and he decided she was right. Things were hard now but there was an undeniable advantage to his new body. Grateful that she had shown him a silver lining around the dark cloud hanging over his head, he smiled at her. "Thanks, Kath."

"Well, here we are," Ramona said when they reached Jake's room. "Here, I'll knock on the door, since you guys have your hands full. Hmm, what's that sheet doing draped over the window?" She knocked and called out to the occupants. "Lunch time!"

"We're...uh...busy right now," Jake's voice replied from behind the door. "Can you just...leave it?" A low groan followed the response.

Ramona's eyebrows shot up and she pressed her ear against the door, shooting a wide-eyed look at her two companions. The sound of Neytiri moaning Jake's name floated through the door, loud enough for Sebastian and Katherine to hear it. Sebastian glanced uncomfortably at Katherine and he almost laughed at the delicate blush that immediately stained her cheeks.

"The guy's got a spine injury and they're still screwing," Ramona whispered incredulously. "Am I the only person on this base who isn't getting laid?"

Katherine hid a giggle behind her hand and cleared her throat. "Well you know, Mona, I've seen Lee give you a few interested looks. Maybe things aren't as hopeless as you think."

"Really? Lee?" Ramona considered the tidbit of information. "He's a pretty hot tamale but isn't he married?"

"Divorced," supplied Katherine. "I thought you knew that."

"Damn!" blurted Ramona. "No, I didn't know that or I'd have jumped that stud a long time ago!"

Sebastian bit his lip and wondered if Lee had any idea what he might be getting into.

"I'll see you guys later, all right?" Ramona was grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. "I've got someone...uh...something to do."

She took off without waiting for a reply and Sebastian and Katherine watched her go with equally bemused expressions.

"In hindsight, maybe I shouldn't have said so much," Katherine pondered.

"She certainly isn't modest about expressing herself," Sebastian replied with a grin.

Katherine laughed and shook her head. "No, she isn't. I suppose six years in cryo and limited opportunities give her the right to be aggressive, though." She looked at him sidelong and chewed her lower lip.

Yes, all that time in cryo didn't help curb libido or lessen frustrations. Sebastian stared at Katherine and he debated himself over whether he should try to initiate something beyond friendship with her. She was so pretty, with her layered chestnut hair and warm, hazel eyes. He found himself staring at her mouth and admiring the shape of it. What would she do if he tried to kiss her right now? He still wasn't convinced that she saw a man when she looked at him; more like an exotic, intelligent animal.

"Kath, I really enjoyed the picnic we had the other day," he said, deciding to keep things simple for now. "What would you say to having another one today?"

She gave him a warm smile that made his heart skip a beat. "I'd say that's a great idea. Let's go." She linked her arm in his and together, they walked away from Jake's room and headed for the kitchen. Sebastian had some extra native food stored in the fridge there, so there was no need for him to gather more for his own lunch.

"Hey Rick," Ramona called when she spotted the avatar on her way outside, "Have you seen Lee anywhere?"

"Last time I saw him, he was heading for his sleeping quarters to get something," answered Rick.

Ramona smiled. This couldn't be more perfect if she'd planned it. "Thanks. You're a big help."

She made a brief pit-stop at her own quarters and she undressed completely before pulling her lab coat on and buttoning it all the way shut. Anyone she crossed paths with on the way to Lee's quarters would probably just assume she was wearing a skirt under the lab coat. With that in mind, she selected a pair of pumps and slipped them on. Whistling softly, she left her quarters and made her way to Lee's swiftly. She glanced around before knocking on the door and she was delighted when it opened to reveal he was in his avatar body. Unfortunately, he had to wear an exopack to breathe in the Human section but she wasn't going to let a mask stop her from satisfying her curiosity about Na'vi male endowments.

"Hi," Ramona greeted as he looked down at her with surprised amber eyes. "Can I come in for a minute?" She felt a moment of insecurity and she hoped to hell Katherine wasn't just trying to make her feel better when she told her Lee was interested in her.

"Sure," he answered politely, standing aside for her to walk through the open door.

Ramona moved toward the bunk and began undoing her lab coat while Lee shut the door. "You might want to lock it, cutie."

"Why?" He turned to look at her just as she let her lab coat drop to the floor. His jaw dropped, along with the scanning device he was holding in one hand. It clattered to the floor un-noticed as his gaze roamed her exposed brown body. "Um...Ramona? You're...kind of naked."

She noticed the way his track pants began to poke out tellingly in the crotch area and she smiled up at him, her confidence fully restored. "So are you going to do something about it?"

He hesitated and she thought for a moment that she had erred. When he locked the door and crossed the distance between them, she knew she had guessed right. He immediately started to lean down for a kiss but he remembered the mask blocking his way and he swore softly in frustration.

"Hold your breath," Ramona suggested. When he complied, she lifted the mask and put her arms around his neck to draw his mouth to hers. He had to hunch over quite a bit but he made no complaints. The urgency in his kiss told her that she wasn't the only one suffering sexual frustration. When he lifted her into his arms and lowered her to the bunk, she knew she had him right where she wanted him. He had no choice but to stop kissing her and pull his mask down again after a moment but she didn't mind.

Soon, Lee William's custom tailored tracksuit pants ended up on the floor with Ramona's discarded lab coat.

"You must be faster, Normspellman."

Norm grimaced and tried again. E'quath stood nearby instructing him while Ni'nat held up the fake Ikran head and neck she had constructed. It was on a stake of wood so that she could raise it to the approximate height for accuracy. She wasn't holding it still for him, which made sense because a real ikran certainly wouldn't stand there and let him rope it without a fight.

"You will have only one chance, Norm," reminded Ni'nat. "The ikran that chooses you will not accept you as a rider until you have bested it. Keep trying!"

He nodded grimly and wordlessly as he drew his banshee catcher back and began to spin it again for another go. Norm was getting tired and frustrated, but he refused to complain or ask for a break. He didn't want to appear weak in front of his companions—particularly the beautiful singer.

E'quath looked up at the sky and gauged the position of the sun. "I will prepare lunch," he said to the both of them. "Keep training until our meal is ready."

Norm nodded gratefully and Ni'nat did the same. The tracker left then, walking back in the direction of the cabin. Now that they were alone together, Norm found it more difficult to concentrate on his task. His eyes kept straying to the female's legs, hips and breasts, admiring her graceful motions as she guided the ikran puppet to make him work harder.

"You are supposed to be looking at the ikran," chided Ni'nat with a knowing smile. "Not my body."

Norm flushed with embarrassment. "Sorry," he apologized, though she didn't seem the least bit offended by his attentions.

Ni'nat shrugged. "Males like to look. There is no shame in that." Her eyes swept him from head to toe and her grin became a bit feral. "Females like to look, too."

Norm groaned inwardly and begged his body to behave itself as her flirtation awakened his lust further. "That really isn't fair play."

She chuckled without argument and continued moving the puppet. Norm took a steadying breath and narrowed his focus. He made two more failing passes and he received the expected, constructive criticism from her as a result. At least she and E'quath weren't insulting when they lectured. They always offered advice with their criticism and they spoke respectfully to him, assuring him that they didn't think badly of him for missing.

Norm suffered two kinds of growing frustration as the practice continued. Each time Ni'nat's pert breasts bounced with her movements, his traitorous eyes latched onto them helplessly and his concentration was broken. It was on the tip of his tongue to suggest that E'quath should take up the role of playing the ikran and she should coach him from the side, but he didn't want to insult her. He silently berated himself. He was an adult, not a teenager. Surely, he could demonstrate more self-control than this.

Eventually, his frustration reached a peak and he narrowed his eyes with determination as he made his next pass. He wasn't thinking of capturing an ikran when he released the bola this time; he was thinking of capturing the teasing female whose movements and subtle flirtation were driving him to distraction. This time, the banshee catcher whipped out and wound around the puppet's snout. Ni'nat gave a small hoot of excited approval but Norm didn't give her a chance to congratulate him. He tugged firmly on the bola and dragged the puppet and the woman holding it across the distance, making Ni'nat stumble with surprise.

Ni'nat could have let go but for whatever reason, she didn't. That suited Norm's purposes just fine. He couldn't ignore his Na'vi instincts as he reeled her in and he offered no explanation as he gave into his body's demands and put an arm around her slim waist.

"Practicing mounting your ikran?" Ni'nat teased breathlessly as he pulled her tight against him. She dropped the puppet head to the ground and threaded her fingers through his hair, suggesting she knew exactly what he was doing and she didn't mind.

Norm didn't have the gift of verbal wit, so he demonstrated his intentions without attempting a snappy comeback. He lowered his mouth to hers and kissed her, letting all of his desire and passion express itself in the gesture. Her low purr of delight as she parted her lips and returned the kiss assured him that she was enjoying it. He traded dominance of the kiss with her, allowing her to explore his mouth without resistance when she lanced her tongue in. She wasn't timid or submissive with her responses, which only turned Norm on more. He didn't know if it was because Na'vi females were raised to be strong-willed and independent or if it was because she was naturally fierce, but he certainly had no complaints when she plundered his mouth.

Ni'nat rubbed against him and made soft sounds of distressed need in her throat, prompting Norm to slide one hand down to caress her smooth, firm bottom. He pulled his hand away with effort and reluctance a moment later, knowing that too much exploration of her body would drive him to pick her up and carry her into the bushes.

"You see?" Ni'nat sighed against his mouth, breaking the kiss for a moment. "So clever."

"That is not training," interrupted a stern male voice before Norm could answer her. "Unless the two of you are training to mate."

The anthropologist hastily pulled away from Ni'nat and his face burned as he looked at E'quath. The tall hunter had his arms crossed over his chest and his chiseled features were hard with authority, like a parent who had just walked in on his kid making out instead of studying.

"I know how this looks," Norm said with a placating gesture, hoping he wouldn't end up having to fight the man who he now thought of as his friend.

"It looks like you two cannot keep your hands off of each other when you are alone," answered E'quath, shooting a remonstrating look at Ni'nat.

"Are you my father?" She challenged, but she was blushing as brightly as Norm.

"I am your clan mate and your friend," countered E'quath. "And I know how both of you feel for each other. Come, the food is ready."

Ni'nat cast a sidelong look at Norm and she squeezed his hand briefly before leaving the practice area. Norm retrieved his banshee catcher from the puppet on the ground and gave E'quath a contrite look as the other male approached him.

"I wouldn't have let it get too far," Norm promised softly. "I respect her too much for that."

E'quath's features relaxed a bit and he nodded graciously. "If it were most any other male, I would challenge you to a fight, Normspellman. Because I have come to know you and trust your self-control, I choose to believe you when you say you will wait. Keep to your training and you will soon be worthy of claiming your mating rights with her. Until then, you must control yourself, no matter how much she entices you."

Norm grimaced. "Actually, I started it," he admitted. "She isn't to blame."

E'quath gave him one of his rare, reserved smiles. "But I know how Ni'nat charms males with her body language and gaze. You are the only one she has pursued this far but many of the men in the clan would take the first opportunity to seal a bond with her. You may have initiated it, Normspellman, but I am sure some of the fault lies with her."

"She doesn't even have to try to tempt me," confessed Norm with a sigh. "Maybe we need a chaperone until I complete my trial."

E'quath tilted his head in puzzlement. "What is a...shap-rown?"

Norm smirked ruefully. "It's someone that escorts a couple around, to make sure they're never alone together. It's a practice usually reserved for teenagers to keep them out of trouble, but in this case..." He sighed again and shook his head.

"Hmm," E'quath responded thoughtfully, stroking his chin. "Then I will be your shap-rown, until you are initiated into our clan."

"Thanks," Norm said. "I hate to admit it, but that might be for the best."

Jake was steadily regaining feeling in his lower extremities as the days wore on. He was able to rotate his feet by day six and at the end of the week, he managed to pull his knees up without aid. Neytiri stayed with him but Mo'at returned to Hometree to oversee clan affairs in his absence. E'quath, Ni'nat and Norm stayed on the base as well, providing meat and helping Jake's recovery whenever possible.

Norm continued preparing for his final trial while simultaneously helping with Jake. The tension between he and Ni'nat continued to grow and he was glad that E'quath was watching over them. Ni'nat seemed to understand his trepidation and she didn't press him for contact, content to enjoy the days training him and hunting with him.

When Norm succeeded in roping the ikran dummy nine times out of ten, Ni'nat and E'quath decided he was ready for the real thing. The three of them went to Jake's hospital room to inform him that they would be traveling to the Hallelujah Mountains in the morning for Norm's final trial.

Jake gave Norm an encouraging smile and put his legs over the side of the bed with effort.

"Jake, what are you doing?" Norm stared nervously as his friend stubbornly got to his feet. Neytiri rushed to Jake's side and put a supportive arm around him as his knees threatened to give out. "You're not supposed to be trying to walk yet!"

"I know my body," Jake grunted. He took one excruciating step after the other toward Norm and the anthropologist was frozen to the spot, hardly believing what he was doing. Ni'nat and E'quath likewise stood unmoving, but they gazed at their chieftain with proud awe as he persisted in walking to Norm, one faltering step at a time. Neytiri looked up at him with a combination of worry and pride as she helped him.

"You're crazy, do you know that?" Norm said when Jake stopped before him and gave a tight smile of satisfaction.

"I just don't let doctors tell me what I can't do," replied Jake in a strained voice. His forehead was beaded with perspiration from his efforts, but he held his balance well. Jake reached out and laid a hand on Norm's shoulder. "Tsmukan, nari si. Eywa ngahu."

Norm swallowed. "Irayo, Tsmukan."

Any doubts over whether Jake had truly become one of the People were laid to rest for Norm. He definitely had the heart of a Na'vi and though his sense of humor was still human, the respect for Eywa was evident in his eyes as they exchanged dialog. Norm could only hope that if Jake managed to fit in so well, he would succeed too.

"You have shown off enough," Neytiri chastised, steeling a little of Jake's dignity. "You are on the verge of collapse, my Jake. Get back into bed."

Jake sighed and shot a rueful smirk her way. "Yes ma'am. I wouldn't want to get myself in trouble."

Ni'nat chuckled softly and Norm smiled.

-To be continued


Skxawng = Moron.

Tsahik= Matriarch. Spiritual leader of the clan who interprets the will of Eywa.

Iknimaya = Final rite of passage in which a Na'vi must capture and bond with his/her first ikran.

Tsmukan = Brother

Nari si = Be careful, or watch out

Eywa ngahu = Goodbye, Eywa be with you

Irayo = Thank you

Chapter Text

Norm had to stop and catch his breath. While his body had become used to physical exertion, he didn't have as much experience as his two companions. The air was thinner up in the floating mountains and he ran out of breath faster. They could have chosen to take a few more hunters in training with them but Ni'nat and E'quath mutually agreed that Norm would do better without the additional audience and pressure. Norm gasped an apology as Ni'nat stopped on the ledge above him and gazed down at him with concern.

"I just need a minute," he explained to her, feeling inferior. "I'll be okay."

"Take your time, Norm," she advised patiently.

She was also breathing heavily, so at least he knew he wasn't the only one running out of breath. E'quath shouted an inquiry from somewhere above them and Ni'nat hollered back, assuring him that they would be along shortly.

Norm put his hands on his knees and bowed his head. His braid fell over his shoulder to dangle beneath him as he recovered his strength. He felt a hand stroke his hair and he looked up to see Ni'nat smiling down at him encouragingly. Sweat glistened on her cyan-striped skin in the morning light and her eyes were warm and understanding. He smiled back, feeling a bit better over his need for a break. When he felt strong enough to continue, he nodded at her. She offered a hand down to him and he took it, un-offended by her desire to help. Together, they climbed up the broken steps of floating rock until they joined E'quath on the larger island above.

"Are you ready to jump, Normspellman?" E'quath studied the island above them and gauged the distance between themselves and the vines hanging down from it.

"As ready as I can be," answered Norm truthfully.

E'quath nodded and waited for a moment, before leaping out and catching one of the vines. Norm took a deep breath and waited for another to rotate closer to him. Ni'nat's soft encouragement from behind lent him strength as he gathered his muscles and leaped. For one terrifying moment, he felt his grip slipping on the damp vine and he thought he was going to slide down and off to fall to his death. He held on and clung to the vine, gasping as he waited for his heart to stop pounding so hard. He heard a soft grunt of exertion to his left and he glanced over to see Ni'nat clinging to the vine across from his. Steeling himself, he began to climb. It wasn't that difficult, once he got moving. He wasn't as fast as his two companions but he made it to the larger island above without slipping further.

"Take a moment to rest," suggested E'quath as he helped Norm climb off of the vine and balance himself. "We are here, now. You need full strength."

Norm nodded and sank down beside the waterfall, which dropped over the side of the island. Ni'nat filled her drinking skin with the waterfall and she sat down beside him, offering him the canteen. Norm took it with a smile of gratitude and drank thirstily before handing it back to her. She drank as well and their eyes remained on each other until Norm heard E'quath sigh. Norm hastily looked away from his love interest, embarrassed over his own smitten behavior.

Norm waited until his muscles stopped twitching and his breath came easily again. When he was sure he was ready, he stood up and nodded at E'quath. The tracker approached him and his features warmed as he laid one hand on Norm's shoulder.

"Good luck, brother. You can do this, I know."

Ni'nat stood up to offer her encouragement as well. "You will succeed." Her eyes were full of promise that had nothing to do with the task ahead of him.

Norm took another deep breath and gave them both a nod of thanks. "I have learned a lot from both of you," he said in Na'vi. "I will not disappoint you."

Both of them smiled at him supportively and Norm removed his bow and handed it over to E'quath. He readied his banshee catcher and cautiously moved between the cliff wall and the falling water, reminding himself not to look down. At one point, he felt his foot slip and he nearly panicked, but he caught his balance and he felt his companions' reassuring presence coming up behind him as he continued. He could hear the shrieks and cries of the wild ikran as he passed beneath the waterfall and when he emerged on the other side, he was shocked by how many there were.

Norm didn't take time to wonder how he was going to pick his ikran out from the mass of creatures nesting on the rocky ledges. He knew from what he had been told and the books he had read that he would know which one was for him when he looked it in the eye. He walked cautiously among the rocky path, stopping before each ikran he met and studying it for a reaction. The others followed at a respectful distance, silently watching as Norm tested each creature with his senses. By the time he reached the other side of the island, he was beginning to think that none of the banshees there were for him and his confidence began to lag. He finally spotted a sleek female with purple flesh and blue markings and something inside of him knew that this was the one.

Norm approached the female and studied her silently, half-expecting her to fly off like the others he had confronted. Her yellow eyes stared into his and she spread her wings as she shrieked challengingly at him. His adrenaline spiked and he loosed his banshee catcher, quickly calculating for an opening as she hunched down and glared at him.

Ni'nat and E'quath watched closely as Norm loosed his banshee catcher and began to twirl it. He was keeping his distance, which was prudent. Ni'nat murmured his name under her breath and instinctively reached for her hunting knife, ready to defend him if things went sour. E'quath stood tense beside her and he called out encouragingly to the other male.

Jake had warned that Norm likely wouldn't use typical methods and they weren't disappointed. Rather than immediately try to rope the ikran, he lashed out with his bola and smacked her on the backside. The ikran looked over her shoulder at the unexpected sting, distracted. She returned her attention to Norm a moment later, only to have him pop her again.

"Interesting," E'quath commented with furrowed brows, "I have never seen a hunter use that technique, before."

Ni'nat grinned. Norm's technique was indeed "interesting" and it was keeping the animal distracted enough not to lunge at him. Most hunters just jumped right into it, but he was using every small advantage he could get. As he distracted the ikran with stinging slaps from his catcher, he climbed up to level out the playing field, so that his adversary didn't have the higher ground. He smacked the animal again once he was on the rock outcropping with her and when she looked over her shoulder this time, he lashed out with the banshee catcher and muzzled her before she returned her attention to him.

"Good, Norm!" Ni'nat hooted as he jumped onto the ikran's back.

He already had his queue in one hand and he quickly grabbed hold of one of the creature's antennae to establish the bond. The ikran nearly threw him off and Ni'nat and E'quath tensed, prepared to go to his aid. Norm was ready for the struggle, however. He had his legs wrapped tightly around the sinuous neck and he demonstrated his knowledge that time was of the essence. As he had admitted to Ni'nat, he wasn't the strongest or most skilled hunter, but he made up for lack of physical prowess with an abundance of brainpower. He didn't waist time. With an audible grunt of effort he yanked the antenna close and merged it with his queue, sealing the bond faster than most other hunters managed.

Ni'nat ran toward him with a shout of exuberance and E'quath followed closely behind, grinning broadly. The ikran was momentarily stunned by the bond contact and she blinked in disorientation as she righted herself, with Norm seated securely between her shoulder blades.

"I have never seen an ikran tamed so quickly," announced E'quath when he and Ni'nat reached Norm.

"Well, she would have won in a test of strength," Norm admitted with a shaken laugh. He was breathing heavily and the expression on his face indicated that he was as surprised as they were by his quick success. He patted the creature's neck soothingly. "Steady, girl."

"You must seal the bond," advised E'quath.

"I know," Norm sighed. "This is the part I've really been dreading." He took a firm hold of the ikran's antennae and positioned himself. Unlike Jake, he knew the first flight would be rocky and he was evidently prepared for it. "Let's go, girl."

The ikran spread her wings and lurched to the edge of the mountain, diving off with Norm hanging on tight. Ni'nat heard him hiss a curse as they took off but the anthropologist immediately began instructing the beast with mental commands. Ni'nat and E'quath raced to the edge and looked out anxiously as Norm and his new mount soared away. The flight path was wobbly but Norm seemed to have anticipated this and he steered the animal away from the floating islands and out to the open sky.

"You were right," E'quath said to Ni'nat as Norm steadily gained control over his mount's flight. "He really is more clever than most."

Ni'nat knew she was beaming with pride, but she couldn't restrain her expression. "Let us join him, brother." Both of them had brought their mounts with them and left them at the foot of the mountains. Knowing their bond-riders' needs, the animals would have followed their progression up the mountain.

E'quath nodded and he called out for his ikran. Ni'nat did the same and before long, a red-striped ikran and a green-spotted one flew in and landed before them. Ni'nat stroked Waytelem's snout and murmured to her softly before mounting her. E'quath patted Txep's neck and hopped onto his back. Together, they took off to join Norm. He was so engrossed in commanding his new mount that he gave a visible start of surprise when Ni'nat closed in on him and called out.

"You scared me," he announced with a breathless laugh.

She grinned and flew in closer to him. "My clever Norm," she called, laughing in delight.

E'quath closed in on Norm's other side and he hooted, saluting the anthropologist with the traditional hunter's gesture. Norm gave another start before smiling and returning it unsteadily. While he had evidently caught on fast concerning controlling his mount, he was clearly terrified.

"We will land now," E'quath shouted over the wind. "The bond is sealed and you look pale, Normspellman."

Norm nodded and Ni'nat suppressed a chuckle. It would take time for him to get used to flying and it occurred to her that he probably wouldn't have done this if it weren't a requirement. It hardly mattered, now. He was a true hunter and by the next turn of the planet, he would be Omaticaya forever. Her heart soared with pride, even as it ached with love she never would have expected to feel.

Jake looked up at Norm's flushed, excited face and he immediately guessed that his friend passed his test. The fact that Ni'nat was grinning so proudly and E'quath was regarding the anthropologist with new respect in his eyes sealed the impression.

"So, what do you think of flying, Norm?" Jake smiled at him as he approached the bed, pleased beyond measure that he had succeeded.

"I think I need a little time to get used to it," confessed Norm, "but it was an interesting experience, to say the least."

Neytiri blurted a small hoot and raised a fist in victory, making Jake chuckle. She calmed herself a moment later and smiled brightly at Norm. "You are a hunter, now. What name did you give your ikran?"

"I named her Lrrtok," answered Norm, "because I swear she was grinning when we first dove off that mountain."

The others laughed, appreciating the name. Jake regarded Ni'nat and E'quath when he spoke again. "Was I right? Did this guy pull off something weird or what?"

"His methods were definitely 'weird'," agreed E'quath with a subtle grin in Norm's direction. "But he tamed his ikran faster than any other hunter I have ever seen."

"He distracted her," added Ni'nat with an admiring look Norm's way. "He slapped her in the flanks with his bola and jumped on her back when she was not looking. It was very clever."

"See, I told you." Jake smirked. "Showoff."

Norm shrugged modestly, looking a little embarrassed. "I just worked with what I had. I don't think I could have wrestled with it like you did, Jake."

Neytiri cast a sidelong, admiring look at Jake and her lips curved into a smile. Jake remembered his first ride and he grinned back at her. Maybe his methods weren't subtle but Neytiri obviously was still impressed by his show of strength. "You did good, Norm. You used your wits and you got your ikran. I just wish I could have seen it."

Norm hesitated for a moment and cleared his throat. "You're going to be there, right? For my initiation and the rebirth?"

Jake sobered and nodded sincerely. "I'm not missing that for the world. I don't care if they've got to wheel me in on a plank; I'll be there."

Norm smiled. "I really owe you, Jake."

"Don't be dumb," Jake snorted. "You earned this."

"Even if I did, I wouldn't have had the opportunity if you didn't push for it," Norm persisted. His eyes were warm with uncommon gratitude as he approached Jakes bed and offered his hand. "You're a good friend."

Jake returned his smile and clasped his hand. "I wouldn't have pushed for it if I didn't think you could do it. Congratulations, Norm."

"Just take it easy, Jake." Max held his hands out in a placating gesture as Jake struggled along the supportive bars with Sebastian's help. "You don't want to push yourself too hard, okay?"

Jake shot a grin his way and bit his lip. He was trembling with effort but he was too stubborn and determined to admit defeat. Trudy stood next to Max and she watched as their comrade forced his legs into motion.

"Telling him to take it easy won't do any good," she whispered to Max, grinning as Jake stumbled along. "You should know better than that, bud."

Max grunted and combed his dark hair back from his forehead. "He could hurt himself if we aren't careful. He's made a damned miraculous recovery so far and I don't want to jeopardize it."

Trudy watched Jake's tall form persist in the exercise and she smirked. "I think he knows what he's doing, Max. He's not going to risk putting himself in a wheelchair again, if that's what you're worried about."

"That's exactly what I'm worried about," grumbled Max, "but I guess you're right. Jake's already been crippled once and he's probably not going to risk it happening again."

"My ears are burning, guys," Jake commented with a smirk. "You know I just heard everything you just said, right?"

Trudy grimaced sidelong at Max, who looked entirely too embarrassed. "We're just watching out for you, big guy."

Jake laughed softly. "Relax. I know my limits. Neytiri will kick my ass if I push it too hard."

Trudy grinned. "Figures. You're so whipped, Jake."

Sebastian politely tried to hide his smile as Jake glanced at him for a second opinion. "Yeah well...maybe I'm a little whipped but I'm enjoying it."

Max cleared his throat. "Okay, stop horsing around. How is it feeling, Jake?"

"Pretty good," answered Jake after a second's thought. "I think I've got it."

"May I ask what's so pressing?" Sebastian inquired in his cultured, soft voice.

"Norm's initiation is coming up," Jake grunted. "I've got to be there for it. Oh, and you guys are invited."

Trudy and Max glanced at each other with raised brows before the pilot responded. "Are you saying we get to come to a Na'vi ceremony?"

Jake nodded and stopped, taking a couple of deep breaths before regarding her with a smile. "That's what I'm saying. It's the first time in history that outsiders are allowed to watch it. You two can come because you helped fight against the Sky People. I'm sure Norm will appreciate you being there."

"Damn, Jake," Trudy muttered, shifting uncomfortably. "That's just...what if we piss someone off by saying the wrong thing?"

"Then we don't talk," suggested Max. He smiled at Jake. "This is going to be amazing. Thanks for the invitation, Jake."

Jake nodded before draping an arm around Sebastian's supportive shoulders again. "Mo'at suggested it. She sent word through a messenger this morning after she heard that Norm finished his trial. She likes you guys."

"See?" Trudy nudged Max playfully with her elbow. "Jake's got the coolest mother-in-law around."

The time for Norm's initiation ceremony came around and Jake refused all suggestions that he stay in the hospital.

"I've got to do this," he said with finality to Dr. Jacobs. "I have to be there. I'll come back when it's finished, but this is really important."

Roy sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. "I can't very well stop you Sully, but you must remember that you have some therapy to go through before you're in the clear. Do you promise you'll return for the remainder of your recovery, once this is finished?"

Jake nodded. "I'll come right back. I've just got to see this through."

He stood up and put an arm over his mate's supportive shoulders as Max wheeled in an appropriately sized wheelchair for him. Neytiri helped Jake ease himself down on it and Max refrained from taking hold of the handles, rightly guessing that Jake would want to push himself to the air transport.

Dr. Jacobs looked at Max, once Jake and Neytiri left the room. "You'll be sure to bring him back?"

"Of course," Max agreed.

Norm listened to the drums and the voices of the chanting Na'vi. He closed his eyes, hardly believing he was finally getting what he had wanted for so long. Ni'nat dipped her fingers into the bowl of white paint and she reverently decorated his body with tribal whorls and sigils, gazing at him with quiet pride as she worked.

"You have done well, Norm," Ni'nat complimented softly. Her fingers painted the symbols over his chest with graceful care. "Soon, you will be one of us."

Norm opened his eyes and returned her gaze levelly. "It's all I ever wanted."

Ni'nat smiled with pleasure before dipping her fingers back into the white paint and dragging them slowly over his face, completing the symbolic pattern. When she was finished, she dropped her hands to the sides and leaned towards him to press her mouth against his.

"I see you," she murmured.

Norm felt his heart swell and he reached out to place his hands on her shoulders. "I see you," he replied sincerely.

She kissed him once more before dipping her fingers into the bowl of water to clean the paint from them. Once that was done, she took one of his hands in hers and she guided him away from the secluded spot, towards the gathering of clan members waiting around the base of Hometree. Jake stood between Neytiri and Mo'at, watching quietly as they approached. One almost couldn't guess that he was in a weakened state, by his strong, determined stance. The only thing that gave away his injury was the way Neytiri kept one arm around him to steady his balance.

Norm saw Trudy and Max standing near the back of the crowd and he was comforted by their presence. He approached Mo'at with solemn dignity, favoring her with a heartfelt gesture of respect as she smiled at him.

"You have completed your trials, Normspellman," Mo'at announced, loudly enough for everyone to hear. "You have proven that you are worthy to become one of the People. From this day forward, you are one of the Omaticaya. You are a brother to us. What harm comes to you, comes to us all. My people, welcome our newest brother."

She laid her hands on his shoulders and Jake and Neytiri did the same. Other hands touched Norm from behind and he could feel the circle of comradery close around him, embracing him with acceptance and warmth. He saw E'quath a few feet back to the left and the tall warrior gave him a subtle smile and a nod of respect. Norm responded in kind, hardly believing he had accomplished his goal.

Far in the back, Trudy hastily reached under her mask and wiped her eyes. Max caught the gesture and he leaned toward her with a smile.

"Are you crying?"

"Got something in my eye," she excused with a telling sniffle. "Don't get too excited."

Max smiled but the gesture was strained. Norm's trial wasn't completely over, after all. His human body was waiting in the Samson they had piloted there. The real test would come when they ended the link between Norm's human body and his avatar body, so that Mo'at could attempt to guide him through the eye of Eywa. If it succeeded, Norm Spellman's human body would die and he would be living in his avatar body for the rest of his life. If it failed, Norm would simply die.

"Norm are you absolutely sure about this?" Max knew he had asked it at least a dozen times now, but as he walked beside his friend into the glade surrounding the Tree of Souls, he felt compelled to ask again.

"I'm positive," Norm answered, hardly pausing his steps. E'quath walked nearby, carrying Norm's avatar body. Ni'nat was at the warrior's side and she gazed at Norm with obvious concern and love.

"It's his call," Trudy reminded Max in a low voice. "I think he can pull it off."

When they arrived at the base of the huge tree, Ni'nat took both of Norm's hands in hers and whispered fond encouragement in Na'vi. Jake was seated near the roots of the tree next to Neytiri, having worn himself out to the point where he could not stand any longer. Mo'at gestured for Norm and E'quath to come forward and Norm dutifully did so. If he minded the ivy leaves covering his human body, he didn't show it. He lay down on his side as instructed and E'quath carefully lowered his avatar body down next to him and arranged the limbs.

The assembly quieted when Mo'at lifted her arms. She looked out at her people, then down at Norm before beginning. "Great Mother, we pray to you," she called out.

The gathered Na'vi repeated her, including Jake and Neytiri. Tendrils of light glowed along the ground as their gathered thoughts and desires sifted from their queues to the tree.

"This being has proven himself worthy," Mo'at continued, "we ask that you help him pass into a new life!"

Trudy began to tense without even realizing it as she watched the fog of Norm's breath on his mask slow. She felt Max's hand slide into hers and she squeezed it impulsively, holding her breath as the prayers and pleads continued until Norm's body stopped breathing. Jake had struggled to his feet with Neytiri's help and he was watching Norm with grim determination.

"Oh God, please let this work," Trudy whispered.

She had been nonchalant about Norm's decision before but the realization that he could easily die in this ceremony struck her like a ton of bricks. She noticed his Na'vi girlfriend up the front as Ni'nat stood up from her place on the ground and looked at Norm's two bodies anxiously.

Mo'at held up her hands for silence and the chanting stopped. The ground at the roots of the tree continued to glow as she squatted down over Norm's avatar and stroked his hair, examining his face intently. For several heartbeats, it seemed that the process failed. Trudy swallowed hard, fighting back a moan of grief. She saw Max blink his eyes and set his jaw from her peripheral vision.

Norm felt himself floating away from his body and he knew with dread certainty that he was dying. He saw a tunnel of scintillating light; not unlike the one he saw in his mind's eye when he linked with his avatar. A blue-striped feminine hand suddenly reached through the tunnel and caught hold of his.

"Come on, kid. I've got you."

Norm looked into a pair of dearly missed eyes and his heart clenched. "Grace?"

She smiled. "The one and only. Let's get you sorted out."

The fading feeling went away and suddenly he was rushing into his avatar body with such speed, it was dizzying. Grace vanished and Norm felt the hard-packed earth against his cheek.

Norm's avatar suddenly blinked, opening disoriented, amber eyes. Jake grinned broadly and nearly collapsed. Neytiri swiftly supported him while Mo'at helped Norm to sit up. Looking around with stunned confusion, Norm's eyes swept over the assembly.

"That was...weird. Did it work?" Norm asked in a sleepy voice. He looked down at his human body and he stared. "Oh. I guess it did."

"This body is empty now," Mo'at reminded Norm in a kind voice. She helped him to stand up and she placed a hand over his heart. "You have received our Mother's blessing, Normspellman. This is your body, from now on."

Trudy couldn't help it; she hollered at the top of her lungs as if she were at a rock concert. Several Na'vi turned to look at her with looks ranging from annoyance to amusement but she hardly cared. "Yah! You did it, Norm!"

Norm looked over the crowd at her and he gave a modest, happy smile to her and Max. He touched his forehead in a gesture of respect to Mo'at as he struggled to orient himself. "Thank you for this, Tsahik. I will not take this gift for granted."

As happy as Norm was over his successful transition, he couldn't look down at his human body without a faint twinge of alarm. "What will they do with me? I"

Jake came to his side and hung onto one of the tree's branches for support. "They'll give a respectful burial. You don't have to participate in it, Norm." His golden eyes were frankly worried on him. "Are you okay?"

Norm hesitated a moment before answering. "Yeah, I'm okay. It's just a little strange." He gestured at his human body. "It feels almost like that was the avatar and this is where I was supposed to be."

"I get that," Jake said sincerely, nodding. "It's going to feel more natural in a few days. Sometimes it's even hard to remember I used to be human. Oh, and Grace wanted me to tell you she's proud of you. I was waiting for the right moment and I think this is it."

Norm stared at Jake as if he'd sprouted a second tail.

"Hey, I'm not making this up," Jake insisted. "I know it sounds crazy but while I was out and getting my back worked on, she stayed with me."

"You were under the influence of a Na'vi sleep potion," Norm reminded him with raised eyebrows.

"I know what I saw. She said I've got no luck with thanators and she also said you're a good kid and I'm a troublemaker." Jake grinned.

Norm began to believe him, despite all logic. "That does sound like her. So, she just came to you?"

"In her avatar form," answered the other male with a nod. "And she was just as feisty and snarky as ever. I told her you probably wouldn't believe me and she said you could take it or leave it, as long as I got the message to you."

Norm thought about what happened during his passing through the eye of Eywa. "I believe you, Jake."

"You do?" The other man looked surprised.

Norm nodded and looked him in the eye. "When I was going through the transference, I almost didn't make it. I thought I was going to die but then..."

"What?" Jake prompted, tilting his head.

"Grace helped me. It was only for a moment but she took my hand and she helped me get into my avatar body. I wouldn't have made it without her."

Jake nodded slowly and Mo'at smiled, having overhead the conversation. "Spirits help those they love, when they can."

People began to approach Norm to offer congratulations to him and their conversation was put on hold. Norm didn't have much of a choice except to thank each Omaticaya that stepped up to pat him on the shoulder and welcome him to the clan. The crowd began to thin as people left to return to Hometree.

"Where are Neytiri and Ni'nat?" Norm asked Jake after accepting E'quath's hearty congratulations. He looked around, a bit disappointed that Ni'nat hadn't approached him like the others.

Jake was looking to the east and he nodded his head in that direction. "Looks like they're having some girl talk," he said.

Norm followed his gaze and he spotted his intended off near the forest, speaking with Neytiri. Jake's mate leaned in to whisper something in Ni'nat's ear and the two of them looked directly at Norm. Ni'nat's eyes widened and she smiled, muttering something to Neytiri. The other woman nodded and patted her on the shoulder with a grin.

"Oh, shit."

Norm looked at Jake, startled. "What? Is something wrong?"

Jake studied the two women for a moment before leaning closer to Norm and answering him in a low murmur. "I think I know what they're talking about and I'm going to give you a piece of advice."

Norm shrugged. "Okay."

"If Ni'nat starts reaching for your tail, you'd better brace yourself."

Norm was sure he had a comical look of confusion on his face. "Uh...sure. Why, though? I never read anything specific about Na'vi tails—"

"You won't find this in a book," Jake chuckled, shaking his head. "Just trust me. You're going to be screwed if she starts playing with your tail."

Norm was sure Jake had to be messing with him. He stared at him suspiciously and prepared to ask him exactly what he meant by that, but Max and Trudy interrupted him.

"Congratulations, Norm." Max stuck a hand out and Norm shook it with a smile. "You had us pretty worried for a moment, there. I'm relieved that you pulled through."

Trudy took his place a moment later and the small, tough brunette hugged Norm around the waist, hard enough to make him breathless. Norm chuckled and patted her on the back. "I'm all right," he assured her.

"I know," Trudy said as she pulled away and regained control of her emotions. "It just freaked me out when you stopped breathing. Can you blame me?"

Norm shook his head and smiled. "No, I can't blame you. We're even though. I wasn't exactly calm when I found out you were alive."

Trudy laughed and elbowed Max. "Yeah, I thought you and Jake were going to hug me to death. Then Max here turned into a big baby."

"Nothing wrong with being loved," Jake insisted with a grin.

Max glanced down at Norm's human body and he shivered a little. "Well Jake, we need to get you back on the helicopter," he said, changing the subject. "You made a promise to keep with your therapy until you're healed and you look like you're about wiped out."

Jake gave the doctor an annoyed look but he sighed and nodded. "Norm, would you get Neytiri for me?"

Mo'at came to his side and touched his forehead with a frown, checking his temperature with maternal worry. "You have pushed yourself too hard, son."

"I'll go and get Neytiri for you," Norm promised, seeing the exhaustion in his friend's stance that he had hidden so well up until now.

He jogged over to Jake's mate, feeling a little guilty. The only reason Jake had worn himself out was so that he could be there for Norm's initiation and ascension. Norm dearly hoped that Jake hadn't hurt himself. He saw Neytiri but Ni'nat was no longer there. Confused by her disappearance, Norm fought a frown as he approached.

"They're getting ready to board the aircraft," he explained to Neytiri when he reached her side. "Jake needs to get back to the hospital and get some rest."

Neytiri's eyes shifted to her mate with concern and she nodded. "I will be sure he rests. You stay with the clan and celebrate."

Norm agreed with her logic. It would be rude to take off right after being embraced by his new family. "I'll come and visit in a couple of days. you know where Ni'nat went?"

Neytiri smiled warmly at him and Norm had to take a moment to admire her beauty. No wonder Jake was so crazy about Neytiri. She really did have a sweet, beautiful smile when she chose to share it with people.

"You will find her in the lake nearby," explained Neytiri, pointing to the eastern part of the forest behind her. "She wanted to bathe for you."

"Oh." Norm's words were lodged in his throat like a piece of half-swallowed food and he had to swallow to get more out. "S-so should I go and look for her?"

Neytiri chuckled softly. "You act like Jake, now."

Norm caught on that she was politely calling him a moron and he coughed to cover up a laugh. "I guess that means yes."

"If you wish to be mated to her, yes," agreed Neytiri more soberly. "I can tell you now. She has chosen you, Norm. Only you. All that is left is for you to accept and bond with her."

Norm felt a smile growing on his lips and he was powerless to stop it. His heart was beating so fast he was sure Neytiri could hear it. "Really?"

Neytiri tilted her head and a teasing glint shone in her amber gaze. "Are you still Norm, or are you my Jake, trapped in his body?"

"I heard that," Jake called out from the tree.

Norm bit his lips on a smirk. "He's got great hearing."

Neytiri laughed openly and patted Norm on the arm. "He knows I play. Now go. Seal the bond you have both waited for and enjoy the night. Welcome to our clan, Norm."

Norm caught sight of E'quath and the tracker gave him a subtle smile and a nod of approval. His way was clear now, on all accounts. "Thank you, Neytiri," he said with all sincerity. "I'll see you and Jake in a couple of days."

"You told her about the tail thing, didn't you?" Jake murmured the inquiry into his mate's ear as the aircraft lifted off.

Neytiri looked at him sidelong and there was smug satisfaction in her eyes as she shrugged. "All women should know how to please their mates."

Jake snorted. "On Earth there's a saying. 'She's got you by the balls'. It usually just means a guy's so stuck on his woman he can't see straight but when it comes to that tail spot, it's practically literal."

Neytiri looked faintly puzzled, only understanding half of what he said. "But you like it when I massage your 'balls'."

"That isn't what I meant," Jake laughed, shaking his head. "I just mean...well, maybe you gave Ni'nat too powerful a weapon to use, so early."

Neytiri grinned and she checked to make sure Max and Trudy weren't looking through the cockpit before laying her head on Jake's shoulder. She stroked his chest and kissed his neck. "You complain, but I know you like it when I stroke your tail."

Jake's breath caught and his groin stirred shamelessly. "Okay, so I like it...a lot. It's just really intense. I don't want to find out Norm and Ni'nat have mauled each other by accident, you know?"

"I am sure Ni'nat will practice restraint."

"Ha! You mean like the kind I used on you after you stole my loincloth?" Jake smirked at her. "As much as those two want each other, do you really think either of them are going to be able to hold back?"

Neytiri paused in her seductive actions and she frowned, seeing Jake's point. "It could be that I told her too soon," she admitted.

"I win." Jake grinned at her and before she could do more than give him an indignant look, he cupped her chin and kissed her.

"Damn, do you two ever stop?" Trudy's voice came through over the transmission.

Jake broke the kiss and looked at the pilot, who had turned around in her seat to check on them. Her shades concealed her eyes but her teasing grin was wide as she peered through the separating transparent barrier from the cockpit. Max was pretending not to notice a thing, sitting in the copilot seat beside her and staring out the window with intense concentration.

"Wait till you get married one day," Jake countered with a grin.

"According to every married couple I know, sex stops after the rings are exchanged," Trudy shot back. "Maybe Humans should adopt Na'vi mating practices."

"Tree," Max said. "Trudy, there's a tree!"

"Whoops. I got it...calm down."

Jake instinctively held Neytiri close as the Samson abruptly inclined. "How about you pay a little less attention to what we're doing and a little more to your flying?"

"Nag, nag, nag." Trudy replied. "I'm so under-appreciated."

-To be continued


Waytelem = Song chord

Txep = Fire

Lrrtok = Smile

Chapter Text

Norm pushed aside plants as his footsteps took him deeper into the forest. He wondered for a little while if he was on the right track, but he heard the sound of splashing water up ahead. He kept going, mulling things over in his mind.

"Ni'nat, I love you. No, that's too abrupt. Ni'nat, I want you. Damn, too cheesy."

He kept muttering under his breath as he went, hardly paying attention to his own footsteps. He had his bow and his hunting knife of course, but there was hardly a need for the weapons, this close to the Tree of Souls. The forest animals rarely attacked Na'vi here. Norm continued to work up scenarios in his head, battling his Human cultural upbringing as he tried to think of the best way to express his love for the beautiful Na'vi woman.

"Ni'nat, I..." He pushed aside some native ferns at that moment and his words abruptly lodged in his throat. He had reached the lake. Ni'nat was utterly naked and the luminance from the plant life on the lake floor made the body of water glow. She was submerged to the waist and washing her hair. Norm could see every detail as Ni'nat tilted her head back and scrubbed her dark hair with natural plant extracts. Her perfect breasts were fully exposed, her dark nipples were erect and her eyes were shut.

"Oh...god," Norm whispered, feeling like a peeping Tom. He stared helplessly at her glorious, dripping beauty and he imagined that he would soon catch flies, if he didn't shut his mouth.

Ni'nat paused and glanced in his direction before ducking beneath the water to rinse out her loosened hair. Guessing that she probably knew he was there, Norm gathered his wits as best he could and he straightened up. There was no sense in staying hunkered down in the bushes and unless he was completely off-base, her actions were deliberately enticing.

"Ni'nat?" Norm called softly when she emerged again, pushing his way past the bushes.

He half-expected her to duck down into the water to hide her nudity but she gazed directly into his eyes, with no modesty at all. Rivulets of water dripped down over her smooth, naked skin and Norm's eyes followed them dumbly.

Na'vi women were raised to express what they wanted, once the time was right. There was no shame or hesitation in her eyes as she smiled at him. "Norm," she purred, holding out her hands invitingly. "Come."

Norm could think of about a dozen juvenile responses to her simple command and his body's reactions would certainly have confirmed them. Desperate not to insult her, he managed to choke out: "Okay" before walking thoughtlessly to the edge of the lake. His right foot got caught on her discarded garments and he shook her loincloth off of it. He flushed when he realized that he was about to walk right into that lake without removing his clothing or weapons. Ni'nat was smiling coyly at him, as if she realized the same thing. She deliberately arched her back to display her breasts better and Norm almost took a running dive.

"Remove your clothing," she demanded with a heated, sweeping glance of his body.

Norm wasn't about to argue with her. He immediately fumbled with his weapons harness, cursing under his breath as his inordinately clumsy fingers failed to cooperate with him quickly enough. He got the laces untied and he practically yanked the article off of him, hardly paying attention as it landed with a plop next to Ni'nat's discarded gear. He slipped out of his loincloth more easily and he suffered a moment of acute embarrassment as her yellow eyes settled on his erection.

"I am a very blessed female," Ni'nat breathed, her gaze fixated on Norm's endowments.

Norm didn't know whether to be flattered or worried. It wasn't the first compliment to his size that he had ever received, but this wasn't about length or girth. He took a deep breath and he began to wade into the lake, towards the female who seemed suddenly shy. Ni'nat didn't pull away from him as he closed the distance and Norm gazed into her eyes. He traced her features with dampened fingertips and smiled gently at her.

"Am I really the one you want?"

Ni'nat nodded and turned her head to kiss the palm of his hand. "The only one," she assured him.

He lowered his mouth to hers without further hesitation. Her wet body pressed against his and his libido flared to an almost painful state as her breasts pushed against his chest. He kissed her desperately and his tail lashed in the water. She responded with equal desperation, winding her arms around his neck and moaning low in her throat. Beneath the water, his stiffened groin pushed against her lower abdomen and she gasped into his mouth, suddenly hopping up. Her thighs embraced his waist and Norm barely had time to realize that the growling sound he heard was coming from his throat before she panted his name.

His painful, long-held desire for her overthrew any logic he might have possessed and he cupped her bottom and supported her. He began to wade to the embankment, curling his tongue against hers with deprived need. When he reached the shore, he lowered her onto the moss and covered her body with his.

"Ni'nat," he panted, feeling like he could explode with lust, "I've wanted this so much."

"My Norm," she replied huskily, kissing his throat. She cupped his bottom and spread her thighs invitingly.

Norm fondled her breasts with one hand for a few moments, admiring the way her lips parted and her body writhed with pleasure beneath his. He slipped his hand down and he gently stroked a finger against the flushed nub of flesh just above her feminine folds. Ni'nat gasped his name and writhed against him as he fondled the area until he felt the slippery, natural lubrication that he needed.

"I can't wait anymore," Norm apologized as he lined his waiting erection up. He paused for a moment to grasp hold of her braid, dragging it close to his. "Ni'nat," he gasped as their queues connected and he felt her desire flowing into his.

He caressed her face and looked into her heavy-lidded eyes as he pressed himself against her entrance and drove in. In his greed to be inside of her, he completely overlooked her virginity. Norm stopped in complete shock when he broke past the barrier and felt her pain through the link.

"I'm sorry," he whispered raggedly, kissing her over and over again. "I'm sorry, Ni'nat. I...wasn't thinking."

She was tense for a few moments beneath him, but she reached up and stroked his damp hair, smiling reassuringly at him. "Shh," she advised calmly. She licked his chin before pressing her forehead against his chest. "It will pass."

Norm stayed still within her, shutting his eyes with remorse. If he had taken time to think, he would have been much more gentle. Her natural sensuality and confidence had fooled him, even though he knew in the back of his mind that this was going to be her first time. He waited until the pain he felt through the link faded before lowering his head to nuzzle her.

"Are you okay?"

Ni'nat kissed his jaw and hugged his waist with her thighs. "You did not hurt me much, my Norm."

"I would rather not hurt you at all," he whispered sincerely, holding her eyes.

She smiled softly at him and she traced his features with her fingertips. "It feels better now," she assured him. "Norm, do not stop."

He felt the lingering ache from her but he also felt the growing pleasure and need. He gave her a few moments, kissing her softly and whispering to her as he waited for her discomfort to ebb.

When he thought she was ready for more, he began to move slowly.

"Oh," Norm gasped, unprepared for the combined sensation of lovemaking and the direct sharing of feelings, "N-Ni'nat."

She closed her eyes and adjusted to the feel of his swollen flesh moving back and forth inside of her. Ni'nat parted her lips and moaned his name unsteadily, clutching at his shoulders. He felt her confused pleasure through the link and Norm kissed her deeply, his breath escaping through his nose. He rocked slowly against her, being as gentle as he could while her body got used to his invasion.

She began to hesitantly move against him, undulating her hips until she was in synch with his motions. He could feel the resistance of her tight sheath easing, as well as her increasing pleasure. The link they shared allowed him to know exactly how she was feeling and he groaned softly and kissed her again. He muttered her name tensely and he began to thrust a little harder, feeling the blood rush to his face as his passion increased.

Now that she was more or less comfortable with the sensation of having him inside of her, Ni'nat began to touch him with increasing boldness. Her hands slid down his back to cup his bottom and when he kissed her again, she thrust her tongue into his mouth eagerly. The action excited Norm further and he had to stop his pumping for a moment and take several deep breaths. She breathlessly asked him if she did something wrong and he gave her a strained smile before reassuring her.

"You're doing everything right," he panted. "A little too right. I've just got to calm down a little."

She must have felt his sexual tension through the link because she smiled up at him gently. Her nails skimmed pleasantly over his buttocks and she kissed his chest and throat tenderly, holding still for him while he recuperated. When Norm felt that he could continue without the risk of orgasm too soon, he began to move again. His lips met hers and he balanced himself with one arm so that he could explore her damp body with one hand. She trembled as he fondled a breast and teased the nipple to hardness.

Feeling the pleasure that his touch was giving her, Norm decided to use his mouth. Ni'nat gasped and arched her back as he lowered his head and drew on her nipple with his lips. He stroked his tongue over the hard bud and kept his rhythm steady and smooth, groaning deep in his throat. He switched to the other breast to give it the same attention and he felt her rising tension through the link. She mewled his name in that special way of hers and her body began to tense warningly. Norm kept at it with determination, panting softly as he eased her into her climax. When she came, he felt it acutely and between the shared sensation and the feel of her inner muscles contracting around his sex, he was driven to join her.

Norm gasped her name and kissed her hard as he pulsed inside of her. Ni'nat moaned loudly and embraced him tightly. Their mutual pleasure fed on each other, drawing out their orgasms for much longer than Norm considered natural. He certainly didn't mind. He came until he had nothing left to give and Ni'nat was still clenching around him after he was spent.

Norm supported his weight on both elbows to avoid crushing her and he kissed her with sated, loving feeling as she spiraled back down to Pandora. She returned his kisses and her hands stroked his back and bottom leisurely. He didn't withdraw from her because he sensed how much she enjoyed the feel of his softening member inside of her body. After several minutes of unhurried kissing and caressing, Norm began to recover and he was a little surprised by how quickly he began to stiffen again inside of her.

He sensed a little soreness from her end but when he carefully eased out to the tip and slid in again, there was far more pleasure than discomfort. "Do you want me to stop?" Norm asked her softly as he gently began to move.

She shook her head and the pattern of luminescent spots on her face and throat glowed brightly. "Please," she purred, "Don't stop."

Norm thought she was the most fantastic woman in existence and he let her know as much out loud before he knew what he was saying. Her shaken, breathless laugh made him smile and he kissed her as he resumed his lovemaking. Ni'nat's hands wandered his body attentively, the fingers kneading his shoulders and back before sliding lower to fondle his flexing bottom again. They skimmed over his tail and he found the sensation pleasurable.

Norm thought nothing of it until her fingers curled around the base of his tail. He remembered Jake's warning and he slowed his pumping, looking down at her curiously. She began to scratch the underside of it at the base and Norm's eyes went wide as the sensations zipped up his spine.

~So that's what Jake meant. It's like a g-spot or someTHING!~

Norm's thoughts were abruptly put to a standstill as Ni'nat discovered a particularly sensitive spot that made his back arch.

"Oh, wait," He begged breathlessly, trying to gather his wits. "Unh...Ni'nat...ah!"

She didn't stop and Norm was overwhelmed by the intensity of it. He panted her name and pushed hard and deep into her before moving his hips restlessly from side to side.

"Oh god...oh, Ni'nat...I can't," Norm gasped, hardly aware of what he was saying. She growled aggressively, sharing his pleasure as she stimulated the spot. Norm started thrusting rapidly, helpless to control his body. He tingled from head to toe as she relentlessly played and he cried her name with each thrust of his hips. He pressed his mouth to hers for a passionate kiss and she responded with blissful enthusiasm, her cries muffled by his mouth.

Norm had never felt anything quite like this before and he struggled to contain his moans and cries as his lover manipulated his body to the breaking point. He growled, warned and finally pleaded with her as Ni'nat's touch drove him beyond all control. She whimpered his name and she didn't relent. Norm pumped harder and faster, kissing her desperately as his ecstasy consumed him. Her cries grew louder and rougher as she matched his motions. The nails of her free hand raked his back and she mewled his name again.

He couldn't take it any longer. He stared down at her blankly as he pushed hard and deep inside. His lips parted on a moan and she stared up at him with equal fascination, her muscles clenching rhythmically around his flesh as she climaxed with him. Norm shuddered with pleasure as her body milked his seed from him and he blurted her name one last time in a raw voice. All of his strength left him with the expulsion of his seed and he collapsed on top of her, panting heavily.

"Norm," Ni'nat gasped, stroking his wet hair. "My Norm."

"That," Norm panted, "was mean."

Ni'nat had the grace to look at least a little chagrined but he could see the spark of satisfaction behind her eyes as he studied her flushed features. Norm began to smile, despite his accusation. He kissed her slowly, still breathing heavily from his latest release.

"You did not like it?" Ni'nat questioned when his mouth parted from hers again. Her voice was ragged with pleasure and out of breath.

"Oh, I liked it," Norm assured her, flushing a little with bashfulness. He was sure she knew exactly how much he had enjoyed it, so there was no point in pretending otherwise. "I just wasn't expecting something so intense."

She stroked wayward, damp strands of hair away from his forehead and smiled up at him proudly. "I liked doing that to you, Norm. Your reactions pleased me."

He nearly groaned. Everything about Ni'nat was so sexually appealing. He knew he would be the envy of plenty of males for mating with her. She was definitely sore now...there was no denying it. He was sure he would harden again soon if he stayed inside of her so he carefully eased himself out, kissing her softly when she made a low sound of discomfort. When he glanced down and saw a small smear of blood, he winced with guilt and he kissed her again.

"Come on," Norm whispered, gathering her into his arms.

"What are we doing?" Ni'nat murmured sleepily as she put her arms around his neck and allowed him to lift her.

"Bathing again." He examined her and he smiled. "You have moss in your hair and dirt on your back. The water should help sooth you a little, too."

"I am all right," she insisted, even as she bit her lip when her pelvis shifted.

"I know you are," he assured her, "but you're still hurting and I'm half at fault for that."

She smiled at him and sighed with content, resting her cheek against his shoulder as he carried her into the water. They bathed one another slowly, taking time to familiarize themselves further with each other's body. Norm nuzzled her and apologized again when he gingerly checked her tender parts and she winced. He told her to wait while he broke tsahaylu and submerged into the water. Ni'nat watched curiously as he gathered some plant leaves from the bottom of the lake before resurfacing. He waded to the shore and searched until he found a specific berry bush he was looking for.

"Norm, those are poisonous, aren't they?"

He smiled reassuringly at her as he squeezed the berries to get the milky extract from them. "Only if you ingest them. They have antiseptic properties when applied topically."

She looked at him blankly and he remembered she wasn't familiar with half of the words he had used. "That is, they can be used as a numbing medicine. I'm just going to mix them with the juice from some of this lake kelp and I'll have you feeling better, okay?"

She smiled at him, making him feel like he was doing something heroic by tending to her aches. He tried to avoid looking at her nudity, knowing that too much visual attention to her damp body would only put him in another state of arousal. Her long hair hung in a wet curtain down her back and her shoulders sparkled with droplets of water in the moonlight. Norm forced himself to look away from her and pay attention to the mixture he was putting together in his palm.

"Okay, it's ready," he announced when he was satisfied with the blend of the plant gels in his palm. "Will you come here?"

She waded to the shore and stood before him trustingly. Norm took a deep breath before encouraging her to part her legs enough to give him room and she put her arms around his neck as he lowered his hand to smooth the ointment over her labia.

"It might sting a little at first," he warned her.

She nodded and accepted his ministrations without more than a little hiss of complaint. He cursed himself as his body reacted to touching her intimately, despite the purpose behind it. Ni'nat was no help; she reached down and petted his stiffening shaft with curious delight.

"Maybe you shouldn't do that right now," Norm whispered. His cock swelled further and he clenched his jaw, enjoying her gentle touch far too much.

"You do not like it?" She was grinning saucily at him, hinting that she knew better.

Norm chuckled and he gazed into her eyes. "Of course, I like it. I just...well, I guess I'll just have to control myself." She certainly had the right to familiarize herself with whatever body part she wished.

"My Norm," she sighed happily, kissing his throat as she gripped his thickened flesh and stroked it lovingly.

He put his arms around her and allowed her to touch him at her leisure, even as his breath quickened in result. Fortunately, Ni'nat was merciful and she kept going until he came in her hand. In the back of his mind, Norm wondered if they were ever going to get clean and stay that way. She kissed his gasping lips and murmured endearments to him as his climax ran its course. Once he recovered, he bathed his lower parts once again and she rinsed her hands off in the lake.

"Okay, this time we really need to dry off and get back to Hometree," Norm insisted, though he was grinning like an idiot.

"So, have you been...busy?" Jake's shameless grin left little doubt of the meaning behind the question. Nearly a week had passed since Norm's ascension and subsequent mating bond with Ni'nat. Fortunately, Neytiri was out hunting so Norm's embarrassment was between himself and Jake.

"I meant to come and visit sooner," Norm said, trying to change the subject.

"But she had you by the tail, I'm sure." Jake's dry comment was followed up with a laugh.

Norm shrugged, blushing hotly. "You could say that. You didn't tell me it would be that...intense."

"Hey, I warned you that you'd be screwed if she started playing around with it," Jake reminded him. "That should have given you a clue."

"Yeah, that's fair," agreed Norm with a sigh. "How is the therapy coming along?"

"Great," answered Jake. "I can walk on my own now without support. Max and Roy think I ought to be able to try running in a week but they're being pretty strict, right now."

"Good, they need to be," Norm said firmly. "So how many times have you gotten caught wandering around when you aren't supposed to be?"

"Seven, so far. Neytiri really let me have it last night so I've been behaving myself today."

Norm laughed and rolled his eyes. "You're braver than you are smart, Jake. I wouldn't want to make Neytiri angry."

Jake shrugged, grinning with good humor. "I can always fall back on the 'moron' excuse. Besides, she never stays mad at me for long." He cleared his throat meaningfully, hinting that he had other ways to ease her temper that were best left unsaid.

"You're just asking for trouble," Norm warned. "I wouldn't push it, if I were you."

"I said I'm behaving myself today," Jake pointed out, chuckling.

"Like that's going to last. What else has been going on around here while I've been away?"

Jake scratched his head where the new hair growth was steadily getting longer and thicker. "Not a lot. Sebastian comes by a lot. He's a nice guy but I wish he'd stop treating me like King Arthur back from the dead. It's kind of embarrassing."

Norm smiled. "You saved him from a life of mental instability. He's probably going to express his gratitude for a while."

"I guess so. Hell, if it makes him happy I can put up with it for a while longer. I thought about faking a fall the other day so I could give him a reason to help me and tell him we're even."

"That's just..." Norm sputtered.

"Stupid, I know." Jake smirked at him. "I didn't go through with it. With my luck I would have really hurt myself and ended up stuck in here longer."

"Well at least you used a little common sense and changed your mind. Do us all a favor and keep that up, Jake. We don't need you pulling any stunts and slowing down your recovery."

Jake sighed. "Yeah, yeah. So when are you and Ni'nat going to start making the rugrats? Is our kid going to have a playmate to grow up with?"

"W-we just paired up less than a week ago, Jake!"

The clan leader shrugged. "So what? Lots of couples are taking advantage of the piece and quiet while it lasts and working on bringing our numbers back up. Besides, I'd feel a little better knowing you were going through it too. I haven't forgotten that crack you made about Lamaze breathing."

"Right, because that's just what we need," Norm countered, "both of us screaming our heads off."

Jake laughed at the mental image. "You don't think it's scary at all?"

Norm shrugged. "Being a parent for the first time is scary for anybody. Sharing the labor is only going to be a temporary part of it, Jake. Once that's over, you're going to be worrying about every cut and bruise your kid gets and someday, you'll have to explain the facts of life. If you have a daughter, you'll be worrying about males trying to get too familiar with her. If you have a son, you'll worry about him getting into fights."

Jake became increasingly anxious as Norm described all these things he had never even thought of. "That's go home and get Ni'nat pregnant right now. I'm not doing this alone."

Norm laughed, not only because it was a ridiculous demand but because Jake's expression was dead-serious. "You'll have Neytiri, remember? You won't be doing it alone. Besides, it's not something I can just push even if I wanted to. You know Na'vi reproduction doesn't work that way. I can't just run home and 'decide' to get Ni'nat pregnant. When she's ready, she'll let me know."

"Yeah, she'll let you know, all right." Jake thought about how many times he and Neytiri mated when she was ready to start on their family and he grinned, surprised her vigor didn't cripple him before the thanator smacked him into the tree. He sighed. "I guess there really isn't such a thing as accidental pregnancies with the Na'vi."

"No, but there is such a thing as unplanned ones," Norm corrected. "The women don't breed unless they're in heat but that doesn't always mean they're mentally ready for it. It's hard to say who's got it worse, if you think about it. At least Humans can abstain if they don't want to risk it but it can get physically painful for Na'vi women if they don't satisfy their mating urges."

Jake's eyebrows shot up. "I never knew that. I mean I know they get really frisky but I didn't know it can hurt. Damn, what do they do if they aren't mated or if their man's away somewhere...masturbate?"

"I guess they could do that," Norm shrugged, "but Na'vi women are really in touch with the cycles of life. If they don't have a mate available, they don't go into heat. The same goes for when there isn't enough food to go around or when the clan is on the verge of overpopulation. It's pretty simple." He frowned at him. "You don't know all of this by now?"

"You're the anthropologist," Jake said dryly. "I'm the marine, remember? Biology isn't my strong point."

"Well if I can learn to hunt and shoot and fight, you can learn this stuff." Norm took a seat in the chair. "There are a lot of things you need to learn, so pay attention."

Jake groaned. "Aw, come on...I'm not in the mood for—"

"Too bad," interrupted Norm. "You're the leader of our clan and you need to know at least some of this."

Jake sighed and tried not to look bored as Norm began to tell him little facts and details about his adopted species that he never knew. At first, he just suffered through it but Jake found his interest growing as Norm shared little-known facts and details about Na'vi biology and ceremonies. Some of the things Jake already knew—particularly the details about ceremonies, since he had participated in so many of them first-hand since joining the clan. Other things such as immune systems and life cycles were new to him.

By the time Neytiri returned with dinner, Jake was fully absorbed in the lesson. She looked a little surprised when she came in and saw Norm but she smiled in greeting at him and invited him to eat with them. He accepted gratefully and the three of them discussed clan affairs and the goings-on at Hometree while they enjoyed their meal.

By the end of the week, Jake was able to have longer walks, without getting tired or winded. With the doctors' approval, he began taking short jogs outside. Neytiri began experiencing morning sickness and it was Jake's turn to take care of her. He started taking care of getting their breakfast in the mornings and he had to coax her to eat it each day after she recovered from her sickness spell. He was coming in from one of his jogs one afternoon when a bit of chaos struck.

"Gain way, coming through!" Jake hastily moved aside as the small, brown skinned woman charged down the hallway, carrying an animal in her arms. He recognized it as a viper wolf pup when he caught a glimpse of it. Though small by Na'vi standards, the animal barely fit in Ramona's arms. Medical staff jumped out of the way as the zoologist kept running without slowing down. One of them opened the doors to her assigned lab room for her and she gasped a "thank you" before disappearing into it.

"Guys, I could use a hand in here!" Ramona's yell floated down the corridor. Lee was just coming out of one of the examination rooms and when he heard her cry, he hastened to the lab.

"What's going on?" He asked her as he joined her at the examination table. Like the avatar medical wing, her lab wasn't oxygenated because any native animals she brought in needed Pandora air to breathe.

"The little fellow's hurt," she explained in a rush. "I heard him whimpering outside the gate. It's his front leg, see?" She turned on the overhead light and shone it on the baby animal. There was a long gash in his foreleg, just above the paw. The pup yelped in pain and fear and Ramona showed uncommon maternal instincts as she spoke to it in a soothing, gentle voice. "It's okay, sweetie. Nobody's going to hurt you." She looked around and nudged Lee. "Hand me that bottle of antiseptic and the gauze over there, will you? Quick!" She reached up and smacked him on the butt when he didn't move fast enough to suit her.

Lee grimaced at her but he hurried over to do as she asked while she began strapping the animal down to keep it still. The doors opened and Katherine came in, having heard the commotion on her way to her own lab.

"Hey, what's going on?"

"Found a stray," answered Ramona distractedly. "Since you're here, do you think you could lend a hand?"

"Sure." Katherine blinked when she saw the animal. "Maybe you should muzzle it, Mona."

"He's just a baby," argued the zoologist, but then the pup's mouth closed over her wrist and she hastily yanked her arm away, hissing as the small but sharp teeth scratched her.

"You see?" Lee chastised as he returned to her side with the antiseptic. "Now you're going to need this."

Ramona hastily took a square of gauze and applied some of the antiseptic to the shallow bite. "Ouch, that stings. Hey Katherine, can you get me ten cc's of the tranquilizer in the fridge over there? This puppy's going to squirm too much if I clean his leg without dosing him first."

"Okay, but I really think you should have someone look at your arm as soon as you finish taking care of this animal," she cautioned.

"Yeah," agreed Lee. "You could get rabies or something."

Ramona rolled her eyes at him. "There's no rabies on Pandora, you goof."

"But there's other stuff," he reminded grimly.

She grimaced. "Yeah, you got me there. Shit, I'm going to have to run some tests on this fellow to make sure he doesn't have anything I don't want to catch." With Lee's help, she wrapped a bandage around the pup's snout to muzzle it and prevent further biting.

"At least we have treatment available if you find anything," Katherine said as she measured out the dosage of the requested medication.

"I'll worry about it if I find anything." Ramona wrapped up her wrist with Lee's help and she slipped on a pair of latex gloves. She thanked Katherine when the other woman brought the syringe to her and she carefully administered it in the pup's straining flank, murmuring a little apology to him when he yelped.

"That should do it," Ramona sighed with relief when the medication began to work and the animal's struggles lessened. "I'll have him stitched up in no time."

"Where are you going to keep him while he heals?" Lee asked.

"We've got pens outside for holding native animals," she answered. "I can't send the little guy back out into the wild...he'll starve to death on his own or get picked off by a bigger predator."

"Well what are you going to do about feeding him?" Katherine asked. "It isn't like we have a supply of viper wolf milk."

"Viper wolves can eat meat, by this age." She looked up at Lee thoughtfully. "You're going out on an assignment today, aren't you?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact I'm going to have to go in a minute, or I'll miss the flight out." Lee looked at her suspiciously. "Why do you ask?"

"You can shoot straight, can't you?"

"You want me to hunt something," he guessed.

"You got it. It doesn't have to be anything huge. One full-grown hexapede should keep Fluffy fed for a week."

"'Fluffy'?" He glanced down at the sedated animal with raised brows.

"Well, I've got to name him something," she insisted.

"He doesn't have any fur," Katherine chuckled.

"Fine...I'll name him Bowser then. So how about it, Babe, will you bring something back for junior here?"

Lee sighed. "I can try. You might want to check with Sully though. His mate brings back fresh kills every few days and I don't think they'd mind sharing some of the meat with you. You know how Na'vi respect viper wolves."

"Say, that's a good idea," she enthused. "Katherine, would you mind asking them for me while I finish up here?""Not at all," agreed Katherine.

"Thanks, girl. Hey, where do you think you're going?" She grabbed hold of Lee's tail as he started to leave, stopping him. "Where's my kiss?" She held her breath and pulled her breathing mask up, puckering her lips.

He smirked a little and lowered his mouth to hers for a brief kiss. He jumped when she pinched his bottom and he scolded her softly before straightening up again. "Not in public."

Ramona pulled her mask back down and grinned up at him cheekily. "Bah, Katherine was already out the door when I did that. Don't be such a prude."

"What is she going to do with it?" Neytiri asked warily when Katherine went to her and Jake to explain the situation with the wounded pup.

"She'll heal him," Katherine assured. "Believe me, Ramona likes animals as much as she likes people and she'd never hurt one. She's just going to keep him until he's big enough to survive on his own. The only thing we don't have for him is meat."

Neytiri relaxed and Jake spoke up. "No problem. Neytiri, we've got leftovers stashed in the kitchen somewhere, right?"

She nodded. "In the...what is it called? Ice-box? There is plenty to spare for the nantang. It is wrapped in leaves so that no Humans mistakenly eat it."

"Thank you," Katherine said graciously. "I'll be sure and wrap it back up after I cut off what we need for the pup."

She left them alone then and when she shut the door behind her, Jake pulled his mate into his arms. "Now, where were we? And no tearing my's the only one I've got with me and they just started letting me wear it again."

Neytiri grinned. She was happy to see him out of the silly hospital gown but once he got her started, it was difficult to remember not to yank it off of him. She supposed he could always borrow avatar clothing if he had to but she preferred him in their clan garb.

"You're not feeling sick, are you?" Jake murmured against her neck as he kissed it. "I don't want a repeat of yesterday morning, if we can help it."

Neytiri blushed, remembering the incident all too well. She had slept on top of him during the night and he woke her up with a kiss. At first she was fine and she wanted nothing more than to enjoy a morning coupling with him, but her nausea came on suddenly, just as he started undressing her. She had tried to climb off of him fast enough but there wasn't enough warning and poor Jake ended up getting retched on.

"It only happens in the mornings," she assured him bashfully.

"Just make sure you warn me if it feels like the schedule's going to change." He smiled against her skin and he cupped her bottom, drawing her closer.

Neytiri closed her eyes and sighed his name as the growing evidence of his arousal pressed against her pelvis. She skimmed her nails over his back and arched her throat to his eager mouth. He started to lift her and she hastily murmured a warning, shaking her head. He grumbled a little but he stopped the action obediently. She smiled and stroked his hair. He too easily forgot himself when he became excited and she had to remind him constantly that his injury needed further healing before he tried to lift anything—including her.

A knock on the door interrupted them and Jake groaned into Neytiri's hair with frustration. "Who is it?"

"It's Max," came the response on the other side of the door. "It's time for your X-ray, remember?"

"Damn, I forgot," Jake sighed. He stepped back from Neytiri and shot a rueful look down at his crotch. "Uh, give me a minute or three, Max. I'll meet up with you in the examination room."

"All right."

The footsteps on the other side of the door retreated and Neytiri chuckled when her mate gave her an accusing look. "You started this and I have no control over that part of your body, my Jake."

"Think so, do you?" He smirked. "Don't kid yourself; you rule that part of my body, gorgeous."

She stepped closer to him, holding his gaze with her own. "Do I?" Her hands settled on his chest, gliding over the muscles with appreciation. "Then I can command it to do whatever I want."

"Come on, quit playing around," he said breathlessly as she brushed her lips over his chest in soft caress. "You're just making it worse."

"But I like it," she purred, dropping one hand down to grip him through the loincloth. He grunted and cursed softly, making her grin.

"Neytiri," Jake gasped, "I can't go in there like this!"

"Why not?" She struggled not to laugh.

"'s embarrassing."

"You are embarrassed to be a virile male?" She smiled up at him and licked one of his nipples, making it pull taut immediately. She steadily rubbed his length through the soft leather and he unconsciously began to hump her gripping hand.

"What do you think Max is going to think when I walk in there with a hard-on? I don't want these guys getting the idea I have a kink for medical checkups."

This time she couldn't hold back a laugh, having learned enough of his favorite terms to understand the meaning behind his comment. She took pity on him and stopped her petting. Jake still had some human modesty issues that she doubted he would ever completely be rid of. Humans found shame in the oddest things.

"Very well, Jake. I don't want to embarrass you."

He sighed and she couldn't tell whether it was done in relief or disappointment. "Thanks. Now I just need to put some ice down there or something. I don't think this one's going down on its own anytime soon."

"Why would you want to torture it that way?" She asked with a frown. She couldn't imagine ice placed directly on the genitals feeling very good.

"Because it'll make it deflate," he growled, "and I can't get it down with you standing here. You're too sexy."

Neytiri hid a smile behind her hand and shrugged. "Then I will leave the room and give you time to calm down. I don't want you putting ice on it. It cannot be good for it."

It was Jake's turn to laugh. "Do you still think you don't rule it?"

Her eyes flashed with amusement, silently telling him she knew very well that she "ruled" it. Without saying anything further, she left the room and waited outside in the hall for him. Jake sighed and shut his eyes, trying to cool his libido down.

"Looking good, Jake." Max carried the image screen to him and he cycled through the X-rays he had taken of the other man's spine. "You wouldn't even know you suffered an injury."

Jake and Neytiri peered at the images and Jake shrugged. "I'll take your word for it. So how soon do you think I can get out of here?"

"I want to give it a couple more weeks," Max said. When Jake grimaced, he held up his hand. "You're healed up but you need to strengthen the muscles again, Jake. I want to be damned sure there's not a chance of anything slipping out of place. Just put up with two more weeks of therapy, that's all I'm asking."

Jake opened his mouth to argue but he glanced at his mate and he saw the warning, firm expression on her face. He sighed. "I don't think she's going to let me say 'no'."

Max smiled at her when she shook her head. "Thank you, Neytiri. I don't know how we'd keep this guy in line without you."

Jake scowled at him.

Neytiri made up for overruling Jake's objections, as soon as they returned to the hospital room. She draped one of the spare sheets over the door to block the window before turning the lock. She answered the silent, intrigued question on Jake's face by crossing the room to him and tugging his loincloth down, exposing him completely.

"Sit," she advised, pushing on his chest to back him up against the edge of his bed.

"What am I, a pet dog?" He was grinning with delight, however. He complied with her order and sat down, leaving his legs hanging over the side of the bed. He started to put his arms around her and pull her into his lap but she resisted and shook her head.

"I want to do something else," she informed him.

"Uh...should I have mentioned kink, earlier?" He looked rather nervous.

Neytiri smiled in a half-predatory manner and she combed her fingers through his hair. "Don't fear, Jake. I want to give you something I know you enjoy."

"I can think of about a dozen things that could be." He grinned.

She kissed him, silencing any further questions or witty remarks. He responded to the kiss readily, teasing her tongue with his own before delving into her mouth. Neytiri caressed his chest slowly with her fingertips before dropping her hands lower and stroking his inner thighs. She slid her hands to his knees and coaxed him to spread his legs, while breaking away from his mouth to start kissing her way down his body. He caught on to her intentions and his breathing rhythm picked up. Neytiri slid one hand up his left thigh and she traced the lines of his pelvis, softly stroking the flesh with her fingers.

Jake murmured her name huskily as her fingertips skimmed the base of his stiffening sex. She avoided full-on touching of the organ, choosing instead to tease him and make him squirm with anticipation.

"That's cruel, Neytiri," Jake gasped.

He shifted restlessly on the bed and she lightly swatted him on the side of his bottom, silently warning him to be still. He chuckled and bit his lip, holding still with obvious effort. His breath caught as she licked around his navel and she smiled when his thigh tensed beneath her other hand. She loved how cooperative her mate was. He even seemed happy to let her have the upper hand most of the time, though in truth she was only playing when she "bossed him around", except in cases like the examination room earlier when she thought he wasn't using his head.

She took her hand off of his thigh and reached around behind him for his queue so that she could link to him. The only thing better than pleasuring him until he broke was feeling his emotions and sensations while she did it. Neytiri connected his braid to hers and then she lowered her head between his thighs and gave the underside his swollen erection a thorough, slow lick from base to tip. He groaned and she felt his frustration when her tongue completed the swipe and left his hardness. She resisted another smile as she blew lightly on the flushed cap at the tip, tickling it with her breath. A bead of viscous fluid came out and Jake growled.

"You be still," she ordered with a warning glance up at his tense face.

"You know I'm going to get you back for this," he promised as he grabbed handfuls of sheet and struggled to comply.

She chuckled silently and traced a fingertip around the base of his sex. She liked the pattern of stripes on the cyan skin of his erection and she loved the pink, heart-shaped tip of it. "You can try, Jake. For now, behave."

She pressed a soft kiss on the head of the organ before giving it a lick. It twitched under the attention and she grasped the shaft with one hand to hold it steady. Jake hissed and she purred, thoroughly enjoying the flash of pleasure that came through the link. She took her time, only giving him brief, loving kisses and swipes of her tongue...just enough to cause a shock of sensation that made him tremble. Becoming more aroused by the moment, her aggression began to spike and she moved the hand that had grabbed his queue around behind him, seeking out his tail.

"Not the tail," Jake groaned. "Come on, give me a break, Neytiri!"

She ignored him and she began to stroke his erogenous spot. She chose to be gentle about it this time because she knew too much would make him buck his hips if she overdid it and that would cause her some difficulty. She finally closed her lips around the girth of his shaft and she began sliding her mouth up and down the length of it, taking as much in as she could without gagging. His gratification pulsed through her and his low moan made her want to straddle him and mate with him until he passed out. The hormonal changes caused by her pregnancy sometimes made her almost as excitable as being in heat did.

One of Jake's hands began to stroke her hair and he offered no further complaints about the tail stimulation when she kept it gentle. "You're so good at this," he gasped, his breath coming faster with each moment.

Pleased with the compliment, Neytiri increased the rhythm of her mouth. She didn't try doing this sort of thing for him until after the night he orally pleasured her. Before that moment, she was worried he might think she was strange if she told him she wanted to kiss and lick him this way. Discovering that he enjoyed it as much as she had made her eager to do it more often, of course.

Neytiri listened to his harsh gasps and soft growls as she sucked him harder. He began to groan her name with greater volume as his bliss increased and he stopped stroking her hair to grip the edge of the bed. His hips pumped shallowly but she could tell he was trying to be as still as he could for her. She steadily massaged the underside of his tail as she strove to give him the release he needed and she reached under his shaft with her other hand and massaged his balls. She felt it approaching and she purred encouragingly.

"Shit," Jake blurted in a shaken voice. His body tensed and he twitched in her mouth.

Neytiri swallowed his thick seed without complaint and she licked him thoroughly clean, ceasing her attentions to his tail. She rubbed his scrotum for a moment longer before stopping. He was panting heavily and he caressed her shoulders, gazing down at her with heavy-lidded eyes.

"What did I do to deserve you again?"

"You fought for our people," she reminded. "Oh, and you are handsome, too."

He laughed breathlessly and urged her to get up. When she did, he pulled her into his lap and nuzzled her cheek. "I could wake up hearing that every day."

She grinned. "Then you would become an arrogant Skxawng."

"But you could go around telling everyone you're with a dumb snob. What's not to like?"

She sighed as if annoyed, but her smile remained.

-To be continued


Tsahaylu = The connection Na'vi can make with each other, certain animals and trees through use of the neural fibers protected by the queue (braid) they grow from childhood.

Nantang = Viper wolf

Skxawng = Moron

Chapter Text

Jake suffered through two more weeks of therapy, examinations and tests, as promised. When the time was up, he told Max in no uncertain terms that he was finished.

"You said everything looks good and I ran four laps around the compound yesterday," Jake insisted stubbornly. "Unless you spotted something wrong in those last X-rays, I don't see any reason for me to keep hanging around."

Max sighed and nodded. "You're right, of course. I can't keep you here when you've shown every sign of recovery. I'll be honest with you Jake; I was procrastinating to make sure you got plenty of time. I know how active the Na'vi lifestyle is and I thought if I could give you and extra two weeks to regain your strength, it would be best for you."

Jake narrowed his eyes at him. "Max, are you telling me I could have gone home the day Ramona brought that viper wolf in?" Beside him, Neytiri also looked surprised but she was smiling faintly with understanding of Max's caution and logic.

"That's right," answered Max. "You have to admit though, the rest has done you some good. You couldn't run far then and you've almost recovered completely during the extra time here. The restrictions on your activities are to thank for that."

"Unbelievable," Jake muttered with a scowl.

"Jake," scolded Neytiri softly, "you would not be walking now, if this man and the other toktor had not helped you."

Jake's expression relaxed slowly. He sucked at holding grudges, anyhow. "You're right." He offered a hand to the other man. "I guess I owe you one. Thanks, Max."

Max shook the offered hand in his smaller one. "Anytime, Jake. I'm just glad Na'vi are so resilient."

"Well, I guess we'll be getting our things and heading out of here," Jake said. "Remember, if you get any transmissions from Earth or motherships, I want you to contact me. I'm going to take a new transmitter with me as a spare, to make sure you can get in touch if you need to."

Max nodded, looking a little uncomfortable. Jake noticed the expression and he frowned. "What?"

"I didn't want to tell you before," explained the doctor carefully, "because you needed to focus on getting better and I wasn't sure how it was going to go at the time. We got a transmission from Earth a couple of weeks ago, Jake. They got Selfridge's report and they think this base is under hostile takeover. Apparently they think he was unhinged and they didn't believe everything he said in his transmission back to them."

Jake sighed and pressed his lips together. "That's just great. What did you say to them?"

"I explained what the real situation is here but I don't think they were convinced that I wasn't being coerced. I'm trying to keep communications going to stay on working terms with them. If I can do that, I can monitor the schedules and keep the information flowing. I don't know how long I can keep it up, though. I'm having a hard time keeping them convinced we aren't 'traitors'."

"There's nothing they can do until one of the ships makes it into orbit and there's not much else we can do either," Jake said. "I get why you didn't want to say anything to me before." He caught Neytiri's hand and squeezed it. "We've all got plenty of other things to do until we've got something solid."

Max nodded with agreement, appearing relieved that Jake wasn't angry with him. "So you're leaving right now? You're really in a hurry to get out of here."

Jake smirked. "I've been holed up here for a month. I'm ready to get back home and take up where I left off."

"You're lucky it wasn't for longer," Max said candidly, "If the injury had been worse or if you had been in a human body, it could have taken several months to a year for you to recover this much...if you recovered at all. I want you to keep that in mind, Jake. You need to avoid overdoing it until you're back at full strength, okay?"

Jake nodded and glanced at his mate. "I've got someone to keep me in check," he said dryly. "Give Doctor Jacobs my thanks, will you?"

"I'll do that."

Norm heard the excited voices that evening as he returned to Hometree with a string of freshly caught fish. He perked his ears and listened closely, trying to make out individual words amongst the babble. He smiled when he deciphered what all the fuss was about and he picked up speed. When he made it around to the main entrance of the hollow tree, he saw a familiar pair of ikrans land near the outskirts. People were hurrying across the distance to greet their returned Olo'eyktan and the next Tsahik.

He excused himself politely as he made his way past people and he waited as Jake and Neytiri dismounted their banshees and accepted the warm greetings of their clan. Mo'at was already there and she smiled at them both and asked questions when they had the free time to answer them. Finally, the crowd broke up. Jake spotted Norm and he gave him smile as they closed the distance.

"They let me out for good behavior," he joked. "So where's Ni'nat?"

"Still out hunting. She ought to be back soon." Norm looked at the setting sun and frowned, a little concerned. "At least, I hope so." After what happened to Jake on their last hunt, it was hard not to get worried whenever Ni'nat was out alone until sunset.

"I'm sure she'll be fine," Jake said.

Norm sighed and nodded. "Are you two hungry? I've got plenty of fish to go around." He lifted the string of his bounty from his shoulder and presented it.

Jake's eyebrows went up. "Damn Norm, it looks like you've got a knack for fishing. I never knew you were an angler."

Norm shrugged. "It surprised me too." Actually, it was a bit of a relief to him. He could never guarantee that he would bring home his share of meat for the clan when he hunted but so far, he hadn't failed to provide plenty of plant produce and fish. He had caught enough to feed six people and the leather satchel slung over his other shoulder was full of vegetables and fruits.

"I will help you prepare your catch," offered Neytiri. "You seem to be fitting in well, Norm."

He smiled and nodded. Some of the Omaticaya still didn't know him well enough and saw him as an outsider, but many of them fought at his side in the battle against the RDA and they were friendly with him.

Ni'nat walked her direhorse into the territory and she checked to make sure her kill was still securely strapped to its back before guiding the mare down the hill. Her ankle throbbed and she grimaced down at it, hoping that she hadn't done serious damage to it.

She could smell the food cooking inside the den as she drew nearer to the tree and her stomach growled. The hexapede she had tracked sensed her presence too soon and her shot went wide, wounding it but not bringing it down. As much to ensure the creature didn't suffer as to bring home a kill, Ni'nat had chased it. Her foot got caught up in a vine as she gave chase and she barely managed to catch herself and recover. She didn't notice the pain in her ankle until after she closed in on the animal and finished it off.

When she made it to the base of the tree, she unfastened the straps securing her kill to the back of the direhorse and she painstakingly lifted it off, setting it on the ground before patting her mount and whispering to her. The mare trotted away to rejoin the grazing heard nearby and Ni'nat began to drag her prize into the den. She made it just through the entrance when she heard Norm's voice call out to her. She turned to see him approaching from the fire pit and she smiled in greeting, forgetting about the pain in her ankle.

"I was starting to think I should go out looking for you," he admitted. "Here, I'll help you with this."

Ni'nat thanked him warmly, glad for the help. She gasped as she put too much weight down on her foot when she took the hexapede's back legs and Norm stopped, frowning at her.

"You're limping. Did you hurt your foot?"

"It is nothing," she excused, giving him a slightly strained smile. "I was snared for a moment while I was finishing this animal off. My ankle is just tender."

Norm's look of concern didn't fade. "I would like to have a look at it after we hang your kill up to be skinned."

She inclined her head agreeably, seeing no reason to argue with him. Together they carried the kill to one of the back chambers, where hunters hung up game to be shared with the rest of the clan. One of the young people would take up the task of skinning and processing it, doing their part for the People through preparation until they were old enough to begin hunting themselves.

Norm put a steadying arm around her as they returned to the main part of the den and he helped her over to the fire pit. "I have a meal waiting for you," he said to her.

She caressed his face appreciatively. "You are very thoughtful."

He lowered his eyes modestly. "No more than you are. I'll bet none of the other men get sung to sleep by their mates every night."

Jake and Neytiri were sitting by the pit and they handed their empty leaf plates over to one of the youths that were collecting them. They saw the other couple approach and they gave Ni'nat equal looks of concern when they noticed the way Norm was supporting her weight.

"She hurt her ankle," Norm offered in explanation. "It's probably just a sprain but I'm going to check it to be sure."

"Welcome home," Ni'nat said to them both as she eased herself down onto one of the roots arching up from the floor. Norm handed over the covered plate he had set aside for her and she thanked him before lifting the leaf off of it. The fish was still warm and she sniffed at it in appreciation before she began to eat.

"It's good to be back," Jake said. "I think Max would have liked to hold me hostage for a couple more weeks, but we escaped just in time."

Ni'nat was innocently confused by his words. "He was holding you prisoner?"

"He's just being sarcastic," Norm explained with a smile. "I think?"

"Sort of," answered Jake. "I found out I could have come home about two weeks ago but the little sneak told me I needed more time in therapy."

Ni'nat winced as Norm began to probe her ankle with gentle fingers. "Why would your friend lie to you?"

"Because he was worried," replied Neytiri. "He wanted to be certain that Jake gave his body enough time to finish healing."

"He didn't exactly lie to me," Jake admitted. "He just didn't tell me when I could have gone. He asked me to stay until I recovered more of my strength and I figured he knew what he was talking about, so I put up with it."

"It's probably a good thing he convinced you to stay longer, Jake. Hmm, this is swelling up," Norm muttered absently, his attention becoming absorbed in examining his mate's ankle. "Try to move it for me?"

Ni'nat swallowed the bite of fish she was chewing and she gingerly rotated her ankle. He nodded in satisfaction and rubbed her foot as he looked at her. "I'm pretty sure nothing's fractured or dislocated but I think I'd like the Tsahik to look at it too."

"I can go and get mother for you," offered Neytiri. She got up and wandered off to fetch Mo'at while Norm continued examining the injured ankle.

"Do you need me to get anything for you Norm?" Jake asked.

Norm glanced at him and considered the question. "Actually, if you could get some hide strips, a bowl of water and the bowl of horn berry extract from the medicine supply chamber it would help."

"Sure. What does the horn berry extract look like?"

"Kind of seedy and gooey, like the pulp from a fig," Norm described, "except it's red. It should be sitting in the middle cubby, unless we've run out. If we have I'll go out and gather some more."

"Got it. I'll be right back." Jake got up to retrieve the items for him.

"Norm, it could wait until morning, if there is no ointment left," Ni'nat told him gently.

He shook his head stubbornly. "Your ankle could be black and blue and swollen to three times its size by then. I want to treat it before that happens."

Ni'nat sighed but she smiled at him, admiring the way the firelight highlighted his sweet face. Perhaps he didn't have the chiseled, noble features most Na'vi females found attractive in a male, but she noticed some of the unmated women watching him tend to her with subtle envy. It seemed she wasn't the only one who valued a gentle male and she suspected that his expressed devotion to her impressed more than a few of her sisters. She continued to eat and she watched her mate from beneath lowered lashes, intending to reward him for his efforts when they retired for the night.

Mo'at approached after a few minutes with Neytiri and she knelt down smoothly beside Norm to examine the ankle he was massaging. Before she became the clan's Tsahik, she was a healer and she never ceased serving her people's needs with her medicinal gifts. She whispered for him to lift Ni'nat's foot and Norm carefully did so, scooting aside a little to give Mo'at light to see by. The older woman touched the injured ankle with practiced fingers, feeling along the joints in much the same way Norm had.

"It is not serious," she confirmed. "What do you intend to use on it, Normspellman?"

"I thought rubbing some horn berry extract into it and wrapping it for the night should work, but I'll take any advice you have to give, Tsahik."

"Very good," she approved. "You have made the right decision with the horn berry. I think you will do a fine job of caring for her injury."

Norm's face lit up with pleasure at the compliment and Ni'nat wanted to kiss him. Jake came back and he set the bowl of water he was carrying down before presenting another, smaller bowl to Norm and Mo'at.

"Is this the right stuff? It looks like what you described to me but it was dim in there."

Norm leaned over to peer at the contents of the bowl and he nodded. "That's it. Thanks." He took the bowl from Jake and then he took the strips of hide offered next. He dipped the strips in the water and let them soak while he began to smooth the extract over Ni'nat's ankle.

"This is going to stain a little," Norm apologized with a glance up at her face, "but it should make the swelling go down and help with the pain."

She shrugged gracefully. She didn't mind having a stained ankle for a few days if it meant she would heal faster. The others watched as he tended to her, including Mo'at. The matriarch looked impressed as Norm evenly spread the berry ointment over her skin and followed up by wrapping her foot and ankle with the damp hide strips. Mo'at seemed satisfied that he had it under control and she excused herself and left.

Neytiri and Jake watched with interest as Norm finished up. When he had her ankle securely bandaged, he rubbed Ni'nat's foot again and looked at her. "How does it feel?"

She wiggled her toes and smiled at him. "It feels better already. You take good care of me, my Norm."

He blushed a little and she grinned, endeared to him.

"It looks like you've got this handled now," Jake said. He covered his mouth on a yawn and Neytiri stroked his shoulder.

"You are tired from the journey," observed Neytiri. "We should retire to our hammock, Jake."

He didn't argue with her. Ni'nat guessed that it would take time before he regained all of his former endurance. He and Neytiri bid them goodnight and walked away together. Norm watched them go with a frown and Ni'nat looked at him questioningly.

"What is it, Norm?"

"I just realized you probably shouldn't be trying to climb with that ankle." He gave the mentioned part a worried glance.

It was on the tip of her tongue to insist she could do it but Ni'nat smiled slowly as another idea came to her. They didn't need to sleep in the branches of Hometree, after all. In fact, there was no real privacy in the hammocks, surrounded by their fellow clan members. Some Na'vi found ways to mate without making it too obvious to their neighbors but Ni'nat learned that she was too vocal to maintain that kind of subtlety.

"We could sleep on the ground," she suggested. "At the foot of the hill on the outskirts of Hometree." It wouldn't be the first time they slept under the stars together, since becoming a mated pair.

"That sounds like a good idea," he agreed. He waited for her to finish eating and he put away her leaf plate for her. They left the den together and walked the short distance to the spot she had suggested, close enough to Hometree for them to sleep safely.

The moss was soft enough to offer some comfort as they lay down together and Ni'nat wasted no time in expressing her appreciation to her mate. She kissed him with loving sensuality and stroked his body until he was gasping her name and ready for her. Their gear and clothing soon lay piled beside them and Norm spooned up behind her to keep his weight off of her. His old identification tags were the only adornment she didn't remove and they glinted against her chest in the light of the flora surrounding them and the stars above. The couple mated with unhurried passion, taking time to explore one another and make it last. They at last lay spent and breathless together and Norm's braid remained draped over her waist with his arm as he snuggled against her contentedly.

Sebastian and Katherine became closer as the weeks passed. Ramona remarked candidly that he ought to make a move on her soon, before some other man did. He hated the thought of losing the opportunity but he held back, still convinced that even if she harbored romantic feelings for him, she would take it badly if he tried anything.

"Suit yourself," Ramona sighed in annoyance, "but I'm telling you, that Na'vi body of yours isn't likely to scare her away."

Sebastian smiled at her. "I appreciate your encouragement, but I don't think Katherine sees the Na'vi that way. Not that she doesn't hold great respect for them but I can't shake the feeling that she's very much aware that they are a separate species...and that includes me, now."

Ramona frowned at him. "Where are you getting this stuff? I think it's all in your head, mister. I've got to practically climb my guy when he's driving his avatar. Not that I've got a complaint with that, but Katherine would have it easier with you. You won't have to worry about exopacks getting in the way and seven feet isn't as much to tackle as nine."

Sebastian smirked. "I suppose adjusting to this would have been a lot more difficult if I had grown to full size. Be that as it may, I think I'd like to give Katherine some space and test the waters a bit more."

"If you say so. I think you've tested the waters plenty already, though. If you wait too much longer some other guy might snatch her up and before long she'll end up being one of the mothers on this base."

Sebastian frowned at that. Ramona did have a good point; the Na'vi weren't the only ones working on bringing their numbers back up. A lot of the human population at Hell's Gate had begun pairing off and though it wasn't the most ideal childrearing environment, natural urges won out. Part of the recreation building had been converted into a nursery and there were plans to use some of the briefing rooms for schooling, eventually. Several infants had been born to people so far.

"Children," Sebastian murmured with a little pang. He didn't know how Katherine felt about having a family of her own someday but he had no reason to believe she didn't want one. He highly doubted he would ever be able to give her that now, unless the amount of human DNA in his body somehow enabled reproductive compatibility.

"I think I know what's on your mind," Ramona observed, turning her attention away from the sting bat she was temporarily keeping captive for study and testing. "I shouldn't have even said anything. You know, I've never seen Katherine get doughy over any of the babies here. Maybe she doesn't even want kids. I know I don't."

"Then I hope you're using some sort of contraception with Lee," Sebastian remarked seriously.

"Do I look stupid?" She chuckled. "Of course we are. You never know; maybe if Kathy does want a baby somewhere down the line you could give her one after all. I mean, Sully and his mate have one on the way and I don't think the mailman is responsible for it."

Sebastian chuckled. "No, I can't imagine Neytiri ever being unfaithful to Corporal Sully, or vice-versa. It's my understanding that it's almost unheard of for Na'vi mates to cheat on each other."

"Meaning we humans are sluts," Ramona said dryly.

He shrugged. "Humans don't have the bonding capabilities of Na'vi. The queue linking gives them such a profound method of sharing and communication. Humans have to rely on words and expression—and hope their partners are being honest with them."

"Sounds reasonable," she nodded. "So how about it? Are you going to think about putting the moves on our girl or not?"

"Let's just change the subject," he suggested smoothly. "How is your viper wolf coming along?"

"Fang's doing great," she answered. "Lee's been good about hunting for him on his assignments, when the meat supplies get low."

"I thought you named him 'Bowser'."

She shrugged. "I figured he deserves something a little more dignified. He's not a golden retriever or a terrier, after all. A wolf of any kind should have an appropriate name. He's getting big fast, too."

"I hope you aren't getting too attached to him," warned Sebastian.

Ramona lowered her gaze. "So what if I am?"

"He's a wild animal. You said so yourself, he's no domestic house pet."

"I know that," she snapped. "Don't lecture me about this. I'm the zoologist here and I know exactly what Fang is. I just..." she sighed.

Feeling bad for upsetting her, Sebastian stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. "What?"

Ramona shook her head and looked up at him. "I don't know if he'll have a chance in the wild even when he matures enough to be let go. Viper wolves are pack animals. He might be able to take down small prey on his own but without the protection of a pack, I'm not sure he'll last long out there. He might find his old pack but would they accept him again with our scent on him? My guess is no."

Sebastian considered the problem. "Perhaps you should let him choose when the time comes, then."

"This is all my fault," she said.

"How is that?"

"I'm the one that brought him here," she reminded him. "Now he's got a major disadvantage, because I couldn't leave it be."

"You were only doing what felt right," he told her firmly, "you helped an injured animal. Do you really think you could have left him out there to die through infection or get eaten?"

"No," she agreed. "There's no way I could have done that. It might have been kinder if I'd euthanized him though."

"Does he seem happy?"

She nodded. "Yes. He's really an affectionate fellow, once he trusts you. He plays a little rough but I wear protective gloves and he's getting better about watching how hard he bites when we wrestle."

Sebastian forced a smile to hide the concern he felt. Ramona was a smart woman but sometimes he wondered if she was a little too reckless with her affection for animals. "Well, there you go. Maybe he can adjust to living here and if he seems content and healthy, it isn't such a bad thing."

She smiled a little. "Thanks, Sebastian."

Neytiri was mid-way through her second trimester, approaching week twenty-three. She was still nearly as active as before, though she was more cautious when she hunted, now that she was getting heavier. She also found herself sleepy at mid-day and she began to have little naps. Like other females in her state of pregnancy, Neytiri had fashioned a tunic of treated plant fibers and leather to cover the front of her torso. She also wore her riding leggings each day. This was not a matter of modesty. The additional clothing was commonly employed by expecting women to protect themselves and their unborn from insects and skin irritation. The changes in their bodies often came with altered sensitivity and their scent was sweetened, attracting blood-sucking insects that would have otherwise chosen to feed on animals.

One morning, Neytiri woke to the sound of her mate calling her name. She groaned softly and opened her eyes, wincing against the morning light. She had slept in again and Jake's handsome face was slightly concerned as he gazed down at her from his seat on the tree limb.

"'Morning, beautiful," he greeted her with a smile. "Our hunting party's waiting on us. Are you up for it?"

Neytiri propped herself up on her side and the hammock she shared with him swayed gently. She rubbed her eyes and nodded before hiding a yawn behind her hand. "I will get my hunting gear," she murmured drowsily.

Jake studied her curiously as she climbed out of the hammock and he offered her a hand to help her onto the limb. She started to reach up to her P'ah s'lvil chey, hanging next to Jake's. Before she could retrieve her items from the handcrafted rack, he stopped her with a gentle hand on her arm and looked her in the eye.

"If you don't feel like hunting today, you know you don't have to."

Neytiri glanced at him guardedly. Jake was usually wonderful about not letting his human upbringing make him overprotective of her but sometimes, it got the better of him. "I will hunt. I must do my part to provide for our people."

He slipped his hand down her arm and rested it over the growing swell of her abdomen. "You're already providing something really important to the clan," he said seriously. "You don't have to prove yourself and taking one day to relax isn't going to hurt."

Affection for him mingled with annoyance and she reached out and combed her fingers through the loose strands of hair framing his face. She was glad that it had grown out and soon, she would need to help him braid more of it into his queue to keep it out of his face.

"I will be fine," she assured him.

Jake's mouth thinned with frustration and he quickly took hold of her braid to meld it with his, before she could stop him. Neytiri gasped softly as always when she felt his presence mingle with hers and she bit her lip, wishing it didn't always have such an erotic effect on her.

"Okay, so you aren't exactly fibbing," he said with a little smile, "but you're more tired than you let on." He cupped the back of her head and pressed his forehead against hers. "Look, I've been pretty open-minded, haven't I? I've never tried to tell you not to hunt or fly or do whatever else you wanted, even though people from my old culture handled pregnancy a lot differently. You know I respect you; I just want you to take care of yourself too. "

She listened to his speech with a little sigh, but her annoyance didn't last because she felt his sincerity through the link. "Are you trying to forbid me from hunting?" She asked, testing him.

Jake chuckled. "You ought to know better. I can't 'forbid' you from doing a damned thing. I'm just asking you to slow down a little when you're tired, that's all. You can miss one or two hunts out of the week and the rest of the hunters can make up for it. You're also not eating enough meat."

Her annoyance returned. "Meat does not taste very good to me right now."

"But you need your protein," he argued. "Eat more nuts, or eggs if you want them."

"Eggs?" Her stomach growled. She hadn't had eggs of any kind for over a week.

Jake grinned upon hearing the sound. "How about this; you spend the day relaxing a little. Take a swim or work on the baby carrier you've been making. Do whatever relaxes you. I'll see if I can scavenge up some eggs for you. Does that sound fair?"

She was tempted to be stubborn and insist on joining the day's hunt anyway, but his suggestion sounded reasonable and Neytiri had to admit, a relaxing day sounded good. She smiled grudgingly and nodded. "I think I can agree with that, for today."

The hunting party consisted of Jake, Norm, Ni'nat and E'quath. They had grown comfortable working together and when they weren't hunting solo or in larger parties, they generally preferred each other's company along with Neytiri. E'quath and Ni'nat brought down a tetrapteron bird each and Jake found an unguarded nest full of eggs. Fortunately, Pandora avian eggs had leathery shells like Earth reptiles, making them much more durable than the common, hard-shelled eggs of Jake's old home world. He collected them for Neytiri, wrapping them in leaves for insulation and putting them in his scavenging pouch.

They stopped for a ration break around noon and Norm decided to try catching fresh fish for them, since he hadn't made a kill. Jake watched with bemusement as the anthropologist fitted a fishing arrow into his bow and peered intensely at the water, judging the movement of the fish within it. Norm fired after a few heartbeats and the arrow struck with a faint splash, trailing the sinew fishing cord behind it.

"I don't believe it," Jake snorted as his friend reeled in a decent-sized common fish. "You can hardly hit the broad side of a sturmbeest, but you can shoot a moving fish through water."

Norm shrugged. "I can't explain it. Here." He swiftly murmured his thanks to the fish and cut its head off with his hunting knife before handing the catch to Jake.

Jake grinned and shook his head as he carried it back to the small cooking fire they had set up. Ni'nat took it from him and began cooking it while Norm worked on reeling in another one. Jake rejoined him and he saw the shadow of a particularly large fish. Guessing by the distorted shape beneath the water that it was a giant gargoyle fish, Jake pointed and whispered to Norm.

"I dare you to get that one."

Norm measured the size of the fish and its depth in the water with calculating eyes. "That's a pretty big target, Jake. It looks like it's about three feet long. Are you sure you don't want to pick out something a little harder to hit?"

Ni'nat overheard some of the conversation and she left E'quath to watch over the currently cooking fish to join the two other men at the edge of the pond. "It would provide plenty of meat." She smiled engagingly at her mate.

Norm glanced sidelong at her and Jake quickly controlled the twitch in his lips when he looked back at him again. "They're good eating, brother. Go on, catch it for us."

"Why am I getting the feeling there's something you two aren't telling me?" Norm hesitated as he positioned his fishing arrow into his bow.

Jake shrugged, keeping his expression as bland as possible. "If you don't think you can get him, just say so." He saw Ni'nat's shapely lips curve for a brief moment and he refrained from giving her a conspiring look.

Norm still looked suspicious but he shared the same weakness as most other men when it came to impressing the woman of his fancy. "Stoke up the fire," he said with confidence.

If Norm had looked over his shoulder at E'quath, he would have seen the warrior shake his head and put his face in one hand. Blind to the gesture, he lined up his arrow and narrowed his eyes. He trained the point of his fishing arrow and followed the motion beneath the water. He was just about to shoot it when Ni'nat leaned closer to him and blew on his ear, making it twitch and spoiling his concentration.

Norm looked at his mate with a chastising expression, but Jake saw him grin slightly. "Stop that," Norm whispered.

He tried again and Ni'nat blew into his ear once more. Jake covered up a laugh as Norm's eyes visibly lost focus and fluttered shut for a moment.

"Ni'nat," Norm complained in a low, husky murmur, "Do you want me to get this fish or not?"

"My apologies, sweet mate," she answered in a voice unsteady with laughter. "I will control myself. Please, continue."

Norm heaved a suffering sigh, smirking a little as he tried again. Jake crossed his arms over his chest and waited while his friend lined up his shot once more. Norm took a slow, deep breath before shooting. His shot was successful but before Norm could react with any pride, the water rolled with turbulence and the cord attached to his wrist snapped taut as the animal dove.

"Crap," Norm blurted as he wound the cord around his hand and tried to pull his catch in. He staggered from the force of the resistance and Jake burst into laughter, even as he grabbed hold of the fishing cord to help.

"Giant gargoyle fish," Jake grunted with a broad smile. "Like I said, they're good eating but they're strong as hell."

Ni'nat was also laughing as she caught her mate around the waist to keep his feet from sliding on the bank. "Your eyes are so wide," she giggled.

"Very funny," Norm grimaced. "I almost went in head-first!" He tensed his muscles and with Jake's help, he tugged hard on the line.

The gargoyle fish came flying out of the water abruptly, somewhat resembling a manta ray in shape. It arched over their heads and Norm overbalanced, falling backwards against his mate. Ni'nat gave a breathless little cry of surprise and she barely managed to arch her body aside as she tumbled backwards to the ground with Norm. Jake turned in time to see E'quath snatch aside the skewer of fish he was roasting and jump hastily away. E'quath narrowly avoided getting hit in the face with the impaled gargoyle fish and it landed next to the fire, flopping on the ground.

"I'm sorry," Norm apologized breathlessly to Ni'nat as he partially landed on her. He rolled over and scanned her with wide eyes, apparently forgetting his annoyance at being the butt of a joke. "Are you okay?"

Ni'nat looked a little stunned but she laughed after a moment and placed a hand on Norm's chest. "You did not land full weight on me," she said between snickers.

Jake grinned down at them before approaching the struggling fish and pulling his knife from the sheath. "Great catch, Norm. Sorry about that, E'quath." He glanced at the other warrior, who was recovering from his sudden lurch.

"It is a good catch," agreed E'quath, "but you might have warned Normspellman, Olo'eyktan."

"Nah, it wouldn't have been as much fun." Jake smirked and quickly pulled the arrow from the fish. He finished it off with his knife and murmured his thanks to it, before standing back up to check on Norm and Ni'nat. The couple was still entwined on the moss and they were staring at each other.

"Norm, you've got a meter long fish to skin," Jake reminded, clearing his throat.

"What's the word, Maxi?"

"I asked you not to call me that." Max slid a sidelong look at Trudy as he studied the transmission panel.

Her small, strong hands squeezed his shoulders and she chuckled. "Makes you think of girly products, eh?"

"Not until you said that." He searched through the database again and shook his head. "This isn't good."

Trudy let go of his shoulders and looked at the screen. "What isn't good?"

"We haven't gotten any more transmissions from the RDA for two weeks."

They had already discussed what such a thing could mean and Trudy pushed back her feeling of dread, trying to be positive. "Maybe their equipment's borked again. That's what you said happened the last time you lost touch with them, right?"

Max turned the screen toward her and tried to enter his access code. "When that happened, I got an error message stating that there was an insufficient connection," he explained. He finished entering the code and he sent it.

The words: "ACESS DENIED" loomed large in red caps on the box that appeared on the screen.

"What do you say to that, Trudy?"

She stared at it and nodded slowly, her jaw tense. "I say we get ready for another shit storm, double-time." She patted the gun she kept constantly holstered at her hip. "We'll give those bitches something serious to think about when they show their faces here again. Any idea what the rotation schedules are looking like?"

"It's going to be a few more months before the next transport comes in," he answered. "But if they're cutting us off, we won't get any more information about it."

"They're going to keep us on our toes," she sighed. "Want me to touch bases with Jake and Norm? You look stressed."

He nodded. "I appreciate it, Trudy. It feels like I'm always the bad news reaper, lately."

"No problem," she said. "Don't forget, we've been gearing up for this, Max. It's coming closer but the fire isn't here yet."

-To be continued


Toktor = Doctor

Olo'eyktan Clan leader, or chieftain

Tsahik = Matriarch. Spiritual leader of the clan who interprets the will of Eywa.

P'ah s'lvil chey = Personal belongings rack. A carved hardwood rack that Na'vi hang for use as storage for their gear, clothing, jewelry and other belongings. Usually given as a gift from a loved one but sometimes gifted as a show of respect.

Chapter Text

After getting the news from Trudy that Earth had cut off all communications with Hell's Gate, Jake arranged a private discussion between himself, Norm and Neytiri. They went a short distance into the forest for privacy and Jake sighed, leaning against the trunk of a tree. The sun was setting and he squinted against the orange light as he regarded his mate and friend.

"We really need to know what we're up against," Jake said grimly. "I was willing to wait and assume before but now..." He shook his head and his mouth narrowed into a thin line.

"I agree," Norm said with furrowed brows, "but how? We can't rely on Intel from the base anymore, if the RDA won't exchange information with them."

"I'm going to have an Uniltaron. I'll start fasting now and I'll do it tomorrow at sunset."

Norm stared at Jake and Neytiri lowered her gaze. Uniltaron—a Dream Hunt. It was similar to the practice of the Native Americans on Earth to go on a Vision Quest, to find answers in the spirit world. The Na'vi practice, however, involved the seeker capturing a kali'weya in a stone jar and allowing it to sting him or her whenever the seeker is ready to begin. The arachnoids were scorpion-like and their venom had mind-altering properties that aided the seeker's trance and visions. The poison from the sting was very painful to the recipient and it could be fatal, if left unattended.

"Jake," Norm began anxiously, "You're talking about deliberately weakening yourself and letting a poisonous arachnoid sting you."

"I know what I'm talking about," countered the warrior, setting his jaw. "I've done it before and so have you."

"But that was for the rites of passage," argued Norm. "It was part of the necessary process."

"You do not respect the sacred traditions of our people?" Neytiri challenged Norm.

"Of course, I respect them," Norm assured her hastily. "I just don't know what this is going to accomplish."

Jake gazed at him levelly, without a trace of his usual easygoing humor on his stern features. "When you passed through the eye of Eywa, did you see Grace or not?"

"Y-yes, but—"

"Then you know spirit visions are real." Jake's expression relaxed a little and he regarded Norm with sincerity. "Look, if someone came to me and talked about this stuff a year ago, I would have called bullshit." He glanced at his mate. "Sorry."

"You know better now," Neytiri excused.

Jake smirked and returned his attention to Norm. "I've seen too much since then to disbelieve it. You've seen it too, Norm. This could be the only way we can find out exactly what to expect when the next ISV gets here."

"Okay, let's rationalize this," Norm pleaded. "Even if you do have a vision, you can't guarantee what it's going to be."

Jake nodded stubbornly. "Yes, I can. Eywa knows what I need and if she grants me a vision, it's going to give some kind of insight about what the RDA is planning."

"If," Norm stressed. "If you get a vision at all, Jake. People have died doing this ritual."

"And people have died because of the RDA!" Jake snapped angrily. "People died when they blew up the pillars of the old Hometree! People died when we united the clans and fought, and people are gonna die again when they get here to try and finish what they started...unless we can find a way to get the upper hand."

Norm recoiled, startled by Jake's sudden burst of passionate rage. Jake calmed himself with visible effort and Neytiri settled a supportive hand on his tense shoulder. Jake shut his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath before speaking again.

"Norm, I've got responsibilities to this clan. One of those responsibilities is to do everything I can to keep them safe. I can understand if you're having trouble getting on board with what I want to do but don't get in my way. I've made my choice."

Norm heaved a sigh and lowered his gaze. "I guess there's no talking you out of it."

Jake shook his head. "Sorry to disappoint you."

Norm raised his head and he looked Jake in the eye with a stanch expression. "Then let me be there when you do it. I'll gather some octoshroom roots to make anti-venom and if it starts looking like you're taking a bad turn, I'll give it to you. Will you at least agree to that, Jake?"

Jake relaxed and a brief, crooked smile flitted over his lips. "Yeah, I can agree to that." He reached out and clasped Norm's forearm in a gesture of friendship.

Norm returned it and studied the horizon. "Well, I'd better go and get those roots now, while there's still enough light. Will you tell Ni'nat I'll be back soon, when you go back to the den?"

"We will tell her," Neytiri promised.

Norm excused himself and walked deeper into the forest to scavenge what he needed. When they were alone, Neytiri stood before Jake and put her hands on his shoulders. "Your decision to do this makes me proud. You put our people before yourself."

Jake was a little embarrassed and he shrugged. "It's not just for our people. It's for our child's future too...and ours." He cupped her chin and kissed her. "You should go and have dinner. I'll be at the lake, getting cleaned up."

"I will join you after I eat," she said. She brushed her lips against his and started to go but he remembered what he'd collected in the pouch at his hip and he caught her arm.

"Hold up," he said with a little grin. "A promise is a promise. These are for you." He freed the pouch from his gear harness and handed it over to her. Neytiri opened it curiously and when she scooped out one of the eggs and unwrapped it, she smiled.

"You really found some for me."

"I told you I would, didn't I?" He was ridiculously pleased by her smile. "I'll bring you as many as you want, if that's what it takes to make sure you're eating right."

Neytiri replaced the egg in the pouch and gave him a fond, exasperated look. "For now, concentrate on getting through your Uniltaron safely, Jake. If you do that, I will eat well even when I don't feel hungry."

Jake smirked. "I'm going to hold you to that promise."

The next day at sunset, Jake met up with Neytiri, Mo'at and Norm in one of the hollows midway up the trunk of the tree. There were five of them in all, designated specifically for Dream Hunts, so that seekers could have privacy when they underwent the task. A hide covering was stretched over the entrance and a mat of woven plant fibers lay on the living wooden floor.

Mo'at was there to observe and tutor, but it would be Neytiri's task to release the arachnoid on her mate's body and oversee his journey once its potent sting began to take effect on him. As the future Tsahik, she was required to practice these things. Mo'at thought that the greatest test of her daughter's convictions would be to guide Jake into his Dream Hunt.

Jake reclined on the mat and Neytiri sat near his head and folded her legs beneath her. Mo'at tapped the bladder lanterns hanging on the walls of the small room, disturbing the glowing insects living inside to make them light up. The soft luminance bathed the interior in blue light and Neytiri looked down at her mate's upturned face and stroked his hair.

"Are you ready, my Jake?"

"Yes." He was uncommonly solemn and sober-faced as he gazed up at her.

Mo'at picked up the stone jar that held the creature Jake had captured for this task and she handed it over to her daughter silently. Neytiri took it and set it beside her on the floor before reaching for the wooden tongs designed to handle the arachnoid safely.

Norm took a deep breath and watched silently. He held the wooden cup of anti-venom he had prepared; ready to force it down Jake's throat if the other male appeared to start having fatal reactions to the venom. He was also prepared to administer some to Neytiri if—Eywa forbid—her grasp on the arachnoid failed to keep it from stinging her. The venom could cause her to miscarry if it wasn't purged quickly enough but Norm didn't dare argue with either of the two women over the decision to let Neytiri handle the creature.

"Remember Jake, the time you spend in the dream world moves faster than the time passing here. You must focus on your goal and return to us quickly." Neytiri stared into his eyes, stressing the importance of not lingering for longer then necessary.

Jake was familiar with all of this, having done it once before. He understood her subtle expression of concern for him and he managed a confident smile for her. "I'll be careful."

Neytiri hesitated, making everyone wonder if she was about to lose her nerve. She was about to cause pain to the man she loved and the expression on her face said that she had a war going on inside of her. She scooted back a little and bent over her prone mate, lowering her head to kiss him on the mouth. "Hunt well," she whispered against his lips.

Jake returned her kiss and he nodded. Neytiri straightened up again and she held the tongs in one hand while lifting the lid off of the stone jar with the other. She slipped the grasping tool into the opening and peered inside, moving the tongs carefully. When she pulled them out again, the black, scorpion-like creature came with them, firmly grasped between the wooden paddles. It squirmed but Neytiri had a good hold on it. Jake kept his eyes on her face as she lowered the captive animal to his left bicep and slowly released it, hovering the tongs over it in readiness.

Jake winced but held obligingly still when the stinger jabbed into his skin. Neytiri waited, pressing her lips together grimly. She let it sting him twice more to be certain enough of the toxin was delivered and then she grasped the arachnoid quickly to prevent it giving him too much. Norm picked up the stone jar and held it out for her and Neytiri dropped the creature back into it. Norm replaced the lid and set the jar aside.

"Relax, my son," Mo'at bade Jake as they waited for the venom to begin working.

Jake obediently let his body go as slack as possible and he didn't take his eyes off of Neytiri. Her beautiful face and the child she carried served as a reminder of why it was so important for him to succeed in this Dream Hunt. He reached over with the hand closest to her and he rested it on her knee. She dropped her hand on top of his and held it gently, while caressing his face with the fingertips of her other hand.

As the minutes ticked by, Jake's pupils began to dilate and his eyelids drooped. His breath became uneven and his gaze lost its focus. Neytiri started to chant in a soft, lulling voice, praying to Eywa to guide her mate's spirit and grant him a clear vision. Jake was no longer looking at anything in the room. His consciousness began to fade and Neytiri's low chanting helped ease him into his trance.

Moat studied the young chieftain silently and when his body tensed for a moment in pain and his eyes went completely blank, she nodded. "He is in the dream world now. All that we can do is wait."

A shudder wracked Jake's body and perspiration broke out on his skin. A feverish flush crept over Jake's face and Norm quickly reached for the bowl of water they had brought with them and handed it to Neytiri, along with a soft cloth. She set the bowl down and dipped the cloth into it, soaking it and wringing it out. She murmured to Jake softly as she began to bathe the sweat from his trembling body. As more time passed, the effect of the stings worsened and Jake began to unconsciously writhe on the mat.

"Restrain him," ordered Mo'at quickly. She clamped her hands down on his ankles and Norm hastily did the same with his wrists, holding them down on either side of his body with effort. Jake tossed his head and shouted something unintelligible, consumed by his trance.

"Shh, my Jake," Neytiri murmured in a tight voice. She pressed her hands down on his shoulders to help hold him still and she kept speaking to him, hoping that her voice could reach him enough to soothe him.

The last thing Jake saw before everything went white was Neytiri looking down at him. He heard a rushing sound in his ears that reminded him of being put down for surgery and a moment of panic consumed him. Was he back in the hospital? Had the past six and a half years been nothing more than a dream? Did he ever go to Pandora or was it all a delusion created in his mind, to escape the reality of being crippled for life? Was his brother still alive after all?

Completely disoriented, Jake opened his eyes and struggled to focus them. He wasn't in an operating room. He was in a cryogenic pod. In fact, he was crammed into the pod like a grown man stuffed into a kid's toy box. He realized why when he raised his hands to push against the underside of the lid and saw the pale cyan skin and the pattern of darker blue stripes on the hands and forearms. He remembered that he was on a Dream Hunt and he relaxed.

Why he ended up inside one of these things was a mystery to him, unless Eywa intended to show him something significant from his past that related to the situation in the present. He grunted as he pushed at the lid. Jake forced the lid open and grimaced at the pain of the fluorescent white light surrounding him. He took a moment to adjust his vision and he looked around with narrowed eyes as he sat up.

His location looked exactly like the cryobank he had woken up in when his ISV arrived in orbit around Pandora. The exception was, none of the crew floating around checking on the sleeping passengers were familiar to him. He got out of the ill-fitting pod he was in and he walked from one capsule to the other, looking at the unfamiliar name tags labeling each one.

"This isn't the Venture Star," Jake muttered.

None of the conscious people in the cryobank paid any attention to him and he realized they couldn't see or hear him...because he was only there in spirit. He thought it was funny that they didn't seem to notice one of the cryovaults opening up on its own and he turned around to look at the one he'd come out of. It was closed. He went over to it and peered into the small observation window to see that it was occupied by a woman.

"That's freaky...I was in there with her?"

"You weren't 'in there' at all, Sully. Your mind just played it like you were."

Jake abruptly turned around at the sound of that hated voice, remembering the southern drawl and the cruel, indifferent tone all too well. "What the hell are you doing here, Quaritch? Didn't Neytiri kill you enough?"

"Ah, your piece of native tail," mused the colonel with a nasty smirk. "Evidently, she killed me just enough, Corporal. Like you, I'm not really here. I'm your vision guide."

Jake stared at him. "Like hell, you are. Why would Eywa choose you as my guide?"

"She didn't," answered Quaritch. He pointed a ruddy finger at Jake. "You did."

"Bullshit," spat Jake.

The older man shrugged and walked up to him. Strangely, he was the same height as Jake, even though his human body should have only come up to Jake's waist. "Believe what you want, Sully." He tapped a finger against the scars on the side of his head, where some native beast had clawed him during his service on Pandora. "Your subconscious mind chose the form and attitude I'd take. You wanna know why?"

"If you try to tell me it's guilt over your death, I'll punch a hole in your fucking face—guide or not."

Quaritch gave him one of those cold, lopsided grins and he shook his head. "That isn't very respectful, Soldier. No, I'm here right now because your mind is fixated on the damage I caused." He stepped even closer, until his face was only a couple of inches away from Jake's. His eyes narrowed. "I'm here because all you can think about is how many of your blue friends died when I ran the show. That's a neat trick you've been pulling; hiding it from your pussycat like you do even when you're linked. I'll bet she doesn't know about those nightmares you've been having, Sully."

Jake couldn't seem to get enough air. Images of Neytiri lying in a bloody heap next to burning, broken limbs of Hometree wormed their way into his brain. Images of himself finding her that way and holding her, calling her name while simultaneously trying to pick up the tiny, still body of their prematurely born infant.

"Yeah, you don't wanna share those thoughts with her, do ya Sully? You know what? Those nightmares of yours just might come true."

Jake reached out with blurring speed and caught Quaritch around the throat. He lifted him one-handed and pulled his lips back from his teeth, hissing aggressively. Quaritch didn't seem to have any trouble breathing and no matter how Jake tried, he couldn't close his hand tighter around the man's throat.

"Now, you can hiss and spit like a mangy tomcat all you want, son. It won't change anything." The colonel was completely calm, opposite of Jake's panting rage. "If you want to know what's really going on here, you ought to put me down and let me give you the tour. You chose me, after all."

It took Jake a moment to comply. He was so full of blind fury that he could barely see straight. He thought he heard Neytiri's voice whisper his name, from somewhere far away. It broke through the red haze and washed over him like a soothing balm. Jake lowered Quaritch back to the floor and stepped away from him, breathing heavily and glaring.

"Eywa would never be this cruel," he growled with certainty. "She wouldn't send a guide that would gloat over the deaths of her chosen people, no matter what's on my mind!"

"I told you before; Eywa isn't responsible for me being here. Buckle up and use your head, Sully. You asked for guidance for your vision and she gave it to you. If I seem a little too real to you, it's because you're making me that way. We can stand here shooting the breeze as long as you want but your time here is limited."

Jake forcibly pushed his emotions back and gave the other man a curt nod. "Then let's go."

Quaritch immediately began to walk out of the cryobank with brisk footsteps. Jake hastened to follow him and they traveled down tunnels and corridors. Jake discovered that there were more air transport vehicles, weapons and AMP suits on this ship than there were on the one he had traveled in. A lot more. Eventually, they came to an area Jake hadn't seen when he boarded his transport.

"This is where they keep all the avatars," Quaritch told him as he pulled open a sliding door.

Jake followed him in and he was stunned by how many incubation tanks there were. He swept the circular chamber with wide eyes, counting in his head. When he joined the program, they told him they only had a dozen or so avatars in operation. Of course according to Max, the research and creation was a constantly evolving thing. Jake had expected to find out more avatars were incoming and he'd expected some of them to be like Sebastian, but he wasn't prepared for this.

"There's fifty of 'em, if you're having trouble counting," Quaritch said. "And there's three more chambers like this, each with fifty of their own. Now usually, the drivers are kept in cryo like you were...but you knew that already, didn't you?"

Jake felt like doom was breathing down his neck. "Where are the drivers for these?" He noticed that all of the avatars were fully grown.

"Don't you know that already?" Quaritch smirked. "The drivers are the avatars, just like your friend that came in on the last transport."

The implications weren't lost on Jake. This was even worse than he had feared. "And this is the next ISV scheduled to reach Pandora?"

"That's right. Only a handful of these guys are scientists. The rest of them are special forces, just like you. I thought you'd make a potent agent son, but think about what these soldiers can accomplish. They can breathe wherever they go and your savages won't have the upper hand on physical strength anymore. They're going to bring all of you down, unless you pull another rabbit out of your ass."

"I think you mean; 'pull a rabbit out of your hat,'" Jake corrected distractedly, his mind reeling over what he was hearing and seeing.

"Since the only thing you ever wear is a piece of hide over your crotch and a few straps of leather here and there, I think my version's a little more accurate."

Jake ignored him. "Two-hundred enhanced avatar soldiers," he murmured. "That's two-hundred men and women they could have killed if they screwed up. They didn't even care about getting Collins' confirmation that it worked on Sebastian."

"These people knew what they were getting into." Quaritch jerked his chin at one of the tanks, which held a female avatar. "They signed up for it, Sully. The RDA didn't feel like waiting on Collins' report so they had their science team go ahead with it as soon as the avatars were made."

"When they were made?" Repeated Jake. "Not when they finished growing?"

"Your people only found half of the info concerning this operation," answered Quaritch. "Bishop Collins shipped out before the new program was complete. He didn't know about the changes to the process when he screwed around with your stunted friend."

Jake shut his eyes and shook his head. He liked to think that if he had known all of this back when he first started the program, he never would have helped the RDA so much before having a change of heart. He couldn't be sure of that, though. His biggest concern back then was following orders and getting his ability to walk back. His change of attitude came gradually, as he learned more about the Na'vi people and started falling for Neytiri.

"What's the matter, Corporal?" Quaritch taunted, "Afraid you'll wake up one day and find out you're still just like them?" He nodded at one of the floating avatars, which housed the spirit of a trained killer.

Jake scowled. "I've heard about enough from you."

"They're your thoughts, son. I'm just relaying them back." Quaritch checked his watch and raised his eyebrows. "Well look at that...your time's up, Soldier. Better get your umbrella ready for the downpour. Oh, and one more thing: it wasn't a robber's bullet that killed Tom Sully."

Jake's eyes went wide with the grim implication. "What do you mean, Quaritch? They said—"

"They told you what they were told. I needed someone I could count on to work on the inside and a science geek wasn't going to cut it. I knew before I rotated out that I'd get faster results if I could put a military man in the Avatar program. It wasn't a coincidence when they recruited you to take your twin's place—I had some people cut some corners to get me what I needed. They told you just what you needed to hear so you'd get on board and you played right into our hands. See you around, Jake."

Jake opened his mouth to ask another question but suddenly Quaritch, the avatar storage chamber and even the ship he was on rushed away from him. He was hurtling backwards through space, heading for the moon of Pandora. He wondered how he could still be breathing in space but as he turned over, he had a greater concern. He was falling through Pandora's atmosphere and the ground was rushing closer and closer. He shut his eyes and yelled, flinging his arms over his face as Hometree loomed fast in his vision.

"How is our olo'eyktan? Has he completed his Dream Hunt yet?"

Norm shook his head and glanced over his shoulder at the hide curtain. "Not yet. His struggles are weakening and if he doesn't wake soon, I'm going to have to give him the anti-venom."

Ni'nat rubbed Norm's arm and gave him a reassuring look. "Few hunters have died in the process of Uniltaron, Norm. The sting of the kali'weya is usually only deadly to the elderly, weak or very young if it is not treated. Jakesully is strong. I am sure we have nothing to worry about."

"Maybe I'm just being paranoid," Norm sighed. "He's fully recovered from his back injury and he's done this before. I just want to be sure. He hasn't had a very good season for luck."

Ni'nat smiled. "No, he has not. In that light, I can understand your concern."

Mo'at's voice came from behind the concealing hide, interrupting the conversation. "I believe his is waking, daughter. Speak to him quickly."

Ni'nat saw the anxious look on her mate's face and she urged him to go in and help. Coming out of a dream trance was disorienting, painful and even frightening. There was no telling where Jake had gone during his journey and if he suffered confusion over where he was, he could inadvertently hurt his mate or Mo'at in his struggles. Ni'nat waited outside of the room while Norm pushed the cover aside and went in to help with Jake.

Jake rolled onto his side as soon as he woke up. He curled up, shivering violently from the poison in his system. "They killed Tommy!" he cried raggedly. "They fucking...used me and they killed him!"

Norm's brows drew together and he stared at his friend with wide-eyed concern. Neytiri and Mo'at both looked helplessly confused by the outburst, but they were doing their best to sooth Jake.

"Jake," Norm said carefully, "Tom was killed by a mugger."

"No." Jake shook his head. His voice was raw with pain and fever. "That was a lie. Someone in the RDA staged it. Quaritch wanted...a military operative in on the Avatar program because they weren't finished with the enhanced avatars yet. He planned to...send a covert operative in...from the beginning. They had the avatar but they had to get rid of Tommy to get me in on it."

Norm almost tried to deny it, but he abruptly remembered the underhanded things that operatives in the RDA were capable of and he thought of the horrible, merciless destruction of the old Hometree. "Jake, are you sure about this?" He and Tom had gotten along well when they went through avatar training together. The thought of the very people who had hired him bumping him off made Norm's skin crawl.

"Yes, dammit, I'm sure!" Jake had a greenish tint to his complexion and it likely wasn't just due to the toxins in his system. Neytiri was stroking his hair and wiping at his brow with the wet cloth. She and her mother both looked at Norm inquisitively.

"Tom was his brother," explained Norm. "He died before Jake came here."

"He died because of me," Jake gagged, and suddenly he was retching. Because he had fasted, he had nothing in his stomach to throw up other than bile. Mo'at quickly grabbed one of the empty bowls in the corner and she held it under his head, catching what little came up from his stomach.

Norm wished that he could write Jake's words off as deluded ranting but he could see the truth in his eyes while he waited for his tortured heaving to end. He sighed and put a consoling hand on Jake's arm when the other man finished and rolled onto his back. He understood with frightening clarity now why Selfridge insisted that it was so "lucky" Tom had a twin brother. There was probably nothing lucky about it. Someone with the right connections must have looked up Tom's records and found out he had a twin in the marines.

"I'm sorry, Jake. Really. I knew Tom and I...I just don't know what to say."

"I'll kill every single one of them," Jake growled through clenched teeth. He groaned a moment later clenched his hands into fists. Neytiri wiped his mouth off and stared down at him with concerned distress.

"Okay, that's enough," Norm said, reaching for the anti-venom he had waiting. "Try to drink this down, okay? "

Jake turned his head away when Norm tried to bring the cup to his lips, nearly making him spill. "Come on, Jake," Norm urged, "drink it!"

"No." Jake shook his head and glared at Norm with livid yellow eyes. "I'll ride it out. It's not gonna kill me."

"Stop this foolishness," Mo'at demanded in her most authoritative voice. "Your grief is making your reasoning insane. Do not forget why you took this spirit journey."

Jake opened his mouth with an expression that said he intended to refuse again, but Neytiri added her worried pleas to her mother's demands. Jake looked up at her and some of the rage and pain faded from his features. With a defeated, tired look, he nodded. Neytiri supported the back of his head and helped him lift it while Norm brought the cup to his lips. Jake grimaced as he swallowed the brew but he drank most of it.

"I've seen what they're bringing with them," Jake said after several moments, when the medicine eased the cramps in his body and the delirium in his head. "Max was spot on. They're sending in more people like Sebastian, but most of them are military operatives in full-grown bodies. There's a lot more of them than I expected, too. There are two hundred on the ship that's due to come in next. Quaritch said—"

"Wait a minute," Norm interrupted, holding up a hand. "Did you just say 'Quaritch'?"

"Yeah," answered Jake. "My dream guide took on his form. He said it was because my mind is on what happened the last time the RDA attacked and since Quaritch ordered most of the destruction, I guess my subconscious picked him."

Norm winced. "That must have been...uh..."

"Yeah, it was," Jake finished for him. He shuddered faintly, either from the remaining toxin or the memory of having the bastard serve as his guide. "Anyway, he said a few of the new avatars are scientists but the rest are all Special Forces, like I was. He also said they did the transference when the avatars were first made, before they shipped out."

"So they transferred their consciousness into embryos?" Norm scratched his head. "But linking to an immature avatar is...well, just look at what happened to Sebastian."

"They made some improvements around the same time our transport was on the way to Pandora," Jake explained haltingly, having no head for science. "Don't ask me what they did differently...all I know is they did the transfer some time before they even sent the ISV out and for whatever reason, Dr. Collins never got the memo."

Norm calculated the time in his head. "So they were doing this when we were finishing up with Avatar training," he reasoned. A frown tugged at his lips. "Sebastian's team got here around seven months after we did."

"And Tommy was killed a week before he was supposed to ship out," Jake said tightly, "What the hell difference does it make?"

"I'm trying to figure out the timeline, Jake." Norm kept his tone and expression placating. "It could be important. Do you know how long Quaritch was on Pandora before we got there?"

"About six months, I think."

"So his cohorts in the RDA started making their plans to get Tom out and you in sometime between when Quaritch left and when the Venture Star was scheduled to leave," Norm murmured, almost to himself. "Maybe they were just going to kick him out of the avatar program, but if they did that...uh..." Norm trailed off and looked at Jake uncomfortably.

"If they did it that way they never would have gotten me on board," finished Jake with a scowl. "Unless they got the idea that I'm an asshole that would steal his twin brother's dream from him. Listen Norm; these people were ready to commit genocide to get what they wanted. If they could do that, they wouldn't think twice about murdering one guy."

Norm sighed. There was no way to get around it. "I know. But what I'm trying to figure out is why Collins did what he did to Sebastian at all. You said he 'didn't get the memo' but there couldn't have been a very large time span between when Sebastian's transport left and the one with all of those other enhanced avatars on it left. Did your guide say the new avatars were grown to maturity on earth, or during transport?"

"They would have had to have grown them during the trip," Jake said. "If it takes a few years for them to get to full size they would have had to send them out while they were still...embryos. Right?"

"Unless they found a way to accelerate their growth, yes," Norm agreed. "Otherwise we wouldn't have to expect to see the first new avatars for another five years and they as much as told Max they'd be sending in their 'secret weapons' soon. Did you ask your guide how long we have until they arrive?"

"No," groaned Jake. "I was so floored by everything I found out, I didn't ask."

"But he said they did this after Sebastian's ISV rotated out." Norm felt like he had a lead ball in his stomach. "They would have wanted to get these enhanced fighters here as fast as they could and Max already said he found information saying they had some on route."

"I guess so."

Norm remembered something else and his eyes widened. "I forgot! Jake, Max said Earth communications were messed up for a while and they couldn't get word too or from the RDA headquarters. That's probably why Collins went ahead with his experiment while the transport was on its way here. He didn't know they improved the process and went ahead with the operation. He thought he was still supposed to confirm whether it would work. So, he used the process on Sebastian, panicked when he realized it was flawed and set it up to look like a glitch in Sebastian's cryovault caused his death."

"It adds up," Norm continued, oblivious to Mo'at and Neytiri's utterly confused expressions or Jake's increasingly grim one. "Quaritch arrived, then six months later we got here. A little more than seven months after that Sebastian and his team arrived. That should give us—" He felt the color drain from his face as he realized the amount of time that had passed since Sebastian and the others got there.

"No time," Jake said dully. "They could be here any day now."

"But Max said the last schedule he looked at had the next mothership scheduled months from now," Norm reminded, a little relieved as he recalled it. "I think it would have taken them longer to send it out, because they had to transport all of those incubation tubes to the ISV."

"And weapons," added Jake. "Don't forget those."

Norm heard the flat, dead tone in Jake's voice and it brought him out of his contemplations and into a state of awareness. Jake still looked too pale and his eyes were too bright. Neytiri was gently stroking his shoulder but Jake didn't look like he really felt it. There was grief in his expression.

"Jake, I was only trying to work out what's happened," Norm said remorsefully.

Jake closed his eyes. "Norm, I know it's important to figure all this out and I admire your brain power, but I just found out my brother died because the Quaritch and some other people in the RDA wanted to use me to get the Omaticaya out of the way. I did just what they wanted, too. Can we just save this for later? Or maybe you should take this up with Max, if you've got to work out your theories. Right now, I just don't care."

Norm felt like an insensitive prick and what was worse, Tom was his friend. He thought of everything Jake had been through and it occurred to him that it was something of a miracle that the man hadn't fallen into a pit of depression before now. He got shot in the back and crippled. His brother died. He fell in love with a woman whose people he nearly helped destroy. He got a new body only to nearly become crippled again and just when things started leveling out, he found out that his brother died because people in the RDA wanted him to take his place.

And Norm had sat there babbling about time lines and tossing Tom's name out as if he were a stranger that meant nothing to anyone.

"I'm sorry, Jake. You just rest. I'll take care of getting word to Max, okay?"

Jake's expression hardly changed. "Sure."

Norm got up and left the small room. He almost ran into his mate, who still stood outside the hide cover. "Did you hear?" he whispered.

Ni'nat nodded. "I did not understand most of it, but I understood the part about Jakesully's brother. You knew him?"

Norm lowered his eyes and nodded. "He was a friend." His tone became bitter. "You probably wouldn't guess that based on how casually I was talking about what happened to him, though."

"You have a lot on your mind," Ni'nat excused, rubbing one of his arms soothingly. "And I think you have grief of your own to manage, Norm."

"I'll manage my own grief later," he sighed. "Right now I've got to make up for being a giant jerk-off and tell the others what Jake found out."

"We can fly there in the morning," Ni'nat suggested. "You, E'quath and I. Our chieftain can get the rest he needs."

Mo'at used some of the herbs she kept on her person and she mixed them with water from the jug sitting in the far corner.

"Here. Drink."

Jake looked at the cup Mo'at offered him as he propped himself up on his side. "What is it?"

"A mild potion," she answered. "To help you sleep."

"You need your rest, Jake," Neytiri coaxed when he looked reluctant to take it.

He reached for the cup half-heartedly, still wearing that flat, hopeless expression on his face. He drank it down without a word and nodded to Mo'at as he handed it back to her. She put the cup aside and sat quietly as Jake pillowed his head on one bent arm and lay there on his side. Neytiri stroked his hair continually, feeling his pain so acutely she almost checked to see if their queue's had linked without her knowing it. His braid was draped over his waist, confirming to her that tsahaylu wasn't necessary for her to empathize strongly with her mate. She knew he had a brother who died but he had never given her his name or told her what happened.

Jake's eyes drifted shut and after his breathing grew deep and even, Mo'at motioned to Neytiri. The two women quietly left the room together and stood outside. Moat waited for a passing clansman to go by before she spoke to her daughter in a low voice.

"You should stay close to your mate for a while, Daughter."

Neytiri nodded, feeling her throat burn with tears for him. "I have never seen him this way. So...defeated."

"His guilt," Mo'at replied with a nod. "It is poison to his spirit."

Neytiri lowered her gaze. "He blames himself for the death of his brother."

Mo'at laid a hand on Neytiri's shoulder. "He was deceived by the Sky People. His brother's death is not all that weighs on him. He is a good man who was fooled into doing evil and his efforts to correct his mistake only bring more challenges. He worries for you and he worries for our people."

Neytiri could sense Eywa's warning, like her mother. She feared this would break him beyond repair. "I will not leave his side."

"He is strong, Daughter. He has been through much already and yet, Jakesully's smiles come easily. I do not think this will weaken his spirit for long but until he remembers his own strength, he will need his mate to remind him of it."

Neytiri wiped her eyes and nodded. Even when he was lying in the Human medical place unable to feel his legs, he hadn't fallen into depression. He even cheered her up whenever her anxiety weighed her down. Quick to make witty comments and reassure her, Jake seemed like nothing could bring him down for long.

Neytiri slept fitfully beside her mate on the mat. Rather than wake him to try and coax him into their hammock further up the tree, she chose to let him sleep where he was and she cuddled up to him from behind. The discomfort of the hard floor, combined with her condition and her concern for Jake made it difficult to get to sleep. She finally drifted off in exhaustion close to midnight.

It seemed like she was only asleep for a short time when she woke up again. She could no longer feel Jake's warmth against her body and she opened tired eyes and sat up, looking around for him anxiously.

"Jake?" Neytiri whispered.

He was nowhere to be seen and he didn't answer her soft call. Thinking of the warning feelings she had been getting, she got to her feet quickly and left the room to search for him. Most of her clan was asleep, but she came across a couple of them who were still up or had gotten up to get something and she asked them if they had seen her mate. The man hadn't but the woman she met near the sleeping level said that she spotted Jake heading for the ikran nests.

Neytiri's brief feeling of relief was clouded by a terrible thought. What if Jake's grief and rage drove him to the point of delusion? He hadn't eaten for twenty-four hours, he had been through a Dream Hunt and his emotions were wild right now. She imagined him taking off on his banshee and getting himself killed with some reckless action.

She increased her pace, climbing the spiral as fast as she could without risking losing her footing. When she made it to the top and ran outside, she called out to Jake desperately. She stumbled to a halt when she saw him crouched at the end of one of the tree branches. He turned his head to look her way when he heard his name and his ears were lowered. He didn't answer her; he merely looked at her with dull, glittering eyes.

Neytiri approached him, catching her breath in relief. "Jake," she said as she began to lower herself beside him. Even in his morbid state of mind, he reached out and supported her, helping her balance herself as she sat down.

"Shouldn't wear yourself out," Jake said softly, putting an arm around her. His ears remained in the sloped position and he wouldn't look her in the eye.

"I am not worried about myself right now," she murmured. She laid a hand on the cheek facing away from her and urged him to turn his head and look at her. "Jake, you are not grieving in a healthy way. It worries me."

"Healthy?" He stared at her. "What do you think would be 'healthy', Neytiri?"

She hated the half-accusing tone in his voice but she held strong against it, straightening her posture and giving him a proud, determined stare right back. "To mourn the loss of your brother without punishing yourself."

Something seemed to break in him at that moment. She had never seen her Jake cry, though he expressed strong emotions and tenderness without hesitation. Na'vi men were encouraged to express their pain as much as women but Neytiri learned that human men were discouraged from openly crying, else they might appear weak. It was therefore somewhat of a shock to see his golden eyes shine with dampness. A single tear fell free and etched a glistening trail down the left side of his face.

"It's my fault Tommy's dead," he said in an aching whisper.

Neytiri shook her head slowly and cupped his face in both hands, brushing away the tear with her thumb. "Not your fault, Jake. The fault is with the greedy ones, the Sky People who deceive and steal and kill. You did not know."

Jake looked down. "I know all that on some level, but it doesn't stop me from feeling's different, now. I did my grieving before. It wasn't easy hearing that he got shot, but now...finding out he died so I could take his place..." His voice dropped out and his lips thinned as he tried to control his emotions.

"Would he want you blaming yourself?"

He blinked at her and went still for a moment. He looked out at the horizon and took a deep breath. "No. He wouldn't. Doesn't change how I feel though, Neytiri. I need some time."

"Tslolam, my Jake," Neytiri murmured. She stroked his arm and laid her head against his shoulder. "I was just afraid that you would...hurt yourself."

He turned his head and spoke against her hair. "How? Did you think I would jump or something?"

Neytiri lifted her head off his shoulder and stared into his eyes. "Would you do such a thing?"

"Only if I had something chasing me or the tree was on fire," he assured her. "And even then, I'd try to break my fall. I'm not suicidal."

She studied his face carefully and listened with all of her senses. When she was satisfied that he wasn't just saying that to keep her from worrying, she nodded. "I believe you. If you want us to leave you to your thoughts, we can go."

Jake's brows furrowed over his eyes and he glanced around. "'We'? I thought it was just you and me out here."

Neytiri smiled a little and took his far hand, pulling it across to lay it palm-down over the swell of her belly. "And the baby."

"Oh." Jake rubbed the area in gentle circles and Neytiri saw his throat work as he swallowed. A haunted expression flashed over his features for a brief moment and she wondered what provoked it. He drew her closer and his hand stilled, resting over their growing offspring protectively. "I'd rather you both stay."

She smiled tenderly at him and she came to a decision. "Jake, if our child is male, I want to name him Tommy."

He pulled back to look at her with a surprised, faintly wary expression. "Really? It isn't a Na'vi name."

"Neither is Jake, but both are good names."

Jake's mouth worked silently for a moment and he swallowed again as he nodded. "Okay. If it's a boy, we'll name him Tommy." He blinked and despite his obvious effort to hold back, his eyes rimmed with tears again.

Neytiri couldn't stop her eyes from tearing up in response and she reached up to draw his head closer, urging him to lay it on her shoulder. His arms went around her and she returned the embrace as she nuzzled his dark hair. She felt dampness against her shoulder where his cheek pressed against it and she whispered encouragingly to him, urging him to release his grief. His shoulders trembled silently and he held her tight, hardly making a sound as his tears dripped onto her shoulder. She wept with him, grieving for Jake's loss even though she had never met his brother.

-To be continued


Kali'weya = "Arachnoid"; a native scorpion-like arachnid whose venom has the capability of inducing a trance. The poison can be deadly to some but Na'vi warriors use it for vision-seeking purposes.

Tslolam = I understand

Chapter Text

The next morning, Norm flew to Hell's Gate with Ni'nat and E'quath. They left their ikrans just outside the gate and they went immediately into the lab and medical building, seeking out Max. When Norm told him he had information about the forces that were due to arrive, he arranged a meeting with all of the people they trusted most. Ni'nat and E'quath stood quietly in the background while Norm explained the details of what Jake discovered. He left out the part concerning Jake's brother, considering it too personal to share with mixed company. When he finished, Max looked around at the others before speaking.

"How did Jake get this information?"

Norm hesitated, knowing the truth would be met with disbelief by most all of them. "He saw it in a spiritual vision."

Trudy grimaced and Max took his glasses off and wiped the lenses with the sleeve of his lab coat. "Norm, you know we've got all the respect in the world for you and Jake and the Omaticaya, but it's hard not to take that at face value." Max looked acutely uncomfortable, as did the others. Norm observed that Sebastian was the only one who hardly blinked in response to the news that Jake saw everything in a vision.

"I understand how you feel," Norm admitted. "I know it's hard to absorb but I've had some experience with this kind of thing myself. As much as I've always respected Na'vi culture—" He nodded at his two traveling companions and they nodded back—"I had trouble believing in dream visions too. I got my proof, though."

The other scientists and MP's invited to the meeting were silent and Max studied Norm as if trying to decide what to say next. If Norm weren't a fellow scientist, he might have been more inclined to write his observations off as superstitious nonsense. His respect for Norm's intellect and reasoning skills won out.

"I'll concede that it's possible," Max said carefully, "but we can't get the people here worked up over a vision, especially if there's a chance that Jake could be right. There's no proof."

Sebastian cleared his throat and raised his hand, drawing everyone's attention to him. Max stammered and fell silent and Norm smirked, silently applauding Sebastian for reminding everyone that he was living evidence that the RDA can and would send special operatives. Beside him, Katherine's expression of doubt vanished and she spoke up.

"We've known they were planning to use this process to make their 'super soldiers' for a while now. True, we can't be sure of how much of Corporal Sully's vision was a product of his imagination but given what we already know, I don't think we should take it lightly."

"She's got a point," Trudy said. "And everyone on the base is expecting the RDA to try and take over so there's no harm in bumping up the security a little more. We could say the clock's winding down and I don't think anyone would be surprised."

Max scratched his beard and nodded. "We could do that. It's going to cost more resources, though."

"We'll help," Norm offered. "There are places where the minerals you need can be gathered without damaging the environment. I'll talk to Jake about it when we go back and see if we can organize an escort. You're doing the right thing by taking this seriously."

"Something is troubling you," Ni'nat observed that afternoon as she and Norm sat down to a dinner of the wrapped food they had brought with them.

E'quath was outside somewhere, talking to a couple of the avatar drivers who had helped overtake the base in the last conflict. Ni'nat and Norm sat together on one of the beds inside the avatar cabin as they ate and she could see tension and uncertainty in his expression. "Are you thinking of Jakesully's brother?"

Norm looked at her with mild surprise. She had come to know him better than he had realized. "Is it that obvious?"

"To me, yes," she answered gently. "To others, perhaps not. Tell me what you are thinking, my Norm."

He glanced at the nikt'chey he held in his hand, having no appetite for it despite how cleverly his mate had mixed the food to create the most pleasing taste. She always managed to find the best combinations and he doubted he would ever match her instincts for spice usage.

Ni'nat noticed his actions and she placed her free hand over his wrist. "You will not offend me if you don't like the food wrap I prepared for you."

"No, the food is delicious," Norm assured her. "Yours always is. I just don't have an appetite, right now."

"Because your cares are churning the food in your stomach," she surmised. She took another bite of her own wrap and gazed at him with quiet patience as she chewed and swallowed.

Norm gathered his thoughts before complying with her request that he open up to her. "I keep thinking that I should try to find out exactly what happened to Tom Sully. Max still has hundreds of classified files backed-up here. The RDA wiped the originals but he started saving them as soon as things started going sour. I can't help but think that somewhere in those files, there could be information leading to who Quaritch was working with to arrange Tom's death."

Ni'nat nodded and though it was obvious that she couldn't comprehend his talk of files and deception, she seemed to understand the overall gist of it. "What makes you hesitate?"

Norm looked down at his hands and heaved a sigh. He flexed the fingers, remembering when the hands were pale and much smaller. "Humanity."

She bit her lip and shook her head. "I don't understand," she admitted.

Norm smiled, feeling a pang in his heart. "Since learning about the People, I've been forced to look in the mirror. What I mean by that is the Na'vi ways opened my eyes to the ugly truth about my own species. The Na'vi had no concept of deceit, until the Sky People came."

She smiled softly at him and he relaxed a little. She was taking his words as a compliment, as they were intended. "I never realized how underhanded humans could really be, until I started comparing them to our people. I was one of them, Ni'nat. A part of me still is...and maybe it always will be. Lying is a human trait that I'm still trying to overcome."

"Lying?" She tilted her head and slowly lowered her food wrap. "To who?"

"Jake," he answered. He looked through the barred window at the horizon. "If I push to get this information and we learn the identity of the people responsible for his brother's death..." His words faded and he shook his head, dragging his fingers through wayward locks of hair hanging over his eyes.

"Then he will want vengeance," she finished for him with a nod of comprehension.

"Vengeance he can't satisfy," stressed Norm, "unless the guilty parties happen to come here. Even if Jake could somehow get back to earth, a decade will have gone by since Tom was killed and Jake can't breathe the air or eat the food. He'd be captured or killed if he even made it to a landing point."

"I cannot understand this talk of time, Norm," Ni'nat murmured. "How young were you when you came here from the world of the Sky People?"

"Not much younger than I am now," he tried to explain. "We...hibernate during the journey. We don't age but it takes more than five years to travel between Earth and Pandora. The people we left behind at home are that many years older now but we haven't aged between when we left and when we arrived."

"So the Sky People who did this to Jakesully's brother...?"

Norm shook his head. "I don't know. They might not even still be alive. Knowing who they are and not being able to do anything about it will haunt Jake. It could ruin his life...and Neytiri's. If I know the information and don't give it to him, it would be the same as a lie."

"But you still want to know," she reasoned. She caressed his back with her fingertips and finished the last morsel of her food wrap.

He nodded. "Yes. I still want to know. That's another fault of mine; I don't know when to let something go."

Ni'nat smiled and brushed her lips over his cheek. "Your desire to learn is what makes you special, my Norm. This was your friend and our chieftain's brother. Loyalty to both of them is nothing to feel shame over."

"But I could cause more harm," he whispered. "I don't know what to do."

She combed her loose hair over her left ear. "What do you think Tomsully would want you to do?"

Her words brought back memories and Norm's gaze unfocused. "He'd want his older brother to be safe," he murmured softly. "He used to worry about him. While we were going through avatar training, Jake was in a war in Venezuela. Tom always sounded like he was reassuring himself when he said his brother was too stubborn to get killed but one day in the beginning of our second year, he got this strange look on his face. We were between training sessions at lunch and he dropped his fork and stared off into the distance."

Ni'nat tilted her head. "What was the matter?"

Norm shut his eyes and thought back to that day. He had asked Tom if he was choking because the other man had gone so pale and still. Tom seemed to catch himself and he shook his head with a little smirk—the same smirk Norm saw so regularly on Jake's lips. He said he just had a chill and he played it off, but as he picked up his fork and resumed eating mechanically, Norm thought he saw anxiety lingering in his eyes.

That same night, Tom got a phone call from the government, informing him that his older twin was in a VA hospital getting a bullet removed from his spine. That was the first time Norm had ever seen real proof of the rumored "twin bond". That was the first time he had ever considered the possibility that not all myths were just fantasy. Tom wanted to go and see him but an ocean separated them and civilians were strictly forbidden from traveling to Venezuela until the conflict was ended.

Norm explained his account as well as he could, distracted by the memories and some nagging, half-forgotten thing that he couldn't put his finger on. His brows drew together as he recapped to his mate and he struggled to recollect whatever was crying for his attention.

"Norm?" Ni'nat's voice was worried as she called out to him.

"Something was wrong, that week before we were supposed to ship out," Norm answered, only paying partial attention as he struggled to remember. "I lost a book. I can't remember what it was but I called Tom to ask if he'd seen it. He sounded bad when he picked up the phone...really bad."

"Bad how?" Ni'nat queried softly.

"Nervous," Norm answered. He rubbed his temples and shut his eyes, dragging up the memory. "We were all nervous about the trip and our future but he sounded on edge. Scared, even."

"What did he have to fear?"

Norm grimaced. "Other than the trip? Nothing that I knew of. We were all a little afraid but he sounded..." He paused and tried to put his finger on it. That last phone call happened two days before Tom was killed.

"I think he might have known they were after him," Norm finally said as snatches of the brief conversation came back to him.

"Sorry Norm, I haven't seen your language book. I'd look around but I'm in a hurry to pack. Yes, I know we don't deploy for a week but...listen, Norm., it's nothing. You know me. I just want to make sure I've got everything in order. It isn't like we can come back for anything we leave behind. Yeah, I'm sure I'm okay. If I find your book, I'll be sure to let you know."

Norm dragged his thoughts out of the past and he looked into his mate's beautiful, worried eyes. He could tell immediately that his expression had given all of his emotions away. "I'm okay," he assured her as she slipped an arm around his waist.

"You do not have to...lie." Ni'nat said the last word with a grimace of distaste, but the quiet sympathy lining her eyes didn't fade. "I would be troubled if I were in your place."

Norm returned her half-embrace and rested the hand still holding his forgotten dinner on his thigh. "What would you do, if you were in my place?"

Ni'nat smiled softly at him. "I would rest and then decide in the morning. Your head is busy and your heart is sore."

Norm smiled in spite of himself and he pressed his forehead against the side of her face. "I'll think about it in the morning, then. Thank you."

Max's jaw was hanging open after he heard what Norm had to tell him, early the next morning. Norm's eyes were burning from a lack of sleep and he considered asking his friend if he had any Na'vi-friendly eye drops available. The expression on the biologist's face made Norm forget about his discomfort and he almost laughed with sleep-deprived humor.

"I've got good reasons to believe Jake's information about his brother is real," Norm assured him. "Did you find anything strange in Tom Sully's records?"

"Norm, the only records I went through concerning Tom Sully were his credentials and obituary," Max sighed. "I didn't spot anything unusual in there but I wasn't looking for a conspiracy at the time, either."

"I think you should start looking," Norm said flatly. "I think he knew they were after him and there might be some information in some of the classified records."

Max groaned softly. "What good do you think this will do? Do you have any idea how many protected documents I've been trying to crack since the conflict? What do you think Jake or anybody else can do against the conspirators, if they're all on earth?"

"Nothing," admitted Norm candidly, "we're all screwed there. I'm not doing this because I think we can bring justice."

Max frowned at him. "Then why are you doing it?"

Norm thought about all of the conversations he'd had with Tom and Jake respectively, how startled he was when he first saw the physical similarities between the two and how disappointed he was over Jake's apparent thick skull.

"I want to know because I also want closure and I think that one day, it will help Jake too. Come on, Max. I know you're overworked but this could lead to more information about the enhanced avatar program, too. Besides, Jake's your friend."

Max sighed and nodded. "All right, you win. I'll see what I can do but I'm telling you, some of those files are so heavily encrypted I may never crack them. I'll see what kind of help I can get but I can't promise anything."

"All I'm asking is that you try," Norm answered. "Contact me if you find anything, okay?"

He stared down the length of his arrow at his prey, breathing steadily as he prepared to loose the projectile. Beside him, his mate was as quiet as a snowflake falling to the ground and as still as a statue. He pressed his lips together and drew the bow back. The hexapede didn't sense its danger.

~Tommy didn't sense his danger.~

Jake blinked, struggling to concentrate on his task. His imagination wouldn't stop picturing the moment of Tom's death, though.

Tommy crossing the street—probably planning to see a movie or go to the bookstore—totally unaware that there was a little red dot situated between his shoulder blades. Tommy's face when the silenced gun went off and the little metal slug pierced his back to tear into his heart. Tommy's eyes wide with shocked, confused pain as his heartbeat faltered and stopped. Tommy falling to the pavement while onlookers stopped what they are doing and cried out exclamations of surprise.

"It's about your brother. There's been an accident."

The images spun in Jake's head and he couldn't shut them out. He was about to do the same thing to this animal that some hired gun had done to his unsuspecting brother.

~No! This is different. Tommy was killed in cold blood for the sake of greed. I'm providing meat for my clan.~

His mind continued to make unreasonable comparisons between what was done to Tom and what he was about to do. His aim faltered and he saw Neytiri looking at him from the corner of his eye. Her expression was sad and concerned; leaving no doubt that she had noticed his lapse.

Jake eased up on the bow and shut his eyes, shaking his head silently. He couldn't do it. He opened his eyes again and looked at Neytiri grimly, giving her a silent nod in the prey's direction. She understood and she knocked an arrow in her bow and took aim. Jake looked away as she fired, pressing his lips together tightly. He heard the thump as his mate's arrow struck true, followed by the distressed bleat from the deer-like animal. Neytiri was already up and closing the distance to finish it off with her hunting knife.

Jake put his arrow back into his quiver and secured his bow before joining her. He knelt beside the kill on the forest floor, avoiding Neytiri's eyes as she withdrew her knife from its chest and looked at him.

"I'm sorry," he murmured. "I don't know what's wrong with me."

She wiped her hands on the damp moss before placing them on his thighs. "Every hunter suffers moments of doubt, when the heart is aching. It will pass, Jake. Give yourself time."

He took a deep breath and blew it out with a silent nod, laying his hands over hers thankfully. Now that it was over, he felt better and he didn't suffer any comparative delusions as he helped her bind the kill's hooves for transport back to their direhorses, waiting some yards back where they came from. He dragged the hexapede himself and Neytiri didn't argue with him when he told her not to help. He was at least grateful that she had stopped bringing back larger prey on her own as her pregnancy progressed.

She walked beside him in supportive silence and he saw her absently lay a hand over the covered mound of her belly. She murmured under her breath to their unborn child and Jake managed a little smile. At least he had one thing to look forward to.

Days passed into weeks and Jake's attitude gradually improved, as well as his aim with the hunting bow. Neytiri stayed close to him, rarely leaving his side. An independent woman, she used to go out on her own hunts or fly her ikran close to Hometree without company. Since he discovered the truth about his brother's death, Jake found himself under constant vigilance, much as he was when Neytiri was teaching him the ways of the People.

He didn't fact, he enjoyed spending more time with her. He had gotten used to spending most of each day away from her and getting his affection in at night when they both returned home, except for when they hunted together. She asked him if he felt she was smothering him and he grinned and assured her that he appreciated the extra attention. It was impossible for Jake to get tired of her company.

"What about you though?" He asked one day while they gathered foods from the forest. "When do you think you'll get tired of being attached to me at the hip?"

She chuckled and reached out to pinch his ear gently. "When I cannot take more of your playing." She sobered and traced his features with her fingertips, her eyes growing warm on him. "And, when you have healed enough."

He accepted her explanation with a little smile. He was starting to feel more like himself again with each day, though he knew he would never forgive the ones responsible for Tommy's death and he would probably never stop missing him.

Several days later, they were on their way to go fishing when Neytiri slipped in an uncommon moment of clumsiness. Jake caught her as she started to fall and he twisted as he went down with her, maneuvering his body under hers to cushion her. They landed in the wet moss together and he was winded for a moment. The soft drizzle of rain caressed their skin as they recovered from the tumble and Neytiri's damp, ethereal features gazed down at Jake as she shifted on top of him. Her eyes widened and her lips rounded as she feigned a look of terrified relief, as if they had just narrowly escaped plunging over a cliff.

The over-dramatized expression made Jake blurt out the first genuine laugh he'd enjoyed since before his Dream Hunt and he reached up to caress he moist skin, stroking his thumb over the plush, animated lips. "You staged that," he said with certainty.

Her mouth relaxed into a smile that touched her golden eyes and lit her face up. "It made you smile."

His laughter dissolved into soft chuckles and he nodded in agreement. "You've got a knack for doing that."

She turned her head and kissed his fingertips, then lowered her lips to his and placed a soft kiss there, too. He responded to the kiss, reciprocating the tantalizing brush of her lips with his own. His body reacted to the exchange and the feel of her damp leather and wet skin rubbing against his. He deepened the kiss and combed his fingers through her braids, making the beads at the end of them knock together. She grazed his pelvis with her thigh, causing light friction against his growing arousal.

Jake only meant to exchange kisses and caresses for a while but their loving passion increased steadily, until it became urgent. Before long, their clothing and gear ended up in a heap beside them and they embraced on the mossy forest floor. Hands and mouths sought out sensitive areas as the couple enjoyed one another under the foliage. Jake was very gentle with her as they mated in a spooned position and Neytiri didn't chastise him or urge him to be more aggressive. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy and until the baby was born, restraint was necessary.

Their gasps and moans mingled with the sound of the wildlife as they moved in synch with each other. Eventually their activities increased in urgency as gratification loomed closer. Their low cries of pleasure filled the air when their efforts brought them both to release. They lay spent in each other's arms, kissing now and then with warm affection as they recovered.

"No, I'm sorry Norm but I haven't found anything pertaining to Tom Sully yet."

Nearly three months had passed since Norm asked him to investigate and so far, Max had only managed to crack half a dozen classified files. Nearly all of the information he found related to things they already knew about, but he did find one tidbit of interest and he decided to share it with his colleague—as much to toss him a bone as to get him off his back.

"I did find a document relating to colonization proposals," Max informed him. "The RDA was planning to draw up a proposal to handle Earth's overpopulation through migration. They were going to get started once they resolved the conflict with the natives here."

Norm crossed his arms over his chest. "'Resolved the conflict', right. It's more like once they've decimated or enslaved the indigenous population and burned down the forests."

Max shrugged. "That's how it usually ends up, but you know they don't see themselves as the bad guys."

"I know, and that's what scares me the most."

"You know, technically humans are already colonizing Pandora," Max pointed out.

"By invitation," corrected Norm. "The Na'vi have given the people here at Hell's Gate their permission to stay. That isn't the same thing as coming in with an army and torching everything in sight."

"True, but I think you should know the population here is going to grow. I wanted to talk to Jake about improving the conditions here and possibly expanding the perimeters, eventually."

Norm was suddenly wary. He pictured the overcrowded cities on Earth, the polluted atmosphere and the lack of vegetation. Humans were notoriously bad at judging how much was enough. If they over bred on earth, they would do it on Pandora, too.

"I don't know how keen Jake's going to be on the expansion idea," Norm said truthfully. "We don't need another New York, Tokyo or Los Angeles here, Max."

Max chuckled and shook his head. "That's a pretty dramatic interpretation of the text. I know what you're worried about and that's something else I wanted to run by you. I don't think it's possible for us to overpopulate here, the way we did back on Earth."

"Why? Is there something in the environment here making people sterile?"

Max shook his head. "No, but that was what we thought at first. As you know, there are several couples living here that have been here for years. Some of them have children they've been raising here on the base, even though they've had ample opportunity to rotate home. Some of the newer couples are either expecting or trying to conceive and the ones who already have a child are trying for another one. In six years, the average family-minded couple on Earth usually produces two to three children, but so far only one child has been born to each couple—with the exception of one pair who have been here for nearly eight years and have a five year old daughter. The rest are having trouble conceiving."

"But you said nobody's sterile," Norm argued with a frown. "Is someone slipping them birth control behind their backs?" He gave Max a suspicious look, wondering if the man had it in him to do something like that to control the population when people failed to do it themselves.

"Nobody's slipping them anything," Max assured him. "We've been having couples coming into the med wing for checkups and out of all of them, only one woman had reproductive issues that would explain her difficulty conceiving. Some of the men had lower than average sperm count but nothing that should prevent conception with enough effort. For the most part, every one of these people has the ability to reproduce. We couldn't find a thing physically wrong with them."

"That's really strange," Norm conceded.

"I have a feeling that if they were back on Earth, they'd all be expecting by now," Max said. "I think...well, you know I don't believe in mysticism but I could almost believe this Eywa is preventing the humans here from reproducing too fast. Not exactly stopping it, but limiting it, somehow. I've exhausted all medical reasons to explain it."

Norm's eyes unfocused as he mulled the information over. "Preserving the balance," he whispered. "That's what Eywa does. The Na'vi never have more children than their territory can reasonably sustain. They replace the population when people die, but their numbers stay fairly consistent otherwise."

"So you think there's something to the theory?" Max asked uncomfortably. "I mean, assuming Eywa really exists."

"It makes sense," Norm agreed. "If humans can't or won't keep their numbers down to a reasonable level, Eywa would want to make sure they don't overrun the forests and turn this place into another Earth. If this is right, then you won't have to worry about expansion for a while, unless there's something you want to build here that needs more space."

"Actually, there is," Max said. "We want to make a bio-dome, with a proper school and housing for the colonists and their families. We'd build it at the back of the fort, since the area beyond that fence was already strip-mined. We've all discussed it and we don't want to tear down any forest land if we can avoid it."

Norm relaxed. "Hey, that might be negotiable. That land won't be fertile again for years and if you can make use of it instead of cutting down more trees, I think Jake and the council might go for it. We might even be able to help out."

"I wouldn't expect the Na'vi to help with this," Max said hastily.

Norm chuckled, guessing that he had horror images of the Omaticaya people trying to operate heavy construction machinery and subsequently wrecking the entire base. "I mean with simple things, like lifting and carrying materials to the work sites," he explained. "I'm sure some of them would be willing. The people here at Hell's Gate helped them settle into the new Hometree, after all."

"And I'm sure they'll want to keep an eye on the process to be sure we aren't over-stretching our bounds," Max said dryly. "Okay Norm, I'll leave it to you to work out negotiations for this. Personally, I don't want to even begin until after we've finished improving the security. I'm not even sure I want to start until after we've diverted a hostile takeover from the RDA forces scheduled to arrive. I just wanted to run it by you."

"I'll be sure and talk to Jake and Neytiri about it when I go back," Norm promised. "So you still haven't heard anything at all from the RDA?"

"No. It's as quiet as death out there. The only transmissions we get now are the ones exchanged between our people and you guys. We've had some periodic glitches with the orbital scanners on and off, but they never last for long. That's about it."

Norm nodded. He hadn't really expected differently and Max probably would have told him right away if Hell's Gate had received any communications from Earth.

"The worst part about all of this is waiting," Max said. "We know they're coming and their silence proves they don't have good intentions, but we don't have any idea when they'll get here or how they're going to try to take over."

"Well, at least we know what they're bringing with them," Norm insisted, trying to be positive even though just thinking about another firefight made him sick to his stomach.

"Let's just hope that gives us a good enough advantage," Max answered grimly. "On a lighter note, how are things with you and Ni'nat? Should we be expecting a birth announcement anytime soon?"

Norm shook his head. "No. It's not the right time, yet. Maybe when we've ended this next threat, things will be different. Ni'nat eases her maternal urges by helping with the children already born to the village and me...well, I've been too busy to think on it much."

"You're handling it a lot better than some of the couples around here. Maybe you should have a word with them about patience."

Norm smirked. "No thanks. I'd better get going. There's an ancestral celebration gathering tonight and I want to be there for it."

After Norm left, Max started going through the weekly medical reports. He had been neglecting his regular duties of late in his efforts to help run the base and work on cracking the files to search for information about Tom Sully. His eyes were burning as he stared at the computer screen and the text appeared as an indecipherable blur to him. Max took his glasses off and rubbed his tired eyes.

"Hey, workaholic. Have you even moved from that damned chair since I left this morning?"

Max jumped a little at the sudden voice and he nearly dropped his glasses. He slipped them on and swiveled his seat around to face the door, where Trudy was walking in. She was still in her flight gear and she had her shades propped up on her head. She carried a steaming mug of drink in her hand as she approached.

"Yes, I've moved around a little while you were gone. Did you have any trouble gathering the materials?"

"Nope. It went as smooth as a baby's butt. Those Omaticaya escorts watched us like hawks, though. I guess I can't blame them having some trust issues. Here, coffee." She set the mug on his desk next to the keyboard and he hastily picked it up and moved it to a safer location.

"Thanks, Trudy." Max didn't chastise her for placing a drink so close to computer equipment. He did, however, give her an annoyed look when she pushed some folders aside and hopped onto the desk, swinging her legs back and forth over the side once she was comfortable.

"What? It's solid," Trudy rapped her knuckles on the cold white surface of the desk. "It's not like I'm going to break it."

Max picked up the coffee cup and sipped the hot drink gingerly before answering her. "But you just scattered my documents. I had them all in order."

Trudy rolled her eyes. "You need to lighten up a little. All work and no play makes Max a dull boy."

"Max doesn't have time to play," grumbled the biologist. "Unlike some pilots."

She grinned and ruffled his hair in a rough gesture of affection. "I get my fun in whenever I can. Hell, doing my job is like playing to me, so I guess I've got it easier. Hey Max, did you know people think we're a couple?"

He nearly inhaled his coffee. "They do?"

She shrugged and smirked. "Apparently. I got a compliment from Katherine this morning about how 'cute' we are together. I just about knocked myself out on the chopper door when she said that."

Max smiled with amusement. "Did you tell her we're just friends?"

"Yeah, and she was pretty surprised. She said everyone thinks we're lovebirds because we're always hanging out and being all friendly-like. I guess nobody ever told these people that platonic relationships do exist."

"I didn't realize we were putting off that image," Max chuckled.

"No biggie. I told Katherine you've got a big crush on that nurse chick you work with—"

"I don't have a crush on Anna," he interrupted, flushing beneath his beard.

"See? You just gave yourself away. I didn't say which nurse you were crushing on. I'm onto you, pal."

Max sighed. "Okay, even if I do think she's...pretty...I've got bigger things to worry about than dating. Let's not make a big deal out of it."

"I hear ya." Trudy blew a small bubble with her gum and popped it before resuming chewing. "Just about everyone on this base is twitterpated, except us. If I see one more lovesick idiot staring pie-eyed at someone, I think I'll barf."

Max took another sip and he chuckled. "So there's nobody you're interested in?"

"Nah, not seriously. I wouldn't want to get involved with somebody right now anyway, since there's a good chance they might get blown up when the next rotation comes in."

"I feel a little less like a misfit, knowing there's at least one other person on this base holding off on romance," Max admitted. "So how much unobtanium did you manage to bring in this time?"

"About two-hundred kilos. It's pretty scattered in those hills they took us to so we have to fan out to collect it."

"It's good enough," Max assured her. "That's the beauty of it, a little goes a long way."

Trudy frowned suddenly and looked away as if recalling something.

"What's the matter?" pressed Max.

"I just thought of something weird that happened on the flight there. At the halfway mark I picked up on a transmission for a second and I thought it was home base trying to contact me. They didn't know what I was talking about, so I guess I was just picking up a snatch of transmission from someone else out on an assignment."

Max felt a sudden chill up his spine. "Did you pick up anything on radar or catch the transmission again?"

She shook her head. "No, but the flux was messing with my instruments too. Maybe that's all it was, who knows?"

"Or maybe we aren't alone on this moon anymore," suggested Max.

"What, you think that snatch of transmission I got was coming from the RDA?"

"I'm not sure what to think," he answered honestly, "but we might want to start sending out people on scouting missions to survey all of the territory, just to be safe. We don't have a ETA pinpointed for the next rotation and I'm not going to rule out the possibility that they've started a base somewhere else, behind our backs."

"How the hell could they do that?" Trudy demanded. "We'd pick them up on satellite radar as soon as they reached orbit. You said there's been no sign of an ISV yet."

"Don't get worked up," Max soothed, "I'm just playing it safe. Yes, in most cases we would catch their signal if they came within range of our orbital scanners but we've been having sporadic glitches with the signal for the past few months. There's a slight possibility that it's being deliberately scrambled. We can't put anything past them, Trudy."

"But how the hell would they hide a boat the size of an ISV for long? Even if they've been jamming our satellite relay we'd still pick up on their signal when it cleared."

"Not if they moved the ship around to the opposite side of Polyphemus. We can't pick up signals from the other side of the planet we're orbiting so they could theoretically be 'parked' behind it, to block the signals. If they're sending in shuttles, that would explain the temporary glitches we've been getting, if it's not just a fault in our system."

"Okay, now you're scaring me." Her eyes had widened a little and her tanned complexion took on a pasty tone. "I was expecting them to head straight here and try to take over Hell's Gate but if you're saying they might have another base out there...dammit, why didn't you say something about this sooner?"

"Because I didn't consider it until you told me you picked up a snatch of foreign transmission," he answered. "I fully expected their first move to be to try and take this compound back too. Maybe that's still the plan and I'm just chasing wind with this idea, but I want to try and rule it out. If they are somewhere on this moon already, they could be in an area where our long-range scanners can't pick them up. That's why we need to think about sending people out on extended scouting assignments, to cover ground where our scanners won't reach."

Trudy set her jaw and pulled her sunglasses off before running her fingers through her dark hair. "Jake's not going to like this one bit, and you know we're going to have to tell him about it."

"Let's just hold off on that until we've got something a little more substantial than my paranoia and a phantom radio transmission." Max wanted to swear in frustration at his own lack of foresight. He should have been doing this from the moment the radar started acting up. "His baby is due soon and I don't want to give him something else to worry about when I'm operating on suspicion."

Trudy popped her gum and nodded in agreement. "Got it. I'll keep it under my hat for now but I'm telling you if we find something out there, Jake and the clans need to know about it. I'd rather him be stressed and prepared than relaxed and napalmed, you know?"

"I know," Max sighed. Some days, he wished he had just stayed in bed.

"I will not be going on the Talioang hunt," Neytiri informed Jake as he began to secure his weapons.

Jake paused and looked at her, his eyes dropping automatically to her rounded belly. "Is everything okay?" He knew their child would be coming sometime soon but Neytiri never missed the big hunts. She always maintained a safe distance and let the other hunters handle the herding of their prey, so Jake didn't object to her participation.

"Yes," she assured him with a little smile, squirming into a more comfortable position in their hammock. "But it is time for me to prepare."

Jake's anxiety rose and he finished securing his bow before easing back into the hammock with her. "Is the baby coming?"

"Not yet," she answered calmly, "but soon."

Jake placed a hand on her abdomen and he felt the baby move. "Then I'm not going on the hunt either."

"Yes, you are," Neytiri informed him firmly. "A hunt of this size does not happen very often, Jake. You set a good example for our people by being there."

"But I'll set an even better example by being at my mate's side when she gives birth," Jake reminded her. As scary as it was to think of experiencing the pain of childbirth, he wasn't about to leave Neytiri to do it alone.

She smiled again and laid her palm against the side of his face. "You will be, my Jake. It will not happen while you are away. It will begin tonight, when the stars come out."

He stared at her with awe he couldn't hide. "I can't get over how in touch you are with your body. Do all Na'vi women just...know?"

"Our unborn young communicates with our spirits," she explained. "They tell us when they are ready to be born, if all is well with the pregnancy."

"So the baby is actually talking to you, right now?"

She chuckled softly and shook her head. "Not like you and I talk now. Our child sends me...feelings. It is hard to explain."

"Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?" Jake grinned.

"Would you want me to tell you if I did?" She had a teasing glint in her eye.

"You don't know," Jake snorted.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Because you've got that look in your eye that tells me you're up to no good." He kissed her swiftly on the mouth. "And I think you would have said something to me by now if you knew what we're having."

Neytiri rubbed her nose against his with playful affection and she sighed. "I would have asked if you wanted to know, yes. Now, go and join the hunting party."

"Are you sure? You'll be okay while we're gone?"

"I will have Mother," Neytiri insisted. "Enjoy the hunt, my Jake. We will have much work to do tonight."

"Jake, look out!"

Jake narrowly avoided the charging bull as it broke away from one group of hunters to rush at his group. Norm's shout had come just in time and Jake swore loudly as he dove away. Norm hurried to his side as the others gave chase, shouting and hooting to keep the beast from rejoining the herd. They had to be careful. They had scattered the herd but if their chosen target got close enough to its fellows, they would defend him.

"What's with you?" Norm grunted as he helped Jake to his feet. "You've been zoning out all day and you'll end up in the hospital again if you don't pay attention!"

"The baby's coming tonight," Jake informed him, chewing his lip as he retrieved his bow from the ground and prepared to fit an arrow into it. The dozen-strong hunting party had corralled the beast again and they were preparing to loose arrows on it to bring it down.

Norm stopped in mid-draw and blinked at him. "It is? Well no wonder you're so distracted. What are you doing out here with us?"

"Neytiri made me come," Jake laughed, shaking his head. "She says the baby won't start coming until nightfall and she insisted on me joining this hunt." He took aim and narrowed his eyes, waiting for the right moment to shoot.

Norm did the same and he glanced sidelong at Jake. "I'm surprised you went along with it. I'd be going crazy if I were you."

"Don't tempt me," Jake muttered out the side of his mouth. "I'll be ready to wear a lampshade on my head and dance around naked, soon."

The others were waiting respectfully for Jake to launch the first arrow and he forcibly shoved thoughts of Neytiri and the birth of their child to the back of his mind. He took a steadying breath and fired, striking the sturmbeest in the side of its neck. The animal bellowed and whirled, seeking escape. Norm and the others shot their arrows and quickly fit another into their bows, working together to bring the old bull down as quickly and mercifully as possible. As soon as it fell to its side, Jake sprinted over to it and drew his knife. He leaped onto it and spoke the Na'vi hunter's blessing before plunging his knife deeply into the thick neck and twisting it. The animal's struggles quickly slowed and stopped.

"Good hunt, brothers and sisters." Jake pulled his knife free and climbed down off of the kill, breathing heavily like the others with exertion. His comment was met with smiles and reciprocated praise, even though he knew he'd been a klutz this time.

"We will work quickly," Ni'nat promised him. "We know you do not like to leave your mate alone for long, so close to her time."

"Neytiri?" Jake called out for his mate as he jogged into the den, looking around anxiously for her. The sun was beginning to set and the party had just returned from their venture into the wetlands. People moved out of their clan leader's way as he searched for Neytiri and Jake nearly ran straight into his mother-in-law in his haste.

"Calmly, son," Mo'at advised him with a patient little smile. "She is in one of the birthing alcoves, meditating. Come."

Jake followed her without question and he sighed in relief when he pulled aside the hide covering the alcove indicated by Mo'at and found his mate sitting cross-legged on a pile of mats and hides. She looked up at him as he entered and she smiled, her eyes scanning him briefly.

"You should bathe, before you join me."

Jake looked down at his blood-encrusted hands and arms and he smiled sheepishly. "Yeah, I should. I just had to make sure you were okay, first."

"It has not begun yet," Neytiri informed him. "You have time to cleanse your body. I will be here when you return and Mother will assist us with the birth, when the time comes."

"Okay." He took a steadying breath. "I'll be right back." He forgot to duck as he pulled the hide away to go out and he hit his head on the top of the exit. Swearing softly, Jake ignored the amused looks his clan mates gave him as he hurried away from the alcove to fetch a clean change of attire and bathe.

At first, Jake thought he would be spared any traumatic pain. When he returned and formed tsahaylu with Neytiri, they socialized in the den for a while before the first contraction started. He tensed beside her, anticipating agony. Norm and the others paused their conversation to look at the couple when they realized it was beginning and Jake set his jaw, bracing himself.

He felt a dull spasm of uncomfortable tension centered around his abdominal area that reminded him of a cramp from an overworked or strained muscle. Neytiri sucked in a slow, deep breath and Jake impulsively rubbed her back, seeking to comfort her even though he was admittedly terrified. It only lasted for a few heartbeats before the tension eased and the discomfort faded.

"Huh. That wasn't bad at all," Jake muttered in surprise. "I don't know what women complain about."

He immediately wished he hadn't said that when every female within earshot glared at him. "Uh, I meant human women," he revised hastily.

"Jake," Norm said between chuckles, "This is just the beginning. You know they're going to get worse as it progresses, right?"

Jake felt a flood of embarrassment as Neytiri and the other females gave him smug looks. "Of course I know that," he grumbled. "I just expected the first ones to hurt more."

"Then you will not be disappointed," Mo'at informed with an amused smile. "Enjoy the opportunity to relax while you can, Jakesully. You and my daughter have a long night to look forward to."

Norm and Mo'at's warnings unfortunately didn't prepare Jake for just how intense it became, by the time Neytiri's body was ready to begin pushing. Mo'at ushered them both to the back of the den and back into the birthing alcove. The only thing that kept Jake's knees from buckling when the next contraction struck was his instinctive urge to support his mate. He held her against him to keep her steady as they stepped inside and he clenched his teeth to hold back a groan. Neytiri hissed and panted, holding onto him tightly as they sank down onto the bedding.

Mo'at murmured instructions to a pair of young females standing outside the entrance and they rushed off to fetch what she requested. She closed the hide and knelt beside the couple, assisting them to get into an ideal position for the approaching birth. She undressed Neytiri and murmured soothingly to both of them as they endured the latest contraction. Jake sat with his back against the wall and Neytiri sat between his thighs, resting her back against his chest. Mo'at positioned her daughter's legs and told Jake to hold them under the knees with his hands, when it was time to push.

"You will help her by supporting her birthing position," she told him. "This will keep her body angled properly to put the least stress on her when she begins to deliver."

She looked at her daughter and addressed her. "If you feel this is not comfortable enough for you, do not hesitate to say so. There are other positions we may try before this task is finished."

Neytiri nodded and responded in a strained voice. "This one is good, Mother."

Jake nuzzled her heated cheek with his lips, panting softly in relief as the contraction eased up. "I take back what I said earlier about women complaining," he gasped.

Norm was easily able to tell when Neytiri's contractions hit. Her low groans were mingled with Jake's impulsive swearing and people were looking at one another in puzzlement as the unfamiliar human cuss words reached their ears. Most of them would have gone to their hammocks to seek their rest by now but the village was buzzing with excitement over the birth of their leaders' first child. Norm stood near Neytiri and Jake's chosen birthing alcove and he smirked and shook his head as another foul curse issued from inside. He couldn't decide whether he was more amused or sympathetic.

Ni'nat approached with E'quath and Norm smiled in greeting at both of them, noticing that the latter was carrying a log drum strapped around his waist.

"How are they?" Ni'nat queried with a glance toward the covered alcove.

Another moan from Neytiri and another foul curse from Jake came from within the room and Norm cleared his throat. "It sounds like it's moving along fast."

"We thought some music might help soothe them," Ni'nat said. "The beat of the drum sometimes helps laboring women focus their breathing."

Norm openly admired her for her clever idea and her calm attitude. If the day ever came for he and Ni'nat to have a child, he knew she would likely handle herself much better than him. "That is a good idea," he complimented. "Though it sounds like Jake needs more help than Neytiri, right now."

E'quath smiled briefly and Ni'nat chuckled behind her hand. "Jakesully did not grow up with the training for this day," she excused graciously. "I think that he is doing well, for one who did not know what to expect."

Norm felt a little ashamed for being so uncharitable. Ni'nat was right and it wasn't like human males ever had to literally share their partner's pain and effort. When he thought of it that way, he realized Jake was handling this a lot better than most other men in his position would have.

"Unh...why the hell do women do this?" Jake groaned as his body shuddered against his mate's. He wasn't even fully aware of what he was saying anymore and he certainly didn't care about the volume of his voice.

"Because some of us want...children," Neytiri growled in response. "You are...distracting me with...your stupid questions!"

"Yeah, well...your nails are digging into my knees," Jake panted back. "So we're...even!"

Mo'at looked as though she was about to chastise them for snapping at each other but then Neytiri huffed a strained laugh and brushed her cheek against Jake's. The Tsahik sighed, regarding the two of them with a shake of her head.

"If it were another mated pair, I would have thought you were bickering." She wrung out the cloth floating in the bowl of water and she sponged her daughter's sweating body off with it first, before repeating the action and wiping Jake's strained face.

"Be strong," she said in a soothing voice. "Listen to the beat of the drum and the singing. Feel the rhythm in your blood and let it guide your efforts."

They both closed their eyes and followed her instructions as well as they could. After some time, Jake discovered that it really was making a difference. The pain of each contraction was still breathtaking but Neytiri's body started bearing down with it more effectively. There was a new pain now and Jake felt a moment of panic, struck by the sudden urge to check and make sure nothing weird was going on with his body downstairs.

"The baby is crowning," Mo'at announced. "Focus your efforts, Daughter. Son, lend her all the strength you can. Your task is nearly complete."

When it was time for Neytiri to push again, Jake would have happily shot himself if he'd had a gun with him. As she bore down, he threw all of his effort into it with her and he felt like he was being ripped in two. Neytiri's yowl drew his attention away from his own agony and he spoke into her flattened ear, his voice coming out ragged and uneven with pain.

"We're almost...there. It's nearly over...keep it up, Neytiri."

Everyone in the den guessed that the birthing process was about to be complete when they heard Neytiri's feral cries reach a climax. Ni'nat and E'quath dutifully continued providing their music and Norm looked at the angle of the morning sunlight slanting in from the main exit. He hadn't realized how much time went past and he was a little shocked. Jake's hoarse growls mingled with Neytiri's cries and then suddenly, a newborn's thin wail joined in.

E'quath stopped beating his drum and Ni'nat's singing died down. Other clan members gathered quietly around the birthing alcove. Neytiri and Jake's tortured exclamations faded into soft, relieved groans and the whimpers and cries of their newly born child carried through the den.

Mo'at cleaned Neytiri off and packed a cloth soaked with an herbal tincture between her thighs to ease her pain and aid in healing. She then bathed the new infant while Jake and Neytiri recovered from the daze of delivery.

"You have a son," Moat announced with a proud smile as she finished cleaning the baby off. She presented him to the exhausted new parents, gently laying him against his mother's breast. "You both did well."

Jake stared down at his new son and he wondered if he would scare the child with his broad, toothy grin. He forgot all about the lingering pain he was feeling through tsahaylu as he feasted on the sight of the baby he and Neytiri had made together. Four little fingers—not five—curled against Neytiri's breast and a tiny, bow-shaped mouth yawned as if the infant was as worn out as his parents. An occasional whimper still emerged from the baby's mouth but he seemed more or less content now. He had a thick head of hair but there was no sign of a queue yet. Jake supposed it would grow out as he matured, since the two women expressed no alarm at the absence of it.

"Why are his ears wrinkled up like that?" Jake asked.

"That is normal for Na'vi newborns," Mo'at assured him with an amused smile. "They will straighten out quickly."

Neytiri brushed her fingertips over the baby's damp, dark hair before tracing his chubby cheek. "He is perfect," she sighed with a tired, happy smile. "We have a son, my Jake."

"What is the child's name?" Mo'at asked of them. "I will announce it to the clan, while you rest and bond with him."

Neytiri turned her head to look into Jake's eyes. "Tommy," she answered readily.

"Tom—ee?" repeated Mo'at in a puzzled tone.

Jake nodded and looked down at his son, feeling his throat tighten in a bittersweet way. "After my brother."

"I see," Mo'at answered thoughtfully. She spoke the name again, tasting it on her tongue before nodding in satisfaction. "A fine name. Rest now, both of you. Neytiri, he will require feeding very soon. I will show you how when I return."

"Thank you, Mother." Neytiri shifted a little and turned her head for a kiss when Jake brushed his mouth against her cheek.

When Mo'at ducked out of the alcove, Jake reached down to stroke his son's hand with one finger. He was awed by how small the hand was. The pattern of stripes on the soft, cyan skin was nearly identical to Jake's but the position of the tiny, luminescent spots was uniquely little Tommy's own. Jake grinned when he slipped his finger beneath the tiny hand and the miniscule fingers squeezed it with a surprisingly strong grip.

"I'm going to spoil this kid rotten," Jake predicted.

"No spoiling," Neytiri disapproved in English. "He will grow up soft. You love and nurture but you don't spoil."

Jake laughed softly. "Don't tell me you're never going to give him a treat just for the sake of doing it. I see that grin on your face."

-To be continued


Nikt'chey = Various food items wrapped in edible leaves. The mixture can be composed of a combination of fruits, vegetables, nuts or meat and flavored with spices.

Talioang = Sturmbeest. A massive, buffalo-like herd animal that lives in deltas and wetlands. They are one of the primary meat sources for the Na'vi people and large hunting parties are required to bring them down.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after the birth of Tommy, Norm and Ni'nat paid a visit to the base to check on how things were going and show everyone the images he had captured of the new baby. As they walked through the compound together, Norm spotted Ramona in one of the grassy yard areas where the animal pens were kept. She was kneeling in the grass, calling out to someone and he almost hollered a greeting to her when a viper wolf bounded across the yard from one of the bushes.

"Oh crap," Norm muttered, reaching for his bow without thinking.

Ni'nat reacted to his alarm and she also began to reach for her weapon, but she noticed the animal's body language and she relaxed. She reached out and placed a hand on her mate's bicep, shaking her head. "She is in no danger."

Norm lowered his weapon and stared as the viper wolf put its hand-like paws on the zoologist's shoulders and began to lick the clear visor of her breathing mask with enthusiastic affection. He had forgotten all about the stray pup that Ramona had nursed to health months ago. Obviously, the animal that she was now patting and frolicking with was one and the same, fully grown and recovered from his injuries. He couldn't decide whether he was amused or unsettled by the sight of the small, dark human woman playing with a highly intelligent, wild pack hunter. The expression on Ni'nat's face suggested she was irresolute in her feelings on the matter as well.

The couple approached the yard and Norm was surprised that the viper wolf was free of a leash or collar. He glanced around and he noticed that none of the residents passing by seemed alarmed or concerned by the creature's presence. Most of them only spared a glance and some waved at Ramona as they passed by. It seemed to him that the animal was domesticated—or as close to being domesticated as a viper wolf could get.

"What happened to releasing him back into the wild when he was big enough?" Norm stopped a few feet away from Ramona and kept his hands at his sides when the animal regarded him with serpentine yellow eyes and growled softly in warning.

Ramona stood up and patted the wolf on the side, murmuring to him. "Easy Fang. They're friends." She had a guilty expression on her face as she regarded the couple. "Yeah, that was the plan. I tried, Norm. I really did but he wouldn't leave! We even tried taking him for a ride in one of the Samsons and leaving him a few miles away from the fort but...well, a couple of nights later I heard him howling at the gate. The guards almost shot him."

Ramona saw Ni'nat's disapproving frown and she heaved a sigh. "I know, I know. Viper wolves aren't pets. I never meant him to be one, so stop looking at me like that. What else am I supposed to do, turn my back on him and leave him crying outside the gate?"

Ni'nat's expression softened and she knelt slowly and gracefully before the animal. Fang regarded her suspiciously for a moment, until she murmured softly in her melodious voice and offered her hand to him. He sniffed it and relaxed, allowing her to stroke his head and back gently. Norm watched in puzzlement as his mate grasped her queue with her free hand and his eyebrows went up when she carefully eased the viper wolf's tentacle to it. She linked with Fang and the animal sat on its haunches and whined a little.

"He is happy here," Ni'nat announced. "Your people are his pack, now." She looked sidelong at Ramona and smiled a little. "You have become 'mother' to him."

Ramona looked a little embarrassed, but she was smiling. "Dad always said I'd have a house full of animals before I had any kids. We take good care of Fang. He's used to everyone on the base and people bring him toys and food all the time. Lee even takes him hunting close to the compound some mornings, so he gets his survival practice in."

Ni'nat ended the link and patted the animal once more before rising again. "If he likes this life, then let him stay."

Ramona appeared relieved and Norm couldn't really blame her. The Na'vi didn't believe in holding animals captive. One could argue that the bond of tsahaylu was a form of captivity but in fairness, no direhorse or ikran was ever fenced in or restrained. Free to come and go as they chose, their relationship with their humanoid keepers was more of a familial one than a master and pet dynamic.

"You better have brought pictures of Sully's new kid," Ramona said to Norm, now that the awkward moment was over with. "Everyone's waiting to see them."

As promised, Norm showed everyone the photos he had taken once they gathered in one of the debriefing rooms.

"Wow, look at that. A little jarhead joined the family." Trudy was grinning as she looked at the image on the screen of Norm's camera. "They let you bring this thing into the village?"

Norm shrugged. "Sure. The Omaticaya aren't unfamiliar with cameras. Dr. Augustine took pictures of them all the time. I've got a lot of my old things at Hometree."

Trudy, Max, Sebastian, Ramona, Roy, Katherine and some of the avatar team gathered close to look at the picture of Jake cradling the tiny infant in his arms. He had a proud, crooked smile on his lips and his braid was draped partially over the baby, who was holding it in his little hands.

"I took a few more," Norm said. "Just touch the arrow on the bottom right of the screen to scroll through them. I think Neytiri was getting annoyed with me so I stopped after my third photo with her."

Trudy cycled through another one of Jake, this time blowing a raspberry on the infant's tummy. The next picture made Trudy snort with laughter. It appeared to be taken directly after the raspberry photo and the baby had managed to grab a fist-full of Jake's hair as he tried to pull away. Jake had one eye shut and he was wincing.

There were a couple more featuring Jake and then the subject changed to Neytiri with the child. She was smiling in the first one as she cradled Tommy to her breast for nursing. In the second one, she had the baby strapped securely to her chest in the Na'vi version of a baby sling. It cradled the infant close, leaving the mother free to go about her activities and easily nurse if required. They saw what Norm meant when Trudy flicked to the third picture. Neytiri had a cloth of some kind draped over her left shoulder and she held Tommy against it. She appeared to be wiping his mouth but her eyes were looking at the camera. The angle of the photo and the flash made her eyes glow green like a cat's and her mouth was frowning.

"Oooh, dragon lady," Ramona chuckled.

"She doesn't look happy," agreed Max.

"The baby spit up on her just before I took that one," Norm explained. "I thought it would be a good idea to call it quits for a while after that."

"Probably a smart decision," Lee muttered dryly.

They looked at a couple of photos of Mo'at holding the baby before they ran out of pictures. Joyce was beaming, her teeth flashing white between her smiling lips. "He's adorable," she said with enthusiasm. "It makes me want to have one of my own even more."

Allen patted her shoulder. "I'm working on it, dear."

Norm briefly wondered if Joyce and Allen were ever intimate while in their avatar bodies and whether it was possible for them to conceive that way. Since the avatars weren't endowed with independent consciousnesses of their own, would a child created of such a union have any cognitive functions? He thought of Jake and Neytiri's bright-eyed little son and he decided that two avatars could probably have a healthy baby together. Max and Roy would know more about that, though. Norm had a more pressing concern to deal with and he stopped pondering the possibilities of avatar reproduction.

"I hate to bring up a tense subject Max, but I think you know what I'm about to ask you." Norm took his camera back from Trudy and placed it in the pouch hanging from his weapon harness.

Max's expression fell and he sighed. "I'm afraid I don't have any news for you on that front, Norm. I can crack a file or two with enough time but hacking really isn't my specialty. I'll keep trying."

The others looked confused. "What are you talking about?" demanded Roy.

Norm sighed and Ni'nat stroked his shoulder and reminded him in a whisper that these were Jake's friends, too. Her tone was neutral, indicating that she had no desire to influence his choice but was merely pointing out a fact that might make it easier on him. Norm nodded and he looked at each of the assembled allies in turn.

"Months ago, Jake Sully got some information about his brother Tom that makes us believe he wasn't killed by a random act of violence. Jake and I are almost positive that Quaritch and someone within the RDA arranged Tom's death, to get him out of the way so that Jake could take his place."

"Wait a minute," Trudy said with a wave of her hand. "Why the hell would they need to do something like that?"

"Because at the time, they were only allowing scientists into the Avatar program," explained Max. "Diplomacy was the first goal. As it turns out, the avatars like Sebastian were intended for military operatives. Without the disadvantage of having to link or use exopacks, they would make the perfect soldiers on Pandora. The only way Quaritch could get a covert military operative into an avatar body was to take advantage of the Sully twins. The company wouldn't want to waste the money it took to create Tommy's avatar, so Jake was the one exception to the 'scientists only' rule."

"But if they were planning to send those soldiers here in the special avatar bodies why would they bother with all this bullshit?" Trudy sounded both angry and confused. "Why kill a man to get one guy working for Quaritch, when they had hundreds waiting to be squeezed permanently into avatar bodies?"

"Because they weren't certain that the new procedure would work," answered Max. "They wanted someone to start on infiltration of the Omaticaya clan as soon as possible and Jake was the easiest, fastest option. Tom Sully was murdered, Trudy. The fact that they couldn't even be sure Jake would agree to take over for him is just proof of how greedy they really are."

"Jake told me once that he initially agreed to do it for his brother's sake," Norm said softly, his eyes lowered. "He didn't know all of the details until he got here. He just didn't want Tom's work to die with him."

"Those fucking bastards," Trudy snarled, her hands clenching into fists. "Especially Quaritch! So who was he working with?"

"We don't know," answered Norm with a nod in Max's direction. "That's what Max has been trying to find out. If we can find out exactly what happened to Tom Sully we can probably find out more about the new avatar program."

"But those special agents are due to arrive on the next mothership," Joyce reminded. "How could that be possible if they didn't finish the project before they sent Sully here?"

Max gave Sebastian an uncomfortable look. "They were going to test it, but it looks like they found someone else to try it out on shortly after the rest of you left Earth. They immediately started going through with the project and deploying the enhanced soldiers. Either they couldn't reach Dr. Collins to call off his experimental process on Sebastian, or they didn't care."

Sebastian sighed and Katherine gave him a sympathetic look and patted him on the shoulder.

"And how do you intend to find out who else was involved in this conspiracy?" Asked Dr. Jacobs.

"Norm and I think there might be something in the classified files of the RDA data I backed up when things started getting hairy around here," explained Max. "The problem is, the protections on most of them are really advanced. I've made some progress but so far, I haven't found anything on Tom Sully. Imagine trying to dig up a skeleton buried in hard-packed, rocky ground with a teaspoon—and you only have a general idea of where to start. That's what it's been like."

Sebastian lifted his hand slowly, bearing a somewhat guilty expression on his fine-boned features. "Excuse me...I believe I can help with this."

Everyone looked at him, which only served to make him appear more self-conscious.

"How?" Norm questioned. He noticed that both Katherine and Ramona were looking at Sebastian with shrewd eyes.

"I might be able to decode the files and dig deeper," he answered.

When Max and Norm both raised their eyebrows inquisitively, Ramona spoke up. "'Bastion here is a hacker geek."

"Former," he corrected, but then he shrugged and smiled a little. "Or so I thought."

"But none of that was listed in your records," said Max.

"No, it wouldn't be. It wasn't something I wanted to advertise, when I applied for the Avatar program."

Norm felt a combination of amazement and interest. "It still should have shown up in your records...unless you found a way to hide it?"

Sebastian's mouth curved slightly at one corner. "Not all of the work I did was for money and some of it required me to protect my identity."

Trudy smirked at him. "You weren't a terrorist were you?"

Sebastian looked genuinely horrified by the question. "Absolutely not! My work had nothing to do with that sort of thing." He deflated and a faintly sheepish expression replaced indignation. "Though it was still illegal."

Max looked impressed. "What kind of 'illegal' work are we talking about?"

"I'd prefer not elaborate," Sebastian answered evasively. "I can assure you though, it wasn't dangerous to anyone save for myself. Suffice to say, I think I may be able to decode the security encryptions in at least some of those files, if you'll allow me to try. I would like to help Corporal Sully."

Max stroked his chin and looked to Norm. "What do you think?"

Norm studied Sebastian and thought about it for a moment. He had shared a link with the man before and though Sebastian hadn't been in his right mind, Norm didn't sense anything diabolical from him. He nodded. "I think we should let him try. Whatever he did when he was living on Earth doesn't matter anymore and we're running out of time."

"All right," agreed Max. "Sebastian, I'll make another copy of the files for you and give you the access code. Let's hope you can succeed where I didn't."

"I'll get started on it right away," promised Sebastian.

His excitement was obvious and Norm thought he understood why. The poor guy didn't have a lot to do around here, since the need for diplomacy between Hell's Gate and the Omaticaya was gone. Sebastian also looked up to Jake and even if he seemed a little uneasy about people knowing what he used to do for a living, he now had the chance to use those skills for something good.

"We've got to tell him," Trudy muttered to Max when the others left the debriefing room. She said it just loud enough for Norm and Ni'nat to hear her and Max groaned audibly, giving her an annoyed glance. "Hey, Jake's baby is born now and I don't know about you but I'd rather cut down on the chances of that kid getting hurt because they had no warning."

"Tell me what?" Norm's brows drew together when his friends exchanged a look between them. "What's going on, you two?"

Trudy spoke up when Max hesitated. "I've been catching snatches of phantom transmissions here and there on my frequency, when I go out in the Samson for a supply run or transport assignment. It doesn't happen all the time and it never comes through for more than a second or two, but it only started happening a few months ago. I checked out all of my equipment and didn't find anything wrong with it. The way Max and I see it, there's only two reasons I'd be getting cross-linked transmissions when I'm out there. Either something screwy is going on with our systems or—"

"You're picking up signals from someone else out there," Norm finished for her, his expression darkening. "Max, you told me you haven't had any incoming signals on the radar."

"We haven't," Max assured him, "but our orbital radar transmission hasn't been acting right for months, now. I thought it was just interference from the other moons orbiting Polyphemus. You know they cross paths now and then and it's caused issues before."

"But now you think it could be something deliberate?" Guessed Norm, pressing his lips together. "Max, why didn't you tell me this before?"

"Because I didn't think much of it until Trudy started picking up foreign transmissions," excused Max, "and Jake and Neytiri were expecting their baby. I didn't want to give him something else to worry about until I had more proof that there was actually a problem."

"Norm? Are the Sky People here already?" Ni'nat's soft question was laced with anxiety for her people.

"I don't know," answered Norm truthfully. He pressed the heels of his palms against his temples and groaned softly, his breath fogging the protective visor of his mask. After gathering his turbulent emotions, he looked at Max again and sighed. "I don't have a right to get angry. I'm just as guilty as you are of keeping things from Jake to keep the pressure off of him."

"Maybe everyone should stop treating Jake like a precious little pansy," Trudy said with firm candor. "Yeah, he's had it rough but you guys need to remember that the man tamed that monster of a bird, pulled together fifteen freakin' Na'vi clans and pulled some kind of stunt that had every animal in range going ballistic on the RDA. I don't know how he did that last one but anybody who can pull that off can cope with this, too."

She paused and regarded the two men with determined brown eyes. "If you want to see him break, then keep hiding this from him and watch what happens when the RDA closes in and snuffs his family."

Norm winced and Max bowed his head.

"Wow, you really know how to tell people off, Trudy."

Her expression relaxed a little and she shrugged. "I'm not a fan of beating around the bush. So how about it guys? Are we going to keep babying him or are we going to trust him to handle this?"

"I'll tell him," Norm agreed. "Have you guys found any more evidence of RDA occupation?"

"Nothing material yet," Max answered. "We've been sending aircrafts out to scout the surrounding territory but it's a lot of ground to cover. If they've landed somewhere on this moon, chances are they've taken up residence somewhere far enough away to stay hidden until they're ready to close in on us. We'll keep searching, though."

"I think you should," Norm approved. He looked at his mate and then glanced out the window to guess how late in the day it was. "We should get going. I want to tell Jake about this right away and he's probably going to want to send warning to the other clans. If we leave now, we should make it back before nightfall."

Katherine watched in bemusement as Sebastian pulled out a case from the breast pocket of his shirt and took his old glasses out of it. The earpieces of the frame were altered to fit comfortably over his Na'vi ears, which were higher up on the skull than human ears. The brass colored, oval frames complimented his features as he slipped the glasses on and Katherine wondered why it didn't seem strange to her, to see a Na'vi wearing glasses.

"I thought you didn't need those anymore," she said.

Sebastian smiled a little and sat down in the computer chair before powering the machine up. "I don't. At least, not physically. I had the prescription lenses replaced with regular glass." He glanced at her before lowering his eyes. The thin, flat monitor came on with a cheerful beep and the flickering light from the screen illuminated his features.

"This will probably sound foolish, but the glasses help me get into the right frame of mind for this sort of thing. They...also make me feel more like myself again."

Katherine smiled. "I don't think that sounds foolish at all. If it comforts you to wear them, that's a good thing. Besides, they suit you."

Sebastian looked at her and he smiled. He took a moment to put in the data disc that Max had given him and then he took one of her hands. "I appreciate how supportive you are, Kath."

She felt her cheeks grow warm. His hand was warm and reassuring, longer and larger than hers but gentle in its grip. She looked down at the cyan-striped fingers threaded with her smaller, pale ones and she spoke without thinking.

"Sebastian, what were you doing that was illegal?"

He went still, his amber eyes watching her warily from behind the clear lenses of his glasses.

"I'll only ask this one time," Katherine said hastily. "If you don't want to tell me, I won't bother you with it again."

He remained silent for a moment and just when she was about to apologize and give up, he answered her. "I was hacking into pharmaceutical company files and fabricating prescription payments for people who couldn't afford to pay for the medications they needed." He said it in a rush, hardly pausing or taking a breath. He stared at her after saying it, as if afraid that she would denounce him as a drug-dealing thief.

"So you were helping sick people," she reasoned gently.

"Yes. A lot of them were dying and there was no help for that, but they were in agony. The government doesn't provide the health care people need when they can't afford to pay for it themselves. I don't believe that only the rich should be entitled to medical care, so I started falsifying payments under several pseudo names. I suppose that makes me a thief, but I would rather take the chance of going to prison than watch people suffer and die because they don't have the paper to trade for what they need."

She rubbed his hand and nodded in understanding. "Where did you find all of these people?"

"An extended care home, if you could even call it that," he sighed. "They weren't all elderly. These people had no family to care for them and they were disabled from illness or age or mental instability. Some of them were only kids. I worked in the place for a short time between freelance jobs. The human misery just got to me and I felt I had to do something."

"So you pulled a 'Robin Hood'," Katherine murmured, admiring the light of determination in his eyes and the compassionate look on his comely features. "You took from the rich to give to the poor."

Sebastian chuckled suddenly and shook his head. "Would you be making that comparison if I weren't British?"

Katherine joined his soft laughter, realizing how cheesy her comment had been. "Maybe not. But I'd still admire you for putting yourself at risk like that for strangers. It was noble of you."

He sobered and sighed. "Theft isn't noble or dignified," he whispered. His eyes met hers and he added; "but then, neither is dying a slow death, stinking of one's own urine. As the saying goes; sometimes the ends justify the means."

He looked far too sexy to resist at that moment, with his soft, dark hair falling loose around his shoulders and his eyes full of resolve. Never mind that his sculpted features were alien in their beauty and his ears were cat-like. She didn't care that he had a tail and his height didn't bother her. All she saw was Sebastian and whether he was in a human body or a Na'vi one didn't change the fundamental makeup of who he was.

Katherine took advantage of the moment and closed in on him, kissing him softly on the mouth. She pulled away slowly with parted lips, seeing the shock dilating his pupils and the blank expression on his face.

"If I made a mistake by doing that, tell me," she whispered.

He shook his head slowly and his other hand reached up to comb the fingers through her hair. He didn't say anything as he closed the distance between their lips again and this time, he initiated the kiss. The pressure of his lips was gentle at first, but when she reciprocated, he arose from his chair and pulled her against him. Sebastian deepened the kiss and within moments, Katherine found herself nibbling and kissing his lips frantically as her heart beat at a rapid tempo.

"Oh, bugger." Sebastian abruptly broke the kiss and turned his head away, gasping as if he'd just run a marathon.

Dazed by their sudden explosion of passion, Katherine stared at him wide-eyed. "Are you okay?"

"No," he breathed, shaking his head. His hands slid up her thighs to her hips and stroked them through the material of her pants, even as he kept his face averted. "I'm decidedly not okay, Kath."

She peered at him, trying to read his expression. "You act like you're turning into a werewolf or something. What's the matter?"

He gave a strained, soft laugh. "Maybe not physically, but my urges could be on par with a werewolf's." He finally looked at her with glittering, intense eyes. "As it turns out, Na'vi sex drive is pitched higher than Human and you have no idea how long I've wanted to kiss you like that."

His admission sent a little thrill through her. She combed her fingers through his hair, letting the silky strands slide between the digits. "I'm not worried."

"I think you should be," he advised huskily as she drew his head forward again. He stopped when their mouths were an inch apart. "Katherine, I'm not human anymore. I think you should take that into consideration before we let this continue."

She brushed her fingertips over his features and tilted her head with a soft smile. "I have taken that into consideration. You're Sebastian, first and foremost. 'A rose by any other name', you know. Who wrote that, again?"

"Shakespeare," answered Sebastian with a grin. "From 'Romeo and Juliet', but I suspect you knew that already."

She fought back a giggle. "Guilty, as charged. I just wanted to test how British you are."

"And if I weren't British enough?"

She pretended to think about it before giving him a soft, lingering kiss on the mouth. "I would somehow cope."

He kissed her in return when she started to pull away and their mouths remained locked together for several heartbeats before he broke contact again. He was breathing heavily but his hands didn't wander.

"You're certain of this, Kath?"

"I have been, for months now," she ensured him. "I just didn't have the courage to act on it before."

He gave her such a pleased, relieved smile that her heart swelled. "For months? I've been a damned fool. I thought you wouldn't see me as a man so I've been trying to be content with your friendship."

She felt a moment of shame. Yes, she had always thought of Sebastian and the Na'vi males as men, but she had also been acutely aware that they were a different species. She realized that she had probably been putting off vibes that made Sebastian hesitant to approach her romantically.

"I do see you as a man," she whispered sincerely. "A very considerate, good-hearted man. I'm sorry I didn't let you know that."

He took a deep breath and smiled again. "I should apologize too, then. I made assumptions out of fear of rejection. If you're positive this is what you want, I'm definitely on board."

Their mouths met again and the urgency of their kissing increased once more, until Katherine remembered why they were in this lab room. She reluctantly pulled away, knowing that she shouldn't rush things despite how long they had both waited. "I'll go and get us some snacks. I don't want to interrupt your work for too long and knowing you, I'll find you passed out at the monitor trying to make up for lost time in the morning."

He sighed and nodded. "You see? My brain completely disconnected from my body."

"You restrained yourself," she chuckled. "Despite what you said about turning into a wolfman. You have more control than you think, Sebastian."

Sebastian didn't expect to find something so quickly. He chose a random file under Quaritch's name on a guess that anything pertaining to Tom Sully would be somewhere in there. Katherine was sitting in another chair beside his, sipping coffee as he worked to decrypt the file. She blinked in surprise when his efforts produced results after ten minutes.

"Wow, you're good."

Sebastian smiled modestly at her. "I got lucky this time. Don't expect the next one to crack so easily." He opened the file and found that it was a video recording. A middle-aged man's face appeared on the screen. He had a groomed beard and mustache that was peppered with gray and he wore round glasses on his face.

"Quaritch, I want you to know that I'm agreeing to this under protest. I understand your situation and the only reason I'm doing this is to save lives. Never approach me with a task like this again...this is a one time good deal. I'll arrange to get Tom Sully out of your way, but there's going to be a catch to it and you'll have to find a non-violent solution to deal with it."

Sebastian and Katherine both leaned closer to the screen, absorbed in what the man was saying. When the message finished, their mouths were hanging open and they looked at one another with equal astonishment.

"Oh my god," Katherine wheezed.

Sebastian nodded in agreement with her sentiments. "We have to tell the others."

Jake's expression was chiseled like stone when Norm finished explaining the situation to him. "And you kept this from me why, exactly?"

Norm shifted his gaze between Jake and Neytiri. The latter was nursing her son and gazing at him with thoughtful golden eyes, thankfully showing no evidence of anger. "Because I didn't find out about it until today," he explained. "As for Tom...I didn't want to burden you more. I didn't think telling you that we were trying to dig up more information would help you, Jake. You had a baby on the way and Max and I both just wanted to give you a little time to enjoy life a little."

"What did you think I'd do if you found information about Tommy?" Jake pressed. "Sneak onto the next ISV and stowaway back to Earth to track his killers down?"

Norm glanced sidelong at Ni'nat, who was doing her best to look very interested in a drifting wood sprite. "Actually..."

Jake growled softly in annoyance. "Man, you guys really do think I've got shit for brains, don't you? You really thought I'd leave my mate and kid behind to hunt down Tommy's killers on earth? Do I look like a lemming to you?"

"No, I didn't say that," Norm defended hastily, "I just...after your Dream Hunt, I didn't think you were ready to hear about it. Max didn't want to come to you about this until he had some kind of proof, at least not until after the baby was born. Jake, Tom was my friend. I wanted to know everything I could find out, for closure."

"You think it would give you 'closure' to find out exactly how they planned to snuff my little brother?" Jake's expression was incredulous. "Jesus Norm, did you stop and take pictures of car wrecks on earth so you could understand how they happened?"

"Jake," Neytiri said in a soft but firm tone.

He took a deep breath. "What?"

"This was not done for disrespect of your brother," she murmured, bouncing the baby gently in her arms. Her eyes held Norm's and despite his effort to conceal the angst he was feeling, she seemed to detect it. She looked up at her mate and resumed speaking. "He was thinking only of our well-being."

Norm nodded empathetically with agreement, begging Jake with his eyes to understand. Beside him, Ni'nat took his hand in hers and gripped it with supportive pressure. Norm sensed that he should keep quiet and he watched his friend's handsome features struggle with emotions.

When Jake opened his eyes again, they were clear with purpose. He clenched his jaw and took one more deep breath before addressing Norm. "From now on, you tell me what's going on, even if you think it might piss me off or put pressure on me. I'm not a shrinking violet that can't handle bad news, understand?"

Norm nodded and he felt compelled to speak up. "I know that, Jake. You've just had a lot to deal with lately."

"That doesn't matter, when it comes to the safety of my clan." Jake's eyes blazed and he cast a look over his shoulder at Hometree. It was obvious that his thoughts were primarily on his little son.

Jake turned his attention back and his eyes flicked between Norm and Ni'nat. "I don't care how bad the news is. From now on, you treat me like a marine, got it? I can handle it."

Norm quickly shushed his mate's instinctive response in defense of him. He squeezed her hand and he nodded, taking a deep breath as he looked into Jake's eyes. "Trudy said something similar, when we were talking about this."

Jake smirked. "At least somebody has a little faith."

"You should know better, by now," Norm shot back. "I do respect you, Jake. I just thought I was looking out for your best interests."

True to his nature, Jake's anger visibly faded and he laid a hand on Norm' shoulder. "I'm not mad at you, all right? I get what you were trying to do. Just...quit looking out for my 'best interests'. I can figure that out on my own."

Norm nodded and he spared a glance over his shoulder at Hometree. "Then what do you want to do?"

"We're going to hold a council," answered Jake. "We've got to prepare for this and we need to organize a gathering of the clan leaders. No more 'last minute' gatherings. I want all of the People to be aware of the threat."

"Yes," agreed Neytiri softly. "That would be best. If there are more Sky People here, we should find them before they grow strong."

"This is not a war council," Jake announced in the den, some time later. "We are protecting our territory from the Sky People. We will send word out to the clans, so that they'll be ready. If they come again, we will all be ready for them."

Shouts of exuberance followed Jake's speech. Neytiri shifted their infant in her arms and gazed up at her mate's pacing form, silently lending her support to Jake as he struggled to make the best choice as clan leader.

"We will fight!" a young male shouted. His friends hooted in agreement.

"No, we will not," Jake corrected firmly. "Not immediately. We don't know how many of them we are facing, if they are here at all."

"Then what do you propose to do, Olo'eyktan?" One of the few Omaticaya who hadn't fully accepted Jake as leader boldly stepped forward. "Wait for the Sky People to come? Wait for them to destroy our land and kill our children?" Her yellow gaze was challenging on Jake.

Neytiri glared at her but Jake kept his cool, being hard to offend. "No, we will not wait for them to attack. We won't give them a chance to, if we can help it. But you can't attack the wind, sister. We have to find them before we drive them off."

Jake's eyes swept the assembly and his expression was determined. "I want messengers sent out to all the clans. We will warn our brethren and be ready to band together and fight, and we will hold a joint council here at Hometree for all Olo'eyktan who will come. We defeated the Sky People once and we will do it again. "

His speech inspired exuberant shouts and hoots. Neytiri smiled at him, proud as always of his charismatic influence on their people's moral. Jake began selecting leaders for each messenger party, instructing each of them to travel to different territories with banners of peace. When he finished sorting out who would travel where, Jake approached Neytiri with fire in his eyes. As much as they all hated the thought of another conflict with the Sky People, he was a warrior at heart and her blood sang with excitement as well. The messengers were to leave as soon as they were prepared, without waiting for morning.

Mo'at saw the conflicted look on Neytiri's face as Jake approached and she held out her hands for the baby. "I will care for him while you are gone, Daughter. There are plenty of mothers in the village who will be happy to nurse him until you return."

Neytiri relaxed and eased her tiny son into Mo'at's waiting arms. "Thank you, Mother."

Jake came up beside her and he smiled down at Tommy before lowering his head to give the infant a kiss on the cheek. "We'll see you tomorrow," he promised his son.

Neytiri likewise gave the baby her affectionate goodbyes and she went with Jake when he took her hand. They stopped before Norm and Ni'nat and Jake nodded at them.

"You two are with us. We'll warn the Horse Clans but first, I've got to find Shadow. Akway takes a little more convincing than the other chieftains, so I'll have to approach him as Toruk Makto again."

"Do you have any idea where to look?" Norm asked.

"He stays close to the territory," Jake answered. "I've spotted him a few times near the mountains. With any luck, he'll be out hunting tonight."

"Then we'd better not waste any time," Norm said.

The other parties were leaving and as Jake and Neytiri started to head to the branch-stairs leading up, Tommy began to cry in distress. Both of them froze, falling behind Norm and Ni'nat. Neytiri turned to look at her son with anxious eyes and Jake did the same, taking an impulsive step toward Mo'at and Tommy.

Mo'at gently bounced the infant in her arms and she smiled patiently at his concerned parents. "He will be fine," she assured them. "Go. Come back to us safely."

Neytiri bit her lip and hesitated, until Jake rested a hand on her shoulder and spoke to her. "Your mother will take good care of him," he whispered. "The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can get back."

They climbed the spiral up to the ikran nests, where Ni'nat and Norm waited for them. The four of them called for their mounts and flew away, heading for the nearby mountains. Jake called out as they approached, searching for his massive leonopteryx. A half an hour passed and they were beginning to think that they would have to convince Akway to pledge his allegiance without the influence of the toruk, when Ni'nat looked up and saw the huge shadow bearing down on them.

"Jake, are you sure that one's yours?" Norm's voice was a little shrill with anxiety as Jake ordered everyone to stop and hover.

"Uhhh...pretty sure," Jake answered, staring up with lowered ears at the creature diving at them. It was difficult to tell for certain in the dark and all of his instincts warned him to flee. He patted his ikran soothingly when the animal called out in distress. The others were fighting to maintain control of their banshees too as the threat closed in on them.

"I don't know about this," Norm shouted.

"Just hold steady," Jake instructed, though he was getting close to pissing himself too. If he was wrong about this, somebody could end up as a tasty meat snack. He clenched his jaw and shut his eyes as the toruk came straight at him. "Shit."

The creature broke its dive at the last minute and hovered before Jake, flapping its great wings. It called out to him and he relaxed, recognizing the timber of its screech. "Hey boy," Jake sighed, reaching out to pat the leonopteryx on the side of the neck. "You gave us a little scare." He glanced over his shoulder at Norm and grinned. He never knew that Na'vi skin could go that pale. Ni'nat and Neytiri looked like a pair of owls, their eyes were so wide.

"How's your loincloth holding up, Norm?"

"Still dry," answered the other male in a breathless voice. "Barely."

Jake chuckled and tried to calm his racing heart as he freed his queue from Aungia and maneuvered onto Shadow's back. His ikran was all too happy to fly away back to Hometree once he released it and Jake settled himself between the toruk's shoulders and adjusted to his greater size.

"Steady, boy," Jake murmured, patting Shadow on the neck. He looked at his companions, who were still a bit shaken from the experience. "Let's ride out."

The dawn brought no joy with it as E'quath and his party reached the home of the sea clan. The seaside village of the Ikran people was in ruins. E'quath and his party walked amongst the smoking tents, searching for survivors and evidence of what happened. They found a handful of bodies but no living clan members. There were signs of struggle and the tracks they found indicated that while some had fled into the forest, the rest of the clan had been forcibly taken somewhere else.

After searching fruitlessly for those who had fled, the grim-faced band of Omaticaya prepared to fly back to Hometree and report their findings. When they took to the air, E'quath spotted something in the distance that made him frown and call out for the others to stop. He narrowed his eyes and watched the object he sighted in the distant sky. It wasn't moving naturally and after a moment, he identified it as one of the flying ships used by the Sky People.

"We will follow that thing," he instructed his companions as he pointed at the machine. "It may lead us to answers. Fly low, beneath the canopy. We don't know if the riders are allies or Sky People, so we must use stealth."

The four hunters accompanying him voiced their agreement and the party flew after the helicopter, each of them wondering what they would find. They flew for a few miles before the hovering chopper began to land and the party used extra caution as they closed the distance. They found a fenced in compound that was under construction. The forest surrounding the parameter had been cleared and E'quath and his party kept to the vegetation, not daring to move closer for fear that the guards manning the turrets would spot them. When they saw what was behind the fence, the Na'vi party was stunned.

"These are not our allies," whispered one of the hunters with certainty.

"No, they are not," E'quath agreed grimly.

They had found most of the missing Ikran villagers. They were trapped inside the compound, behind the fence. They were being forced to carry building materials from one building to the next by armed soldiers. What was worse, the men and women who kept their guns trained on the captured Na'vi appeared to be Na'vi themselves. They wore form-fitting, black uniforms and protective headgear equipped with visors that hid their features from the nose up.

"Uniltiranyus," murmured the female hunter to E'quath's left. "The Olo'eyktan was right."

E'quath began to count their numbers. He had never seen so many dreamwalkers in one place, before. The only warrior dreamwalker he had ever met was Jakesully, but these appeared to be warriors as well. He tensed when he recognized Tanhi amongst the enslaved Ikran people. The proud chieftess was lugging heavy timber with the rest of her people and when one of the guards jabbed the elder female in front of Tanhi with the barrel of his gun to speed up her progress, the Ikran olo'eyktan dropped her burden and attacked him without hesitation.

The guard shouted out and he struck Tanhi in the jaw with the butt of his weapon, sending her sprawling to the concrete. The other guards trained their firearms on the prisoners when they tried to go to their leader's aid and the one she had attacked scowled angrily down at her.

"Do not," E'quath hissed when the huntress beside him began to draw her bow. "We are outnumbered and if we die here, our people will not know about this place!"

She stopped her action and dug her fingers into the moss, growling softly under her breath. E'quath turned his attention back to the imperiled Ikran leader, fully expecting her captors to end her life.

"Stupid bitch," spat the lieutenant. The prisoner glared up at him and wiped blood from her lips. She showed no fear and that only angered him further. He looked around at the woman's clan mates and he decided he needed to give them an example of what they could expect if they failed to cooperate.

The Na'vi woman struck out at him as he put his gun aside and descended onto her. He punched her in the face, hard enough to daze her. "You want to fight me, kitten? I think maybe you need to be taken down a notch or two."

"Sir, our orders aren't to—"

"Keep your mouth shut," he barked over his shoulder at the female soldier. "I'm in charge here and these savages need to learn their place." He smirked down at the captive beneath him. "I've always wanted to do a real Na'vi chick."

If she didn't comprehend his words, she understood his tone and she hissed and fought him as he yanked her ornamental necklace up to expose her breasts. He cursed and ordered one of the other soldiers to help him as she nearly bucked him off. The other man knelt down and restrained her arms over her head. Some of the other soldiers looked uncomfortable as the lieutenant fondled the shrieking captive's breasts with one hand while reaching down to undo his pants with the other. Others were forced to restrain and threaten the woman's clan members as they tried to intervene.

"You won't be so feisty, when I'm through with you," promised the assailant in a rough voice.

Tanhi fought with all her might, but the dreamwalkers were as strong as any Na'vi male and their combined efforts subdued her. She understood English well enough but even if she hadn't, the intentions of her captors were obvious. She knew what they were about to do and she snapped her teeth at them with rising panic. Her people were helpless to do anything but watch as the wretched dreamwalker fondled her body and worked to free his erection from his pants. She did not want her people to see this. These males were doing this to break their spirits, she knew. Tanhi shrieked at the top of her lungs as her attacker exposed himself and started tugging at her loincloth.

Another male voice suddenly cut through the air.

"That's enough! Let her go, now."

Tanhi's attacker and his accomplice paused and looked up at the dreamwalker who had pushed his way between the other guards. He was wearing a uniform similar to theirs but he had no body armor included in the outfit. Instead of an automatic rifle, he carried a pistol at his hip and there was a nametag pinned over the right side of his chest. A female dreamwalker in similar attire came up beside him and what little Tanhi could see of her expression indicated that she was as shocked as her male companion by what she saw.

"You stay out of this and mind your own department, Doc," demanded the attacker. He turned his attention back to Tanhi, dismissing the other male's presence.

There was a click from the direction of the other man as the soldier resumed trying to pull Tanhi's garment off and he stopped again, looking over his shoulder. The man who had intervened now had his gun drawn and pointed at the assailant's head.

"Let her go, Lieutenant."

"You gonna shoot me now?" The assailant scowled up at Tanhi's benefactor. "Do you even know how to use that thing?"

"Keep going and you'll find out," assured the other man coolly. "I didn't come here to watch you army dogs rape and abuse the natives."

For a moment, it seemed that the soldier would defy him, but he thought better of it and got off of Tanhi, tucking himself back into his pants and zipping them in the process. The man holding her down retrieved the lieutenant's weapon and handed it to him. Tanhi watched silently as her benefactor and her would-be rapist glared at one another through the concealment of their visors.

"They're going to hear about this," promised the solider.

"Good," answered the other male readily as he holstered his weapon. "Make sure you tell them you breached your protocol and disrupted the day's labor, while you're at it."

The soldier snarled and motioned to his fellows, who returned their attention back to overseeing the captives' work. He walked away and the man who stopped the assault glared after him for a moment before offering a gloved hand down to Tanhi.

"I won't hurt you," he said to her in perfect Na'vi when she recoiled. "I only want to help."

"You are the enemy," she hissed.

He sighed. "There is nothing I can do about that now. You should cooperate, for the good of your people. The warriors here will hurt them if they defy orders and they only obey for your sake."

She looked around at her laboring people, who watched her with stricken concern in their eyes. The dreamwalker was right. Her people would defy their captors to the death if they didn't hold her life in their hands. She reluctantly took his offered hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. She studied his face suspiciously, finding something oddly familiar about his voice, movements and what little she could see of his features.

He steadied her and turned to his female companion. "Take her to the medic building and have her injuries treated. Give her something to eat too and try to keep her away from the goon brigade. I'm going to contact the ship and tell them what went on here."

The woman nodded and coaxed Tanhi to come along with her. Having no choice unless she wanted to endanger her people, the chieftess went with the woman. As they walked away, she kept looking over her shoulder at the male who had helped her, her eyes narrowed. She couldn't decide what it was about him that made her trust him more than the other Sky People in this place and it rankled her.

He watched the captive and his colleague for a moment before taking his communicator device out of his pocket and entering the contact code for the orbiting ship. He shook his head as he brought the transmitter to his ear.

"Everything about this is wrong."

Sweating beneath the protective headgear, he reached up and tugged the visor off, sighing as the open air stirred his hair and cooled his skull. "I need to speak with the foreman," he said into the transmitter when his signal was answered.

Still hunkered down in the forest, E'quath and his companions stared with shock-widened eyes as the man who stopped the assault on Tanhi removed his headgear.

"What is he doing?" Gasped one of the hunters.

"How did he get here?" muttered another.

"I...I do not know," replied E'quath.

None of them could think of a single explanation that would rationalize why Jake Sully was standing there in that uniform, working with the people who had abducted the Ikran clan.

-To be continued


Toruk Makto = One who rides a Great Leonopteryx, known as "Toruk" or "Last Shadow" to the Na'vi people. Hunters that manage to bond with the animal are revered by the People as great warriors and leaders. Very few have ever succeeded in claiming a Toruk and those who have are legendary to all Na'vi.

Uniltiranyus = Dreamwalkers, avatars

Olo'eyktan = Clan leader; chieftain

Tanhi = Star

Chapter Text

"She's a troublemaker. Yesterday she bit Murphy's ear half off and today she attacked me. Yes sir. I really think that would make things go smoother down here. I'll do it tonight. Thank you, sir."

Unbeknownst to Lieutenant Phelps, his conversation with his superior was overheard by the biologist he'd clashed with earlier that morning. The doctor intended to tell Lieutenant Phelps that the second warehouse was finished, but when he heard him speaking on his communication unit he waited by the door and listened. His amber eyes narrowed as he interpreted the one-sided conversation he heard. He could easily guess which "troublemaker" the other man was referring to and it wasn't hard to determine what he intended to do to her when night fell. Worse than that, he obviously had full permission to do it. Evidently, the talk with the foreman earlier over what actually happened had no impact.

If this had occurred months ago, he would have appealed to Phelps' superiors and tried to make them see the injustice of executing a prisoner for fighting back against a rape attempt. Now he knew that it wouldn't do any good. Killing the indigenous wasn't the goal of their purpose here but he quickly learned upon arrival that the RDA had no qualms over removing the ones that got in the way. He checked the time on his watch and deduced that he had a couple of hours to figure out something to do. He left without speaking to the lieutenant, because he was afraid that he wouldn't be able to hide the disgust on his face or in his tone if he spoke to him now.

He came up with an idea at sunset and he prayed to anyone that might be listening that he could pull it off. He could get a set of the body armor from the supply building if he had to, but he needed military tags to complete the deception. The only way he could get his hands on those was to take them from one of the soldiers. He considered asking Private Dewitt if he could borrow hers, because he knew that she was as unsettled by the way things were going as he was. He nixed the idea immediately. He might make a convincing enough marine but he wouldn't make a convincing woman.

After some thought, he decided to lure one of the male soldiers to a secluded area. He found one of them heading for the barracks after doing his rounds and he approached him with an anxious expression on his face. He didn't know the soldier's name so he just tapped him on the shoulder and murmured that he saw one of the prisoners sneaking behind the bunking lodge reserved for the captives and he was afraid he might be trying to escape or cause trouble.

"It could be nothing," he said to the soldier, "so I didn't want to draw a lot of attention to it."

"All right, I'll check it out," the young guard said. "Take me to this guy."

The guard followed him to the bunking lodge where the prisoners were kept and he led him around to the back, out of sight. "Back here," he said, pointing.

The gullible private moved into the shadows and the biologist followed him.

"I don't see anyth—"

The soldier's confused sentence was rudely interrupted by the butt of his companion's SN-9 Wasp revolver striking him in the back of the neck, below the line of his helmet. He crumpled to the ground and his assailant quickly dragged him further into the shadows and rolled him onto his back.

"Sorry, Private—" the biologist looked at the name on the identification tags around his victim's neck. "Harris. I'm just going to borrow a couple of things for a few minutes."

He took the dog tags off of the soldier and put them around his neck. Then he removed the protective vest and put it on over his uniform. The only concern he had now was that one of the soldiers guarding the main gate might be familiar enough with Private Harris well enough to know his voice, but he couldn't do anything about that. He gave the unconscious operative's vitals a quick examination to be sure he hadn't overdone it when he knocked him out and then went to around the building, walking as casually as he could manage to the far end of it where the entrance was.

Tanhi lay awake in her narrow bunk, contemplating everything that had occurred and wondering what—if anything—she could do to help her people escape and seek aid from the other clans. The children of the clan were being held in a separate, guarded building away from the adults, to discourage rebellion. She couldn't even begin to plan an escape without finding a way to retrieve the little ones safely.

She saw movement in the darkness and she tensed when she recognized the uniform on the approaching dreamwalker. Tanhi covertly reached beneath her pillow, where she had hidden a sharp piece of scrap metal. The other captive clan members were watching the dreamwalker warily and Tanhi shook her head when she saw the male lying across from her tense as if ready to attack. He set his jaw and watched as the intruder approached the chieftess. Tanhi fully expected another assault attempt and this time, there wouldn't be intervention from the familiar dreamwalker who seemed to have some honor. The others could do nothing if this male attempted to violate her. Though they had him outnumbered, any violence committed against their captors could result in the harm or death of the hostage children.

Tanhi curled her fingers around the cold metal shard. When the male attacked her earlier that day, she could do nothing but struggle against him but now she had a way to prevent such a thing from being carried out in full. She didn't fear death. Going to Eywa was preferable to coupling with one of these filthy demons. Her only regret was her inability to help her clan.

"Tanhi," whispered the dreamwalker as he knelt beside her bunk.

She hesitated in the action of pulling her weapon out. A frown marred her lips as she recognized the voice in two different ways. It was the man who had stopped her assailant and again, she was stricken with an odd certainty that she had heard his voice somewhere else before.

"What do you want?" She demanded in a low, warning tone.

"You must come with me," he answered, glancing around as if worried over who was listening. "Quickly."

"I will go nowhere with you," she hissed, drawing back as he reached for her. She gripped her hidden weapon until she felt the metal cut into her palm.

She moved in a flash, striking out at him with the shrapnel before he could dodge away. He swore softly as she slashed a cut in his forearm, where there was a gap in the protective guards strapped to his arms. He grabbed her wrist and forced the shrapnel out of her hand, pinning her down to the bunk with the weight of his body. His lips pulled back into a snarl and Tanhi gasped a command when several of her people started to get out of bed to come to her aid.

"Listen to me," the dreamwalker murmured in a surprisingly calm, steady voice, "your life is in danger. You have to come with me now, or you'll die."

"You are a demon," she accused vehemently, "just like the others!"

"Fine, I'm a demon," he said in a tired voice, "call me whatever you want, but if I meant you any harm I would not have stopped that soldier from raping you. If nothing else, you must trust me in this. The man who attacked you today is coming to execute you for resisting him and I wouldn't put it past him to try and finish what he started before he kills you."

Sounds of anger and distress flitted through the cabin and Tanhi shushed her people before regarding the dreamwalker suspiciously. "Why do you help me?"

"I'll give you the short answer: it's the right thing to do. Now come with me and play along with the ruse, or your clan will be leaderless."

"I cannot leave my people," she argued.

His mouth thinned with frustration. "You'll be leaving them permanently if you don't go now." He spoke in English but she understood him well enough. So did others of her clan.

"Olo'eyktan, you must go!" A young huntress urged. "The Sky People will not hesitate to kill you for defying them."

"It must be a trap," argued the male beside her. "How can we be sure this dreamwalker is not luring her away for his own purposes?"

Tanhi had already considered that possibility and the more she studied what she could see of the dreamwalker's features, the less she believed he would do such a thing. She really didn't have a choice. Perhaps she was wrong about him but if this male truly was attempting to help her, wasting time arguing with him would only bring her death.

"What about the others?" she insisted, even as her instincts urged her to hurry.

He shook his head and cast a look around at her clan mates. "I'm sorry, I can do nothing for them right now, except try to see to it that they aren't mistreated. The best I can do is help you escape into the forest. At least then, you will have a chance to find someone that can help your people."

She looked at her people's desperate, urgent faces and she shut her eyes and nodded, taking the five-fingered, gloved hand that he offered her. She pulled back a moment later when he suddenly fastened a metal cuff over her wrist and he spoke to her softly, in that reassuring tone she was beginning to associate with him.

"It's just for show," he told her. "I will take them off as soon as we make it to the concealment of the forest. The guards have to believe you are my captive and I doubt they will believe that you would come along without restraints."

He began to regret encouraging the spirited Na'vi woman to put up a struggle. She took it quite literally and he had trouble keeping his hold on her as he half-dragged her through the compound to the front gates. The guards manning the gates regarded him curiously as he approached and they asked his name, rank and business when he stopped before them.

"Private Harris," he said, holding onto his "captive" firmly by one arm as he allowed one of the guards to lift his ID tags and read the name on them. "This one is nothing but trouble. I have orders from Lieutenant Phelps to take care of her, if you know what I mean." He patted the gun at his hip and he hoped they wouldn't think anything of his lack of a larger automatic weapon.

"You're going to use that?" The guard pointed at the wasp revolver with a frown.

The biologist swallowed a curse and shrugged. "It's cleaner."

"Why aren't you doing this in front of her clan?" asked the other guard. "You know, to make an example."

"Because it would only incite a riot," he answered calmly. "At least, that's what our superiors think. These savages can't be reasoned with, so our people want this done nice and quiet-like."

The guards looked at each other and shrugged. "All right, you're clear. Make it quick."

Tanhi renewed her struggles as they opened the gate and her "captor" winced as her bare heel struck him in the shin hard enough to send a flash of pain up his leg, despite the insulation of his calf-high boots. He pulled her along roughly and she stumbled, snarling and hissing as he dragged her through the gate and away from the compound. When they reached the trees he pulled her into the concealing vegetation with him, shooting a look over his shoulder to judge how far in they needed to go before they were hidden from view.

He finally stopped a few yards in and he released her arm and stepped away from her. The woman's eyes widened when he reached for his gun and he hastily reassured her. "Don't worry. I have no intention of using it on you."

He proved it to her by aiming up into the air. He squeezed the trigger and fired one shot, then counted under his breath and fired another for good measure. Hoping that would be enough to satisfy the guards, he replaced his gun in its holster and fished the key to the cuffs out of his pocket. As he moved to free her from her restraints, the odd little drifting seeds called "wood sprites" began to drift down from the trees. He pursed his lips as they floated towards him, as usual. They looked something like large dandelion seeds, except they glowed in the dark and they moved through the air like strange little jellyfish. They moved in an almost sentient manner and as usual, they began to settle on him as if magnetically drawn to him.

"Atokirina," whispered Tanhi, her eyes sweeping over him as the pesky seeds settled on his helmet, shoulders and arms. She rubbed her wrists as the cuffs came off and she stared at him suspiciously.

He sighed. He knew that the seeds were sacred to the Na'vi so he refrained from smacking at them like bothersome insects. "Yes, 'atokirina'. I seem to attract them for some reason. You should go, while you have the chance. They will come looking for me if I don't get back soon."

Even if they didn't, his actions were likely going to put him in the doghouse. He wasn't going to let the soldier whose tags he'd stolen take the heat and when they didn't find a corpse to prove he'd executed the chieftess, he would be jailed or worse. By letting her go, he was risking the secrecy of this base and considering that the primary mission was to take back Hell's Gate, that was unforgivable.

"Let me see your face," she demanded, peering up at him as if trying to see through the protective visor covering his eyes and nose.

He didn't see the harm in it and he guessed the stubborn female would only keep arguing with him if he refused. He reached his hands up and grasped the headgear, tugging it off and holding it in one hand. He ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair to loosen it a bit, feeling like it was plastered to his scalp. One of the wood sprites drifted close to his nose and he blew at it irritably to keep it off of his face. When he looked at Tanhi again, he frowned.

"What is it?" He impulsively wiped at his face with his free hand. She was looking at him with such an odd expression of shock and confusion.

"Toruk Makto?"

He shook his head, utterly bewildered by the response. "I'm not sure what you mean. I've never ridden a toruk." He pushed aside her odd behavior and his own confusion when he heard shouting coming from somewhere within the compound behind him. Lieutenant Phelps must have found out that someone took his prize into the forest and he was yelling for people to go with him to search.

"Look, you must go now," he stressed urgently. "They will be coming soon and if they catch you, it's all over."

He started to say something else but he was suddenly tackled from behind. Taken unawares and knocked breathless, he coughed and struggled instinctively against the strong hold of his assailant. Other hands grabbed his wrists and forced them behind his back as he spit out moss and shouted with surprise.

"Do not struggle, Olo'eyktan," a female voice said in Na'vi from the left.

"I am your friend," said the voice of the male pinning him down, "I wish to help you." Even as the voice declared this, something was being wrapped securely around the biologist's wrists, lashing them tightly together behind his back.

"You've got a funny way of showing it!"

He was completely bewildered. Did the woman just call him "Chieftain", or had he misheard her? Logic dictated that his attackers must be members of the Ikran plan who had escaped and were waiting in the forest when he brought the chieftess out. And why did the one pinning him down call him a friend?

"What do you want? I was only trying to help her!"

"You are not yourself, Jakesully! We will get you the help that you need."

He felt like laughing hysterically. "I don't know what you're talking...wait, did you just call me Jake—"

An explosion of pain in the back of his head ended his response abruptly and sent him spiraling into darkness.

"Why did you strike him like that?" E'quath demanded of the huntress as she lowered the fallen tree branch she had used to knock their leader out with.

She nodded in the direction of the compound. "They are coming and we have no time to reason with him. We must go!"

"Why is the Toruk Makto working with the Sky People?" Tanhi demanded, rounding on her Omaticaya rescuers.

"We do not know," answered E'quath truthfully. "He was at Hometree when we left to bring your people a message. I cannot understand how he arrived here and got inside the Sky People's fort before us."

"He could be an imposter," suggested one of the male hunters in the party. "Another demon made to look like our chieftain. What if they meant to use him to spy on us?"

"Or he could be a traitor," growled the other male.

"Jakesully is not a traitor," E'quath snarled. "If this male is truly him, then the Sky People have done something to him."

"He did not recognize us," the female said with certainty.

"We have no time to discuss this," urged Tanhi as shouts rose from the direction of the fort. "They will kill us all if they catch us!"

The Na'vi party wasted no more time debating how Jake Sully ended up there, why his hair was lacking the small, loose braids he usually kept separate from his queue or why he was dressed as and consulting with the enemy. E'quath lifted his unconscious leader with a grunt and slung him over his shoulder. He and his party fled with the liberated chieftess of the Ikran clan, moving swiftly through the forest until they were far enough away from the compound to call for their mounts. E'quath had to situate Jake in front of him as he mounted his ikran and Tanhi rode with one of the male hunters.

They flew all through the night with their added passengers, stopping only briefly to rest the banshees before moving on. Jake—if that was who he truly was—remained unconscious until they were nearly home and E'quath worried that his clan mate had struck the chieftain too hard.

"Have there been any sightings of E'quath's group yet?" Jake muttered to Norm out the corner of his mouth. The sun had risen and the council between clan leaders was due to begin. E'quath's party should have been back by yesterday evening and Jake was on the verge of sending scouts out to look for them.

"Nothing yet," answered Norm with a frown. "Jake, it's possible that they came across RDA forces, if they really have already landed on Pandora."

"I don't even want to think about that," Jake sighed.

He looked at Neytiri, who stood beside him on the raised platform of earth with their son in her arms. Her eyes reflected his own concern but she stood straight and proud before the gathering, keeping her fears to herself. He admired her strength and a smile flitted over his lips as he stroked her shoulder before giving his son his finger to squeeze.

"We can't put this off any longer," Jake decided. "The council will start. Hopefully E'quath's party returns safely soon." He gently pulled his finger out of his son's strong little grip and stepped forward to address the waiting assembly.

"Welcome, brothers and sisters," Jake began with a respectful, sweeping gesture to encompass all of the clan leaders. "We are grateful that you came all this way to join the council and discuss the best course of action for the People. Eywa watches us all and we have the chance to prevent another Time of Great Sorrow, if we work together. We believe that more of them have come to our world and are hiding somewhere. They will be weak and disorganized, without access to Hell's Gate. If we can find them, we can defeat them and send them away before they have the chance to grow in strength and harm our people, but we must band together in this."

There were murmurs and nods of agreement. Jake relaxed a little, relieved that they were taking this seriously and seemed to be on board with the proposal for an alliance. "For now, please accept the hospitality of the Omaticaya clan. Our home is your home. We will have another council in two mornings, after you have all had the opportunity to consider the situation and decide what is best for your clans."

Jake motioned for the adolescents waiting in the back of the den and they began to carry out large leaf plates piled with food and drink. They went from one adult to the next, offering food and refreshment in a traditional practice of hospitality.

"I think you're getting better at this," Norm murmured when Jake turned around to face him, Ni'nat and Neytiri.

Jake smirked. "I've learned a few things, believe it or not. Mostly thanks to Neytiri and her mother." He smiled at his mate, who returned the smile with a little spark in her eyes. The baby began to fuss and Neytiri shifted him in her arms and laid him against her shoulder, patting his back gently to help him burp out any air that he might have in his belly.

"I'd better go and speak with Akway," Jake said when he noticed the Horse chief looking at him as though he wanted to speak. "I'll be right back." He approached Akway and sat down adjacent to him. The two of them got into a discussion concerning the best way for the clans to contact one another if any of them found enemy Sky People around their territory. They were just getting heavily into it when a familiar voice shouted out urgently, startling Jake to his feet.

"Neytiri!" E'quath hollered as he sprinted into the den and dodged his way through the obstacle course of Na'vi bodies. "You must come! Something is wrong with the Olo'eyktan! He is..." E'quath trailed off and stared at Jake with wide eyes as he came forward to stand beside his mate.

Jake had never seen the stoic, quiet tracker so animated or anxious before, let alone so bewildered looking. "I'm what, E'quath? What do you think is wrong with me?" He was relieved to see the tracker back but something was obviously very wrong.

"H-how are you here?" E'quath gasped. People were staring between he and Jake with visible curiosity.

Jake's brows furrowed with confusion. "About twenty-three years ago my parents mated. The rest is history."

"No, how did you get here," E'quath demanded. "Inside the den, past me? How did you change into your clan attire so quickly?"

Jake approached the warrior and stared into his eyes with worry. "What's the matter with you? You act like you've seen a ghost. Did you eat some bad mushrooms or something?"

E'quath shook his head, still wearing an expression of shock and confusion on his chiseled features. He abruptly reached out and caught hold of the harness strap crossing over Jake's chest and he tugged on it so forcibly that Jake stumbled. "You must come!"

Jake tossed a bewildered look over his shoulder at his mate and Norm before stumbling after E'quath. "Uh, all right," he muttered, practically dragged from the den. Neytiri, Norm and Ni'nat followed curiously, along with half the den and the visiting olo'eyktan.

"Take it easy," Jake advised as he followed the tracker outside. He could see E'quath's party in the planetary light on the hill, standing next to their ikrans. There were people around them, obscuring the view. Jake recognized the olo'eyktan of the Ikran clan before his view of her was blocked.

"Move aside," commanded E'quath as he led Jake up the hill.

Jake saw confusion and wonder on the faces of his people as they obligingly parted to make way for him and the tracker. He felt a chill run down his spine and the strangest feeling began to come over him as he and E'quath drew closer to the banshees. It almost felt like that sensation he got when Tommy died, only it was in reverse. Puzzled by the feeling, he frowned and he tried to make sense of it.

"I don't understand what you are talking about!"

Jake's head lifted immediately at the sound of the voice and his ears swiveled forward. The exclamation was spoken in flawless Na'vi but the voice speaking it sounded very similar to his own. It was softer than his, but he recognized the voice immediately and he felt all of the blood drain from his face.

"It can't be," Jake rasped.

Now he was pushing past E'quath to reach the origin of that voice and he came to an abrupt halt when he found himself looking at a mirror image of his Na'vi body, wearing a form-fitting black uniform. The hair was worn exactly the way Jake had worn his when he first began using his avatar, with a few loose strands falling over the forehead and around the face. The eyes were set in a face identical to Jake's own and they stared back at him with the same bewilderment he was feeling.

Jake tilted his head to the right, staring at the doppelganger intensely. The look-alike also tilted his head and stared back with parted lips. A disbelieving smile began to curve Jake's lips.


"Jake?" The other man inquired at the same time.

"Olo'eyktan," E'quath muttered beside him, "Your son is behind you."

"Not Tommy my son," Jake murmured distractedly, his heart pounding fiercely, "Tommy my brother."

"Is that really you, Jake?" The biologist strained against the bola that secured his wrists behind his back.

Jake nodded, his chest tightening with a blend of powerful emotions. "Yeah, it's really me. What the hell are you doing here? They told me you were dead!"

"That's what they said about you," Tom replied. "And what the hell are you doing here? In an avatar?"

Jake laughed breathlessly, hardly believing he was having a conversation with his younger brother. "It's a long story. Tommy, I saw your body. How can you be alive?"

"They showed you my body?" Tom struggled against his bonds again as he took a step closer to Jake. "When?"

"Right before we shipped out. They said a mugger shot you. I watched them cremate you myself." He closed the remaining distance between them and moved around behind his sibling, pulling his knife out of its sheath to cut his bonds. "You can relax," Jake said to his clan mates. "He's not an enemy."

When the leather bindings fell to the ground, Jake turned his brother around by the shoulders and stared at him with a huge grin. "So how did this happen? I felt it when you died, Tommy."

"Technically, I did die," the other man answered, smiling back at Jake with the same ecstatic expression on his face. "Or at least, my old body did. They transferred me permanently into my avatar. But what about you? How did you end up here and...are you the chieftain of this clan?"

"Man, we've got a lot to clear up," Jake muttered.

He was reeling over his shocking discovery and he felt giddy and light-headed. To assure himself that he wasn't just imagining everything in his head, he abruptly hugged his brother tightly. Tom blurted a little huff as the breath was squeezed out of him and then he returned the embrace.


Jake released his brother and swallowed a lump in his throat as he turned to see Norm standing there with his mouth hanging open. Neytiri's wide eyes darted between Jake and Tom with confused disbelief and Ni'nat stood beside her mate with an expression of awe on her features.

"I know that voice," Tom murmured, staring at the tall, wide-eyed male. "Norm? Norm Spellman, is that you?"

"Y-yeah, it's me. Tom?"

"That's right." Tom nodded. "I suppose they told you I was dead, too."

"I think I need to sit down," Norm said faintly. He looked a little green.

"What of my people?" demanded Tanhi.

Jake sobered, spiraling down from his euphoria. He started to notice things that he'd missed, such as the bruises on Tanhi's face, the uniform his brother was wearing and the ID tags around Tommy's neck that obviously didn't belong to him.

"Someone explain to me what happened," Jake said.

"My clan was captured in a raid by the Sky People," obliged Tanhi. "We were taken to a fortress near the outer borders of our territory. My people are still there, Toruk Makto. They are being made to work for the Sky People under threat. This one—" she nodded at Tom, "—He helped me to escape into the forest. Your people found us there and captured"

She looked at Tom and then back at Jake, her features softening a little with awe. "We thought that he was you."

"We did not know what to think," E'quath added. "I never knew that your brother was a twin, Jakesully."

"I never told any of you," Jake muttered. "No wonder you were so spastic when you came back with him. I really thought you lost your mind for a minute, E'quath."

"He was helping the enemy," said the female hunter in E'quath's party with an accusing look at Tom.

"So was I, before I figured out what was really happening here," Jake reminded her sternly. He looked at Tom and took a deep breath. "As much as I want to know the details about how you got here alive, we've got to know what the RDA is up to and we've got to work out a plan to free the Ikran people. What did they tell you about the situation here and how long have you been here?"

"They told us that Hell's Gate is under hostile takeover from the natives," Tom answered readily. "We're supposed to liberate it and get everything back in order. We've been here for a little over three months. I don't suppose it's true that the Na'vi are holding the people at Hell's Gate hostage, is it?"

Jake shook his head grimly. "What was your first clue?"

"Seeing the way the Ikran hostages were treated," muttered Tom with a sidelong glance at Tanhi. "And unless they didn't know better, they lied to me about you when I woke up from cryo. If they'll tell a guy his twin brother shot himself in the head—"

"Whoa," Jake interrupted, blinking. "They said I killed myself?"

"Yes. I barely had a chance to finish waking up from cryo when they told me." Tom swallowed and shut his eyes. "They told me you were found in your apartment by your landlord, dead in your wheelchair. It supposedly happened while I was on route here so I didn't feel it happen. Now I know why it just felt so...wrong to me."

"Besides the fact that I'd never off myself like that?" Jake said dryly.

Tom looked at him searchingly. "You really didn't talk about what happened in Venezuela when I tried to ask you about it, Jake. A lot of veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress and you lost the use of your legs. Can you blame me for believing them?"

Jake shrugged and looked away. "I guess not. If you think about it, I kind of did kill myself when I passed through the eye of Eywa and left my old body behind."

Tom's brows drew down. "You did what, now?"

"Later," Jake sighed regretfully. "We're drifting off the subject. Why did the RDA decide to round up the Ikran clan?"

"They caught one of them too close to the base," explained Tom. "When they realized that their village wasn't very far away, they declared them a threat to the operation. I argued against imprisoning them but the company and the military were determined to keep the new compound a secret. If the Ikran clan spread the word it would reach Hell's Gate eventually and the element of surprise would be gone."

"Where is the mothership at now?"

Tom looked up at the darkened, starry sky toward the giant gaseous planet that Pandora orbited around. "It's on the other side of Polyphemus, where the satellite scanners can't detect it. They've been jamming the frequency when the Valkyrie shuttles come and go from the ISV to Pandora, so that Hell's Gate won't know they're here."

"Just like Max said," Norm murmured in an impressed tone.

"Max?" Repeated Tom. "Are you talking about Dr. Max Patel?"

Norm nodded and put an arm around Ni'nat. "Yeah. He's at Hell's Gate now. The base hasn't been taken over by the Na'vi. The people there were invited to stay and they work with the clans now."

Tom looked from Norm to Jake, who nodded in confirmation. "That's right, Tommy. There's a lot you weren't told. We'll get to that in a little while. I need to know how many operatives are in that compound and if there are any weaknesses in the perimeter that we could use to our advantage. We've got to free the Ikran people from there before we organize any kind of attack against these new invaders."

"Well, I wouldn't recommend going in there with guns blazing," Tom advised, "or bows twanging, to be more accurate."

"Why the hell not?" Jake asked. He was spoiling for a fight, now. The depth of the lies he and Tommy had been told about each other, about the company and about Pandora made his blood boil with anger.

"Because of the hostages, Jake." Tom said. "They've got kids held separate in there. What do you think they'll do if a hoard of Na'vi attack? I've seen what these operatives are willing to do in the name of their 'duty' and they wouldn't hesitate to put those prisoners under the knife to force you to back off."

Jake winced. "Yeah, you've got a good point. Besides, I wouldn't want any Ikran people to get caught in friendly fire. So what we need is a sting operation or a distraction to get those people out of there, first." He considered his brother thoughtfully, his gaze sweeping his outfit. A slow smile curved his lips as he began to formulate an idea.

"As far as they know, you're still on their side right?"

"How do you know I'm not?" Tom was smiling faintly.

"Because you've got morals and now you know some of the shit they're capable of."

Tom sighed. "You've got me. Yeah, I suppose they think I'm still on their side, but I'm going to have trouble explaining my disappearance and the lack of a clan leader's body. I took her out under the guise of execution and I disguised myself as a soldier to pull it off. Private Harris is going to wake up and let them know he was knocked out and robbed of his ID tags and body armor. Phelps is an asshole but he's not a complete idiot. He'll probably put two and two together and put me under arrest for aiding a prisoner the minute I set foot back in there."

Jake's smile didn't fade. "You won't be the one going back in there, Tommy."

They made plans to go to Hell's Gate in the morning to notify the team there of what was going on and perhaps get a little help from them in the effort to free the Ikran people. The visiting clan leaders agreed to lend their aid, though there wasn't time to bring their own warriors to help with the rescue. After establishing that Jake would work from the inside to get the hostages out safely, introductions were finally made. Tom spoke the language as if he was born a Na'vi and he easily conversed with Jake's family and clan members as they made their rounds. Jake saved the best for last, of course. He grinned proudly when his brother openly admired Neytiri's beauty.

"Jake, you did well for yourself," Tom complimented with a smile. "If you don't mind my saying so," he added politely to Neytiri.

She smiled back at him. "I was not expecting Jake's brother to look so much like him."

"It's not that shocking," chuckled Jake.

"Actually, the birth of twins is extremely rare amongst the Na'vi," Tom informed him. "And identical twins are even more of a rarity, am I right?"

Next to Neytiri, Mo'at nodded. "That is correct. When twins are born to most Na'vi, they are usually male and female. It has been generations since our clan has seen the birth of twins like yourself and Jakesully."

Tom looked curiously at the baby in Neytiri's arms. "This is my nephew?"

She nodded and after a moment's hesitation, she offered the infant to him. Tom took his namesake carefully and cradled him in his arms, smiling down at him. "He's got our nose. What did you name him?"

"Tommy," Jake answered, averting his eyes.

Tom stared at him for a moment before returning his attention to the baby. "I don't know what to say, Jake."

"Well, I thought you were dead," Jake excused, clearing his throat. Dammit, that lump was coming back. It felt like his adam's apple had grown three sizes and he took a deep breath to regain control of his emotions.

Tommy chuckled but there was a strained quality to it. "So I'm worth more dead than alive?"

Jake shook his head. "Don't be stupid."

For a moment, the reunited twins eyes met and they silently communicated brotherly warmth between them. Tom relinquished his nephew back to Neytiri and Jake suggested they have something to eat.

"I want to find out exactly what went on with you," Jake said.

"Ditto," agreed Tom. "Starting with how the hell you ended up in the Avatar program."

Tom tried to ignore the open stares that he and Jake got from the Omaticaya. They sat together at the fire pit with Neytiri, E'quath, Norm and Ni'nat as they ate and with the help of his mate and companions, Jake explained how he got recruited for the Avatar program. He went on to explain the events that occurred between then and now, describing everything in detail—including the incident with the thanator that nearly cost him his legs again.

"That's amazing," Tom said truthfully. "So you came all the way here because you thought I was dead. You said you saw the body. Did you actually see a bullet-hole anywhere?"

Jake grimaced. "Don't you think it's kind of grim to sit here asking about bullet-holes in your own corpse?"

"I just want to know if they shot me after they finished transferring my conscience into the new avatar," Tom shrugged.

"No, I didn't see a bullet-hole," Jake muttered. "I didn't have any reason to think they were lying to me at the time and I wasn't in the mood to do an inspection. Now, let's hear your story Tommy."

Norm nodded eagerly. "I want to know what happened with you too. You had to have undergone the transference before they notified Jake about your 'death', right?"

"That's right. Dr. Owens contacted me a couple of weeks before we were due to ship out and he said something happened to my avatar embryo. He told me they would clone another one for me but the conditions were different. They were working on an improved procedure that would allow the avatar operator to survive on both Earth and Pandora foods and breathe both atmospheres. The catch was that the process would probably make my original body go brain dead, so there was no going back. If I took the offer and if it worked out, they planned to move on and use the same process on military operatives and scientists."

"And you agreed to do it?" Jake was staring at him incredulously and so was Norm.

"You did the exact same thing," Tom pointed out. "The process might have taken place under a tree instead of in a lab but you two don't have any room to talk about crazy risks."

Norm and Jake exchanged a wry look between them. "All right, you win that one," Jake conceded. "So you went for it right away?"

"No." Tom shook his head. "I had to take a few days to think about it. I knew there was a chance I wouldn't make it into the avatar embryo and that would be all she wrote for me. I also knew I'd be in a coma until my avatar finished maturing and we reached Pandora. Even so, I figured if my brother could risk his life for something he believed in, I could do it too."

He smiled at his older twin, who looked uncomfortable. "I almost called you after I gave Dr. Owens my answer, Jake. I wanted to talk to you one more time, in case I didn't make it. I was afraid I'd give something away if I tried though. I spoke to Norm the day before I went in for the procedure and after that, I woke up in this body on the ISV. That was when they told me they got word from Earth that you died, Jake."

"So you're the one they tested the process on first," Norm said thoughtfully. He explained Sebastian's situation briefly and Tom grimaced. At least he had a choice in the matter. They didn't even inform Sebastian of their intentions with him. "That's why you sounded so on edge the last time I talked to you." Norm finished in satisfaction, obviously relieved to solve the mystery.

"This whole thing was a setup," Tom sighed tiredly. "They convinced both of us that the other was dead and for what...some minerals under the ground. From what you've told me, this Quaritch guy did all of this behind the scenes and as much as I hate to think of Dr. Owens being in on it, he might have saved my ass by asking me to volunteer for the new process. Does this mean I'm officially dead in Earth records?"

"Probably," Jake said. "None of the people traveling with you heard anything about what happened here while you were on route?"

"I have a feeling some of the higher ranking people in the military branch knew about it," Tom answered thoughtfully. "But the rest of them? No. We were told that Hell's Gate and the people there were under enemy control, like I said earlier. The compound they're using now was partially built when we landed but the RDA abandoned construction when the conflict started here. The plan was to establish a temporary base that could serve our needs until Hell's Gate could be taken back. We weren't told the details about the war between your people and the RDA and your name never came up."

"They really covered their ass." Jake frowned. "They only told most of you what they needed you to know to do your 'jobs'. I'm willing to bet you wouldn't be the only one on that base to have second thoughts if the whole truth came out."

"You'd probably win that bet," agreed Tom. "I can think of about a dozen people in both the science and military departments that would give the RDA the proverbial finger if they knew half of the things you've told me."

"That's really not that many," Norm grumbled.

"Hey, it's better than nothing," Jake insisted. "Maybe once we get the hostages out of that place we can take prisoners and open their eyes to the truth."

Norm shrugged and took a drink from his wooden cup. "I guess if anybody could convince them, it's you." He absently stroked Ni'nat's hair as she laid her head against his shoulder and he and Jake shared a little smile between them.

"I'm surprised you two get along so well," Tom observed. "I would have thought you would clash too much, being polar opposites."

"We didn't get along that well at first," Norm admitted while Jake grinned. "He pissed me off, in fact."

Neytiri chuckled. "You are not alone in that."

"Hey, I made you laugh pretty early in the relationship," Jake defended, faking a glower at his mate.

"That is because you were stupid."

Norm choked on his drink and Tom and Ni'nat burst into laughter. E'quath chuckled softly in his reserved way.

"She doesn't candy-coat it, does she?" Tom said when he regained control of his mirth.

"No, she doesn't." Jake was giving his grinning mate a warning look but his eyes twinkled with amusement. "If I'm so stupid, why did you go for me?"

Neytiri shrugged and bounced little Tommy to quiet him as he started to fuss. "As I have told you before, you are pleasant on the eyes, my Jake. Charming too, in a boy-like way."

"I'd hate to be charming in a girl-like way," he quipped, grinning. "Well there you have it, Tommy got all the brains and I got all the looks."

"We're identical twins," reminded Tom with a smirk.

"Yeah, but I've got more character."

"Like a cartoon? I agree." Tom pressed his lips together to control a smile. "So what made you start liking this jarhead, Norm?"

Norm regarded Jake thoughtfully. "I don't know. He just sort of grows on you after a while."

"You mean like a fungus."

"Exactly!" Norm snapped his fingers and grinned.

Jake gave both of them a sour look as they laughed at his expense. "You know, I don't have to take this abuse." He stood up and walked away, leaving his companions to stare after him uncertainly.

"I think we really hurt his feelings," Norm said with a sobering expression.

"Jake?" Tom scoffed. "Trust me, it takes more than a little teasing to hurt his feelings. You have to do something really awful to him to make him hold a grudge."

Norm frowned and lowered his gaze. "Like fake his brother's death," he sighed. He raised his eyes again and looked at Tom seriously. "I'm really thrilled that you're alive, Tom. Not just because you and I are friends, but for Jake, too."

Neytiri nodded and Ni'nat rubbed Norm's knee. Tom felt a little self-conscious as his eyes stung warningly and he looked away. "No more thrilled than I am to see Jake alive again. I just hope he stays that way. I've got to tell you Norm, I'm not sure about this plan of his to infiltrate the base on his own."

"Well, he won't be on his own," Norm said. "We're going to be ready to attack as soon as he gives a signal. All he has to do is get the hostages to a safe place in there so that we can move in and I've seen him in action. He's pretty amazing...just don't tell him I said that or he might get cocky and end up paralyzed again."

"He has some really bum luck with that," sighed Tom.

First with the bullet in his spine, then with the thanator. Jake was lucky to be walking now. He had always been like that, though. A daredevil from the beginning, Jake had more close calls in his life than Tom could reasonably count. He seemed to have almost supernatural luck. Tom was about to comment on that when he felt someone pull his queue to one side from behind, followed by the feeling of something crawling on the back of his neck.

"Shit," Tom barked as he jumped up and started swatting at his neck while twirling around in a circle.

Norm was too distracted by the sight of Tom's abrupt chicken dance to notice Jake move around behind him and he too ended up frantically patting at himself and spinning in circles. People stared at the spectacle and several of them laughed as a pair of large but harmless beetles hit the mossy floor. Jake stood grinning at his two victims.

"You two shriek like little girls."

Tom stopped slapping at his shirt and he looked down at the beetle. Its shell was lit up as and it began to crawl away with its fellow, looking oddly indignant over being used in the prank. Norm took a moment longer to calm down and his lovely mate called out to him in a voice that shook with laughter. He stopped at the sound of her voice and he glared at Jake.

"See, I told you he wasn't offended," Tom said.

"I don't get mad," Jake smirked. "I get even."

"Well that was juvenile," Norm grumbled.

"Hey, you guys were the ones who compared me to Athlete's foot."

"What about Neytiri? She was picking on you too and you didn't put a bug on her back." Norm pointed at the young mother.

"That's because she's holding our son," Jake said dryly. "And she probably would have just reached up and brushed it off without a glance anyhow. I'll get her back another way." He winked at her meaningfully and she bit her lower lip and grinned sharply.

Tom sobered a little as he sat back down beside Neytiri and watched his brother argue back and forth with his former classmate. Tom shared Jake's joy over their reunion but he also worried that he would get reckless when they attempted the rescue tomorrow.

"Jake," Tom called in a serious voice.

The older twin immediately detected the anxiety in his voice and he stopped bantering with Norm to face Tom. "What?"

"You've said you plan on infiltrating the base as me," Tom answered, "but you didn't specify the plan on how to get those people through the fence without casualties."

"That's where the rest of you come in," Jake said. He looked from Tom to Neytiri and he smiled a little. "I trust you all to come up with some way to get that fence down for us."

His words didn't boost Tom's confidence. "You've only been alive to me again for a few hours, Jake. Don't make that change when we go on this mission."

Jake's expression softened and Neytiri lowered her gaze to the infant in her arms, revealing that she too had her reservations about the plan. Jake walked over to the two of them and he knelt in front of them.

"What I need the most from both of you is a clear head," he said in a low, firm voice. "Neytiri, you need to keep that focus of yours that makes you so damned stubborn and deadly. Tommy, you need to use your creativity and brainpower, just like you always do. I don't want either of you going into this distracted because then I'll be distracted too, worrying about whether you're out there paying attention or not."

"And you just expect us not to worry about you?" Tom's jaw tensed. "You're not a one-man army, Jake."

"You're right," agreed the other male. "I'm not a one-man army and that's why it's so important for you to concentrate on your part in this, instead of thinking about what I'm doing. If you think about it, I've got the easy part in this."

"Easy?" Norm repeated from behind the kneeling chieftain when he overheard. "How is what you're going to be doing in any way easy, Jake?"

Tom almost laughed as his brother visibly struggled to come up with an answer to that question. "There won't be anything easy about it," he answered for him, smirking at Jake when he looked annoyed. "He's only being cavalier about it to make us feel better."

"You've got a really big mouth, Tommy," growled Jake.

-To be continued


Atokirina = Seeds of the great tree. Sacred to the Na'vi people.

Chapter Text

The warriors chosen to participate in the liberation attempt remained at Hometree while Jake, Tom and Norm went to Hell's Gate to report the situation and gather reinforcements. They traveled in the dark hours of the morning and arrived at the base at mid-morning. The guards couldn't mask their surprise and confusion when they admitted the party through the gates and saw Tom. Jake didn't offer them an explanation and Tom noticed the little smirk on his face as they walked through the compound and got more reactions of shock or confusion from colonists.

"You're enjoying this," Tom accused out the corner of his mouth.

"Just a little," Jake admitted.

Norm and Jake paused in the lobby of the lab building to equip an avatar exopack each, leaving Tom feeling a little uncomfortable. His companions seemed to be used to wearing the breathing filters, so he dismissed his self-conscious discomfort. They entered the oxygenated sector and Jake gave him a worried look when Tom took his first breath and choked a little. Tom held out a hand to indicate he was okay but his brother clapped him on the back anyway and Norm stopped in concern as well.

"I'm all right," Tom assured them when the discomfort faded and he could breathe more easily. "It's just uncomfortable at first—like taking a lung-full of smoke."

"Yeah, I've experienced it before," Jake said with a grimace. "There's no rule that says you can't use one of these yourself, Tommy. I know you can breathe both kinds of air but you don't have to torture yourself."

Tom shook his head. "No thanks. I had a hard enough time getting used to that damned headgear they told us to wear with our uniforms. I hate having my face covered up."

"Can't say I blame you." Jake shrugged.

"I'll catch up with you in a little while," Norm said. "I want to check the map scanners and see if there are any flux readings we can take advantage of around that compound."

"Good idea, Norm," Jake approved. "We'll take care of filling everyone in on what's happening."

They parted ways and Jake showed Tom around as they walked through the lab building. "Max takes care of coordinating meetings," Jake explained. "It's easier just to go to him first because he's not constantly coming and going from the base like the militia, construction workers and avatar teams. They've got leaders in every department but Max keeps it all organized."

They passed through the doors leading into the hallway of the main research area and the blond woman behind the communications desk glanced up at the twins. Her eyes practically bugged out and she was so startled that she squeaked and dropped her holographic tablet on the floor. Thankfully, it was versatile and lightweight so the fall didn't damage it but she looked as though she was about to join it on the floor.

"Hey Rita," greeted Jake casually.

One of the maintenance people happened by at that moment, pushing a floor sweeper. When he saw Jake he started to greet him, but then he saw his brother and he stared. His stopped paying attention to where he was putting his feet and he tripped over the sweeper. Jake blurted a laugh but he hurried to the man's side to help him up, while Tom went around behind the desk to retrieve Rita's tablet for her.

"Hi," Tom greeted, offering the object to Rita.

She took it mechanically. "Th-thank you." She was staring at him with blank astonishment and her eyes flicked to Jake as if assuring herself that he was still there.

"I'm Jake's brother," Tom explained, guessing why the poor female was so befuddled.

"Oh." She still had a confused look on her face.

"His twin brother," Tom elaborated.

"Oh." Her expression changed from confused to alarmed. "Oh?"

Tom smiled without humor, guessing why she was looking at him as if he were a ghost. "I'm not dead," he supplied helpfully. "There was a misunderstanding."

"Oh." She shook herself out of it and gave a nervous chuckle. "I...I'm sorry. I had no idea. You must be like our Sebastian, since you're breathing fine in here without an exopack."

"That's right." Tom was actually interested in meeting Sebastian Thomas, after hearing about him. The error that caused his avatar body to stop growing before reaching full size intrigued him and even more interesting was the fact that it reached an adult state.

"Jake!" Came a shout from the far end of the corridor, "I'm glad you're here, we've been trying to reach you! There's something you've got to know!" Max Patel was jogging toward Jake, who had just finished helping the maintenance man right himself.

"Damn, there's a couple of things I need to tell you too, but you go first," Jake said.

"It's about your brother," Max said urgently when he came to a stop before Jake. "Sebastian cracked one of Quaritch's confidential files and discovered that Tom Sully is still alive! They used the new Avatar process on him and sent him out with the team of specialized—"

"Hold up," Jake interrupted with a stalling gesture. "I'm already way ahead of you." He pointed at Tom, who was coming around from behind the desk.

Max followed the gesture with his eyes and he gave a visible start when he saw Tom. His dark eyes were wide behind his glasses as the younger Sully twin approached him with a reserved smile.

"Dr. Patel," Tom greeted in a calming voice. "I was looking forward to working with you but things got a little...chaotic. I hope you'll still have me on your team."

Max took Tom's offered hand in his smaller one and shook it, his eyes sweeping the tall, Na'vi form with amazement. "I knew you two were identical but this is just...shocking." He shook himself out of it. "We'd all be thrilled to have you on the team, Dr. Sully. We've got plenty of sleeping quarters available and we can get you set up right away."

"Thank you," Tom said gratefully. "But before we get started with any of that, we have to liberate the Ikran clan."

Max looked confused and Jake took up where Tom left off. "You were right about everything, Max. The transport that was due to come in got here about three months ago and they've set up a compound near the Eastern Sea. Tommy was with them and he's got Intel on them. They've enslaved the Ikran clan and we're organizing a rescue operation to free them. We need some help from you guys, if you can give it."

"Wait, wait," Max said, "When you say I was right about 'everything', are you talking about the satellite interference?"

"Yes," answered Tom. "The tech crew scrambled the orbiting satellite signals before the ISV got into range and they piloted the ship around to the other side of Polyphemus, to keep you from detecting them. You've probably noticed occasional glitches in the interstellar tracking system over the past few months. They've been jamming the transmissions so that you won't pick it up on radar when they send shuttles to and from the moon's surface and the ship."

"If they're here already, then why haven't they tried to take back this base yet?"

"They're waiting for the right moment," answered Jake.

"And when will that be?" Max looked at Tom questioningly.

"I wish I knew," Tom sighed. "That's military Intel, if they've even settled on a deployment date."

"The good news is that if we can get the hostages out of there and safely away, we can capture their base," Jake murmured. "Unless they've got somewhere else on this moon where they could land and set up camp, that should stall their plans to move in on Hell's Gate. We need your help clearing out the prisoners first, though."

"You've got it," Max agreed. "Trudy should be getting back soon and I'll have her select some militia teams to go with you. I hope you're taking their radar into consideration though, Jake. Unless there's a flux vortex near this new compound to interfere with their signals, they'll detect you before you can move in."

"Norm's checking that out now," Jake assured him. "I doubt they'd set up a base near a flux, though. They'd pick a location that gives them clear reading for perimeter defense."

"Then how are you going to advance?" Max asked him worriedly. "It's going to be a bloodbath if they've got functional targeting systems and they'll have the defensive advantage. Not to mention, if they figure out that you're trying to rescue their prisoners they might use that against you."

"Don't worry," Jake assured him. "I'm going in first to infiltrate and get the hostages out of the line of fire before a real fight starts."

"But what's your plan of attack if you manage to do that?" demanded Max. "And how are you going to sneak in there to 'infiltrate' alone in the first place?"

Tom tried not to let his reservations show on his face when Jake glanced at him. "Tommy here came down with them. I'm going to take advantage of that and go in as him. The tricky part is going to be getting the prisoners out of there safely, but I'm counting on Tommy and the others to come up with a distraction for me."

Max looked at Tom. "What kind of distraction?"

"I have no idea yet," admitted Tom uncomfortably.

"You'll come up with something," Jake said with a grin. "You always do."

"What do you think I can come up with to get past their tracking system?" Tom asked irritably. "You're putting an awful lot of faith in me, Jake."

"Like I said; you'll come up with something and with Norm and the others helping, I'm not concerned. You'll just have to stay out of range of their radar until I give the signal."

"You haven't even told me what 'the signal' is going to be," Tom pointed out, crossing his arms over his chest. "What are we supposed to do, guess?"

Jake bit his lip and frowned. "I'll find a flare gun or something, since I won't be able to contact you all through a transmitter."

"And what if you can't find one?" Tom pressed.

"Then I'll climb on the fence and moon you," Jake snapped. "Just trust me, Tommy. I'll make sure it's a clear sign, all right?"

Tom sighed and shared an apprehensive look with Max.

"Look," Jake said, "We can come up with a big, elaborate plan but the truth is we don't have the time to do it—not until after we've liberated the Ikran people. Even with the most solid plan, you usually have to improvise at some point anyhow. Tommy, I need you to draw me a map and show me what's what in there. It doesn't have to be anything elaborate—I just need to know where the buildings are located and where the guards are usually stationed around the perimeter. Can you do that for me?"

"Sure," Tom nodded.

"Good. Max, I need you to get in touch with Trudy and start on putting those teams together as fast as possible. In the meantime Tommy needs a change of clothes, since I'll be wearing his uniform to do this."

Tom glanced down at his soiled attire with a frown. It was ripped in a couple of places from his struggles the night before. "I should probably wash these, before you change into them."

Jake gave him an odd look. "Don't you think they'll be a little suspicious when 'you' show up again with a freshly washed uniform? That's going to look suspicious when you're supposed to have spent the night knocked unconscious in the jungle."

"I see your point," Tom conceded, "but I've been sweating in this, Jake. Do you really want to put it on after me?"

Jake shrugged. "I've gone for weeks without access to a shower, crouched in a foxhole with a bunch of other filthy, sweaty guys and fallen in horseshit before. Wearing my brother's dirty clothes is nothing. Hygiene is going to be the last thing on my mind when we do this."

"Here's to ya." Trudy clinked her beer bottle against Corporal Wilson's as they left the lab kitchen and started down the hall together.

She took a sip and swished it around in her mouth a little before nodding and taking a deeper drink. "Not bad. They're getting better at making the home brewed stuff."

"Yeah, but I could kill for a Budweiser," mumbled the marine before taking another swig from his bottle.

"Pfft, that Clydesdale piss?" Trudy made a face. "Give me a Corona any day."

"Hey, I hear half of that is factory worker piss," countered Wilson.

Trudy shrugged and smirked. "I'd rather drink human pee than horse pee any day, buddy." She took another drink and smacked her lips. "Either way, beer is a nice way to end a mission. As soon as we finish reporting in, I'm going to hit the showers and take a nice, long sleep."

"I hear you," agreed Wilson.

Trudy lifted her bottle to her lips for another drink as they turned down the first hallway to the left. When she saw what was ahead of her she choked on her beer so violently that her companion began to pat her on the back with a worried frown.

"You okay?"

Trudy nodded and as stared at the beer in her hand suspiciously. "What the hell do they put in this beer?"

"Hops, barley...the usual stuff," answered Wilson. "It's all grown in the terran bio-garden, why?"

Trudy pointed with the neck of the bottle at the three men down the hall. "Because either I'm hallucinating, or there's two Jakes standing there talking to Max."

Wilson looked up and he nearly dropped his beer on the floor. "What the hell? S-Sully has a clone?"

"I'm about to find out," Trudy coughed.

"I'm going to go lay down," Wilson decided aloud.

Trudy ignored him, focused on the Jake in his regular Na'vi non-clothing and the other Jake, wearing a delightfully snug, sharp-looking uniform of some kind of black stretchy material. Both of them absently swished their tails as they conversed in low voices with Max. None of them had noticed the wide-eyed brunette approaching them at a brisk pace.

"What the hell's going on here?"

The Jake in the black uniform gave a start and turned to look down at her with wide eyes. The Jake in the loincloth swore under his breath and Max jumped a little.

"You scared the hell out of me," Loincloth Jake muttered.

"Yeah, I'm just full of surprises," Trudy shot back, flicking her gaze between the identical Na'vi males.

"Uh, Trudy...this is Tom Sully," Max announced as he remembered his manners, gesturing at the black-clad Na'vi. "Tom, meet Trudy Chacón. She's one of our pilots."

"You mean the Tom Sully who's supposed to be dead?" Trudy studied Jake's resurrected twin with raised eyebrows and she was proud of herself for keeping relatively calm. "I didn't know necromancy was part of the Na'vi mysticism."

"It was all a scam," Jake said. With Tommy's help, he gave her a summary of what happened.

"Wow," Trudy said when they finished explaining. "That Quaritch was a real piece of work. The thing that gets me is what he planned to do if you two ever ran into each other."

Tom's eyebrows hedged. "Dr. Patel, you mentioned a file, earlier. What sort of file was it?"

"It was a video communication addressed to Quaritch, from a Dr. Owens," answered Max. "Apparently, he was put to the task of arranging to get you 'out of the way' for Quaritch's purposes."

Tom visibly paled. "Dr. Owens was the one who approached me to test out the new procedure." He lowered his gaze in thought, his eyes going blank as he considered the information. "It makes me wonder now, whether he offered me the chance to beta the procedure because it didn't matter if I died, or if he did it to try and save my life."

"I saw the video log," Max said, "and I got the strong impression that it was the latter, Tom. If you like, I can show it to you and you can judge for yourself. It won't take long."

Tom looked at Jake. "I think we should both see it."

Trudy felt a little sorry for the guy. Tom looked like he'd been punched in the gut and she guessed that he must have trusted the doctor responsible for convincing him to test the experiment.

"When did you guys find this file?" Trudy asked Max.

"Sebastian cracked it last night," answered the bio-engineer. "I would have contacted you and told you about it but you were in a flux area. I couldn't get through."

"No biggie," she said with a shrug. "It was a trip to walk in here and see two Jakes though. Woke me right up."

"...The catch is that Tom Sully's death will be in appearance only, unless something goes wrong," Dr. Owens said to the camera. "I won't deliberately kill a man to make your job easier. Instead, I've told him that his original avatar is faulty and I've arranged for a new avatar to be engineered for him. This is going to benefit all of us, if it goes well. Dr. Sully will be the first to test out the changes in the improved avatar procedure and if it succeeds, we'll begin the process with the other candidates and you'll have your special forces. Tom Sully will be dead by all appearances and I'll arrange to make it official on Earth. His human body will be left behind but his consciousness will survive, inside of his new avatar.

"When you receive this message, you'll have already arrived in Pandora and Jake Sully should be on his way to arrive as well. If this process succeeds, you should have between seven months to a year to take advantage of Jake Sully's situation and have him rotated back to Earth before his brother arrives. You can either deal with the consequences or take steps to avoid them finding out the truth. I suggest the latter, for the sake of your career. This is the last you'll ever hear from me. Good luck."

The video went black and stopped, leaving Tom, Jake, Trudy and Max in uncomfortable silence.

"Well," Jake finally muttered, "that explains why he was in such a hurry to send me back to Earth. I thought he just figured out that I wasn't resolved in the mission anymore but now..." He trailed off and pressed his lips together.

"He didn't want us to run into each other," Tom finished for him, wearing an equally grim expression. "It would have raised complications that he didn't have time to deal with and having you killed would have drawn attention his way that he didn't want."

"So this Owens character was just caught in a situation he couldn't get out of," Trudy reasoned.

Tom nodded. "I get the feeling that he couldn't just say 'no'. He did the only thing he could to fulfill his part of the bargain without having me killed. If I hadn't gone along with his proposal to test the new procedure, I probably really would have ended up dead with a bullet in my back."

"There's nothing we can do about it now," sighed Jake. "Unless you guys find more information about other people involved in it, we might as well just let it go and move on. We're both alive and that's all that matters."

"The nearest flux vortex is three miles away from the compound," Norm said as he operated the holographic map to scan over the area. He pointed out the approximate location of the enemy base according to the coordinates given to him by Tom. "We aren't going to be able to rely on flux interference to hide our numbers."

Jake nodded, having expected as much despite his hopes. He was dressed in Tom's uniform and he covertly envied his brother for being fresh out of the shower in a clean change of clothes. Tom was wearing a pair of loose-fitting cargo pants and a navy crew shirt, given to him by the avatar team.

"Then you guys are just going to have to hang far enough back to stay out of radar range, until I've got the hostages ready to make a run for it," Jake said. "We don't have a choice but to hit them hard and fast, before they have time to set up a major defense and get their Amp suits on. Tom says they've got five gunships in the hangar there and two of them were damaged when he left. That means we could have at least three of them to worry about if we give them time to take off."

Jake looked around at the assembly, meeting his companion's eyes one at a time. "If they get those gunships in the air I want you all to focus on evasion. Their targeting systems are going to be fully functional. Ground teams, you seek cover fast and the air teams shouldn't engage enemy flyers one-on-one. Do you know what I mean when I say 'tag team'?"

"Yeah, I get it," Trudy answered. "Hit and run, keep away. Keep 'em confused and don't get targeted."

"Exactly," Jake approved. "Make sure the rest of the pilots get the memo before we head out." He turned his attention to his brother to ask if he had anything else to add and he noticed a familiar expression of calculation on Tom's face. "What's up, Tommy?"

Tom absently took a bite of the carrot-like root he was snacking on before pointing it in the direction of the map. "What if we created one?"

Blank stares were his response from the others. Knowing his twin had a penchant for thinking out loud without fully elaborating, Jake was patient. "Created one what?"

"A flux vortex," answered Tom as if it was obvious. He chewed the food in his mouth and swallowed. "You have some unobtanium stored on this base for processing, right?"

"Yes, we do," answered Max with a dawning expression of comprehension. "We keep it sealed in an insulated warehouse so that it won't—"

"—Interfere with the navigation and radar equipment," finished Tom with a nod. His golden eyes remained narrowed thoughtfully on the holographic map. "We could use it to generate our own magnetic field to scramble their radar. It doesn't have to be that powerful—only strong enough to hide our numbers and give us the advantage of surprise. They've been doing it to you but I don't think they'd expect to get a taste of their own medicine so soon."

"I like that idea," Norm approved.

Tom smiled. "You have an amplifying processor, don't you? A small one that could fit in a gunship or Samson?"

Max nodded enthusiastically. "We do! Why didn't I think of that?"

Jake grinned broadly at his brother and wrapped an arm around his neck for a brief, rough hug. "Is this guy great, or what?"

"Guess that takes care of at least part of the stealth problem," Trudy said with a grin at Tom. "Looks like the Sully boys make a pretty good team, between military tactics and science smarts."

Tom shrugged modestly. "So do you think you guys can use that idea?"

"There's a damned good chance we can," agreed Max. We'll get started on loading up what we need now."

"Good. We need to be ready to head out as soon as we can" Jake said. "We want to hit them at night, for more cover. If I can't get the ball rolling before dawn, we'll have to wait until tomorrow night."

"Where are you going to keep the schematic I drew for you?" Tom asked him. "They're probably going to arrest you right away for questioning, if they don't put you in the brig. That means they're going to search you and if they find a schematic on you, it's going to raise more suspicions. Remember Jake, some of these guys probably know what really went on before we got here and they'd know that you're still alive, too."

"Don't worry." Jake tapped his temple. "I've got it all in here. It's memorized."

"Think you could memorize a few medical terms too, while you're at it?" Tom smirked but his eyes were serious. "You've got to act like you're me."

"I think I know my own brother well enough to pull that off," Jake said dryly, "but I guess cramming a little nerd-speak in there wouldn't hurt."

"Let's get a move-on," Max suggested. He leaned toward Trudy and muttered, "I need to talk to you for a minute."

When they were in Max's office, Trudy took her usual seat on his desk and regarded him curiously. "What's up?" She knew him well enough by now to sense the underlying tension he hid from public detection.

"We've got to keep an eye on Tom Sully," answered the scientist unhappily.

Trudy started to object, but then she changed her mind and nodded reluctantly. "I guess it wouldn't hurt."

"I didn't want to say anything in front of Jake," explained Max. "He's so happy to see his brother alive and believe me, there's nothing I'd like more than to work with Tom. He's a brilliant scientist and logically, I've got no reason to be suspicious. He didn't come seeking us out, after all. He helped the leader of the Ikran clan and Jake's people jumped him and abducted him. We have all the details explaining his survival and having been through a change of heart ourselves, we can't just assume he's being insincere. I just don't want to take any chances. We don't know what he's been told behind the scenes or what else they might have done to him in the process of his avatar transference."

"And since he wasn't exactly taken away from that base of his own free will, he could be playing us until he has an opportunity to get away," Trudy theorized. "I don't think it's likely since he risked his own butt to save a Na'vi's life but even the 'bad guys' can have a limit to how much abuse they can watch before their morals kick in."

She reached out and patted him on the shoulder. "Don't feel bad, Max. We don't know this guy from Adam yet and we've all been through too much shit to let his family ties pull wool over our eyes. If he's as smart as everybody says, it would be a dumb idea to rule him out as a spy. I'll stay on my toes."

They traveled back to Hometree an hour later, with two Scorpion gunships, three Samsons and one standard cargo tiltrotor to carry extra ground troops. Tom road in the cockpit with Trudy and as they flew along with the procession, she cut off the speaker link to the cargo area so she could have a private word with him.

"So, you don't have a problem with switching sides so fast?" Max would be pissed at her for being so obvious but she had the feeling that even if she tried to be subtle about it, Tom would pick up on her suspicion. Besides, something didn't feel right about playing mind games with Jake's twin.

Tom frowned at her sidelong. "My twin brother is on this 'side' and the RDA is lying to Earth. People working for the company tried to have me killed. I don't think I'm being too hasty."

"Yeah but you're just jumping in," Trudy argued. "I'd be testing the waters first if it were me."

"How do you know I'm not 'testing the waters'?"

Trudy blew a little bubble with her gum and she popped it before answering. "I don't know a damned thing about you. That's why I'm clearing the air now. What's your angle, Sully?"

He smirked at her and she smirked right back.

"Not a very subtle person, are you?"

Trudy shrugged. "You might be surprised. I can bullshit with the best of them if I've got to but seeing as you're Jake's brother, I'd rather get straight to the point. If you're on Earth's side then you might as well let me know now. You've got as much right to pick your loyalties as we do and I'll treat you fairly."

"Meaning you'll make it a clean death," Tom guessed.

"We don't operate like that," Trudy insisted. "You'll be held with the rest of the RDA and sent back home with the others. We're not like your buddies. We only kill when we've got to."

He studied her shrewdly for a moment before nodding. "All right, you want the plain, unadorned truth? Fine. I am on Earth's side."

Trudy felt unreasonably disappointed. "Damn shame," she muttered.

"Let me finish," he said sternly. "The RDA people aren't my 'buddies', as you put it. I said I'm on Earth's side, not theirs. By now, Earth could have probably come up with a terran alternative to unobtanium if the RDA wasn't doing everything in their power to suppress development. They stand to make too much money off the colonization of this world and the exploitation of its resources. The rest of Earth isn't to blame for what the RDA has been doing here. I traded my human body for one that can function better on Pandora, but the people on Earth are still my people...and yours."

"I won't argue with that," Trudy conceded. "But we aren't on Earth and the people here are being threatened by Earth government. Ever think of that?"

"If I hadn't, I wouldn't be here now, trying to help free the captive indigenous." Tom sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I'm here to help Earth and Pandora. The medicine we could develop from the native rainforests could benefit the people of both worlds. I came here hoping that some kind of workable solution could be drawn up, without raping Pandora or encroaching on the Na'vi. I know it's probably naive of me to think the Human government will do any better compromising with the natives here than it has in the past with the natives on Earth. Humans have a history of proving they'd rather take than give. We're like greedy children that don't want to share our toys, but think we're entitled to everyone else's."

"What flattering picture," Trudy grumbled. "All right, save the speeches. What you're saying in a nutshell is that you're here to help Humans and Na'vi, right?"

"That's the gist of it, yes."

Trudy studied him with narrowed eyes. She couldn't be sure whether he was keeping something from her or playing head games with her. He had that crooked little grin she was used to seeing on Jake's face. It bothered her in two ways—one of which confused the hell out of her.

"I'm going to be watching you," Trudy informed him in a warning tone.

"You do that," Tom answered pleasantly. "It just means you're being smart. I'd be watching me, too."

Trudy reached into her jacket pocket and produced her pack of gum. She offered it to him wordlessly and he took a stick with polite thanks.

"You know you've just given me an advantage," Tom informed her as he unwrapped the chewy treat and placed it into his mouth.

"Puh, how do you figure?" Trudy unwrapped a fresh stick of gum for herself and subtly expectorated her stale gum into the wrapping before replacing it with the new piece. She chewed the strawberry flavored confectionary into submission as she watched him sidelong.

Tom leaned a little closer to her. "If I'm out to sabotage your operation, I know to watch what I do around you now. If you had kept your suspicion to yourself I wouldn't have any reason to think you were keeping an eye on me and I might slip up."

She turned her head to look at him full on, lifting her shades to peer into his amber eyes. "Or maybe I've just given you a reason to be a little too careful. People slip up when they know they're being watched too, you know."

Tom gave her another one of those familiar, crooked smiles. "That's a hefty gamble you're taking, Lieutenant Chacón."

She didn't have a comeback for that. "Chew your gum."

The visiting chieftains were uneasy about the human allies but Trudy and the others stayed on the outskirts of the village to avoid unnecessary tension. Jake quickly explained that they were there to back them up and with Norm and Tom's help, he also explained the plan concerning the generation of a temporary flux vortex. While they prepared to deploy, Neytiri helped Jake to style his hair like Tom's.

"I don't like this," Neytiri said to Jake as she loosened the braids in his hair and combed them out. "This false vortex they wish to is not natural."

"It's only temporary," Jake assured her. "And it's the only way we can move in on that compound without the enemy seeing us coming too soon." He reached up to rub one of her busy hands with his. "I know how you feel about this kind of thing but we've got to use every advantage we've got. At such short notice, we don't have the numbers we'd need to make a straightforward attack. It's like when we went up against the Sky People to save the Tree of Souls, Neytiri. We need some kind of tactical advantage. Even if we have them outnumbered, they'll still have us out-gunned. I want to keep the casualties to a minimum."

"I understand the need for stealth," she sighed as she began to braid his loose hair in with his queue. "I am just uneasy over manipulating nature to suit our needs. This was your brother's idea?"

She glanced across the den and spotted Tom. He was in a deep conversation with Norm. After her initial happiness for mate faded, she began to feel reservations about his brother. Her Jake had already done harm by the time he allied himself with the Omaticaya and Neytiri wasn't foolish enough to believe Tom wasn't capable of doing the same thing. She sensed that he shared his brother's strong heart, but she was wary of him, deep inside. The Sky People had ways of convincing themselves and others that they were justified in their greed. Jake's eyes had opened after living amongst her people for a while, but Tom was a newcomer.

Perhaps Jake's love for his brother made him too trusting, but Neytiri took heart in Norm's apparent faith in him. While he counted Tom as a friend, she was confident that Norm had already considered the possibility that he wasn't all he appeared to be. Neytiri felt a moment of guilt for trusting Norm's judgment over her own mate's, but there was the matter of blood ties influencing Jake's loyalty. Perhaps her reservations were born of a sense of envy. Jake had his brother back but Neytiri's sister would not be making such a miraculous return from the dead. The bullets of the Sky People made sure of that, the day they raided Dr. Augustine's school.

"You're pulling my hair, beautiful."

Neytiri looked down at her task and bit her lip. She murmured an apology to her mate and stroked his hair before resuming at a more careful pace. When she was finished, she instructed him to stand up so that she could inspect him. Jake got to his feet and Neytiri scanned him from head to toe, secretly admiring the way the black uniform fit his body. She wasn't fond of the Human custom of wearing a barrier of clothes between themselves and the world around them, but she had to admit the outfit was pleasing on Jake. She looked at Tom in the distance to compare and she felt a little uneasy over how alike they were.

"I think that you are ready," Neytiri said. "See what Norm thinks."

Norm and Tom ended their conversation when Jake approached and stood next to his brother. Norm's eyes flicked between the two of them and his mouth went slack for a moment.

"I can hardly tell the two of you apart." Norm's expression changed to slight discomfort. "It's a little unsettling."

Jake glanced sidelong at his brother. "As long as the enemy can't tell us apart, I don't care."

"They won't be able to," Norm assured him, "at least, not until you open your mouth. Try not to use too much slang or crack too many jokes."

"I'll try to contain myself," Jake said dryly. "I can always blame it on a head wound."

Jake frowned suddenly and swore, leaving Neytiri and the others to stare at him. "Speaking of wounds, I don't have a mark on me. Tommy, I need you to smack me around a little to make it look genuine. We can't wait 'till the last minute or the bruises will be too fresh to be convincing."

Tom's jaw dropped and Neytiri couldn't blame him when he shook his head. "I'm not going to beat you up, Jake."

"Why the hell not?" Jake countered. "We used to beat each other up all the time as kids."

"That was then, this is now," Tom grumbled. "Rough-housing for play isn't the same as you standing there letting me lay into you."

Jake sighed and looked to Norm. "What about you? I know there's gotta be some part of you that's always wanted to take a swing at me."

Norm grimaced. "Maybe in the beginning, but not now. I see your point though...I guess I can try. Just don't hold it against me."

Jake shrugged. "Can't hold it against you when I'm the one that asked you to do it. Go ahead, Norm. Give me your best shot."

Norm curled his hands into fists and drew back to strike. Jake braced himself and shut his eyes. Neytiri was on the verge of speaking out against this plan, but she knew her mate was right. The Sky People would never believe he tried to stop Tanhi from escaping if he showed up without a mark to show for his efforts.

Norm pressed his lips together grimly and prepared to strike, but he hesitated at the last minute and wavered. He sighed and dropped his arms to the sides, shaking his head. "Sorry. I can't do it, Jake."

Jake's eyes popped open. "Oh, come on!" He grumbled under his breath and turned around to face Neytiri. "What about you? You'll hit me, right?"

"You still like being smacked around by girls, eh?" Tom smirked.

Jake chuckled. "Only the right ones."

Neytiri shook her head, torn between amusement and remorse. "I cannot strike you, my Jake."

He looked exasperated. "You swat me all the time!"

Neytiri shared a look with Tom without meaning to, empathizing with his earlier statement. "That is only play. Hitting you to cause real harm is not the same thing."

"Well, somebody's got to kick my ass," Jake insisted, looking around the den at the gathered Na'vi. "Unless you want me to beat myself up."

"That would be entertaining to watch," Norm muttered. "There's Tanhi over there. Why don't you ask her? You won't get any of our people to do it, Jake...not even the ones who aren't happy with your status as clan leader. They respect the title too much."

Jake sighed and took his advice. He approached Tanhi and waited for her to finish speaking with the warriors she was conversing with before explaining what he needed. Unsurprisingly, she looked at him as if he were drunk or under the influence of glow worms.

"You wish for me to beat you?"

"That's right," Jake confirmed with a nod. "The Sky People need to believe that Tommy was going to execute you and you escaped. They'll never believe a chieftess like you would escape without causing some injuries. So, will you do it?"

She glanced around at her fellow Na'vi, who looked very interested in the proposition. "You are a strange male, Toruk Makto. I do understand your reasoning, though."

She wasted no more time and before Jake could brace himself, her fist struck him forcibly in the solar plexus. He coughed and staggered under the assault while onlookers stared with curious bewilderment. Some of the Omaticaya made as if to intervene, having no idea why the Ikran chieftess was attacking their leader. Neytiri cried out a sharp command to stop them. Jake wasn't given a chance to recover from the blow. Tanhi struck him in the face, whipping his head to the side. She then swept his legs out from under him with a low kick and while he lay stunned on his back, she kicked him in the side.

"Not there!" Neytiri hollered when the other female looked as though she was about to kick her mate in the groin.

Jake groaned and nodded up at the chieftess as she stopped and gazed down at him questioningly. He sat up, rubbing his smarting jaw. "That's good," he said. "I think you knocked a tooth loose."

"I was only doing as I would have if Tom-ee truly had tried to kill me," excused Tanhi, offering a solicitous hand to Jake. He took it and she helped him up. "You asked me to do it, brother."

"Yeah, I did ask you to do it." Jake worked his jaw before smiling crookedly at Tanhi. "Good work. Now I need someone to hit me over the head."

"What?" Tom exploded. "You're a masochist! How do you think you're going to manage to do this mission if you're beaten to a pulp with a concussion?" He reached up and gingerly probed the bump still present on the back of his own head.

"They've got to believe I was knocked unconscious and left in the forest overnight," Jake explained. "Odds are, they've already had search parties looking for you. I'm going to tell them I woke up in some bushes...or something...but I've got to have a head injury to back my story."

Tanhi shrugged and began to reach for her borrowed bow—probably intending to clock Jake over the head with the sturdy weapon. Norm intervened quickly. "Hold it...I may have a solution for that which won't involve knocking you out. We can make a small cut on your scalp and I can put some plant extract on it that will cause swelling. It's going to itch and sting but it's better than a concussion."

Jake looked a little relieved. "Go for it. I'd rather not take a blow to the head anyway—no matter how thick my skull is.

Norm collected the necessary plant extracts from outside and he sterilized his sharp hunting knife by passing it over the fire burning in the pit. Jake knelt and stoically accepted the stinging cut Norm made in his scalp, while Tom and the other watched. Norm dabbed the blood away from the wound before dripping the plant extract over it. Jake hissed softly and Norm patted him on the shoulder.

"Let's just hope this doesn't give you an infection. I only made a small cut so it should heal easily but this plant extract is going to irritate the tissue. If you start feeling feverish or achy, let me or Tom know."

Jake nodded. "Got it."

He stood up when Norm declared that he was finished and he walked with Neytiri to the basket lying near the natural spiral up. Mo'at was there, watching over little Tommy. Jake knelt beside his son and smiled when the bright, inquisitive eyes looked up at him.

"Be good for your grandmother, kiddo. We'll be back as soon as we can."

The sun had just set when they arrived at the designated area, far enough away from the enemy compound to be out of range of their scanners. The Na'vi alliance waited on the backs of ikrans and direhorses while the human aircrafts landed far enough away to avoid panicking the animals. The Hell's Gate marines moved quickly and efficiently, unloading troops, unobtanium deposits and the amplifying device. Tom and Norm worked together to power the machine up and set the conduit levels.

"This is probably going to deteriorate the mineral to the point of being useless," Tom warned as Jake, Trudy and the others watched what they were doing. "I hate to waste it, but we should be able to put out a strong enough field to scramble their least long enough to move in."

"Don't start loading it yet," Norm cautioned the troops that carried the crates of mineral. "We need to wait for Jake's signal. This is only going to give us a temporary window so we don't want to start too early."

"So what are you going to do to signal us, Jake?" Trudy took her attention off of the device to regard her friend.

"I'm still working on that," he admitted. When she and the others looked at him dubiously, he sighed. "Listen, I can't take anything in there with me except what Tom had on him last night. If I go in there with a flare gun—especially one that isn't regulation—they're going to suspect something. Trust me, I will find a way to signal you and I'll make sure you know it's from me."

They offered no further arguments and Jake approached Neytiri and put his hands on her shoulders. "I'll try to get this done tonight," He murmured, touching his forehead against hers. "Help keep everyone in line for me until I give the signal, okay?"

"I will do my part," she promised.

She closed her eyes and placed her hands on his shoulders in return. They stayed like that for a few moments, lending one another strength. A few feet away, Norm's hand sought out Ni'nat's and the clan and Human forces waited in respectful silence for Jake and Neytiri to finish their moment of affection.

Jake heard Tom heave a soft sigh. He stepped away from Neytiri and gave Tom a concerned look. "You've got to be up for this, Tommy."

"It isn't that," argued the younger twin softly. "I'm ready to do this. I just wish there was another way." His eyes gazed between Jake and Neytiri.

Jake understood. Tommy was afraid that Neytiri could end up as a widow and his namesake could end up without a father. Smiling with confidence, Jake approached his brother. "Remember what I said last night. Just do your part and let me worry about mine, otherwise you're going to slip and you won't be as useful to us."

-To be continued


Toruk Makto = One who rides a Great Leonopteryx, known as "Toruk" or "Last Shadow" to the Na'vi people. Hunters that manage to bond with the animal are revered by the People as great warriors and leaders. Very few have ever succeeded in claiming a Toruk and those who have are legendary to all Na'vi.

Chapter Text

As he approached the compound, Jake spotted the perfect place for an alibi and he made a mental note of its location. He stopped for a moment and made use of a couple of fallen branches to create false tracks leading toward the hole beneath the bole of the tree, attempting to make it look like someone was dragged to the spot. When he was finished doing that, he trudged through the forest and kept an eye out for predators. If something decided to attack him, he'd have no choice but to make a run for it. He thought it best not to bring Tommy's Wasp revolver with him, because it would lend his story credit if he showed up at the gates unarmed. After all, even if she didn't know how to use the weapon, Tanhi would have done the smart thing and taken her captor's weapon away to avoid the risk of him waking up and using it on her.

He made it to the fence perimeter and he studied it before approaching the gate. The dimensions and layout were just as Tommy said they would be. Jake noted the locations of the guards near the fence, for future reference. They took aim at him as he approached and he held his hands up, calling out to identify himself. The gates opened slowly and four avatar guards came out and surrounded him.

"Dr. Sully, we've been searching for you since last night," one of them said in a disciplined, toneless voice. "There are serious allegations against you."

"I'll bet there are," Jake answered dryly. He deliberately staggered a little and shut his eyes. "Can we make this fast? I'm feeling dizzy."

"First I want to hear your side of the story," insisted the lead guard.

"I took the problematic prisoner out into the forest last night, intending to shoot her," Jake spoke as he thought his brother would as he explained. "Your people can probably verify this, but I was disguised as one of the troops when I did it. I think his name was Private Harris?"

"Yes, he reported an ambush to Lieutenant Phelps shortly after you disappeared," answered the guard. "Want to tell us why you did that, Doctor?"

Jake had to restrain himself from responding in his own words. "Honestly? Because I was trying to save her from a fate worse than death and I think you know what I mean by that. A mercy killing would sit better on my conscience than allowing what I knew was coming."

So far, so good. The guards glanced at each other uncomfortably, leaving little doubt in Jake's mind that they knew exactly what he was implying. It was heartening to see a negative reaction to the plans this Lt. Phelps had for Tanhi. It gave him hope that perhaps not everyone on this base was lost to reason and decency.

"We never found a body," said the lead guard, "and the only evidence we found of you was your headgear."

"I underestimated her," Jake said in a tone of fabricated embarrassment. "When I stopped to finish her off, she attacked me. I wasn't prepared for it and before I could recover, she knocked me out. I only woke up a little while ago. She must have dragged me and stuffed me under the bole of a tree. All I know is my gun is missing and my head hurts like a bitch."

He winced inwardly at the last sentence, figuring his brother would never have said it that way. The guards didn't seem to think much of it—possibly attributing the crudeness of the complaint to understandable discomfort.

"Can you verify this at all, Dr. Sully? We searched everywhere in the surrounding area and it's hard to believe we could have missed you."

"I can show you were I woke up," Jake said. "It was well-hidden—which I suppose is lucky for me...otherwise I might have ended up as some animal's dinner while I was unconscious."

"We've verified his story as best we could, Sir. We found evidence that suggests he's telling the truth."

Lieutenant Phelps regarded Jake with narrowed eyes and he drummed his gloved fingers on the desk. He glanced at his computer monitor and worked his jaw in thought before nodding. "Toss him in the brig. Doctor Sully is under arrest for breaching protocol, until our superiors decide otherwise. Leave his cuffs on, too. I want to interrogate him."

Jake smirked at the man, having little doubt that his idea of "interrogation" included a beating. It was blatantly obvious that the Lieutenant disliked Tommy.

Phelps noticed the smirk and he scowled. "I suggest you wipe that smug look off your face, Sully. You're in for a world of hurt for this stunt."

"You're a coward and your men know it," Jake said, his smirk not fading in the least. "What's the matter, Lieutenant? Upset that you didn't get to carry out your rape plan?"

"Get him out of my sight," snarled Phelps.

Jake was forcibly dragged out of the room and taken to another building in the back of the compound. He paid close attention to where he was, comparing the layout to the map Tom had shown him. Everything fell into place. If he wasn't mistaken, the kids were being held in the building southeast of the prison building he was being taken to. He glanced at the structure as they passed and he noted that there were two guards at the entrance. There were windows, but they were barred and sealed in glass—probably shatterproof.

He didn't argue with his captors as they led him into the brig and to a cell. One of them looked him over after shutting and locking the iron bars and Jake had the impression that he was being measured.

"It would be in your best interest not to piss the Lieutenant off any further, Sir. He thinks you're guilty of treason and you're already going to pay for that."

"And what do you think?" Jake tested, regarding the guard curiously. Some of these soldiers weren't as corrupt as he'd feared.

"I think I'd better keep my opinion to myself and follow orders," answered the guard flatly.

Jake nodded. "Like any true-blue Jarhead. I get it."

The guard stared at him and Jake wondered if he said too much. "My brother was a marine," he explained.

The guard relaxed. "Jake Sully, right?" When Jake nodded, he continued: "My sister was in the Venezuela conflict with him. Did he ever mention Pamela Dawson? She was a Corporal."

Jake remembered her. Pamela wasn't easy to forget. Tall, red-headed and curved in all the right places, half the regiment wanted to ask her out if they lived through the fighting—including him. "Yeah, Jake mentioned her a few times. How is she?"

The guard shook his head. "She didn't make it."

Jake winced. He guessed that she must have taken a bullet in the same disaster that claimed his legs. "I'm sorry."

Dawson nodded. "Thanks, man. I'm sorry about your brother, too. Just try not to provoke Phelps, will you? You've got balls for a scientist but you've seen how he can break a man."

No, Jake hadn't seen it but he nodded anyway. "I'll try to contain myself. See you around."

Jake didn't have to wait for long before Lt. Phelps came. He subtly tensed as the man entered his cell. The brig was guarded on the outside but there were no soldiers inside and Jake was the only prisoner. There would be no intervention if the Lieutenant started laying into him... which actually suited Jake's purpose just fine. He watched the other man with feigned wariness as Phelps approached him, looking grimly self-satisfied. It was difficult to hide his contempt as Jake was prepared to make his move.

"You got ahead of yourself, Sully." Phelps looked him up and down. "But it looks like that Na'vi bitch did a little of my work for me when she got away. How do you like that? You try to be merciful and the little savage beats you up for it?"

"Yeah, she should have just stood still and let me shoot her," Jake answered facetiously. "What a dumb bitch."

"You've got a smart mouth, Doc. I think your balls got bigger while you were knocked out."

Jake shrugged as best he could with his wrists bound behind his back. "Maybe I'm starting to see things more clearly. From where I'm standing, the Na'vi aren't the 'savages' on this moon."

He saw the blow coming and Jake braced himself. The other man's fist struck him hard, close to the spot where Tanhi had punched him. Jake fell to the floor, moving his body strategically to avoid landing on his arms and damaging them. He rolled on his side and spat out salty blood while his captor loomed over him. Jake glared up at him and gave him a feral, painful smile.

"Do that again," Jake dared. "I'm begging you."

Phelps gave him a cruel smirk and prepared to grant his request, drawing back to kick him in the gut. Jake moved with the speed of a striking viper, sweeping one leg out in a low kick that struck the other man in the shins. Off-balance, Lt. Phelps buckled under the surprise assault and before he could recover, Jake introduced his face to the sole of his boot. There was a sickening crunch as the strike broke Phelps' nose. The force of the kick knocked the Lieutenant out cold and he fell to the floor limply.

Jake sat up with a grunt and scooted over to his victim. "Pansy-ass bitch."

He pressed his lips together with effort as he turned his body and painstakingly rifled through the unconscious man's pockets until he found his key ring. Hoping that he wasn't wrong about the cuffs sharing a universal key, he manipulated the keys in his fingers until he finally found the one that fit into the lock on his binds. Poking his tongue out in concentration, he fit the key in and twisted it. There was a "click" as the lock gave and Jake sighed in relief when the cuffs opened. He freed his wrists and immediately put the Lieutenant's wrists behind his back to bind them.

He checked the other man's pulse and when he was satisfied, he painstakingly dragged him beneath the cell's bunk. "Have a nice nap."

He took Phelps' holster and gun, and then he relieved him of his knife and the sheath secured around his thigh. Jake doubted he'd find much use for the firearm until later but the knife would come in handy. He secured the weapons to his person and he almost considered stealing the Lieutenant's body armor, but he changed his mind when he thought of how it might weigh him down. As an added precaution, he pulled Phelps' boots off and gagged him with one of his own socks, grinning at the thought of the mean-spirited man waking up with the taste of his own feet in his mouth.

When he was finished with his task, Jake unlocked the cell and pulled the door open. He glanced over his shoulder at his vanquished enemy to be sure he was still comfortably napping, before closing the cell and locking it again. Now he had to figure out how to escape the building without getting caught. His first instinct was to take out the guards but upon glancing up, he spotted an air vent in the ceiling—possibly for distribution of atmospheric gases in the event of human prisoners. Jake nodded to himself and reached up to work the vent cover free. While not as satisfying as beating the shit out of a pair of guards, escape through the ventilation system offered a stealthier option.

After pushing the vent cover aside, Jake grasped the edge of the opening and hauled himself up. He replaced the vent cover before crawling down the narrow passage. It was a tight fit but he'd been in tighter situations before. He mentally reviewed his position and took the route that should lead to the back of the building, away from the front door. After several meters, he found a vent leading outside and he popped the cover off before sliding out and landing softly on the ground. He barely had a chance to recover before a patrolling guard came around from the other side of the building. Jake flattened himself against the wall and moved in quickly, drawing his stolen knife. He had no choice.

The guard didn't see the movement until Jake was upon him and by then, it was too late. He muttered a surprised exclamation that Jake muffled with his hand as he lunged at him. A grunt soon followed as Jake's knife slid between the segments of his body armor and found his heart. Jake held the guard as he died and he lowered him silently to the ground when he went limp. He wiped the blood off of his blade and replaced the weapon in its sheath before moving on. Keeping to the shadows, Jake practiced every military and hunter skill he had learned, moving swiftly and quietly through the compound and avoiding contact with further patrols.

He made it to the building housing the captive Ikran children without further incident, but he had another problem to deal with: the building was—unsurprisingly—guarded. Jake narrowed his eyes and scanned the walls, trying to come up with a way to get inside without being spotted. There was a back door but it was locked tight from the inside. There were air vents but he had no idea whether there were guards inside or not. He was just about to climb into one and find out, when he spotted a female avatar in a lab coat walking away from the building. He tilted his head and considered her, going over the list of people Tommy had given him that might be influenced to help. He could be completely wrong about her identity but he decided that he had to take the risk.

"Jill," called Jake softly, hoping that the guards wouldn't hear. The woman paused and he knew he had correctly identified her. "Jill, over here," he urged.

She looked around before walking around behind the building. Her stance was wary as she approached and she peered into the shadows with obvious trepidation. "Tom?" She whispered. "Dr. Sully, is that you?"

"Sort of," Jake answered. "Come here, I really need to talk to you alone."

She obviously recognized his voice and her pace quickened. Jake reached out and caught her arm as she drew close. She parted her lips and he quickly covered her mouth with his hand.

"It's all right," he soothed as she stared at him with wide, alarmed yellow eyes. "I'm not going to hurt you."

She relaxed and when he pulled his hand away, she spoke in a softly panicked voice. "Tom, they said you were arrested! I heard that you helped the Ikran leader escape. How did you get out of the brig?"

"I'm not Tom," Jake explained in a low whisper. "I'm his twin brother, Jake."

She ogled him. "J-Jake? They said that Tom's brother was dead!"

"That was a lie," Jake said grimly, "I don't know how many people are in on it but there was a...a situation. I'll explain later but right now, I need someone I can trust. Tom said you aren't happy about the way things are being run here. Was he right? Can I count on you?"

She faltered and he could smell the fear on her. "It's been terrible," she admitted. "I understood why they captured that tribe of Na'vi but to beat them and try to rape threaten the lives of those poor children..." Her eyes filled with tears and she drew a trembling breath. "I'm so afraid."

Recognizing symptoms of impending hysteria, Jake quickly drew her into a comforting embrace and stroked her hair. "Shh, it's going to be okay," he murmured. "Try to calm down, all right?"

She nodded and he waited until her trembling lessened before pulling back to look at her again. He wiped her tears away with his thumbs and spoke in a calming tone. "Listen, if you want to help those kids, you need to help me. I'm going to try to get them out of that building and reunite them with the adults, but I need to know what kind of opposition I'm up against."

"There aren't any guards inside," she whispered readily. "They don't need any. The children are kept locked up in a bunker room and they're allowed to come out once per day for exercise, under military supervision. If the adults try to revolt, they'll turn on the oxygen generator and expose the children to Earth atmosphere."

Jake growled softly and clenched his jaw. "So in other words, they'll gas the kids."

She nodded and shut her eyes. "Yes.""That's not going to happen," Jake said determinedly. "Nobody's going to hurt those kids while I'm breathing. I'm going to get them out of here but I need your help, Dr. Turnley. I can get into that building without the guards spotting me, but I can't get all of those children out the same way. Do you think you can help me? Maybe you could distract the guards or something."

She took a deep breath and nodded. "I can do that. I need to get something from my lab first, though."

Jake felt a moment of suspicion. "Like what?"

"Sedatives," she answered. "They think I'm as meek as a mouse, so they won't suspect anything. I can give you the window of opportunity you need."

Jake's reservations faded and he nodded. "Be quick about it. We've only got so many hours of darkness to get these people out of here."

She hurried away without another word and Jake watched from the shadows as she crossed the compound. A patrolling guard greeted her just as she was almost to the lab building and Jake swore silently when he asked why she was in such a hurry. Jill said that one of the captive children was ill and she was fetching some medication to treat him. The guard shrugged as if it was inconsequential and Jake gritted his teeth, angered by the casual dismissal. Jill continued unimpeded and she vanished into the building for roughly fifteen minutes before coming out again. She approached the building housing the hostage children and her eyes briefly met Jake's before she approached the guards at the door.

"I left my stethoscope inside," she excused when they questioned her. "I need to go in and get it." Jake noticed then that the instrument that had previously been hanging around her neck was absent.

"Go ahead," answered one of the guards with a nod.

Jill opened the door and went through, leaving Jake to wonder how she intended to buy him his opportunity. A moment later, her voice called out from inside and the guards went in to see what the problem was. Jake heard her speaking to them, saying something about one of the children collapsing. A couple of seconds later, he heard a surprised curse, followed by the sound of two heavy thumps. Jill came out of the building and hurried around to the back, motioning Jake to come. He drew his knife as a precaution and slunk around to the front, following her through the door.

Once he was inside, Jake discovered what made the thumps he had heard. Both of the guards lay flat on their stomachs, each with a syringe plunged into their backs like darts thrown at a target board by an overzealous hand.

"Nice work," Jake complimented with a sidelong smirk at his companion.

Jill shut the door and pointed at the narrow hallway. "You'll find the kids in the bunker room on the left," she explained. "Here, I took the keys from one of them."

Jake took the offered key ring and hurried down the hallway. He unlocked the bolts on the door and opened it to find a room full of sullen-faced Na'vi children, ranging from the ages of infant to pre-teen. It appeared as though the older children had taken it upon themselves to care for the babies and toddlers, though how they managed to get milk for the former was a mystery to him. One of the older girls approached him with recognition lighting her face.

"Toruk Makto?" She inquired with obvious surprise.

Jake nodded and smiled, kneeling before her as he spoke in Na'vi. "Yes, it's me. I need all of you to listen closely, okay? I'm here to take you to your parents and free you all, but you have to help me, understand?"

The children nodded and Jake continued: "We are going to stick to the shadows and I need you all to be as quiet as possible. Don't get ahead of each other, follow my lead and don't move unless I tell you to. If anything happens to me, you get back here as fast as possible and wait. My people will try to rescue you if I fail to get you out. Is any of that unclear?"

One of the older boys stepped forward and he looked around at the others before nodding. "We understand, Toruk Makto. We will do as you say."

Jake studied the boy and he reached for his stolen gun, making sure that the safety was on before handing it to him. "Do you know how to use one of these?"

The boy shrugged. "Point it at the enemy and push this thing," he said, indicating the trigger. "I have seen the Sky People use them against my people."

Jake felt his chest tighten at the thought of such a young person witnessing such a thing. He swallowed his emotions and nodded, forcing a smile. "That's right. You don't use this unless you have no other choice, understand? This is for self-defense only. It makes a loud noise when it goes off, so it will alert the enemy if you use it. If one of the Sky People tries to shoot you or any of the other children, you flip this button and shoot back, okay?"

The boy nodded. "Yes."

Jake's smile became a little more genuine. These were the children of hunters and gatherers. While sheltered as much as they could be in their living situation, they weren't given to panic and he couldn't imagine human children showing this kind of bravery.

"Let's go."

Jake told Jill to get somewhere safe before he led the children out of the building. He assured her that Tom was safe and warned her that there was going to be a big fight, as soon as he found a way to signal his comrades after getting the captives to safety. She didn't argue with him and he concentrated on moving his charges safely to the bunker where the adult Na'vi were being held. The children moved with impressive silence and when an infant or toddler started making noise, one of the older kids watching after it would insert fingers into their mouth to quiet them. They went from building to building, sticking close to the fence. Jake took out two more guards on the way before they reached the supply building and an idea came to him.

"Stay here," Jake instructed.

He climbed the wall with effort and got onto the roof, laying flat and motionless when one of the searchlights skimmed over the rooftop. When it passed over him, he began to move again, crawling purposely toward one of the air vents he had spotted high on the wall of the large building. He leaned over the side of the roof and tugged the vent cover free, muttering under his breath that he'd soon have enough experience with air conditioning systems to take up a career in the maintenance field. Jake eased his body over the side of the roof while the children below watched and he slid into the vent. He moved with caution, guessing that the interior of this building would have at least one guard. He wasn't disappointed.

Jake waited in the air duct while the guard moved beneath him, timing his move carefully. There was another guard on the opposite side of the room and it was going to be tough to take either of them out without alerting the other. He gauged the distance and he hoped that his throwing arm would be good enough for what he had planned. He carefully slid the vent cover aside, gritting his teeth anxiously as he tried to move it without making noise. He breathed a sigh of relief when he succeeded and when the guard closest to him passed beneath his hiding spot he dropped down.

The guard staggered as Jake landed behind him and clamped a hand over his mouth. His companion saw the struggle just as Jake slit his throat and the Omaticaya chieftain had only seconds to act before the other guard called for help or shot at him. He chucked his knife forcefully at the surprised avatar, speaking a silent prayer to Eywa as it spun through the air. Just as the guard lifted his gun to fire, the blade pierced his throat to the hilt. He reached for the knife embedded in his windpipe and his mouth went wide as he struggled to breathe. He sank to the floor with his mouth working like a fish as he drowned in his own blood.

Jake huffed another sigh and rather than retrieve his knife from his latest victim's throat, he took the one sheathed on the guard lying at his feet. He looked around, hoping that his hunch was right. When his eyes settled on the crates of C-4 stacked against one of the walls, he smirked. Tom and the others were going to get a signal, all right. The explosives would not only provide an alert to his companions; they would also provide a distraction to make reuniting the kids with the adults easier on him.

A few minutes later, Jake climbed out of the vent and dropped down behind the building with the kids. "We have about five minutes," he told them. "Let's get going."

Tom peered through the binoculars with a frown of concentration on his lips.

"Come on, Jake...let us know you're still alive," he muttered under his breath.

"Anything yet?" Norm asked him.

Tom shook his head. "Nothing. We might have to move in soon if we don't see—"

His words lodged in his throat as a fantastic explosion went up somewhere inside the compound. Even from this range, he could hear the alarmed shouts in the distance as the soldiers in the compound sought cover or rushed to get firefighting equipment.

"If that isn't the signal, I don't know what is," Tom gasped with certainty. He tore the binoculars away from his face and ran to the powered-up amplifying device. "Go! Get this thing loaded up!" He shouted to the waiting marines.

Norm came up beside him and together, they prepared the machine to start the conductivity process. Trudy and the other pilots boarded their aircrafts and started up the rotors to take to the air. The Na'vi alliance shouted war cries and mounted their ikrans and direhorses. Tanhi led the air fighters and Akway led the ground fighters. Tom's adrenaline pumped as he pulled the switch to engage the process. The device made a grinding sound and the lights suddenly dimmed and went out. Tom stared at the machine in disbelief before exchanging a dreading look with Norm.

"What's the problem?" One of the marines asked.

Tom shut the power switch off and flipped it on again. Nothing happened. Overwhelmed by disbelieving frustration, he kicked the device hard enough to make it rock. "Goddamnit, work you piece of shit!"

"It died?" Neytiri asked as she came to see what the matter was.

Tom tried again and again but the machine had apparently shorted out. He growled and looked up as the Hell's Gate air forces and the ikran riders flew overhead.

"It was a good idea Tom, but we're going to have to come up with something else," Norm said.

"We need a tactical advantage," Tom stressed, "otherwise we're going to lose a lot more people in this fight!"

Neytiri opened her mouth to say something but a distant bellow interrupted her. She paused and looked at Norm. "Titanotheres," she murmured. "There is a herd nearby."

Norm considered the observation and scratched his jaw. "I'll bet a stampede of those could break down the fences in that compound."

Neytiri nodded and without another word, she ran to her ikran and hopped nimbly onto its back. Tom stared in confusion as Neytiri called out to Ni'nat and some of the other hunters who hadn't yet taken off. They followed her and Norm started away to mount his own ikran. Tom grabbed him by the arm before he could take more than two steps.

"What's going on?" demanded Tom.

"I think we're about to try using wildlife as a distraction," answered Norm hurriedly. "You might want to climb a tree."

Tom stared after him as the anthropologist ran to his ikran and mounted up to follow Neytiri's small group, while the rest of the Na'vi advanced with the marines through the forest. He looked up at the canopy, torn between the desire to follow the strike force into battle and heed Norm's suggestion. Deciding that it would be wise to follow his friend's advice, Tom approached one of the trees and climbed the trunk. He heard distressed bleats coming from the direction where Neytiri's party flew and then, the ground began to shake. There was a growing rumble, like thunder. Tom braced a hand against the trunk and wrapped his thighs around the branch he was seated on while he lifted his binoculars to his eyes. He could see a fine cloud of dust rising from the forest to the east and he thought he spotted Neytiri's ikran swooping over it.

"If something happens to you, Jake's going to kill me," Tom muttered to his brother's mate. He knew that Na'vi women were as fierce and brave as their men but the sight of his "sister-in-law" out there pulling a cowgirl stunt made his hair stand on end.

He didn't have time to worry further about Neytiri, though. There was a crashing, rending sound as mighty beasts plunged through the forest and Tom's tree shook with the force of the approaching herd. He was forced to hang onto his branch like a sloth and he stared with wide eyes as a couple dozen hammerheads charged through the underbrush beneath him. Neytiri and the others followed on their ikrans, shouting and firing arrows that bounced harmlessly off the creatures' thick, armored hides. The goal wasn't to harm the beasts, but to sting them enough to keep them moving in the ideal direction.

Tom watched them trample past and he had to admire Jake's mate for coming up with the idea. He put his binoculars to his eyes again and witnessed the ground teams hastily parting to make way for the panicked herd of animals. The compound's radar was going to be picking up movement, all right—just not the sort they probably anticipated.

"Come on guys, don't make us wait much longer," Jake muttered under his breath.

The guards were gone from the bunker now, rushing to help put out the fires caused by Jake blowing up every explosive in the supply building. He smirked in spite of himself. Some of their AMP suits were stored in that building as well, so at least that was one less weapon these people could use against his team.

"Toruk Makto, we must move soon," urged one of the Ikran warriors with an anxious look around at his clan mates and their returned offspring.

"Just wait a little while longer," Jake insisted. "Please. If your chieftess and my people come through for us, we will have a better chance of escaping without injuries or death."

"If we wait much longer, our chance will be gone," argued the hunter. Others nodded in agreement.

Jake glanced out the barred window at the activity going on in the courtyard. "Just a few more minutes," he pleaded. "If we don't see a sign that our people are moving in, we'll get going."

He got his sign a moment later, when the guards stationed on the front fence suddenly jumped down and began running away. Jake's brows drew together and he frowned. "What the hell?"

The front fence buckled under the force of a blow from the other side and moments later, it came crashing down. Jake's eyebrows shot up as a herd of panicked titanotheres broke through the perimeter as if the fences were made of paper. The animals rampaged through the compound while soldiers yelled and fired their guns fruitlessly at them. The shots only pissed the creatures off and they charged their attackers, tossing avatar and human bodies left and right. Gunfire rained down from above from Scorpion gunships and Samson tiltrotors that had arrived on the scene. Na'vi arrows soon joined the bullets and the scattered, confused troops sounded the alarms.

"Now's our chance," Jake told his companions. "Form defensive lines around the children. Let's go!"

By the time Tom got down from the tree and joined the forces attacking the compound, the fight was in full swing. The enemy was recovered from the initial surprise and they had launched their own gunships into the air to retaliate against the Hell's Gate air forces. Ground teams were pushing the opposition back with JL-723 ground assault vehicles, AMP suites and infantry. The Na'vi were putting up a strong fight but Tom knew with dreaded certainty that they'd lose a lot of people before the night was over.

He spotted Jake running towards him with a large group of Na'vi following in his wake and Tom shouted out for him. He saw some of the enemy infantry aiming guns at the fleeing group and he drew his firearm and started shooting, forcing the opposition to duck for cover.

"Thanks, bro," Jake gasped when he reached him. "I need you to get these people to the transport tiltrotors. These kids need to be taken out of here fast."

Tom drew a deep breath and nodded. "What are you going to do?"

Jake tilted his head back and cupped his hands over his mouth. He made a squawking sound and a huge form broke through the canopy and glided down to him. Tom stepped away hastily as the Toruk landed beside his twin and he watched Jake mount the great beast.

"I'm going to fight with them," Jake said, jerking his chin in the direction of the battle. "Is Neytiri okay?"

"She's fine," Tom assured him. He looked up and pointed. "There she is now. She and Norm's mate just took down one of the enemy gunships."

Jake followed the pointing gesture with his eyes and took off without another word. Soon, he was flying beside his mate and firing at the enemy with a stolen .30 caliber machine gun. Tom focused on his immediate task and called out to the liberated Ikran people, urging them to follow him deeper into the forest where the transports waited. There was enough room for all of the children and most of the adults, but the latter refused to leave and insisted on joining the fight. Unfortunately, there weren't any Na'vi weapons to go around so Tom had to pass out spare guns and give them an impromptu lesson on handling them. He was grimacing the entire time and he hoped the hunters wouldn't accidentally shoot themselves with the unfamiliar firearms.

A storm was gathering overhead and lighting streaked across the sky. Booms of thunder drowned out the sound of Na'vi and Human voices as the children finished boarding and the aircrafts prepared to lift off.

The transport aircrafts took off while the main fighting force kept the enemy distracted enough for a safe getaway. Tom prepared to follow the hooting Ikran people back toward the compound and join the fight, but he was distracted by the sight of one of his team's Samsons flying in his direction overhead. The aircraft was weaving back and forth and there was an enemy gunship pursuing it. Tom cursed, knowing with certainty that the enemy was locked on its target and missiles were guaranteed to hit the Samson at any moment.

"Get out of there," Tom muttered; hoping the pilot would have the sense to abandon the doomed aircraft. He couldn't be sure that the air strike forces got the message that the flux generation was a failure. For all he knew, the pilot wasn't aware that the enemy's tracking system was fully functional.

Twin rockets launched from the enemy craft and Tom held his breath. He thought he saw two small figures falling from the imperiled Samson just before the projectiles hit. He instinctively covered his head with his hands and squinted as the aircraft exploded from the impact of the missiles. Shrapnel fell to the ground as the tiltrotor spun out of control to crash into the forest. Tom pressed his lips together and ran into the jungle, towards where he thought he saw the passengers fall.

"Wilson, wake up dammit!" Trudy smacked the corporal on the cheek again and cast a nervous look around. "Come on man, they're looking for us! Snap out of it!"

Overhead, the clouds broke and rain began to fall in heavy sheets. The heavy drops that splashed against her breathing visor obscured Trudy's vision. She heard someone crashing through the bushes and she immediately drew her revolver and pointed it in the direction of the noise. Tom Sully emerged from the vegetation, panting heavily. He threw his hands up when he saw the weapon aimed at him.

"It's just me," he gasped. "I saw your chopper go down. Are you hurt?"

Trudy lowered her gun and holstered it. "Wilson here's out like a light." She looked up at the enemy aircraft, hovering over the canopy. A searchlight was beaming from the gunship. "I don't think they're satisfied with bringing us down. They want to make sure and take us out. Persistent bastards."

Tom looked overhead and cursed beneath his breath. He could see avatar forms dropping down into the canopy from lead wires. They didn't have much time.

"Hey," Trudy called, "I found a hole over here under this tree. We can stash Wilson there and lead the goons away."

Tom went up beside her and examined the natural tunnel beneath the knotty roots of the tree. Trudy had pulled aside the branches of a bush that partially concealed it and upon inspection; he found the tunnel to be deeper than he thought. There was plenty of room for more than one person. He glanced at the unconscious marine and nodded.

"We could stash ourselves in there with him and wait for them to give up," he suggested. "They probably won't search for long with their base under fire. We just have to hide long enough for them to leave and rejoin the fight."

She shrugged. "I guess your plan sounds good too. Better than being shot at, anyway."

Tom went to the fallen soldier and lifted him into his arms with a soft grunt. "I've got him. Keep guard while I put him in there."

Trudy nodded and drew her weapon, scanning the surrounding vegetation with wary eyes as Tom carried the injured marine to the tunnel and pushed him in. There was no time to be delicate with him. Tom rolled the Human's limp body, wriggling in behind him as he worked. When Wilson was settled snugly against the back of the tunnel, Tom checked to be sure his breathing mask was still in place and then he crawled backwards and motioned for Trudy.

"Go on," he urged.

She shook her head. "You first. You're bigger than I am and I can squeeze in after you."

Tom opened his mouth to argue but the beams of light from the enemy searchlights changed his mind. He went in feet-first, slithering his body like a snake until he was fully concealed within the mossy tunnel. His struggles pushed his shirt up but he had no time to yank it back down, as Trudy came in after him. Both of them were utterly soaked and her clear breathing visor sparkled with raindrops. She kept her gun in hand and Tom likewise reached for his, squirming a little in his efforts. Outside, they could hear the clumsy footsteps of the enemy approaching and they waited in silence, both hoping that their hiding spot wouldn't be discovered.

"Well, this is awkward," Trudy mumbled after the enemy passed them by. She was pressed snuggly against Tom's body, with her breathing mask jammed against his exposed chest. Not that she really minded the view, but the situation was totally fubar.

"Yeah, it really is," Tom agreed in a whisper.

"Maybe we can trust you after all," Trudy murmured. Tom could have called out to his former comrades and given them away. He had deliberately come to help after seeing her chopper go down. His actions didn't seem like something a traitor would do, but Trudy reminded herself that evil often wore a pretty face.

"Shh," Tom cautioned suddenly, his body tensing against hers.

Trudy went still obligingly and she listened to the sound of footsteps moving through the forest outside. They paused outside their hiding spot and Trudy readied her gun just in case. Tom did the same.

"Negative, Red Wing," said a female voice. "There are no signs of the enemy pilot. Either they got blown up with the ship or the fall killed them."

A voice crackled through the transmission. "Prepare to re-board, then. Our people are losing ground and we need to get back into the fight."

"Roger that."

The footsteps went away and Trudy slowly relaxed against her larger companion. Tom likewise relaxed and they waited until the footsteps retreated entirely and the rhythmic beat of the rotors faded in the distance. Trudy's breath left her as Tom's hands went around her waist to help her while she squirmed out of the tunnel. She chewed her lip and gave herself a mental nudge, waiting while he dragged Wilson out and checked his vitals. She hunkered down beside Tom's tall, Na'vi form and looked at her fellow soldier with concern she couldn't quite hide.

"How is he?"

Tom was frowning on concentration as he felt along the marine's scalp. "I think he'll be okay. He's taken a nasty bump to the head but it shouldn't be too serious. We can scan him when we get back to the base, to be sure."

Trudy sighed. "That's two choppers I've lost, now. At least this time I didn't end up in a tree."

"Just under one," Tom quipped with a little smile. He lifted Corporal Wilson into his arms and slung him over his shoulders. "Let's get back to the others."

One of the first things that Jake directed his team to do was to take out the communications tower on the base, so that the opposition couldn't contact the mothership for reinforcements. Still, the firepower of the enemy was great and even without backup, subduing them was proving to be a challenge.

Jake was worried that they wouldn't win. He berated himself over not asking for more air support from Hell's Gate. If they had come in with a Dragon gunship, this would have been finished a lot sooner. He was just loathe to use such heavy artillery when there were hostages at stake. The unexpected hammerhead stampede had given them an edge in the beginning, but the enemy forces hit hard and heavy once they recovered and the animals cleared out. Sheer luck allowed Jake to get the endangered children safely out of the compound in time.

Ni'nat's ikran suddenly shrieked and faltered as a bullet tore through the delicate membrane of its wing and Jake dove toward her as she plummeted. Norm shouted his mate's name and he also dove to her aid. Jake gave Neytiri a meaningful nod over his shoulder, silently letting her know he would take care of it and to keep up the fight. She nodded back and shouted a command at her warriors as she fired another arrow down at the enemies on the ground.

Ni'nat determinedly guided her ikran away from the firefight and into the forest, where the medic teams waited. The beast called out in pain and she dismounted, patting her and murmuring soothingly as Norm and Jake landed beside her.

"She cannot fly more," Ni'nat stated. "She is injured."

Tom approached with Trudy and Jake gave a little start at the sight of the female pilot, surprised to see her on the ground. "What the hell happened to you?" He asked.

"Got shot down," answered Trudy. "Your bro here helped me out. Hey Jake, can I hop on that bird with you? I may be short a chopper but I can still shoot."

Jake grinned. "You're welcome to ride with me. Tom, do you think you can look after Ni'nat's ikran for us?"

Tom regarded the animal dubiously. "I can try...if she won't bite my hand off."

Ni'nat murmured to Waytelem softly, instructing the animal to behave for Tom. "She will cooperate," assured the singer. "Please, Toktor, see to my friend."

Tom nodded. "I'll treat her injury," he promised.

Ni'nat seemed satisfied with that and she took Norm's offered hand and mounted behind him on Lrrtok. Trudy hesitated for a minute before accepting Jake's hand and climbing onto the back of Shadow.

"This is wild," Trudy remarked as the toruk spread his great wings and began to ascend.

"Just don't fall off," Jake cautioned seriously. He'd never forgive himself if the small, spirited woman ended up dead because of him.

The battle lasted until well after dawn and there were several times when it looked like the enemy was going to gain an advantage. Outnumbered but not out-gunned, they had a technical advantage that Jake had only stalled with his strike on the supply building. When one of the enemy Scorpions unleashed napalm on the ground forces, Jake promptly ordered the Hell's Gate team to retaliate the same way. He had wanted to avoid using such destructive methods to curb the risk of innocent people like Jill getting hurt, but the use of tactical firepower couldn't be put off any longer.

Only one of the gunships on his team had the firepower to carry out the order but they did it quickly and efficiently. The courtyard of the compound was lit up with explosions as the Scorpion soared overhead and rained down napalm. That one move took out most of the remaining infantry still inside the compound and caused the collapse of two buildings. Jake winced even as he gave the order for his people to move in. Behind him, Trudy patted his shoulder in silent support and she pointed out the one remaining Scorpion on the enemy side.

"We ought to finish that guy off," she suggested as the ground teams moved in.

Jake nodded and steered Shadow towards the aircraft. It was currently engaged in chasing a group of Na'vi ikran riders, so the pilot didn't see the threat of Jake's larger mount coming up behind it. Shadow clutched the tail of the chopper in his claws and Jake directed the animal to swing it around like a toy. Trudy's arms wrapped around his torso so tightly, he could hardly breathe. Tanhi and the two warriors flying with her fired arrows at the imperiled gunship as Jake's toruk sent it spinning through the air. The pilot and his co-pilot hastily leaped out of the craft and pulled their parachutes as it crashed into the trees.

Jake shouted an order and the nearby ikran riders swooped down to capture the escaped gunship passengers. Now that there was no sky opposition left, Jake and Tanhi led the others into a final strike against the compound's remaining ground defenders.

"Most of you have been duped," Jake explained to the vanquished prisoners as he walked the line of them.

They were bruised, resentful and obviously confused. Tom stood in the background and the prisoners looked between him and Jake with barely veiled bewilderment. Amongst the prisoners was Jill, whom Jake treated more kindly than the others. She was looking up at Tommy with a relieved expression on her face and Jake saw his brother smile and nod at her.

"Some of you know more than the rest," Jake continued. "Some of you know what really happened in the last conflict. The rest of you have been lied to. Hell's Gate isn't under 'hostile takeover'. The people working there were chosen to stay. The Na'vi people welcome them as brothers and sisters. They willingly share resources...when somebody bothers to ask them."

Jake stopped and stared each and every one of the prisoners in the eye, one at a time. "Did even one of you have a problem with threatening to gas innocent kids? Did any of you wonder why a race of people who thrive on nature would bother taking over a Human base?"

"To keep us from coming here," one soldier boldly muttered.

Jake smirked. "Yeah, to keep you from coming here and murdering their kids, or raping their women. I guess you sure proved their assumptions wrong, huh?" He glared directly at Lt. Phelps, whose nose was swollen from the kick in the face he'd received last night.

The soldier faltered and had the grace to look somewhat ashamed. "So what are you going to do with us? Kill us?"

"Believe me, I've thought about that," answered Jake. "But the Na'vi aren't a violent people. You'll be prisoners, until your superiors on your mothership agree to leave orbit. When they do that, you can go back to the ship and go home. Some of you may be chosen to stay—" He glanced at Jill as he said this—"but the rest aren't welcome here on Pandora. Until Earth is ready to treat this world and the Na'vi people with respect, you will never be welcome."

Neytiri came up beside him and threaded her fingers through his, staring levelly at the prisoners.

"The Omaticaya and our allies will keep you as prisoners of battle," she announced. "We do not torture. We are not like you. You will be under our protection until your people come for you. Carry this message back to your people: we will not allow our world to be raped by the Sky People!"

Jake smirked as she hollered the last part. He leaned in and muttered to her: "Easy. Breaking their eardrums won't drive the point home any cleaner."

She gave him a fierce look that reminded him forcibly of the grudge she still rightfully held against the RDA and he squeezed her hand gently, trying to pacify her. "Don't show your weakness," he murmured.

Neytiri calmed down and took a steadying breath, nodding with agreement.

Tom came forward and gestured at Jill. "Can I take her cuffs off? She's not a threat."

Jake hesitated. He didn't want to give special favors to anyone but if it weren't for Dr. Turnley, he probably wouldn't have gotten the kids away safely. He nodded and allowed his brother to approach the woman and remove her cuffs. Tom helped her up and guided her away from the rest of the prisoners while Jake organized for them to be shuffled out. It would take more than one trip to transfer so many people to Hell's Gate. Trudy had already contacted the base to send for more air transport but they wouldn't reach the location for half a day.

"You guys have plenty of room for these jokers, right?" Jake muttered to Trudy as he and Neytiri moved closer to her.

"We've got more than enough unused prison space," assured the pilot. "Max has the maintenance staff cleaning out the cells now."

"Good. I guess I don't need to tell you to keep these guys under maximum security."

Trudy shook her head and popped a stick of gum into her mouth. "Nope. Didn't need to be said. Don't worry Jake, we'll handle them."

Jake nodded and as he started to turn away, he noticed that Trudy's eyes met Tom's for a brief moment. Jake paused. Something passed between the two of them that he couldn't immediately identify. He swore he saw a light flush blossom on Trudy's cheeks and Tom quickly averted his gaze. He found himself wondering what happened between the two of them that he had missed. Jake leaned closer to her to mutter in her ear.

"What happened to you guys while I was out fighting?"

Trudy poked him in the ribs and frowned. "I already told you. You've got bigger things to worry about, anyway."

-To be continued


Toruk Makto = One who rides a Great Leonopteryx, known as "Toruk" or "Last Shadow" to the Na'vi people. Hunters that manage to bond with the animal are revered by the People as great warriors and leaders. Very few have ever succeeded in claiming a Toruk and those who have are legendary to all Na'vi.

Toktor = Doctor

Chapter Text

Jake wasn't really surprised by the reaction he got when he used one of the prisoners' direct communication device to contact the ISV and inform Colonel Myers of the situation on Pandora.

"And just who am I talking to?" Demanded the colonel.

"You're talking to Jake Sully," answered Jake into the device with a grim, sidelong look at his brother.


Jake smiled without humor. "Does my name ring a bell, Colonel?"

"Corporal Jake Sully?" inquired the other man.

"That's right. I'm alive and well. Hell's Gate isn't under 'hostile takeover' and we're onto your covert operation. We've got most of your avatar militia in custody and the only permission you'll receive to land at the compound will be to take your people back up to the ISV."

"Now just hold on a minute, son," the voice tried to sound benevolent and commanding at the same time. "We can talk about this."

"No," Jake refused. "This is the only negotiation we're willing to make. I want to talk to your foreman, too."

There were a few moments of silence on the other end of the line before the colonel answered him. "Have it your way, Sully. Just keep in mind that you're committing treason against Earth, by interfering with government operations."

Jake glanced at Neytiri, who stood quietly at his side with a grim expression on her lovely face. "I think I can live with that," he said, smiling faintly at his mate. Her expression relaxed a little and she smiled back. "Put me through to the foreman."

A beeping sound came through the link and for a moment, Jake thought the connection was lost. Another man's voice spoke seconds later. "This is Foreman Lyle Jackson. Whom am I speaking with?"

"Jake Sully, formerly of the USMC," answered Jake.

"Jake Sully?" Repeated the man. "Isn't he dead?"

"No Sir, your information was wrong. I don't know what you've been told but the situation down here is nothing like what my brother said his people were led to believe."

"I was told that the main base was being held hostage by the Na'vi," answered Jackson. "I was also told you were a traitor to Earth and you died in the conflict that occurred when Selfridge was in charge down there. So which is the truth, Sully?"

"Out of everything you've just told me, the only part that's even a little true is the part about me being a 'traitor'."

"So you admit to turning on your own people?"

Jake looked around at his friends, his brother, his mate. "I like to think of it as taking a stand against attempted genocide. You weren't here to see what the RDA did to these people. You didn't see the Na'vi children dying or watch the military move in to destroy their last sanctuary, just to make a point. If that's the kind of shit I'm expected to support, I'll wear the badge of 'traitor' with pride."

The foreman sighed. "Obviously, we have conflicting information. What have you done with the soldiers you captured?"

"They're safe," Jake assured him. "And they will stay that way. We've transported them to holding cells at Hell's Gate. Your people can send a shuttle down to pick them up, but that's all the landing permission you're going to get from the base."

"I would like to open negotiations," suggested the foreman. "I'm sure we can all reach a reasonable agreement, Mr. Sully. If we can get this all straightened out, maybe—"

"Sorry, no negotiations," Jake said firmly, his eyes flashing. "Your people blew it. You snuck into orbit, set up a secret base and abducted a whole clan of Na'vi. Did you know your people were threatening to gas the children of that clan with Earth atmosphere if the adult prisoners got out of line?"

"I...what? No, I never gave an order like that! The satellite jamming was done because we were told the people at Hell's Gate were hostages. My job was to liberate the base and work on a colonization program. It was reported to me that one of the clans was too close for comfort and I did give the order to round them up and hold them, to maintain our cover. Those natives were only supposed to be held until we succeeded in taking back Hell's Gate, Sully. I never approved a plan to threaten any of the children."

"Did you know that the Lieutenant down here tried to rape the clan's chieftess?" pressed Jake. He saw Tom nod silently and he was interested to hear whether the foreman would deny knowledge of the event.

"Yes, your brother informed me of the incident," answered the foreman in a less-than-pleased tone. "I spoke to the Colonel about it and he agreed to discipline the solider responsible."

Jake saw Tom's fists clench and he empathized with his anger. "Well you might be interested to know your Colonel gave the Lieutenant the go-ahead to have the woman taken into the forest and shot. Tom Sully found out about it and helped her escape, which is what led to the two of us finding each other and finding out the government was playing both of us."

The foreman went quiet for a few heartbeats. "None of this was cleared by me. I wasn't even told about it."

"Then if I were you, I'd look into having the Colonel watched. If he'd go behind your back once, odds are he'll do it again."

Jackson sighed. "I suppose that's sound advice. Will you at least consider meeting with me to discuss the situation, Mr. Sully? You are the one in charge down there, aren't you?"

Jake took one look at his mate's face and he shook his head. "It doesn't work that way. I lead the Omaticaya clan but I don't call all of the shots. Max Patel runs Hell's Gate, along with the marines and avatar drivers who were chosen to stay. I can tell you right now, the Omaticaya and the rest of the Na'vi aren't going to agree to any negotiations you try to make and I doubt anyone at Hell's Gate will either. Whatever your reason, you people snuck down here like thieves and used your guns to do the talking."

"Just tell me what we can do to rectify the situation," urged the foreman.

Neytiri shook her head sharply and Jake rubbed her shoulder. "I don't think that's possible now. I'll tell you what you can do to improve chances for other travelers to eventually open up negotiations, though. You can contact Earth and tell them the truth. You can contact the other ISV's rotating this way to and you can make sure they understand that hostility is going to be returned in full. No more subterfuge, no more invasions and no more satellite scrambling. If they can approach honestly and peacefully, maybe sometime in the future things can change."

"Dammit," sighed Jackson. "This is just what I need. All right Sully, I suppose you're being as fair as I can expect. You said earlier that you'll allow us to retrieve our people...does that offer still stand?"

"Yes. Some of them will be chosen to stay if they want but the others are all yours." He glanced at Tommy and grimaced. "I don't know how they're going to fit in back on Earth now, though."

"They can breathe the air and consume the food," said Jackson, "and they knew what they were getting into when they volunteered for the improved Avatar program. I'm going to hold a board meeting up here and get things moving. We should have a shuttle sent down within a week, Mr. Sully."

Jake nodded. "We'll take good care of them until then. Remember what I said. If you're being straight with me, you should do something about the Colonel before he causes more damage."

Jake ended the transmission and cast a look around the deserted, half-destroyed compound. "We're going to have to blast this place to rubble," he predicted. "I feel a little better about the foreman but I don't trust Colonel Myers. Man, why are all the military officers they send here assholes?"

Trudy cleared her throat and raised her hand. "Uh, excuse me? Did you just call me an asshole, Sully?"

Jake chuckled. "I wasn't talking about you. I'm talking about the guys that always run the operations. Between Quaritch and this new guy, it's like the RDA has a hard-on for bomb-happy sociopaths."

Trudy grimaced. "Can't argue with that."

"We are going to use fire?" Neytiri asked with a frown of distaste on her lips.

"What if it burns down the forest?" E'quath added, also concerned.

"Don't worry," Jake assured them. "We'll keep it under control. Otherwise we'll have to leave this place open to occupation again and none of us want that."

Before blasting the compound to the ground, they liberated two Samsons from the hangar and a load of supplies. Trudy was happy to have an aircraft to fly back to Hell's Gate and Jake was thankful that not all of the enemy choppers were destroyed in the fight. He had wondered how they were going to get the remaining human and avatar teams back to Hell's gate, with limited ikrans available to carry them. Some would still have to wait for transport back but the additional aircrafts would make things go faster.

When they were satisfied that the compound was completely useless to anyone, they began the journey to their respective homes. Tom was originally going to fly back to Hell's Gate with the humans and avatar drivers but Jake insisted that he come to Hometree and celebrate with the clan overnight.

"Besides, we've got a shortage of healers and a lot of people got hurt in that fight. We were lucky we didn't have more casualties," Jake coaxed. "Hell's Gate has plenty of doctors to look after their people but we don't. If you can take care of a wounded ikran, you can take care of hurt Na'vi, right?"

Tom smirked. "All right, you win. I'll go back to Hometree with you and help care for the injured. You owe me dinner, Jake."

Jake shared a grin with Neytiri and Tom suddenly wondered what he'd gotten himself into.

After seeing to the injured survivors and getting cleaned up, Tom was invited to join the clan and guests around the fire pit for a ceremonial dinner. For now, the Ikran clan would be living near Hometree and the Omaticaya had already donated construction materials for tent lodging, clothes and weapons to their guests. Jake was back in his loincloth again when Tom took a seat next to him and Neytiri by the fire pit. Leaf plates were handed out and food was piled onto larger trays to be passed around.

"I'm not supposed to take my own cup, right?" Tom asked as one of the large leaf trays came around to him. This one was laden with wooden cups filled with some sort of liquid that he assumed to be Na'vi moonshine.

Jake nodded and took a sip from the cup his mate had presented to him. "That's right. The person sitting next to you chooses a cup for you and you do the same for them." He started to oblige his brother by reaching for a cup, even though Jake already had a drink of his own.

"I will give Tomsully his drink," offered a female voice to Tom's left. He turned to see Tanhi sink down beside him.

"Oh. Thank you." Tom was a little self-conscious over being served by the chieftess. Jake was his own brother so his status didn't matter, but Tanhi was a respected clan leader whom he barely knew. By the looks on some of her people's faces, Tom had good reason to be uncomfortable. He was still an outsider, after all.

Tanhi either didn't notice the disapproval on some of the clan's expressions or she didn't care. She coolly selected a drinking cup from the tray in Tom's lap and she set it on the earthen floor before him. Tom passed the tray to her and returned the favor, hoping he wouldn't screw up and do something to offend anyone. He was even more disconcerted when Tanhi's amber gaze stayed on him as she slowly tipped her cup and drank. She had washed away the ceremonial red war paint that she usually wore across her eyes and nose and he had to admit, she had an attractive face. His eyes automatically drifted to the swell of her breasts, barely concealed beneath the beaded and feathered adornments hanging around her neck.

Tom hastily averted his gaze to avoid staring and he began to drink with uncharacteristic vigor. Beside him, Jake was speaking to Neytiri in a low voice and the two of them laughed and touched with subtle affection as they conversed. The baby was comfortably settled in the harness around Neytiri's torso, lying against her chest. She only took a few small sips of the brew in her cup and then stuck with water, to avoid passing intoxicating substances to her child through her milk.

A part of Tom envied his brother but in truth, he had too much work to do to be worrying about taking a wife and starting a family himself. Norm and Ni'nat sat on the other side of the fire pit and they were equally affectionate with each other, holding hands as they enjoyed their drinks and selected food from the tray when it came around to them. Tom had been mildly surprised to find out that Norm had a mate. The anthropologist had always been so dedicated to his work. Tom always figured that both he and Norm would be single for many years to come.

The first food tray came around to Tom and he stared at the objects piled onto it curiously. At first, he thought they were some kind of pale roots. It was hard to identify them because they were lightly roasted. He inquired about them to Jake and his brother's mouth twitched as he answered.

"Go ahead, Tommy. They're good."

"But what are they?" Tom's eyes flicked suspiciously between his brother and the food on the tray.

"They're teylu," Jake answered with a smile in his eyes. "Go ahead and try one. You'll like it."

Tom cleared his throat and tried to hide his grimace. "Beetle grubs? I...think I'll pass."

"What is the matter?" Tanhi asked him, looking between him and the tray held before him by one of the children. "You don't like teylu?" She said it as if she thought he was insane.

Jake bit one in half and chewed it vigorously. "You'll eat something that looks like a loogie but you won't eat one of these? Come on; just think of it as a shrimp. That's what they taste like to me."

"Oysters aren't the same," Tom insisted, but people were beginning to stare at him and he didn't want to offend anyone. He took one of the grubs off of the tray and placed it on his plate. Upon seeing Tanhi roll her eyes from his peripheral vision, he took two more.

"It's just a shrimp," Tom muttered as he raised one to his mouth. "Only a shrimp."

Jake snickered softly and Tom shot a glare at him before gingerly taking a bite. He was surprised to find that his twin was right. It had the same texture and sweetness as a shrimp. Tom chewed and swallowed before taking another bite.

"It does taste like shrimp," he said when he finished swallowing the second bite.

Jake nodded. "Told you so."

Another tray came around and Tom was faintly relieved that this one had a selection of roasted vegetables and fresh fruit on it. He ate these with greater enthusiasm and when the meat tray stocked with hexapede and sturmbeest cuts arrived, he was happy to add them to his plate. As soon as he finished his drink, another serving rotated his way and Tanhi was quick to replace his empty cup with a full one.

"Hey Norm, are you going to do a little dance for us tonight?" Jake covered his mouth on a burp and grinned at the scientist across the fire pit.

"Sorry Jake, but I'm going to have to disappoint you," Norm answered with an embarrassed look at his mate. "I learned my lesson the last time and I'm watching how much I drink, tonight."

"At least this time you've got a real partner to dance with," Jake quipped with a gesture at Ni'nat.

"What's this about?" Tom asked, feeling a smile tugging at his lips. The thought of Norm dancing at all was strange enough to him. "Did he dance with a mop or something?"

"With his tail," corrected Neytiri with a teasing smirk Norm's way. "It was very amusing."

"I was completely out of it," defended Norm as a blush rose in his cheeks. "I just wish I could have forgotten it the next day."

Ni'nat rubbed her mortified partner's thigh and nuzzled his flushed cheek with her lips. "It was endearing," she purred. "You were very cute, my Norm."

Tom laughed softly as the beautiful singer's compliment seemed to pacify Norm a bit. "I would have liked to see that. Someone get Norm another drink."

Norm shook his head. "No thanks. Making an idiot out of myself once was enough."

Jake stopped teasing him and turned his attention back to Tom. "So what's the story with you and that doctor Jill? Anything going on there?"

Tom tried not to notice the calculating, curious look Tanhi was giving him and he shook his head. "No, we just work together."

Jake nodded. "That reminds me, I need you to give me a list of everyone you came here with that you trust. You don't have to worry about it right now but get it done sometime before they send the Valkyrie shuttle to pick up the people we're holding at Hell's Gate."

"So you're saying the people I put on this list can stay if they want to?"

Jake glanced at his mate, who nodded. "That's what I'm saying. I trust your judgment, Tommy. It's going to be hard for these new avatars to go back to Earth and pick up their lives. They'll be aliens to their own people, so the ones that aren't dirty should have the chance to live here, where they can fit in better."

"Are you talking about adopting them into the Omaticaya clan?" Tom's brows furrowed dubiously. While he knew several people—particularly on the science team—that would be glad to stay, most of them weren't interested in living their lives as the Na'vi did.

"Don't get ahead of yourself," Jake said with an easygoing smile. "I'm sure some of them might make the cut but I'm not looking to drag a bunch of outsiders into this clan. We would be offering them the chance to stay at Hell's Gate with the rest of you. If some of them want to learn more about the Na'vi ways and go through the trials, that's up to the council."

"I understand." Tom felt a little relieved. "This is really generous of you all, Jake. I know you have every reason to send them all packing."

"Neytiri and I have discussed it with Mo'at," Jake assured him. "They know that not all Sky People are hopelessly corrupted. Just make sure you don't make a liar out of me."

Tom smiled and nodded. "I promise, I'll be very careful about who I select."

"Good." When Tanhi got up to go and answer the call of nature, Jake leaned closer to him and whispered in his ear. "Want to tell me what happened to you and Trudy when her chopper went down?"

Remembering being crammed into the tight space with the pretty, tough pilot made Tom temporarily forget about the interest that Tanhi seemed to be taking in him. "Nothing. I saw her and her gunman jump from her aircraft when the missiles hit it and I ran to help them. We had to hide from the operatives that came searching for them and then we returned to the deployment point."

"Hmph," Jake muttered. "There's got to be more to it than that."

"Why?" Tom looked at him with a neutral expression.

Jake smirked and Tom knew he saw right through him. "You've got a little thing for her, don't you?"

"Shut up Jake," Tom muttered back.

Jake chuckled. "Yeah, you've got a little crush. Funny thing is I don't think Trudy's the only one you've got your eye on." He nodded purposely in the direction Tanhi went. "And unless I'm wrong—which I doubt—I think she's got her eye on you too."

"You know, you used to hate it when our parents tried to play matchmaker with us," Tom grumbled.

Jake smirked and ruffled Tom's hair with rough, brotherly affection. "I'm just pointing out the facts as I see them."

"Drop it," Tom insisted in a low voice. "Drink your nectar and talk about something else."

The festivities went on all through the night. Little Tommy began to fuss when the hour grew late and Neytiri retired with him. Jake soon joined her and Tom was left with Norm, Ni'nat and Tanhi for company. People were dancing and laughing and singing around the fire pit. Tom was distinctly aware of his increasing intoxication and he politely turned down another cup of Na'vi nectar when Tanhi tried to give him one.

"I think I should not drink more," he said in her native language, slurring a little.

She stopped and shrugged, eyeing him in a way that made him feel like a piece of food she was considering eating. "I would not want to make you ill."

Adjacent to them, Ni'nat had lain down on the floor and her head was pillowed in Norm's lap. He was stroking her hair and speaking softly to her and she smiled dreamily up at him, caressing his arm. Tom felt his lips curve into a sloppy little grin. He was happy for Norm. He was happy for Jake. He was...about to fall face-first into the fire pit.

Tanhi caught him around the waist and steadied him before he could topple. Tom blinked at her, trying to bring her face into focus. "Shorry."

"Come," she ordered, helping him up. "Some fresh air may help."

Tom allowed her to support him and guide him out of the den. Norm called out a concerned inquiry and Tom waved dismissively to let him know he'd be all right. He stumbled along beside the Ikran chieftess as they exited the interior of Hometree and stepped out into the night air. Tom took a deep breath and shut his eyes, gathering his bearings.

"I don't drink much," he excused. He noticed that her fingers were skimming over his neck and clavicle but her touch was soothing, so he didn't protest.

"You should lie down," Tanhi suggested. "But, not in those tree hammocks. You will fall and hurt yourself, in this condition."

Tom shrugged and started to lower himself onto the grass, but she held him firmly and kept him upright.

"Not here," she said, a hint of amusement coloring her voice. "Come. You may rest in my lodging."

"Uh, pardon?" Tom's groggy head couldn't quite make sense of what she was saying. "Where will you sleep?"

She didn't answer him. Instead, she led him around behind Hometree and to the edge of the forest, where her clan had begun erecting what tents they could with their limited supplies. Hers was amongst the first to be constructed and it was equipped with a pallet of hides and woven blankets, a bowl for washing and a pitcher of clean water. She instructed Tom to duck his head as she pulled the cover over the entrance aside and she helped him into the tent, supporting him as he eased down onto the pallet. She tied the entrance cover shut and she poured some water into the washbowl, before picking up a folded cloth and dipping it into the bowl and wringing it out.

"What are you—" Tom began to ask as she straddled his hips smoothly. The cool, wet cloth was patting his face suddenly and it felt good. His question faded into an incoherent murmur and he shut his eyes as the chieftess cooled his skin with the wet cloth.

"You took care of my people," Tanhi murmured. "I will do the same for you."

Distantly, Tom thought she could do that without straddling him and caressing his inner thigh with her tail. The Na'vi brew had an interesting effect on him. His mind was intoxicated but his body wasn't suffering the usual numbing of the senses that he associated with being drunk. In fact, his skin seemed overly sensitive to the touch. The slow glide of the cloth over his throat was pleasant in an almost sensual way. Tanhi paused in her actions and Tom opened bleary eyes as her hands tugged his muscle shirt free of his pants.

"Lift your arms over your head," demanded Tanhi.

He was feeling too mellow to question her so he did as she told him. She pulled his shirt off and dropped it next to the pallet. Tom was about to ask her why she wanted his shirt off when she dipped the cloth in the bowl again and began to sponge his chest and stomach off. His eyes fluttered shut and he sighed.

"Feels good," he mumbled. Again, part of his brain was shouting a warning at him. He told that part to shut up and leave him alone.

When Tom felt soft, feminine lips brush against his he knew that he hadn't been imagining the way she had been looking at him all night. He instinctively began to reciprocate and when her tongue slipped into his mouth, he regained enough sobriety and common sense to speak up.

"Wait," Tom murmured, gently pushing at her shoulders. "I don't think you want an outsider for a mate, Tanhi."

"I have no use for a mate," she purred, rubbing against him coaxingly. "I only want a male to share my pallet, tonight."

Her words shocked more sense into Tom and he looked up at her in confusion. "I thought Na'vi mated for life?"

"When we choose to take a mate, this is true," she agreed. A tantalizing smile grew on her lips. "This is for pleasure only, Tomsully. " She lowered her head to his and traced his lips with the tip of her tongue.

The action made Tom stiffen in his pants and his hands impulsively settled on her smooth-skinned hips. He reciprocated her teasing caress with his tongue and the cajoling action turned into a deep, passionate kiss. He heard the voices of her people outside the tent and another moment of clarity made him break the kiss and struggle into a sitting position. Tanhi remained straddling him and her fingers pushed into his hair as he gasped for breath and pulled his thoughts together.

"I'm sure you've got your choice of men from your clan," he said huskily, "should you be doing this with a 'demon'?"

"You are not a demon," she murmured, pressing kisses along his jaw and neck. "I was wrong about that."

"But I'm not a pure Na'vi," Tom reminded her, even as he was kicking himself for passing up the opportunity. He hadn't been with a woman since he first started training for his PhD. He held up his right hand and spread the fingers to demonstrate. "Even if you only want...uh...something casual, are you sure you wouldn't rather have—"

"Do not tell me what I want," she warned. "I find you pleasing to the eye and interesting. If you do not want this, say so now."

Tom was about to do just that, but he became distracted as she traced the muscles of his chest with her fingertips and rocked on top of him. The vision of the Na'vi beauty in his lap meshed confusingly with the memory of a pair of brown eyes, set in an equally appealing human face. His breath caught as Tanhi's fingertips glided over his ribs and he shut his eyes.

"I hope we don't regret this in the morning," he gasped.

She took it as an invitation and Tom didn't have the fortitude or sense left to argue with her further as their mouths met again.

Tom woke up when a beam of sunlight shone through a small gap in the tent opening and assaulted his eyes. Even with his lids closed, the light made a throb of pain spear through his head and he groaned softly and rolled over to avoid it. He felt an arm around his waist and he froze, opening his eyes and staring at the wall of the tent. It took him a moment to get his bearings and when he remembered where he was, he also knew whose arm was draped around his waist.

His jaw dropped as the he recalled everything he and Tanhi had done the night before with startling clarity. Evidently, Norm's comment about wishing he could forget dancing with his tail wasn't just facetious. Na'vi moonshine didn't seem to have the same memory crippling effects as regular alcohol. Parts of his body still tingled from some of the things she had shown him. The underside of the base of his tail felt hyper sensitive and Tom swallowed with the memory of what it had felt like when she played with that spot while stroking him off. He firmly reminded himself that he hardly knew this woman and the events of last night were most likely a mistake.

Tom carefully lifted her arm off of him and reached for his clothes, having the idea that he might get dressed and leave before she woke up. He reconsidered that with a frown. Maybe last night was a mistake and maybe she said she only wanted sex, but bailing on her while she was asleep was a coward's thing to do. He looked down at her sleeping face and decided the possibility of something more than a fling with her wasn't so far-fetched. They could adapt. She could visit him at Hell's Gate and he could visit her at her village, whenever it was rebuilt.

His thoughts snapped to Trudy and he frowned. What interest would Lt. Chacón have in a guy twice her height, anyway? They had nothing in common...not even species, any longer. He was permanently in this Na'vi body and Tom thought it was time to get used to Na'vi women, starting with Tanhi. Seeing Jake and Norm so happy with their mates softened his resolve a little and opened up the possibility that he could have something besides his work in his life.

After reasoning over his options, Tom lay back down next to Tanhi and traced her features with his fingertips. She stirred and opened her eyes to look at him. Her gaze swept over his body in a leisurely, caressing manner and he closed the distance between their lips for a kiss. She reciprocated it and ran her hands over his body in a territorial way, suggesting that she had possessive feelings about him. Wondering if her talk of last night being only for pleasure, Tom stroked her hip and moved his lips from her mouth to her throat.

"This is nice," Tanhi murmured, "but I have things to do. You may dress yourself and go now."

Tom pulled back and stared at her in disbelief. "Just like that?" He winced inwardly at his comment, feeling like he could be on a soap opera called "Desperate Losers".

Tanhi shrugged and gave him a pleasant, lazy smile. "I have duties, Tom Sully. You were a very pleasant distraction, but I must continue leading my people."

He stared at her for a moment longer before slowly nodding and forcing himself to retain some dignity. "Okay then. I'll just...get my things and go."

He had to admit that part of him really hadn't taken her seriously when she said she only wanted sex with him. Swallowing his indignation and wondering why he was so upset in the first place, Tom hastily got up and pulled his clothing on.

Jake searched everywhere for his brother when he woke up and saw no sign of him in the branches of Hometree. He asked his sleepy clan mates if they had seen him and they all shook their heads negatively. He was beginning to worry profusely when he found Norm putting together a leaf plate of fruits for himself and his mate. Jake approached his friend and greeted him before asking about Tommy.

"The last time we saw him, Tanhi was taking him out for some fresh air," Norm answered. "That was around midnight. Maybe they passed out somewhere on the ground? Tom looked a little drunk."

"Thanks. I'll check the Ikran encampment for him." Jake walked out of the den and circled around to the back of the Omaticaya dwelling, greeting guest clan members and his people as he passed. He began to ask members of Tanhi's clan if they had seen his brother since last night and a budding huntress finally gave him an answer.

"Our olo'eyktan took him to her lodge last night," she explained with a gesture at one of the bigger tents in the camp. She looked rather tickled but the adult male next to her wore a disapproving frown.

"Er...thanks." The look on the girl's face suggested that Tom spent the night getting lucky but Jake didn't want to jump to any conclusions. He considered approaching the tent and calling out for his twin but he imagined an awkward situation arising from that and he changed his mind.

He was just about to return to the tree for breakfast when he saw the object of his search stumble out of the clan leader's tent. Tom's hair was mussed and several long strands had come free of his queue to straggle over his shoulders. His clothing was rumpled and he rubbed his temples as he walked away. Na'vi stared after him as he passed through the camp and he kept his head down to avoid eye contact with any of them. Jake suppressed a grin and he crossed the distance to meet up with him.

"Rough night, eh?"

Tom looked up with red-rimmed eyes and he flushed. "You could say that."

Jake walked with him and leaned in to speak in a low voice. "Maybe it's not my business, but are you and Tanhi mated now?"


Jake felt his eyebrows go up. "So you just slept in her tent?"

"No." Tom's lips were compressed into a thin line.

"Then what the hell happened?"

Tom grumbled under his breath before answering. "I want to get cleaned up. I can tell you when we've got some privacy, all right?"

Jake shrugged helplessly, puzzled over why his twin was in such a sour mood, if something juicy had happened between him and Tanhi. "Okay, Tommy. Let's go to the lake and get cleaned up. There shouldn't be anyone else there by now."

Jake eyed his brother sidelong as he scrubbed his skin. Tommy was likewise scrubbing himself—a little more vigorously than Jake thought necessary.

"So what happened?" Jake pressed, unable to keep silent about it.

"I don't want to talk about it," muttered Tom.

Jake sighed and resumed bathing. After a while, his curiosity got the better of him and he was about to ask again, when Tommy started to speak.

"I'm not a womanizer," grumbled the biologist. "I'm not a bad guy, so why me? Maybe I'm not in the best place for a relationship now, but that doesn't mean I want random sex partners."

Jake paused and considered him. "Maybe that's why she wanted you."

"Oh, she didn't want me," griped Tommy. "Just my penis."

Jake coughed to cover up a laugh. "And there was no bonding?"

He would have been shocked if there was but considering Tommy's chivalry toward Tanhi and her clan, a part of him had entertained the hope that she might consider his brother as a permanent mate. After all, Tom couldn't have kids with Trudy even if they did get together and Jake secretly loved the idea of his and Tommy's children growing up together.

"No. It was just sex. Did you know some Na'vi do that? I thought they only mated with people they intended as permanent partners but apparently, some of them prefer meaningless sex."

"There's an exception to every rule," Jake smirked. "It doesn't surprise me that some Na'vi don't want to wait until they mate for life, so why should it shock you?"

"I don't know," admitted Tom. "I just didn't expect her to dismiss me like that. She wasn't even tactful about it."

Jake found it a little baffling himself. "Maybe she was just trying to thank you for stopping Phelps."

"By treating me like a dildo?" Tom grimaced. "That's just great."

Jake peered into the water below Tom's waist, until the other twin became suspicious. "What are you doing?"

"Checking to see if your junk's still there," answered Jake with a smirk. "Okay, so you got jumped by a sexy Na'vi woman with no strings attached—a chieftess, as a matter of fact. A lot of guys would be bragging about that, not bitching about it."

Tom's expression soured even further. "Maybe they would but some of those guys could spit into a Petri dish and start their own civilization."

Jake couldn't contain his laughter any longer. He waded over to his brother and clapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Just count your blessings and move on. You just said yourself that you aren't looking for anything long-term, so maybe it's a good thing. Na'vi women don't get pregnant unless they're in heat, so you don't have to worry about a kid showing up and surprising you one day."

"It isn't that," Tom argued. "There are psychological ramifications here too, Jake. She was almost raped. Even though it didn't get carried through, she had her power taken away from her for a few moments...long enough to leave a lasting emotional scar—even for a warrior like her. Some people cope by trying to take that power back...which is what I'm starting to think she did with me last night. What I don't understand is why she took it out on me."

"So you're worried about her?" Jake thought about it and he scratched his chin. "I'm no expert but I'd say she picked you because she figured you would understand. Maybe since you stopped Phelps, she felt safe with you."

Tom's eyes went blank as he considered the suggestion. "That actually makes some sense," he murmured. "Do you think I should say something to her or just pretend nothing happened?"

"You're the one that took psychology, not me," Jake reminded him.

"It was only a minor," protested Tom. "It was elective. I didn't go into it extensively and you've got more real-life experience with the Na'vi people."

Jake couldn't really argue with that. "Okay, I can give you a little advice," he said after a moment's contemplation. "Na'vi people don't always cope with things the same way Humans do. Things you wouldn't expect to piss off a Human can provoke a Na'vi to punch you. Things that would embarrass or anger a lot of Humans hardly phase most Na'vi. Maybe you shouldn't treat Tanhi's situation the same as you would a Human woman's. She might think you're assuming she's weak if you treat her like a victim. I'm not saying you shouldn't say anything at all but if I were you, I'd test the waters first and be subtle about it."

Tom considered the suggestion and nodded. "I think you're probably right. I'll try to come up with something before you take me back to Hell's Gate."

"You could just hang out here for a few more days," Jake suggested. "It would give us more time to catch up and give you a chance to figure out what's going on with Tanhi."

Tom smiled a little and shook his head. "I'd love to, but I've got responsibilities to take care of in the compound. Maybe once the prisoners are returned to their ISV and we can be sure the threat is over with I can come and spend a week here. Don't let your guard down, Jake. We beat them back but we shouldn't relax until they're out of Alpha Centauri."

Jake's mood darkened and he nodded. "Don't worry, Tommy. We're not taking our eyes off them until they're good and gone. Now that you mention it, I've got another council to organize with the visiting olo'eyktan and I think we could arrange a little 'going away' party for our friends."

"May I speak to you privately?"

Tanhi looked up at the male dreamwalker warily. It wasn't that she thought Tomsully would try to drag her off or harm her. He had seemed hurt by her dismissal of him that morning and she feared she was in for a confrontation over it. She should have known better than to mate with him last night, but she hadn't enjoyed a male in some time and after the horror of what happened in the enemy compound, she thought she deserved an encounter on her own terms.

"What do you wish to speak about?"

Tom gazed at her levelly. "I think you know."

Tanhi cast a look around and sighed. Mating with the dreamwalker had been a gratifying diversion but he obviously didn't understand her ways. Still, she thought he deserved a little consideration. She pointed at a natural trail leading out of the encampment near Hometree.

"We will walk together," she told him. "Only for a short time."

"I can live with that," he agreed.

He went into the forest with her and she stopped several meters in, when she thought they were far enough away from her people to have the privacy they needed.

"I explained to you what I needed, Tomsully," she said before he could open his mouth, "and I gave you the chance to refuse." The man who attacked her hadn't given the same courtesy. She clenched her jaw and shoved the memory aside.

"I know," he said in that calming tone of voice she had come to associate with him. "I understand that, and I'm not here to accuse you of anything. I was willing and you did make your intentions clear. All I wanted to say to you before I go is that I wish I knew it was really me you were seeing last night."

Tanhi was surprised and confused by the statement. "What do you mean? Who else do you think I was seeing when I invited you to my tent? Your brother?" She smirked. Tomsully was very different from his twin, on the inside. He had his own attractive qualities that made him an appealing prospect for mating.

Tom frowned. "I wasn't considering that, until you said it." A disturbed expression flitted over his handsome features and he gazed at her suspiciously. "Is that why? Were you pretending that I was him?"

Tanhi chuckled low in her throat and shook her head. "No. I will confess, Jakesully is a fine man and part of my interest in you came from the attractive features you share with him. That does not mean I saw him when I looked at you."

"And you weren't seeing the man who attacked you, either?" He said it bluntly and his golden eyes searched hers.

"Why would make no sense!"

He gentled his voice again and he kept his hands off of her as he resumed speaking. "I was working with those people who stole your tribe. I wore the same uniform. You said last night that you were wrong about me being a 'demon' but I want to know if you meant that, Tanhi."

"You suffer guilt," she guessed, studying him shrewdly. "It is misplaced. You showed honor and that is why you stopped being a demon to me. That is why..." She trailed off and looked away, disturbed. "I was not seeing one of them when I looked at you, either."

"What were you seeing?"

She looked at him again and she realized that she would sound too endeared to him if she answered plainly. She shrugged, instead. "I saw a male who I wanted to have for the night. One that would not try to dominate me or expect more than I will give. Was I wrong in my observation, Tomsully?"

His expression changed and he tilted his head. To the chieftess, he looked as though he'd come to a revelation and his stance relaxed. "You weren't wrong," he answered, smiling a little. "I would never try to do any of that. Thank you for talking to me about this, Olo'eyktan. If you ever want...I mean, if you ever need..." He trailed off and seemed to struggle for words.

Tanhi smirked and drew her own conclusions. She rested her fingertips against his chest and rose on her tiptoes to brush her lips over his right ear. "I will be sure to contact you, when I feel the desire to share my pallet with you again."

The pigment around his cheekbones darkened, amusing her.

"That wasn't exactly what I—" He began to say in English.

"I must return to my duties," she interrupted after running her free hand over his bottom lightly. "I will see you again sometime, Tomsully."


Jake craned his neck to look at his brother as he mounted Shadow behind him. "What's the problem now?"

The pair of other hunters chosen to fly with them for security mounted up a few feet away, keeping a respectful distance when they noticed the twins having a private conversation.

"I tried to tell her that she could come to me if she ever wanted to talk to someone about what happened to her but I choked. I remembered what you said about giving the impression that I thought she was weak. I didn't finish the sentence and she thought I was offering something besides an ear."

Jake stifled his laughter. "Was she pissed or happy about that?"

"Happy, as far as I could tell. I put my foot in my mouth with that one."

"Are you sure you're not happy about that too?" Jake grinned at him. When Tom glared, he wisely decided to stop teasing him. "How did the rest of the talk go?"

Tom's arms briefly squeezed Jake's breath out as the toruk spread his wings and lifted off. "I'm pretty sure you were right, about her feeling safe with me. I feel a little better about it now."

"Good." Jake's grin returned as he faced forward again. "Now you just have to worry about dealing with the other one."

"What 'other one'?"

"Trudy." Jake shrugged. "You're going to say something accidentally-on-purpose to make her fall at your feet too, aren't you? You've got a habit of doing that to women without even realizing it."

"Knock it off, Jake. That's not funny."

"Hey, you're the one starting your own harem," Jake retorted.

"I'm not...just fly the damned toruk straight, so I don't fall off to my death."

Jake patted Shadow on the neck consolingly. "Don't worry boy. He didn't mean anything by that."

-To be continued


Teylu = Beetle grub. One of the prime sources of protein for the Na'vi. Said to have a sweet flavor not unlike a jumbo shrimp.

Chapter Text

Three days had passed since the conflict at the enemy compound. Tom suffered restlessness and confusion as he tried to adapt to life at Hell's Gate. At first, there wasn't much for him to do. Air traffic was restricted while the flying vehicles on the base were being inspected and repaired from the damage caused by the conflict. His thoughts over his drunken encounter with Tanhi distracted him and when he wasn't berating himself over his one-night stand with her, he was cursing his eyes for latching onto Trudy every time he saw her.

He kept telling himself that he needed to get over it. This wasn't a luxury vacation and he wasn't there to troll for booty. Katherine was kind enough to offer some of her plant specimens for his research and Tom plunged into his work almost desperately. His concentration was crippled by thoughts of two very different women and Jake's teasing accusation that he was starting a harem.

"I'm not starting a harem," Tom muttered under his breath as he peered into the microscope. He was on the verge of developing a new treatment for staff infections and he couldn't afford to let his mind drift...yet it was steadily drifting anyhow. "Tanhi jumped me. I haven't laid a finger on Trudy."

His turgid thoughts were interrupted as someone knocked on the door of his assigned lab room. He turned to see Max Patel peering in through the glass and he gestured for him to come in. The human scientist opened the sliding door and walked into the lab, smiling in a friendly manner behind his exopack mask.

"How's the research coming along, Dr. Sully?"

Tom nodded. "It's coming along pretty well, thanks. Have a look at this culture I've got." He stepped aside and motioned invitingly to the other man.

Max approached the microscope and looked into it. He blew a soft whistle. "I think you're onto something here. How long have you been working on this?"

"A few weeks," admitted Tom. "My work was interrupted for obvious reasons but I think I've gotten back on track, since coming here."

Max nodded and pulled away from the microscope, searching Tom with his eyes. Tom smirked, fully aware that Max had only begun trusting his loyalty recently. Dr. Patel looked uncomfortable and Tom guessed the reason why.

"It's okay," Tom assured him. "I'd have had me watched too, if I were you."

Max blinked. For a moment, it appeared that he was going to try and come up with some excuse for denial, but he shook his head and had the grace to look embarrassed. "Not much gets by you, does it?"

"It was pretty obvious," Tom informed him. "I don't mind, though."

Max grimaced. "Well, if it's any consolation, you've already proven we can trust you. I still want to apologize for being suspicious, Tom. We've been under a lot of stress, here."

"You don't need to apologize." Tom shrugged. "Your situation made it necessary and you had every right to keep an eye on me."

"Be that as it may, you deserved better from us," Max offered his hand and Tom shook it. "Thank you for being so gracious about this, Dr. Sully."

"My brother trusts you and so do I. There's nothing to forgive."

Max looked a little embarrassed. "Well, now that we've cleared that up, how do you feel about getting out of here for a few hours? The airships have all been inspected and repaired, so I can arrange a pilot to take you out for sample collections if you want. No offense, but you look like you're getting a little stir crazy."

"Thank God," Tom chuckled. "I have to admit, a restless spirit is something my brother and I have in common. I'd love to get out for a few hours. Dr. Hart has been good enough to give me some of her spare samples but I'd like more variety."

"I understand." Max smiled. "I'll assign a pilot for you right away, Tom."

Tom's relief at the prospect of getting out of the compound for a while was short-lived. When he went to the hangar to meet up with his assigned pilot, he found himself facing Trudy Chacón. She grinned at him from behind her breathing mask and waved him over.

"Hey Tomcat. You're with me today."

Tom adjusted the cap he was wearing and silently repeated the nickname under his breath. Trudy's affectionate new nickname for him was as distracting as the sight of her low-cut sleeveless shirt and mischievous grin.

"What's wrong? Did you eat something that didn't agree with you?"

Tom swallowed and shook his head, approaching the aircraft as casually as possible. "I'm fine."

~Great. This ought to clear up my confusion right away. Thanks, Max.~

It wasn't Max's fault, though. Tom had nobody but himself to blame for his attraction to Trudy. He was just going to have to deal with it and remember that a romantic relationship with a human would be difficult to maintain. He started to climb into the cabin of the Samson but Trudy's small hand settled on his arm and she shook her head.

"Why do you want to sit back there? You can ride in the cockpit with me, partner. We'll keep each other company."

Tom gave her a faintly suspicious look but Trudy was all innocence. Something told him that she still didn't fully trust him and her invitation was more to keep an eye on him than a gesture of good will.

"I suppose we could do that."

They flew to the southwestern territory and landed near some marshlands. It was an ideal location to collect bacteria and plant samples. Tom checked his backpack when they touched down, reviewing the supplies within it to be sure he had everything he needed. Trudy cut the engine and drew her gun to check the ammunition.

"Too bad Wilson was out on another assignment," she grumbled. "We could have used an extra gun. This spot should be pretty safe, though."

Tom looked outside and nodded with agreement, even as he checked his own gun. "I'll try to make it fast. You've been to this territory before?"

"Yeah, a few times," answered the pilot. She sighed and reached for the exopack stashed overhead. She glanced sidelong at him as she slipped the filter over her shoulders and prepared to put the mask on. "Are you sure you don't want to wear one of these?"

Tom shook his head. "That's all right. It only takes a minute or two for me to adjust."

"Suit yourself, Tomcat. I'm ready when you are."

He smirked a little. "What's with the pet name, Lieutenant? I might start to think you like me, if you aren't careful."

Trudy chuckled. "Don't get too excited. It's bad luck when a black cat crosses your path, you know."

"So I'm bad luck?" Tom grinned at her. "And I'm blue, by the way."

"Black hair," she reminded him, pointing at the braid draping over his shoulder and down his chest.

"Fair enough." Tom secured his backpack shut and set it on the floor for a moment. He started to unbuckle his safety belt and he frowned when it didn't budge. Looking down at the clasp, he tried again. "Hmph."

"What's the holdup?"

Tom glanced up from his task. "I think it's jammed."

Trudy's eyebrows hedged. "You're kidding me."

He grunted softly and tugged at the buckle, shaking his head. "No, I'm not kidding. The damned buckle won't open."

She shook her head and slipped the strap of her mask over her arm. "Let me see that," she grumbled.

Tom blinked as the pilot climbed over the seat and squeezed between his legs and the dash. Her dark lashes were lowered as she examined his safety belt and pushed his hands away.

"How did you manage to do this, Sully?" Trudy tried pressing on the release and she absently maneuvered herself into a better position—which incidentally put her right into his lap.

Tom compressed his lips and tried to ignore the way her smaller frame squirmed against his. "I didn't do anything," he insisted. "I just buckled it, like normal."

"Well, you sure as heck did a good job," she informed him with a little grunt as she started tugging and turning the buckle.

Her position gave him a nice view down her shirt and Tom quickly looked away. He knew she wasn't doing it on purpose but Trudy seemed determined to remind him of what he'd be missing out on if he never tried to pursue her.

"I can do this," Tom muttered, trying to reach for the buckle without accidentally brushing against certain parts of her body. Despite his efforts, the back of his hand managed to bump against one of her breasts and his face heated quickly in reaction. "Sorry," he apologized awkwardly when Trudy paused.

She parted her lips to say something but when he started fumbling with the buckle, she swatted at his hand. "Chill, man. You're the one that got yourself into his mess and you'll probably just make it worse if I let you keep fooling with it."

Tom sighed and let his hands drop to the sides. "Maybe we should just cut the strap."

Trudy shook her head. "Not 'till I'm sure we can't get this open. I'm getting a record for damaging air transport as it is."

"It's just a seat belt," argued Tom with a low chuckle. "I think they'll let it slide." He swallowed as his body began to react to her squirming.

Trudy suddenly smirked and looked him in the eyes. "If someone came along right now and looked in here, they'd totally get the wrong idea."

Tom managed a grin, though her suggestion made a collection of inappropriate thoughts rage through his mind. "I'm sure they would."

Her smile faded and she stared at him. With acute humiliation, Tom realized she could probably feel his arousal pressing intimately against her and he cleared his throat and averted his eyes.

"That's not on purpose," he muttered.

Trudy shrugged and bit her lip. Her cheeks blossomed with color even as she tried to look unconcerned. "Hey, don't sweat it. These things have a mind of their own."

He couldn't help it. He laughed. He tried to quell his mirth but she was just so blunt and unfettered, he couldn't contain himself. He laughed harder when her eyebrows shot up and he gasped an apology, imagining she might think he was in hysterics.

A grin spread over her lips and she joined his laughter, shaking her head. "You science guys have a weird sense of humor, you know that?"

"You're laughing too," he pointed out between chuckles.

"It's infectious," she excused. She tried the seat belt again and this time, it gave. "Okay, you're free now. Am I good or what?"

He grinned and nodded. "I guess you are. Maybe I should let you buckle me in from now on."

"Yeah, you'd like that, wouldn't you?" She grinned and climbed off of his lap, back to the pilot's seat.

Tom refrained from running with that. The last thing he needed was to mistake a little friendly banter for flirtation. Telling himself firmly that Trudy Chacón wasn't for him, he waited for her to secure her exopack before opening his door and stepping out of the aircraft. He waved Trudy away when she came around from the other side of the Samson to help him once he started coughing.

"I'm okay," he assured her when his lungs adjusted. "Let's get started."

Somehow, she and Tom kept winding up in compromising situations together. The second time she took him out for sample collecting, Wilson went with them. Trudy was unreasonably relieved for the marine's presence, thinking that there was less chance of another sticky situation happening if it wasn't just the two of them. She was wrong. Just as they called it a day and started heading back to the Samson before the sun began to set, a herd of hammerheads wandered into their path. There was no time to seek a way around them. Being familiar with how aggressive and territorial the bulls could be, the three of them scrambled up a tree and waited in the branches as the herd passed beneath them.

"They're not leaving," Wilson muttered. " are we going to get back to the bird with them hanging around?"

"Just give it some time," Tom suggested, frowning down at the animals. "I'm sure they'll move on after they've grazed for a while."

Trudy sighed and checked her weapons, though bullets wouldn't do more than annoy the thickly armored creatures. "And I swore I'd never end up stuck in a tree again," she grumbled.

"It's better than being on the ground with them," Tom replied with a gesture.

She shrugged and nodded grudgingly with agreement. The sun steadily dropped and the blasted herd stayed in the area until well after dark. When they finally left, it was too late to travel back to the Samson with any guarantee of safety. They would have to wait until morning. Fortunately, Trudy always kept rations with her, after her last trek through the Pandora wilds. Tom likewise had some food stashed in his backpack and she was a little surprised to find it was Human food. He added his food to hers and the three of them ate a cheerless meal together.

"Wouldn't it be easier to eat native food?" Trudy said when they finished eating. "I mean, you'd have a better variety."

Tom shrugged. "If it were just me, I would. Given the luck you and I have together, I figured I should pack for all of us, just in case."

Wilson snorted. "If you guys always have such bad luck, why don't you pick another pilot, Doc?"

"Max keeps sticking me with this one," answered Tom with a smirk in Trudy's direction.

"Hey, it's not my idea, you big jinx." She gave him a sour look but her lips twitched tellingly as she poked him with the toe of her combat boot.

"Get a room, you two," Wilson remarked, combing his fingers through his short-trimmed brown hair.

Trudy and Tom looked at each other and the doctor's expression mirrored the surprise she felt. She hadn't thought her and Tom's teasing jabs at each other were flirtatious but apparently, other people got a different impression. Her first instinct was to blow it off as a ridiculous misunderstanding on Wilson's part but every time she looked at Tom Sully's attractive, Na'vi features, she realized she really was flirting with him.

The revelation put Trudy in an even sourer mood. The guy was twice her height and they had nothing in common. Besides, she had already decided not to get mixed up in a least, not until she could say for sure that she wouldn't end up falling for someone just to watch them get blown up.

"Let's get some shut-eye," she grumbled finally.

The men agreed with her and they all settled in as comfortably as they could. Tom stretched out on his stomach over the thick branch and Trudy rested her back against the trunk. Wilson moved over to the next branch and did the same as Trudy, holding his gun ready in case something tried to attack them during the night. Trudy found herself watching Tom's tail through lowered lashes, mesmerized by the slow, lazy swish of it. Even when he seemed to drift off to sleep, the appendage occasionally flicked.

Just when Trudy was starting to fall asleep, Tom's voice reached her ears.

"Put it on the counter."

Trudy blinked at him. His cheek was pillowed on his folded arms and his eyes appeared to be shut. "Huh? Put what on what counter?" Wilson was snoring softly beside her, oblivious to the odd conversation.

"Sample," Tom mumbled dreamily. "Put it next to the microscope."

Trudy bit back a laugh and rolled her eyes. "You're in a tree, big guy. The nearest lab is miles away from here."

"Tree?" A frown of confusion tugged his lips. "The sample is from a tree."

Trudy took pity on him. "Okay Tom. I'll put the sample on the counter. It's cool."

"Thanks." He settled back down, apparently satisfied.

Trudy grinned at him in spite of herself and when his ear twitched in response to the warm breeze touching it, she had an urge to caress it. Realizing where her thoughts were heading, she chastised herself and looked away. Shutting her eyes again, she tried to get to sleep. Unfortunately, Tom kept chatting in his sleep and Wilson's uneven snores didn't help. Trudy sighed and assured Tom that the oven was turned off. It was somewhat entertaining and kind of cute, she had to admit.

Tom's tail flicked again and she reached out to catch hold of it before even realizing what she was doing. She studied the appendage and she combed her fingers through the tuft of hair on the end of it. It was surprisingly soft. Tom sighed in his sleep and she had the sneaking suspicion that he enjoyed the touch. She was about to let go of the tail but a mischievous impulse took hold of her.

"These guys are going to keep me up all night," she whispered. "Might as well keep myself occupied."

Trudy had never been the kind of little girl that liked to play with dolls. She always had toy horses and helicopters as a child. One of the few girlish pleasures she had always enjoyed was braiding the tails of her toy horses. With a shrug, she combed her fingers through the soft hair at the tip of Tom's tail and she began to entertain herself.

Tom woke up stiff and aching. He covered his mouth on a yawn and sat up, straddling the branch. He turned around to check on his companions and he found Trudy wide-awake and chewing a piece of gum. Her eyes were reddened and he gazed at her with concern.

"Did you get any sleep at all?"

"I dozed off a few times," she answered, "but you guys kept waking me up. Wilson sounds like a lumberjack sawing down a forest and you were yapping in your sleep."

Tom smirked, a little embarrassed. "I haven't talked in my sleep since high school. Sorry." He looked around with a frown. "Speaking of Wilson, where is he?"

"He's off taking a leak," informed Trudy. "He'll give a shout of he gets into trouble. So are you ready to head back to the Samson, sleeping beauty?"

"More than ready," he agreed, stretching sore muscles. "Are you sure you're okay to fly? Wilson has pilot training, doesn't he?"

Trudy snorted. "Not enough for me to trust him to get us back in one piece. I'm good for it, Sully. I'll get some sleep after we get back to Hell's Gate."

Tom slipped his backpack over his shoulders and prepared to start climbing down behind her when he caught a glimpse of his tail tuft. He froze and grasped the appendage, staring at the multiple braids woven through the tuft.


She paused in the action of reaching for a vine and she looked over her shoulder at him. "Yeah?"

"You wouldn't happen to know why the end of my tail is braided, would you?"

Her dark eyes flitted to the object in question and she gave an almost sheepish grin. "Hey, you guys were keeping me up. I had to do something to stay occupied."

Tom chuckled and dropped the tail. "I guess that's fair. So what all did I talk about in my sleep?"

Trudy shrugged and began to shimmy down the vine to the ground. "Mostly science stuff. I guess you thought you were in your lab or something. One time you said you left the oven on and I was afraid you were going to jump out of the tree to go turn it off."

Tom followed her down and he laughed breathlessly. "I'm lucky you were here to stop me, then." When they made it to the ground, he looked down at her uncomfortably. "I didn't say anything stupid, did I?"

Trudy's expression softened and she shook her head. "Nah, you're in the clear. It was mostly just the lab stuff."

Tom relaxed a little. At least he hadn't blurted out a confession of his attraction to her or said anything about the night he spent with Tanhi.

A couple of days later, they got word from Jackson. He said he would be sending a shuttle to collect the prisoners in two days and he insisted on at least meeting Jake to speak with him. Max was quick to contact the Omaticaya leader and let him know what was going on. He wasn't really surprised to hear that Jake had gathered several clans together at Hometree.

"We're giving those guys a proper send-off," Jake told him. "They need to see that we mean business and I'm not taking the chance that they're planning to take a last shot at taking over the compound."

"I think that's the wisest course of action," Max agreed. "I've got to admit, I'll feel better about this with a full Na'vi army backing us up. Some of those guys we have locked up don't give me the feeling they're ready to give up."

"You just keep that security tight until this is over with," Jake answered. "We'll be there tomorrow. I know there's not enough room in the avatar bunkers to house all of these clans, so we'll probably set up camp outside the perimeter."

"Okay. Thanks, Jake. We'll see you tomorrow."

"Damn...Sully doesn't kid around."

Wilson stood beside Trudy and the group of scientists that gathered near the main access gate and he stared at the approaching Na'vi. The sky was full of ikran riders and the ground beneath them was taken up by other Na'vi on horseback. The ground riders carried supplies on stretchers harnessed to their mounts. It was easy to pick out Jake from the rest of the Na'vi, as his great, red and black mount took up the lead of the flying procession.

Jake and the other clan leaders gave their orders to the Na'vi and then he came in for a landing with Neytiri, Norm and Ni'nat at the gate. He dismounted his toruk and approached his brother with a smile.

"How's it going, Tommy?" Jake gave his twin a brief, brotherly embrace before stepping back again.

"Good," assured Tom. "How's my nephew doing?"

"He's great. Mo'at's watching over him at Hometree for us while we take care of this. You ought to come for a visit again after we send these guys packing."

Tom caught sight of Tanhi in the crowd outside the fence and he swallowed as her eyes met his briefly over the distance. "That...would be great," he murmured. Except that he didn't know if he could expect another encounter with her or what he would do if she initiated one.

Jake followed his gaze and for a moment, Tom feared he would say something. The older twin curbed any amusement he might have felt and he turned his attention to Max and the others. "This may all be overkill but I'd rather have them by the balls than let our guard down. Make sure your people are prepared for a fight, just in case."

"I'm always ready," Trudy said with a smirk. "I've got my teams on standby. If those guys even sneeze our way, we'll be locked and loaded."

"Good." Jake nodded. He looked to Tom. "What about the ones you've put on your list, Tommy? Are they going to stay here or go back with the rest of them?"

"Most of them are taking our offer but some want to go back to Earth."

Jake looked surprised. "Really? Even stuck permanently in avatar bodies?"

"Yes." Tom sighed. "I think the ones that want to go back are scared. Maybe it's easier for them to go back to what they know, even if they'll never fit in again."

Jake shrugged. "Well, it's their lives. I guess we can't force them to stay." He put an arm around Neytiri's waist. "We've got to help get the camp set up. I'm keeping this on so you guys can get in touch with me fast if you hear anything else." He indicated the transmitter around his throat.

"Hopefully nothing dire will happen between now and tomorrow," Max sighed.

Late the next afternoon, the Valkyrie shuttle approached Hell's Gate and requested permission to land. The permission was granted and the resident marines took up arms along with the visiting Na'vi as the huge transport vehicle touched down in the compound. A dark-skinned, rather tall man exited the craft with several avatar guards and he looked around at the gathered forces with open astonishment. His men started to take aim at the threat but he ordered them to put their guns down.

Jake approached with Neytiri and he heard the man mutter "Jesus," under his breath. Jake resisted a smirk, satisfied that he'd sufficiently made a lasting impression.

"Foreman Jackson?" Jake asked when he came to a stop before the human. The man nodded and offered his hand, which Jake shook. "Jake Sully. This is my mate Neytiri, next in line to be Tsahik of the Omaticaya."

Jackson nodded, his gaze flicking between the couple and the ikran-mounted Na'vi people holding their arrows steady on him and his men. "It sure looks to me like the Na'vi have taken over this base."

Jake glanced around. "My people are here to make sure yours don't try anything. After what's happened here before, it's necessary."

"I see. Where is your brother Tom?"

Jake looked over his shoulder and pointed him out. "He's right there with the rest of the science team. Your people are being brought out to board the shuttle now."

"And you said Max Patel is in charge here?" pressed the foreman.

"He keeps everything organized, yes."

"May I speak with him?"

Jake shrugged and motioned for Max. The scientist crossed the distance and greeted Jackson. The foreman began to question him and Max calmly answered all of his inquiries.

"Everything Jake Sully has told you is true," Max said sincerely. "The indigenous people allowed us to stay here and we work together. They don't attack us and we respect their lands."

"But you're operating equipment that belongs to the RDA," insisted Jackson. "They aren't likely to give up billions of dollars worth of construction, research and machinery, even if they can be convinced to give up their mining operation."

"Then war will continue to happen," Neytiri warned.

Jake nodded and gave the foreman and his guards a steady stare. "The Na'vi will never let the RDA start up where they left off. If you want to save lives, you'll have to help us get the truth out. There's never going to be peaceful negotiations between Earth and Pandora, as long as the RDA keeps coming here trying to blast everything. Make sure you tell them that, Jackson."

"I'll try, but I don't think they'll listen to me."

"Probably not," agreed Jake, "at least, not at first. We'll keep turning them away until they take us seriously and as long as the word gets out, at least there's a chance."

"Mind if I ask you something?" Jackson looked around again at the formidable clans.

"Ask away."

"Selfridge claimed the whole moon attacked his people. How much of that is true?"

Jake shared a little grin with Neytiri. "We had a little help from the local wildlife. We'll do it again, if we have to. What about Colonel Myers? Do you have him under lock and key like I suggested?"

Jackson looked uncomfortable. "I'm having him watched, but I don't have enough to go on to take him into custody. It's the best I can do, for now."

Jake frowned. "Then if I were you, I'd work on getting that ISV out of orbit and away from this world as fast as possible."

"I'll do what I can. The soonest I can promise is two weeks. We've got preparations to make for the trip and we'll need to run inspections to be sure we can make it home without incident."

Jake looked questioningly at Max, who confirmed the comment with a nod. "He's telling the truth, Jake. Remember how far this journey is."

Jake sighed. "All right. I guess I can't expect overnight results. You'd better push it though, Foreman."

"Jill, are you absolutely sure about this?"

She stopped on her way to the shuttle and smiled at Tom, nodding her head. "I'm sure. I still have family back home and maybe if I can testify to what I've seen here, I can help make a difference. This's too big for me, Tom. It's nothing like what I expected, even after extensive training. I'm afraid I'm not as brave as you are."

He shook his head. "You're braver than you think. Willingly going back to Earth in an alien body takes a lot of courage. Take care of yourself, okay?" He offered his hand and she shook it.

"You too, Tom. Thank you for speaking on my behalf." She stepped away from him and got back in line behind the shackled avatars.

Tom watched her go with a sigh and when Jake shot a smirk at him, he muttered a warning under his breath. "Don't start with the harem cracks, Jake. I'm not in the mood."

"What's wrong with being proud of my little brother for all the female attention he gets?"

Tom grimaced. "How about we concentrate on making sure these people aren't a threat anymore, instead of my relationship with every woman I speak to?"

Jake sobered. "I'm just trying to lighten the mood a little. Believe me, I stay awake at night worrying about another fight."

Tom glanced at him and nodded. "Sorry I snapped at you."

The Valkyrie shuttle left the atmosphere and traveled into space with its passengers. When the transport was no longer visible from the ground, people began to relax and they chatted about the event for a while before returning to their duties. The leaders hung around to discuss the best course of action until the ISV was out of the solar system and no longer a threat.

"We may have an advantage soon that could prevent this from happening again," Max told Jake and Norm in a low voice. "Sebastian thinks he might be able to come up with a program to protect satellite access. He's told me that if he succeeds, no outside ships can interfere with or use our satellite systems without getting the code from us."

"Wouldn't he have to go into space to do that?" Jake's expression screwed up, while Neytiri and the other listening Na'vi looked at one another blankly.

"Not for a software upload," Norm said. "It sounds like some sort of super firewall he's trying to come up with. Even if he manages it, there's no guarantee that the IRA won't have someone on board one of those transports that can hack their way through it."

"Some protection is better than none," Max said with a shrug. "But at least now we know satellite tracking glitches aren't always just glitches."

"Great," muttered Trudy. "So now we'll just be getting ready for a war every time the space radar has a hiccup."

"There's nothing we can do about it now," Jake said. "We'll stick around for a few days before returning back to our homes. Keep communications open, guys."

Four days after the shuttles took the avatar operatives back to the ISV, Jake and the gathered clans were preparing for the journey home. They prepared food wraps and salted rations and they began to deconstruct the encampment outside the perimeter.

"She looks a little flushed."

Jake glanced up from the fish he was cleaning. "What's that?"

Tom nodded in Trudy's direction. "Something's not right."

Jake followed his gesture with his eyes and regarded Trudy, who was across the yard talking to one of her fellow pilots. "She looks okay to me. Here Tom, you're supposed to be watching this. You might need to do it someday."

Tom took his attention off Trudy and watched what his brother and Neytiri were doing. His interest in their activities didn't last for very long. He was again distracted when he noticed Trudy stagger ever so slightly as she walked away.

Jake sighed and stood up, walking over to Tom as Neytiri continued preserving the fish. "A little obvious there, Tommy."

"What?" Tom tried to look ignorant.

Jake chuckled. "You keep staring at her."

"She doesn't look well," Tom excused, his eyes again straying to the retreating pilot. She was heading for the recreation building. "It's my job to worry about people's health, remember?"

"Then Maybe you should give her a checkup." There was amusement in Jake's voice.

Tom gave his brother an exasperated look. "We could be on the brink of another firefight and you're standing here making lewd jokes."

Jake shrugged. "What's lewd about giving someone a checkup? I'm just saying if you think she looks sick you ought to check her out. Besides, if a fight does happen we'll need her in top shape. Trudy's the kind of woman that would brush it off as nothing and make herself sicker, you know."

"She's not an idiot, Jake."

"No, but she's tough and she's stubborn. Think about it." Jake patted him on the arm. "I'll see you later, Tommy."

Tom looked across the distance at Trudy again and he cursed softly beneath his breath, even as he began walking after her. There was nothing wrong with making sure she was all right. Taking care of the medical needs of the people on the base was part of his job, after all.

"Hold up for a minute."

Trudy jumped impulsively as the male voice startled her. She paused in the action of opening the sealed doors and she turned to look up at Tom. "Man, I've about had it with nine-foot tall blue guys sneaking up on me!"

He smiled briefly, without humor. "I wasn't being stealthy. You should have heard me coming."

"Yeah well, I'm having an off day," she excused. "I figure a little workout might do me some good." She started to open the doors but Tom reached out and stopped her, his long hand closing over her wrist. "Hey, what's your problem?" She pulled but he didn't let go.

"Just humor me for a minute," Tom insisted as he knelt before her until their faces were level with each other.

Trudy grimaced uncomfortably. "I wish you wouldn't do that," she muttered, forgetting her annoyance in the face of mortification.

"Do what?" asked Tom as he peered intensely into her eyes.

"Kneel down like that," she answered. "It makes me feel like a little kid."

Tom smiled. "Well, you don't look like a little kid." He felt gently along her neck with the fingers of both his hands, still gazing into her eyes as if looking for answers to a riddle.

"Okay, I give up," Trudy griped. "What the hell are you doing?"

"You've got some glandular swelling," he murmured absently. "Your eyes are too bright and your face is flushed. Are you in any pain?"

"I've got a headache," she admitted. "And you're making it worse."

He didn't take the bait. "Are you feeling dizzy or light headed?"

His patience was maddening and Trudy was seriously contemplating throttling him. "A little, I guess. No big deal."

"Maybe not, but it could become a big deal. Hold your breath."


He gave her a stern look and she grumbled and complied. Tom slipped her mask up and felt her forehead and cheeks with his palm before replacing the mask. He nodded and stood up. "Come on, I want to have a better look at you."

"I'm fine."

Tom looked down at her with another stern expression. "Lieutenant, you have symptoms of an infection and even if you think you're 'fine', I'm getting a different impression. It won't take very long."

If she weren't feeling so shitty, she might have argued further with him. Trudy staggered a little as she took a step and her equilibrium shifted. Tom quickly steadied her with a hand on her shoulder.

"All right, so maybe I'm not a hundred percent," she grumbled.

She walked with him to the lab building and she winced in spite of herself when he coughed in reaction to being exposed to the Earth air. He took her into one of the examination rooms for human patients and he waited while she removed her exopack and hopped onto the examination table.

"You don't have to look so smug," Trudy complained as he started going through the cabinets for instruments.

"I'm not 'smug'," he countered with a sidelong glance at her. "I'm just glad you came to your senses. A simple infection could turn into something deadly if it goes untreated and I won't have you keeling over on me."

She hid a grin as she detected the sincere concern in his voice and eyes. He approached her with an electric thermometer and he slipped sterile cap over the length of it before handing it to her. She obligingly placed it under her tongue and she gave a little start as he cupped her face. For one freaky moment, she thought he was going to try to kiss her—thermometer and all. His fingertips roved over her face, gently pressing around her cheekbones and under her eyes.

"It doesn't look like you've got any swelling in your sinuses," he mused.

His fingers moved along to beneath her ears and Trudy inadvertently shut her eyes as he kneaded along her jaw and neck. It felt good and she thought he could easily lull her to sleep if he kept it up.

"Raise your arms over your head, will you?" His tone was professionally detached and his eyes were hard to read.

Trudy did as he asked and she felt a little thrill go through her when his hands glided over her ribcage and up. Goosebumps sprang up on her bare arms and she wanted to kick herself for the reaction. His hands moved over the material of her sleeveless top until they reached her armpits.

"Hey, dat tickles," she complained around the thermometer when he pressed his fingers against her armpits and felt around.

He gave her a brief smile and for a moment, their eyes met and held. She saw a flash of warmth in his amber gaze before he quelled it and took his hands off of her. "Your lymph nodes are swollen. Have you had any untreated injuries over the past couple of days?"

She shook her head. He drew some blood and she endured it without flinching. When he finished with that, he checked her ears. Trudy grimaced as he used the instrument on her but she held still for him, despite how much she hated having her ears prodded. Tom made a satisfied sound in his throat and he put the instrument on the counter for washing. He took the thermometer out of her mouth and checked the temperature, then gave a little nod.

"You've got an ear infection," Tom announced. "It's not hard to treat but you need to avoid flying until it's cleared up. The air pressure will only make it worse."

"Whoa, hold up there, buddy. I'm a pilot. Flying is my job."

Tom gazed at her levelly. "If you're having trouble walking without losing your balance, what do you think is going to happen if you go up in an aircraft?"

She worked her mouth but there was no good argument against that. "We'll see," she muttered.

"No, we won't," he countered. "You're not going anywhere near an aircraft until this infection clears up. Max and the others will back me on this. Doctor's orders."

She narrowed her eyes at him. "You guys abuse your power sometimes, you know that?"

"Only when we have to." He patted her on the shoulder and walked back to the counter to check through the drawers. "I'll write you up some prescriptions for antibiotics, ear drops and a fever reducer. I'll let you know if I find anything to worry about in your blood work."

Trudy shrugged, watching with interest as he opened one drawer after the other. "Fine. What are you looking for?"

Tom turned around to face her again and he held a red sucker in one hand and an orange one in the other. Trudy gave him an annoyed look as he approached and offered the red lollipop to her.

She crossed her arms over her chest. "Laying it on a little thick with the patronizing treatment, don't you think?"

"Hey, I'm taking one too," he said, waving the orange sucker. "Go ahead." He gave her a knowing smirk. "It's strawberry flavored."

Trudy pursed her lips. "Give me that," she said, snatching the red sucker from him.

Tom chuckled. "You're kind of a brat when you're sick, Lieutenant."

She unwrapped the sucker and popped it into her mouth before getting off of the examination table. "I get pissy when people tell me I can't fly."

"It's only for a little while," he reminded her. "Take care of yourself and get some rest."

She turned to look up at him and she hesitated, watching him put his sucker into his mouth. "I guess I should thank you," she told him grudgingly when he gave her an inquisitive glance. "See you around, Tomcat."

She left without waiting for his reply and she mentally smacked herself for using that pet name again.

"I don't get it," Trudy muttered to herself once she was safely in the privacy of her sleeping quarters. It couldn't just be Tom's looks—otherwise she would have been crushing on Jake a long time ago. "What the hell's up with me?"

She reasoned that it must have something to do with the pickles she and Tom always seemed to land in together. All of that close, awkward contact had to have something to do with it.

"Throw a starving woman a piece of steak and she'll probably eat it," Trudy reasoned aloud as she sprawled over her bunk. "And I've been going hungry for a while now."

She pulled her half-dissolved sucker out of her mouth and studied it in the fluorescent lamplight. Tom knew her favorite flavor. Either the guy was just super observant or she wasn't the only one crushing a little, here. Trudy grinned, even as she warned herself to stop going there.

"I don't really know the guy that well yet. This shit could go away after a while, if I don't encourage it."

Unfortunately, it was difficult not to encourage it when the memory of how his hands felt on her kept playing through her head. She dozed off and had a rather vivid dream concerning herself, Tom and her chopper. A grin spread over her lips, at first. When things went from amusing to heated in the dream, she began to squirm restlessly. Soft, distressed moans broke free of her parted lips and her tension mounted.

Trudy woke up wide-eyed and stunned when it ended in the best climax she'd had in a year. Her chest heaved with labored breath and she stared up at the ceiling, replaying every delightful moment of the dream in her mind. She had never dreamed herself into an orgasm before, which meant she was more deprived than she thought or she liked Tom a lot more than she wanted to admit.

"Oh, crap."

-To be continued


Tsahik = Matron, spiritual leader of the clan

Chapter Text

A week went by and once her infection cleared up, Trudy was again put on assignment to fly Tom Sully out to forage research samples from the wilds.

It wasn't that Trudy minded flying him anywhere, exactly. She liked the guy...maybe more than she should. If he and Max could discover new medical treatments in their studies, it would be better for everyone. The problem was that it was going to be just the two of them again and their track record for getting into trouble together was growing steadily.

Now she was preparing to take him out again and who knew what sort of mess they'd end up in? She double and triple-checked everything on the Samson. She grimaced when she found a loose bolt on the underside of the aircraft. It wasn't anything significant but she wasn't about to take chances. Just as she was about to roll out from under the chopper to reach for the toolbox, a pair of booted feet strode up to her and stopped a couple of feet away.

"How's it looking, Trudy?"

She scooted the rolling flatbed out and looked up at Tom. He was dressed in loose-fitting cargo pants, a muscle shirt and a pair of hiking boots. His golden eyes stared down at her from beneath the brim of his cap. His queue swayed as he squatted down beside her and offered a helping hand up.

Trudy shook her head and held up her grubby hands for inspection. "I've got grease on me."

"So?" Tom tilted his head. "We're about to be exposed to plenty of dirt and grime. I can wipe the grease off." He didn't retract his hand.

She shrugged and took it, allowing him to help her up. He studied her quietly as she reached for the worn hand towel she had hanging on the vehicle door. She glanced at him sidelong as she wiped her hands. "What? I passed your inspection two days ago, Sully. I'm fine to get back into my routine."

Tom smiled quietly at her. "I just don't want to rush it. You were bad off there, for the first two days."

"Well I'm fine now, so stop being an overprotective sap."

He laughed softly and shook his head. "Now I'm a sap for looking after you?"

"I don't need looking after," Trudy grunted. She fished out a bottle of sterilizing hand wash from her toolkit and she used it before offering it to him. "So what kind of mess are you going to get us into today, Tomcat?"

He wiped his hands off on the towel she gave him and he shrugged. "I thought I'd yowl on someone's fence and get shoes thrown at us."

She smirked. "Sorry, the nickname stays."

He gave her a rueful look but his mouth curved slightly. "I guess I'll just have to get used to it, then."

Tom and Trudy barely made it down the hall of the medic wing before they were approached by one of the scientists Tom had invited to stay behind. Neil's tail swished busily behind him as he spotted them and closed the distance, clutching a holopad in one hand.

"Hey Dr. Sully, I've got those research notes filled out." Neil noticed that the other doctor was walking with a limp and a grimace. "Are you okay?"

Tom nodded, rubbing his left upper thigh as he came to a stop. "I pulled a muscle in my leg. It's nothing serious."

"Ouch. How did you manage that?"

Tom gave Trudy a sidelong look. "By catching a falling pilot."

"My foot slipped," she excused. "This is why I hate climbing trees but you just had to get that fungus growing halfway up the trunk."

"You could have just let me climb up alone," Tom argued. The other scientist looked back and forth between the two of them as they bickered.

"You're accident prone," she shot back.

"Says the woman who almost broke her neck in a fall," Tom snorted.

"Yeah well...uh...thanks for catching me." Trudy looked almost contrite.

"So she fell and you caught her," summarized Tom's colleague. "How did you pull your leg doing that?"

"I slipped too," answered Tom. "I had to hook my leg over a vine to keep from going down with her. I'd love to talk about this but I'm in considerable pain here, Neil. Could you just leave the notes on my lab desk?"

"Sorry. I'll let you get that taken care of. Maybe your girlfriend can massage it for you tonight." He walked off to finish whatever he was doing before, leaving Tom and Trudy staring after him.

"Wow. First Max and now you," Trudy finally said. "I'm really racking up the fake boyfriends."

Trudy kept thinking of the new guy's suggestion about massaging Tom's injured area. She frowned as she spooned up another bite of food and looked around the cafeteria. She saw some of the human scientists and avatar drivers having dinner but there was no sign of Tom anywhere. Maybe he was eating in tonight. She guessed he probably would have wanted a hot bath after getting looked at by one of the other doctors.

She was so deep in thought that she didn't notice Max approaching until he sat down across from her at the table.

"I hear you and Dr. Sully ran into a little trouble today," Max said, cutting into her thoughts. "Are you all right?"

Trudy looked up from her half-eaten meal. "I'm fine. Sully wasn't so lucky, though."

"So I saw. I just finished examining him and giving him some muscle relaxants. He asked me to check on you."

Trudy took a drink of soda to hide her smile. "Like I said, I'm fine," she reiterated after she regained control of her lips and set the drink down.

"You're sure you don't have any shoulder pain? Tom said your angle could have wrenched something."

She blew her bangs out of her eyes in a sigh. "I'm okay. I'd tell you if I damaged something."

"All right, then." Max didn't press her further. He ate a spoonful of soup before speaking again. "You two seem to be getting along well. I think he likes you, Trudy."

She stopped eating again. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Uh...that he likes you." Max looked puzzled. "Is something the matter with that? We've already agreed he can be trusted so there's no harm in being friends with him."

She relaxed and chuckled. "Sorry, Maxi. The boyfriend rumors are starting up again so I guess I'm just defensive."


She shrugged. "One of Sully's buddies thinks I'm his girlfriend and Wilson says we argue like a married couple, when we're not flirting. What do you think?"

Max smiled a little and shook his head. "I haven't had much time to be that observant but I suppose you two give that impression, sometimes."

Trudy frowned. If Max noticed it too then it was definitely something she and Tom were doing, rather than other people drawing random conclusions. She glanced at Katherine and Sebastian, who were eating with Ramona and Lee at the other side of the cafeteria. "Most Na'vi men have to be packing some heavy equipment. I wonder if Dr. Hart and Sebastian have gotten it on yet, or if Dr. Adams ever goes all the way with her guy when he's in his avatar body."

Max choked on his drink and he quickly turned away and covered his mouth with his napkin. "How did you come to this conclusion?" He asked when he recovered enough to speak. He kept his voice down and checked to make sure nobody was listening in.

She shrugged and pushed her food around with her spoon. "Body ratio. I don't go around staring at their crotches but it seems pretty logical to me that their junk would scale up like their height and size, right?" She wasn't about to tell him about the incident with the jammed seatbelt that day, when she felt evidence of said endowments pressing against her.

"I'm not really comfortable talking about this," Max said with a grimace.

"Why not? You're a doctor." Trudy grinned at him. "Plus, I know you've seen it all anyhow, working with the Avatar program and all. You never even looked while they were floating in those tanks?"

Max sighed. "I don't think we should be discussing our colleague's groins."

"Just tell me if I'm right or not and I'll stop asking."

He grimaced and finally nodded. "Okay, your suspicions aren't wrong. Satisfied?"

"I figured as much." Trudy nodded in satisfaction. "Like a porn star standing next to your average Joe, right? Maybe a Na'vi woman could do it with a human guy but I've got to wonder how it would fit, the other way around."

"I take it you've never actually watched porn, then." Max began to busy himself with eating and Trudy chuckled over the way he blushed.

"Damn, you're bashful about this. You really think a couple like that could make it work?"

Max swallowed his food and cleared his throat. "Trudy, the female body is generally designed in a way that allows versatility. Unless the male in question is very...gifted—even for a Na'vi—then it's safe to say it can be done with the right care. Now, can we please stop talking about this? Honestly, if you want to know more about it, maybe you should be talking to Katherine or Ramona. They've got experience with it."

"No thanks. Katherine seems too ladylike to give details and Ramona will just get the wrong idea and spread more gossip about me and Tom."

Max studied her shrewdly. "Yes, I can see how asking for details about Na'vi and human copulation might lead someone to the conclusion that you're interested in trying it."

Trudy suppressed a grimace. "I was just curious about how those two couples manage to fool around, is all. Don't get all excited, Maxi."

"It's a little strange for you to be so interested in someone else's love life." Max smirked at her. "Especially after all the complaints you've made over people being lovesick."

"Random curiosity, that's all. I guess being accused of dating Sully might have helped the question pop up in my head, but that doesn't mean I'm planning to go for a ride." She pretended to check her watch. "Well, I've got things to do before bedtime. Thanks for the talk, Max."

She was going to brush up on her mechanics with a little reading after she had her shower, but Trudy found her steps leading down the end of the barracks. She asked herself what the hell she was doing even as she came to a stop before Tom Sully's sleeping quarters. Maybe he was already in bed asleep. She almost changed her mind about knocking on his door but she figured she at least owed him a goodnight, since he had hurt himself saving her ass from a fall.

"Hey, it's Trudy," she called out when she knocked and heard his soft inquiry.

She ran her fingers through her loose, slightly damp hair and looked around with fabricated casualty. The door opened seconds later and she looked up at Tom's tall, tiger-striped form. He was wearing a pair of black boxer shorts and a green crew shirt. He stood gingerly as he gazed down at her but he didn't appear to have been woken up from sleep.

"Your hair is down," Tom said with evident surprise, just as Trudy was about to ask how his leg was feeling.

"Well I don't always keep it in a ponytail." She shook the loose mane over her shoulders and she realized with a bit of a shock that she was preening for him. The last time she'd done that for a guy was back before she joined the military.

"It looks good." His eyes flitted over her hair and face and he smiled a little.

Not one to get easily flustered, Trudy shrugged. "How's the leg feeling?"

"The muscle relaxant is kicking in," he answered. "I was about to put a cold pack on it."

"Well, invite me in," Trudy demanded.

Tom's eyebrows went up. "Not even a 'please'?"

She smirked up at him. "Since it's partly my fault you strained it, I figured I'd come by and give you a massage."

Tom tilted his head in that inquiring way that he and Jake both shared. "Isn't that something only imaginary girlfriends do for their fake boyfriends?" His grin was subtle and teasing on her.

"Look, I could just call it a night if you don't want me to help," she muttered.

His expression changed. "You're serious."

"Yeah, I think you've earned a little pampering. I know a thing or too about therapeutic massage, believe it or not."

He considered her quietly for a moment, his golden eyes staring into hers until she nearly looked away. He slowly nodded his head. "I guess it couldn't hurt...unless you want it to. You're not planning on hurting me, are you Trudy?"

She rolled her eyes, though inwardly she wondered if he meant to make the question sound kinky or if her mind was just in the gutter. "No more than I've got to. Are you going to let me in or not?"

Tom lurched aside to make room in the doorway and he made an inviting gesture. "Be my guest."

Trudy walked into the room and she spotted the bottle of muscle rub sitting on the small desk by the door. She grabbed it and crossed the floor to the large bunk against the back wall. It was high off the ground to her but she supposed it was ideal for someone of Na'vi build. When Tom shut the door again and turned to look at her, she patted the mattress.

"Get over here so I can have a look at you, Doc."

For a minute his yellow gaze slid over her bare legs and Trudy realized he'd never seen her wearing anything but army issued cargo pants. The sight of her in a pair of loose shorts seemed to be as novel to him as her hair being worn down. She compressed her lips a bit as his eyes traveled her legs and she nearly blurted out a demand that he snap out of it. The guy was exposed to practically naked Na'vi women all the time. A pair of human legs shouldn't be a big deal.

Tom's glance only lasted for a moment, though to Trudy it felt like longer. He walked over to the bunk and sat down cautiously, wincing as his tightened thigh muscle reacted to the motion.

"All right Trudy. Do your worst."

She chuckled at him, amused by the expression of pain anticipation on his face. "It isn't going to feel good at first. Once the muscle loosens up a little it'll at least ease the pain." She opened the bottle of gel and poured a little into her palm. "Okay Tomcat, just lay back and chill out."

He did as she asked and he watched her with glittering, amber eyes as she rubbed her hands together and prepared to start working on the visibly tense length of muscle. Trudy realized something then; his injured leg was on the left side. Since the bunk was against the wall, she'd have to lean over the mattress awkwardly to work. She huffed a sigh and considered the problem for a moment, before slipping her sandals off and leaving them at the foot of the bed.

"What are you doing?" Tom asked as she climbed onto the bunk and nudged his knees apart.

"I can't do this right standing up," she answered. "Spread your legs a little more to make some room for me. I don't take up much space.

Tom stared up at her for a moment before complying. Was it her imagination, or did the pigment around his cheeks darken a little? Trudy subtly scanned the length of his reclined form from beneath lowered lashes and she resisted a smirk. Once again, they were in a suggestive position. She folded her legs beneath her and scooted up carefully, mindful not to move in too close and accidentally knee him in the groin. The size difference between them didn't seem all that obvious to her now—possibly because she was looking down at him from between his parted thighs. He tensed when she laid her hands over his upper left thigh and felt along the taut muscle.

"Down boy," she muttered when Tom started to sit up. "I'm working out where to start. Hmph, pull the hem of your boxers up on this side, will you? It's going to get in the way."

"Just how far up do you plan on doing this?" Tom was looking down at her hands, which appeared quite small as they felt along his thigh.

"You're lucky you didn't pull your groin, pal. Don't worry, I won't cop a feel or anything."

Trudy kept her eyes lowered and her tone as casual as possible, deliberately fixating on the lean stretch of muscle she intended to work on. She was afraid that if she looked him in the eye, she'd either burst into laughter or say something supremely stupid. He was in great shape for a scientist but considering the Sully family physique and his active role in collecting his own samples, it wasn't surprising.

Tom grimaced as he pulled the left side of the garment up a little to get it out of the way. Trudy slid her hands up his inner thigh and she enjoyed the feel of his skin and muscle beneath her palm a little too much. She began to knead and stroke firmly, working her way down to just above his knee before going back up again. She could tell by his winces and soft grunts that it was painful but to his credit, he didn't whine or ask her to stop.

"So when did you learn how to do this and why?" Tom asked in a strained voice as she thoroughly worked over the muscle.

She applied more of the medicinal gel and worked her hands back and forth horizontally over his thigh, soothing it before resuming the deep tissue massage. "Basic training, man. If you get a cramp while you're in the air or stuck in a survival situation, you can't just stop what you're doing and wait for it to ease up. It's just like the basic first aid. They taught us how to use trauma kits, stitch up cuts, rub cramps out and even take out a bullet if it's just a flesh shot."

She looked at his face and smirked. "Jake never told you any of this stuff? I'd have thought you knew there was more to being in the army than shooting straight and kicking ass."

Tom shrugged and lowered his gaze. "Jake never talked about his military life much. Probably because he knew I didn't want him to join."

Trudy almost stopped. "Why not? He's a good fighter, Doc."

"Because I didn't want him to get killed."

She felt her expression softening. Tom's handsome face bore an almost vulnerable expression of brotherly love that he couldn't quite mask. Their personalities were very different but the bond that Tom and Jake shared was deeper than they both let on.

"Well, he didn't get killed," she said after a moment, "And there's a lot of other things in life that can kill you, besides a bullet."

"I also don't approve of war," he informed her.

Trudy snorted. "What are you going to do, stand in the middle of a firefight, shake your finger at everyone and tell them to settle down and stop killing each other? Wars happen because two sides can't reach an agreement, Sully. That's life. Your brother fought for your freedom when he took that bullet."

Tom lifted his gaze to her again. "I know. I know why he went and I know a lot of his reasons were the same as my own for joining the medical science field. I think maybe if I'd been a little more supportive, he might have opened up to me more."

She continued her kneading and she felt a twinge of sympathy when he gasped a little in pain. "He probably didn't want to make you worry. Anyway, you ought to just live for the moment now. He's here, you're here and so far it's all good."

Tom gave her one of his quiet little smiles and Trudy inadvertently slid her hand up his inner thigh a little further than she intended. His smile faded and his lips parted as she massaged the spot, so close to his groin. She glanced down and realized how close she was to breaking her promise to him not to "cop a feel" and a rush of warmth flooded her entire body. The crotch of his boxers started to bulge conspicuously and her fingers were probably only an inch or so away from touching the source of the uprising.

Trudy pulled her hand away—too hastily. She didn't compensate for the shift in her balance and she experienced a klutzy moment. She was leaning too far over him and the next thing she knew, she sprawled on top of him and planted her face in his stomach. She had time to realize his dick was pressing right between her breasts before Tom's supporting hands went around her upper arms and helped her lift up.

She couldn't decide whether she was more embarrassed or turned on as she squirmed on top of him. When she lifted her head, she realized she was lying full-length over his torso and upper legs.

"Shit," Trudy muttered, looking up from his chest to his face.

Tom appeared as if he wanted to say something pacifying to her but he just stared back, with a softened expression on his features. Trudy gave into her impulses and supported herself with her arms, wriggling up sinuously until her face was even with his. She hesitated, her brows furrowing with the realization that she was about to do something she probably shouldn't. Tom's hand reached up and his long fingers lightly traced her lips and jaw before sliding into her hair. He combed the disheveled, dark strands back from her face and he raised his head off the pillow as he urged her head down.

Trudy's brain completely froze as their lips touched. She had expected it to feel different somehow. Na'vi skin felt smoother than human skin and she had imagined that a real kiss from one of them would feel alien. As Tom's lips moved against hers, she learned she was way off base. They were more silken than what she was used to, but they were firm and confident. There was no hint of stubble brushing her skin but it didn't take away from his masculinity. His mouth fit perfectly against hers and when his warm tongue caressed between her lips, a jolt seemed to go up her spine.

Her initial shock wore off and she groaned in a decidedly un-ladylike way as he coaxingly traced her lips with the tip of his tongue. She parted them and when the teasing, damp organ slipped into her mouth, she returned its caress. Her hands splayed over his chest and a soft, needy moan rose in her throat. The throbbing, sweet ache in her pelvic area intensified as he shifted beneath her and bumped his hard-on against her leg. Trudy pushed back against his tongue and took dominance over the kiss, exploring his mouth and stroking the sharp points of his canines with her tongue.

Something exploded within both of them after that. Trudy lifted her body just enough to start tugging at his shirt, while Tom slid a hand over her abdomen and cupped her hips. He ground himself against her and echoed her lusty groans. She felt something smack her on the outer thigh and she blurted a muffled complaint of surprise. She looked down and when she realized his tail was the culprit, she relaxed. The appendage had been lying to one side beneath him and now it was flicking with agitation, probably without Tom's conscious direction.

Trudy gave up on the shirt when she realized she'd never get it over his head without interrupting his exploration of her body. His hands felt too good on her for that, especially when they eased up under her t-shirt and fondled her breasts. She murmured approval when he didn't squeeze them like fruit the way some guys did. He caressed the swell of them before stroking the nipples to hardness with the pads of his thumbs. She squirmed with pleasure and greater lust, practically assaulting his mouth with the demanding aggression of her kiss. She slid a hand down and started pulling at his boxers, wildly curious and a little worried. If he was too big for her to take him, she just might cry.

"Wait," Tom suddenly gasped, pulling his mouth away from hers. "Trudy, hold on a minute. There's something I've got to tell you before this goes any further."

She nearly groaned in frustration and she laid her forehead against his shoulder. "What's more important than this?"

He cupped her chin and coaxed her to look at him. His eyes were serious and wary as he spoke. "I slept with Tanhi."

At first, utter confusion reigned. She frowned at him. "Uh, okay. And Tanhi is...?"

"The leader of the Ikran clan."

Her confusion rapidly bled into an ugly, twisted feeling inside that she identified as jealousy. Hurt swiftly followed but she stifled the unfamiliar emotions and swallowed. "Why do you think I give a damn who you've screwed, Sully? I don't have the right."

"The look on your face says something different," he told her gently. "Trudy, it happened in the heat of the moment. I didn't expect it and it was just physical."

Her pesky feelings of jealousy and hurt didn't fade. "Yeah? So when did you fuck her?" She almost grimaced when she heard the anger in her own voice.

"The night after the raid on the compound," Tom explained. "We were celebrating at Hometree and I had too much to drink. I thought she was just inviting me to sleep in her tent, so I wouldn't have to try and climb into a hammock. I know it sounds cliché, but one thing led to another."

"Yeah, I've heard that song and dance before," she muttered. She got off of him and straightened her clothes. She tried to shrug it off, reasoning that she hardly knew him at the time and it wasn't her business. With that logic in mind, she had to wonder what his motive was for telling her about his little conquest, right before the two of them were about to get it on.

"So what, you figure it's a turn-on for a chick to hear about your little escapades in the middle of making out? I've got news for you pal, it isn't. Did you get a sick little thrill out of seeing the look on my face or what?"

Tom sat up and the retreating tent in his boxers indicated that his libido was rapidly cooling, too. "No, that isn't why I told you. I wanted you to know now, before we did anything else. With all of the interactions between Hell's Gate and the Na'vi, I knew you'd hear about it eventually and I thought I should just be up front and tell you now."

"What the hell difference does it make?" She demanded. "We weren't even on each other's radar then and I've had other guys before you. I don't get your logic."

Tom sighed. "Because it's...complicated. Sooner or later, I'll have to interact with Tanhi again and the last time I spoke with her, I think she got the impression that we'd be doing it again sometime. I just want you to understand that, so there aren't any surprises."

Her eyebrows shot up. "So what are you saying? You'd go for it with her again?"

He shook his head and gazed at her with so much sincerity it was a little scary. "Not if I'm with someone else. I'm not even sure I'd allow it to happen again if I were single."

Trudy was getting more perplexed by the minute. "Why not? Was she bad in the sack or something?"

He hesitated before answering. "No, and that's as far as I'll elaborate on rating the experience, because I know a loaded question when I hear one."

Trudy almost smiled...almost. "So you're not totally clueless about women. All right brainiac, tell me this, then: Why would you pick me over a hot, horny Na'vi chick? You're one of her kind now."

"No, I'm not," he denied. He took her hands and held them when she tried to pull them away. "Trudy, listen. Maybe one of the reasons some of the other guys joined the same program as me was to sample the native women, but I'm not one of them. I came her to do a job and this transformation offered the most efficient way for me to do it. I'm not a Na'vi. I'm a human in a Na'vi body. My twin may have chosen to become one of them but I haven't and something told me that if I didn't do this, I was going to die anyway. It turns out I was right about that."

"So you risked your life on a hunch that someone was after you and you volunteered to do this just to make your research easier?" She summarized.

"That's the basic idea," he agreed.

"Still doesn't answer my question. You're in this body for keeps now and you haven't told me why you'd pick me over her. We haven't even had sex."

He smiled a little painfully at her. "The truth? What Tanhi and I have is purely physical. I can count what I know about her on five fingers. She's strong-willed, she's a leader, she's attractive, she's devoted to her people and she doesn't hold back. That's it. I don't know her likes or dislikes, what she likes to do in her spare time or even if she really likes me at all. I get the feeling she prefers to keep her distance."

Trudy bit her lip to keep nasty comments at bay. "So what about me?"

"You're also attractive, strong and devoted, but I've gotten to know you. I know what you like to eat, I know what your favorite color is, and I know what kind of music you like. You make me laugh and that's not such an easy thing to do...just ask my brother. You say exactly what's on your mind and you don't care what people think about it. I admire that. As far as physical chemistry goes, that kiss we just shared answered any questions in my mind. I really like you, Trudy. Sometimes you drive me crazy but that just makes me want you more."

Trudy felt a flush of pleasure spreading over her face and she firmly kept her figurative feet on the ground. His gushing flattery seemed sincere enough, if the look on his face was any indication. The problem was, none of this changed the biological differences between the two of them. Size was just one obstacle; they could never reproduce and she could never link to him—and from what she'd heard, tsahaylu wasn't something he should miss out on. Besides that, she knew what could happen to a woman's free will if she fell too hard for a man.

With a peculiar ache growing in her chest, Trudy made her decision. "That's all swell Tomcat, but I'm going to make this easier on you. Look at what we're doing, here. Maybe Sebastian and Katherine can make it work because there's not such a drastic difference between them and Ramona's guy doesn't live in his avatar body. This is just a stupid mistake." She climbed out of the bed and slipped her sandals back on.

"Wait," Tom insisted, swinging his legs over the side of the bunk with a groan. "Trudy, don't do this."

She swallowed and fortified her resolve. "I'm going to go now. I guess your little confession didn't come at such a bad time, after all. It shocked some sense back into me."

He stood up and took a limping step toward her. "What kind of sense does this make? I didn't even want to be in a relationship before but I just put myself out on a limb, because I thought you wanted me as much as I want you."

She tried to give him a little smile but she felt it waver. "You thought right, but what we want isn't always what's best. You should see if there's something to go for with Tanhi." She was proud of herself for saying the woman's name without spitting it like a curse. "Even if there isn't, you've got plenty of other Na'vi chicks to romance. Maybe you'll even hook up with one of the avatars like you that stayed behind. All I know is you and I aren't going to fit together."

She turned and walked to the door, determined to leave with a little dignity. She felt his hand on her shoulder just as she reached for the hatch to open the door and she turned around with a sigh. She kept her expression as mild as she could as she looked up at him.

"I don't believe we don't 'fit' together," Tom said softly, "regardless of body height."

His eyes were so intense and earnest; it was hard to resist giving in and taking her chances with him. Trudy didn't count herself as a noble person by any stretch of the imagination and it was as much for self-preservation as for his best interests that she strengthened her resolve.

"Listen, when you like someone, you're supposed to want what's good for them, right?"

He nodded warily and the visible ache in his eyes told her he guessed where this was going. "I'll concede that's true."

She managed to crack a little smile. "Well I'm no good for you. I'll be honest; I came here all soft and feminine and I totally set this up without even realizing it. This was my fault, Tomcat. Sorry I started this but I'm ending it now. There's an ass-load of reasons why this wouldn't work and you know it."

His eyes darkened with anger but he didn't rant at or insult her, the way Trudy would have expected of other guys. Instead, he compressed his lips and gave her a stiff nod. "I'm not going to make a fool of myself by groveling further. If this is what you really want, I can't stop you. Goodnight, Lieutenant."

He took his hand away from her shoulder and limped back to his bunk without another glance at her. For a moment, Trudy stared after him and she felt her stoicism crack. She swallowed and walked out, shutting the door behind her. She walked rapidly down the corridor, hardly seeing where she was going as she hurried to her own sleeping quarters. When she arrived at her destination, she locked her door behind her and sprawled over her bunk, stomach-down.

"I did the right thing," she insisted aloud. Her voice caught and she frowned, annoyed and a little embarrassed with herself. She stuffed her pillow over her head and muttered to herself, fighting with everything she had as her eyes stung and her voice thickened.

"Come on, don't start fucking crying," she muttered into the pillow. It was no good. She rolled onto her side and curled into a fetal position as the unwanted tears came anyway.

A few days later, Jake came to Hell's Gate to check on the progress of the ISV and visit his friends and brother. He greeted people in passing who by now were used to his comings and goings. He'd chosen to ride his ikran rather than the toruk, as there was no need to impress anyone and the toruk frankly made the residents of the compound nervous. Tom met him at the gate, having heard that he was coming. The twins exchanged pats and greetings before heading to the lab building.

"Has there been any more word from the Foreman?" Jake asked as they walked through the compound.

Tom shook his head. "Not since the last time he contacted us. Max has been keeping an eye on the radars and there haven't been any glitches so far. My guess is they've either got complications to take care of before they move to leave, or they're plotting something."

Jake nodded, his features hardening in a frown. "I wouldn't put it past them to scheme like that. I hope I'm not wrong about Jackson but even if we can trust him, guys like Colonel Myers don't give up—not even when they've lost. I hope to hell Jackson's taking the initiative and having that guy and all transmissions between the ship and Earth monitored."

"We'll see if Max has heard anything else when we get to the communications room," Tom assured him. Maybe he's had some personal exchanges with the Foreman that I just don't know about. We've all been busy around here."

"I understand that. So how are things going with you otherwise? Anything interesting happening?" Jake smirked and by the grimace on Tom's face, he knew he was referring to Trudy.

"No. Nothing interesting."

Jake raised his brows a little at the flat tone in his brother's voice. Now wasn't the time to ask him what the matter was, though. They needed to discuss things with Max and decide whether another massive gathering would be required soon. Tom fell into silence and Jake didn't press him for information, knowing that his brother would talk to him when he was ready to.

After walking into the main entrance of the building, they stopped for Jake to grab an exopack before proceeding through the airtight doors. There was a hiss of air as the vents surrounding the doors automatically filtered the oxygen to keep it balanced for human breathing. After adjusting to the change of atmosphere, Tom began to talk about his research. They moved through the wings, passing scientists and military people coming and going. Jake didn't have the head for biology but he nodded along anyway, interested to hear what his brother might come up with even if he couldn't comprehend the steps he took to get there.

"I'm hoping that I can find a better treatment for Forges Disease," Tom explained as he described one of the new vaccines he was working on. "Millions of people on Earth could benefit from it. Think of all the kids that could be...saved."

Jake noticed his lapse and he looked at him with a frown. Tom had stopped in his tracks and he was looking straight ahead. Jake followed his gaze to see Trudy standing in the hall near the doors leading to the military wing and hangar area. She was talking to Dr. Adams and Lee Williams about something. The avatar driver was in his natural body and he had one arm around Ramona's waist as they spoke. Jake glanced sidelong at his brother and he recognized a hint of a smitten expression on his features. Trudy turned her head and spotted them over the distance, as if she sensed Tom's gaze on her. Their eyes locked and Jake saw a flash of the same longing on her face.

Tom abruptly looked away and started walking again, nearly leaving Jake behind as he turned down the hall to the left. Jake glanced at Trudy before following his twin and he swore he saw a spasm of pain and regret tighten her features before she returned her attention to her two companions.

"Hmm, talk about doubling your pleasure," Ramona said, following the retreating Sully twins with her eyes. "Do you guys think Neytiri ever played with the idea of having both of them together?"

Lee abruptly stopped speaking to Trudy in mid-sentence and he blinked at his girlfriend. He looked down the hall to see Jake and Tom disappearing down one of the adjoining corridors. "Hi. I'm Lee: your boyfriend. Remember me?"

Ramona chuckled and squeezed him around the waist before giving him a brief, sound kiss on the cheek. "Yeah, I remember who you are. What's wrong with looking? You do it too."

"But I don't make comments about any of the women I glance at having threesomes."

"I'm sure you think about it though," Ramona countered teasingly.

Trudy's lips twisted into a grimace. "No offence Doc, but you're one twisted sister."

"Huh? Why?"

"They're brothers, that's why." Trudy smirked. "I can get on board with fantasies about two hot guys in the same bed with me but I draw the line at incest."

Lee's eyes widened and he pulled away from his lover. "Aw, you're sick, Mona!"

The zoologist had the grace to look faintly mortified. "Okay, I wasn't thinking of it that way until you said something. Thanks for spoiling it, Lt. Chacón."

Trudy shrugged. "No problem. I know I'll be having nightmares tonight." She looked in the direction Tom had disappeared to and she heaved a sigh before she realized it. Her inner turmoil must have shown on her face because her companions looked at each other before expressing concern for her.

"What's up, Trudy? Are you okay?"

The pilot shook herself out of it. "I was just thinking of all the flight scheduling I've still got to do for you nerds."

"I have good news, I hope." Max motioned for Jake and Tom to come to the orbital radar screen and he pointed out a holographic object representing the ISV. It was moving slowly past the virtual representation of Pandora. "The ship came out from behind Polyphemus this morning and so far, there's been no attempt to scramble our signals and hide their trajectory."

"They're leaving?" Jake heard the relief in his own voice and he reminded himself not to relax just yet.

"It looks like they're getting ready to," Max answered with a nod. "They haven't contacted us yet to confirm it, though. They could be moving into position to set their course and they could end up hovering there for several days before they're ready to leave the system."

Jake's eyes narrowed on the screen. "Jackson should have reported to you by now."

"I don't want to leap to any conclusions just yet." Max looked from the screen to Jake. "We're as prepared as we can be, but I'm taking into account that these people didn't come here expecting to pack up and leave so soon. We may just have to make allowances for the situation, Jake. If Jackson is being straight with us, I'm sure he'll contact us when they're ready to depart."

"I want to know the second you hear something."

Max nodded. "Of course. There's really nothing more to report, right now. You should try to relax a bit and catch up with everyone, while you're visiting. Tom's been working like a machine over the past couple of days and I know you aren't big on science, I think you'd still be impressed by his progress."

Jake gave his sibling a crooked smile, keeping his concern for him to himself. No wonder Tom looked so tired. He was pushing himself too hard. "Yeah, I think I'd like to see what you've done so far, Tommy. Maybe seeing it will help me understand it better."

Tom managed a worn smile in return. "Not likely, but since getting you to look at anything scientific is usually like pulling teeth, I'm happy to show you."

Jake laughed under his breath. "Well, let's see this fungus you've been growing."

"It's bacteria," corrected Tom with a little grunt of annoyance. "Though some of it does come from fungus. I'm developing vaccines, not growing a shroom farm."

Jake shrugged. "Fungus, bacteria...whatever."

"You two really aren't alike at all," chuckled Max.

"Have a look," Tom offered. He stepped aside as his brother approached the microscope and looked through it at the culture growing in the Petri dish.


Tom laughed dryly and shook his head. "You see how those 'squirmy' things are devouring the ones that look like puffballs?"

"Yeah, I see that."

"The latter are samples that were shipped here from Earth, taken from infected people. The Pandoran bacteria are killing them."

Jake straightened up and grimaced. "So you want to inject people with bacteria to cure them?"

"Not all bacteria is bad, Jake." Tom considered the best way to explain it. "Probiotic bacteria live in our stomachs and helps digest food and absorb vitamins. Some bacteria can be used to make an unfavorable environment to other bacteria, without causing any harm to the host. The bacteria in that Petri dish is a good example of what I'm talking about. It's killing the bacteria that cause Forges. If I can find a way to introduce it to the human body without endangering the recipient, it could be a breakthrough."

Jake nodded. "That I can understand...sort of. I'm pretty stupid, compared to you."

"You're not stupid," the younger twin assured, patting his brother's arm supportively. "You've got tactical smarts and instincts I could never match. Intelligence isn't just about equations and book knowledge."

There was a knock on his lab door and Tom absently called out permission to enter. He regretted it immediately when the door slid open and Trudy walked in. Tom immediately went to the microscope his brother had just been looking through and he took acute interest in the culture specimen.

"Is there something I can do for you, Lt. Chacón?" He felt her pause. His awareness of her was painfully heightened and he could faintly detect her scent, even from across the room.

"I just came to drop off your flight schedule," answered Trudy. "Your pilot's going to be Edwards, this time. He'll be waiting for you at 1300 hours tomorrow."

Tom shut his eyes. Of course, she wouldn't want to be his pilot anymore. He didn't truly want that either, after what happened between them. "I'll be ready on time."

"Okay, Tomcat." Her voice was light but he detected the tension beneath her tone. "He's a good, solid pilot and he'll fly you there and back without a hitch."

"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't use informal nicknames like that with me," Tom said coldly. "It isn't professional." He dared to look up from the microscope and meet her eyes, forcing his expression into a bland mask.

He nearly faltered when he saw the look of hurt flitter over her features. It was gone quickly and she drew herself up to her full, diminutive height. The look she gave him was the equivalent to flipping him the bird.

"Can't have that, can we? Whatever you say, Dr. Sully. I'll just leave this here." Trudy slapped the piece of paper with the flight schedule on it down onto the counter, loudly enough to startle both men. "See you around, Dr. Sully. Later, Jake."

She turned around and made her exit, shutting the door behind her. Tom's lips thinned with self-annoyance as his eyes admired the way the army pants fit over her tight little bottom before the closing door blocked her from sight. He looked at Jake and his twin was staring at him with an expression of open bewilderment on his face.

"What's your problem, Tommy?"

Tom wasn't prepared for the question. He'd expected Jake to ask why there was so much tension between them but he wasn't anticipating the one-sided accusation he directed at him.

"What makes you think I've got a problem?"

Jake's eyebrows went up and he gestured toward the door. "The sub-zero temperatures this room suddenly dropped to, for starters. The last time I was here, you ran to her rescue like a knight in shining armor over a little fever and now it's like the Arctic fucking Circle in here. What happened between you two, to make you treat her like that?"

"Treat her like what," demanded Tom, his anger rising, "a work colleague? I didn't say a single insulting thing to her, Jake."

The older twin shook his head and crossed his arms over his bare chest. "You may not have said it out loud but you couldn't have been colder if you'd called her a bitch to her face. I want to know why you're treating her like something you scraped off your shoe when I know damn well you were crazy about her a week or so ago."

"No questions about the way she treated me?" Tom asked bitingly.

Jake shrugged. "She was treating you just fine until you dropped the avalanche on her. From where I'm standing, it looks like she was just reacting to the way you talked to her. Now what the hell happened between you two?"

Tom opened his mouth to retort, shut it, then opened it again. It didn't seem unreasonable that he would stick up for Trudy, when he had no idea what prompted Tom to correct her inappropriate interactions with him. He heaved a defeated sigh and combed some loose strands of hair back from his forehead.

"All right, something did happen between us, earlier this week," Tom admitted.

He went on to explain the encounter that resulted in the unbearable ache he now felt. Jake listened attentively and his hardened expression began to soften.

"Trudy, wait up!"

She sighed and wiped hastily at her eyes as Max came up behind her. "I'm on it, Max. I just finished giving Sully his flight schedule and I'm about to finish up with Joyce and Allen."

"Oh...well, that's good." Max caught up with her and she averted her face as he fell into step with her and looked at her. "That wasn't what I wanted to say, though. The ISV is in orbit around Pandora now and with any luck, it will be leaving by tonight."

"That's great, Max." Trudy tried to sound enthusiastic but she knew she just sounded weary. "Maybe we can all stop worrying for a while, soon."

Max was silent for a moment and she could tell he was studying her with friendly concern. "Trudy, is something bothering you?"

"Nah, I'm just tired. I stayed up too late last night."

Max stopped and gently took hold of her shoulders, coaxing her to look at him. She clenched her jaw and did so. "What?"

"Have you been crying? Your eyes are red."

"I told you, I didn't get much sleep tonight," she groused. "Stop babying me. I'm going to eat and go to bed early as soon as I finish doing my rounds, all right?"

"A lack of sleep would explain the red-rimmed eyes, but not the nose," he pointed out. "Tell me what's wrong."

She looked around covertly. Part of her wanted to get it off her chest but she didn't want to say anything in the hallway, where anyone could walk by and hear it. "I think it's just allergies or something. I had a sneezing fit a little while ago."

"Trudy..." His tone and expression was chastising, telling her he knew she was lying through her teeth. "I'm your friend. Whatever it is, I want to help."

The depression became too much for her and she looked away as her eyes stung warningly. "Had an argument," she said with effort, speaking past a lump in her throat.

"You don't cry over arguments," Max said with worried certainty. "You brush them off and you move on. What was so special about this one to make you this upset?"

"Because this one hurt," she confessed. It was getting more difficult with each moment to control her voice and keep it even. "Damn him! Why did I have to start liking him, Max? Why couldn't it be something un-complicated...something easy?"

An expression of dawning comprehension came over Max's kind features. "It's Tom Sully, isn't it? I had a feeling, but I didn't want to get in your business."

Trudy drew a deep, trembling breath and nodded, wiping her eyes again. "I fucked up. Now he hates me."

Max looked around and then he patted her on the back. "Come on; I'll get you something hot to drink and we can talk about it in my office."

"I've still got to drop off these schedules," Trudy protested. She also wasn't adept at talking about her problems. She was more of a "swallow your emotions" kind of gal but the guilt and regret she felt made her want the comfort of a friend, if nothing else.

"We'll get someone to do it for you," Max insisted. "Besides, you don't want other people knowing you've been crying, do you?"

Trudy managed a hoarse little laugh and shook her head. "Nah, I don't want that. You know me too well, Maxi."

Together they went to Max's office and he made her a cup of hot coco and listened to her explanation. She sat in his computer chair and only gave him the basic facts, keeping her account brief and to the point. When she finished, he gazed down at her uncertainly for a moment before patting her on the shoulder.

"I can't really advise anyone on relationships," he admitted, "but I think you only did what you thought was best for both of you. I know you're not a hugger but...well..." He trailed off and held his arms open with a supportive little smile.

Trudy almost blew it off and insisted she didn't need a hug, but it was just the two of them and she knew Max wouldn't think she was going soft if she indulged in a little more friendly comforting. She stood up and sniffed.

"What the hell...just this once."

She put her arms around him and squeezed as he returned the embrace. Another tear trickled down her face and she let herself grieve a little more openly over giving up what she wanted and losing a friend in the process. Max rocked her gently and patted her back, letting her know in his quiet way that his friendship was still very much intact.

"So we made out, she decided it was a big mistake and she dumped me before we even had the chance to commit," finished Tom in summary. "I never even intended to move in on her. I thought it would be too complicated and awkward but it didn't feel that way at all when we were kissing. Evidently, she didn't feel the same."

Jake winced. "That's rough. I don't know, Tommy. Telling her about Tanhi was a bone-headed thing to do."

"Why?" Tom demanded in a frustrated voice, throwing his hands up. "I was just trying to be honest with her! Isn't that what women always say they want from a partner?"

"Some of them, yeah," Jake agreed. "But you've got to pick and choose what you're honest about, brother. Most women don't want to know about other women you've slept with, unless you're cheating on them. You should have kept your mouth shut and if the subject ever came up, you could be honest then and tell her it happened before you got with her."

"Well, it's too late to take it back now," Tom sighed. "If the Tanhi issue weren't enough to scare her away, my desperate groveling cinched it."

Jake blinked at him. "Wait, say that again?"

"What, my groveling?"

"No. The part about scaring her away." Jake considered what he knew about Trudy. "Tommy, I think I know what the real problem is."

Tom huffed morosely. "Yeah, it's me. I've already figured that out, Jake."

Jake shook his head and smirked. "No, it's not you. Well, it is but not in a bad way."

"Okay," Tom said with a lifted eyebrow. "I want to hear this. What are you talking about?"

"I think she realized she likes you too much and that's what really scared her. Trudy isn't usually a wishy-washy person. If she freaked out at the last minute, it's because something scared her more than a few physical differences. She's an independent chick, just like Tanhi. I think she got spooked because she realized she could fall for you."

"Your Neytiri is an independent woman too, but she isn't running from you."

Jake smiled. "No, but she wasn't that easy to catch and I almost lost her as soon as I had her. Maybe Trudy will come around, after she's had some time to figure out you aren't going to lock her up and throw away the key."

Tom shook his head and sighed. "I doubt it."

Jake puzzled over him for a moment, wondering what he could do to help. He finally reached out and laid his hand over Tom's shoulder. "Come to Hometree with me tomorrow and stay for a few days. Getting away for a while might do you some good. You're working too damn hard anyway, trying to take your mind off this."

Tom gave him a rueful smile. "I'd love to come visit you and the others and my nephew, but I know I'll have to settle things with Tanhi if I do. Right now, I don't want anything to do with women, Jake."

"You don't really have to settle anything with Tanhi," Jake persisted. "She isn't expecting anything out of you and all you have to do is say 'no' if she invites you to her tent. Besides, maybe a good screw with no strings attached is what you need right now."

Tom gave him an exasperated look. "So you're saying I should get a sympathy fuck from the woman I'm attracted to, in order to get over the woman I lo—" He abruptly snapped his mouth shut and rounded his lips, realizing what he'd almost just said aloud.

Jake's eyebrows shot up and he pointed at Tom accusingly. "Were...were you just about to say the 'L' word?"

"No." Tom took a step back and shook his head a little too vehemently.

Jake nodded and grinned. "I think you were. You're in love with Trudy?" His smile faded and heavy sympathy softened his gaze. "I didn't know it was that serious."

Tom shook his head again as if to argue, but he deflated a second later and lowered his eyes, sighing heavily in defeat. "Neither did I."

All humor vanished from Jake's expression. "I'm sorry, Tommy."

Tom nodded slowly. "Me too."

-To be continued

Chapter Text

In the end, Tom did end up choosing to return to Hometree with his brother for a few days, despite his reservations over being around Tanhi. In the morning he packed a backpack full of clothing, a microbiology kit, a first aid kit and some odds and ends that he thought he might need while he was away. He found Max in the cafeteria having breakfast but the bio-engineer was sitting with Trudy along with Dr. Jacobs, one of the other pilots and Dr. Olson. Rather than interrupt their meal and face an awkward, painful situation, Tom waited until Max bused his tray and started leaving the cafeteria. He met him at the exit to explain that he would be away for a little while.

"I'm going with Jake to Hometree, to visit Norm and my nephew for a few days," Tom informed him. "I'm not sure how long I'll be gone but it should only be for a few days. I'm sorry I didn't give earlier notice than this, Dr. Patel."

Max regarded him with mildly sympathetic eyes. "You're well within your rights to come and go as you please, Dr. Sully. I think a little time away might be good for you."

Tom looked over Max's head into the cafeteria, where Trudy still sat chatting with her fellow pilot. "She spoke to you?"

Max nodded solemnly. "Yes, she did. For what it's worth, I don't think either of you are at fault for this, Tom. Sometimes these things just happen, and they don't always work out. Maybe it's for the best after all, considering your differences."

Tom glanced across the distance, where Katherine and Sebastian sat together at another table. The couple seemed comfortably affectionate with each other, smiling at one another as if they couldn't help it. He envied them and he wondered why he and Trudy couldn't make it work the way they did.

"I appreciate that, Max." Tom returned his attention to the other doctor and shook his hand. "And I'm glad Trudy has a friend like you to count on. Would you tell her..." he trailed off and frowned, shaking his head. There was no message he could give to Trudy that would help the situation. When his heartache was more bearable, he would rather apologize to her face. "Never mind. Don't tell her anything. Just look out for her, will you?"

"Always," agreed Max sincerely. "Have a safe, relaxing trip."

The flight to Hometree was uncomfortable for Tom, but he made no verbal complaints. Being a passenger on an Ikran didn't allow for relaxation and by the time he and Jake landed in the nesting area of the gigantic tree, the biologist's thighs and back were sore. Jake seemed to realize he was stiff from the flight and he insisted on taking Tom's backpack and carrying it for him.

"You'll get used to riding ikrans and direhorses, eventually," Jake assured him.

"How do you figure?" Tom grunted as he followed his brother to the arch leading into the interior of the giant tree.

Jake smiled. "I'm going to convince you to become one of the People, sooner or later. Maybe while you're here I can get you started on learning how to ride horseback. If I can do it, you can."

Tom lowered his gaze. "Are you so sure I'm cut out to do any of that? I can't live with the tribe and do my research at the same time, unless I do a lot of traveling back and forth."

Jake shrugged. "We'll find a workaround for that, somehow." He stopped outside the archway and regarded Tom seriously. "You're my brother. You've got it in you. I've just got to convince you it's worth trying."

"You're really determined to bring me into this, aren't you?" Tom couldn't decide whether he was touched or annoyed. "Aren't the Omaticaya getting a little tired of outsiders pouring in to join their clan?"

Jake laughed and clapped him on the shoulder, shaking his head. "Not the ones they know they can trust. Besides, another healer would be welcome. Just think about it, Tommy. You might get used to it and start liking it, if you give life with the clan a try."

Tom sighed. "We'll see."

It was beyond him to comprehend how she did it, but Neytiri took one look into his eyes when she greeted him and she knew the pain he was in. Her smile was welcoming and sympathetic on him and she offered to let him hold his nephew. Tom accepted, glad to get the chance to familiarize himself with the baby.

"He's growing fast," Tom murmured as he cradled the infant and smiled down at him. "He was a lot lighter than this, the last time I held him."

Neytiri stroked her son's cheek and nodded in agreement. "Mother told me that children grow too quickly. She was right. His teeth are coming in and soon, I will begin weaning him from the breast."

Tom was surprised by that, until he remembered that Na'vi babies matured more quickly than human ones. The natives were adapted to the world around them and in their dangerous environment; it was only natural that the children grow out of the helpless stages of life sooner.

"Will you miss it?" Little Tommy started to fuss a bit and Tom cradled him to his chest and bounced him gently, settling him down.

Neytiri shrugged. "I will be happy to have more freedom, but sad to lose the bond of nursing him." She tilted her head. "Is that strange?"

"No," Tom assured her. "Not at all. I've heard a lot of women express those same feelings when nursing isn't required anymore." He absently straightened the baby's cloth diaper when it went askew and he allowed Tommy to suck on his finger when the infant grabbed it.

Neytiri watched with a smile and she put an arm around Jake's waist when he came up beside her. "Tom will make a good father, some day," she predicted.

Tom took the compliment in stride, though inwardly he wondered if he would ever get the chance to experience parenthood. He stroked the baby's soft hair and he felt the small, delicate tendrils beneath it in the back of the skull.

"His queue is growing," Tom observed. "How long does it take to reach maturity?"

"The time it takes to grow is different for each Na'vi," Neytiri obliged. "It will continue to grow as he does. It will be down to his waist by his third year of life."

Jake leaned down and nuzzled his son's cheek when Tommy cradled him horizontally again. "We'll have to start braiding his hair around it soon."

Tommy began to fuss again and this time, his uncle wasn't able to pacify him. A pungent smell reached Tom's nostrils and he grimaced. "I think Tommy is ready for a fresh diaper."

"I'll take care of it," Jake said, holding his arms out for the infant.

Tom handed him over and Neytiri watched her mate carry their son into one of the den alcoves. Her smile was fond on Jake and Tom found himself smiling with her. "I have to be honest, I never pictured Jake as the kind of father that would willingly change soiled diapers."

Neytiri looked at him with puzzlement. "Dy-purrs?"

"Baby wraps," Tom revised, remembering the Na'vi term for nappies.

"Oh." She grinned, her amber eyes lighting up with amusement. "This surprised me too. My Jake is a very devoted father."

"He is," agreed Tom with a thoughtful glance in the direction of the hide curtain Jake had disappeared behind. "I'm very happy for him."

"But your eyes are sad," observed Neytiri softly. She reached out and placed a gentle hand on Tom's shoulder. "My eyes were sad like that when I drove my Jake away. Is it a woman?"

Tom swallowed to ease the sudden tightness in his throat. "I don't know how you do that, Neytiri."

"Do what?"

"See into people like that." Tom gave her a rueful smile. "Yes, I'm pining for a woman."

"It is a Tsahik's duty to observe her people's spirits." Neytiri said it as if she had rehearsed it before and Tom guessed the explanation was part of her training. "Do you think this woman of yours will come back to you, Tom?"

He shook his head. "Not a chance. I wish it were different but this woman isn't the sort to back down, once she has her mind made up."

Neytiri's expression of sympathy deepened. "You sound very certain of that."

"I am. What's more, I'm starting to think she was right to reject me. She's human. Our relationship would have been barren, confusing and difficult. I...I'm not really one of them anymore, at least not in body."

"Then what are you?" Neytiri prompted, her eyes searching his face.

It was a simple question, but it stunned Tom to his very core. His eyes unfocused and a chill swept through him as he turned the inquiry over in his mind and tried to find an answer to it.

"I don't know," he whispered finally, horrified.

Neytiri placed a hand on his shoulder and gazed into his eyes. Her voice was soothing as she spoke. "With time, you may find out."

That night, Tom sat outside of Hometree in the grass and gazed up at the stars and the beautiful, luminescent glow of Polyphemus. He was searching his soul for answers, conflicted between the world he came from and the one he was attempting to integrate into. He had nothing on Earth to go back to, which was why he had agreed to undergo his transformation in the first place. His parents had been deceased for years and waking up to hear the lie that his brother was dead only compounded his resolve. With no other family and only a handful of friends back home, he had no regrets...until now.

He couldn't go back to what he was. He couldn't be with Trudy. He couldn't be with Tanhi. He knew the Na'vi language and customs, but he couldn't let go of his old life completely and embrace them. Jake might talk like a human, but he had the heart of an Omaticaya warrior now. Tom thought his twin's unyielding faith that he could adopt their ways was misplaced, but perhaps—as Neytiri suggested—Tom simply hadn't found himself yet.

~Who are you?~

"I'm Tom Sully," he whispered aloud in answer to his own mental question.

The words meant nothing to him. It was only a name.

~What are you?~

"I'm...a human in a Na'vi body." No, that wasn't right. It tasted like denial on his lips and he understood then how lame it must have sounded to Trudy when he said it to her. He had Na'vi senses, desires and emotions now, blending in with the human. He wondered if the force of his pain and regret would have been this strong if he were still in his human body. Was his attraction to Tanhi only a symptom of his Na'vi urges? Was his attachment to Trudy just a product of his humanity, struggling to survive?

Tom drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them, lowering his head. He needed the answers...needed to know that he had an identity beyond a name. He felt something lightly brush against his forearm in a spidery caress and he lifted his head, somewhat alarmed. Instead of a poisonous spider or insect, he found himself looking at a seed of the great tree. It rested lightly on his forearm, just beneath the rolled up sleeve of his shirt. More drifted over to him and he sighed as they began to settle on him.

"What do you want?" he muttered. "Stop pestering me."

The atokirina didn't listen. Tom blew irritably at them but within moments, he was covered from head to foot with the glowing, willow-like seeds. He sighed and got to his feet, hoping that they would leave him alone if he headed back inside. He turned around to find himself face-to-face with Tanhi and he gave a start of surprise. The light from the seeds reflected in her amber gaze as she studied him.

"Eywa wants something from you," Tanhi murmured, her eyes flicking over the bothersome atokirina that blanketed his body.

"And just what might that be?" Tom muttered, thoroughly fed up with ghostly seeds and fickle women.

Tanhi shook her head, the beads in her hair clinking together musically. "I am not Tsahik. The gift of understanding Eywa's will is not mine."

"That's funny," Tom said, his emotions boiling to the surface, "because I could swear this always happens to me whenever you're around. Did you put these things up to it?"

She blinked. "I am not Eywa. I cannot tell the atokirina what to do, Tomsully."

He compressed his lips. "But you can tell me what to do, right? You can just snap your fingers and expect me to roll over like a dog for you."

An expression of mingled offense and confusion spread over her features. "What is this anger? I have done nothing to earn it."

He took a deep breath. Of course, she didn't understand his anger. They had parted on good terms the last time they spoke so she had no reason to think he was frustrated with her. "I'm sorry," he apologized. "I know that wasn't fair of me. I'm just in a very bad mood."

She tilted her head, animal-like with absurdly innocent curiosity. "Why are you in a 'bad mood', Tomsully?"

He gave her a sardonic, humorless smile. "Because of another woman. It really has nothing to do with you."

"Another...woman?" Tanhi's face went through an interesting spasm of emotions, so quickly they were impossible to identify. "What woman?"

"What does it matter to you?" He challenged. "You made it very clear that you only wanted my body that night. What I have inside doesn't matter to you at all, so why should you care who the other woman is?"

" not care," she insisted. More forcibly, she added: "you are free to mate with whomever you wish. I was only curious."

"She's a human woman," he obliged succulently. "A pretty little warrior with dark hair and eyes."

Something very interesting happened, then. Tanhi's eyes flashed with what could only be jealous anger. "A human?"

"I thought you said I'm free to mate with whomever I wish?" he reminded.

"You are. I only expected you to name a sister of the People, not some weak little Sky Person."

Tom gave her another shark-like smile, inwardly enjoying the opportunity to take out his frustrations on one of the women responsible for them. "She isn't weak. In fact, she could probably do some damage to you in a fight—human or not."

She snorted. "If you care for her, you will not tempt me to prove you wrong."

"Why would you be tempted to do that?" Tom challenged. "I'm just a penis to you, remember?"

She stared owlishly at him. "Have you been eating glow worms, Tomsully? You are a whole man...not a single part of one."

"You could have fooled me," he laughed. It was an ugly sound, matching the turmoil inside of him. The seeds were disturbed by his angry gestures and the harsh sound of his voice. They scattered away from him but hovered nearby, waiting to swarm again.

"Your anger is misplaced," Tanhi tried to reason. "This...this human female angered you somehow."

"She reeled me in and tossed me away, just like you," Tom said. "You're both alike."

"I am nothing like a sky person," Tanhi hissed.

"But you'll mate with one, as long as he's in a Na'vi body." Tom knew he should quit before he passed the point of no return but he just couldn't stop himself. "You and Trudy are the same. You're both too scared of committing because it might force you to compromise with someone."

Tanhi's fists clenched at her sides and her eyes narrowed dangerously. Though deceptively petite in build for a Na'vi, the chieftess was quite menacing when angry. "You are not a Sky Person, even if you try to act like one. Do not speak that name again."

"What name: Trudy?" He was taunting her, releasing all of his pent-up emotions. He stepped closer to her and stared into her eyes. "Trudy could kick your ass."

Her retaliation to the barb came in the form of a sudden, violent shove against his chest. Tom wasn't prepared for it and he stumbled and fell backwards. The wind was knocked out of him as he struck the ground and Tanhi advanced on him with fire in her eyes.

"I kick your ass now!" She spoke broken English, because there were no Na'vi phrases to match the human slang.

"Try it," Tom coughed.

He rolled aside as she dove at him, narrowly avoiding her tackle. She lunged at him and he caught her wrists and rolled with her, pinning her beneath him. For a few brief moments, he had the upper hand due to his greater body strength. Tanhi was a trained huntress though, and years of practice gave her an edge that made up for the strength disparity. She braced her feet on the earth and bucked her hips upward so violently that Tom was thrown off, rolling onto his stomach.

He tried to recover but she anticipated it and the next thing he knew, she was clinging to him like a hunter taming an angry ikran. Her slim thighs were surprisingly powerful as they squeezed him around the waist and she grabbed each of his wrists as he tried to lever himself up. He shouted a startled curse as she yanked his wrists forcibly, putting him off-balance. His breath escaped his lungs again as his chest impacted with the ground. While he was stunned, Tanhi pulled his arms behind his back and Tom felt something being wound around his wrists. He realized in a daze that she was binding them with her hunting bola. By the time he regained the wits to react, his hands were securely tied behind his back.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he growled, struggling beneath her. Her weight pinned him down and he couldn't use his hands, bound as they were. Humiliation blended in with his rage.

"Fnu," Tanhi grunted demandingly.

"Make me," snarled Tom.

He shouldn't have said that. He realized his mistake when she tugged on his queue painfully and forced his head back. He had no choice but to arch his throat and tilt his chin up to relieve the pressure. Tanhi's hot breath tickled his right ear as she spoke into it.

"You challenged. I accepted. Now I will punish you for being a skxawng, Tomsully. You owe me tsap'alute!"

"Like hell, I do," he grunted, squirming beneath her.

"The Tomsully I know is honorable and gentle," she murmured, her voice softening with something resembling wistfulness. "Where is he now?"

Tom would have liked to know the answer to that question, himself. Where was he now? His mind conjured up an image of himself, lying there on his stomach, hog-tied and having a temper-tantrum like a spoiled child. Mortification quickly replaced anger and his struggles weakened. Breathing heavily, he stopped fighting her and shut his eyes.

"I don't know where that Tom Sully is right now," he whispered past an aching throat. "But I am sorry that I took my frustration out on you. You've been honest with me and I knew what I was getting into, with you."

That was twice in under ten minutes he had apologized to her for being a dick. Maybe he deserved to be humiliated like this. Tom tensed in surprise when she let go of his braid and got off of him. He struggled onto his side and looked up at her uncertainly. Her golden eyes caressed him silently for a moment before she spoke.

"I accept your apology, Tom-ee. Now, you calm down. I will retire and we can talk tomorrow." With that said, she turned on her heel and walked away, leaving him lying there with his wrists still bound tightly behind his back. Her hips swayed gracefully and she her tail swung in a lazy manner, back and forth.

"Hey," Tom called out, "aren't you forgetting something?"

"No," she answered over her shoulder, shooting a brief grin his way before moving on.

Tom's jaw dropped as he watched the chieftess stroll out of sight. "Unbelievable," he muttered. The atokirina came back and he squirmed and blew at them desperately as they settled onto his body once more.

"Why don't you make yourself useful and untie me?" he grumbled to the seeds.

They didn't comply, of course.

"Psst, Norm! Can you come here for a minute?"

Norm paused on his way to relieve his bladder and he looked around with a frown. "Tom? Or is that Jake?"

"It's Tom," called the hushed male voice. "I'm over here behind the Baja tree. I could use a little help."

Norm grimaced, his mind conjuring unsavory images. "Did you forget to bring leaf wipes or something?" He could just see Tom's head poking out from the other side of the plant.

Tom snorted. "It's not that kind of problem. Just come here, would you?"

Norm approached, warily curious. When he circled around behind the tree, he saw what the matter was and he gave his friend a puzzled frown. "How did you manage that?"

"By angering a seasoned huntress," answered Tom ruefully. "She left me like this and I wasn't about to walk into the den looking for help."

Norm smirked through his puzzlement and urged Tom to turn around so that he could free him from the contraption binding his wrists. "It's none of my business, but I'll admit I'm curious about the details."

"It was Tanhi," Tom sighed.

Understanding, Norm grimaced. "What did you do to make her mad? She didn't do this because you turned down another night in her tent, did she?"

Tom shook his head. "No. I probably earned this. I took out my frustration over Trudy on her and insulted her...several times."

Norm had heard all about what happened with Trudy. Tom confided in him earlier that day and while it was shocking to hear that he had almost hooked up with the spirited pilot, Norm believed everything he told him. The pain in Tom's eyes was too genuine to be feigned. Norm struggled with the knot in the bola and glanced up. "Did you tell her about Trudy?"

"Yes. Stupid of me, right?"

"Sorry, but yes." Norm got the knot undone and he started unwinding the cord. "It's not like you to be so thoughtless, Tom. I'd expect more tact from you."

"I know," Tom sighed. The binds came free and he turned around to face Norm, rubbing the soreness from his wrists. "I suppose I thought she wouldn't care. At first, I was just explaining why I was angry but then she reacted when I said it was because of another woman. Something took hold of me and I wanted to see if I could push her buttons."

Norm's brows furrowed. "Why would you want to do that?"

"I don't know," Tom answered with a helpless shrug. "I just feel so...lost. I don't know who I am anymore or what I want. I suppose I wanted to find out if Tanhi had any real feelings for me. If it really was just about sex, then logic would dictate that she'd just shrug off news of another woman as inconsequential."

"Clearly, it wasn't inconsequential to her," Norm said dryly, "Either that, or your insults provoked her."

"She told me to stop saying Trudy's name," Tom announced with a flash of satisfaction in his eyes.

Norm nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah, that would indicate jealousy. But if you're trying to get over Trudy, why are you baiting Tanhi?"

Tom lowered his gaze and shook his head. "Like I said, I'm not sure why I do anything anymore. I promised myself I would swear off women after what happened with Trudy this week. My plans were to get sunk into my work and stay the hell away from the opposite gender, of both species. Seeing Tanhi again made me wonder if something could be there. I know I shouldn't rush into anything and rebound on her, but a part of me needs to know."

"The part that's becoming Na'vi?" Norm guessed, giving him a sympathetic look. He could tell that Tom was fighting against embracing the foreign urges he felt.

Tom took a slow breath and nodded, appearing ashamed. "I can't confide in Jake with this. He's too determined to integrate me into the clan and I don't want to disappoint him. I think I'm losing my humanity, Norm. My purpose for coming here feels distant now, like it was someone else's goal. I still want to help the people on Earth and our friends at Hell's Gate, but with each passing day, I feel more detached from them. At the same time, I don't feel I belong with the Na'vi either. Did you feel like that after you passed through the eye of Eywa?"

Norm shook his head, his concern growing sharper. "No. But by then, I'd already embraced the Na'vi way of life. Maybe you're just under too much stress, with everything that's happened. You're not giving your mind a rest, Tom. Even when you aren't working, I can tell your gears are still grinding. Power the machine down, okay? Just for a week or so. You're really starting to worry me."

Tom laughed humorlessly and ran his fingers through his hair. Some of the strands had come loose in his struggles and the unkempt look suited his obvious state of emotional turmoil. He looked at Norm with tortured golden eyes.

"I don't know if it's possible for me to turn off the machine. Like you said, even when I'm not physically working on something, my mind is going over things I've discovered and possibilities for future endeavors. When I'm not thinking about my research, I'm thinking about Trudy. When I'm not thinking of her, I'm thinking of Tanhi. The few minutes of the day when those thoughts aren't occupying my mind, I'm worrying about what's happening on that ISV orbiting out there and whether Jill and the others that chose to go back are safe. If you can devise a way for me to turn my thoughts off, please let me know."

Norm decided not to press the issue further. He laid a comforting hand on Tom's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "Why don't you come inside and join everyone at the fire pit? Ni'nat's going to be singing tonight and we'll be passing around nectar. It might relax you a little."

Tom blew a sigh and nodded. "All right. I'm going to watch how much I drink this time, though."

Norm smiled. "I can really identify with that."

"Jake, I don't think I want to try sleeping in a hammock while I'm here."

Jake sighed and turned to look at his brother, one foot poised over the first branch of the natural stairway. "Why not?" He was getting a little tired of Tom's reluctance to try out the clan's ways.

"Have you forgotten that I used to walk in my sleep?" Tom adjusted the backpack slung over his shoulder and frowned at him. "What do you think is going to happen to me if I decide to take a stroll in the night while I'm high in the branches of this tree?"

Jake winced. He actually had forgotten about Tom's escapades in the night. "But you haven't done that since we were teenagers. Have you started doing it again?"

"Not yet, but I've got confirmation that I've started talking in my sleep again. If I'm doing that, odds are the walking is going to follow."

"I'll gather some hides and a blanket for you," Jake decided. "There's a couple of empty alcoves in the den you can use as a bedroom while you're here. I don't want to wake up to find you lying dead on the ground with a broken neck."

Tom smiled a little sheepishly. "Sorry to be so much trouble, Jake."

"Nah. You're family and I want you safe."

Neytiri carefully eased Tommy into the sling that hung close to the hammock she shared with her mate. The device was sturdy and supportive, designed to cradle the infant in the night. It hung close enough for his parents to easily see to his needs, should he fuss or require feeding. She closed the top of it, sealing it like a protective cocoon with the breathable material. The cover would keep the infant dry if it began to rain. Jake stood beside her on the branch and he rubbed her upper arms affectionately as he watched her secure their son.

"I wish that Sempul and Sylwanin could see him," Neytiri whispered with a bittersweet smile. "They would be proud."

At the mention of her deceased father and older sister, Jake kissed her shoulder and embraced her gently from behind. "They see him through Eywa."

Neytiri turned to face him and she smiled up at him with pleasure, finding the pang in her heart more bearable. She reached up and caressed his features with her fingertips. He truly had become one of the People. He thought like an Omaticaya now, but his personality was still the same as always and she wouldn't change that for the world.

"You have learned much, my Jake. Thank you for reminding me that our Great Mother watches over our loved ones in the spirit world."

She slid her hand behind is head and drew him down for a kiss. He obligingly responded to it, tenderly at first and then with greater passion. Neytiri loved his kisses. She had experimented with males before him and it had left her feeling that kissing wasn't so important—until Jake's mouth caressed hers for the first time. She had never felt true passion, until that moment. Now the seductive motions of his lips and tongue stirred heat within her. Her melancholy faded as his hands caressed her back and hips, the fingers teasingly skimming over her bottom without fully touching it.

Neytiri pressed closer to her mate and slid her free hand down his back, aching for him. Jake used to be conservative by her people's standards, never engaging in kissing like this in such a public setting. He certainly never would have mated with her where any of the other tribe members could guess what they were doing. Over time, Neytiri carefully wore down some of the inhibitions placed on him by his human upbringing, until she could touch him more intimately without dragging him off to the forest.

After the birth of their son, private time together became even more of a commodity and they couldn't very well leave Tommy unsupervised. The first time Neytiri convinced Jake to mate in the hammock was awkward and his self-consciousness made him clumsy. He nearly flipped the hammock and sent them both falling to the ground, in fact. She could well imagine her people's reaction to seeing their Olo'eyktan and future Tsahik falling naked out of the tree. It took her a week of coaxing, encouragement and teasing to finally convince him to try it again. Now his confidence was much improved and he was often the one to initiate intimacy in their bedding.

Neytiri gasped into his mouth as Jake lifted her against him suddenly, his tongue thrusting, curling and seeking inside of her mouth. She forgot where she was and she started to wrap her thighs around his waist, recalling the first night they had begun trying to conceive their child and how he had taken her against a tree.

Jake broke the kiss and lowered her back to the branch, grinning. "Don't get carried away," he whispered huskily. "I think it would raise a few eyebrows if we did it right here in the open."

Neytiri caught her breath and nodded, grinning back with slight mortification. Some modesty had to be maintained, after all. Even the Omaticaya had limits to how openly a couple could conduct their courtships before it was considered improper. It was difficult to remember social etiquette with the hard planes of his strong body pressed against hers. The evidence of his desire tenting his loincloth made it even more difficult for her to retain her wits.

Jake climbed down into the hammock and reached a hand up to her invitingly, his eyes promising to finish what they had started. Neytiri gladly joined him, taking his offered hand as she eased in with him. He pulled her on top of his body with a mischievous, charming grin before pulling the woven material closed around them. It didn't offer an opaque shield from prying eyes but the fibrous cocoon did conceal enough to prevent a clear view from the outside.

Jake's lips caressed her throat and his hands roved over her back and bottom, cupping and stroking. He shifted beneath her, pressing his arousal between her thighs through their loincloths. Neytiri murmured in delight, loving the feel and scent of his masculinity. She stroked his biceps, admiring the muscle tone before moving onto his chest. She angled her head to capture his lips and she invaded with her tongue, the moment they parted. He made a purring sound in his throat and his tail entwined with hers. She felt his erection throb against her thigh and she slid one of her hands down, stroking his abdomen in passing before gripping the jutting member through the concealing loincloth.

"Neytiri," Jake murmured over her lips with appreciation. He flexed his hips encouragingly, pushing his swollen arousal into her grip.

"My Jake," she sighed, fascinated as always by his reactions and the feel of his stiffened shaft in her hand.

He began to fondle her breasts beneath her necklace and she kissed him again, making soft, needy sounds in her throat as he stroked her nipples to tingling sensitivity. His touch was gentle, mindful of tenderness from nursing. His breath was quickening, fluttering over her lips and chin between kisses. He reached down to stop her hand's massage on his groin, gasping a soft warning. She smiled at him and allowed him to pull her hand away from his arousal, reaching for her queue instead. Jake likewise retrieved the end of his and they both sighed with pleasure when tsahaylu was established.

Jake rolled his body carefully, taking her with him until they were lying on their sides. He urged her to turn around and put her back to him. When she complied, he resumed his seductive touch on her body and she pushed backwards against him restlessly, wriggling her hips to rub against the straining bulge between his thighs.

"Naughty," Jake chastised breathlessly, rocking his hips to grind himself against her. "Is there something you want, beautiful?" His lips sucked at the skin on her neck, provoking a moan of need from her.

Damp with arousal and losing patience, Neytiri slipped her fingers under the cover of her loincloth and pushed the material aside, whimpering softly. Her non-verbal response was evidently more pleasing than words to him. He growled her name softly and stopped caressing her body to shift his own loincloth and free his erection. She felt the silken knob of his glans nudge between the delicate folds around her entrance and she whispered his name urgently. It penetrated for a moment and withdrew, slippery with the evidence of her need.

"Do not tease," she warned in a tight voice. She felt his mouth smile against her neck before he drove forward again. Her breath caught on a gasp and her eyes fluttered shut as his thickness eased deeper and deeper into her. "Jake."

His hand burrowed into her loincloth from the front and she struggled to hold back a moan of delight as the pads of his fingers began to stroke the tender little nub crowning her womanhood. The touch ignited throbs of intense delight and she undulated her hips, turning her head for a kiss. He obliged her as he began to move in a steady, slow rhythm. The hammock swung gently with Jake's careful motions; he had learned to temper his vigor when they mated in it.

The baby whimpered and both of them went still abruptly, prepared to sacrifice their pleasure for his needs, if he continued to complain. When Tommy quieted again, Jake sighed with relief and resumed. Knowing that their mating could be interrupted at any time, Neytiri strove to bring release to them both sooner. Jake's fingers skillfully strummed her clit and she used her inner muscles, clenching each time he pulled out and relaxing when he thrust in again. She felt his intense pleasure through the link and she knew he felt hers as well.

Jake's grunts and groans picked up in volume and Neytiri panted a warning to him, reminding him to keep his voice down so as not to disturb their son or the nearby occupants in the other hammocks. She contradicted herself a moment later when his shaft eased in at an angle and depth that made her blurt a shaken moan.

"Practice preach," Jake muttered with a breathless chuckle. He lowered his forehead to her shoulder and panted, his tail whipping around reflexively as his climax approached.

Neytiri felt the rising tension in him and his ecstasy fed hers. Their motions became erratic as they both struggled toward the release awaiting them. Jake's free arm was propping him up and Neytiri reached for his hand, squeezing it tightly as his touch and pumping brought her to the edge and over it. He hissed and returned the pressure of her hand, while the fingers of his other hand slowed their stroking on her sensitized nub. Neytiri bit her lip to muffle her cries as her body clenched rhythmically around his twitching cock, milking Jake's seed from him. His body went tense against her back and his breath halted for a moment as he was overcome.

"Damn, that was hot," Jake sighed when he recovered enough to speak.

Neytiri chuckled and rubbed his arm, enjoying the intimacy of his softening flesh resting snugly inside of her. "Your words are still strange at times."

"But you like them, admit it." Jake's lips pressed soft, brief kisses along her shoulder and neck.

"Yes, they are entertaining," she agreed with a smile.

Tanhi lay on her back with her fingers laced behind her head, staring up at the roof of her tent. She could see the stars through the small opening in the top of the structure that was meant to allow fresh air in. She thought of Tomsully as she watched the twinkling, celestial dots of light. She wondered if she should be blaming him or herself for the argument they had earlier. She had told him before that she didn't want a mate, and didn't care if he mated with other women. She had meant it at the time, but as the days went by found herself thinking of his voice, his touch and his nobility.

Her body yearned for him and the one mating encounter she had with another male while he was away proved disappointing. The male she had bedded was one of her clan mates, eager for her attention but unwilling to compromise, the way Tom was. Unsatisfied with the encounter, she found herself giving into fantasies about her absent toktor and the way he had easily traded dominance of the encounter back and forth, never complaining even when she stimulated him to the breaking point. He allowed her to touch him however she wished and he paid careful attention to her reactions, hardly needing verbal instruction at all to please her.

Perhaps that was why it bothered her so much, to hear that he had another woman in his life while he was away. He hadn't exactly specified that they mated but Tanhi had no reason to believe otherwise...especially given his anger at this Trudy of his. The jealousy struck her without warning and while she was reeling with that, he taunted her. He sensed it and he used it as a weapon.

Tomsully was a kind man, or so she had thought. Why then, had he been so deliberately cruel and confrontational with her? She didn't understand. She thought he was content with their arrangement but he spoke as if he wanted more from her. If he wanted more, why was he pursuing some human woman? More importantly, why did his words hurt the way they had? He spoke as if she had used him. She expected better of him, after he stopped the evil dreamwalker from violating her body. He should know she wouldn't use him, of all people. She respected him.

The thought made her frown. Yes, she respected him. That was a problem. If mating without a commitment truly made him feel used, then she should curb her desire to share her pallet with him. She should keep her distance and show him that she respected him. Doing so posed another dilemma to her, because she wanted him in her bedding again. She wanted that body thrusting passionately between her thighs, wanted that mouth gasping in pleasure, wanted those eyes gazing into hers.

She was confident that she could have all of that again with the right persuasion, but seducing him wasn't respectful and his heart was obviously troubled. She had two other choices she could make. The first choice was possibly the safest one: to leave him be and keep her distance. The second option was to comfort him, let him in and possibly break her vow never take a mate.

~I swore I would never do it. That day...I will never forget what it felt like when...~

She shut her eyes and sighed as the grief she thought she had banished rose in her breast. It still ached, but it was bearable now. She was alive and she had her needs, so she saw to them. Despite her people's insistence that she was too young to swear off seeking a mate forever, she remained determined.

Tanhi smirked. Her people would not be happy if she chose an outsider as her mate. Doing so would probably cost her the leadership of her clan at best, exile at worst. Unless Tomsully passed a series of trials and got formally initiated into one of the great clans, mating before Eywa with him would be inexcusable.

~I do not want a mate, so why do I even consider these things?~

Perhaps it was because she discovered that she actually did care about him sharing his body with another woman. The thoughts circled around in Tanhi's head and she couldn't find her rest no matter how she tossed and turned. She kept considering options, discarding them and then considering them over again. After the way he had acted earlier, she wondered if she was torturing herself for nothing. Even if she considered pursuing something more than commitment-free pleasure with him, he may no longer be interested.

A commotion from outside made her ears perk and Tanhi sat up on the pallet, listening. Peyla was speaking to someone, demanding to know what they were doing. Tanhi frowned curiously as she listened as the woman made another sharp demand.

Deciding to see what the fuss was about, Tanhi put her concealing necklace on and got up. She ducked out of her tent and she wondered if Eywa had been listening to her troubled thoughts. Lo and behold, there was Tomsully, stumbling through her people's camp with a blank stare. He was wearing a pair of the track pants favored as sleepwear by the Sky People and he mumbled something strange when Peyla asked him again what he was doing there.

"I lost something," Tom said absently, his eyes staring off into the distance.

Tanhi quickly approached and she waved people away reassuringly. "Tomsully, what have you lost?" she asked in a low voice.

He stopped walking at the sound of her voice, but his eyes didn't focus on her. "I can't remember. I have to find it again."

Tanhi exchanged a look with Peyla and the latter waved her hand over Tom's face. His eyes didn't follow the motion; they remained blank and heavy-lidded.

"He is not awake, Olo'eyktan," announced Peyla. A crooked smile graced her lips. "The Dreamwalker is walking a dream."

"Your humor is not appropriate," Tanhi remonstrated, gazing up at Tom with concern she couldn't quite mask. "People who do this have wandered into the forest and died from animal attacks, or drowned in a lake."

"Then wake him," suggested Peyla.

Tanhi smiled faintly at her. Peyla would be next in line to take over the clan, should something happen to her or if she never produced offspring. She had a good head for battle, hunting and command but Peyla wasn't familiar with dream sickness or subtlety.

"Waking him would not be good," Tanhi explained. She took Tom's arm when he started to move again, gently stopping him. "He does not know where he is and he could strike out in confusion. I will care for him."

"Of course, sister." Amusement flashed in Peyla's eyes, hinting that she had her suspicions concerning how Tanhi intended to care for him.

Tanhi ignored the sly look in the other female's expression and she took both of Tom's hands in hers and coaxed him toward her tent, walking backwards. "Come. You cannot stay out here. It is unsafe."


Tanhi felt that ugly emotion writhe within her and she compressed her mouth and pushed it aside. "No. Tanhi."

Tom's expression remained eerily slack. "Oh. Am I at Hometree?"

"Yes. Now come. You must rest."

"But I have to find it," he insisted.

Tanhi couldn't make sense of his words, so she tried to pacify him. "You can search for it in the morning. You will see better by daylight."

That seemed to appease him and he allowed her to lead him into her tent. Tanhi tied the entrance shut and coaxed Tom to lie down on her pallet. He was docile about it, complying with her urgings without complaint or resistance. She removed her necklace and hung it back on the rack before lying down beside him. His eyes were closed now and his breathing was deep and even. She smoothed aside a few loose locks of hair that had come free of his braid and she briefly traced his slumbering features with her fingertips. She moved her caress to his bare chest and stomach before scooting closer to him and putting an arm around his waist.

She wasn't sure what possessed her to cuddle him and she imagined he would be confused and displeased when he woke in the morning. Still, she thought she deserved something for the way he treated her, even if she did leave him tied up on the ground. She allowed herself to take a small liberty with him and she curled her fingers firmly around the base of his tail. She kissed his throat and clavicle as she began to massage him and she smiled as his lips parted and he sighed in his sleep.

"Shh...relax, Tom-ee," Tanhi murmured between kisses as he moaned softly and flexed his bottom.

She eased up on the pressure she was using, not wishing to wake him. She felt him harden against her thigh beneath the track pants he wore. It made her itch to stroke him there until he spilled his seed. She resisted and contented herself with the relatively innocent action of stimulating his tail. She rested her cheek against his smooth chest and listened to his heartbeat. He relaxed now that her touch was gentler and he unconsciously nuzzled her hair and returned her embrace.

Tanhi pleasured his tail until she drifted off to sleep with him. Her last thoughts were of what his reaction would be when he woke up in her arms.

-To be continued


Atokirina = Seeds of the sacred tree

Fnu = Be quiet

Skxawng = Moron

Tsap'alute = Apology

Ftang = Stop

Sempul = Father

Sylwanin = Neytiri's older sister, according to the original movie script. She died in Grace's schoolhouse, shot to death in front of Neytiri.

Toktor = Doctor

Chapter Text

Tom was understandably confused when he awoke. He felt smooth skin and feminine curves aligned with his body and his arm was around a slender waist. His thoughts immediately went to Trudy but his brain registered that though the body in his arms was petite, it wasn't human-sized. The memory of what happened between he and Trudy came back and a swift pang assaulted his heart. He opened his eyes and blinked the sleep from them, gathering his bearings.

Tanhi was lying next to him on her side, half-embracing him with her cheek pillowed on his arm. He likewise had one arm around her. She was fast asleep and Tom stared at her with a feeling of dread. He had no memory of coming to her tent...none at all. The last thing he recalled was lying down in the little alcove that Jake and Neytiri had set up for him to sleep in. Tanhi was bare-chested but the length of her multiple braids fell over her shoulder and concealed her breasts, somewhat.

With his heart thudding painfully in alarm, Tom looked down the length of their bodies for confirmation of what he suspected. When he saw that Tanhi's loincloth was intact and he still wore his track pants, he breathed easier. At least he hadn't made love to her last night and forgotten all about it. That would have made for an incredibly awkward conversation, provided she didn't intend to kick him out of her tent the moment she woke up.

Tom considered trying to ease away from her and sneak out. The last time he ended up in her tent, his attempts to initiate some morning tenderness were met with abrupt, yet polite shooing. This time, he had no idea how he got there or what he might have done. He suspected that his expressed fears of sleepwalking had come true during the night and Tanhi must have come across him wandering. He didn't know whether to be thankful or wary.

~I'm sure I would have woken up if we started fooling around, wouldn't I? Shit, would she have even known I wasn't awake? I can't remember ever reading anything about Na'vi suffering sleep disorders. Maybe it's only a human condition.~

He started to withdraw his arm from around her waist but as his fingers brushed against her skin, he found himself caressing it. Something about a woman's soft skin that always weakened him. He let his fingertips glide over her back, mindful not to let his hand wander. He really didn't know why he bothered trying to be a gentleman, considering that he'd already fondled and stroked every inch of her body once before.

~What are you doing, Tom? You're not in a good place right now to test the waters with this woman. Don't rebound on her, even if she says she's only having a good time with you.~

He sighed aloud before he realized he was doing it and the sound awoke Tanhi. Tom swore silently as her eyes fluttered open to regard him sleepily. Deciding he shouldn't just lay there staring at her, he spoke up.

"I don't want to be rude, but can you tell me how I got here, Tanhi?"

"You were moving in your sleep," she obliged in a voice husky with sleep. "My people found you wandering into our encampment, so I took you to my tent. You cannot wander in your sleep alone, Tomsully. Something could happen to you."

"I was afraid of that." Tom shut his eyes and shook his head. "I was hoping I would be wrong about that habit returning to me."

"It is not something you normally do?" Tanhi looked faintly puzzled.

"Not for many years," he answered. He tried not to let his eyes wander below her neck and he braced himself for discomfort. "Tanhi, is walking the only thing I did in my sleep?"

"You spoke." She shrugged. "But nothing more. You did not do it again once you laid down on my pallet." She smiled subtly at him. "What is it you think you might have done, Tomsully?"

He averted his eyes and shrugged. "What most men might do, if they were in a stupor with a beautiful, nearly naked female in their arms."

"You did not initiate anything," she assured him. She bit her lip and looked away. "I might have played a little, though."

Tom's eyebrows lifted. "Played how?"

"Only with your tail," she said defensively, her eyes daring him to lecture her.

Tanhi's expression of mixed defiance and guilt reminded Tom of a child caught spoiling her supper with sweets. He couldn't help it; he smiled. "You might as well have played with my—oh, never mind. I guess that's chaste enough." In truth, he wouldn't have expected Tanhi to practice that much restraint. Unfettered by human ideals of modesty, Na'vi women had no qualms about expressing themselves sexually to their partners and Tanhi was certainly no exception.

She proved this by running her hand over his chest and nuzzling his throat with her lips. "Now that you are awake, Tomsully..." she let the sentence hang and the sensual caress of her mouth and hand left little doubt where she was going with it.

Tom shut his eyes and fought against the urge to just give in and answer his body's natural desires. He shook his head and drew away from her, catching her hand in his. He looked into her eyes and saw disappointment there. He could relate. He had a common morning condition that obviously wasn't unique to human male physiology. Relieving it with a woman would have been fantastic, but he was more than a collection of flesh and hormones.

"Believe me, there's nothing more I'd like to do than lose myself in mating with you this morning," Tom pacified, "but our argument last night convinced me that would just be a mistake. I need time, Tanhi. I also need more than an occasional fling."

Her brows furrowed. "I do not intend to fling you anywhere."

Tom nearly chuckled. "It's an expression. Where I come from, it means to have casual sex—mating without any obligation to one another. Some men might think it's an ideal relationship to have but apparently, I'm not one of them. I don't know anything about you, really. I don't know your likes and dislikes, I don't know your favorite food or even your favorite color. If you really are interested in me, then I need more than mating. I'm sorry."

She sighed and nodded. "I thought so. I will respect your wishes, Tomsully." She pulled away from him and sat up, brushing her many braids back over her shoulders to cascade down her back.

Tom's mouth went slack as her breasts were entirely exposed to his view. His body instantly demanded that he hang his moral code and jump her. He cleared his throat and looked away as Tanhi reached for the intricate, woven necklace hanging on the rack hanging nearby. He felt her eyes on him as she slipped it on and adjusted it to conceal her chest—as much as the garment could conceal, anyhow.

"I should probably go now," Tom said, a husky note of desire creeping into his voice as he sat up. He looked at her again, now that she wasn't exposed. "I want to thank you for looking after me. I might not be here right now, if you hadn't. I also want to apologize again for taking things out on you."

"I did not mind watching over you," she answered graciously. Her yellow gaze lowered thoughtfully. "You have much to think of. I will wait for you to find an answer."

Tom paused at the tent exit, puzzled by her final sentence. What did she mean by that? He glanced at her and it could have been his imagination, but he thought her gaze was softer than usual on him.

"Have a good day, Olo'eyktan," Tom said in parting, for lack of anything better to say.

Norm was outside Hometree, taking care of laundry when Jake approached him with a worried look on his face.

"Norm, have you seen Tommy this morning?"

It took Norm a moment to realize that Jake was talking about his younger twin, and not his son. He took his and Ni'nat's freshly dried change of garments off of the rack and shook his head.

"I'm sorry, I haven't seen him yet. He isn't in the alcove you set up for him last night?"

Jake's expression of concern deepened. "No, he isn't there. I checked the pond and the den but he wasn't there, either. Where is Ni'nat? Maybe she's seen him."

"She's cooking our breakfast," answered Norm. "You must have passed right by her when you searched the den."

Jake swore under his breath. "I should have had someone keep an eye on him overnight. Tommy didn't want to sleep in a hammock because he was afraid his old sleeping habits were coming back. We might have to organize a search party if I don't find him soon...he might have wandered into the forest in his sleep."

Norm grimaced and draped the clothing articles over his arm. "That's not good. But I'm sure Tom is okay. He couldn't have gotten far without someone spotting him, so maybe you should check with the visiting clans and see if he wandered near any of their encampments. Someone would have recognized him and taken him in for the night if they saw him, Jake."

The chieftain looked around with anxious eyes. "Yeah, you're probably right."

Norm chose his next words carefully. "Can I offer you some advice?"

"What is it?"

Norm braced himself. "You need to stop worrying so much about Tom. He's only an hour younger than you and he's an adult. You also might want to start calling him 'Tom' instead of 'Tommy', especially if he's going to end up living here with us. It's going to get really confusing when your son gets older, you know."

Jake took it in stride, smirking good-naturedly. "I know I'm being a worry wart. It's hasn't been himself lately. Don't tell me you haven't noticed it."

"I've noticed." Norm thought of his own observations over how confused and moody Tom seemed. "He's got a lot on his plate right now, though."

"And I don't?" Jake snorted. "Leading a clan and keeping peace between visiting tribes isn't exactly a walk in the park."

"But you're more laid back than Tom is," Norm pointed out. "And Neytiri came back to you."

Jake opened his mouth, shut it and then nodded with a sigh. "Good point. I'll try to be a little more patient with him, since you put it that way. Right now I just want to make sure he's not a half-eaten carcass rotting in the wilds."

Norm was about to comment on that when he saw the object of their anxiety approaching in the distance, from the direction of the nearby Ikran encampment. Tom was still in his sleeping joggers and the rising sun silhouetted him from behind.

"You don't have to worry about him anymore, Jake." Norm nodded in Tom's direction.

Jake turned around and when he spotted his brother, he called out to him and waved him over. Tom obligingly changed his course and walked over to them. He looked well rested to Norm, lacking the dark circles around his eyes that had become so common lately.

"Your brother was about to call out a search party," Norm said with a smile of greeting as the other scientist approached. "Where did you end up last night?"

"In Tanhi's tent," answered Tom flatly. He shot them both a look, daring either of them to crack a joke.

Jake exchanged a brief look with Norm before answering. "That's cool. At least I know you were taken care of."

"It wasn't like that," Tom snapped, "We just slept."

Jake held his hands out defensively. "Okay, calm down. I didn't say a word, did I?"

Tom deflated and looked faintly shame-faced. "Sorry Jake. I'm just a little on edge. It seems like I've been apologizing for my behavior a lot, lately."

His calm lasted until several atokirina floated down from somewhere in the foliage above and began to hover over him. He glared at the offending seeds and pursed his lips. "Why do these damned things keep bothering me?"

Jake gave an easygoing smile as a few of them settled on him for a moment, before returning to his brother. "I'm no Tsahik but I'd say it means Eywa likes you. She's chosen you for something, brother."

"Chosen me for what, though?" Tom's voice was tense with frustration. "They've been bothering me ever since the Ikran village got raided. I've already helped free the clan and I stopped Lt. Phelps from carrying out his plans for Tanhi. What more can I do?"

Norm studied the floating seeds with interest. "You say they started showing up after the capture of the Ikran people? There must be some connection you haven't figured out yet. Do they come to you randomly now or is there some circumstance that sets them off?"

Tom shrugged. "I can't think of anything in particular, but it does seem to happen more whenever Tan—" He broke off in mid-word and stared at something behind Jake.

Jake and Norm looked to see Tanhi passing close by, on her way into the den. She was carrying a basket of food wraps, evidently going in to share with members of other clans as a gesture of diplomacy. Norm looked at Tom again and he noticed that the seeds swirled around his body as if in excitement. They settled down once more when Tanhi was out of sight and they floated away from Tom.

Norm looked at Jake with raised eyebrows. "So it has something to do with the Ikran Olo'eyktan."

Tom shook his head in denial. "There's nothing more I can do for her. It has to be something else."

Jake narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, glancing in the direction Tanhi had disappeared to before looking at his twin again. He looked as though he wanted to say something but he thought better of it and shrugged. "I can talk to Neytiri or Mo'at for you if you want. Maybe they can shed a little light on it."

"If they can, I'd be grateful," Tom sighed. "Where are they now?"

"They're helping with a birth," answered Jake. "It's going to be a few hours before they're available."

Seeing the crestfallen expression on Tom's face, Norm decided he needed to get away for a while. "Why don't you go fishing with Ni'nat and I? We'll be leaving in a little while and it's not far to ride."

Tom considered the offer before nodding. "All right. I'll eat and get cleaned up first, if you don't mind."

"Go ahead," Norm answered graciously. "You can have breakfast with us. There's plenty to go around. What about you, Jake? Do you want to come with?"

"I would, but I've got to be here for the birth of this new baby," answered Jake. "I've got to give the Chieftain's blessing to all newly born clan members."

"Right, I forgot about that." Norm smirked. "How does it feel to be revered like that?"

Jake shrugged. "I don't see it as much different than giving someone congratulations, you know? I just hold the baby up for everyone to see, announce its name and welcome it into the clan."

Tom smiled crookedly at him. "You love it, I can tell."

Jake chuckled. "You got me. I never knew I liked kids this much."

Norm and Ni'nat took Tom out into the forest with them later that morning, after having breakfast and getting cleaned up. Tom road double with Norm on the direhorse he chose and the three of them traveled a couple of miles away from the village, to Norm's favorite fishing spot. Ni'nat hummed softly as they traveled and Norm enjoyed the sound, giving her admiring smiles now and then. Tom was silent and broody—not surprising, given his most recent state of affairs.

It was obvious that Tom was trying to balance his two sides, struggling to accept his Na'vi side without losing his human one. Norm personally thought that Tom could be happy with the People, if he gave it a chance. There were ways to work around the conflict of research interests and village life; Norm did it all the time. He just needed to think of a way to accommodate Tom's career well enough to convince him. Norm's work didn't require a lab most of the time, so he was able to conduct his research more freely while living as a Na'vi. Tom, however, would need something more convenient than traveling back and forth to Hell's Gate.

"I have to admit, I'm impressed," Tom commented as he watched Norm make his first catch with the fishing arrow. "I never figured you for an archer, Norm."

"I'm not, really." Norm murmured the hunter's blessing to the fish as he pulled the arrow free and handed the catch to Ni'nat. "My aim is terrible when it comes to land hunting. Just ask my mate." He smiled at Ni'nat, who nodded with agreement and patted him on the arm.

"His fishing and gathering skills make up for that," insisted the huntress with a fond smile. She walked away to clean the catch near the temporary fire they had built.

When she was out of earshot, Tom leaned closer to Norm and spoke in a low voice. "What's the story with Tanhi? Do you have any idea why she's so adamant about never taking a mate?"

Norm considered him sidelong before fitting his arrow back into his bow. "Why, are you interested in changing her mind?"

"Let's just say I'm curious," Tom answered with a frown. "I don't know if there's anything there yet and I'm not sure when I'll be ready to explore it if there is. I just want to know more about her."

Norm lined up his arrow and studied the water for movement. "I don't know if I should be talking about her behind her back, Tom. I appreciate what you're saying but most of what I know is just hearsay. I think Tanhi is the one you should be asking, if you want to know more about her."

"And that's exactly what I'd be doing, if I thought she'd tell me anything." Tom's frustration was evident. "If you can enlighten me a little with anything...anything at all, it would help."

Norm thought about the rumors he'd heard concerning the Ikran chieftess and he weighed his obligations between friendship with Tom and respect for Tanhi. Finally, he decided to throw his old colleague a morsel, if only to appease him a bit.

"Something happened in her old village," Norm murmured. "Something bad. I don't know the details but the Ikran clan originally lived deeper in the forest. They moved to the coast when Tanhi took over. There's a lot of speculation over what drove them out but nobody wants to ask, out of social etiquette."

"Tribal warfare?" Tom whispered.

Norm shook his head. "I don't know. Whatever it was, it cut down the population by over half. That's all I can tell you."

Tom considered the information. "At least it gives me a hint. So, is there any reason to believe you and Ni'nat might be contributing to the birth rate, soon?"

Glad for the change of topic even though the subject made him a little uncomfortable, Norm glanced over his shoulder at his mate and smiled a little. "We're hoping to do that soon. Ni'nat's been really patient, but she wants a baby of her own. I see the way she looks at other people's infants and children. She never complains but I know she's envious."

"What about you?" prompted Tom, "are you ready to be a father?"

Norm chuckled, his aim wavering a little. "I'd better be. Sooner or later it's going to happen." He muttered the next sentence under his breath. "I hope."

"I'm sure it will," soothed Tom. He glanced at Ni'nat. "She seems like a very...fertile...woman."

Norm gave him a half-smile. "You don't have to speak in code. Most of the un-mated men in the village still haven't forgiven me for claiming the most beautiful woman in the clan."

Tom laughed softly and nodded. "I didn't want you to think I was leering at her."

Norm felt a rush of pride, though he knew it was shallow of him. "I can tolerate other men looking at her, Tom. Who could blame them? I have to admit, I wake up every morning thanking God, Eywa and every other deity that may or may not exist that a woman like her chose a geek like me. I know how lucky I am."

"I can't fault you for that," Tom said. "I imagine as soon as she's ready, you'll have her expecting in no time."

Norm flushed a little at the subtle observation of how often he coaxed Ni'nat away from Hometree to make love to her. "Let's hope you're right."

Tom couldn't deny the beauty of the forest surrounding him. All manner of ferns, mushrooms, trees and plants grew wild, without intervention or direction from humanoids. Some of the plant life was similar in color and appearance to those once found on Earth, while others were strange and alien. The electric blue penghrrap plant, known to humans as "binary sunshine", was one of Tom's favorites. He almost wished he could transfer one of them to a pot and keep it in his personal quarters on the base, but Norm said they were one of many "planimals" on Pandora. It had a simple nervous system and exhibited both plant and animal traits. The Na'vi word for it meant "danger teller", because the leaves lit up whenever the plant sensed danger nearby.

After eating the meal of fish that Norm and Ni'nat provided, Tom brushed his fingers over one of his favorite wild plants, smiling faintly at it. They were right; a trip into the forest did serve him some good.

"Thank you both for bringing me along," Tom said over his shoulder to the couple. "I do feel better. I just wish I could contribute something in return."

"You healed my Waytelem when she was injured," Ni'nat answered with a gentle smile. "You contribute with your medicine, Tom." She had dropped the common Na'vi habit of calling humans by their first and last names together, which made her sound more relaxed and less formal.

Tom was able to return her smile easily and he had to envy Norm a little for his good fortune. Ni'nat was as good a hunter as the next female but she was softer than most...more gentle-natured and demure. He wasn't foolish enough to believe that made her submissive, but he noticed that she rarely argued with Norm and she generally allowed him to hold the proverbial reins. Tom himself had a weakness for tough women but he had to admit, Norm had a good thing going for him.

Watching them together made him think of both Tanhi and Trudy. He knew there was no way in hell either of the feisty women he was drawn to would compromise the way Ni'nat did. He supposed he should find that unappealing but it only made them both more attractive to him. Evidently, he and Jake shared a common interest in assertive females, though Tom dared say his brother's relationship with Neytiri was quite balanced. A lot of their "arguments" were simply affectionate jibes toward one another and it was obvious to everyone that knew them. Jake and Neytiri had fun together, frequently smiling and laughing even as they picked on each other. That was the kind of relationship Tom could go for...provided he ever managed to settle with a woman who wouldn't run from him or put up blockades to keep him out.

Thoughts of Trudy made him remember that hurt look she gave him when he had been so cold with her. No matter how much her change of heart hurt Tom, she didn't deserve that from him. She had legitimate, logical concerns and unlike him, she had been trying to think with her head instead of her heart. The first thing he intended to do when he returned to Hell's Gate was apologize to her, even if it made his heart ache just to be near her.

~I've just got to figure out how to do it without blurting out "I love you". Goddammit all to hell.~

Tom noticed that Norm and Ni'nat were watching him quietly and he realized that his angst must have showed in his expression. He cleared his throat self-consciously and gestured at the string of extra fish hanging from the limb of the nearby tree. "Do you always manage to bring home a catch like that, Norm?"

Norm glanced at the fish. "I'm not always this lucky. Sometimes I have a great catch and others I only catch a couple. Hey Tom, why don't you let Ni'nat give you a shooting lesson, before we head back? You might like it."

Tom smirked, guessing by the look in his friend's eyes that the suggestion was made to take his mind off of his problems. He looked at the beautiful huntress seated beside Norm. "If she's willing to let a green person like me handle her bow, I'm willing to give it a try."

A look of confusion came over Ni'nat's features and she tilted her head. "Are you feeling unwell, Tom? You don't appear green to me."

"It's an expression, love." Norm grinned at her and hugged her with one arm. "It means he has no training with the bow and arrow."

"Oh." Ni'nat smiled shyly and laughed softly. "I will learn your human slang one day, my Norm. I do not mind giving Tom a lesson. I am sure he will be careful with my bow."

She chose a dead mushroom stump for Tom to practice on and Norm looked on while she instructed him on how to hold the bow and take aim. Tom knew he was doing it poorly but Ni'nat was very patient and encouraging with him, gently correcting him until she was satisfied with his poise.

"You may find it easier if you inhale while aiming and exhale while releasing your arrow," she suggested as Tom drew the bowstring back and narrowed his eyes at the target.

He took her advice and exhaled slowly. When the breath was nearly gone from his lungs, he released the arrow. It hit the stump with a satisfying thump, though it didn't strike anywhere near where he'd aimed. Tom smiled, all the same.

"At least I hit it," he said, surprised that he'd managed to do so the first time.

Ni'nat nodded and smiled, studying the arrow that was now sunk halfway into the stump. "Very good, for a beginner! Many Na'vi would not have done so well, Tom."

"Maybe you're a natural," Norm suggested with a grin, impressed with Tom's aim.

"I think it just runs in the family," excused the biologist. "I'm not a bad shot with a gun, either. Jake leaves me in the figurative dust, though."

Tom walked to the trunk to retrieve the arrow and try again, but as he approached he heard a buzzing sound from the dead stalk. He frowned and moved more slowly, his ears swiveling to listen. "Do you two hear that?"

"I hear nothing," answered Ni'nat.

Norm shook his head. "I don't hear anything either."

"There's something buzzing in that stump." Tom felt a growing sense of dread as the buzzing grew louder.

"I hear it now," Ni'nat murmured. Her voice grew urgent. "Tom, you must step away from the stump…quickly!"

Just as she finished speaking, a swarm of hellfire wasps emerged from the holes riddling the top of the stump. Tom had inadvertently disturbed a nest of the orange, sparrow-sized insects when he pierced the dead stalk and now they were out for revenge.

"Into the lake!"

The urgency in Norm's shout left little doubt that failure to comply would result in excruciating pain or worse. Norm grabbed Ni'nat around the waist and practically threw her in the water before leaping in himself. Tom followed and he cursed when he felt one of the wasps land on his forearm and jab its stinger into his skin. It hurt like hell and he didn't want a repeat occurrence. He dove into the water without ceremony, hoping that his two companions were out of the way.

He resurfaced cautiously after a moment, gasping and coughing. On either side of him, Norm and Ni'nat also poked their heads out of the water and looked up at the hovering swarm. The insects buzzed around angrily for a few minutes before retreating back to their nest.

"Sorry Tom, but I'm going to have to agree with Trudy's assessment," Norm sputtered when the danger was gone, "you're a jinx."

"What happened to you?" Jake asked when the three of them returned to Hometree. Norm and Ni'nat were mostly dry, except for their loincloths and hair. Tom was in standard issue clothing composed of cargo pants and a crew shirt. The outfit was still wet and clinging to him.

"I gave your brother a shooting lesson," Ni'nat explained with an amused, sidelong look at Tom. "His aim is good, but it did not end so well."

"I managed to piss of a nest of wasps," Tom sighed. He tugged on the bandage he'd wrapped around his forearm, examining the angry welt where the stinger went in. "You can't say I'm paranoid when I bring first aid supplies with me everywhere I go, Jake."

Jake looked at the sting with a grimace. "You should put some heat on that to draw out the toxin. I'm not a doctor like you guys but I've learned a few things about treating stings and bites."

Tom nodded. "I will. I've got some salve in my backpack that might help, too. How did the birth go?"

"It went fine. They had a healthy baby girl and they named her Ki'lelah." Jake grinned and looked over his shoulder at the den entrance. "I think Neytiri's got an itch to give Tommy a little sister, now."

Norm raised his eyebrows. "So soon?"

"Well, as soon as nature agrees with her," Jake sighed. "I get the feeling we may end up with a big family, if Neytiri gets her way."

Tom took his attention off of his sting. "Does that scare you?"

Jake shrugged. "Nah, not really. If I can manage a whole clan then I can manage a handful of rugrats."

"What are 'rugrats'?" Ni'nat queried.

"That's just slang for children," explained Norm.

She sighed. "Humans have too many slang terms."

Norm smiled and put an arm around her.

"So other than the wasps, my brother's a decent shot with a bow?" Jake persisted to Ni'nat.

"More than 'decent', Olo'eyktan. He has a natural skill for it." Ni'nat gave Tom a smile and he shrugged modestly. "With time and practice, he could be equal to our best archers."

Jake gave Tom a broad grin and clapped him on the shoulder. "I knew you had it in you,"

"Why are you stumbling over my name all the sudden?" Tom inquired.

"Norm made a pretty good point earlier today," Jake answered. "When my son gets older it's going to cause some confusion, if I keep calling you 'Tommy'. I'm hoping you'll stick around and live with us by then, so I've got to get into the habit of calling you by your birth name, instead of the nickname I've always used."

Tom shrugged. "That makes sense. Just don't make long term plans yet, Jake. I've still got a lot of thinking to do, before I decide what kind of life I'm going to live here."

Jake sighed but he nodded in understanding. "I can't ask for more without being selfish, I guess."

Late that afternoon after eating and cleaning up, Tom sat on a small hill on the outskirts of the village and watched the sunset. He hadn't bothered asking Jake if he had spoken to his mate or mother-in-law concerning the issue with the atokirina. Jake seemed so excited to welcome new life into the clan that Tom didn't have it in him to distract him. He found that the more time he spent in the wilds, the more he appreciated Pandora's beauty. It was easy to find new things to admire about this world he was trying to fit into, when he wasn't surrounded by lab work and distracted by women.

As if conjured by his thoughts, a familiar scent wafted up his nostrils. Tom went absolutely still as Tanhi came up beside him and sank down onto the mossy hill. She was looking at him sidelong and her expression told him she had something to say, but she seemed to be struggling with herself. She took her eyes off him and gazed at the horizon.

"My favorite thing to eat is rim fish, from the Eastern Sea."

Tom looked at her with surprise. A slow smile spread over his lips before he realized it. "Rim fish, huh? I don't think I've ever had it before."

"You would like it," she insisted softly. "It is sì"

He nodded. "That's the right word for sìltsan. You like Teylu too, don't you?" He remembered her reaction the night they mated, when he was reluctant to eat the beetle grubs offered to him.

"Yes. Teylu are very good, too."

Tom studied her with interest. She was finally sharing something other than her body with him. "What is your favorite color?"

Tanhi pointed wordlessly to the paint adorning her face and Tom chuckled and nodded. "Red. I should have guessed that."

She smiled faintly in return. "Yes, you should have. Yours?"

"Ironically," Tom looked at his cyan striped arm with a smirk, "blue is my favorite color."

Tanhi favored him with a low, restrained laugh and Tom enjoyed the sound. It was a shame she didn't smile or laugh more often and he wondered about what Norm had told him about her village. Deciding it was too early to ask about it, he continued probing for the small things, careful not to dig too deeply.

"You have a beautiful name," Tom complimented. Tanhi meant "star" when translated to English. "What inspired your parents to give it to you?"

She shrugged and looked up at the first twinkling stars to make their appearance in the darkening sky. "Sa'nok watched the sky as she birthed me and she saw a falling star. She said it was very