Norm dropped the case to the ground beside his avatar, nerveless fingers fumbling with the large metal latch. With a huff of annoyance, Neytiri shoved him out of the way and opened it herself. "You can't open box and you think you heal yourself? You thank Eywa I am here." She dropped the box in his lap. "Now I see what you did with your body."
She knelt down beside the body, rolling it over from the crumpled heap Pey'lal had dropped it in to lay straight. Deft fingers gently unwrapped the hastily fashioned bandages, carefully lifting them away to probe at the wounds. "It is bad but not too bad. We can save you. Be glad I am here."
She moved to kneel beside the avatar's head, carefully picking it up and laying it in her lap, placing the tips of her fingers across the top of his head. "What are you doing?"
"Shh. Is Na'vi healing trance. It will slow body down and help the healing. You will bandage wounds during. Can you do this?" Norm nodded. "Good. Then I will need quiet during. Is difficult process." She didn't wait for an answer, instead she closed her eyes and started to chant softly, swaying lightly back and forth.
Norm closed his eyes and listened in silence to her song, matching his breathing in time with the rhythm. As much as his mind screamed at him to get to work, the more rational part of him knew trying to stitch up the injuries while this wound up would only lead to mistakes. Especially as his medical knowledge was theoretical only. So he waited and listened, allowing the soft melody of her voice to calm his mind.
The song swept through him, drowning out everything else before it. He felt calm and centered, his mind focused, sharp, and ready to begin the procedure. He pulled a scalpel, a pair of tweezers, and a small bottle of sanitizing solution out of the medkit and doused the instruments in the solution. Hardly a premium solution, he knew, but there was little better he'd be able to do in this situation.
He set to work removing the bullets from the wounds, moving as quickly and surely as if he'd done the procedure a thousand times, Neytiri's melody echoing loudly throughout his head. Four wounds, four whole bullets cleanly extracted in a matter of minutes. Even with his unnatural calm, he couldn't help breathing a sigh of relief. If any one of those bullets had fragmented inside the avatar, he would have been down a Na'vi body to return to.
Once the bullets were out he pulled a surgical needle and some thread out of the case, sanitizing them as well, and set to work stitching up the wounds. His fingers moved deftly, threading the needle in and out of the skin. When he finally tied off the last knot, it barely seemed like any time had passed at all.
There wasn't anything he could do for his leg that the huntress hadn't already done, so he calmly packed away the remaining medical instruments back into the case, moving mechanically as if he was in a trance. The second the latch to the case snapped shut, however, his serenity snapped as well. The jungle began spinning around him, forcing him to sit down heavily on the grass as his stomach began to roil. He became increasingly light-headed as he began to hyperventilate.
He felt a warm hand touch his head, stroking his hair soothingly. He looked up to find Neytiri calmly looking down at him, speaking to him. He tried to hear her words but they were muffled, as if they were coming from a great distance. A clinical part of him realized he must be experiencing a panic attack, he was certainly exhibiting all the proper symptoms, but despite the observation he was powerless to stop it.
He tried to focus on something, eventually deciding on controlling his breathing. In and out, in and out, over and over again until he finally began to calm. Gradually he began to hear Neytiri's words of encouragement, soothing whispers to help him relax. After a few minutes, his breathing stabilized, leaving him a shaking wreck. But a coherent wreck.
He wrapped his arms around himself to try and control the shaking. "Th- thank you, by the way. For helping me. With the healing, that is. I couldn't have managed without you. I don't know what I was thinking, thinking I could do that myself. I'm a Ph.D, not a medical doctor."
"Do not thank me. Thank Eywa. It was she who guided your hands, not I. You should be very proud. It seems she very much wants you to live."
"You- You think?"
"Yes. You have done a great thing for the Omaticaya, for the whole Na'vi. It will not be forgot. By us or by Eywa."
Norm smiled widely, the effect somewhat spoiled by the chattering of his teeth. "I'm just glad I could do something for the Na'vi."
Neytiri smiled back at him. "You have. On behalf of my People, I thank you Normspellman."
"Please just call me Norm. I hate my name."
"Then we shall have to find you new one, when you take your place among the People."
Norm's head whipped towards her fast enough to make his neck pop painfully. He couldn't believe his ears. He strained to whisper through a tightly clenched throat, "What?"
Neytiri hesitated, her ears flicking back slightly. "If that is what you want, of course. I simply thought-"
"Yes!" Norm shouted as he realized she wasn't joking. "Yes, yes, yes! A million times yes!"
Neytiri smiled. "Good. I fear for a moment you did not want to."
"Oh god, yes." Norm realized not only had the shaking stopped but he was actually tearing up. He didn't think he'd ever experienced so many mood swings before, and certainly not in a matter of minutes. "You don't understand, ever since I was a child I've dreamed of being one of the Na'vi. To actually be one..." He couldn't find the words to continue.
Neytiri placed one massive hand on his shoulder. "And you will have your chance. It will take time, your body is still weak. It will need time to heal before we try."
Norm nodded and sniffed, rubbing at his eyes. "No, I understand. I'll wait as long as it takes."
"Good." Norm swiveled as he heard Jake speak from behind him. Apparently he had left the outpost sometime during his breakdown. "Because I'll need your help clearing out the rest of the guys back at base." Jake smiled at Neytiri. "It's time to kick the Sky People off our planet."
The massive Na'vi walked over to her lover and knelt down beside him, wrapping her arms around him. Jake smiled softly at her, running his comparatively tiny hand across her cheekbone. Norm blushed and looked away. He was emotional enough as it was without having to stare at the affectionate couple.
A cough from behind caused him to look back. The two had apparently finished, though Neytiri still had not let go of Jake. Now that they were decent, Norm grinned at the pair, still riding the high from the unexpected news. He opened his mouth to tease the two of them but Jake beat him to it. "So, it looks like you two did a pretty good job fixing you up."
Neytiri nodded. "Yes. Norm did very well. We have Pey'lal to thank too. He would not have survived if not for her."
"Pey'lal? Is she the huntress?"
Jake nodded. "Yeah, that's her." Then he turned narrow eyes on Neytiri. "Speaking of which, she told me something very interesting in there."
Norm was surprised to actually see Neytiri pale. "What do you mean?"
"Something about me being Alu'eytan because of us being lifemates. Or something like that..." When the Na'vi didn't say anything, Jake said warningly, "Neytiri..."
"Yes. That is the way it normally is, but-"
"Jesus, Neytiri! Were you ever planning on telling me about that?"
"I did not think it would happen. You are dreamwalker. They would not let you be Alu'eytan. More likely I be cast out instead."
Neytiri shrugged. "Now you Taruk'makto. Omaticaya honored to have you be Alu'eytan."
Jake let his head fall back, allowing it to thump against Neytiri's arm. "That's what Pey'lal said."
"Pey'lal is wise at times."
Jake looked at her curiously. "Speaking of which, what exactly is going on between you two? She seemed shocked that you had something good to say about her."
"Pey'lal is..." Neytiri waved her hand through the air as she searched for the correct words. "Pey'lal is great hunter but not always good Na'vi. Does not listen to Alu'eytan, to Tsahik. Does things on her own. Omaticaya see this, frown on her for this."
Jake frowned. "How bad is it? Because I may have just offered to let her lead the warriors..."
"If that is your wish, Omaticaya will follow. Tsahik will not like it though. She will say Pey'lal still have much to learn."
"So I should pick someone else? I don't really know who else to choose, with Tsu'tey dead..."
"No, I not say that. We should speak with Tsahik when we return. She will guide you."
Jake nodded. "Planned on doing that anyways. We should probably get moving sometime soon too."
Norm heard a thump from over to his left and spun around. He saw out of the corner of his eye Jake and Neytiri doing the same. But it was just Pey'lal leaping out the broken window of the outpost. The huntress's eyes fastened on Jake as she strode quickly over to him, kneeling down at his feet. Her voice was quiet when she spoke, "I sorry for... for..." She snarled quietly and switched back to Na'vi. "I apologize for my hesitation. I will do as my Alu'eytan commands. Where you lead I will follow and may Eywa guide us all."
Norm wasn't sure what prompted him to follow suit but he walked over to Pey'lal and knelt down beside her. "I too am yours to command, Alu'eytanan."
Jake threw his hands up in front of him. "Whoa now, let's slow down here. I don't need none of this kneeling or Alu'eytan stuff."
"It is your duty now Jake," said Neytiri quietly. "It is our duty. With Eytukan dead, Moat will pass Tsahik to me and it will be up to us to lead the Omaticaya. You will have to grow used to such respect."
Jake frowned. "Well I don't need it now and especially not from you two. Come on, up." The two reluctantly stood. "Good. Now, if you're really serious about this Alu'eytan business, you can start by helping me move these bodies. We need to get us and them to the Tree of Souls sooner rather than later." He grimaced. "And we're going to have to hoof it seeing as how neither Norm or I can get back in our bodies right now."
Pey'lal nodded. "I understand. I carry... Norm?" She nodded at Neytiri. "You carry Jake?"
She shook her head. "Yes. But I cannot carry Jake and his body. You carry Norm's body. We will make stretcher for Jake's body and I will drag as well."
"I understand. I go make stretcher. Be back." She turned and sprinted into the undergrowth.
Jake sighed. "This is going to suck. Norm, you mind carrying my chair? Neytiri already has enough to worry about, dragging both me and my body."
"Sure thing, Jake."
"If you can, you should probably take the medkit with you too." Jake sighed sadly. "I guarantee we're going to need it when we get to the Tree."
All the sudden Norm felt extraordinarily guilty. "How bad were the casualties?"
"Bad. You saw what it was like on the ground." Norm nodded. "It was worse in the skies. Our wounded couldn't retreat up there. You got hit that was it."
Neytiri sighed. "It is sad but they die well. They are with Eywa now."
"I only wish there weren't so many. If only I'd had a better plan or-"
Neytiri cut him off. "No. It is not your fault. It is the Sky People's fault. You save Na'vi. Be sad for our brothers but do not blame for their deaths."
Jake grimaced. "If only it was as easy as that."
A crashing from the undergrowth interrupted them, Pey'lal returning with her makeshift stretcher. Carefully she and Neytiri loaded Jake's body onto the giant leaf before Pey'lal picked Norm's body up off the ground. Neytiri knelt down low, allowing Jake to struggle onto her back. As she shifted him to make him easier to carry, Norm rushed over and folded up Jake's chair, then picked up the medkit. As soon as Neytiri had a hold on the stretcher, they were off.
The journey took several hours, encumbered as they were. Norm was just glad they didn't have to worry about animal attacks for the time being, Eywa still acting in their favor. Another Thanator actually came up to sniff him before bounding away, much to his profound relief.
Other than the occasional word or two, their trek was made in silence. Each was caught up in their own morose thoughts, as they surveyed the carnage all around them. It would take years for Pandora to recover from the damage, both the jungle and the Na'vi.
Norm couldn't help feeling ashamed that he couldn't be entirely distraught over the tragedy; it had, after all, led him to his fondest dream. Or it was going to, at least.
As they were just beginning to near the basin harboring the Tree of Souls, Jake stopped them. "I don't think we should go any further. Norm and I, at least."
Norm turned to him in confusion. "What do you mean? What about my body? It still needs help-"
Jake opened his mouth to explain but Neytiri spoke up before he could. "No, Jake is right. Right now, you are not dreamwalker. You are Sky People. Na'vi gather there, and many are hurt and angry. It would not be safe, not even for Jake."
The ex-marine nodded. "I'm not saying all of us need to stop, just you and I. Pey'lal and Neytiri can still go ahead and take your body with them. But like Neytiri said, these guys just spent all day killing Sky People. Do you really want to risk getting an arrow yourself?"
Norm started to protest but forced himself to shut his mouth. As much as he wanted to be there to see his body get treated, it wouldn't be much use to him if he was dead. Grudgingly, he began to let down Jake's wheelchair when Neytiri surprised him by rounding on Jake. "No! I not leave! How can you even suggest that! I not leave my lifemate behind." Her voice softened. "Not now, not ever."
"What's the plan then? Assuming it's only Pey'lal who goes and she takes the bodies with her, are the three of us just going to camp here for the night? And what are you going to do about getting back into your body? Not to mention the whole base full of people that are no doubt planning to kill us..."
"Norm. Norm!" Jake interrupted him. "You're rambling, buddy. Calm down a minute. Let's just sit and think this through."
Pey'lal finally spoke up. "If you like, I go and get Tsahik and she can help. We can come back on ikran so I not be gone long."
Jake nodded slowly. "That's not a bad idea. We probably need to talk to her anyways seeing as how she's the only one with any clue about what's going on anymore." He fixed his gaze on the huntress. "Alright, do it."
She grinned at him. "I listen, Alu'eytan. I return soon." She took off sprinting through the brush, moving far quicker without the rest of them to slow her down. Norm winced as he watched her disappear, his body still jouncing painfully over her shoulders. He could only hope his rough stitches would hold underneath the stress.
As Jake climbed off Neytiri's back and into his wheelchair and his mate arranged his avatar comfortably along the ground, Norm collapsed back against a tree. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this tired. Even if it hadn't been his human body that had participated in the battle, every part of him ached like it had. His limbs felt like lead, his body unused to physical activity after so long in the uplinks, and his feet were screaming at him for tromping so many miles through the wilderness. He didn't doubt he'd discover a great number of painful blisters as soon as he got a chance to take off his boots.
He was dimly aware of Jake and Neytiri quietly talking amongst themselves as his eyes began to slowly creep shut. He briefly considered fighting to keep them open but quickly realized he didn't even have the energy for such a small task. It was like the very act of sitting down had drained him of all his remaining strength. Sleep pulled him under seconds later.
It seemed like he'd barely shut his eyes before he was abruptly awoken by a loud flapping followed by two painfully loud shrieks. No doubt Pey'lal returning with the Tsahik like she'd said. At least, he hoped it was them. They weren't likely to get any sort of decent reception from anyone else.
He moved to sit up so he could greet them but quickly abandoned the attempt as his back screamed in protest. Now that he was aware of it, he could feel every part of him hurting more than it had before he'd fallen asleep. His back in particular felt completely cramped up, as if each of his muscles had somehow tied themselves in knots just to spite him.
Unfortunately, there was too much to do for him to sit back and relax just yet, pain or no pain. He forced himself to sit up again, the motion marginally easier once he braced himself for the pain. He managed to get to his feet just as Pey'lal and the Tsahik finished dismounting their ikrans.
Moat spoke first, her attention fixed on the crippled marine standing next to Neytiri. "I see you Jakesully." She paused. "You are Jakesully, yes? The real one?"
He nodded. "Yeah. Surprised?"
Norm was surprised as well when Moat actually nodded. Apparently the Na'vi sense of tact was quite different. "Yes. It strange to see Taruk'makto like this." Then she smiled. "Though I see why you like to run so much. You cannot move legs at all?"
Jake grimaced. "No. I took a bullet during a battle back on our planet, damaged my spine. I haven't been able to walk for almost eight years."
"That sad. But it matter not. You are strong warrior just the same." She smiled toothily at him. "And soon you have good legs all the time."
Jake grimaced. "I'm strong only because I have to be. And speaking of warriors, we need to start preparing to attack the base immediately." Norm couldn't help feeling a little confused. How did they go from camping here for the night to assaulting the base. Apparently Jake had developed a new sense of urgency sometime while he'd been sleeping.
Moat shook her head resolutely. "No. You must rest Jakesully. You have done enough already. It is time for others to work now."
"I can't rest," he protested. "We have to strike back now, before the Sky People can regroup. Otherwise even more Na'vi might die before we can drive them away."
The older Na'vi would not be budged. "No. We are just as weak as the Sky People. We too need rest. For now, trust Eywa to handle the Sky People. Tomorrow those who can fly will go to the Sky People's camp to send them away."
Neytiri jumped in, hushing him. "No, my Jake. The Tsahik is right." She gently ran a hand down the back of his neck. "You are too tried, not thinking right. Please, trust Eywa."
Norm thought briefly about putting in his own vote in favor of resting but eventually decided to stay out of it. His head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton anyways, no doubt from fatigue. He would be little use to anybody until he'd gotten some sleep, some real sleep. Though it wasn't like he was particularly useful to begin with...
While he knew better than to sit back down lest he go back to sleep, he allowed himself to lean up against the tree and close his eyes, half-paying attention to what was going on. He was certain he'd be fine with whatever they decided. All four of them were leaders in the clan after all, either now or in the near future. Even if he didn't like their choice, he might as well get used to following their orders now.
He suddenly jerked to attention as a massive hand reached out and shook his shoulder. He was somewhat abashed to realize he'd dozed off while standing up. Also slightly impressed. He'd never managed that before. "What's going on?"
"Norm, where's the next nearest mobile link-up, do you know?"
He shook his head. "I have no idea. Trudy was the navigator, not me." Jake muttered a curse. "There was a map back in Site 26's living quarters though. I'm pretty sure I remember seeing the other outposts marked down on there."
The ex-marine frowned slightly. "Now that you mention it, I'm pretty sure I remember seeing those too. Alright, we might as well head there then. We can sleep there tonight and then travel to another outpost in the morning."
Moat nodded her head thoughtfully. "It is good plan. You will be safe and out of way and Neytiri can guard you. The Taruk'makto."
"As great a plan as that might be, how are we going to get there?" Norm asked. He could feel himself beginning to get slightly grumpy. As used as he was to going long periods of time with little to no sleep, he'd never mastered the art of being pleasant while tired. Perhaps one of the reasons he'd had so few friends during college. "Like I said, Trudy was the navigator. Unless you can remember which foggy identical floating rock the outpost was on, we're rather out of luck," he snapped.
Jake frowned at him, but Moat jumped in before the cripple could chastise him. "We know where it is," she said, motioning towards herself and Neytiri. "You think we allow you in Hometree blindly? No, hunters follow Grace, learn where she stays, and keep watch. Omaticaya always watch Sky People."
Both humans turned towards the Na'vi in surprise and she grinned toothily at them. "Now, if grumpy Normspellman finished arguing, we fly there now."
"How are we going to work this," Jake asked. "There's five of us, six including my body, and only two ikran." He eyed the flying beasts warily. "Assuming they'll even let non-bonded people on."
"They will," Moat assured him. "They not like it, but they listen if we say so."
"That doesn't fix the problem though. Can they even carry three people?"
Pey'lal jumped in. "They carry two Na'vi easy. Sky People light. Ikran not have problem."
Moat grinned and poked at Jake with a massive finger. "Too light. You should eat more. Not healthy to be so skinny."
Jaked waved her off. "That doesn't matter, this isn't my real body anymore. Hasn't been for months. And that still doesn't fix the seating arrangments."
Neytiri sighed. "It is simple. You and I ride with Moat. Norm ride with Pey'lal."
"And my body?"
"We will lash to Pey'lal's ikran. She will keep it safe."
Jake frowned and looked as if he was about to start arguing but a touch from Neytiri silenced him. "It is best choice. The ikran cannot carry three Na'vi at one time. Two ikran, with two Na'vi and one Sky Person each. And since I ride with you, your body must ride with Pey'lal."
Jake's frown deepened but dropped into a pained look of surprise when Moat let out an earsplitting whistle right behind him. An answering screech echoed her call as her ikran flew down from its perch to join them, Pey'lal's following right behind. "Lesson one, Jakesully. Your mate is always right."
Jake's eyes widened at the teasing lilt to Moat's voice before breaking out in chuckles. "She is, isn't she? Alright, we'll have it your way." He smiled at Pey'lal. "Besides, if I can't trust you with my body, how can I trust you with the tribe?"
Norm noticed the sharp look Moat shot Jake at the statement but, much to his relief, she left it alone. He didn't doubt she'd take it up with him later, but right now all he wanted was to get to the base and get some sleep. He didn't know if he'd have been able to sit through another argument without falling asleep.
As Neytiri and Pey'lal pulled their knives and started cutting vines from the nearby trees, he joined Jake and Moat beside her ikran. As she mounted the massive beast and established the bond in one smooth, practiced motion, he couldn't help asking, "Are these things safe?"
Jake chuckled. "What? Don't tell me the great Norm Spellman is afraid."
Norm frowned. "It's not like I've ridden one of these things before."
"Well, you better get used to it. You'll be riding one of your own before too long."
The scientist's mouth dropped open. "What?"
Jake laughed. "What? You thought you were just going to keep taking samples?"
"I... I hadn't actually thought about it. I'm still trying to process everything."
"Well you had better start thinking. If I'm going to do this, I'm going to need your help real soon. And the first thing you're going to have to do is to earn your bow as a hunter. You've got to prove yourself. The People won't respect a dreamwalker otherwise."
Norm grinned at him. "Former dreamwalker. Get it right."
Jake shoved him over towards Pey'lal, who had just finished tightly lashing Jake's avatar to her ikran. "Get over there, Spellman. Don't want her to leave you behind."
I want to iterate a couple of points in response to a number of comments I've received from readers. First off, mostly because it's the shorter of the two, this is a Norm/Pey'lal romance. It will be a while in the making, possibly quite a while, but it will the flip side, this story is not just about the romance. It will be just as much about the recovery of the Omaticaya, and slightly less about Jake and Neytiri's transformation into leaders, as it will Norm and Pey'lal.
Second, I've received quite a few comments expressing disbelief that this story will continue for any more than a few chapters. It will. I have yet to leave a project unfinished (obviously not fanfiction wise, but in general) and I don't intend to start with this one. I fully intend to run this story for several hundred pages so I hope you like to read.
That said, break time's over. I like to think I've been real good about updating so far - three chapters in two weeks - but I've had lots of time I no longer have. I'm back in school full-time, and working a part-time job to help with all those pesky school loans, so writing just moved down my priority's list. It's still my biggest and most beloved hobby, but I'm no longer going to have the time to keep up once a week updates.
Nonetheless, I hope all of you stay with me. I've really loved all the support I've received so far and would hate to see that dry up simply because of longer wait times. Trust me, the story will be finished, no matter how long it takes.
As for this chapter, I'm not ashamed to admit I kind of copped out. I'd intended on taking it all the way up to Norm falling asleep at Site 26 but things started unraveling the moment I had him jump on an ikran. Dialogue became strained, interactions awkward, and I think the characters were giving me foul looks. So I clipped the thread, hastily tied it up, and started on the next chapter.
Worked for me on two fronts really. I've been struggling with how exactly to believably get Norm and Jake from the Tree of Souls over to Hell's Gate and inside the base's uplink for the Great Sky People Round-up. Cutting Norm off now let's me start up with Pey'lal in a different position and end up in the same place. Thus, I spare myself hours of beating my head agaisnt the wall trying to figure out how to get them from Point A to Point B and still keep you interested. Hurray me!
Lastly, I really want to thank all of you who've reviewed or messaged me since I posted this story. Like I said, it's been absolutely amazing to hear from all of you and for those of you who've left me without means of getting in touch to thank you personally, please accept this instead. Keep enjoying this story. That's an order.