Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar, it's characters, plot, themes, settings, and/or other story elements. R&R please.
The first time I met Neytiri was the night Grace died. Now that Jake had regained their trust, the Na'vi had cooked up a plan to try and save Grace. Jake asked me to stay behind and watch over the bunker while he took Grace to the Tree of Souls. He took Norm with him for support.
"I wouldn't trust anyone else," he said, gently scooping Grace out of the makeshift bed we had made for her. She didn't, didn't say anything. Every minuet slipped, we were loosing her further and further to the void. "Not even Norman."
"Norm would shoot his own eye out by accident," I retorted. "Or worse—one of us!"
Sliding the lock out of place, I pulled on my Exopack and opened the door for him.
Each time I visit this memory, I remember thinking as he walked past me, Jesus, I'm short! In his avatar, Jake stood double my height. A pattern of freckles dotted his cheeks in a glowing pattern and a few strands of hair had fallen out of his braid. His jaw was set, his lips pressed into a thin, hard line. His eyes, although yellow and bright, were cold and steely.
I had seen that same look a hundred times in a hundred different face, faces of vets and gunman and fellow pilots. This wasn't Jake the Civilian; this was Corporal Sully in his war mode.
"Not that I think anyone will come, but if someone does, do you care if I shoot 'em."
"As long as they're human," Jake said. "And you don't need my permission to mow their asses down!"
"Yeah, just checkin' the game plan."
"I'll come back with an update. Close the blinds and use the wildlife cameras, okay?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "Grace doesn't have all night. So get out of here already."
Once I was alone, I did as Jake said and closed the blinds and turned the lights out, leaving only the computers and avatar equipment on. See, when you're in a rough-and-tough situation like that, the last thing you want to do is give away your position. It was pretty basic, but it was simple shit like that that kept me alive over the years, in more ways than one.
After checking the door, making double sure it was secure, I picked up my M60, grabbed a can of beer from the fridge, and rolled Jake's chair up to the computer. A couple of years back—before Norm and Jake, before any of this bullshit war—I flew the bunker into the jungle for some routine research. We spent four months out there, cataloging new wildlife species. Some of the best four months of my life, besides the three we spent in the mountains with Jake.
The wildlife cameras I'd helped Grace install, well, at the time I thought it was geeky science shit, but that was no longer the case. As I sat in front of the monitor, watching a night-vision screen, I swore that if anybody came out of that jungle that wasn't nine foot and blue, I would water the fucking grass with their dirty blood.
Grace's gun wound was pretty bad. Chances were, she would die and I was just begging for a shot at revenge. When I first came to Pandora almost six years previously, I immediately got assigned to Grace's team. Her pilot had been put on medical leave and later died of fever.
There weren't a lot of people I got along with on Pandora. Pretty much everyone in security was an obnoxious man, and those in the science department spoke more Latin and Greek than English. But Grace was different. I liked her almost instantly. She was a scientist at heart, but she had a heedful of fire-red hair, a brutal sense of honesty, and a feisty tongue. Definitely one of my peeps.
Besides, when you're five fucking years from home and struggling to survive on a hostile planet, your teammates tend to become family. They're all you've got in this world—literally—and you'd be damned not to trash the bitch-scum dumb enough to hurt them.
I sat there breathing darkness for hours. I hardly moved, hardly made a sound. I held the M60 across my chest, over my heart, loaded and ready. My beer sat by the keyboard, hardly touched and dripping cold perspiration all over the desktop. I even had an Exopack pulled over my face, just in case.
But in the end, not a single soldier showed up on the wildlife cam. I'd just checked my watch—0200 hours—when I saw Jake step out of the brush. Neither Grace nor Norm was with him. He was alone. Shit. Either the best or worst had happened, but judging from the blank expression on Jake's face this wasn't going to be good news.
I waited for him to walk up to the bunker and tap on the window before breathing again. On a planet like this, anything can happen.
"Trudy?" his voice was muffled behind the heavy glass.
"I'm here," I called, leaning back in his chair. "All clear?"
"Give me a sec, okay? I'm coming outside."
After tip-toeing through the narrow aisle, I checked the pressure in my mask before unlocking the door. A spot of light rippled out from beneath my boots as I stepped onto the moss.
"Alright, Hot Wheels, talk to me. Did it work?"
Lifting his Jake looked over my head, avoiding my gaze. "Grace…passed away before the link could be completed," he said quietly. "There wasn't enough time."
I swallowed, trying not to feel the touch of any sort of emotion. They taught us in basic training how to handle shitty news like this, how to stay calm, collected. How to numb your heart when a shitty situation demands it. You just have to take it one crisis at a time, act quickly and stick to the plan.
Move forward, shoulders back, single file. Left foot, right foot. Keep you chin up, Chacon. Don't try to fix things that fucking can't be fixed.
"I'm sorry," said Jake.
"Yeah, me too." I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Right…looks like you're the boss now. What next?"
"We're going to give Grace a proper burial," Jake said evenly. "Then Neytiri and I are going to fly out first thing in the morning. We're going to talk to the other clans, rally up some allies, and then we're going to kick some serious RDA ass."
"What about Norm and me? What do you need us to do?"
"One of the hunters has offered to show Norm how to a horse. I need you to teach him how to shoot a gun, but first Neytiri wants to meet you."
I gave him a flat, mirthless look. "I'm not playing fucking games, Jake. I won't put up with all that testing shit they put you through. They either want my help or not."
"There's a time and a place for tradition, Trudy. War is not one of them."
"What about the temp station? I can't be in two places at once."
"Don't worry about it," Jake assured. "Tsu'Tey volunteered a couple of his warriors to look out for this place."
I nodded. It sounded like a watertight plan. That's what made Jake a good leader. Always had some sort of scheme up his sleeve, and more importantly, he had a leader's charm about him; he knew exactly how to rally people into following him.
Glancing around the clearing, I saw rivers and woods of soft light—the fauna pulsed with a rainbow of colors—but no warriors. "When are they coming?" I asked.
"They're already here," Jake said with a faint smile. "C'mon, grab whatever you need and let's head out."
* * *
Throughout the hike, I tried to keep Grace out my thoughts and focused on my boots—left, right, left, right—but my thoughts kept coming back to the friend I'd robbed of and the revenge I'd been cheated out of.
I tried not to look at Jake, but my eyes kept straying to the three shovels in his hands. Grace made me lug them around in my chopper for three years, in case she found some exotic new plant species. Sometimes her discoveries were small, delicate, while other times they were so large and formidable enough that it took three of us—her, Max, and I—just to pry the roots from the soil.
And wouldn't you know it? Now I'd have to use them same shovels to put her to rest. Fuck, it sucked.
Reaching up, I fingered the necklace Dad gave me after joining the service. It was small and round, the size of a nickel, a St. George pendent. It was also the same charm his daddy had given him when he joined the Marine Corps. After I was recruited by the RDA, Sissy gave me a second pendent. "St. Joan of Arc," she had said, clasping the chair around my neck.
"The saint of soldiers...and one of the bravest women in history. You remind me of her courage." I planned to wear them both proudly—one gold and one silver—on the same chain until the day I died.
Out here, alone and six years away from Earth, there were brief moments when I doubted my sister's confidence in me, but whenever that happened, I'd just close my eyes and hold my jewelry. If I concentrated hard enough, I could still feel the warmth in Dad's laugh and my sister's sweet, floral perfume. Seeing Jake carry those shovels, that was one of those moments.
* * *
I had to work extra hard to keep up with Jake. While his legs were long and lithe, mine were short. I almost had to jog just to keep up with him. Usually back at the Hell's Gate, it's me who has to wait up for him. About three quarters into the hike, he paused to let me catch up.
"Sorry," he said. "I forgot how short you are."
"Works both ways," I panted. "Sometimes I forget you're in a chair."
"So, about tomorrow," I said, climbing over a giant root, "which comes first, horse riding or shooting lessons?"
"Whichever, I guess. Why?"
"I don't know if I can teach a nine-foot blue Frankenstein gun basic. It's a pain in the ass just talking you
Jake laughed. "Trudy, it doesn't matter what Norm is—human or avatar—he's always going to be taller than you."
He stopped again, waiting for me to catch up. "Here, let me have your gun. I'll give it back," he promised, holding out a hand. "It's just, if you walk into camp shouldering a gun like that, everyone will freak."
"If you say so." Although I wasn't too eager to relinquish my M60, I understood where Jake was coming from. Diplomacy and shit, I guess. But as I handed the gun over, I noticed a rusted grime flaking off his giant fingers. "Dude, what's all over your hands?"
Looking at his fingers, Jake cursed. "Crap, I thought I washed it all off!"
"What is it?"
"Nothing. Just…let's go. Neytiri and Norm are waiting for us. When we get there, at least try tobe polite." He paused and then added, "And if Tsu'Tey ever says anything to you, keep the sarcasm to a minimum. Okay?"
"No sarcasm, got it."
I felt the Tree of Souls before I even saw it. It radiated with an otherworldly, buzzing energy that made the bones itch under my flesh. Very few things give me the heebie-jeebies, but this tree definitely sent prickles down my spine.
As we approached the Tree, the brush began to thin out and it wasn't long before my eyes picked out a light up ahead. Back home, I had seen pictures of weeping willows and that was what this tree reminded me of…a weeping willow with ropes of lemonade-pink Christmas lights for leaves. Fucking sweet, if you asked me.
Suddenly swept back through time to the classic Disney film, Pocahontas. What'd they called the talking tree again? Oh, right Mother Willow. We already had white assholes versus natives, and soon I expected good old John Smith here to introduce me to the chief's daughter. If I could only find some needed some chittering woodland critters and a soundtrack, then finally I'd have a badass remake of my favorite childhood film. (Hey, I was five. Okay?).
Pretty much everyone was asleep or falling asleep. Throughout the perimeter, families huddled together in small clusters. In their arms, mothers cradled sleeping children, humming nostalgic lullabies in a language I hardly understood.
Usually humans weren't allowed to come to this place, but like Jake said, there's a time and a place for tradition and this was definitely not one of them. They needed a gunship and, lucky them, I was a pilot.
"Jake!" a Na'vi woman called, sliding off a large boulder with primal grace. Although we had never met before, I knew her from the pictures taped to the kitchen cupboards at our temp station, and instantly recognized her as Jake's infamous Neytiri. She greeted him with foreign words and a kiss to the cheek.
"This is our pilot, Trudy Chacon," Jake replied. "She's the only reason we made it out here in the first place."
"It is good to meet you," said Neytiri, offering a three fingered hand. A very human gesture, I noticed. Did Grace teach her that?
"Yeah, yourself," I said, impressed. "About damn time I had a face to put the name. You're all Jake ever talks about—Neytiri, Neytiri—it's actually gotten pretty annoying."
Neytiri smiled and I swear to God, if Jake's skin hadn't already been three shades of blue, his face would have turned the deepest shade of Valentine red. My Dad said the same thing when I brought home my first boyfriend. Dunno why, but it mortified me to no end.
"You are my Jake's friend?" Neytiri asked.
My Jake. Aw, now wasn't that cute?
"Wouldn't be here otherwise," I replied.
"And you will fight for us?"
I rolled my eyes. Wasn't that a dumbass question?
When I joined the RDA, I thought I'd be doing my country a favor. Unobtanium is so rare that it's pretty much the only thing that keeps our economy alive. It's the only way we can pay off our debts, the only thing that keeps China from toasting our ass (and boy are they running low on patience these days). So basically, that damn little rock is our only ticket to freedom.
But if killing innocent strangers is the only means of saving our country, then forget it. I don't want to be a part of that America anymore. I'm sick of contradictions and idealistic goals. There is no in-between, no compromise---you either believe in liberty or you don't.
I know that historically, we didn't treat our own native people very well, but shit, man. This is a new age, a new planet. This time, when the indigenous population rises up to defend their rights as sentient beings, we're going to win.
"Hell yeah," I said. "You can bet your blue ass I am."
Neytiri nodded, as if that was all the reason she needed. "Then you are welcome among us." Then she turned to Jake and said gently, "Norman has picked a place. Come, it is this way."
* * *
We ended up burying Grace on the banks of a nearby stream, where she could rest peacefully near the flora she had devoted her entire life to studying. We dug two holes, one for Grace and the other for her pseudo body, both of which Norm had covered with broad leaves. A fresh pool of red seeped out from the under the leaves that hid Grace's avatar, staining the moss.
Noticing this, I frowned. "What happened to her avatar?" I asked. "Why's it bleeding?"
"An avatar is useless without its driver," Norman answered quietly, focusing on carving the hole into a long rectangle. "There was no point in keeping it alive. So Jake…"
My ached, sending ripples through my blood, as I recalled the flaky red grim I'd seen on Jake's hands. Disturbed, I continued digging, watching waterfalls of soil spill into little piles at my feet.
We didn't speak after that, not even when Jake curled Grace's limp fingers around a pack of cigarettes before lowering her into the gave. Nobody when I took the first spade full of dirt and scattered it over her covered torso, or when Neytiri disappeared suddenly only to return twenty-minuets later two small woodsprites.
We should have said something, something good about her life, something reminiscent of her a friend, a boss, and a legendary botanist. We should have gotten all sappy and nostalgic, just like in the movies…but we didn't. We kept our silence because when shit like that happen, well, what are you supposed to say?
I don't think any of us really believed it was happening. I mean, six hours ago she was chewing Norman out because he couldn't find her damn cigarettes and lighter.
Patting down the last bit of soil, the only thing I said to the grave was, "This fucking sucks."
"That's an understatement," Norman muttered, wiping his face on his sleeve.
"What do we do now?"
It was Jake who answered—who always answered that question. He looked at the grim on his hands, the dirt and the blood crusting under his fingers nails, and said with a sense of finality, "I'm going to wash my hands."