Disclaimer: James Cameron owns everything Avatar.
Sorry the update took so long but I had a rather busy and no backup chapters to post in the meanwhile. Things should get better next week!
Chapter 16 - Celebrate
Time flew by, and before I knew it, late afternoon had approached and we had to return to Hometree. Although my mood had received somewhat of a dampener by the most serious talk I had had with anyone in ages, by the time the sun reached the horizon I was in high spirits again, and Mar'kay was teasing me mercilessly about me having fallen into a small creek when we had traversed it earlier. I was just happy I hadn't broken my neck, and while trudging back to camp soaking wet was not among my top five events to happen, it could have been worse.
Mar'kay escorted me until we reached the clearing but excused himself when he saw Grace and Norm hailing me, promising he would rescue me soon enough if I didn't show up at Hometree on my own.
I had to admit, knowing more about Grace's past made me regard her with different eyes, but in the end what had happened didn't excuse her abrasive nature completely. It only confirmed that, like so many other people who ended up in Hell's Gate, she was bitter and utterly disappointed of the cards life had dealt her. If not for the smiles I had seen her wearing when she had been talking with some of her former students or teaching the Na'vi children I would have thought she had given up entirely.
"Glad that you found the time to join us in your undoubtedly busy schedule," she greeted me, pointedly staring at my still wet clothes, but I ignored her.
"Do you know what exactly will be going on tonight?" I asked her instead of reacting to her taunt. I was surprised when Norm answered instead of her.
"The Na'vi celebrate the acceptance of a young hunter into their ranks. And while this is not yet the ritualistic end of Jake's initiation, the fact that he now has his own ikran and proved himself on the Sturmbeest hunt is worthy of recognition. Until now we've only heard recounts of these festivals, and it's indeed a huge step that they invited us!"
He was so excited that it wouldn't have surprised me if he had been jumping up and down. Still wearing his vest and baseball cap, he seemed even geekier than usual, and not for the first time I wondered how he in particular must look to the Na'vi.
"Just don't do anything embarrassing," Grace chided him mildly, then turned to me to bestow about the same look on me.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I assured her, and not for the first time wondered if she could make out a blush on my cheeks or not. As it was, I was rather grateful that Mar'kay had filled me in on his background and in particular his relations to some of the people I would doubtlessly meet again tonight - while I didn't really care what Grace thought of me, I didn't want to do anything that would piss off his mother in law, or any of the other women who probably thought they had to keep an eye on me lest I not trample on the feelings of this particular sensitive blue flower.
The thought cracked me up, earning me a glare from Grace, but when I answered it with a smile and a conceding incline of my head, she went on.
"The last thing I want is the Na'vi thinking that we just see them as something we study, although I hope that our understanding of their rituals and life will be improved greatly by what we will experience tonight. So observe and be polite, don't ask any stupid questions. Also don't take any unnecessary equipment with you, I already bit Norm's head off when he asked if he could take a recorder with him."
Norm visibly blanched even though Grace was still looking at me, making me grin.
"Just be yourselves, and if possibly, not the obnoxious, raunchy part. Do what they do, don't stick out as the weird Sky People that they know we are. They invited us as friends, so behave like that. Meaning you drink anything they offer you, you eat what they expect you to, as revolving as it might seem to your narrow human minds. Your avatar bodies can digest everything perfectly - and just to be sure, I want full checkups tomorrow, the same as urine and feces samples when we get to the compound tonight, and in the morning again. Understood?"
I groaned loudly, but I could see the sense in that. While I was sure that someone had sooner or later done a thorough analyzing spree on the avatar metabolism, we would likely come in contact with all kinds of food and drink tonight that hadn't been available to us before. Some biochemist or other would have a field day over that. I probably should have felt more enthusiastic, but of late, my mind wasn't too interested in the science behind the whole experience anymore.
"Sure thing, just glad the kitties are potty trained," I shot back, receiving a curt nod that clearly told me that Grace was as reluctant to engage in hostile banter with me as I was in returning the favor.
"Great. Goes without saying that I want extensive video logs tonight, and we'll sit down in the following days to go through them so Norm can get the most out of this. Now let's head over there, it's impolite to be late."
I couldn't agree more, hard pressed to hide my excited grin as I followed Norm and Grace on the short trek over to the Omaticaya village.
Approaching Hometree, I was stunned to see the whole area surrounding the massive roots completely transformed. There were sources of light and decorations everywhere, and the few Na'vi still working on last minute preparations were all dressed up - which for them meant brightly colored sashes and garish paint on their bodies, their thick black hair done up in elaborate dos.
Off to the side I could see the hides of the hunted animals already hung up for drying, resting on huge stands. As we came closer I realized that the whole ground floor of Hometree that was usually used as a common area for work had been turned into what I presumed was the place where the festivities would take place. The whole clan was gathered around several huge bonfires, the meat of the sturmbeests already roasting over the flames. They must have been preparing for this event for a while, considering that there was enough dry wood to not only provide a source for warmth and light, but also serve for cooking.
Everyone seemed to be in high spirits already, Na'vi sitting and standing around everywhere, chatting loudly, while a few had taken up residence near the central double helix structure that led further up into the tree, playing a bunch of primitive but surprisingly melodic instruments. Dancers mingled with the onlookers and those occupied with eating and drinking, and at least to me everything around me seemed bustling with life.
Several of the Na'vi looked up when we approached but most ignored us, only a few curious or hostile glances meeting us. I didn't know where to go but before I could ask Grace, a familiar voice hailed us from across the central cooking pit.
"Hey guys, ever here, come join us!"
We found Jake amids a group of young hunters. Grace followed us over there but then apparently saw someone she knew, and taxed Norm an me one last time.
"Remember, behave yourselves. I would even say don't do anything stupid, but we already know how well that advice went with our marine here. Just don't make me regret taking either of you into the jungle with me."
And off she went. Norm and I exchanged glances, but he shrugged it off and went over to Jake, so I did the same. The hunters made room for us while Jake resumed his previous talk, which was apparently a recount of the hunt this morning. He was wildly mixing English and Na'vi with a lot of gestures and enthusiasm, and while I was sure that some of his avidly listening crowd where there entirely for the humorous entertainment, I got a true sense of acceptance from them for him. The very same sentiment seemed to encompass Norm and me also, and before long we were all chatting and laughing away.
A while later I felt a light thud beside me, and when I turned my head around, I found Mar'kay sitting next to me, looking as relaxed as if he'd been there the whole time instead of mere seconds. I flashed him a grin that he answered instantly, before I turned back to continue listening to Jake's war story. I was pretty sure that by then the actual events had been greatly exaggerated, but I had to admit that he had a talent for this, even though he was sorely lacking the vocabulary.
The meat finally done, the huge ribs were cracked and distributed amongst the people, while smaller pieces, still larger than my palm, were handed out to children and the elderly for whom it might have been a significant challenge to either gnaw or cut off chunks. I felt a little self-conscious eating with just my fingers after letting the meat cool down enough to hold it, but the Na'vi clearly didn't stress any table manners tonight. And after one bite of the delicious, incredibly tasty meat I really didn't care anymore.
Soon jugs with water and leaf plates laden with fruit and vegetables were reached around for everyone who favored a more distinguished diet, and before long I felt like my senses were having a festival on their own. And evidently believing in the same as we humans did - no party without booze - huge trays with bowls containing some fermented juice were passed around.
'It's tradition that everyone drinks,' Mar'kay explained when I eyed the bowls with distrust, and before I could protest he took one and held it out to me. 'The Na'vi show their friendship by presenting the bowl to others. You don't take it for yourself, but for someone else.'
I accepted the offered bowl, still a bit wary, but at his approving nod I brought it to my lips and took a small sip. The liquid was surprisingly sharp in taste, but like everything else very fragrant and quite pleasant in the way it tingled on my tongue and down my throat as I swallowed. Drinking a little more, I realized that it was also strong, and that finishing the bowl would very likely leave me tipsy, if my avatar reacted anything like my human body.
After licking a stray drop from my bottom lip I set my own bowl down and picked up another one from the tray, offering it to Mar'kay. He accepted it grinning, and without much ado drank the whole contents in a few deep swallows.
Apparently getting drunk was also on the agenda tonight.
Meanwhile Neytiri had also joined our fire, drawing a few displeased gazes from some Na'vi girls to her when she crouched down next to Jake. I was a little surprised when Tsu'tey sat down next to Norm, and after listening to Jake for a while, joined the conversation. From my run-in with him when I had first come to Hometree I had figured that he was still holding a massive grudge against all of us, Jake in particular, but he looked downright pacified. He and Jake soon started drinking together while their tales veered off from today's hunt to previous encounters, both clearly bonding over the recounting of similar experiences. I had seldom seen Jake so happy, and I didn't even need the alcohol to plaster a permanent grin onto my face. But oh boy, that stuff helped.
Full dark hadn't even arrived yet when I found myself laughing over pretty much everything Mar'kay or anyone else said. I had to admit, I didn't really care all that much about Grace's warning anymore, and considering even Norm seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself as he was chatting in his slightly too stunted Na'vi with the hunters around him, I figured I couldn't do anything wrong.
'Do you have similar celebrations where you come from?' Mar'kay asked me as he handed me another bowl. I scowled at the offering for a moment but then took it nevertheless.
'We do. Although the food is never that good. And neither is the company.'
He grinned at that, but instead of answering he reached for one of the smaller platters being distributed all over the cooking pits. I watched with a mixture of fascination and revulsion as he picked up a sauce covered larva and ate it, smacking his lips at the taste.
'You need to try some teylu' he of course confirmed my suspicion of his display of liking the food.
'I really don't think so.'
Mar'kay chuckled at the face that I was making, then scooped up another jumbo shrimp like piece and held it out to me. I half expected the thing to still wriggle, but of course it was cooked and could no longer enhance my paranoia about this.
'I'll just take your word for that,' I tried to fend him off, hard pressed not to stare at the presumably tasty morsel.
'Eat it or I will tell Grace that you didn't.'
I stared at him for a moment, then narrowed my eyes.
'Have you been spying on us?'
Mar'kay shrugged, not trying to hide his amusement at my accusation.
'Maybe. You were too loud not to listen in.'
It was still a little disturbing to realize that even when he claimed to leave me alone, he kept hanging around, but I couldn't bring up the energy to protest. His threat aside, he didn't look as if he was very serious, and as usual seemed too delighted in taunting me.
As my glare had long lost any effect it ever had on him, I figured I would have to repay his cockiness in another way. I was sure my stomach could definiately take more than my pride today. Licking my lips I hesitated a moment longer, before I leaned forward and picked the teylu up with my teeth. Mar'kay started laughing, but the sound quickly cut off when I closed my lips around his fingers and sucked them clean of the remaining sauce. Our eyes met for a moment and swallowing became hard, but then I looked away, laughing as I munched on the surprisingly sweet larva.
'You're right, it's quite good,' I admitted, but he didn't really seem to hear me. I chuckled which tore him out of whatever daydream he'd been lost in for a moment, and pointedly turned away from him as I finished the next bowl of fermented juice.
I knew I had been gloating too much about my small victory when Mar'kay suddenly took my hand and drew me to my feet, the fast motion nearly unbalancing me. I caught myself a moment later leaning against him, drunk hysterical laughter spilling over my lips.
'Enough drinking for you!' he proclaimed as he steadied me, he himself not too sure on his feet. 'Now's time for dancing!'
'No, no, no, I'm way too drunk for that!' I tried to protest, but to no avail. He just tugged me along, dragging me away from the relative safety of the cook pits and out onto the already rather full space in front of the musicians. They had in the meanwhile stocked up, bringing more drums and flutes, and a few Na'vi were singing along to the thrumming rhythm.
'No! I don't know what to do! I can't dance!' I tried one last time to evade him, but he wouldn't have any of that.
'Of course you can dance, everyone can! Just move to the music. There are no steps, nothing you can do wrong. Just have fun!'
And before I could protest any further he tugged me along right into the fray of moving bodies. I started laughing when I lost my balance as he let go of me, but standing hunched over while everyone around me was in motion was weirder than trying to fall in with the rest. A few awkward moments later I more or less started moving with the crowd, and had to realize that it was actually quite fun to stomp and twirl around with the others. Although the twirling and swaying was probably more due to the alcohol coursing through my veins.
Someone then decided to start a chain of people dancing and hopping around the fires, and of course Mar'kay had to snatch my hand and draw me along to join. In passing I picked up Neytiri's hand, who promptly drew Jake along, cutting the probably tenth recount of his hunt today short. He briefly grinned at me before he dragged one of the hunters at the fire up himself, and off we went, stumbling and laughing.
It was a night of celebrating life, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Our line broke up after a few minutes when too many people seemed unable to safely traverse the roots anymore, but that didn't hinder us joining the throng of dancers in front of the musicians again. My inhibitions greatly lowered I let my body pick up its own rhythm to the beat of the drums, becoming one with the people around me. I might have deliberately brushed up against Mar'kay once or twice, but the Na'vi didn't really dance in pairs, which my toes and tail were rather grateful for.
I would have gladly spent the whole night like this, or even eating and laughing at one of the fires, but way too soon Grace appeared in front of me, pointedly nodding towards the darkness outside.
"Fifteen minutes until we need to be at the pickup site. You better start saying your good byes!"
I felt rather mutinous for a moment, but I could tell that she didn't look any more ready to leave than me, so I just nodded, and with a sigh stepped out of the mass of gyrating bodies. Grace left to hunt down Norm, who had taken residence with the drummers, procuring an instrument for himself and looking rather enthusiastic banging away on it. None of the other people I knew by name were in sight so I turned to Mar'kay, who had followed me.
'I need to go. Thank you, it was a really great evening. I had a lot of fun.'
He nodded, his usual "told you so" grin on his face.
'Me too. Come, I'll bring you to your camp.'
We took off then, not following the main path but using the shorter, slightly more dangerous trek over a few of the roots extending outwards from Hometree. While my head had cleared a little, I was still tipsy enough that my balance was off, and for once Mar'kay didn't laugh at me when he had to catch or steady me. In fact he looked rather satisfied when I didn't let go of his arm.
My head was still spinning from all the impressions from the festival, so I wasn't too unhappy that he didn't speak as he lead me through the neon sprinkled darkness. I couldn't resist tapping a few of the huge lichens we passed, the plants lighting up a vibrant green as I touched them. Walking through the caves earlier had been impressive, but seeing the whole forest alight with bioluminescence was simply taking my breath away. Again. Mar'kay really must have thought me quite simple, considering how often his world left me gawking.
A few minutes later we reached the camp, the clearing oddly dark and devoid of light as nothing except a few patches of moss glowed there. We remained standing under one of the huge ferns, soft cyan light from the fronds washing over both of us. I could hear the helicopter and gunships coming closer already, their din sounding so foreign to me now after spending the whole evening surrounded by music and voices only.
'Can't you stay here? We'll be drinking and eating through most of the night, and I could tell you the stories of my clan. And I could also show you my hammock,' Mar'kay helpfully supplied, already stepping out of my reach, laughing at the last part.
I chuckled, but shook my head.
'I can't. Not after the talk I had today in the morning. They'd never let me come back out here.'
'Then just stay. You don't need to go back to the Sky People home. You could stay with us. Jake also stays with us.'
Sighing, I looked up to catch Mar'kay's gaze.
'I would love to, but I can't. Jake is the exception. I cannot stay here.'
He didn't look happy about my answer, but after a moment he nodded. While I was glad that he left it at that, part of me was also annoyed that he accepted my denial so easily. Yet before I could let the grumpiness sweep me away he picked up a magenta glowing blossom from the plant next to us, and grinning brightly pushed it into my hair at my right temple. The blossom was so fragrant that I could smell it even without bringing it to my nose. As he stepped back Mar'kay's fingers brushed along my cheek, and I felt the warmth linger even when he withdrew his hand again.
'So you take something from the forest with you into your gray world,' he offered, his voice rapidly getting drowned out by the landing Samson.
I briefly glanced over my shoulder at the helicopter, unnatural white light flooding the clearing around it. Grace and Norm were already sprinting towards it, and I knew that any moment that I lingered would be a problem later, but I simply didn't want to go. Yet when I turned around Mar'kay was gone, only a few swaying fern fronds showing where he had snuck off. I stared at the spot where he had been a moment ago, before I forced myself to turn around and join the others.
I didn't bother strapping myself in, not did I don the headset and throat mic to join whatever conversation they had. Norm was babbling with excitement, but I kept staring out into the night, watching the glowing landscape flit by underneath us. I felt oddly lost and alone, as if a part of me had remained in the forest with the Na'vi, leaving the rest of me barely able to function.
We reached the base without any incidents, although one of the door gunners looked practically broken over being unable to fire his precious rifle at least once. Grace shooed us off towards the hut, reminding us again that we needed to leave samples. I let her and Norm go first while I remained sitting on the steps outside, not wanting to accept that the day was over yet as I stared into the relative darkness beyond the fence.
Finally I couldn't dally any longer and quickly finished my business, then changed into night clothes and climbed into my bunk. A last deep breath, my nose filling with the fragrance of the flower making me smile one last time before I broke connection - waking up to a body that felt small, frail, and no longer quite my own.
I stared up at the coffinlike link unit, then rubbed my face with my hands while I let the images of the day pass in front of my closed eyes once more. I could hear Grace and Jake exchange some words but did my best to ignore them, not ready to confront reality again. I was tired and thirsty, and the thought that I would spend probably an hour or two with recording the video log made my stomach churn.
I wasn't ready yet when I heard the upper clamshell of my link unit open, cool air rushing in around my sweat soaked body. I still sat up, figuring the sooner I got to fulfill my duties, the sooner I'd have Grace off my back.
Letting my hands drop to my sides, I slowly opened my eyes again, my vision still swimming with exhaustion. My ears picked up a weird mechanical sound in front of me, my subconscious instantly slamming my whole body into alarm mode, but my brain was too sluggish to make sense of my heart suddenly thumping in my throat.
Blinking to clear my vision I looked up, finding the rather impressive muzzle of a SN-9 Wasp revolver right in front of my face, Jake's gray eyes as hard and unwaving as his hand holing the weapon behind it.
"You've got one chance to explain who you are and what you're doing here, and you better convince me unless you want me to empty the magazine right between your eyes. And do it fast, because nothing Grace has told me keeps me from pulling the trigger."
It was probably only my weariness that kept me alive as I was too stunned to react, saving my brains from getting splattered all over the link unit. The only thing my mind could come up with was a rather emphatic "Fuck!" that thankfully never reached my vocal chords.