Hope in Alabaster

Author's note: Because Avatar is fairly new to the screen, and we don't have a lot of canon from which to draw details, I have to extrapolate and assume based on what I've read from various Avatar sites and what I've interpreted from scenes and dialogue in the movie. Mea culpa for any discrepancies or disagreements. A list of references is available at the end of each chapter.

Disclaimer: As with all my fanfiction, this is written purely for entertainment value and as a hobby. No copyright infringement intended. No profit being made. Avatar and its characters are the property of James Cameron and all related entities as contractually noted. The OCs are mine (poor souls).

Chapter 1 – The Nature of Mercy

"Jesus, I don't think anything smells worse than a burned body." Max's voice, muffled even through the comm. system, carried a hint of revulsion.

Tess Langley hazarded a glance in his direction and wished she hadn't. The remains of a direhorse lay at his feet. What hadn't burned had been scavenged by viperwolves by the look of teeth marks on the slivers of bone showing through charred flesh. For the umpteenth time in the past hour she forced down the bile rising into her throat and breathed deep of the filtered oxygen circulating through her Exopak. If she managed to not throw up in her mask by the time they returned to the Samson, it would be a miracle.

Amongst the scorched and still smoking ruins of the Omaticaya's Hometree, bodies littered the ground—direhorses who had died as explosives hit the tree and mountain banshees, their massive wings resembling nothing more than curtains shredded by a maddened cat. The carcass of Hometree, blackened and blasted by enemy missiles, lay on its side, its once sheltering arms broken and leafless, covered in gray ash that still smoked a week after the battle.

Tess picked her way through the carnage, her sweating palms slippery on the shotgun one of the three remaining miners allowed to stay on Pandora had handed her before they boarded the Samson. He'd eyed her dubiously. She was a scientist, not a SecOps soldier, and her firearms skill had only been the minimum required of anyone participating in RDA's project on Pandora.

"Semi-automatic pump shotgun. It's loaded with 20 rounds of armor penetrating shells. It has a recoil absorbing stock so you won't feel like you blew your shoulder off when you fire. Just point and shoot. You'll be able to fend off a pack of viperwolves, but it will only piss off a thanator. You're too small to carry anything bigger. How does it feel?"

At the time, the shotgun felt solid in her grip, almost comforting, especially with the aid of a shoulder strap. Now, as she stumbled over the burnt carcasses of banshees and direhorses, her arms and shoulders ached with the weight.

Any sane person would say she and the recovery team had lost their minds coming here with only a Sampson, Delia Wright's avatar and one trained ex SecOps accompanying them while they hunted through the burn site. And they'd be right. Only the insane would be scrounging for Na'vi possessions like bows and baskets, arrows and bits of jewelry while God knew what crouched in the bushes watching them, waiting for the chance to catch fresh meat.

Norm's suggestion of showing goodwill by returning personal items to the Omaticaya had seemed sound at the time he presented it. The Na'vi had returned to recover their dead but left all else behind, too traumatized to linger. They would grieve the loss of their possession but wouldn't come back for them.

Tess liked the idea but had reservations. "What if they consider their stuff cursed?"

Norm shrugged. "We'll let them know we have it if they want it. If they don't, we'll store it for a little while in case they change their minds then toss it if they don't."

"That's a hell of a dangerous scavenger hunt," Julian Marks, a pulmonologist, uttered what their small group thought.

"Yeah, it is, but we should do something." Norm's affable features turned grim. "We've done a lot of damage to these people. Dangerous for us, sure, but a small gesture in comparison to them letting us stay here. Besides, there are thirty-seven of us left at Hell's Gate. I'd say diplomacy and a lot of ass-kissing is the order of the day, don't you?"

Tess had been one of the first to volunteer for the mission. Now she wondered if she harbored some kind of suppressed death wish and didn't realize it. She was a sociolinguist for chrissake, not an ex-marine. The shotgun she held was a nifty weapon in the hands of an experienced fighter. If her luck held, she wouldn't have to shoot anything. If it didn't, she'd aim at an attacking viperwolf and blow Max's head off instead.

"How are you doing over there, Langley?" Max's voice crackled in her comm.

"Peachy," she muttered as she put some distance between her and Max to sift through the blanket of ash for anything salvageable. She skirted around the body of a direhorse crushed beneath one of Hometree's shattered branches. "God, what a mess."

"Tell me about it."

Max continued talking, inane chatter that revealed his unease. Tess listened with half an ear, scanning the perimeter for even the twitch of a leaf or crack of a footfall on burnt wood. A crawling sensation started at her neck, spreading across her shoulders and down her back. They were being watched.

Something squirmed under her foot, and she yelped. Had she not paid attention to her firearms training and kept her finger off the trigger, she might have shot her off her toes.

"Tess! You okay?"

"What the fuck was that?!"

She ignored both Max's frantic question and Reese Griffin's obscenity and stared at the thing that had slid under her foot. A broken string of carved wooden beads. Each bead was the size of a blueberry and would look tiny and delicate encircling a Na'vi woman's long neck.

"Goddammit, Tess, answer!" Max nearly deafened her with his command.

"Stop shouting. I'm fine. I stepped on a Na'vi necklace." Saying that made her face heat with embarrassment. How stupid did that sound?

"Langley, if you're gonna be scared shitless by a piece of jewelry, get your dumb ass back to the Samson and wait for us. You're more danger to us and yourself with that shotgun than any pack of wolves."

Obviously, incredibly stupid if Griffin's scathing reply was anything to go by.

She hurried to reassure both men. "I'm sorry; I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

"It better not. I'll fucking shoot you myself next time."

Still shamed by her nervous reaction and Griffin's reprimand, Tess kept silent and bent to retrieve the beads. They slipped off their leather lace and into the knapsack she carried. Beads, a few woven bowls, and most importantly, a child's doll, were all she'd managed to find so far. Either the destruction of Hometree had obliterated the mundane possessions of the Omaticaya, or she searched in an area that hadn't housed the living quarters.

The faintest scuffle reached her ears. Survival instinct slammed into overdrive, ignited by a rush of adrenaline that instantly sharpened her hearing and her sight. Tess hefted the shotgun to her shoulder, turning slowly to scan the border where jungle met scorched ground.

Again that thread of sound drifted to her, barely audible beneath the hammerblow of her own heartbeat in her ears. The noise came from a tangled patch of roots, yanked from the ground by Hometree's fall. The bit of root system sat near a piece of the trunk, almost entirely concealed by splintered branches and mounds of ash. Its twisted wood resembled a makeshift cage, and within, something shifted.

"Gentlemen," she said softly. "There's something alive here."

"Then I suggest you shoot it, Langley, before it eats you," Griffin snapped.

Tess crept a little closer, the shotgun raised and steady in her grip. The movements continued, accompanied by a weak, mewling cry.

The sound brought her up short. "No way," she breathed and threw caution to the wind by increasing her stride. If this was some kind of freaky-ass trap, then the fauna on Pandora was a hell of a lot smarter than anyone could possibly imagine. But the closer she got to the root cage, the more convinced she was this was nothing short of a miracle.

Shouldering two of the branches off the top of the cage, she peered inside and gasped.

".God."

Max's "Tess?" and Griffin's frustrated growl seemed far away in her comm. as Tess tipped over the root cage for a better look. Filthy and almost gray from both ash and illness, a Na'vi infant girl lay curled on her side, her small fists tucked under her chin as she mewled and stared at Tess with dull yellow eyes.

Tess stretched out a hand and crooned softly. "Hey, little bit, I'm not gonna hurt you. I just want to check you."

"Langley, who are you talking to?"

Tess answered Griffin without changing her tone. "You and Max best get over here now. I've found a Na'vi baby. Alive."

"What?" Max's exclamation was almost explosive. "Are you kidding?"

"Nope. But if we don't get her medical attention quick, she won't be for long. I'm not an expert on Na'vi physiology, but I'm guessing she's dehydrated and starved."

"Leave it."

This time, it was Tess who sucked in a shocked breath at Griffin's flat order. "Are you crazy? What asshole would leave a baby out here to be a thanator snack?"

"The Na'vi did, or it wouldn't be here."

"They probably couldn't find her. Hell, I only saw her because I'm lower to the ground."

"If you take that baby back to Hell's Gate and it dies, the Na'vi will blood-eagle every one of us."

Tess shouldered the shotgun across her back and reached for the baby. "Come on, Sunshine. That nutjob Quaritch wasn't exaggerating when he said the Na'vi were hard to kill." Lifting the infant wasn't as easy as it looked. Tess was bigger, but the baby was the size of a human 3-year old.

"Leave the goddamn kid, Langley!"

She struggled to her feet with the infant, ignoring Griffin's command. The child rested her head on Tess's shoulder and hiccupped.

Max's voice crackled as sharp as Griffin's over the comm. "Don't be a dick, Griffin. It won't make much sense if we give the Omaticaya a bag full of pots, pans and broken bows, then tell them 'oh by the way, we left one of your kids there.' I'd say they'd be pretty damned pissed off then, don't you?"

Tess paid little attention to the increasingly hostile exchange between the two men. She had no intention of obeying Griffin's order. She'd take full responsibility if anything happened to the Na'vi child while at Hell's Gate, but Griffin would have to shoot her before she left the baby here at the mercy of Pandora's feral jungle. How the child had lived through Hometree's destruction and a week beyond without being eaten by viperwolves was beyond her. With Jake's recent transformation, it was hard not to believe in the sentient power of this moon. Call it Pandora, Eywa, whatever, but something had saved this child. Tess wasn't going to spit in the face of that kind of purposeful fate and turn her back on a helpless infant. Griffin might be a heartless prick. She wasn't.

The eerie sensation tickling her nape increased, followed by another sound behind her—a low growl. So deep and resonant, it vibrated the ground beneath her feet. Suddenly, her stomach did battle with her fast-pumping heart for room in her ribcage. Tess squeezed the baby and turned slowly. Ninety meters away, a thanator watched her from the shadows of drifting ash.

For a moment, it seemed as if every molecule of air had been sucked from her protective mask, and all she could do was emit a faint half gasp, half scream.

The sound must have alerted Griffin for his abrupt "Max!" was followed by a softer "What are you looking at, Tess?"

"Thanator," she squeaked.

"Son of a bitch." His voice, sharp and contemptuous before, was creepily calm. "I'm contacting Jamie, Tess. There's a clearing to the north. He'll meet you there. Drop the baby and RUN!"

His voice blasted across her comm. like a gunshot, effectively snapping Tess out of the terror that had frozen her in place. She held the baby tighter and bolted for the questionable sanctuary of tree remains.

The thanator's resounding roar shook the surrounding jungle canopy as it thundered behind her, eating ground with a few lithe strides. Tess swore she felt its breath hot on her back. There was no way she could outrun something built like a panther and the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, even if she weren't slowed down by carrying a thirty pound baby.

"We're gonna die; we're gonna die; we're gonna die."

Griffin's and Max's responses were just bee buzzes in her comm. as she darted through the field of wood shrapnel. A giant limb lay to her right, blackened and hollowed out. Big enough for her to run into without so much as crouching, it was too small for the Thanator to follow.

She dove into the enclosed space just as a clawed foot slammed into the limb's broken edges, knocking it sideways. The force threw Tess against the interior wall, and she saw lights in the darkness as the back of her head hit the rough bark. She rolled, struggling to gain her feet while still clutching the now crying baby.

The limb lurched as the thanator tried to squeeze itself inside to reach its prey. Tess bounced from one side of the interior to the other, fighting to keep her balance as she raced for the daylight at the other end of the limb. The rapid rake of claws and the bellows of the enraged thanator as it shredded the wood made her ears ring.

She rocketed out of the tree limb's other end and raced north. She didn't bother looking back. To do so meant hesitation or worse, a fall. Voices rattled in her comm.. Griffin's, Max, Jamie's, even Delia's deeper avatar voice.

"It's stuck in the limb!"

"Run your ass off, Tess! Run!"

Tess heard the rotors before she saw the Samson and screamed in relief. Delia met her halfway, hefting an M60 that jittered in her blue arms as she opened fire into the jungle where the thanator still struggled inside the limb.

Tess nearly ran over Max and Griffin as they raced toward the Samson from the east. Her feet caught air as Griffin lifted her and tossed her, still holding the crying infant, into the carrier. Delia leapt aboard last, and just in time. The Samson lifted off as the thanator crashed into the clearing and roared its frustration at losing its prey.

For a moment, no one spoke in the Samson's open compartment. The draft generated by the rotors swirled into the space in a loud rush. Tess sat limp in her seat and patted the baby's back. Three gazes, two curious, one glaring, made her cheeks heat. She looked to Griffin who watched her with slitted eyes. Even behind the face mask, she could make out the fire of disapproval in his brown eyes.

To her amazement, the disapproval slowly transformed to amusement, and a wide grin curved Griffin's lips.

"Christ, Tess, if you weren't about to be eaten, I'd have pissed myself laughing. You should have seen yourself running out of that jungle as if someone had set fire to your ass, screaming your head off and hanging onto a big blue baby. Wished I'd filmed it."

She blinked. And blinked again as his grin turned to outright laughter. Max and Delia soon followed suit. Tess gaped at them all. They thought that was funny? Ass holes. She caressed the baby's soft black hair, careful not to catch the short neural queue covered by a wispy braid. She tried to picture what they saw, and suddenly a bubble of laughter rose in her throat. It had a hysterical edge to it, but she embraced it and let the residual terror flow out of her in that mirth.

"I hate you, Griffin." She grinned at him.

"Yeah, well I'm not your biggest fan either, Langley. And congratulations on instant motherhood."

She remembered a quote, one of her father's favorites. "All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word; freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope."

She didn't realize she'd spoken aloud until Griffin answered her. "Winston Churchill."

Tess glanced down at the infant resting against her. A small heartbeat reassured her the baby merely slept. She needed medical attention, and Tess only hoped that by bringing a Na'vi child to Hell's Gate, she hadn't condemned the human contingent remaining on Pandora.


References:

James Cameron's Avatar Wiki

Babybag (height, weight page)

Na'vi language – Wikipedia (note: while I distrust a lot of information on Wikipedia, the reference section is exceptional and extensive for this entry. Because of its length, I'm listing the Wikipedia entry as the main reference. Paul Frommer, creator of the Na'vi language, has been complimentary of the maintainer of this entry).

Avatar – the movie

Avatar – the game

James Cameron's Avatar: An Activist's Survival Guide