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.

In this chapter I refer to a scene with Max and a slash cutter. While not addressed in the movie, such a scene appears in the original script as written by James Cameron.

There is a fair number of Na'vi words in this chapter. Each are translated at the end, below references.

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 2 – The Nature of Sympathy

"Tess. Come on, Tess, wake up. You got company."

The persistent voice penetrated Tess's sleep-fogged mind. Oh God, she pleaded internally, please don't let it be time for yet another bottle.

"Tess, if you don't get up, I'll have to resort to extreme measures and wake Evie."

She jackknifed into a sitting position and squinted blearily at Norm where he stood by her cot. Behind the protective shield of his breathing mask, his eyes glittered with amusement. Tess shot a quick glance to the infant sleeping peacefully in the bed next to hers. She turned to glare at Norm.

"Norm, I just spent half the night getting her to sleep. If you wake her, I will personally strangle you with your own vocal cords." Hell, she sounded like someone had already attempted to strangle her. Nine hours of almost continuous singing to a cranky baby had left her croaking like a sick frog.

He raised his hands in mock surrender and grinned. "Don't be so quick to murder me. I've brought second watch. Jake and Neytiri are here."

A wave of relief shot through her. Images of a shower, twelve hours of uninterrupted sleep in a temperature controlled room, a meal eaten at leisurely pace instead of wolfed down as she stood. Breathing without wearing a mask. She looked to the baby once more, and those lovely images faded before the knot that started in her belly and rose to fill her chest.

This is supposed to happen, she told herself. Hell's Gate had been frantically trying to contact Jake for three weeks, to no avail. Half the remaining colony was jumpier than spooked cats at having a Na'vi baby here, and all were desperate to return her to her clan, even Tess. Or so she thought until now.

She peered around Norm to where two blue figures hovered at the doorway to the currently empty avatar longhouse. "Here, help me up." She raised a hand to Norm who gripped her forearm to steady her as she rose from the cot.

Joint pops and creaks made her groan, and one of Norm's eyebrows rose. "Aren't you a little young to sound that rickety?"

Tess offered him a scowl and the one fingered salute. "You try taking care of a Na'vi infant for twenty-one days and then tell me how spritely you feel, ace."

"Twenty days."

"Semantics, especially when you factor in diaper changing."

She met Jake halfway in the longhouse, Neytiri close behind him. Tess had worked briefly with Jake for the short time he was in the Avatar program. The man bound to his human form had been a troubled soul, like most of the RDA employees who volunteered to come to Pandora's hostile realm. Now, serenity and happiness shone from those yellow Na'vi eyes. The troubled soul had finally found its proper home.

Neytiri's tail coiled gently around Jake's calf for a moment, and Tess hid a smile. That soul had also found its proper mate.

Tess reached for his hand, and found hers engulfed in his gentle clasp. "Kaltxì, Jake. Kaltxì, Neytiri." She avoided using the more traditional "I see you," with its many levels of meaning and intimacy.

"How's it goin', Tess?" Jake grinned and kissed the back of her hand in a courtly gesture. "And it's okay to speak English to me, you know."

Tess sniffed. "You need all the practice in Na'vi you can get. Your accent still sucks." She winked at Neytiri. "Fì ketuwong ke nayume keu, Neytiri."

Neytiri laughed and replied in a mixture of Na'vi and English. "The tsahik says he is still skxawng but learns more every day."

Jake's sheepish smile melted into a more somber expression. "Norm told us you found a baby at Hometree."

The unspoken anguish swelled in her chest even more. Tess had never meant to bond with the little Na'vi girl, but it happened nonetheless. How awful it now felt, faced with the inevitable separation. Tess kept her expression neutral and hoped her voice didn't give away the burgeoning grief threatening to close her sore throat completely.

"Surprised us all. She was dehydrated when we brought her here and hungry. A couple of scientists figured out a way to synthesize Na'vi breast milk." She shrugged. "Well, close enough anyway. She took it without too much problem, even from a bottle." Tess glanced down mournfully at her stained and wrinkled shirt. "We never quite conquered the spit-up."

She noted Neytiri's arrested expression, the flutter of her eyelids as she searched the compound for the baby's sleeping place. Time was up. The Na'vi had come to reclaim one of their own.

"Come on. She's over there, sleeping. Keep it down if you can. We've had a hell of a night."

Tess led them to where Evie slept curled on her side with her hands tucked under her chin and her small tail draped over a pudgy knee. Faint stripes patterned her skin, and her dark lashes lay thick against her cheeks as she slept. Her weeks under Tess's care at Hell's Gate had transformed her from a scrawny, dull-eyed creature who mewled weakly in distress to a chubby infant with a charming giggle when she was happy and a deafening howl when she was hungry or wet.

Blinking hard to stem tears, Tess watched Neytiri sink to one knee by the bedside. Long fingers plucked gently at the makeshift diaper covering the baby's bottom before hovering over her legs, torso and head.

"We didn't have a name, so I've just been calling her 'evi." The Na'vi's affectionate word for "child" had been close enough in pronunciation to lend itself to bastardization, and the humans of Hell's Gate had informally christened the infant Evie.

Neytiri surprised Tess with tears and a wide smile. "This is Kinätanhì. Seven Stars. She is the daughter of the clan's best archer, Nawm'itan. He thought she died with her mother at Kelutrel. We all did." This time the long fingers drifted across Tess's hand. "Irayo, Tess, for saving her."

Tess stepped away, uncomfortable with the gratitude for what was nothing more than the actions of decency and a humanity almost forgotten on Pandora. "No thanks needed. It was Eywa's mercy that saved her and showed me where she was."

"Give yourself a little credit, Tess." Jake spoke for the first time since they'd seen the baby. "It takes balls to face down a Thanator."

Tess's hoarse laugh was more a bark. "Good God, who told you that? Please. I'm not that brave. Or that stupid. I left scorch marks in the grass running for the Samson." She winked. "Now, if you say I'm brave because I've changed nasty diapers, wiped up baby puke and forfeited a decent night's sleep for three weeks, well then, I'm your girl."

Her amusement faded as she turned her attention back to the sleeping Evie. She cleared her throat, hoping the hoarseness masked the annoying warble in her words. "You'll probably want to take her now. She's still full from her first breakfast and will probably sleep the entire trip back to the Omaticaya."

She didn't ask if the clan had found another Kelutrel in which to make their new home. The Na'vi had allowed them to stay; it didn't mean they intended to reveal their new location. Trust between the two was still a fragile thing. Regardless, Evie was lost to her already.

A pile of supplies near the cot. Folded cloths for makeshift diapers, RDA-issue blankets and a hastily constructed iveh k'nivi s'dir Tess kept on hand in preparation for this moment. She handed the baby sling to Neytiri. "It's not half bad if I say so myself. You'll need it to carry her home."

Neytiri rose to tower over Tess. A flicker of some emotion danced in her eyes and was gone. Her faint smile held a world of unspoken sympathy. "You carry her outside, Tess. She knows you. I will take her when we leave."

Tess nodded her thanks, unable to speak. Evie didn't waken as Tess lifted her, only shifted to rest her head on her foster mother's shoulder. Tess's arms strained under the baby's weight as she cradled Evie against her. She didn't mind, only wished she could strip off the damn breathing mask and kiss the little girl's head.

Outside the avatar compound, Polyphemus had cleared the horizon, lacquering the tops of the trees surrounding Hell's Gates perimeters in shades of amber and pale yellow. A heavy mist rose from the damp earth, curling back on itself to take shelter in the shadows of the deep jungle. Tess squinted against the morning light and followed Jake and Neytiri to the main gate. Beyond the gate, Jake's monstrous ikran waited, emitting a loud screech when it caught sight of its rider.

At the gates, a few of the scientists and avatars waited. Each offered smiles and wishes of "Good luck, Evie," and "We'll miss you, Evie."

Tess felt sure her eyes were bugging out of her head from the effort to hold back a crying jag. In her arms, Evie slept peacefully. She couldn't bear to look at Jake when he touched her arm. "It's time, Tess."

The gentle tone of his edict broke the dam, and her eyes welled with tears. "Oh shit," she sniffled and took a stuttering breath in an effort to gain control. "I'm sorry. I can't help it." She hugged the baby, hard enough to make her grunt though her eyes stayed closed.

This time, Neytiri stroked her arm. "Kinätanhì will not forget you, Tess. I will tell her of you. So will Jake."

Tess nodded. She took several deep breaths and pulled off her mask, ignoring the surprised gasps of scientists and Na'vi. The minutes were brief, precious and oxygen-starved. Tess used them to press her bare cheek against Evie's, imprinting to her memory the feel of soft, cool skin and the caress of fine hair. Sweet girl, she thought, be good. I'll miss you.

She passed Evie gently to Neytiri and pulled the mask back in place. Filtered oxygen poured into her lungs from the Exopak, a stark reminder that here on this lush, dangerous planet she, and those like her, were outlanders in the most basic ways. Tears continued to drip down her cheeks, and her mask began to fog.

Jake kissed her hand once more. "I'll be back pretty soon and give you news." He shook hands with the others gathered and told Norm "Give me a few days, and I'll be back. We need to talk. Plan."

He and Neytiri then passed through the gate's temporarily deactivated security defense and mounted Jake's ikran. Neytiri held Evie securely in her sling and waved to Tess. Tess waved back, a little cheered by the knowledge that the Na'vi child was returning to her rightful place amongst the care and affection of her clan. She hoped her father would find some comfort in knowing not all his family had died at Kelutrel.

The ikran rose on a draft of air created by the powerful wings. Soon, it and its riders were nothing more than a speck in Pandora's wide skies. Tess barely registered the quick pats on the shoulder or the complimentary "Nice work, Tess," as her colleagues passed her to return to the main center or work on fortifying the perimeter defenses while in their avatar bodies.

"Well, don't just stand there being a loser cry-baby, Langley. Vacation's over. There's plenty of work to do to keep this place up and running."

Tess chuckled. Reese Griffin's scathing remarks were just the thing she needed right now to cheer her up. She turned to find the ex SecOps scowling at her from behind his mask. His gaze dropped to her feet and rose slowly to encompass every detail of her frazzled appearance. "You look like shit, Langley." Despite the insult, a hint of concerned lingered in his brown eyes.

Graying, stocky and weathered by time spent under Earth's sun, Reese Griffin looked as toughened and appealing as old leather. His acerbic personality did nothing to enhance his appearance. In a way, he reminded Tess of her oldest brother—her favorite sibling.

"Ever the charmer, Griffin. What are you doing here?"

He shrugged. "I figured if I had to start my day by eating breakfast with a bunch of wussie scientists, I might as well eat with the wussiest one of all." The hint of a smile touched his lips.

Her brows rose. "Is this your way of asking me out on a date?"

He shrugged again. "Only if you get cleaned up. Good thing I'm wearing this Exo. I bet you smell like you've been sleeping in a disposal container. Oh, and you pick up the tab."

"Nice."

This time he grinned. "Ain't it though? Just think of it as a celebratory meal. We don't have to listen to hours of you caterwauling to a crying baby anymore."

Tess laughed outright. With Evie's departure, it still felt like someone had sucker-punched her in the sternum, but Reese's dry banter lessened the pressure, made some of the tears dry. And she desperately needed a shower.

"Okay. I'll meet you in the commissary at 0800." She eyed him. "Say you chew with your mouth closed."

"Don't push it, Langley. I promise not to spit food on you. Take it or leave it." He winked and walked away.

"Kiss my ass, Reese," she said mildly.

"Langley, that's probably the cleanest, best smelling part of you right now," he tossed over his shoulder. "See you at 0800. Don't be late."


Four days later

Tess stood in front of an empty amnio tank and listened as Max pulled out all the stops on his sales pitch.

"Come on, Tess, it's a second chance. You were seriously considering it before Quaritch went berserk and screwed us all. We desperately need another avatar. You know this."

She did know it, but fear made her hesitate. A decade earlier, she'd volunteered for the Avatar program, despite knowing the high risks to a driver. A scholar's curiosity and a need for money had overridden most of her concerns, and she'd signed up for the program.

The application process had been grueling, and she wasn't one of RDA's star candidates. Nonetheless, she'd qualified. Physicians, xenobiologists and a multitude of other doctors began the work of creating her Na'vi hybrid.

They failed, numerous times. But the money already invested dictated they try again. By then, Tess had given up on the program and volunteered to ship out to Pandora as part of a secondary team supporting Grace Augustine's school and RDA's efforts to develop peaceful cohabitation with the Na'vi. That had failed as well.

Truth be told, as a sociolinguist, she was probably one of the least useful members of the science team. At least now, when there was no school and almost no contact with the Na'vi. As an avatar driver, she could contribute to the community's survival in a more concrete way.

"We don't have five years to wait for this avatar to mature. RDA will be back by then."

Max, sensing her acquiescence, grinned triumphantly. "I don't need five years. The embryo RDA shipped to us is finally viable, with a little tweaking. We'd have to use a higher dosage of growth accelerant, but I'm sure I can get your avatar up to speed in two years. Two and a half tops."

"Risk percentage?"

His grin faded a little. "Moderate. We'll need to monitor the growth more closely and decrease dosage if we see even a blip, but I'm confident this'll work."

Tess pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. She'd been up half the night with a small crew repairing air breaches from the damage Max had inflicted on the Ops Room with the slash cutter. She wished he'd hit her with this after a nap.

"I'm rusty on simulation."

"Easy fix. How many hours did you log in while they tested?"

She counted back. "About three hundred and seventy, give or take a few."

Max frowned. "That's not much, but you can catch up during the maturation process. By the time we decant the avatar, you'll be a pro." He peered at her, as if by staring hard enough he could reach into her mind and make her give him the answer he wanted.

Tess suppressed the smile threatening to curve her lips. "Can I have a think on it?"

"Sure. No problem. You can give me your answer tonight."

Obviously, Max wasn't a fan of rumination.

"Generous of you," she replied, hoping he picked up on the dry response.

His sincere "Happy to oblige," dashed that hope.

She was interrupted from questioning him further by one of the scientist calling to them from the bio lab's entrance. "Hey you two. Jake's here, and he's brought along a big Na'vi with a bad attitude." Avid curiosity played across his features. "He's asking for you, Langley."

Tess and Max exchanged surprised looks before grabbing Exopaks and jogging for the avatar compound. Jake and his companion met them near the neatly marked rows of Pandoran tubers grown for both study and food for the avatars.

Scientifically, she understood the differences between Na'vi and the hybrid avatars. With the added component of human DNA, the hybrid took on some of the characteristics—eyebrows and five digits on each hand and foot, smaller eyes, the plithum between the nose and lip instead of the faint bifurcation sported by the Na'vi-but it still startled her to see those differences so blatantly apparent when avatars stood next to their full Na'vi counterparts.

Next to Jake's hybrid form, she and Max were no bigger than children. She was, in fact, comparable in height to a Na'vi three-year old. But next to the Na'vi warrior accompanying him, Jake was shorter, stockier, his differences far more pronounced than they were when he stood next to Neytiri.

Broad-shouldered, with an elongated torso and long legs, the Na'vi easily stood close to ten feet. Unlike Jake, he didn't shave his hair to the scalp on the sides but wore it full and below his shoulders, with the front pieces tied back and away from his face. He was dressed in the typical loincloth and leather girdle with its center sheath for the necessary hunting knife. Behind one shoulder the rise of a double-cross banshee bow showed him to be well armed. A pattern of darker blue stripes decorated his skin, their uniformity marred by scars that lacerated his left shoulder and shredded a path across his chest. Large yellow eyes surveyed all before him with a cool disdain matched only by the equally scornful curl of his upper lip.

Tess suspected when it went up for vote as to whether those humans who had helped the Na'vi could stay on Pandora, this warrior's answer had been a resounding "No."

Bad attitude indeed.

Jake broke off his conversation with Norm when he saw her. "Tess, I've brought someone with me I want you to meet." He raised a hand and gestured to his silent companion. "This is Nawm'itan, Kinätanhì's dad." He switched to clumsy Na'vi that might have made Tess wince were she not in shock. "Nawm'itan, this is the tawtuté Neytiri spoke of. And my friend."

Tess almost groaned in despair. She turned a wide-eyed gaze on the Na'vi who returned it, hostility pouring off him in waves. She'd hoped never to meet Evie's father. Humans had been responsible for his mate's death and the endangerment to his daughter. Those guilty of these acts were either dead or expelled from Pandora. At least for now. Still, Tess guessed he might consider her guilty by association. Judging by his current demeanor, she'd guessed right.

Nawm'itan nodded briefly, the tiniest inclination of his head to acknowledge her. Tess was more forthcoming. "Kaltxì, Nawm'itan. 'Awve ultxari ohengeyä, Nawma Sa'nok lrrtok siveiyi. "**

Evie had inherited the shape of her father's eyes as well as that of his mouth. Tess desperately wanted to interrogate him about Evie but held back, sensing that such a line of questioning might get her skewered.

The tension in the air was palpable, the compound silent except for the chitters and screeches of the jungle beyond the protective palisades.

The cords in his long neck stood out before he spoke in English much worse thank Jake's Na'vi. "I thank you, Tesslangley, for helping my child." He said it with the pained reluctance of someone who'd just eaten a bowl of ground glass. His yellow eyes burned like twin suns.

Tess blanched and wondered if this hard-won expression of gratitude was about to transform into an attack. Even Jake tensed. No one missed the shift in his stance that put him between her and Nawm'itan. The move served to dispel some of the Na'vi's animosity. Long muscles twitched beneath blue skin as he settled into a more relaxed stance.

Risking a soft sigh of relief and a hesitant smile, Tess showed mercy and slipped into Na'vi. "I am honored to care for a child of the Omaticaya. It was Eywa's blessing upon me that Kinätanhì and I found each other." This time, she risked the question she wanted answered when Jake first introduced them. "How is she? How is the 'eveng?"

For a moment, so quick she might have missed it if she blinked, his expression softened. "She is well. The women take turns caring for her."

Tess swallowed the sudden ache in her throat. She missed Evie. "I am glad she is among those who love her."

Despite her fluency in Na'vi, it was the most stilted conversation she'd ever had with anyone. She floundered for something else to say as Nawm'itan towered over her, silent; watchful. A thousand questions about Evie lay on her tongue. Only the dislike simmering just below Nawm'itan's still features kept her mute. Jake came to her rescue.

"Look, Tess, he won't ask but I did. The baby got a little too used to your voice while she was here. What's left of the clan is being tortured by sleep deprivation because they can't get her to sleep without crying for several of hours straight. The women have tried singing to her, playing drums, flutes, pacing, whistling. Nothing works. Nawm'itan wanted to come here and express his gratitude." Jake paused, a sheepish half-smile on his face. "Believe it or not." He rubbed his eyes in a defeated gesture. "I'm here to beg. We need a break. The longhouse is wired and recorded to protect the avatars. One of the scientists is downloading recordings from the nights when you sang to Kinätanhì. I'll take it back with me and teach the women how to use it. Keep your fingers crossed that works."

Tess gaped at him. She was a capable singer at best, able to carry a decent tune but nothing more. Her repertoire of music consisted of songs she'd learned from childhood and some folk songs a professor of hers insisted all his students learn to improve their understanding of the nuances in linguistics. Who knew Evie would miss them?

She groaned at a sudden thought. "Ugh, you recorded me? Do I snore?" A few smothered laughs and fake coughs were her answer. "Great. Please take that out of the download. I doubt Evie wants to hear that."

Max spoke up. "I think that's when she slept best." He raised his hands in a wordless "What?" when she glared at him.

As if on cue, Jada Marin, Max's right-hand woman, returned with the download. She dropped the altered com link into Jake's hand. "Work it just like a com for the most part. Tess's voice won't boom across the jungle, but it'll work for what you need."

The com looked no bigger than a jelly bean in Jake's palm. He dropped it into small pouch tied to the side of his loin cloth. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

Tess looked once more to Nawm'itan. He still watched her, a measuring gaze that gave nothing away but seemed to strip her of all her protective emotional armor and see the woman beneath. He raised one hand in farewell.

"Tawtuté,Eywa ngahu."

She raised her hand in return. "Eywa be with you as well, Noble Son." As much as she might wish it, it didn't seem appropriate to ask him to hug Evie for her.

Unlike Jake's departure with Neytiri and Evie, Tess didn't linger to see Jake and Nawm'itan disappear on their ikrans, though she knew the memory of the grim, stately Omaticaya warrior would stay with her for a long time.

She made to follow Max back to the lab and instead found Reese planted in front of her.

"Feel like lunch?"

Tess frowned. "What is it with you? I think you need to invest in a therapist's couch."

"Nah, I'd rather eat."

She shrugged and linked her arm through his. "Yeah, me too. This time you pay, and I'll tell you what Max is up to. Do you think I'd look good in blue?"


Many thanks for reading and reviewing.

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

Pandorapedia

Fox Screenings James Cameron Avatar script

Translations:

Kaltxì (Hello)

Fì ketuwong ke nayume keu, Neytiri (This alien will learn nothing, Neytiri)

Tsahik (shaman, matriarch)

Skxawng (moron)

'evi (affectionate form of the word 'child')

Kelutrel (Hometree)

Irayo (thank you)

iveh k'nivi s'dir (a baby sling)

ikran (mountain banshee)

tawtuté (sky person – feminine form)

Kaltxì, Nawm'itan. 'Awve ultxari ohengeyä, Nawma Sa'nok lrrtok siveiyi. (Hello, Noble Son. May the Great Mother smile upon our first meeting.)

'eveng (child)

Tawtuté,Eywa ngahu (Sky Woman, Eywa be with you)

Note: Every once in a while I write a scene based on the inspiration of lyrics or music or both. The scene where Tess grieves her separation from Evie was inspired by listening to the last part of Connie Dover's ethereally beautiful Cantus sung in both Latin and Irish Gaelic.

"Is airiu agus ochón!

Sad I am till you return

To have you at the break of dawn

Ochón airiu

Without you

(And alas, sad I am till you return. To have you at the break of dawn. Alas, without you.)