You came back
Night has fallen in the forest.
It's been a long day. Neytiri reflects on everything that has happened since she last slept — Jake's return as Toruk Makto, the failed attempt to save Grace, the call to war. Moments ago, she and Jake had stood on the open plain and addressed the first of the many clans that call it home. They'd stood side-by-side in the firelight, watching the legendary alliance being reborn around them.
It's almost time to retire for the night; tomorrow will be another long day. As soon as they finish this private talk with the Olo'Eyktan — Akwey — they can rest. The three of them stand in a secluded spot in the forest bordering the plain and talk logistics. They discuss the number of warriors Akwey will bring, the path they should take to the Well of Souls, the supplies they will need. Neytiri answers most of Akwey's questions, until he starts asking about the Sky People — their weapons, their warriors, their tactics. At that point, she lets Jake lead the conversation, interjecting with the occasional translation when he needs it.
Jake keeps shooting sideways glances at Neytiri, between words. He moves the conversation along quickly and efficiently, as though he is in a hurry to finish. It suddenly occurs to Neytiri that the last time she had been alone with Jake was when he had found her crying over her father's body. She relives the grief for a moment, recalling the weight of her father's bow in her hands and the light rain of ashes against her skin as they fell from the devastated sky. She recalls the wounded anger she had felt when Jake had intruded on the scene, remembering her rage that he dared show his face, given his hand in what had happened.
Neytiri feels a quick jolt of self-reproach at this last thought. There's no need to dwell on that now.
She did have some time alone with Jake on the flight here, come to think of it, but the setting hadn't been very conducive to conversation. Both were still keyed up from Jake's speech, their hearts pounding with the enormity of the task they had taken up. Jumping up onto Toruk's back behind Jake had been incredibly surreal, like moving in a dream. Jake himself had seemed transformed — familiar, and yet not. He carried himself so differently that she could barely recognize him as the same person she had once rescued from viperwolves. It was amazing and heady but also a little intimidating. She sat behind him, gripping his back for support as she accustomed herself to the unfamiliar rhythm of Toruk's flight. For the first time since she'd known him, he seemed more confident in his movements than she did. It felt as though she was suddenly required to learn a strange, new version of Jake — rediscover who he was.
But then they reached cruising altitude, and Jake turned and spoke his first private words to her since his return. "Neytiri, I have no idea where I'm going." He smiled, a suggestion of sheepishness playing around his mouth, and suddenly he was the same Jake she had always known. She blinked as she realized that there was no reason she should've expected him to know which direction to fly.
She scanned the horizon. The plains were home to a great number of clans; they should probably go there first. She reached around his shoulder, pointed toward the largest of the thundering mountains, then gestured to its west. "Left," she said.
He nodded and the wide scarlet wings banked on his command. Neytiri did her best to anticipate the motion and adjust her stance accordingly. The rest of the ride had been like that: Neytiri concentrating on keeping her balance on a creature she was not controlling, Jake speaking up now and then to make sure he was on the right heading.
"Kìyevame, Toruk Makto. Eywa ngahu." Akwey's words of farewell bring Neytiri back to the present.
"Eywa ngahu," Jake echoes, inclining his head. The Olo'Eyktan returns the gesture, then turns to rejoin his clan, his footsteps receding as he jogs off toward the edge of the forest where it meets the open plain.
Jake watches Akwey until he is out of sight, then listens until he is out of earshot. Only then does he finally turn to face Neytiri. There is a long, significant moment of silence between them. They stare at each other, standing a few paces apart under the trees.
Neytiri feels oddly uncomfortable. Now that they can speak privately, she suddenly finds that she doesn't know what to say. He seems to be waiting for her, however, so she breaks the silence.
"You came back."
"I did." He holds her gaze steadily, but there's something oddly guarded in his voice, his posture. "Even though you told me not to."
Neytiri breaks eye contact. Conflicting emotions fight for dominance in her mind.
Jake speaks quickly before she can say anything. "Neytiri, you did the right thing. Don't you dare even think about apologizing." There's a tense edge to his voice, and he walks away a few paces. An atokirina' drifts by and he starts playing with it idly — flicking it away, drawing it back, wafting it away again. "Everything you said to me was true... more true than you probably even appreciate. And there's nothing I can do to make it less true. I can't change what's already been done." There's a harsh finality to his next words. "I don't want your forgiveness, Neytiri."
She hesitates. "What do you want then?" He doesn't answer, and his face is inscrutable as he continues playing with the atokirina', balancing it on his forefinger. "Jake, why did you come back?"
"I had to."
She waits for his explanation. He wanders over to a nearby tree and lays his hand against its trunk. The moss bioluminesces at his touch, reflecting in his eyes. He stares at the dark silhouette of his five-fingered hand against the soft Pandora glow.
"Somehow, this world became all I care about," he says finally. He draws his hand away and looks at it, rubbing the dew between his avatar's fingers. "This life became the only one I care to lead."
There's an odd expression on his face. "They had us locked up, you know... me and Grace and Norm. Don't really know what they were planning to do with us, and honestly the particulars didn't worry me. All I could think of was that I had lost this forever." He makes a sweeping gesture that encompasses everything — the avatar, the forest, Neytiri. He sighs. "I thought about being sent away, being sent back to Earth, and I just wanted to lie down on the spot and die." His voice is fervent with how much he means this; it chills Neytiri's blood to hear it. He gives an ironic chuckle. "Never felt that before. Bit of a shock to the system, though it really shouldn't have surprised me. I've been a lost cause for a while now." He casts a brief look at her sideways. There's a fond smile on his lips, small but genuine — a glimmer of the old warmth escaping outward through his strange new demeanor.
He shakes his head, and the smile is gone. "I'm a warrior, Neytiri, that's the only thing I've ever known how to do. And right now, this place, these people —" He looks her full in the face, finally, and there's an unspoken emphasis in the way he studies her. "— it's all that's worth fighting for."
He takes a deep breath and adopts a casual, flippant tone. "So. That's what I'm gonna do. To the hilt." He laughs. "To the bitter end. I literally have nothing better to do with myself right now."
She stares at him wordlessly. He's talking like a condemned man.
"So yeah, it's that simple. I had no choice. You don't owe me anything. No forgiveness. Definitely no thanks. Even if I manage to work some kind of miracle with all this, I can't 'make up' for what I've done." He sounds disgusted at the very notion. "I can't bring those people back. I can't put things back to how they were before. It's basically my fault what happened to Hometree. It's basically my fault your father died."
Neytiri flinches. A normal man would've hesitated before saying something so blunt, would've provided her with some kind of warning. The blow strikes her like an ambush, and it takes her a while to recover — longer than she wants it to take.
"But you came back." She's saying it as much for her own reassurance as his. She fights away the unresolved hurt, the sense of betrayal, and clings to the memory of what she'd felt when he'd landed before the Tree of Souls on the wings of legend — the way her heart had jumped, the sheer impossibility and majesty of the scene. She plunges on before he can say anything. "Nobody expected that, Jake. And nobody expected what you are doing now." She gestures toward where she knows Toruk to be roosting, resting for tomorrow when they will fly again to muster more clans. She wants him to stop talking the way he's talking. She wants things to be right between them again. "You have given us hope. That the sorrow will come to an end, that you will lead the way out."
A spasm of pain flashes across Jake's face. "I'm going to try," he says in a small voice. The tone makes him sound like a completely different person.
He starts pacing restlessly back and forth, and Neytiri feels a creeping sense of foreboding. "Jake?"
His words come out in a whispered rush. "They're so powerful, Neytiri." He stops pacing and rounds on her. His eyes are wide, scared. He starts talking and can't stop, the words pouring out in a torrent. "You know that, of course, but even after all that's happened, I don't know if you really, truly, fully comprehend just how powerful they are. It's not just that they destroyed Hometree, Neytiri! It's that... God, Neytiri... it was easy for them."
Now it's Neytiri that can't meet his eyes. Scenes of destruction and carnage play before her eyes again. "It was as easy as striking a flint, or picking fruit. They didn't lose a single man or woman in that attack." Neytiri closes her eyes and sees her dead father, dead children. Jake drives on, mercilessly. "And there's more where that came from. They've got so much firepower just sitting around. We're out here, flying around, asking everyone to come risk their lives, and they're probably just kicking back in front of their computers, counting their missiles."
Neytiri feels cold inside as she faces him. "And you are leading us to war against them."
The regret in Jake's eyes is profound. He suddenly looks years older. "Yes."
She recalls what she said to him when he returned. I was afraid, Jake — for my people. I'm not anymore.
Now she's afraid again. For the first time since Jake returned, she's doubting him.
She stands motionless as he walks in circles around her, his agitation visible in the twitch of his tail and the flat set of his ears. She struggles to force the next question out.
"Do you think we can win?"
He stops in his circle, standing behind her. She can feel his proximity from the heat radiating off his body and from his breath on her neck. "Neytiri, I want you to think about everything you ever taught me about the Omaticaya — everything you ever taught me about the People. I want you to think about the clan we've just called upon and each of the clans we have yet to call upon. I want you to think about the entire history of your world — all those stories, all those songs, all those legends. I want you to think about the creatures and the trees. I want you to think about Eywa." He gently takes hold of her shoulders and turns her around to face him. "All that is at stake right now. Whatever our odds might be, your world is making its last stand. We have no choice but to fight."
Something terrible clicks in Neytiri's understanding. "They know about the Well of Souls."
"They know everything." His hands drop away from her body. "They know everything, because I told them."
Neytiri can't look at him anymore. She sits down on a log and puts her face in her hands. She thinks about all the things she'd shared with him — all the secrets she'd opened to him. Pandora's undoing is going to be just as much her fault as his. Everything they know, they know through Jake, and everything Jake knows, he knows through her.
Jake sits down next to her on the same log — close but not touching, as if he can sense everything she's thinking. There's an invisible wall between them. Neytiri hates it, but she feels powerless to reach across it. There's too much to take in at once. Her heart reels with confusion.
Jake is musing aloud to himself. "Well, I guess I didn't tell them everything. I didn't, you know... I didn't tell them about... about us." He makes a vague gesture, waving his hand in the space between them, then lets out a hollow laugh. "But I think they can guess."
There's a long, awkward silence.
Jake sighs to himself. He knows he's digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole, but he's driven by a need to tell her everything, to make her comprehend the truth, to See him for what he was. It's as if he's been keeping the lie bottled up behind a dam, and now the whole thing is bursting at the seams.
"You know something, Neytiri? If they hadn't wanted your home, they never would've sent me here. We never would've met." His voice softens. "We would have never known each other."
Neytiri's breath catches in her throat, and her head snaps to look at him. Somehow, despite everything, the very idea is terrible to her.
Jake sees it, and the soft look on her face shakes something loose inside of him. How can she look at him like that? He just pointed out how everything between them was founded on a lie; the tenderness visible through her hurt is too much for him to bear. He feels a sudden need to force understanding upon her, to make her appreciate just how deeply he's been deceiving her.
"Neytiri, listen. Stop looking like that. I was under their power from the very beginning." The look in her eye doesn't change. Jake grabs her arm, roughly, and slaps her hand against his chest. "Even this body belongs to them. I mean that literally. They fucking grew it in a tube. This entire time I've been with you, it was borrowed property, something they could take away from me with the push of a button." He pins her under his gaze. "You've never even seen my real face. Even right now, the only reason I can talk to you this way is because of their machinery. We're just lucky to have Trudy, or none of this could've worked. We airlifted their Link trailer away and hid it in the jungle. So I guess that makes me a thief, on top of being a race traitor."
He tries to say that last bit flippantly, to prove that he doesn't care, that his allegiance is secure. But he's unable to keep a soft note of guilt out of his voice despite himself, and he hates it. He's thrown in his lot with the Na'vi — he's never been so all in on anything in his life — but that doesn't change the fact that he'll be gunning down human beings before this is over: real people who were not much different from himself only a short time ago. People that he has sat next to in the canteen, joked around with. He can feel the guilt on his face, and he hates that too, hates the way it marks him out as alien, knowing that Neytiri can't help but notice. He looks up at the sky to avoid looking at her, watching the slowly swirling dust clouds on the luminous face of Polyphemus.
Neytiri does notice. She gazes at his upturned face from the side, and for a moment, she can see every inch of the light-years that separate him from the place where he was born, radiating from him in waves like cold starlight. He looks lost. Homeless.
Jake laughs self-consciously after a moment. "Funny, I think I've been called traitor by everyone I know at least once in the last week. Or had it implied. So I guess I'm just a terrible person, all around."
And then it clicks. The confusion in her heart evaporates.
"You're not a terrible person, Jake."
"Yes, I am."
"Jake. You tamed Toruk."
"That doesn't matter!"
She stares at him like he's grown a second head. Did he just say that?
"Look, I know that commands a lot of respect among you people. And I sort of get it. It was really, really difficult. Like, it was probably the trickiest thing I've ever done; I can see why it doesn't happen very often. But it doesn't matter what kind of crazy stunts I pull... that doesn't change what I've done. That doesn't make me less of a scumbag."
She stares at him speechlessly. It takes her a while to find her voice. "Jake." She speaks slowly. "You think most people cannot bond with Toruk... because it is difficult?"
He blinks at her, and his blank expression tells her everything she needs to know. She shakes her head wonderingly. "You really do not know."
"...are you going to tell me?"
She doesn't even know where to begin. She takes a moment to organize her thoughts, Jake staring expectantly at her. It's like one of their lessons again.
"Jake, did you ever wonder why we only ride pa'li and ikran?"
"Not really." Now that he thinks about it, he'd sort of taken it for granted.
"There are many large creatures, Jake, and all can make tsaheylu. But only pa'li and ikran can truly bond with us. Something in their spirit makes harmony with the Na'vi spirit, allows us to command them and move as one. Others are wrong for us. Toruk is one of them."
Jake looks very confused now. "Really? Because Toruk feels a lot like an ikran to me. Well, sort of. I mean, he's way, way more fierce and proud and... and intelligent and..." His voice trails off in respect.
Neytiri's face is glowing. "Yes. Toruk is like ikran to you, because something in Toruk's spirit makes harmony with yours. Jake. That is very, very rare. Toruk does not choose just anyone. You must be courageous, honorable, pure..."
Jake shifts uncomfortably. "Look, I don't know how your great-great-grandfather did it, and I don't really know what you mean when you say Toruk 'chose' him. But I'm pretty sure that's not what happened. It's not like he swooped down, bowed and said 'let me serve you.' Trust me, he was not happy about me landing on him. At all. I'm pretty sure I cheated."
Neytiri sighs. Jake can be incredibly dense sometimes. "It is not about tsaheylu, Jake. The test comes after tsaheylu."
He blinks at her. She feels irritated. "If you make tsaheylu with, let us say, the angtsik... do you know what happens? It panics and goes charging around, hitting trees and destroying things. There is no control."
She backtracks a bit, trying a different tack. "Jake, only five people have become Toruk Makto from the time of first songs." Her eyes glow with pride as she looks at her protégé. "You're the sixth."
He nods slowly. "Yes. You told me that."
"Did I tell you how many have tried?" He shakes his head.
She pauses for emphasis before reciting the number in her native tongue. "Kinävol-sì-mune." Seven eights plus two.
Jake blanches. He takes a moment to convert that to base-ten, then swears to himself. Neytiri continues. "The true number may be higher. These are the ones who declared it first. Even this is rare." She takes in his shocked expression and adds, quietly: "Our history is older than you think it is."
She continues. "Many times, it is one last, desperate effort that inspires someone to be Toruk Makto. If it fails, the clan loses a leader or one of its best warriors. And Jake, not all failed because they could not make tsaheylu. A few did. But it was not enough."
Her voice is clear and strong now. "If you are terrible like you say, you could never survive tsaheylu with a spirit like Toruk's. He would overwhelm you. You faint, probably. Even if not, it is only time before he throws you or rips you to pieces."
It's a good thing Jake is already sitting down. He feels like someone who has just taken a casual stroll through the woods and only found out afterwards that the entire place had been rigged with land mines and that it was only sheer dumb luck he didn't step on one. Even in his ignorance, he had belabored every possible alternative before committing to his insane mission; he had rehearsed every possible thing he could say that might convince them to help Grace.
He's not sure he would've tried something so stupid if he'd known. Even if he had, the knowledge of what he was up against might have ruined everything — might have weakened him with fear when the critical moment came. As it was, he had assumed matching the bond to be the hard part. When he finally managed it — after a strenuous aerial wrestling match — the fierce surge of triumph had obliterated all other thought.
What would've happened if he had properly understood then that the true test was only beginning?
Reexamining his memory of the struggle, he realizes that first bond had indeed felt like a battle of will in a way that was different from taming his ikran. He couldn't simply dominate the creature. He had to impress it. He had to prove himself. He had to force Toruk to acknowledge him as an equal; he had to win his favor. Even now, Toruk feels more like an equal partner than a mount, as though every move they make together happens only because Toruk wills it.
Neytiri watches the expressions colliding on Jake's face. When she speaks again, her voice is quieter than before. "Jake, I still do not understand why you did what you did. I do not know what life you lived before. I do not know how you could live among us, hiding so much from us, without one of us seeing through you." She touches his shoulder, gently. "But Jake, the spirit that allows you to be Toruk Makto... that cannot be faked." Her face is very close to his now.
Jake swallows a couple times, trying to wrap his mind around everything she's said. He finally shakes his head. "I still don't want your forgiveness."
"Fine." Her eyes flash. "I don't give it to you. But two can play this game. I don't want your regret."
He's not sure what to say to that. Neytiri presses on. "You like saying big proclamations today. Let me say one now." Jake waits for her to speak, an apprehensive look on his face.
"You say you cannot change what is done." Her large eyes are direct and honest. "I say: I don't care."
"You should —" he begins. Neytiri clamps her hand over his mouth, impatiently. Why can't he just let her finish?
"It is not what you have done that matters now," she says in an intense whisper. She slowly removes her hand from his mouth, letting it slide up against his cheek. "What matters is who you are."
He smiles weakly, the corner of his mouth twitching up under her palm. "Neytiri, you realize you're in love with an alien, right?"
She takes her other hand and runs it across his shoulders, his chest. "You say you need Sky People machines to use this body." She looks up into his eyes. "How do you plan to live when this is over?"
"Honestly?" he whispers. "I haven't planned that far ahead yet."
His tone is light, but that doesn't stop her from grasping the gravity behind his words. There is an aggressive urgency in their kiss, the stark opposite of the hopeful, innocent, gentle nature of their first one. Every second is precious now.
After some time, Jake pulls back. They're gripping each other so tightly that it's a struggle to break the kiss. "Neytiri, I don't deserve you," he gasps.
There is a preemptive weariness in Neytiri's sigh. "Jake, shut up," she breathes. The human slang sounds oddly exotic in her soft accent; it is one of a handful of phrases she has picked up from him.
Neytiri pushes Jake onto his back, forcing him to the forest floor, then leans down and kisses him like it's the end of the world.
Author's note: I've written a continuation of this scene as a flashback in "Five seconds too late." It appears as a bonus chapter – chapter 7b.
As always, reviews of all types are very much appreciated.