Chapter 1: Coming of age
Author's note: See footnotes at the end of the chapter for Na'vi/English translations. This story takes place roughly three years after my first Avatar fanfiction: "Between Worlds" ended. You don't have to read the predecessor story to follow this one, but I would highly recommend it to avoid any confusion. This fiction is rated M (mature) because there will be sex and violence throughout the story. I'm also placing an age guide at the end of this chapter, for those (like myself) who have difficulty keeping track of how old Jake and company's offspring are. Consider this first chapter a "stage setter" to get the ball rolling. I can't promise to update as frequently as I did with the last story, because I have other projects I need to try and complete as well and we could be moving to another house soon. I can't say yet whether this story will stretch out over as many chapters as the last one.
*Disclaimer: I do not own Pandora and I make no profit from writing fanfiction based on the "Avatar" film. "The Tyger" belongs to William Blake. His poem inspired the title for this fanfiction.
"Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?"- William Blake, 1794
A leaf falling on the ground made more noise than the young huntress' careful steps. She kept to the shadows and stayed downwind of her prey. The target was magnificent. His markings were without flaw or breaks, the pattern of stripes even and pleasing to the eye. He was strong—stronger than most other males of his kind. He was without doubt an alpha male. She remained hidden and she watched him, not daring to so much as breath too deeply for fear of her prey's sharp hearing detecting the sound.
He gave no sign that he noticed her. He moved through the forest with primal grace, his steps carrying him closer to his hidden stalker. Every part of the huntress was telling her that this was the one; this was her prize alone. If she hesitated, she would lose her opportunity and her prey would escape.
She gathered herself, her tail swishing eagerly as he moved within range. She could taste the satisfaction of bringing him down already. Just as she was about to act, a family of prolemuris scrambled in the thick canopy overhead. The simian animals startled the huntress out of her focus and she gasped. She immediately hunkered down behind the twisted roots of a giant tree as her prey stopped and looked around warily. His eyes swept the forest, lingering near her hiding spot. She was sure he would come to investigate but after a few moments of consideration, he moved on.
As she watched her target move out of range, she breathed a sigh of relief and wondered what on Pandora had gotten into her, lately.
Ni'nat was busy with constructing a new flute in the relative solitude of the mushroom grove, when Grace found her and asked her a peculiar question.
"Mother, what does it mean to start having aggressive feelings toward a boy?"
Ni'nat paused her work and she looked at her oldest daughter curiously. "Explain these 'aggressive feelings' to me. Was this boy teasing you, or being rude?"
Grace shook her head and combed some tangles out of her thick, long hair with her fingers. "No. He was just walking in the forest. I think he was returning to the village after gathering plant foods. He didn't even know I was there."
Ni'nat considered this and her golden eyes searched Gracie's. "What did your feelings tell you to do, daughter?"
Gracie's cheeks grew warm and she lowered her eyes. "I...wanted to pounce on him."
There was a moment of utter silence and Grace looked at her mother warily. Ni'nat was gazing at her with an oddly nostalgic smile on her shapely lips. "Sa'nok, what does it meeeaaan?" Grace implored, emphasizing the final word impatiently.
Ni'nat set aside her half-finished musical instrument and gracefully slid off the top of the mushroom. She embraced her daughter and stroked her hair, swallowing before answering the question. "It means that you have begun the first steps of your journey to become a woman," she murmured. "Your body is finished maturing and the aggression comes because it is preparing for you to share it with a partner, some day. Are males the only ones you are drawn to, Grace?"
It took the young woman a few moments to answer, shocked as she was by her mother's proclamation. "I don't get these feelings toward other girls. So far, it only happens around boys...especially a certain one."
Ni'nat pulled back to look at her. There was a twinkle of mischief in her eyes. "Would this boy who draws your attention happen to be the one who has been courting you for so long?"
Grace's flush deepened and she nodded. "Yes. Damn him."
The teenager flinched guiltily and bit her lip. "I'm sorry, but it's all Tommy's fault!"
Ni'nat's expression of admonishment faded into gentle amusement. "No, my daughter. Males cannot make females become receptive to them, no matter how they may try. Tommy cannot control your urges anymore than he can control his own, so don't blame this on him. I thought your Sempul already had this talk with you, many moons ago."
"He did," Grace sighed. "But he didn't warn me about the pouncing. It felt just like tracking prey, but instead of wanting to put an arrow into him I wanted to roll around on the ground with him."
Ni'nat chuckled softly. "I warned you that your attitude would change, some day. Do you still think boys are so silly for being distracted by mating urges?"
Grace wanted to dig a hole and bury herself. She was surprised that the foliage around them wasn't catching fire from the heat of her embarrassment. "I guess I deserve this, after making fun of them."
Ni'nat warned her that the new stirrings within her would grow stronger, over time. Unfortunately, Grace's hope that her mother was exaggerating proved futile as the days passed into weeks. It only worsened when she went hunting with Tommy, Tsu'tey and Neytiri. Tommy made his first kill and he conducted it with clean efficiency. He took down a large buck and as she watched him drive his knife into the animal's heart to be sure it was dead, Gracie was horrified by the primal fantasy that invaded her thoughts. She imagined herself dipping her fingers into the blood and drawing symbols representing her name all over Tommy's body.
Without conscious thought, Grace slapped herself in the forehead and groaned.
"Something troubles you, Gracie?" Neytiri asked, her proud smile for her son fading as she caught sight of the action from the corner of her eye. She looked at the young huntress with eyes that saw deeper than flesh. "You are not happy for my son's achievement?"
"Oh, it isn't that," Grace explained hastily. "I'm very proud of him. I'm just...annoyed with myself for losing the trail I was tracking earlier."
Neytiri eyed her suspiciously and Grace prayed she wouldn't see the through the half-truth. It wasn't exactly a lie; she was frustrated over losing the trail, but her gross urges to paint her name all over Tommy were far more disturbing.
"It happens to us all," Neytiri finally said with a calm smile and a shrug. "More so in the beginning. You are improving each day, Grace. Don't judge yourself so harshly."
Grace nodded, her eyes going to Tommy again of their own accord. He had finished sending the animal's spirit to Eywa and he smiled at her. Something in that smile seemed to seek her approval, so Grace returned it warmly. Tommy bent over his kill and with Tsu'tey's help, he began to bind the feet for easier lifting. Grace's heart thudded in her chest as she watched the play of muscles in Tommy's back and shoulders. She forced herself to stop staring and she offered to get the direhorses for the group. When Neytiri gave her leave, she hurried away before the Tsahik could see the blush in her cheeks.
"Mother, it's horrible! Today when Tommy made his kill, all I could think about was writing my name all over him."
Ni'nat resisted the urge to laugh as she listened to her daughter's complaints. "You have dropped your corner," she warned when Gracie let go of part of her end of the hammock they were weaving for her together. When the teenager hastily picked it back up, Ni'nat tugged to tighten some of the fibers and resumed her work. "Grace, your impulses are not unusual. When your Sempul and I were in our courtship, I made his first loincloth for him and I put my name symbols on it. I wanted other women to know I intended to pair with him. Na'vi women are as territorial as their men, after all."
"But did you want to mark him with blood?" pressed Grace, grimacing in distaste.
Ni'nat glanced at her and smiled. "The thrill of the hunt always stirs the body, my daughter. We are hunters. Watching your man show his skill and vigor can awaken feelings as old as our race. Many women enjoy celebrating a kill by coupling with their mates afterwards."
Gracie looked even more uncomfortable. "That's more information than I wanted to hear, Mom. I'm never going hunting with you and Father again."
This time, Ni'nat couldn't contain her laughter. She stopped weaving her daughter's new hammock and motioned her closer. Grace managed a smile of her own as her mother embraced her and kissed her on the cheek.
"You are a spirited young woman, my Gracie," Ni'nat murmured fondly. "If Tommy is the one you want, he will have much work ahead of him."
"I didn't say he's the one," protested Grace. "He's just...the one I notice the most."
"Of course," Ni'nat answered patiently. The glint in her eyes suggested she knew better.
A few days later, Grace was walking with her sister towards the bathing lake. She heard the sound of splashing just as she and Ralu came to the thick foliage surrounding the water source and her ears swiveled. Gracie preferred to bathe alone or with her mother or sister as company. Like her mother and a select few other Na'vi women, Grace developed more generous bust endowments than average when her body began to mature. The covert, envious glances other girls gave her when she bathed with them made her almost as uncomfortable as the boys' salivating did.
"Usually nobody's here at this time of day," Grace muttered, stopping her little sister on the path.
She always had her full baths at mid-afternoon, between lunch and dinner. When the rest of the clan chose to bathe in the lake instead of using washbowls, they generally did it in the morning or else they did it in the evening to wash the blood away after a hunt. This time of day had become her "safe hour", three times per week.
"Do you think there are boys in there?" Ralu asked uncertainly.
Grace worried her lower lip with her teeth. "Stay here. I'll find out."
Ralu nodded and obediently waited near the cluster of octoshrooms while Grace softly padded over to the concealed lakeside. Gracie hesitated at the edge of the clearing, listening intently. Whomever was in the lake was either alone or not in a conversational mood. Hoping she'd find one of her clan sisters bathing, she crept up to the foliage and pushed a frond of eyaye aside to peer into the lake clearing. When she saw who was there, she froze. Every particle of saliva in her mouth abruptly dried up and her body temperature rose to near-feverish level.
Grace worked some moisture back into her mouth and let go of the frond, yanking her attention away from the sight she'd seen. The mossy ground felt spongier than usual as she walked back to her sister and the dappled sunlight seemed to cast a glow on everything.
"Go back to the village," Grace ordered her younger sibling. "We'll have to wait until tomorrow for a bath."
"Who's there?" Ralu asked.
"One of the male hunters," answered Grace evasively. "One of the un-mated ones. You know we can't bathe with him."
"Okay," Ralu sighed. "I feel icky, though."
Gracie forced a smile. "Tell our parents. They'll warm up a bowl of water for you to bathe with."
"What about you?" Ralu was looking up at her with faint suspicion.
"I'm in the mood for some tompa berries," fibbed the older female. "I'll be along in a little while, okay?"
"Will you pick some for me too?"
Grace ruffled Ralu's hair and nodded. "Of course. Now hurry home so you can get cleaned up for supper. I'll see you in a little while."
"Okay," agreed the little girl. "Gracie, can we chase some fan lizards later?"
"Sure," Grace answered hastily, ushering the younger girl down the trail. "As long as Sempul and Sa'nok say it's okay. Go on, now."
Ralu smiled with delight and took off running. Gracie waited until she was out of sight before turning back toward the lake. She knew that she shouldn't be doing this. She'd practically seen every inch of the male body, due to the lack of cover Na'vi garb offered. Still, there was that one part hidden beneath the loincloth that she had never seen before. The chance to satisfy her curiosity about that part of male anatomy was too compelling to pass up.
Using every hunter skill she had, she snuck back to the lake and made sure she was downwind before looking through the foliage again. Tommy Sully was still there, bathing the sweat and dirt from his body after a long day's tracking and hunting. Grace could tell what he'd been up to by the dried blood on one of the loincloths laying on the bank of the lake. A clean one hung from a branch overhead, ready to be put on when he finished.
Tommy was oblivious to his audience as he scrubbed his chest and arms with a sea sponge and plant extracts. He stood in the shallow end and the water lapped at his waist, beneath his navel. The shimmering water cruelly teased, obscuring the part that Grace was most interested in seeing. She silently willed him to finish and wade over to the bank so that she could get a look at his hidden endowments. In the meantime, she enjoyed the way the water sparkled on his skin and the way his lean muscles rippled with his movements. His queue hung down his back into the water. The few shorter, small braids he kept separate from the queue fell to his shoulders in a style similar to the way his father wore his hair. She thought it suited him.
She sighed and lay on her stomach, propping her chin in her hands. Her tail swished lazily as she admired him, her eyes roving over the pattern of stripes and iridescent spots decorating his cyan body. She'd always known Tommy was handsome but his good looks never affected her this way before. He had plenty of female admirers in the village, but he'd only shown sincere interest in Grace, so far. Before, his determined insistence that they belonged together rankled her. She found it somewhat offensive that he was so sure she belonged with him. Now watching him, admiring him and imagining what it would be like to run her fingertips over his chest, stomach and arms, Gracie had to revise her opinion.
Tommy ducked under the water for a moment and Grace perked up when he emerged again and began wading toward the bank. Her eyes fixated on the receding waterline below his hips. She could see the symmetrical lines of his pelvis and she was fascinated by the "V" shape they made—almost as if pointing in the direction of the part she wanted so badly to look at.
Grace was so absorbed in her spying that she didn't hear the approach of Tommy's father.
Jake was whistling a little tune as he headed for the lake. The bathing source wasn't his intended destination, but it was a shortcut to the pa'li meadow and he'd cut time by passing through it. He intended to check on the small herd's local food supply to be sure there was enough in the area to keep them from wandering off. He didn't expect to find Grace Spellman lying on her stomach in the foliage, just outside of the lake clearing. His whistling died down as he approached and he tilted his head in perplexity, wondering what she was doing.
The young woman scrambled to her feet and looked up at him with wide, alarmed eyes. "Oh, Uncle Jake. I...one of my hair beads fell out and I was looking for it."
Jake shrugged. "Well here, let me help you look for—"
"That's okay," Grace interrupted hastily, "I've got plenty more beads to replace it. Thank you, Olo'eyktan. I'll go and help prepare dinner now."
She was off in a flash, leaving Jake standing there with his eyebrows raised and one finger pointed up in a "wait" gesture.
"But you're not wearing any beads in your hair today," Jake said—an observation that was lost on the eighteen year old. Grace hardly ever wore her lustrous tresses up or in braids, except for the queue protecting her neural tendrils.
Jake frowned after the disappearing girl, finding her behavior more than a little strange. He heard the slosh of water from the other side of the foliage and he pushed aside some branches and leaves curiously. Seeing his son walking naked and wet to the fresh garment hanging from a dangling tree branch, Jake was struck with a moment of clarity that he could have done without. He blinked, let go of the foliage and turned his back on the clearing. His eyebrows again rose to his hairline as he put two and two together.
He announced his realization in a whisper. "She's a peeping Sally!"
Tommy was surprised to find his father leaning against the trunk of a tree when he emerged from the clearing and stepped onto the path. "Dad? What are you doing here?"
"I was on my way to check on the herd's food supplies," answered Jake. He levered himself away from the trunk and approached the nineteen year old. "Damn, I still can't believe how tall you are." Tommy was now a head taller than Jake. Not that Jake had ever been a particularly tall individual but Tommy outgrew him quickly after his sixteenth birthday.
Tommy shrugged. "I must have gotten it from one of my grandparents."
"Probably Eytukan," Jake guessed, remembering how short he'd always felt around the great Omaticaya leader, even in his avatar body. "You've got my build, though. Good hunt today?"
Tommy nodded and adjusted his gear. "I got a doe, this time. I made sure there weren't any signs that she had young before I shot her."
"Thatta boy," Jake approved. He smiled. "Man, I've got 'Cat's in the cradle' stuck in my head now."
Tommy unconsciously mimicked one of his father's most common reactions and tilted his head to the left. "What's that?"
"It's a song from Earth," Jake answered. "A classic. It's all about a father watching his son grow up and realizing one day that he's a lot like him."
Tommy snorted and kicked aside some dead leaves. "I'm not that much like you. Close enough, though."
Jake grinned. "Yeah, you've got some of your mother's redeeming qualities. I can hold off on the meadow inspection until tomorrow. Let's head back to the village and get ready for dinner."
"Okay." Tommy agreeably fell into step with Jake, adjusting his equipment as he went.
His thoughts quickly went to a certain alluring young huntress as they walked and he glanced at his father sidelong. Jake always gave him sound advice when it came to females and right about now, Tommy felt like he could use a bit more.
"Dad, I think Grace has been looking at me differently."
Jake's steps faltered for a split second, but he kept his expression neutral and his eyes remained on the path. "In what way?"
"Well, maybe its just wishful thinking but I kind of get the feeling she's been checking me out. The last time I said anything about it she got angry, though. She said I was full of myself."
Jake snorted. "Just because she said that doesn't mean you aren't right. Some women need a little time to admit they're attracted to you."
Tommy tried not to get too hopeful. "Do you really think so? Mom says I have to be patient but it's not that easy. I keep thinking of the way Emazu keeps talking about her like she's already his."
"Does Gracie ever agree with that?" Jake asked.
"No, but she doesn't protest very much, either."
"She's been raised to be polite," Jake excused.
"She's not afraid to tell me off, though," Tommy protested.
Jake chuckled. "That's because you two are so close, she can speak her mind without worrying about offending you."
"But what if we're too close?" Tommy asked. "What if she just thinks of me as a brother, by now? I...I can't stand the thought of her mating with anyone else."
Jake looked him in the eye and a confident smirk adorned his lips. "Son, I don't think you have to worry about that. Something tells me you're at the top of Gracie's list." He followed up with a wink.
Tommy frowned at his father, wondering what he knew that he wasn't sharing.
Later that night after supper, Jake took his mate aside and quietly told her about finding Grace spying on Tommy in the lake.
"You are sure she was 'peeping' on our son, Jake?" Neytiri didn't seem particularly worried or shocked.
Jake nodded. "She tried to say she dropped a bead, but she wasn't wearing her hair bound and she had 'guilt' written all over her pretty little face."
Neytiri shrugged. "It is not unusual for young people to seek opportunities like that. Males act on it sooner, but females eventually become just as curious about them."
Jake snickered softly. "I just didn't expect it. I had no idea she was starting to see boys that way."
"Are you offended that she was gazing at our son?"
He shook his head. "No. If anything, I'm glad it was him and not someone else. Maybe this means those two are going to get together someday, like we've been hoping."
Neytiri smirked. "Would you be as pleased if you found a boy watching our daughter bathe, my Jake?"
Jake stared at her. "Uh...Sylwanin is only ten, gorgeous. If I caught a teenaged boy peeping on her, you'd better believe I'd be ready to kill the sick pervert."
"I meant when Sylwanin is Tommy's age," explained Neytiri with an amused smile. "Would you be pleased for her as you are for our son, or would you react differently?"
Jake hesitated. "Girls are different."
Neytiri sighed and nodded. "That is what I thought you would say. Have you told Norm about this?"
Jake raised his eyebrows. "Norm? Hell, no. He would have a freaking conniption if he knew his princess snuck an eyeful of a naked guy. With Gracie's looks, Norm sees every guy her age as a threat to her virtue."
"But Norm is a man of reason," Neytiri reminded. "Surely he would not blame our son for his daughter's actions."
Jake laughed softly and shook his head. "Trust me, Neytiri. When it comes to his daughters, Norm's sense of reason sucks. Let's just keep this to ourselves, all right?"
Neytiri huffed with annoyance. "You and Norm have such odd standards for your daughters."
"Sorry." Jake shrugged. "I know it seems unfair to you but where me and Norm came from, a lot of girls Gracie's age end up trying to raise babies they didn't mean to have, all on their own. Some fathers stick around to help, but others just have their fun and then take off, leaving the mothers to face pissed off parents, public ridicule and broken dreams. It happened to a lot of girls I went to school with and even though I know things are different with the Na'vi, it's hard to shake the feeling that we've got to protect our daughters from that sort of thing."
Neytiri bit her lip. "I cannot imagine a father turning his back on his offspring or his mate. To think that the clan would shame a female for having children is strange to me."
"Well, humans don't need to be mated partners to make babies together," Jake tried to explain. "And the sense of community shared by the Omaticaya and the other clans isn't common on Earth. That's part of why I've got these double-standards, babe. If Sylwanin were human, I'd have to worry about her having a little too much fun with some jerk and ending up pregnant and abandoned by him. Any Dad that loves his daughter would worry about that."
Neytiri traced Jake's handsome features with her fingertips and smiled warmly at him. "Then I can understand why you and Norm feel the way you do."
Jake gave her a soft, grateful kiss on the lips. "As long as you don't think I'm being a sexist pig. So, you agree we can't tell Norm or Ni'nat about this?"
"Why not Ni'nat?" Neytiri wondered.
"Because if we tell her, you know she'll tell Norm and our plan to keep him from exploding will go right out the window with his sense of reason."
Neytiri chuckled and put her arms around him, laying her cheek against his chest. "Very well, my Jake. Because it is such a trivial thing, I will not speak of it to anyone."
Meanwhile back at Hell's Gate, Dustin Patel was having some difficulties of his own.
"Damn this machine!" He smacked the side of the data logger and an uncommon snarl twisted his lips.
Max glanced over at him, distracted from his own data by the outburst. "What's the matter, son?"
"This...thing," proclaimed the young man with a withering look at the device, "it's not giving proper readings. It's trying to tell me there's no seismic activity to the northwest, but we've been getting reports of minor tremors in that area from our research and gathering teams."
Max put his own work aside and walked across the room to have a look at his son's data himself. "You just had to pick volcanoes as a specialty, didn't you?" He smiled at the young man before checking the readings himself. "You know Dustin, there's still a margin of error when it comes to predicting these things and collecting data. You're literally trying to forecast nature and we have never in human history been able to do that with pinpoint accuracy."
"Yes, but the monitors should be picking something up by now," argued Dustin. He combed his fingers through his dark curls, pulling a few wayward locks away from his forehead. "This is just messed up. The sulfuric readings in the purification plant have gone through the roof this year. I'm starting to worry about the Omaticaya clan. The volcano that might be showing signs of activity is a little too close to their territory for comfort."
"They've already taken that into consideration," Max soothed. "Jake and Norm have a solid evacuation plan that they'll employ the minute there are signs of serious activity. It's entirely possible that these tremors are just a result of minor plate shifts, Dustin. Pandora isn't that dissimilar to Earth...at least, the way Earth used to be until we wrecked it."
"But this equipment should still pick up the seismic activity, even if it isn't related to a volcanic event," Dustin insisted.
Max was about to respond to that, but the doors to the data room opened and Trudy came in before he could speak. "How are my boys doing today?" asked the pilot with one of her customary, cheeky grins. Her hair was bound into a bun but there were loose strands framing her face. She wore a t-shirt and a pair of jeans, looking for all the world like a college student. Max smiled at her and he drew her into a half-embrace.
"Do you ever get any older?" he murmured. He allowed himself a brief nuzzle against her cheek before she playfully pushed him away.
"Whoa there...kid present," she reminded him. Her dark gaze settled on Dustin in a calculating way. "Though I don't think we can call him 'kid' much longer. You're growing up too fast, buddy. I think you're spending too much time in the lab—just like your old man."
Dustin scratched his jaw, all too aware of the skin irritation caused by shaving. "It's okay Ma. I like doing research."
"You might like it, but you've got to give that brain of yours a rest sooner or later," Trudy insisted. She pulled away from max and grabbed Dustin by the arm. The other staff in the room watched with amusement as the small Latino woman physically pulled her taller son toward the door. "Double-time, Dusty. You remember what your Dad said about the trouble with working while your brain is tired."
"But I'm not tired," protested Dustin, "and it's in the middle of the day!"
"So go and do something fun," Trudy demanded, "spend your weekend like other kids your age. Maybe you can go hang out with Savanna and Andrew. Watch some movies or play some video games, for crying out loud."
Dustin stopped arguing with her. It would be nice to do something with his friends and this was the final day of the weekend. Tomorrow they'd all be back in classes again. "Okay, I'm going. Just let me ask Dad about something, first."
Trudy stopped pulling on his arm and waited while he turned to Max. "My face is itching like crazy, Dad. Is there anything I can do about that?"
"I'll get some good shaving gel for you," Max offered with a sympathetic smile. "Maybe the brand I use will work as well for you as it does for me."
Dustin sighed in relief. The one thing he hated about growing up was the shaving that had become an increasing part of it, this year. "Thanks, Dad."
Dustin got in touch with Savanna through their satellite phones and she agreed to meet him at the bio-dome entrance when she finished gathering some fruit from the native gardens. Andrew was at home and he invited Dustin and Savanna to come over to his place. He sounded a little strange to Dustin when they spoke over the phone and when he asked if anything was wrong, the other boy told him he'd explain when they got there.
Savanna met up with Dustin at the bio-dome some twenty minutes later and the two of them walked in together. Dustin thankfully pulled his exopack mask off and he quickly offered to take Savanna's basket of produce while she adjusted to the change in atmosphere. She handed it to him and turned her head away as she coughed. Dustin grimaced, wondering what it was like to go through that every time she inhaled a different mixture of breathing gases. He decided to ask her as her coughing fit ended.
"What does it feel like?" He looked up at her with concern he couldn't quite veil.
Savanna took her basket back from him and shrugged. "At first, it feels like I'm suffocating but it goes away fast. The worst part is watching my friends worry about me."
He smiled. "Sorry. It's just reflexive."
They were halfway to Andrew's home when one of their classmates spotted them shouted something rude at Savanna from across the street. She stopped and compressed her lips, glaring sidelong at the young man.
"Don't let it get to you," Dustin suggested, "Anyone that thinks you're a 'freak' is just an ignorant bigot. It's their loss if they won't see you for who you are, Sav."
"Hey baby, why don't you come over here and show me what hybrid tits look like?"
Dustin tensed his jaw. It was all well and good for him to advise his friend to ignore rude comments, but it was easier said than done. He was about to contradict his own advice when Savanna thrust her fruit basket at him again.
"Hold this for me, would you?"
He took the basket with a wary look. "What are you going to do?"
Savanna cracked her knuckles. "I've had about enough of this. I'm going to go clean up some trash."
Dustin's jaw dropped and his eyebrows flew up as the tall, exotic girl stalked across the street toward her tormentor. "W-wait," he called half-heartedly, knowing that Savanna was beyond turning the other cheek, this time.
The boy responsible for shouting the obscenities paled when he saw the pretty hybrid marching over to him. He looked around uncertainly, used to Savanna putting up with jibes and taunts. There were a few people of varying ages outside, going about their daily business. Some of them paused to watch the scene as Savanna Thomas stepped onto the sidewalk and glared down at her bully with her fists propped on her hips.
"Is there something you want to say to my face?" Savanna asked in a surprisingly honeyed tone. She stood almost two feet taller than the male.
The teen boy had more guts than wits. He gathered his courage and forced a lewd grin up at her. "You're pretty eager, baby. Why don't you show me what you've got."
She took a deep breath. "Fine. I'll show you exactly what I've got, but not in the way you're suggesting."
Without another word, she grabbed the guy by the back of his shirt with one hand and lifted him into the air. He yelled in surprise and squirmed, reaching up to tug at the young woman's wrist. "Hey, let go of me!"
Savanna carried him with comical ease, like a cat picked up by the scruff of the neck. She walked over to the corner of the street, where a huge recycling bin stood against the wall of a shop building.
"You want me to let go?" she asked the hollering boy, smirking at him. She reached out and pushed the lid open on the bin. "Fine. Join the rest of the trash!"
With that said, she flung him like a sack of garbage. His startled shout was abruptly cut off when his landing in the refuse knocked the breath from him. Savanna slammed the lid shut and started walking away. As she crossed the street to Dustin, the bin lid lifted and her vanquished foe peeked out at her with wide, shocked eyes. Savanna sensed his stare and she looked over her shoulder at him.
"Next time, I'll do a lot more than throw you in a recycling bin," she promised. She kept her level stare on him for a few heartbeats before returning to Dustin's side. She straightened her pink blouse and wiped imaginary dirt off of her jeans, feeling soiled just from touching the obnoxious boy.
"Let's go, Dustin."
The budding scientist nodded. "I guess everyone has limits," he murmured.
Savanna smiled. "Kato and Karyu are always telling me I should stand up for myself more. That felt good."
Dustin smiled back at her but he inwardly wondered if the twins' influence was a good or bad thing. He didn't expect Savanna to just bend over and take the abuse from people but as she had demonstrated, her Na'vi heritage allowed her to physically best most humans with ease. Though she was a gentle person by nature, Dustin worried that some day, one of her teasers would push her too far and end up seriously hurt or killed—and that would eat Savanna up with guilt.
"Hey guys, come on in." Andrew stood aside and held the door open for the two of them. Dustin noticed the way the taller young man kept running his fingers through his ash-blond hair; which was a typical sign of anxiety for him.
"What's up, Andrew? You sounded nervous over the phone and you said you'd talk about it when we got here."
Savanna noticed the blond's tension too and she gave him a concerned look as she shut the door. "Is everything all right?"
Andrew shrugged and the gesture was stiff. "Yeah. Well, no...I don't know."
Dustin exchanged a puzzled look with Savanna. "Let's go sit down in the living room and you can tell us what's bothering you."
Andrew sighed and nodded. He waited until the other two walked into the small living room and he took a seat beside Dustin on the couch. Savanna eased down onto the floor and sat cross-legged before them rather than sit on the armchair beside the couch. Neither of the boys said anything about it; they were accustomed to her preference to the floor over furniture.
"So what's got you so worked up?" Savanna asked.
Andrew took a deep breath before answering. "My avatar is ready."
Dustin and Savanna raised their eyebrows. Both of them had completely forgotten that the lab was growing an avatar for him to operate. Dustin spoke first, smiling. "I guess that means you'll be going out for your first 'ride' soon."
Andrew nodded. "Today. Mom and Dad are at the lab now, helping to get things ready."
"You look more terrified than excited," Savanna observed shrewdly. "I thought you always wanted to be an avatar operator."
"I did," admitted Andrew. He looked down at his hands, which were resting in his lap. He flexed his fingers and continued speaking in a low voice. "But now I'm not so sure. I've heard other drivers say it feels like they're slipping away when they first start linking. I know it hasn't happened in years, but some operators go brain-dead if the link gets interrupted. I'm a little scared, guys."
Dustin put a supportive hand on the other young man's shoulder. "Andy, I'm sure your parents never would have agreed to it if they thought for a moment you might get hurt. The avatar program has been improved a lot since they joined."
"But what if something goes wrong and I end up stuck in the avatar body?" persisted Andrew, "what if I go into a coma or worse?"
"Okay, first take a deep breath," advised Dustin. "Secondly, I know they used the enhanced process to grow your avatar but they aren't using the permanent transfer process. You aren't going to get 'stuck' in your avatar body. You'll be using a regular link, like all of the other drivers."
The blond swallowed and nodded. "It's just...now that it's ready for me, I don't know if I'm ready for it."
"Well if you're that worried about it, can't you just say 'no'?" Savanna asked.
Andrew shook his head and dragged his fingers through his short-cropped hair again. "I can't do that. I begged and pleaded with my parents until they agreed to let me join the program. They've been growing this thing since I was twelve and it took a lot of resources and effort for the lab to do it. Mom and Dad went through a lot of trouble convincing Dustin's dad and the other scientists to do it, so I can't back out now. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars on Earth for each avatar they grow."
"But we aren't on Earth and the Na'vi DNA is a lot easier to come by here," Dustin reminded him, glancing at Savanna. "I think Savanna has a point. If you're this scared of going in, you should talk to your parents about putting it off and keeping your avatar in stasis until you're ready."
"Maybe I'll never be ready," Andrew muttered gloomily.
"You won't know if you don't try," Savanna urged. "Andy, there hasn't been a single accident with the linking system since before we were born."
Dustin agreed with her. "They've perfected the process so that there's hardly any risk in the linking process. The biggest danger now is mental trauma from injuries your avatar body might get, but I'm sure your parents aren't going to let you do anything dangerous when you're operating it."
Andrew thought about it for a moment and then slowly nodded. "I guess you're right. Will you guys come with me? I hate to sound like a wimp, but I'd feel a little better with my friends there."
"Of course," Savanna agreed, getting to her feet.
She offered her hand to Andrew and he took it. Dustin got up as well and he patted the other young man on the back. "Just try to stay calm. Nobody's going to let anything go wrong."
Dustin and Savanna watched as their friend joined his parents in the linking room and prepared to climb into his capsule. Joyce assured him that they would be "going in" with him and they would be there in their avatar bodies when he awoke in his. He looked at his watching friends through the window and Dustin gave him an encouraging smile and a "thumbs-up" sign. Andrew steeled himself and hopped into the open capsule. With Allen's direction, he lay down in the gel mold and did his best to relax as his mother set the device up and closed the lid.
"Okay, now we can go to the recovery observation room and wait for him to wake up," Dustin said to Savanna.
They walked down the short corridor and joined Max and the other supervisors in the observation room. Dustin and Savanna greeted Max before standing at the window to see what was going on in the other room. Behind the glass pane, a newly matured avatar lay on a gurney in a hospital gown. Dustin marveled at how much the avatar resembled his friend. It had the same sculpted features that tended to draw female attention, but with Na'vi characteristics. It was a little odd to see Andy with a long, black braid instead of short blond hair. He was so used to avatar and Na'vi height that he hardly noticed the size difference.
Dustin half-expected the eyes to be blue like Andrew's when they opened, but they were amber like any other Na'vi eyes. Joyce and Allen came into the room and leaned over their son's avatar as the doctors checked his vitals. Andrew blinked and his pupils expanded and contracted for a moment.
Max came up beside his son to watch. "It's looking good so far. Your friend Andrew is the second operator to have an enhanced avatar since we learned how to duplicate the process."
"How many avatars have you made now, Dr. Patel?" Savanna asked, keeping her eyes on the recovery room.
"Four, so far," Max answered. "It's a complicated process and it takes a long time for an avatar to become functional. The first two were standard models, since we didn't have the process for the enhanced models perfected at the time."
Savanna shivered unconsciously in response to hearing the avatars referred to as "models". She knew that without a driver guiding them, they were empty shells. Still, her father nearly died when he arrived on Pandora because Max and the other scientists weren't aware that his consciousness was permanently bound to his avatar body.
"Dad, don't talk about them like that please," Dustin murmured, noticing Savanna's discomfort. "They aren't vacuum cleaners."
Max appeared slightly startled by his son's reprisal, but then he too noticed the expression on Savanna's face and he cleared his throat. "I certainly didn't mean to suggest...they are life forms, of a sort..."
"Making it worse," Dustin warned.
Savanna forced a smile at the flustered biologist. "It's okay, Dr. Patel. I understand and I know you don't think of my father or I that way."
Max wasn't adept at hiding his relief. "You're a very gracious young lady, Savanna."
She shrugged modestly and returned her attention to the room. Andrew was trying to sit up and his father was helping him, while his mother stayed out of the way and encouraged him with words.
"That's it, Andy. You're doing fine." Allen carefully guided the young avatar into a sitting position and he rubbed his back while his wife looked on in concern.
Andrew drew a slow, deep breath and one of the doctors dimmed the lights a little when she noticed him squinting against the brightness. Everything was blurry and it took a few moments for his eyes to focus properly. He grimaced and put a hand to his stomach.
"I feel sick."
Max's voice came through the intercom. "Just take it nice and easy, Andrew. It's going to take a little while for your mind to fully synch with your avatar. Just don't rush it and take deep breaths."
The doctors began asking him questions but he was too disoriented to answer this soon. "Dad," Andrew warned, interrupting the female doctor's question in mid-sentence, "I'm really going to be...I'm gonna puke!"
The female doctor hastily procured a barf pan just as Andrew lay down and rolled onto his side. Because his avatar was brand new, there was nothing in his stomach to throw up. Joyce winced and squeezed in enough to stroke her son's hair as he dry-heaved for a few moments. When the spell passed, the doctors gave him a chewable anti-nausea lozenge.
"Sorry," Andrew croaked. He looked up to see his friends watching from behind the observation window and his face burned with embarrassment.
"You don't need to apologize," Joyce soothed. "I got sick the first time I synched with my avatar too. You must have gotten that from me."
"Nausea is a common reaction to first-time linkers," Allen agreed. "Most of us don't wake up all chipper and ready to go, kid. It's probably going to take a few link sessions for you to start getting used to it."
Andrew groaned. "Now you tell me."
They put Andrew through some basic coordination tests and examinations before allowing his father to help him walk around a little. When Allen and Joyce were satisfied that he could walk on his own without blacking out or tripping, they guided Andrew out the door and into the exercise yard. They helped him over to a tree so that he could sit under it and Savanna came out with Dustin close at her heels.
"Visit with your friends for a while and get used to the basics," Joyce encouraged. "We'll give you a half hour before we bring you back in to power down the link, okay?"
Andrew nodded. "Okay Mom."
Joyce shared a smile with her husband and the two of them got up and left, leaving the kids to talk. Savanna and Dustin sat down adjacent to their friend and watched him silently, until he became uncomfortable.
"Look, I know the gown is dorky looking, but you don't have to stare."
Savanna laughed and patted him on the leg. "It's not that. It's just a little weird to see you in an avatar body."
"How do you feel?" Dustin asked, his voice coming out a little tinny due to the exopack he wore.
Andrew shrugged. "Better than I did when I first woke up, but I'm still feeling pretty weak and light-headed. Dad says I've got to try to eat something the next time I link. The avatar body goes into a hibernation state when its not being used but it's going to get malnourished if I don't feed it when I'm using it. At least I was able to drink some water without puking it right back up."
"Is it strange to be looking down at people from such a tall height all the sudden?" Savanna queried.
"You bet it is," agreed Andrew. "I was shocked by how tiny those doctors looked. Dustin, you're so small I could fit you in my pocket...if I was wearing something that had one."
"Hardy-har-har," grumbled Dustin. "Pick on the short guy again."
Andrew laughed softly. "You're not really short. You're about average. You just look a lot smaller right now."
"What about me?" Savanna asked with a smile.
He considered her for a second. "It's not so drastic with you, but you're somewhere between human and avatar-sized, so I guess that makes sense. You're not much shorter to me now than some girls are to me in my human body."
"If you think I look small, those girls are probably microscopic to you right now," Dustin snorted.
Andrew grinned. "I feel like a giant. Fee-fie-foe-fum."
The three of them laughed together, relaxing now that he'd safely made it through the first link synchronization.
At the Ikran village near the Eastern Sea, Karyu was forced to deal with a little trauma of her own. Her parents told her to go and find her twin when supper was ready and she was sure she knew just where to look. Lately, Kato spent a lot of time by himself in one of the seaside caves. There was a small pool of mineral water inside of it and he had begun bathing there alone more frequently. Karyu walked along the beach, watching the vivid colors of the sunset sidelong as she made her way to her brother's favorite new hideout.
She identified the correct cave and ducked into it. Her eyes didn't need to adjust much, due to the natural bio-luminescence of the lichen growing on the walls. She passed through the short tunnel and she smirked when she heard the slosh of water. Just as she thought, Kato was again indulging himself in a soak and likely pruning up in the process. She could see his head and shoulders sticking out of the water as she approached the pool quietly. His back was turned to her and he didn't seem to notice her approach. His head was tilted back and he sighed.
Karyu rolled her eyes. Her brother seemed to get lazier every day. How he managed to bag his first kill before she did still blew her mind. She parted her lips to order him to quit pickling himself and come to supper, but something in his mannerisms gave her pause. His right arm was moving in a funny way and his shoulders were strangely tense. He was breathing heavily and squirming in the pool.
Her first thought was that he was ill or hurt and she started to take a step towards him, but then he groaned breathlessly and Karyu froze. Her ears perked for a moment before flattening in confusion. Kato moaned softly and his odd movements became more erratic. Much to her horror, Karyu began to understand what was going on. She'd heard her parents and other mated adults moan like that when they joined one another for privacy in their tents. She and Kato had been taught the facts of life as soon as the baby fat was gone from their bodies and adult development kicked in. One such fact was that it wasn't uncommon for young Na'vi to explore their own bodies and find relief from certain kinds of tension through such exploration.
With full realization of what her brother was doing came a sort of panic. Karyu intended to turn around and get out of there as fast as she could, but her mouth blurted out a rather stupid question before she could control it.
"KATO...WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
Kato's startled yell was almost girlishly shrill. He whirled around in the pool to face her and he lost his balance. He went under for a moment and then he came back up, coughing and sputtering. "I wasn't doing anything," he lied. The pattern of sensory spots on his face was lit up like stars and his eyes were wide and guilty-looking.
Karyu borrowed a popular human slang that would have had her father threatening to rinse her mouth out with soap, had he heard it. "Bullshit. I know what you were doing."
He stammered before heaving a sigh and averting his gaze. "You don't know what its like. I just needed some relief and this is the most private place I can go to—"
"La-la-la!" Karyu interrupted, covering her ears. "I don't need to hear the details. I wish I could go back in time and not come in here to see...that!"
"But you couldn't have 'seen' anything," he reasoned, his features darkening with a blush. "You were behind me and I was submerged to the shoulders!"
"That doesn't matter," she griped, "it was obvious what you were doing! Now calm yourself down and come on. Supper is ready."
She didn't wait to see if he complied. She was mightily embarrassed herself for walking in on him in the middle of...that. Karyu turned on her heel and barely remembered to duck in time as she reached the mouth of the tunnel. She exited the cave hurriedly but once she was outside, she waited for her brother to be sure he didn't drown himself in humiliation.
"There you are," Tom greeted as the twins approached the family tent. "I was about to start looking for you both. What took you so long?"
Both of them were silent and they cast an uncomfortable glance at each other. Tom noticed that they were blushing and he frowned, regarding them with concern. "Is something wrong?" He took a bite of roasted fish and began chewing it.
"No, Kato was just busy mating with himself," Karyu blurted candidly.
Tom abruptly spit out his mouthful of food to avoid choking. Tanhi was just about to take a bite of teylu and she stopped, staring at the twins with the morsel halfway to her mouth.
Kato stared at his sister with his mouth hanging open and a mortified expression on his face. "I was not and for Eywa's sake, would you shut up?"
Tanhi quickly diffused the situation before the twin's argument could grow in volume. "Go and get your supper. This discussion can wait for another time."
The twins detected the warning note in her voice and they lapsed into silence and walked away to comply with her order. As they moved away toward the cooking hut, Kato's remark to his sister floated back on the wind to his parents. "Some day you'll be in this situation and when that happens, I'm going to point and laugh."
Tanhi watched them go and her mouth curved into a quiet little half-smile. "My Tom, you should speak with Kato after dinner. He needs his father's guidance, I think."
Tom was struggling to hold back laughter, having just gotten over his initial shock at Karyu's announcement. "It sounds to me like he's got everything well in hand." He burst into laughter at that point, sent over the edge by his own pun. A smack on the back of the head sobered him quickly and he looked at his mate with an offended air.
"You know in some cultures, that would be considered spousal abuse."
Tanhi frowned. "I do not know what that means."
"It means hitting your mate isn't right," Tom supplied, but he was still smiling.
"My mate is being insensitive to his son's difficulties," she excused. "Our Kato has the needs of a man now. True, he will not be granted the privilege of being called one until he completes Iknimaya, but his body is mature. You should remind him that there is no shame in that, my Tom. I would only embarrass the boy more if I speak to him about it."
Tom sighed and took another bite of food. "All right, I'll take him into my trailer for a talk after we eat. You're lucky you won't have to worry about giving Karyu this reminder for years."
"For which, I am thankful," agreed Tanhi with a smirk. "Though she may begin having urges sooner than we wish. The clan has plenty of room for more offspring."
"I'd rather not think about our children having children, right now," Tom grumbled.
"If they respect tradition, that will not happen until after they are initiated as adults," Tanhi assured him.
"That could be a rather big 'if', where the twins are concerned," Tom replied, not entirely joking. "Karyu is especially rebellious."
"I believe they will have enough sense to wait," Tanhi said with confidence.
Tom only hoped she was right. While he was looking forward to becoming a granddad someday, he wanted his kids to enjoy their youth for a while before they started families of their own.
"You don't have to tell me what you want to talk about," Kato said in a low, miserable tone as Tom shut the trailer door and turned on the lights. "I thought it was safe to...take care of things without anyone walking in on me. I'm practically the only one in the clan that ever goes to that cave and Karyu usually says something when she comes in there looking for me."
Tom felt a rush of pity for his son, remembering what it was like to be at the mercy of teen hormones. "Have a seat." He gestured to one of the chairs by the data desk.
Kato obediently sat down in the chair and Tom rolled the other one away from the desk and took a seat across from him. He watched his son for a moment before speaking. "Kato, your mother and I explained to you that it's natural. Most everyone does it sooner or later, regardless of gender or race. You don't need to feel ashamed."
"But does everyone get walked in on by their sister?" Kato grumbled.
Tom hid a smile behind his hand. "Some do. Some of us get walked in on by our brothers too, and we get teased...and teased...and teased...even though we know damned well they do it just as much—"
"Dad," Kato cut in, grimacing.
Tom shook himself out of his own recollections of humiliation. "Sorry. Listen, there's nothing wrong with seeking some relief and finding out what feels good. It may not be as necessary for Na'vi as it is for humans, since they have the advantage of tsahaylu, but you may find yourself experimenting with girls long before you're mated to one. Applying what you've learned could be useful in that situation."
"Whatever," Kato sighed, averting his eyes. "So you're encouraging me to make out with girls?"
"No," Tom hastily revised, "but I know how hormones can cripple common sense. If it were up to your mother and I, you and your sister would both wait until after your initiation to even kiss someone. That isn't practical, though. Being curious about females comes with the territory and I'm not going to trick myself into thinking you'll keep your hands and lips completely to yourself until you settle down with a mate. I can only hope you'll practice restraint until then."
"I can't wait to be mated," Kato said vehemently.
Tom raised his eyebrows. "Don't you think you're a little eager to bind yourself to someone for life?"
"Why shouldn't I be? Once I have a mate, I won't have to deal with this frustration all the time."
Tom frowned. "Son, that isn't necessarily true. Being mated doesn't mean you'll have a free pass for sex whenever you want it."
Kato looked disappointed. "Then why do people bother?"
Tom chuckled softly and scratched his chin, considering his next words carefully. Obviously, the talks that he and Tanhi had with the twins didn't sufficiently cover the realities of communication between partners.
"Women are not always going to want sex," he explained, "and believe it or not, you won't always feel like having it either."
Kato snorted doubtfully. "Right."
"It's true," Tom insisted. "Right now, you're at your peak. Once you start experiencing it, you're going to learn that there's more to intimacy than intercourse. There are lots of things other than mating that you can share with your partner and tsahaylu is just one example. Sometimes you might just want to touch one another and kiss. Other times, just laying there with her in your arms is enough. If you expect your partner to automatically accommodate your needs without considering her own, you'll make a very poor mate for someone."
"I didn't say I wouldn't think of her needs," Kato objected, flushing.
"But if you expect her to want to mate with you whenever the mood strikes you, that's what it amounts to. Relationships are about compromise and only selfish brutes expect their women to roll over and give in whenever the mood strikes them. In return, your mate should also respect your boundaries and avoid pushing you when she's in the mood and you aren't. That's how it should ideally work, though even the most cooperative couples have their disagreements now and then."
"Now I'm not so sure I want to get mated," Kato sighed.
Tom regarded him patiently. "Do you want a family some day? It's okay to say 'no', by the way. Not everyone is interested in having offspring and you should never let me, your mother or anyone else pressure you into a lifestyle you don't want."
Kato relaxed. "I appreciate that. You don't have to worry though; I do want a family some day, when I'm older."
Tom grinned and rolled his eyes heavenward. "Thank Eywa. I was hoping you felt that way but sometimes, you and your sister aren't that easy to read."
Kato smiled. "You really want to be a grandparent, eh?"
"Someday," Tom agreed. "Not too soon but it's a relief to hear you're not opposed to starting a family of your own."
"First I have to become a man and find a woman who'll put up with me," Kato said bluntly.
Tom nodded, smirking with amusement. "I'll bet you can think of one or two girls you wouldn't mind sharing your life with, even if it doesn't mean instant gratification every time you're in the mood."
Kato looked away uncomfortably. "I won't say there aren't a few I haven't considered."
Tom chuckled. "I won't press you for names, though I think I can guess who at least one of them might be. Consider yourself fortunate, Kato. You've got the luxury of choosing permanent bachelorhood if you want. Your sister is going to be under more pressure to take a mate and have children."
Kato grimaced. "Because she's going to be the next Olo'eyktan?"
"That's right." Tom patted his son's shoulder. "She'll be expected to provide the clan with new blood, according to tradition. Now, that isn't to say she'll be blamed if she can't have children but she's expected to try. If not, she'll have to choose someone within the clan to be her successor in lieu of her own daughter."
"That isn't fair," Kato complained. "What if she just doesn't want kids or a mate? What if she never feels the drive to have them?"
"Life is seldom fair," Tom advised, "but we adjust to it and make the best of it. Sooner or later, your sister is going to have a woman's needs. It could be tomorrow or it could be years from now, but it's going to happen. Whether those needs include maternal urgings to have children can't be predicted, but she has a duty to her people to secure a chieftess' legacy, regardless of how she does it."
Kato raised and then lowered his brows. "I'm glad I wasn't born first...or a female."
Tom thought back to the day of the twin's birth and he remembered how close he came to losing both Kato and Tanhi. "I'm just glad you were born."
Back at Hell's Gate, Andrew was slowly but steadily adjusting to his avatar body. Each day his parents allowed a bit more linking time, easing him into it with care. Dustin helped him with his homework; which was suffering a bit due to his added responsibilities. Savanna brought his assignments to his home on the occasional days when his linking practice left him suffering with a headache or nausea. After a couple of weeks, Andrew finally stopped having adverse effects from using his avatar. The worst he suffered was fatigue when he spent too much time linking without enough rest.
One day in the dark hours of the morning, Savanna was rudely awoken from dreams she would never dare confess out loud. Her bedroom door slid open and her mother's voice startled her out of her sleeping fantasies.
"Come on honey, get up," Katherine said urgently. She flipped the light switch before Savanna could gather her bearings and the teenager protested, stuffing her pillow over her head.
"What time is it?" Savanna asked groggily.
"It's four twenty-three," answered the botanist. "Get changed, Savanna. We've got to pack a bag for you and get you on a flight out of the colony."
Savanna sat up, her sleepy state rapidly dissolving into alarm. "What's the matter?" She dragged unkempt locks of chestnut hair out of her eyes and regarded her mother with worry as Katherine opened her closet and began selecting clothes.
"Everything is going to be fine," Katherine said calmly, despite her apparent haste. "We're sending you to the Omaticaya village to stay with your friends there for a few days."
Savanna could only think of one reason for such an impromptu trip. "Are the people from the UN colony coming?" She swung her legs over the side of her high bed and straightened her t-shirt as she stood up.
Katherine paused in the act of getting Savanna's duffle bag down from the overhead closet shelf. "Yes. You know your father and I don't want their science and research department finding out about you; not until we can be sure they won't try anything."
Savanna quickly went to her dresser and started selecting clean undergarments and socks to wear. "Where is Father?"
"He's in the base sector at the air hangars, arranging your flight. Please hurry, we want to get you out of here long before the UN visitors arrive."
Savanna had no objections to that. She didn't want those people seeing her anymore than her parents wanted them to. "Mother, can I go to the Ikran village this time, instead?" She cast a hopeful look down at her mother as Katherine came up beside her to help gather undergarments for packing.
Katherine looked up at her and she sighed, her lovely features gentle. "Not this time, Savanna. It's just too far away at such short notice. Maybe next year we can arrange something, preferably on a set schedule."
Savanna sighed with frustration. "I'm sixteen years old now. You keep promising I can travel to the Eastern Sea to visit but you put it off every year! I'll never get to see Kato and Karyu's village at this rate."
Katherine tucked some panties, bras and socks into the duffle bag before taking both of Savanna's hands in hers and squeezing them. She looked up into her daughter's eyes with a stern yet loving expression. "Please, don't argue with me about this. We're trying to ensure your protection and the man we trust the most to do that is Jake Sully. I know how close you are to the twins and I understand your frustration, but now isn't the time to discuss leisure vacations."
Savanna heaved another sigh. "Dr. Sully and Tanhi can protect me just as well as they can."
"The Omaticaya are closer," Katherine insisted briskly. "At such short notice, this is our best option. You have to understand, Savanna. You're a very special young woman and according to everything we thought we knew about human and Na'vi biology, you shouldn't be here. Do you really want to risk being taken away and experimented on?"
Savanna lowered her gaze and shook her head. "No."
She loved her friends at Hometree but she never got to see the twins often enough. She understood her parents' reasoning and concern, though. "Mother, will you swear to me that you'll let me stay with the Ikran clan for a few weeks, next year?"
Katherine smiled at her and reached up to stroke her hair. "I swear. Here, hold out your pinky and we'll make it official."
Savanna hesitantly returned her smile and complied. Her mother's pinky hooked around her longer one and the deal was made. "Be sure you make Father swear too."
"I will. Now help me finish packing your things. We're on a tight schedule."
Jake and Neytiri were happy to take in Savanna while the UN representatives conducted their business with Hell's Gate. They greeted the unusual family on the outskirts of the village when the aircraft touched down and Norm, Tsu'tey, Ralu and Sylwanin were with them. Tsu'tey was quick to offer to take Savanna's bag and put it in the guest alcove they had prepared for her. He hugged her and greeted her parents politely before taking off with her luggage. Tommy and Grace were still out hunting with Ni'nat and a couple of other learning warriors, so they unfortunately weren't there to greet them.
"Thank you again, Corporal Sully," Sebastian said with a smile at the clan leader when he and Neytiri walked over. "Tsahik, your clan is very generous."
Jake gave him an exasperated look. "How many times do I have to tell you to just call me 'Jake'? After all these years, there's no reason why we shouldn't be on a first name basis."
"And you do not need to thank us each time we watch over Savanna," Neytiri added with one of those smiles that lit up her eyes. "She has always been a very helpful and polite guest. We enjoy her company."
"Can we braid your hair later, Savanna?" Sylwanin asked. Beside her, Ralu nodded in agreement.
Savanna smiled bashfully, unused to so much positive attention at once. "Sure. Just as soon as I get settled in."
"All right girls," Norm said gently, "let our guest say goodbye to her parents."
"Go and help prepare dinner," Neytiri advised them.
The girls lingered long enough to say goodbye to Katherine and Sebastian before they took off. Katherine watched them with adoring eyes and she smiled at the three Na'vi adults. "They're both darlings."
Jake shook his head. "You only ever see their best sides. I promise, Sylwanin has a stubborn streak in her to rival her mother's and Ralu thinks she can move mountains."
Sebastian looked at his daughter, smiling with understanding. "That sort of determination will only assure success in life."
"Yes, with Eywa's blessing," Neytiri agreed. She turned to Savanna. "Tonight, relax and rest. We will refuse any help you offer with chores."
Savanna shuffled her feet and smiled. "Yes Ma'am. Thank you."
"We'll let you see each other off," Jake said tactfully, putting an arm around his mate's shoulders. "Supper should be ready in an hour, Sav. Just make yourself at home."
She nodded and gave a smile to him as he turned to leave with Norm and Neytiri. As they walked away, she turned back to her parents. It was a shame that the exopack was in the way of giving her mother a kiss but she hugged her close to make up for it.
Katherine returned the embrace before pulling back to look into her eyes. "We'll send word when it's safe to come and get you. Just try to enjoy yourself, while you're here."
"I will, Mama," Savanna promised.
Sebastian embraced her next and he planted a kiss on her cheek. "You're doing a fabulous job growing up. I don't know what we did to deserve such a child, but please do continue as you have, darling."
Savanna giggled softly. "You can be really dramatic, Papa. Don't worry; I'll be fine here."
He smiled. "I'm sure you will be." The pilot started the engine again and he was motioning at the couple and pointing at his watch. Sebastian waved at him and sighed. "Well, I suppose we should be getting back. We'll see you in a couple of days."
Later that night, Savanna went swimming with Grace after the younger children were put to bed. They splashed and frolicked in the lake for a while before settling down to tread in the center of the body of water. Grace chose that moment to make a confession to her friend.
"I saw Tommy naked."
Savanna briefly forgot to tread and she almost sank below the water. She quickly resumed before her head could submerge and she stared at her friend. "You two have...did you guys do it?"
"No!" Gracie shook her head, scattering water droplets. "I just looked." She gave the other girl a sheepish look. "He didn't know I was there."
"You spied on him?"
When Gracie nodded, Savanna questioned her further. "What was he doing?"
"He was bathing after a hunt," explained Grace. "I didn't mean to do it. I was planning to have a bath with my sister, but he was already here. I was going to go back to the village with Ralu but I was...um...curious."
Savanna grinned. "It isn't like the clothes you guys wear covers much, so you've practically seen it all, anyway."
"But there's one part I've never seen," Grace admitted with a blushing smile.
Savanna nodded sagely. "I understand. So, what did you think?"
"It was neat looking...kind of cute. To be honest though, I thought it would be bigger."
Savanna blurted a laugh and she quickly covered her mouth with her hand. When she regained control of herself, she shared what she knew about Na'vi endowments. "Was it poking out or just hanging there?"
Gracie's mouth fell open. "That's...what difference does that make?"
"Because they aren't the same size erect as they are when they're soft," Savanna answered in a matter-of-fact, clinical tone she must have learned from Katherine and the other scientists on base. "My mother told me a lot about male anatomy and Na'vi guys are a little different from human guys. Some humans are the same size down there whether they're erect or not but Na'vi men get a lot bigger when they're excited. It has to do with the way they evolved and how they live. If it stayed at full size all the time, it wouldn't fit in those loincloths very well. It could also get caught on something, you know?"
Gracie unwittingly imagined Tommy's penis getting "caught on something" and she shuddered to think of how painful that would be for him. "Your mother told you all of this?" She could hardly believe how casual her friend was being about it—especially since a smile from Kato was all it took to make Savanna blush and turn giddy.
Savanna shrugged. "Not right away. When we first talked about reproduction, she only explained the function of male and female parts and how pregnancy happens. When I started drawing nude subjects I wanted to know more about how men's bodies worked, so I asked her. She sat down with me and explained everything. Didn't your mother teach you any of this?"
Grace looked away, feeling horribly ignorant. Savanna was two years younger than her, but she knew so much more about boys and life in general. "My father had 'the talk' with me when I started to develop."
"Well, he's a scientist," reasoned Savanna, "so he should have told you at least some of this stuff. Were you paying attention or were you too embarrassed? I think I would have been embarrassed if my Papa tried to explain it all to me instead of my Mama."
Grace blushed harder and shook her head. "Sempul might be a scientist, but I don't think he wants me to know these kind of details until he's dead and gone."
Savanna snorted. "Oh, come on. I think you're exaggerating. What did he tell you about reproduction, if he didn't explain the male body?"
Gracie pursed her lips, annoyed with her father now that she knew how much he had kept from her. She summarized her father's rather evasive explanation of sex and reproduction. "He said that when a man and a woman become mates, they lay down together and join their queues. They hold each other close, rub their bodies against each other and if Eywa wills it, the man's seed fertilizes the woman's egg and a baby starts growing in her womb, to be born nine months later."
Savanna stared at her expectantly. When Grace said no more, the hybrid girl raised an eyebrow and scratched her shoulder. "That's all? He didn't say how the man's seed fertilizes the woman's egg?"
Grace shook her head. "No. I always thought they came out on their own and joined together before going back into the woman to make the baby."
It was Savanna's turn to drop her jaw. "Oh no...Grace...that isn't how it happens at all!"
"Then how does it happen?" Grace demanded, "Because I'm really getting frustrated by all these new feelings that I don't know what to do with! I'm tense all the time, like something inside down there is all clenched up and I don't know how to fix it. Most of the other women in my situation are older than I am and they are already mated to someone. The girls my age around here don't understand when I try to talk to them about it."
Savanna swam closer to her and gave her a sympathetic look. "Oh boy...and I thought I had problems. Do you want me to tell you what I've learned about it?"
Gracie nodded and her anxiety faded into relief. "Please. If I end up stalking Tommy again I'll never be able to look him in the eye without wearing a sack over my head."
Savanna giggled. "You stalked him? Like you'd stalk prey?"
Grace's expression was miserable. "Not on purpose. At least now I know why I did it though. Sa'nok told me it's a normal female urge to have when a woman's body is telling her she's coming of age. Have you ever wanted to pounce on a boy, Sav?"
"Er...no. Not at all."
The uncomfortable expression on Savanna's face suggested she was fibbing. Grace felt a little better knowing that her friend's greater knowledge didn't prevent her from having the same awkward feelings she was suffering.
"So, tell me everything you know," urged Grace, eager to understand more about the subject.
The next morning, Norm couldn't shake the feeling that his older daughter was angry with him for some reason. She greeted her mother and sister when she climbed out of her hammock to start the day, but she practically ignored him. When he tried to offer cooking advice at breakfast, she gave him a sour look and asked him if he was sure she wasn't too stupid to understand the instructions.
As the day wore on and Grace's attitude only worsened, Norm approached Ni'nat and asked her if he'd done something to anger their daughter without realizing it.
"You have done nothing wrong that I know of," answered Ni'nat with a curious look. "Though she does seem very hostile toward you, today."
"I don't know why she's so mad at me," Norm complained. "She was fine yesterday!"
"Then you should speak with her," suggested Ni'nat. "You will not discover the reason if you don't ask."
"I get the feeling she doesn't want to talk to me at all," Norm sighed with an unhappy frown.
"She probably fears she will disrespect you and get into trouble, if she tells you why she is angry."
Norm considered this and then he kissed her on the cheek. "You're a genius."
"Grace, I need to speak with you alone for a minute."
Grace looked up from the painting she was working on with Savanna and she scowled at her father. "Why?"
Norm felt distinctly guilty, though he still had no clue what he had done wrong. "It's between you and I. Its only going to take a few minutes, okay? Let's go to the creek for some privacy."
"Fine," Grace huffed. She washed her hands off in a nearby bowl of water and stood up. Savanna kept her eyes carefully fixated on the painting as her friend stormed off, leaving Norm standing there looking foolish.
"Savanna, do you know why she's so mad at me?"
Savanna looked up at him and bit her lip. "I think so Dr. Spellman, but I don't really want to be in the middle of it."
He sighed. "Fair enough. I won't keep her away for long."
"Take your time," Savanna said softly.
Maybe it was his imagination, but she looked a little guilty. Norm wondered if Gracie's unexpected anger was a product of something she'd discussed with Savanna but for the life of him, he couldn't imagine what they could have talked about to make her so mad at him. He hurried to catch up with his daughter and when they made it to the stream, he searched Gracie's face for clues.
"Let's just get straight to the point," Norm said after a moment when the teenager refused to look at him. "I want this to be an open discussion, so you can say whatever you want and you won't get in trouble, okay?"
Grace shrugged, crossing her arms over her chest. She stared at the flow of water passing by her feet.
"What did I do to make you angry, Grace? Talk to me. If I don't know what I did wrong, I can't fix it."
She looked up at him and took a couple of deep breaths, gathering her thoughts. Finally, she gave him a morsel of input. "You lied to me."
Norm was taken aback and he furrowed his brows. "Lied to you? When? How? Gracie, I've never told you a single lie in your whole life!"
"But you didn't tell me the truth, either," she shot back.
"I don't understand. What do you think I kept from you, sweetheart?"
"The truth!" she yelled the word, hurling it at him like a weapon. "Last night, Savanna told me how sex really happens—not your watered-down version of it."
Norm ogled her. "Savanna? Little Savanna has been having sex?"
"No, Dummy! But her parents told her everything about it, so that when she does have sex she'll know what to expect!"
"Don't," she interrupted, her eyes flashing. "Do you know how much I trust you, Sempu? How much I look up to you? It never even crossed my mind to ask anyone else about this, until Savanna acted so shocked when I shared your version of it with her! If it weren't for her, I would go through life thinking all there was to mating was kissing, bumping and cuddling!"
Norm felt like a vice was squeezing his heart. Well, he'd encouraged her to speak her mind, so he couldn't be offended now. "I probably deserved all of that," he admitted softly, contritely. "Grace, I told everyone I thought it would be easier to raise daughters, but the truth is; it's not."
"I don't care how hard you think it is," she insisted with a withering glare. "Did you want me to be traumatized when I mate for the first time?"
"No, of course not," he answered earnestly. "I just..."
"Then why didn't you tell me the truth? Why didn't you tell me it might hurt the first time? Why didn't you tell me my mate would have to put his penis inside of me?"
Norm was blushing furiously by now, suffering a bit of trauma from hearing his beloved daughter talk so openly about the mechanics of sex. "Will you please let me explain, Gracie?"
She went still. "You can try."
He took the opportunity while he could. "I wanted to tell you everything. I really did. I made a promise to your mother that if she let me explain the facts of life to you, I'd make sure you would never face any startling surprises. I was so certain I could do it but when you looked at me with those innocent eyes, I chickened out. I felt like I would be telling you too much, too fast—so I explained the basics and I left the other details out. I planned to tell you when you were older but I just kept putting it off. Maybe a part of me was hoping someone else would tell you the rest and now that it's happened, I wish I could go back in time and change the way I handled it."
"If you couldn't cope with it, you should have said so to Mother and let her explain it to me," Grace said after a moment of silence. "Look at me! I'm not a little girl anymore, Dad!"
Norm tried his best to keep his voice calm and soothing, the way Tom Sully always managed to do when someone else went into hysterics. "I know you aren't a child anymore."
"Do you? Then you won't mind hearing that I've been having fantasies about boys."
Norm blinked and his mouth went slack. "Grace, no mentally healthy man alive wants to hear that from his daughter."
"Too bad," Grace huffed, "because it's reality. You're always telling me my sexuality belongs to me, but I don't think you mean that anymore because all you've ever done is try to hide it from me."
He lost his composure. "I was trying to protect you! You know what, you can be as mad at me as you want. Here's one reality I think you should know, Grace: You and your sister are always going to be my little girls, even when you're both raising families of your own and I'm old and feeble. I dare you to find any other parent that doesn't feel exactly the same way about their children. Talk to Mo'at the next time you see her, if you don't believe me. Neytiri is still her child, even though she's a mother, an adult and the Tsahik of this clan. If you don't like it, tough shit!"
It was Grace's turn to stare, wide-eyed. Norm decided he'd had enough of the conversation—not because he was angry or disappointed with his daughter but because he felt like he was dangerously close to crying. He had failed his mate by promising something he couldn't deliver and he had failed his daughter by neglecting to prepare her for womanhood. He turned around and walked away, not trusting himself to speak any further.
Grace stood there long after her father was gone from sight. Her emotions were in turmoil and it was on the tip of her tongue to call out to him and beg him not to be mad at her. She compressed her lips and stubbornly remained where she was. He was the one in the wrong, even if he was the parent and she was supposed to respect him. Her vision blurred with tears and she sniffed. She loved both of her parents dearly but her father had always been such a role model for her and his protectiveness wasn't always unwelcome. She had seen the hurt in his expression plainly and it made her heart ache.
She was so absorbed in her thoughts she hadn't heard anyone approach. She yelped and turned around to see Tommy approaching from deeper in the forest. "You scared me," breathed.
"I can see that," he answered dryly. His hair was damp and a few droplets of water clung to his skin, suggesting that he was just returning to the village after a morning bath. "What's the matter?
Realizing that her eyes were still tearing up, she hastily rubbed at them and shook her head. "You wouldn't understand."
He cocked his head in a Jake-like manner. "Not if you don't tell me. Come on, who made you cry? I'll beat them up for you."
She managed a shaken little laugh. "You would have to beat up my father, then. Me too, probably."
"Huh?" He scratched his head and looked at her with a perplexed expression.
Grace sighed and looked him up and down through lowered lashes. "What did your parents tell you about mating?"
Tommy's eyebrows flew up. "Mating? Why?"
"My Dad told me that women get pregnant by holding their mates close and rubbing against them."
He looked even more surprised. He blew a low whistle. "Wow...really? That's all he told you?"
She nodded. "Basically. See? You know more about it. Everyone our age does, except for me up until last night! We just had an argument because I found out it wasn't true. I'm so mad at him!"
Tommy shuffled his feet and adjusted the weapon harness on his torso. "Well, you're not exactly 'everyone', Grace. I'm sure your Dad was waiting longer to tell you because...because...well, look at you." He made a sweeping, up and down gesture at her to accentuate his point.
Her first reaction was to be annoyed, because Tommy seemed more sympathetic to her father than to her. She considered him thoughtfully and remembered watching him in the lake. Thoughts of that led to thoughts of the conversation she'd had with Savanna concerning male Na'vi anatomy. Curiosity combined with rebellious frustration drove her next actions.
"I've seen you naked."
Tommy's face froze. "You have? Um...when?"
"Weeks ago," she answered. "You were bathing after a hunt. I hid in the bushes and watched."
"You did?" He stared at her warily.
"I wanted to see you," she explained, taking a step closer.
Tommy took an uncertain step back, unused to being approached by her this way. "You see me every day."
"I wanted to see all of you," she said. With a little shock, she realized she had purred after speaking the sentence. The tension was returning to her pelvic area and the desire to pounce on him returned full-force.
"Uh...okay," Tommy replied, swallowing.
Grace smiled. Usually, he was so confident and persuasive. Tommy always flirted with her, no matter how often she told him she wasn't interested in romance yet. Now she had the upper hand and it made her feel powerful.
Norm got halfway back to the village before he stopped and rubbed his eyes. "I can't leave it like that," he sighed.
The blame for the entire argument was on his shoulders. Savanna didn't do anything wrong by telling Gracie the truth when he couldn't. The thought of this anger remaining between himself and his beloved daughter ate at him like a cancer and he simply couldn't bear it. Determined to patch things up and put all of this behind them, Norm turned around to go back and apologize to Grace.
"You say people look at me differently," Grace murmured to the flustered nineteen-year old standing before her. "Maybe you should have a better look."
She shook her long tresses back and began to unlace the beaded halter-tunic concealing her breasts.
Tommy's eyes followed the motions of her fingers and he swallowed again. "Grace, what are you doing?"
"I've seen you," she answered. Her fingers trembled the slightest bit but she didn't pause. She looked up at him when the laces came undone and she pulled the garment off, dropping it to the ground. "It's only fair that you see me too."
His lips parted but no sound escaped from his throat. He looked like he'd stopped breathing. His eyes fixated on her exposed breasts and Grace let her gaze drop to his loincloth—which was steadily pushing away from his body. Savanna's information about the change in that part of male anatomy was accurate. Not yet satisfied, Grace hooked her fingers under the straps of her loincloth and pushed it down over her hips. She kicked the scant piece of clothing away when it landed at her ankles and she straightened her shoulders. She pushed her embarrassment away and ignored the heat in her face.
"Do I look like a child, Tommy?"
His eyes flicked from her chest to her loins and he shook his head wordlessly. His loincloth was now poking out severely in the front and Grace wondered if the strings would snap soon. She forced herself not to stare directly at the spectacle. There was no doubt he was much bigger down there now than he had been when she first saw him naked.
"Take your loincloth off," she heard herself say.
~Eywa, what am I doing?~
Grace wasn't sure what she intended to do, beyond show Tommy her body and look at his in return. She was just tired of others trying to decide what she was ready for without consulting her.
Tommy stood in a frozen stupor.
It was probably for the best that he couldn't comprehend her command because at that moment, Norm Spellman walked through the bushes to see his daughter stripped naked before a very aroused young man.
Gracie wasn't aware that her father was standing behind her, with his jaw hanging wide open and his eyes bugging out. Tommy noticed him, though. He found his ability to speak again and his state of arousal began to diminish.
-To be continued
Children's (current) ages:
Kato and Karyu: 17
Sa'nok = Mother
Eyaye = a large native fernlike plant with iridescent blue leaves. Known to humans as a "Warbonnet fern" because of the Na'vi practice of using the leaves for headdresses, ceremonies and other adornments.
Tompa berries = A tart, wild berry that resembles a large blueberry and grows on climbing vines in tropical and temperate climates.
Iknimaya = The final and most dangerous rite of passage into adulthood. A young hunter must capture and bond with his or her first ikran before they are initiated as adults into the clan.
Tsahaylu = The neural bond established when a Na'vi links his or her queue to another lifeform. Between two Na'vi, this bond is highly erotic and it allows them to experience one another's feelings and thoughts.
Olo'eyktan = Clan leader; chieftain
Sempul = Father
Sempu = Daddy