I know it's been a while, but if you're reading this, forgive me?


    Normal

    In the amount of time Ava slept, I was able to find her some of Neytiri's things, even though Thomas was completely upset by it. Ava wasn't completely naked, and though I'd never really given it much thought with Neytiri, Ava was different. And I'd noticed a lot of the others staring at her. If I was going to keep her safe, I had to at least attempt to help her blend in, even if it was already impossible.

    She seemed to know what to do with the loincloth, but I helped her with it as comfortably as I could. Only a few of Neytiri's chest pieces had actually covered her whole    chest, and I helped Ava tie one of them around her torso. Thomas had since returned to the base of our Home, but I'd made sure he knew to come back when it was time. Since it was just me and Ava, I decided it was time for us to talk.

    "Can you understand me?" I asked her softly.

    She lifted her fingers to my lips, but she didn't say anything.

    I moved her hand away, speaking again. "Do you know where you are?"

    She looked around at where we were, and for a few seconds, I thought it was impossible to get anything out of her. I didn't even know how old she was.

    Ava lowered her hand to my chest, lifting her eyes to mine. "Jake," she said.

    Unconsciously, I smiled. "That's right," I nodded, laying my hand over hers. "I'm Jake. And you're Avamelia," I said.

    She lowered her eyes to where I was holding her hand. She inhaled deeply, looking at me again. "I . . . understand," she whispered.

    The heart inside my chest I'd been living with the last ten years sped up instantly, and I couldn't deny the smile on my face.

    "Po plltxe," I heard behind me and turned to see one of the female clan members there with more dressings in her arms. The look of astonishment and wonder on her face was obvious as she slowly made her way out onto the mat.

    She looked at me, bowing her head. "Oel ngati kameie."

    Ava withdrew immediately, and I stood up to face our visitor. "Eyreal," I said to her, drawing her attention away from Ava.

    "Ma tshahik ask me bring this to you," she said softly, her English disjointed since she probably hadn't spoken much of it in a little while.

    I took the dressings, glancing at Ava and then returning my eyes to Eyreal. I bowed my head. "Irayo," I replied.

    Expecting her to turn and leave now that her task had been completed, I was confused when she remained where she was, looking passed me at Ava.

    "She is good?" Eyreal asked me.

    It took me a few seconds to realize she was asking if Ava was okay, and for a fleeting moment, I thought she was there merely to satisfy her curiosity. But the look in her eyes appeared to be one of yearning. It seemed she truly wished to know Ava was okay. I took that as a good sign, allowing her further onto the mat where Ava was sitting curled up away from us. I hadn't expected any other members of the clan to show this much interest in Ava since she looked so different. Despite most of them being tolerant of the other Avatars, they still looked at others who didn't look like them as outsiders. They had accepted me, but honestly, they'd really had no choice.

    I moved to Ava's side, soothing her as she continued to coil away from Eyreal. "It's okay," I told her. "She won't hurt you." I looked at Eyreal. "At least, I don't think she'll hurt you."

    It took several seconds for Ava to relax, and Eyreal knelt in front of her slowly,
remaining still as I eased Ava closer to her.

    "She look so young," Eyreal said softly, slowly extending her hand to touch Ava's cheek. "She so small."

     "Yes," I said, keeping Ava close even as she lifted her hand to touch Eyreal's face. "She's very delicate."

    Eyreal looked at me, her topaz eyes confused by the word I'd used. I thought quickly, speaking again.

    "Po ke txur," I told her, and she nodded.

    For another minute, it was quiet as Ava continued to touch Eyreal's face, and Eyreal touched Ava's. But then a booming voice from the other side of the trees broke us all from the silence.

    "Kä neto," I heard and looked to see Tu'San glaring at us from his perch.

    Eyreal retreated, glancing at me and then quietly rising from where she'd sat down. She bowed her head at me, a small smile crossing her face as she glanced at Ava and then left without a word. Before she could leave, I called out to her.

    "Eyreal," I said, and she stopped to look back at me. I also bowed my head. "Thank you."

    Even though she said nothing, I knew she understood, and I watched her leave a moment before I returned my eyes to where Tu'San had been. He was still there, watching me with Ava. At that very moment, he reminded me of Tsu'Tey, even though I had not seen my brother in ten years. The fierce superiority was blazing in his eyes, and the potent disgust flashed across his bared teeth, but I took this in with as little weight as I could. I couldn't afford to despise all the Humans who'd robbed the entire clan of their home ten years earlier. I was going to need their help if I was going to find out about Ava.

    Tu'San didn't hang around much longer than to see Eyreal leave me and Ava alone. Though Eyreal was not mated with anyone, Tu'San was generally territorial when it came to most of the female members of the clan. I still couldn't understand why, even though after I'd showed up, I guessed it was only normal.

    Ava got my attention then, touching my face to make me look at her, and I forgot about Tu'San. Whether he liked it or not, she was here now, and I wasn't going to let anyone hurt her now. This wasn't about some alien mining company come to the world to destroy our home again. The Company hadn't been back in ten years, but with scientists still on the base, I didn't know how long that was going to last. But this wasn't about the clan. This was personal now. And that was all I cared about at the moment.

    "You . . . in . . . trouble?" she asked me slowly, the look in her eyes making it appear like she had to find the words in her head before she spoke them to me.

    "No," I said, shaking my head and moving her hand away. "And neither are you, so don't worry about anyone hurting you. I won't allow that. I'm their leader, and they'll listen to me. Ava, where did you come from?"

    She thought harder on that one, seeming to remember something sad as tears welled in her eyes. "Far . . . away," she said softly, lifting her fingers to the chain still around her neck.

    I tried to soothe her, even though it looked like she was having trouble remembering exactly where she did come from. I again wondered how long she'd been in the forest to fend for herself. Surely it had only been a few years. Anymore than that, she would have been too small to take care of herself. Then again, she didn't look malnourished or scarred the way someone unable to take care of themselves would have after only a few years. In fact, she looked healthy.

    "Did someone give this to you?" I asked, fingering the chain gently.

    "Yes," she said sadly.

    "Do you remember who gave it to you?"

    She bowed her head, allowing the tears in her eyes to fall, but she shook her head. It was obvious she didn't want me to know something, but if I was going to keep her safe, I had to know everything.

    "You can trust me, Ava," I said softly. "Whatever you tell me, it's just me. I won't tell anyone else. I swear. But I have to know. Please."

    It took several more seconds for her to build up to it, but she finally looked at me. "My . . . mother . . . gave it to me. Before . . . she . . . died."

    Instantly, I knew something about her that made me feel different than I'd ever felt for anyone — even Neytiri. And I didn't even realize I was so close to her until I had her in my arms comforting her. For whatever reason, I hadn't even thought for a minute that she could've had parents. I'd only thought of two donors, like the way the company had made the Avatars. But clearly, there was something else going on here. There was something a lot more complicated and dangerous happening, and I had to know what was going to happen next.

    "I'm sorry," I whispered to her softly. "It's gonna be okay. I promise."

    It wasn't too difficult to get her to eat. I laid the food in front of her, and she almost immediately began shoveling it into her mouth. I didn't want us to be up here for the rest of the day, but when Mo'at had told me to rest, she must have known something I didn't. As soon as Ava finished her food, she laid back down, and I laid down with her, falling asleep
almost immediately.



    I had the strangest dream. I was back at the lab, weightless inside a tube filled with oxygenated salt water and an umbilical attached to my stomach. There was no noise, no sensation, and it felt vaguely familiar. I remembered the first time I'd seen my Avatar as it floated in a container filled with water twitching and curling its toes and fingers. I could still remember thinking about Tommy and how I wasn't even supposed to be there.

    "Looks like him," I'd said staring at it almost wondrously.

    "No, it looks like you. This is your Avatar now, Jake," Norm countered.

    So many years had passed since then, and so much had happened. I wasn't just driving the body I was in now from a distance. It was my body now. And there was no going back. That didn't explain why I was dreaming about being in a tube filled with water and an umbilical coming from my stomach. Before I'd started using this body, it had been completely inert without me.

    I opened my eyes, but I wasn't in the Tree anymore. I was still inside the tube, and everything beyond the glass was distorted, almost to where I couldn't make any of it out. It looked like the inside of the lab, but that didn't make any sense. Everything had a blue tint to it, and I couldn't figure out why. But when the massive shape of a nine and a half foot tall blue man filled my view, I didn't have to guess what I was looking at, and the clan markings gave him away.

    "Is he okay?" His voice was so far away. He could've been talking from across the room, but he was kneeling less than three feet from my head.

    "He's perfect." That sounded like Norm's voice, but I couldn't see him.

    "How much longer is he gonna have to be in here?"

    Slowly, Norm came into my view, looking the he'd always looked, but it looked like he was smiling.

    "A few more days."

    "How's Ava doing?"

    "She's doin' fine, Jake."

    "Can I see her too?"

    "Come with me." Norm moved away, and then the massive blue man did too.

    I realized then that I was seeing something impossible. How could that be Jake? I'm Jake.




    "Ma sempul."

    The dim light of dusk filled my eyes as I opened them to see Thomas and Ava above me with worried looks on their faces.

    "Thomas?"

    "We could not get you to wake," he said, touching my face and pulling me to sit up. "I yelled loud several times."

    I looked around to see the sky nearly pink, and I knew it was late. "How long have I been asleep?" I asked softly.

    "Nearly 12 hours," I heard and turned to see Norm as he stood at the edge of the mat. I noticed several instruments in his hands, and he moved closer to where I was sitting with Thomas and Ava.

    "What happened?" I asked.

    "There was some strange activity showing up at the lab," he said, kneeling in front of me and holding one of his scanners over my head. "You were asleep when I got here, but Thomas said he couldn't get you to wake up. You, uh, kinda looked like I did when I wasn't in my Avatar, and I got worried. But all your brain scans were normal."

    I sighed heavily, thinking about the way I felt, and I knew I hadn't felt like this in over ten years. I was disoriented, and I felt like I'd been locked inside a casket for 12 hours. That didn't feel normal.    

    "I talked Mo'at into letting me take you and, uh, your friend back to the lab tonight," Norm said as he glanced at Ava.

    I looked at her, seeing Thomas stand over her defensively. I guess he'd decided Norm was a bigger threat than Ava was at that moment. I looked at Norm. "What about Thomas?" I asked, watching my son's ears rear back as he eyed Norm suspiciously.

    "Well, he can come too," Norm said with a smile. "We might not have a gigantic tree, but we got a bunch of things he'd probably like to try out in the compound."

    I looked at Thomas, silently pleading with him to at least be civil since I did need Norm's help figuring this out, and he bowed his head slightly. I looked at Ava, and she eased closer to me before I looked at Norm and nodded.

    He smiled wider, putting his scanner away and then rising as he extended his arm to mine to help me to my feet. Thomas and Ava followed, and since there wasn't a lot for me to take other than my son, we began our descent to the base of the tree.

    Most of the Clan had gathered at the base when we emerged, and Mo'at was waiting for us with Eyreal and Tu'San. Mo'at approached me first, gazing into my eyes the way she did when she was trying to figure out what I was thinking. Whenever she looked at me like that, I always tried to blank out my mind, but it never worked.

    "You will be away for as long as it will take for this mystery to be uncovered," she said, either asking or confirming I wasn't sure. I bowed my head all the same. "I will not expect you back for several days."

    I glanced at Norm, and he nodded. I looked at Mo'at. "You will protect the People while I am away," I nodded. "I will return with answers."

    She bowed her head to me, and I stepped back to where Norm was waiting with Thomas and Ava. I turned to the Clan, seeing many of their faces confused and angry. I knew it was my place to explain to them what was happening, but I had no words. Mo'at stepped forward, speaking to the Clan for me and telling them I was leaving to find out how Ava had become and that I would return when I'd found the answers I needed.

    Whether any of them really understood, I wasn't sure. Most of them cried out for me to stay where I belonged. It had been ten years since I'd even thought about going back to the lab. I was stepping back into unfamiliar territory, but I'd already decided what was more important at the moment. I knew Mo'at could take care of the Clan, and I had to rely on her to keep everything going.

    I led the way through the crowd, allowing them to reach for me even though I couldn't let them stop me. Norm followed with Ava and Thomas, and the voices of the People faded slowly until I couldn't hear them at all. I tried not to look back, failing and turning to look up at the tree I'd made my home. I became determined to return, and I looked at Thomas, pulling him to my side to hold him close.

    Norm took the lead slowly, glancing at me as we got further away from the Clan.

    "Max will be thrilled to see you," Norm said. "He won't believe this."

    I looked at Thomas and then Ava, noticing how she was remaining almost a meter behind us. I extended my hand to her, pulling her to my other side and whispering to her. "It's all gonna be okay," I told her. "Norm's gonna help us figure all this out, okay?"

    I leaned back to look at her, and she inhaled deeply, nodding silently. I didn't know if she could understand everything I was saying or if it was just the tone of my voice, but I was just content knowing she was calm.