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Fic: Avatar, The Last Airbender: Speech Acts

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Jul. 9th, 2011 | 02:42 pm

Still working on the did/didn't fics. "What if bending was like sign language?" got into my head, and then these got out.



At age ten, the fire sages proclaimed her fully fluent. At twelve, she spoke in blue.

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"You mean, you'd teach me the Southern dialect?"

Hama smiled. "Of course, child."

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"Right now, you only need to know one adjective. 'Rock-like.' Got it?"

"Rock-like, Sifu Toph!"

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The water in the little pot went cold, pure solid. Katara let her hands relax and the ice was fluid once again, but a thin, white ring still hung in the lip of the cook-jar. Frost. She should be more eloquent than to leave frost.

The Avatar hadn't noticed her mistake. Aang had been watching her.

"A pond," Katara began, "Or, a puddle, is like a conversation. This isn't a pond, but it's the right amount of water for you to get the idea." Katara began to gently rock the water, moving her hands back and forth above the surface, leaving the phrase of the pattern open. She nodded to Aang and he answered the lull of her motions with his own and soon the water was awake with little waves. "It's more water than you would drink at one time..." Katara spread her arms in a wide ellipsis; Aang pushed the sentence back. "But less water than you could take a bath in. You can give it all your attention all at once."

"So bending a lake would be like... giving a speech?"

"You have to listen to the water too, and bending only some of the water from a lake or a river is like... listening for one voice in a crowd, and then starting a conversation like that. Rivers can be especially tricky, because they're already moving."

"And what about the ocean? What if the body of water I'm bending is so huge it has its own tide??"

Katara laughed. "I don't think anyone's ever done something like that before!"

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"You can't just ask the earth to do something. That's your problem. You've gotta demand it." Toph thrust her palms outward, thumbs in, and the boulder wall shook with attention. "You've gotta be forward. Blunt. Direct." The stone cracked as she jammed her foot into the ground and Aang would've sworn then that he'd never seen a phrase change intention so abruptly. She hadn't even moved her hands! The upper edge of scarp fell off in chunks.

"And at times..." Toph smiled, as if searching for the right word. "Crass." She clapped her hands, and the stone was dust.

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The clouds on the low border of the valley broke with thunder.

"This harmony can help you in your own life, and it can help you in battle. The technique I am about to show you I developed by studying the language of waterbending." Iroh handed Zuko the stick he'd been writing with and took up the first high-sun pose.

"Lightning is paradox. To create it, what you communicate must carry two opposite meanings at the same time. The energy in the world becomes separated, and then comes crashing back together. Once this energy is released, all you can do is guide it. You cannot control it. You cannot speak to it. Now, watch."

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"What is bending?"

The answers are old in Aang, remembered from the dead century.

"Bending is communication."

"Who speaks? Who listens?"

"I scream with the wind. I whisper with the breeze."

Aang cradles an idle cyclone in his hands, a whirling loop of implication. He could change the context if wanted to, from Space Between The Fingers to Space Between The Palms, but he is meant to be paying attention to the echo mantra, and he hates being split between two tenses.

"Who speaks? Who listens?"

"The air speaks, and I listen."

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Master Pakku had a way with words, it was true. He spoke to the water like it was an old lover, a trusted friend. He shifted his elbow and the great wave curled inward, following the movements of his body. Katara could read the meanings of the positions, stance to shoulder to arm to fingers: swell, surge, rush, flood, freeze.

Katara raised her hands and disagreed.

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"True firebending isn't imperative. The fire is yours, if you can control it, but a firebender must have breath and heat and energy of his own. It's the difference between 'burn'," a brief flare ignited on the edge of Zuko's knuckles, "And 'burning'." Zuko moved into the next pose and his fists lit up with yellow flame.

"No commands?"

"No commands."

"This is great!"

Zuko blinked. "It... it is?"

Aang grinned. "Yeah! I hate being told what to do."

"Twenty hot squats. Now."

"Hey! It was just a joke!"

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"Boy, this is an authentic waterbending dictionary. Not the largest sample of vocabulary, no, but those diagrams are hand drawn, and you won't find a clearer breakdown of irregular tenses anywhere."

"Okay, okay!" Aang exclaimed. "Two copper pieces."

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"The Avatar State. Lifetimes upon lifetimes of linguistic knowledge! Lucid communication with the elements! Just think of the possibilities!" General Fong's eyes were bright and eager, and Aang almost took a small step back.

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"They met on the mountain that divided their two villages. The people on one side of the mountain spoke one language, and the people on the other side of the mountain spoke another, and the two villages had been fighting for generations, unable to find truce or communicate. But the man thought the woman was beautiful and strong, and the woman thought the man was brave and kind, and each decided then that their own languages were useless if they could say nothing to the other."

"Wait, why didn't the man and woman just point at things and say what they were called?"

"Well, I... I think their giving up their languages was meant to be symbolic. Didn't some monks take vows of silence?"

"Well, yeah, but they weren't really vows of silence at all, 'cause they could still speak to the air using airbending! That was the whole point. This one monk? Xin Bai? He went a whole month only---"

"Aang?"

"Oh... right, yeah! What happened next?"

Katara moved the circle of torchlight along the row of stone carvings. "They were silent for a long time, but they met on the mountaintop whenever they could, each being careful to keep their love a secret from their villages. They watched how the badgermoles dug their tunnels into the earth and tried to copy them. Because they'd given up their human languages, it was easy for them to figure out how to speak to the earth, and they became the first earthbenders.

"Together, they began to create a new language, for speaking to the mountain and to eachother. They carved their own tunnels and met deep underground. But then, the man was killed in the war between the villages. Devastated, the woman unleashed a terrible display of her earthbending power. She could have destroyed them all. But instead, she tore down the mountain and united the villages into one great city."

"What were their names?"

The torchlight, dim and fading, flickered out.

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"Speak a word of Earth and it moves for a word. Speak a word of Water and it moves for a word. But speak a word of Fire and it burns and burns and burns until it can burn no more. That is what is means to firebend. I will not teach you."

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Aang spun, slowly, trading his weight from one foot to the other, drawing his hands up over his head, ducking, tracing a sweeping curve with his fingertips. Katara had been the only waterbender in her tribe growing up, but she couldn't imagine what it would be like to know you were the last person in the world to speak your language. To know that you would be the last to truly listen to your element, to understand it. To know that when you died, it would be some inhuman color of the world again, mute and meaningless.

A breeze stirred the high treetops as Aang breathed out, finishing the phrase.

"Was that an exercise Gyatso taught you?"

"No... it was a poem."

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Comments {26}

Omoni

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from: yukinoomoni
date: Jul. 21st, 2011 07:39 pm (UTC)
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....

This is stunning. Gorgeous. Genius. i just....wow. Thank you very much for this.

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Jul. 25th, 2011 03:49 am (UTC)
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Thank you! You are kind---too kind---to say such.

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Rakish Ragabash

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from: teacup_werewolf
date: Jul. 21st, 2011 07:46 pm (UTC)
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OMG Now i wanna do a fanfic with my old deaf airbender Anil. OMG AHHH LOVE THIS <3

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Jul. 25th, 2011 03:52 am (UTC)
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Oh heck yes do it write it rock it (and: link me if you do?)

Also: Thank you!

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you can bury my body but i'll never die.

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from: gotatheory
date: Jul. 22nd, 2011 02:19 am (UTC)
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Oh, this is lovely. The idea is absolutely brilliant and you wrote it wonderfully.

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Jul. 25th, 2011 03:56 am (UTC)
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I'm glad you liked it! Thank you for saying so.

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kimberly_t

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from: kimberly_t
date: Jul. 23rd, 2011 03:51 am (UTC)
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Highly creative, bittersweet... all in all, beautiful. Well done!

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Jul. 25th, 2011 04:00 am (UTC)
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Thank you! Glad you dug it! :-)

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Mary

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from: marikunin
date: Jul. 24th, 2011 02:58 pm (UTC)
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T...t...this was beautiful. :D

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Jul. 25th, 2011 04:01 am (UTC)
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:-)

You are too kind. (Thank you.)

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Pico the Great

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from: pico_the_great
date: Jul. 26th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
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This is gorgeous and amazing. I loved it. You have so much here that's right for canon that ... I can't even express how right it is. It's good. It is good.

Well done!

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Nov. 26th, 2011 07:01 am (UTC)
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(I just realized I never replied to this! Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad you liked this!)

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lavanyasix

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from: lavanyasix
date: Nov. 26th, 2011 06:14 am (UTC)
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This fic is goddamn amazing. It's always beautiful to see a seemingly simple concept explored to its fullest extent, especially so when it's done concisely and with no waste.

*claps*

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Nov. 26th, 2011 08:39 pm (UTC)
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Thank you!

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miss_sanguine

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from: miss_sanguine
date: Nov. 26th, 2011 07:48 am (UTC)
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Beautiful. You have a very vivid writing voice. <3

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Nov. 27th, 2011 07:32 am (UTC)
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<3

Pleased it worked for you here!

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Nemi

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from: nemi_chan
date: Nov. 26th, 2011 09:06 pm (UTC)
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I love you. I have been thinking of bending as sign language for a while due to wanting to write a AtLA/Dresden files crossover.

This was beautiful and eloquent.

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Nov. 27th, 2011 06:55 pm (UTC)
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Thank you very much.

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Amy Raine

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from: amyraine
date: Nov. 27th, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)
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If you ever feel up to writing a sequel, a drabble featuring Tenzin learning airbending language would be awesome.

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ferricent

(no subject)

from: ferricent
date: Nov. 27th, 2011 06:59 pm (UTC)
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Another reason to be excited for Korra!

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Nele Noppe

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from: unjapanologist
date: Dec. 8th, 2011 02:51 am (UTC)
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Here via lavanyasix. This is so gorgeous! A wonderful idea, beautifully executed. *claps*

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ferricent

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from: ferricent
date: Dec. 13th, 2011 06:57 am (UTC)
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Thank you! (And... thanks, lavanyasix?) I'm glad you liked this!

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LJ Lee

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from: ljlee
date: Feb. 25th, 2012 07:14 am (UTC)
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Here on amyraine's rec, and wow this is such a stunningly innovative vision of bending. Taking the idea of language and running with it produces such a different view of everything, of a world that comes alive through meaning and language. This is, if I may say so, a feminist story in a way, where the power lies in communication.

All the individual drabbles were done well but the last one is particularly stirring, with such evocative writing as "some inhuman color of the world" bringing home the truth that we order the world and perceive it in our human framework through language. In such ordering lies power, meaning, and existence. Such powerful concepts, delivered with simple elegance. Amazing work.

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ferricent

(no subject)

from: ferricent
date: Mar. 4th, 2012 08:45 pm (UTC)
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Oh wow... this is an incredible comment. It really makes me happy that you liked this! And yeah, the boundary between 'distinct AU" and "interpretation" is definitely blurred in this; I think someone could watch the show itself and see canon bending as being lingual, at least in some way. (What's a waterbending scroll if not a dictionary? Doesn't Toph's power come from "listening" to the earth?) I'm just glad I was able to write some pieces of the vision that satisfied!

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FairladyZ2005

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from: fairladyz2005
date: Mar. 6th, 2012 03:30 pm (UTC)
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This is lovely. Lunatique recently recommended this fic to me. What I love about it is how this fic acts as a furthering of the link between how each element has their own martial art to represent it and how the element responds to those movements. Martial arts are a sign language of their own, a communication system of chi, breath, flow, energy. Each style of martial arts has its own language and accents. After a while, you start to recognize the connections between them. One may use open hand, another closed, one may leave a foot out wider or shorter in a stance, but they are saying the same thing with a different emphasis. Intentional or not, I see this story as focusing on the art or the martial art, the poetry and unique emphasis of that body/sign language used to communicate. Aang learns the differences in communication that make him a fully realized Avatar. It reminds me of how samurai practice caligraphy and painting like Piandao's exercizes with Sokka. It's hard to pick a favorite part of this story. I like Azula being fluent in blue, Toph saying you have to be crass to the rock sometimes, Zuko explaining burn vs burning, Oma and Shu, and the recitation of what is airbending. I enjoyed this fic quite a lot. Thanks for posting.

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twi

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from: twistingflame
date: Apr. 20th, 2012 01:07 am (UTC)
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Simply lovely.

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