"Nari," says Neytiri slowly, watching Jake's face.
"Narr-ee," he says.
She shakes her head. "Nari," she repeats, patiently.
They're sitting face-to-face, high above the forest canopy on a branch of the new Hometree. Jake can't help but feel an intense déjà vu – an echo of simpler times, when they were merely teacher and student. It's a comfortable feeling, yet achingly wistful. So much has changed since then, and there's so much here to remind him of that. There's the new Hometree – its smaller size a painful reminder of their diminished numbers. There's the Olo'Eyktan's mantle against his chest – a physical symbol of his new responsibilities.
And, of course, there's his queue lying linked with Neytiri's – and everything that signifies. The twined tendrils glow softly in the night, like everything else on Pandora.
Granted, this wasn't quite what Jake had in mind when they snuck up here in the dark and linked queues. Unfortunately for him, it had occurred to Neytiri that tsaheylu really does make everything easier to explain. Thus, his attempts to say something romantic in her language had instead resulted in an impromptu lesson on pronunciation.
To be fair, Neytiri would be the first to admit that Jake's Na'vi was worlds better than it was half a year ago. All the same, the accent will take time to acquire.
She repeats the word again. Through the bond, Jake understands that she's guiding his attention to the consonant in the middle, the one he always has trouble with, even now. It's like a cross between the "r" in "borrow" and the "l" in "yellow," a strange and foreign sound that requires him to somehow roll the "r" ever so slightly yet somehow avoid trilling it...
She says it again, expelling the complexity from his mind and replacing it with a sense of natural ease: "Nari."
Jake sits with his eyes closed, focusing on how the word feels in Neytiri's mouth. "Nari," he repeats. He opens his eyes in surprise and blinks at the perfectly accented word that just rolled off his tongue. Without his human accent, it almost sounds like someone else's voice – like a deep, male version of Neytiri's.
Neytiri looks surprised too, but recovers quickly. "Good," she says. "Nari."
"Nari," Jake repeats. He grins at the strange sound of his own Na'vi accent. "Nari nari nari."
She smiles encouragingly and leads him on a hunt for other words to help him practice the same odd, hybrid consonant. "Yerik," she says. They'd gone hunting earlier that day; the name for their quarry is still fresh on her mind. "Taronyu."
Jake repeats after her, reveling in the newfound ease of saying these particular words. He casts about for others. "Irayo," he says, remembering the hunter's prayer. "Tirea."
She smiles at him. "Uniltìranyu," she offers slyly. Jake wrinkles his nose at the word. I'm not a dreamwalker anymore, he reminds her. Neytiri shrugs – a human gesture she has copied from him – and chooses a different word. "Toruk."
Jake is struck by a sudden revelation. "Neytiri," he says in his new accent. He feels a startled little jolt of recognition from her. With a sudden sheepishness, he realizes that he's been saying her name wrong all these months. "Neytiri," he repeats, drawing it out, experimenting with the unfamiliar feel of the new pronunciation.
He feels a hitch of discomfort in Neytiri's mind — a sort of mental frown. What, he thinks at her. Am I still getting it wrong?
No, she thinks back hastily. You are saying it right. "Neytiri," she repeats out loud, her pronunciation a mirror of his. ...good job, she adds through the link. Her tone is almost grudging, as if the praise were an afterthought.
Jake notices, of course, and starts probing curiously at her mind, much to Neytiri's discomfort. Her apprehension amuses him, so much that he is almost distracted from his goal. For all the wonders of tsaheylu, it's not easy getting accustomed to such intimate access to private thoughts. He himself has had all kinds of secrets laid uncomfortably bare before his mate, ranging from the minor to the mortifying. It doesn't help that the harder he tries not to think of something, the more obvious its presence becomes.
It's fun being on the opposite end of the privacy invasion, for once.
"Neytiri," he repeats with his newly-perfected accent. He says it slowly and carefully, hunting for clues. There it is again — that odd mix of emotion, as though she approves and yet somehow disapproves at the same time.
He stares at her as he finally works out what the problem is, then keels over laughing.
Quiet, she hisses at him through the bond. You'll wake everybody up!
"I don't believe it," he laughs. "You make no sense, you know that?" He takes a deep, calming breath, then bursts into a fresh round of laughter. Neytiri gives up trying to quiet him and sits back, waiting for him with a look that would be threatening if it weren't somehow adorable. She sighs irritably at that last thought, as though she can read his mind — which, of course, she can.
Jake shakes his head, still chuckling. "All these months of abuse from you. And then I finally start getting it right, and you don't appreciate that either." He rubs his face with his hands. "You horrible, wonderful, impossible woman."
"No no no," she insists hurriedly. "It is good that you speak better. Very good."
"Yeah, right," says Jake. He tugs lightly at their bonded queues, an evil smirk upon his face. "You can't hide things from me anymore, Neytiri." He says it the old way, the human way, the way nobody else ever says it. "Nari, irayo, tirea, taronyu," he adds in quick succession, butchering the pronunciation with deliberate, joyful abandon.
Stop that, she thinks, trying hard to make her mind-voice sound displeased. You sound like a moron.
He finally stops laughing, but he's smiling as he sits back up again. He scooches around and gathers her into his arms from behind. "Exactly," he murmurs against her ear in low-voiced English. "And you like that." He nuzzles her neck happily. "You like me and my exotic Sky Person accent." A flush of feminine embarrassment washes through their link, and Jake grins triumphantly against her skin. He turns her face toward him before she has time to deny it and kisses her lingeringly on the lips.
They sit together for a long time, holding each other in companionable silence. They admire the living galaxy of the night forest below, breathing its wild scents and letting their linked thoughts drift nowhere in particular.
"Neytiri," he says again, finally. He's not teasing her anymore. He's just saying it, the way he always says it.
"Jhake," she murmurs, the same way she always says it. She hears her own voice through his ears and feels his reaction through the bond — a little purr of contentment, overlaid by a tickle of amusement.
She blinks as she realizes something for the first time. "I am also saying it wrong," she says. "Your name. It is meant to be — "
"Jhake," he says firmly. "And don't you dare say it any other way."
Authors note: This fic came to me out of the blue today and somehow jumped the line of other fics that I've got in the works. I was reading other people's Avatar fiction and realized that a lot of you really like the way Neytiri says Jake's name, with the soft "j." Meanwhile, the movie special edition makes it clear that Jake's pronunciation of her name isn't exactly right, either.
I found it kind of amusing that throughout this whole epic, world-changing romance of theirs, neither of them can pronounce the other's name properly. And thus the idea for this fic was born. I'm pretty sure this is my personal record for the fastest time for a fic to go from idea to publication, though "Sleepyhead" is pretty close.
Everybody please review!