one shot where zuko knows how to play a fire nation instrument and the swt wants to hear him play and he plays a song his mother taught him
i love this idea! this takes place in between ch14 and ch15, aka Just Before Everything Went To Shit :)
final word count: 1.5k words
“I have something but first I need an emotional declaration from you.” Tomkin said suddenly, and Zuko peered over his shoulder with a frown to see the other boy approaching him, grinning evilly, Nanook at his side looking just as incriminating.
“An emotional declaration of what?” Zuko asked, suspicious. Nothing good ever came of Tomkin and Nanook scheming like this. He'd only gone outside for a breath of fresh air. They’d left Weihai yesterday, sailing towards Gaoling where Hakoda planned for them to make camp properly for a while. Zuko couldn’t help how much he was looking forward to it. All the ice and sailing made him claustrophobic and for once he just wanted to feel real, normal land beneath his feet. The thought of it had grated at him as he tried to sleep that night, and suddenly, the infirmary felt far too small, the air far too sharp. He knew a few of the warriors were sat outside on deck, chatting into the night and laughing loudly every now and then, but strangely, that wasn’t something that dissuaded Zuko anymore. He felt safe around them, and when something felt wrong, he almost felt... drawn to them.
So he’d sat silently with them up on deck, pretending to listen to whatever ridiculous story Chena was telling, and no one commented on it, and Zuko could just breathe.
Until Tomkin and Nanook showed up, that is.
“You have to say that I’m your best friend over Nanook, otherwise I can’t give it you.” Tomkin said seriously, and Nanook shoved his shoulder.
“Hey,” he hissed, “that’s not what we agreed.”
“No? What did we agree?”
“What is this even about?” Zuko asked, exasperated, but there was a hint of fondness there, and he didn’t hate himself for it. He'd been with the Water Tribe for over three weeks now, and they’d all been through so much together. Zuko had grown, and hurt, and healed, and he... he thought he might be happy here. He thought that maybe he could stay, even if it was only a childish daydream.
Tomkin grinned then, before pulling something large and wooden from behind his back with an excited ‘ta-da!’.
Tulok cocked his head curiously. “Is that a tautirut?”
“That’s what I thought when I first saw it,” Nanook said, looking at the object with a smile, “but the salesman said it’s a pipa. It's Fire Nation!”
Zuko didn’t miss Chena’s mumbled ‘why the fuck-’ cut off by Aput’s elbow in his gut, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the object in Tomkin’s hand. It was an instrument, about the size of an arm, a deep wooden brown and with strings over an oval middle, and it was so achingly familiar that Zuko felt his heart sink.
It was a Fire Nation instrument on a Water Tribe ship, and that should have been enough to make Zuko feel this way. Nanook probably bought it in Weihai yesterday, maybe while Zuko was suffering through that horrifically awkward conversation with Chena. For such an instrument to even be sold in the Earth Kingdom... Zuko wished it was uncommon, but he’d seen it a lot while on the Erlong. Fire Nation ships would sink, and belongings would wash up on foreign shores, memories of crewmen who once held music nights. The pipa in Nanook’s hand had been cleaned and refurbished; someone had loved it, even after pulling it from a wreckage. It should have been enough. It should have been the only reason Zuko felt this way.
But his heart was tugging in his chest, and there was more to this than a reminder of the bloody war they sailed through.
Zuko remembered his mother, years and years ago. She had loved music, teaching Zuko easy beats on djembe drums and humming lullabies when he woke to nightmares. This memory was sunkissed, a large room of smooth stone and floor to ceiling windows that drenched every inch of the place with golden light. The room used to be used for parties, dances, but it had hardly been touched since the war started. And one day, Zuko couldn’t have been older than five or six, and Azula was a toddler who still held his hand when she walked, Mother took them to the room of sunshine.
“Come on, Zuko.” Mother had smiled at him softly, and she looked so carefree, a little out of place with the fogginess of the memory. She walked them to a corner of the room where the floor rose into a platform, instruments sat discarded and so fascinating to young fingers. Azula had giggled, reaching for a pipa that Mother quickly plucked out of her grip before she could start pulling the strings apart.
“Can you play it?” Zuko asked, looking at his mother with wide eyes. She was looking at the instrument in her hands fondly, deep in thought. She did this from time to time. This was something Zuko remembered clearly. Mother disappeared sometimes, deep into her mind, into her memories, thinking of moments of her past before it was all snatched from her.
“Hmm, well,” she said, flashing a mischievous grin as she swept aside her long robes in order to sit on the platform step, “let’s see shall we.”
And then she began to play, a fast tune, fingers moving quickly and creating a beautiful melody, and Azula clapped happily as the music filled the room. It made Zuko want to tap his foot along to it, to smile, to move, but that wasn’t proper, and Father had yelled at him only a few days ago for fidgeting too much at dinner.
Mother gave Zuko a reassuring smile, understanding, before turning to one of the servants that were never far. She said something quietly to them, something Zuko couldn’t remember, and the memory faded out of focus here, before sharpening when the music started again, this time his mother stood with him. She picked Azula up, cradling her against her, and Azula smiled happily, small hands framing Mother’s face. Azula used to love being held like that.
“Prince Zuko,” Mother turned to Zuko, grinning as she moved Azula’s weight to be able to hold out a hand to Zuko, “will you dance with me?”
It felt stupid and immature and Zuko said so much, but the music was so lively and Mother looked so happy, and Azula began to laugh when Mother swayed her, and Zuko couldn’t remember taking Mother’s hand, but the next thing he remembered was spinning with her around the room, a grin on his lips and something light in his chest.
Zuko had forgotten that, until now.
“Can you play it?” Tomkin asked eagerly, and Zuko shuffled awkwardly. His mother had taught him a few basic tunes, but Father said Zuko was too disappointing at firebending to be wasting his free time on such frivolous pursuits. Zuko had always loved the instrument though, even after Mother left.
“No.” Zuko said apologetically, because he wasn’t about to find out if he remembered how to play in front of everyone.
“Liar.” Kanut said breezily, not even looking up from the book he was reading when Zuko glared at him. It was dark out; how was Kanut even reading anyway?
“Tui and La, you can play!” Tomkin beamed when he saw the way Zuko was gradually flushing.
“Play something for us!” Nanook joined in.
“Just one song.” Hakoda goaded with a knowing look.
“Come on, brat.” Even Chena was grinning evilly now, and Zuko mentally cursed them all, which wasn’t at all effective, because the next thing he knew, a chant of ‘Zuko! Zuko! Zuko!’ filled the deck as everyone else joined in on causing him misery.
“Alright!” Zuko snapped after a few seconds. “Fine. One song, and then you have to leave me alone for the rest of the night.”
“No deal. Here.” Tomkin said, handing the pipa to Zuko, and Zuko glared murderously at the other boy before sighing, taking the instrument. He was such an Agni-damned pushover.
It was a familiar weight in his hands, despite all these years, and the pads of his fingers remembered the firmness of the strings, the tune each was supposed to make. Zuko forced himself to ignore the way everyone was staring at him, instead focussing on what he could remember. There was one song he’d always liked, one he had once been able to play from muscle memory alone. He wondered...
His fingers began to move and the silence was broken by the soothing sound of a lullaby. It was slow, soft, and it melted against the sound of waves caressing the ship, stars twinkling down above them as if they were leaning in to listen. Zuko chanced a look up, blushing as he continued to play, and saw Tomkin and Nanook looking at him with soft expressions, eyes warm. The song was one for children, to calm them, and between each pluck of a string, it sung of family, of belonging, of love. Zuko had never truly understood how that was supposed to work; how could a simple song convey something like that?
But that night beneath the stars, listening to a soft melody as they drifted through the ocean, Zuko understood.