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The Pangalactic Interstellar Starship Musain and the Song Circle

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Being deep out in space, light years away from the nearest star, makes everyone lazy. They're out of transmission range for most people, so Grantaire and Floréal's duties trying to help draft a viral video for the people of Earth to let them in on the alien secret fall by the wayside, and Grantaire knows everyone else is slacking off too.

There are movie nights, and game nights, but for the most part there's easy and quiet companionship, which makes Grantaire more than a little inclined to fidget.

He's not the only one. People get snappish, and one evening, Jehan interrupts a vicious argument between Floréal and Bahorel over possession of the movie screen to say “We should have a song night. We haven't had one since before we got Grantaire, and he knows a lot of songs.”

“Song night?” asks Louison, who's still new enough to the crew that she says everything in a tone of wonder. It's good. It saves Grantaire from having to do the same thing.

Everyone else is perking up, relieved at the new activity, and Feuilly is the one to answer. “We turn off the translation and sing songs from our homes. Music is something almost every intelligent species we've found shares, but nobody's sounds exactly the same.”

Grantaire plays music from Earth for Enjolras all the time, and hears snatches of it from other people, but except for in the cockpit, the translation is almost always on. It changes how music sounds, he knows. He wants to hear how it sounds when Musichetta sings, or Combeferre. “I'm game. I'm not exactly a rock star, but I can carry a tune.”

Courfeyrac, on the couch between Combeferre and Enjolras, nods at him. “Then you get to go turn off the translation, I'm too lazy to get up and I'm not going to let Enjolras do it either.”

Even though he's been in the cockpit on his own a few times, briefly, Grantaire still gets nervous every time he's asked to do something. Enjolras just looks encouraging, though, so Grantaire trots out to the front of the ship, sending out a message to anyone on the crew not in the common room before turning off the translators in the common room.

Grantaire knows that when speaking to people of their own species, or who are capable of approximating the sounds that make up the languages, almost everyone turns off the translators in their own private quarters. Combeferre has said that translators can negatively impact language acquisition in children from any planet and that the necessarily inexact nature of the translation makes it a chore among people already speaking the same language. The only person who speaks the same language as Grantaire is Floréal, though, so other than Enjolras he hasn't heard much of the other languages on the ship.

He stops outside the common room to the sound of a high, wavering tone. It makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, reminds him of alarms and sirens and a hawk he heard once, and he pokes his head around the door to find the whole crew in a circle and Musichetta standing up, head tipped back, letting out the noise. There's space next to Enjolras, and Grantaire tries to keep quiet while he takes it.

Musichetta's pitch only changes once in a while, but it still feels like music, the changes in intensity and vibrato preventing it from being just noise to Grantaire's ears. When she falls silent, there's approval around the circle, claps and sounds he doesn't know how to interpret.

Courfeyrac starts something next, something more rhythm than anything else, and it must be a well-known song, because Marius and Cosette join in, all the rhythms overlapping and intertwining until Marius falls into a melody that fits over it, the tune repeating but the words changing, tapping out a rhythm to replace the one he was making with his mouth before.

Éponine must have heard that song before, somehow, because she seems to know when it's over at exactly the right time to stand up and, over the applause that follows, start singing a song. He's been curious about Éponine, who doesn't talk much about her family or her planet of origin and why it's not Earth—what language might be hers, what she might sound like with the translation off. When she sings, it's a keening kind of chant, and he can almost catch the edge of a familiar sound sometimes and catches Floréal tilting her head, trying to figure out the same.

When she's done, too soon for Grantaire to figure out what made the song familiar, Jehan takes over. After Marius, Cosette, and Courfeyrac singing together, he'd expected everyone from Enjolras's planet to do the same, but instead Jehan stands alone, and the chimes Grantaire is growing used to from Enjolras draw out and stretch into harmonies, all overlapping. The cadence isn't the same as he's used to from Enjolras, but that makes sense—if there was a human who spoke Thai on the Musain, Grantaire wouldn't be able to speak or sing along with them, probably.

The songs overlap, one after another. Combeferre, complicated movements making for rhythms a drummer couldn't duplicate. Joly and Bossuet in harmony so perfect it's eerie. Louison like a whale song, like the song is meant to cross forests of distance even if she isn't singing loud. Floréal stands up, and she's not much of a singer, but she grins at Grantaire and belts out some terrible Celine Dion song that gets him laughing and wondering if the songs he's hearing are great art or children's songs or just as ridiculous as what Floréal chose.

“You should sing next,” she tells him when she sits, one of the few people to say something outside the singing.

“Can't have two people from the same planet in a row,” he says, and smiles at Feuilly when he stands up to sing.

Feuilly's song feels like it goes in circles, or maybe spirals, a tune that repeats itself higher and higher until Feuilly is holding one high clear note to end the song and ceding the circle to Bahorel, whose chiming is more rhythmic than Jehan's but who seems to be singing something popular enough that there's a quiet overtone like Jehan and Enjolras are humming along.

Grantaire does stand after that, and there are hundreds of songs he could sing, but he thinks about being a little kid going to church with his family on Christmas Eve, and he doesn't know what time of year it is on Earth, with time distorted the way it is, but he sings “Angels We Have Heard On High” and feels a little homesick for the first time while he does it.

Enjolras must realize it (he knows Floréal does, and that she might feel the same, judging by the tears in her eyes), because they tip their forehead against his, something Grantaire has learned to interpret as a brief kiss, before they stand up.

Enjolras's voice is beautiful, already sounds like music to Grantaire when the translators are off, but it's different when they're singing. All the beautiful tones are stretched, clear as a bell, into harmonies like Jehan was using, and Grantaire knows the tones of their voice enough by now to know that they're excited, singing with passion. Jehan is swaying along, and Bahorel sitting with their eyes closed, tuning out the sights just to listen to the music, and all of them seem to catch, one by one, that there's a repeated melody throughout, at regular intervals, that all of them can match at least in part.

Some of them keep rhythms, or add them, but all of them are humming, or singing, by the time Enjolras finishes. That's what Enjolras does on the ship, Grantaire knows. They're not just the pilot along with Courfeyrac, but the leader of the expedition, the one who brings them all together, and it seems fitting that they're the one that picks the song that gets them all singing together.

When it fades into silence Grantaire can tell how much more settled everyone feels, no matter how far they are from the nearest star.

The translators are still off, but when Enjolras says something, a gentle chime, Grantaire knows that they're asking “Shall we all sing again?”

He says “Yes,” and knows that every sound he hears around the circle means the same thing.