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a panoply of song

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"Give us a tune, Orly!" His blood feels full of whiskey-hot starlight, his veins turned electric as the lightning off a summer storm. Molly sways around the deck with a half-full glass in one hand as the Platinum Dragon tapestry curves and unfurls in the wind above them like a living stream of silver. "I've had just enough to drink to believe I'm any good at this."

Orly laughs from his spot on the bow, rough like there's grit lining in his throat, full like the sound is echoing around his shell. "A tune, huh?" He leans forward some, moonlight catching on the bone-colored pipes in his back. "And what sort o' tune were you thinkin', Mr. Tealeaf?"

Nott is out of sight from her perch up the mainmast and Yasha is below deck taking an early rest, but the others are all in view: Jester leaning half over the edge of the stern searching for the burst of dolphins in their wake, Caduceus at her elbow; Fjord at the wheel in an oversized captain's hat looking equal parts wary and amused; Beau balancing on the railing with one hand wrapped easy around the rigging; Caleb settled near the bowsprit mapping out star charts in the back of his spell book and a sleeping Frumpkin curled up in a stack of rope near his knee.

Molly turns, the world spinning lazy around him, the lamplight blurring to orange-haloed novas. "Whatever you'd like. Anything that will convince this sorry excuse of a crew to come join me."

"You distractin' my navigator?" Fjord calls down, only making half an effort to sound stern.

"Trying to." Molly lets his feet carry him a little closer to the bow. "Come on, Captain—don't the two of you deserve a night off? I don't believe there isn't anyone else aboard this ship who can't keep it moving in a straight line."

"I've known scholars that could hold their liquor better than you, Tealeaf," Beau says, unconcerned as she lets her weight sway over the ship's edge and back again, arm muscles flexing taut and then relaxing as she adjusts her hold on the rigging.

"Shame that none of them are here, then." He takes another long sip, the whiskey bright as a sun in his throat and warmer still. "And what about you, Beauregard? They teach you any dancing steps in that fancy Order of yours or just how to pull your punches?" 

“Keep that up and I’m tossing you overboard.”

“Come join me for a bit and I’ll make the jump myself.”

“No," Fjord says even as Beau alights on the deck, grinning something dangerous. "No fucking way. You looking to get yourself drowned? Because take it from me, that ain't a pleasant way to go."

"Relax, Captain." Beau catches him with one arm around his waist, spinning him close as some of the whiskey spills from the glass, splashing against his boots and Beau's bare feet. "You all love me too much to let anything so terrible happen."

"Let's see if you're saying the same thing when you end up thirty yards below—" Fjord starts to say, but he's cut off by a lurching bellow as Orly's pipes warm up, the sound giving way to a full and lilting tune that sings forth from his shell.

"Apologies, Captain," Orly offers to Fjord, looking not so apologetic, but Molly misses whatever Fjord says in response as Beau steals the whiskey from his other hand, taking a long pull as she steers him around the deck to the double-time beat of Orly's tune. Jester taps her feet to the music, linking arms with Caduceus as Beau and Molly continue their clumsy circuit of the ship, each trying to lead and neither proving very successful at it.

"For the love of Bahamut," Beau says as they round the mizzenmast. "Did the gods bring you back to life with two left feet? I hope you're more coordinated than this when it comes to fucking someone."

"It does help that I usually don't have to worry what my feet are up to." He feels light like the air in his lungs could carry him upwards, feels ocean-forged as Orly's shanty takes root in his bones. "Enough so that I can usually manage more than one partner without anyone ending up disappointed. Speaking of—" he dances Beau back towards the bow, his movements broad and unselfconscious. "Captain!"

Fjord glances down, one hand still steady on the wheel. "You invitin' me to bed, Tealeaf?"

"Not this time—as much fun as I'm sure that'd be." The steel line of Beau's forearm catches under his lower back as she dips him toward the deck, the hem of his coat sweeping down over the salt-stained planks. "I think it's only right you set a good example for your crew and come join us." 

"Agreed." Beau lifts him back to his feet before letting go of his waist, her own feet carrying her with a fighter's grace toward the stern. "Besides, I could use a partner who has half an idea what they're doing. Jester—you in?"

Jester bats at her eyes at Beau like some lovestruck sweetheart in a traveling play, moving away from the rail in a blur of blue until one of her hands is linked with Beau's, the other settled at her waist. Orly's tune shifts from the cresting beat of a ship sailing down a swell to something sunny and bright, gold light catching off the scales of a multicolored fish. Jester laughs like the sweet call of a clarion as Beau turns her around the deck, her skirt flaring out like the indigo wings of a butterfly.

"Ease up now, Captain," Orly says to Fjord as his age-gnarled hands steer the notes of the music. "Have some fun and trust that I'll keep us on a steady course."

"Mutiny, this is," Fjord says as he trades Orly his hold on the wheel and takes the stairs down to the deck. "Absolute mutiny. I should see the lot of you thrown in the brig for such insolence." He sighs. "Fuck. Fine. What about you, Cad? Ever take a turn around the graveyard with one of your siblings?"

Caduceus laughs, slow and sweet as honey. "Can't say I have, but it does look fun. And this is a hell of a song, too." He smiles, somehow both present and distant at once. "Not sure I've ever heard music like this." 

Orly nods in appreciation as Fjord crosses to where Cad is still resting at the stern, his head only coming up to Cad's shoulder as he begins teaching Cad a basic step, a simple one-two that soon falls in with the beat of Orly's tune. By now, some of the whiskey has started to leech out from Molly's veins, leaving him feeling a pleasant sort of sleepy as he closes his eyes to the music, arms outstretched to the night sky as his twin blades shift at his hips. Doesn't realize where his feet have carried him until he's toes are bumping against the stairs at the bow, moving upwards and closer to the sound of the shanty until the music feels something living inside of him, something that's made a home next to his heartbeat.

"Feel like joining the fun, Widogast?" His eyes are still closed but he'd remembered well enough where Caleb was sitting to know he's not far away. "I seem to remember seeing you take a turn around the dance floor back in Hupperdook. You plan on keeping those skills to yourself or letting the rest of us make fools of ourselves alone?"

Caleb's eyes stop on their path from the heavens back down to the charts in his book. Whispers something in Zemnian that sounds like either a prayer or a curse. "Ja, fine." His voice is annoyed where his eyes aren't. "But I'm leading."

"That is almost certainly for the better." Molly dips his head, extends a hand as Caleb stows the spellbook. "After you, Mr. Widogast."

Caleb tsks at him, shaking his head. "Just Caleb, please." His palm is rougher than Molly expected for someone who spends so much time buried between sheafs of parchment. It's warm, though, heating up Molly's skin faster than the whiskey had. He lets Caleb guide him down the steps to the deck, settling his other hand on Molly's waist with a careful seriousness, like the sea will split in two if his palm rests an inch lower than propriety allows on Molly's back.

Fuck manners, he thinks as Caleb starts them in a waltz—one-two-three, one-two-three. Maybe if you were less concerned with staying so buttoned-up, you'd smile more often.

The music shifts again, Orly slowing them all down to an almost-mournful tune, the sound of steel-gray rain that turns the skies the color of stone. It catches Caleb unprepared and his hand slips further along Molly's back, the inches between them shrinking as he inadvertently pulls Molly closer.

(For the moment, the music arcing like the fading curve of a rainbow, Molly lets himself believe that it wasn't an accident. Even with the world turned hazy from the whiskey, the idea doesn't seem terribly far-fetched; it's not as if Caleb's made an effort to correct the distance.)

Unlike the others—other than Beau, perhaps—the steps that Caleb takes them through feel practiced, tutor-taught rather than something picked up in fits and starts. He remembers enough of Marion's elegance to see her in Jester's movements, to imagine her wrapping up a younger Jester's hands in her own and turning the two of them around the Lavish Chateau's upper-floor suite. Cad is all clumsy grace, his movements uncertain but earnest as he follows Fjord's lead, who would've learned his steps with unfamiliar partners in taverns up the Menagerie Coast (or so Molly assumes. He doesn't know enough of Fjord's past to suppose otherwise).

A waltz, though, and doesn't that feel distinctly Caleb. A set pattern that's not terribly adaptable but damn if he doesn't stick to it anyway. Molly doesn't know much about what a Zemnian childhood would've looked like, but he finds it easy to picture Caleb as a rosy-cheeked child, then as an awkward-limbed teenager. Did he stand on his father's shoes when he was light enough to do so, or practice with his mother in the den of their home? Would he have been paired up with another Zemnian girl, ribbons in her hair and a clipped accent to match?

What about me? he wonders. Did any kind soul ever teach Lucien or Nonagon or whomever-the-fuck how to dance? Likely not, given the clumsiness with which he follows Caleb's lead. That, or it was taken from him along with the rest of his history.

A new bite has stolen into the air of the ocean, sharp as snowmelt against the exposed skin of Molly's face and neck and wrists. Above them on the bow, Orly's music dips low one last time before drawing to a close, the final note hovering like a living thing on the wind before it gives itself up to silence. Caleb takes them through the last pattern of the step and then lets his hands slide free, stepping back to repair the space between them.

"That was—nice, if unexpected." He offers Molly a little bow, whether echoing Molly's gesture from earlier or paying homage to some Zemnian tradition, Molly doesn't know. 

"The pleasure was mine." His palms feel suddenly chilly without the warmth of Caleb's hands against them, unexpectedly so. "Perhaps next time I'll know enough to try leading myself."

Caleb smiles, then pauses, unwinding the scarf from his neck before wrapping it loosely around Molly's. He must look confused at the gesture, because Caleb says, "You felt cold. And, ah," his eyes glance down for a moment to the low dip of Molly's shirt, "you never wear enough layers, anyway." He clears his throat, takes a step back. "Enjoy the rest of your evening, Mollymauk."

Molly considers it a blessing he can't see his own face in that moment because he's sure whatever smile he's wearing is nine different sorts of embarrassing. "At this point, Caleb, I don't know how I couldn't."