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An Echoed Refrain

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At first, they do not grieve. They rage, they deny, and they escape Aur Pióra with their lives, and it's only when they're in the sky, setting sail without Dref by their side, that the walls begin to crumble.

Gable looks over the stern of the ship as the sun sets on Burza Nyth and the loss of what they’ve left behind suddenly strikes them like a hard blow to the stomach. They can’t breathe. They hunch over the railing, nausea clawing at their throat. He was barely nineteen.

“Gable?”

Gable jumps in surprise and turns to see Travis, already a bird, behind them. Gable turns back to the sky to see barely a glimmer of red in the dark night and the town no more than a black shadow on the horizon and wonders how much time they had lost to grief.

They clear their throat in an attempt at normalcy. “Travis. What are you… I mean, shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

Travis hops a little closer and gives a little bird shrug. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Right,” Gable says flatly, not prepared for Travis’s unusual bout of honesty. “No. Me neither.”

Gable turns back to the night sky, not sure what else there is to say. They expect for Travis to leave, or to stay and make incessant chatter, but instead he hops over to the railing and watches in silence with them until the last glimpse of Burza Nyth is swallowed by darkness.

-

“I should have stayed,” Travis whispers into the darkness, so quiet that it’s nearly taken by the breeze.

Gable is shaking their head before they can even put words to it. “If you had stayed, we would have lost you both. I’m not sure if I could have coped with that, if I’m honest.”

Travis makes a muffled squawk of protest. “You didn’t see what it was like. The other realm. I should have at least stayed to make sure he came back. What if his soul is still stuck there? In that… place? With that… thing?”

His voice sounds so wretched that as curious as Gable is to know exactly what this ‘place’ is, they’re not gonna push it. Travis is looking around at the unfathomable night sky around them with wide, terrified eyes, that tells them all they need to about the horrors he must have witnessed. Gable aches with sympathy, but knows Travis would not welcome such emotion. “He got out,” Gable reassures him with all the confidence they can muster.

Travis shakes his head, his little white feathers ruffling in the wind. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because it’s Dref,” Gable says. “He always could weasel his way out of anything.”

Travis makes a sound somewhere between a laugh and a sob. Gable watches with a sad smile on their face, knowing that for once, the two of them are on the same page.

“He got out,” Gable reassures him when Travis at last catches their eye. “We have to believe that. You’ll go mad thinking otherwise.”

“Yeah,” Travis says, nodding and then looking to the distant stars in a much less terrified way. “Yeah. You’re right.”

And then his white wings brush against Gable’s shoulder before he takes to the night sky.

-

Gable is chosen to be Captain in a disturbingly short amount of time. Spit is crowding them into the Quarters and supposedly showing them the tools for capitancy but all Gable can see throughout his very in-depth tour are the things that Dref left behind. No one has been in the Captain’s Quarters since he died. It just looks like he stepped outside to throw up overboard. Or to hide in the kitchens with the cat. He’ll be back any minute. Except that he’s not.

“Here be the desk, see-”

(Dref’s spare spectacles on the paperwork)

“-through here is where we keep the records-”

(His signature - scratchy and blotty - on the medical records)

“-see here the navigating equipment-”

(A fingerprint left behind)

“-your own private lavatory-”

(His indignant face when Travis teased him about Orimar’s bodily functions)

“-and through here be the bedroom, nice and private-”

Gable reaches out and slams their hand against the door before Spit can open it. They’re hyperventilating again. Nausea creeping up. Claustrophobic. And they’re pretty sure they haven’t been listening to a single word Spit has said. But Spit is watching them, waiting for an explanation.

Gable swallows their emotions and growls out, “I know what a bedroom looks like, Spit. Thank you.”

“Alright, alright,” he says with his hands raised. “Thought you might be excited. Only room on the ship and all that but clearly you’ve got more pressing business to attend to,” he says pointedly, “So I’ll be on my way.”

“Yes, yes, thank you,” Gable says, practically ushering him out the Quarters.

Gable’s legs are shaking by the time the door is shut, and they slide to the floor with exhaustion.

-

Gable finds Travis snoozing in his bunk sometime around midday. Without preamble, Gable sits down in the hammock, across his legs, causing Travis to wake with a shocked and indignant squeal and for the entire hammock to lower by at least six inches with the added weight.

“What the-?” he exclaims. “Gable?! The fu-”

“Yes, yes. I need your help with something.”

Travis groans and throws an arm over his eyes like a petulant child. “If Dref has-”

The name catches them both unawares. Gable’s breath catches. Travis seems to instantly shake off the remnants of sleep.

“Sorry,” he mumbles. “Forgot.”

Gable, once again, is stirred with sympathy. Only twenty minutes ago did they walk past the kitchen and consider picking up a fresh apple for Dref, only to remember all over again.

“‘Suppose we’ll never have to clean up his sick again, huh?” Travis says, rubbing his hand over his face tiredly. “Never thought I’d miss that.”

“Me neither,” Gable mutters, not knowing what else there is to say.

A minute ticks by, maybe two, lost in their grief, until a warm hand lands softly on their thigh. Gable jumps a little at the unexpected contact but doesn’t shrug it off as they look down at their companion.

Travis is staring up at them with a soft, almost earnest, expression. “What was it you needed?”

For a moment, his soft voice lures them in and almost produces a different answer, until his gentle frown of sympathy turns into one of wary confusion, and Gable is jarred out of their dreamlike state and back into the harshness of reality.

“Oh,” they say, tearing their eyes away and allowing the full weight of their situation to fall back onto their shoulders. “You know the crew elected me Captain.”

“Yes?” Travis says. “I was there, you know,” he teases, a hint of his usual levity sneaking back into his voice. “You may remember some of the inappropriate comments I made.”

Lewd comments,” Gable corrects, and resents the blush that colours their cheeks at the memory.

“Well, perhaps,” Travis says, recalling his hand from Gable’s thigh, as if only now realising how intimate the touch was. “But someone has to keep you in check. Don’t want you getting all high and mighty on us now you’re captain. Or, you know, higher and mightier-”

Gable gives his side a pointed poke and he laughs with feigned injury. Gable feels a smile tugging at their lips despite themselves. They haven’t heard him laugh since…

Since.

Gable’s mood must have turned sour enough for even Travis to notice, as he sits up on one elbow to look at them.

Gable stares down at their twisting, nervous, hands. “The office. The Quarters. It’s all filled with his things. I don’t…” they feel tears pricking their eyes and they forcefully blink them back. “I couldn’t deal with it,” they admit with a tiny, broken, voice, so unlike them.

“Oh,” Travis says.

Gable can feel his gaze on them but they don’t have the strength to look; worried about what might be reflected back at them.

Finally, there is a squirming beneath them, the hammock in a dangerous sway, and a firm hand on their shoulder. “Get up then,” Travis says with a shove. “Let’s go tidy the place up.”

Relief unspools within them. They hadn’t known how much they needed Travis’s help until he offered it. “Thank you,” they say sincerely, even daring to hold Travis’s eye for the briefest of moments.

Travis nods, an odd expression crossing his face before he’s waving it off and striding across the cabin towards the Captain’s Quarters.

-

Gable tosses and turns in the Captain’s bed that night. Travis swore he changed the sheets when they went through and put Dref’s things in boxes but Gable can still feel his presence here somehow.

When they wake from a restless sleep to see a young, pale ghost at the foot of the bed, Gable shakily leaves the Quarters to sleep in the crow’s nest and hopes that no one notices their absence.

-

Travis didn’t even knock, Gable realises belatedly, as Travis bolts himself inside the Captain’s Quarters with relief as if escaping from some great trial.

“What happened to you?” Gable asks from the desk where they had been pretending to understand a map.

“Drink,” Travis says (a command, not a request). “Drink first.”

Gable sighs but dutifully reaches for the whiskey they’d found in the drawer yesterday, pours a glass, and pushes it towards him.

Travis sprints towards it and downs it as if he was dying. The look of bliss on his face afterwards is just as telling.

“That bad?” Gable asks.

“Jonnit cried.”

Gable winces in sympathy and refills his glass. Travis sinks into the chair opposite exactly one hundred and eighty degrees from how it was intended; feet over one armrest and his head lolling from the other.

“Big, crocodile tears,” he explains, arms wide. “Snot! On this beautiful coat,” he cries with a mournful look down at the dried crusty stains on his velvet waistcoat. “And worst of all-” he says, downing the second glass before continuing, “The cuddling,” he says with a visible shudder. He spins in the chair so he can put down the empty glass on the table with the gravitas it deserves and stares Gable right in the eye. “Gable,” he says sincerely, “I cannot begin to convey just how horrifying this experience was for me. There is snot on my coat.” And then he taps the glass on the table as if expecting another refill.

Gable holds his gaze as they deliberately cap the bottle and put it away. Travis is glaring daggers at them by the time the drawer is shut.

“How is he?” they ask.

“How’s Jonnit?!” Travis exclaims. “Did I mention the cuddling?!”

“You did,” Gable says dryly. “How is he?”

Travis sighs dramatically and leans back in the chair, kicking his feet up on the desk between them. “Feeling about as shit as we are,” he says at last, looking to the ceiling, “Minus the guilt, plus the naivety, maybe. You know how it is for us…” he says finally, with a meaningful look across to Gable, “We’re used to this. But I think this is his first major… you know,” he says with a wave of his hand, as if he daren’t say the word out loud. “It’s hard for him. But I ain’t his daddy,” he says with a meaningful look of distaste at his coat.

Gable flushes under a different meaning though before they can scold themselves for it. They clear their throat to dismiss any such thoughts. “How unfortunate for him that he chose the least sympathetic crew member to share his burden with,” they say with a rather pointed glare.

Travis throws his hands up in defense. “Oh, stop making it sound terrible. I gave him to the sick orphaned children before I came over here, you know. It’s not like I just abandoned him.”

“Oh well in that case,” Gable says sarcastically, “I’m sure he’s fine.”

“W-wait, where are you going?” Travis shouts in a panic, twisting in his seat to look, as Gable gets up and strides past him.

“Going to find Jonnit. Are you coming?” they ask, holding the door open expectantly.

Travis throws his head back and groans petulantly, stuffing himself even further into the seat.

“We’re the closest he has to parents, Travis, whether you like it or not. Are you coming?”

This time Gable doesn’t even wait for an answer before they leave, knowing that Travis will be following their footsteps.

-

That night, Gable waits until the others are asleep before slipping into the cabins and reclaiming their old bunk, far away from any ghosts that might haunt them.

-

“You’re not sleeping in your Quarters.”

Gable wakes up to see Travis, humanoid once again, standing over them with folded arms. Gable jerks fully awake, sitting up to see the rest of the cabin empty, just empty hammocks swaying with the movement of the ship. Shit.

“Yeah, you overslept, it’s like three hours past sunrise, whatever,” Travis says, cutting short the line of questioning that was about to leave Gable’s mouth. “Point is you have a bed, which I know for a fact is very comfortable, and you’re not using it, and if you’re not using it, I feel like I should be using it-”

“It was just one night,” Gable cuts him short.

“Okay, now you’re just lying. The first night,” he says, starting to count off his fingers, “neither of us slept - or wait, no, I remember, you eventually fell asleep against a crate on the deck. Second night, you slept up in the crow’s nest, or maybe didn’t sleep, I don’t even know. Third night -”

“Okay!” Gable interrupts, and scrambles out of the hammock in an effort not to think about why Travis has been noting their sleeping habits. “You’ve made your point. I just…” they search around for an excuse, and finds it in the customised hammocks swaying around them, “prefer my old hammock.”

Travis firms his stance and glares up at Gable. “Don’t make me repeat that list. What’s wrong with your room? Is it… him still?”

Gable looks away, embarrassed that Travis not only found out, but guessed the reason why so quickly. They give a tiny nod to affirm as much.

“We packed everything,” he says, “There shouldn’t be anything else of his…”

“I saw his ghost,” Gable whispers. They still can’t look at him. It’s too embarrassing. Tears threaten to spill. Their throat is clogged with emotion. The image of a ghostly Dref at the foot of their bed is still so raw. “He was…” their voice catches as a tear finally falls, “Torn to shreds. Begging for help. But silent. I couldn’t hear him. I -” this time their voice fails entirely as they give way to tears.

Gable squeezes their eyes shut, turning completely away from him. Travis was complaining just yesterday about having to deal with emotional humans. Gable isn’t human but they imagine the same limit applies. The thing is: Travis is right. Death shouldn’t still affect Gable. How many friends and lovers and crewmates have died during their lifetime? Countless. It shouldn’t be this hard to lose another.

Warmth blooms on their arm and Gable opens their teary eyes with amazement to see Travis gripping their arm with a look of sympathy; not even a hint of annoyance. He tugs on their arm gently and it’s embarrassing how little encouragement Gable needs to fall into his arms.

He wraps his arms around them and clings more tightly than Gable supposed, burying his head in their chest, and placing an encouraging hand on Gable’s neck to bring them down to rest on his shoulders.

Gable shudders into the embrace. They can’t even recall the last time someone held them.

His thumb rubs gentle, reassuring, circles into their neck, and gradually, their tenseness melts away until they are just two beings, holding each other close.

“We haven’t said goodbye,” he says, and they can feel his breath against their chest. “That’s why you saw the ghost. We haven’t laid him to rest.”

“What do you mean?” Gable asks, pulling away so they can look at Travis with the attention he deserves. “We don’t have a body.”

“You don’t need one. It’s what I’ve done before when… you know,” he says, once again afraid of the word. “You burn the possessions, you let people say what needs to be said, everyone has a good cry, and then…” he waves his fingers in the air. “The ghost disappears.”

A small part of Gable is still reeling from Travis’s empathetic understanding; that he hadn’t just laughed at the ghost story, or left them to it. He has a solution instead.

“Yes,” Gable says numbly, already missing the comfort of his embrace. “Yes, we should do that.”

-

Late that evening, the crew gather on the decks. Gable, Travis, and Jonnit, each tie a small piece of featherweave to a box of Dref’s possessions and set kindling alight beneath it. The crew of the Uhuru watch as the three lanterns float brightly across the darkness before they are consumed by flame and smoke, the remnants falling so far away that they look like whispers in the night sky.

“Dref Wormwood,” they all chorus, “May he find peace in darkness.”

As the last ashen remains fall from the sky, Gable feels soft fur beneath their fingertips. They look down to see a beautiful white coyote nuzzling into their side.

Gable takes the unspoken invitation and firms their hold on Travis’s head, stroking slightly as they both watch the last whispers disappear from sight.

-

Afterwards, Gable makes to follow the crew to the cabin, but a little nuzzle against their hand dissuades them otherwise.

“If you don’t do it now,” Travis says, “You’ll never do it.”

Gable sighs, and knows he’s right, but dreads to return to that room again.

“Come on,” he says, white tail swishing as he turns towards the Captain’s Quarters.

Gable’s heart swells; relieved that they didn’t have to ask.

-

Gable wakes to bright light and a warm weight pressed against them. They groan at the brightness and buries their face into the nearest surface, which happens to be the very warm, very humanoid, shape beside them.

“You, changed,” they mutter incoherently.

“Mmmhmm,” Travis murmurs. “The goopening happened some hours ago. You clearly needed the sleep.”

Gable groans and stretches, still feeling very content and dreamy. As long as they keep their eyes closed, the real world can’t intrude. “‘swhy you still here then?” they murmur as they stretch.

Travis mutters something that sounds like “not a bad view” and maybe they’re sailing over the mountains already but Gable really isn’t going to open their eyes to find out. Travis clears his throat. “It’s a good place to hide. Spit’ll never think to look for me in your bed.”

“‘swhy’s that then?” Gable asks with a yawn.

“Because you’re not…” Travis begins and then he sounds so awkward that Gable simply has to crack open an eye to look at him. He’s waving his arms around as if trying to find the word. Distantly, Gable notes that he looks perfectly at home in their bed - crumpled clothes, feet crossed, arm behind head, book still in the other hand - it’s very… Travis. “I mean,” he tries again, “You don’t…” and then he finally settles on, “He won’t think it’s sexual.”

“Ah,” Gable says, well aware of their reputation as a celibate, dedicated warrior. How convenient it’s worked to their advantage this time. Gable doesn’t remember the last time they slept so long and so deeply.

They’ve nearly dozed off again, Travis’s unusually awkwardness faded into insignificance, before his voice brings them to the surface again. “That is… true, isn’t it?”

Gable cracks open the eye again, trying to get their sleepy brain cells to process the strange expression on Travis’s face. “What’s’it matter to you?” they ask, not unkindly but with tempered curiosity.

Instead of shrugging, or bickering, or laughing at them, Travis does something very strange indeed and tenses.

“Nothing, doesn’t matter,” he says, picking up his fallen waistcoat from the bottom of the bed. “I best be going anyway before Jonnit steals more fish for that damned cat of his.”

He shrugs on his coat and Gable frowns after him, wondering what happened to their pleasant, sleepy, morning.

-

“Travis is being mean.”

Gable stops mid-stride along the deck and turns back to Jonnit, who is cradling the ginger fluff of the ship cat in his arms, like a mother would a child.

“Mean how?” they ask, because for Travis this could range from cheating at cards to actual murder and it’s good to make sure.

“Travis said Chef can no longer give Mickey any scraps from the kitchen even though Chef said - Chef said -” he emphasised, “that it was okay.”

Gable frowns in confusion. “I’m sorry, Mickey is-?”

“The cat!” Jonnit screeches, utterly offended.

“Right,” Gable says, rubbing at their temples to ease the oncoming headache. “Travis is Quartermaster,” they reason, “if he says-”

“But Mickey needs to eat something!” Jonnit pipes up. “And we’ve no mice! He’ll starve, Gable. STARVE.”

“I-” Gable starts, and then looks at the writhing ginger fluffball in Jonnit’s arms and Jonnit’s quivering bottom lip and knows that there’s really no getting out of this one. “Fine,” Gable says. “I’ll talk to him.”

-

By the time Gable has found Travis in the stores, five other crewmates have logged complaints about Travis’s behaviour, which Gable believes wholeheartedly when they are greeted by a flying potato.

“I told you, leave me the fuck-” his swearing cuts short when he sees who it is. “Gable,” he says, and lowers the second starchy missile.

“Travis,” they say, and then have no idea what else to say. “Apparently your mood has been so foul this afternoon that three whole crewmembers have broken down into tears.”

“Are you sure that it was three whole crewmembers and not just three kids stacked atop of each other?”

Travis-

A potato ricohetes across the stores with a frustrated scream, and Gable ducks just in time.

A deathly silence follows - Gable watching Travis, and Travis looking unblinkly at the dusty floor - until predictably someone outside asks, “Is everything-?”

“Yes, we’re fine, Overboard, thank you,” Gable dismisses before the HR guy can so much as poke their nose into this situation.

Gable leans back against the door and bolts it shut before they can be interrupted by bureaucracy.

“Did you know Dref had a crush on you?”

Gable startles. They must have misheard. Travis was speaking in a whisper. It was the only explanation. Travis hasn’t even so much as spoken his name since…

“Yeah,” Travis huffs. “He was cute. Got him drunk one time. One glass was all it took. Was trying it on for myself, honestly. I was bored and…whatever. Then he says… I don’t know, a whole bunch of stuff I already knew, about how ‘magnificent’ you were. Yeah, I think that was the word he kept using. Magnificent. And I thought, hey, maybe he’s just crushing on you, can’t blame the guy, we’ve all been there. But then I started looking for it. His stutter practically disappeared when he was talking to you, and he’d get this look in his eye, you know? Like you were…” he sighs deep and forlornly, “something to be marvelled at.” His boot kicks at the ground and it stirs up dust and spiders but he doesn’t seem to notice.

Finally, Travis turns to Gable with a defeated shrug. “He never got to tell you, so I figured I should.”

Gable is still reeling from the unexpected turn in conversation that they’re still kinda numb when they say, “Funny. I always thought he liked you.”

Travis laughs, but it’s hollow and empty, and nothing at all like the laugh Gable has managed to con out of him in the past few days. “I guess we’ll never really know, will we? I hate all this… unfinished business.”

Gable nods. They get it. None of them got to say goodbye. They all have unanswered questions.

The fight seems to have gone out of Travis though as he rolls fallen potatoes morosely under his boot.

“Do you want to…?” Gable asks, and then flounders, not knowing exactly what it is that they want. The way that Travis’s eyes snap up to meet theirs though gives him hope that they’re on the right track. Their heart starts beating wildly at the expression they see there and without any sort of thought process, Gable blurts, “Fuck?”

Travis’s eyes blow wide and dark and Gable has only just processed what the fuck they said when Travis strides foward, potatoes forgotten. He’s an inch away, breathing heavy, eyes locked onto theirs when he licks his lips and asks them to repeat the words.

Gable doesn’t even hear him speak; white noise roaring in their ears, but they lick their lips in tandem and repeat, very firmly, in a voice deep with ancient desire, “Do you, want, to fuck?”

Travis surges forward, lips crashing fiercely onto theirs, as he presses their interlocked bodies against the bolted door. As his leg pushes between their thighs and his tongue sneaks between their lips, Gable finally gives into desire.

-

They fuck fast and messy and undignified, completely consumed with the guilt and the grief and the anger that had been pushing at them, and it’s only when they’re coming apart, Gable tasting blood on their tongue and their body protesting with its aches and pains, that some kind of common sense returns.

Travis is breathing fast and heavy beside them in the dirt. “Boy, it’s definitely been a century or two since I last went that hard,” he says as he stretches and Gable definitely hears a joint or two pop with the effort. “For the record, I’m usually very suave, very dignified, very timely, and-” he says, delicately picking a piece of straw from his elbow with disgust, “normally very clean.”

“I believe you,” Gable murmurs, wondering - and tragically, not for the first time - exactly how many lovers Travis has taken over the years.

“What about you?” he asks.

“Hmmm?”

“When’s the last time you fucked in a cellar full of spiders and dustmites? Or do angels never usually stoop to such lows?”

Gable chuckles, endorphins still making light of the situation, even though they probably do have dust in places one would not normally like dust. “Oh no, this was definitely a first.”

Travis laughs too as he attempts to stand on what Gable notes with glee are still very shaky legs. “Yeah? What’s your usual set-up then? Candles? Linen? Angelic choruses?”

“Oh,” Gable says awkwardly, wondering how they can correct this assumption without embarrassment. They shrug on their loose shirt and their pants while they form the words. “No, I meant that that was definitely a first. Of… many kinds.”

They feel Travis’s eyes bore into the back of their head. “What… uh, what kinds? All kinds?” he says in disbelief.

Gable shrugs, trying not to make a big deal out of it. “Maybe. Who can say? I don’t remember much before the Fall, and since then I’ve been busy and…”

“Gable, it’s not like the Fall was yesterday, I’m sure you’ve had opportunities. Are you really saying that you’ve never…?”

Gable shrugs again, tying the last of their clothes together. “I can’t say it’s ever particularly interested me before, that’s all.”

Travis looks at her, his mouth open and gaping like a fish. “So you thought the opportune time to try it was…?” he says, waving a hand at the disrupted dust around them on the floor.

“Well, there wasn’t much thinking involved, if I’m being honest.”

“Right,” Travis says, but he looks a little lost and Gable wonders where they lost him. They wanted to fuck and they fucked and it was good, so Gable doesn’t see the problem. “Okay, well I’ll see you… later?” he asks, like it’s an actual question and they don’t live on the same tiny ship. He hesitates as he’s passing Gable on the way out of the stores, but whatever he sees doesn’t entice him to stay, and he continues on.

-

Gable must be truly desperate to go to Spit for help. They’re not looking for him per se but they find him on the stern scaring a couple of young recruits and figures if anyone is going to understand Travis’s strange behaviour after sex, it’s probably going to be Spit.

Gable has no idea how to broach the topic and so ends up blurting, “I had sex.”

“Oh, so it’s sexual,” he says, looking far too excited about the prospect. “You came to the right place.” He pats the crate next to him in an invitation and Gable wonders when on earth they lost their mind enough to accept. “So what’s troubling ya? The disease? The lil’uns? The yearn?”

“The… what?” Gable says, trying to decipher any and all of the above. They shake their head. “Never mind. Look, I just need to know, what happens after?”

“What d’ya mean ‘what happens after’?”

“After the… event,” Gable says with gravity. “What are you meant to do?”

“Ah,” Spit says, scratching their beard, “I’d say that depends.”

“On what?”

“On what diseases they be carrying-”

“Oh for fuck’s -”

“And on the yearning.”

“The… yearning?”

“On how ya heart fairs.”

“I don’t…” Gable says, wondering not for the first time why on earth they even attempted to talk to Spit. “Just… is it normal to talk about past…? Or first…? Or…” they groan in frustration, unable to find the words to describe what happened and why it feels so damn unsettling. “I think it might have made things between us more complicated than it needed to be,” they say at last.

Spit waves his pipe at Gable in a disapproving manner. “It’s always sexual,” he says, like it’s some great imparted wisdom and not his catchphrase of some forty four years.

“Oh, never mind,” Gable says, finally giving up, and pushing the crate loudly along the deck as they stand. “Good night, Spit.”

-

Gable can’t sleep again. They try desperately to distract themselves with books and maps and even an old deck of cards in the Captain’s Quarters. They stand in the bedroom and think about curling up in the sheets only to remember that Dref’s ghost has been replaced with Travis’s warmth and the thought that their pillow might still smell like him causes something to twist uncomfortably in their stomach. Finally, they give up, and head for the deck. There’s something about fresh air and night sky that settles them.

Gable takes in their first deep breath, one that tastes faintly of the oceans far below them, when the moonlight catches on a patch of white fur on the starboard.

Travis.

Gable braces themselves and walks over to the majestic coyote watching the passing clouds. Even in animal form, Gable can see the way he tenses at their approach.

They keep their distance, and lean against a nearby canon, taking a moment to appreciate the dramatic contrast of his white fur against the dark of night.

“Sorry,” Gable says.

“What’s that meant to mean?” Travis bites, turning his head away from them.

“I mean, I think I made things weird between us, and I’m sorry.”

“It was always weird between us, Gable. We just used to have a buffer, that’s all.”

Gable swallows at the mention of Dref, and wonders if Spit’s words of wisdom actually did make sense after all: it was always sexual.

Then Gable shakes their head for entertaining such nonsense.

“Dref…” Gable begins, and then can’t think of how to end it with any certainty, so tries again. “We’ll never know what he wanted.”

“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” Travis says, “Last week. When we first stood here and we left that town behind and you said ‘we have to believe that he died peacefully’ or whatever it was that you said, and all I can think is how selfish it is of us to need to believe that in order to move on. He died horribly, Gable. I was there. And the only thing he had time to say to me was ‘run’. You said you had his ghost at your bedside but I’ve had his voice in my head all week even when we were…” he bows his head and Gable thinks they see something from his eyes shimmer in the moonlight, “telling me to ‘run’. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t listened. He didn’t deserve to die. And we don’t deserve to just move on and forget about it.”

Guilt surges within Gable when they realise he speaks the truth. They rebut without feeling, “You said you’ve done it before. Moved on.”

Travis shakes his head. “It’s different this time, you know it’s different. There were three of us, and now there’s two. It’s different.”

Gable sighs and stands up from the canon to join Travis at the railings. He’s right. They can’t just pretend like he didn’t mean something to them because he did, and their relationship is irrevocably changed without him.

“I wish I knew though,” Travis murmurs.

“What?”

“That it was your first time.”

“Why?” Gable shrugs. “It makes no difference to me.”

Travis laughs, but it’s tinged with sadness. “Yeah, I got that. But, still. Someday I’d like a do-over. When things are less… raw.”

Gable nods sincerely, but there’s a slight smile on their face at the innuendo that provokes. “I would quite like that too, I imagine. In time.”

“Yeah,” Travis says, ducking just slightly so his fur brushes against Gable’s palm. “In time.”

They watch the night in companionable silence until the sun breaks the sky and the beast at Gable’s side turns into a man once more.

And if, as the seasons turn, and the years pass by, sometimes there is a white animal at the foot of the Captain’s bed, then no one need question why.