The skimmer glided to a halt, settling onto the cobblestones with a pneumatic sigh. After a few moments, the passenger door slid open, and a tall and broad-shouldered squirrel emerged, duffel bag slung over one shoulder. Under his black tunic and trousers and his white shirt, his fur was an unremarkable rusty brown, his eyes dark. By the standards of many places, and certainly here on Tantari, he would be thought quite attractive – and anyone in that uniform, especially with a lieutenant’s pips on his shoulders, was very desirable.

No young lady awaited him at the stop, though. In fact, the old street was remarkably quiet, he reflected as the skimmer registered him as disembarked and set off to its next passenger. He could hear something going on in the distance, voices raised in laughter and merriment, and whatever it was, everybody was attending to it.

He made his way along the street, turned up a particular pathway, and was halfway to the big house on the hill when a voice called out ahead of him, heralding a figure running down the path.

“Arven!” The smaller squirrel’s arms around him in an instant, and the impact knocked him back a half-step. “It is you! Why didn’t you call ahead? I’d have picked you up at the port!”

The one in uniform waved a hand in dismissal. “You’ve got more important things to do than play taxi, I’m sure, Lian. Besides, I was glad for the walk from the corner.”

“Well, I know better than to argue with you, of course.” Black-furred Lian stepped back a step, squeezing the other’s shoulders. “Come in, come in – enjoyable walk or not, you look exhausted. Long trip?”

“That’s a big part of why I needed the walk.” Lieutenant Arven Joraquin fell into step behind Lian, loosening his collar. “Good gods, it’ll be good to stop being the Lieutenant for a while.”

“If our nieces and nephews will let you,” was Lian’s rueful response. “I’ll try to keep them off you at least some of the time. Rough tour, was it?”

“By the dark gods, it was ugly.” Arven sighed, allowing himself to be ushered into a seat. “All of us pulled through, but the things we saw on the way – well. Our tour was declared over a standard month early, and all of us are to report to an SLA infirmary for psychiatric evaluation after leave, before we go back on duty.”

“Gods.” Lian slid in behind Arven’s seat, hands settling on his shoulders, rubbing through his tunic. “They don’t do that sort of thing lightly, do they? Are you all right?”

“I think so,” Arven sighed. “It’s… not keeping me awake at night anymore, at least I just don’t understand, Lian, how anyone could do things like that.”

Lian sighed over Arven’s ears, nuzzling at the base of the nearest one. “I’m sorry you had to see it,” he whispered over it. “But I’m glad you were there to. Thank you.” A gentle squeeze to his shoulders. “We all appreciate your service, Arven. You know that, right?”

With a wan smile, Arven reached up and back to rub behind Lian’s ears. “I know, Lian. Not that I don’t like hearing it affirmed.” He took a breath, laden with herbs and spices and other scents of cooking food. “But I’m doing all right. The main thing nagging at me now is that after all the fighting was done, I made a pass at a straight man.”

“Ouch. One of yours? He took it all right, at least, I’d imagine?”

“So he did.” In fact, the wolverine had been the most interesting mix of apologetic yet encouraging. Not leading-him-on encouraging, but certainly wishing him luck in finding someone more receptive. And in coping in the meantime, for that matter. But those details weren’t really appropriate to share with the family.

And then it dawned on him what was missing.

“Speaking of the family again, where is everyone? Something big happening down in the square?”

“Well, yeah.” Lian chuckled softly. “It’s the first of First Seed, Arven.”

The bigger squirrel blinked. The official first day of spring. Planting-time. Everyone was at the Festival of Sun’s Rebirth. “I guess that explains the food,” he observed. And Lian here to prepare it, for that matter. “First Seed. Gods. I’m sorry, Lian, I’ve been on ship time for so long…”

“Shh.” Lian bent down for a tender nuzzle at Arven’s cheek. “It’s just amazing that you could be here for it! There could be worse timing for leave, hmm?”

“That’s true.” Arven sighed, closing his eyes. “I just hope I don’t drag the party down.” He covered a yawn, and added, “Or fall asleep and drop my head in the barrel.”

“It’s still, oh, five hours before the party comes back here,” Lian noted. “Maybe you could get some rest? I can wake you up when people are due to arrive, if you want to be up for that.”

“Maybe with a half hour ahead to groom and such,” Arven said. “Otherwise, that might be just what I need.”

“Most of the guest rooms are already spoken for,” said Lian, pondering, as he gave Arven a hand up with one hand and took his duffel with the other. “I could put you up in the red room on the third floor, but it’s not ready yet.” He touched Arven’s shoulder. “You’re welcome to mine, for as long as you need it, of course.”

Arven shivered. “Right now,” he sighed, “a place that’s lived-in seems like just what I need.”

Lian’s arm squeezed around him, the shorter squirrel nuzzling at his shoulder; then he turned down a particular hallway, and then into a generously-appointed suite.

“If there’s anything you need, you know you only need ask,” Lian said, and touched Arven’s cheek. “You, ah… you look like you could use some company, to be honest.”

Arven shivered. Putting words to it made him realize just how true it was. “I shouldn’t pull you away from things,” he began.

“Shh. It’ll keep for an hour or two. Long enough to see you resting peacefully.”

Out of objections and not really wanting to think up more, Arven turned a hand up in acquiescence.

Lian’s touch was as gentle as he remembered, easing his tunic off and hanging it in the closet, then his shirt. He paused for a soft embrace before moving lower, boots, trousers, and underclothes in turn eased off of him. And once he was under the covers, Lian slid in behind him – clad and atop the covers, but still a comforting warmth.

Lian planted a kiss at the base of his ear. “Take peace here, brother mine,” he whispered.

His words were a balm beyond telling to the ravages of the past months – of the winter, little though Arven had noted the turning of the seasons. In Lian’s arms, sleep found him in moments.