The flight attendant’s voice was soft, as someone might make their voice when they wanted to gently wake someone, but didn’t want to try very hard to do so if that latter someone was deeply asleep. Which, indeed, was probably exactly why she’d done it. But Rico Montel had rather often had call to doze lightly, making the most of the time spent waiting for an interruption that could come at any time, but might not be for an hour or more, and that was what he’d done on this flight; now he blinked awake, focusing after a few attempts on the squirrel whose gentle murmur of “Officer?” had roused him.

I’m awake,” he managed, promptly if perhaps not with complete honesty, and paused to cover a yawn. “Wha’ is’t?”

We’ll be starting our final approach soon,” the attendant explained. “I thought you might want to see the world as we come close to it – and might not want to be more rudely woken by reentry.”

It took long enough for her to say, and for him to parse, that some of the cobwebs were already getting swept out of his brain by the time he said, rather less muzzily, “Correct on both counts. Thank you.” She favoured him with a nod and a smile, and continued down the aisle, drifting from one grip point to the next.

Rico hitched himself upright and reoriented his seat accordingly. For once, he was technically not in uniform, but he didn’t bother pondering how the squirrel had known to address him so, at least not for more than a moment. There were too many options, really – simplest being that she’d seen the ship’s roster and identified his name, but even without that, the “civvies” he had on were in SLA black and had the albatross crest of the SLAS Indefatigable on the breast of the short-sleeved shirt. Sure, a ship the size of the Authority’s training vessels boasted a significant civilian population, but being in civvies wouldn’t make someone like Rico look any less an officer.

Maybe someone who’d just been through a stint of intensive training with Imperial Intelligence, in particular, should be a bit better at dissembling, but that was just another reason not to wear Intel pins in public.

He put those idle musings out of his mind and turned his attention instead to the cabin’s smart-screen “window” wall. The shuttle was approaching its destination at an oblique angle, enough so that while Rico couldn’t be sure the screen imagery was truly in line with what was on the other side of the hull, it was certainly plausible. Technically, they’d be approaching it aft-first by now, but that was a minor detail to the passengers of a craft under way in a vacuum.

Tanzerdiep – Rico had been assured that the name rhyming with “deep” was entirely coincidental – was a blue-and-white jewel of a world, even more dominated by ocean than most habitable worlds, with what little land could be seen blanketed in dense green. No wonder it was a resort world; the clouds weren’t so thick or widespread as to suggest hazardous weather, there wasn’t much land for actual development, but the archipelagoes that dotted the place just might serve to keep massive waves from sweeping right over the bigger islands at their hearts. From the profile he’d looked at when booking his flight, the world was actually on the cool side of temperate – which meant that the equatorial band was just warm enough to qualify as idyllic year round, without being unduly stifling to those with dense pelts.

Like, say, Rico’s host for this little adventure.

That host wasn’t on the same flight. He should have arrived comfortably ahead of Rico, but even in the military interstellar flights didn’t always get to keep their itineraries, and the civilian sector generally had less need to be picky, so it was anyone’s guess where that flight actually was by now. Perhaps it had been and gone, and one of its passengers was watching the Arrivals board even now. Perhaps it was another bright speck in the starscape. He’d know more once he was on the ground and through Customs.

A soft tone sounded, and a calm male voice announced that the shuttle was about to begin re-entry, advising passengers to settle into their restraints. All around was a sudden flurry of motion and a rattle of clicking buckles as people did just that; Rico, who’d buckled in before dozing off, just gave his own webbing a tug to be sure it was snug and secure, and leaned back in his seat. As it turned out, the pilot was good and the winds were kind; all he felt as the shuttle fell stern-first into the atmosphere was a gentle pressure against his back.

For a few moments, the shuttle held itself suspended in the air; then the nose swung down, the “window” shifted to a stunning view of a placid, island-studded sea, and the engines rumbled to renewed life, driving the shuttle on towards the largest building on the largest of the nearby islands. An expanse of white sand beach, speckled with colourful cloth, swept by beneath them, shown to advantage by the shuttle’s banking approach, and then gave way to a swath of deep green forest, from which in turn rose a spire of glass and steel like a vast, glittering tree. It was onto one of the broad “leaves” that the shuttle settled itself with barely a lurch, and that was that, the pilot was thanking them for their custom and people were unbuckling their restraints all around.

Aware that he’d been sitting and in fact sleeping in one spot for entirely too long, Rico let the crowd thin out some before easing himself upright. Good physical condition or no, he still felt a little bit creaky after that doze, and he was in no particular hurry anyway; why risk holding someone up? This way he could take the time to indulge in a lazy stretch with a clear conscience. And if he drew some attention, reaching up far enough to spread his hands against the deckhead, was that so wrong? Military life kept one in fine condition; it had taken him time to accept the word of the Imperial Personnel Office’s psychologists that he might as well enjoy those offhand consequences of his career, but now he didn’t feel bad about revelling in it.

Here, after all, looking was entirely fine. And while he might still struggle to accept that he could look at whomever he pleased, he’d actually found it surprisingly easy to get used to the notion that others might be looking at him with appreciative eyes…

You and millions of others. Don’t let it go to your head, his inner voice scolded him. Chuckling to himself, he reached down to grab and shoulder his carryon, and followed the last of the other passengers down the ramp.

The air was rather more humid than he was used to, free not only of the peculiarities of recycled starship air but also of the industrial effluent that he’d grown up around; it was that first breath in the open, the realization that this was truly the freshest air he’d ever breathed in his life, that drove into him with renewed force the realization of just how much his life had changed.

For a moment, as he stared out over the safety rail at the platform’s edge, over the forest and the ocean beyond, as his thoughts went back to those that couldn’t be here to see it with him, to breathe in that clean air, he felt a deep, wrenching sorrow.

Will you be all right, sir?” enquired a soft, solicitous voice by his elbow.

Rico blinked and turned his head. The speaker was a weasel of some description – maybe an ermine; Rico hadn’t seen very many that didn’t keep themselves in their winter coats, but this one was about the right build for that, his cinnamon-brown fur short and tidy. Between his coverall and the fact that he was towing a pallet of luggage, he was obviously one of the spaceport staff.

The query wasn’t what Rico would have expected, but he couldn’t deny it was more apt than the present tense would have been.

I’ll be fine,” he replied, and meant it, too. “Sorry. I’ll clear out of your way.”

No bother at all, sir. Welcome to Tanzerdiep.” And with that the attendant swung his burden out towards the broad open space at the center of the walkway and towed it along.

Yes, Rico was fairly confident that he would be all right; but in the interim it would probably be for the best that he get himself checked in before his nerve broke. There was no particular need to pick up the pace – the line was already forming a queue as it got to the Customs office ahead of him – but he might as well get in that line to wait.

Inside the office itself, there were four processing agents, and the process was fairly well streamlined, so things moved swiftly enough. Presently Rico was free to grab his duffel and head out the other side of the customs office, back into the afternoon sun.

The resort he’d been booked at was a short distance away; on foot, he could probably have made it by nightfall even at an easy walk. Shuttle service on the monorail was part of his stay, though, and he arrived at the platform just as the next car was about to depart, turning the journey into one of minutes. It was a place of glass and gleaming white, a cluster of broad, low buildings around a bay bustling with small watercraft; Rico’s urban-world eye saw the place as a downright extravagant sprawl, yet as the shuttlecar pulled into the station, there were few enough people for the more rational and educated part of his mind to realize they didn’t need to build upwards here. Many vacation-goers went in search of warmer climes or more exotic attractions; Tanzerdiep’s niche was that relatively small but still quite significant part of the population that was content with a very standard ocean view and a more laid-back experience.

Rico was half-expecting to be met at the platform, but this in fact did not happen – and it wasn’t as though the figure he’d thought to see was an easy one to miss. With a shrug, he shouldered his duffel and made for the lobby of the central building.

He’d arrived with a small knot of fellow passengers, but with some of them still milling about outside, being greeted by their own fellow vacationers, he was able to walk right up to one of the reception clerks. “Welcome to the Silver Crescent, ser,” greeted the sharp-featured vixen. “Are you checking in today?”

I am,” Rico answered, reaching into a pocket for his Authority ID. “Rico Montel, under the reservation for Arun Dahl.”

The clerk looked over his ID and worked her console for a few moments, nodding. “Ah, here it is, very good. Chief Dahl hasn’t arrived yet, but has sent ahead a message for you. I’ll have it sent up to the room’s terminal for you. His flight number is on file…” Her fingers danced a little more; then, “It seems that his flight was delayed. Nothing unseemly, just some delays in Customs on its intervening stops. It’s expected to arrive later today.”

Oh. Well, that made things a bit awkward… No it doesn’t, he scolded himself. It’s no different who gets here first. Not like this is his personal home. “I see,” he said aloud. “Thank you for the information.”

No trouble, Sublieutenant.” More tapping. “I’ve activated an access card for you, but if you would like, I can have your Service ID chip coded into the system for the same access.”

Which would mean one less thing to fuss with, even if he still ought to carry it around. “Yes, please.”

Very good.” A brief pause; then, “Just wave it over the reader here, please.” Rico reached out to hold his left hand – and its subcutaneous ID implant, twin to the less-convenient one at the base of his skull – near the plate, and the machine emitted a soft beep. A few more decisive taps at her console, and the vixen looked up with a smile. “And it’s done. Here’s your access card; your room is on the sixth floor, 605, and the lifts are just down that hall there. Would you like some assistance with your luggage?”

No, thank you, I’ll manage.” Rico scooped up the palm-sized rectangle and glanced at it; it was labelled with a string of characters that never once had the digits 6, 0, and 5 in a consecutive stretch. He’d have to remember that particular detail himself. “Thank you, sera.”

No trouble, sir. Enjoy your stay.”

As the glass-backed elevator rose, affording an ever-lovelier view of sparkling white beach, Rico reflected on his own reaction to the whole affair. Why was it that merely checking in ahead of Arun had him so anxious? This was something normal people did quite frequently, and it certainly didn’t matter to the staff which of them arrived first.

Most of the people doing it here have been Imperial citizens all their lives, some corner of his mind supplied.

Half true, that; while most of them were nominally Imperial subjects, major citizenship was not so universal. As his crash course on Imperial civics had pointed out, full citizenship, outside of the armed Services or similarly hazardous careers, could be a long time coming. Even on a world like this that was a staple for the Services, odds were that about half of the people who’d gone through Customs with Rico were less “Imperial citizen” than he was. Recognition for services rendered, and all that.

Probably more at peace with however much citizenship they do have, though.

As the door hissed open behind him, Rico sighed and turned away from the view. There it was, really – his unease had nothing to do with his legal status as such, and everything to do with how he’d got it.

Nobody said life under the auspices of Imperial Intelligence would be easy, he reminded himself, scanning doors. There it was – 605. He waved his microchipped but otherwise empty hand near the card reader, and sure enough, the reader beeped, the light shifting from steady on LOCKED to blinking OPEN.

This top floor of the hotel, it seemed was built to accommodate those of particularly large stature; the room was on a scale that even Rico, who’d loomed over most on his birth world, found almost humbling. Two of him abreast could have squeezed through the door, with hands stretched upward barely brushing fingertips against the lintel. With all the time he’d spent in space, the sheer scope of this single suite felt downright opulent, and that was without even starting on the furnishings.

Don’t get used to it, spacer,” he told himself, and couldn’t help but chuckle at how the sound of his own voice bounced off the walls. No, this was not a sort of lavishness it would do him well to get accustomed to – but it was one he rather thought he was going to enjoy. At least once he got past the initial shock.

The door settled shut behind him, and with a softer thunk the mag-locks gripped it tight. For the time being, privacy was his.

Dropping his duffel bag off to one side in the entryway, Rico took himself on a quick tour of the place. It wasn’t so inordinately vast that this took very long; it was only really intended to house two, after all, albeit two of greater proportion than most.

Though it certainly could do for three or four smaller folk. One of the fellow students he’d encountered during his training would certainly have appreciated a place built to this sort of scale for that reason. It even had a large bathtub out in the main area, in addition to the shower stall in the washroom, either of which could comfortably serve two similarly large individuals. The bed defied Rico’s ability to describe.

All that with a fine view over the beach and the ocean beyond. But as he stood at the window, looking down at the scattering of people on the sand, Rico became intensely aware that he’d spent the last several days aboard shuttles with only the briefest of chances to do any grooming at all.

Polarizing the window against prying eyes was the work of seconds. Then he dragged his duffel into the main room, dug in it for his pack of toiletries, and spent the better part of an hour making thorough, almost sinfully luxurious use of the shower.

It was the guilty recollection that there was a message waiting for him which finally drove him to shut off the water and spend a few minutes under the hot-air jets. It probably wasn’t anything major, not if Arun’s flight was still expected the same day, but it wasn’t right that he let his general distraction keep him from that message entirely. Not when it was from Arun.

It turned out to be audio with a transcript, like most of the messages they’d exchanged over the duration of Rico’s “rapid integration program” – had it really only been half a year? Less than half a year as Rico was used to reckoning it. Strange; in the midst of it all, it had felt like it was taking him forever to grasp the things expected of him… He settled a towel around himself, leaned back in a chair that threatened to swallow him whole, and triggered the playback.

Rico,” it began simply. “As you’ve probably learned by now, my flight’s hit a few snags, and we’ve missed a transit window. We’ll be getting the next one, but it means you’ll probably get to Tanzerdiep before me, unless you hit some similar delays yourself.

Either way, it still shouldn’t be too long until we’re finally together. I know I for one would be getting out to push if it’d help speed that reunion along.

I know you’ve been anxious about this whole arrangement, and I’ve spent too much time in ImpInt to just breezily wave those concerns aside, but I truly don’t believe anything’s going to go awry. Not on that front. People have done far worse than you and gone on to distinguish themselves in the Emperor’s uniform, remember – and remember as well that one of the Emperor’s Own already thinks you’ve done enough to be a credit to that uniform. Most people go through their entire careers without earning their positive attention.

As for us on a personal level, well, I don’t have that much experience with this sort of thing, but it feels right. Feels like we should at least see how it goes with some proper time together. Some people would probably say I should be more reassuring, but I think you’re the sort who’d rather I tell it like it is, with realism rather than blind optimism. And I think you’re worth it. Worth doing it right, not screwing it up with silly overconfidence.

The next mail boat just sent out its last call, so I’ll have to cut this short. Probably for the best – I can get to rambling sometimes when the person I’m talking to isn’t there to shut me up. I’ll see you soon, dear one.

With affection, Arun Dahl.”

With a soft beep to signify a normal end to the message, the speaker went silent.

Rico shifted in his seat, closed his eyes, and let out a deep breath. There was one reminder in that message that was quite well taken: the quieter branches of Imperial Service had long been used as a way for people to turn their lives around, to make up for misspent pasts and generally be rehabilitated. Yes, Rico was jumping the queue in some respects, but he wasn’t doing so just because he’d turned his coat; he was doing so because of why he’d left his homeland behind.

Not because he was disloyal, but because the principles he treasured – the ones he’d been too loyal to to continue as he’d been – were the same ones that the Empire’s armed forces still held dear.

And really, for all the very military-like organization of the Star Lane Authority, Rico wasn’t joining the actual Navy. Maybe it was a greater trust in some ways, but it was also one in which the potential damage a single rogue agent could do was more limited, and one which had a long tradition of vigilance within the ranks. The SLA did field some heavy and lethal hardware sometimes, but for the most part he’d be issued equipment intended to subdue or disable, not – primarily – to kill.

And that would be a welcome relief. That was something he could really, truly look forward to.

Well, he’d not be doing himself or his… what? Partner? …He’d not be doing himself or Arun any favours by sitting in the room and pining; he might as well take advantage of the generous meal plan that came with his vacation package. He grabbed clean clothes from his bag – anonymous if still in Service colours; short black trousers and a short-sleeved white shirt, both trimmed with crimson – and set to what remained of tidying himself up.

Half an hour and half a dozen fish-and-rice rolls later, Rico paused and leaned back in his chair, looking out at the clear blue sky and the rolling sea. He’d been in space long enough that mere openness didn’t faze him, but there was something different about this open expanse. His birth world had never afforded him this kind of view; what he’d seen of other worlds in the course of his service, like Sterley and Grelthor, had been largely confined to urban areas; and he’d not had much leave-time between his enlistment and now that he’d actually been able to spend on any planet but his native Varilyn.

No, this wasn’t mere openness; the horizon put bounds on it that made the open space feel all the more significant than that. The openness of space was a hazard; this was inviting. Would he have time to explore some of it? Would he even have the inclination, once there was time? It’d seem a waste to stay penned up for the entirety of his stay…

Motion at the patio door; by sheer force of habit, he looked over even as he skewered his next mouthful. Then he saw one of the people coming through that door and the skewer fell, forgotten, to the plate. He was on his feet so fast, he had to grab his chair to keep it from falling over.

Aha,” the big wolf said, smiling down at him and moving towards him in turn. “There you are at last. Come here, you…” And just like that, he drew Rico into a close embrace.

The habits and reflexes of six years screamed at him – not here, too exposed, someone will see. A surge of anxiety bordering on panic froze him in place.

It did not go unnoticed. “Rico…?”

Sorry, sorry,” Rico blurted, drawing a shaky breath. Yes, someone will see. But they won’t care, he reminded himself, letting that breath out in a soft sigh. He brought his hands up to the direwolf’s arms, forcing himself not to pull away from the embrace, but to lean into it. “Old habits, you know. It’s good to see you too, Arun. Really.”

Once he got past the initial shock, there was something very comforting about being able to lean into the other man’s bulk. Not that he hadn’t already been leaning on Arun, figuratively speaking, over the past months; it may have started from an offhand remark while Rico was in the direwolf’s custody, but Arun had become a true and trusted friend since then. The mere fact that he was already in the need-to-know pool about Rico’s move to the Empire had been part of it, of course – an advantage few others could match at this early date. But more than that, he’d always known what to say to set Rico at ease about his situation, without glossing over the mouse’s concerns.

Taking another deep breath, Rico looked up. “You kept me sane these past few months, and I don’t think that’s as much of an exaggeration as it normally would be. Thank you. For everything.”

Hey, now…” One big hand cupped behind Rico’s neck. “It’s not like you haven’t shown your appreciation before now. Or, for that matter, like you haven’t been giving me a reason to carry on through yet another completely dead boring shift.”

Arun might know all that was relevant about Rico, but that didn’t mean the room and the world at large needed to know everything about either of them; as he’d had much instruction and practice doing, Rico kept things vague. “In your line of work, Arun, I’m sorry to say I think I’m happier with you being bored.” A chuckle welled up in him, and he let it free unimpeded. “Though if I can make your off hours a little less dreary, that’s no bad thing.” His manners cleared their figurative throat in his mind. “Have you eaten, by the by?”

Yes, but the furnace could always use more stoking.” Arun’s grip loosened, leaving Rico free to lead the way back to his table, and meanwhile the wolf asked, “What have you been sampling so far?”

Derkan cuisine, apparently.” Rico wasn’t familiar with Derkan off the top of his head; he’d picked it for advertising spicy and savory over a mild base.

Aha. Settled by otters for the most part, but it’s the squirrels who brought what’d become their signature food.”

Rico shook his head and let out another chuckle as he settled back into his seat. “How do you keep all that straight?” he wondered aloud, nudging the plate over towards the previously-unoccupied side of the table; well did he recall Arun’s occasional laments on just how much food he needed to take in and how often, and what was left might tide him over until new portions could arrive. “Still feels like I’m constantly tripping over the basics.”

Mostly from my boss’s steward, you remember him. Food isn’t just a job to him, it’s the core of his calling.”

Rico did remember Galik Trells, at that; after his first dinner in Commander Javurin’s day cabin and then Rico’s formal acceptance of the Imperial residency being offered him, a few more dinners had followed, as the ermine introduced him to some of her colleagues (some of whom would go on to become his instructors). Whatever else the otter might do to keep Javurin free to focus on her primary duties, it had quickly become plain that cooking was what he truly, deeply enjoyed. “A deeply sacred calling to him, it’d seem,” Rico mused, pulling up the menu and giving it another looking-over. He’d always felt like Trells’s efforts had been wasted on him; he could tell it was good food, yes, and better than the still-decent fare he’d been given while in custody, but his bar for “good food” was set much too low to have a real appreciation for how good it was. That might well also be the case here, but at least here he hadn’t been personally introduced to the cooks and wouldn’t have to make small talk with them.

In a few moments, he decided to go for a broader sampling from the same section of the menu. It had the advantage of arriving in neat, bite-size pieces, and it was far, far from bland, unlike all too much of his mess-hall fare before winding up in Imperial hands.

Even he didn’t give me that thorough an education,” Arun went on. “You just happened to pick his homeworld’s cuisine. The boss liked it when she needed to work through dinner, apparently.”

Rico could certainly imagine a plate of these rolls left at one’s elbow being welcome on busy nights. Convenient portions, minimal mess or fuss. And tasty; he finished tapping in his order and swiped his hand over the reader. “Far be it from me to fault either of their tastes.”

You’ve already spoiled me rotten, you know,” said the wolf with a grin. “Until you showed up, I didn’t actually get to take part in those work dinners. I just got to smell them.”

Ouch!” Rico winced, only half joking by it. To be subject to that sort of aroma and not be able to partake… “Funny, though. The way you settled right in, I’d got the impression that was standard procedure.”

I wish. I had to settle for sneaking bites of rations during breaks.”

So the talk went; light things, easy things, things that gave away little beyond the fairly simple fact that they were both Service personnel in some fashion. If that very fact hadn’t felt so ill-fitting for Rico, there’d have been no trouble at all.

But it did, and try though he might to bury it under the immediate demands of their meal, Rico found himself feeling increasingly ill-at-ease, tense and jumpy, with the skin between his shoulders crawling like there was a laser sight on it. When, after the sun had fully set, Arun suggested taking the remains of their meal to their room, it was all Rico could do to not bolt upright instantly, but take his time and proceed in an orderly fashion, as though nothing was wrong.

No way had that suggestion been coincidence, either. To Rico’s growing shame, Arun’s concern was another palpable weight. The wolf probably wouldn’t let it rest there – and well he shouldn’t; Rico did still have enough presence of mind to know that had their roles been reversed, he’d not have let someone dear to him just suffer in silence.

Knowing it was coming wasn’t enough to keep him from tensing when, right after the door to their room clicked shut, a hand settled on his shoulder.

The hand froze. “Rico…”

Sorry,” the mouse blurted. “I’m sorry.” He reached up to set his hand atop the wolf’s, pushing it down in place, and sighed. “I thought I was ready for this, truly I did.”

Thus encouraged, Arun shifted to set a hand on each of Rico’s shoulders, squeezing gently. “Take the time you need, Rico,” he murmured. “I know I’ve been a bit… abrupt at times, but I don’t want to rush you into anything. Take your time.”

And do you actually think that? some part of Rico’s mind wanted to know. Fortunately, he was able to keep the uncharitable thought from getting as far as his mouth. It was probably just as well, though, that Arun was behind him; even if the wolf had seen that flicker of irritation, they could both pretend he hadn’t.

What was there to be irritated about, anyway? That the wolf cared? Rico shook his head. “I don’t even know what it is that’s getting to me…”

You’ve given me some ideas, over the past months. And they’re all reasonable things to be worried about, as they go.”

Not to this degree, though,” Rico countered, and to that Arun had no rebuttal.

Perhaps in part to cover the awkward pause, Arun nudged him towards the room proper and one of the comfortable chairs therein, relieving him of the leftover food in the process. The place wasn’t made to such grand proportions as to allow both of them to fit in a single chair, so at that point the contact between them necessarily broke; for the most part that was regrettable, but some corner of Rico’s mind was secretly, shamefully glad for it.

What in the stars was wrong with him all of a sudden? Here he was on a world that was the next best thing to Paradise, with an eminently desirable man accompanying him, in a society that didn’t care in the least if two men were attracted to each other. This should have been heavenly.

But it’s not home, is it?

…Is there even such a thing anymore?

No, Tanzerdiep wasn’t the problem, and neither was Arun. Even the Empire wasn’t the problem. The problem was that Rico had turned his back on both his home and the oaths he’d sworn there, and everyone he’d met since who knew about it was treating him like some kind of hero for it.

What sort of person have I turned into?” he wondered aloud.

Arun’s claws tapped against the side of a bottle. “I guess most of the people you’ve had a chance to talk to about it have been biased in one important respect.”

At least Arun was aware of that bias – that he and everyone else Rico had come in contact with over the last months had been born and raised in the Empire, and would naturally see it as a good thing that someone would wish to join it. Which was fair enough – what Rico had seen of the Empire so far had much to admire. But it still made talking to him about the real problem awkward.

No less so for him holding Rico in good regard personally. But he deserved the truth, however painful Rico might find the saying of it.

I swore oaths, Arun,” Rico said at last. “And then… I broke them, left them behind. How can you, how can anyone trust me, after that?”

Arun drew a deep breath, but he was not long in replying. “Because I know why you did that. Because you were put to a choice between the place you swore that oath, and the principles you swore to uphold. I took the time to look up the Hierarchy’s oath of service – I know that some of the things the VHAF was set to went against that oath, at least parts of it.” He paused. “The place and the principles… didn’t you say something like that, back on the Bond?

Rico’s half-debrief, half-interrogation on the Bond of Unity felt like a relic of another life, by now… but Arun was right, he had marked that distinction; not just to his Imperial hosts, but to his own unit. Former unit. Hell, he’d even had it bouncing around his head before dinner. Still…

A hand came to rest on his knee. “What’s got it digging at you so badly, Rico? Not the news from the front? I’d have thought that would be a hopeful sign, if anything…”

A negotiated ceasefire, rather than the crushing military victory that could have happened by now, if the Imperial Navy had unleashed its full force? Arun was right again; it should have been a spot of hope, a sign that the Varilyn Hierarchy might go on, might return to the roots Rico had so admired. He should have been vindicated by the groundswell of public opinion that had at last overruled the expansionists’ aims of conquest.


I guess it was like… closing a door,” Rico managed. “I can’t go home, Arun. The moment I set foot on a Hierarchy world I’d be just a deserter. And if you know what we swore, you probably know the penalties for that.”

A sigh; that heavy hand gave his knee a gentle squeeze. “Can’t deny it,” was all Arun said. Even without looking up, Rico could feel the urge to say more, to offer a new home, if not with him, at least within the Empire. But he didn’t up and say it.

He’d never gone on much about his own home, but Rico had the sneaking suspicion that this had more to do with tact than any ill will. Still, maybe the time had come to change that. Maybe Rico needed to distract himself from his own oppressive homesickness with thoughts of someone else’s home.

Delicately. There could be some genuine negativity, there…

Rico made himself look up. It was hard, very hard, not to flinch at the pain in the wolf’s eyes, schooled away a bit too late and not quite entirely; but he held the bigger man’s gaze. “Do you miss your home?” the mouse asked.

Every day,” Arun breathed. “So I couldn’t possibly have told you to just set yours aside.”

Really, mine wasn’t all that great.” In spite of it all, Rico had to laugh. “Over-developed, noisy, smelly, crowded, and short on civilian work.”

But it was home,” the wolf finished for him.

Right.” Strange, that a place he’d once been so glad to leave should weigh so heavily upon him now. Maybe what he needed was a distraction – hell, that was something he’d hoped Tanzerdiep would supply, but perhaps his thoughts needed a more particular sort. “What was your home like?”

Danzelli? It’s one of the Empire’s newer worlds – a colony just outside the Inner Worlds, about four hundred Standard. It’s got some urban zones – not halfway to being a nature preserve like Sasheron – but nothing like what you were saying, and to this day there’s plenty of it that people only visit, and never build on…”

And with minimal coaxing, Arun went on. It became plain that he did love his home, and not just for the people he’d known there – he went to the suite’s console and brought up some images from a memory-stick he kept with him, showing some of the places he’d frequented in his youth; great expanses of pristine forest, broken only by hills and crags and lakes. Closer views of those things, including one breathtaking still of such a lake shrouded in twilit fog.

Rico hadn’t actually visited all that many worlds planetside, so he didn’t have a great wealth of comparisons to draw upon, but Arun had certainly picked some beautiful spots. And to see him come alive as he narrated some of the memories that went with those visuals was such a relief.

It didn’t completely banish the gnawing doubt. But it helped; made it feel like Rico might, at some point, find another place he could call home.

Once he’d paged through the last image, Arun shut down the display and leaned back a touch. “Feeling better?”

Much,” Rico replied.

With that safely established, Arun excused himself for a quick shower – he might have had slightly more time to tend to himself than Rico’s journey had allowed, since he wasn’t smelling too strongly for the trip, but Rico could well understand the desire to get clean in a way that felt more substantial. Still… “There is another option, if you’d rather take your time at it,” Rico pointed out.

Arun’s breath caught for a moment. “Made up your mind, have you?”

There was no need to say about what. Rico laughed. “I’ve been wanting it since before leaving the Bond. But I guess you could say I’ve… come to terms with myself, at least enough to pursue that with a clear conscience.” He might still need to sort out his other issues – and bring them up with the staff psychologists, for that matter, now that he’d been able to actually put a name to one – but in finding Arun attractive he was not conflicted, not anymore. Not enough to keep him from grabbing the opportunity when it presented itself.

A few moments of effort later, they stood by the tub with nothing between them but fur and a hand’s breadth of air.

It was the first time Rico had been this close to someone larger than him, and Arun was quite a bit larger indeed – almost half a meter taller than Rico’s two-meters-and-change, not quite broader in the same proportion but still definitely heavier-set, and his fur, in contrast to Rico’s own short, pale grey pelage, was long, dense, and dark as charcoal. An imposing specimen he made, to be sure.

And he drank in the sight of Rico, in turn, with wide-eyed delight.

Worth the wait, handsome?” the wolf rumbled after a moment.

Worth the wait, the work, the uncertainty, and then some,” Rico replied. “And that’s just the surface. But let’s get you properly clean before we go past that, hmm?”

Or at least partly so.” A deep, decidedly lascivious chuckle. “Don’t exactly get this kind of luxury very often. Can’t promise I won’t get distracted.”

That’s fine. You’re pretty distracting, yourself,” Rico observed, and couldn’t help but grin. “In fact, if you don’t get that water going soon…”

Laughing, Arun hunkered down to work the tap, and after a few moments, seemed to be satisfied with the temperature; Rico tested it, finding it hotter than his usual – probably to be felt through that thick fur – but bearable. There followed some brief digging in their respective packs for toiletries, after which there was a goodly amount of water in the tub; not enough to fill it, no – built for two people Arun’s size, the thing was big, and Rico of course didn’t have quite the same displacement – but enough to cover the wolf’s legs when he slid into it, leaning back against the contoured slope opposite the spigot.

The groan of contentment the wolf let out, while it expressed a sentiment that Rico could very well understand and appreciate, seemed to resonate right down his spine, reach forward, and take firm hold. He shivered, letting out a breath he hadn’t even realized he was holding. Getting distracted was pretty much a foregone conclusion; best to get what actual grooming they could done before then.

Which didn’t mean he needed to be clinical about it, of course. He eased into the hot water, kneeling astride the wolf’s legs – and thank the stars a pilot’s exercise regimen focused as much as it did on staying limber, because that was no mean feat. That brought the waterlevel a ways up Arun’s stomach, so it was there that Rico started kneading the water into the bigger man’s lush fur.

With the way Arun groaned and pressed up into his touch, well… by the time the water was lapping at Rico’s balls, he was sporting a hard-on that could have honed a diamond drill.

He did try to stay focused, kneading shampoo into a rich lather in the wolf’s fur, all over his upper body. But it was impossible to ignore the man’s nearness, his sheer presence; and when Arun tugged Rico closer and flatter atop him, with water up to the mouse’s shoulders and flesh against his cock that was just as rigid… well, he rather lost track of where he’d rubbed and where he hadn’t, at that point, but Arun didn’t seem to mind in the least.

The wolf had enough presence of mind to stretch a foot out and shut off the water, which was just as well. That it also gave Rico’s tail a chance to curl around Arun’s leg didn’t seem like a bad thing, either. Winding it tight meant Rico shifted over to the side a bit, grinding against Arun’s thigh, and he shifted his own leg in between the wolf’s in turn. Somewhere in the midst of that, the wolf reached over to turn on the jets, and the water roiled around them, chasing all over them in a way that would’ve been rather sensual even without a fine specimen of masculinity unclad against him.

Their muzzles met, sounds passing between them that were some mixture of groans and growls. There was something intensely thrilling about the realization that he could be so vocal – that even if they hadn’t been surrounded by sound-dampening construction, even if someone heard them together, that was okay. Neither of them was going to get in trouble for being together – not because they were both in the Service, not for being different branches or different ranks, not for them both being men – nothing.

It had taken all too much of that half-year of training for that message to sink in, but in the end, apparently it had. It was rather liberating.

Through it all he kept kneading at Arun’s body, feeling firm muscle bunch and shift under the waterlogged, sudsy fur. He wasn’t exactly doing much to get the suds out, but even when the kiss broke and Arun nipped at his ear, it didn’t exactly feel like an admonishment; no, very much the opposite.

And when his fingers drifted down to where there was no fur in the way at all, Arun shoved up against him, fingers tensing against his ass, crying out with a complete lack of inhibition that was one part enviable and several parts exciting.

And that was just from a quick squeeze, Rico mused, sliding his fist along that firm flesh. What, he wondered, would the bigger man sound like when he actually came? Hopefully the answer to that wouldn’t be all that much longer in, well, coming. He had regrettably little experience feeling other men like this; it was bigger than his own, of that he was quite sure, but beyond that he really couldn’t say much. Not that it really mattered.

Rico lifted his head; this time he had no trouble at all meeting the wolf’s gaze. “I want you,” he breathed.

The wolf quivered a little under him. “Got lost time to make up for, huh?”

Something like that. And not just the last half-year.”

Mmmm, well, if you want me closer than this… can you reach my kit, there?”

There” was the far side of the tub from what Arun was reclining against, back by the faucet; he might have been able to kick it, but nothing much more coordinated than that, not with Rico atop him. Rico twisted around and leaned over, snagging the carry-strap and dragging it around the tub’s edge to within easier reach, and managed to pull it off without needing to let go of the wolf’s very appealing erection. “Came prepared, did you?” Which was more than Rico could say – even if he’d have been able to get over his long-trained shyness where sex was concerned, he’d just plain forgot.

One of my squadmates, when he heard I was going to a water world, insisted on giving me a little something. A good-luck charm, he said.” The wolf did his rummaging one-handed, too, the other stroking along Rico’s spine with a gentleness that was almost shocking in its own right. “And it looks like we’re both luckier for it, huh? Just a mo’, I’ll get it unsealed.” Which meant he had to take his hand away, but it was a few extra seconds for Rico to keep stroking, and he wasn’t going to complain about that.

The outline on the little pump-bottle was appealing enough in its own innocent way – the silhouette of an otter, probably male, although at that angle and for that race, it could have been either sex; arched back slightly, stretching with hands overhead. Rico couldn’t help but chuckle. “I guess some stereotypes come to be for a reason, huh?”

I’ve met a few otters who weren’t too keen on water,” Arun mused. “But not many, that’s for sure. Petty Officer Chandelar definitely delights in it, and thinks most people should, too, otter or otherwise – he’s always ready to spread the good word, as he puts it.”

Rico was not hugely experienced, no, but neither was he a complete novice. He let go of Arun’s shaft with a slight twinge of regret – even knowing it wasn’t going to be for long – and pumped a generous measure of the stuff onto his palm; between his own lengthy abstinence and Arun’s heft, he knew better than to be stingy. Then he set to stroking with a bit more of a will, getting the slippery stuff all over Arun’s flesh, with the wolf squirming and letting out some very appreciative noises in the process.

If Rico wasn’t very experienced with what came next, Arun had enough experience to cover the lack. Even as the mouse pushed himself up, the bigger man’s hands on his rear guided him in, tilted him just so. It was seamless – no fumbling, no false starts; all Rico had to do was ease himself down, and the wolf spread him open and slid right in.

It had been quite a while, and Arun was rather larger than any of Rico’s prior lovers; yet at the same time, it had been quite a while, and Rico had never been freer to indulge. It was a stretch, but the mouse pushed right down onto his lover’s shaft in one stroke.

Nnnguh…” Gasping, Rico tried again, and managed to produce, “S-spirits of Light…” He squirmed a small ways upwards, slipped, and sank right down again, and at that point let out a clearer and more succinct “Fuck!” The habits of a lifetime made the utterance come out unvoiced, but still with rather more force than he’d ever said it before.

Stars above, Rico,” Arun husked over his ears. “No stopping you when you want something, huh?” A broad hand stroked back over his head, then turned to tuck under his chin, tilting his jaw upwards. Rico forced his eyes back open, seeing a wild longing in the wolf’s gaze – a hunger to match his own. Then Arun tilted his head and pushed into a firm kiss, and Rico let his eyes slip shut again to better focus on the feel of the wolf’s tongue against his, on the warm breath washing over his snout, and on the rigid heat stirring under his tail.

It was intense. Even his first fumbling steps to claim his sexuality hadn’t hit him this hard. “Ah, fuck,” he whimpered into the wolf’s muzzle.

If there were any words under Arun’s answering groan, Rico couldn’t make them out. But the fingers tensing against his ass had a meaning easily enough gleaned, and so did the blunt clawtips pushing against his shoulderblade, and the quickening of Arun’s breaths, too; all of it matched the feeling swelling up inside him, the need that drove him to shove up against his lover’s body, then push right back onto his cock, again and again and again – as fast as he could, then somehow faster still.

Their muzzles wouldn’t have made for a close fit at the best of times, and this lengthy kiss was sloppy and downright erratic; but Arun was the first to break it entirely and come up for air. “Oh, shit,” he moaned. “Rico…!”

The sound of the wolf’s voice, that palpable need quivering on the brink of release, made something give. Rico buried his snout against Arun’s chest, stifling a whimper, as a rush of overpowering sensation surged through him. For a few moments, all he knew was the prick of Arun’s claws, the firm heat filling him, the thick wet fur stroking his cock, and his own spunk rushing out of him.

The next thing to intrude upon his senses was tightness around his ribs as Arun squeezed him close; a wordless cry over his ears; a deep, gasping breath, and another cry; then another, and another still.

Measure by measure, as the force of his bellows ebbed, so too did Arun’s grasp slacken, and the wolf slumped against the wall of the tub, panting hard – not that he was alone in that; Rico’s lungs were burning as though he’d just done a five-hundred-meter sprint, and every muscle in his body felt leaden and sluggish. He wasn’t normally given to a great deal of sensitivity after a climax, but now every motion was downright electrifying.

He might have tried to wait it out, except that his legs were starting to issue very stern protests about being jammed in as they were. He took hold of Arun’s shoulders and hauled himself up and off in one swift motion that had both of them gasping; then he was barely able to turn around before his legs gave out and he half-fell against the tub’s back wall next to Arun.

The wolf promptly settled an arm over his shoulders – not for an embrace, as he too was apparently too spent for that just yet; it was a dead weight, a not inconsiderable burden in itself, but at least that meant it wasn’t jammed between them. And there they sat, trembling against one another, as their breathing slowly, gradually returned to something approaching normal.

Finally Arun drew a breath. “I don’t…” His voice came out rather raspy and hoarse; he swallowed a few times, and then managed, with a bit more clarity if still rather rough-sounding, “I don’t think I’ve ever come that close to my partner before. Or, welll… that fast, at all. Think we both needed that.”

Rico couldn’t help but laugh. “Think you’re right.” While he hadn’t put his voice to the sort of strain Arun had, his throat was still just as raw. “Fuck. Don’t know about you, but I really need a drink and I’m not sure I could walk two steps to get it.”

Yeah. And I may be a bit less self-conscious than you about it, but… even I don’t want to ring room service for it.”

Well, there wasn’t much help for it then. “Guess I’ll give it a go – I won’t pull half the water out with me.” Grinning, he ruffled Arun’s chest-fur, then turned to take hold of the tub’s edge and pull himself toward it.

It was only a half-dozen unsteady steps later, halfway to the table and the waiting tumblers, that it occurred to him just how natural that little gesture had felt, how right. Even once he’d picked up the glasses and turned to see Arun watching him, plainly enjoying the view… well, yes, it made him quail for a moment. But only a little, and only for a moment.

He made it to the cold-water tap without incident, and settled for filling each cup about halfway; he was a bit steadier already, but still feeling rather weak-kneed. It wasn’t as though spilling a mere cupful or two would make much of a difference next to what he’d already tracked out of the tub, short fur or no, but it was the principle of the thing. And in this case, while he managed to get over to the tub just fine, he almost spilled a cup when he leaned in to pass it over and banged his knee on the tub’s edge.

It was more jarring and surprising than it was painful, and that not for long; soon enough he was laughing it off as he eased himself back in next to his lover, and then he took a long pull from his own cup. Graceful and composed he was not, but still – mission accomplished, right?

He cuddled in against Arun’s side, and the wolf’s arm settled a bit more delicately around him; for some while, a companionable silence reigned.

Finally Arun gave Rico’s shoulder a squeeze. “Thanks,” the wolf breathed.

I think you might be stealing my lines,” Rico said with a chuckle. “Sorry for flaking out at dinner.”

Shh.” The wolf’s snout nudged at Rico’s ear. “I got us here hoping it’d help you heal. Among other reasons, sure, but honestly, you’re not doing as bad as I’d sometimes worried you might.”

Even so.” But Rico didn’t press the issue any further. He just drained his cup and let his hand rest with it on the tub’s edge, eyes closed, savouring the rise and fall of the wolf’s chest under his head.

His pillow proved unsteady for a few moments as Arun chuckled. “Probably too early to invite you to one of the clothing-optional beaches, huh?”

There was a lascivious tone to his voice that made plain the things allowed at such places went well beyond mere nudity; it made Rico’s ears burn. “Can’t say I’d be comfortable with that, really,” he admitted, and shrugged. “But… I think I could do it, now we’ve come this far. And maybe it’d do me some good, huh?”

There was a pause; he could almost hear Arun blink. “I… what? Are you serious? ’cause I was joking… mostly, at least.”

Again Rico shrugged. “I’ve been trying to get it through my own skull that people around here don’t mind sex, between guys or otherwise. And it’s not like I have any reason to be ashamed of partnering with you, hey?”

Arun nuzzled at his ears. “Well… if you’re still feeling up to it in a few days, maybe we’ll give it a go, huh? Just remember, you always have the option to put a stop to it and go somewhere more comfortable.”

Easy to say; hard to convince himself of, when it might mean drawing attention, or disappointing his lover, or whatever else. Still. “I’ll try to keep that in mind,” he promised.

It’ll do.” Arun planted a kiss at the base of Rico’s ear, then straightened, leaning back in the churning water.