It shouldn’t have been so normal.

It was just another carrier flight deck, with fighters clamped into place in their berths, cargo haulers trundling over the plates, techs scurrying about with the various tools of their trade. Just like the one Drevin had launched from, oh, too many hours ago now.

But it wasn’t his flight deck.

Cognitive dissonance could be a strange thing, sometimes.

A nearby tech gestured toward his canopy, signalling an all-clear. Sighing, he reached for the release and gave it a tug. There was a soft hiss as air pressure equalized, and then the canopy lifted up slightly from the frame. The ferret reached up to press his gloved hand against the inside of it, and it swung upward from there.

A ladder had been brought into place on the right side of his fighter – and that was another thing, his techs, the ones aboard the Bond of Unity, always came up to his fighter’s left – and he swung himself out of the cockpit, gripping the rails and half-climbing, half-sliding down to the deck.

The tech waved him to one particular exit, and he stomped over the plates, towing his private stormcloud along with him. This wasn’t the ship he was supposed to have landed on. He was supposed to have been going back to the Bond of Unity, with its familiar routines, its familiar pilots, and above all, its familiar bunk in the familiar barracks. Instead, here he was – not on an Authority carrier at all, but on a Navy vessel, the INS Adamant Bastion. Where the fighters he knew so well were fitted to restore and maintain the peace, all the craft he passed by were geared for war.

Where the Star Lane Authority sent its pilots into danger every day, combating piracy and maintaining Imperial law, the Navy sat idle, training, waiting until the time they might be needed to combat a threat from completely outside the Empire.

Even if he was glad to have the extra firepower now, even if he didn’t want to be one of those standing between the Empire and hostile forces outside of it, he’d lost two fellow officers in the past three weeks. It was hard not to be a bit bitter about the extensive downtime the Navy had.

Coming out of the flight deck, he was expecting to meet a crewman – maybe a midshipman – to serve as his escort to wherever he needed to be. It was thus with some surprise that he found himself looking directly at an array of medals, and, somewhat above them, the collar pips of a full commander.

Somewhat belatedly, he straightened up, came to attention, and snapped off a salute.

The big woman – a wolverine, head and shoulders above Drevin – returned that salute with parade precision. “Sub-lieutenant Targe. Welcome aboard the Adamant Bastion. I’m Sherris Takrin, commander of the Bastion’s flight group. This,” she indicated the burly, slate-furred mouse by her elbow, “is Francisco Larenz, leader of the 232nd Coursing Hounds; he’ll be working with you a great deal in the near future.”

“Sir.” Drevin traded salutes with the lieutenant commander as well, then turned his attention back to the senior officer. “I’m sorry, sir, but I think my orders have beat me here. The only direction I got was to land here instead of waiting for the Unity to pick me up.”

“That’s what we need to discuss. This way; my office isn’t far.”

Indeed it wasn’t; maybe half a minute later, Drevin found himself in a spacious but sparsely-appointed office. Takrin took a seat behind the wide desk. She gestured toward a few chairs opposite her, but Drevin, indicating his life support pack, settled for standing at ease in front of it; the mouse glanced at him, then took up a similar posture.

“Getting right to the point, then: The truth is that this whole mess has become much bigger than any of us expected, Targe. My officers agree that you and yours put up a hell of a fight, but Authority ships just aren’t geared out to face armed insurrection on this scale. Your wing proved themselves to be adaptable, but nobody wants to rearm their vessels with a whole new kit and send them out with unfamiliar gear. That’s where we come in – the Navy has enough firepower to punch through a blockade and get a team to the heart of this rebellion before they can organize and make plans to slip away.”

“All right.” Drevin tipped his head forward. “But where do I figure into this? Sir.”

“Well.” Takrin tapped at a few controls, and the projector built into her desk came to life, showing the local star cluster in a glittering array over it. “The Fifth Fleet is going at flank speed to press the rebels here,” one particular system lit up, “but the Bastion is instead going to slip past their cordon, going through deep space between systems, to strike at their centre, here. The timing on this is going to be tight, and the Unity is going to be hard-pressed to get into position soon enough to make it work as it is; diverting for a half-day to come pick you up would have made it nearly impossible. Since we were in the system, us picking you up to fix up your Kite was expedient.”

Drevin studied the map with a rather sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. At the time he’d launched, intelligence had not placed the rebels in nearly so much power. “With you so far, Sir.”

“As for the other part of this – even if we’re breaking out the big guns, at the end of the day this is still an internal matter, and we’re still setting out to restore and preserve peace with a minimum of casualties, not to smash an enemy position. We want this to be run under SLA methods as much as possible. Since you’re on board anyway, Joint Command approved signing you on with us as a liaison officer for this mission. We can study up on policy all we like, but,” the wolverine shook her head, “we haven’t lived it like you have.”

“Liaison?” Drevin blinked. “Wouldn’t that be more appropriate for someone in a command role, sir?”

“It might,” Larenz spoke up, his voice a pleasant baritone. “Which might suggest what’s in your future if this goes well.”

Takrin simply nodded to confirm what her subordinate had said. “At any rate, it would take the better part of three days to get to our destination point. Since we’re relying on the Fifth Fleet to draw enemy attention away from that sector, we aren’t going to make any great hurry to be there early, and will be letting the transit take four days, with the assault to take place on the fifth. Over the intervening days, we’ll be working on contingency plans and coordinating manoeuvres, to say nothing of getting familiar with each other. Lots of sim time.” She tapped at the projector controls, and the image faded away. “In the meantime, Sub, you’ve the rest of the day-cycle to yourself. You’ve earned it; by the preliminary reports, you and your wing fought like demons out there, and there wasn’t much left for us to do but clean up the mess. And you’re the only one who wasn’t able to rejoin the Fleet under your own power.” She smiled, rising to her feet. “Not bad for a day’s work, Targe. So much as I can, I’ll be watching your career with interest. Once I’ve had a chance to read the full reports, I’ll probably be putting your name in for a commendation, and that’s without considering the results of this next operation.”

In spite of himself, Drevin stood a little taller, swelling with pride. For all anyone in the Authority griped about how little action they saw, everyone knew the standard to which the Navy held their combat pilots, and that level of praise was a high accolade indeed.

“In the meantime,” she went on, coming around her desk, “Larenz will take charge of you and see you settled in for the next few days. If you have a problem, you can come to me, but he’s a good, competent man, he should be able to see you through.” She extended one massive hand. “I know the branches of service have their differences, Targe, but I for one am glad to have you aboard.”

Drevin reached out to shake hands. “I’ll do my best, sir.”

There was an exchange of salutes, then Takrin dismissed them both. As Larenz was ushering Drevin through the corridors toward the quartermaster’s stores, a buzz sounded through the ship’s speakers – the three long tones that heralded interstellar travel.

Drevin had been through it dozens of times, but usually he was sitting or lying down. He didn’t take chances; he paused where he was, as did many people in the corridor, and gripped a handhold. A female voice announced fifteen seconds to transition, then, a short pause later, counted down from five.

Transition was not a very comfortable process. He felt worse in the process of ordinary combat manoeuvres, but the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach as the drive engaged still wasn’t his idea of a good time.

Soon it was done, though, and everyone went on about their duties.

The quartermaster’s office was farther toward the bow, fourteen decks “above” the flight deck he’d arrived on; fortunately, the wait for a lift was short. The quartermaster herself, a very serious skunk woman, secured him an overnight kit and two sets of duty dress – she couldn’t furnish him with a dress uniform, because all she had was in Navy rather than SLA colours – and allowed him the use of a side room to change into one on the spot.

Speaking of uncomfortable sensations, being free of the life-support connections was always a blessing.

Larenz then brought him back down toward the flight areas, stopping at a mess hall en route. Drevin, who looked forward to a bunk more than he did to a proper meal, opted for a ration bar; Larenz, whose duties had kept him shipboard during the recent engagement and who had thus already had time for a meal, just got his flask refilled.

Drevin wasn’t sure what to expect when he got to the barracks of the 232nd, but he needn’t have worried. Larenz ushered him in, called for everyone’s attention, and made plain that anyone who gave Drevin flak for not being Navy would have to answer to him, Commander Takrin, and the Captain, if they got that far without one of the first two tossing them in the brig for insubordination. “Not,” the mouse added, “that I expect there to be a problem at all.”

“Oh, hell no,” one of the pilots, an otter woman, said with a chuckle. “Anyone who can fight like that is more than welcome here in the Doghouse.”

“Especially someone who keeps fighting like that after taking systems damage,” added a rather appealing tiger man. “Heard over the com chatter that you had your jump core shot out, Sub – our gain, I guess.” He grinned. “Takes a lot of nerve to keep in the fight after that kind of hit; I’m glad you’re on our side.”

Before Drevin needed to worry about thinking up a response while battle-weary, Larenz cut in, “Let the man claim a free bunk and relax a little before you go into war stories, would you? Those three bunks there, Targe,” the mouse indicated the ones in question, at the end of one row, “we aren’t currently using at all, so space isn’t a problem.”

“So long as I’m not moving into a dead man’s place,” Drevin sighed, starting down the aisle.

“No, we’re just on the small side of regulation,” Larenz assured him.

One of the Coursing Hounds pilots slipped into the attached showers; after hanging his flight suit and spare duty uniform in a locker by his chosen bunk, Drevin took a look through his overnight kit, found the toiletries to be acceptable, and went to follow suit. He didn’t take long – his only regret about working on ship, really, was that he hadn’t been able to enjoy a long, hot shower, or even an all-out bath, in months.

He also followed the example of a handful of officers, when he was done grooming and drying off, in just slinging his kit over his shoulder and walking out in the fur. He wasn’t quite anticipating the reaction that drew. Raised eyebrows, a few low whistles – most compelling, really, was the look on Lieutenant Commander Larenz’s face; a sudden rush of longing, quickly schooled away, but not quite quickly enough.

“Holy hell.” One fox woman a way down the aisle laughed. “Someone’s packing heat.”

Another of the pilots, an ermine, let out a softer chuckle. “And here is living proof that anyone claiming life in the Authority is soft, hasn’t a clue what they’re talking about.” He leaned over to give Drevin a light clap on the shoulder. “You’ve a fine enough tone to keep any shipboard medic happy.”

“Which is Sulik’s way of saying he thinks you’re attractive,” Larenz explained to Drevin, hustling over. A bit louder, he said, “All right, pipe down, people. I’m glad you’re being, uh, welcoming, but chill out for a few days; I don’t want a sexual harassment complaint to come down the chain later on.”

“No, no,” Drevin cut in, looking over the ermine, still looking back at him, a soft smile on his delicate muzzle; turning to look over the big mouse beside him, who was keeping his eyes high with a conspicuous amount of determination. “It’s all right. That’s pretty damn welcoming, after all.” He let himself grin in turn. “And I don’t mind being… appreciated.”

The mouse’s ears canted back. “Well. Just off the top of my head, out of thirty-seven people in the wing, I can think of eight women and three men who’d be happy to make sure your bunk is warm.”

“Does that include you?” Drevin challenged, feeling his smile twist into more of a smirk.

Larenz took a breath, bare tail flicking behind him. “Well… yeah.”

What the hell. It had been a while for him, so why not?

He reached over, hooking a finger into the collar of Larenz’s tunic. “Got any forms in urgent need of filling out?”

The mouse sighed over his wrist, eyes slipping shut. “Nothing that can’t wait until next cycle,” he replied.

He had big hands, strong hands; hands that felt good sliding over Drevin’s back and sides as the ferret worked to loosen that tunic. His muzzle felt nice against Drevin’s, too; after the initial hesitation was past, he pressed into a strong kiss, a kiss full of a very appealing sort of hunger. And when Drevin’s fingers moved down to undo the mouse’s belt, they found a fair ridge already rising in the slate-grey cloth.

He’d looked good in his uniform, grey over white over more grey. The sort of guy that the recruitment pamphlets loved to show. Maybe Drevin was biased, but he fancied the mouse looked even better once the uniform was out of the way.

The ferret’s fingers curled around warm, rigid flesh, stroking from root to crown and back, six and a half pleasingly thick inches or thereabouts. “Someone’s looking forward to this,” he murmured over the mouse’s shoulder.

“Like you’re one to talk?” Larenz chuckled, running a fingertip along the underside of Drevin’s shaft in turn. “Stars above, this thing looked big enough when it was soft.”

Drevin would have laughed, except that the pleasant touch of that finger turned it into a low groan, instead. “And what do you plan on doing with it, huh?”

“With…” The mouse thought for a moment, turning his hand to give the base of Drevin’s length a squeeze as he did so. “Thirteen inches or so? Oh, it’ll be a bit of a stretch, but I think I can find it a nice, warm home, if you’re into that sort of thing.”

Good man for asking. Well, implying the question, anyway. “Best idea I’ve heard all day,” Drevin purred.

“Good, good. Hey, Sulik…” Larenz cut off mid-sentence, lifting his free hand to catch the squeeze-bottle the ermine had tossed his way. “Good man,” he chuckled, then turned to Drevin again. “I, uh… I’m guessing you don’t feel any particular need to take this into my private quarters?”

“Hardly the first time I’ve done it in a barracks,” Drevin pointed out with a chuckle. “Though usually I’ve known those people for a few weeks first, I don’t have weeks to get to know everyone here, so I’ll make do.”

The mouse chuckled again, fingering the ferret’s glans. “Mmm. That’s a nice, practical attitude. Mind if I call you Drevin, by the way?” He grinned. “I want to know what I should be moaning later.”

“Dropping the formality is fine,” Drevin sighed, leaning in against the mouse’s palm.

It was just as well that Drevin had chosen the lower bunk of the empty pair. Once he’d stretched out on his borrowed bunk, it was easy for Larenz – Francisco – to reach down and smear the slick gel over his pole. And with that done, it was easy for the mouse to swing over, straddle him, get him in place… and sink right down onto him.

It was also just as well that the mouse was a big man, because the last few inches gave him pause and took a bit of fidgeting even as it was. Still, he kept at it, working his way down until he was pressing right against Drevin’s hips, every inch of the ferret’s cock buried inside his snug heat.

What followed was simple and straightforward. Their muzzles met, hungry for contact; their hands roamed over each other’s bodies; they undulated against one another, the mouse lifting about a third of the way off of the ferret’s cock, then impaling himself on it again. Simple enough that some of Drevin’s attention could wander to the scents reaching his nose – at least one mixed couple and another male following their example. When he got a chance to look around, he identified the sources of those scents: one slender wolf sitting on a bunk and leaning against a similarly-slim otter woman, fingering her while she stroked him; nearer by – the next bunk over in fact – that same ermine was polishing his own thick black pole.

“Hey,” Drevin murmured over Francisco’s jaw. “Seems someone else needs a little attention, too.”

“Mmm?” The mouse followed his glance. “Sulik? Oh, he’s tasty, too.”

They exchanged grins; the ermine paused, perking up a little, on hearing his name, and at the mouse’s beckoning gesture, rose from his bunk with a stretch. He sauntered over, leaning on the bunk over the pair, grinning down at them, and let the ferret’s fingers guide him in closer.

He had nice, heavy balls under that lush, concealing pelt, and the low rumble that sounded in his chest as Drevin fondled them was a delight. Also, he was very willing indeed to be brought in closer still, close enough for a few inches of black flesh to slide between Drevin’s muzzle and Francisco’s, close enough for them to lap at it from either side.

The mouse was pleasingly vocal, not at all shy about how much he was enjoying things. It wasn’t a surprise when he shuddered, gasping softly, spasming around Drevin’s cock, sticky heat pulsing over the ferret’s belly-fur. Sulik, typical for his breed, was more discreet about his pleasures, but he was still breathless and shivering by the time Francisco came, and his relative silence made the groan that followed, as he spurted over the pair’s muzzles, that much more exquisite.

Awash in the sensations of pleasure all around him, the rush of Drevin’s own climax, the feel of his spunk pumping out of him and into the bigger male, was just a high note in an extraordinary chorus.

They came up for air, still panting. Francisco reached up to grip the struts of the upper bunk, pulling himself up to look Drevin over. “Figures,” the mouse laughed. “You just came out of the shower and we’ve got you all sticky again.”

“Don’t you dare apologize for that,” Drevin shot back, reaching up to give one of those big, round ears a light tweak. “That was the best welcome I’ve ever received to anywhere, and my usual squadron isn’t exactly prudish.”

The ermine laughed, reaching down to stroke Drevin’s ears. “So pleased to meet your exalted standards, then,” he murmured.

Francisco laughed as well, reaching over with his free hand to swat Sulik on the hip. To Drevin, he said, “Guess we could both use another shower, then, huh?”

Inspiration struck. “You might as well pin me to the wall there before we get the water running,” Drevin suggested, feeling another grin steal over his muzzle. “Might get a bit distracted anyway.”

Francisco shivered a little atop him, then grinned, hunkering down to brush his lips against the ferret’s. “I think we’re going to get along just fine, you know.”

In the minutes that followed, Drevin couldn’t agree more.