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Irvine knew his weaknesses well, although he generally tried to ignore them. They seemed to centre around the theme of excess, usually sexual, and although it was true that he had once or twice missed duty because someone had fucked his brains out the night before, it was only once or twice, and Xu had been very forgiving. Eventually.

One of the least problematic of all was his obsession with Squall's ass. Or at least, it had seemed harmless. It was a comfort to him, on more than one occasion, especially during boring meetings with Odine, or when on magic-drawing duty during a battle, to while away the moments watching the shift and curve of buttock through tight black leather. Where was the harm in that?

He certainly didn't expect it to kill him.

But it did.

* * * * * * *

It wasn't a particularly dangerous mission. Just part of the routine clean up of the lunar cry in Esthar. He was working with Squall and Rinoa, which, although pleasant, usually left little for Irvine to do. Pitting the slayer of Ultimecia against a few mesmerises and a turtlepod was overkill to start with, and by the time there was a sorceress in the mix, even the best sniper in the world was somewhat redundant. So Irvine stood a little behind the other two as they decimated the monster population, and entertained himself with plans for later. Particularly plans involving a hot tub, a lot of ice cream and possibly a snorkel. Oh, and champagne.

And Squall's ass, obviously.

Which is how come he missed the pair of imps sneaking up behind him.

It was over so quickly he wasn't even completely sure how it happened. He felt the terrifying wash of a death spell, and something else, poison, maybe - and then the world faded to black.

Next he knew, he was standing on the lawn outside a formidable looking building, in a haze of cherry blossom. Of course, he didn't realise he was dead at first. His first thought was that he must have been teleported somehow, some side effect of that Ragnarok disaster a couple of years back, or perhaps he was unconscious and this was a dream. That would make the most sense, he decided. In which case, he may as well take a look around.

He turned towards the building with the aim of doing just that, but came immediately face-to-face with an absolutely stunning, beautiful man. Dark hair tumbled into bright, violet eyes, and a gorgeous, generous smile.

"Hello," drawled Irvine, matching the smile with his own, and extended his hand. "Irvine Kinneas."

"Tsuzuki Asato," said the stranger. "Call me Tsuzuki."

"Tsuzuki. Um... this sounds a little odd, but... I don't suppose you can tell me where I am?"

A shadow passed across the beautiful violet eyes. "Oh. You don't know?"

Irvine shook his head, and something in Tsuzuki's expression frightened and saddened him to the bone.

"This is Meifu," said Tsuzuki, gently. "I'm afraid you... what's the last thing you remember?"

"I was fighting monsters, with friends of mine. There were these imps, and..."

"They hurt you?" Tsuzuki prompted, meaningfully.

"Well, yes, I... oh. Oh. Is this... I must be dreaming. Or something." He reached out a hand, and stroked Tsuzuki's hair. "You're beautiful enough for a dream."

Tsuzuki blushed delightfully, and looked a little startled, but he didn't move away. "No," he said. "Not a dream."

"Then..."

"I'm sorry, Irvine," said Tsuzuki, sadly. "I'm afraid you're dead."

Irvine blinked at him, the idea failing to register with his mind at all. "Dead? I can't be dead, I-"

He was distracted by a young man running across the lawn towards them; he had the biggest, most vivid green eyes Irvine had ever seen.

"Tsuzuki? What are you doing out- oh. Who are you?"

"This is Irvine," said Tsuzuki. "Irivne, this is Hisoka."

Hisoka didn't offer his hand, but he smiled. Irvine smiled back, a little weakly.

"Irvine's just... arrived," said Tsuzuki.

"Arrived?"

"From... where did you say you were from?"

"Galbadia. Balamb. Somewhere round there." Irvine's voice sounded distant to him, as if it belonged to someone else. Perhaps it did. If he was dead... did the dead have voices?

"But that's... we usually only deal with Japan," said Hisoka.

"I spent some time in Japan once," said Irvine, wistfully. A sudden memory of a huge bed and Yohji's big, soulful eyes flashed to mind. He ached. He missed them still, wondered what they were doing.

Dead? Could he really be dead?

"But Galbadia... that's not even the same universe," said Hisoka.

"There was an accident. Mad scientist. You have those here?"

"Oh yes," said Hisoka, with feeling.

"Maybe that's it," said Tsuzuki. "Stranger things have happened, after all."

"He can't be on the register," said Hisoka. "Or someone would have been sent."

"I could check with the Earl," said Tsuzuki, unhappily.

"Let's start with Tatsumi," said Hisoka. "It'll be alright," he added, to Irvine. "Don't be frightened."

"I'm not, I-"

"Yes," said Hisoka firmly. "You are. But that's normal."

"It'll be alright," said Tsuzuki, kindly. "Come with us."

Irvine smiled weakly, and followed them into the building, absently brushing cherry blossom from his duster. He was led down endless, faceless, depressing corridors, with labels in Japanese that Irvine couldn't read properly. Squall had been the one who'd bothered to learn, in long sessions poring over the worktable in the Koneko after hours, Aya's head close to his, cherries and dark chocolate.

How could he survive without Squall?

How did survival work in the afterlife? If this wasn't a dream, if he really was dead...

They finally came to a door and stopped. Hisoka rapped smartly on it, and Irvine heard a gruff response from inside. The door swung open, and Tsuzuki and Hisoka led him through.

Irvine found himself face to face with a tall, spectacled man in a dark brown suit. Powerful, dependable-looking, and astonishingly beautiful.

It occured to Irvine that all of the people he'd met so far in this place, wherever it was, were unaccountably attractive. If he really had died, maybe this was heaven. Oddly, the thought held little comfort.

"We think we found an anomaly," said Hisoka.

Irvine bristled a bit, not sure he found it altogether friendly to be described as an anomaly. "My name's Irvine," he said, pointedly.

"Don't mind Hisoka," said Tsuzuki, with a warm smile. "It's just his way."

"He is an anomaly," said Hisoka, irritably. "I'm just telling the truth."

"It's not always the best-" started Tsuzuki.

"How about you start at the beginning?" Tatsumi interrupted, with a meaningful glance at the others.

"I found Irvine outside," Tsuzuki explained. "He's dead, but he's not from Japan. Or the Earth, actually. He's from Galbadia."

One of Tatsumi's eyebrows shot up. "Another universe? My, that hasn't happened for a long, long time..."

"I'm not sure I'm dead, actually," Irvine said, suddenly finding his voice. "I could be dreaming, or-"

"I'm sorry," said Tatsumi, with kindly but absolute authority. "But Tsuzuki's right. Come here."

Irvine stepped forwards, and Tatsumi reached out a hand, slipped it warm and firm through Irvine's hair to cradle the back of his skull.

"Look into my eyes," he said, softly, taking off his glasses. "You know who I am, and what it means. If you look, and let yourself see."

Irvine looked deep into the endless blue of Tatsumi's eyes, and, with a deep, heart-wrenching sense of loss, he knew he was dead.

"Shinigami," he breathed. "You're... I'm..."

He fought back tears. The dead cried, then? Cried and breathed, and his heart still felt as if it were beating, and he felt the vague thrill at Tatsumi's touch, and yet... he was dead.

"I'm sorry," said Tatsumi, his hand dropping back to his side. "I don't know why you're here, your world deals with these things... differently. But you're a human soul, and we'll care for you as best we can. Alright?"

Irvine fought down his fear and grief, and nodded, once. "Thank you," he said. He plunged his hands into his pockets, so these strangers wouldn't notice they were shaking.

He was dimly aware of Hisoka taking a step backwards, and at the same time, of Tsuzuki coming forwards, reaching out to him.

"Would you like to sit down?" he said. "Can I get you anything? A glass of water, maybe?"

Irvine blinked at him. "I didn't think it would be like this," he said, weakly. "I thought... well, I don't know what I thought. That there was nothing, like sleeping, or that you were born again and didn't know... I..." He found himself sitting in a big leather armchair, a glass of water in his hand. Tsuzuki perched on the arm of the chair, and was holding his hand.

"There are as many ways of being dead as there are to die," said Tsuzuki. "I've been here for a lifetime already. You might end up somewhere completely different. It's very complicated, but it's alright. It's not usually as bad as people expect. It's... different."

"Can I go back? There's people, I-"

"You can, but we strongly recommend against it, and those you love wouldn't be able to see or feel you. Of course, it might work differently on your world. You left loved ones?"

The compassion in Tsuzuki's voice was deep and intense. Irvine didn't think he'd ever met anyone who seemed to care quite so much for someone he'd only just met.

"Yes. Yes, very... loved." His mind was full of the sound of Selphie's laughter, the scent of strawberries, and more than anything the warmth of Squall's smile, his comfort, his strength. His fierce, unconditional love.

Tsuzuki squeezed his hand. "I'm sorry," he whispered, from the heart.

Tears spilled from Irvine's eyes, a sob escaped from his throat.

Tsuzuki took him in his arms, and held him while he cried.

* * * * * * *

As if being dead wasn't weird enough, now he was talking to a chicken.

And, more to the point, the chicken talked back.

At least he liked what it seemed to be saying.

They were huddled around the chicken's computer in a huge room full of leather-bound volumes and dusty files. Hisoka was flicking through a database, while the chicken hovered at his shoulder.

"So he shouldn't be dead at all?" Tsuzuki said.

"Not in this world," said the chicken. Whose name, Irvine reminded himself, was Gushoshin. He should try and remember that, because, chicken or no, he liked him.

"But he died in his world," said Hisoka. "Surely he should be dead there? Ow!"

Hisoka clutched his ankle, and gave Tsuzuki a hard stare.

"That's where it gets complicated," said Gushoshin. "Watari should be here soon, he has a theory."

"But if he died there... shouldn't we hand him over?" said Hisoka. "I'm sorry, Irvine, but there's no point getting your hopes up."

"That's the intruguing thing," said Gushoshin. "Gushoshin's been emailing his world like a demented bird all morning, and they're quite convinced he shouldn't be there, either. At least, not yet."

"Hang on," said Irivne, "I thought you were-"

"Twins," supplied Tsuzuki. Irvine snapped his mouth shut. Twin talking chickens with the same name and computer skills. He might have guessed.

Maybe the price for a life as a slut was an afterlife of perpetual confusion. With chickens.

He was dimly aware of the heavy thunk of a door behind him.

"What seems to be the trouble?"

A soft voice, an unusual accent, and a twang of cheerfulness that had been sadly lacking in Irvine's experience of Meifu so far. He turned to find an expansive cloud of gold-blond hair and a huge smile.

And an owl. But he could overlook that for now.

"Hello," said the vision of golden loveliness. "I'm Watari. You must be Irvine."

Irvine grinned. "Yes," he said, reaching out his hand. "Nice to meet you."

Watari squeezed his hand gently.

"I'm 003," said the owl. But Irvine tried not to think about it.

"Don't worry," said Watari. "We'll get you home."

For the first time since the imps, Irvine started to relax.

"Is that home alive, or home dead?" asked Irvine. "I don't want to appear ungrateful, but it makes a difference."

"Alive, by the looks of it," said Watari, cheerfully. "The Meifu of your world aren't interested in you at all, not until you're old and grey and surrounded by great-grand children."

"I don't even have any kids yet," said Irvine. "So that sounds very encouraging."

"Actually you ha-" started Hisoka, who was still scanning the computer data, but Gushoshin shut him up with a frantic flurry of wings.

"We shouldn't tell you anything about your death, though," Watari added. "So keep it to yourself, okay? Think of it as compensation for mistakenly dying at the wrong time."

"Sure," said Irvine. "So... what do we do? How do I get back?"

He hardly dared hope.

"I don't know," said Watari. "I think what happened to you was a direct result of the accident that brought you to Japan. You see, according to the theory of-"

"Oh no," groaned Tsuzuki. "Not the science bit."

"No, actually," said Watari, pushing his glasses up his nose. "I was going to say the theory of office management."

"What?" Irvine wondered how baffled a person could get before he actually went insane.

"Your files got lost," said Watari. "They forgot you'd gone back, so they didn't save you."

"What?"

"I'm sorry," said Watari, sympathetically. "This must be awfully confusing for you."

Irvine nodded, mutely. He noticed, somewhere in the fuddle of his brain, that Watari had the sweetest smile. He clung to that thought like a life raft.

"Oh," said Tsuzuki. "That would make sense. What were you doing when... when it happened, Irvine?"

"We were killing monsters, as usual."

"Were you distracted? I mean, were they particularly fearsome beasts, or-"

"Oh, no. Irritating, sure, but I've killed plenty of them. Yeah, I guess I was distracted. Not paying attention."

"There you go," said Watari, triumphantly. "You were just overlooked!"

Irvine looked helplessly at him. "Overlooked?"

"They should have saved you," said the owl.

"You know that feeling," said Tsuzuki, "when you're miles away, and all of a sudden you sense danger and come back to yourself? Just in time? Like if you're crossing the road and dreaming of sponge cake, or..."

"Oh, yeah," said Irvine, eager to talk to someone who didn't have a beak and feathers. "Or watching someone with a really cute butt?"

Tsuzuki looked a little disconcerted. Watari sniggered.

"Could be," said Tsuzuki. "Well, that's when the APD team step in."

"The APD?"

"Avoidance of Premature Death," said Watari. "They make sure people don't die by accident. Unless they're supposed to."

"And they lost my file?" Irvine had always hated paperwork. Now he knew why.

"Yes."

"So... can I go home?" Hope surged through his heart. *Squall. Selphie.*

"That's more difficult," said Hisoka.

Irvine was really starting to hate the kid's flair for honesty.

"Difficult, but not impossible," said Watari.

"Research," said the owl, and nudged Watari's neck with its beak.

"I'll help," said Irvine. "Anything. Only, I'd really appreciate it if you could send me back."

"You miss life a lot," said Watari. An observation, rather than a question.

"Like you wouldn't believe," said Irvine, passionately.

"Then we'll get you back there." Watari squeezed Irvine's shoulder, a warm, reassuring gesture. "I promise."

"Promise," said the owl.

* * * * * * *

Research to Irvine was usually something that other people did, and he heard about later. Most often in the form of mission briefings, or occasionally weapons magazines. It had certainly been a long, long time since he'd been inside a library with the actual purpose of finding a book.

Watari, on the other hand, seemed perfectly at home. He hummed happily to himself as he rifled through the shelves, 003 watching with interest from her perch at the top of the stack. Every now and then he found something that made him give an excited little gasp, and that tome was handed to Irvine to carry carefully to the large, wooden table in the centre of the room. Watari had worked out early on that actually asking Irvine to look for specific volumes met with blank, if apologetic stares, and henceforth set him mostly manual tasks.

Which suited Irvine. He had a lot to think about, and it was reassuring, in a way, to be doing ordinary, everyday things. He was slowly coming to terms with the idea that it could take a while to send him back. But at least there was hope, and for Irvine, a little hope went a long way.

It also left his mind free to think about his new surroundings, and his new friends. He felt fortunate that at least they were friendly, even the down-to-earth Hisoka. And astoundingly beautiful, to a man. Even the birds were pleasant.

Reassured by the promise of ultimate escape, Irvine allowed himself to watch the grace with which Watari moved, and the swish of his luxuriant golden mane. He didn't know if it was normal for the dead, or whether it was because he wasn't, after all, legitimately dead, but there was something about the shinigami in general, and at this moment, Watari in particular, that made him tingle in a way he firmly associated with being alive.

"Here." Watari turned to him and handed him yet another book. "Put this on the A-pile."

His hand brushed Watari's fingers as he took the tome from him; he dared to linger for a moment. Watari's eyes met his, and Irvine felt a familiar, unmistakable spark.

"Oh," said Watari, as the book fell to the floor, and their hands twined together. Surprise. Recognition. And, to Irvine's joy, desire.

It had been a long day, the biggest emotional rollercoaster imaginable, and Irvine had very little self control left. Or, come to that, rational thought. All he knew was that his attraction to this - well, quite literally, god - was as strong as his need for comfort and affection, and it was a very simple matter to pull Watari into his arms and kiss him.

Or it would have been, if Watari hadn't got there first.

Irvine surrendered happily to the subtle pressure of Watari's lips, and the warmth of his body.

"I've got to ask," he stammered out between kisses, "sorry, but do you... here... is there... do... can you..."

"Can I what?" Watari pulled back a little, his amber eyes smouldering with lust.

"Fuck?" said Irvine, hopefully. "Or, um, anything." His usual charm had clearly deserted him, but given the day he'd had, he hoped Watari would make allowances.

"Oh yes," said Watari, cheerfully.

"Like rabbits," said the owl from the stack. "Mmm. Rabbits..."

"Thank Hyne for that," said Irvine, resolutely ignoring the owl. "Only, I thought with... um..."

"With being dead?" Watari supplied. "No, we do all the usual things. Eating, sleeping, making love."

Something about the way Watari said 'making love' made Irvine melt inside.

"Oh good," he said, and pulled Watari back into kissing range.

"Just one thing," said Watari, the second before their lips met.

"What, Wat, er... what?" stammered Irvine, transfixed by Watari's luscious mouth, longing to taste him again.

"We're in the library," said Watari. "Anyone could just..."

"Oh, that's okay, I've done libraries before," said Irvine, pausing for a nibble at Watari's lower lip. "Is it busy?"

"No," said Watari. "Oh, my." His eyes fluttered shut as Irvine planted little kisses along his jaw, nuzzled into his neck.

"Can the owl do look out duty?"

"Yes," said the owl, with a "t'woo" that sounded remarkably like a long-suffering sigh.

"Then we'll be fine, we can just hide in the stacks. I love your hair," said Irvine, snaking a hand around Watari's waist, under his heavy lab coat, swiftly hitching up his sweater to feel the silky skin underneath.

"Me, too, yours," panted Watari, releasing Irvine's thick, rust-coloured hair with a deft flick of his wrist.

Irvine kissed him, long and deep, and carefully manoevred them both back along the stack until they met the wall. Watari kissed with such tenderness, his mouth soft, his hands soothing the knotted muscles of Irvine's shoulders and back, that Irvine started to regret that they weren't in bed, where he could cherish and give him the attention he deserved. It seemed somehow disrespectful, to take such a beautiful creature in a heated rush against a hard wall. Irvine pushed the lab coat carefully over Watari's shoulders, not really meaning to undress him completely, at least not at first. But Watari's skin was pleasingly soft and his body underneath seductively hard, and his nipples were so stiff and just begging to be licked... before he remembered they were in public, Watari, at least, was topless, and Irvine was teasing his pink little nipples with teeth and tongue as he deftly undid his pants. It was just too tempting to resist unwrapping him completely, and Watari certainly wasn't protesting. Irvine darted a look to the owl, who was dutifully watching the heavy wooden door to the library.

Maybe a fully intelligent, talking owl had its advantages after all.

Irvine tugged Watari's pants and underwear off his feet, and set about kissing and licking his way up his long, finely muscled and faintly trembling legs. Finally he reached his long, pretty cock, fully hard and leaking a little at the tip. Irvine settled himself on his knees, rested his hands on Watari's hips, and nuzzled gently at his balls. Watari gasped and tangled his fingers in Irvine's hair; Irvine looked up and winked at him as he licked up the length of his cock, dropped a kiss on the end. He watched Watari's face, flushed with pleasure, as he grasped his new friend's erection by the root and slowly took the head in his mouth.

He'd just started to suck, when the owl squawked loudly. "Gushoshin."

Irvine jumped guiltily and let Watari's cock fall from his mouth; Watari scrambled desperately for his clothes. Still fully dressed, Irvine took a deep breath, and walked as calmly as possible to the end of the stack.

"Hi," he said, as calmly as he could manage.

"Hello," said Gushohin. As far as Irvine could tell from his extremely scant experience of reading chickens' facial expressions, the bird didn't seem unduly suspicious.

"Wat's, um, looking really hard," said Irvine. "Might take a while. On this, um, shelf."

"That's okay," said Gushoshin cheerfully. "I'll be over there in the general reference section. How's it going?"

Gushoshin tried to look over his shoulder; Irvine leaned as casually as he could against the stack to block his view. "Good. I think. You know how it is. There's... um... all these books." He nodded in what he hoped looked like a studious manner. "Lots to do. Reading. Hm."

The chicken blinked at him for a moment.

"So. Don't let me keep you," Irvine said. "You must be terribly busy."

"Oh. Yes, we are. Well, Good luck with the search!"

"Thank you." Irvine smiled encouragingly, and Gushoshin went on his way.

Irvine watched the chicken disappear around the corner of the stack, in amongst the encyclopedias and dictionaries, before he turned back to Watari, who had managed to get his lab coat on in the confusion, but not a scrap else. Irvine was about to suggest maybe they could go somewhere a little more private to finish what they'd started, but he didn't get the chance. Watari grabbed him, kissed him til his knees went weak, and started urgently to undo his jeans.

"Chicken," murmured Irvine, vaguely.

"Oh no, I'm braver than I look," whispered Watari with a smirk, wrapping his fingers carefully around Irvine's straining erection.

"No, I mean... chicken. Gushishonshinthing, talking chicken. Round the corner. Reference section." Irvine's eyes fluttered shut. "Oh, gods, but that's good."

"Oh, Gushoshin? Well, we'll just have to be quiet."

"You mean..." Irvine recognised the glint in Watari's eyes."You *want* to... here..." A grin spread slowly across his face, and Watari winked at him. "I like you," said Irvine. "A lot."

Watari glanced up at 003, who ruffled her feathers some. Presumably agreeing to keep watch.

"I like you, too," he said, with an affectionate squeeze to Irvine's cock.

"Are you sure..." Irvine fervently hoped he was. He wasn't sure he was actually capable of stopping. Watari was so appealing, with those cute little scientist-glasses and gorgeous golden hair, all naked under his lab coat and all...

"I'm sure," purred Watari, strengthening his grip. "Besides, chickens have terrible hearing."

"As do humans," murmured 003, disconcertingly.

They both elected to ignore that. Irvine slid his arms inside Watari's labcoat, and kissed him again. He was so deliciously naked and warm. He took Watari's cock, still rock hard and leaking, and clasped it to his own, rubbed them gently together. Watari unfurled his fingers and linked them with Irvine's, their hands circling their cocks as they rubbed together.

"That's good," whispered Watari. "A little harder, perhaps..."

Irvine happily obliged, pushing him back against the wall as he started to rock his hips, sliding his erection more firmly against Watari's.

Watari moaned, softly at first, and then loudly enough that Irvine had to kiss him to muffle the sound. Which was no hardship, to be sure; Watari's mouth was soft and wet and inviting, and he sucked gently on Irvine's tongue in a particularly inspiring way.

The owl squeaked, and they froze instantly, Irvine's heart pounding in his chest, a mixutre of panic and excitement rushing through him.

"Sorry," said the owl. "Something in my throat."

Irvine could swear the bird was smirking.

"Oh my," murmured Watari.

"We'd better make this quick," Irvine suggested. Fun though it was, he really didn't want another scare like that, and however exciting it was that they might get caught at any moment, he didn't want to risk scandalising or offending his new friends. Besides, Watari's long fingers were working like magic on his tender flesh, and his cock was aching for release.

"Hm," Watari agreed, and they picked up the pace. It took no more than a dozen rapid strokes before Watari came, Irvine covering his mouth with his own just in time to swallow a groan. No sooner did Irvine feel the sticky-wet of Watari's semen coating his own cock and fingers than his own pleasure overtook him. They shuddered together for a few moments, before collapsing into each others' arms. Irvine turned his head towards the owl, which had discreetly turned its back on them.

"Thank you," he whispered.

003 turned her head around, in that disconcerting way owls have, and he could have sworn she winked at him.

"You're welcome," she said. And shuffled up towards the end of the stack to check around the corner.

"You'd better get dressed," he said to Watari, who had fished a handful of paper towels out of his pocket for them to clean up with.

Watari cleared his throat, a little sheepish. "Yes," he said. "Um."

Irvine smiled at him.

"Are you alright?" Watari asked.

"Fine," said Irvine. "I-"

Then he caught the look in Watari's eyes. Concern. Wisdom. Compassion.

The smile faded and Irvine struggled to speak, his throat suddenly constricted with grief and panic. Despite what they'd just done, how close they'd been, the pleasure they'd shared, he'd never felt more alone in his life. As beautiful and kind as Watari was, he was a stranger.

"I think we've done enough research for today," said Watari. "Would you like to come back to my apartment? We could get something to eat and... maybe you could tell me about your homeworld. I'd really like to know."

"Yes," said Irivne, gratefully. "I... yes, please."

Watari brushed Irvine's cheek with his fingertips. "Good."

* * * * * * *
Watari's apartment was large and airy, and suspiciously tidy. Watari confessed that he spent little time there, and was usually found in his lab when he wasn't on assignment. Nonetheless his quarters were comfortable and inviting. Almost as comfortable and inviting as Watari himself, Irvine mused, as he followed Watari to the main living area.

003 squawked happily, and perched on the back of a sofa, worn to comfort by years of contact with her sharp little claws.

"She likes being at home," Watari said, scratching the little owl's chest feathers. She fluffed herself up, eyes squinched shut with pleasure. "She's always complaining I spend too much time at work."

"How did you... um... she..."

"That's a long story," said Watari. "Do you like birds?"

"Oh, yeah, sure," said Irvine. "I'm just not used to them talking, as such. It's a bit... unnerving."

Watari smiled. "A lot of things round here must seem strange to you."

"You could say that. Although the people... people are much the same, wherever you go."

"You've travelled a lot?"

"More than you'd think possible," said Irvine, with considerable feeling.

"Hm. Are you hungry?"

"Yeah." Irvine thought back, and realised he hadn't eaten in probably near to eight hours. Not to mention the fact that the episode in the library had given him a sudden appetite.

"I thought maybe I'd put something in the oven and get a bath." Watari's eyes met his. "You're welcome to join me."

A little thrill shot up Irvine's spine.

"Thank you. I don't want to be any trouble."

Watari smiled. "You're not."

"He's no trouble," added 003 for good measure. "He's very quiet."

"Not always," Irvine said. "But I'll try to behave myself." He reached out to tickle her behind the ears.

"Oooh," said 003. "He can stay."

Watari laughed. "Why don't you go and run the bath while I get dinner started? The bathroom's through that door just behind you."

"Okay."

"Oh, and don't mind the penguins."

"Penguins?" said Irvine, weakly.

"You'll see."

Irvine cautiously opened the door, and found himself in a large bathroom, almost as large as Selphie's. The tiled floor was covered with soft rugs, and there was a huge sunken bath in one corner, equipped with a range of candles in little glass dishes. It was only when Irvine had put the plug in the bath and turned on the taps that he noticed the frosted glass bricks which formed the wall opposite the bath.

On closer inspection, it had a sliding door in the centre. Irvine opened it a crack and peeked through.

He blinked.

Adjoining Watari's bathroom was what appeared to be a fully equipped penguin enclosure. There was a large, deep pool, surrounded by rocky platforms and little caves. There were at least three penguins, huddled together at the far end of the pool, preening each other.

Irvine very, very quietly shut the door, and went back to lighting candles.

Penguins?

It would be so easy to believe this was all a dream. If he hadn't looked into Tatsumi's eyes...

Irvine shuddered.

"Hey."

He turned to see Watari in the doorway, leaning against the wooden frame, watching him.

"You really do have penguins," Irvine noted.

"I love birds. They started out as an experiment, but..." Watari shrugged. "We get along. I've had worse room-mates."

Irvine decided that coming to terms with talking chickens and owls was enough for one day, without inquiring any further into the abilities or habits of Watari's penguins. "Bath's nearly ready," he said, brightly.

"Good," said Watari, pulling his sweater over his head, shaking his hair free, soft down his back. "There's some lavender oil there somewhere. Put some of that in, it'll help us relax."

Irvine found the little glass bottle on the shelf, and poured a few drops into the bath, swirled it around in the deliciously warm water. "Smells good."

"So do you."

Watari draped himself over Irvine's back as he leaned over the bath, brushing his ponytail to one side to kiss his neck.

"Oh," said Irvine, the touch of Watari's lips tickling the soft hair at the nape of his neck and sending shivers down his spine.

"This must all seem very strange to you," said Watari. "Try to relax." He slipped Irvine's vest up his back, kissing the newly-exposed skin as he went. Irvine let Watari undress him, his body thrilling at the other man's considerate touch. When they were both completely naked, Watari slipped his arms around Irvine's middle and hugged him, his chest warm against Irvine's back, his cock hard and silky smooth against the crack of Irvine's ass.

"I'm so grateful," Irvine murmured. "You're being so good to me."

"It must be... I can't imagine what it must be like," said Watari, kissing the sharp edge of Irvine's shoulderblades. "Except that I remember how it felt to die."

Irvine recalled, with a shock, that this warm, loving, happy man really was dead. It seemed impossible. "I'm sorry," he said, twisting around in Watari's arms to look at him. "How long..."

"A quarter century or so," said Watari. "It's not so bad, you know. I missed people, at first, but... I have good friends here. I like my work. I can do science here that back in the living world I wouldn't have dared to dream of. I'm happy here. But... I still remember how afraid I was, at first. Remember, it's not your time yet. We will find a way to send you back, I promise."

Irvine felt tears pricking at the back of his eyes; Watari was so damn kind and nice. "I believe in fate," he said. "If I'm here, there's a reason. Whenever I've ended up anywhere before, there's always been a reason."

"That's a good way to look at it," said Watari.

"I know it's important to keep positive," Irvine said. "It's just hard, without..."

"... the people you left behind."

"Yes."

They got in the bath, which was deliciously warm and fragrant. Irvine sat cradled between Watari's knees, his back to Watari's chest; Watari put his arms around Irvine's middle and held him, kissing his hair.

"Tell me about your friends," said Watari. "Where do you live?"

"It's called Balamb Garden. It's a training facility, of sorts."

"You have family there?"

"No. I lost my parents when I was a baby. But my friends are my family, really. We grew up together, most of us, and we're so close... like, it's my birthday tomorrow, and my girlfriend was planning this surprise party... she's not very good at surprises, but she's very good at parties, and..."

"You have a girlfriend? What's her name?"

"Selphie. And... Rinoa."

"Two girlfriends. I see," Watari smiled into Irvine's hair, and splashed water gently over his chest.

"And Squall."

"Three?"

"Squall's a man, actually."

"Aha. I see. So you have a harem."

Irvine managed a chuckle. "I suppose it does sound like that," he said. "You could say I'm a bit of a slut, I guess."

"Or that you're very popular," suggested Watari.

"Yeah," said Irvine, finding that idea rather appealing. "That sounds a lot better. And-"

He paused for a moment, noticing a faint hum in the back of his mind: familiar, but he couldn't quite place it, like a half-remembered song. Then it was gone.

"What about you? Anyone special?" he asked, the feeling slipping easily out of his mind as Watari stroked his wet skin. It felt good, and his cock was mostly hard, but he felt happy for now just to lie here and talk, and he guessed that Watari felt the same.

"Not at the moment. I don't get much time, with my work and everything."

"So 003's right to worry about you, then."

"Perhaps."

Again, Irvine felt that stiriing in his mind, but again it slipped away before he could properly register it.

"What do you like to do?" Watari asked, stroking Irvine's damp hair back over his shoulders.

"I like my job. And people. I've always loved people."

"You must miss your friends."

"A lot. Especially... well. More than that, though, they'll be so worried and sad..." Irvine felt the grief welling in his chest, and yet again a ripple in his mind, a quiet surge of need.

"You have to remember that this isn't permanent," said Watari, soothingly.

"But they don't know that."

"Not now, but... how can I put this. Um. Does the phrase transitory temporal transergence mean anything to you?"

Irvine ran his finger in little circles on Watari's knee. "No," he said. "I would have to say it doesn't. Science isn't my, um, strong subject."

"Time travel?"

"Oh yeah. Time compression. Definitely. Been there, done that."

"Really? You're travelled through time?" Watari sounded very impressed.

"Yeah, like, we went to the future to kill a sorceress who was doing bad things in the past. I think that was it... I never quite got the hang of it, to be honest, but it seemed to work out okay."

"Goodness. What was it like? How did it feel?" asked Watari excitedly.

"Weird. We didn't get much chance to think about it, to be honest. It was like being stretched, and then pinged back like an elastic band... unreal. I think there was water, and a desert... and a lot of fighting."

"And this time compression... it was like a fold in time?"

"Yes, sort of. Like I say, it's not my thing, science."

"So it does work," Watari murmured. "That's our solution," he said, mostly to himself. "If we can send you back in time, and you can avoid the distraction... when you time travelled before, were you aware of the past? Or the future? Or did you forget what hadn't yet happened?"

"Yeah, I remembered," said Irvine. "Are you saying you know how to send me back?"

"Oh yes," said Watari, with confidence so absolute that Irvine had no choice but to believe him. "I've done experiments in time travel, and if it really works... I'm pretty sure I can send you back. The only problem now is the multi-universal element. We need to move you back to your world, or else you'll appear in the past, but here in Meifu. That requires magic, and none of our shikigami have the ability to travel between dimensions, at far as I know. That's what I was planning on researching today."

"Before we got distracted."

"Hm." Watari planted a kiss on Irvine's neck; the memory of their furtive encounter in the stacks sprang fresh to Irvine's mind, which, together with the delicious feeling of Watari's length stiffening against his ass, spread a particular kind of warmth through Irvine's belly.

"What are shikigami?" he asked.

"What?" Watari seemed distracted, although whether by his theories or the appeal of Irvine's body was hard to tell.

"The shikigami?"

"Oh, they're creatures, strong, powerful creatures with magic from another plane, who can protect and help us."

"Oh, we have them. We call them Guardian Forces. I've got one called... damnit! *That's* what it is!"

"That's what what is?"

"I've had this kind of background noise in my head, and I couldn't work out what it was, it sounded familiar but somehow different... and of course, it's Ether! My Guardian! He must have found me!"

"You have a shikigami? It followed you here after your death?"

"Feels like. I didn't think it could do that, usually when people die they're released, but...." Irvine tentatively tested his junction; it was definitely there, although very weak. "Looks like it took it out of him, thought. He's pretty much knocked out." Irvine felt comforted to have at least something from his old life with him, even it was a near-unconcscious Guardian. He sensed Watari's excitement, and twisted round to look at him. "What's up? Are these shik... shin... shig... whatever you said - really rare here or something?"

"No, but Irvine, don't you see what this means?!"

Irvine stared blankly at him.

"Your shikigami *followed* you here! It must be able to pass between universes!"

"Oh. Yes. Don't yours do that? I found it on another universe altogether, as it happens. But I thought... Er... why was that important again? I'm really not that good at science," he added, apologetically.

Watari smiled indulgently. "It'll help to get you home," he said. "Give me a week to do some final experiments, and I think with the help of your shikigami, we'll have you back in the right place,*and* the right time, so you can stop your death.

"A week?!" Irvine flung himself at Watari, splashing puddles onto the floor in the process, and kissed him delightedly.

Watari caught his excitement, and hugged him. "We'll have to find a way to wake up your shikigami. Any ideas?"

A happy grin spread across Irvine's face. "Oh, I have a feeling he'll be just fine," he said, swooping in for another kiss. Watari murmured approvingly and wound his fingers in Irvine's hair. Irvine knelt up with another slosh of water, pulling Watari close to him, and let his hands start to roam over his perfect, damp body.

"Are you hungry?" gasped Watari.

"Depends what you mean by hungry," teased Irvine.

"Can you wait for dinner?" Watari's eyes pleaded with him.

"I think so," Irvine grinned, slowly licking his lips.

"Oh good. I want to make love to you," breathed Watari. "Is that alright?"

"Oh yes," said Irvine, feeling suddenly weak at the knees. "Here?" He kissed Watari's kneck, gently flicking away the wet tendrils that clung to his skin.

"Bed," said Watari."

"Why, afraid you won't be able to stand up afterwards?"

"Something like that," breathed Watari.

"Wise," said Irvine devilishly. "Very wise."

They fell out of the bath in a frenzy of kisses, pausing only to grab towels before staggering, still kissing, to the bedroom. Irvine let Watari push him down on the big, soft bed, happy to submit to whatever the shinigami had in mind.

Watari was possibly the most generous lover Irvine had ever known. He spent a long time stroking Irvine's skin, kissing him tenderly and tickling him with his beautiful hair. Whenever Irvine tried to reciprocate he was gently but firmly refused, and Watari would find some new pleasure to distract him. He licked his way down from Irvine's mouth to his belly, lapping at his skin like a cat, and took Irvine's cock between his lips. His tongue was wet and firm, and his hair soft over Irvine's thighs. It was a simple matter to scoot around so he could return the compliment, pulling one of Watari's long legs over him so he straddled Irvine's head, and Irvine could suck that delicious, elegant cock into his mouth. Irvine suckled happily, his fingers gently teasing Watari's balls and anus, and the sensitive ridge of flesh in between. It was perfect; he distracted himself from the intense sensations Watari was treating him to by concentrating on the pleasure he was bringing to his lover, and it felt like he could go on forever.

He reached through his junction with his Guardian into the corner of his mind where Ether rested.

~Ether? Can you hear me?~

~Sniper?~ Weak, faint, like a barely-conscious thought.

~Can you feel this, Ether?~

There was a long pause, before Ether finally said: ~Not Lion.~

~No, but feel how lovely he is.~

Irvine felt the beginnings of a familiar purr.

~Sage.~

~I call him Watari. Isn't he beautiful?~

~Sniper. Sage. Want.~

~Take all you need, Ether. This is for you.~

~Not all for me~ said Ether, wryly, but Irvine could sense his Guardian's hungry appreciation.

~Join us, Ether.~

Slowly, at first, Irvine felt Ether's presence grow stronger in his mind, sensing his lust, drawing on it and at the same time enhancing it. He closed his eyes, and with the flat of one palm in the small of Watari's bck, pulled him down, sucking his cock deep, right down his throat until his nose nestled in soft blond curls. He heard Watari gasp, his fist tight around the root of Irvine's cock, as Irvine started to fuck him with his mouth.

Ether was purring loudly now, rewarding Irvine for his gift with a magical edge to his pleasure. Watari was pulsing hard in his mouth, a living, throbbing thing, matching the rock of Irvine's head with strong but careful thrusts. Irvine gradually became aware of something wet and slick being applied to his own anus, and then of one slender finger worming its way inside.

~Sniper. Sage. Good.~ Ether murmured. Already he was getting stronger, the tingle of magic spreading trough Irvine's veins.

Watari had stopped thrusting, and was pressing a jar into Irvine's hand; he took the hint and allowed Watari to pull out until only the head of his cock was in Irvine's mouth, licked around the ridges and teased the little slit at the top as he slicked Watari's entrance with cool gel that smelt of rose petals. He channeled a little of Ether's power through his fingers to relax resistant muscles, and wriggled two fingers inside. Warm and tight. Delicious.

Watari was fingering him slowly, plunging lazily in and out, pausing once or twice to explore. He found Irvine's prostate and tapped it, then settled to a gentle rub. Irvine returned the compliment, twisting and stretching his lover, Ether strong enough now to flow through his touch and share their pleasure.

"What on earth..." murmured Watari, pausing in his ministrations as Ether touched his mind for the first time.

"My Guardian," said Irvine, between long licks up Watari's shaft. "It's getting stronger. This is how it feeds. Is that alright?"

He felt a tremor in Watari's body as a giggle escaped around Irvnine's cock.

"Mmmgh vrry gghngd," mumbled Watari.

Ether sighed happily.

As wonderful as it was to lie here and touch and taste Watari, the urge to get more than a couple of fingers inside him was growing fast. Thing was, from way Watari had moved from sucking Irvine's cock to kissing his balls, and now to holding them gently out of the way so he could reach Irvine's ass with his tongue, Irvine realised he couldn't make any assumptions as to who was going to fuck who, exactly. Ether certainly didn't seem to care, lost as ever in the ripples of pleasure flowing through them.

Before he could will himself to take Watari's cock out of his mouth to raise the topic for discussion, however, Watari took the initiative, gracefully rolling them over and swivelling around so that Irvine knelt astride his belly, with Watari's cock gently pushing against the crack of his ass.

Watari gazed up fondly at him, a hand on each of Irvine's thighs. "Can I?" He asked, breathlessly. "You can do me afterwards, if you'd like, but I just have to have you. Please?"

He was warm and happy, lying on a soft bed, with a beautiful man begging to fuck him. If only Squall had been here, this really would be heaven.

Ether protested mildly at the melancholy thread in Irvine's thoughts.

Squall would understand. And if Squall were here... with Ether's help, Irvine turned his longing to fantasy, looked down at Watari and smiled. "Yes," he said. "Please."

He reached back to guide Watari's erection to its target, and slowly sank down on it, an inch at a time. It felt thick and warm and alive inside him, and he had to gently remove Watari's hand from his cock for fear he'd come straight away.

"We'll switch," Irvine said. "I want to feel you first."

Watari nodded. He was biting his lip, his eyes closed, cheeks flushed with pleasure.

Ether sang.

Irvine raised himself a little so that Watari could take control, thrusting up into Irvine's body in long, measured strokes. He made very little noise apart from the occasional gasp or sigh, but his fingers shook as they caressed Irvine's thighs, and his belly fluttered.

It was all Irvine could do to resist taking his own pleasure; Watari was so beautiful, so hot and hard inside him. He watched as Watari's breathing grew faster, his thrusts more frenzied, and at the last minute, when Ether's voice was swelling in his head in that particular way, and he could feel the throb of Watari's cock deep inside him, he stopped, plunging down hard on Watari's hips so he couldn't move, couldn't take the final few thrusts to completion.

Watari's eyes shot open, a mixture of disbelief and outrage flickering in his amber eyes for an instant.

"My turn," said Irvine, with a wicked grin. He slowly and with extreme force of will pulled himself off Watari, and gently parted his thighs. "Okay?"

"Oh," Watari managed, arching his back with a soft moan as Irvine settled himself between his legs. His hand snaked down to his cock, but Irvine smacked it away.

"Bad Shinigami!" he teased. "See, this is going to feel sooo good..." He nudged at Watari's entrance with the head of his cock, and gathered Ether's power to focus in his mind. "You ready?"

Watari nodded. "Please," he murmured. "Oh, please."

Irvine pushed gently, and at the same time, released Ether in a surge of magic. As he slowly entered Watari's body, Ether entered his mind, binding them together, opening channels of thought and feeling.

"Irvine?" breathed Watari.

~We can stop if you want.~

He knew Watari didn't want to, he sensed it, but it still seemed polite to ask.

Watari just smiled.

Watari's mind was a contractiction of order and emotion, logic tempered with vivid imagination and affection. Irvine had rarely found such contentment and happiness in another human being. He basked in it. Ether surged energy through them, and Irvine started to move. Watari reached up and tugged his head down to kiss him, and Irvine lost himself in feeling: the tight heat of Watari's body; the warm affection of his mind; the wet cavern of his mouth. It was bright and intense, and he knew it wouldn't last. But that didn't matter.

~Sniper. Sage. Magnificent.~

Irvine felt Watari's orgasm approaching again, and this time he didn't try to stop it. He wrapped firm fingers around his lover's sex and pumped in time with his own thrusts, coming himself the split second after Watari's first spurt landed on his chest. He lost sense of who was coming where and how, feeling Watari's pleasure as deeply as his own, and revelling in filling him, as deep as he could. Watari's legs were wrapped around him, and they were still kissing as they shuddered together, and Ether sang strong and powerful in their minds.

They kissed for a long time, even as the struggled for breath, even after Irvine had slipped from Watari's body, and Ether from his mind, and they lay cuddled in each others' arms, a tangle of limbs and hair, bright copper on gold.

Their kisses slowed with their breath, until they settled, still and close.

"If it's your birthday tomorrow," Watari whispered, as they were dropping off to sleep, "we must celebrate. Is there anything you'd particularly like to do?"

Irvine thought over his day in Meifu: Tsuzuki's kindness, Hisoka's honesty, Tatsumi's powerful tenderness. Watari's love and affection.

"Oh," he smiled into Watari's hair. "I'm sure I can think of something."