Irvine arrived at Tavern Town on a Saturday afternoon in mid summer, on the sort of day that doesn't end, where dusk slips into dawn with barely a sliver of night in between. He wasn't sure how he'd got from the Bo Jangles to the huge gates that marked the entrance to the town; Jack had been singularly vague about how teleportation worked on the heap of junk he used to travel the universe and it was nothing like any form of travel, sub-molecular or otherwise, that Irvine had ever experienced.
And Irvine had travelled a lot.
He arrived at Tavern Town out of breath, fog-headed and, most perplexing of all, wet. Drenched from head to foot and smelling slightly salty, as if he'd been dunked in the ocean. On closer inspection he found a piece of seaweed in one pocket and a rather startled shrimp in his hat. No doubt Odine would have had a perfectly unintelligible explanation, and Irvine was so counfounded he might even have taken comfort from listening to it, just for the air of certainty the bewildering little scientist exuded. But Odine wasn't there, Jack was long gone and Irvine was.... here. Stranded. On the vacation from Hell.
Quite literally, in fact. He'd been working with Selphie and Quistis on the Island Closest to Hell for about six weeks when he'd met Jack in a cave, and decided to take a trip while Squall worked out whatever he was trying to work out with Rinoa. Jack has promised the trip of a lifetime (and a few other things), and it had all been going just fine until Jack got some kind of emergency call, had to go save the world and for some reason didn't think Irvine could help.
So Jack had dropped him here saying it was a bit like a resort for the adventurous hero, muttering something about Disneyland, and here he was. Soaked from head to foot, outside an enormous pair of gates. Thirsty, hungry and kind of horny.
Irvine shook himself like a dog, wrung out his hair, stepped up to the gates and knocked.
To his surprise, they swung open almost immediately, and he was greeted by a huge duck wearing a sailor suit.
It was when the duck spoke that Irvine knew for sure that he was dreaming.
The dream-duck led Irvine across a large, paved courtyard. The buildings surrounding it were huge and ramshackle, packed tightly together and interrupted only occasionally by alleys which led off into the dark and gloomy distance. The courtyard itself was bright and cheerful; a friendly, picture-postcard place, light streaming from streetlamps and windows, amber and gold.
"I'm Donald," the duck said in an odd, quacky sort of voice. "Are you here for the wedding?"
"What? Oh, sure, I guess." Irvine caught himself just in time before he asked whose wedding it might be.
"Most of the guests are arriving tomorrow. Clever of you to come today, there's still some rooms left at the hotel, I think."
"Oh, good. Where is the hotel?"
"It's just around the corner. I can show you, if you like? You look like you need to," and the Duck made a noise somewhere between a quack and a chuckle, "dry out a bit."
Irvine accepted Donald-the-duck's offer - there would be time for slinking around alone later, when he'd got the lay of the land - and checked in at the hotel. The hotel was clean and the room he was given was large and comfortable, with a huge four-poster bed in the middle. The Duck bustled off while Irvine showered, and returned in a few minutes later with Irvine's clothes all clean and dry. Irvine was used enough to odd things happening not to question how the Duck had accomplished this - after all, it was a dream - and got dressed again, grateful for the absence of salt water about his person. Then he asked Donald-the-duck, "what do people do for entertainment around here?"
"There's a tavern," Donald-the-duck ventured. "That's about it when the shops shut."
"A tavern sounds excellent," said Irvine with his best smile, and the Duck quacked happily and led him there.
Once inside the door, however, they were greeted by a large, lolloping yellow dog (who apparently went by the name of Pluto). Pluto-the-dog and Donald-the-duck were obviously good friends with lots to do, so Irvine found himself at the bar alone, ordering a drink in a currency he didn't fully understand, and wondering when he was going to wake up.
The tavern was lit with candles and wall-lights that looked a bit like lanterns. A buzz of chatter and laughter surrounded him, but even those few near the door who had noticed him come in didn't seem to give him a second glance. Either they were used to seeing ducks and cowboys around here, or it really was a dream.
A talking duck. And a talking dog. Of course it was a dream.
At least the talking animals were friendly. Irvine had had worse dreams.
Then the small crowd of guys who had been standing next to him at the bar got their drinks and moved away to a nearby table. Irvine's eye was immediately drawn to the figure just beyond the newly-formed gap. About five foot six, dark collar-length hair, leather trousers and belts. Many, many belts.
"Squall?" Irvine's heart lurched: this dream had suddenly just got a whole load more interesting.
Then the guy at the bar turned to look at him, and Irvine's jaw dropped.
It did look like Squall. It looked a lot like Squall. But last Irvine looked, Squall didn't have breasts. His body didn't go in and out at the waist like that. And he most definitely hadn't been wearing lipstick.
"Squ-...?" Irvine stammered.
"Irvine?" Girl-Squall said.
"Apparently," Irvine managed.
"You're here? You're really here?"
"Last I looked," Irvine said, weakly.
Girl-Squall was suddenly right there next to him, peering at him as if he were a mirage. Or a laboratory specimen.
"I thought you were lost," she said. "I thought..."
"Wait. Lost from where exactly?"
"From Balamb. From our world. When the heartless came."
"From our..." Something Jack had said echoed in Irvine's mind. "You mean your dimension."
Girl-Squall frowned at him as if he'd said something particularly stupid. "Yes, our dimension. What happened?"
"I think there might have been some sort of mistake. Well, for a start, I'm dreaming, but even if we put that to one side and apply a bit of logic, I don't think I'm actually your Irvine."
"What d'you mean?" There was an edge of danger to Girl-Squall's voice that Irvine recognised all too well. Squall clearly wasn't any more patient with people when in possession of breasts than he was without them. Which surprised Irvine a little. He'd expected that having breasts might make a person more mellow; after all, you could play with them whenever you wanted-
Girl-Squall raised one menacing eyebrow.
"You're certainly not my Squall," Irvine said, with conviction.
"I don't go by that name here," she said. "I'm Leona."
"Leona? Right. Okay. But even so, Leona, you're still not the Squall I knew back in Balamb."
"Well, you have different, um, attributes."
"You're a girl."
"You're telling me your Squall is a boy?"
"Oh. Well. Whatever."
She turned back to the bar, knocked back most of whatever was in her glass, then signalled to the barman for a refill.
"This is-" Irvine started, but Leona treated him to a Grade-A Squall-style glare that stopped him in his tracks. More so than usual, even, because there were tears in her eyes. Glassy, brittle tears, but tears nonetheless. Irvine reached out a hand without even thinking, but she knocked it away with a good deal more force than was strictly necessary. Irvine's hand banged hard on the bar. "Ouch. Fuck!"
"Sorry," said Leona, gruffly, and turned back to her drink. "It's just... my Irvine is probably dead. It's weird seeing you standing there looking like him but not.... being him."
"I am a he, then? In your world?"
Leona snorted. "Oh yeah. You're all man. Think you're Hyne's gift. Took me six months of beating sense into you before you got the message I wasn't interested."
"Ah. So we never.... ?"
Leona gave him a sidelong glance through long, dark lashes that made his heart skip a beat. "Oh yeah. We did. Once you'd learned your place."
Irvine swallowed hard. If his brain hadn't already been scrambled by the concept of Squall in a girl's body - a gorgeous girl's body, with curves in all the right places and still every ounce of beauty: the pale skin, the blue-grey eyes that saw right through you, the dark hair that flowed over her shoulders and danced when she moved - as if that wasn't enough, now she was getting all dominant on him.
It turned Irvine on when his Squall got dominant. Girl Squall getting dominant...
"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked.
Leona snorted and drained her glass again. "Sure. Double starfruit vodka with ice and lemon. Knock yourself out."
Irvine got Leona whatever a starfruit vodka was, and a beer for himelf. "So what's a heartless?"
Leona stared at him. The barman stared at him. It felt as if the whole bar was staring at him.
"What? I'm new in town, okay?"
"You really are," said Leona. "Okay. The heartless are the enemy. They're what happens when the darkness in peoples' hearts takes over. When there are enough heartless in a world they consume it, shatter it to pieces, until something like this is all that's left."
"So this was once a world? A whole world?"
"Yes. And now it's just a tiny fragment, and the only way to save even this is to protect and train a keyblade weilder. I don't suppose you have a keyblade?"
Irvine patted his pockets. "Not on me." He smirked. "Guess I'm just pleased to see you."
Leona glared at him.
"Okay," said Irvine, and cleared his throat. "So you don't know for sure that everyone died." He signalling to the barman for a drinks refill.
"It seems likely. The kind of force that tears a world to bits..."
"So you actually know what happens to worlds when the heartless win?"
"Well, no," Leona conceded.
"There you go, then. After all, you survived. The other people here survived their worlds, right?Your friends could walk through that door any second, for all you know." Irvine breifly contemplated the notion of meeting himself, as it were, under such circumstances. It was intriguing, if faintly disturbing.
"People do... turn up sometimes. But... It's not straightforward."
"Sometimes they're kind of different."
Irvine grimaced. "What, like mutants?"
Leona shook her head. "No, nothing like that. It's to do with time compression, I think. Like, there's this girl that a friend of mine knew on their home world. I think they may have been dating, I don't know. I kind of got that impression. But she turned up a few weeks ago, and she's fifteen years old."
"Bummer. This friend of yours, is he..."
"She. She's called Cloud and she could kick your ass any day."
"And you and she were....?"
"Friends," Leona said slowly and carefully, as if talking to someone who was hard of hearing. "I'm straight, if you must know, and I'm not a fucking cradle snatcher. Hyne, you never stop, do you?"
"I was only asking," Irvine said, affecting his best offended tone. "You want another drink?"
Leona shrugged. "Why not? It's not like there's anything better to do."
Irvine signalled the barman and bought more drinks.
"Nonononononono. You don't wanna go at a fireball with a firaga! 's gonna make things worse, I told 'em. Tried t'explain. But... Ooops!"
Leona picked up the empty bottle she'd just knocked over on the bar, and peered into it. "Oh. Empty."
Irvine looked in the vague direction of the barman, but he was busy washing glasses at the other end of the bar. Something about the vigor with which he scrubbed told Irvine he wasn't about to rush over and give them more beer. Come to think of it, it was getting a little late. They were the last customers, and the rest of the bar was in darkness, chairs on tables. It was entirely possible they'd outstayed their welcome.
"More beer?" Leona said hopefully, waving her empty bottle. "More nice foamy beer?"
"I don't think so," said Irvine. "I think they're all shut."
"Oh," said Leona, and set her bottle down with a disappointed little clink. "I could fight someone for beer?"
The barman looked up, alarmed, shaking his head frantically. Irvine guessed that Leona had established something of a reputation for violence.
"No," said Irvine, firmly. "No-one left, see?"
The barman ducked down behind the bar. Leona squinted around, then let out a deep, shoulder-slumping sigh. "Oh. Still 'wake. Not ready to go home jus' yet, y'know?"
"If you want," Irvine licked his lips and smiled, "you could come back to the hotel I'm staying at."
"Don't need a hotel room. Got a house."
"No, I mean, you could come back to my room. If you want to, y'know, talk. Some more."
Leona squinted at him.
"I think there's a minibar," Irvine said. "Might be beer."
Leona brightened instantly. "Yes! Good! Let's go there, then."
She half-hopped, half-fell off her bar stool, and didn't object when Irvine grabbed her elbow to steady her. She leaned into him, giggling.
She didn't object when he didn't let go, either.
Irvine dropped a rather substantial tip onto the bar, and guided Leona towards the door.
The fresh air didn't do much to sober Leona up, and by the time they entered Irvine's hotel room she was in mid-ramble, something about battle tactics and nobodies. It didn't make much sense, but Irvine got away with a few well-placed nods and smiles.
"Oh," Leona said, as Irvine shut the door behind them. "Here already."
"Yep. It's convenient, I'll say that for it."
"No fightin'," Leona said, a little sadly. "Not even a single nobodyody."
"Hm," said Irvine. "Apparently not. Would you normally expect a fight? Seems like a pretty quiet town to me."
Leona snorted derisively. "Shows what you know. Just we beat the livin' crap out of 'em a couple days ago, is all."
"Well, I'm glad." Irvine tipped his hat back and smiled at her. "I can think of better things to be doing right now than fighting a bunch of monsters."
"Hm. Me too." Leona looked around the room. "Like drinkin'. You said there was beer."
"Sure. Over there, in the wardrobe. There's a fridge."
Leona's face brightened, and she treated him to a lopsided grin that was pure, total Squall.
Then she stole his hat. She perched it on her head at a jaunty angle, and sauntered across the room to the minibar.
Irvine sat down heavily on the end of the bed. It had been a long day - or a long dream - and it was getting more surreal and confusing by the minute. It was nothing short of exhausting.
Leona located a handfull of tiny bottles, and tossed them on the bed. She kicked off her boots and sat beside him on the bed cross-legged as she sifted through her selection. "Hmm... brandy, vodka, something green with a name I can't pronounce... ooh! Elixir!"
"Elixir? Really? That's a kind of healing potion, right?"
"Yes," said Leona, regarding him as if he were completely stupid. "Heals wounds, restores energy, antidote for most known poisons."
"Oh yeah." Was that a twinkle in Loena's eye, or was it just a reflection from the lights?
"Thank Hyne for that. I was worried for a minute it might work differently in this dream."
"Dream, world, whatever. Chuck us a brandy?"
Leona ignored him, turning the elixir bottle slowly in her hand. "You think this is a dream?"
"It seems likely. There's talking ducks, the houses are all a weird shape and my best friend's turned into a girl."
"Oh. I see."
"It's nothing personal," said Irvine.
"I thought the same."
"When I first got here. Thought it was all a nightmare. I think a lot of people do. But I can promise you, it's real."
Leona's gaze was steady, her eyes calm and certain. "But-" Irvine began.
She kissed him.
All at once, just like that, her mouth was on his, soft and warm and comforting and weirdly, definitely like Squall's. Her hand cupped the back of his head, fingers stroking their way through his hair to massage his scalp.
Irvine hesitated for the barest moment out of pure shock, then started to kiss her back.
"So." She drew back a little, licked her lips. Irvine couldn't take his eyes off her mouth, so soft and pink and oh Hyne, wet.
"So." Irvine moved in for another kiss. She was wearing his hat, she was stroking the sensitive place on his neck, and her tongue was slipping between his lips. So sexy, so fucking...
"Wait," he gasped. "Just a minute."
She made a little growl of protest as he pulled away. He fumbled around on the bed for a bottle, ripped off the lid and gulped a mouthfull. Lunged forwards and kissed her, letting the sweet liquid trickle from his mouth to hers.
She resisted for a second, just a second, then relaxed into it. A glow grew around them, a soft rainbow sphere, shimmering, melting to nothing. Irvine's head cleared and his senses came sharply to focus.
Leona raised an eyebrow at him. "You think I've got some nasty disease or something?"
"No, no of course not. It's for the alcohol. I don't want you to do anything you might regret in the morning."
Irvine was relieved to note that she was still stroking the back of his neck. Still had one thigh draped over his. One slender, strong, leather-clad thigh.
"Impressive," Leona said. "You appear to have morals."
"Can't get rid of them. What can I say? I'm a good guy."
Leona grinned that sexy lopsided grin. "You'd better be."
"So you still-"
Irvine never got to finish his sentence. She shoved him back on the bed, hard, and landed astride him in one fluid, graceful move. She pinned his wrists down to the bed, and kissed him senseless. Irvine was helpless. She was incredibly strong. But her lips were soft; her skin was soft; her hair was soft where it tickled his cheek. He slid a hand under her t-shirt, followed the line of her spine until he met her bra. Twitched it undone in one economical, skillful move.
"Not bad," Leona said, and Irvine touched her breast: soft, soft, soft.
She gave a very satisfying little moan, and licked his neck.
For a while, Irvine lost himself in the pleasure of Leona's body. She moved differently from Squall; she twisted and writhed in a very womanly sort of way. But other things... her hips were lean and boyish, her hands and arms were very strong. She made a similiar sort of snuffling noise when Irvine touched that particular place at the curve of his spine, no, her spine, and her kiss... but no. She wasn't Squall. There was no denying that, with the curves and the breasts, and the slick wetness between her legs. No cock, no manly grunting, just contented humming sounds and soft, soft skin.
She wanted him, though, and she wanted him in that fierce, commanding way that Squall often wanted him. And for the moment Irvine found himself thrusting into her, burying himself to the hilt in hot, wet cunt, and it was enough. More than. It was good. It was amazing.
Leona gasped and tightened her fingers in his hair. He paused. "You okay?" he asked.
She nodded. "Just very... strangely... familiar."
"Ah," said Irvine, and began to move again.
Leona's head tipped back, and Irvine kissed the long, smooth lines of her neck. Her jaw. Her mouth. Oh Hyne. Her mouth.... His mind blanked out at last, and there was nothing but rising, rhythmic pleasure.
She got wild towards the end, when he was flicking his tongue over her nipple and fucking her with long, even strokes. Got the timing just right, watching with satisfaction as she came. She wrapped her legs tight around his waist, sucking him deep inside and spasmed, every wave clutching at his cock, sending him closer to the edge himself every time. When she'd done coming she just started to move her hips again, driving him on, on, on....
The first glow of morning light was seeping through the gap at the bottom of the curtains before Irvine finally slipped, exhausted, into a deep - dreamless - sleep.
Irvine had been dreaming. Doubly dreaming, it seemed: first of all there had been that business with the duck and the girl-Squall, and then there was the dream about the water. Gallons and gallons of it, as if he were drowning, thrown overboard, black and tight like time compression.
When he came fully awake, he realised that at least one of his dreams had, in fact, been nothing of the kind.
He was soaking wet.
He shot up to sitting, shivering partly from the sudden chill and partly from the shock. He shoved the wet hair out of his eyes and looked down at the bed, expecting to see sodden sheets and blankets. But the bed was perfectly dry, except where he was dripping on it.
Confused as hell, Irvine got out of bed and dragged a towel from a nearby chair to wrap himself in. He was, apparently, naked as well as wet. At least that meant there wouldn't be clothes to dry, he told himself, in a meagre attempt at comfort.
But suddenly a new doubt struck him. His clothes were dry, sure. They were scattered across the floor by the bed, with someone else's. Irvine took in the wooden floor, the rug, the four poster bed covered in a big comforter and... there was still someone in it. He could see a tuft of dark hair sticking out from underneath the comforter.
"Leona?" Irvine said, voice trembling as finally he started to test out the notion that he hadn't been entirely dreaming after all.
The shape under the comforter grunted and shifted.
"Um, Leona, I-"
"Idiot," grumbled the comforter.
"It's Leon," said the comforter, in a deep, gruff voice.
Far too deep and gruff, as it happened, for a woman.
The comforter rose and a very familiar head and set of muscular shoulders was revealed. "The name's Leon and what the fuck are you doing in my-"
Squall glared over his shoulder at Irvine as if he could cheerfully kill him in an instant, and then his expression softened to suprise and he said: "Irvine?"
Irvine stood there, slack-jawed, and the towel fell neglected to the floor.
"Here. Drink this."
Irvine looked down at the little bottle Squall had put in his hand. Starfruit Vodka. He recognised the label from earlier. From last night. From...
... another world away.
Irvine wrenched off the top and poured the vodka down his throat, relishing the burn. He closed his eyes and let the alcohol warm him. Calm him. Centre him.
"You're cold," Squall observed with his usual impassivity, and draped the comforter over Irvine's shoulders.
He was naked too, Irvine noticed, apart from a pair of old, baggy boxers, and he was completely unabashed. Easy in his own skin. Just like....
"Leon," Squall said, firmly. "I don't use the other name any more."
"Right. Leon. Because....?"
"Because I left you all to die," said Leon, very softly. "If you really are Irvine, and not some fucking trick."
"I'm not quite sure who I am," Irvine confessed. "At least, to you. But my name is Irvine. I'm from Galbadia. We grew up together, only I don't think it was you, exactly. I mean, I left my Squall back at Balamb working out some kind of shit with Rinoa, and it's not, you, I think...." Irvine's shoulders slumped. "Is there any more of that starfruit stuff?"
Leon plucked another bottle from the dresser. "Last one. You're lucky Cloud passed out before he got the chance to finish them off."
"Cloud? Oh, wait, I know. He's your friend, right?"
"Yeah." Leon cleared his throat. "Among, uh, other things."
Irvine raised an eyebrow.
"So you didn't die," Leon said.
"Not in my universe. Well, I did, kind of, but Watari and the chickens managed to send me back."
"Yeah, it's a long story. But I'm alive, pretty sure of that. Unless it's a time thing and all this," he gestured expansively at the whole room, "is still in the future."
"Three years after Ultimecia," Leon said. "And I'm pretty sure the thing with the chickens didn't happen to my Irvine. He'd probably have mentioned it."
"Ah, right. Six years since Ultimecia, when I left on this trip. Not time, then. Must be a dimension thing. Which would fit, because last night before I fell asleep...."
He could still remember the touch of Leona's skin, warm and soft and incredibly feminine.
"What?" Leon asked.
"I think I shifted dimensions while I was asleep," Irvine said. He wasn't quite ready to explain to Squall - or Leon - about this female counterpart. Irvine gulped down the contents of the bottle and covered his face with one hand, rubbing at his tired, gritty eyes. "Unless this is a fucking nightmare."
"No," Leon said, calmly. "I'm pretty sure it's all real. Cid's done a lot of work on trans-dimensional travel lately, and the only explanation for what's happened here is the co-existence of an infinite number of realities co-existing in any given temporal plane."
"Wow. You're a lot more scientific than the Squall in my dimension."
"Leon," said Squall, and Irvine got the distinct impression it was a bit of a habit. "The thing is, you're not supposed to be able to travel between them. At least, not without causing a rift of some kind."
Irvine frowned. "Interesting you should say that. The guy I was travelling with, before all this happened, he said something about a rift. I think there was an emergency with one. Or something. That's why he dropped me here. He had to go find some Doctor. Scientist guy, I guess. Like Odine, maybe."
"So he dumped you here?"
Irvine twirled the little empty bottle between his finger and thumb. It was looking more and more like Jack had just abandoned him. Or else his mission had failed and that's why Irvine had jumped another dimension. Or maybe... fuck, if Jack didn't know he'd shifted dimensions, how would he ever find him? Infinite universes, it would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.... shit, shit, shit....
"He called it a vacation," Irvine said, working hard to keep his voice level.
Leon snorted. "People come here for some strange reasons, but a vacation..."
"Yeah, well. I have some unusual hobbies."
Irvine looked Leon fully in the eye for the first time, and sure enough, it happened. Chemistry. That bright, undeniable spark. Whatever the universe, whatever the dimension: any time, any place, any where, it was always the same. Irvine wanted Squall. Squall wanted him right back. And damn if that didn't give him a boner and a thrill up his spine and steal every last scrap of logical thought from his brain.
Leon raised an eyebrow.
Irvine grinned a slow, wide grin.
Leon's eyes drifted down Irvine's body.
And Irvine remembered he was naked.
"Cloud'll be back any minute," Leon said.
"Er, sixty seconds. Unless that's different in your dimension too."
"Friend? Fuckbuddy? Lover?"
"Oh." A blush spread across Leon's cheeks. "Lover."
"Not exactly, I mean-"
Irvine threw himself at Leon, both of them landing in a heap on the bed, and kissed him. Leon kissed him back, hard, punishingly hard, his fingers tight, tugging at Irvine's hair. Hips grinding up to Irvine's. Irvine could feel Leon's cock through his boxers. Hard. Fucking hard as iron, every bit as hard as Irvine's own.
"N-no," Leon stammered out, and dammit if he wasn't trembling. "Cloud... we have an arrangement, we, I mean-"
"You what?" Irvine kissed Leon's neck, tasting salt and warm, tight skin.
Leon made a low whimpering noise that turned into a growl. "We... ask... first," he said, took a deep breath and shoved Irvine away.
Irvine landed on his back, breathing hard, aware of little except confusion in his mind and the unforgiving throb of his erection. He forced his eyes open and stared at the ceiling, which was painted plain white. There were tiny cracks radiating from the light fitting, and a couple of dents in the plaster, as if it had been hit with some kind of blunt sword.
"Sorry," Leon said, gruffly.
Irvine coughed, kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling. "So," he said. "You gonna ask?"
There was a pause, a shift on the bed and then another voice, flat and gruff, said: "ask what?"
"Let me guess," said Irvine, a humourless grin appearing on his face. "You must be Cloud."
He didn't need an answer.
Despite finding Irvine naked and pretty obviously sexually aroused on his boyfriend's bed, Cloud didn't seem to want to kill him. Irvine worked out quickly that this was a very good thing. Cloud was slender and not particularly tall, but the muscles his sleeveless top showed off to such great effect weren't just for show. The guy worked out and Irvine guessed him to be some kind of swordsman. Just something about the way he carried himself.
Strong he might be, but he didn't seem angry. His voice was soft, so quiet Irvine had to focus to make out the words, and he moved slowly, calmly.
"I called Cid," Cloud was saying. "Said I wouldn't be in today." There was something about his expression when he looked at Leon that Irvine recognised, and not without a twang of envy. Exclusive or otherwise, this wasn't just a friendly arrangement. They really were lovers.
"I should get dressed," Irvine said. "Sorry, I didn't..."
"Where did you come from?" Cloud asked, his head tilted to one side. His eyes were blue, genuinely inquisitive. A shock of blond, spiked hair fell in his eyes.
"Good question," said Irvine. He reached out a hand. "Irvine Kinneas."
"Cloud Strife," said Cloud, and shook his hand.
"He's from an alternate dimension," Leon said, as if it was simply a different neighbourhood.
"Not your Irvine, then," Cloud said.
Irvine darted a look at Leon, who swiftly turned away and said, "no. Not my Irvine."
"Bet I look like him, though," said Irvine, lightly.
"You're taller," Leon said. "And your hair's not so red."
Cloud had an arm around Leon's shoulders, and suddenly Irvine wanted to be somewhere - anywhere - else. He had to get out. Maybe there was a talking duck he could go find in this universe, too. Or a singing crocodile. Or something. He reached for his jeans and shirt, only to realise that they weren't there. The pile of clothes by the bed he'd assumed were his were, of course, Cloud's.
Oh great. He'd left his clothes in a different dimension. Even, Hyne and fuck, his hat.
"I might need to borrow some stuff," he said.
"Sure," Cloud said. "So long as you ask first."
There eyes met and there was no disguising the warning that hung in the air. Irvine's shoulders slumped. "Okay. I got the message. Just lend me some jeans and I'll be on my way."
The jeans were too short and the shirt too loose across the shoulders, but Irvine was in no place to be fussy. He squashed his feet into boots that were a good size too small for him, and tied his hair back with a tiny belted strap provided by Leon.
"Right," he said, once sufficient flesh was covered up to make him technically decent. "I'll be off."
"Here," Leon said, and pressed a small pouch into Irvine's palm. "You can get some gear at the shop. Don't let the ducklings swindle you. They like to haggle."
"Sure. See you around."
Cloud's arm tightened around Leon's shoulders as Irvine left, and Irvine didn't miss the way Leon leaned into his lover's body in response.
Miserable and jealous, Irvine stepped back out into Tavern Town.
The first thing that happened was that Irvine got attacked, and from this he learned two things. Firstly, Heartless didn't look much but they could knock you flat with a single blow if you weren't expecting it. Secondly, he could still use magic. Weaponless, his immediate response was to draw power and fling it at the enemy in the form of a thunder spell, and he was highly gratified to see that not only did it work, but it worked with a force that left a smouldering hole in the pavement and made the two heartless lurking in the shadows nearby flee for their lives.
He knocked them dead with a rapid burst of hailstones before they could reach the end of the street.
It was strange: he couldn't feel any kind of junction (oh, for the quiet presence of Ether or Siren) but something was there. It was such a blessing that Irvine decided not to question it. It wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility that the power might evaporate under scrutiny. Besides, he had more pressing concerns. Like how to get home. And even more importantly, how to find a new hat.
Ill-fitting clothes were bad enough. But Irvine felt positively naked without his hat. And he'd had enough of naked for one day.
He found the shop Leon had pointed him towards just around the corner from the hotel. Like all the buildings in Tavern Town it had a huge roof, and no sense of symmetry or, as far as Irvine could make out, even a nod to the laws of engineering or architecture. But it had a door, and windows, and sure enough, there were ducks behind the counter.
Irvine took a deep breath, and put on his most cunning expression.
"Hi," he said. "I might be interested in buying a few things."
The glint in the duckling's eye was unmistakable. This wasn't even going to be about money. It was about winning.
Irvine prepared himself for battle.
He emerged half an hour later wearing a pair of snug, skinny jeans that fit perfectly and tucked into comfortable, roomy cowboy boots. His shirt was soft and a pale green colour that perfectly complemented his hair. He wore a wide leather belt, and his pockets were well stocked with potions and sufficient change that Irvine felt he could hold his head up safe in the knowledge that even if he hadn't got a bargain exactly, he hadn't been swindled either.
He still didn't have a hat, and there didn't seem much point in replacing his duster when the weather was so warm. But he held out hope that he'd find a hat eventually. There had to be a chocobo ranch around somewhere, and where chocobos were found, so were cowboy hats. It was like a law of nature.
Irvine was wondering briefly why they weren't called chocobo-boy hats, as he swung back into the tavern.
The duck was there. And the dog. They were talking to a mouse. A very big mouse, with huge round ears and a sceptre.
Irvine decided to pretend he hadn't seen any of that, for the sake of his own sanity, sidled to the bar and smiled at the bartender. It was a bit early for alcohol, so Irvine bought a milkshake - it said something that a tavern serving milkshakes was probably the least surreal thing that he'd encountered so far that morning - and settled himself on a bar stool. He wasn't looking for company. Just a bit of peace and quiet and some time to think things through.
He quickly discovered that thinking didn't really get him anywhere. The facts were plain. He'd travelled between dimensions. He didn't know why, or how, or even where he'd ended up. He didn't know how to get back home.
Could Jack find him?
Did he trust Jack to try to find him?
Irvine sucked hard on his straw, coaxing thick pink shake into his mouth. It wasn't the first time he'd been stranded, and it probably wouldn't be the last. He should have a bit of faith. Jack seemed like a good guy, if easily distracted. Maybe Merlin and Cid could help, whoever they were. He was curious to find out what Cid had turned into in this dimension. A female Cid?
Meanwhile, he was stuck here, at least until the dimensions shifted again. May as well make the most of it.
His thoughts were interrupted by a deep, vibrant baritone. "Star soda. No glass."
Irvine looked up to see a man standing at the bar next to him. He was very tall and wore a black leather duster that brushed his heels. He had thick, shiny silver hair that fell well past his waist; his features were angular, his skin incredibly smooth, and when he turned to look at Irvine, he smiled a humourless half-smile that sent a shiver down Irvine's spine.
"Hi," said Irvine, weakly. He wasn't sure whether to run for his life or strip naked and offer himself for fucking right there on the bar.
The man nodded, the slightest incline of his head. The barman delivered his soda - no money exchanged hands - and then, with a swish of hair and a squeak of leather, he was gone.
"Who-" Irvine started.
"Sephiroth," the barman said. "Best you stay out of his way. Can I get you anything else?"
The urge to follow Sephiroth out onto the street and for as long as it took to get noticed again was almost irresistible. But he didn't need trouble. And even without the barman's warning, it didn't take more than an idiot to work out that Sephiroth was practically oozing trouble.
"Is he Heartless?" Irvine asked.
The barman snorted. "Some would say so, for sure. But no, probably not in the way you mean. Now, another milkshake? Or would you like something to eat? There's soup, or hot dogs..."
"No thanks," said Irvine. "What do people do for kicks around here?"
"For 'kicks'? Well, there's always plenty of Heartless to fight."
"No, I mean for fun."
"Oh, I see. Well, there's shops. Less than there were of course, but we still have a respectable selection."
Having spent a good hour haggling with three ducklings, for fuck's sake, Irvine felt he'd done enough shopping for one day. "Anything else?"
"Well, most people who want to unwind come here."
"Ah." Irvine was starting to think that Tavern Town was so named because that was about all it had going for it. Never mind. "Do you know a guy called Cid?"
"Of course. He's our engineer. Best gummi ship-builder in the business."
The bartender just smiled at him, nodding encouragingly.
"Of course he is," murmured Irvine. "So, d'you know where I can find him?"
"He's usually in his workshop, just around the corner from here. Out of the door, right then left. If that's shut up, then try Merlin's place in the residential quarter. Cid's been spending a lot of time there, working on some project for Leon and the others."
"Good. Thanks." Irvine straightened his collar and wished he had his hat. As an afterthought he turned to the bartender and said, "one last thing."
"Cid and Merlin... are they, that is, would you say..."
Irvine took a deep breath. "Are they animals?"
The barman laughed at him.
The Cid in this universe seemed a lot trendier than the version Irvine was used to, at least if the entrance to his workshop was anything to go by. Instead of the modest, wood-panel headmaster's office where Balamb Cid could be found, back in the days before he returned to Winhill with his wife, this Cid seemed to occupy a huge lock-up with what looked like a balconied flat above it. There was graffiti across the double doors: not the vandalistic sort, more of a trendy mural featuring the unlikely name of Seifer Almasy.
Irvine's curiosity was well and truly piqued. There was nothing to indicate the gender of the artist. What would a female Seifer be like? Or a pleasant Seifer? Or a duck Seifer?
Irvine was chuckling out loud at that one when a voice at his shoulder made him jump. A quiet, slow, careful voice.
"Cid's not here."
"Cloud," said Irvine, without turning around.
"Cid's at Merlin's. I'm headed there myself. I'll show you the way."
"Okay, thanks." Irvine turned to smile at him, but Cloud had already headed off down the street. Irvine followed, jogging a few steps to catch up.
"D'you know Cid well, then?" Irvine said, as much by way of conversation as anything.
"Yes," said Cloud. Irvine waited for the rest of the sentence, but it never came.
Eventually, Irvine cleared his throat and said, "I was wondering. So, um, how did you and Squall meet?"
Cloud scowled and stared at the ground. He didn't answer, just flushed pink across the cheeks with embarrassment. Irvine smirked to himself. It was kind of adorable, really. Looked like Squall had found a kindred spirit.
"He likes to be called Leon," Cloud mumbled.
They were turning a corner into a small square of houses when a kid shot by on a skate-board, missing Cloud by bare inches, close enough to ruffle his perfectly-sculpted hair.
"Watch where the fuck you're going, Almasy!" Cloud growled.
Irvine stopped in his track and stared. The kid was no older than twelve, skinny and short. But as he turned around to sneer and give Cloud the finger, there was no missing the slicked-back blond hair or the pure arrogance.
"So that's Seifer Almasy," Irvine muttered.
"Yeah," grunted Cloud.
"He's a lot bigger in my universe."
"That must be annoying. He's enough of a pain as a half-pint."
"Annoying is an understatement."
Cloud ventured the slightest of grins. "Watch out for Heartless, they tend to hang around Merlin, for some reason."
"Are we nearly there, then?"
"Sure. See that bend up ahead? Round there, second on the right. That's Merlin's house."
Irvine nodded. "So what brings you here? Are you in the ship-building business as well?"
"No. My mission is to fight the Heartless, like Leon does. The Heartless are endless, just keep coming no matter how many you kill, and there's a lot of people who need our protection. Merlin and Cid help us to make the fighting more efficient, but when it comes down to it the responsibility falls on the shoulders of fighters like us."
"I know that feeling. Look. About you and Leon, I want you to know that I'm not a threat. I'm not trying to steal him away or anything."
Cloud stopped walking and gave him a long, hard stare. And then he burst out laughing.
It was a surprisingly rich, deep sound. Cloud's eyes lit up with it and his shoulders relaxed; he even gave Irvine a friendly slap on the shoulder. "Leon's a free man," he said, once the laughter had subsided to a smile. "He makes his own choices. He's not anyone's to steal."
"You don't think I could," said Irvine, a little hurt. "You don't think he'd even be tempted."
"No! That's not what I-"
But Irvine wasn't listening. He'd had a rough day and his self-confidence had taken a severe bashing. So he took a huge risk and shoved Cloud up against the wall of Merlin's house. Fortunately Cloud was too surprised to hit him, even when Irvine kissed him. He didn't kiss back - at least, not at first. He stood rigidly, hands balled to fists at his side, energy coiling, preparing to fight. But Irvine didn't give up. There was a something: a flicker, a spark, chemistry, something going on. He was never wrong about these things. It was just a matter of....
The softest of moans escaped Cloud's throat.
Irvine's fingers curled in Cloud's hair at the nape of his neck and stroked his scalp. Cloud relaxed and let his mouth move with Irvine's, the tip of his tongue flicking at Irvine's teeth. His breath was coming hard and fast and his eyes were glazed by the time Irvine pulled back.
"See?" Irvine panted.
Cloud grinned a little, lazy grin that made Irvine weak at the knees. Cloud pulled him in again, and this time it was Cloud who started kissing. He met no resistance. Irvine let his mind fade into a pleasant haze of lust and kept stroking Cloud's thick, impossibly soft hair.
"Like a baby chocobo," he murmured when Cloud pulled back again.
"Nothing." He kissed Cloud again, grinding firmly into his hip, arms resting on those broad, broad shoulders. He was a little taller than Cloud, but somehow it didn't feel like it. The man had stature, a solid, impressive presence that belied his boyish looks.
"Duck," Cloud said.
"Where?" said Irvine.
And then a Heartless hit him square in the back of the neck, and he saw stars.
"Nimble little jerks," Irvine muttered, brushing dust from his jeans.
"Yeah, but they swarm," Cloud said. "All you have to do is let them get close enough and then..." He span, slicing through imaginary enemies with his enormous sword in a graceful, deadly arc.
"Nice move," said Irvine.
"A friend taught me," Cloud said. "You should see Leon do it."
"Let me guess. You showed him once and he-"
"-did it right first time." Cloud grinned. "Yeah."
"Annoying, isn't it?"
"Mildly," Cloud admitted, and stowed his sword neatly at his back.
A gentle breeze ruffled his hair; the afternoon sun caught his bright, bright blue eyes and made them sparkle. Irvine licked his lips.
"Um, about before. If you want we could-"
But Cloud was already knocking on the Merlin's door, and before Irvine could finish his sentence the door had swung open. An old man stood there. He wore long robes and a pointy hat. He looked vaguely familiar, from some old book of fairy tales that Selphie had at the orphanage.
"You must be Merlin," Irvine said.
"Um, no," said the man. "I'm Gaius. Should I get Merlin for you?"
"It's okay," Cloud said, stepping forwards. "He's with me."
"Ah!" said the old man, as if suddenly everything made sense. "In that case come in, come in. Welcome!"
"So," Irvine whispered to Cloud, "he really is Merlin, then?"
Cloud frowned at him. "No, he's Gaius, like he said. That's Merlin over there."
Merlin was, apparently, a young lad of no more than twenty, with bright, clever eyes, a shock of glossy black hair and a wicked grin that gave him dimples. He flashed his grin at Irvine the minute he clapped eyes on him.
"There you are!" he said. "We've been expecting you."
"I'm glad someone has," said Irvine.
"You came through the rift," said Merlin, as if that should make sense. "I expect you're a bit disorientated. Don't worry. Sit down. I think Aerith's making some tea."
"I'll go and give her a hand," said Cloud.
Just a little bit too quickly, Irvine noticed. And suddenly Cloud's open relationship with Squall made complete sense.
"The Heartless use rifts to travel between worlds," Merlin explained, as Irvine stared in awe at the equations on the big blackboard Gaius was scribbling on. "Cid has recently found ways for us to do a similar thing."
"Sonic gummi," said Cid, as if it should make sense. Irvine blinked. The concept of a young, positively handsome Cid was very alien and somehow even less comprehensible than the equations.
"The unexpected factor is the trans-dimensional shift," Merlin went on. "Any ideas, Gaius?"
"You could try some myrtle weed," Gaius suggested, tapping at the blackboard.
This world was ridiculous, and Irvine wanted more than anything for all this not to be happening. Or for it to be happening to someone else. Preferably someone he didn't like very much. Nida, maybe. Nida could do with a bit of life-enriching chaos, might shake some of the stuffed-shirt pomposity out of him.
"Are you alright?"
Irvine suddenly realised that everyone was staring at him, and he was sitting down. He was fairly certain he hadn't been sitting down a moment ago.
"You're awfully pale," said Merlin.
"Really?" Irvine mumbled.
"Would you like a drink of water?" asked Gaius, kindly.
"Yes!" said Irvine, getting to his feet, wincing at the sudden wave of dizziness that hit him on the way up. "Kitchen's that way, right? I'll, yes, that. Um. Thanks."
He stumbled his way out of the room, ignoring the general air of concern he left behind him. He found himself in the kitchen, where Cloud was leaning against a large cupboard, watching a pretty girl with a bow in her hair pour boiling water into a teapot.
"Hi," said Irvine. "Sorry, didn't mean to interrupt. Came for a glass of water."
"Of course," the girl said, her face the picture of kind concern. "Cloud, could you...?"
Cloud sprang into action at her request, quickly finding a glass from a cupboard somewhere and filling it with water from the tap. Then he passed it to the girl, who passed it in turn to Irvine. Irvine took it gratefully and sipped. It was unusually fizzy for tap water. It made him feel a lot better, very quickly. He downed the rest of the glass in one go.
"I'm Aerith," the girl said, and held out her hand to be shaken.
Irvine took it, raised it to his lips and softly kissed her knuckles. He could practically feel Cloud glowering at him. He rather enjoyed that.
Aerith giggled. "Oh!" she said. "I've got something for you. Wait there a moment."
While she was gone Cloud didn't say a word. He just glowered at the floor in front of Irvine's feet. Irvine watched him, fascinated by the sheer broodiness of the man. He made Squall's brooding seem quite amateur. The long winter evenings must just fly past for the pair of them.
Aerith breezed back into the room in a few moments, all smiles and sunshine. "Hi."
Irvine blinked. She was wearing a cowboy hat. It looked just like his. She looked incredibly cute.
"Wow!" he said. "Where in the name of Hyne did you-"
Aerith laughed. "Would you like it?"
"Can you spare it? I mean, it looks good on you, maybe you could tell me where you bought it and I'll get one of my own."
She took the hat from her head and tossed it to him; he caught it neatly in one hand, quick as a blink. "I haven't worn it for a long time," Aerith said. "I kept it because a friend gave it to me, but I think it'll look better on you. A cowboy without a hat looks very sad."
"That's very kind! Thank you," said Irvine, and put his hat squarely on his head. Then tipped it just a little to the left. Just a little.
It felt a bit like coming home.
Merlin's house was an extremely busy place. Various people popped in and out during the course of the afternoon. Aerith dispensed light, fragrant tea which left a tell-tale fizz on the tongue, while Cloud brooded and occasionally stomped off somewhere for half an hour or so, each time coming back in an even worse mood than he'd left in. One of Irvine's favourite visitors was a woman named Tifa. She looked as if she could be Rinoa's tough big sister; she had the same long dark hair and ten kinds of mischief in her eyes, but with a more mature, wise attitude about her. Like most of the people Irvine had met in Traverse Town, she looked as if she'd seen and done things no person her age should have.
She smiled at Cloud in a way that made Irvine's heart ache. The boy was incredibly popular. Irvine paused to wonder whether, with all these women clamouring for Cloud's affections, he could steal Leon away for a night or two. Or maybe they could all share. If he ended up staying long enough. Which, though, he wouldn't. Merlin seemed to be very clever. Merlin would find him a way back to Leona's dimension, and Jack would pick him up, and he'd go back to his Squall in his universe, and all would be well.
Any minute. Any minute now, Merlin would have a breakthrough.
Except that Merlin was, apparently, playing cards with Cid.
Irvine sighed a long, wistful sigh.
Just then Cloud stomped by again, headed for the door. Aerith reached out to his retreating back, but he was oblivious (Irvine was beginning to think Cloud was perpetually oblivious about a great many things) and her arm fell limply to her side.
"Everything okay?" Irvine asked.
"He's so stubborn," said Aerith, more sad than angry. "He'll never settle down until he learns to let things go."
"No," Irvine agreed. "But sometimes heroic types are just like that. It might be where they get that bloody-minded obstinate nature that means they don't die, even when they've been hit five times harder than a normal person could stand."
Aerith gave him a little smile. "In that case, Mr Kinneas, you must be the biggest hero of all."
"What? Wait, what do you-"
But she retreated to the kitchen, and somehow, by the time Irvine followed, she had disappeared.
"Good evening," said the barman. "Did you find Merlin, then?"
"Yes," said Irvine, pushing some money over the counter. He was doing well for money - he'd just spent an hour killing heartless in a back alley, and for all that they seemed like dark, shapeless creatures with no pockets, they left a lot of cash behind when you whapped them.
"No luck with the interdimensional travel, though?"
"No. Not yet. But they're trying."
"I'm sure they are. What'll it be?"
"Do you have anything a bit like beer?"
The barman looked blankly at him. "Beer, sir?"
"Ah, never mind. One of those star fruit thingies, please. Put loads of soda in it, okay? And ice. Ice would be good."
"Whatever you say," the barman replied dubiously, and got a tall glass down from the shelf behind him.
Irvine settled himself on his barstool, and wondered if he could trust Merlin. He seemed like a nice lad - very kind smile and all - and he'd been very certain when he'd told Irvine that he'd stabilised the rift so that no further unscheduled shifts should take place. That was a huge relief - the thought of yet another random dimensional change was stressful to say the least. But what if he'd done too good a job? What if he couldn't control the rift enough to get Irvine back? What if...
The door swung open with a loud clatter, and Cloud stood there. Out of breath and flushed about the cheeks, scowling as if everyone in the town (possibly the universe) had personally insulted him, his mother and the cherished soil upon which he stood. He scanned the room with all the calm efficiency of a soldier. Only faster.
"Shit," Cloud muttered, and approached the bar.
"Looking for someone?" said Irvine.
"He's always looking," the barman said. "Isn't that right, Strife?"
"A man," Cloud told Irvine. "About a foot taller than you, long grey hair."
"Sephiroth?" said Irvine.
"What?! You know him? You saw him?" Cloud's eyes went wide with shock - and hope. A bright, terrible sort of hope that was bound to end badly.
"He's in here all the time," the barman muttered. "If you tried staying in the same place for more than thirty seconds, maybe-"
"Yes," Irvine said. "He was in here earlier today. What did he do?"
Cloud glared at him. He was almost pouting, in a hardened, bloodthirsty sort of way. Irvine remembered how soft his hair had felt, how warm and eager his kiss had been just a few short hours ago, and wondered where that Cloud had vanished to.
"Want a hand looking for him?"
Cloud looked him up and down critically. "Why?"
Irvine shrugged. "Not like I've got anything better to do."
Cloud considered this for a moment. "It's my fight. It's nothing to do with anyone else."
"Babe," Irvine drawled. "You should have learned by now that in a town like this everything's always to do with everyone else. And however strong you are, many hands make a shorter fight."
"You sound like Tifa," Cloud said.
"I'll take that as a compliment. You wanna go now, or have we got time to have a drink first? I've got one here I just started, you see."
The barman snorted. "He's been playing this wild goose chase for years. Another half hour sure ain't going to make no difference."
Irvine tipped his head and raised an eyebrow in question.
"Alright," said Cloud. "Just one drink."
"So what's the deal with this Sephiroth guy?" asked Irvine, once Cloud was sitting down and looking a little less like a cold-blooded assassin.
"He's evil," said Cloud. "He needs to be eradicated."
"Okay, that means one of three things. Either you've got a score to settle, some kind of vengeance kick, or he's an actual monster. Or, he's one of those twisted individuals that refuse to die, the ones that keep popping up over and over, however many times you kick their ass. Intertwined destinies and all that. Which is it?"
"All of them. He's a... he's not human. He's deranged. And he's..." Cloud fell silent again. Irvine stirred the straw around in his drink and framed his next question very carefully, aware that if he got it wrong Cloud was likely to flounce off and never speak to him again.
"Did he hurt you? Or someone close to you?"
Cloud closed his eyes, and nodded. "More than one. Whenever something goes wrong, he turns up and makes it worse. Without fail. It doesn't matter how many times he gets killed or beaten, he just keeps right on coming back. Even the Heartless can't touch him. And every time he turns up, someone dies. This place, this is like... I like it here. There's too many people, if anything happened, if he hurt anyone..."
"So you're on the look-out all the time."
"What about Leon?"
"What about him?"
"He could help. He's good with indestructible evil megalomaniacs. I've seen him destroy quite a few back in my dimension."
"He doesn't know about Sephiroth. I've managed to keep them apart, and it's going to stay that way. What Sephiroth doesn't know, he can't destroy."
"Ah. I see. And Aerith? She knows about him, doesn't she?"
Cloud shot him a sidelong look. His eyes were hard, narrowed. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. I'm going to find him. Are you coming or not?"
Irvine downed the rest of his drink in one.
The odd thing was, they couldn't catch up with Sephiroth at all. He wasn't hard to find - Traverse Town wasn't very big, and all that silver hair was a dead give-away, and besides, it didn't seem as though Sephiroth was trying to hide, exactly. But it was uncannily difficult to be in the same place as him at the same time. No sooner would they catch a flash of grey and black than he would disappear down a dead end and vanish. Or there would be a sudden ambush of Heartless to distract them, and by the time they'd done, he'd be long gone. Whatever shortcut they took, however fast they moved, they never caught him.
"Is it always like this?" Irvine asked, brushing himself down after another skirmish with the Heartless.
Cloud didn't answer.
"Cloud? When were you last actually in the same place as him? When did you last speak to him, face to face?"
Cloud shrugged. "Not important. Come on. He can't have gone far."
Irvine stood rooted to the spot, a cold shiver running down his spine as he realised the extent of Cloud's obsession. How many days and nights had he spent like this, roaming the streets of Traverse Town searching for a monster who continually eluded him?
"Cloud, let it go. You're never going to catch him."
Cloud just glared at him. "I will. One day, I will. I have to."
"Let's split up. You take the east quarter, I'll take the west."
Cloud was already gone.
Irvine sighed a long, weary sigh, and looked around, considering his options. He wanted to help Cloud, and he trusted Cloud to know an evil megalomaniac from a normal person, but had no grudge against Sephiroth. This wasn't even his universe, when it came down to it.
He could just go right on home - back to the hotel, rather - and leave Cloud to his own pointless search. He could take a nice long bath, lock the door and sleep. Maybe he'd wake up back in Balamb.
Or he could spend the night searching the streets for some evil guy, just because he'd promised the broody boyfriend of the inter-dimensional equivalent of his best friend that he'd help.
Irvine kept his hand junction-ready to pull out Exeter at the next ambush, and started his patrol.
Sephiroth really had disappeared now, and it didn't take Irvine long to work out why. It was Cloud he was torturing, not Irvine. All the while they were looking separately Irvine might as well just hang out on a street corner and wait, for all the good looking moving around would do him. Sephiroth would be playing his little game of cat and mouse with Cloud at the other side of town. Irvine was getting bored of random fights with Heartless. And then, as he passed the shop with the weird shoes and stuff in the window for the fifteenth time, he had an idea.
Half an hour later he found Cloud heading towards the terrace where they'd beaten off the first ambush of heartless together. The pavement was cobbled, big stones gleaming in the moonlight as if they were shiny-wet.
Irvine ducked into an alley way and waited. Cloud went past him and took the next right. Irvine waited. A few minutes later, right on cue, a figure emerged from the street opposite; tall, elegant, long silver hair ruffled by the evening breeze.
Irvine took a deep breath and charged.
He was never quite sure whether luck had been on his side, or whether Sephiroth didn't much care about anything Irvine might be capable of doing to him. Whatever it was, fate shone on Irvine that night, and in a few short moments he had tossed a blanket over Sephiroth's head and brought him neatly to the ground.
Irvine swiftly sat astride his victim, holding him down hard by the shoulders. But Sephiroth wasn't struggling.
Irvine cautiously slipped the blanket off Sephiroth's head, wondering for a moment if he'd got the wrong guy. But it was definitely Sephiroth who looked back at him, his hair spread out like a silver river across the cobbles, and a faintly amused grin on his lips.
"This is a surprise," Sephiroth said. "I have no quarrel with you."
It was all still there, that instant, irresistible chemistry. "A friend of mine wants to see you," Irvine said.
"Really?" Sephiroth raised an eyebrow.
"Don't fuck me around. You've been playing games with him all night. You do it all the time, don't you?"
"Do what, exactly?"
Irvine rocked back on his heels, disgusted. There was no disguising the pleasure on Sephiroth's face, and it was nothing to do with the fact that Irvine was sitting on his groin. It was all about Cloud, and Cloud's suffering.
Irvine drew a rapid flash of power and pulled Exeter into junction. He pointed his rifle square at Sephiroth's head, balancing the muzzle between his eyebrows. Sephiroth's expression remained calm and superior, but his body stiffened, almost imperceptibly, under Irvine's.
"This is for Cloud," Irvine said, curling his finger around the trigger.
"Stop that," came a voice from somewhere just behind his left shoulder. A vaguely familiar voice, but with a distinct edge of power to it, enough to send a chill through him.
"Merlin?" Irvine said, keeping his gaze steady, surprised but not wanting to take his eyes off Sephiroth for a second.
"You don't want to kill him," Merlin said. "Step away."
"This is between me and him," Irvine said. "And Cloud."
"I know exactly what it's about," said Merlin. "Now leave him alone. Don't make me angry."
"It is inadvisable," Sephiroth admitted, "to make the warlock angry."
Irvine very slowly pulled his rifle back, still keeping it aimed at Sephiroth's head. "You're scared of him?"
"So should you be," said Sephiroth.
It was true; there was a glimmer of uncertainty in Sephiroth's eyes, more so than had shown all the while Irvine had held the gun to his head.
"I wasn't planning on killing you," he said.
"Good," said Sephiroth. "I won't have to kill you, then. Not if you can mind your own business."
"I can't guarantee that," said Irvine.
"Then the next time we meet," said Sephiroth, "I shall kill you."
"Will the two of you pack it in?" said Merlin. "Irvine, let him go. Sephiroth, go home. It's nearly dawn. Let everyone get some rest. I heard there's a new hero over at the Coliseum looking for a challenge, some bloke called Sora. Go prove yourself. Give Cloud a break."
"Is that an order?" Sephiroth asked, amused.
"Yes," Merlin said. "I rather think it is."
Sephiroth chuckled to himself, and when Irvine eased himself to his feet and stepped away, Sephiroth rose in an easy, fluid motion. "Very well, then," he said to Merlin, his eyes fixed on Irvine. "I do like a challenge."
And he was gone. In an instant. Faded to dust and light and nothing.
"That's interesting," said Merlin. "I've never seen that first hand before."
"Why did you stop me?" Irvine asked. "He's bad news. You must know it."
"Of course. But it's a lot more complicated than that. What about Cloud?"
"What about Cloud? If Sephiroth was gone he'd be able to move on."
"Would he? If he knew it was you who got his revenge, not him?"
"And that's assuming that Sephiroth wouldn't come back. He has a bit of a reputation for coming back, you know." Merlin was examining the blanket, testing the cloth, sniffing a corner. "Trans-dimensional energy," he murmured. "Wow. That's really interesting."
"So what now? Cloud has to spend all his time following this bastard? Forever?"
"Isn't that for Cloud to decide?" Merlin said.
And although there wasn't a scrap of smugness or arrogance about him, although he wielded power with nothing but humility, Irvine could have hit him, just for being so fucking right.
He didn't, though.
Irvine was still standing in the alley, watching Merlin fold the blanket with the expert touch of someone who's done a lot of folding in his life, when Cloud turned up.
"Irvine! Any luck?"
Irvine and Merlin exchanged glances, then Irvine said, "'fraid not."
Cloud swore under his breath.
"Sorry, man," said Irvine.
"'s okay. You've done enough. I'll take it from here."
"Give it up, Cloud," said Merlin. "You won't find him now. He's gone back to the Coliseum."
"He said that?"
"He's gone," Merlin said gently. "He'll be gone a while. Few days at least. Go home."
Merlin put a steady hand on Cloud's shoulder, and Irvine could have sworn he heard a faint hissing sound.
"Rest," said Merlin. "Spend some time with Leon and Tifa. Rest."
Cloud stepped back, almost a stagger, and yawned. "Maybe you're right."
"Come and see me again tomorrow," said Merlin, cheerfully. "We can talk about those new materia modifications I promised you."
Cloud nodded, and yawned again. "'Night, Merlin. 'Night, Irvine."
"G'night," said Irvine, and he and Merlin watched Cloud walk away, back in the direction of the town square, and the Hotel, and Leon.
"You used magic on him," said Irvine.
"Did I?" said Merlin, his face pure innocence except for the twinkle in his eye. He tossed the blanket over his shoulder. "Hey, have you eaten?"
"No," said Irvine.
"I made soup," Merlin said, unexpectedly. "Would you like some?"
Irvine's face broke into a grin, and he nodded enthusiastically.
"Right, then," said Merlin, and led Irvine to his home.
The soup was thick and hot and very, very good. Merlin served it in wooden bowls, with hunks of bread and cheese, and a tankard of something he called ale. It tasted a lot like beer, and Irvine drank deeply. Merlin's house was quiet; Merlin explained that everyone tended to go home once the sun had set. Traverse Town was particularly inhospitable after dark, as Irvine had found.
"So you live alone?"
"Gaius has the upstairs rooms," Merlin said, gesturing at the ceiling with his spoon.
"No Mrs Merlin?"
Merlin shook his head with a shy little smile. "You?"
"I...." It was always difficult to sum up Irvine's romantic arrangements at the best of times. The inter-dimensional aspect made it even worse. "I live with a couple of people at home. And there's this group of us who are close, we grew up together and we've been through a lot. The kind of thing that leaves you feeling like family by the end."
Merlin nodded. "I know what you mean. Sometimes fate makes better families than blood."
Irvine contemplated that as he finished his soup, cleaning his bowl meticulously with a final piece of bread.
"Thanks," he said. "You cook good soup."
"It's one of Aerith's recipes. But thanks."
Irvine smiled at him, and leaned back in his chair. "So, Merlin. How did you get to be here?"
"Same way as everyone else." Irvine waited patiently for Merlin to elucidate, but instead he said, "It's cold. I'll fetch some logs," and got to his feet.
Merlin wasn't wrong: a cold draught flooded the room when he opened the door, and again when he returned. Irvine watched as he deposited an armful of logs neatly by the hearth, then arranged the smallest of them with a pyramid of kindling. Then he paused, patting at his pockets. "Damn," he muttered. "Where did I leave the matches?"
Irvine drew magic and ~Fire~, very softly, and the kindling caught.
Merlin raised an eyebrow at him. "You're a warlock?"
"We don't have those where I come from," Irvine said. "At least, we don't call them that."
"But you use magic."
"I'm a SeeD. It's part of our training."
Merlin sat on his heels and fed logs into the fire, staring at the flames. "I used to wish for a world where magic was acceptable. Like Gaius says, you should be careful what you wish for."
"Why? What's so bad about magic?"
"Magic gives you power. People are afraid of power. People are dangerous when they're afraid."
"Yeah. Yeah, you got that right. But people like that anyway. If it's not magic they're scared of, it's money. Or kick-ass machinery. Or spiders. A lot of people are scared of spiders."
Merlin grinned. He had dimples when he grinned, and his bright, brilliant-blue eyes twinkled.
Irvine grinned back. "Not you, then?"
"No. Not spiders."
"So what are you afraid of?"
"That would be telling," said Merlin, in a tone that made it clear he wasn't about to.
Irvine moved smoothly from his chair to the rug in front of the fire where Merlin was sitting, legs crossed, thin wrists draped over his knees. Irvine kicked off his boots and knelt. A splinter of wood fell hissing from the fire; Irvine caught it quick as light and tossed it back.
"Good reflexes," Merlin said, with a little nod.
"Yeah," drawled Irvine. "Good instincts, too."
Irvine swooped right on in and kissed him.
There was surprise, maybe, but no hesitation. Merlin kissed him right back, and when Irvine's tongue flicked at Merlin's lips they parted eagerly, Merlin's tongue swiftly twirling around his. Irvine trailed a fingertip down Merlin's neck, from his ear to the dip at his collarbone. Merlin moaned softly.
When Irvine drew back, Merlin's cheeks were pink. Not just warm-pink. He was blushing.
Irvine grinned wolfishly. Adorable. Merlin was just adorable.
"What?" said Merlin, suddenly not quite able to meet Irvine's eye.
"Nothing," said Irvine, and leaned in for another kiss.
"So what do you like?" Irvine asked, slipping Merlin's shirt off one shoulder.
"Sex," Merlin said. "Sex would be very good."
Irvine kissed Merlin's freshly-revealed shoulder. "What kind?"
"Um," Merlin replied, his body arching, head tipping to one side to give Irvine better access to his neck. "What kind do you do?"
Irvine laughed. "That just makes me sound like a whore."
"Shit! Sorry. I, um, don't do this often."
Something in Irvine started to purr. He couldn't help but think how much Ether would have enjoyed this. He got Merlin's shirt off the other shoulder too, and took a moment to enjoy Merlin's body. He was just on the thin side of slender, but there were lean muscles under the smooth, soft skin. His nipples responded swiftly to Irvine's touch, red and stiff in an instant.
"Tickles," Merlin said.
"Yeah?" said Irvine, and stroked his nipples again.
Merlin laughed and quick as a flash he'd rolled them both over; Irvine lying sprawled on his back on the fireside rug with Merlin straddling his thighs. The firelight cast Merlin in gold and shadows, quite beautiful as he set to work on Irvine's shirt.
"You have a lot of hair," said Merlin.
Irvine raised an eyebrow.
"Sorry," said Merlin. "On your head, I mean. It's lovely. Sorry, I'm crap at this."
"Grows like a weed, Squall says. The hair, I mean. He's just jealous."
Irvine was done talking. He surged up and shut Merlin up with a kiss, a serious, spine-weakening kiss that had Merlin making growling noises deep in his throat. Irvine made short work of Merlin's belt and the lacings that held his trousers together (shit, laced-up things, always so fucking sexy, whatever bit of clothing they were on), managed to find the slit in his underwear and was rewarded with the prize of a hot, hard cock that twitched into his hand like it belonged there.
"You're... Y-you're s-still... d-dressed," Merlin gasped, hips thrusting towards Irvine's grasp. "N-not fair."
"You want that I should stop to take my clothes off?"
Merlin made a strangled noise, looking down at Irvine with a desperate expression on his face. His eyes flickered with gold and silver.
"Okay," Irvine said. "Let's see what we can do here."
He steadied Merlin with one hand on his hip, keeping the other hand firmly on Merlin's cock (Merlin was thrusting at him, small, tight movements that seemed to be causing Merlin anguish and pleasure in equal measure) and pulled himself up to sitting. With bit of fidgeting Irvine got his zipper open, and Merlin rid him of his shirt with trembling hands. They kissed as Merlin's long, slender fingers trailed down Irvine's chest, past the open belt and open zipper.
"Oh," Merlin gasped. "No underwear."
"Didn't seem much point," said Irvine, kissing Merlin's neck.
"Oh," said Merlin, an octave higher than last time. Irvine slid precome around the head of Merlin's cock with his thumb.
There was an unmistakable tingle to Merlin's touch that had Irvine short of breath in seconds, and he wondered (briefly) if it was something Merlin did deliberately. It reminded him of Rinoa, but he wouldn't have credited Merlin with the focus to be casting spells. It felt more like it was a part of him. Like he was coated head to foot in mega-elixir.
"You're so," Irvine started, but Merlin's mouth was on his again before he could finish.
Merlin kept kissing him, kept touching him. Irvine's tongue tingled, and his cock throbbed, and Merlin pressed into him, so hot, hotter than fire. He licked the corner of Irvine's mouth and murmured something; next Irvine knew Merlin was tugging at his jeans. Irvine wriggled a bit, too intent on finding Merlin's rhythm to pay much attention, and next he knew Merlin was touching the soft, sensitive spot in the small of his back - and moving down.
Irvine shifted then, getting his own jeans down far enough that Merlin could explore. He wondered if Merlin wanted to fuck him, and if he did, whether he'd let him. He didn't get fucked often, but....
Merlin's touch whispered over Irvine's hole, and Irvine's mind went blank for a second.
"Oh God," Merlin murmured. He was biting his lower lip, eyes heavy-lidded, and there was the rhythm Irvine had been looking for. A few moments later and Merlin was spurting over Irvine's hand like a geyser, thick and white with threads of gold that fizzed on Irvine's skin before fading to nothing.
"Sorry," Merlin whispered. "Couldn't last."
"You did just fine," Irvine said. "We can always, oh Hyne."
"That. What you're doing with your fingers, just there, just... Hyne."
He could feel Merlin smiling, still panting, his cock still jerking, but intent on making Irvine squirm. With the fingers of one hand a blur of movement on Irvine's cock, and the fingers of the other slowly fucking his hole, Irvine could do nothing but hold on and feel the build. Sweet, hot friction with a magical kick that went straight to the core of him.
He arched his back as he came, splattering his chest and belly, while Merlin watched. The grin on his face would have looked smug on anyone else, but Merlin had a cast of (probably misplaced) innocence to him that made smug impossible.
Merlin's arms wrapped around Irvine's waist, and pulled him in.
They sat and watched the fire, Merlin propped up on pillows, Irvine propped up on Merlin, heads close, Merlin softly stroking Irvine's belly as Irvine stroked Merlin's arm. It felt good. It felt as golden and warm as the firelight. For the first time since he'd arrived in Traverse Town, Irvine felt at ease.
"I'm gonna have to find somewhere to stay," Irvine said. "I really hate hotels."
"You can stay here," said Merlin, and dropped a kiss to Irvine's hair.
"I don't want to impose."
"You won't be. You'll be home in a couple of days."
"You're very optimistic."
"Not really. Well, I am, I suppose, but I'm pretty sure about this. I need to get Gaius and Cid to run a few tests, that's all. It's the blanket."
"The one you chucked on Sephiroth. It was covered in interdimensional magic traces. We can run the frequency through the computer and that'll give Cid the settings he needs."
"Oh," said Irvine. "That's... wow."
"Yes! I mean, thanks. Yes. It's just... a couple of days, you said?"
"Probably. Week at the outside."
"Well," said Irvine, settling back a little deeper into Merlin's arms, "that's good. Just fine. There's still some stuff I want to do."
"Yeah. With you. You know. Stuff."
Merlin chuckled at him, and gave him a little squeeze. They stared into the fire.
"So who did you leave behind?" asked Irvine, after a while.
Merlin hesitated for a moment, and then he said, "the King."
"The King? Tell me you don't mean the mouse!"
Merlin cuffed Irvine affectionately about the ear. "Not King Mickey, you prat. King Arthur."
Irvine recognised that name from the storybooks. "And you and he....?"
"I failed him," said Merlin in a low, soft voice. "I'm his protector. I'm supposed to keep him alive. It's my destiny to keep him alive. But when the Heartless came...." He shrugged. "My magic didn't work on them, and even Arthur wasn't strong enough to defeat such numbers. I tried to protect him. To throw them off the scent, anything... in the end I got tired and passed out. I woke up here. Thank goodness Gaius was spared. He doesn't remember any of it. Gwen and Morgana made it through too, they're in Hollow Bastion. But Arthur...."
"If it's destiny," Irvine said, "it'll happen. Destiny seems to work that way. Why don't you go and find him. Once you've worked out how to get me home, you'll be able to go anywhere, right?"
"Like Sephiroth," said Merlin, wistfully. "He travels between dimensions of time and space in the blink of an eye. There is a prophecy, Gaius says, one day some kid will turn up and beat the Heartless, and then we can all go home. Do you really think Arthur might be alive?"
"Sure as I am," said Irvine, and turned to kiss Merlin tenderly on the chin.
It took two weeks, in the end, but while Irvine woke every morning anxious that he might never see Squall again, by each night he was warm in Merlin's arms. He didn't see much of Leon, and he realised he preferred it that way. Leon was Leon, and very fine he was, but he wasn't Squall. At least with Merlin, he wasn't even trying to be Squall. He was just himself.
After fourteen nights, Irvine asked Merlin to come with him, and Merlin asked Irvine to stay. But they both knew, really. Merlin belonged to Arthur, and Irvine belonged to Squall... well, mostly to Squall... and that's all there was to it. It didn't make it any easier, though, when the time came to say goodbye.
Irvine found himself standing, melancholy and excited all at once, on the spot Cid had indicated amid an impressive array of circuitry and gadgets, quite a few of which went beep. Merlin gave him a look like a hundred kisses, there was a flash, a cold, wet slap and the world went black.
When the light came back there was a chill in the air, like standing in front of a fan, and a half-familiar voice was talking to him, somewhere through the icy blur.
"Irvine? Irvine, are you okay, man? Relax, you're in the transmat beam."
Irvine dared to open his eyes. Jack's voice purred in his ears... no, his mind.
"Sorry I took a while. I have to go back to your world to refuel before we can set out again. That alright with you? We should be back in a few hours."
Irvine smiled to himself and let the beam lift him from the surface of the planet in its cone of blue, swift energy. Squall. Just a few more hours, and then Squall.
"That'll do just fine," he said. "Just fine."