He only had time for a cut off exclamation before he was pulled under, Zack’s form a solid yet somehow still soft mass below him. He worried, for a moment, that he would go right through his friend, but managed to get his feet under him regardless. Water rained off his clothes, dripping in rivulets down his face as he gave Zack as unimpressed a look as he could manage.
"I just got this phone, you know." He pulled the waterlogged device out of a pocket. There was no need to even look at the screen to know it was damaged beyond repair.
Zack shrugged, floating in the water. It…felt like floating in the Lifestream, really. Suspended, no sense of up or down, and grasping his sense of self with both hands.
Only, he didn’t need to do that here. Here, he was just himself. It was nice. Quiet, even.
Being dead was a bore and a chore.
"Stop taking them near water then." Grinning, he flicked water at Denzel as the boy mirrored waded closer. "Right? He should know better."
Denzel pushed himself out, reaching to smoosh either side of Zack’s face in retaliation. It overbalanced him back into the pool, but he came up laughing. ”Hey Zack, Cloud’s the only one not wet, right?” he asked, giving Cloud a mischievous grin.
Cloud’s eyebrows raised in alarm, and he made to scramble back. There was no way Zack would resist such an open—
"Right!" Zack said, and Cloud wasn’t fast enough as he reared up out of the pool to grab the front of his shirt and haul him into the water with them. He let himself fall backward into it as well, to drag him all the way down.
He wasn’t about to let Cloud get away with using some little trick to avoid his dunking. No way, no how.
He could hear Denzel’s laughter filtering down through the water, echoing and bright as the water sloshed.
Cloud raised his eyebrow as the droplets sprinkled across him. ”I don’t know Zack. She has a record of following people into the Lifestream just to give them a good lecture.” Maybe it was disrespectful to think of that time so flippantly, but Cloud had come to terms with it. Tifa was his friend first and foremost, and her loyalty to him never failed to humble him. He hoped, now, that he could give a little of that back.
"That’s right," Denzel added. "So don’t make her mad. Either of you.” He sounded so serious just then, that Cloud had to grin.
It was always good to see Cloud smile like that and Zack felt his own smile go a little crooked when he saw it. Cloud needed more things to smile about, really.
It was good for him. He was going to get frown lines otherwise.
"Aw, c’mon. Who can get mad at this face?” Zack pointed at himself, grinning.
Defeated, Cloud just shook his head and sat down on the floorboards in front of Zack. He’d come here initially just to make sure all was well, that nothing had disturbed the memorial or the church itself. Not that he thought Aerith would allow petty vandals, and besides, most people were still leery of coming too close to Midgar and the supposed danger that still lingered. It didn’t matter how many news reports came out stating the Lifestream levels had gone down to normal, people had lost faith in those long ago.
"Well, I guess that’s how it’s going to be," he said instead, leaning back on his arms. "Be sure to explain clearly to Tifa that Zack gave you permission."
Chuckling, Cloud reached out and pulled at Denzel’s arm, dragging the boy from his pout to sit at his side. He paid no attention to the water seeping into his clothes; as he’d said, it wasn’t going to hurt anything.
"Hey, at least she can’t hit me," Zack said cheerfully. He wondered if… Reaching down he ran his hand through the water, then scooped it up and flicked it at Cloud.
Cloud chuckled, watching the water move as Zack’s spirit did. He’d suspected, remembered that Zack had been solid enough to touch before, and if it hadn’t been the case Denzel would have been just as wet. When Zack was close enough, he reached out to heft Denzel back onto the floor boards, ignoring the wetness seeping through his gloves.
He caught Zack’s eye, and felt a bubble of happiness well up in him. It was nice to be able to see Zack, to look at him without him vanishing into a dream. Perhaps it was the absence of Sephiroht’s malevolence that allowed for the stronger manifestation, or maybe Aerith was helping things along, but either way, Cloud was grateful to be able to say the things he’d never had a chance to before.
"That was mean!" Denzel spluttered, shaking his head and sending water everywhere. "Jeeze Cloud."
"Sorry, sorry," Cloud said placatingly. "It’s just a little water, right?"
"That’s not the point," the boy muttered, wringing out his clothes as best he could. A moment later he gave up on the effort, turning back to Zack. "So you just hang around Cloud all the time, right? So he’s not lonely anymore. Tell him to take me with him, why don’t you. He comes home more often but…I know I can help!"
"Denzel…" Cloud admonishment fell on deaf ears. Not that Cloud blamed him for his excitement; for Denzel, it was being able to meet his hero’s hero, however unusual the meeting was.
"Not all the time,” Zack said, grinning. He leaned against the floorboards at the side of the pool and peered upward at Cloud. ”A man needs time alone sometimes. Cloud just takes everything to extremes.” He winked at him before turning toward Denzel.
Cupping his chin in thought, Zack looked him over from head to toe. ”Tell you what. You grow up a little more, get stronger, and then I’ll pester Cloud until he has to say yes. Deal?”
Denzel gave an excited, “Deal!” as Zack looked back up at Cloud.
Struck by a sudden sense of mischief, Cloud reached down and grabbed Denzel by the back of his shirt. Over Denzel’s yelp of surprise, he said, “Well, let’s find out,” and tossed Denzel at Zack.
Zack only had time enough to reach out before the boy’s weight hit him and they both went down and under the water. He hit the bottom, and for a second he wondered if he’d keep going, right back into the Lifestream in a dazzling fade of green, but he held.
Tightening his arm around Denzel he got his knees back under him and hoisted them both back up. The kid sputtered, and Zack laughed, dripping. He couldn’t feel things like he was alive, it was all muted, like an echo, but it came close.
Keeping his arm looped around Denzel he waded back toward Cloud.
"At least I can’t catch my death, right?"
Cloud sucked in a quiet breath as he felt more than saw Zack move past them. However as he continued, Zack’s figure slowly began to take form, swirls of green floating around him as he walked the length of the church.
Denzel shoved at Cloud’s arm, and Cloud perfunctorily let him go to chase Zack’s spirit down the aisle. It didn’t look like Zack noticed, and Denzel refrained from stepping in the water after him, crouching at the edge of the pool with his chin on his hands as he watched. When Cloud came level, Denzel looked up at him with sparkling eyes, and Cloud couldn’t help but smile back.
The smile turned melancholic as he took in Zack, almost solid now, and the wistful expression on his friend’s face made his heart ache anew. It would never be completely fine, that Zack was dead, but he wasn’t gone yet, and as long as he wanted to stay, as long as he wanted Cloud’s company, Cloud wouldn’t refuse the boon.
"So," Denzel’s hushed whisper broke through the silence, too loud and easily heard, "If I touch him, would my hand go right through?"
Zack glanced back over his shoulder at them when he heard Denzel’s question. He blinked, then looked down at his hands. Green wisps of Lifestream rose from his skin, idly swirling around him and dissipating as it often did when he managed to manifest. He’d never done it accidentally…except maybe that one time, with Cloud.
It was always such work for him.
"No idea." He turned his hand over. "I don’t think I’ve ever been this solid before."
It felt weird.
Dutifully, Cloud began, “He said—”
"I did well, I heard," Denzel replied, young face full of a sort of awe. "Does he always sound that echoy? Why can I hear him now? Hey Zack, what’s it like being dea—" Cloud’s hand closed over Denzel’s mouth, preventing the endless stream of questions. He sighed, and wondered if he’d regret this meeting at the end of the day.
Zack laughed, a huffy, breathy thing.
"It’s boring, kid," he said, "never try it."
Steeling himself, Zack slipped around Cloud, fairly certain they’d never notice. He drifted forward until he reached the edge of the pool. No reflection showed as he stepped into the water. The coolness seeped into his pants, and he didn’t notice the slight ripples his presence created in it as he approached the sword.
Reaching out, Zack rested his hand against the blade.
"Hey, old friend."
Cloud ignored that, knowing it was true. He’d been caught in his own failures, and the rusting blade seemed the perfect echo of how he’d messed everything up. Now, though, it had received the honor it deserved, for the men who’d wielded it before.
"Hey Cloud, ask him what he thinks of it. Tell him I helped clean it too," Denzel said, tugging lightly at Cloud’s arm.
"He thinks it’s pretty. And he can hear you just fine," Cloud responded, pushing Denzel forward a few steps so they could finish the journey to the flower garden.
He followed after them, footsteps nonexistent just the same as was his breath. He didn’t breathe anymore, didn’t eat, didn’t do much…but he was here. That’s what mattered in the end, he figured. Though sometimes he wondered if it wouldn’t be better for him to be more scarce… Cloud had a life to live now, after all.
Zack couldn’t keep himself away though. Cloud was his legacy, his friend. He was important and he wanted to keep an eye on him. Maybe that was a bit selfish, but until Cloud told him to get lost he’d be here for him.
"Tell him he did good," he murmured, eyes resting on Buster Sword still. The church itself brought back a million memories, warm and cold alike.
Times spent with Aerith here…He smiled, a sad little smile.
A part of him wanted to approach the sword, but another part of him was afraid what would happen if he did. Going near his own memorial seemed a little like asking for trouble in his afterlife.
Fenrir rumbled to a stop in front of the dilapidated church. Cloud cut the engine, giving a soft grin as he felt the arms around his waist loosen slowly. He may have been driving a bit fast, but Denzel enjoyed it as much as he did.
With a little grunt of effort, Denzel slid off the seat to the ground, looking up at Cloud with a happy grin, his hair even more tousled than normal. Cloud couldn’t help himself from ruffling it further, laughing at the loud protest and flailing arms of his charge. It was nice, to be able to be with Denzel again. To feel he deserved the admiration and happiness that came with spending time together.
That was why he’d brought Denzel here, to share with him the memory of the one who meant as much to Cloud, as Cloud did to Denzel.
"Ready?" he asked, sliding off Fenrir himself. Denzel nodded, and the two of them went up the stairs into the church’s interior. Inside, Cloud felt the familiar catch of breath, the weight of memories and emotions of the missing flower girl whose presence was so poignant in this place, and the new addition of quiet pride for the friend who’d sacrificed so much for Cloud.
At the same time, he felt the familiar pressure of something other nearby, and he rolled his eyes good naturedly.
"Stop admiring your memorial, Zack," he murmured, shaking his head at Denzel when he looked up. It was strange, sometimes, but by now Denzel, Tifa, and Marlene were used to him talking to the restless spirit of his dead best friend.
It was a little easier to bring himself into existence here, a little less like pushing through a solid wall and more like slipping through curtains. Zack wasn’t sure if it was Cloud’s presence—which generally made it easier anyway—or…the memorial.
He considered it over Cloud’s shoulder. Buster Sword. He missed that thing, but Cloud had done well by it in the end. Zack propped his hands on his hips and leaned in closer to Cloud. He huffed out a breath of laughter against the back of his ear, just to be a little irritating.
"But it’s nice!" he said. "All polished and pretty. ….Though I still owe you a talking to for what you did with it before.”