Title: Guided Tour
Word count: 2165
Prompt: ghosts - We’re all ghosts here, you know. Justsome of you aren’t quite dead
A/N: I'm pretty pleased with this one.
Summary: DiZ sends Riku to retrieve something from the Underworld. He meets a very unusual ghost along the way.
Riku had been to the Underworld before. He’d spent months as a glorified messenger boy for Maleficent after all, and had ferried a staggering number of reports, orders and poorly veiled insults to the various villains and cronies that made up the dubious alliance of the ‘Dark Side’ (which was a silly name and he couldn’t even remember when he’d first thought of it, but it always made him think of Sora so he kept using it anyway). Hades in particular had always liked being kept ‘in the loop’ of all the goings on and so, while Sora had sweated in the Coliseum overhead, Riku had grown to know the dark, twisting murk of the Underworld, listening to the constant, piteous murmurs of its ghosts and trying not to shiver at the cold, icy chill of the fog.
He was back now of his own volition, stealing mostly unnoticed into the echoing caverns to find some piece of Light that Diz wanted found. Swathed in black and blinded by the cloth wrapped tight across his face, Riku was just glad that he’d been here before – it made it easier to creep through the lowest, coldest reaches of the Underworld without smacking into any walls or stumbling into Hades’ private atrium or something.
The ghosts were just as noisy as he remembered, their mostly meaningless babble of sound feeling like nails scraping down his back, though they seemed almost more solid now than they had been when he’d be able to see them. The flicker of their souls shimmered in the endless dark like hazy torchlight as their icy fingers clutched furtively in his robe, the folds tugging and slipping free in time with their plaintive moans. Riku pressed on and did his best to ignore them.
A feeling of emptiness yawned suddenly in front of him and Riku froze, rocks crumbling underfoot as he toed thoughtfully against the lip of the crevice he’d nearly walked straight into. The barely-there sensation of Light he’d been following spiraled dizzily into the darkness below, unspooling down, down, down without giving any sign of reaching the bottom. Riku shifted his weight back with a frown, considering.
“There’s a path on your right,” a voice offered suddenly, startlingly loud in the quiet. Riku hadn’t even sensed the ghost’s approach. “You can use that to get down.”
“Thanks,” Riku said automatically, glad his eyes couldn’t show his surprise. He started edging carefully towards the right, only just now feeling the subtle black-violet pulse of the ghost lurking in the mist behind him.
“My pleasure,” the voice told him, male, friendly and far more cheerful than most of the ghosts Riku had ever been ambushed by down here. “Wouldn’t want you to fall – it’s a long way down.”
“Hnn,” Riku murmured absently, more than a little surprised when his probing toes skimmed over rock rather than air at the far side of the room. He’d learned early on that most ghosts had little interest in the living and that what interest they did have was usually malicious – he hadn’t been expecting the path to be there.
He could feel the ghost’s eyes on him as he shuffled carefully onto the path, keeping his steps slow and wary while he grew used to the sensation of empty air gaping all around him.
“Hey, not bad,” the ghost approved as Riku let his stride even out, leaning into the incline and marching confidently down the path. That same black-violet drift of feeling trailed gamely along at his side, easily keeping pace. “I guess there really are some things you can do with your eyes closed if you try hard enough.”
Riku kept his mouth shut and his attention fixed on the path, not interested in inviting trouble or whatever else this ghost was looking to cause for him.
Unfortunately the ghost didn’t seem to get the hint.
“Sooo,” it drawled, a pleasant, honeyed roll of sound. “What’s a good-looking boy like you doing in an Underworld like this?”
Riku rolled his eyes beneath his blindfold. “Are you serious?”
“Why not?” the ghost demanded. “You’re cute, I’m cute. It’d be great.”
He was not going to smile. “You’re dead,” Riku reminded the ghost dryly.
The ghost’s laugh, Riku was somewhat chagrined to realize, was even nicer than its voice.
“Not quite,” it told him. “Or, not by the Underworld’s standards at least.” Riku suppressed a shiver at the feel of calloused fingers slipping lightly between his own, the handshake cold and nearly as insubstantial as the fog. “I’m Zack, by the way.”
The bottom really was a long way down. “Tidus,” Riku said after a moment’s deliberation, not about to tell his name or Ansem’s to a denizen of Hades’ realm.
No matter how nice its voice sounded.
“Tidus…” Zack the ghost mused, trying it out. “Doesn’t really suit you.”
“Gee, sorry,” Riku retorted flatly, and Zack laughed again. For a ghost, he didn’t sound very old, Riku realized suddenly.
“No worries. I’ll get over it.”
The ground leveled out abruptly beneath him and Riku checked his stride to keep from tripping as the path merged with the bottom of the crevice. The fog eddied around him, cold even through his robe, and Riku followed the current of it, letting its drift carry his footsteps unerringly towards the exit. Zack ghosted wordlessly along at his side.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than follow me around?” Riku asked him, the words coming out sharp even though he wasn’t quite sure he wanted them to.
The grin in Zack’s voice didn’t sound particularly put out, though. “Like what? Try to convince Charon to take a coffee break?” A light pressure on his shoulder and Riku had the bizarre sensation of Zack leaning against and partly through him, a thoughtless gesture that didn’t work very well while incorporeal. “This mostly-dead afterlife really isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, you know.”
The path forked ahead of them. Riku paused, feeling the swirl of the fog shift and pull in two directions at once, and focused on teasing out that glimmer of Light that glinted like gold even in the midst of Hades’ realm.
“Need a hand?” Zack asked him when he did nothing but stand for several long minutes.
The Light hooked round his chest and pulled tight. “I’ve got it covered,” Riku told him, and chose the left path, not waiting for Zack to catch up.
Zack’s sigh sounded distinctly unamused. “You know,” he said, voice growing louder as he bobbed after Riku. “You could always ask me if I’ve seen the thing you’re looking for.”
Riku didn’t answer, not trusting himself not to say the wrong thing. The pulse of Light was getting stronger at least, and it cast the flicker of Zack’s spirit in shades of red and gold that seemed distinctly out of place amid the gloom.
“Or not,” Zack remarked ruefully. “You’re damn lucky I’m a sucker for stubborn guys who insist on doing things the hard way, or you’d still be standing at the top of that hole. Or splattered at the bottom.”
Riku snorted. “You’d love Sora then,” he said without thinking, then flinched, hardly able to believe he’d been so stupid. Of all the names to mention in the Underworld…
Only Zack didn’t seem to realize what his slip meant – or else he honestly didn’t care. Despite himself, Riku was starting to think it was the latter.
“Sora huh?” Zack asked, something warm and wistfully understanding in his voice. “A friend of yours?”
“He’s an idiot is what he is,” Riku grumbled, prompting another chuckle.
“You sound like Cloud,” Zack told him, grinning. “Course, he was usually talking about me.”
Cloud? As in Cloud Strife?
Riku frowned in the general direction of Zack’s flicker. “You’re not from this world, are you?” he remarked. It wasn’t much of a question.
“Radiant Garden,” Zack confirmed for him. “Until the Heartless came at least.”
“What are you doing here?”
“We-ll, I wasn’t really interested in becoming a Heartless or a Nobody, but I had a bit of a hard time staying dead.” Zack shrugged, the movement brushing Riku’s arm from so close. “And after a certain friend-of-an-idiot went and signed a contract with Hades, well I figured this was as good a place to be as any.” His voice went wry. “Only it seems like checking out of the Underworld isn’t nearly as easy as checking in.”
The soft scrape of Riku’s boots echoed in the quiet as Riku tried to figure out what to say to that. Sora would have known, Riku was sure, but that wasn’t much help to him right now.
Riku sighed. “Hey,” he started, then broke off abruptly as the trickling murmur of falling water shimmered suddenly through the fog, twining with the Light and drawing him inexorably forward. He walked right up to the edge of the pool, feeling the way the Light sparkled and danced under the water, refracting off the gentle surface until the whole cave glowed with it.
“Down there, huh?” Zack asked. Riku didn’t answer, busy staring blindly down at the water, and Zack hmmed thoughtfully. “Well, at least it doesn’t look too deep – you ought to be alright as long as you don’t fall in.”
“What?” Riku asked, glancing distractedly Zack’s way. “Why?”
Another shrug against his shoulder. “This pool’s part of the backflow off the Lethe. One sip of that and you won’t remember your own name,” a pause, “let alone the one you gave me.”
It was hard to give someone an arch look while wearing a blindfold. Riku tried anyway.
“Hey,” Zack said, and Riku could hear him grinning again. “No need to get defensive. I promise I won’t tell.” A brief pause and when Zack spoke again, he sounded vaguely urgent. “Though you might want to hurry up and get out of here before any of the ghosts show up and blow your cover.”
Riku rolled his eyes again. “Like the whole place doesn’t already know I’m here. You can’t go ten steps into the Underworld without running into a half dozen babbling ghosts any… way.” It was awfully quiet, Riku realized suddenly, had been for some time now, without even the slightest hint of a ghostly spirit anywhere. Except Zack, whose gold-dipped presence was now trying to radiate innocence without much success.
Riku squinted suspiciously at him. “You’re not a behemoth or something, are you?” he demanded.
Zack chuckled. “Not since the last time I checked.” His tone went sheepish. “Though I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining this at the next mostly-dead guys therapy session.”
“Right,” Riku drawled slowly, deciding that he really didn’t want to know what Zack had done to keep the rest of the Underworld at bay for him. “Keep a look-out for a minute, could you?”
“Sure thing bossman,” Zack agreed easily. “Take your time.”
The ground was hard beneath him as Riku sprawled out on his belly and plunged his arm into the water, wincing at the icy shock.
He could reach the bottom easily, Riku found, though it took several moments of aimless floundering before his fingers closed around the smooth, round object DiZ had sent him after. Water sloshed over the edge of the pool as Riku drew his arm out, his sleeve completely drenched and the strangely warm orb nestled neatly in the cradle of his palm.
“That it?” Zack asked from above him, sounding amused, and Riku nodded, a satisfied smile curving his lips.
“Yeah.” Riku climbed to his feet, being careful not to walk through Zack in the process. “Now I just have to get out of here.”
A grin. “There always was something to be said for stubborn,” Zack remarked lightly. “Though I think I can help you out with that.” Ghostly hands settled just above his shoulders, encouraging him to shift without actually touching. “The path right ahead of you leads mostly to the Coliseum. Just keep going straight.”
“Mostly?” Riku asked, not nearly as wary as he ought to have been. Zack was a very strange ghost, after all.
Who was currently smirking at him like crazy. “Comes out in the locker room.”
“Ah.” Riku tilted his head towards him. “Will you be okay?”
“Piece of cake,” Zack declared confidently. “Ghosts are nothing compared to Seph before coffee. Or board meetings. Or Cloud in a snit.”
Riku paused in the act of turning away. “Thanks,” he said gruffly, meaning it this time.
“My pleasure,” Zack told him again, just as light and friendly as the first time. Riku wondered what he looked like to sound like that. “I hope you find your idiot again soon.”
A smile teased at the corners of Riku’s mouth. “Me too. Idiots take a lot of looking after.”
“You’re not kidding. Oh, and speaking of which…” The wistful note was back in Zack’s voice, more teasingly fond than anything else. “If you happen to run into a Cloud Strife on your travels, could you let him know that he’s got an idiot waiting for him in the Underworld who wants to have words with him?”
“Sure,” Riku agreed. “I will.”