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Beyond this Existence: Counterpoint

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Ienzo did not believe in fate.

There was a structure to fate, based heavily in choice and self-fulfilling prophecy. The human will was strong, and to the untrained eye willing things into existence could be interpreted as near to divine. Still. Lately there had been more than enough coincidence to make him uncomfortable. For so long, they had all worked in theory, guessing how the human heart and will and mind all worked, only for their hypotheses to come out right, after all that experimentation. It was a bit boggling. And not necessarily in a good way.

"Lost you in thought again, my boy?" Ansem asked kindly.

Ienzo looked over at his master, who was pecking away at the keys of his computer, refamiliarizing himself with the layout and content. Things were still misplaced from the brush with Sark and the MCP, and they'd been too busy to spend time reorganizing. Now that the worst of the chaos was over, it was time to clean up, take stock, and move on.

He did not know what that entailed. "Apologies, Master."

"No need to apologize. You were always a pensive child. Don't be afraid to think aloud. I should like to get to know you again."

Ienzo sighed. It was… odd… to be near Ansem again, and to spend time with him. It had once felt so natural and comfortable, but now he felt ill at ease. Even though he had apologized, and Ansem not only graciously accepted that apology but then turned it back on him, he still felt… unclean. Since they had all been back together again, there was a need to let life go on like it used to be. But everyone was different. Especially Ienzo. He had changed, and not just physically. There was still so much to come to terms with, least of all his own mind.

As a Nobody, sorting his thoughts and feelings (if you could call them that) had been so easy. With minimal physiological sensation, tracing sources and rationalizing had been simple. Now, even setting aside more time than usual to reflect, his thoughts and yes, emotions, were jumbled, messy, and nearly impossible to deal with. Anxiety, even as a Nobody, was a natural response, but even with limited or no stimuli he would feel it creep into his body anyway. And the reunion with Ansem seemed to have been the point where it all intensified.

"I'm thinking about how my peculiar upbringing may have altered my perception concerning emotion," Ienzo said.

"Yes, I imagine it would. Emotion as a child and emotion as an adult are vastly different, and you woke up with a completely new mind, literally speaking. How are you coping?"

Ienzo bristled. How could he tell Ansem the truth? What comfort had he earned from him? He still had so much to do to prove himself. "Well enough. I find it fascinating. I'm my own case study."

Ansem chuckled. "That's a good attitude to have. You're young. I'm certain you will adjust well, so long as you take the time you need."

Ienzo nodded. He wasn't so certain what Ansem was saying was true. He felt the now-familiar slickness of anxiety heighten his heart rate and tried to take deep breaths as quietly as he could.

His gummiphone started ringing. It had been a while since anyone had contacted him. There were a few text messages from the Restoration Committee now that they had a line of their own; Chip and Dale also reached out every week or so to say hello. He hadn't heard from any of the guardians in a while, though, so when he saw Riku on the caller ID he smiled a little, and answered.

Riku did not have his video enabled. Ienzo could hear the gentle wash of the waves in the background, and the wind. Riku did not speak, and Ienzo wondered if this was some sort of accidental call. The gummiphones were great, but not without their own glitches and quirks. "Is anyone there?" Ienzo asked.

"I'm here." There was an edge to Riku's voice that Ienzo recognized; he'd heard it in his own when Ansem had come back. Fear. Heartbreak. "I'm… sorry, I didn't know who else to call."

Ansem shot Ienzo a look. Ienzo shrugged. "Is everything all right? You sound distressed."

Riku explained the situation. He masked the pain in his voice well, but to Ienzo it was obvious. Sora still hadn't come back. He'd vanished, without a trace, gone to some place where the gummiphones couldn't reach. But the scariest thing was that Riku could no longer feel a connection to him at all.

"Ever since the Mark of Mastery test, I could feel him, his heart. But for whatever reason that's gone. And I'm not sure if that means he might be… just like Kairi…" His voice broke a little more. He must have held the phone away from his face-the sound of the waves intensified.

The acidic flush of anxiety already boiling within Ienzo worsened. He took a tense breath through his teeth to try and think clearly. His mind was buzzing. He tried to say something of comfort, but the only thing he could think was that it was all-too-likely Sora was dead as well. Especially if he were trying to retrieve Kairi from the clutches of death-

"Is there anything you know?" Riku asked. "You know a lot about hearts."

"I suppose… perhaps…" BreatheIenzo. "The connection may have weakened, but there's no reason to think it's still not there." Sora's bright, cheerful face flashed behind his eyes. He felt almost like he was being choked, and absolutely without warning he saw another face, Riku's face, Riku but not Riku, sharp bladed gloves against his throat-

"I'm going to Yen Sid to see what he knows, what this might mean. Is there maybe something in your research that could help us?"

Ienzo's muscles were tight. This is completely irrational. Get yourself under control. "I'll take a look through what I have," he said in a strained voice.

"Thank you. I'll keep you posted."

Ienzo wanted to say something of worth, of comfort, to tell Riku to take care of himself, but he could not speak. With a shaking hand, he hung up.

"Are you quite alright?" Ansem asked.

Feeling like he could not breathe was merely psychological. There was nothing wrong with him. He was not dying. Not being strangled. Not watching Axel's laughing green eyes as the puppet slowly drained away his life-

That had been Zexion. This was Ienzo, and he was fine, he was not being choked, he had received some bad news. Ienzo could deal with bad news. Ienzo worked very well under pressure. Ienzo was-could be-good.

Ansem touched his shoulder. "Ienzo?"

He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, Master. I don't know what came over me." To his mollification, he felt a tear run down his face, though only on the right side where it was hidden by hair. Before he could properly explain the situation, he heard footsteps on the smooth glass floor of the lab.

"Oh, this is rich," Dilan said, laughing a little. "You'll never guess who the cat dragged in. Turns out there are no more Xehanorts running around, as you have worried. Demyx is here. And he's alive. Technically speaking."

No. Ienzo did not believe in fate.

They'd put him in the spare bedroom, the one that had been reserved for the seventh apprentice Ansem had never fully brought on. (Lea and Isa, he decided, did not count. After all, where were they now?)

Demyx was unconscious. Not unlike Even after Xehanort's death, he'd fallen into a feverish, comatose state after the piece of heart cut through him. It must have been on a delay due to all his travel between worlds with odd time streams. Ienzo regarded him curiously. Their only interaction in all this time had been the day of Ansem's reunion, and Ienzo's emotions had run too high to process his appearance. All Ienzo remembered was that his willingness to help Even and defect against Xehanort was surprising.

He looked poorly. He'd lost some weight, and his body was racked with feverish chills. Even was at his side, tending to him and taking notes.

"...He's not a vessel?" Ienzo asked.

"I don't believe so. I've already checked his eyes. Not gold. Look." Matter-of-factly, he pulled back one of Demyx's eyelids, as if he were also one of the faceless replicas. Ienzo could barely see a sliver of teal.

"Do you think he's trustworthy?" Ienzo asked softly.

"I do not believe he'd cause any harm to us," Even said. "He was rather helpful with the replicas."

"The boy holds no ill will. We did not speak much, admittedly, but he seemed all too happy to get a move in edgewise," Ansem said. "I believe he was merely swayed. And we can sway him back to us, if need be."

"I'll monitor him, but he should be up and about before long." Even shook his head. "Nasty business. At least it's all over now." He picked up Demyx's ragged old coat. "I'll put this filthy thing in the wash with mine. Best to hold onto. Just in case."

They both turned and left. Ienzo tried to follow, with the intent to try and solve the Sora conundrum, but he couldn't help but look back. He decided he would have some tea.

Ienzo sat with his mug and shut his eyes. It was time to figure some things out. Not in a short period at the end of the day, as Zexion had been wont to do, but now. Perhaps he had to do this practice more often, now that he was human.

He was not Zexion. He was Ienzo.

Deep breaths.

He couldn't deny the fact that Demyx's reappearance just worsened his anxiety. Not because of any negative feelings he harbored towards him-Ienzo didn't feel particularly anything towards Demyx at either extreme-but because of what it implied. Radiant Garden was different. The apprentices were different. They couldn't just pick up their lives as if nothing had happened, not that Ienzo would want to. If anything, his appearance symbolized the two lives crashing together. Things would always be off-kilter. As much as Ienzo told himself this, he didn't quite feel it. It was so much harder to internalize fact as a human.

At least, he thought, if both Demyx and Even had lost the pieces of Xehanort's heart that had been thrust upon them, there was no chance of Xehanort returning in any form. He tried to take comfort in this. And Xehanort would never return to be an apprentice.

Ienzo's tea was bitter. As much as he had tried to busy himself, Xehanort's and Braig's absences were quite obvious, though none of them would dare bring it up. They had been a team once, a unit, you could even go so far as to say they were a fa-

He cut off the thought. It did no good to dwell on these things.

Breathe. Deeply.

"I'm not sure if this is a blessing or a curse," Dilan said as he approached in Ienzo's peripheral vision.

"I feel no way particularly. Everyone deserves a second chance. Him too."

Dilan shook his head. "We'll see how humanity fares for him. For all we know his transformation will be as dramatic as yours."

Ienzo frowned despite himself. "Whatever do you mean?"

"You, Zexion… night and day. Down to the way you're dressed." He gestured to the white lab coat that the apprentices wore most of the time.

"Perhaps it's because I've seen the error of my ways, and seek to change," Ienzo said. "You must admit. All that plotting and scheming… is very tiring."

Dilan shrugged.

"Are you not glad for a second chance?"

"I suppose I must be. Especially with Ansem here again. We can do some good for once." He hesitated, and Ienzo wondered if he wanted to sit. Ienzo realized he did not want that. He and Dilan had grown apart in the Organization, and now their relationship was a touch strained. "I feel bad for you. You've missed the majority of your youth in that hellish nightmare."

"As I'm becoming aware," Ienzo said. He felt a heat starting in his cheeks. Was he angry at Dilan? Why? It was true; Ienzo had missed most of his life. Even if he had stayed an apprentice, he still could have gone to normal school, had typical friends, would have developed in a way that would allow him to feel and express emotion properly.

"I do hope you find some way to make up for it," Dilan said.

"There are other matters to attend to first," Ienzo said.

"Yes… I suppose there are." He looked at his wristwatch and sighed. "I'm going to relieve Aeleus. See you later."

For a while after he left Ienzo sat, trying to nurse the absolutely awful tea and find a way to stand and get some work done. Tides of emotion threatened to break over him, each stronger than the last. He breathed. He sipped. He decided that he would go to the library for some light reading on abnormal psychology-surely average, well-adjusted adults didn't feel like this all the time? Firstly, though, he needed to eat. His appetite had been very poor lately, and he had to maintain weight.

He put up oatmeal and let it cook, slowly, sweetening it the way Even had when he was a small boy, with sugar and honey, remembering how he'd tell him that keeping his blood sugar up was important to think clearly. With a gentle pat on the head.

Even was not the same either. He still had the hard edge that he'd gained as Vexen. Or maybe it was just that Ienzo was no longer a child, and had lost the tenderness usually afforded to one.

Before Ienzo could begin to think about why this was important, he heard the soft squeak of floorboards coming from the guest room. Demyx must have woken up. Exactly how much time had passed? Ienzo checked the gummiphone; at least two hours.

I must keep better track of my reflection time.

He sighed, and stood. He did not feel like having this conversation, but if Demyx felt even half as confused as he did, he deserved it. He approached slowly, opened the cracked door. "I thought I heard something," he said. "I think it's time we had that chat."

Demyx's eyes were wide, frightened and, Ienzo noted with a hint of relief, still completely free of gold. He gestured for Demyx to follow him back to the kitchen. He handed him tea. He expected some of the exuberant chattiness that had filled their last meeting, and found none. Demyx kept looking around the room, as though disoriented.

"I'm sure you have a lot of questions," Ienzo continued. Demyx was staring at him oddly. "Even was worried, but I knew you'd come around."

He was full of tension. Ienzo could see that much. "What happened? Why are my-" He touched near his eye.

He really did know nothing. "I admit we were confused about that at first, but it's really quite simple. When Xehanort was killed, the piece of his heart that had been put inside you must have been purged. Even went through the same thing. So the good news is that you're a vessel no longer."

"I'm not?"

"It seems like you were one of the lucky ones," Ienzo said. He ladled out two bowls and placed one in front of Demyx. "If you had been a true vessel, you probably would have perished." And been recompleted far less messily. Ienzo considered what he himself was going through. Which was harder-being gradually eased into humanity, or thrust into it all at once? Necessary change, but painful.

Demyx said nothing. He bit his lip.

"It'll take time for your heart to grow back and for you to adjust. Thankfully, time is something we have a lot of now." He forced a smile. "Roxas and Naminé send their thanks. It's partially because of you, after all, that they became their own people again." This much was true. The vessel Demyx brought had given them just the information they needed to be able to make new ones. And Ansem had been there to help, after all, brought out of his months of wandering in the darkness.

Demyx continued to be silent. It was, perhaps, the quietest Ienzo had ever heard him be. His emotions flickered across his face clear as day; worry, fear, relief. They lacked the slickness of recreated Nobody emotion.

"You must be overwhelmed," Ienzo said haltingly. "I assume this reticence will pass. You should eat. Get your strength back."

He listened, and for a time they ate in silence. At least the oatmeal wasn't as bitter as the tea. Ienzo really needed to cook a proper meal one of these days. They'd been living off of nonperishable goods, too busy to go to the marketplace daily. "Where are they?" Demyx asked suddenly.

"Roxas and Naminé? I'm not quite sure. I believe they're in Destiny Islands at the moment, with nearly everyone else." Roxas didn't have his own gummiphone, as far as Ienzo was aware, so it wasn't like he could hear from them. To his shock, Demyx was actually tearing up, and trying very poorly not to give in to it. Ienzo had never seen him express anything like this; he had always been so callous and crass in the past, uncaring. Was this empathy? Or simply being overwhelmed? Ienzo wondered if Dilan might be right after all, and offered him a napkin to dry his eyes.

"Your heart might not take that long after all," Ienzo said lightly.

"Did you just crack a joke?" Demyx asked between sobs.

"I do have a sense of humor," he said. "Why don't you come get some rest?"

Ienzo decided to take his own advice. He too was exhausted, reeling from the events of the day and in desperate need of some quiet. He took off his lab coat, put on some less formal clothing, and crawled under the covers of his childhood bed.

Being in this room was still strange. He'd already set aside most of the few toys he'd still had as a little boy, as well as most of the books he used to read. A lot of volumes from his current research or reading sat around in various states of organization. Part of him itched to clean it up, to make it a different space, but his body weighed him down.

Sleeping was… difficult.

Even as Zexion he'd had difficulty sleeping, thoughts swirling and pinging against one another. Adding humanity made this necessary bodily function almost impossible. The anxiety of the day welled under his skin. He'd considered asking Even for a mild sedative, but then he'd have to explain why it was he couldn't get any sleep, and the embarrassment of that alone held him back. They would think even less of him if they knew he couldn't even handle these new emotions. This new body. It did feel new, in a way, even though it was all the same as Zexion's. He touched the scars at the base of his throat where the Riku replica had strangled him.

There were so many thoughts to dwell on. Not enough time to process. Especially now that he had so much work to do. There had to be some way he could help Sora. Ienzo couldn't help but feel this was all his fault somehow. If the darkness hadn't spread the way his experiments had enable it to-

There was no way he was getting any sleep tonight. He sat up. He figured he might as well get some work done.

"Ienzo, my boy, what are you still doing here?"

Ienzo jerked, startled from the complex web of words on the screen.

Ansem, in his casual clothing, approached him. "Ah, there it is," he said. He picked up a book that he had left by the computer. "I finally decided to try and relax, and I leave behind my novel. My memory is not as good as it used to be."

Ienzo set about shutting off the computer. It was so late as to be early. For the first time, he noticed he had a vicious headache, particularly behind his eyes. He must have completely dissociated, which was worrying, to say the least.

"Something weighs heavily on your mind," Ansem said gently. "I can feel it. Speak, Ienzo. You mustn't bear burdens all by yourself."

Ienzo exhaled. "My emotional state today has been… worrying," he said haltingly. "I feel intense, borderline pathological anxiety."

Ansem considered this. "So you lied to me earlier today," he said. "Why is that?"

Ienzo shook his head. "I do not deserve to be comforted. Not when I-" He could feel the harsh tightness in his throat. The soft glint in Ansem's eye did not help this.

"Ienzo, we have discussed this. You were a little boy. You cannot take fault for what happened. You are fixing your mistakes now."

"But it can never make up for what I-" A hot, potent mixture of chagrin and guilt washed over him. He struggled not to cry.

"My dear, dear Ienzo," Ansem said. "You have already accomplished more than I thought possible in the way of good. Tell me what it is you feel. Truthfully."

"I feel…" He could feel the strength leaching from him. "Ashamed, and frightened, and sad, all at once. I constantly feel everything concurrently. Is this what it is to be human?"

"Yes-it is especially more intense when one is young."

"I am not myself," Ienzo said. "I am…"

"A work in progress," Ansem said gently. "As are most people, certainly people your age."

"Things between all of us do not feel right either."

"I agree," Ansem said. "It will take much forgiveness for us all to heal. It is a process."

"I was naive enough to wish these things would be done with."

"Not naive. Hopeful." Ansem squeezed his shoulder. "Let me make you some chamomile tea."

When he finally did sleep, curled on the old loveseat in Ansem's quarters, it was fitfully and vaporously. He could still feel the replica's fingers around his throat, the suit's sharp scales cutting through the soft skin. Nobodies did not feel much but he felt the fear tear through him. And then felt it when he woke up as Ienzo, bleeding and weeping as Aeleus worried over Dilan's motionless, bloodied body. And felt it the third time as he woke up.

Groggily, Ienzo pushed himself off the couch, padded over to Ansem's personal bookshelf, and started searching. He found it, dog-eared and worn, towards the bottom of the case. He blew the dust off it.

Post-traumatic stress, originally known as "shell shock", is a psychological condition in which an individual-

Frustrated, he put the book back. This wasn't helping. If anything, he was shakier and woozier than ever, and his head still pounded.

Of course he couldn't come out of all that without scars, literal and figurative ones. But the fact that he finally had life back and now had to experience this was… a little galling. To say the least.

"Good morning, Ienzo." Ansem was making coffee in the apartment's kitchen. "I figured it was better to let you sleep here rather than make you tramp all the way back to your room. You looked quite exhausted."

"I was. I am," he said.

"Understandably so. I have an errand for you, if you feel up to it. Maybe some fresh air would do you some good."

In all honesty, Ienzo could not remember the last time he'd been outside the castle confines. "Yes. Perhaps."

"I'd like you to get some clothing for Demyx. I do not want to see those coats again if I don't have to. And I suspect you must need some yourself. You've outgrown your old things, no doubt." With a wink.

"You're not incorrect." It had been almost funny, going through his dresser drawers and finding all the small clothing. Funny and also sad. The small lab coat had been handsewn, tenderly, from an adult one. In the hope that he too might grow into their profession.

Ansem crossed over to his desk and took out a small purse of money. "Take your time. I daresay you need it."

The light, even for fall, seemed piercingly bright outside, and he flinched until his eyes adjusted. The violet sky was free of clouds. Ienzo could hear the tolling of bells above that signified a new hour.

This was home.

Still. Despite the ongoing restoration of the town, there was damage lingering from both the initial fall to darkness and the massive Heartless mob that the first Organization had sent. Ienzo couldn't help but be thankful that Zexion had passed by then. Otherwise that plan would have also been added to his heavy conscience.

The town was growing as people returned from Traverse Town. The Heartless population, thanks to Cid's claymores and the end of Xehanort, was low. Life was moving on.

It did not feel that way.

Ienzo shook his head to ward off the thoughts and went to the market.

The clothing seller was kind, and didn't charge him very much. Ienzo picked out a few simple things for himself and Demyx. It should not feel strange to shop. It should not feel strange to share small talk with the vendors. And yet, it did.

While he was here, he picked up some fresh groceries. There was order in food, simplicity, and it grounded him. For the first time in all too long he looked forward to this meal, rather than having it be just another thing to get through.

"Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!"

The voice, feminine and shrill, startled him. Ienzo fought hard to put on a smile. "Hello, Yuffie."

"How you been?" Despite being ex-Organization, the Restoration Committee had been generously welcoming to him. Ienzo looked over at the girl, only slightly younger than he himself was. And yet, throughout all these years, even she as a child was capable of making good choices, threw herself into the resistance-

"I am well. And yourself?"

"I'm great! You know, you should stop by sometime. You don't have to stay holed up in your castle all day. You're home."

"I admit I have to keep reminding myself of that."

She laughed. "It still does feel kinda weird. But you know. I don't really like normal." She shrugged. "What've you got there?"

"Basic supplies. Food. Clothing. One of the old Organization members returned. He's staying with us for now."

"Oh? Which one?"

"You know him as Demyx. He hasn't given his other name to us yet."

She frowned. "I remember him. He was the one who came on the day of the Thousand Heartless."

"I realize this. But I believe, or at least I hope, that he will have changed as much as the rest of us. He did help us with Roxas and Naminé."

Yuffie sighed. "We'll see. Anyway, I gotta go. Patrol. You know how it is."

"I'm sure there's no need to keep up such vigorous rounds."

She rolled her eyes. "I agree, but tell Squall that. He's paranoid even though things have calmed way down. I can't help but humor the guy. It keeps me busy. And hey. Don't be a stranger. You could use some new friends." She saluted, and set off.

Ienzo, somewhat automatically, turned and began heading to the castle. The brightness and density of the marketplace was leaving him feeling frazzled, anxious, and overstimulated. Yuffie was right; he could use friends, friends closer to his own age. The sheer strength of the Guardians of Light was testament to that. And yet… should he find the courage to drop by for a visit, how would he proceed? What would he talk about? Surely they must have known everything he'd done?

He shook his head. He had a lot of reflection to do before he was ready for that.

Ienzo spent the rest of the day cleaning the kitchen in Ansem's quarters. It was much nicer, and better-equipped, than the one the rest of the apprentices shared. But like the rest of the castle, it was dirty and in disrepair, and making it habitable hadn't been high on Ansem's list of priorities. He scrubbed at tile and countertops. Nothing wanted to be all the way clean, and the rust would absolutely not come off the burners on the stove. Ienzo did not stop until he realized his hands were smarting from all the chemicals.

"I should have worn gloves," he muttered. "Careless."

He prepared a roasting chicken and stuffing. Food was easy. Objective. There was nothing bad that could come from making food for others. He watched it all cook, and tried to convince himself things would be alright.

The next day the skies opened up, and it rained.

It had been months since he'd seen a storm like this. From his bed after another sleepless night he observed it fall. Cool air blew under his poorly insulated window.

Ienzo had to come up with a plan. Enough dallying about. Starting today he would do whatever was in his power to help Sora. If they could so much as contact him, it would be worth it. After all of Sora's suffering at Castle Oblivion, it was the least he could do. He dressed in his lab uniform, tightening the ascot at his throat to hide the scars.

He would fix this.

Except the files did not want to agree with him.

He must've spent hours looking through the archives. It was hopelessly disorganized, ripped apart by Sark, and the data from the Organization hadn't yet been uploaded. Rather than do anything of actual help, he had to sort the files, bit by bit, some of it pure guesswork because most of this research was not his.

"Have you a moment?" Even looked irritated; then again, lately he always did.

"Of course. Whatever is the matter?" He kept pulling files this way and that off of the cluttered screen.

"You no longer have any of your Nobody abilities, correct?"

Ienzo looked up. "That is correct." In their first confusing days of humanity, they'd all tried to connect with their powers. Trying to summon his lexicon or perform even the most minute glamor had given him a terrific migraine that put him in bed for the better part of two days. "Why is it you ask? You haven't either, have you?"

"I have tried, and I cannot," Even said. "I wanted to make sure. He found out."

"Who? Demyx?"

Even nodded. "I wonder if my tone might have been too sharp. He did look rather distressed."

Ienzo sighed. They all knew how attached Demyx was to his sitar; going without it must be something akin to withdrawal.

"But what is it I'm to do? I'm not a miracle worker. And if I'm being honest, I'm quite content with how silent things are around here."

"Strictly speaking, there is nothing we can do. Aside from have patience. Oh, that reminds me. I was supposed to have dropped off those clothes. My memory has not been great lately."

"You've had a lot on your mind," Even said. "I suspect we all have. I'll be glad to not see another one of those infernal cloaks. So drab. So… cult-like."

Ienzo looked back to the computer. "Master Ansem said essentially the same thing. I suppose I should take care of it now." He dreaded seeing Demyx's face, of trying to find words of comfort. He understood his distress, but the fact that he was actively grieving part of that Nobody life reviled him.

"I shall walk with you."

They left. The castle was so large, and yet they really lived in such a small part of it. The rest of it sat vacant, unused, and gradually decaying. The carpet at their feet was worn.

"It's a shame," Even said. He scruffed the carpet with the toe of his shoe. "Things here were once so beautiful. If the committee were not so busy we could use their assistance. This place is a shell of what it once was."

"You have to admit it feels rather significant," Ienzo said.

"Too on the nose, for my tastes," Even said. He shook his head. "We're not shells of who we once were. We've changed and adapted. You most of all. I miss being so pliable."

"...So I've heard," Ienzo said sourly. "I assure you it is not as easy as it looks."

"My apologies."

A sharp emotion tightened in his throat. Ienzo found himself wanting to confide in Even, wanting to beg him to help, like when he was a child. Wanting to be comforted, coddled, even though he had done nothing to warrant such niceties. "If only times were simpler," he said. "I feel as if I've no time to look after myself-what with Sora's disappearance and Demyx's arrival."

"Sora's disappeared?"

Of course, holed up in his lab all day, Even wouldn't know. Ienzo explained what happened.

"...How curious," Even said, his lips turning down. "I wonder if there's any of his data somewhere?"

"Sora's? I do not know. I'm not sure how his friends would feel if he were a replica, though."

Even sighed. "I've tried to recreate Sora's heart, and we remember know what happened with that," he said. "As proud as I am of Xion's sentience and personhood, unfortunately his heart is so special that it seems to be a moot option. Best not to give them hope."

Ienzo hesitated.

"I thought I'd taught you better," Even said.

"You should have heard Riku's voice."

"I'm surprised you feel so strongly about him, not when you have such poor memories of him."

"That was your replica, might I remind you," Ienzo snapped.

Even raised an eyebrow. "The Riku replica? What about it?"

Ienzo froze. Even didn't know. "Never mind," he said evasively.

"Boy, tell me," Even said thickly.

Automatically, Ienzo's hands fluttered to his throat, and he fought to steady them.

"Ienzo," Even said.

Slick, sparkling, spicy anxiety swept through him. He tried to steady his breath, but the tightness in his chest was was it he could not get himself under control?

"Oh, Ienzo," Even said.

"If you must know," Ienzo forced out between breaths. "Axel had the Riku replica kill Zexion."

"He did?" Even barked out a strange laugh. "Axel killed Vexen."

A wave of dizziness nearly overcame Ienzo. Even placed a hand on Ienzo's shoulder.

"How is it you're feeling?"

"I don't understand," Ienzo said. "I don't understand what it is I'm feeling."

"Intense, paralyzing panic?" Even suggested.

"Yes-perhaps-" His knees were weak and shaking.

"You should sit down and focus on modulating your breathing," Even said. He took Ienzo by the elbow and helped him sit down on the floor. "It's alright. This is a normal reaction to recalling something traumatic-"

"Believe me, I know," Ienzo hissed. "I am perfectly aware of what this is." It didn't help, he thought.

"Count to ten," Even said. "Deep, steady breaths."

He tried. His desire to confide in Even completely gave way to an abject humiliation. "Why is it you do not feel that way?" Ienzo said.

"Perhaps my heart is not quite as developed as yours," Even said. "Perhaps it is that I have not processed it all, yet."

"I do not wish to speak of it at the moment," Ienzo said. His chest still ached terrifically. "I must… I must go." He pulled away from Even. Standing gave him a wave of vertigo. He stumbled down the hallways, nearly getting lost in the familiar twists and turns, until he reached his bedroom. Ienzo lay down on his bed for a moment. He breathed and breathed until he no longer had to think about it. He shook himself. Gathered up the bundle of clothes. Prepared himself for another awkward conversation.

He knocked at the door and waited for a moment. There was no response. Ienzo struggled to put on a neutral face and cracked the door. "Sorry to intrude. Ansem suggested you might like something else to wear, other than… that." Demyx was pale and wan and washed out, especially against the black of the coat. Ienzo realized just how obvious his cheekbones were in his face, how much weight he'd lost. "Doubtful you'll need its protection any time soon."

He was silent. There was an empty, frightened look in his eye, and to Ienzo's surprise when he caught his own reflection in the small dresser mirror, he wore the same expression.

Ienzo swallowed. He put the clothes down and hugged himself tightly. It didn't help much. "I realize this process has not been easy for you-"

Demyx's eyes flitted to meet his, and then he looked away.

He didn't know how to find the words. "I failed to make the connection. I didn't realize that gaining your humanity would result in another type of loss. But of course your connection to your power must have run deeply."

"It's just always been there," he said. "I feel like part of me has died."

Ienzo bristled a little. How could he not see the opportunity he'd been handed? Yet, at the same time, he couldn't help but agree- "Yes. I imagine it would."

"Don't you feel the same way?" Demyx turned towards him. His bright eyes sought Ienzo's. "I mean, in a sick way, becoming Nobodies kind of brought out the best parts of us."

Bile rose in Ienzo's throat. He looked down. The anxiety was back, worse than before, and all he could say was, "I disagree." How could he think that? If anything, being a Nobody had just enabled Zexion's dark nature, and instead he'd just kept committing atrocities in the name of science.

Demyx blushed.

Ienzo was shaking. "I'll let you rest," he said woodenly, and left the room.

He found himself crouched over the toilet, heaving emptily because he'd forgotten to eat that day.

The memories poured behind his eyes. How had he been so cruel? Was it ever possible to make up for it? So many worlds had fallen. So many people had-

That didn't even count the initial spread of darkness. If he had not listened to Xehanort and encouraged all those extra tests on the subjects-

Ienzo spit weakly. He crossed over to the sink, pulled back his hair, washed his face.

He really was not well. The ripples of the old life were clearly not going to settle any time soon. How on earth was he going to learn to manage them?

There was something he could do. He could help Sora. Helping Sora would save people. Maybe he could save himself in the process.

Some hope.

He picked up his gummiphone and dialed Ansem. "Master? Can you help me?"