Ienzo’s fingers kept a rhythmic pace against the table, as he continued to stare at the same screen he’d had open an hour ago now, the same encrypted lines of code starting back at him. At this point he would have been willing to concede that it was time for a proper break, had he not felt Aeleus’ sharp stare boring into his back.
He knew exactly what the guard would say the moment he noticed Ienzo wasn’t actually focused on his work. Since the moment Ienzo started working on Ansem’s code, Aeleus had been nearby. He took care of various tasks around the castle and occasionally reminded Ienzo to take breaks, but his presence had been mostly a background element. Ever since they had escorted Riku and King Mickey out of the castle though, that changed.
Now he was actively watching Ienzo.
Making sure he was still there.
Making sure no one else was.
“I’m back,” Dilan announced, having finished his latest sweep around the Garden. Ienzo’s felt Aeleus’ stare leave him, but he didn’t turn around. It was unavoidable now. Dilan was going to ask, and Aeleus was going to tell him.
“What’s with you two?” Dilan noticed the tension immediately and frowned. “New discovery or new roadblock?”
The question had been aimed at Ienzo, but Aeleus answered.
“Both technically,” he said. “Even…”
“You found him?”
“We have reason to believe he may have been kidnapped.”
“What?” Dilan rasped. “By whom?”
“Xehanort…one of them anyway.” The stare returned to Ienzo’s back. Inwardly he sighed, and finally turned in his chair.
“When Riku and King Mickey were here,” Ienzo began evenly, “we came upon the topic of Replicas and how deeply Even had been involved in their creation. Seeing as we can’t find Even anywhere in Radiant Garden, it is likely he has already made his exit via Dark Corridor. Except…we can’t open them anymore.”
“I see,” Dilan crossed his arms. “So you think one of those bastards took him so he could help them out.” He let out a frustrated growl, before a different comprehension dawned on his face. “Wait. But that means…”
“Yes,” Aeleus agreed, gravely.
“Indeed,” Ienzo sighed sadly.
“They could be spying on us!” “We’re completely powerless.” “We need to take defensive measures.”
They all voiced their concerns at once. The two guards looked at Ienzo, the only one whose answer stood out as different, before looking at each other.
“So what’s the plan?” Dilan asked Aeleus.
“Securing Ienzo’s safety and this lab. In that order.”
There it was, Ienzo winced slightly. He knew exactly what Dilan “got”.
“Pardon, may I make a suggestion?”
“No,” Aeleus said bluntly. “Dilan and I were never more than just muscle for the Organization, but you were neck deep in Xemnas’ projects. Even if you weren’t as heavily involved in the actual research as Even, you still know many of the Organization’s secrets.”
“Nothing that they wouldn’t already know themselves, however.”
“And plenty that they wouldn’t want used against them.” Dilan snapped. “The point is, if they came after Even, there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t come after you too.”
Ienzo couldn’t help but disagree on that point. If they did plan to come after him, they would have already. But Xehanort and all of his incarnations didn’t care for anyone who didn’t have a Keyblade, Xigbar didn’t care in general, and the last thing Saïx would want is Zexion’s return. Ienzo didn’t know who else was in the new Organization, but he strongly doubted they would have any interest in him or think him some sort of threat. He was a powerless human now. His only strength was his ability to support Sora and Riku, and that was probably a benefit for Xehanort anyway (if Ienzo understood his endgame correctly).
But he wasn’t going to bother repeating this argument a second time for Dilan’s benefit. That was the frustrating thing about his (sort of) guardians. They never listened to reason if they thought his safety was in question.
“No time like the present to get started then,” Dilan, deciding his argument had been won, said with a smirk. “Up and at ‘em. You’re coming with me.”
“Right now?” Ienzo grimaced and pushed his chair back. “I’m busy.”
“Ansem’s code is not going anywhere,” Dilan told him pointedly. “You can take a break.”
It was not a suggestion.
“But you just got back from patrol,” Ienzo tried again more tersely this time.
“And it was boring as all hell, so I could use the exercise too.” Dilan was unfazed. The sinister grin only spread across his face further.
“Aeleus!” Ienzo pleaded, swallowing his pride and looking to Aeleus for backup. Unfortunately, the ever-loyal stalwart chose now to look elsewhere.
“This is for your own good,” Aeleus said unsympathetically but not unkindly, before turning to Dilan in understanding. “I’ll stay here to see what can be done to the lab. It’s been a while, Dilan. Go easy on him.”
“Don’t I always?” Dilan said and finally approached Ienzo, who wanted desperately in that moment to either disappear or have some sort of game-changing epiphany. Dilan pressed down on his shoulder hard. “Right this way, Little Prince.”
Ienzo sighed and stood up resigned. There was nothing more he could do to delay this.
He was going to train.
Since recompleting, Aeleus, Ienzo, and Dilan did their best to clean up the parts of the castle they would be actively using for the foreseeable future. That diligence did not extend to the rest of the trashed bastion, so anytime they ventured into a new part of the castle, they would be greeted with overturned furniture, broken glass, and several layers of thick dust.
Ienzo was surprised to find the former guards’ armory in that latter category. He had no reason to venture in there, but he’d been sure that Dilan and Aeleus would see to that room’s upkeep. Instead, he just stood by the door while Dilan kicked around a pile of weapons for something lightweight and unbroken.
“This would be so much easier if you could lift a lance,” Dilan said, mostly to himself. “Or Xigbar had some spare arrowguns lying around.”
“Actually, contrary to how they look, they’re decently heavy too,” Ienzo chimed in from the doorway. “Not to mention, hard to use.”
“You’ve tried before?”
“Braig showed me once or twice,” Ienzo admitted. He didn’t give a timeframe for that experience, but Dilan either didn’t notice or didn’t care, and instead pulled out a thin sword from a pile in the corner. It was a fencing sword, dulled and greyed, but in an otherwise decent condition. A silence fell over the two of them as they recalled the only person it could have belonged to.
“Remember how to use this?” Dilan asked.
“No,” Ienzo said. He was unable to refuse the sword Dilan pushed into his arms anyway.
“You’re a fast learner, you’ll pick it back up in no time. All you need are the basics, anyway.”
Not if I expect it to be actually useful, Ienzo thought acidly, and looked at the sword carefully. The last time he held a fencing sword was over a decade ago, even before Xehanort appeared. Ansem the Wise, among other accomplishments, had been a distinguished fencer and, as a child, Ienzo had expressed some interest in learning the sport as well. The lessons ended quickly as it became apparent how much physical activity was actually required, and Ansem had always been quick to give into Ienzo’s requests.
Sword in hand now, Ienzo could vividly remember his mentor showing off his techniques, honed by years of training as he helped Ienzo practice. Ienzo almost wished he hadn’t been so quick to abandon it now. He rather enjoyed the fencing lessons themselves. It was the warmups and the sweating that killed his interest.
Darker memories that loomed as Dilan called out, “This way,” and led him out to the courtyard. Years ago, he would watch Dilan, Braig, and Aeleus spar there, with real weapons, against Master Ansem’s rules.
“Shouldn’t we use practice weapons?” Ienzo asked, sense of dread increasing, as Dilan readied his spear.
“Did you see any functional ones?”
“There’s nothing stopping us from going out to town to buy new ones,” Ienzo countered. “This is dangerous.”
“I won’t actually hurt you,” Dilan promised. “Besides, if our enemies come after you, they won’t use toys.”
“If our enemies come after me, there’s really not much I can do,” Ienzo grumbled under his breath. In a worst-case scenario, he’d be captured quickly. In a slightly more optimistic one, Aeleus would buy him time to escape, but only for a few minutes.
Ienzo still firmly believed no one would come after them. This entire exercise was a waste of time—time better spent decoding Ansem’s code—and the worst part was that no amount of training would protect him if the Nobodies came after then.
Ienzo knew as well as anyone how powerful Nobodies were. He missed the power that coursed through his being, the illusions he could hide behind. He missed having Lexaeus as a guard, whose tomahawk could split open cities. He missed Xaldin’s whirlwinds, that amplified Dilan’s already significant strength to near unstoppable levels.
If they were still Nobodies, they could have had a chance. Or at least, Zexion would have fared much better against Dilan’s lunges than Ienzo did. After an obligatory (and exhausting) warmup, Dilan began to teach.
Teaching for Dilan was a combination of barking instructions and forcing their application at the same time. Ienzo could absorb the verbiage well enough (his body at least remembered some of his old lessons) but avoiding Dilan’s attacks took the bulk of his efforts.
He'd ditched the lab coat and cravat. It made his body feel lither, but he grew tired and sluggish quickly and could do little to stop Dilan from knocking the sword out of his hands and wrapping his arm around Ienzo’s neck from behind pulling him in close.
“You’re grabbed from behind,” Dilan said calmly, grabbing Ienzo’s wrist with this free hand and pinning them behind his back. “In a scenario like this, you want to—
“—an elbow to the solar plexus, a kick to the knee, and run while my attacker’s distracted,” Ienzo recited in a monotone and used the last of his adrenaline to demonstrate, elbowing Dilan hard in the ribs and raising his leg to deliver a swift kick to his knee. Dilan let a quiet grunt, and loosened his grip, letting Ienzo slip out under him and stagger over to the edge of the courtyard, where he plopped down on the ground.
“Time out,” he said. “I need a break.” His muscles screamed from all of the forced use.
“We’ve barely started,” Dilan told him coming closer. Despite his attitude, he had a grimace on his face, and absently rubbed at the spot where he’d been elbowed. “You’re out of practice.”
“I was never in practice,” Ienzo retorted. “You alright?”
“Of course,” Dilan replied haughtily. “Elbow attacks are just more effective than you’d think.”
“Elbows, knees and head,” Ienzo muttered as he reached up to pull his hair out of his eyes. He made a face as the beads of sweat that stuck to his hand. “All sensitive areas to be hit in, but also inflict the most damage. Easiest parts of the body to aim for are eyes, nose, neck, knees, et cetera.”
Dilan almost looked impressed.
“You’ve drilled it in me enough times as a kid,” Ienzo said with a small rueful smile. “I did pay attention.”
“When you bothered to show up anyway.”
“You say bothered, I say dragged against my will.”
He meant those words, but even Ienzo couldn’t not smile slightly as he recalled those past lessons. It was only at Master Ansem’s insistence that they happened at all with how adamant Ienzo was at skipping them. He unearthed any hiding place he could fit in, faked every illness and injury under the sun, and when he was finally dragged to them, used any childish manipulation he could think of to end the lesson early.
Even, not a particular fan of physical activity himself, sometimes took pity on him and found him some suddenly urgent work to do. Braig, a firm believer of “You don’t want to learn? I don’t want to teach”, would most often impart some sort of dubious life lesson and then disappear somewhere. Aeleus took the lessons seriously but couldn’t never bring himself to push Ienzo once he began to tire, a fact Ienzo gleefully took advantage of.
Dilan had never been, and would never be fooled.
“I did the self-defense training because Master Ansem wanted it done,” Ienzo said. He’d have done anything for him back then.
“Agreed. Why else do you think I bothered with you?” he said.
“You shouldn’t have. It’s all common sense anyway.”
“Only because you’ve never been in a situation where you’ve had to defend yourself,” Dilan said sharply, then quickly amended, “As a human.”
Zexion needed to be able to fight, and could take care of himself well enough. But he didn’t have to deal with Ienzo’s limitations.
“If I still had my magic at least, I could do more,” Ienzo lamented and held up his hand. A cool mist sparked at his fingertips (it felt good against his worn out overheated body), but nothing materialized. “I’ve been drawing from Nothing for so long, that even basic spells are hard.”
Not that even basic spells would have been helpful. He’d been setting aside some time into relearning Cure, but time was a limited commodity and his was much better spent on Ansem’s code than relearning skills that didn’t contribute to cracking it.
Dilan just shrugged, and glanced up as he saw Aeleus approach. The guard wore his usual stern expression, but Ienzo and Dilan could tell there was something on his mind.
“I reviewed the security system around the castle,” he explained. “It seems most of our original security measures had been destroyed.”
The news was unsurprising. Ienzo had done a quick check himself when he first booted up the computer, before deciding it wasn’t a priority. Before he could say as much though, Aeleus crouched down beside him, and handed him a water bottle.
Ienzo was grateful for the water, but played off the concern with a shrug.
“Hey, I went easy on him,” Dilan said with a roll of his eyes. “Not my fault he tires easily.”
“It is your fault,” Ienzo grumbled mostly to himself, looking away stubbornly when Dilan glared at him. “I’m just saying if they haven’t come after us yet, there’s no reason to think they will. And if they do, I somehow doubt breaking Xigbar’s nose with a well-aimed palm strike would do anything but satisfy our egos.”
“Isn’t that enough?” Dilan asked.
“Dilan.” Aeleus loomed warningly.
“No, I do get it,” Dilan said. “Maybe this is all pointless. Maybe the only thing we can do is fiddle with the computer and hope for the best. But we already know someone came after Even. We may not know what happened to him—if he went along willingly or not—but we do know it happened. If you want to sit around acting like nothing can happen to you, that’s on you. But you’re on our watch. And wasting a few hours covering our bases is a much better option than willfully doing nothing and dealing with the fallout unprepared if it gets to that.”
Ienzo considered it for a moment, but didn’t respond. Dilan loomed over him.
“Or think of it another way. If something happens to you, who’s going to restore Roxas? You’re not some helpless bystander. You have a job to do so you need to take care of yourself to do it. And our job is to take care of you.”
Ienzo looked away. He could feel Aeleus nodding beside Dilan.
“That’s ridiculous,” he muttered under his breath and stood up, grabbing his lab coat and cravat. “I’m going to go take a shower,” he said, pushing past Dilan and Aeleus. “And then maybe a nap. I’m exhausted. As for the lab, we can probably get some of the old claymores set up around the castle. At the very least, they can function as an alarm. And with the right materials, I should be able to put together some kind of sidearm. Can’t be any harder than a Gummiphone.”
Aeleus said something to him in response, but Ienzo pretended not to hear. It was way too warm in his sweaty clothes, and he wanted out immediately.
As soon he was out of sight, Dilan rolled his eyes. “I think I made him mad,” he said indifferently.
“He got the message you were trying to convey,” Aeleus said. “I’m surprised though. I didn’t think you’d have the patience.”
“I don’t,” Dilan said sharply. “If not for you, I’d have kept the lesson going till he really couldn’t move. Kid calls it quits over a little sweat. You’re supposed to sweat. That’s the point!”
“Still, thank you,” Aeleus said. “He seems to be in better spirits now.”
“He got some fresh air and exercise. All things you are perfectly capable of enforcing.”
Aeleus couldn’t help but smile slightly. Dilan was just as stubborn about these things as Ienzo sometimes.
“Still playing the bad guy, I see.”
“One of us has to,” Dilan grumbled. He picked up his discarded spear and inspected it carefully. “Don’t think I don’t agree with him. I hate how useless we are right now. At least Ienzo has something to do. These inane patrols around town are driving me nuts. I almost wish someone would appear already.”
“It’s like you said. All we can do is support him and prepare for the worst,” Aeleus said. “Still, this training lesson of yours brings me back.”
“No. No nostalgia trips,” Dilan groaned.
“Remember how Master Ansem used to bribe him with ice cream to attend your self-defense classes?”
“Master Ansem used to bribe him with ice cream for everything under the sun,” Dilan snapped. “It was annoying.”
“And Even used to cover for him.”
“Another annoying one.”
“Was about as useful then as he is now,” Dilan snapped. “And don’t think you weren’t annoying with your good cop act.”
“You were the only sensible one, I suppose,” Aeleus said bluntly.
“I still am,” Dilan said sharply. “Which is why when this is all over, I’m going to drag Even out here and teach him a thing or ten about defensive measures.”