Recompletion offered various benefits and drawbacks that Ienzo had mostly finished discovering and categorizing after the defeat of the Real Organization XIII. Adjusting to them was another matter.
As Zexion, he had been almost tireless in his studies and lab work, retiring only when he noticed a drop in his performance. Ienzo was far more affected by the whims of his recompleted heart. Some days, he matched his pace as Zexion perfectly. Those were rare. Fortunately, so were the days when everything slipped through his mind like sand in a sieve. Most of his days were like this one: punctuated by a need for breaks that he was reluctant to take. Ienzo could force his way through to the end without stepping back, but he often paid for it mentally—with interest.
To avoid that state, Ienzo left the labs for the faded halls of Radiant Garden’s castle that still managed to appear stately despite its worn condition. He noted proudly that he could find his way around with ease despite his long absence.
It was voices from the kitchen that gave him pause rather than being lost.
“Too much time has passed since the originating incident.” Even’s voice was familiar, holding more depth than his Nobody. There remained a considerable amount of tension between them since everything that had occurred beforehand, no matter how Ienzo tried to put the past behind him. Some deeds were simply hard to let go even when one sorely wanted to. Particularly when they were not necessarily in the past.
“An excuse.” Aeleus. Resolute, matter-of-fact, but never cruel. The remarkable aspect of him was that he seemed to change very little as a Nobody compared to his recompleted self. If anything, his determination to protect had only increased with the loss of his heart. It could be viewed as strength of character or too little, too late. Ienzo knew how he preferred to regard it and, in the end, what else mattered? Aeleus was like family to him, and he wouldn’t lose that over one mistake.
Why did that not work for Even?
“I beg your pardon—” The sharp inhale that prefaced Even’s indignant response drew Ienzo closer to the doorframe to conceal himself just around the corner.
He should not do this. If there was something he needed to hear that Even was ready to share, the proper choice was for Ienzo to have patience and wait for Even to be prepared to disclose it on his own. But he held his place out of view all the same.
This decision didn’t come with the steadying feeling of choosing to do something against your better judgment for a greater cause, but entrapment as horrifying as if Ienzo had lost control of his limbs. Could he choose not to do this, or was he compelled to stay out of selfish interest? Ienzo didn’t know for certain. A numb chill seeped into his core that had little to do with the subpar insulation of the castle.
Sometimes, Ienzo could swear there was more Zexion to him than his original self… And how could there not be? He developed psychologically into a young adult while he was a Nobody. Perhaps there truly was no chance for improving himself after all. At least he might know the truth of Even’s return after masquerading as a member of the Real Organization, however dubiously gained. And so, he listened in secret.
“It is, and you know it.” Aeleus insisted, level-headed as ever. Based on the way their voices carried, Even had his back to the door and Aeleus stood beyond him facing the entrance. In that case, only one of them could potentially realize his presence if he moved. How convenient for Ienzo’s new moral low.
Even huffed in enduring offense, but it was the true sign that he’d yielded on a point of disagreement. The telling habit was as close as Even would ever get to admitting he was in the wrong.
“My apprehensions aside, there is validity to Ienzo’s perspective. He was only a boy and I was entrusted with his care.”
Ah, of course. They were discussing their collective deaths again. Ienzo had come across the discussion before several times, but he never could stay through it or step in. The pulse-pounding need to be as far from the conversation as possible usually overpowered him and eventually left him panting in a far-off hall to work through his borderline panic alone. As it should be—there was enough on everyone else’s plate that handling this unassisted was the least he could do. Perhaps through exposure and the supposed healing power of time, Ienzo felt steadier in this instance. He took a quiet, controlled breath through his nose and focused on listening.
“By allowing my curiosity to get the better of me, I as much as formed this rift between us myself.”
Ah. Even had sensed it. And here Ienzo thought that with his own second recompletion to process, his adoptive father figure would be too preoccupied to notice the façade Ienzo leaned on when he found bitterness far closer to the surface than forgiveness.
In truth, the divide between them troubled Ienzo as well. He tried to focus on memories of Even’s concerned irritability in hunting him down when he was only a boy, wandering off as he so enjoyed doing. To escape the overwhelming indignance lurking in his heart, Ienzo would dive so deeply into their more familial memories as to distinctly recall how large Even’s hands were in relation to his own being gingerly held for emotional comfort as much as physical security. He could remember tracing the wandering, geometric pattern of his favorite blanket as Even read him a bedtime story of some book well above the average reading level for his age.
None of it warded away the feeling of betrayal, so Ienzo kept a civil distance when he had to and gave it no more thought than that.
Until that moment eavesdropping in the hall, of course.
“It’s not always there.” Of course Aeleus saw his emotions whether Ienzo meant him to or not. He could sense Ienzo’s mental state with the accuracy of a barometer. As irritating as that sometimes was, it did have its benefits for Even’s guidance as well as Ienzo’s, apparently.
“That much is true,” Even relented, though not with any confidence. How odd it was, to hear his voice without the characteristic certainty. “But I would attribute that to the boy’s better nature rather than—”
“The boy?” He spoke without a thought as to if he wanted to or should, the words tearing from him almost as an accusation. When had his hands clenched into fists? Relaxing them open, Ienzo stepped into the warm light of the kitchen and still felt the same chill. Aeleus turned to him with a patient, open expression. He neither smiled nor frowned, simply waited for Ienzo to decide what he wanted. The unreasonable voice of his inner thoughts rebelled at even that, but thankfully for everyone involved, Aeleus wasn’t who Ienzo was concentrated on.
Even’s green eyes widened, his mouth contorting into a nervous grimace of someone who’d been caught at the worst possible moment. The steaming tea pot in the center of the kitchen island suggested he’d just been making tea when Aeleus came across him, so this could very well be the second time today he was caught by surprise.
He drew his hands up, rolling into a gesture as if he was going to speak. To explain it all away. Ienzo didn’t give him that chance and felt a surge of ravenous satisfaction at cutting Even off.
“I’m not a child anymore.”
Aeleus and Ienzo were used to the silence that followed, but it had to be unbearable for Even. Strands of pale blond hair fell forward as he angled his head toward a far-off point in the kitchen wall. He wouldn’t be speechless for long, but Ienzo didn’t know what he hoped to hear. Maybe it was nothing. An apology? A reason for everything? His own mind didn’t make any sense to him and Ienzo resented that too.
“Ah. Ienzo.” An obvious remark to stall for time in his search for the words to make this situation disappear. Ienzo scoffed on instinct. This was off to a horrid start. He logically knew he should be easy on Even. The time had come to see past their mistakes and heal, moving into the future with a clean slate. Especially Even, who tried to level the scales when he put himself in harm’s way as a double agent within the Real Organization.
Without as much as a note, leaving them all to believe he’d turned his back on their family for his own scientific aspirations until he deigned to alert them of the truth. Secondhand.
“Even.” Aeleus, ever the mediator, cautioned Even to proceed honestly using his intonation more than anything else. The level cadence pitched down at the end to warn Even that Ienzo was coiled tight and ready to snap. Any attempt at evasion would end in hurt feelings for everyone and only serve to widen the fissure between them. All that remained was for Even to take the hint.
“What is that tone for?”
“To answer your question,” Ienzo spoke down to Even like he was the child here, taking pleasure in that insult as well. He did force Ienzo’s hand by making him voice the concern Even was still trying to avoid. Hardly the behavior of the adult in this situation. Then again, petty aggression wasn’t either. “I heard enough to understand you are making decisions for me yet again.”
Even’s hands went up again instantly, readying to speak with his hands as he tended to. “Ienzo, you must understand, I—”
“ I understand more than you believe me to, evidently.” A thin frown set on his face, Ienzo felt caught up in the flood of his own repressed anger. The very act of speaking out of irritation opened the way and now it was too late to stop. “Despite your concerted efforts to make key choices that will impact me without the courtesy of including me in your plans, I can actually evaluate situations for myself.”
Even winced, just slightly deepening his grimace, but it felt good to see it. And that concerned Ienzo. He was going too far and soon, he would be unable to hold back at all. This wasn’t how he wanted to act or who he wanted to be. This was the past—why wouldn’t it stay gone?
“If this is about my sudden departure to the true Organization, I assure you, I only did so to shield you from suspicion.” The shield, his weapon… Subconsciously, had Even been guilty all that time? On his own momentum, Even continued as Ienzo’s frown dissolved to neutrality. “Primarily, you would be forced to feign ignorance and concern, and with your recent recompletion, the last situation you needed was additional strain on your heart.”
His one dark, sharp laugh didn’t register as his own at first. This conversation was taking its toll on Ienzo and it had only just started. “What, did you think I could not feign emotion?”
The implication weighed heavily between them. How could illusion and manipulation work if he could not maintain intricate lies convincingly? It was a skill so intrinsic to Ienzo that becoming a Nobody manifested that as his power.
“I would have preferred to know you chose to be over there for us, not against us.” The breathless twinge to his words was a warning to Ienzo if not the two men in front of him: it was a matter of time before his guard dropped completely. How were emotions this volatile?
“When I went to the Organization the first time,” he pushed on, saying it as if he’d had a choice about going, “I focused on how we were tied together. Without my heart, I still considered us a family. And when I returned, I was… Uncertain.”
Ienzo’s breaths came in uneven tremors, however faintly. Perhaps it was subconsciously that he smoothed a hand over his ascot while he attempted to steady his breathing. One insecurity to poorly conceal the other.
“And you abandoned us. That was all I knew.” Again, someone he respected and cared deeply for had vanished without notice. The time spent in the dark about Even’s true motives was nothing short of perpetual raw vulnerability buried under the diversion of the more pressing tasks at hand. He felt certain everyone he spoke with could see his fragility under the patient benevolence he expressed and the shared wisdom that was beyond his years.
He struggled more in that span of time than he ever had as a Nobody.
“Ienzo, I did not—” A reason or an explanation or even a half-hearted excuse, it didn’t matter. Ienzo didn’t want to hear it.
“If you were concerned with how I felt, you should have told me the truth.” The anger completely gave way to what was evidently the true heart of the matter: Ienzo was afraid and it hurt to know that fear came from Even’s actions. Like the winding maze a heart always was, those feelings that Ienzo suppressed simply found another way out to be expressed as irritability and keeping his distance. Pushing those off led him here, to a kitchen in the heart of the castle having an argument over something he couldn’t properly define.
Aeleus was the first to respond, approaching Ienzo to place a hand on his back. He didn’t dare look at Aeleus in such a precarious state as this. But his presence did help and Ienzo’s next breath felt more level than the last.
“I… I have no excuse for my behavior. All I can say is that after my initial error in judgment,” Even phrased it carefully, his pride still a barrier to saying the word ‘mistake’ even when he clearly knew it for what it was. Fortunately for him, Ienzo appreciated the unspoken nuance more than an upfront declaration—it was another trait he and Even had in common. It did him good to know there was someone he knew that would understand why saying something outright was not always an option.
“I have done all I can to protect you now, Ienzo. I am your guardian, however inadequately so in the past, and I am proud of being trusted with that honor after I failed to appreciate it properly.” Properly, like there was a procedure… Ienzo caught himself smiling by just a small margin.
“Beyond furthering my scientific studies or advancements, beyond even my own attempts to restore balance after the chaos I’ve caused—” For the second time, Even struggled to find words. His gaze caught Aeleus’ and perhaps finding an answer there, he continued while his hands worried over one another just the same. “I have a responsibility to you, Ienzo. As—a father.”
An uncertain glance from Even signaled that his defense had concluded, and now it was up to Ienzo to decide if the argument was sound or not. The smell of over-steeped tea filled the kitchen, warm and bitter, a quiet calm settling in with it while Ienzo reflected on what transpired between them. A soft rattle of the pipes in the walls the only sound, and that was a comfort in its own way. The castle hummed with energy that reminded Ienzo how precious the life in this restored world truly was.
“…I can’t forgive you right away. I can’t even promise that forgiving you will be painless.” Stepping away from Aeleus towards Even, Ienzo stopped within arm’s reach and offered a sincere smile—long overdue on many accounts. “But I do want to forgive you. What kind of family would I be if didn’t at least give it my best?”
“…You have always been such a smart boy.”
“Even.” Aeleus had apparently followed him, his voice a close reassurance.
Ienzo glanced back to Aeleus, his bangs swaying with his nod. “It’s alright. For now.”
Following the pleasant impulse his heart finally offered, Ienzo reached out to Even and drew himself into a hug. A faint trace of earthy cologne clung to him, and simply wearing it was the return of a habit from the old life. It carried memories of lessons from Even in the labs, being woken up in the study to a lecture of how he should be in bed if he’s going to sleep, and hard candy passed to Ienzo in secret before dinner as a gesture of apology for some slight mistake Even made earlier that day.
Even gently returned the hug, tilting his head ever so slightly to rest on Ienzo’s. With a barely audible shuffle, Aeleus stepped up behind him to wrap them both in his embrace as the first tears fell onto the white of Even’s lab coat.
“I love you beyond measure, my son,” Even whispered, tender or perhaps afraid to break the magic of the moment. Ienzo took in a shaky breath, more tears coming with the exhale. He tightened his grip on Even and bit his lip to maintain some manner of dignity. Even’s arm came away to bring his hand to brush through Ienzo’s hair. “It is alright.”