The Other Side of Memory
(Rough draft)
A Kingdom Hearts fanfic by Raberba girl

For Zexion/Ienzo Day, 6 June 2012

Summary: Number VI experiences the results of a time travel experiment for the second time. Or maybe it still counts as the first time...gah, paradox. Platonic fic for Zexion/Ienzo Day 2012.

o.o.o

At the beginning, he had been more alert than usual whenever being sent to Hollow Bastion. After nearly ten years, however, he had all but forgotten, until he entered the abandoned library one day and found a small dark-haired boy in a lab coat standing forlornly among the shelves.

"Oh," Zexion realized, coming to a halt. "It's today."

The young boy turned and gazed at him silently.

'He's so small,' Zexion thought. 'I don't remember being that small at the time.'

They stared at each other a while longer. A flicker of recognition passed over the boy's face, but still he said nothing.

'Grief,' Zexion remembered. 'It affected me so deeply back then, yet now I have absolutely no recollection of what it felt like.' He reached out. "Come. Heartless roam this place. You must stay close to me if you don't want to get hurt, unless I order you to take cover. Then you must obey immediately."

The boy approached and took his hand, still staring at him almost impassively. Almost. Zexion remembered how shocked he had been, looking up into the face of his older self, even if not much of that astonishment showed. He particularly recalled the fascination with how long his hair had gotten. It was strange, now experiencing the opposite side of the memory.

"You'll have to take notes as we go. I've already eaten lunch, so you won't get a chance to sit down and work at leisure until we RTC." It occurred to him that he needed to clarify, "That stands for 'Return To the Castle.' I'll explain more as we go, though there are some secrets I must keep even from you, Ienzo." It was so strange, saying the name, and he did not miss the flicker of response on the boy's face, either.

Hesitating, Ienzo reached out and laid such a small hand over his adult self's chest.

"My name is Zexion now," the Cloaked Schemer said quietly, and spelled it out. He could not bring himself to answer the boy's real question, knowing what the reaction would be. "Why that is, I cannot tell you, but you will notice something noteworthy if you think about it."

Throughout the rest of the mission, Ienzo followed silently on his heels like a shadow, scribbling away on the notepad resting in the crook of one arm. The pose was interestingly reminiscent of the way Zexion wielded his own weapon. Zexion knew the boy was taking shorthand notes on everything from the Garden's changes to the types of Heartless that appeared to Zexion's fighting style.

When the first set of enemies cropped up, Zexion motioned his younger self away. The boy didn't need any more prompting, and ran to take cover without hesitation. 'Learned his - our - lesson well,' Zexion thought. After being cornered and nearly killed by Unversed, he knew better than to underestimate creatures of darkness. ...Or to try to pet them, no matter how cute they looked.

After the battle, which had been neither particularly difficult nor easy, Zexion took a moment to regain his composure and then looked around for Ienzo. The boy was watching him from behind a large slab of broken marble, his visible eye wide open.

"It's safe now," Zexion called to him.

Ienzo hesitated, then hurried up close to Zexion, reaching out to grasp the zipper of his Nobody's coat.

"No," Zexion said, though the boy was already drawing the zipper down. "It's different for us now," he explained as he lifted his undershirt to reveal the unmarked flesh beneath.

Ienzo stared. Zexion knew - remembered - that he had expected to see a great gaping wound where that Neoshadow had struck him so brutally, or at the very least some bruising. "We need a better way to measure and store the damage we take in battle," he continued. "It's very inefficient for our injuries to be reflected in our physical bodies. Therefore, Vexen-" He paused. "That is, Professor Even discovered a way to take damage using 'Hit Points' rather than flesh and blood. It's remarkably useful. For example, I can drink a restorative item such as this Hi-Potion to immediately regain HP, rather than have to slowly recover at a natural rate before being of use for future missions."

Ienzo was still staring at him.

"I won't drink anything yet, though. Both the number of items I can carry and the number of spells I can cast in the field are finite, so I'd rather save my supply for emergencies. I have not even located my target yet, these Heartless were just minor annoyances."

"..."

"Stop wasting time, you need to be taking notes again."

Ienzo finally began to write, but he still looked upset.

"Don't worry. It'll take more than these minions to cause me any real trouble."

Ienzo paused in his scribbling and eyed the tome in Zexion's arm.

"This is my Lexicon. In addition to being extremely useful for both research and recreation, its primary function is to serve as my weapon. As you saw, I can strike enemies with it to cause damage, but it is better suited to spell casting. It is currently customized with a Gear and panels - I'll explain that in more detail later - to specialize in powerful ice magic, since that is the elemental weakness of my fire-based target."

Ienzo was starting to look slightly helpless, the pace of his scribbling desperate.

"...Come. We have other places to search."

It was late in the afternoon before Zexion finally found his target. He sharply ordered his companion to run, and was displeased when he looked around and found the boy still rooted to the spot, staring at the giant Heartless with that eye of his wide open again. "Ienzo! Get out of here, this is no place for a human!"

Ienzo glanced at him, clearly terrified. Zexion strode over and seized the boy, flinging him into a dry tunnel just in time to avoid the monster's first attack. "Stay out of the way." Then he faced his target, readied his Lexicon, and got to work.

He had a difficult time with this one. He did eventually manage to defeat it without getting knocked out or having to abort, but he had used every single item and cast in his arsenal, and had thought for a second at the end that he wouldn't make it. But then, bashing away with his Lexicon and desperately keeping an eye on the monster's loss of HP in frustratingly small increments, his small size and agility were advantageous. He managed to avoid just enough of his enemy's attacks to finish it off before it could catch him in one of its devastating blows.

He stood there afterward, feeling a little ill and with his ears ringing, both signs that his health was dangerously low. Nothing he could do about that, however, except ignore all the enemies standing in the way and RTC before any of them could knock out the last of his HP. "Come, Ienzo-"

The boy was already rushing to him, grabbing helplessly at his coat.

"...I'm all right, you know."

Ienzo picked up an empty, discarded Hi-Potion bottle and stared at it in dismay.

"I've run out of healing options, but it is no matter. If I can survive until we return to the castle, I'll be perfectly fine."

Ienzo gazed up at him again and laid a hand over his chest once more, where his heart should have been. "Don't be ridiculous, you have no business protecting me, and no means to do so, either. Just don't fall behind, don't hinder my progress, and do not get yourself killed."

They made it to the portal with little incident, at which time Zexion realized that there was a problem. There was only one coat between the two of them.

'He gave it to me last time,' Zexion thought, wondering a little at the paradox of time travel. Had his self back then - now - given the coat to his younger self simply because he already knew he would? Or had he thought it through first and decided on that as the better option? 'One unprotected trip through a dark corridor will probably not cause serious damage. Ienzo has more to lose than I do, but...after all, he is eventually going to lose it anyway. Then there is the chivalrous aspect of protecting people younger than oneself...'

His ears were still ringing. He honestly was not in the mood to pursue this train of thought as thoroughly as he usually would. 'Just give him the coat and go home.' He unzipped it and slipped it off his shoulders, wrapping it around his child self and drawing the hood over the boy's face. Ienzo seemed to be almost swallowed in the heavy black fabric.

"The corridors we must use are dangerous, and I know you will find them frightening. The coat will offer you some protection. Keep hold of my hand and walk slowly so that you don't trip on the hem, do not let panic or fear get the better of you." Sometimes, having no heart could be useful.

Ienzo followed him trustingly enough into the corridor. A few steps in, though, he shrank close to Zexion and tightened his grip on his hand. "It's all right," Zexion told him. "You'll be fine." The journey to the castle somehow seemed to be far longer with the knowledge of how terrible his younger self found it. If he'd still had his heart, Zexion would have been very relieved to finally step into the Grey Area.

He drew out a small cloth and handed it to the boy. "Dry your eyes." Ienzo's face was still completely hidden beneath the hood, but of course Zexion knew anyway.

Saïx, the only one present at the moment, was staring at them. "What is that?"

"A guest," Zexion said. "An ally. He will be staying with us through tonight. I take full responsibility for him."

Saïx strode forward and took hold of the boy's chin, tipping it up until the hood slipped back. Ienzo had composed himself by that time and was gazing back calmly, though the signs of his previous tears were not completely gone.

"So it has a face," Saïx observed in a mutter, "unlike certain other small hooded figures wandering around this castle..."

"What?"

"Never mind. It's you, isn't it. What's Ienzo doing here?"

"Professor Ev- That is, Vexen's time travel experiments from about nine years ago. I was the test subject for the final one."

"Ethical," Saïx remarked dryly. "Did you successfully complete your mission?"

"Yes, I'll fill out the report right now. And Ienzo will be gone by tomorrow morning, I assure you."

"Good. We are not running a daycare here-" His voice dropped to a mutter again. "-no matter how much Axel and the Keybearers might make it appear so..."

The boy was glaring a little, offended at being written off as useless.

"Ienzo," Zexion said, "our Organization currently has fourteen members. I am Number VI. This is Number VII, Saïx, who ranks very highly." 'And happened to join after I did, but why quibble about that.' "He is the one who hands out our daily assignments."

"Yes," Saïx said very flatly, "I simply stand here all day mindlessly distributing mission briefs and signing people in and out. Amazing how I can act as second-in-command with such a dull job description."

"Don't be sarcastic with that monotone when he's trying to take notes," Zexion told him. "Ienzo, don't write that down, it's inaccurate."

The boy stared at him in confusion.

Just then, a dark corridor opened, admitting two more black-coated men into the Grey Area. Although they had been chatting loudly about the combustibility of an average set of boxer shorts, both of them came to a halt when they saw the unexpected figure.

"Hey!" Demyx exclaimed. "Someone threw Xion in the wash and she shrunk!"

Ienzo turned to face him in astonishment.

"That's not Poppet," Xigbar laughed, "it's fresh meat. Sooooo, kiddo, welcome to the Organization! Anyone filled you in on the initiation ordeal yet?"

Demyx giggled.

"Mission reports, now," Saïx commanded, fortunately for the young time traveler.

"I assume you remember Number II, Xigbar," Zexion said to his younger self, "and the other one is Demyx, Number IX. Don't listen to a word they say."

"Hey! That's mean!" Demyx made a last scribble and then tossed the pen aside, bounding back up to the Cloaked Schemer and his companion. "So you never explained, who is the little guy? He looks kind of like you, Zexy!"

"...That's because he is."

"Woooowww! Vexen's been busy."

"He's not a replica of me, he is me. From about nine years in the past, the test subject of a time travel experiment to gather data about the future."

"Awesome!" Demyx yelled. "Hey, Mini-Zex, go back in time and tell these idiots not to blow up the lab, okay?"

"We didn't 'blow up the lab,' we lost our hearts in a different manner," Zexion said, adding annoyance to his tone to let Demyx know how ridiculous he was being. "And the future cannot be changed. Although one can safely travel back and forth through time, perform actions, and interact with other beings, the events themselves are fixed. Whatever the time traveler says and does is, in a way, inevitable, since it already happened. You see?"

"Ummmm...I think that's Zexy-speak for 'Mini-Zex can't bring our hearts back.' Oh well. Hey, Mini! How's your singing?"

"Chibi Schemer here is mute," Xigbar chuckled, coming over to clap his hands on Ienzo's shoulders from behind. The boy's eyes darted nervously to Zexion, who found that he did not quite like the Freeshooter standing so close to his young self. "Never said a word from the time we met him 'til the time he woke up as Zex."

"Really?" Demyx gasped, crouching back down to the boy's eye level. "You can't say anything?"

Ienzo looked at him silently.

"Zexy! Make him say something!"

"Ienzo does not speak," Zexion said shortly. "Leave it at that."

"Aw, come on, he's gotta say something sometimes. Hey, Mini, how much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

The boy's brow furrowed slightly.

"Or how 'bout this, if you say 'I like cookies,' I'll give you one of the ones I baked yesterday! You like cookies, don't you?"

Ienzo looked at Zexion pleadingly.

"Demyx," Zexion started to say, but the other two were talking over him.

"Believe me," Xigbar laughed, "I tried everything in the book. Jokes, threats, bribes, squeaky toys-"

"What happens if you tickle him?" Demyx said interestedly.

Ienzo's eye widened again and he jerked free of Xigbar's hold, diving to hide behind Zexion and cling to his coat.

"I suggest you drop the idea of tormenting him," Zexion advised coldly, "since he can fight back now." His Lexicon snapped open in warning.

"Oooh, tough guy," Xigbar remarked with sparkling eyes, as Demyx started laughing his head off.

"Ohhhh, I get it, he can fight back now because his self in the future is bigger - well, not quite so tiny - and he's got his Evil Book of Doom and everything, haha that is funny...!"

"If you will excuse us," Zexion said, "we have some work to get done."

"We'll come help!" Demyx said eagerly, though fortunately for the Cloaked Schemer, Saïx sharply put an end to that idea as well.

"You will not. What you are going to do is sit down and correct this deplorable excuse for a mission report."

"There's nothing wrong with my mission report! We did 'kill Heartless and RTC,' didn't we, Xig?"

Leaving them to argue, Zexion took his younger self by the hand again and led him out of the Grey Area. "Let's go to the library. We can both work in there until supper - it's usually pretty quiet, since our most obnoxious members never spend any time in there."

Ienzo eyed him questioningly.

"Xigbar and Demyx of course, and also Axel, Marluxia, and Larxene, for the record. Xaldin and our two youngest members don't come there either, despite their obnoxious level being much lower. It is the same with Lord Xemnas."

The questioning look had now gained quite a bit of interest.

"Not as young as you. They are fourteen. Well," Zexion amended, "Roxas is a special case - he's actually only four or five weeks old, but his Other is fourteen. And Xion's circumstances are even stranger...in any case, yes, they perform fairly well in combat and play a valuable role in the Organization, despite their youth."

Ienzo scribbled eagerly all the way to the library, so absorbed in his work that he would have fallen next to the chair if Zexion had not caught him and seated him in it correctly. "Pay better attention to your surroundings. There's not that much of a rush to record everything."

It was a bit later in the evening than he had intended when Zexion finally put all the books away and made Ienzo accompany him to the kitchen, where they found Number VIII and the Keybearers preparing their own meal.

"Hi, Zexi-" Xion started to say, then gasped.

Axel glanced over his shoulder at that, then his eyes widened and he turned all the way around.

"What's wrong?" Roxas asked, also turning to see what the other two were staring at. "Oh. Who's that?"

"This is my younger self, Ienzo," Zexion said in introduction. "He is visiting us from the past."

Axel's mouth quirked. "What the heck? You guys can time travel and you never told me?"

"The experiments were ultimately a failure, though obviously we are still dealing with the consequences."

"He's smaller than me," Roxas said appreciatively, still staring at the other boy.

"Axel!" Xion squealed, "Can I hug him? Please?"

To Zexion's displeasure, Axel laughed and said "Sure, go ahead."

Delighted, Xion ran to wrap her arms around the smaller boy before Zexion could stop her. "He's so cuuuuute!"

Ienzo's eye was very wide again.

"So he's Number XV?" Roxas asked.

"He will only be with us for the remainder of the evening," Zexion explained patiently, trying to get his poor past self disentangled from the replica's enthusiastic embrace. "His orders are to record his findings at this point in time, and he is under my charge until his safe return to the past."

"You're so freaking small," Axel laughed, going over to poke at the dark-haired boy. "Heeeeyyy, Ienzo, remember me? It's Lea, the guy who kidnapped you for that Christmas party-"

"Yes, he remembers, thank you," Zexion said shortly. Then to the boy, "He's Number VIII now, he goes by Axel. And these two are the youngest of our members."

"Can I keep him in my room?" Xion begged, "Please?"

"Xi, he's not a toy," Axel said, expressing great amusement. "Much as he kinda looks like one..."

"Why doesn't he talk?" Roxas wanted to know.

"Hiiii, Ienzo," Xion cooed. "Can you say hi back to me? Hiiiiii."

Ienzo looked miserable. And simultaneously adorable, which made Zexion realize for the first time what the appeal might have been for so many people to have teased and bullied him when he was younger.

"He does not speak. By the way, whatever is in that pan appears to be burning."

With Axel, Roxas, and Xion finally distracted, Zexion took Ienzo's arm and drew him safely away into the opposite corner of the kitchen. "Stay here while I get out what we need."

Fortunately, the trio's meal seemed to be about ready, and Zexion made a non-committal noise when Xion invited him and Ienzo to eat with them. Then they left, and the kitchen was blessedly empty and silent.

"It's safe now. Come here, you can spread this on the bread while I get plates and napkins."

Ienzo's efforts were quite acceptable for someone his age, and Zexion, turning away from the junk food cabinet which Demyx kept well stocked, came over to approve of the boy's work. "Good. Go clean that knife off in the sink." While the boy did so, he opened the package and liberally sprinkled some of its contents over the expanses of peanut butter. The package was back in its cabinet before Ienzo finished his task.

"Thank you. Let's eat out on one of the balconies - I don't feel like joining everyone else in the dining room tonight." A lie, since he was not capable of caring one way or the other. However, he knew how Ienzo would react to being offered the favorite meal he had not eaten in so long, and he did not want any of the others to witness it.

Zexion remembered just in time that his younger self did not handle the dark corridors very well. They made their way to the nearest balcony on foot. Ienzo stood at the rail for a while, looking out at the eternally dark world, before finally coming back to sit down next to his adult self and take the plate that was handed to him.

"I apologize for the simple fare. I usually try to cook more elaborate meals than this, but a lot has happened today and it was easiest to just put together something quick."

Ienzo nodded and bit into his sandwich. Zexion watched for curiosity's sake, and paid close attention to the taste of peanut butter and fruit in his own mouth. He found himself foolishly willing hard to feel something, anything, any sort of reaction to what should be recalling powerful memories. Yet there was nothing.

Not so for Ienzo. After a few bites, the boy paused and stared at his sandwich before carefully lifting the top slice of bread to see what lay underneath. He stared some more.

"Your favorite, as I recall," Zexion said mildly. His father had been a carefree and sloppy cook. Zexion had not discovered until he was eight years old how odd it was to eat peanut-butter-and-Gummi-bear sandwiches rather than ones made properly with jam or jelly.

Ienzo still had not moved or made a sound.

"Father's specialty when Mother wasn't around to feed us, hm?"

Very carefully, Ienzo pressed the sandwich back together again. Took another bite. Chewed slowly a few times - then gagged until it came tumbling back out, put the plate down, covered his face, and burst into tears.

Zexion reached out to place a comforting hand on the boy's back, continuing to observe. 'So messy and undignified...yet I should still envy him. Of course what I actually feel is nothing. I find it neither desirable nor repellant to regain the ability to do this, to weep, to feel my heart shattering as their memories come so strongly upon me again...Father's laugh, Mother's touch, their patience as they taught me new things and the love in their faces as they kissed me good-night...' He would never see them again, and it should hurt so badly. Yet he felt nothing. 'That in itself is reason enough to keep seeking my lost heart. Those people deserve to be mourned.'

Ienzo's sobs were growing concentrated, his breath coming in short gasps - Zexion could see the desperate effort it took to speak. "Wh-Why...did they...have to...?"

After a moment, Zexion shifted and brought the boy fully into his arms; Ienzo clung to him and sobbed with even less restraint than before. "They l-left me...th-they left me..."

Zexion held him for a long time, soothingly rubbing his back, waiting until the boy's crying finally began to grow quieter. "If it helps to know," he said softly, "the pain will not last much longer. Once...once you become me, it won't hurt any more. At all."

Ienzo stared at him with that one eye. Thoughtfully, Zexion raised his hand and gently pushed those long bangs out of the way so that he could see the boy's whole face. 'Why do I still hide now, when I no longer have a reason to? Is it simply force of habit?'

Ienzo drew in a deep breath. His words were hesitant. "I...miss them...a lot."

"They were good parents," Zexion acknowledged. "Not perfect, of course, but they were kind to us. It is no strange thing that you miss them."

Ienzo, looking very tired, leaned his head against his Nobody's chest, his body limp as if all the energy had drained out of him.

"Finish your supper," Zexion advised, picking up the plate.

Ienzo ate the rest of his sandwich while still sitting in his older self's arms, then whispered, not looking at him, "It was good."

"The taste alone is still agreeable, I presume, regardless of any memories still attached to it."

Ienzo's eyes filled with tears again as he nodded silently.

"We don't have to go back in right away. Take as long as you need to recover."

Ienzo reached to scrub his face and then got up to pace back and forth, trying to regulate his breathing. Zexion watched, and when the boy at last seemed perfectly composed again, their eyes met and they nodded at each other.

They encountered the castle's master in the hallway before they'd reached the dining room. "There you are," Xemnas said in his deep voice, sounding slightly displeased. Zexion shivered a little, though of course the reaction was purely physical. "I was coming to find you."

"You wished to see me, Lord Xemnas?" Zexion said, suddenly realizing that he'd moved in front of Ienzo as if to shield him. He already knew that he would do so, due to his memories of being in Ienzo's place, but he hadn't realized that his older self would do such a thing without any conscious thought whatsoever.

"Not you. The boy."

Zexion glanced over his shoulder, and found Ienzo staring at him with that one wide eye again. He moved aside with reluctance.

Xemnas did not deign to stoop down so as to inspect the boy; instead, he swept up one hand. Ienzo made a startled, frightened noise deep in his throat as he came rising into the air in the wake of Xemnas's gesture.

Zexion, watching, felt how tense his own body was as Xemnas regarded the boy with cold amber eyes. Ienzo stared back rigidly.

"What time did he appear?"

Zexion answered as best he could.

"And he has been in your presence ever since?"

"That is correct. He is in my charge, so I felt it best to keep him with me."

Xemnas raised his other hand, and the notepad came flying out of Ienzo's tight grip. The boy made another small noise, startled and indignant.

Xemnas gazed at the lines of scribbles for a moment before saying, "What is this writing?"

"...A form of shorthand that only Vexen and I can read," Zexion explained reluctantly.

"What does it say?"

"Notes. He is to record everything he notices, and the data will be analyzed upon his return."

"Yet the experiment was a failure."

"That is correct."

"Perhaps we should take the chance to perform our own experiments, before the opportunity is lost."

Zexion could not feel fear or anger. But the spot in his chest where his heart used to be went very cold, if that meant anything. 'It didn't happen,' he reminded himself, 'it didn't happen, stop acting as if it did.'

Ienzo, fists clenched, was staring at Xemnas like a deer stares at a predator in hiding.

"I assure you," Zexion said, slowly and clearly, "we were quite thorough. Though if you like, I can take up the matter with Vexen, I'm sure he would be best at judging what would be most useful."

There was a long, tense pause.

Then Xemnas lowered his hands dismissively and Ienzo, landing unsteadily on his feet, stumbled back into his Nobody. Zexion set his arms around the boy's shoulders to help him regain his balance, and found absolutely no inclination to let go once it was clear that the boy could remain upright on his own.

"Do so, then," Xemnas intoned. He turned and disappeared into a dark corridor.

Ienzo burst out of Zexion's hold and dove to snatch up the fallen notepad, wrapping it tightly in his arms as if it was a lost child. He continued to kneel there, shaking.

"Come, Ienzo. Vexen will want to see you regardless of the Superior's orders."

Vexen was in his laboratory, of course, entirely focused on his current experiment in progress as he dictated. Lexaeus was sitting at the computer, obediently typing everything.

Ienzo had taken a startled step or two forward, but Zexion laid a hand on his shoulder to hold him back. He shook his head when the boy looked back at him. Understanding, Ienzo fell back unhappily and fixed his eyes on his mentor, as fixated on Vexen as Vexen was on the experiment.

"...and the last one!" Vexen finally proclaimed, his voice alight. "Variable B, 21-3-12. Did you get all of that?"

"Yes," Lexaeus said. "Ienzo's come."

"Hm?" Vexen frowned, then turned to the newcomers at the door.

Ienzo was already running to him, face anxious as he lifted the notepad up to the older scientist like an offering.

"Ahhhhh!" Vexen exclaimed in delight.

"I found him in Hollow Bastion," Zexion explained. "It was unexpected - I had never known the destination coordinates. I'm surprised you didn't warn me."

"It's been so long, I'd forgotten all about it! So many more important things have cropped up since then..." Vexen plucked the notepad out of his apprentice's hands and flipped through it. "Hmm...yes, yes, very good..." He paused. "What class was this Heartless here at node 42?"

Ienzo looked where he was pointing, gasped in dismay, and practically lunged at the paper to frantically scribble an annotation.

"All right, all right, don't get too excited," Vexen said in annoyance, "you nearly knocked it out of my hands."

Ienzo stepped back and dropped his head as Vexen, oblivious to the boy's mood, continued to scan through the document. Seeing the hidden face and drooping shoulders, Zexion started to approach, but Lexaeus got there first.

"Hello, Ienzo," the big man rumbled, lifting the boy in one arm as if he weighed nothing.

Ienzo stared at him in surprise for a moment - then offered the very first smile Zexion had seen from him all day. It was a small, shy one, but it prompted a pleased beam from Number V in return.

"It is good to see you."

Ienzo patted his shoulder in greeting.

"Have you been taken care of?"

Ienzo smiled a little more and pointed at Zexion.

Lexaeus regarded the smaller Nobody for a moment. "Quite odd, isn't it."

"I wish I could feel how strange it is," Zexion confessed, "I'm sure it would be quite fascinating. Yet all I've managed is detached interest, just like with everything else."

"A shame, but only to be expected." Lexaeus carefully set the boy back on his feet.

"Yes, I suppose this will do," Vexen finally announced. "Not like there was anything better to report, anyway. Let me just..." He rummaged across his desk for a pen, blinked when Ienzo offered up the one he had been using, then scrawled a few paragraphs "To Professor Even" on the last page of the report. He flipped the pages back over and handed the notepad to Ienzo. "Guard this with your life."

Ienzo nodded and hugged it tightly to his chest.

"Don't tell him that," Lexaeus said in disapproval. "The experiment didn't even accomplish its primary purpose, and even if it had, it's not worth the boy's life. He takes everything you say seriously, you know."

"Why shouldn't he?" Vexen carelessly flipped his hair back over one shoulder and turned back to the experiment. "Now, Zexion, since you're here, if you would be so kind as to-"

"Forgive me, Vexen," Zexion said, "but I have matters to attend to. Please excuse me."

"What?" Vexen said indignantly. "I wanted you here to assist in-"

"He will be looking after the child for the rest of the evening," Lexaeus stated firmly. "I'll continue to serve as needed. What is it you would have me do next?"

Zexion smiled a little at the Silent Hero in thanks, then took Ienzo's hand again and led him away.

There were plenty of extra toothbrushes in the bathroom cabinets, so Zexion took out an unopened package and handed it to the boy. Ienzo stared at it for a moment.

"What's-? Oh." That's right, Ienzo had wanted a green one. So odd, that colors could be so important to human children...

Zexion took the first toothbrush away, searched until he found one more to the boy's liking, and handed it over. Ienzo absently smiled a little as he looked at the new package in his hand. "Open that and brush your teeth."

Since Zexion needed to tend to his hair, he took much longer in the bathroom than his younger self. It didn't seem quite right to keep taking care of business with the mirror reflecting how the boy was watching him, so he finally sent Ienzo out. "The Proof of Existence is the round room northwest of here, with an inclined floor. Your portal is number VI, it should recognize you and let you in."

When Zexion came into his room later, he found Ienzo standing at his desk, bent over the Lexicon and wholly absorbed in whatever was on the current page. 'A story,' Zexion remembered. 'The young hero had successfully slain the dragon... I'd forgotten it was still stored in the book. I should take another look at it.'

He moved farther into the room and dropped his coat into the laundry basket. The noise of clinking drawstrings alerted Ienzo to his presence-

The boy gasped as if struck, slammed the Lexicon closed, and leaped halfway across the room so quickly that it all seemed like one motion. He stared at Zexion with his back pressed against the wall, face drained of color.

"It's all right," Zexion said, going over to open the book again. "Dragon stories," he summoned silently, and the letters on the page shifted in response. "Come here." He was absorbed in sifting through the search results and did not realize for a moment that he was standing alone. He turned around and saw that Ienzo was still pressed against the wall. "Come here, you're not in trouble."

Very slowly, Ienzo shuffled over to him, shoulders hunched and tense.

"This is the story you were reading, correct?"

The boy eyed him warily.

"Ienzo. I am not Professor Even. I'm not angry, and yes, this book is very precious to me, but it belongs to you as well. You are free to handle it as you please."

Still watching him, Ienzo very hesitantly crept closer to the desk, then yelped when Zexion seized him under the arms and stood him directly before the Lexicon. "Explore to your heart's content." 'Since you still have a heart, after all.' "I'll be going to bed, since it's best to get plenty of sleep for the sake of mission performance. If you get tired, feel free to lie down - this room is yours, obviously, so make yourself at home."

He was not sure how much later it was when he awakened. The room was dark, and Ienzo was hesitantly stretching out on the very edge of the bed. "You'll fall off," Zexion murmured as he turned over. He couldn't see anything except the outline of the boy's shape, but he could practically feel Ienzo staring at him.

They were silent for a while. Then he heard the quiet sound of indrawn breath. "I like your book," Ienzo said. His voice was so soft that Zexion could not actually hear it, he only knew the words from memory.

"Of course you do. It was designed to suit you perfectly."

Another long silence. Ienzo finally moved closer so that their hands touched, and Zexion sensed the boy relax as he came away from his precarious perch on the edge.

"...Z...Ze...Zexion?"

"Hm?" So strange again, hearing his Nobody name in his own self's voice.

"...Did I...really fail?"

"It had nothing to do with you," Zexion said firmly, "you did an exemplary job. The experiment was inherently flawed from the start."

"...All right."

The silence stretched out.

"...Zexi...on...?"

"Yes?"

"...Even if...it failed...I..."

The boy could not bring himself to continue, but Zexion smiled, since he knew exactly what he wanted to say. "I cannot feel emotions, Ienzo. That is something that was lost along with my heart. However, if I were human, I would be very glad for this wonderful chance to meet you, also."

No spoken answer, but after a moment, Ienzo's fingers came to rest softly against his face in the dark.

"Ienzo?"

"...Yes?"

"You have so little time left, all six of you. You cannot imagine what it's like now. If I make a request of you, will you honor it?"

It was a long time before Ienzo finally managed to whisper "Yes," but Zexion had been patient.

"Thank you. Ienzo, Aeleus would very much like to hear your voice again, even just once more."

"..."

"Please."

"...It's so hard."

"I know, Ienzo. Yet you promised me."

"...I'll...try..."

"Good." He knew that the boy would succeed. "While he still has the means to appreciate it, of course."

"I...I know."

He could feel that Ienzo was shaking. After a moment, he pulled him close, and by the time he drifted back to sleep, Ienzo had gone still and was breathing peacefully.

Morning dawned, as usual, with no change in the dark sky outside. Zexion was alone.

He sat up, gazing around the room, searching in vain. It was foolish to sit there for so long, trying to feel sad or disappointed or even just mildly dissatisfied, but of course there was nothing. So foolish, he would get up in a minute, yet here he was still sitting and his chest felt so, so empty...

o.o.o

Author's Notes: As usual, the timeline is off a bit due to the fact that the C.O. team gets killed in the first week of Days canon. -.-;;;

For the record, it's not clear whether Ienzo in BBS literally never speaks (possibly due to grief over the loss of his parents), or whether he's just extremely untalkative and would at least, like, answer direct questions if necessary. I use whichever theory best suits the story.

Oh my gosh, I was really scared I wouldn't finish this fic in time! I'm way, way, way too addicted to my e-mail. DX I took drastic measures and ran off to the library all afternoon where I can't sign into any of my accounts, which was the only reason I got this done within the time limit. Yay libraries!

Lol, I wrote the omake because I didn't like leaving a cute fluffy fic on such a sad note.