Breathe

Kingdom Hearts, POV Ansem

You're ten when he takes you down to the fountain fields.

The orchards are visible from here, fringing the second tier of the plateaus that line the walkways up to the Bastion Castle. Spring weighs their branches thick and heavy with flowers that will soon turn to fruit, even as the days themselves will progress to hanging sweet upon the hot, cloying summer air.

Bees will swarm. Hornets too, drinking in the fermenting juices of peaches leaking golden bounty out their taut skins. Sometimes the bugs are crushed into the presses when the workers prepare the harvests, hands deftly slicing out the pits and tossing them aside like wooden hearts. Chunks of pale fruit-flesh pile up in small mountains that the insects cluster thick upon. Then the wooden thumpers come down.

Juice tastes like honey-fed hornet. Your nursemaid clucked her tongue when she found you examining your glass in search of segmented legs.

None of that has to do with why your father has called you away from trying to measure the aerodynamics of puffball pods. He arrived in the afternoon, hovered in the doorway while your wizened mathematics professor scraped chalk diagrams in cramped, exacting handwriting. Between the two, you hadn't been sure which fate would be worse, but it hadn't been your decision to make.

Now that you are standing in the fields, surrounded by so much airborne fluff with each stray breeze, you wonder if your father wants a live demonstration of today's lesson. That would be unfortunate. You hadn't been paying close attention to the factors of wind resistance.

He clears his throat. All equations promptly flee from your mind.

"You've had your tutors fill you with books, child." His brows furrow at you like especially angry caterpillars trying to war. "Tell me what you feel has benefited you the most."

Your father always speaks to you with the same unfamiliarity, a hesitance of talking to you save as he would to a particularly short minister. The drill is familiar. "I have learned that discipline is required to master my lessons, father." Child, parent. All titles. You are lucky because you can apply one to him that he has not heard from any other. Father. When surprise lights his eyes each time you say that word, you privately relish the reaction you can elicit.

"Is that all?" A lifetime of retaining composure in front of audiences means that your sire can recover. Swiftly. "Only to obey what you're told to study?"

His skepticism is a warning sign. Reviewing your words, you can guess at the error. "No, father. I have learned..." Think fast, think hard. What was your flaw? "that a strong will is important. You have to... you have to need it, so that you can keep working. So you can understand why you're bothering with the lessons."

Wrong. Wrong answer for all that the intent might have been right. Half-credit is not given by your parent even if you have shown your work. You sense it in your chest like a thump of your heart gone wrong, thudding against your bones like a crippled runner's stumble.

Around you both, the fountains spray a continual mist into the sky. Water pumps naturally upwards from the Rising Falls to stream together into pools and lakes, feeding lush meadowgrowth that decorates the stepped landscape. It's marble in pale hues that has been carved out to provide the flagstones with beasts fantastical; lions melt into fish melt into birds around the sitting pools. Time affects the brilliance of the sky overhead, changing it from ruby to sapphire-noon. Then down into flames once more. All this reflects off the stone and water to transform the world into ever-changing rainbow.

The two of you are alone up here today.

"Child--"

Sometimes you wonder if he has problems remembering your name.

"--your tutors tell me you have not yet succeeded in the conjuring rotes."

Here it comes. You had hoped that the spontaneous appearance of the rabid skunk in the scullery had been overlooked. Apparently not. "That was a mistake. I am certain that continued... exploration," and it takes care on your part not to fumble with that word and still look dignified, "will allow me to master the remainder of my lessons. Father." Title added on awkwardly, a complete afterthought tacked on once the concentration of presenting the sentence is done.

"Child." His voice is a long-suffering sigh. It is a cruel twist of fate that has saddled him down with such a dull-witted boy-heir. "If you cannot learn how to give into the greater will, you will never become an appropriate king. You must be able to absorb the needs of your lands." Arms fold behind him and he strolls down the lawn as if still at court, shoulders straight and proud. "Magic is a product of the union of our spirits with the world's energy and it cannot be dismissed as a mere parlor trick to be acquired like any other dry footnote."

You are overcome by the urge to hear your own name come from his lips.

"If you wish to grasp the soul of magic, you must first be able to surrender yourself to it while retaining your own willpower. Your sense of identity is what shall control the flow of the incantation afterwa--are you listening to me, boy?"

Guilty under his accusation, you jerk your eyes away from the nearest fountain reserve. It hadn't been that you were deliberately ignoring your father's lecture. Only that tiny bodies caught your attention when they flickered through the waters nearby, and you had been wondering what manner of fish there were--silverminnows, maybe, or Coral Flake Beauties.

He backtracks your gaze down.

"So this is what distracted you." Leather creaks when he kneels by the block-lined edge of the waters, his hands forming gloved fists against his knee. "Come here, child." A nod of his head summons you over. "I want you to look at me."

Dutifully, you join him. He is much bigger than you. To his adult height half-seated, you still only look square at his nose when your chin is level.

It comes as a surprise when he reaches a hand for your face. Knuckles urge your jaw up so that your eyes meet his; surprised at the direct contact, you blink and glance away hurriedly. It is not fast enough to keep the harsh emeralds of your father's gaze from singeing holes into your sight.

He grunts. Thoughtful. You are occupied with the process of patience and wondering if he will release you back to the mathematics review when his grip moves from your chin to your arms. When the world explodes into gravity betrayed, you can't say you were expecting it.

Cold surrounds you. It crawls into your clothes and touches your scalp. There is ocean everywhere but most importantly in your ears, nose, mouth, so you clamp your lips shut when the realization comes that your father has just thrust you into the fountain pool.

"Breathe," your father commands you, his voice murky through the water. In your vision he is dancing, rippling as the surface of the liquid is being turned violent by your struggles. He is a silhouette of a vulture-doom above. Dark holes in reality look the same, make similar nonsensical demands. Their words boom through the distortion of liquid--breathe, breathe.

It is an order that promises disaster. Here are the shadows of your bedroom when they writhe at night and hint at monsters. They have assumed the outline of your sire and speak with his teeth. Hard to notice until he is leaning over you and blotting out the light.

Your tutors had told you not to be afraid of the dark--that it, like all things, was only an element. Like fire, wind. Light.

Water.

"Breathe."

Darkness.

Maybe they were identical all along, your father and the monsters.

Blood is a painful pulse in your temples. The force of spent air presses up through your throat and beats against the water trying to invade your nostrils; the figure of your father has begun to dissolve into a blur of black sun and sky. Panic flavors your tongue bitter.

This is ludicrous. If you die here, your sire will not even know what to write on your headstone. Maybe you will not get a word at all. Maybe you will only receive a grade, a word called Failure to testify that there was anything stored inside the grave at all.

Your father's arms are too strong for you. Iron bars disguised as flesh force your shoulders down. Nerves cloaked in the veil of terror are telling you that your feet are kicking, useless, that your whole body is flailing in a pathetic panic like the way wits fumble in the last five minutes of an exam.

Giving yourself up as one already below the grade, the last act you decide to sacrifice your life towards is to scream your own name.

Bubbles explode out your mouth, spent air rising to the surface. It goes free in a blur of noise indistinguishable, losing the articulation of words through the process of struggling for escape. Air runs away. Water becomes you.

Then it's over.

Everything stops.

So this is death, you decide. Death is your hair floating across your face like white riverweeds and your father the form of obliteration. It is sunlight tracing veined patterns in gold above. It is a blank piece of paper handed back in when your teacher comes to collect.

Eventually, you realize that your chest is still moving.

It makes sense in the world of the deceased that your lungs stir shallow. Then the brilliance burning into your face is obscured; once, twice, again and again the picture of the sky and your sire goes blurred. Black. Bright.

The dead do not need to blink.

But you do.

Fingers that pressed you down hard enough to leave bruises are now hooking themselves in your clothes. Your shirt is a bier-shroud by right. It is gauze swimming with the small currents of motion caused by your father as he hauls you up, up out of the ocean's womb and into the sky.

You spit when you break the surface of the pool. Reflex. Your father's hands help roll you to the grass and there you double up half-onto your side with your face turned into the smell of moist soil, vomiting out the taste of honey-juice and wasp-deaths.

"Very good, Ansem." A hard palm thumps your back. "As you experienced firsthand, magic can become simple once you let it take possession."

"Yes, father," you choke, seeing only the darkness of your closed eyes and the sparks rising to explode behind them with the violence of your spasms. Right now, you could care less about the principle of the lesson. It feels like bile is burning your throat and nose.

"Once you allow it to have control, it will perform for you. You cannot dominate it without first allowing it access to your heart."

"Yes, father."

Maybe if you rub yourself against the noon-soaked grasses, they will absorb the water off you and turn you magically dry once more. If you swallowed them in clumps, they might evaporate the dampness in your lungs.

"Adjust yourself back to air, Ansem. It is the same process." That hand gives you another flat blow, and a bubble of acid bursts at the back of your throat as you continue to heave. However the spell worked the first time to save your life, the reversal of it is hardly comfortable.

"Yes, father."

"Remember how to breathe."