Set pre-KH1. Spoilers for KH2. POV Ansem the Wise. Related to Magpies and Breathe.
Master is the first word that he learns.
It is the first word that he learns, and also the first one he loves the most of. You hear it matched with respect, with deference. Master Ansem, comes first thing in the morning while you are all yawning and unfolding textbooks; Master Ansem is there during classes, bright and eager to answer all the discussion questions. Master, he says, and Master, look, and you turn and smile each time at Xehanort.
Your five apprentices take the newest student with mixed results. Even is the worst of them all; I'm smarter than this one, he announces primly the first day, throwing his test paper on your desk. Look at that. A perfect score, even when you said the last two questions were extra credit. He didn't even get half the equations right.
Despite your assurances that he is still just as intelligent as before you hauled a half-dead boy out of the streets, Even does not forgive you for months.
Ienzo - your smallest boy - is torn between complaining and evaluation. He's easily prone to great moments of emotion, which makes him stalwartly oppose Xehanort's presence, and then accept it later that day when Xehanort sets himself on fire trying to catch lightning in his bare hands. Some might call your youngest student manipulative, but in your mind, you already know how that trait can be turned to benefit: Ienzo will become an advisor, a fine one, aiding the others when they are all mature.
Braig and Dilan could not be bothered any less by another addition to their ranks. They are older - Braig is already a grown man in his own right - and another student only means an even number of teammates for their athletic mischief. Anything to keep them from recruiting from the palace staff, you decide wearily the next time you see them bustle young Xehanort past, shoving a game ball in his hands, rattling off rules only the two of them know by heart. That's how often Braig and Dilan have revised them.
They will be good knights. Or good scouts, since Elaeus has been the one who has trained the longest with the Bastion militia, patiently spending his time after classes engaging in practice routines, exercise drills. Dilan also spends time with the guards, but only because he cannot find another outlet for his unconventional athletics: no one has fought with double-lances in years.
You are proud of your boys - your apprentices, your children. Your heirs.
The kingdom talks about marriage and alliances and you smile each time the ministers debate. You have fine children, six now, and they will be all the legacy you could ever need.
One of them will inherit your name. One of them will be king someday.
You know of Even's assumption that he is chief among your students - an assumption which you did not see a need to quash before, since Even's work has always been the best. Ienzo is brilliant, but hindered by his need to concoct puzzle after puzzle, riddle after riddle, constructing paradoxes where none may have existed before. It slows down his research. He enjoys complications; Even is simpler, but more straightforward, and this has always given him the advantage in the past.
Not so much now. Xehanort knows less, but this absence of memory seems only to lend the boy wings to his insight. Unaware of what is impossible, he assumes all things are plausible. And - miraculously - they become so, bridging gaps in chemical compounds, discovering hidden variables that none of the students knew existed before.
It's genius. You're sure of it.
Xehanort excels at catching up. The first year consists of reviews, teaching him everything from the ground up. Initially you assume that he can operate the basic computer interfaces scattered around the Bastion, but when the boy manages to turn on the emergency sprinkler system and lock himself in a room with no windows, well. You decide it's best to start from scratch.
Even finds Xehanort's lack of education intolerable. You notice all the little glares and frowns and score-jockeying that goes on during class, enough that even Elaeus starts to joke about Even's new obsession. Enough that you order Even to stay late one afternoon and help you divide up the next homework assignment.
You both sort pages in silence for a half hour. The flush on Even's cheeks lingers; he is angry, he is frustrated, he is embarrassed at being held back for what is, essentially, detention.
"Work with him," you suggest mildly as you finish the last stack, ignoring the boy's scowl. Scooping up the organized papers, you pull out Even's folder and give it to him now as a peace offering. He likes starting early on assignments. "You two may have something in common."
In truth, Xehanort and Even could not be more different. They both are intelligent, but their methods diverge. Even is precise and calculating. He prefers his data to be organized in neat rows, marching obediently on lined paper, primed for analysis. You still remember when Braig and Dilan teamed up to steal Even's ruler; the boy had cried for days.
But what drives Xehanort is a sense of wonder, as if everything is truly new. You chalk that down to his amnesia. He fails the first test in magic - spilling hot tea all over his hand instead of suspending it in a funnel above his palm - but it's less than a week before he's catching the liquid properly, letting it hover without sloshing.
His enthusiasm is infectious. He smiles like a child to each new discovery, stumbling eagerly from topic to topic. Every book that is presented to him is devoured within days; Xehanort shows no preference for subject matter, mixing historical plays with scientific measurements. He loves testing out experiments. His excitement reminds you of your own past joys with tinkering, and when he asks to borrow the solar converter - well, how could you say no?
"You never," Even confronts you with the next day, "let me borrow that."
"Even," you plead, attempting to sound rational, rational and very reasonable for the unfairness, "he is not that bad of a student. Just talk with him a while."
"Maybe I will," he threatens. He ducks away when you reach out to place a reassuring hand on his head, and you're struck by how you have to reach up to do so now.
When did he get so tall? When did they all grow up?
Your advice must have been taken to heart, for Xehanort bears a thoughtful expression the next day when he shows up for lunchtime discussion. Your offices are always open to any of your students, but only Xehanort takes advantage of the offer, stopping by three, four, five days of the week. You don't mind. The company is refreshing.
"Even was talking to me about something strange," he begins, setting down his knapsack to the side of his chair. "He said that the Darkness you're studying has something to do with hearts and memory."
You blink. "Yes," is your response, answering honestly despite your surprise. That research is still restricted; you have shared few of the details with your students, unwilling to burden their minds with what might only be an old man's fears. Even must have drawn his own conclusions.
Xehanort does not look up. "I was wondering," he begins slowly, clearly uncomfortable, constructing this new idea word by word, "if it's possible that Darkness might have my memory too?"
His query is baffling.
"There is not enough data at this time to make a projection. Why? Does it bother you so much to misremember your past, Xehanort?"
"I want to be useful," he admits, keeping his eyes cast down to your desk, hands interlacing in his lap. "I know I haven't caught up with the other students, and I just thought - "
"Ignore what Even says." Your order is stern; Xehanort glances up immediately, expression mixed with awe and fear. After a moment, you temper your reaction, exhale slowly. "Your skills are already restoring themselves. Soon enough, you will not need anything from your past. You will never miss it."
And you speak the truth. Xehanort's work with magic is naiive, but there is a spark of true genius within his clumsy attempts to master various forms of energy. The more that he learns, the more you are convinced that he is already accomplished; what Xehanort is doing now isn't studying so much as undoing the blocks in his own mind that keep him from utilizing his skills.
"Do not be concerned with your current abilities," you tell him at the end of the lunchtime hour, after his fears have been sated with reviews of his test scores. "You are an excellent addition to my apprentices, Xehanort."
He smiles blandly when he stands up, a quick, faithless twist of his lips. He waits for you to open the door in dismissal, and as he passes by, you allow yourself - just once - a fatherly touch on his shoulder.
Just once, for this single student of yours: your prodigy.
You assume that your apprentices' curiosity will end there. But it's Ienzo who surprises you: Ienzo the manic puzzler, who has latched onto this new idea like a dog. He worries theories around in his head like a bone, gnawing and growling, until finally they build up and he stands in the middle of class to blurt them out instead of providing the average coefficient of blue crystal light.
"We can't ignore what this Darkness may offer, your Majesty!" His enthusiasm sends his braids jingling; Braig must have been the one to string bells in his hair that morning. No one else is that demented. "If there is a chance that it will help us further our research in the nature of the heart, then what better opportunity than this?"
Your counterargument wavers as you draw it out. As much as you want to avoid this line of questioning, you have always made it a principle to be as honest as possible with your students; you are a fair king, and now is no time to start lying. "The Darkness should not be allowed to roam free on its own, Ienzo. If it must be studied, we must first find a suitable container that we can interact with to better gather data. Since we have not yet succeeded in stabilizing the creation of artificial hearts, we can only rely on living individuals as test subjects."
Elaeus sighs from the third row, doodling in his book instead of taking notes. "Doubt we'll get any volunteers for that."
Ienzo deflates. He slides back down into his chair and shoves his pencil in circles on his desk. "Someone could," comes his protest, already heavy with discouragement. "Someone might want to."
Then, from the first row of benches, comes the answer you dread.
You begin the infusions. There's nothing else you can do.
All six of your students join in on this research, eagerly demanding all available notes, all available theories. You yield up your files, one by one. Xehanort does not protest as he undergoes physical evaluations; the Darkness is uncharted territory, and there have been no recoveries from those lost within. If he becomes another victim, then this data will mark the fatality guidelines.
The only good thing about this, you decide, is that Even is no longer quarreling with Xehanort. If anything, he seems to have made his peace. Even spends much of his time with the other student now, going over books, unraveling theories. Ienzo often joins them. Sometimes, all six of your apprentices are together.
Xehanort stops coming to your office.
Months go by, and finally you step out during lunch, strolling the castle grounds as you wonder what new habit has claimed your prodigy. Xehanort is nowhere to be found in the labs; he is not in the practice courtyards either. Dilan and Braig direct you to the fountain fields when you ask, and then resume some kind of sport which seems to involve hitting the other person with a ball as hard as possible.
The fountain fields are in heavy bloom as you walk along the marble pathways, breathing deep of clean air. Rainbow waters splash in their multi-stone riverbeds; the streams carved out of the gardens are a mixture of the artificial and the natural, redirecting the excess of the local waterfalls into a network of thin canals.
You hear Even before you see him.
"Do you understand why it must be you, Xehanort?"
Some of his words are lost as you negotiate around the field, carefully stepping across one tiny stream no wider than your hand. By the time you manage to edge closer, the conversation has turned. Even is sitting with the other student beside an ornate fountain carved like three lions; the sheen of his hair blends in with the amber marble.
"One of us," he is telling Xehanort softly, "will have to be king in order for it to succeed."
You're not sure why this unsettles you - Even is only stating the obvious, with that merciless perception of his - but there's something about the way he phrases it, the way he touches Xehanort's arm, draws him close in conference. They are speaking of the inevitable day when you relinquish your crown, most likely. About cooperation. About the future.
You leave before they discover you.
The experiments progress on schedule for the first few weeks. Xehanort shows no change in appetite or sleep schedule, much to your apprentices' chagrin; they expected fireworks, monsters in the soup bowls, anything and everything to appear and lead them to revelations. Xehanort disappoints them. In fact, he looks so normal despite all the exposure that you wonder if the Darkness has any negative effects whatsoever.
But one afternoon while you are searching through the labs for an extra handful of test tubes, you discover your pale-haired apprentice slumped at one of the tables.
Concern brings you to his side. He does not rouse when you say his name; you try again, more emphatically this time, and finally he wakes up. His eyes are bleary as he straightens. The corners of his mouth are turned down.
He speaks first, before you even have time for a greeting. "How can you have let this happen, Master? Make me into this hollow, hungering thing?"
The confused pain of his face begins to mirror itself in your own; only with discipline do you school yourself back to stern resolve. "I did nothing. You know how dangerous the lure of knowledge can be." Something in your stomach rolls over as you stare at your prodigy; he has endured enough trials, why force him to take on this too? But your students are confident. You must trust them. "It is vital that you refuse temptation and retain a proper perspective during these experiments. Yet, if you feel you cannot..."
Xehanort hesitates for a moment before giving a tiny, arbitrary shake of his head. "I'll be fine. I just need to look deeper. Ienzo says it's important - "
"Don't listen to him!" The force of your own words surprises you; any louder, and it would have been a shout. You change tactics. "Listen to me, Xehanort. Don't worry about what other people want. Just listen to me."
For an instant, there is something naked in your student's face: a stark, open longing.
"I want to," he says eventually. "Believe me. I wish I could."
The discussion must have helped your prodigy, because the next day, Xehanort is smiling as he shows up to the labs. He is attentive all through lessons, and eager to answer questions while the other five students analyze his physical state. The primal Darkness that has been safely extracted seems to respond to him now, licking against the walls of the containers it has been locked in; Elaeus holds up one vial for display, and Xehanort watches as the shadow within tries to gravitate in his direction.
Afterwards, he shows up unexpectedly to your study.
It is the first time in months. In celebration, you prepare enough tea for two, and dig out the second cup where it had begun to grow dusty on the shelf.
But Xehanort is not thirsty. He spends his time instead with parlor tricks, twisting gravity around his fingers as he pours boiling liquid into the air, and then back into the teapot. The funnel is hypnotic: back and forth, back and forth, never spilling a drop.
"If the Darkness connects all hearts," he suggests suddenly, right in the middle of twisting a stream of tea into a double-loop, "does this mean that it links everyone to each other? That we're all part of everything? Together?"
A strange question. You tackle the philosophy first; Xehanort can never resist rhetoric, as if there is a natural attraction to the what-ifs of life after spending so long asking the same questions of his past. "Connections are not necessarily beneficial, Xehanort. When you become one with everything, then there is nothing of you left."
He sighs. Steam wafts in your direction; you wonder when he is going to stop playing with his tea and just drink it.
"Have you wondered if our existences are only illusions?" Threads of water split across his knuckles like a web before regrouping over his wrist. "Maybe the Shadows know. If they are the shape of our innermost hearts, it may be that there's no such thing as individuality. Maybe... maybe Ansem is just a word, like soldier, or scientist." He has forgotten his tea now. His fingers shape empty thoughts in the air. "Perhaps Ansem is only a role that one of us must play."
Visions of the fountain fields flicker at the corners of your mind. Tea streams through the air. Disconcerted, you reach out and shoo the liquid back into the teapot before Xehanort's inattention causes it to splash everywhere. "The Shadows are pure Darkness, Xehanort. Since we dwell in the world of the Light, our hearts cannot truly be the sum total of who we are. Thus, our identities remain unique."
Whatever logic you may have used, it goes unnoticed. Xehanort is staring into the distance. "You know as well as I do, don't you?" he muses aloud. "There is always a spearhead to each great new discovery. An individual who pushes the research to the next level."
This nonsensical reply cuts the reins of your tongue. He isn't listening to you. His attention is wandering, responding to things you can't see.
You try his name.
"The Darkness told me something. The last time I contacted it during the experiments, it started speaking to me." Your student is rambling on now, only distantly aware of his surroundings. "It said we're all connected. It says - "
He winces. His face turns towards you; it takes several seconds before he can pull himself free of his trance, focusing on you and your office again.
"It says," he whispers, a barely audible breath, "that you're already a part of it, Master. It requires an Ansem to lead. It wants you. It needs you. It keeps repeating your name - it won't shut up."
You quell your own nervousness.
"Is this true?"
"No. Yes. My name. Your name. I don't know." Xehanort's muscles go lax. He sags against his chair, looking suddenly tired, and very young. "I don't think it matters anymore."
Sympathy colors your heart. How often have you acted strange, all because you were chasing one equation or another? This is no different. You push your own chair back, walking around the desk so that you can approach your poor student and check the exhaustion in his face. "Rest yourself, Xehanort. If you overwork, you will not have the energy to properly analyze the situation. You have done well so far. I approve."
When you touch his shoulder to reassure him, he leans into your hand.
Your first instinct is to freeze. Xehanort's head tilts. He bumps it against your arm, sighing like a cat. The heat of his body is a whisper through your lab coat. Physical contact is a rarity between yourself and your students; you use it sparingly, for brief highlights of praise or reassurance. Never have they wanted more.
Feeling vaguely repulsed and guilty, you pull away.
Your boots make dull thunks against the floor. "Your state of being is my responsibility, Xehanort." Calm. You are calm, and unworried. You are serene. "But there are some things that I cannot do, and this is one of them. You must fight what you are becoming, Xehanort. You must resist the Darkness."
He makes a dry laugh, rubbing his throat with a hand. "How do we know it's not just turning me back into what I used to be? Was I this way all along? Is the Darkness where I belong? Or is there," he continues, turning his head to find where you have retreated, several steps away and out of arm's reach, "somewhere else I'm welcome more? Do you have an answer for me yet, Master? Please?"
The last word hangs in the air.
"No." Xehanort's eyes are desperate flames, gold and crimson and need. You are an honest king; you tell yourself that even as you struggle not to look away. "No. I'm afraid I can give you nothing."