All Good Truths
Pre-game. Tailchaser's Song/KH2, spoilers for both. A Xemnas and Xigbar short.
The thing about Xemnas - the only thing, sometimes - that makes him tolerable is his awareness of needing a keeper. There'd been classes back in the Bastion when Braig had been a kid; classes that Braig had mostly ignored, but Xehanort had attended, and had dutifully written papers for with titles like The Ethics of Power and Ego Disintegration Through Forced Evolution: The Illusion of Boundaries. Braig had appreciated the attention to detail when he'd cribbed from them. Those in control could be controlled. Those in power would use power, unless they were somehow kept in check - so limitations weren't just luxuries, they were necessary to prevent self-destruction.
Now that everyone's older, those principles are put into action. Xemnas may be the Superior of the Organization, but Xigbar is his second-in-command, and - even ignoring Saix, who's always hanging around trying to insert himself into business - that's not a job for anyone. Second-in-command isn't just a pretty title to sleep on. It's got responsibility.
Sometimes, that responsibility isn't simple.
They'd ended up chasing some rumor about Xehanort's Heartless - or rather, Xemnas had heard about Heartless activity, and something had spurred the guy into investigating directly this time. Xaldin was already booked full up with instigating a revolution at a private fencing academy, Vexen and Zexion were busy spying on what they were claiming was a very important spacegate technology development, Lexaeus was determinedly absent on what sounded like a crocodile hunt - and the rest were newbies. Complete. Total. Beginners.
It wouldn't have been so bad, except that the dominant form of life they'd landed with had two languages, one of which was more complicated than spit, and the other of which was so intuitive that it was firmly in the realm of the completely bizarre. It had to have been the weirdest style of communication that Xigbar had ever been exposed to - some kind of feline body language that made up an entire lexicon and transcended species, that he could speak and understand without really opening his mouth.
The other choice for language was worse. Higher Singing, one of the first cats he'd spoken to had explained the first time Xigbar had asked, looking down his nose at the visitor with the same polite disdain of the educated for the illiterate. Half the time, it didn't seem like even they knew what they were saying, what with the rit-tit-tit of the squirrels above and the weird, rolling sounds that the local cats seemed to produce like magic. Xigbar had tried once. It felt like licking a hairball - which, incidentally, had been his second great discovery about the world they had been unlucky enough to land on.
The first had been that Xemnas loved the place.
Xemnas had been able to master the bizarre honorifics within an hour, laughing as he folded the sounds back and forth on his tongue. He learned each word with only one repetition, splitting off prefixes and suffixes with abandon until he no longer required interpreters, but was keeping up with the cant as if he'd been native-born.
Xigbar had taken for granted the automatic translation that the worlds seemed to inflict on its visitors, like overlarge oysters that dealt with intruders by engulfing them in transplanted cultural shells. He'd never complained. Magic made it easier - usually - so he'd assumed the rules would always keep bending.
But this time, the portals had found them a place that even magic couldn't fix. As far as Xigbar had been able to tell, they'd landed on a world of bizarre feline sonnets, mostly concerning songs about grooming and occasional ditties about moles.
It could be worse.
They followed the trail of Darkness as unerringly as white hounds, born and bred for the chase. Having a tail was kind of swanky, in Xigbar's opinion; the world wasn't polite enough to give him his eye back, but the heightened sense of hearing made up for it, along with the rotating ears. Those were pretty cool. Not sure if he'd want to keep them forever - not having opposable thumbs certainly put a damper on his options - but as a temporary measure, they made up for his blind spot, which was nice.
The two of them listened for weeks to the rumors and gossip rolling around the hunting territories of various felines. Solitary stalking grounds came in sharp contrast to the occasional congregations of furry bodies that would meet for the purpose of yowling at each other; cats seemed to bridge between proudly aloof and indolent for company. Xemnas was insatiable. He asked continually for more, more stories and riddles and songs. Afterward each telling, he would roll out on his back with his eyes half-opened, inner-eyelids scrolling up like a white sheath.
"Is your friend an Oel-var'iz?" the nearest queen asked Xigbar, slinking over to where he was crouched on the moss. Her tail rubbed against his nose.
Xigbar did not even try to remember the translation. "A what?"
She looked inclined to giggle, or whatever the feline equivilant was. "A Far-senser."
Fighting back the inclination to sneeze, Xigbar ducked his head. "He's a something, all right."
The most interesting of the stories revolved around three brothers and some kind of Creation myth. Whitewind and Firefoot and Grizraz Hearteater, middle child with fur the color of dust. Xemnas asked for that tale the most, rapt with attention as he listened to storyteller after storyteller. Xigbar folded his front paws underneath his chest, and tried his best not to look too sulky. It was hard; the feline body seemed to naturally lend itself to calculated smugness.
"So Grizraz was betrayed from jealousy," Xemnas commented softly one evening when one cat wrapped up the story. His voice had that strange, curious lightness of tone that Xigbar always knew meant trouble. "How terrible."
"Careful," Xigbar grumbled back. "We're not here to shake up this world quite yet."
The point of Xemnas's tail flicked slowly against the ground, rippling like a lazy inchworm. "And what do you think about all this?"
"About a fairytale?" Xigbar twitched his whiskers, and then tried to do it again, contorting up his mouth to try and get a good look at the new parts of his face. "Can't see why it'd matter."
That night, as they parted from the small hunting party that had identified themselves as en route to some Court of Hahahar - Xigbar was still trying to get his mind wrapped around that, since he'd always been told that cats were solitary whatevers with no exceptions, let alone royalty with prince consorts - they found themselves wandering away from the forest. They'd been skirting it for days rather than seek out the felines that sheltered in the woods; Xigbar couldn't understand why, when the path would have been faster to cut through it directly.
Xemnas explained himself later as they walked, picking their way over pebbles and twigs. "There is a decay brooding in the heart of the Rootwood." He turned his muzzle, his nose framing an elegant point. "I can feel it, beginning to grow."
"Oh, now you sound like one of them," Xigbar growled back. His ears kept trying to tell him that there was something interesting skittering around the roots of one of the trees, maybe something tasty, but it was hard to concentrate. "That's all I need, for you to go native and start licking beetles."
Darkness wriggled around them as they changed from one forest to the next. To anyone else, the woods might have seemed empty. But the thin shapes of Heartless flitted between the trees, folding their wings and stretching their claws; he and Xemnas walked together in silence together, listening to the shadows crawl.
"Xemnas," he hissed that evening, dropping a dead chipmunk on the ground for dinner and head-butting determinedly until he got the other cat's attention.
Xemnas's eyes were very bright. "I know," he answered. "I know."
It was no great shock when they were woken in the middle of the night by a pack of feline Shadows whose skulls were shaped like furred snakes, or particularly boxy dogs; Xigbar was only surprised when his paws found living flesh rather than the spongy tendrils of a Heartless, and then to hear his attackers growl instead of remain mute. Then teeth latched into his tail, biting down hard enough that it felt as if the joints would be severed, and he was much too busy trying to not lose a body part he normally didn't have to care about anything else.
"We're not here to fight," Xemnas was trying to negotiate, the words coming out in a fruitless hiss as one of the beasts whipped around to rake its claws at his face.
Easier said than done, Xigbar tried to say, and then the massive weight of one attacker plowed into him, crushing him hard against the rocky ground, and then into unconsciousness.
He woke up later surrounded by the musk of deep earth. The air was dry, powdery against his nose; around him were clumps of huddled, scrawny felines with the same uniform look of despair. Everyone was coated with dust. It only took a few hours to figure out why. Apparently, whoever was in charge thought it was a great idea to have creatures without the right physiology wallow in the dirt like a press gang.
Xemnas did not dig. He only sat and regarded the tunnels with some bemusement, as if expecting the earth to get up and move of its own accord rather than remain in his way. When one of the guards came by to cuff him, it was Xigbar who ended up fighting back, and this time he did not roll over to let anyone win.
When this happened enough times, they were transferred deeper into the hive - relocated with the other troublemakers, Xigbar assumed, as they were urged along none-too-gently by hulking black-furred guards. But instead of landing in some crude cell with the lowest of the low, he and Xemnas were shoved into a small holding nook with three battered strays, two of which were unconscious lumps on the ground. The coherant one - a thin ginger tom who was nestled against what looked like a pile of dead white kitten - struggled to lift his head and look at them.
"Nre'fa-o, stranger." His voice was a thin cough. There was a white blot on his forehead that looked like a painter had used him as a brush-cleaner. "I am Tailchaser, from the Meeting Wall Clan. What luck have you had to end up here?"
"Meow meow meow to you too," Xigbar grumbled back. The lower joints of his tail felt like they were burning from the bite he had taken earlier, but grooming the wound made it feel even worse to be touched. He compensated by draping his weight over Xemnas's flank, settling down like a boneless mass of furry pudding. By absorbing the other Nobody's body heat, he might be healed. Stranger things had happened. "I'm Xigbar."
"Xigbar?" The orange cat tilted his chin, having enough energy for inquisitiveness despite their mutual captivity. At first he seemed to accept the name; then his ears began to shift in a frown. "Are you from Firsthome? I've never heard of a name like that before."
"No?" Xigbar's tail quirked in surprise, and then settled back down. No one else had commented on his name before, or even Xemnas's, which should have been awarded a dictionary all its own. He racked his brain for protocol. "Then, I suppose... my Heart Name would be, uh, Xigbar. Or Braig. Whatever. But my Face Name is... Themighty. Right. Xigbar Themighty. You can use 'Mighty' for short. We're from out west. Where the sun goes down, or whatever you like to call it around here. Yeah."
Satisfied, Tailchaser inclined his head in acceptance, though with a strange pause, as if Xigbar had still broken politeness by giving both names. Couldn't be helped, the gunner figured. They were foreigners. Odd customs could be expected. "Mighty it is, then. And what should I call your companion?"
"Xemnas," the Nobody volunteered softly, rolling over underneath Xigbar, like a squirming hot water bottle with teeth. "And my Heart Name is what I am here to find."
This statement energized their companion enough that his ears swiveled forward despite the obvious fatigue. "Did you come here willingly? To a place like this?"
"No," Xigbar interjected helpfully, wincing against the memory of the attack in the woods. "We got caught because Xemnas here couldn't get the hang of his own two feet!"
"Four feet," the pale-striped cat corrected back. The zigzag lines of his fur were livid in the gloom. "Anyone could have become confused."
"You got caught, and I went along for the ride," Xigbar retorted, a little harsher than he'd intended. Something about the mangy cat in the corner was making parts of his fur that he didn't even know he had itch and bristle, like being caught underneath a huge magnifying glass after being turned into an ant. He swore the scraggly fleabag was staring at them, but every time Xigbar glanced over, the cat looked asleep.
Tailchaser had settled back down again, his head lowered so that his jaw was resting on his paws. Mud had been caked so deeply on the tom's paws that it seemed as if he was wearing a pair of clay mittens over his fur. "This is a nest for monsters, Mighty," he murmured. "If you are unlucky enough to be caught here, you may never see the light again."
"Good," Xemnas responded, wetting one paw and rubbing it against his cheek to groom it. "Then we've come to the right place."
They waited until their three companions were asleep before moving. Xemnas curled up in a fluffy ball to nap, completely unconcerned, tail wrapped around his body and tucked against his nose. Tailchaser had attempted to groom some life back into the white kitten, but nothing resulted other than an occasional paw-twitch. The third scrawny cat did not even stir that much. If it wasn't for the slow, rhythmic motion of its lungs, Xigbar would have figured it dead.
Faced with no other conversation, Xigbar tried to fish for information. "Been here a while, eh, Tailchaser?"
The orange tom met his gaze, weary, but strong. "Long enough in this darkness that I'm starting to wonder if the sun was a dream, or if it was ever real at all."
Xigbar looked away.
"Yeah. That's a problem, all right."
When Tailchaser finally lowered his head to sleep, Xigbar leaned over and bit Xemnas's ear.
The red-clawed guard that prowled the tunnel entrance snarled when he saw the two of them, and then gave a vicious swipe. Xigbar ducked quickly, but not without feeling the scrape of razored talons whiff past his fur. Another catbeast loomed suddenly around the corner; Xigbar shied away in a feint, and then bolted forward suddenly, slamming his shoulder into the other guard in an attempt to overbalance.
The difference in mass was painful. All his efforts felt like trying to ram into a solid brick wall, only the wall wasn't just brick, but coated in layers of steel. And rock. And Lexaeus.
The guard that was facing off against Xemnas did not move, only twitching the tip of its tail with irritation. "I don't have the time to waste on me'mre like you," the beast ordered. "Lie back down, before we lose patience and get rid of your sorry corpses."
"I think not," was Xemnas's soft reply, and then - Xigbar didn't see what happened, but he felt the rush of power as it was drawn through the air from the void beyond, through Xemnas like a conduit - and the guard was yowling, pressed against the ground as it trembled like a frozen kitten.
The floor of the hive seemed to rumble. Xigbar spared it one glance before looking up at the earthen ceiling, attempting to calculate how deep they were underground, and approximately how much soil would crush them if everything collapsed.
"I don't think that was such a good idea, Xemnas."
The hive around them quivered.
As if the motion was a signal, the guards fell away. "Seems like you stirred up the Vastnir Mound," the nearest one snarled, backing up a step and lowering its shoulders in a strange cross between a bow and a crouch. Its tail lashed like an angry ebon snake. "Better tell the Master then, before he wonders what's been burrowing inside his walls. I think you'll be regretting causing trouble once he finds out," it bit out in Xigbar's direction. "Oh yes. Once you realize your situation - "
"He understands where we are."
Xemnas was back on his feet, facing down the nearest cat with his ears slightly flattened - the closest that Xigbar had seen him come to a show of distaste since landing on the new world. "Bring us to your master," he ordered stiffly. "If you will not show us to him yourself, we will simply find the way."
The guard's rasping laugh rippled down the tunnels. "If you want to meet the Fat One so badly," it mocked, turning on one heel and giving a quick, mechanical groom of its shoulder, "we'll be happy to escort you down."
No further invitation was needed to urge Xemnas along, but Xigbar found himself lingering near the cell, planting his feet and hesitating to move away from the tunnel mouth. "Should we do something about those three?" he murmured, flicking an ear back towards the den where the other sodden refugees were huddled. "Maybe take them out too?"
Xemnas looked surprised at the suggestion, both eyes widening in polite skepticism. "You said it yourself, Xigbar," he replied, his paws not slowing as he followed behind their guide. "We're not here to change this world just yet."
They wound the tunnels through the hive, crossing back and forth in a labyrinth that Xigbar was certain intended to confuse them - an effort that was useless at best. Even surrounded by the maze, the sniper could feel the Darkness intensifying, beckoning him onwards towards its chosen owner.
And there was one. He was sure of it. The Darkness here did not feel primal, untamed; it did not leap eagerly to his senses, stroking along his nerves and begging to be used. Vastnir's power was sluggish, cold and thick as molasses. It had been bent to submission long ago, and even as Xigbar groped for some hint to its master, nothing responded back.
The narrow tunnel opened suddenly into a vast cavern, one that seemed better to shelter a dragon than a pack of cats underground. Several smaller chasms split the ground, running towards the huge pit situated in the middle of the room; it looked and smelled like a burial pile, hundreds of corpses left to rot. The air was frigid despite the surrounding earth. A violet glow permeated the cave, humming around the pit and the corpse-mound that rose like a humped tower inside it.
Power was Xigbar's first impression, even beyond the colors and surreal mist; when he opened his mouth to taste the air, he found himself drawing in a deep breath, and swallowed frost.
The black cat hesitated on the rim of tunnel's mouth as another figure rose from where it had been lounging amidst the fog. Its voice keened in suspicion.
"What intrusssion do you bring to the Massster, Ssnapjaw?"
But Xemnas was already walking ahead, brushing past the sibilant, hairless guard. The sound of rattling bones whispered in the tunnel behind Xigbar; he resisted the urge to turn and confront the menace that was creeping forward to trap them inside the cavern. Bones, paws, and claws. It was hard to see through the miasma of Darkness that surrounded them, but Xigbar already knew the numerous shapes that undead could take, and he was not spooked by the smell of dried skin and rot.
Standing at the edge of the pit, Xemnas tilted up his chin. "Grizraz," he called out, without preamble. "I apologize for being an unexpected guest."
The top of the mound stirred.
What looked at first like a fat white insect egg shifted, revealing itself as a huge, bloated body. Rolls of fat oozed as the being rocked forward a fraction, leaning towards Xemnas for a moment before settling back into its niche.
"Do not flatter yourselves," the monster purred, languid with each word. "We sensed your coming long before you set foot in the forest." Its bulk began to vibrate, and then twitch; the laugh that burbled forth sounded like a child whose throat had been slit. "Our Clawguard... could not be bothered with each little sunworm."
Xigbar did not bother to join Xemnas at the edge of the pit. Rather than confront the figure, he lingered behind to defend the path; angling his body in an oblique slant towards the tunnel, he kept the mound on one side, pacing back and forth in a vain attempt to keep sight of both it and the guards. The red-clawed cat - Snapjaw, if he'd heard the name right - had been joined by two of its friends, and all three of them were fanning out, their weight moving sinuously across the ground. With only one eye, it would be impossible for Xigbar to predict them all.
He could not hear where the hairless guard had gone. Of the undead cats, there was no sign - but the reek of spices hung thick in the air, along with the frigid mist.
Distantly, he could hear the voice of the younger researcher twining with the scrabbling of dying bodies in the pit. "I have heard the stories a thousand times over by now. I know what I face. I have come seeking the answer to a question, Grizraz, and an answer is what I will have."
The creature beyond gave an ugly chuckle. "And tell us... why should we give audience to worms such as you? Ungracious beasts, unborn to this world. We can smell the odor of the hollow dens upon your fur, where no cat worth its teeth will walk. You can ask nothing from our dominion... and we have no reason to give it, even if you could."
The air pressure in the chamber trebled. Familiar with the hum of power, Xigbar hunkered down and let it roll right over him, absorbing the brunt of it with flattened ears. Just a single taste of it gave him second thoughts about a direct confrontation; this was no petty cat-king with illusions of ambition, but a creature whose strength was older than Xigbar, older than Xemnas, older than few other things the gunner had had the misfortune of being exposed to during the course of his existence. He shifted position, turned so that the mound was a glistening grub in the corner of his eye. One thing was certain: there was no familiarity of Xehanort's heart hiding in the cavern, no whisper that yearned for Xemnas's body to join it.
Xemnas seemed untouched by the Darkness, giving the barest flick of his tail to acknowledge that the attack had happened at all. "I am here for information, Grizraz," he sang out. "Information that should belong to me before it ever came to you."
"One," Xigbar hissed desperately as the leading guard slunk forward another step, not wanting to use the Superior's real name in case they had both fallen upon rules that would call a penalty. "Not much time here, y'know?"
Xemnas disregarded the warning, attention focused on the primordial flesh-pile. "They call you Hearteater, above." There was a pause. "I came to see if you had tasted mine."
The wobbling blot of fat smacked its mouth, rotating its skull as it surveyed the mound of wriggling creatures that supported its weight. "Is that all? You trouble our domain for... that?" Scorn puffed out the monster's cheeks, slowly huffed breaths of amusement that rang as false as a Dusk's. "He walked the road long before you came, little shell. Like the shadow he was, he was here and gone like a moth. What words were exchanged... we will not share."
"A direction?" Xemnas pressed.
But Grizraz's patience had come to an end. Shadows built again in a wave, rippling over the sides of the pit; on cue, the three guards leapt, the middle coming first. Xigbar caught the weight of him as teeth nipped at his flank, biting at his ears, ripping at his face.
He clenched his eye tightly shut, felt his back strike the ground as he rolled.
Rocks bruised the muscles along his spine. He kicked out with both feet in a reflexive punch, and the first guard tumbled away. A second was at his throat before he could regain his breath; the Clawguard was more experienced with the mechanics of four legs than Xigbar, and its teeth pierced the skin of his shoulder, clamping down hard for a second before loosening, seeking to fasten on Xigbar's throat instead. The gunner struggled with fingers that did not exist, paws sliding harmlessly off black fur.
Then the first cool touch of Nothingness licked his nose, piercingly sharp through the rancid Darkness, and he could hear Xemnas laughing.
Xigbar wasted no time. Disengaging from the enemy without a second thought, he fumbled mentally for control over the Darkness in closest proximity, hoping that it would obey his command well enough to open a portal. At first the power ignored him. Then his senses slid over what felt like a fold in the shadows, and he wrenched it open, clawing at the ground with his physical paws until the Darkness yielded long enough to open a familiar portal home.
"You have made a great bargain with Darkness," Xemnas called out towards the bloated cat-beast, even as Xigbar was dragging him along by the back of his neck. "But in the end, we will see if you are the one to consume my heart, or if it will devour you."
They tumbled back through the portal together, mixing limbs and breath as they landed in an ungraceful pile on the ground. Xigbar could feel the fur peeling off his skin, shimmering back into his leather coat, magic restoring him to his default form. His fingers ached in ten molten crescents at the tips from where the soil had packed itself under the nails.
"Power," Xemnas was laughing, breathless with their escape, dripping false glee as easily as another man might shake off rain from a storm. "As powerful as that being is, he won't even see the final moment when the Darkness claims the rest of him at last."
"I'm glad you're so amused in ways that're impossible for you to be," Xigbar retorted, rolling over on his back and kicking out his legs in a sprawl. It felt weird to have knees that bent the right way again, and fingers that didn't sprout talons when he flexed them. "Was any of that useful in learning something, or did we just go through a huge waste of our time?"
Xemnas was wearing a contemplative look, fingers splayed on the floor; he seemed content to lie there for a while, his jacket spread around him like a puddle of ink. "Even though we could not find my heart, we were given the reminder that all good truths are found in stories. That's a wisdom to be learned from cats."
When it didn't look like Xemnas was kidding, Xigbar heaved a sigh. He rolled over, pinning the other man securely by sitting on Xemnas's stomach; leaning down, he worked up a mouthful of spit, and then swiped his tongue across Xemnas's forehead.
His reward was an uncomfortable squirm. Rather than move away, Xigbar only shifted so that the heels of his hands were grinding against Xemnas's shoulder joints in an unrelenting warning.
"What are you doing?" came the muffled protest.
Ignoring him, Xigbar worked the man's face over thoroughly, ignoring the taste of mud and the lingering bitter residue of Darkness. Only when Xemnas had trailed off into vague sputters did Xigbar turn aside and make an exaggerated spitting noise; wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand, he climbed to his feet and tried to resist the urge to sandpaper his tongue.
"And there's what I learned from furballs," he retorted briskly. "You think about chasing after rumors again, you'd better remember that truth too."
Xemnas lay there for a moment on the floor; then he broke into a smile, so rich and self-satisfied that Xigbar wondered how much of the cat's form had come back through the gate with him.
"All right," he agreed, far too amiably to be trusted. "Next time, we'll try somewhere with rabbits."